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Christian philosopher sees no conflict with evolution

What he gets right and what he gets wrong


M.C. from New Zealand asked for our response to the following quote that appeared in a New York Times article. The piece showcased Christian philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga and his 2011 book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. The article snippet is in red and M.C.'s words follow in green.

Mr. Plantinga says he accepts the scientific theory of evolution, as all Christians should. Atheists, he argues, are the ones who are misreading Darwin. Their belief that evolution rules out the existence of God — including a God who purposely created human beings through a process of guided evolution — is not a scientific claim, he writes, but “a metaphysical or theological addition.”

[Link deleted as per feedback rules.]

Any comments?


CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:

Hi M.C.,

I read Alvin Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, when it first came out. The book does contain many helpful things. For example, Plantinga has a rigorous treatment of what he calls “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, which is related to the ‘argument from reason’ that I covered in Monkey minds: How evolution undercuts reason and science. He also defends miracles as compatible with science, and points out how science is rooted in the Christian worldview.

By the way, Plantinga is featured positively in our documentary Darwin: The Voyage that Shook the World. And you might benefit from Marc Kay's review of his book in the Journal of Creation.

Unfortunately, however, Plantinga does claim that evolution is compatible with Christianity. Is this because he has sufficiently answered the many points of incompatibility that creationists have raised? No. For the most part, Plantinga doesn’t even interact with creationist arguments or the many biblical texts that contradict evolution. In fact, he displays his utter ignorance of creationist literature when he claims that we believe God created the world with built-in fossils and beams of distant starlight (p. 10).

Instead, Plantinga’s primary concern is to refute the idea that Darwinian evolution is intrinsically and necessarily purposeless. He argues that God could have guided the process. But even if he is correct on that point, he would still be a long way from reconciling Christianity and evolution.

Now, I disagree with Plantinga’s characterization of Darwinism as compatible with design. From its inception, Darwinists themselves have overwhelmingly conceived of Darwinian evolution as an unguided and unplanned process. That is a philosophical commitment, yes, but Darwinism was derived from and is still propped up by these philosophical concerns rather than purely scientific ones.

However, I would actually agree with Plantinga that one cannot rigorously rule out the possibility that mutations or other natural phenomena happen for a divine purpose. So he is correct that there is no necessary logical incompatibility between design and universal common descent per se. While there are plenty of other biblical and scientific reasons to reject evolution, if we leave those to one side for the sake of the argument, Plantinga is right to say that, hypothetically, “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times” or, alternatively, “God could have set things up initially so that the right mutations would be forthcoming at the right times” (p. 16). So if we define them generically enough, evolution and design are not necessarily incompatible.

However, the bare logical consistency of some type of ‘guided evolution’ doesn’t let theistic evolutionists (TEs) off the hook. Most supporters of evolution understand it to be an entirely materialistic process, and this includes the champions of theistic evolution. Part of the difficulty, though, is that most TEs are not as philosophically sophisticated as Plantinga, and they speak out of both sides of their mouths—maintaining that evolution is at the same time directed and undirected. There is a deep incoherence in their own position.

As we pointed out in Did God create an ‘open’ universe?, many TEs insist that God relinquished a significant amount of control over evolution and let nature steer its own course. Their arguments for evolution based on natural evil and dysteleology (poor design), commonly assume that God did not exert total control over the process. Thus, evolutionists would have to rethink many of their favorite arguments for evolution if they adopted the view that God orchestrated evolution to achieve specific preordained ends like the creation of human beings.

Also, Darwin explicitly formulated his theory as an alternative to design, and this aspect of the idea was instrumental in helping it to become the ruling paradigm. TEs generally agree that Darwin’s mechanism explains away the appearance of design, so if they assert that there is nevertheless actual design present in living things, it can only be an undetectable kind of design. It would not be the kind of thing Romans 1 has in mind when it speaks of the Creator being evident from “the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).

Beyond this, TEs must deal with a host of biblical teachings fatal to their view. For example, Jesus and the NT authors said humans have been around since the foundation of the world, while TEs say humans arrived much later. The Bible says God made everything in six days, while TEs say it took billions of years. The Bible says God finished his work of creation on the Seventh Day, while TEs say the world is still under construction. The Bible says God supernaturally made Adam from dust and Eve from Adam, while TEs say that humans came from hominids. The Bible says that Adam’s sin brought death into the world, while TEs say death was present long before mankind. The Bible says there was a global Flood, while TEs say the fossil record rules out such a worldwide catastrophe. You get the idea.

It’s really unfortunate, then, that a great thinker like Alvin Plantinga is so sympathetic to theistic evolution. While I value his work, including the book under discussion, in any person’s teachings we must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Readers’ comments
Terry D P., Australia, 29 April 2017
The Bible says quite clearly in Genesis that God formed Adam out of the dust of the earth, put the breath of life (a human spirit) in him, and he became a living soul. It takes a huge stretch of imagination to spin that statement into any kind of evolution of a male and a female from a single cell over millions of years. God aka the Holy Spirit giving life to the freshly minted “dead body of Adam” in Genesis, actually prefigures the resurrection of Christ’s dead body on the third day recorded in the New Testament: “Moreover, if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within you, then the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give new life to your mortal bodies through his indwelling Spirit.”—Ro§8:11 The so-called “theistic evolutionists” seem to be implying that the Holy Spirit was incapable of forming and giving life to the “dead body” of the first Adam as stated in Genesis, in the same manner that the Holy Spirit gave life to Christ’s dead body (the 2nd Adam) on the third day. So, how can Christians believe the Lie that God created Adam and Eve by a process of evolution, over millions of years, and in the same breath honestly believe that the Holy Spirit in reality raised Christ Jesus from the dead after crucifixion?
David G., Australia, 30 April 2017
I love the way people claim that God 'could have' 'used' evolution. I don't know what 'used' is supposed to mean; do we posit a mechanism, and what is it; how are the links made in absence of God telling us...but what are we to do with 'could have'. He either did or didn't; if he 'could have' show us how; give us an argument that understands evolution's historic contempt for the idea of a relating god from Epicureus onwards; let's see how the modern development of the idea intersects with a concrete actual God in a concrete actual world...'could have'? I could have bought out BHP...if I had the money...I could have swum naked to Chile...if I could have...this phrase is an embarrasment of absence in argument and stand for nothing but an intellectual black hole: everything enters, and nothing comes out.
Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 30 April 2017
Thanks, Keaton! Thanks for modeling for us the importance of not caricaturing anyone. In this case, for pointing out the positives re Alvin Plantinga as well as the negatives. Thanks even more for being willing to do the vital work of "separating the wheat from the chaff". Perhaps the most foundational factor in discovering why Alvin Plantinga has arrived where he has arrived--in his intellectual convictions--is his failure (and the failure of other TEs) to obey the New Testament discipleship COMMAND to "test all things, hold fast the good" (1 Thess. 5:21). He, and other TEs, have given the Evolution notion immunity from critical inspection at a scientific level. (They are willing to critique--at a metaphysical level--the atheists' handling of the Evolution notion. They refute the logical fallacies of atheists, the insistence that proximal within-cosmos causes automatically are ultimate causes, the ready move into nihilistic despair--but TEs refrain from testing the Evolution notion at a scientific level.) They decline to lovingly confront atheistic colleagues with biblical corrective truth at a biological level. Had this hopefully-a-true-brother-in-Christ done so, he would have quickly discovered that he DOESN'T have an intellectual-integrity obligation to the Evolution notion--rather the opposite! His flawed output--which Keaton details--would then never have emerged.
D. G., Australia, 1 May 2017
If we define them generically enough, evolution and design are compatible. But only if we rob both of their meaning (which the article does touch on) an easy error that some can make is that evolution is a real thing in the world; it is rather a human theory. It was made up, as you explain to eliminate God, and 'design' is far less than the creation: they are only 'compatible' if we talk about two things that didn't happen, two things that seem to float in a neo-platonist make believe. In the real world Evolution = not by God; design = by God. So God and 'not by God' are hardly compatible in any way. Moreover, the small changes have to be 'evolutions' small changes from ooze to humans; there is no way this has been, or seemingly could be, explained in the real world (not the imagination of materialists who seem to think that it could have happened...).
Stephen G., United Kingdom, 1 May 2017
Excellent response from Keaton Halley. TE's like Plantinga and Lane Craig often confuse the hypothetical question "could not an all-powerful deity have created all organisms via the Neo-Darwinian mechanism" with the more specific question "is it not possible that the true God described in Scripture created all organisms via the NDM?" If the Bible is to be believed the answer is No!
B. R., Australia, 4 May 2017
"While there are plenty of other biblical and scientific reasons to reject evolution, if we leave those to one side for the sake of the argument, Plantinga is right to say that, hypothetically, “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times” or, alternatively, “God could have set things up initially so that the right mutations would be forthcoming at the right times” (p. 16). So if we define them generically enough, evolution and design are not necessarily incompatible." Doesn't make sense. Why would God hide his creative mechanism to the extent that the atheist could very well say, "Look, Nature's doing it all. God's a superfluity."? There would be no way to know if it were God being secretive or Nature doing its thing without God's input.
Keaton Halley responds
I was only speaking of the bare logical compatibility of teleology and universal common descent, which isn't challenged by your question about God's reasons… unless you're saying that it's logically impossible for God to have a reason for doing things that way. But I don't think God is required to make Himself known, or that He must do so by revealing Himself as Designer as opposed to other ways. He has done so, but that's different. He says (in Romans 1, etc.) that He is evident from creation, but that doesn't mean He was incapable of doing things another way.