Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?"

As a philosopher myself, and particularly one who is interested in the philosophy of religion, I am always delighted to read top-level philosophers engaged in the topic. In the book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University, represented the atheistic side and the view that science and religion were not compatible. Alvin Plantiga, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, represented the theistic side.

The book itself is a reprinting of a debate that Dennett and Plantiga had at a philosophy conference years ago, but it has been updated with a few things they have said since then. Usually, when there are debates about this topic, there is a lot of sarcasm and snark from both sides. I am happy to report that both sides are polite and respectful of one another, even if they disagree and tease each other a little at certain points.

While both of these men are imminent in their field, one thing this book shows from cover to cover is how specialized philosophy has become. It used to be that philosophers were well schooled in all areas of philosophy but specialized in one area. This is no longer the case and it shows. Dennett, being a philosopher of science, knew science very well, but he did not seem to understand the classical arguments for the existence of God or the metaphysics that undergird religion. Plantiga on the other hand seemed to get his scientific ideas from the Discovery Institute, since all he did was quote Michael Behe when making scientific statements. But, he did know the classical arguments and metaphysics of religion quite well.

Plantiga starts the conversation off by saying that science and religion are not incompatible because Christians (he uses the term Christian rather than theist throughout the debate) believe that God has created the natural world and it is very possible that God did so using the evolutionary process. Plantiga goes on to say that the real problem is not between science and religion; it is between science and naturalism. Plantiga defines naturalism as belief that there is no God or anything like God (which would be atheism, not naturalism), and says that if naturalism is true there is no reason to believe that our cognitive faculties cannot be trustworthy because evolution cares about keeping traits that contribute to survival rather than truth.

Dennett you would think would disagree being on the other side of the debate. But, he opens up by stating that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, and that one can believe in both and be logically consistent. Where Dennett disagrees is that there is any reason to think that there is a God or that religion works just because it is logically compatible with science. He uses Superman as an example and gives him the traits usually associated with God in classical theism (omniscience, omnipotence, and so on) and says that "Supermanism" is also compatible with evolution, but he sees no reason to believe in either.

Plantiga responded by repeating his argument about naturalism and evolution both being true being a low possibility; Dennett struck back by saying that just because Plantiga could not imagine something did not mean that something wasn't true. This is ultimately where the debate stopped because in the end both sides agreed: Science and Religion do not have an inherent conflict. I found it odd that two people would write a book about something where they were in agreement.

The book itself is only 77 pages, so it can be read in one sitting, and it is not overly technical; both the trained philosopher and the novice can enjoy and learn from it. Also, Dennett and Plantiga are colorful people, so you will laugh at times (or you should at least).

While the book is a match between two heavyweights in the field of philosophy, do not expect Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman here. There is more agreement than disagreement, but overall it is still enjoyable. 3 out of 5 stars.

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