Comments on Alvin Plantinga’s “Games Scientists Play”


Alexander R. Pruss


1. Introduction


           My first look at the beginning of Al’s paper made me worried: I thought I would agree with everything he would say, and would not know what to say in response.  Al suggested that if this happens, I can just say “Yea, and amen.”  And much of the paper I can say “Yea, and amen” to.  So let me focus on what I cannot say that to.

Plantinga starts by outlining an apparent conflict between certain claims of methodologically naturalist science and Christian faith.  The conflict is not a logical contradiction, at least not once we are dealing with the more cautious “minus” versions of the doctrines, but some weaker relation such as the rational impossibility of believing both. 

2. Scepticism about Simonian science

I am sceptical whether the methodologically naturalist speculations Plantinga addresses—the Simonian science as he calls it—in fact have sufficient justification even on the curtailed evidence base that methodological naturalism works from.  For instance, Herbert Simon’s claim that altruists docilely believe what society tells them and cannot see the conflict between their actions and their self-interest is absurd when one thinks of the paradigm case of altruism: Germans who rescued Jews from the Nazis.  To claim that these denizens of the Nazi society docilely believed what society told them or that they did not know that they and their loved ones might well be tortured to death seems as irrational as believing that God puts a tarpaulin over the sky at night with pretty holes poked in it so we might sleep better.  Of course, one can always fudge and say that there was some subsociety to whose norms they conformed or that they had mistaken beliefs about supernatural benefits that would accrue to them, but actual study by Monroe, Barton and Klingemann[1] of rescuers of Jews just does not bear out either claim.

3. Is there really a conflict?

But let’s grant for the sake of argument that Simonian science is justified relative to a constricted body of evidence.  Plantinga still hasn’t made a case that there is a genuine conflict between it and religion.  The structure of the conflict is supposed to be something like this.  Simonian evolutionary psychology claims:

(1)   The only purpose of activity x is y.

On the other hand, Christianity claims:

(2)   The only purpose of activity x is z.

In general, there need not be any conflict between two such claims.  The purpose of swallowing is only to move food into the stomach.  Likewise, the purpose of swallowing is only to obtain nutrition.  The apparent contradiction here is resolved by the fact that one claims talks about a more and the other a less immediate purpose.

           To have a conflict, y and z have to be not merely different, but not related in a hierarchical fashion as means and end.  For instance, take a crude Simonian view: the purpose of Sunday worship is to meet potential spouses and thereby improve one’s reproductive success.  This is of course inadequate as it does not explain (one hopes!) why married people go to church, but let’s forget about married people or just suppose that they go purely out of habit.  Plantinga’s Christian will object to the view not just on empirical grounds, but because of a conflict with what she sees as the purpose of going to church: to try to worship God as God desires.  Let’s suppose, too (somewhat dubiously), that there is no hierachical ordering between the goal of worship and the goal of marrying.

           But I want to say that even so the two claims do not conflict.  The reason they do not conflict is that the word “purpose” is used in different senses in the two claims.  In the Christian claim, perhaps, the meaning of the phrase “the purpose of x” is what God intends x for.  This isn’t the only Christian sense that can be made of the phrase—the Christian might, for instance, be an Aristotelian, but what I will say for this view of purpose will apply to the Aristotelian mutatis mutandis.  But the Simonian means something entirely different by “purpose”.  Perhaps she means that function such that in virtue of x’s fulfilling of it x was evolutionarily selected for.  The apparent conflict now disappears.  The Simonian claim says nothing more than that people’s coming to church was evolutionarily selected for in virtue of its helping people to meet people of the opposite sex.  The Christian says that God intends people’s coming to church for right worship of him.  To see that there need be no conflict, note that there is nothing to bar God from rigging things so that evolutionary selection would produce church-goers through the reproductive advantage that meeting potential spouses in church every Sunday confers.

           It seems, thus, that I agree with Al: the claims of Simonian science do not provide a defeater for mature Christian faith.  But the reason they do not is that there is no conflict.

           But perhaps I have missed something.  Maybe there is no ambiguity in the word “purpose”, and what one might call “evolutionary purpose” and “agent purpose” are but two species of one genus, where divine purpose is a special case of what I called agent purpose.  One way to get this kind of a conclusion is to say, as those who want evolution to generate teleology do, that the purpose of x is a goal y that x most of the time achieves and which is such that x’s existence is to be explained by x’s achieving y.  This clearly includes evolutionary purpose, but it also includes agent purpose, it seems.  For if I make x for the sake of x’s achieving y, then it seems that x exists because it does y.  But actually this fails.  For in fact, x might have as its agent purpose something it does not actually do.  Suppose I am Dr. Frankenstein, but I screw up and my monster is blind.  It is nonetheless true that it is the agent purpose of the monster’s eyes to see, even if they cannot do this, since it is so that they might see that I have made them.

           This, of course, only shows that one way of taking the two kinds of purposes under a single genus fails.  It may be that there is some other way that succeeds.  But if there is, then one of the two claims made becomes ungrounded.  For suppose there is a single genus of “purpose” that includes both kinds of purposes.  To generate the conflict, either the Simonian must say

(1a) The only purpose, whether evolutionary or agent or other, of x is y

or the Christian must say

(2a) The only purpose, whether evolutionary or agent or other, of x is z

or both.  But weak methodological naturalism does not justify (1a).  For given methodological naturalism, while there might be justification for the claim that the only evolutionary purpose of x is y, there is no justification for the claim that the only purpose simpliciter of x is y.  Likewise, Christian faith does not commit one to (2a), but only to the weaker claim that the only agent purpose, or maybe even more weakly that the only divine purpose, of x is z.

           To back up what I have just said, I will show that it is possible to have a case where there is a different sole evolutionary purpose and a different sole agent purpose  But this is easy.  Imagine that a bunch of very long-living alien travel agents after having done a lot of study decided that a species of mammals having “long tails, thickened at the base”[2] would generate a large amount of expensive travel to earth, because focus group research suggested that would be considered very cute to the other aliens and so they would be willing to travel to earth to see them.  They then designed the natural environment in Australia so as to institute evolutionary pressures that would foster the evolution of a fast well-balanced biped, knowing that it is likely that the evolutionary process would produce a biped with a long thickish tail, because such tails tend help animals to balance.  And so they do it.  Well, then, the sole evolutionary purpose of the kangaroo’s tail would be balance, while the sole agent purpose would be cuteness or sales (relative to the standards of their home planet).  One might, of course, claim that the kangaroo were indirectly selected for cuteness or profit.  But that is a misunderstanding.  To see that this is a misunderstanding, observe that the agent purpose of the kangaroo tail would still be cuteness or profit even if it turned out that the whole project was a flop, and, focus groups notwithstanding, the kangaroo’s tail was seen by most of the aliens as hideous and nobody flew to earth to see it after pictures were shown in the travel agent’s brochure.  Observe, too, that if our aliens were in fact supernatural beings, then there would be no resources within methodological naturalism to reject the hypothesis of the tails having cuteness (relative to the standards of these supernatural beings) as an agent purpose.

           Nonetheless, while this strategy for defusing the apparent conflict works abstractly, in practice there can be something disquieting about some of the Simonian cases of a thing having both an evolutionary purpose and a different divine purpose.  I think the disquiet comes about when the two purposes appear to be at odds.  Thus, suppose that the following naïve evolutionary explanation of altruism is correct: the behavior of helping others tends to result in reciprocation and a cost-benefit analysis shows that it is more economical for an animal to help all others of its species than to have to expend time and energy on discriminating between cases where reciprocation is likely and cases where it’s not.  There seems to be a way in which this is at odds with a Christian teleology on which the purpose of altruism is to make the human being be more in the image of the Trinity where the Father eternally gives of Himself to the Son.  It seems to be at odds because the evolutionary account appears to ground altruism in a lack of sufficient intelligence to discriminate cases and in selfishness, while the theological account grounds altruism in divine perfection

           The difficulty is a specifically theological one now: there does not appear to be a philosophical problem with this scenario.  And even the theological difficulty is surmountable: Is it not, in other contexts, a staple of Christian theology that “God chose what is low and despised in the world” (1 Cor. 1:28) for high purposes, that our weakness is our strength, and the like?  Of course, I am not endorsing this reconciliation of Simonian science with Christianity, because as I said I am deeply sceptical of much of evolutionary psychology.

           What about the case of Mother Teresa and her rationality?  On Plantinga’s story, the Simonian claims she was irrational to be altruistic while the Christian claims she was rational to be altruistic.  For there to be a real conflict between methodologically naturalist science and Christianity here, both sides must be using “rational” in the same sense.  But is that so? 

           First note that the concept of “rational” on the Christian side is a normative concept.  Thus, if there is to be any conflict, the concept must also be normative on the Simonian side.  But what normative concept of rationality can the Simonian use here?  It had better not a concept of thinking in ways that are epistemically justified.  For the Simonian cannot clear-headedly and justifiedly argue that scientific methodology is the only road to epistemic justification.  The reason she cannot do so is because this normative claim about science’s prerogative is itself one that science cannot justify, and hence if it is true, it is unjustified.  And if scientific methodology is not the only road to epistemic justification, who is to say that Mother Teresa does not know the relevant theological claims?  At the least, to say that she does not know them is itself not a claim of science, Simonian or other.

           Is the concept of rationality here one of acting in such ways as fulfill one’s desires?  But again, if the Simonian science is to stay a science it cannot deny that Mother Teresa might fulfill through her actions a desire for union with God in this and the next life.  The only hope, I think, for generating a conflict is to go back to teleology and to say that the common concept of rationality is one of acting in such wise as to fulfill one’s individual purpose as a human being, or something like that.  But then just as there were two senses of “purpose”, there will be two senses of “rationality”.  Nor is this view at all repugnant to Christianity.  Is not St. Paul acknowledging two senses of “rationality” when he says “For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards … but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise … so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:26-30)?

4. Three closing remarks

           I have three closing remarks.  The first is that Plantinga’s view of science as a family of related practices is very attractive.  It could, however, continue to privilege methodological naturalism if one accepted the “family” view in the way that Aquinas and Aristotle did.  These two thought that when you had a family of interconnected concepts, you would still have a focal concept.  Thus, the focal sense of “healthy” is “being a well-functioning body”.  There are, however, related secondary senses such as “conducive to health”, “indicative of health”, etc.  Nonetheless, there is a primary sense of the term.  The invocation of Thomas Aquinas, thus, raises the danger that methodologically naturalist practices might be counted as part of the focal practice, the one that is central, and this might bring back some of the problems for the theist that Plantinga wishes to avoid.

           The second is a hypothesis as to one common reason why one might see scientific practice as a single game.  The hypothesis is that one might subscribe to epistemological scientism, either globally or vis-à-vis a subdomain of facts.  Epistemological scientism about a domain is the view that the only truth-directed practices concerning truths about that domain are scientific practices.  If one subscribes to epistemological scientism about material reality, then one can just define science as all and only the truth-directed practices concerned with facts about material reality, and the question of what practices are scientific then makes perfect sense.  For the question just boils down to this: Do the practices concern material reality and are they truth-directed?  But of course epistemological scientism begs the question against forms of religion which claim that one can know some facts about material reality, such as that Mary’s body did not rot in the grave, on non-scientific grounds, such as the testimony of a divinely protected papal utterance.

           The third remark is a question to Al.  What do you say about the argument that the successes of methodologically materialistic science make epistemological scientism plausible?

[1] Kristen R. Monroe, Michael C. Barton and Ute Klingemann, “Altruism and the Theory of Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe”, Ethics 101 (1990) 103–122.

[2] Phrase from Encyclopedia Britannica, DVD-ROM version, 2002, s.v. kangaroo.