Maybe It Is Time to Reframe the Question: Are Science and Naturalism Compatible?


Over the last few centuries, there has been a steady but growing consensus amongst intellectuals that religion and science are simply incompatible with one another. This incompatibility is often interpreted as being built into the very natures of both systems. In other words, it is thought that the various predicates of religion are intrinsically opposed to the various predicates of science, such that reconciliation or synthesis is nothing more than an impossibility. Of course, if this is in fact true, then to attempt to hold these two categories together would be to violate the law of noncontradiction, for two inherently contradictory concepts cannot both be true at the same time.

This understanding, which pervades much of contemporary Western thought, first came into being during the Enlightenment period, or the “Age of Reason.” Even though the modern scientific enterprise was basically constructed from a Judeo-Christian worldview (belief in both the efficacy and the usefulness of scientific observation and experimentation came from a Christian worldview that affirmed the reliability of the human mind and the five senses. It also came from a religious worldview that affirmed the intelligibility of the universe and the contingency of creation. Christians could trust their minds because their minds were carefully crafted by a rational being; Christians believed in the intelligibility of the universe because they believed that it was a coherent cosmos, created and ordered by a rational mind; and Christians believed in the importance of experimentation and observation because the universe was contingent and thus needed to be explored in order to be understood. Thus, contrary to popular belief, Christian presuppositions, not atheistic ones, are the bedrock of the modern scientific enterprise) and was shaped and formed from the minds of great Christian thinkers/scientists like Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, in the Enlightenment period, science quickly became a kind of rational alternative to “naive” religious belief.

During the Age of Reason, a general suspicion, or distrust, began to emerge towards all faith-oriented systems. Because Christianity was the dominant religion in Western/European society, Christianity naturally received the brunt of the scrutiny. At this time, a given truth-claim was only accepted as true if it could be held with irrefutable certainty, and the scientific method was generally seen as one of the most trustworthy standards by which a given truth-claim could be assessed or measured. Because religious claims–by their very nature–cannot be empirically verified by virtue of the scientific method, in terms of legitimate avenues to knowledge, religion began to take a serious back seat to empirically-based science.

As time progressed, classical Christianity soon became criticized as being unreasonable, irrational, unscientific, intellectually unsatisfactory, and purely subjective. In light of the dawning of the modern scientific age, Christianity had become barbaric. It was an outdated myth; a product of primitive traditions that had become obsolete. On the other hand, science was rational, objective, and even infallible. It rendered faith useless. Who needs faith when science can answer all human questions? Who needs God when science can redeem humanity?

Today, though we have certainly toned down our optimism concerning the overall efficacy of modern science, in terms of the science-religion issue, this pervading Enlightenment understanding still remains within the Western consciousness, particularly with the intellectual elites. In contemporary Western thought, many have uncritically adopted the Enlightenment belief that science is rational and religion is irrational. According to the Western intellectual, science discredits or undermines religion, rendering the two incompatible.

With all of this in mind, in the short little book, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, Daniel Dennett and Alvin Plantinga both rekindle and continue this long-lasting, historical debate. Plantinga represents the Christian thinker who believes that science and religion are indeed perfectly compatible with one another, whereas Dennett represents the Atheistic thinker who takes the “Enlightenment approach,” believing that science and religion are actually incompatible with one another. In my opinion, the entire debate between these two men centers on one particular argument from Alvin Plantinga. Thus, for the purpose of this article, we will direct all of our remaining focus there.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Within the broader framework of Plantinga’s debate with Dennett over the topic of the compatibility of science and religion, Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is one of the major focal points. Plantinga utilizes this particular argument in order to completely flip the debate on its head; instead of science and religion being in conflict with one another, he argues that the real discordance is actually to be found between science and naturalism. More specifically, Plantinga claims that “naturalism is incompatible with evolution [the bedrock of modern science], in the sense that one can’t rationally accept them both” (Science and Religion, 17). Plantinga’s argument is extremely crucial since, if true, naturalism is rendered completely incoherent, and its adherents are forced to retreat from the overarching debate in silence.

Plantinga defines naturalism as simply the denial of God’s existence, which thus necessarily entails the denial of divine design and creation. Within the context of this specific argument, Plantinga assimilates naturalism to materialism and thus uses these two terms synonymously. He also characterizes naturalism as a kind of “quasi-religion,” in that it deals with some of the central themes of religion—origin, future prospects, significance and meaning, the issue of life after death and the like. Of course, in referring to naturalism as a quasi-religion, Plantinga contends that the science-religion conflict is more appropriately identified as a science-quasi-religion conflict since it is science and naturalism that are actually incompatible with one another, not science and theistic religion.

Plantinga’s EAAN is based on the following premise: If naturalism and evolution are both true, then the probability of the human mind being reliable is low. In a naturalistic worldview, the evolutionary process itself is not guided by reason, or rationality; it is not directed by a mind, or an intelligence, that is able to thoughtfully choose between a range of options, or possibilities. In other words, in a naturalistic evolutionary model, the mutations, or variations, that are “chosen” within the process of natural selection are purely adaptive and thus non-rational. In the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens, this goes for both physical properties and cognitive properties; both the human anatomical structure and the human mental structure are purely adaptive. Therefore, the naturalistic evolutionary process as a whole has absolutely no concern for truth; it is completely indifferent towards both truth and falsity alike.

This of course means that the thoughts or beliefs of the human mind are simply the product of an unintelligent, non-rational process of evolutionary adaptation. There is no link between beliefs and intelligence; human propositions, and the beliefs that make up those propositions, are purely adaptive and non-rational and thus are inherently neutral towards truth. If a particular belief happens to be true, that is great; if it is false, then that is just as good—its falsity in no way compromises the adaptivity of the belief.

This worldview renders the human mind completely untrustworthy. Naturalism is intrinsically self-defeating since a naturalist cannot trust her own mind; in a naturalistic worldview, the belief in naturalism itself is unreliable because the mind of the naturalist is unreliable. The same principle applies for any belief in a naturalistic framework, not merely the belief in naturalism. Anytime naturalism is conjoined with something else, the conjunction itself cannot be rationally accepted since naturalism does not permit rational belief in anything. Naturalism and evolution are irreconcilable; both concepts cannot be rationally accepted at the same time. Thus, in the final analysis, because evolution is a “pillar of contemporary science,” naturalism and science–as opposed to religion and science–are incompatible with one another. I guess this means that we have been asking the wrong question all along; maybe it is time we reframe it.