Yesterday evening, Professor Alvin Plantinga gave the first of his Cambridge University Stanton lectures on the subject of "Science and Religion: Conflict or Concord?". He will deliver five lectures and I hope to make it to at least three of them. Prof. Plantinga is a tall gentlemen of about sixty with a gray beard and no accompanying moustache. His dress is the typical slightly disheveled look of the academy with shoes best described as 'comfortable'. He has a deep voice with a strong mid-American accent and he speaks well, addressing the audience rather than keeping his head down over his notes.
As I have learnt to my cost, his books are notoriously hard as they assume a familiarity with the tools and notation of formal logic. These lectures, however, translate those concepts into words and so are easy enough to follow. However, underneath the words he is still presenting deductive logical arguments that deal with concepts such as incompatibility and defeaters. Ironically, this made his argument seem quite weak because what he was actually saying was rather limited. In fact, relying only on deductive logic, it is not possible to say very much at all.
The point of lecture one, "Evolution and Christian Belief", was to show us that theistic evolution and naturalistic evolution are both equally likely. Prof. Plantinga explained his definitions and then asked us to consider 'weak' Darwinism (where random mutations, while not caused by the biology of the creature in question, are subject to a deeper cause such as God) and 'strong' Darwinism (where the random mutations are caused only by physical processes). He then correctly tells us that the scientific evidence is unable to distinguish between these two mutually incompatible possibilities. He even said that 'strong' Darwinism could not have a higher than 50% chance of being true on the basis that we cannot choose between two incompatible alternatives. Thus, theistic evolution is not in conflict with science and the theist can relax.
The questions, one of which was asked by your correspondent, focused on the weaknesses of his presentation. It was alleged that he gave us no reason to believe theistic evolution over naturalistic evolution. This is true but not what he was trying to do - people are not Christians because they believe it is the best explanation of the evidence but rather because they experience it. Thus, as he has said elsewhere, Christianity is a 'properly basic belief' that is used as an interpretive framework to access other evidence - including science. All that Prof. Plantinga is doing is showing that the evidence of science can be fitted into the framework of Christianity. An audience member suggested parsimony as a tie-breaker between strong and weak Darwinism, invoking Ockham's razor. Prof. Plantinga should have said that Ockham thought God the most parsimonious explanation but instead said he was not in the business of deciding, only demonstrating where conflicts did and did not exist. The final questioner asked how we could decide anything if all we had to go on was whether it conflicted with the evidence. I expect that this is true and a deep problem in the philosophy of science tied up with the limitations of deduction. But again Prof. Plantinga said he was only demonstrating that Christianity, in which he already believed, was not in conflict with the scientific evidence for evolution.
I asked about the theological problems of theistic evolution, as it interferes with the integrity of the universe and exacerbates the problem of evil. Prof. Plantinga admitted the problem of evil was a problem, but not the one he was presently addressing. He also suggested God might be collapsing every wave function as well fixing all the mutations. Needless to say, I don't like the sound of this and might take him up on it tomorrow when he lectures on divine action.