The Table Video

Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff & Thomas M. Crisp

The Rift Between Science and Theology

John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame
Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
May 17, 2012

Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff discuss the ever-growing gap between scientific and theological thought. Through analytic discourse, the two critique the assumption that reason and faith are opposed, and they speak on the common grace of knowledge and inquiry given to Christians and non-Christians alike.


What do you think about the response that goes like this: well it sounds like what you’re inviting us to do is to think of the deliverances of faith as part of the data on which we theorize. But that’s not really science. That’s something else, that’s theology, or religion, and scientists, qua scientists, can’t do that sort of thing.

Yeah, yeah, and sometimes there’s sort of two different kinds of reasons given. One reason given for that, and we could call this methodological naturalism, right? So as a constraint on science and maybe on scholarship more generally, some people suggest that one should proceed as if, proceed as if God weren’t there. You don’t say God isn’t there, but you proceed as if God isn’t there. To do otherwise, is as you suggest, not to do science or psychology or, for that matter, history or whatever. To do otherwise is to do theology. And if you were to ask, “Okay, why do you say that? Why do you think that? Why do you think that’s a constraint on proper scientific or proper scholarly activity?” One response is, “Well, it’s true by definition!” For example, Michael Ruse makes that suggestion, Nancy Murphy makes that suggestion, and other people make the suggestion too. Well, I don’t see how you can settle any kind of substantive important issue by a definition. I mean, suppose I define the term ‘Democrat’ as to mean unmitigated scoundrel. Does that mean Democrats around the world should all go around hanging their heads because they’re unmitigated scoundrels? You can’t settle an important issue like that by a definition. But even if you said, “Well, that really is the definition of science.” Then I’d say, “What Christians who are scientists ought to be involved in is something, we’ll call it schmiance.” Just like science except it doesn’t suffer from this methodological constraint. And then the other suggestion, the other kind of reason some people give for the suggestion you make, that if you start from the deliverances of faith, you’ve just got theology, but don’t have psychology or whatever. The other suggestion, the other reason for that suggestion comes from, from some kinds of Thomists. They distinguish, for example, a tangil soul. They distinguish reason from faith, and then they point out that faith, or they say at least, whether it’s pointing out that’s not this quite the same question, faith is a matter of testimony. What you take on faith, you take on, you take as testimony. Maybe God’s testimony, but still testimony. And what you know by way of reason is something that you know by, you might say, sight. It’s something you figure out for yourself. And then you really master it. You have a better grasp of it. You might say you know it better. So if you just tell me, for example, I don’t know, that the no system of arithmetic is complete. And you tell me this, and tell me what it means, and I believe you, then I know that. But if I can actually follow a proof of this claim, this theorem, from propositions that I can see to be self-evident, then I’ve got a much better grasp of it. So that’s the thought. If you, when you start from faith, you’ll wind up with a discourse that doesn’t have as great, you might say positive epistemic status, or status as knowledge, as you do if you start from if you just stick within the bounds of reason. And very briefly, the response to that is that, people who think this way seem to me to fail to notice that, for example, the deliverances of reason, what is self-evident let’s say, comes in degrees. So two plus one equals three? Absolutely. Top of the line. You can’t get more positive epistemic status maybe, you can’t know anything better than the way in which we know that two plus one equals three. But typically in philosophy, you go beyond things like two plus one equals three, in philosophy and other disciplines. And when it comes to other propositions that are much more of philosophical significance, of much greater philosophical significance, for example, there aren’t any things that don’t exist. That’s something I think is self-evident, but not nearly as self-evident you might say, doesn’t have nearly as much intuitive support, or self-evidentiary support, as two plus one equals three. And then if you ask whether with respect to all these deliverances of reason, you know each, you know all of them better than you know what you know by way of testimony, I’d have to say I rather doubt that. I mean, I know by testimony that my name is Al Plantinga. I know by testimony that it’s Michigan that I live in. I think I know those things at least as well or maybe better than that I know that there aren’t any things that don’t exist. And similarly for lots of other philosophical propositions I might believe, and propositions that won fiance in the sciences too. So I think, I don’t think there’s good reason to accept this constraint.

Mm-hmm. Nick, I know you’ve written and thought about these kinds of issues, did you want to weigh in?

Well I, I think what Al, early in his discourse said, the Christian should, the Christian philosopher now. Clear other Christian academics but the Christian philosopher should set his or her own project agenda. I think that’s true, but in a, only in a certain sense. Al mentioned the evolutionary psychology. It seems to be the Christian… Setting your own agenda should be understood, has to be understood in such a sense that the Christian won’t just ignore other developments in his or her field. Not every development, some developments in one’s field are not worth paying attention to. But philosophy in the other disciplines, philosophy is an on-going human dialogue. It doesn’t belong to Christians, it doesn’t belong to naturalists, it doesn’t belong to Muslims, it doesn’t belong to Buddhists, it’s all those together, and we set our own agendas, but in the light of what’s transpiring in the discipline. So. So, what do you think, Al? I mean, setting one’s own agenda, without some qualification or expansion can sound as if Christian scholarship is a whole and corner thing. You do your own thing

Right, yeah. and let those evolutionary psychologists do their thing,

No, I don’t and we do our thing. I don’t mean that, I don’t mean to, I don’t mean that as a consequence at all. But it seems to me advice nowadays at least. I mean, what kind of advice is relevant depends on the whole situation and how things stand at the moment. And at the moment, it seems to me that say, in psychology, Christian psychologists, and I, feel very uneasy saying this because I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know that much about them. My father was, but I’m not! Are much more inclined not be a whole in the corner, to get in this corner and just do their own thing, but to do what’s done in mainstream psychology. And of course it’s very easy to see why that would be the case. We go to graduate school, and in graduate school, the graduate schools we go to, are substantially secular graduate schools. In graduate school, you learn to do things in your discipline, you learn to do them the way in which they’re done in that discipline, and stepping outside that seems weird or strange, or. Sort of like a weird uncle, something like that, you know. So the fact is, you’re quite right. Christian scholars are addressing at least two different communities. Maybe more than, actually more than two, but at least two. On the one hand, you might say they’re inward looking, they’re thinking as Christians and the Christian community, what does the Christian community need to learn in this connection? And how, from a Christian perspective, should one think about, say, hostility? But on the other hand, they’re members of a guild. And they have to, they play a part in that guild. So they’re inward looking but also outward looking. And in fact, there are many more communities involved too. Christian scholars sometimes address other scholars, but they should also sometimes address the laity. And they should address the Christian laity, but also the non-Christian laity. So it’s a kind of a complicated dance more than just this.

So I think that that’s the advice that mainly calls for being given, but one wants to prevent misunderstandings. People misunderstanding the advice in such a way that, well, we forget what all the other people are doing. We set our own agendas. And in fact, what you were saying there secondly, we’re part of this on, of this guild, and this ongoing practice of philosophy, in you’re in my case. And we as Christians do our best to be persuasive. We don’t just stand on a Hyde Park corner and pronounce this is the truth of the matter, but do our best to get the people to see

Yeah things our way, anticipating in advance that one will not be entirely successful at that, no philosopher is

Yeah. ever entirely successful in persuading any other philosopher of anything. [laughs] So that’s, but you do your best. You look for the pride points, as I sometimes put it.


The points that the other person says, “Hmm, I haven’t thought about that, I’ll have to, I’ll have to go

Yeah, but—that’s, yeah.

Think about that.” But I think that’s again, that’s just part of it though. So if I address other philosophers, other philosophers generally, not philosophers who are specifically Christian at all, but just any philosophers of any sort. Then what I can start from and what I assume will be quite different from what I can. If you and I want to talk and I want to tell you, “Well, here’s the right way to think about knowledge from a Christian perspective.”

Yeah. You know, then I can start from what you and I have in common, and if it’s important to look at these phenomena from a Christian perspective, then some of our energy ought to be devoted to that. I shouldn’t, I don’t want to say all of it, or nine out of 9/10ths of it or anything, but an important part of it.

But I think we wanna add that the agenda of, let me just call it, the rest of the philosophical guild, the counterpart in other disciplines. The agenda, agendas, actually, of the rest of the philosophical guild, will not be, will rarely be totally misguided. There’ll usually be something, something that they’re on to, that’s important to pay attention to. I mean, this is just good doctrine. Scripture doesn’t tell us that all but Christians are totally benighted about everything.

No, I mean, I remember when you and I were in college, we sometimes thought about C. Van Til.


And we probably thought about him in a completely wrong way. I mean…

This is Cornelius Van Til?

Cornelius Van Til.

Cornelius Van Til. Right. But what I heard from people in those days, and I didn’t read Cornelius Van Til himself, was that Cornelius Van Til thought that only Christians knew anything.

Yeah. Of course there was a somewhat arch definition of ‘know,’ the operative verb.

That other—But be that as it may.

And that other, unbelievers, they didn’t really know anything. Well, then I, at the time I was reading a book by Willard Van Orman Quine, who was not a Christian, a book on logic.

And you found some truths in there.

And the thought that he didn’t know any logic, you know, well, why am I reading him? He doesn’t know any logic anyway. That makes absolutely, absolutely no sense. Right.

There’s this eloquent passage in Calvin’s Institutes. Two, two-fifteen as I recall, in which Kelvin praises the ancient jurors,

Right. The ancient philosophers

Yeah. and so forth. And says that we should, it’s not the work of the devil, but it’s the work of the spirit. And we are being ungrateful if we don’t acknowledge that there’s much, much to be admired.

Absolutely, right. Yeah. But still, saying all that, it’s important, in philosophy, this advice maybe isn’t as crucial or necessary now as it was 25 years ago when I wrote that piece, or 30 years ago or whatever. But I think in other parts of the whole Christian academic enterprise, that advice still needs to be given.

Right. [mumbles]

People still are too they’re buffaloed by the whole academic, by the whole establishment of the discipline in question. Maybe in philosophy it’s easier not to be buffaloed, because philosophers always thoroughly disagree with each other anyway. But in some other disciplines, there’s almost a premium on fitting in, and sort of a conformity with how this discipline is done. [upbeat music]

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