An interesting article in the New York Review of Books in which the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews, fairly favourably, Alvin Plantinga’s recent Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Nagel summarizes the book’s central argument in this way:
He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating.
This isn’t a new idea — if I’m not mistaken, C.S. Lewis posed a version of this argument against naturalism in one of his books — but Plantinga has devoted a good part of his philosophical work to giving it a sounder foundation. As Nagel points out, the first (positive) part of the argument draws on Plantinga’s epistemological notion of “warranted belief”, which he developed in a series of books (none of which I have read).
As I said above, Nagel is largely appreciative of Plantinga’s project:
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly — in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.
but being appreciative is not the same as being convinced. In fact, Nagel doesn’t seem to like either of the views that Plantinga addresses:
Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
This sounds an awful lot like a segueway to Nagel’s own book Mind and Cosmos, which bears the wordy but intriguing subtitle “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”. Mind and Cosmos is just out from Oxford University Press and, though I am prudently waiting to read a few reviews before I pony up, I am hoping to read it before long.