Modern Pensées

Reconsidering theology, philosophy, culture, economics, and politics

A Tribute to the Retiring Alvin Plantinga

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Alvin Plantinga has been a professor of philosophy for over 50 years, spending his last 28 years at Notre Dame.   To be quite frank he is one of the best philosophers in the past few centuries.   I think the greatest complement I have ever heard of Plantinga came a Jewish atheist professor at UF, who said something to the effect, ‘Alvin Plantinga has single handidly made Christianity respectable again in philosophy… his arguments are so damn good, that I have reconsidered my atheism.’

In analytic philosophy circles, Christianity was seen as an epistemological joke.  Plantinga painstakingly carved out a space for Christianity back at the discussion table in even the most hostile departments.  It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Plantinga was at Notre Dame considering his theological and philosophical heritage was from the Reformed tradition.  However, from what I understand the President of Notre Dame at the time wanted the best Christian thinking and at that time it happened to be Reformed epistemology.   So, Notre Dame grabbed guys like Plantinga, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter van Inwagen.

Here is a poor attempt at a brief and uncomprehensive summary his contribution to Christian thought:

Warranted Christian Belief and God as properly basic (Reformed Epistemology)

In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga makes a case that several things are properly basic.  Something that is properly basis does not require proof and functions as the bedrock that we layer our daily lives on top of.  One such example is Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I exist.”  The most important thing that Plantinga voraciously argues for is that the existence of God is properly basic [and the atheists gasp, throwing the yellow flag calling for a 5 yard illegal motion penalty].  Plantinga makes a very good case (along with the presuppositionalists) that belief in God requires no proof or justification.  Consider the following – can you prove that other minds exist.  It sounds like a stupid question, but can you?  I could be a brain in a vat, or Neo in the Matrix, or the muse of some evil genius and all of what I think is reality could be completely constructed, and I am on the only thinking being.  None of us thinks or believes that we are the only mind in existence.  In simple terms, the belief in other minds is properly basic in a similar way that belief in God is properly basic.  Plantinga spends the rest of the book defending that the Christian worldview is justifiable.

Free-Will Defense Against the Logical Problem of Evil

There are several Problem(s) of Evil in philosophy.  The most common had been the logical problem of evil:

1. If a perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.    2. There is evil in the world.    3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

Most philosophers have conceded that Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil in his Free-Will Defense, and have given up on the logical problem of evil.  First off, it is important to say that his argument is a defense and not a theodicy.  A theodicy is a justification for why evil exists in a world created by God.  A defense exists merely to show a logically possible set of premises that refutes the trilemma above.  Plantinga’s argument goes like such:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.  God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 166-167.

In undergrad, I wrote a paper reworking Plantinga’s argument removing a free-will view of Divine Sovereignty and human responsibility and inserting a compatibilist view in its place.  I believe that my paper did no harm to Plantinga’s argument and that his argument is still compatible with compatibilism.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

The evolutionary argument against naturalism is sheer brilliance.  He argues that if evolution and naturalism are true then it seriously undermines both evolution and naturalism.  Naturalism is the idea that we hold ideas “true” today because they have “survival value.”  If evolution and naturalism are true, then human thinking evolved to produce ideas that have survival value and not necessarily truth.  The set of beliefs that maximizes my ability to eat, reproduce, and fight is not always what is true.  Evolution and naturalism, therefore, are tuned to survival rather than truth.  Therefore, this casts significant doubt on trusting our thinking itself, and included in that thinking are both the ideas of evolution or naturalism themselves.  Genius.

Modal Logic Version of Ontological Argument

It took me 3 years, 4 philosophy professors, and 4 versions of the argument to finally understand its genius.  It is not sophistry; it is not a parlor trick; it is not a aberration of grammar.  Do not go chasing the ontological argument unless you have copious amounts of time, a willingness to make your brain hurt, and the patience to deconstruct why Gaunilo and Kant’s objections are incorrect.  If you are up to the task, start here.

In the wake of evangelicalism’s massive receding from all public spheres (particularly the University), Plantinga has nearly single-handidly re-carved out a space for the Christian to have a voice in philosophy and respectability in the University.  You would be wise to have a basic understanding of his thinking.

Thank you Alvin.  I am deeply indebted.


8 Responses

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  1. Michael,

    I got here because of a column in the NYT today. I’m a geneticist so am very much data driven. I don’t get the evolutionary argument against naturalism. There is copious data out there supporting macro-evolution and none that I know of supporting the existence of any gods. To me it appears that the word games philosophers play while ignoring data creates no value at all. How do you respond to those who demand data to support your position. I wouldn’t survive in my world without the support of evidence. What evidence do philosophers work with?

    Paul Spence

    August 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    • Plantinga’s point is that if macro-evolution be true then it destroys the epistemic foundation for naturalism. His rationale is that macro-evolution is geared for knowledge that has survival value and not necessarily geared for knowledge that is true. In other words, the snake eats its own tail or one cuts the limb from which they are sitting.

      I am not interested in sophistry either. Evidence demands answers and I think are right to follow the evidence. I may suggest reading Stephen Meyer’s book, “Signature in the Cell,” for a cogent examination of some data in favor intelligent design.

      Michael Graham

      August 20, 2010 at 10:33 pm

      • Michael,

        I know the book. Poor arguments – no good supportive data. I suggest you read Dawkins’ most recent book. Now his arguments are sound and fully supported by the data.

        Paul Spence

        September 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm

      • Paul,

        I am sad you found nothing of value in Meyer’s book. Typically I find even in books where I disagree with the main thesis and underlying presuppositions there are some cogent arguments worth noting. I have not substantially worked through “The Greatest Show on Earth.” I will add it to the queue.

        I am not an expert in science but rather a bit of a dilettante of the sciences. With that said, I think it is really important for me to deal with the data and follow the evidence. Perhaps you could indulge me in interacting/responding with/to one argument from some other ID folks:

        Take for example the flagellum, an essential motor mechanism for acquiring new food for unicellular organisms. It is made up of some 300 proteins, each ~200 amino acids long, and each link in the chain being the exact one of 22 amino acids and able to form chains. The mechanics of the flagellum are rather brilliant as well, having essentially a double-rotor sitting in grooves of teeth of the cell, and creating rotational kinetic energy as passed along from the mitochondrian resulting in the whip-like propulsion from the end of the tail. If I understand statistics and mathematics correctly, the probability that this flagellum would appear from a large soup of amino acids is 1 in 2(left or right handed amino acids)^22(number of different amino acids)^(200 length of 1 of the protein chains)^300(total number of protein chains involved). When collapsing 1 in 2^22^200^300 you get the probability 1 in 2^1,320,000. This number is astronomically large, considering the estimation of 10^80 known particles in the universe. If I were to write out this number in a word document in 12 point Times New Roman font, it would have over 1,000 pages of zeros. This probability does not even account for the fact that a flagellum is worthless outside of a cell with all of its complexities (ribosome, nucleas, mitochondrian, cell wall… etc.).

        How do you account for this probability that is pushing the asymptote of zero of something so primeval yet so complex?

        Thanks in advance,


        Michael Graham

        September 14, 2010 at 4:01 pm

  2. Michael,

    The statistics you quote are totally meaningless in explaining the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. No evolutionary biologist has ever tried to argue that the statistics in favor of a flagellum just coming into being are not astronomically small. This is not what happens in the evolution of complex biochemical processes (or any thing else).
    Based on protein sequence data combined with an understanding or protein structure and function a very plausible explanation of the evolution of the bacteria can be made. Furthermore, real data from the laboratory support these explanations. Rather than write again what has been well written before I direct you to the following site:
    Miller makes the same point I made above. The statistical argument against the evolution of the bacterial flagellum is totally spurious.

    Paul Spence

    September 14, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    • Paul,

      I read the article you linked to. I had some difficulty understanding his core argument as to why the flagellum fails to qualify as having the property of “irreducible complexity.” Is the core argument that the presence of Type III Secretory System makes Behe’s argument fail? The science of the TTSS is a bit above my head. Is not TTSS also complex as an apparatus in and of itself? The paper does not address an important question – even if the flagellum may not be irreducible complex because of the presence of TTSS, is TTSS irreducibly complex?

      I am not sure if the argument is still completely spurious. The paper was a bit off-putting in its tone. I get bothered when both sides on this debate have a snotty or pejorative tone.

      One of my biggest questions for the Darwinian narrative that perhaps you can address is: how does life come from not life?


      Michael Graham

      September 14, 2010 at 7:21 pm

  3. Michael,

    The tone of Miller’s article was basically one of exasperation as the intelligent design argument has been made so many times before and absolutely refuted each time. Really, when will these guys get the message?
    The TTSS is of course a complex system (less so than the flagellum). It too will have an evolutionary history where the functions of its components and even their interactions were different. Looking at something and calling it irreducibly complex is just plain lazy. Miller showed that a more careful examination of a so called irreducibly complex system showed it to be nothing of the kind.
    As for “life from not life”. This is not a question that Darwin and evolutionary biologists address with the theory of natural selection. It’s a different argument entirely. Now, with this problem, one can reasonable look at probability numbers. I suggest you search the Internet for more details. A major point to remember here is that self-replicating entities only had to occur one to get the process going.
    I read a bit of a philosophical tone in the “life come from not life” comment. I’m not a philosopher; I don’t care how one defines life. I’m interested in biological processes.

    Paul Spence

    September 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm

  4. I am a very rookie amateur reader in philosophy who enjoys — albeit after mighty struggles [due to small brain size], Plantinga’s work. I first “met” Plantinga in an evening class in philosophy. The lecturer, a thorough-going atheist, recommended Plantinga as a formidable philosopher.
    I read with interest the debate above. Regarding the Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism, I would say to Mr. [Dr?] Spence that Plantinga’s attack begins well before we get to consider things like “evidence” and “data”. Plantinga is questioning the reliability of the cognitive processes that enable us to determine whether we have data, evidence, and knowledge — let alone what that knowledge is. And to believe that reliable cognitive processes could arise via macro evolution are, according to Plantinga, extremely problematic — and hence the contradiction between the two ideas of belief in naturalism and belief in macro evolution. Allied to this is the problem of supervenience — how thoughts get attached to physical neural processes and how a logical inference could exist in a purely physical world. Personally I find the Argument from Reason very powerful. As for Dawkins, a competent scientist he may well be. As a philosopher, he is a disaster. There are reviews of his work [The God Delusion I believe] by none other than Plantinga himself who demolishes Dawkin’s anti-God diatribe. As for the question about Plantinga and data and evidence, Plantinga’s data are algorithms and arguments — neither of which are physical entities, and his tools are those of logic and statistics. His evidence is manifest in the logical shortcomings of those who hold contradictory views…

    Stephen Baldwin

    October 14, 2010 at 10:56 pm

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