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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.

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