Plantinga Pwns I: Introduction & God and Other Minds I

Leave a Comment
File:AlvinPlantinga.JPGAlvin Plantinga, now 80, is professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and has taught at Calvin College and Wayne State University, when it was a hotbed for analytic philosophy.  He studied at Calvin College, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and received his PhD from Yale.  He has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Chicago, Michigan, Boston, Indiana, UCLA, Syracuse, and Arizona.  He has also given lectures in several prestigious lecture series, including being a Gifford Lecturer twice.  Further, he has honorary degrees from numerous universities.  His family's accomplishments are correspondingly sickening, with various professorships, degrees, etc. etc.

It would not be a stretch to say that Alvin Plantinga was the most prominent Christian philosopher of the 20th century.  His influence continues into the 21st, where he remains a leader not only in the philosophy of religion but also epistemology, and has contributed to the field of metaphysics as well.  His most notable contributions in the philosophy of religion include his famous Free Will Defense in response to the logical problem of evil which has received wide acceptance (which is a rarity in philosophy), the school of thought known as reformed epistemology, his modal ontological argument for the existence of God, and his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN).

In epistemology, he is most well known for developing a form of reliabilism known as "proper functionalism," as well as devising an alternative to justification, which he calls "warrant."  If you'll recall from my previous post, one of the major sticking points in epistemology today is the shortcomings of the justified-true-belief definition of knowledge.  Plantinga's idea of "warrant" is an attempt to solve that problem.

In short, he's sort of a big deal, and yet only the nerdiest of Christians have heard of him.  How even the most cursory course on apologetics could do without mentioning at least one of his many contributions is beyond me.  This post and the following series is an attempt to summarize some of his major work, beginning with his first book: God and Other Minds: A Study in the Rational Justification of Belief in God.


The goal of the book is fairly straightforward, if a bit ambitious: to "investigate the rational justification of belief in the existence of God as He is conceived in the Hebrew-Christian tradition."1

The first section of the book critiques the three traditional arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological, ontological, and teleological.  He ultimately judges them unsuccessful, though worthy of serious study.  A similar critique is carried out in the second section of the book against atheological arguments, such as the problem of evil and a smattering of miscellaneous arguments against the existence of God.  He comes to the conclusion that these arguments fail, so we are left with little to go on in determining if belief in the existence of God is rationally justified.

This leads to the third section of the book, which reaches the heart of the matter.  In it, Plantinga lays out a new form of rational justification in the belief in God by showing it is analogous to belief in the existence of other minds.  I will briefly summarize the first section of the book in the remainder of this post, and in the next post in the series touch on the second section (spoiler: the arguments fail) and spend a fair amount of time on the third section.

Arguments of Natural Theology

Plantinga begins with the cosmological argument found in Aquinas' Third Way of his Summa Theologiae.  Without going into any depth in the argument, the argument states that contingent beings are liable to go out of existence, in which case at some point in the past nothing should have existed.  If nothing existed in the past, then nothing should exist now, unless there is a necessary being.  Because there are things in existence now, there is a necessary being, which we call God.

If the argument is laid out fully, the difficulty lies in the premise that if all that exists are contingent beings, then at some point in time nothing existed.  The problem is that just because each contingent being is liable to cease to exist, it does not follow that at some point in time all would cease to exist.  Plantinga makes several amendments to the premises in order to avoid the difficulty, but ultimately the argument fails.

While the cosmological argument was not a matter of much discussion in philosophical circles at the time of writing, the ontological argument has enjoyed a lively discussion since it was first devised by Anselm in the 11th century.  At the time of the book's publication (1967), the opinion of many followed that of Kant's criticism of the argument.  Kant claimed that existence is not a predicate (or "property," if you will), and that "one cannot build bridges between the conceptual realm to the real world."  However, Plantinga carefully follows several arguments that existence is not a predicate, and finds them wanting.  Further, he maintains that no one has successfully shown that Anselm's argument even relies on existence being a predicate.

The real issue with the ontological argument is that it is difficult to state the premise "existence in reality is greater than existence in understanding alone" in such a way that it entails the steps of the argument that follow it.  More specifically, for the sake of the argument the premise must be recast as "If (some entity) R has every property that God has and R exists but God does not, then R is greater than God"-- "God" being an abbreviation for "the being than which none greater can be conceived."  So the premise is now stated as a conditional; the problem is that the antecedent of the conditional is self-contradictory.  In the words of Plantinga, "This guarantees its truth, but precludes its functioning in some of the important ways (material) conditionals typically function- [the premise] cannot function, for example, as the major premise of a sound modus ponens argument."2 (To see why this is so, here are links explaining material conditionals and "non-material" conditionals.)  Plantinga attempts to salvage the argument, but to no avail.

Finally, the teleological argument.  Plantinga begins, "If the ontological argument smacks of trumpery and word magic, the teleological proof is as honest and straightforward as a Norman Rockwell painting."3  David Hume is famous both for his excellent summary and trenchant criticism of it, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume puts forth two arguments in the dialogue, the first only weakens the proof somewhat, while the second hits the mark.  The difficulty is that while some of the propositions put forth in the course of the proof are possible (for example, "the universe is designed by exactly one person," or "the universe was created ex nihilo"), there is no reason to believe one of those propositions is any more likely than a proposition inconsistent with it.

Now, in the 1990 paperback edition, Plantinga provides a valuable preface.  He largely agrees with his arguments from twenty-three years earlier, though he speculates it would have been better to consult the First Mover argument in Summa Contra Gentiles rather than the Third Way.  He goes on to say this:
In evaluating the theistic arguments, furthermore, I employed a traditional but improperly stringent standard; there may be plenty of good arguments for theism even if there aren't any that start from propositions that compel assent from every honest and intelligent person and proceed majestically to their conclusion by way of forms of argument that can be rejected only on pain of irrationality.  After all, no philosophical arguments of any consequence meet that standard, and the fact that theistic arguments do not is not as  significant as I thought.4
He also indicates that his opinion of the ontological argument has changed, and it is worth remembering that Plantinga has proposed an ontological argument of his own.  The fact of the matter is that in 1967 the cosmological argument and the teleological argument were not taken seriously.  Discussion of the cosmological argument was not revived until 1979, when William Lane Craig published his book on the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  And while the ontological argument garnered some attention at the time, much more was to come as the Christian philosophical tradition began a revival in the '60s and '70s.  The teleological argument has also gained more attention, including the Thomistic version, which Austin summarizes here.

These arguments - and others - will all be discussed in more depth in later posts.  The salient point for our present purpose is that Plantinga finds the three traditional arguments for the existence of God wanting, and is in search of a more clear answer as to the status of rational justifiability of belief in the existence of God.


1. Plantinga, Alvin, God and Other Minds, Cornell University Press, 1990, p. xv
2. Ibid., p. 70
3. Ibid., p. 95
4. Ibid., ix-x
Next Post Newer Post Previous Post Older Post Home


Post a Comment