Alvin Carl Plantinga (born November 15, 1932) is an American analytic philosopher, the emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College. He is known for his work in philosophy of religion, epistemology, metaphysics and Christian apologetics. Plantinga is the author of a number of books including, God and Other Minds (1967), The Nature of Necessity (1974), and the “warrant” series culminating in Warranted Christian Belief (2000). He has delivered the Gifford Lectures three times, and was described by Time magazine as “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.”
Plantinga was born on November 15, 1932 in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Cornelius A. Plantinga (1908–1994) and Lettie G. Bossenbroek (1908–2007). Plantinga’s father was a first generation immigrant, born in the Netherlands. His family is from the Dutch province of Friesland. Plantinga’s father earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Duke University and a Master’s Degree in psychology, and taught several academic subjects at different colleges over the years. One of Plantinga’s brothers, Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga, Jr., is a theologian and the former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. Another of his brothers, Leon, is an emeritus professor of musicology at Yale University. His brother Terrell worked for CBS News.
In 1955, Plantinga married Kathleen De Boer. Plantinga and his wife have four children: Carl, Jane, Harry, and Ann. Both of his sons are professors at Calvin College, Carl in Film Studies and Harry in computer science. Harry is also the director of the college’s Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Plantinga’s older daughter, Jane Plantinga Pauw, is a pastor at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Seattle, Washington, and his younger daughter, Ann Kapteyn, is a missionary in Cameroon working for Wycliffe Bible Translators.
At the end of 11th grade, Plantinga’s father urged Plantinga to skip his last year of high school and immediately enroll in college. Plantinga reluctantly followed his father’s advice and in 1949, a few months before his 17th birthday, he enrolled in Jamestown College, in Jamestown, North Dakota. During that same year, his father accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In January 1950, Plantinga moved to Grand Rapids with his family and enrolled in Calvin College. During his first semester at Calvin, Plantinga was awarded a scholarship to attend Harvard University. Beginning in the fall of 1950, Plantinga spent two semesters at Harvard. In 1951, during Harvard’s spring recess, Plantinga attended a few philosophy classes at Calvin College, and was so impressed with Calvin philosophy professor William Harry Jellema that he returned 1951 to study philosophy under him. In 1954, Plantinga began his graduate studies at the University of Michigan where he studied under William Alston, William Frankena, and Richard Cartwright, among others.A year later, in 1955, he transferred to Yale University where he received his Ph.D. in 1958.
Plantinga began his career as an instructor in the philosophy department at Yale in 1957, and then in 1958 he became a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University. In 1963, he accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, where he replaced the retiring Jellema. He then spent the next 19 years at Calvin before moving to the University of Notre Dame in 1982. He retired from the University of Notre Dame in 2010 and returned to Calvin College, where he serves as the first holder of the William Harry Jellema Chair in Philosophy.
Awards and Honors
Plantinga served as president of the American Philosophical Association, Western Division, 1981-1982. and as President of the Society of Christian Philosophers 1983-1986.
He has honorary degrees from Glasgow University (1982), Calvin College (1986), North Park College (1994), the Free University of Amsterdam(1995), Brigham Young University (1996), and Valparaiso University (1999).
He was a Guggenheim Fellow, 1971–1972, and elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975.
In 2006, the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion renamed its Distinguished Scholar Fellowship as the Alvin Plantinga Fellowship. The fellowship includes an annual lecture by the current Plantinga Fellow.
Plantinga has argued that some people can know that God exists as a basic belief, requiring no argument. He has developed this argument in two different fashions: firstly, in God and Other Minds, by drawing an equivalence between the teleological argument and the common sense view that people have of other minds existing by analogy with their own minds.Plantinga has also developed a more comprehensive epistemological account of the nature of warrant which allows for the existence of God as a basic belief.
Plantinga has also argued that there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good God.
Problem of Evil
Plantinga’s aim in the Free Will Defense is to show that the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good God is not inconsistent with the existence of evil, as many philosophers have argued. According to Plantinga, “the central idea of the Free Will Defense [is] that even if God is omnipotent, there are nonetheless possible worlds he could not have actualized.”
According to Chad Meister, professor of philosophy at Bethel College, most contemporary philosophers accept that the free will defense shows that it is logically possible for God and evil to co-exist, as long as a strong notion of free will is logically possible. The problem of evil is now commonly framed in evidential form which does not involve the claim that God and evil are logically contradictory or inconsistent. However, some philosophers continue to defend the cogency of the logical problem of evil.
Plantinga’s contributions to epistemology include an argument which he dubs “Reformed epistemology”. According to Reformed epistemology, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God. More specifically, Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, and due to a religious externalist epistemology, he claims belief in God could be justified independently of evidence. His externalist epistemology, called “Proper functionalism,” is a form of epistemological reliabilism.
Plantinga discusses his view of Reformed epistemology and Proper functionalism in a three volume series. In the first book of the trilogy, Warrant: The Current Debate, Plantinga introduces, analyzes, and criticizes 20th century developments in analytic epistemology, particularly the works of Chisholm, BonJour, Alston, Goldman, and others.
In the second book, Warrant and Proper Function, he introduces the notion of warrant as an alternative to justification and discusses topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability. Plantinga’s proper function account argues that as a necessary condition of having warrant is that one’s “belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers” are functioning properly—”working the way it ought to work”. Plantinga explains his argument for proper function with reference to a “design plan”, as well as an environment in which one’s cognitive equipment is optimal for use. Plantinga asserts that the design plan does not require a designer: “it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans”, but the paradigm case of a design plan is like a technological product designed by a human being (like a radio or a wheel).
Plantinga seeks to defend this view of proper function against alternative views of proper function proposed by other philosophers which he groups together as ‘naturalistic’ including the ‘functional generalization’ view of John Pollock, the evolutionary/etiological account provided by Ruth Millikan, and a dispositional view held by John Bigelow and Robert Pargetter.Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is also discussed in the later chapters of Warrant and Proper Function.
In 2000, the third volume, Warranted Christian Belief, was published. Plantinga reintroduces his theory of warrant to ask whether Christian theistic belief can enjoy warrant. He argues that this is plausible. Notably, the book does not address whether or not Christian theism is true.
Modal Ontological Argument
Plantinga has expressed a modal logic version of the ontological argument in which he uses modal logic to develop, in a more rigorous and formal way, Norman Malcolm’s and Charles Hartshorne’s modal ontological arguments.
Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism
In Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, he argues that the truth of evolution is an epistemic defeater for naturalism (i.e. if evolution is true, it undermines naturalism). His basic argument is that if evolution and naturalism are both true, human cognitive faculties evolved to produce beliefs that have survival value (maximizing one’s success at the four F’s: “feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing”), not necessarily to produce beliefs that are true. Thus, since human cognitive faculties are tuned to survival rather than truth in the naturalism-evolution model, there is reason to doubt the veracity of the products of those same faculties, including naturalism and evolution themselves. On the other hand, if God created man “in his image” by way of an evolutionary process (or any other means), then Plantinga argues our faculties would probably be reliable.
The argument does not assume any necessary correlation (or uncorrelation) between true beliefs and survival. Making the contrary assumption—that there is in fact a relatively strong correlation between truth and survival—if human belief-forming apparatus evolved giving a survival advantage, then it ought to yield truth since true beliefs confer a survival advantage. Plantinga counters that, while there may be overlap between true beliefs and beliefs that contribute to survival, the two kinds of beliefs are not the same, and he gives the following example with a man named Paul:
Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief… Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it… Clearly there are any number of belief-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.
Evolution and Christianity
In the past, Plantinga has lent support to the intelligent design movement. He was a member of the ‘Ad Hoc Origins Committee’ that supported Philip E. Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial against palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s high profile scathing review in Scientific American in 1992. Plantinga also provided a back-cover endorsement of Johnson’s book.He was a Fellow of the (now moribund) pro-intelligent design International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, and has presented at a number of intelligent design conferences.
In a March 2010 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, philosopher of science Michael Ruse claims that Plantinga is an “open enthusiast of intelligent design.” In a letter to the editor, Plantinga has the following response:
Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence “intelligently designed.” The hallmark of intelligent design, however, is the claim that this can be shown scientifically; I’m dubious about that. …As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution, the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. But the scientific theory of evolution, sensibly enough, says nothing one way or the other about divine guidance. It doesn’t say that evolution is divinely guided; it also doesn’t say that it isn’t. Like almost any theist, I reject unguided evolution; but the contemporary scientific theory of evolution just as such—apart from philosophical or theological add-ons—doesn’t say that evolution is unguided. Like science in general, it makes no pronouncements on the existence or activity of God.
- God and Other Minds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1967. rev. ed., 1990. ISBN 0-8014-9735-3
- The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1974. ISBN 0-19-824404-5
- God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1974. ISBN 0-04-100040-4
- Does God Have A Nature? Wisconsin: Marquette University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-87462-145-3
- Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (ed. with Nicholas Wolterstorff). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1983. ISBN 0-268-00964-3
- Warrant: the Current Debate. New York: Oxford University Press. 1993. ISBN 0-19-507861-6 (1987-1988 Gifford Lectures), online
- Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993. ISBN 0-19-507863-2 (1987-1988 Gifford Lectures), online
- Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-19-513192-4 online
- Essays in the Metaphysics of Modality (ed.) Matthew Davidson. New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. ISBN 0-19-510376-9
- Knowledge of God (with Michael Tooley). Oxford: Blackwell. 2008. ISBN 0-631-19364-2
- Science and Religion (with Daniel Dennett). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010 ISBN 0-19-973842-4
- Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011. ISBN 0-19-981209-8
- Alvin Plantinga’s faculty page at the University of Notre Dame
- Plantinga’s Curriculum Vitae
- Virtual Library of Christian Philosophy a collection of some of Plantinga’s papers
- Interviews from the PBS program Closer to Truth
- “The Dawkins Confusion”, Plantinga’s review of Richard Dawkins‘s The God Delusion from Books and Culture magazine
- Alvin Plantinga: The Analytic Theist more papers by Plantinga
- Alvin Plantinga’s spiritual autobiography
- Warrant: The Current Debate Plantinga’s Gifford Lecture, and volume 1 of his trilogy on warrant.
- Warrant and Proper Function Plantinga’s Gifford Lecture, and volume 2 of the warrant trilogy.
- Warranted Christian Belief, full electronic text of volume 3 of the Warrant trilogy.
- Daniel C. Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Oxford University Press, 2011)