May 10, 2011
Lunch with Alvin Plantinga Included the Properly Basic Food Groups
I’ve been reading, thinking and talking about Plantinga’s ideas for close to 20 years, so yesterday’s luncheon at First Presbyterian Church of Bellingham was a real treat (and not just because of the yummy sandwiches). Plantinga is in town as part of the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion, which anyone can enjoy via streaming video (see the website). At the lunch event Plantinga and WWU philosophy professor Dan Howard-Snyder just sat back and took in question from the munching audience. Here are some of them along with Plantinga’s answers (some concatenation may have occurred).
My impression is that in the last 50 years it has become easier to be a philosopher and a Christian in the academy. Is this true? (this was my question, btw).
Plantinga said this was probably true. He shared some very interesting statistics to the effect that 14% of philosophers working in the academy today are evangelical or sort of evangelical Christians, but further, some 20% of philosophy graduate students are Christians as well. Obviously, the trend is increasing. On the other hand, the fact that Christians are working in philosophy as Christians has also increased the philosophical challenges that are brought against Christianity. In past Christianity was mostly ignored. Plantinga encourages Christians to study philosophy as Christians. By this he means taking the traditional topics and questions of philosophy such as epistemology, causality, what it means to be human, the existence of abstract objects, etc., and thinking about them as Christians. He is sure that Christians have a unique and valuable contribution to make in these areas. He didn’t say this, but I’m pretty sure that Plantinga himself is one of the reasons for this increase in Christian involvement in philosophy.
Someone mentioned how young people today seem to be attracted to postmodernism, and wasn’t this a bad thing?
Plantinga answered that there are different varieties of postmodernism, and that there is one that he likes quite a bit. It’s the one that rejects classical foundationalism. According to Plantinga, this is the view that knowledge comes to us only from three sources: 1) Things that are self-evident 2) things that we experience in our mind and 3) any argument based on those two. This approach dominated philosophy for many years and is a direct outworking of the enlightenment rationality of the 18th century. But Plantinga noted that on the basis of classical foundationalism you can’t really say anything. It’s just too limiting. So he is glad to jettison classical foundationalism (as we will see later, he does not jettison foundationalism, just the “classical” part).
But Plantinga is not so hot on other postmodern postures like the ones where truth is completely denied. Richard Rorty’s claim that “truth” is just “what our peers let us get away with saying,” Plantinga dismissed as ridiculous. And other approaches that deny that claims can be wrong in comparison with opposite claims are “utterly crazy” to Plantinga.
And I just want to say “thank you!” for such needed distinctions. In my experience both the detractors and promoters of postmodern thinking make a lot of exaggerated statements and question-begging affirmations. And that is not good philosophy.
Someone asked whether, if Plantinga and Richard Dawkins had a discussion, there was anything they might be able to affirm together.
Plantinga thought that, yes, there was something. They would be able to agree on Dawkins’ name. But that was about it. He recalled that he was at Oxford when he read Dawkins’ God Delusion. He found it interesting and also frustrating because he disagreed with it so much. After expressing this to someone, an attempt was made to set up a debate between Plantinga and Dawkings. But over lunch Dawkings informed Plantinga that he did not debate philosophers. Good policy, methinks.
There were several questions relating to arguments for the existence of God that really helped bring out Plantinga’s view on such matters.
Plantinga is a big proponent of the rationality of Christian belief. It’s really important to get what that means or you will miss a major issue. Rationality is about coherence. That means that if I say, “God exists” there is no argument out there that can show this is inherently contradictory or nonsensical. But this is not the same thing as saying that one can prove that God exists through an argument. Plantinga would say that there is no argument that can prove the existence of God. So much for that, then. But now rationality comes in: neither is there an argument that can negate God or, indeed, all that it means to be a Christian. In fact there are many good arguments that bolster that set of beliefs.
And this is why Plantinga calls himself a foundationalist. He does hold that there are some beliefs that are “properly basic,” for which no sufficient logical justification can be given, but which are nevertheless legitimate to believe. And belief in God is one of these. But he is not a “classical foundationalist” because he does not demand that those basic beliefs be rationally deduced.
Someone asked, what did he think of William Lane Craig, who is another christian philosopher more given to apologetics. Craig’s arguments are much more foundationalist in the sense that he seems to think that one can present rational proof for the existence of God. Plantinga’s response was interesting. He said first, that he thought Craig’s arguments and were very interesting, and even sensible. But of course, second, not even Craig himself would claim that these were absolute rational proofs. And I’m sure he’s right. Strictly speaking, for an argument to prove God’s existence, it would have to prove it logically. But all the arguments that we have in this area are really only pointers or suggestions even for those who accept them. The rational standard for proof is very high. I leaves no room for assumptions or doubt. It’s so high, in fact, that according to those standards, there is almost nothing we can know.
Well, many other interesting things were said and thought here in Bellingham. If you are at all intrigued, I encourage you to tune into the webcasts tonight and Thursday. Or maybe I’ll see you there.