Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

Infobox Philosopher
region = Western Philosophy
era = 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption = University of Notre Dame, 2004
name = Alvin Carl Plantinga
birth = November 15, 1932 flagicon|USA|size=20px Ann Arbor, Michigan
death =
school_tradition = Analytic
main_interests = Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion
notable_ideas = Reformed epistemology Free will defense Modal ontological argument Proper Function Reliabilism Evolutionary argument against naturalism
influences = Thomas Reid· Abraham Kuyper· Luis Molina
influenced =

Alvin Carl Plantinga (born 1932) is a contemporary American philosopher known for his work in epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. In 1980, Plantinga was described by "Time" magazine as "America's leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God." [,9171,921990-3,00.html "Modernizing the Case for God", "Time", April 5th, 1980] ] He was portrayed in that same article as a central figure in a "quiet revolution" regarding the respectability of belief in God among academic philosophers. Plantinga has delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures on three separate occasions. He is also a prominent proponent of Molinism in the debate over divine providence, despite growing up in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Plantinga is currently the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.



Plantinga was born on November 15, 1932 in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Cornelius A. Plantinga and Lettie Plantinga. Plantinga's father was a first generation immigrant, born in the Netherlands. ["Self-profile" in "Alvin Plantinga," James Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen ed., (Dordrecht: D. Riedle Pub. Co.), 1985, p. 3.] His family is originally 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."Self-profile", p. 6.] One of Plantinga's brothers, Cornelius "Neal" Plantinga, Jr., is a theologian and the current president of Calvin Theological Seminary. Another of his brothers, Leon, is an emeritus professor of musicology at Yale University. [ [ Yale Department of Music - Emeritus Faculty] ] His brother Terrell worked for CBS News. ["Self-profile", p. 7.]

In 1955, Plantinga married Kathleen De Boer. ["Self-profile", p. 14.] Plantinga and his wife have four children: Carl, Jane, Harry, and Ann. ["Introduction: Alvin Plantinga, God's Philosopher" in "Alvin Plantinga," Deane-Peter Baker ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2007, p. 5.] [ [ "Alvin Plantinga,"] "Well-Known Dutch-Americans" at The New Netherland Institute website. Retrieved November 6, 2007] Both of his sons are professors at Calvin College, Carl in Film Studies [ [ "Carl Plantinga Bio"] ] [ [ "Carl Plantinga Bibliography"] ] and Harry in computer science. [cite web |url= |title=CCEL Questions and Answers |accessdate=2008-05-23] 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, [ [ "Jane Plantinga Pauw"] ] 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 instructed Plantinga to skip his last year of high school and immediately enroll in college. Plantinga followed his father's advice and in 1949, a few months before his 17th birthday, he enrolled in Jamestown College, in Jamestown, North Dakota. ["Self-profile", pp. 7-8.] During that same year, his father accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In January of 1950, Plantinga moved to Grand Rapids with his family and enrolled in Calvin College. During his first semester at Calvin, Plantinga applied for, and was awarded, a scholarship to attend Harvard University. ["Self-profile", p. 8.] 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. He was so impressed with Calvin philosophy professor William Harry Jellema that he returned 1951 to Calvin College to study philosophy under Jellema. ["Self-profile", pp. 9-16.] 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. ["Self-profile", p. 16.] A year later, in 1955, he transferred to Yale University where he received his Ph.D. in 1958. ["Self-profile", pp. 21-22.]

Teaching career

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. ["Self-profile", p. 30.] He then spent the next 19 years at Calvin before moving to the University of Notre Dame.

Philosophical views

Free will defense

Plantinga is known for his use of the "free will defense" to the logical problem of evil, particularly as expressed by J. L. Mackie. Plantinga's makes a distinction between a defense and a theodicy. A theodicy tries to justify God's permitting evil by explaining why God allows evil, whereas a defense tries to give a logically possible reason God could have for allowing evil. Plantinga's defense does not claim that God permits evil for the sake of free will but that it is logically possible that he allows evil for the purpose of free will. That is, he does not attempt to show what God's motives for tolerating evil actually are, but rather he merely wants to show that it is possible that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil.

Plantinga's argument has two basic stages. In this first stage he argues that the atheologian has failed to demonstrate that God and evil are logically incompatible. In the second stage he argues positively that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically consistent. He does so by constructing a model that includes both the existence of God and the existence of evil. Among other things, his model of the freewill defense includes the possibility of "transworld depravity." His conception of transworld depravity amounts to the claim that there is at least one possible world in which an individual has morally significant freedom and does at least one morally wrong action. ["Free Will Defense", in Max Black (ed), "Philosophy in America". Ithaca: Cornell UP / London: Allen & Unwin, 1965] Plantinga's claim that transworld depravity is possible is "not" the claim that it is possible that everyone does at least one wrong act in every possible world. There is an important difference between the claim that there is at least "one" possible world where everyone does at least one immoral act and the claim that in "every" possible world everyone performs at least one immoral act. In standard possible world semantics, the second, stronger, claim amounts to saying that it is "necessary" that everyone perform at least one wrong act. Plantinga is not making any claim "that" strong.

Reformed epistemology

Plantinga espouses a Christian religious epistemology that 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. Plantinga eventually develops a religious externalist epistemology that, if true, explains how belief in God could be justified independently of evidence. His externalist epistemology, called "Proper functionalism," is a form of epistemological reliabilism.

Plantinga develops his view of Reformed epistemology and Proper functionalism in a three volume work on epistemology. 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 goes deeper into topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability. In 2000, the third volume, "Warranted Christian belief", was published. Plantinga applies his theory of warrant to the question of whether or not specifically 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 "feeding, 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-cum-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:

Thus, since there is no warrant for assuming a strong correlation between truth and survival, evolution conjoined to naturalism undermines the likelihood of both concepts being true.


Works by Plantinga

* (ed) "Faith and Philosophy", Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.
* (ed) "The Ontological Argument", Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965.
* "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
* and Nicholas Wolterstorff (eds) "Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God", Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana & London, 1983. ISBN 0-268-00964-3
* "Warrant: the Current Debate", Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507861-6 (1987-1988 Gifford Lectures, [
] )
* "Warrant and Proper Function", Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507863-2 (1987-1988 Gifford Lectures)
*"The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader", James F. Sennett (editor), William. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1998. ISBN 0-8028-4229-1
* "Warranted Christian Belief", Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 2000. ISBN 0-19-513192-4
*"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 0-63-119364-2

Representative assessment

* Ferrer, Francisco S. Conesa, Dios Y el Mal, "La Defensa del Teísmo Frente al problema del mal según Alvin Plantinga", Pamplona: University of Navarre Press, forthcoming.
* Beilby, James (ed) "Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism", Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York & London, 2002.
* Kvanvig, Jonathan (ed), "Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga's Theory of Knowledge", Savage, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
* Claramunt, Enrique R. Moros, "Modalidad y esencia: La metaphysica de Alvin Plantinga" Pamplona: University of Navarre Press, 1996.
*McLeod, Mark S., "Rationality and Theistic Belief: An Essay on Reformed Epistemology (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion)", Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
* Linda Zagzebski (ed.), "Rational Faith", Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.
* Sennett, James, "Modality, Probability, and Rationality: A Critical Examination of Alvin Plantinga's Philosophy", New York: P. Lang, 1992.
* Hoitenga, Dewey, "From Plato to Plantinga: an Introduction to Reformed Epistemology", Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
* Parsons, Keith M., "God and the Burden of Proof: Plantinga, Swinburne, and the Analytic Defense of Theism", Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1989.
* Tomberlin, James E., and Peter van Inwagen (eds) "Alvin Plantinga", Profiles Volume 5, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Boston & Lancaster, 1985.

External links

* [ Alvin Plantinga's home page] at the University of Notre Dame
* [ Plantinga's Curriculum Vitae] , including a complete bibliograpy
* [ Virtual Library of Christian Philosophy (largest collection of Plantinga's work on the web)] .
* [ A list of articles and lectures given by Plantinga]
* [ "The Dawkins Confusion"] , Plantinga's review of Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" from "Books and Culture" magazine
* [ Alvin Plantinga: The Analytic Theist]
* [ Alvin Plantinga's spiritual autobiography]
* [ Review of "Naturalism Defeated?"] by John F. Post
* [ Fitelson and Sober's rebuttal to Plantinga's argument against naturalism] in PDF


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