On a Catholic-Protestant Philosophical Alliance

Alvin Plantinga Discusses Knowing God and Knowing Anything

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Alvin Plantinga is an American analytical philosopher, and is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He has been described by Time magazine as «America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.»

His work, including volumes such as «God and Other Minds,» «The Nature of Necessity,» and the Warrant trilogy, has reopened scholarly debate about the existence of God and, some say, made it intellectually acceptable once more to be an academic and at the same time allow one’s faith to openly influence one’s intellectual work. 

Some of his best-known contributions to philosophy include the «free will defense» and reformed epistemology. 

The former is a proposed solution to the logical problem of evil (the argument that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God); Plantinga argues that it is possible that an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God could not create a world containing free creatures who never choose evil, and that he could desire to create such a world containing evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures. 

The latter argues that belief in God can be rational even when held without evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence. Plantinga argues that belief in God is basic, much like belief in the past, other minds, our memories, self-evident beliefs and other similar beliefs: we do not hold them on account of evidence or argument, and yet our belief in them is accepted as perfectly rational. 

In his most recent book, «Where the Conflict Really Lies,» Professor Plantinga alleges that despite the apparent differences between faith and science so often touted by the media and naturalists, there is actually a deep harmony between the truths of faith and what we discover through science. 

In this interview, Plantinga reveals some interesting alliances between Catholics and Protestants, saying they align more along grounds of their orthodox or liberal positions with regard to the faith than along the lines of the respective Church or denomination to which they belong.

ZENIT: You’ve taught for nearly two decades at Notre Dame, one of America’s foremost Catholic universities, and that, from within a Reformed (Calvinist) framework. This gives you a special vantage point from which to speak about the developments in ecumenism, at least those occurring within philosophy. Is there much dialogue of an ecumenical nature between Catholic and Protestant philosophers today, and if so, what are the most promising areas of dialogue between these two groups? 

Where do philosophers from these two traditions differ most?

Plantinga: In philosophy, there isn’t much debate or difference of opinion between Catholic and Protestant philosophers; differences between Catholicism and Protestantism don’t show up much at the level of philosophy (although on the whole Catholic philosophers seem to hold a higher opinion of Thomas Aquinas than Protestant philosophers do). There is more debate, within each of those philosophical communities, between philosophers who are more or less conservative or orthodox and those who are more or less liberal. Conservative Protestants have more in common with conservative Catholics than with liberal Protestants; conservative Catholics have more in common with conservative Protestants than with liberal Catholics.

ZENIT: Your recent book, «Where the Conflict Really Lies,» alleges that below the superficial conflicts – mostly arising from unbelievers’ claims that religious belief, more often than not specifically Christian belief, contradicts what we know from science – there is actually a deep harmony between the tenets of the Christian faith and the discoveries of science. Similar claims have been made regarding individual points of the religious-scientific debate by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and such claims, like your book, generally were fairly well publicized. Given this, if I may be permitted a provocative question: do you judge such unbelieving scientists and scholars to be in good faith when they continue to allege that the claims of the Christian faith (or religious belief in general) are in contradiction with science? 

Plantinga: I certainly have no reason to think that those scholars and scientists who allege that science and the Christian faith are at odds are not in good faith; I just think they are mistaken. After all, some Christians also claim that science and the Christian faith are at odds; I think they are also wrong, but there is no reason to think they are in bad faith.

ZENIT: Your defeat of naturalism (the claim that the universe requires no explanation outside itself to account for its phenomena and natural laws, and even for its own existence) shows it to be self-defeating (inasmuch as, if God did not exist, it would not be probable that our cognitive faculties evolved in order to produce true beliefs, and thus all the conclusions of our reasoning would be suspect, including the conclusions of naturalism itself). How do naturalists usually respond to the (seemingly evident) incoherence of their theory?

Plantinga: My thought is that (1) given naturalism and evolution (and taking naturalism to include materialism [the philosophical theory that matter and energy are the only things existing in the universe, and consciousness, the mind, the will and spiritual events can be explained by matter -ed.] about human persons), it is unlikely that our cognitive faculties (perception, reason, etc.) are reliable; this gives one who accepts naturalism and evolution and sees the truth of (1) a defeater for the thought that her cognitive faculties are reliable, and hence a defeater for naturalism and evolution. The most usual reply is to point out that in fact our faculties do work fairly well, thus failing to see that (1) says something about what things would be like if naturalism and evolution were in true, not something about what things are in fact like. The best reply I’ve heard, I think, is that there may be necessary or conceptual connections between content and behavior — connections we aren’t aware of. This is the best reply, but it isn’t a very good one.

ZENIT: Martin Heidegger once famously claimed that it was not legitimate for Christians to do philosophy, inasmuch as it makes no sense to ask questions when you already know the answers. (In fact, Heidegger abandoned his Christian faith, not finding it congruent with his philosophical outlook). What do you think about the usefulness of philosophy sempliciter, inasmuch as the central truths that philosophy investigates (Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What can we know? Does God exist? What must we do? What can we hope?) have, in fact, already been answered by Christian revelation?

Plantinga: I follow Augustine, in thinking that to do philosophy properly, one starts with the opinions one actually has, and investigates their interconnections, considers objections to them, tries to deepen your understanding of them and the like. This can obviously be of use to Christians, in that, for example, it can provide answers to objections to the Christian faith, and enable a deeper understanding of that faith, and enable one to see what implications that faith has for various philosophical questions. Heidegger is probably right in thinking that it is at least a bit peculiar to try to answer questions to which you already know the answer; but of course a Christian philosopher won’t do that. She won’t ask such questions as whether or not there is such a person as God, or whether or not there is such a thing a sin. Heidegger apparently thinks of philosophy in some quite different way, but it isn’t easy to see what that way is.

ZENIT: If it can still be argued that philosophy has an important place today, either as part of mankind’s quest to understand our place in the universe, or for our desire to understand our own processes of comprehension, or our laws or e
thical behavior, or for providing a ‘place’ to dialogue with those who believe differently from us, can we argue for the need (or even the possibility) of a specifically Christian philosophy? For philosophy, it would seem, involves the use of reason alone, starts from premises known to all, and proceeds to discuss maters common to human experience in every time and place (and is thus not focused on or oriented by particular historical facts or events)? How can one harmonize a science carried out with reason alone, with elements held on faith?

Plantinga: This question is based on a conception of philosophy that I don’t accept. A naturalistic philosopher might think naturalism is obviously true, and then go on to try to find the right answer to a variety of questions philosophers ask–e.g., how shall we think about morality? or natural laws? of the nature of political authority? or whether there can be life after death? Or the nature of mathematics and other so-called abstract objects? As far as I can see, that’s perfectly proper, even though it doesn’t start from premises agreed to by everyone (in fact it’s pretty hard to find premises agreed to by everyone). But then a Christian philosopher can do the same thing: start from the great truths of Christianity, and try to give a good answer to questions like those above. There is no need to employ only premises accepted by everyone.

ZENIT: If Christian philosophy is possible, how could it avoid de-naturing philosophy, conflating it with theology? That is, how would a Christian philosophy differ from theology, since it seems that both would use the light of reason to examine, probe, develop truths of faith revealed by God? 

Plantinga: I can’t see any reason for thinking there is an absolute red line between philosophy and theology. Some Thomists (e.g., Gilson) who think there is such a line, think it’s important to keep the two distinct in that in philosophy, you use only what is self-evident, while in theology you use premises you know or think you know on the basis of revelation, i.e., on the basis of divine testimony. What you know by way of seeing that it is self-evident, has a higher epistemic status for you, he thinks, than what you know by way of testimony — even if it’s divine testimony.

The problem here is that self-evidence comes in degrees — or, if you think it doesn’t, then it is the highest degree of something else — rational intuition, perhaps — that does come in degrees. Now perhaps it is true that what is self-evident in the highest degree has more positive epistemic status for us than anything we know by testimony; perhaps we know the former «better’ than we know the latter. But in philosophy, we by no means confine ourselves to what is self-evident to the highest degree. For example, I believe that (contra Meinong, for example) there aren’t any things that don’t exist. But I can’t see that I know that ‘better’ than I know that my name is Plantinga and that I live in the US, which are things I know by way of testimony. If so, however, Gilson’s reason for thinking it important to keep philosophy and theology distinct doesn’t seem to have much going for it.

ZENIT: You argue in «Advice to Christian Philosophers» that such individuals have a right to start philosophizing from the certainty that God exists. Could you briefly explain why it is that Christian philosophers should feel so entitled?

Plantinga: Well, the only reason I can think of for supposing that they don’t have such a right is the thought that in philosophy, you can only start from what is self-evident. As I say, however, I’m a follower of Augustine, so that’s a conception of philosophy I don’t accept.

ZENIT: You argue in that same article that while Christian philosophers have some responsibility towards unbelievers to help them see that God exists (or that there are at least plausible arguments for His existence), their primary responsibility is to pursue those topics of greatest interest to the Christian camp. What are some of these topics today, in your estimation? 

Plantinga: Among the philosophical topics that I’d say are of great interest to the Christian philosophical community would be questions, for example, about the relation between religion and science. Is it part of biological science as such, for example, to claim that evolution is unguided by God or anyone else? Or is that philosophical or theological add-on? Is it true that according to physical science there can’t be any miracles? Other questions of import would have to do with the sorts of objections brought against Christian belief nowadays. But there are other questions as well, ones that don’t have to do (directly, at any rate) with apologetics. For example, What is the nature of natural law? Do they have a kind of necessity? If so, how is that necessity related to God? Is determinism true? What reasons might there be for thinking that it is? How shall we think of human beings: am I a material object through and through, as many claim? Or am I instead an immaterial substance intimately related to a particular physical object (my body)? What could life after death be like? How shall we think of propositions, properties and other abstract objects? Do they exist necessarily? Are they a result, somehow of human thought? How are they related to God?

On the Net:

Works by Alvin Plantinga: http://www.amazon.com/Alvin-Plantinga/e/B000APU3AM

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Peter Waymel

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