A conversation with philosopher Alvin Plantinga July 7, 2008
Alvin Plantinga holds the John A. O’Brien Chair of Philosophy and is director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He taught at Calvin for twenty years and is a '54 graduate of the college.
Plantinga returned to campus last week for a seminar on science, philosophy and belief hosted by Calvin College. This seminar brings together Western experts in the field with select Chinese scholars and is funded in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
While Plantinga was on campus, Ashleigh Draft from communications and marketing met with him to talk about everything from the history of Calvin's philosophy department to arguments for the existence of God.
AD: As an undergraduate you studied at both Harvard and Calvin. Tell me about your experience studying philosophy at a secular college and then at a Christian institution.
AP: At Calvin a main emphasis was “What does it mean to be a Christian philosopher, or a Christian literary critic, or a Christian historian.” There was a lot of concern about how to bring Christianity to bear on all these different disciplines … And of course that wasn’t true at Harvard at all. There was scarcely any mention of Christianity or theism in any of the courses I took. I liked Harvard a lot—I really enjoyed being there. My freshman year at Harvard I came back to Calvin when Harvard was on spring vacation and Calvin wasn’t, and I heard Harry Jellema lecture three times. I was really swept away. I thought he was just terrific, and I wanted to study philosophy with him. That’s why I came back here from Harvard—which was much to the disgust of the guy who was my mentor there, Raphael Demos. He thought this was the stupidest thing he had ever heard—to leave Harvard to go to Calvin, which in those days was much smaller than it is now and not nearly as well known. But I was really glad I did that; it was a very good decision.
AD: You’ve also taught at both Christian and non-Christian colleges. Did you notice a difference in the types of questions that students ask?
AP: Oh yes, there’s a lot of difference there. Most of my students at Notre Dame are grad students, and many of them are evangelicals. So I think maybe half of our grad students are evangelicals, a quarter are Catholics and a quarter are various other things … so they’re committed to the idea of Christian philosophy. They ask quite different questions from students that I’ve had at secular universities. When they [students from secular institutions] ask questions about Christianity, the questions wouldn’t be nearly as well focused; they wouldn’t know that much about it.
AD: If a high school student inquired about whether to attend a Christian college, what would you tell them?
AP: If she were a Christian student who wanted to study philosophy, I would certainly tell her to attend Calvin. Calvin’s got the best philosophy department of any Christian college. If a Christian student didn’t want to study philosophy, I lean towards saying “Yes, you should go to Calvin or some other Christian college,” but I’m not real insistent on it because I’m not sure it’s best for absolutely everybody. Some Christian students seem to flourish better if they’re in the minority. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I think it’s true.
AD: Calvin’s philosophy department has a pretty remarkable history. What do you think it is about Calvin College and philosophy?
AP: It’s hard to know—I don’t think it’s deep in “Dutchness.” The Dutch aren’t a particularly philosophical bunch; they’re more like sailors and businessmen. I mean, in the Netherlands it’s not like there’s this great preponderance of great philosophers.
What it was here was pretty much happenstance, I think. It was a matter of this one man, Harry Jellema. Harry Jellema was just so impressive—he was the most impressive person on the faculty. ... He was just absolutely terrific. And an enormous number of the bright young people who came through Calvin in those days majored in philosophy and went on to graduate studies.
AD: So you think it was the charisma of Harry Jellema?
AP: That’s what I think. That’s why many of these people, like my father, went on to graduate school in philosophy. … Later they had Henry Stob; he was also a really fine philosopher. Then students of Jellema and Stob came back as professors, like Wolterstorff and myself. And then some students of those came back. So it really all traced back to Harry Jellema.
AD: Much of your work involves what has been termed “Reformed Epistemology.” Can you explain what this is?
AP: Until recently, courses in the philosophy of religion would proceed as follows: start off by discussing arguments in favor of the existence of God—the teleological argument, the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the ontological argument, and then typically the idea would be, 'Well, these don’t really prove much.' Then you would think about arguments against the existence God—the problem of evil and a few other things—and then the course would wind up saying, 'On balance, the evidence is maybe a little bit against the existence of God.'
But according to Reformed Epistemology, that’s not really the relevant way to proceed at all. It’s not that the sensibility or rationality of belief in God depends on whether there are good arguments. Many important things we believe don’t depend on arguments—belief in other people, for instance, belief that there’s been a past, belief in an external world. In none of these cases are there good arguments, and in none of these cases do people need good arguments … but people who believe that there are other people, or that there is a past aren’t irrational or silly. It’s rather that human beings are “programmed” in such a way, or created in such a way, that we automatically believe in the existence of other people, we automatically believe that there’s been a past, and that there’s an external world.
According to Reformed Epistemology the same thing is true, to some degree anyway, about belief in God. That, too, doesn’t depend on arguments to be sensible or reasonable. I think there are some good arguments [for the existence of God] … but it’s not that the proper way to be a believer in God is on the basis of arguments. That’s the fundamental idea of Reformed Epistemology.
AD: Are there any central problems that need to be worked out?
AP: Well, I don’t think there are any real problems to it. In Warranted Christian Belief, I argue that if Christianity is true, then Reformed Epistemology is also true. One interesting question is whether you could say the same thing about other religions. That is, if you are Muslim, can you argue that if Islam is true then the people who accept it probably know it? It’s the same for Judaism. I think this is something worth investigating, because it’s not true for every worldview.
AD: Returning to philosophy of religion, how do you evaluate the role of arguments for the existence of God?
AP: I think arguments do have an important role. I think some people become believers in God by virtue of arguments. Most people don’t come to it that way, but, for example, C.S. Lewis said that he did. And Antony Flew came to a belief in a semi-theism the same way. So that’s one function. They [arguments] can also confirm Christian belief. Suppose I’m a Christian, and my faith is wavering. Arguments can play a role in strengthening and confirming my belief. They also indicate important connections between Christian belief and various other things … These arguments reveal connections that enable one to make progress in theistic philosophy. We think of theistic philosophy as asking questions that philosophers think about and then asking, 'How should we think about this area from the perspective of theism? Given that I believe in God, how should I think about the past, or mathematics, causality or whatever?'
When you start to think philosophically about some topic, of course, you always start by assuming a number of things in that inquiry. So you might take God’s existence for granted in asking about causality or about whether materialism with respect to human beings is true. And very often you’ll wind up with some interesting things, things you might not have thought of at all, otherwise.
AD: And how would that be different from theology?
AP: Well, I would say there isn’t any—in principle—difference between theology and philosophy. It’s rather that theology addresses one set of questions and philosophy address another set of questions, [such as] the nature of causality, or the nature of numbers or the nature of time. Theologians don’t typically ask those questions; they ask questions more directly about the nature of God and about what the Bible teaches. But, as I say, there’s no difference in principle between Christian philosophy and theology.
AD: Has your estimation of the proper role of arguments for the existence of God changed throughout your career?
AP: Yes I think it has. When I started doing philosophy at Wayne State University, I think I assumed pretty much what everyone else assumed—that Christian belief is sensible if there are good arguments for it. But the more I thought about that, the more I began to wonder about it. And then I wrote God and Other Minds, in which I evaluated both arguments for the existence of God and arguments for the existence of other minds. I concluded that the argument for other minds was no stronger than the arguments for the existence of God, and, if anything, it was weaker. So then I said, 'Well, clearly it’s sensible to believe in other minds, so why doesn’t the same hold with respect to theism?' That’s when I first started thinking that you don’t really need arguments.
Then for a while I started thinking [that] not only don’t you need arguments for the existence of God, but they are a distraction, and we’d be better off if we didn’t think about arguments. They don’t play any sensible role at all; they just get people to think they can’t be proper believers in God without having arguments.
Then, later on, I came back towards the middle and [now I] think they do have a role to play, and they are important in their own way, but it’s a limited importance. The usual and perfectly sensible way to be a believer in God is not on the basis of arguments.
AD: Who’s a philosopher people aren’t reading right now, but should be?
AP: I would say probably Roderick Chisholm, who is not a Christian philosopher but a very good philosopher. It’s very important for Christian philosophers to get the basic methods and ways of philosophy and to do it well. Reading Chisholm can help one do that well.
AD: Who do you enjoy reading when you’re not reading philosophy?
AP: I really like reading Jonathan Edwards, and I read quite a few magazines, like Books and Culture, Christianity Today, The New York Review of Books, First Things. I also read a fair amount of devotional literature, and I read the Bible.
AD: What sort of new ideas really animate you?
AP: What animates me is having a new idea on something that seems to be worthwhile. I find that really absorbing. I think about it when I wake up in the middle of the night, while in the shower, while playing golf, while at the movies, while doing most anything. Just recently, I’ve been thinking about something in connection with ethics that I’ve never thought about before and that struck me as really interesting and important and absorbing.
AD: Calvin has become increasingly involved with China and Chinese philosophy. Have you had the opportunity to interact much with Chinese philosophers?
AP: I have been interacting with Chinese philosophers off and on for the past 14 years or so. The first time was at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference in Beijing. I attended another conference in China about three years ago. And there have been Chinese philosophers at Notre Dame. Xing Tao Tao is a friend of mine. He was at these conferences and he was at Notre Dame. So I have had quite a bit of contact with Chinese philosophers.
It’s really astonishing. There is a whole lot of interest among Chinese philosophers in Christianity and Christian philosophy. It’s not that all these philosophers are prepared to declare themselves Christians, but many of them are really interested. And that’s what’s going on at this seminar that Kelly Clark has organized. I think there are more Christian philosophers at Peking University, which is the Harvard of China, than there are at Harvard University, which is the Harvard of the U.S. And I think my book Warranted Christian Belief, which has been translated into Chinese, sells more copies in China than in the United States.
AD: When you interact with Chinese philosophers do you find that they have unique perspectives that you don’t get from Western philosophers?
AP: I think they are used to approaching things differently, but when they talk to Western philosophers like me they accommodate. At that first conference 14 years ago, we were on totally different wavelengths. Chinese philosophers weren’t really doing what we think of as philosophy here in the United States. They were doing something more like sociology. They were arguing, for instance, that Christianity would never do well in China. But at the conference 11 years later, it was completely different. This conference was conducted in English, and at that point they were writing on many of the same types of questions that Western philosophers write on. And I thought these people were extremely impressive.
The last time I went to Shanghai there was an enormous interest among students there in Christianity. At lectures I gave, there were all kinds of students who would come, and others would be out in the hallway, trying to listen. The room would be completely full. It’s really quite amazing, what’s happening in China—and Christian philosophy is importantly involved in it. Kelly Clark [a Calvin professor of philosophy] has been working really hard on these things.
AD: If you weren’t a professional philosopher, what sort of career would you have pursued?
AP: I considered early on being a minister, and I considered going into education as a field and becoming a professor of education. When I was in college I thought that [education] really needed some help … . But I’m really glad I didn’t become a minister. I have enormous respect for ministers, but I wouldn’t have been a particularly good one. I’m more useful, probably by far, by being a philosopher.
AD: What’s your estimation of the future of philosophy as an academic discipline?
AP: First of all, I think philosophy is an extremely important area and a humanly interesting area. Lots of people find themselves asking and answering philosophical questions, and I think it’s important that it be done at a high standard. It’s important that everyone gets a shot at it, and it’s important that some people do it at a really high level. And as things are presently arranged, that can only happen in an academic setting. So I hope that philosophy continues in the academy, and I hope it prospers.
I don’t think it is prospering very much at the moment. It’s prospering in Protestant and Catholic colleges, but I wouldn’t say it’s prospering in the world as a whole. Philosophy isn’t respected in the way it used to be. What’s really respected now is science—particularly physics, and maybe already having passed physics, biology. Philosophy doesn’t have the reputation it used to, but there’s no question that it’s extremely important, and I think it will always be. Unless human beings change dramatically, they’re going to be asking philosophical questions.
AD: How do you think it happened that most people think they are uninterested in philosophy?
AP: There’s another side to philosophy becoming professionalized. It has often in the United States—perhaps more in analytic philosophy than Continental philosophy—turned away from the great questions that people start off being interested in and gotten involved in highly detailed but very narrow questions, questions that people aren’t interested in. And you wouldn’t get interested in them unless you started at some other point, and get pushed into it. But you wouldn’t get pushed into it unless you were devoting all of your time to philosophy. And these more detailed, technical questions are often extremely important and interesting, but not always. Sometimes they’re just like puzzles that don’t have any connection to the original, human problems. And I think that a lot of people, when they think of philosophy, they think of that.
AD: Do you have any advice for how a philosopher might keep the broad questions in front of him or her?
AP: My advice would be to never let yourself get confined to a small corner of philosophy. Technicality is important, but it’s not something for its own sake. I have a tendency to get involved in very detailed, logical questions. I stay interested in them past the point when most people get bored with them. But most of the time I come on these things through a more broadly philosophical question.