Review: The Analytic Theist (Alvin Plantinga Reader)

Ed. James Sennett.  Eerdmans.

Unlike some anthologies, this isn’t simply a Plantinga chapter here and a long snippet there.  True, there are some reproduced chapters (see his legendary “Reason and Belief in God”) but other chapters in the book, while not necessarily giving new material, present it in a new format.  A few chapters take key passages from his notoriously difficult Nature of Necessity and present it without the modal logic, making for an easier read.

Thanks to Al Kimel for the picture

The first section of the book explores his early and later approaches to natural theology, the ontological argument, and free will.  A word on the latter: more Reformed readers do not have to accept some of his conclusions in order to appreciate his analysis of Possible Worlds Semantics.  Per the ontological argument,

(22) It is possible that there is a greatest possible being.

(23) Therefore, there is a possible being that in some world W’ or other has a maximum degree of greatness.

(24) A being B has the maximum degree of greatness in a given possible world W only if B exists in every possible world.

(25) It is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness.

(26) So there is a possible being in some world W that has maximal greatness.

This is an early form of his argument, especially since the modal operators are lacking.  But we can add the conclusion:

(27) It is possible that a necessary being exists.
(28) A necessary being exists.

Does the argument work?  It depends on whether you think S5 modal logic is true or not.  If it is true, the argument holds.

Reason and Belief in God

The issue:  must I satisfy some norm to hold Belief B?  If knowledge = justified, true belief, then what duty must I fulfil in order to have a rational belief? The modern answer to this question is seen in some form of foundationalism: what is a properly basic belief?:

(1) Self-evident or evident to the senses
(2) Incorrigible (for example, if I see a tree, I could be mistaken, but I am not mistaken that I think I see a tree)

(3) Which denial leads to a contradiction.

We will call (1)-(3) the Foundationalism Thesis (FT).

The problem with the above is that very few beliefs meet those criteria.  In fact, the thesis itself doesn’t meet the criteria. FT isn’t self-evident, it’s not incorrigible, and rejecting it doesn’t violate any laws of logic.  Even more striking, this seems to mean that the theist is warranted in believing in God even if he hasn’t bothered to meet the FT.  

The last section is a collection of encouraging chapters on how to do Christian philosophy in a secular guild.


Review: Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function

Plantinga begins by examining the Gettier-type problems that internalist accounts of knowledge face. Having shown these difficulties, Plantinga is now able to set the stage for his externalist approach to warrant. This he does by explaining our design function: Any well formed human being who is in an epistemically congenial environment and whose intellectual faculties are in good working order will typically take for granted at least three things: that she has existed for some time, that she has had many thoughts and feelings, and that she is not a thought or feeling (Plantinga 50).

He then examines three apparent weak points of externalism and show not only are they strong points, only a fool would challenge them: memory, other persons, and testimony. In the nature of the case we do not have basic beliefs about these three entities in the sense that evidentialism and classic foundationalism require (especially memory and testimony; solipsism has a host of problems beyond this). Throughout this defense we see the vindication of Thomas Reid.

The book is quite difficult and technical, though. The sections on probability will lose all but the most formidable philosophers. While reading these chapters one is reminded of Eowyn’s comments to Merry before the battle: “Courage, Merry; it will soon be over.”

He then gives a (mostly) wonderfully lucid discussion of coherentism, classic foundationalism, and Reidian foundationalism. Coherentism sees truth as a source of warrant in the existing relations of one’s beliefs: does a belief “cohere” and “mesh” in a larger noetic structure? Plantinga suggests this is inadequate because coherentism only tells us of the doxastic relationships between beliefs. Warrant, by contrast, needs far more, experience among other things (179). Classical foundationalism is wrong because it is self-referentially incoherent. It is not the case that the foundationalist claim (a belief is properly basic because it is either self-evident to me or immediately present to my senses) meets its own criteria: it is not self-evidently true nor is it available to the senses (182). This leaves us with Plantinga’s position: Reidian foundationalism. If a belief is formed in proper circumstances according to its proper cognitive design, it has warrant.


The book began well and ended well. The middle sections were good, too, but likely only of interest to the most doughty of analytic philosophers. While I agree with Plantinga’s thesis, there are some shortcomings (but these can be excused because they have been treated in later works). The section on Reidian foundationalism, for example, while fundamentally sound, seemed to lack, forgive the pun, coherence in articulation. I kept seeing what RF was not in relation to classical foundationalism, but very little on what it was. The final chapters on naturalism are interesting, but have since been further refined in Plantinga’s later works.

Plantinga: God and Other Minds

And so begins Plantinga’s project. Plantinga evaluates the issue of whether we are rationally *justified* in believing in God. In doing so, he considers the natural theologian’s arsenal, the atheologian’s response, and whether belief in God can be salvaged from the analogy of other minds.

Natural Theology

In considering the Cosmological, Ontological, and Teleological arguments, Plantinga points out that most criticisms of these arguments do not obtain, but still, at the end of the day, the natural theologian is not in a better position. Admittedly, this section is dizzying. The ontological argument comprised two chapters (though we did get a fine survey of the then-current literature).

Various Atheologica

Plantinga explores the atheologian’s criticisms of theism: the problem of evil (PE), the free will(FV) defense, and verificationism (Vf). With regard to PE, Plantinga notes if the atheologian’s premises are correct, it still doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist. There is no logical contradiction between the classical theistic view of God and the existence of evil. The atheologian needs to add the following premise:

(a) An all-powerful, all-loving God is *morally obligated* to create a world where persons freely choose the good at all times.

But introducing moral considerations is off-limits for the atheologian at this time. In any case, the atheologian’s criticism only speaks of what kind of God exists, not that he doesn’t exist.

Plantinga’s FW defense is the best chapter in the book. Whether we hold to free will or not is true, Plantinga argues that it is logically coherent and thus serves to defeat the atheologian’s defeater. The atheologian wants the following premise:

(b) God could create a world where the state of affairs obtain where a person P freely chooses the good at all times.

As Plantinga notes, this is hard to square with any definition of freedom. Further, just because God is omnipotent does not mean that he can create any state of affairs (e.g., God cannot create the state of affairs that is not created by God!) Further, Plantinga gives a nice discussion of what is a human person:

(c) x is a possible person = def. x is a consistent set of H properties such that for every H property P, either P or P (complement) is a member of x (Plantinga 141).

And if it is false that God can instantiate any possible state of affairs he chooses, then it is false that he can create any person he chooses. Therefore, (b) is no threat to theism.

God and Other Minds

This last section was confusing. Plantinga argued that the other minds analogy has drawbacks but then suggests something like it to *justify* belief in God.  It’s important to note that at this point in his career, Plantinga is still speaking in terms of justification and has not yet moved to warrant.

Evaluation and Limitations

This book was one of Plantinga’s earlier projects. Notice that I have been using the word “justify” in terms of evaluating belief in God. By the time of Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga has rejected this line of thought. Justification is a stricter criterion of rationality. It suggests deontological duty and if Plantinga wants to speak of theistic belief as *justified* on the basis of other minds analogy, then his project certainly falls short. But this is no longer Plantinga’s position.

Review: Reason, Metaphysics, Mind

This might be a series of essays in honor of Alvin Plantinga, but few of the essays have anything to do with Plantinga.  Some are extremely technical and it’s not always clear what is going on. Nevertheless, there are a few fine pieces. Zimmerman’s account of simple foreknowledge, Stump’s Thomistic view of the atonement, Peter Van Inwagen’s “Causation and the Mental,” and Wolterstorff’s fun “Then, Al, and Now.”

Reason, Metaphysics, and Mind by Kelly James Clark

Molinism starts off interestingly enough, but the discussion takes a strange turn over the

Plantingian middle knowledge: God knows what free creatures might do in circumstances that would never be actual (5).

  • Natural knowledge: knowledge God has by virtue of being God (think divine simplicity, where God’s mind is an ontological “=” sign to everything in God).
  • The Molinists accounts (Thomas Flint, rejoinder by Thomas Crisp) question whether we have counterfactual power over the past.  I’m just not sure how to approach that.
  • Free knowledge: God’s choices, like to create or not to create the world.

Stump contrasts the Anselmian account of the atonement with the Thomist one.  She says the Anselmian falters because his account, due to its objectivity, cannot address past shame. So what if Jesus died for my sins if others don’t want to associate with me?  Well, she doesn’t say it that crassly and to be fair, that might not even be her position. She might mean something like, “Yeah, the sin problem is taken care of but not the life part.”

In response, EJ Coffman points out that Christ’s work also deals with the effects of interpersonal shame. In any case, Stump’s account isn’t all that convincing.

Peter Van Inwagen: Causation and the Mental

  1. An object is concrete iff it can enter into causal relations and is abstract iff it cannot enter into causal relations (Van Inwagen 153).  PVI adjusts this to where concrete objects are substances and abstract objects are relations-in-intension.
  2. PVI is willing to say that causal relations exist, but not causality.  

The whole essay was kind of odd.  PVI did do a fine job surveying problems in phenomenology of mind (cf Jaegwon Kim).

Dean Zimmerman Simple Foreknowledge

Molinism: contingently true conditionals about what every possible individual will, or would freely do in each circumstance (175).  There are “conditionals of freedom” (CF)

Simple foreknowledge view: affirms libertarian foreknowledge yet rejects Molinism. The main difficulty with this is that God has no more control over the future than what one would find in Open Theism.

Difficulties the Libertarian (or LFW) faces:

* Zimmerman wants to affirm that God takes risks (177).

The most pressing difficulty with simple foreknowledge is what Zimmerman calls “The Metaphysical Principle:”

MP: It is impossible that a decision depend on a belief which depends on a future event which depends on the original decision (179).

He avoids this fallacy by comparing God to a “time traveler.”   I am not sure this really helps his argument.

Nicholas Wolterstorff gives a semi-autobiograpical account of his and Al’s grad-school years together.  But humor aside, Wolterstorff explains how analytic philosophy has developed in the 20th century, and how bold Plantinga’s project really was.

  • Logical positivism almost erased “real-talk” about God, yet Plantinga’s God and Other Minds threw down the gauntlet and cheerfully spoke about “justification for belief in God.”
  • David Lewis’s possible worlds semantics provided the groundwork for Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity.
  • And then, of course, Plantinga’s Warrant Trilogy.


The book is expensive and not every essay is equally good.

Do Properties Think?

In Plantinga’s fine chapter “Materialism and Christian Belief” (ed. Peter Van Inwagen, Persons: Human and Divine) he notes a difficulty in Thomism where it tries to defend dualism.  Dualism is the standard Christian belief that man cannot be reduced to a merely physical being.  Aquinas, with dualism, acknowledges that the soul is a thinking part of the body.  But he also says the soul is the *form* of the body, and Plantinga argues that makes it a property.  And properties can’t think (Plantinga 101).

What is a property?  Peter Van Inwagen defines it as “something that can be said of something.”  I guess that’s good enough.  Let’s look at Plantinga’s argument more closely:

P1: Aquinas–soul is a thinking part of the body (so far, so good).
P2: Soul is the form of the body (standard Aristotle and Aquinas)
P3: (P2) makes the soul a property.
C1: Yet it seems odd to say that properties can “think.”

If Plantinga’s argument holds, then this puts considerable strain on Thomism, and I do reject Thomism, but I am not so sure of (P3).  Let’s see if we can make it work.

P3*: The soul is the principle by which the body lives.
P4:  The soul is the property that gives the body life.
C2: The soul is a property.

Plantinga’s Theses (Does God Have a Nature?)

Theses the analytical theses in his monograph.  It should make following along easier. It should be obvious that these 71 theses are not “71 propositions about God.”  Some are trivial and others are clearly false.  But throughout Plantinga’s narrative he will generate a proposition to show that a particular view has a contradiction, or to set up a future argument.

I laid out these theses because it is getting fashionable in some Reformed social media circles to set forth Aquinas’s view on divine simplicity as the only possible view and that Plantinga rejected classical theism.  Of course, I believe both claims to be false.

  1. God transcends human experience.  We cannot observe or in any other way experience him (this is Kant’s view)
  2. Our concepts do not apply to God.
  3. For any properties and in God, God’s having is identical with God’s having Q, and both are identical with God.
  4. States of affairs x’s having and y’s having Q are identical iff x’s having P is equivalent (obtains in the same possible worlds as) y’s having Q and x = y.
  5. God is sovereign and exists a se.
  6. God is alive, knowledgeable, capable of action, and good.
  7. If (5), then (a) God has created everything distinct from himself, (b) everything distinct from God is dependent upon him, (c) he is not dependent on anything distinct from himself, and (d) everything is within his control.
  8. If (6), then there are such properties as life, knowledgeability, capability of action, power and goodness’ and God has these properties.
  9. If God has these properties distinct from him, then he is dependent on them.
  10. God is a necessary being.
  11. God is essentially alive, knowledgeable, capable of action, powerful and good
  12. If (11), then there are such properties as life, knowledge, capability of action, power and goodness, and God could not have failed to have them.
  13. If (10) and God could not have failed to have these properties, then they could not have failed to exist, arenecessary beings.
  14. If God has some properties that exist necessarily and are distnct from him, then God is dependent on these properties and they are independent of him, uncreated by him and outside his control.
  15. If there is a property with which God is identical, then God is a property.
  16. No property is alive, knowledgeabl, capable of action, powerful or good.
  17. X depends on y iff y’s existence is a necessary condition of x‘s existence.
  18. x depends upon y for P iff if x has P and some proposition or state of affairs relevantly involving y is a necessary condition of x’s having P.
  19. Either Jim Whittaker or the Pope can climb Mt Everest.
  20. Either god or Bertrand Russell created the world is a necessary condition of God’s creating the world relevantly involves Betrand Russell.
  21. I exist.
  22. I have been created.
  23. X depends on y for P iff there is an action A such that y’s performing A is a logically necessary condition of x’s having P.
  24. It’s false that the Taj Mahal is red but not colored.
  25. Any omniscient being knows something.
  26. If God is sovereign and exists a se, then every truth is within his control.
  27. Red is a color.
  28. The proposition all dogs are animals’ is distinct from the proposition ‘all animals are dogs.’
  29. No numbers are persons.
  30. 2 x 4 = 8
  31. It’s not the case that all men are mortal and some men are not mortal.
  32. It’s not the case that God has created creatures that he has not created.
  33. God has created Descartes, but Descartes has not been created.
  34. It is impossible that God has created Descartes and Descartes has not been created.
  35. Possibly p.
  36. Possibly possibly p.
  37. Necessarily, 2 x 4 = 8.
  38. Since God has infinite power, there are no necessary truths.
  39. No particle has both an instantaneous position and an instantaneous velocity.
  40. 2 x 4 = 7.
  41. God has infinite power.
  42. That God has infinite power entails that no propositions are necessarily true.
  43. No propositions are necessarily true.
  44. The proposition ‘if God is infinitely powerful, then there are no necessary truths’ is a necessary truth.
  45. If God has infinite power, there are no necessary truths.
  46. If God has infinite power and if God has infinite power there are no necessary truths, then there are no necessary truths.
  47. God has made p true and has created in us a powerful tendency to believe p; we do believe p; and if we believe p we know p.
  48. We don’t know p and p is in fact false.
  49. 2 + 1 = 3.
  50. If, if p then q, and p, then q.
  51. God knows that he does not exist.
  52. God is omnipotent.
  53. If God is omnipotent, then his power is absolutely unlimited.
  54. If his power is absolutely unlimited, then he could make (51) true.
  55. If he could make (51) true, then (51) could be true and is possible.
  56. (51) is possible.
  57. God is sovereign.
  58. If God is sovereign, then everything is dependent on him.
  59. If everything is dependent upon him, then every truth is within his control.
  60. If every truth is within his control, then (51) could be true and is possible.
  61. (51) is not possible.
  62. There is a property that both exemplifies itself and does not exemplify itself.
  63. Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
  64. The Bible teaches that (61) is false.
  65. God has a nature.
  66. There are some necessary propositions.
  67. God has some property P.
  68. 7+5=12.
  69. God believes (68).
  70. Necessarily 7+5=12.
  71. It is part of God’s nature to believe that 7+5 = 12.

Review: McCall, Invitation to Analytic Theology

This is an old review, but I thought I had already posted it.  I hadn’t.

Despite it’s relatively simple-sounding and generic title, this book is unique in offering both a model for analytic theology as well as a brief crash course in certain debates. There are a handful of books (Richard Muller’s Dictionary is one) that could replace a seminary class. This is one of them.

McCall begins by dispelling myths about analytic theology (hereafter AT). AT doesn’t *necessarily* entail univocal language, substance metaphysics or naivety about church history (though that probably is true about analytic philosophy–JBA).

McCall makes clear that AT doesn’t entail the following

  1. A univocal view of language (25). (NB: Does William Alston hold to univocity?  Cf. Divine Nature and Human Language, pp. 17-117).
  2. AT entails natural theology (26).
  3. AT is naive about the history of doctrine.
  4. AT is apologetics for conservative theology.  Depends on what we mean by “conservative.” Plantinga, for one, has advanced problems of divine simplicity; yet, it probably is true, pace the current leadership of the Society of Christian Philosophers, that analytic theologians are committed to Christian orthodoxy and ethics.
  5. AT relies on substance metaphysics (30ff).  The battle isn’t between pre-Kantian and Kantians, but between Kantians and post-Kantians.  It is possible to read Kant and remain unconvinced.
  6. Analytic Theology isn’t spiritually edifying.

The true gold-mine of the book is McCall’s “Case Studies” dealing with metaphysics, compatibilism, and evolution. Particularly, one gets a refreshing survey of what it means for something to have an essence (kind-essence, Individual essence, common properties, merely human, fully human) and how this pays significant dividends for Christology.

Analytic Theology and Scripture

How does the Bible control and authorize analytic statements?  McCall offers an interesting model that can be applied elsewhere in theology (55ff). Let P be a primary true proposition.

RA1: The Bible contains propositions that explicitly assert P.

RA2: The Bible contains propositions that entail P.

RA3: The Bible contains propositions that that are consistent with P and suggest P.

RA4: The Bible contains propositions that that do not entail ~P, and is consistent with P (it is neutral with respect to P)

RA5: The Bible contains propositions that entail neither P nor ~P, but suggests some Q that is inconsistent with P.

RA6: The Bible contains propositions that entail ~P.

RA7: The Bible contains propositions that which assert ~P.

RA8: The Bible contains propositions that assert P and assert ~P

RA6-8 are incompatible with orthodoxy, yet RA1-5 are compatible and are far more robust than stereotypes of inerrancy.



Individual essence (haeccity): set of properties one must have for this distinct individual.  The full set of properties possessed by that person in all possible worlds in which that person exists.

Kind-essence: the full set of properties individually necessary and sufficient for inclusion in that set.

Common human properties: a property possessed by many or most humans.  Most humans can have a property without its being essential.

Essential human properties: an object has a property essentially iff it has it and could not have not had it.  It belongs to kind-nature.

Merely human: to exemplify only that kind-essence of humanity.

Fully human: to exemplify the kind-essence of humanity.

How does the two-minds approach account for Jesus’s being omniscient per divine yet nonomniscient per human?  Thomas V. Morris suggests an asymmetrical accessing relation.

Concretist Accounts

The “natures” are reified, not properties.

Every primary substance (Fido the Dog) has a secondary substance-kind (caninity) that pertains to it without which it could not exist (104).

For every primary substance x, there is only one secondary substance-kind K that pertains to x through itself and is essential to it.

Unfortunately, this rules out the incarnation, since there can’t be more than one secondary substance-kind to a primary substance.

Medieval theology modified this Aristotelianism: it is possible for a primary substance x that is essentially of a substance-kind also to possess/be/come to be of a substance kind K’ (where K is not the same as K’) contingently and non-essentially (105).

Concretists affirm a part-whole (mereological) account of the Incarnation.  There

He gives a wonderful rebuttal to theistic evolutionism simply by showing how sloppy their language is. Thus, the whole point of analytic theology.

My only criticism of the book is the lack of survey on how to get started in AT (e.g., which texts to read first).