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.

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: Plantinga, Nature of Necessity

The most difficult yet most important book (outside of Bible) I have read. Somebody described this book perfectly: “I felt like I was up against a Level 97 Boss and I was only Level 70.”plantinga

Plantinga begins his survey of modal ontology with a discussion of de re and de dicto statements.

de dicto: predicates a modal property of another dictum or proposition (Plantinga 9).
de re: x has a certain property essentially.

The problem: “suppose we are given the object x and a property P. Is it possible to state general directions for picking out some proposition–call it the kernel proposition with respect to x and P–whose de dicto modal properties determine whether x has P essentially” (30)?

While such a question seems arcane, it does allow Plantinga to furnish the theist with a number of highly useful concepts and tools, like possible worlds. A possible world is the way things could have been, a possible state of affairs (44). But not every possible world is a possible state of affairs. “A state of affairs must be maximal or complete.”

From this Plantinga gives a fine, if not always lucid, presentation of essence and nature. An essence could also be a set of properties (76). An essence is a set of world-indexed properties (i.e., that is those which exist in every possible world; 77). Essential properties: the properties Socrates has in every world he exists. Essence: the instantiation of the above properties.

Plantinga uses these tools to deal with the atheologian’s problem of evil. First of all, what is freedom? Freedom: no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine whether I will or will not act.

The initial defense: a world containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free is more valuable, all things considered, than a world with no freedom (166). Therefore, creatures that are capable of moral good are also capable of moral evil.

The problem: if God is omnipotent, then how come he couldn’t create a world where all the creatures freely do what is good? Plantinga takes a brief detour and clarifies what we mean by creation. God does not create everything (e.g., he does not create his own properties, for example). Rather, God creates some things and God actualizes states of affairs (169).

Plantinga gives a rather dizzying survey of the Ontological Argument. While I have my doubts on its psychological efficacy in debates, the Ontological Argument, especially Plantinga’s retelling of it, serves a crucial role in defining what we mean by God and what it means for God to have properties.

This allows Plantinga to utilize the concept of Transworld Depravity: Every world that God actualizes, given person P’s freedom, P takes at least one wrong action (185). It is possibly true (not necessarily) that any world God actualizes has P doing wrongly.

Plantinga concludes his discussion with the Ontological Argument. The crux of the matter is this: a) is existence a predicate? b) is existence a great-making property?

Kant denies (a). I am not sufficient to judge whether he is right or not. In any case, (b) is more interesting. Can (b) be proven adequately to the unbeliever? Maybe, maybe not. However, for the believer for whom the existence of God is already a settled issue (whether rightly or wrongly) (b) certainly follows (and thus informs one’s systematic theology).

Further, given Plantinga’s possible worlds semantics, a maximally great being will exist in every possible world.


This is the hardest book I’ve ever read. The above is a fourth grade summary of what I think Plantinga said. The appendix on symbolic logic is like what math would look like if it were designed by Satan.

I found a lot of useful logical tools. I am not sure all of Plantinga’s arguments are fully developed. For example, I like the idea of transworld depravity. I am just not sure why the atheologian will not object in the following way: “Why could God not create a world in which transworld depravity doesn’t obtain? Must freedom then entail transworld depravity?” Indeed, this is problematic for the doctrine of creation.