Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil

Plantinga, summarizing his earlier work in The Nature of Necessity and God and Other Minds, demonstrates that the theist does not face a contradiction in a) asserting God exists and b) evil exists. In this work Plantinga also deals with essences, persons, possible worlds, and logical analysis. While Plantinga uses rigorous logic, this book is well-written and and fairly short.

Is There a Logical Contradiction?

If there is a contradiction between the following three premises, the atheologian has yet to show it:
1. God is omnipotent
2. God is wholly good
3. Evil exists

We will call this Set {A}. The atheologian has to show that one of these propositions’ denial or negation contradicts another proposition (Plantinga 13). Even if the atheologian cannot show a logical contradiction, Plantinga will go on to argue that he cannot show a logical inconsistency (at least not on these three propositions. By the end of the book all three of these are meticulously refined).

The Free Will Defense (FWD) is the heart of Plantinga’s argument. He argues that a person is free with respect to an action, a world containing free creatures is more valuable than a world without it, and to create free creatures capable of moral good is to create them capable of moral evil (29-31).

Plantinga further clarifies classical theism by noting that an omnipotent God cannot create just any world. God can only create logically possible worlds (or rather, God can only actualize logically possible states of affairs). For example, God cannot actualize a state of affairs in which God didn’t actualize any state of affairs.

This leads to discussions of Possible Worlds (W). W is a way things could have been. It is an actual state of affairs that obtains. A W is a possible state of affairs, but a possible state of affairs is not necessarily a W (35).

Must Evil Exist?

This is the trickiest part of the book. Plantinga seems to imply “yes” at times (though to be fair that probably isn’t his intention). Classical theism has always denied that evil is necessary. Plantinga calls his model “Transworld Depravity:” God cannot create a world in why my essential properties (E) mean I will be free and always do the right thing (48, 52). I think Plantinga is correct but we need to change “always” to “always compelled.”


This is the easiest of Plantinga’s books to read. And while the material is simpler, he does clarify points from *The Nature of Necessity.* My only criticism is the second half on natural theology. His arguments on Evil and Free Will Defense stand or fall independent of Natural Theology. That section merely restated the material from *God and Other Minds.*

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.

Review: David Lewis, Counterfactuals

A nightmarishly difficult account of modal logic. The general idea is simple, though. What is a counterfactual? Df. = strict conditionals corresponding to an accessibility assignment determined by similarity of worlds–overall similarity, with respects of difference balanced off somehow against respects of similarity (Lewis 9). Lewis argues that the following modal operators obtain:

⃣ → means “if it were the case that x, then it would be the case…”
◇→ means “if it were the case that x, then it might be the case…”

The following two counterfactuals are interdefinable

Ф ◇→ ⃣ =

1.2 Strict Conditionals
⃣ (Ф ⊃ψ)

Accessible worlds:

⃣ (Ф ⊃ψ) is true at i iff ψ is true at every accessible Ф world.


Entities that can be true or false at worlds, and (2) there are enough of them (46).

Sets of worlds are propositions. Lewis: A proposition P is true at a world i iff i belongs to the proposition–the set–P. (What if a person can also be defined as a possible world? In which case we have the following: A proposition (or maybe its set) = a Possible World = a person. Thus, a proposition (or its set) = a person. Gordon Clark?)

An impossible proposition is an empty set (47).

Section 4 is his famous chapter on Possible Worlds. The gist of it is quite similar (even if the particulars are not!). A possible world is simply the way things could have been. Lewis, however, seems committed to the idea that there are things that exist which aren’t actual, but he tries to shore up this problem by saying that actual worlds are indexical (here, now, I). See his discussion on realism on p. 87.

All maximal consistent sets are indices (125)

Review: Untamed God

This is a magnificently fine book.  Richards seeks to offer a robust defense of classical theism, yet he is sensitive to the challenges. He mostly succeeds.

Thesis:  “Christians should affirm that God has an essence, which includes his perfections and essential properties, and should attribute to God essential and contingent properties” (Richards 17).

Essentialism: belief that so-called ‘de re’ modality is relevant to our understanding of God.  It is appropriate to speak of a cluster of properties which God necessarily exemplifies and without which he would not be God, and contingent properties which he only has in some possible worlds (18 n1).

In chapter 2 he gives a dizzying, yet helpful account of modal logic.  He presents the S5 system, in which all possible propositions are necessarily possible.  This allows him to draw upon Plantinga’s account of possible worlds as “maximally consistent states of affairs.”  

The definition of essence is a set of properties that an entity exemplifies (64). A property is some fact or truth about an entity in the world.  In our usage we want to say that Socrates has necessary/essential properties without saying that Socrates is necessary to every possible world.  We would say it like this:

“S has P and there is no W in which S has the complement ~P of P.  

Property actualism states that S has no properties in worlds in which he does not exist.

□(x)(P(x) → E(x))

Therefore, The essentialist argues that there is a distinction between essential divine properties and accidental (contingent) divine properties (90). Property: a state of affairs concerning entities of different types. While saying there are contingent properties in God seems to depart from the tradition, it really doesn’t.  God’s deciding to create the world is a contingent divine property. God has P in every world.  God’s essence is concretely instantiated in every possible world (95). God’s essential attributes, those he has in every possible world, are divine ‘perfections’ (96).  “They include all those properties susceptible to perfection.”

Richards has several chapters on Barth and Hartshorne, noting some promising moves in the former and rebutting the latter.  The chapter on Barth traded on an unresolved question:  Did Barth hold to strong actualism?  I think he did.  Richards isn’t so sure.

He ends the book with a fine chapter on divine simplicity, noting the numerous ways it has been employed in the Tradition:

(1) all divine properties are possessed by the same self-identical God.
(2) God is not composite, in the sense that he is not made up of elements or forms more fundamental than he is.
(3) God’s essence is identical with his act of existing.
(4) All God’s essential properties are coextensive.
(5) All God’s perfections are identical.
(6) All God’s properties are coextensive
(7) God’s essential properties and essence are strictly identical with himself.
(8) All God’s properties are strictly identical with himself.

Question: when the medieval denied God has accidents, is he denying what the essentialist is affirming, that God has contingent properties (225)?  Maybe not.  The essentialist, for example, says contingent relations are divine accidents, but Thomas calls these external relations ad extra.

The medievals denied that “goodness” and the like were accidental to God, because they (rightly) wanted to deny that God participates in the form of Goodness.  But this isn’t what the essentialist is claiming.

Therefore, the essentialist accepts (1)-(4), noting that “existence” today doesn’t have quite the same connotations as existence did for Thomas.  (5) is tricky.  (6) seems unproblematic.  (7)-(8) are deeply problematic.

Which Trinity? Robert Jenson

Continuing McCall’s work.  Here is a retraction on my part.  A few years ago I praised Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology.  Indeed, there are some fine essays in there.  I must retract, however, the section on the doctrine of God.

Robert Jenson’s famous claim concerns the identity of God:

(8) God is the one who raised Israel’s Jesus from the dead” (McCall 128).

Jenson’s main argument is that God is “identified by and with the particular plotted sequence of events that make the narrative of Israel and her Christ” (Jenson, ST1, p. 60, quoted in Mccall 131).

Said another way:  God is constituted by these historical acts.  Said yet another way,

God ←→ History

Theory of Worldbound Indivduals

(9) TWI: “For any object x and relational property P, if has P, then for any object y, if there is a world in which y lacks P, then y is distinct from P” (Plantinga, quoted in McCall 143).

(9a) The grim conclusion, if Jenson holds to both his Identity Thesis and TWI, then God could not exist apart from the temporal events in this world.

(9*) for TWI all divine properties are essential properties.

(9’) Is supralapsarianism a form of TWI?

David B. Hart on classical theism, an interlude: “within the plenitude of divine life no contrary motion can fabricate an interval of negation.”

If we apply TWI to Christology, particularly (9*), we get Arian conclusions:

(10) The Son has an essential property (being incarnate) that the Father does not have.

(10a) The Son’s economic property of being subordinate to the Father is now an essential property!

Is Jenson’s God temporal?  It looks like it.  Let’s take two theses which Jenson would hold: the Indiscernability of Indenticals and TWI.  God’s identity for Jenson is linked to key temporal actions in Israel’s life (Exodus, etc; “God can have no identity except as he meets the temporal end toward which creatures live,” Jenson, ST1, 65).  This leads to the following:

(11) God has different properties at t1 (e.g., call of Abraham) than he does at t2 (Exodus). Thus,

(11*) God is not identical to himself.

(11’) God changes through time.

Not even Arius claimed this!

Possible Worlds Semantics

Loux gives a great discussion on the topic of “possible worlds.”  This might seem irrelevant and arcane, but it is a powerful tool that helps us in discussions on the problem of evil, ontological argument, God’s foreknowledge, and human nature.  And it helps us understand Plantinga.

Modal notions: notions of necessity, possible, impossible, and contingent.

The empirical and nominalist traditions view modalities with suspicion (177).

  1. Leibnizian idea of possible worlds.
    1. To say that a proposition is true is to say that it is true in that possible world that is the actual world (181).
    2. Possible World (PW): the way the world might have been.
      1. De dicto: necessity or possibility applied to a proposition taken as a whole. A proposition has a certain property, the property of being necessarily true.
      2. De re: modal exemplification.  It is not talking about propositions, but about a property’s modal status (184).
      3. As propositions can be true or false in possible worlds, so can objects exist or fail to exist.
      4. To say that an object, x, has a property, P, necessarily or essentially is to
  2. Possible Worlds Nominalism
    1. David Lewis. Other possible worlds are “more things of that sort.”
      1. They are just further concrete objeccts.
      2. No causal relations tying objects from distinct worlds.  Hence, no transworld individuals.
      3. World-indexed property: a property a thing has just in case it has some other property in a particular possible world.
        1. Only world-bound individuals.
        2. It’s nonsensical to say, “That could have been me, had this happened” (as usual, nominalism goes against all prephilosophical notions).
  3. Possible Worlds Actualism: Alvin Plantinga
    1. A PW is part of the network of modal concepts and it can be understood only in terms of that network.
    2. We need concepts like de re and de dicto.
      1. Propositions are the subjects of de dicto modality.
    3. We must distinguish the existence of a property from its being exemplified.  We must distinguish the existence of a state of affairs from its obtaining (203).
      1. PWs are just states of affairs (SoA) of a certain kind.
      2. All SoA are necessary beings, so the PWs for them actually exist.  Not all of the PWs, however, obtain.
    4. A PW is a very comprehensive–maximally comprehensive SoA.
      1. One SoA may include or preclude another.
      2. PWs are SoA with a maximality property.
        1. The various PWs are abstract entities.
        2. It could have failed to obtain, but not failed to exist.
    5. Propositions have a property that no SoA does–that of being true of false (206).
      1. To say that a thing exists in a PW is not to say that it is physically contained or literally present in the world.  
      2. It is merely to make the counterfactual claim that had the world been actual, the thing would have existed.
    6. All of this is just another way of saying, “Things could have gone otherwise.”
    7. Leibnizian Essentialism: there are individual essences.
      1. A thing’s essence: the property such that the thing has it essentially and necessarily that nothing other than the thing has it.