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: Warrant, the Current Debate

And so begins Plantinga’s vaunted “Warrant Trilogy.” Reviewing this work presents some challenges for me. I read the books in reverse order (WCB, WPF, and finally WCD). Therefore, I have to resist the urge to fault Plantinga in WCD for leaving some points undeveloped when I know he developed them in WPF.

Plantinga begins his work by outlining what “internalism” entails. Internalism implies knowledge as “justification.” I am justified in knowing something if I have fulfilled my epistemic duty with regard to that knowledge. It is “internal” because it suggests special epistemic access.
Connection between justification and knowledge
Connotes epistemic responsibility
Internal cognitive access
Match up with evidence

Internalism is often linked with classical or modern foundationalism. The ground of a belief’s justification is the same as the property by which I determine if I am justified in holding it (Plantinga 21).

Ordinary Foundationalism: The evidence of basis on which I form a belief is taken from other, logically prior beliefs. Beliefs that I do not accept on the basis of other beliefs are basic beliefs (68). A foundationalist will reject circular reasoning.

Another epistemological model is coherentism. Coherentism is not foundationalism. A coherentist will hold that belief B is properly basic for person S [iff] B coheres with the rest of S’s noetic structure. Coherentism is not concerned about the transmission of warrant but of its source (79).

Plantinga gives a number of reasons on why these internalist models fail. He then moves to externalist models.


I do not have to have some internal access to truth-making functions. Plantinga lists Aristotle (de Anima and Posterior Analytics II) and Aquinas (ST 1 q. 84, 85) as externalists (183ff). Externalism is correct about warrant (if only as a denial of internalism). Most externalist models, however, do not (yet) offer strong enough systems.

What is “reliabilism” then?

1.1 Alstonian Justification

A person is justified in believing a proposition only if she believes it on the basis of a reliable indicator. But what is justification? A belief is justified if it is accepted on rational grounds accessible to the knower.

B. Questions about Alstonian Justification

B.1. Where does justification come from? Alston tries to distance himself from the received tradition which locates justification with deontological norms. Alston does not seem to think that justification (or warrant) is necessary for knowledge (“An Internalist Externalism,” Synthese 74 no. 3, p. 281).

B.2 Not sufficient for warrant. S’s belief that p is Alston-justified if it is accessible to S and is a reliable indicator of the truth of p. Plantinga points out that a number of beliefs could meet this condition but have no warrant (Plantinga 191). Something could be a reliable indicator of the truth but I could believe it on the basis of cognitive malfunction. A belief can be reliable by accident.


Pro–Plantinga does a masterful job in what the title suggests: he summarizes the “current debate” concerning warrant and justification. In that he succeeds. Further, no matter how arcane or technical a discussion is, Plantinga always begins the chapter by reviewing what internalism, deontology, justification, and warrant mean at said point in the discussion.

Further, Plantinga’s discussion of key individuals can also serve as an entry-point for the reader to continue the study.


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.

Van til and analytic philosophy

This is from the first chapter of William Dennison’s In Defense of the Eschaton.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note.  Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult.  So we commend Dennison for that.  Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”  

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought?  Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that.  For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story.  So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic?  I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom.  So what does this have to do with Vos?  I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts.  Sadly, he went on.  He takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.  

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23).  I’m not so sure.  Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today:  Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig.  Where do they fit?  They do not belong to either category.  Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach.  Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some problems with Reformed Epistemology.  It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69).  Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either.  He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function.  But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214).  Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?.  Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism.  Okay, so what is the problem exactly?  In fact, what is Common Sense Realism?  How are beliefs formed?  That’s the issue.  Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed.  And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.