Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Odd Quote

February 5, 2012
Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga giving a lecture at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in 2009. Photo by Jonathunder.

I passed a hard-bound copy of Christopher Hitchens’ book Arguably while walking the aisles of the bookstore the other day. Later that night I provided my wife with the polite assertion that perhaps this $30 book would be a perfect birthday gift for me, which is Monday. As she gathered up the children to run a few errands, I tucked the used copy of A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic I had purchased earlier for $3.95 on the bookshelf. Knowledge is cheap if you know where to look.

I later settled down to read Philosophy News, an interesting website I recently discovered to my pleasant surprise. I perused an excellent interview with Alvin Plantinga, emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and vigorous Christian apologetic. Plantinga has contributed to the fields of religious philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics during his long career. At one point during the interview Plantinga made a statement that nearly caused me to ingest my cappuccino through my nasal passage.

He was discussing his new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, in which he asserts that theism and science are compatible. The true conflict is between naturalism and science, a claim he has made in previous works.

The interviewer asked if Plantinga was focusing on the logical conflict, and not the methodological one. The interviewer said,

For example, I could see someone like (Richard) Dawkins saying, “If Christians had just kept their mouths shut and not tried to bring their religious beliefs into the schools or their science, I would have no problem with it.” So it’s more about how religious belief influences how science is done, or what is being taught in the public schools, influences how Aids is being treated in countries like Africa. So the question is whether this book focuses on the logical problem only.

Plantinga responds directly:

Well, I don’t think there are any methodological conflicts either. As for those social conflicts, those aren’t conflicts—in my opinion—between science and religion. They’re conflicts between Christians and atheists or Christians and secularists: Christians want to do things one way, secularists want to do things another way. But that’s not a science/religion conflict at all. You might as well say it’s a science/secularism conflict. In each case, each group wants to do science and then use it in a certain way.

Wait. What, huh? Back up. What was that again?

Well, I don’t think there are any methodological conflicts either.

Is Plantinga trying to say that authority from scripture, revelation and faith are not in any way at odds with empirical investigation, falsification, reproducible results and peer review? Is he trying to claim that the two processes can be commingled? Is he trying to suggest we judge the veracity of a new Aids vaccine through revelation? Should scientific peer review involve Biblical exegesis? This can’t be what this man is suggesting, can it? Did I read that right?

Well, I don’t think there are any methodological conflicts either.

Well, let me pull myself together. I’d like to explain that I’ve never been a fan of Plantinga. His arguments have never persuaded me in the least. The interview provided a link to Christianity Today, in which it was claimed that

Alvin Plantinga is arguably the greatest philosopher of the last century.

Wait. What, huh? Back up. What was that again?

Alvin Plantinga is arguably the greatest philosopher of the last century.

I’d like to balance that catastrophic overstatement with this blunt understatement: I think Plantinga illustrates why theology should simply be regarded as bad philosophy.

I’ve got two ways I can go here. I can simply resort to some ad hominem against the man, or I could get a copy on his book and get a further idea of what he is trying to say. While name calling would be a catharsis, I think I’ll read the book, simply because I’ll wager that it will support my dim view of theology, and it will put to rest any charge of quote mining.

I only wished that I’d read this interview before I went to the bookstore. Now I have to make a second trip.

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12 Responses to Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Odd Quote

  1. Susan Vaughan
    May 3, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    I thought respect was important –
    I thought all men are equal,
    Maybe I’m wrong.
    Who was Jesus if Nazareth?

  2. February 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Alan, the third paragraph was just an analogy, it is not meant as a scientific hypothesis. Perhaps you personally dislike anything spiritual, mystical or religious.

    I don’t believe in anthropomorphism and say so in my ebook. Since 1959 I have met 19 true mystics – of five faiths – in 12 countries. 20 religious leaders and scholars reviewed my manuscript prior to posting it on the Internet. You might not agree with it (not everyone will), but please don’t dismiss it so readily.

    • Alan Litchfield
      February 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm

      Perhaps you could clarify what you’re are trying to say, because what you have presented sounds “new agey” to me. If your clarification is interesting, I’ll check into your book, and if I’m wrong, I’ll say so.

      • February 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm

        What clarification would you like? I personally think that many “New Age” followers are overly simplistic in their outlook and are often naive idealists.

        I was introduced to mysticism in 1959 – at the age of 20 – by a Nobel astrophysicist. He was an atheist. You do not have to be religious, or believe in God, to be a mystic.

        • Alan Litchfield
          February 9, 2012 at 10:15 am

          Thanks for following up. My initial response to you was ungentlemanly. I was in a crabby mood. I apologize. Your honest responses are kind. Here is my question, what does “divine essence in perceived matter” mean? I agree that we don’t need to believe in god to be a mystic, but I’m guessing that our personal metaphysics might be very different. That’s just a guess, mind you. I’m a materialist. I have a lot of respect for feelings of awe and wonder, but I’m cautious of words like “spirituality.” I’d appreciate a response, and I promise to be nice (I’ve had my requisite amount of coffee.)

          • February 9, 2012 at 6:51 pm

            Like finding the inner beauty of a woman. Divine is used here as a superlative adjective, not as a possessive noun.

            You might say that everything, and everyone, has an essence of some, or many, sorts. Divine essence is universal in all matter, but we can only relate directly to that which we personally perceive. It is beyond any description which a rational mind can conceive…as is love.

            • Alan Litchfield
              February 10, 2012 at 11:51 am

              Thank again for taking the time to comment, Ron. I appreciate the clarification.

  3. Gary Litchfield
    February 6, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I agree with just about everything Ron Krumpos expressed. Especially the statement that both science and religion have their limitations. I don’t like the word “religion,” but that’s another story. Thanks for reminding me of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. I’ve heard Einstein was a Christian. Is that true?

    • Alan Litchfield
      February 6, 2012 at 11:38 am

      Einstein was a deist. He didn’t believe in a personal god.

  4. February 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Plantinga’s book is primarily directed to atheists (especially naturalists), but has lessons for apologetics as well. Most religious people respect science and all use its findings. Many scientists are religious, some very much so. Both science and religion, however, have limitations which should be mutually respected.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

    • Alan Litchfield
      February 6, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Einstein went on to say that the religious should rid themselves of the “dross of anthropomorphism.” This is the part most religious people seem to want to ignore.

      Your third paragraph is merely pseudoscience and meaningless Sokalian nonsense. You’ve been reading to much Depak Chopra.

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