Interview with Alvin Plantinga on Where the Conflict Really Lies




Dr. Alvin Plantinga is one of the foremost living philosophers. He has been writing and lecturing on almost all branches of philosophy for all of his long career and has had a tremendous amount of influence on how we think about metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and faith. His influence on the philosophy of religion has been so extensive that Christianity Today recently called him “the greatest philosopher of the last century” and “the most important philosopher of any stripe.” Dr. Plantinga taught at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan and spent most of his long career at Notre Dame University. His most important work has been the Warrant series culminating with Warranted Christian Belief in which he argues that a person can be fully justified in believing in God’s existence even if that belief is not grounded on evidence as it’s typically understood.

This month, Dr. Plantinga has released a new book taking on the claim that religion and science are incompatible. His book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, is sure to generate a lot of discussion and be the subject of much debate. I was fortunate to spend some time with him recently and talked about his book and how he thinks about this supposed conflict.

PN: I want to start with some personal questions. So you just retired from Notre Dame is that correct?

Plantinga: In June [2011], right.

PN: I believe I read in your book that you’re in a new home as well.

imagePlantinga: We moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan where we have children and grandchildren, and a brother, and old friends, and Calvin College.

PN: What do you plan on doing in retirement? Do you have any specific plans? You’re a rock climber, correct?

Plantinga: I’m a rock climber but I’m getting a little long in the tooth for rock climbing. I am going to go climbing this August [2011] with my friends Ric Otte and Bas van Frassen in California. We’ll see—I’m not sure if I’ll be climbing after that. I am going to be teaching next year at Calvin, part time.

PN: That’s where you started, at Calvin, many years ago, correct?

Plantinga: Yes, that’s right.

PN: You have four children and two of them are at Calvin, correct?

Plantinga: Yes, two of them are Calvin profs and their wives are too.

PN: And you have a daughter in the mission field and a daughter here in the Seattle area?

Plantinga: Yes, right.

PN: Do you have any writing projects in the works?

Plantinga: Well I’m just finishing this book that you’re talking about. Then I’m going to write a shorter, easier, more user-friendly version of Warranted Christian Belief.

PN: Have people been requesting been requesting a book like that?

Plantinga: Some people have been, right. And then I also want to—for many years I taught a course called “How to be a Christian Philosopher” and in that course I learned quite a bit—so I want to write a another book sort of capturing what I learned teaching that course.

PN: So you taught an entire course on that topic?

Plantinga: Yes, a grad seminar that I taught maybe 20 times (or maybe 15 I don’t know exactly).

PN: You’ve been teaching and writing philosophy for 50 years or so now?

Plantinga: 55 years, something like that. Let’s see I started in 1958—53 years then.

PN: And you’ve been working in essentially the same general areas of philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, epistemology . . .

Plantinga: Metaphysics.

PN: Yes, metaphysics. Do you have any advice for young philosophers who are just getting into the discipline and how they might maintain the interest and energy to do the same thing day after day?

Plantinga: Well, I never had any trouble with that at all. I still find philosophy intensely interesting so it’s not like I have to try to motivate myself. But I understand that it’s not the same way with all philosophers. Some philosophers that I know of, some really good philosophers, work really hard at philosophy for a while and then they just leave it alone for a good long time and do something else; then they come back to philosophy again if something stirs their interest. But they don’t just kind of churn away at it day by day which is what I do, which is what I’ve always done.

PN: And it just a natural passion; it’s not something you have to drum up?

Plantinga: Right, that’s not a problem. I just find philosophy–and things around it in the neighborhood—I just find it extremely interesting. But it might be that I have a low capacity for boredom or a high tolerance for boredom depending on which way you want to put it.

PN: I too find philosophy just as engaging.

Plantinga: Well, it’s like they say, you do it one day at a time. I never thought at any time, “Hey! I’m going to be doing this for the next 50 years.” I just did that day’s worth.

PN: Your father was a professor and had a degree in philosophy, right?

Plantinga: Yes. He had a Ph.D. in philosophy but taught psychology. And he had a Master’s degree in psychology and he taught that for many years at Calvin. He started off teaching philosophy, psychology, religion, Greek, Latin, and sociology, I think, at his first job at Huron College, Huron South Dakota. But I think there were only 12 faculty members so they had to teach all these different subjects.

PN: Was he mostly interested in philosophy or did he like teaching psychology more?

Plantinga: I think he probably in the long run liked philosophy a little better but he wound up doing psychology and he was happy with that.

PN: Was you father a key factor in getting you interested in this discipline?

Plantinga: Yeah, I think so. I started hearing about philosophy and about Harry Jellema and about Calvin College when I was like ten years old.

PN: And you studied under Jellema.

Plantinga: Yes, I did. And I also, early on, got involved in arguments—I’ve always been a member of the Christian Reformed church (my parents wereimage [members]); we went to Waupon Wisconsin every summer where my grandparents had a farm–and those summers I would often get into arguments about predestination and original sin, double-predestination, and free will and all of that sort of stuff. So, you know, that was kind of an early interest too.

PN: Let’s talk about your book a little bit. Who is the audience for this book? In the colloquium [a faculty colloquium in which we discussed the book], you said that you’re writing it mainly for people that are claiming that science and theism are incompatible.

Plantinga: Well, no. The target audience would be anybody interested in the subject of the alleged conflict between religion and science. It wouldn’t just be people who claim that there is such a conflict. They might be interested pro or con, so to speak.

And I’m hoping the book will be useful for the general reader. As I wrote it, I was really thinking of college students and people of like mind. So it’s not just for experts in philosophy. There is some text in big print and some in small print; the small print is targeted for those who are have more expertise in philosophy.

PN: You did that in Warranted Christian Belief, correct?

Plantinga: Yes. There are some topics that are harder to write non-technically.

PN: Are you interested at all in responding to the “New Atheist” movement in this book? A lot of professional philosophers don’t think there is much of interest in the popular work of Dawkins, and Dennett and Hitchens. They don’t see much of what is coming from these authors as philosophy per se but more of a popular treatment of these subjects. Is your book a direct response to some of what is going on in some of their work?

Plantinga: It’s not directly responding to them. I was working on the book before these guys burst upon the scene (though I’m not sure “burst” is the right word — at least before they kind of showed up). And of course there’s a chapter devoted to Dawkins and a chapter devoted to Dennett so I’m responding to them. But I’m not responding to Dawkins’ recent book (or one of his more recent books) The God Delusion, I don’t respond to that in the book. I respond to an earlier book of his which I think is much more respectable than The God Delusion.

So I do think that Dawkins and some of these people are not professional philosophers but I don’t think that means that they’re not doing philosophy; I think they are. I also don’t think they’re doing it very well and I think they’re doing it sort of arrogantly and I think that Christian philosophers ought to respond. I’m not intending the book specifically as a response but I think it fits in that neighborhood.

PN: Of the books that have been written by Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, which of the four of the primary books they’ve written is the best of the bunch (by “best” I mean the one that makes the best arguments).

Plantinga: I think Dawkins’ book is the worst (The God Delusion). I think his book The Blind Watchmaker is a very good book. But The God Delusion is the worst of the bunch. I think maybe Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell is maybe the best—I’m not too keen on it—but maybe the most philosophical.

PN: You recently published a book with Dennett on the conflict.

Plantinga: Yes, right.

PN: The exchange sounds like it was pretty heated. Were you two able to discuss the outcome afterward in a friendly way?

imagePlantinga: We didn’t really talk much before and we really didn’t talk much afterward. It was kind of an unusual occasion. It was the last period of the last day of the APA meetings that year and normally pretty much everyone has gone home by then. But this time it was scheduled for a certain room and within a half an hour ahead of time the room was completely overcrowded. So we moved it to another, bigger room which also became overcrowded with people sitting on the floor and people coming in and out. I mean it’s a really hot topic.

PN: How did the book come about?

Plantinga: Jim Sterba, a Notre Dame professor who also works for Oxford Press approached us.

PN: How do the arguments in Conflict compliment or extend the arguments you make in Warranted Christian Belief? Do you see it as complementary or more tangential?

Plantinga: Well it’s related but it’s basically tangential. In Warranted Christian Belief I argue that there can be defeaters for Christian belief even if Christian belief is properly basic and even if what I say about it in the book is all correct. One type of defeater might be something like this: science is wonderful, science is a great contribution, a great discovery, a great modern project but it’s incompatible with religious belief or some parts of religious belief. That could count against religious belief. That could be a kind of defeater. You can think of Conflict as addressed to that question. It would be connected in that fashion.

PN: So in a sense, Conflict does complement the earlier book at least at that point.

Plantinga: Yeah, right.

PN: The thesis of this new book is that the conflict really is between naturalism and science, not between theism and science. Is that right?

Plantinga: That’s essentially right.

PN: Are you mainly trying to show that there’s no logical conflict even though there might be a methodological conflict? For example, I could see someone like 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: 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.

PN: So when these atheists write on these topics as a single problem, you would disagree with that.

Plantinga: Right, we should deal with them one at a time.

PN: So are you claiming in your book only that science and Christianity are not logically incompatible?

Plantinga: Well I’m claiming that, but I think I’m claiming more strongly that (at least by implication) that it’s not the case that science is not a probabilistic defeater for Christian belief. It’s not the case that given the existence of science, that somehow makes Christian belief less probable or in some way undercuts it or something like that. So it’s not just that there’s no logical conflict but also that there’s no probabilistic conflict either.

PN: In chapter 7 you spend a lot of time on the “fine tuning argument.” You start the chapter using the term “fine tuning.” The very term seems to imply that there is a “tuner”, an agent behind the scenes. Do you think that sets up the problem in a way that assumes the conclusion you want to reach? Why do you use that term?

Plantinga: I use the term because that’s the term everybody else uses. That’s what this [argument] is normally called. And it’s not just as such supposed to imply a designer or a tuner or anything like that. It’s just that the value of various parameters have to fall within a narrow range in order for the imageuniverse to be “life friendly” you might say.

PN: Is there a difference between fine tuning in the sense you’re talking about here and the kind of organization you might find on a beach where rocks are organized in a particular way. We wouldn’t want to call that arrangement “fine tuned” even though that particular arrangement of the rocks is very improbable. What is the difference between the improbable arrangement of the rocks on a beach and the improbability of the universe being just the way it is?

Plantinga: Well, the fine tuning arguments go like this they say, “It’s much more likely that the universe would be just this way given a creator. It’s much more likely that the universe would be life-friendly given a creator than given just chance or naturalism.” That’s how that argument is supposed to go. There’s nothing quite analogous to that in the case of the stones and the pattern they form on the beach. There’s kind of an obvious explanation for it in terms of wave action and the like of that.

PN: So in the case of the universe, the two explanatory options are theism and chance?

Plantinga: Yes, and the latter would hardly be an explanation.

PN: You say at the end (about Behe’s argument), “The proper conclusion to be drawn is that Behe’s design discourses do support theism but it’s not easy to say just how much support they offer. I realize that this may be a bit of a wet noodle conclusion. Can I say something more definite and exciting? I’d love to, but my job here is to tell the sober truth whether or not it’s exciting and sometimes this obligation may sometimes interfere with telling a good story.” Your conclusion is a bit softer than what you seem to imply in the chapter. What are you getting at here?

Plantinga: Right. I conclude by saying that Behe’s design discourses do support theism to some degree but it’s very hard to say to what degree; it’s a relatively complex question. The question is whether evolutionary theory offers defeaters for this perception of design. It looks like the world is designed, okay? It looks like you’re perceiving design. Now evolutionary theory comes along and gives and explanation that doesn’t involve design. Does that constitute a defeater? Well, maybe it constitutes a partial defeater.

Now there are sensible evolutionary explanations of many things—maybe of the eye, and lots of other features. But Behe is talking about things mainly at the molecular level and so far there aren’t very many explanations or maybe there aren’t any good evolutionary explanations for (for example) the way in which all living cells have all these molecular machines. Or how it came about that there are 12, 15, 20, sometimes 50 molecules all strung together performing a function together like a machine. Maybe there aren’t any explanations for those things.

Well now the question is, should you expect as time goes on that there will be evolutionary explanations of these things? So will there be eventually more explanations like there are at the macro level? Or not? You don’t really know. So it’s hard to say just how much support there is here. There’s some. But how much? I don’t know.

PN: So at the end of the day, it’s up to the person reading the arguments to make a judgment call about how much support they lend to theism or not.

Plantinga: Right.

PN: You use this phrase, “design discourse” and explain it in the book. What is the distinction between design discourse and design argument?

Plantinga: A design argument would proceed with premises (arguments always have premises) and proceed to the conclusion that something or other has been designed. Another way that this could go, though, would be that one could simply perceive design. You form the belief that there is design here in the basic way: you’re not arguing to it but you just look at it and find yourself with that belief. Francis Crick for example, who is no friend of theism says that that everything looks so designed that a biologist has to constantly remind himself, “It’s not designed, it’s not designed! It just evolved!”

PN: Dawkins makes a similar claim in The Blind Watchmaker.

Plantinga: Yes, that’s right. So the difference is like the difference between the following two things: I look at you and I form the belief that you’re thinking, say you’re thinking about philosophy. I just form this belief; I don’t argue to it. But on the other hand, one could argue to it. I could say, “Certain sounds are emanating from your mouth. When sounds like that are emanating from my mouth, I am thinking about philosophy. So maybe the same goes for you.” That would be the difference between just perceiving it on the one hand and arguing to it on the other hand.

And I’m saying in the case of the whole design area that there are these two options available. I’m not saying that I know which is the correct one but that there are these two ways it could go. It could go by way of design argument or it could be that what someone like Behe does it is to put you in the kind of situation where you just perceive design. So he describes in elaborate detail how these protein machines work and so on and you think that you think, you just form the belief that, well that’s just got to be designed.

PN: And the value of this approach is that you can have a justified belief just based on that perception.

Plantinga: Yes, right.

PN: So it’s not a conflict to believe in design just based on that perception. Even if what he says isn’t an argument per se, it’s not irrational.

Plantinga: Right. You might say the same about the way in which you form beliefs about other people. We don’t think those beliefs are irrational. You don’t infer them so you don’t have an argumentative basis. But it doesn’t follow that you don’t have a rational basis. It might be (in fact I think it is the case) that we’re designed by God in such a way that under certain circumstances that we simply form certain beliefs; and that is a matter of reason. It’s a matter of reason taken broadly if you want to include perception. So it’s not as if it doesn’t have any rational foundation. It just doesn’t have an argumentative foundation.

PN: Can you talk a little bit about rationally-based defeaters for basic beliefs? In the chapter where you talk about this, it seems that to have a rational defeater for a basic belief struck me as a little odd.

imagePlantinga: Sure. You might have a certain belief which you formed in the basic way and then you learn one way or another that the belief is wrong. I might look at a mountain goat and I might look at a spot 600 yards away and think, “There’s a mountain goat there.” Then as I walk towards it I discover that it’s just a patch of snow. I formed the original belief in the basic way; I didn’t argue to it, I just looked over that way and thought, “Oh there’s a mountain goat.” And then I found out I was wrong. So I have a defeater for it. The defeater in this case was my perception that it’s a patch of snow as I got closer to it.

PN: Is the basic belief that when you look at a patch of white you form the belief that it’s a mountain goat. Is that the basic belief? Or is it the “being appeared to whitely” that is the basic belief? It seems that this is what is basic and then you infer, “Well that white patch is a goat.” It seems like there’s a second step to get to the goat.

Plantinga: I wouldn’t say that you even form a belief that you’re being appeared to “white goatly.” The belief you form is: there’s a mountain goat there. And I don’t think you form it on the argumentative basis that you’re being appeared to whitely. In fact I think in the typical case you wouldn’t even think of that, that you’re being appeared to in a certain way. You just think: there’s a goat. In the same way, if I look over there and say, “Oh there’s a coat.” I don’t reason to that from, “I’m being appeared to in a certain way.”

PN: In the last chapter, you spend time talking about your argument against naturalism. It’s an argument based on whether or not your beliefs can be considered reliable (or whether or not you can believe that your beliefs are reliable) on naturalism. In this version of the argument, you dropped the term “inscrutable” for the possible outcome of the probability. Why the change?

Plantinga: The reason is that I don’t think I need the inscrutable part because if you think about it, you can see that it’s got to be low. The probability of the reliability has to be low. So I don’t think it’s inscrutable; it isn’t such that you just can’t tell what it is. Of course, it might be partially inscrutable in the sense that it falls within some kind of range and you can’t say exactly where it falls within that range.

PN: But it’s still below .5

Plantinga: Yes, right.

PN: Is the general claim in this argument that the person who is a naturalist and evolutionist has to believe that probability of the reliability of their beliefs is low? Is that a proposition that they would come to believe?

Plantinga: Yes. The way I put it, a naturalist who sees that this first premise is true has a defeater. So I say that this first premise is true and the naturalist who sees it has a defeater.

PN: Then in premise three you say that if they see that, that if they believe premise one is true then they have a reason to doubt that evolution and naturalism is actually true.

Plantinga: Yes, if they have a defeater for R, the person who has a defeater for R then has a defeater for all of her beliefs including naturalism and evolution.

PN: Wouldn’t that also include her belief that premise one is true?

Plantinga: I think it would. So what that person gets is what we can call a “universal defeater.” They have a defeater for every belief, including that belief, including itself. Suppose I believe I’ve taken a drug that destroys cognitive reliability. If I believe that, then I have a defeater for R in that case and for every belief that I hold include that one. As long as I believe that, I’ve got a universal defeater.

PN: But if you no longer believe it’s true, how does it function as a defeater? It seems you now have to hold that you no longer have a true belief that the probability of R on N&E is low.

Plantinga: Oh, once you give it up, then you don’t have a defeater anymore. All I say is as long as you do believe it, you have a defeater. As long as you believe N&E and the probability of R on N&E is low, you have a defeater for everything, any belief you have.

PN: Including that one.

Plantinga: Including that one. That means you can’t sort of reason your way out of it.

PN: That’s what I’m after. It seems that you have to give up your belief that premise one is true. If you don’t believe that your beliefs are reliable, then your belief that the probability of R on N&E is low is no longer reliable.

Plantinga: Well you don’t speak of beliefs as being reliable. Its cognitive faculties that are reliable or not. So if you don’t believe that, then you’ve got a defeater for premise one. And if you stop believing premise one, you’re okay. But you can’t reason to stop believing in premise one once you’re in this condition where you have a universal defeater because then you have a defeater for any reasoning you do.

PN: How do you define belief? In the faculty colloquium, one of the professors asked whether belief is just a disposition to act in a certain way and you said that you don’t really define belief that way. Is belief just a mental state?

imagePlantinga: Belief is a mental state, right. I don’t have a definition for it but I think everybody knows what it is. So I don’t think that it’s the kind of thing for which you can provide a definition. Or if you can, it won’t be a very informative definition. But it certainly seems to me to not be merely a disposition to behave in a certain way. You might have that without having the relevant belief. You might be trying to deceive somebody into thinking that you do have the belief, for example.

If you try to say, “S believes P if and only if” and then write something about dispositions, I think you cannot do it. Nobody has been able to come up with a definition along these lines.

PN: So your solution is just to say, “You know it when you see it.”

Plantinga: Yes, right. And that’s not really a solution. Everybody starts by knowing what a belief is and then some people try to give a theory about it. So, I might also know what earthquakes are and then try to give a theory about them—how they start and the like. Same goes here: everybody knows what a belief is and all these suggestions, functionalism and so on, you just have to look at them one at a time and see if they do or don’t do the job.

PN: Do you think there is any particular theory of belief that functions the best for the work that you’re doing?

Plantinga: No. I think there are some, such that if they were correct, then that would invalidate my argument. For example, dispositionalism. But it isn’t correct. So, as I say, I don’t have any particular theory, so I don’t know of any theories with respect to which it works really well. But I do know of some with respect to which it works really badly. But I don’t really know of any theory of belief that works really well.

Again, we all know what belief is but the accounts people give for the most part, if they’re trying to give accounts of what its nature is (so to speak) and if they are supposed to be giving informative accounts, they never seem to work.

PN: What atheists writing today do you think are the most even-handed or doing the best work for the areas you’re working on (e.g. religious epistemology and the science/religion conflict)?

Plantinga: I guess I would say Michael Tooley would be one. Another would be Paul Draper, although he’s not really an atheist but more of an agnostic. So if you include agnostics I would include Paul Draper. Another would be Bradley Monton. I think he is an atheist and he writes very well on fine tuning and that sort of thing.

PN: And what about theists (outside present company of course)?

Plantinga: Well, if I start, I probably would leave out somebody I probably should put in. I would say Eleanore Stump, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and certainly the late Bill Alston. Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen. Those are all older folks but there’s a whole host of talented younger philosophers and I don’t want to get started mentioning them because I’ll certainly omit some I shouldn’t.

PN: There’s a book you endorsed that’s about a decade old now, Reason for the Hope Within that includes articles written by a number of younger philosophers. Does that capture some of who you’re thinking about?

Plantinga: That would be some of them anyway. But there are a whole lot of very good young Christian philosophers around now as opposed to say, fifty years ago.

PN: One final question and this is a hard one. If you could recommend three books to someone that’s exploring these questions, maybe they’re on the fence and don’t know where to look. Is it possible for you to even list top three books that would be a good introduction to the subject?

Plantinga: I would say the Bible would be one of them. And then I would say Richard Swinburne’s book The Existence of God. I think that book would be very good to read in this connection. That’s kind of looking at it from the evidentialist’s side. From the other side, Nick Wolterstorff’s and my book Faith and Rationality.

PN: This has been great. I really appreciate your time.

Plantinga: You’re welcome.


Copyright © 2011 Philosophy News

Photography by Pete Harris of Pete Harris Photographywesternlogo_sm

Special thanks to Dan and Frances Howard-Snyder and the philosophy faculty of Western Washington University for hosting this interview.

BLPR_final_logo_-_small-1Dr. Plantinga visited Western as a part of the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion series which is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation

Other Resources

Philosophy News podcast of a 2007 lecture given by Dr. Plantinga titled, “Religion and Science: Why Does the Debate Continue”

New York Times story on Plantinga’s new book.

Q&A in Christianity Today on the new book.

YouTube video of a Plantinga lecture on this topic at Biola University

Books by Alvin Plantinga:

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
Warrant: The Current Debate
Warrant and Proper Function
Warranted Christian Belief
image Faith and rationality: reason and belief in God.
God, Freedom, and Evil



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