Monday, February 9, 2009

 

Plantinga on the 1994 State of Christian Philosophy

Alvin Plantinga's 1994 essay, "Christian Philosophy At The End Of The 20th Century," is very good, despite the gender neutering within it. Some excerpts:

Classical foundationalism has enjoyed a hegemony, a near consensus in the West from the Enlightenment to the very recent past. And according to the classical foundationalist, our beliefs, at least when properly founded, are objective in a double sense. The first sense is a Kantian sense: what is objective in this sense is what is not merely subjective, and what is subjective is what is private or peculiar to just some persons. According to classical foundationalism, well-founded belief is obje ctive in this sense; at least in principle, any properly functioning human beings who think together about a disputed question with care and good will, can be expected to come to agreement....
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Classical foundationalism, so the argument runs, has failed: we now see that there is no rational procedure guaranteed to settle all disputes among people of good will; we do not necessarily share starting points for thought, together with forms of argument that are sufficient to settle all differences of opinion. That's the premise. The conclusion is that therefore we can't really think about objects independent of us, but only about something else, perhaps constructs we ourselves have brought into being. Put thus baldly, the argument does not inspire confidence
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Richard Rorty... is said to think of truth as what our peers will let us get away with saying. I say this thought is associated with Richard Rorty: people say he says this, but I haven't read precisely this in his work. Never mind; even if he doesn't say precisely this, some of his followers do. And of course it exemplifies the sort of relativism I'm speaking of. My peers might not let me get away with saying what your peers let you get away with.
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I should like now to turn more directly to my assignment, which was to say something about how I see the accomplishments and tasks of Christian philosophy at this point in our history; this will be connected with the above exhortation. The first thing to note, of course, is that there are several different parts, several different divisions to Christian philosophy. As I see it, there are essentially 4 different divisions: apologetics, both negative and positive, philosophical theology, Christian philosophical criticism, and constructive Christian philosophy.
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It is the part of Calvinism to hold that Christians are not complete; they are in process. John Calvin, himself no mean Calvinist, points out that believers are constantly beset by doubts, disquietude, spiritual difficulty and turmoil; "it never goes so well with us," he says, "that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith" (Institutes III, ii, 18, p.564 ) . It never goes that well with us, and it often goes a good deal worse. There is an unbeliever within the breast of every Christian; in the believing mind, says Calvin, "certainty is mixed with doubt".
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What sorts of considerations and objections really do trouble thoughtful Christians, students and others? ... (1) the positivistic claim that Christianity really makes no sense, (2) the argument from evil, which is a sort of perennial concern of Christian apologetes, (3) the heady brew served up by F reud, Marx, Nietzsche and other masters of suspicion, and (4) pluralistic considerations: given that there are all these different religions in the world, isn't there something at least naive and probably worse, in doggedly sticking with Christianity?
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Positivism, the first of these four, has by now crawled back into the woodwork; but I am sorry to say Christian apologetes cannot claim much of the credit. Far too many Christian philosophers were thoroughly intimidated by the positivistic onslaught, suspecting that there must be much truth to it, and suggesting various unlikely courses of action. Some thought we should just give up; others said, for example, that we should concede that Christianity is in fact nonsense, but insist that it is important no sense; still others proposed that we continue to make characteristically Christian utterances, but mean something wholly different by them, something that would not attract the wrath of the positivists. This was not a proud chapter in our history, but since positivism is no longer with us, we shall avert our eyes from the unhappy spectacle and move on.
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...Freud, with his claim that religious belief stems from a cognitive process aimed at psychological comfort rather than the tru th, Marx and his claim that religious belief really results from cognitive malfunction consequent upon social malfunction, and Nietzsche with his shrilly strident claims to the effect that Christianity arises from and results in a sort of weak, sniveling, envious and thoroughly disgusting sort of character. There are many who do not accept the details of what any of these three say, but nonetheless entertain the sneaking suspicion that there is something to these charges and something like them might be true. Christian apologists must forthrightly and honestly address these doubts and these arguments, although in fact argument is hard to find in these thinkers.
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One may offer theistic arguments because you think that without them belief in God would be unjustified or unwarranted; this is what Reformed thought has always adamantly opposed.
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Only God bestows saving faith, of course, but his way of doing so can certainly involve cooperation with his children, as in preaching and even argumentation. But second, theisti c arguments can also be useful for believers. Calvin notes that believers struggle constantly with doubts; in this life, he says (as we saw above), "faith is always mixed with unbelief" and ". . . in the believing mind certainty is mixed with doubt. . . " (Institutes III, ii, 18, p. 564). At times the truth of the main lines of the Gospel seems as certain and sure as that there is such a country as the Netherlands; at other times you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself wondering whether this whole wonderful Christian story is really anything more than just that: a wonderful story. Theistic arguments can be helpful here. Perhaps you accept (as I do) an argument to the effect that there could be no such thing as genuine moral obligation if naturalism were true and there were no such person as God; but perhaps it is also obvious to you that moral obligation is real and important; these thoughts can help dispel the doubt. Perhaps you think, as I do, that there could be no such thing as genuinely horrifying evil if there were no God; but you are also convinced that the world is full of horrifying evil; again, these thoughts can dispel the doubt.
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There are really a whole host of good theistic arguments, all patiently waiting to be developed in penetrating and profound detail. This is one area where contemporary Christian philosophers have a great deal of work to do. There are arguments from the existence of good and evil, right and wrong, moral obligation; there is an argument from the existence of horrifying evil, from intentionality and the nature of propositions and properties, from the nature of sets, properties and numbers, from counterfactuals, and from the apparent fine tuning of the universe. There is the ontological argument, but also the more convincing teleological argument, which can be developed in many ways. There is an argument from the existence of contingent beings, and even an argument from colors and flavors. There are arguments from simplicity, from induction, and from the falsehood of general skepticism. There is a general argument from the reliability of intuition, and also one from Kripke's Wittgenstein. There is an argument from the existence of a priori knowledge, and one from the causal requirement in knowledge. There are arguments from love, beauty, and play and enjoyment, and from the perceived meaning of life. There are arguments from the confluence of justification and warrant, from the confluence of proper function and reliability, and from the existence, in nature, of organs and systems that function properly. (So far as I can see, there is no naturalistic account or analysis of proper function). These arguments are not apodictic or certain; nevertheless they all deserve to be developed in loving detail...
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A second element of Christian philosophy: philosophical theology. This is a matter of thinking about the central doctrines of the Christian faith from a philosophical perspective; it is a matter of employing the resources of philosophy to deepen our grasp and understanding of them.
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As Calvin says, there is unbelief within the breast of every Christian; but isn't there also belief within the breast of every non-Christian? ... those in the City of the World are subject to the promptings and blandishments of our God-given natures, of the Sensus Divinitatis, and of the Holy Spirit.
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... current forms of anti-theism have no place for the notion of truth. Naturalism does not, because naturalism has no room for the sorts of things that fundamentally are true: propositions and thoughts. And creative anti-realism doesn't either, since it has no room for the notion of a way things are independent of our cognitive and linguistic activities. Still, there is such a thing as truth, and it is intimately connected with God. There is such a thing as the way the world is; there are such things as thoughts and propositions, and these things are true or false. Furthermore, we are all, believer and unbeliever alike, created by the Lord. Despite the ravages of sin, we are all still in epistemic touch with the world for which he created us, still oriented towards the reality he has designed us for. It is therefore extremely difficult for any human being to give up such notions as truth and knowledge; it takes great energy and determination. Consequently there is a constant internal tension in unbelieving thought. It is at this very point that our contributions to the philosophical conversation can be attractive and useful to those who don't share our commitments: attractive, because of these fundamental human inclinations towards the notions of truth (and knowledge, and a host of other notions), and useful, because such an account, insofar as it really does depend upon notions not available to the naturalist, can serve as a sort of implicit theistic argument, perhaps creating the very sort of confusion and turmoil in which the Holy Spirit works.

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