A prominent Christian philosopher, Plantinga served as president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1983 to 1986. He has delivered the Gifford Lectures two times and was described by TIME magazine as "America's leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God". William Lane Craig wrote in his work Reasonable Faith that he considers Plantinga to be the greatest Christian philosopher alive. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2017 and was said to be "an American scholar whose rigorous writings over a half century have made theism—the belief in a divine reality or god—a serious option within academic philosophy." Some of Plantinga's most influential works including God and Other Minds (1967), The Nature of Necessity (1974), and a trilogy of books on epistemology, culminating in Warranted Christian Belief (2000) that was simplified in Knowledge and Christian Belief (2016).
Plantinga was born on November 15, 1932, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Cornelius A. Plantinga (1908–1994) and Lettie G. Bossenbroek (1908–2007). Plantinga's father was a first-generation immigrant, born in the Netherlands. His family is from the Dutch province of Friesland, they lived on a relatively low income until he secured a teaching job in Huron, Michigan, in 1941. Plantinga’s father earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Duke University and a master's degree in psychology, and taught several academic subjects at different colleges over the years.
Plantinga married Kathleen De Boer in 1955. They have four children: Carl, Jane, Harry, and Ann. Both of his sons are professors at Calvin College, Carl in Film Studies and Harry in computer science. Harry is also the director of the college's Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Plantinga's older daughter, Jane Plantinga Pauw, is a pastor at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Seattle, Washington, and his younger daughter, Ann Kapteyn, is a missionary in Cameroon working for Wycliffe Bible Translators. One of Plantinga's brothers, Cornelius "Neal" Plantinga, Jr., is a theologian and the former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. Another of his brothers, Leon, is an emeritus professor of musicology at Yale University. His brother Terrell worked for CBS News.
At the end of 11th grade, Plantinga's father urged Plantinga to skip his last year of high school and immediately enroll in college. Plantinga reluctantly followed his father's advice and in 1949, a few months before his 17th birthday, he enrolled in Jamestown College, in Jamestown, North Dakota. During that same year, his father accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In January 1950, Plantinga moved to Grand Rapids with his family and enrolled in Calvin College. During his first semester at Calvin, Plantinga was awarded a scholarship to attend Harvard University. Beginning in the fall of 1950, Plantinga spent two semesters at Harvard. In 1951, during Harvard's spring recess, Plantinga attended a few philosophy classes at Calvin College, and was so impressed with Calvin philosophy professor William Harry Jellema that he returned in 1951 to study philosophy under him. In 1954, Plantinga began his graduate studies at the University of Michigan where he studied under William Alston, William Frankena, and Richard Cartwright, among others. A year later, in 1955, he transferred to Yale University where he received his Ph.D. in 1958.
Plantinga began his career as an instructor in the philosophy department at Yale in 1957, and then in 1958 he became a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University during its heyday as a major center for analytic philosophy. In 1963, he accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, where he replaced the retiring Jellema. He then spent the next 19 years at Calvin before moving to the University of Notre Dame in 1982. He retired from the University of Notre Dame in 2010 and returned to Calvin College, where he serves as the first holder of the William Harry Jellema Chair in Philosophy. He has trained many prominent philosophers working in metaphysics and epistemology including Michael Bergmann at Purdue and Michael Rea at Notre Dame, and Trenton Merricks working at University of Virginia.
Plantinga served as president of the American Philosophical Association, Western Division, 1981–1982. and as President of the Society of Christian Philosophers 1983–1986.
He has honorary degrees from Glasgow University (1982), Calvin College (1986), North Park College (1994), the Free University of Amsterdam (1995), Brigham Young University (1996), and Valparaiso University (1999).
He was a Guggenheim Fellow, 1971–1972, and elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975.
In 2006, the University of Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion renamed its Distinguished Scholar Fellowship as the Alvin Plantinga Fellowship. The fellowship includes an annual lecture by the current Plantinga Fellow.
In 2012, the University of Pittsburgh's Philosophy Department, History and Philosophy of Science Department, and the Center for the History and Philosophy of Science co-awarded Plantinga the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy, which he received with a talk titled, "Religion and Science: Where the Conflict Really Lies".
He was awarded the 2017 Templeton Prize.
Plantinga has argued that some people can know that God exists as a basic belief, requiring no argument. He developed this argument in two different fashions: firstly, in God and Other Minds (1967), by drawing an equivalence between the teleological argument and the common sense view that people have of other minds existing by analogy with their own minds. Plantinga has also developed a more comprehensive epistemological account of the nature of warrant which allows for the existence of God as a basic belief.
Plantinga has also argued that there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good God.
Plantinga proposed a "free will defense" in a volume edited by Max Black in 1965, which attempts to refute the logical problem of evil, the argument that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good God. Plantinga's argument (in a truncated form) states that "It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures."
Plantinga's defense has received wide acceptance among contemporary philosophers when addressing moral evil. However, the argument's handling of natural evil has been more heavily disputed, and its presupposition of a libertarianist, incompatibilist view of free will has been seen as problematic as well. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the argument also "conflicts with important theistic doctrines", including the notion of heaven and the idea that God has free will. J.L. Mackie sees Plantinga's free-will defense as incoherent.
Plantinga's well-received book God, Freedom and Evil written in 1974 gave his response to what he saw as the incomplete and uncritical view of theism's criticism of theodicy. Plantinga's contribution stated that when the issue of a comprehensive doctrine of freedom is added to the discussion of the goodness of God and the omnipotence of God then it is not possible to exclude the presence of evil in the world after introducing freedom into the discussion. Plantinga's own summary occurs in his discussion titled "Could God Have Created a World Containing Moral Good but No Moral Evil", where he states his conclusion that, "... the price for creating a world in which they produce moral good is creating one in which they also produce moral evil."
Plantinga's contributions to epistemology include an argument which he dubs "Reformed epistemology". According to Reformed epistemology, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God. More specifically, Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, and due to a religious externalist epistemology, he claims belief in God could be justified independently of evidence. His externalist epistemology, called "proper functionalism", is a form of epistemological reliabilism.
Plantinga discusses his view of Reformed epistemology and proper functionalism in a three-volume series. In the first book of the trilogy, Warrant: The Current Debate, Plantinga introduces, analyzes, and criticizes 20th-century developments in analytic epistemology, particularly the works of Chisholm, BonJour, Alston, Goldman, and others. In the book, Plantinga argues specifically that the theories of what he calls “warrant”-what many others have called justification (Plantinga draws out a difference: justification is a property of a person holding a belief while warrant is a property of a belief)—put forth by these epistemologists have systematically failed to capture in full what is required for knowledge.
In the second book, Warrant and Proper Function, he introduces the notion of warrant as an alternative to justification and discusses topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability. Plantinga's "proper function" account argues that as a necessary condition of having warrant, one's "belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers" are functioning properly—"working the way it ought to work". Plantinga explains his argument for proper function with reference to a "design plan", as well as an environment in which one's cognitive equipment is optimal for use. Plantinga asserts that the design plan does not require a designer: "it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans", but the paradigm case of a design plan is like a technological product designed by a human being (like a radio or a wheel). Ultimately, Plantinga argues that epistemological naturalism- i.e. epistemology that holds that warrant is dependent on natural faculties—is best supported by supernaturalist metaphysics—in this case the belief in a creator God or designer who has laid out a design plan that includes cognitive faculties conducive to attaining knowledge.
According to Plantinga, a belief, B, is warranted if:
(1) the cognitive faculties involved in the production of B are functioning properly…; (2) your cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which your cognitive faculties are designed; (3) … the design plan governing the production of the belief in question involves, as purpose or function, the production of true beliefs…; and (4) the design plan is a good one: that is, there is a high statistical or objective probability that a belief produced in accordance with the relevant segment of the design plan in that sort of environment is true.
Plantinga seeks to defend this view of proper function against alternative views of proper function proposed by other philosophers which he groups together as "naturalistic", including the "functional generalization" view of John Pollock, the evolutionary/etiological account provided by Ruth Millikan, and a dispositional view held by John Bigelow and Robert Pargetter. Plantinga also discusses his evolutionary argument against naturalism in the later chapters of Warrant and Proper Function.
In 2000, the third volume, Warranted Christian Belief, was published. In this volume, Plantinga's warrant theory is the basis for his theological end: providing a philosophical basis for Christian belief, an argument for why Christian theistic belief can enjoy warrant. In the book, he develops two models for such beliefs, the "A/C" (Aquinas/Calvin) model, and the "Extended A/C" model. The former attempts to show that a belief in God can be justified, warranted and rational, while the Extended model tries to show that specifically Christian theological beliefs including the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, the atonement, salvation etc. Under this model, Christians are justified in their beliefs because of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing those beliefs about in the believer.
James Beilby has argued that the purpose of Plantinga's Warrant trilogy, and specifically of his Warranted Christian Belief, is firstly to make a form of argument against religion impossible—namely, the argument that whether or not Christianity is true, it is irrational—so "the skeptic would have to shoulder the formidable task of demonstrating the falsity of Christian belief" rather than simply dismiss it as irrational. In addition, Plantinga is attempting to provide a philosophical explanation of how Christians should think about their own Christian belief.
Plantinga has expressed a modal logic version of the ontological argument in which he uses modal logic to develop, in a more rigorous and formal way, Norman Malcolm's and Charles Hartshorne's modal ontological arguments.
In Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, he argues that the truth of evolution is an epistemic defeater for naturalism (i.e. if evolution is true, it undermines naturalism). His basic argument is that if evolution and naturalism are both true, human cognitive faculties evolved to produce beliefs that have survival value (maximizing one's success at the four F's: "feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing"), not necessarily to produce beliefs that are true. Thus, since human cognitive faculties are tuned to survival rather than truth in the naturalism-evolution model, there is reason to doubt the veracity of the products of those same faculties, including naturalism and evolution themselves. On the other hand, if God created man "in his image" by way of an evolutionary process (or any other means), then Plantinga argues our faculties would probably be reliable.
The argument does not assume any necessary correlation (or uncorrelation) between true beliefs and survival. Making the contrary assumption—that there is in fact a relatively strong correlation between truth and survival—if human belief-forming apparatus evolved giving a survival advantage, then it ought to yield truth since true beliefs confer a survival advantage. Plantinga counters that, while there may be overlap between true beliefs and beliefs that contribute to survival, the two kinds of beliefs are not the same, and he gives the following example with a man named Paul:
Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief... Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it... Clearly there are any number of belief-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.
Although the argument has been criticized by some philosophers, like Elliott Sober, it has received favorable notice from Thomas Nagel, William Lane Craig, and others.
Even though Alvin Plantinga believes that God could have used Darwinian processes to create the world, he stands firm against philosophical naturalism, he said in an interview:
Religion and science share more common ground than you might think, though science can't prove, it presupposes that there has been a past for example, science does not cover the whole of the knowledge enterprise.
Plantinga participated of groups that support the Intelligent Design Movement, and was a member of the 'Ad Hoc Origins Committee' that supported Philip E. Johnson's 1991 book Darwin on Trial, he also provided a back-cover endorsement of Johnson's book:
"Shows how Darwinian evolution has become an idol."
He was a Fellow of the (now moribund) pro-intelligent design International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, and has presented at a number of intelligent design conferences. In a March 2010 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, philosopher of science Michael Ruse labeled Plantinga as an "open enthusiast of intelligent design". In a letter to the editor, Plantinga made the following response:
"Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence "intelligently designed". The hallmark of intelligent design, however, is the claim that this can be shown scientifically; I'm dubious about that.
...As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution, the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. But the scientific theory of evolution, sensibly enough, says nothing one way or the other about divine guidance. It doesn't say that evolution is divinely guided; it also doesn't say that it isn't. Like almost any theist, I reject unguided evolution; but the contemporary scientific theory of evolution just as such—apart from philosophical or theological add-ons—doesn't say that evolution is unguided. Like science in general, it makes no pronouncements on the existence or activity of God."God and Other Minds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1967. rev. ed., 1990. ISBN 0-8014-9735-3
The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1974. ISBN 0-19-824404-5
God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1974. ISBN 0-04-100040-4
Does God Have A Nature? Wisconsin: Marquette University Press. 1980. ISBN 0-87462-145-3
Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (ed. with Nicholas Wolterstorff). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1983. ISBN 0-268-00964-3
Warrant: the Current Debate. New York: Oxford University Press. 1993. ISBN 0-19-507861-6
Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993. ISBN 0-19-507863-2
Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-19-513192-4 online
Essays in the Metaphysics of Modality. Matthew Davidson (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. ISBN 0-19-510376-9
Knowledge of God (with Michael Tooley). Oxford: Blackwell. 2008. ISBN 0-631-19364-2
Science and Religion (with Daniel Dennett). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010 ISBN 0-19-973842-4
Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011. ISBN 0-19-981209-8
Knowledge and Christian Belief. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2015. ISBN 0802872042