Sunday, March 30, 2008

Plantinga on God, Evil, and Ontology


Alvin Plantinga is a leading thinker in the realm of Christian and theistic philosophy. As such, he offers some very cogent arguments for philosophical dilemma’s facing Christianity. The two I shall examine here are the problem of evil and proof for the existence of God.

To answer the problem of evil, Plantinga attempts to argue from a definition of intrinsic characteristics for morals and the world that must be true in all possible worlds. You can read the explanation and analysis below.

To answer the proofs for the existence of God, Plantinga reformulates the ontological argument as follows:

1. Define God: God is that than which no greater can be conceived.

2. It is greater to exist not only in the mind or in the imagination but also independently of the imagination (i.e. in reality) than to exist only in the imagination.

3. It is possible to conceive of that than which no greater can be conceived.[1]

4. It is possible to conceive of God existing not only in the mind but also in reality.

5. If God exists only in the imagination but not in reality then (because of 2.) it is possible to conceive of a being greater than that than which no greater can be conceived.

6. 5. self-contradicts.

7. Therefore, the protasis of 5. must be false (i.e. God exist only in the imagination….)

8. Therefore, God exists not only in the mind but also in reality.

** The entire argument depends on the very nature of God himself and, thus, it hinges on the actual definition of the term God.

You can read the entire synopsis below, or click here.


Many philosophers have held that the existence of evil is such a glaring blemish on the face of theism that it essentially renders belief in God, at least the Christian God, as incoherent. It is this claim that has caused Plantinga to take up the pen to defend the coherence of theism. Plantinga’s resolution for the problem of evil and the supposed contradiction of the existence of a good God is what he calls the Free Will Defense.

The propositions asserted by atheologians, one who “offers arguments against the existence of God,”[2] do not themselves, via the strictures of logic, lead to a formal inconsistency. The two usual propositions are:

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good.
  2. There is evil in the world.[3]

These two propositions do not, by themselves, lead to a valid conclusion. Thus, a third proposition that is consistent with one of the propositions and necessarily entails the other must be found to either vindicate or destroy theism. Thus, Alvin modifies the above propositions by simply stating that 1. is not inconsistent with 2., and thus begins his explanation of a plausible third proposition.[4]

At this point Plantinga offers some “preliminary definitions and distinctions.” First, freedom entails the ability to freely choose or reject an action – “no casual laws and antecedent conditions determine either that” the individual will or will not perform the action. A morally significant action is one that is morally wrong to perform or right to abstain from, or vice versa. Thus, to be significantly free is to be “free with respect to an action that is morally significant.” Lastly, Plantinga differentiates between moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the result of a “human being’s going wrong with respect to an action that is morally significant for him.” On the other hand, natural evil are those misfortunes of nature like earthquakes and tsunamis.[5]

Given the definition of terms, Plantinga delineates the Free Will Defense as follows:

A world containing creatures whom are sometimes significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but he cannot cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if he does so, then they are not significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, he must create creatures capable of moral evil; he cannot leave these creatures free to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. God did in fact create significantly free creatures; but some of them went wrong in the exercise of their freedom: this is the source of moral evil.[6]

Plantinga believes that the vindicating third proposition is both found in the above statement and is the core of the Free Will Defense. It “is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good…without creating one containing moral evil.”[7]

However, at this juncture Plantinga addresses a difficult objection. Since we are supposing that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good, then surely it is possible that God could have simply created a world “containing significantly free creatures who always do what is right.” After all, cannot an omnipotent God create “any logically possible world?” The Free Will Defender answers, no, claiming that, although God is omnipotent, He “could not have created just any possible world he pleased.”[8] Because Plantinga directly limits the activity of God in order to preserve the creature’s freedom and culpability in relation to actions, it can be said that God only brings into existence objects and not properties, numbers, propositions, or states of affairs. Thus, all states of affairs potentially exist. They only become actualized when both God so orchestrates the variables necessary to bring about the said state of affairs, and as the actions of significantly free agents bring to pass, in the communing of particular events and variables, the state of affairs presented to them by God’s orchestrated variables. Thus, when you combine Plantinga’s demand that a morally good universe necessitates moral evil, which by default entails the property of trans-world depravity in man in all possible worlds, with the semi-autonomy of significantly free individuals, then the product is one that only allows for the state of affairs that have so far existed in this actual world.


It strikes me as unsettlingly odd when brilliant men present their arguments as robed in the finest of logic and rhetoric when in actuality they are as naked as the emperor with no clothes. The Free Will Defense was a fun philosophical and logical read. However, Plantinga’s argument suffers from two fatal and irresolvable flaws. First, and perhaps most significantly, if Plantinga mandates that the ability to do good necessarily entails the same capacity to do evil, then how does he account for God’s moral purity? Does not God always do what is righteous and good? Yet, God does not possess even the minutest ability to do evil. If God can be called morally culpable, albeit only to Himself, even though He cannot sin, then there must exist a more consistent and correct understanding of both moral responsibility and the exercise of free agency.

Second, although Plantinga’s argument at hand does not mention middle knowledge, the actual truths of middle knowledge are in almost every paragraph of his exposition of the Free Will Defense.[9] Middle knowledge can be defined as that knowledge in God “by which God knows absolutely what men will freely do without having specifically decreed their actions, ‘since [He] knows what any free creature would do in any situation [and thus] can, by creating the appropriate situations, bring it about that creatures will achieve his ends and purposes and … will do so freely.’”[10] However, the irresolvable flaw in this reasoning is that the arbitrary and undetermined actions of individuals are, by definition unknowable – even when God has so foreordained the circumstances surrounding the actions. Thus, if man is truly arbitrary in his choices, then God is no longer omniscient in his knowledge. As Dr. Reymond rightly states, “Created forces cannot be independent forces and independent forces cannot be created forces.”[11]

[1] I.e. it is possible to have God in the imagination.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 165.

[3] Ibid, 165.

[4] Ibid, 165.

[5] Ibid, 166.

[6] Ibid, 166-167.

[7] Ibid, 167.

[8] Ibid, 168.

[9] While originally developed by the Jesuits and later assimilated by Arminians, in our day Plantinga is one of the leading proponents of middle knowledge.

[10] Dr. Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 189.

[11] Ibid, 189.


  1. Have you read Clark's "God & Evil: The Problem Solved"?

  2. that's gotta be the best philosopher headshot i've ever seen, btw

  3. I have read it.

    Let me know where I mis-state or say something incorrect….

    If I remember correctly, Clark takes the route of pleading God’s sovereignty to explain the origination of evil. That is, God is truly and purely sovereign. Thus, God is accountable to no one. God, essentially, does not need to answer for the existence of sin because He does not have to justify himself to anyone, particularly a finite individual of his creation. Secondly, since God is sovereign, He could have changed the heart/mind of Adam so that Adam loved sin instead of righteousness. This is not a sin on God’s part because He cannot sin and because God does not have to justify himself to us given his supreme sovereignty – and his ways are higher than ours. Adam was still responsible to obey the law, but now he could not given the fact that God changed his heart. This leads us to defining culpability/responsibility and how Adam and all subsequent man are evil without implicating God.

    Thus, a huge part of Dr. Clark's explanation of evil’s existence now and always entails his definition of culpability. That is, we normally say that someone is only responsible for an action if he had the ability to perform that action and then either choose to do it or not.

    Clark states that the biblical definition of responsibility, from his perspective, was simply being under authority. If an individual is under an authority and that authority commands him to do something, the individual is responsible to do the action whether he has the ability or not. Thus, evil currently exists because God demands people to obey his law, but they cannot, so they sin and they are culpable for this sin because all people are under the authority of God and thus God’s law.

  4. That is a good pic of Plantinga - particularly since most of his pictures are pretty goofy, like his pic on the University of Notre Dame's Philosophy Dept. page....

  5. Well, I'll have to get back to you on it. I borrowed a friends copy to read a little, but didn't finish. My copy is in the mail. I think you have a better grasp on the issue than I do, so I was curious what your thoughts were on Clark's argument and if you disagree with any of it.

    If I remember correctly, Clark also explained that God does work all things together for good, so even those things that seem evil to us are not because they are worked together for an ultimate good (Gen 50:20), which perhaps goes back to what you mentioned about God not be accountable to anyone.

  6. I think that Clark's view has a lot of merit.

    However, it was really helpful to read his position on evil and sin within the perspective of knowing what he says in A Christian View of Men and Things and Christian Philosophy. Clark does a pretty good job in both of these books of explaining the basis for his entire theology and philosophy - particularly his presuppositionalism and how to verify presuppositions.

    However, I personally do not think that pleading sovereignty truly excuses God from being a co-conspirator in the origination of sin - Clark has simply decided to err on the side of God instead of the side of man.

    Those who err on the side of man, like Jonathan Edwards, try to explain Adam choosing sin for one reason or another - whether it is via desires or free will.

    Neither of these positions really offer a satisfactory and justifiable (as in justifable belief) explanation of the origin of sin. I still think it is an unanswerable dilemma on this side of glory - but I do believe there is an actually, propositional answer...we just won't know it until heaven.

  7. Plantinga looks just like Lincoln, doesn't he? He also has this great, baritone voice (listen to that lecture of his online where he gives his infamous "Evolutionary argument against Naturalism," one of the single best arguments in the history of analytic philosophy, if you ask me). He's also over 70 years old, climbs mountains, and is a "scratch" frisbee golfer. Goofy sense of humor. One of God's gifts to modern analytic philosophy, despite his Arminianism.

  8. 1.GOD IS that than which no greater can be conceived.

    The ontological argument falls flat on it's face. The argument is supposed to argue for the existence of God. In other words it is supposed to argue that "God is".

    But what's the very first thing stated in the very first premise?

    GOD IS... (that than which no greater can be conceived.)

    Already the argument has failed. God's existence has been used as a presupposition to prove God's existence. Thus the argument proves nothing, and it's not even worth moving past the first two words of the first premise.

  9. Heretic,

    First, I got to know the reason for your name “heretic.” Why choose something this provocative term? It intrigues me…..

    Second, you state that the ontological argument is “supposed to argue that "God is;"” and that “God's existence has been used as a presupposition to prove God's existence. Thus the argument proves nothing, and it's not even worth moving past the first two words of the first premise.”

    This is an equivocation on the word “is.” My first premise does not posit God’s existence. My first premise defines that for which I am going to argue existence. Thus, by saying “God is that than which no greater can be conceived,” I am merely predicating of the term “God” the property or characteristic of preeminent ontology. This does not mean that this God exists; it only means that IF he does, this is one property of Him.

    However, in any argument, you must begin with a strict definition of terms else the argument is no longer valid conclusion of truth, but, most likely, a personal opinion.

  10. "“God is that than which no greater can be conceived,” I am merely predicating of the term “God” the property or characteristic of preeminent ontology. This does not mean that this God exists; it only means that IF he does, this is one property of Him."

    You're saying the definition of "God" is that he is something that must necessarily exist, i.e. the definition of God is that he is something that exists. Oh that proves that God exists! Nope, because you can't prove your predicate without assuming the existence of God. Unless you can prove that your definition is correct, then you cannot prove that God exists. But you CAN'T prove your definition is correct... I might say "God is a lollipop" and the only way you can disprove me is empirically (and might I add that NOTHING can be proven empirically without omniscience, and it can only be proven to another omniscient being)... not by referring to logic and definitions. You can say, "no... God is not a lollipop... God is this..." but that hasn't proven anything, it's only shown that we have different definitions.

    Here's an argument that is basically equivalent to yours.

    The purpose is to define an "existent unicorn". I say an existent unicorn, because when you use the word God you assume his existence in the definition... if God is something which necessarily must exist, then God is by definition an existent God... he is by definition something that exists. But you have no other reason to say that God necessarily must exist, other than that is the definition of God, you've argued for the definition by referring to the definition...

    I can do the same for unicorns... A unicorn is something that must necessarily exist, therefore all unicorns are existent and if it were otherwise then a unicorn would not be somethin that necessarily existed... but that is the definition of a unicorn and to say otherwise is to say that a unicorn is not a unicorn which would be a violation of the law of non-contradiciotn. Same logic that the ontological arugment uses to define God. So we'll go with it.

    Define an existent unicorn.

    1. X is an existent unicorn.
    2. All things that are existent must exist.
    3. Thus it follows that things that are existent unicorns must exist.
    4. So in order for X to be an existent unicorn X must exist.
    5. But if X is not existent then it is not an existent unicorn.
    6. This would be a contradiction of premise 1 which states that X IS an existent unicorn.
    7. Therefore X is not non-existent.
    8. Therefore X is existent.
    9. Therefore X exists.
    10 If something exists and is an existent unicorn then existent unicorns must exist.
    11. If X exists and is an existent unicorn, then existent unicorns exist.
    12. If existent unicorns exist then unicorns exist.
    13. Therefore unicorns exist.

    Wallah. I just proved that Unicorns exist, using your logic. Pretty cool huh... I could also do it with Man-Bear-Pig if you like.


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