My Time with Alvin Plantinga

I first encountered Alvin Plantinga’s work back in the early 1990s when I was going through a particularly excruciating intellectual crisis. Twenty years later I was able to sit down with him and talk about his newest book.

Warrant: The Inaccessible

I first encountered Alvin Plantinga’s work back in the early 1990s when I was going through a particularly excruciating intellectual crisis. I had been raised in a very conservative Christian home and had been taught, as many kids are, that there was only one way to think about the world and all other ways were not only wrong but were based in a hatred of God and rooted in self-deception and irrationality. In college, I was exposed to ideas that challenged that framework and I took that challenge extremely seriously. Towards the end of my senior year, the “sure foundation” of my worldview was showing serious fractures.

In a desperate attempt to figure things out, I began reading everything and anything I could get my hands on. One day I was perusing the philosophy stacks at Borders Books in Tacoma Washington Plantingaand came across two volumes with odd titles: Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function. I didn’t know what warrant was and knew nothing about the author but the themes of the books seemed to deal with some of the topics I was wrestling with.  An endorsement by Richard Foley on the back cover read, “This two-volume work is one of the major accomplishments of twentieth-century epistemology.” That sold me and I bought the books (looking back this strikes me now as rather strange since I had no idea who Richard Foley was, but such is the way with endorsements). I devoured them. They were difficult and largely inaccessible for me but these two volumes (along with select others) planted a seed that would grow into a insatiable passion for philosophy and particularly for epistemology.

I didn’t know it was possible to think so deeply about these topics that mattered so much to me. It wasn’t so much the content that impacted me since I had to labor so hard just to understand what I was reading. Rather, it was the methodology the authors employed and the framework they established that enticed me. Soon after, I encountered Faith and Rationality by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. To say I found the book challenging would be an understatement—I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce “Wolterstorff.” I did, however, come to realize that I needed a lot more help and left my job as a pastor and headed to graduate school.

In graduate school I read and wrestled more with Plantinga’s ideas. I picked up God and Other Minds and quickly set it back down. I simply didn’t have the tools to work through the volume and realized how much I had yet to learn. Chisholm, Kripke, Searle, Rowe, Madell, and many others didn’t make my life any easier but they did challenge me intellectually in ways I had never before experienced.

During my first year at Biola, I had the opportunity to hear Plantinga speak at UC Irvine. Soon to be standing at the podium was the scholar I had come to admire and, in many ways, depend upon. Tall, thin, with a humble but confident demeanor, he strode to the lectern wearing pants that were much too short for his frame, a necktie and sneakers (I recall a fellow student sitting next to me saying they were “Vans” and that he would be buying a pair right after the lecture—I think he came to believe that wearing Vans was a necessary condition for being a good philosopher). I can recall to this day where in the hall I was sitting, who I sat next to, and key points in the lecture. In his unmistakable deep, booming voice, Plantinga presented his evolutionary argument against naturalism (which has come be known as EAAN). I also recall not being very impressed with the argument  at the time but blamed it on my sophomoric understanding of philosophy. After the lecture a fellow student looked at me and said with resignation, “Well, I think that’s the final word on that subject. . .” I was puzzled by the remark but I was becoming totally and irreversibly in love with philosophy.

Throughout graduate school my worldview continued to crumble but intellectually things were changing—I could feel it. I had student-loaned my way through my undergraduate studies and had to take out more loans to get through graduate school. I was working full time programming computers at a small consulting firm to pay the bills while taking a full load of graduate-level philosophy courses. We had entered graduate school with a 4 month old girl and while I was working on my program, my wife had given birth to our second child, a boy. Towards the end of the program I found myself completely exhausted and we were up to our ears in debt. We needed monthly financial support from my wife’s parents just to pay our bills. (Their quiet and unassuming support for our choices back then has left a deep impact on me that persists to this day.)

It’s the Economy, Stupid

With just one quarter left, I got a phone call from my brother that would alter the course of our lives. He told me that a position opened up in his group at Microsoft that he thought I would be perfect for. It would probably pay at least twice what I was making in Southern California and I had to consider it. I didn’t want to leave school and in the back of my mind I was certain I wouldn’t get the job so I interviewed. Microsoft extended an offer. The weight of all the practical concerns we faced tipped the balance and I chose to leave my studies and take the job. But I was determined to finish my degree. During my first year at Microsoft, a friend gave me a catalog for a summer program at Regent College in Vancouver British Colombia. One of the graduate courses being offered was titled Warranted Christian Belief and would be taught by Alvin Plantinga. I wrote to Biola and asked them if I could apply the credits from Regent to my degree program and they agreed. Early in the summer of 1998, I scraped together every possible vacation day I could find, and I was on my way to Regent leaving wife and two kids behind to study with one of my philosophical heroes.

At the start of Plantinga’s course, we were given a spiral bound photocopy of the third Warrant book that would be released later that year. In just a few weeks, we worked through the entire book listening to lectures taking tests and writing papers. For the first time, I got to interact directly with Plantinga on many of his ideas and test my own understanding of them. At the beginning of one class, Plantinga opened the lecture by reading snippets of a Books and Culture article he had read the night before and critiqued the piece. I enjoyed every minute. We talked about warrant (which finally was starting to make sense), the sensus divinitatus (as well as the sensus vampirus – a clever invention of one of my classmates), and what “proper function” might mean. After one class period, I mustered all the courage I could, walked to the front of the room, and asked Plantinga if he would join me for lunch. He graciously declined citing a packed schedule (which I now realize was most likely a euphemism for “I should probably spend my time on other things.”). My final paper was on the epistemology of Cornelius van Til. I got an ‘A’ in the course. It was one of the most memorable summers I’ve ever had.

I continued to study, read, and explore everything and anything. Plantinga figured largely in my research. I found his epistemology and metaphysics fascinating but he continued to influence me mainly on methodology and with the philosophical framework he worked under. Years passed and I broadened my studies and continued to read widely in philosophy. Then in 2007, I heard that Plantinga would be speaking locally at Rainier Presbyterian Church which I learned was pastored by his daughter. The talk was titled, “Religion and Science: Why Does the Debate Continue?” My wife and I attended. The talk was good but I had, by that time, refined my critical thinking skills and I wasn’t able to digest the ideas without chewing. (I recall asking a question during Q&A which Plantinga found completely wrong-headed. It was on the explanatory power of religion. He found the whole idea that religion should explain anything a bit of a non-starter—an answer I found quite disappointing.) In retrospect I now realize that this talk covered seed material for his upcoming book.

Don’t Let My Appearance Fool You

Which brings me to my time with Alvin Plantinga. Earlier this year, I learned that he was putting the final touches on a new book titled, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. I also discovered that he would be speaking this spring at Western Washington University addressing topics he will be covering in the book. I really wanted to talk to him face to face. I had just completed two interviews for Philosophy News with Paul Moser and C. Stephen Evans and decided I would write Plantinga to see if he would be willing to meet with me so I could interview him about his upcoming book. Again, my expectations were low (would he even bother to respond?) but I was pleasantly surprised when he wrote back the next day accepting my offer. He even graciously agreed to my request for an advanced copy of his book which he sent shortly after. I immediately wrote to my friend and photographer Pete Harris to see if he would be willing to join me for the interview to take some pictures. He agreed and the date was set. Over the next month, I read through the book taking notes, writing questions and doing my best to absorb the material during the few free hours I had at the end of each day.

Two weeks before our established interview date, I received a surprise email from Dr. Dan Howard-Snyder at Western. The letter included information about public lectures that Plantinga would be giving and an invitation to a faculty colloquium and private dinner with Plantinga that evening. Early afternoon on Wednesday I started the almost two hour drive to Bellingham. I arrived around 3:45 enveloped by a typical spring in Western Washington: pouring rain. I had never been to campus before so I had to grab a parking pass, find the lot I was to park in and then find the building and room. For reasons I can’t explain, I don’t own an umbrella and failed to grab my wife’s on the way out the door so in the course of my campus wanderings I arrived at Bond Hall room 309 five minutes after the colloquium had started and I literally was dripping wet. I walked into the tightly packed room of 12 or so professors sitting around a table and Plantinga at the head answering a question. All heads turned. I apologized and tried to wipe the embarrassment and the rain off my face as quickly as I could. I found a seat, dried off and listened. Plantinga was in the middle of defending his latest version of EAAN. He would spend the next 15 minutes doing so. The rest of the hour and a half was spent taking general questions from the faculty which covered the gamut from free will to the existence of the soul.

Over dinner I enjoyed meeting  Dr. Ryan Wasserman and Dr. Dennis Whitcomb and their wives. We talked philosophy, hobbies, raising pets and kids, and religion. I didn’t WP_000207get to talk to Plantinga at all during the dinner but I enjoyed my time meeting the wonderful philosophy faculty at Western and hearing about their program. I left very impressed. The next day, Pete and I found a bright, sunny, warm Bellingham campus. We got there early enough to take some photos of the architecture and grounds and we approached the scheduled room in time to meet Dr. Plantinga. The room we were to meet in was supposed to be unlocked but wasn’t. Thankfully Dr. Frances Howard-Snyder was in her office and let us in. After we settled in, Dr. Plantinga and I talked for 45 minutes about his book, his current projects, his family and his diversions. As we talked, Pete snapped photos to capture the event. I learned how he has been able to do philosophy for 53 years straight and remain passionate about it. We discussed his views of the “New Atheism” and what he thinks of Dawkins’ books. We talked about the influence of his father on his academic choices and why he wrote Conflict. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent together—more than I can say.

Over the course of my intellectual journey, I’ve found myself more and more critical of some of Plantinga’s ideas and now find that his books generate more questions than answers for me. I suppose in the end, that’s what the best philosophy does. The faith of my childhood has not survive two decades of studying philosophy but this has not diminished the deep respect and admiration I have for Alvin Plantinga and the impact he has had on my thinking. Talking with him for those 45 minutes was a privilege and something I will cherish for a lifetime. While his philosophy may not have preserved my childhood faith, it has helped set me on a path towards something perhaps even more substantial: an examined life.

I will be publishing my interview with Alvin Plantinga along with the photo shoot in the fall of 2011 shortly before the release of his new book. Thanks to the Howard-Snyders and the faculty at Western for their invitation and accommodating me while I was there.  

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