Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: God, Freedom, and Evil

God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977. 121 pp)

A well-known American philosopher, Alvin Plantinga is the emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Born in 1932, Plantinga earned his B.A. from Calvin College and his Ph.D. from Yale University. Known for defending orthodox Christian beliefs by analytical philosophy, Plantinga has published numerous books including God and Other MindsThe Nature of Necessity, and Warranted Christian Belief. During his distinguished career, Plantinga received multiple honorary degrees and fellowships. In 1980, magazine named Plantinga "America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God."

The Problem of Evil

Suppose that God, as most Christians believe, is wholly good, all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present. Given this definition, God ought to hate evil and possess the power to eradicate it from the universe. We know, however, that evil does exist. Logically, therefore, we must conclude that God does not exist.

This proof, known as the problem of evil, is logically valid, meaning that its premises lead to its conclusion. In order to prove the existence of God, then, one must prove the falseness surrounding any of the argument’s premises. Without such proof, the conclusion, “God does not exist,” stands.

Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil begins by deconstructing this well-known proof; it ends with a reconstruction of a natural theological proof for the existence of God.

Deconstructing the Problem of Evil

Plantinga commences by immediately evaluating the problem of evil. He begins by simply questioning the soundness of the atheist’s set of premises. Before I continue, it is important to pause for a second to explain the use of “sound” and “valid”. When a philosopher proclaims a logical proof to be valid, one merely professes that the conclusion proceeds from the set of premises. Soundness, on the other hand, occurs when an argument is both valid and true.

To illustrate, this argument is valid: All humans are 8 feet tall; Andrew is a human; therefore, Andrew is 8 feet tall. While the conclusion logically follows the premises, the argument is not sound because the premise, “All humans are 8 feet tall” is not true.

Returning to God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga ponders the premise, “God hates evil” in problem of evil proof. He asks if God has a perfectly reasonable explanation for allowing evil. If there were such an explanation, God would retain his attributes, and, thus remain omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-present – and evil could continue to exist.

To this end, Plantinga proposes freedom. To summarize,

“A world containing creatures who are 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 can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t 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; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so” (30).

If God grants free will to creatures, it logically follows that each creature possesses the opportunity to choose good or evil. With this choice, then, evil becomes allowable.

Of course, I admit that my synopsis is simplified. With dense writing, Plantinga methodically waltzes from argument to argument offering objections, rebuttals, and new proposals. In short, he argues that the existence of free will as an added premise to the problem of evil creates an invalid argument.

A Theological Argument

In the second section of God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga explores the validity of theological arguments for the existence of God. First, he explores medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological argument finding it invalid rather quickly. Second, and just as quickly, Plantinga rejects philosopher William Paley’s teleological argument.

St. Anselm
Finally, Plantinga appraises St.  Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument. While exceedingly complex, Anselm’s argument surrounds the idea of definition and existence. In much too simple terms, Anselm proves God’s existence through arguing that there is no being upon which a greater could be conceived. If you are interested in a deeper look, I suggest googling “the ontological argument”.

Much like the problem of evil, Plantinga explores the various objections and counterarguments to the ontological argument. Ultimately, Plantinga is unable to conclusively prove God’s existence, but he can prove enough to say that theism is a valid intellectual position.

“What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability. And hence it accomplishes at least one of the aims of the tradition of natural theology” (112).

Is God All Omni?

Although I believe Plantinga successfully reasons his positions in God, Freedom, and Evil, I do not think he will convince anyone to switch sides. For an atheist, Plantinga offers interesting critiques but no conclusive proof. Likewise, Plantinga supplies the theist with solid lines of reasoning in the universal debate around God’s existence.

I’m not even sure Plantinga’s arguments support a proof for the God found in Scripture, however. Some theologians, in fact, would critique Plantinga's arguments by pointing to the Bible. They would argue that a careful reading of Scripture suggests that God, while certainly knowing, powerful, and present, isn’t always omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-present. In many scenarios, God expresses regret or reverses course(take Hezekiah as an example when God decides to add years to the king’s life).

In fact, these “omni” principles share more similarities with ancient Greek philosophy than with Christian scripture.

Certainly, Plantinga argues his position well. But, I’m not convinced that he is arguing for the Christian God. In reality, his argument is for some super intelligent and powerful creative being. And certainly at the core of Plantinga’s thought, his arguments are meant to support the rationality of belief – a pursuit far different from proving that the God of Scripture exists.

Nevertheless, God, Freedom, and Evil is an important work in philosophy and theology. If you are interested in the debate around God’s existence, you must read God, Freedom, and Evil.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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1 comment:

  1. Proof of God, in the theological sense, is of course a misnomer, a philosophical contrivance to avoid accepting our ignorance of such a reality. As a humanity, we have all been conditioned or indoctrinated, for all of history by 'theological' exegesis, particularly by those with their own religious claims and agendas, to accept that a literal proof of God is not possible for faith. And thus all discussion of evil and apologists 'theodicy' is contained within this self limiting intellectual paradigm and bubble of presumption, especially evident in the frictions between science and religion. It would now appear that all sides squabbling over the God question, religious, atheist and history itself have it wrong! That bubble could now burst at any time!

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