Thursday, February 23, 2012

Alvin Plantinga on the Social Character of Philosophy

I interviewed Alvin Plantinga yesterday morning by phone for our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding.  I was particularly glad that Dr. Plantinga agreed to participate, not only because he is probably the leading Christian philosopher of our time (the interview gave me the chance to read more of his work than I had, previously), but also because he has thought about St. Anselm and this great concept of "faith seeking understanding" in particular depth. 

It proved a lively conversation, which I think will furnish a fitting climax to Faith Seeking Understanding

I'll save specific quotes for the book.  But one general theme interested me for the implications it holds for "how we know things." 

I asked about the social character of philosophy.  Dr. Plantinga answered, no, philosophy is not just a matter of holing up in your den with a pile of books, but is a social enterprise, a great conversation through the centuries.  Descartes might seem to be an exception.  But even he was educated by the Jesuits, and sent his ideas around to friends for criticism. 

Think about the implications this has for those who worship science, who say science is the only real or worthy or truly useful way of ascertaining the facts.

Science is, of course, a highly useful enterprise.  But it is a less direct, less basic, epistemology than pure logic or math, or the kind of logical philosophy in which Dr. Plantinga and those with whom he carries out the "Great Conversation" are engaged.  If anything, logic is to biology or physics what they are to history or law: a more direct and certain way of knowing things.  Yet it is still an eminently social enterprise, a mutually-correcting and stimulating conversation.

What does that mean for the common breed of logical positivists who run so deep and heavy in the herd of New Atheists

We rely on other people for almost everything we know, from the name of the state we live in, to the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus.  History, which we as Christians rely so much upon, is part of a natural continuum of epistemologies, that in essence is really no different from the sciences, and is connected to philosophy and even the trust we place in our own minds.  This is what separates civilization from barbarism: not that we refuse to believe anything that hasn't been adequately proven by the "scientific method," but that we reasonably rely on one another (as well as the impulses that happen to come to us individually) to discover and sift the facts. 

And there really is no way of getting away from that, and remaining part of human civilization.  Even the Unabomber, after all, trusted the Post Office.   

Footnote: a conversation at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, a couple weeks ago, with a young student from China:

"So, what are you studying?"


"What in particular?"

"I'm taking classes here in philosophy of quantum mechanics, and mathematics."

"Hmmn.  Have you read Alvin Plantinga?"

"He's my teacher!"

"Really?  I'm just reading his Warranted Christian Belief."

"It was reading that book that led me to Christ!"

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