Alvin Plantinga on The City of Man

Dr. Alvin Plantinga speaking at Taylor University
As I mentioned in my previous post, Dr. Alvin C. Plantinga spoke at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and I attended his lectures. His first talk, which I discussed in my previous post, dealt with the superficial conflict between science and Christianity. His second talk, entitled, “Truth and Worldviews,” was even more interesting.

As you would expect from such a towering intellect, Dr. Plantinga dealt with this topic in a rigorous, intellectually-honest way. That’s refreshing, because “worldview” is a buzzword in Christianity today, and unfortunately, it is typically used as an excuse to try to brainwash children. Rather than dealing honestly with competing worldviews, most Christian books and organizations that deal with the worldview issue typically give dishonest, ridiculously simplified explanations of other worldviews and then show how vastly superior the Christian worldview is. While this has a visceral appeal to Christians in the short term, it ends up doing long-term harm to the cause of Christ. After all, when those who have been indoctrinated this way end up experiencing real people who have differing worldviews, they find that what they have been taught is nonsense. They realize that you can be a reasonable, good person and believe quite differently from what they have been taught, and this often calls into question everything they have been taught, including the reality of Christianity. Dr. Plantinga certainly didn’t treat other worldviews in such a God-dishonoring manner.

As seems to be typical for him, he started his talk with a few witticisms. Since this talk was for the university’s Chapel time, he realized there would be a lot of people there who were unfamiliar with philosophy. As a result, he apologized in advance for talking about some things that many people think are silly. He said that the problem with being a philosopher is that you have to seriously address all ideas, regardless of how silly they might seem on the surface. For example, he talked about the philosophical view called Solipsism, in which one can only be sure that one’s own mind exists. In the most extreme view of Solipsism, the Solipsist is the only real person that exists, and everyone else is simply a construct of the Solipsist’s mind. He said while this might seem silly to many people, it is a serious issue in philosophy. He said that he once met a philosopher who was an extreme Solipsist. He was an elderly man, and everyone in his department took incredibly good care of him. They carried his books and materials when he had to go somewhere, made sure that he ate well, and generally watched out for his well-being. As Dr. Plantinga was leaving the Solipsist’s department, he told someone else in the department how impressed he was that they took such great care of this elderly philosopher. The person replied, “We have to take good care of him, because when he goes, we all go!”

He started the meat of his talk by addressing the nature of truth. He read John 18:37-38:

Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”…

It turns out that the nature of truth is a problem that philosophers have addressed repeatedly. They actually call it “Pilate’s question,” and as Dr. Plantinga indicates, there really isn’t a satisfactory definition for it. Much like art, we know what truth is, but it is quite hard to define. I was surprised that Dr. Plantinga seems to say that Aquinas’s definition (that truth is what conforms to external reality) probably comes the closest. Why did this surprise me? I view Aquinas’s definition as more of a scientific definition of truth. I thought that Plantinga would have a less empirical view. The surprise was pleasant, of course, because while he and I disagree on many things, his definition of truth is something with which I can wholeheartedly agree.

Why worry about the definition of truth? As Augustine of Hippo (which he stressed needs to be pronounced as Uh Gus’ tin, and not aw gus teen’) said in his famous work, City of God, the history of the world can be viewed as the progress of two cities: the city of man and the city of God. The city of man does not pursue truth, and the city of God does. As a Christian philosopher, Augustine (and Plantinga) must defend the city of God from the attacks of the city of man.

The point is that many who live in the city of man think that they are in pursuit of truth, when in actuality, they are not. He set out to demonstrate that for what he considers the two major “precincts” in the city of man: the naturalist precinct and the anti-realist precinct. He didn’t spend a lot of time on the naturalist precinct, because he addressed it in his previous talk. However, one surprising thing he did note was that some theologians are a part of this precinct. He quotes Dr. Gordon Kaufman, a Harvard theologian, as saying that God is:

the historical evolutionary force that has brought us all into being.

This is one thing that is so tricky about the city of man. Even some who think they are pursuing truth by studying Scripture are, in fact, following falsehood.

Plantinga spent the majority of the time in his talk on the anti-realism precinct. What do the people in this precinct believe? They think that human beings are responsible for the structure and nature of the world. Although this might sound odd to most people, it is a common view. First, it has an ancient legacy, starting with Protagoras and probably coming to complete fruition in Immanuel Kant. In the end, anti-realists argue that the universe cannot be objectively defined. Instead, it can only be experienced, and since your experience might be different from mine, your universe might be different from mine.

Does that sound familiar? It should. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Well, that might be true for you, but it is not true for me.” As Dr. Plantinga masterfully showed in this talk, that idea is the direct result of anti-realism. Unfortunately, while many people might immediately understand the problem with anti-realism when they are faced with its definition, they don’t understand that what they actually believe is a direct consequence of anti-realism. So even though most people see the absurdity of saying that the universe you live in is different from the universe I live in, they still believe that different people can have different truths. However, that can only be true if different people can live in different universes.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Plantinga here, I would probably add this word of caution: while it is clear that there cannot be one truth for one person and a wholly different truth for someone else, as Dr. Plantinga initially pointed out, the definition of truth is a tricky issue. If you and I disagree on an issue, we can’t both be correct. At the same time, however, unless I have a much stronger case than you do, I should not automatically assume that I am right and you are wrong. Unfortunately, too many people who clearly see that truth is absolute fail to see that they might not be the sole arbiter of that absolute truth.

In the end, this causes an enormous amount of problems, especially for the cause of Christ. As I mentioned at the outset, lots of Christians are worried about worldview, and many try to educate their children in what is the “proper” worldview. I am all for that. However, far too often, what ends up being taught is, “Everything I am telling you is true, and anyone who disagrees with it is not concerned with the truth.” Of course, it doesn’t take too long for the children to grow up and learn that there are diligent truth-seekers out there who have significantly different views than the “truth” that their parents taught them.

A healthy worldview education involves a bit of what John Sanders calls “epistemic humility.” It is important to realize that truth is absolute, and it is important to strive towards that truth. However, it is equally important to realize that because you are a human being who is prone to error, you might not arrive at the truth. As a result, you can’t dismiss those who disagree with you. Instead, you should use them to help you on your path to the truth. You might be surprised at how much they help you!

12 thoughts on “Alvin Plantinga on The City of Man”

  1. I prefer Greg Bahnsen’s take on philosophy. He says that the only way we can make sense of “external reality” is by starting with the assumption that God’s word is true, any other assumption does not work. If you haven’t I would encourage you to watch his debate with Gordon Stein.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I will certainly take a look at that debate. I am not a fan of presuppositional apologetics, but that’s probably because when I was an atheist, it did not sway me in the least.

  2. I have found that a lot of home-school texts tend to favor the Western Culture/Outlook and to equate the Western Culture with Christianity. I think this is misleading and steers students in the wrong direction in approaching other religions and cultures.

  3. That’s just downright wrong. Not only does it display all other cultures as being anti-Christian, it also effectively removes any impetus to evangelize within the western context. It is true that a lot of Christian influence can be seen on western culture, ranging from laws to swear words! But there are many who, while remaining culturally non-protrusive, are not Christian. There is also a lot in western society that is directly against Christian values. In many ways an African or Middle eastern nation would share precepts with Christian thought that are lost in the US, UK, or EU.

  4. Jay,
    What form of apologetics swayed you as an atheist? Now that you are no longer an atheist, what form of apologetics do you find to be most effective? I am currently teaching a philosophy of science course, and I would greatly appreciate your insight. Grace to you.

    1. Thanks for asking, Scott. I was argued into the kingdom with evidential apologetics. I read the works of people like Peter Stoner, Josh McDowell, Henry Morris, etc. The evidence they presented made it clear that the most rational thing to believe was Christianity.

  5. Jay, I appreciate your blog and your answer (How you have time to follow and respond to comments is beyond me!). I have three questions, if you don’t mind. Do you publish a schedule of where and when you will be speaking? Do you have a book recommendation for a philosophy of science course for college sophomores? (It is a course required for all students.) Finally, if you had to pick only one, which book would you recommend as the best evidential apologetics book? [I know this is simplifying things. I know there is not a “silver bullet” that will convince all seekers of the truth that Christianity is the most rational thing to believe, but a person has to start somewhere.] [Plus, the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be discounted. I have a good brain, but, if finding the truth were based on intelligence alone, I know that several of my incredibly gifted professors would have “seen the light” long ago and that I never would have. ] Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

    1. I don’t mind questions at all, Scott. I am happy to oblige.

      1. I do publish my speaking schedule. You can find it here.

      2. This is a tricky one. If you mean university-level sophomores, I would go with Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery. For high school, you might try Science’s Blind Spot.

      3. I personally think that The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict is the best evidential book out there. However, it is a tough read and focuses on Biblical evidence. For an easier read, you might consider my book, Reasonable Faith: The Scientific Case for Christianity.

  6. Thank you, Jay. It is interesting you recommend Popper. A few weeks ago, I told someone I had recently met that I was teaching a philosophy of science course. Their first question was, “Are you reading Popper?” I guess I better check out Popper! May God bless you and your ministry.

    1. My pleasure, Scott. I do think Popper should be required reading for university students, because too many people don’t understand that it is impossible for science to prove anything. That’s the whole point of Popper’s book. Scientific theories can never be proven – only corroborated. The more corroborating evidence you find, the firmer the theory. However, a single observation can overturn a well-corroborated theory, so in the end, science is a tentative business. This is how he arrives at the idea of falsifiability. Since theories cannot be proven, the only way you can corroborate a theory is to test it. However, a test implies the possibility of failure. Without the possibility of failure, it isn’t really a test. Thus, unless an idea has the possibility of being falsified, it is not scientific.

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