Alvin Plantinga’s Problems with Materialism

Time Magazine once called Alvin Plantinga “America’s leading orthodox Protestant phi­losopher of God.”[1] In 2017, when Plantinga won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, his writings were credited with having “made theism – the belief in a divine reality or god – a serious option within academic philosophy.”[2] Perhaps more so than any other individual in the 20th century, Plantinga created space for religious per­spectives in academia.

When surveying his academic career, one lesson that quickly emerges is Plantinga’s pru­dence in picking his philosophical battles. Plant­inga recognized at the outset of his career that some viewpoints were more antagonistic towards religious beliefs than others. In particular, Plant­inga decided to concentrate his intellectual efforts on engaging philosophical materialism—a philo­sophical viewpoint that often discredits religious reasoning before a discussion even begins.

Defining Materialism

As its name suggests, materialism is the be­lief that the universe (and everything else) consists solely of matter.[3] Things like emotions or states of consciousness can be explained completely in terms of material processes, as in the chemical re­actions that occur in the brain. For instance, say­ing that you are “in pain” would be another way of saying “C-fibers in your body are firing,” and “being conscious” is another way of saying “ac­tivity is occurring in the pyramidal cells of layer five of the cortex involving reverberatory circuits.” Consciousness, in this view, is in no way different from this material description of neural activity – consciousness just is this specific neural activity. Indeed, the very word “consciousness” simply be­comes a shorthand for such processes.

This could be extended to any piece of in­formation that does not have matter as its sub­ject. Suppose we believe that physics is the proper study of matter and its characteristics, and that other studies have other subjects. Biology stud­ies something that we refer to as “life,” sociology studies “societies,” and aesthetics studies “beau­ty.” But physics studies matter. In the materialist framework, if physicists were to give us a complete explanation of matter and material interactions, then this would be a complete explanation of the universe. No longer would we have to deal with questions of “life” or “societies” or “beauty.” We would have one category to collapse all other con­versation. Whatever this ultimate, material-mo­nist reality looks like is not a primary concern for the materialist. Perhaps life can be explained in terms of matter moving this way, or perhaps it can be explained in terms of matter moving that may, but this is the job of the physicist, not the phi­losopher. This reduction of all realms of thought (i.e. biology, sociology, aesthetics, philosophy) to physics is the ultimate end of materialism.

Plantinga’s Response to Materialism

To say that this view is unfriendly to re­ligious belief in general, and Christian belief in particular, would be an understatement. Rather, philosophical materialism is completely antithet­ical to Christian belief, as Plantinga argues in his paper “Materialism and Christian Belief.” Scrip­ture is full of references to a reality distinct from the material world. If we accept materialism, then a Christian scholar would have to reject Paul’s ac­count given in 2 Corinthians of a man being lifted up to the third heaven either “in the body or out of the body,” or Peter’s account of death as putting aside “the tent of this body,” or the copious ref­erences to God as Spirit.[4] Following materialism would mean leaving behind a good deal of Chris­tianity.

Plantinga also points out problems with the materialist argument as articulated above. First and foremost, Plantinga finds materialism to be internally incoherent.[5] In his view, matter could not (even in theory) have all of the properties that materialists rely on it to have. For instance, hu­mans obviously have the capacity to believe things and to sense things. What would it mean for some piece of matter to have a belief? Or what would it mean for a collection of particles to feel or sense something?

Materialists operate with these concepts—they have beliefs (e.g. about materialism) and they have feelings and sensations (e.g. looking at bits of matter in a microscope and recording the data). They rely on beliefs and sensations to do their work and arrive at their conclusions. But once they arrive at these conclusions—namely, the con­clusion that all that exists is inert, conscious-less matter—they throw these concepts out. In other words, Plantinga accuses materialists of relying on non-material concepts to get to their conclusions, to then discredit the path they used to get there. For Plantinga, this is incoherent.

Plantinga also addresses a further problem with materialism. What does the word “matter” even mean? How would a materialist answer this question? Any definition of “matter” would pre­suppose that matter is not the final explanation, or, in other words, that everything cannot be re­duced to descriptions of matter because matter it­self can be further reduced. The only way out of this infinite regression is to suppose that matter is basic, that it requires no explanation. But this primus nature of matter then seems pretty myste­rious, perhaps even religious.

In the end, Plantinga thinks that the ma­terialist, just like the religious believer, begins with certain starting points that serve as axioms – whether the existence of irreducible matter or the existence of an unmoved mover, of God. When these alternate groundings are acknowledged, true discussion can begin, with both religious and non-religious perspectives addressing the core of disagreement rather than the periphery.

 

Citations

1. “Modernizing the Case for God.” Time, April 7, 1980.
2. “Philosopher Alvin Plantinga Awarded 2017 Templeton Prize at Chicago Ceremony.” Templeton Prize. September 24, 2017. http://www.templeton¬prize.org/previouswinners/plantinga.html.
3. It is not the belief that expensive clothes and possessions are the key to happiness; although, they are probably given a better claim to reality than any spiritual possession.
4. 2 Corinthians 12:1-4; 2 Peter 1:13-14
5. He has written numerous articles exposing and critiquing the presuppositions behind Philosophical Materialism. The most pertinent of these are “Against Materialism” and “Materialism and Christian Belief ”.

Max Graham graduated in 2018 with a B.A. in Philosophy & Physics.

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