Monday, July 16, 2012

Alvin Plantinga and the Disappointing Argument

After a promising beginning, I feel let down by the end of Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the preface. Plantinga says clearly there that his conclusion is only tentative. But I didn’t know when I read the preface that he would reach that tentative conclusion only in the last two sentences of the book and that it would seem so unsupported when I read it.

Plantinga’s tentative conclusion is that our belief in the personhood (or mindedness) of other human beings rests on the same foundation as our belief in God, so that if one is rational so is the other. And, since it is rational to believe in other minds, belief in God also is rational. The main problem is that, as it seems to me, he spends all his time in part III of the book not supporting the rationality of belief in other minds but dismantling what he calls the “analogical position.” I should say that if he defended the rationality of belief in other minds, I didn’t see it. Plantinga and I both have terms in the equation, so either one of us could be at fault. Since I followed less and less of the book as I read along, and since the book’s cover quotes presumably reputable philosophical journals calling the book one of the most important offerings on the subject in a hundred years, I’m more than inclined to think that I’m the one to blame. But in any case, since I got to the last two sentences not having seen any surviving justification for belief in other minds, I didn’t see any justification for belief in God, which is what I came for.

But why wasn’t I able to follow part III? I’ll pin part of the blame here on Plantinga. On p. 187, the first page of part III, Plantinga starts to mention the analogical position, but he doesn’t define the analogical position until p. 233. I tell graduate students all the time that academic prose isn’t a mystery novel: don’t make your point a mystery and reveal it only near the end of the book. I expect my students to clarify context and thesis up front and only then to proceed to explain and defend; naturally I expect Plantinga to do the same. OK, maybe professional philosophers know what the analogical position is. I didn’t. Considering the title of the book and the outline offered in the preface, I thought the analogy in question connected belief in God and belief in other human minds. As it turns out, the analogy actually lies between belief in one’s own mind and belief that the human-shaped phenomena we experience around us have thoughts and feelings akin to ours.

As disappointed as I felt, though, the exercise didn’t cost me much: I only spent a few minutes each of nine mornings. And I certainly can’t say I got nothing out of the experience. I strengthened my skills in logic, I reviewed some traditional proofs of the existence of God, and I learned several things about the history of the question. So I’ll end by calling my encounter with Alvin Plantinga an investment in the future; surely I’ll be better equipped the next time I read a modern philosophical work.

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