Response to Alvin Plantinga on Evolution and Theism

In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga argues that evolution does not conflict with theism, specifically classical theism. Plantinga looks at a few different arguments and concludes they don’t work.

One of the arguments that Plantinga looks at is an argument from Paul Draper. Draper argues that evolution counts as some evidence against the God of classical theism. Hence, even though evolution is logically compatible (i.e. no contradiction) with God’s existence, evolution is still (at minimum) somewhat surprising given theism. For a detailed version of Draper’s argument, see here.

Plantinga’s main objection is that even if we grant the argument, not much follows from it. What matters, says Plantinga, is not whether some evidence (like evolution) counts against theism; instead, the issue is whether our total evidence counts against theism. Plantinga says it’s not obvious that our total evidence counts against theism.

However, this isn’t a direct attack on Draper’s argument. In fact, in one sense, it doesn’t really address the argument at all. Plantinga is essentially granting that evolution counts as evidence against theism, but he says that fact doesn’t mean much. Why think a thing like that, Dr. Plantinga? It seems like evolution counting as evidence against theism means that there is some conflict between evolution and theism. Suppose I told you, “Evolution is evidence against God’s existence, but there is zero conflict between God and evolution.” Is that even coherent? Given the title of his book, I’m surprised at Plantinga’s response here.

But, what is the other evidence that supposedly supports theism? Plantinga says that the existence of intelligent beings is evidence of God. He says, “The God of theism would very likely desire that there be creatures who resemble him in being rational and intelligent.” Why? Specifically, why would a trinitarian God desire this? Even if this is likely, Plantinga clearly ignores more specific facts that are not expected on theism with regards to intelligent beings. If anything, we would expect God to make creatures far superior to humans. It’s also entirely unclear why God would make physically embodied intelligent beings. In addition, it’s unclear why God would make intelligent beings that have minds dependent on brains.

I’m also not sure what to make of Plantinga’s objection regarding total evidence, given what Plantinga has said in other writings. In other writings, Plantinga has suggested that one can still know that God exists even if our total evidence indicates that God probably doesn’t exist [1]. Notwithstanding the problems with that position, the primary issue is not with the question of epistemology of religious belief but the truth of religious belief. Nevertheless, there are issues with Plantinga’s position. If a believer confers epistemic justification for their religious belief (or is said to know) via something like an experience, that supposed justification would only be prima facie; it can be defeated. When one becomes aware that one’s belief is unlikely to be true (all things considered), that is good reason to give that belief up. It also doesn’t matter whether one can be said to have originally known something to be the case. The focus here has to do with ‘reasonability’, and there is something unreasonable about just digging in one’s heels and claiming to “just know” that God exists, even when the total evidence indicates (of which they are aware) the belief is false [2]. Whether God’s existence is probable/improbable relative to our total evidence is a topic that can’t be done justice in a blog post [3].


[1] Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
[2] Plantinga now thinks it is fairly easy for a belief to be rational, justified, and reasonable. Even if a belief can be (easily) reasonable when it’s acquired, that doesn’t mean it can’t be defeated or easily defeated.
[3] Alvin Plantinga now argues that if theism is true, then we (probably) can know that God exists. Thus, says Plantinga, the issue of whether someone can be said to know that God exists depends on whether God actually exists. He then says that a skeptic can’t say that a theist doesn’t know that God exists, unless the skeptic shows that God doesn’t exist. This doesn’t follow, however. Plantinga seems to be entirely unaware of what Hitchen’s razor is; we don’t have to deny a claim in order to dismiss a claim. Not to mention, the skeptic can say, “For all we know, God exists. But, for all we know, God does not exist”. It’s not obvious that anyone knows that God exists precisely because it’s not obvious that God exists! Not to mention, an atheist can have good reasons to think that the God of classical theism does not exist. For example, an atheist can just look at all the horrific suffering in the world and immediately “see” that God does not exist.



4 thoughts on “Response to Alvin Plantinga on Evolution and Theism

  1. All you need to know is that the only opposition to the theory of evolution comes from theists? Why would they care? What difference does it make? Obviously it makes a difference to a large number of theists, so they have declared that if evolution is true, then Christianity per se is not.

    This argument is not being made by atheists or agnostics or seculars … but mostly evangelical Christians. So no matter what Prof. Planting claims, the ordinary folk know otherwise.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      Catholics believe in evolution (or at least evolution+God). It seems to be a particular brand of evangelicals who deny evolution.

      Of course that will change too in time…kind of like Protestants changing their minds about the the sun rotating around the earth. I shit you not, the (puritan) theologian, Jonathan Edwards defended geocentrism.

  2. I’m curious, how does Plantinga think evolution fits (even loosely) with classical theism if the god of classical theism is absolutely transcendent? I’ve heard arguments that panentheism accomodates a meddling god, but panentheism contradicts all notions of absolute transcendence.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      Plantinga says that the God of classical theism can create in any way he wants. Apart from the fact that this doesn’t predict anything, Draper uses that point against Plantinga. If theism is true, special creationism is at least plausible. On naturalism, however, it’s not even possible for special creationism to be true.

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