Book Review: Knowledge and Christian Belief (part 1)

Knowledge and Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga. Copyright 2015. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 126 pages.

Here I am going to give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Alvin Plantinga’s 2015 book Knowledge and Christian Belief. In this first post I will cover the first four chapters; the subsequent chapters will be covered in another post.

This book is meant as a layman’s version of Plantinga’s much longer and more technical 2000 book Warranted Christian Belief. and so it is possible that some of my criticisms are addressed in the more thorough treatise. Here I will only be taking the shorter book into consideration.

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Esoteric Philosophical Ramblings

How is it that we understand the world around us? I don’t just mean perceive it and react to it, but to understand reality, to have it mean something to us – what is understanding?

According to Kant, understanding has to come from a priori intuitions and categories of understanding. By an a priori intuition he basically means space and time. When one talks about an object that exists, it’s taken a priori that they mean something that extends into space and persists (no matter how transiently) through time. Kant says that spaciotemporal representations is merely the way we understand the world around us, but it may not be how reality exists in-itself. The form that our experience of reality takes is “imposed” onto reality, while the content of reality is supplied to us through our senses.

The 12 categories of understanding are what Kant deduced as our a priori conceptual structure for how we experience reality.


Whether you agree or disagree with the details of Kant’s list, it’s an interesting notion that there may only be a few simple inherent (a priori) ways that we are able to experience reality.

I think evolutionary psychology could explain why certain a priori categories of understanding exist – because they were required to survive. But, I’m interested in what people would see as being categories of understanding. Do you agree with Kant (and Eyedea) that the way we experience reality has to coincide with the way our mind organizes it? Could it be possible that the spaciality/temporality of existence is merely imposed on reality by ourselves as a way of organizing and understanding our experience of reality? If there are only a few a priori categories of understanding, what are they – do you agree with Kant’s list?

Our a priori way of understanding existence would seem to limit the way we can experience reality. The conditions in which we evolved are incredibly narrow and limited, and there would have been no evolutionary advantage to understanding reality in a way that took us outside this limited world view. This obviously creates some biases in our general assumptions about reality. For instance, it’s assumed that reality behaves in a cause-and-effect manner. Is it possible that causality is simply the way we experience reality? It’s also assumed in the scientific community that materialism is the metaphysical structure of existence. What do we really know about the metaphysical structure of material (mass/energy)?

Measuring and describing the change in material is not necessarily understanding it, but merely giving an empirical description of what is happening. How do we understand motion? It’s required that we have a fraction of memory for us to perceive motion – remembering where something was and seeing where it is now and experiencing this as motion, but how do we know that our experience of motion is the way it actually occurs?

Kant defended free will by concluding that nothing about our experience of reality can logically necessitate any ontological control over how reality is as a thing-in-itself. If we experience reality as being deterministic and materialistic, it does not logically follow that this is how reality exists in-itself. He said that the self exists on the level of thing-in-itself, and therefore does not necessarily have to follow the phenomenological laws of causality.

I wonder, though – is it possible for us to experience and/or know the thing-in-itself? Or are we forever trapped in the cave (or cubicle as Eyedea says in the song linked above) of our own a priori categories of understanding? Would it ever be possible for us to expand on the categories of understanding, or even add/create new ones? Is it possible that there are categories of understanding that geniuses have that other people do not have? Could the categories of understanding ever encapsulate the thing-in-itself? If we cannot perceive the thing-in-itself empirically, would it ever be possible to understand it rationally?

Philosophy of Fiction

What is a work of fiction? I think most people know the easy answer. When a person writes a work of fiction, they are creating a story about characters and events that didn’t (or won’t) actually happen. Or, at least, if they did (or do) happen, it’s purely incidental. But this is only one layer of a more complicated philosophical question. To answer this question, we first need to know what it means for something to “be.”

The study of the nature of being is called ontology. It is a branch of metaphysics that looks at categories of being and how they are related to one another. To peel the onion down to a deeper layer, we must consider the ontology of fiction. But first, it is useful to think about what a work of fiction is not and why.

A proposal might be that a work of fiction occurs at a purely physical level. We could say that the work of fiction exists as pages on which words are written. Once again, there is a level of truth to this. Certainly the substrate of a work of fiction can exist on the page. But this could also include works of non-fiction. But even more troublesome is that works of fiction do not need to exist on a page in order for them to exist – many fictions are transmitted through verbal communication. That means this proposal is insufficient to be what a work of fiction is.

A second proposal might then try to exclude non-fiction and include fiction that is not written. To do this, one might propose that a work of fiction is a string of words, whether written or merely spoken, which generates a narrative that doesn’t correspond to any particular reality. This sounds pretty satisfying. But now we run into a harrier problem: does a work of fiction that only exists as spoken word cease to exist when nobody is retelling the narrative tail? What if someone writes down a work of fiction but then burns the pages – does that work of fiction then cease to exist? And what happens when two copies of a work of fiction are produced, do we then have two different works of fiction that just so happen to contain the same words and narrative? And what would it mean if two people came up with the same story, word-for-word, at the same time, completely independent of each other – have they created two different works of fiction, or are they the same? If the work of fiction is merely an arrangement of words such that they fit together to make a narrative whole, then was it not possible that that arrangement of words could have come together by itself through some anomaly of entropy and without an author?

It’s difficult to say what the ontological definition of a work of fiction is, but I think there are a few points that would be necessary parts of a work of fiction. I propose the ontological definition of a work of fiction, whatever it may be, would necessarily contain the following:

1. A work of fiction must be created by an author. These works of fiction did not exist in some way prior to the authors creating of the story – the work of fiction is not merely an anomaly of entropy randomly bringing the words together.

2. A work of fiction must be such that if two authors create the same story independently, the two works are distinct in some way. Even if the arrangement of words are exactly the same, the reasons, motivations, and influences that prompted the author to bring this arrangement of words together were different.

3. A work of fiction must be such that we can distinguish between certain tokens of a work of fiction and the type of a work of fiction.


Can any readers come up with a possible ontological definition of what a work of fiction is? Is my list of necessary elements that this definition must contain too inclusive or too exclusive?