THIS BLOG IS NOW IN STASIS.


PLEASE VISIT MY NEW WEBSITES:


My other projects include:


TrueFreethinker.com


My side projects are:


Worldview and Science Examiner


Fitness Trends Examiner (wherein I review individual exercises and workout routines, diet and nutrition, supplements and healthy snacks)


My YouTube channel

9/5/08

In Defense of Plantinga

Though I haven't been writing much lately, I still like to visit my old pals over at Debunking Christianity from time-to-time. 

Today, after perusing their blog, I noticed a post criticizing a personal hero of mine:  Plantinga.  The post is entitled, "Plantinga Propounds Invalid Argument", and is filled with a lot of unflattering caricatures of Plantinga's philosophy. 


Expand+/-Dexpand

The entire article seems rather haughty considering that an amateur blogger (Evan) - who apparently has no experience in philosophy - is claiming to have bested a renowned epistemologist and all around respected thinker. 

In fact, reading the comments to the article reveals that the atheists over at DC are unwilling to afford the respect that I think Plantinga rightly deserves. 

Regardless, Evan's arguments stand or fall on their own, and so without further ado, I'll simply deconstruct his numerous misconceptions.

Firstly, Evan seems to find it incredible that Plantinga could "sympathize" with a young-Earth creationist, in the sense that Plantinga doesn't think that we can outright declare YEC beliefs to be irrational or stupid.

Evan says:

Plantinga himself believes that the earth is old because multiple lines of evidence converge to show this to be the case. Yet he is willing to accept the sensiblity of someone who does not accept the evidence that he does, because they are using their faith in scriptures and praying about it. If this is an adequate epistemology for a philosopher one wonders if there will be much in the rest of his philosophy to dream of or wonder about.

Of course, if this childish caricature is the best Evan can do, one might wonder about the rest of the article. 

Without getting too sidetracked from the main issue, I will simply note that Plantinga's views are hardly this simplistic.  If Evan really wants to criticize a scholar like Plantinga, I think he would do well to take the issue more seriously, and not misrepresent his opponent's views. 

However, I will note that as an epistemologist, Plantinga simply points out that there is nothing about the idea of a young Earth that can be declared outright irrational, and as such his charge still stands.  Evan hasn't outlined exactly what is irrational about belief in a young Earth from an epistemological viewpoint.  Certainly a naturalist who thinks the Bible is nothing more than ancient mythology would find it ridiculous, but the presuppositions of naturalism aren't necessarily axiomatic. 

Regardless, I've already spent far too much time on such an important issue, so I'll move along.

What Evan really takes exception to with his blog post is Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.  In simple terms, this states that if evolution and naturalism are both true, then we have no reason to think that ANY of our beliefs are true, or no way of knowing if they are true.  Therefore, given the truth of naturalism and evolution, we have reason to believe that naturalism and/or evolution are false. 

Since evolution is the more basic of these two beliefs, it would stand to reason that naturalism is an irrational philosophy in light of evolution. 

As Plantinga so succinctly puts it:

I said naturalism is in philosophical hot water; this is true on several counts, but here I want to concentrate on just one—one connected with the thought that evolution supports or endorses or is in some way evidence for naturalism. As I see it, this is a whopping error: evolution and naturalism are not merely uneasy bedfellows; they are more like belligerent combatants. One can't rationally accept both evolution and naturalism; one can't rationally be an evolutionary naturalist. The problem, as several thinkers (C. S. Lewis, for example) have seen, is that naturalism, or evolutionary naturalism, seems to lead to a deep and pervasive skepticism. It leads to the conclusion that our cognitive or belief-producing faculties—memory, perception, logical insight, etc.—are unreliable and cannot be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false. Darwin himself had worries along these lines: "With me," says Darwin, "the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

While this argument might certainly be unsound, I don't think it's as blatantly false as Evan paints it to be. 

In response to this, Evan goes on at some length (and I might note needlessly) about how naturalists aren't the only one's who are skeptical and so on.  What this has to do with the argument, I don't know.  It seems that Evan is confusing a "normal" level of skepticism with the radical form of skepticism evolution and naturalism combined would seem to lead us to.  Regardless, Evan doesn't really make a counterpoint to the argument when he speaks about skepticism, so I don't know what else to say.

One must wonder exactly what mechanism Plantinga imagines allows him to have the correct apprehension of this particular fact when so many of his "sensible" coreligionists and theists in general disagree with him on this point vehemently. Does he believe that his brain is working better than theirs? Yet this could not be for Plantinga, because he believes that brains don't detect true beliefs.

This paragraph contains two matters on which Evan is confused. 

Firstly, Plantinga never claims that he is absolutely right on the issue of Old Earth v. Young Earth, since Evan has already pointed out that Plantinga has declared belief in a Young Earth to be rational.  Certainly, then, I don't see how Plantinga would claim his brain is "working better" - whatever that means - than a YECreationist.  When it comes to epistemology, as best Plantinga might claim that he relies less on the absolute literal nature of the Bible than his YEC counterparts. 

Secondly, we can see here that Evan has completely misunderstood the point of Plantinga's argument.  Plantinga is not arguing that humans don't hold true beliefs about reality, only that given naturalism and evolution, we have no reason to believe that what we believe is true. 

This is a rather important distinction, and missing this point doesn't bode well for the rest of Evan's post. 

[Plantinga] believes that brains don't detect true beliefs.


I know you think I'm kidding, but really, that is his position. He believes that brains by themselves are evolved organs and therefore can only be "adaptive" but that being adaptive does not entail the truth of a given conclusion arrived at by an adaptive organ.

Plantinga would only argue that this is true just in case evolution and naturalism are both true.  Despite that Evan is a bit confused on Plantinga's actual argument, poking fun at it and chuckling about it with your fellow atheists doesn't disprove the point.  Again, given Plantinga's reputation, I think Evan would have been better off taking this issue more seriously. 

Evan goes on to say (with Plantinga's words in Italics):

Let's look again at his position about what he calls "neurophysiology":


Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce. Consider a frog sitting on a lily pad. A fly passes by; the frog flicks out its tongue to capture it. Perhaps the neurophysiology that causes it to do so, also causes beliefs. As far as survival and reproduction is concerned, it won't matter at all what these beliefs are: if that adaptive neurophysiology causes true belief (e.g., those little black things are good to eat), fine. But if it causes false belief (e.g., if I catch the right one, I'll turn into a prince), that's fine too. Indeed, the neurophysiology in question might cause beliefs that have nothing to do with the creature's current circumstances (as in the case of our dreams); that's also fine, as long as the neurophysiology causes adaptive behavior. All that really matters, as far as survival and reproduction is concerned, is that the neurophysiology cause the right kind of behavior; whether it also causes true belief (rather than false belief) is irrelevant.

The use of scare quotes around the word physiology is about the best response that Evan will muster with regards to this analogy.  Evan has this to say in response:

But this metaphor is absurd and wrong on the face of it. For a frog to catch a fly he first needs to adequately apprehend that there is a fly to be caught. This belief MUST be true for a frog to catch it. The frog's eye must accurately determine there is a fly in the field of vision. It must accurately gauge the speed and distance of the oncoming fly. It must accurately know the position of its tongue in its mouth and accurately direct its head and mouth at the correct angle to catch the fly. All of these things are things the frog's brain must believe first, before it can create an overarching belief that drives it to catch and eat the fly. Therefore Plantinga must admit that at least some of the beliefs the frog needs to have must correspond accurately to the external world. And of course, even in his example, the simplest belief is the one that is most correct, namely that the fly will feel better if it eats.

I had a good chuckle at the fact that Evan actually thinks that frogs hold beliefs. 

Anyway, the fact remains that the example of the frog is simply an illustration meant to distance the reader from the fact that what Plantinga is really talking about is the human mind. 

However, Evan is employing a sort of circular reasoning here.  Above, Plantinga rightly points out that the frog will still attempt to catch the fly if it thinks that catching the correct fly will turn it into a prince.  Well, Evan claims that in actuality the frog must believe that eating the fly will make it feel good.  But why?  What is necessary about that belief over any other?  Evan seems only to claim it by brute force.  The fact is, the frog need only believe anything that will lead to adaptive behaviors.  Again, Evan has missed a simple point, which is causing quite a bit of confusion, and ultimately all of his counter-examples fall prey to this same problem. 

Then, Evan says:

Plantinga's skepticism about neurophysiology assumes the accuracy of perception. Yet we all know that many perceptions themselves can be flawed. A few minutes with a magic-eyes book or even a glass of water and a pencil can show a child that. So if Plantinga's main point is that perception, memory, the brain's physics, working logic and apperception can be inherently flawed yet still adaptive, his point is one that neuroscientists have been making for several decades.

Again, Evan misunderstands the thrust of Plantinga's argument.  Plantinga is not claiming that our beliefs are absolutely false or at least indeterminably true, only that we would have reason to believe they are given evolution and naturalism (by now the perceptive reader will notice the self-destructing nature of the coupled beliefs of evolution and naturalism). 

Furthermore, how is pointing out that neuroscientists have demonstrated that Plantinga's argument is true detract from Plantinga's argument.  Pretending for a moment that Evan's misunderstanding of the argument is actually correct, Evan would only be proving Plantinga's point for him here.  If I actually cared a little bit more, I might be flabbergasted by Evan's supposed criticism of someone I respect so much. 

Moving on...(Plantinga's words are in italics)

Yet Plantinga wants to take healthy skepticism and reduce it to a ridiculous solipsism that would be destructive to all knowledge. His way out is obvious:


Clearly this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know; but then most of what we believe might be true even if our minds have developed from those of the lower animals.


As a side point, the use of the term "lower animals" is simply another example of his lack of understanding of biology. A high-school level understanding of biology as it is taught in the 21st century would teach Plantinga that all life forms on earth are equally evolved. They have all derived from a common ancestor and have been adapting to changing environments and ecologies since then and all lineages extant have survived to this point. There are no "lower animals" unless you already accept creationism. But back to his main point.

There is a disturbing amount of nitpicking on Evan's part here.  I doubt that Plantinga doesn't understand this point, but this is so irrelevant that I don't care to worry about it. 

According to Plantinga, while brains cannot evolve a method for detecting truth, God can give them that ability through his creation. Yet of course there is simply no logical connection between the existence of a theistic deity and the belief systems of organisms evolved under such a deity. I will give some alternatives that Plantinga fails to even consider, much less address, that show how limited his "supernaturalism" really is.

Actually, Plantinga's claim is a bit more cautious than that; Plantinga merely stated that our beliefs aren't necessarily false if God exists and created us (even 'indirectly' through evolution), which is in contradistinction to naturalism. 

Therefore, Evan's "examples" are useless and don't actually refute any point that Plantinga has made.  As a point of fact, as far as Plantinga's arguments are concerned, all of those examples are logically equivalent to naturalism.  In other words, Evan just made Plantinga's point for him, without realizing it. 

I'm very close to being flabbergasted by the absolutely terrible job Evan is doing of refuting my hero here.

There is simply no logical or philosophical reason to select Christian theism as the only rational alternative to methodological naturalism.

Another misunderstanding - Plantinga wasn't arguing for Christianity, but against naturalism. 

Certainly there is no reason to assume the probability of one supernatural hypothesis over any other as there is simply no accepted supernatural data.

Whatever this statement means, it seems to be loaded with a lot of atheist bias.  I don't really know exactly what "accepted supernatural data" is, but I'm sure it has something to do with Evan's acceptance of Scientific Naturalism which is a self-defeating philosophy. 

Plantinga knows, however, that most of his readers are either Christian or former Christians and thus artificially limits his calculus to those two possibilities to make his outcome look superficially more plausible.

And therefore atheists can discard Plantinga's words without a single ounce of real, critical thought. 

How convenient.

At this point in the post, Evan moves on to Bayesian analysis, but to be fair to my readers I'll refrain from commenting since I'm too ignorant on this subject.  (Not that that stops fundy atheists like Evan, but...)

Most of the rest of Evan's post is based on the myriad misunderstandings that I've pointed out so far, so there isn't much that remains to be said. 

An interesting point to note, however:

While [Plantinga] does believe that he has had some true beliefs, he has admitted in his review of Dawkins that some of his arguments in the past have been invalid. How is it possible for his God-given truth detector to have allowed this?

This statement inadvertently demonstrates one of the many reasons why the so-called New Atheism is in so much trouble.  This sort of childish commentary is the bread and butter of modern atheists - it's the rule rather than the exception.  This sort of mindset of critiquing complex issues with misrepresentative one-liners should really be intellectually embarrassing for anyone who takes these issues seriously (theist or atheist). 

At this point, I think I've successfully deflated Evan's criticism so I'm not going to continue beating a dead horse. 

I simply want to highlight some of the "rational" and "freethinking" commentary we find on Loftus' blog in regards to this post. 

One commentator wrote:

Once you have the supernatural, all of your beliefs at once become questionable, because supernatural agents can change the laws of nature at will.

Which is irrelevant to the issue, but I just wanted to point out that as far as this commentator knows, the universe is randomly acting ordered and rational, and might randomly break it's own laws, and therefore all of his beliefs are questionable.  So there!

Anyway, this more to say about that, but for the handful of you still reading at this point, I'll wrap this up.

Another commentator says:

Great post, Evan. For the life of me, I don't understand why Plantinga is so highly regarded.

Presumably this person thinks that Dawkins is a great philosopher?  Either way, if you can't understand why Plantinga is so highly regarded, then you're clearly a fundy atheist.  Clearly.  :)

Another commentator says:

looking at beliefs as being "true" or "false" is misleading: only in systems of formal logic, such as mathematics, can things be, by definition, absolutely true or false: 2+2=4 is absolutely true in arithmetic, for instance. A frog's "belief" about flying objects is a model which works to keep the frog well fed, but it is not absolutely "true" or "false".

I had a good chuckle about this since, based on this person's own logic, I have no reason to believe anything in this quote. 

Another commentator says:

Surely believing that our cognitive faculties are reliable is properly basic?

Thus showing that fundy atheists can, in fact, get half way to understanding something outside their own little box. 

Clearly the fact that at least some of our beliefs is true is...well...true.  Therefore, Plantinga's argument that any belief which leads us to believe that our beliefs are false or unknowably true is false, isn't really that far fetched now, is it?

And I'll wrap up my post with my favorite comment by the philosopher John W. Loftus.

Very nice job Evan!

I am by no means an actual philosopher (I'd like to call myself an amateur philosopher :) ), but I can clearly see that Evan only did a good job if his job was to misunderstand all of the basic points of Plantinga's argument. 

John, as a philosopher with an actual education that dwarfs my own, should have recognized this fact.  Though, to be fair to John, it's much easier to critically analyze something with which you disagree. 

That said, this concludes my post.   

24 comments:

  1. Josh ran a thread here about Plantinga's argument a while back, I guess while you were MIA. That discussion kind of died at two thirds. I put some effort into a counterargument (posted here), and was a little disappointed that Josh never came back to tell me what he thought of that. Perhaps you'll give me your take on it. I don't know if anyone here will be bothered to defend Evan :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey, irishFarmer! Long time no read!

    As one of the "fundy atheists" involved in this discussion over at DC, I just want to put my two cents' worth in. I won't attempt to defend Evan's points: he can do that himself if he wants- I'll just say why I found Plantinga's arguments unsound, and thus judged him so harshly. I hasten to say that I intend no disrespect to his person, and I admit that I haven't read much of his work, but I will stick by my opinion of the article that Evan quoted here.

    To avoid confusion, I'll remind us that all of Plantinga's argument here is what he claims to be a necessary consequence of evolutionary theory and naturalism- so he is presenting what he imagines must be the logical conclusion of atheistic scientists, not his own theistic position.

    My problems with the "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism" are as follows:

    One: Plantinga assumes, without mentioning it, that a line can be drawn between "adaptive behavior" and "beliefs", and that beliefs are independent of adaptive behavior.

    But he offers no evidence for this: and on the contrary, beliefs are the conscious tip of all kinds of adaptive behavior our brains produce, and they are also evolved entities: starting in the biosphere, and now extending into the ideosphere. Rocks do not have beliefs- people do. In between the lines get fuzzy, depending on how you define "belief". Anyone who has played with a dog will credit them with beliefs too, unless one considers language necessary for beliefs. But Plantinga grants frogs beliefs; he must start with some animal having evolved the ability to have ideas, otherwise there will be no position for him to attack.

    In any case, the ability to hold beliefs evolved gradually, and there is no way to draw a hard and fast line between what exactly constitutes a belief and what constitutes "neurophysiology", as Plantinga puts it: it's all neurophysiology, and beliefs cannot be cleanly cut from instincts. If you don't believe me, I'll look up some links about the fear of snakes, for instance.

    This leads to the next problem: the ability to hold beliefs that work is also subject to natural selection. That's why we can do it: it confers fitness to be able to think "these leaves are bad" or "if I hide behind this bush, my prey won't see me". We thinking animals can think as well as we do because it has helped us survive. But Plantinga doesn't seem to think this: he imagines that a frog, for instance, is just as likely to think something false as something true. While we cannot yet tell what frogs are thinking, it goes against everything that we know about evolution to suppose that they have beliefs, but that these beliefs have only a fifty-fifty chance of being "true". Such beliefs would confer no survival value; and complex abilities that take time and energy, as having beliefs does, do not evolve if they do not confer fitness, one way or another.

    As I said in my quote above, beliefs of this kind cannot be considered as being absolutely "true" or "false"- they are models which work more or less well. Frogs snap up objects of a certain size that fly into their field of view. This serves them well in the wild, but they will also happily eat BB's until they are too heavy to move. So is their belief "those little flying things taste good" a "true" or a "false" belief? Depends, but it works well enough if no smartass humans are around.

    Because the ability to learn and hold beliefs is an evolved trait, subject to natural selection (not invisible to it, as Plantinga assumes), Plantinga's calculation that results in a vanishingly low probability of getting even 3/4 of one hundred beliefs right, given an assumed starting probability of 1/2 for each belief, is wrongheaded on two counts: one, such beliefs cannot be classified as "right" or "wrong", and two, even if we develop some scale for "better-worse fit with the world", perhaps in this case judging the frog to be "right" when it catches a fly, "wrong" when it catches a BB, it seems very unlikely that half of all such beliefs are "wrong". It's an ill-defined equation, in any case.

    And there are ways of dealing with our imperfect beliefs. We can learn to distinguish BB's from flies in various ways: practice, technology, passing on traditions. So while we will never achieve perfection in our beliefs, there is no reason for the "deep and pervasive skepticism" that Plantinga claims must follow from evolutionary theory and naturalism.

    I suspect Plantinga came to these mistaken conclusions because he is a philosopher used to dealing with concepts in the realm of systems of formal logic, but does not have much background in evolutionary science. As I said at DC, it's a case of starting from the word when he should have started from the world.

    ReplyDelete
  3. IF said...Though, to be fair to John, it's much easier to critically analyze something with which you disagree.

    Yes it is my friend! And yet it's hard to actually do a good job of critically analyzing something with which you disagree, too.

    ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'd like to respond point by point but I don't really see what there is that you've criticized here.

    So I guess I'll try to get to the nub of my position and ask you what your response would be.

    It's my position that skepticism about belief is absolutely necessary. I think it's proper to doubt perceptions and cognitive processes. But I believe the job of philosophers is to highlight where there is a proper method for people to acquire true beliefs. Plantinga doesn't even begin to suggest that there is such a method.

    He punts to God, but worse than that, he doesn't suggest what (a) God's method of instilling such a truth-detector is (b) how God makes it work imperfectly and (c) how God allows people to tell when it is working and when it is not working.

    So if we assume his argument is true, we still have no technique for testing the validity of his position. He is making a scientific claim, which is that human brains work in some mechanism that is designed by God. This is in theory a testable hypothesis if he would give us some mechanism, but he doesn't.

    The skeptic has no problem here, because there is no reason to believe assuming naturalism and evolution that any percentage of beliefs would be true. The task of the skeptic is to discover a method of determining true beliefs, something that philosophers have tussled with for over three millenia and that has yielded such accomplishments as the internet, landing a man on the moon, curing previously uniformly fatal diseases and sending spaceships out of our solar system.

    This seems to suggest that they have at least done a passable job at allowing us to find some true beliefs without any obvious deific interference.

    So I ask you if you can tell me: how it is that God allows some people to have true beliefs and some people to have false ones?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I am not sure why people keep calling John a "philosopher".

    What I do know is that in his new book, in the intro, he claims to have the "equivalent" of a Ph.D.

    He does not.

    Further, as you point out, he keeps making misrepresentations that he knows have been exposed; however, he will not allow any serious counter arguments through moderation.

    That is why all the posts you mentioned have the character that they do.

    I wouldn't take that site too seriously, because it is not even close to a level playing field, so to speak.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sorry Adonais, I truly want to get back in to that discussion. I have a response half-finished, which turned into a new entry, and then I got a new book on the matter in the mail...

    Distraction compounded by distraction.

    I'll be back...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Josh ran a thread here about Plantinga's argument a while back, I guess while you were MIA. That discussion kind of died at two thirds. I put some effort into a counterargument (posted here), and was a little disappointed that Josh never came back to tell me what he thought of that. Perhaps you'll give me your take on it. I don't know if anyone here will be bothered to defend Evan :)

    I glanced over it, but only read about half. I don't have time to read it right now since my family is visiting me for a little while, then I have to report back to my unit tomorrow and jump back into the grind.

    ReplyDelete
  8. No worries. I wrote a lot of words, but the argument can be summed up simply as saying that Plantinga's formulation of the hypothesis is unusable, as the quantitative conclusion that he wants to draw can not be obtained from the qualitative probability-based argument. So the conclusion just becomes subjective, and you can basically arrive at any conclusion you want. I proposed an alternative formulation of the hypothesis as "R is incompatible with E&N" that does away with the probability jargon (which was useless anyway), and on this form, the hypothesis becomes amenable to testing, and I proposed some strategy for doing that test—of course to the opposite effect, to refute the hypothesis :) That was pretty much it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hey, irishFarmer! Long time no read!

    As one of the "fundy atheists" involved in this discussion over at DC, I just want to put my two cents' worth in. I won't attempt to defend Evan's points: he can do that himself if he wants- I'll just say why I found Plantinga's arguments unsound, and thus judged him so harshly. I hasten to say that I intend no disrespect to his person, and I admit that I haven't read much of his work, but I will stick by my opinion of the article that Evan quoted here.


    The thing about the argument is that it's much like Antony Flew's verification principle. Flew's atheistic philosophy turned out to be self defeating, but it was a clever argument. That's why I like the EAAN by Plantinga. Even if it turns out to be wrong, it was still a clever argument, and I think it should be respected on that ground alone.

    Plantinga, like Flew is a personal hero of mine. I think that like Flew, it shouldn't matter where you stand on the issues, you should still be able to recognize greatness, so to speak.

    Regardless, if you haven't read much of his work, I can understand why you don't respect him altogether much. I myself have only scratched the surface on Plantinga's work in espitemology, but I think that a lot of the criticism of Plantinga was based on misunderstandings.

    To avoid confusion, I'll remind us that all of Plantinga's argument here is what he claims to be a necessary consequence of evolutionary theory and naturalism- so he is presenting what he imagines must be the logical conclusion of atheistic scientists, not his own theistic position.

    Well...I don't see that it just has to be atheistic scientists. I would say the majority of people who both think that evolution more-or-less accurately describes the history of life, and also base their philosophy around naturalism are laypeople.

    But yes, I think that did confuse some readers over at DC. They seemed to think that Plantinga was claiming that all beliefs are false. Which, of course, would sound patently absurd to anyone remotely familiar with Plantinga's epistemology.

    One: Plantinga assumes, without mentioning it, that a line can be drawn between "adaptive behavior" and "beliefs", and that beliefs are independent of adaptive behavior.

    I think this statement could use some clarification.

    However, I don't agree that Plantinga is basing his argument at all on this assumption.

    For instance, he claims in his frog example that the frog will eat its food based on what it believes. Now, clearly this example is absurd because it's unlikely that frogs actually believe anything about flies, but let's assume for the moment that a frog's mind is on par with a human's.

    Plantinga seems to agree that beliefs are the evolved byproduct of natural selection and change acting on the structure of the brain. However, he hardly claims that beliefs are independent of adaptive behavior. He DOES claim, however, that TRUE beliefs are indepedent of adaptive behaviors. And maybe this is what you take exception to.

    However, the only creatures which reproduce are the creatures which survive long enough to reproduce. In order to do that, they must have numerous adaptive behaviors, and in the case of the frog, this includes eating flies to stay alive. The thing is, the behavior of eating the fly can be caused by any number of beliefs. The frog will eat the fly if it knows that eating the fly will provide it with the nourishment it needs to stay alive (the true belief) or the frog believes that it needs to search for the correct fly to eat to turn into a prince (a false belief). Now, since either belief leads to the same adaptive behavior, why should natural selection 'care' whether the frog has the proper faculty to know truth from delusion.

    The fact is, by the very nature of natural selection, neither belief has an advantage over the other.

    Unless you feel otherwise...?

    But he offers no evidence for this: and on the contrary, beliefs are the conscious tip of all kinds of adaptive behavior our brains produce, and they are also evolved entities: starting in the biosphere, and now extending into the ideosphere. Rocks do not have beliefs- people do. In between the lines get fuzzy, depending on how you define "belief". Anyone who has played with a dog will credit them with beliefs too, unless one considers language necessary for beliefs. But Plantinga grants frogs beliefs; he must start with some animal having evolved the ability to have ideas, otherwise there will be no position for him to attack.

    Firstly, I don't think Plantinga actually thinks that frogs have beliefs. I think it was just an illustration meant to be distance the issue from the subject - that is, Plantinga wanted to talk about human beliefs without referencing humans directly since it might cloud the issue.

    Second, for the sake of keeping things simple, let's deal only with humans. Humans are capable of beliefs, correct? Well, in that case, I don't see how it matters whether beliefs are evolved or not. Beliefs are either true/accurate or false/inaccurate.

    In any case, the ability to hold beliefs evolved gradually, and there is no way to draw a hard and fast line between what exactly constitutes a belief and what constitutes "neurophysiology", as Plantinga puts it: it's all neurophysiology, and beliefs cannot be cleanly cut from instincts. If you don't believe me, I'll look up some links about the fear of snakes, for instance.

    Well, I think it would be a mistake to confuse a reactionary anxiety to certain external objects or situations with a belief. For instance, people suffering from anxiety conditions more often than not recognize that their anxiety is actually irrational, but they can't help but feel the way they feel. In other words, their anxiety isn't based on what they believe, but is simple based on pure instinct, if you will.

    That said, I get what you're saying and I agree. I guess I don't know enough about Plantinga, but I would certainly agree that beliefs are "emergent" effects of our neurophysiology.

    This leads to the next problem: the ability to hold beliefs that work is also subject to natural selection. That's why we can do it: it confers fitness to be able to think "these leaves are bad" or "if I hide behind this bush, my prey won't see me". We thinking animals can think as well as we do because it has helped us survive. But Plantinga doesn't seem to think this: he imagines that a frog, for instance, is just as likely to think something false as something true. While we cannot yet tell what frogs are thinking, it goes against everything that we know about evolution to suppose that they have beliefs, but that these beliefs have only a fifty-fifty chance of being "true". Such beliefs would confer no survival value; and complex abilities that take time and energy, as having beliefs does, do not evolve if they do not confer fitness, one way or another.

    The problem however, is that theoretically false beliefs can just as well confer a survival advantage. As in the example, the frog which believes that he will be turned into a prince by the fly, is just as likely to eat the fly (and thus survive) as the fly who believes that the fly will provide him with life-sustaining nourishment. Natural selection has no inherent mechanism to discriminate between either belief, so I don't see how it is more likely that adaptive creatures should hold one over the other. As a point of fact, only one belief which leads to adaptive behavior is actually correct, and that is the belief that the fly needs to be eaten to provide nourishment. However, there are numerous beliefs which are incorrect which would lead to the same behavior. One could argue, though I won't do it here, that it's actually more likely based on this fact that the frog should hold to a false belief than a true one.

    As I said in my quote above, beliefs of this kind cannot be considered as being absolutely "true" or "false"- they are models which work more or less well. Frogs snap up objects of a certain size that fly into their field of view. This serves them well in the wild, but they will also happily eat BB's until they are too heavy to move. So is their belief "those little flying things taste good" a "true" or a "false" belief? Depends, but it works well enough if no smartass humans are around.

    I don't understand. It is either true or false that the fly tastes good to the frog. I fail to see how that belief lacks a truth value.

    And there are ways of dealing with our imperfect beliefs. We can learn to distinguish BB's from flies in various ways: practice, technology, passing on traditions. So while we will never achieve perfection in our beliefs, there is no reason for the "deep and pervasive skepticism" that Plantinga claims must follow from evolutionary theory and naturalism.


    I think you're confusing the intent of the argument. Plantinga, again, is not claiming that our beliefs are false, or that our cognitive faculties are mostly or partly unreliable necessarily, but only in case evolution and naturalism are both true.

    In other words, it seems he holds that we should trust our cognitive faculties in general, but that we couldn't rationally justify this trust if evolution and naturalism are both true.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's my position that skepticism about belief is absolutely necessary. I think it's proper to doubt perceptions and cognitive processes. But I believe the job of philosophers is to highlight where there is a proper method for people to acquire true beliefs. Plantinga doesn't even begin to suggest that there is such a method.

    Actually, Plantinga would say that we can trust our cognitive faculties.

    In other words, our reason can provide us with true beliefs.

    Regardless, if Plantinga wants to argue that evolution and naturalism leave us in the proverbial dark when it comes to scrutinizing truth, then it still isn't his burden necessarily to recommend a means for us to discriminate between truth and untruth. That's irrelevant to the argument.

    However, in spite of all that, you're asking the wrong question. We all know that we can determine truth, and that our cognitive faculties are reliable enough. So with that in mind, the question is really about which beliefs make sense of this ability. Is it naturalism, or supernaturalism?

    So if we assume his argument is true, we still have no technique for testing the validity of his position. He is making a scientific claim, which is that human brains work in some mechanism that is designed by God. This is in theory a testable hypothesis if he would give us some mechanism, but he doesn't.

    His claim is really philosophical. We can study and understand how and why we think the way we think, the question is - as I stated above - what makes sense of our ability to hold true beliefs, and so on.


    The skeptic has no problem here, because there is no reason to believe assuming naturalism and evolution that any percentage of beliefs would be true. The task of the skeptic is to discover a method of determining true beliefs, something that philosophers have tussled with for over three millenia and that has yielded such accomplishments as the internet, landing a man on the moon, curing previously uniformly fatal diseases and sending spaceships out of our solar system.

    Well, the problem is that if Plantinga's argument is sound, then this pursuit of truth is impossible.

    This seems to suggest that they have at least done a passable job at allowing us to find some true beliefs without any obvious deific interference.

    No one is arguing that our beliefs are false.

    So I ask you if you can tell me: how it is that God allows some people to have true beliefs and some people to have false ones?

    The question isn't one of a physical "mechanism", but a metaphysical justification. So I don't really know how to answer that question in a relevant manner.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It's clear that Plantingas argument here as some merit insomuch as many Atheists believe that belief in God is an evolutionary adaptation. So there is one particular belief they deem "false" that helps people survive or come to terms with reality.

    If they admit to this then everything else is fair game.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Irish I guess we are at an impasse then.

    Do you not see that Plantinga is making a scientific statement? If he believes that the only way an evolved organism can have true beliefs is that God lets that organism do it -- isn't he under some obligation to show how this would happen and what would be different if it were not the case?

    Otherwise he's just gesticulating and making word games.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I saw this article today which may be of interest to this discussion: Superstitions evolved to help us survive.

    ReplyDelete
  14. M, it's one thing to say that some beliefs may exist in evolved brains that are false. This is indisputable. Everybody of every worldview accepts that the world is drowning in falsehood. I doubt any skeptics, philosophers, or believers would dispute this point.

    It's something altogether different to say that all beliefs are false.

    Plantinga's argument depends on the second being true if naturalism is true. He doesn't even make an attempt to show this.

    If naturalism can be true and, holding to naturalism, we can hold any true beliefs at all, then Plantinga's argument fails.

    ReplyDelete
  15. More discussion on the matter: Predicting Evolution: How Likely is it that Human-level Intelligence will Evolve Again? in volume 14 number 2 of Skeptic Magazine. I haven't actually read it myself, I didn't find a copy of it yet...maybe it actually supports Plantiga's hypothesis :-) (though I doubt it) Anybody read it? Any good?

    ReplyDelete
  16. Do you not see that Plantinga is making a scientific statement?

    No, I really don't. He's making a metaphysical claim, not a physical claim. This really lies in the realm of reasoning and logic, not empirical scrutiny.

    No offense, but you've been unable to distinguish basic points like this since your original post, so I suppose we are at an impasse.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "He's making a metaphysical claim, not a physical claim. This really lies in the realm of reasoning and logic, not empirical scrutiny."

    Que what?

    Are you saying that the evolutionary argument against naturalism can be divorced from the empirical evidence that exists in support of evolution? I think you need to explain that somehow.

    Plantinga's hypothesis is explicitly framed in Bayesian terms, and I certainly thought that this implies that it invokes empirical evidence for Bayesian updating of the priors. Bayesianism as a philosophy of science will suffer the problem of subjectivity, as I mentioned before, when applied to a sample of one and not adequately supported by induction and previous empirical results. But evolution has tons of empirical evidence in support of it. If you're suggesting that Plantinga's argument is agnostic with respect to empirical evidence, well, then I guess the discussion is over :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Adonais,

    Plantinga is not attacking the empirical basis of evolution. He is just pitting it against naturalism in a probabilistic way.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "Plantinga is not attacking the empirical basis of evolution. He is just pitting it against naturalism in a probabilistic way."

    And on what *basis* can you hope to say anything about probabilities? A priori speculation? Then you have the subjectivity problem and the argument becomes veridically worthless.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "And on what *basis* can you hope to say anything about probabilities? A priori speculation? Then you have the subjectivity problem and the argument becomes veridically worthless."

    Adonais, allow evolution to be 100% true. That isn't the point. The point is the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable given naturalism and evolution.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Josh:

    "Adonais, allow evolution to be 100% true."

    Oh, and why evolution, and not naturalism? They are symmetric in Bayes' formula, why do you allow E to be true instead of N? Not harboring any preconceived notions I hope.

    I guess we're not communicating here. What I'm saying is that if you really want to interpret the various P() in the Bayesian formula as genuine probabilities in the mathematical sense, we are required to know something about the probability density functions involved. For the conditional probabilities of R, E and N we have no such knowledge whatsoever (that I'm aware of anyway). The other option, which is the case with the EAAN, is to understand P not as actual probabilities, but as our degrees of belief in the trueness or falsity of their argument. Here we can reinforce the priors by empirical evidence, but the conditional probabilities remain completely open to subjective interpretation. Left like this, the argument is useless, you can prove anything you like with it, and therefore nothing.

    If you want to remedy this situation (though I get the feeling you don't actually want to) there are some options, one of which is to formulate the whole hypothesis without probability jargon, simply as "R is incompatible with E∩N". This says exactly the same thing, but on a form that is amenable to testing by proving the negative, which is an entirely scientific enterprise. Ockham would be proud. What is your objection towards trying to clarify things this way?

    Or here's an even more radical idea: if you want to investigate the probability of naturalism, why not try to estimate P(N) directly? In Bayesianism, this prior is amenable to empirical updating for revising our confidence in the hypothesis directly, without detouring via conditional probabilities and quantities that are impossible to estimate or support empirically.

    But if you insist on staying with the obscurantism of the EAAN and its useless probability jargon, then we are stuck with a formula that is seemingly completely independent of the priors, because the outcome is anyway determined by whatever binary guess we make for the conditional probabilities. But what's the value of such a guess? Even a chimpanzee can guess, one banana for "yes" or another banana for "no", the monkey might even make the same guess as you.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Adonais,

    I think you are missing the point of the argument. It isn't meant to show that either N or E is false (directly). It is meant to show that they are pitted against each other.

    You don't seem happy with the way Plantinga works with probabilities. I can't, for the life of me, figure out why you dislike how he's done it. Of course, (R) isn't incompatible with N & E, it's just extremely unlikely. Sure, it is possible that that N & E produced (R) just happenstance, but when you consider the amount of other logical possibilities you are led to say that the probability is low, even if you don't know exactly what that probability is. It is logically possible that a tiger just appear in front of me, but I'm not scared of this possibility because I know it's very low (even though I don't know how low).

    ReplyDelete
  23. "Of course, (R) isn't incompatible with N & E, it's just extremely unlikely."

    But this is a subjective statement since you arrived at it by speculating about conditional probabilities which no one knows how to calculate, and someone else can arrive at an equally valid but opposite conclusion by the same rules. If it's only unlikely in some person's mind then there is no real contradiction between R, E and N, and there's no problem that needs to be solved to begin with.

    "but when you consider the amount of other logical possibilities you are led to say that the probability is low, even if you don't know exactly what that probability is."

    Other logical possibilities? I think there are only two: either R, E and N are compatible or they are not, there's nothing in between. Your probability-based formulation is only a token description disguising the fact that all the terms symbolize are your personal confidence or degree of belief in them.

    "It is logically possible that a tiger just appear in front of me, but I'm not scared of this possibility because I know it's very low (even though I don't know how low)."

    What does this have to do with Palntinga's argument? This sounds like a Boltzmann brain argument, which is a flawed argument. I don't see how that has anything to do with the EAAN.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'd say that the problem i have with Plantinga's arguments that the premises of evolution argue against a mind able to perceive truth are unsound at two points.

    The first is that his contentions: "there is no reason to assume that evolution grants a true mindset" and "it is at least possible that creation in the image of God would lead to true thinking" are sufficiently weak as to overlap. Or rather, based only on his contentions, an evolved mind might see truth while a created mind saw falsehood. So he hasn't actually made a strong enough argument for the philosophical inconsistency of an evolutionary argument for the creation of humanity.

    The second is that his argument seems to rely on some assumptions about the relationship of evolution to belief. The reward-system in animal and human brains is not a metaphysical one. It simply is--it lets the brain know it has done good work. The metaphysical understanding of the basis of this reward--e.g., I will eat because I need food for energy--comes from the rational faculty, which itself would evolve to best analyze the world as it exists. Thus evolution is only indirectly responsible for our thoughts, in that it gave us the capacity to think them. To suggest that it would be evolutionally sensible to produce a brain that approximated rational thought but had several premises flipped is silly: either 1) the system would demonstrably differ from reality, and would be selected against, 2) the system would only differ from reality in a meaningless semantic sense, i.e., "turned into a prince" is understood as "become full," or 3) would be so complex as to be vanishingly unlikely.
    From that I would argue that evolution, which needs to deal with the world as it is, is far more likely to produce brains or minds to engage truth than God, who does not.

    ReplyDelete