Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is Alvin Plantinga being rational about atheism?

Is Atheism Irrational? To plumb the question, Gary Gutting interviewed Christian philosopher and noted theologian Alvin Plantinga for The Stone, in the New York Times Opinionator. Unsurprisingly, Plantinga made the case that atheism is not a rational position, but equally unsurprisingly, there are some problems with his assessment.

To keep this as brief as may be (it's long), I will try to quote Gutting and Plantinga as little as possible, seeking only to make their discussion clear enough for context. I will also seek to follow the flow of the interview.

What is Plantinga after?

Very early on, Plantinga makes it clear what he's after by writing, "I take atheism to be the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions." Thus, he shows that he's most interested in presenting, to borrow a phrase, a rearguard defense of theism that tries to discredit atheism in favor of agnosticism. Agnosticism, of course, is taken to be a position of "we don't know enough to say." My assessment is that Plantinga wants to leave open that door to theism so that believers can continue believing. I think he also seeks to make the uncertainty on the matter appear far larger than it is.

This is another form of the God of the Gaps argument. There's a knowledge gap for us about God--we can't prove God doesn't exist. Plantinga wants to hide God in that gap and is making a presentation that aims to make agnosticism look more credible than atheism, using a definition that most atheists do not accept for themselves. By doing so, he apparently hopes to allow theologians to hide belief in God in the uncertainty, which he will esteem to be far greater than many self-described agnostics would.

Lack of evidence--is it enough?

Plantinga starts off by confusing the matter. To quote Plantinga directly,
But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.
In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.
This is really quite astounding, isn't it? Let's deal with the number of stars thing, a ridiculously false comparison, first and then get back to the more general matter.

Regarding the number of stars, there are three possibilities (yes, three) that we can consider: (1) The number of stars is even, (2) the number of stars is odd, and (3) the number of stars is infinite (thus neither even nor odd). We apparently have to profess "agnosticism" about (3), but if we exclude it, we still face a challenging situation.

It seems direct to believe that, supposing only finitely many stars in the universe, we can say that there's a 50% chance that the number of stars is even and a 50% chance that the number is odd. This isn't quite right, though, because it only holds if we accept a "propensitist" interpretation of probability, and not everyone does. On the "frequentist" position, this statement doesn't have any meaning because, so far as we know, there is only one universe. The number of stars is what it is, and it doesn't make any sense to talk about the probability that the number is this kind of number or that.

In this situation, then, if we take the word "agnostic" to very broadly mean that we don't, or can't, know, it applies here. The parity of the number of stars is unlikely to be knowable--perhaps even in principle unless we are able to show that the universe is necessarily finite in scope. (Note: the term agnostic technically only refers to religious or sometimes metaphysical positions and not usually to this broader use.)

Plantinga asserts that no one would conclude on this lack of evidence, perhaps even in principle, that we should reject "even-star-ism" and claim an "uneven" number of stars as a result of the lack of evidence. Of course not, but that doesn't make his analogy sound!

The sheer ridiculousness of this is revealed if we default to the propensitist interpretation of probability, which may be the only one that saliently applies here. We know there's a 50/50 shot, assuming the question is meaningful (a finite number of stars in the universe) that it is one or the other. To adopt either position is to know there's equal odds that you're wrong. This is not the same as the situation with theism, which has to get more and more abstruse to hide from the fact that there is no good evidence that supports it.

Let's expand this a bit. We can't know if the number of stars is divisible by one billion either, but on the propensitist interpretation, we can conclude with billion-to-one odds that it isn't. When we change the number from two to something larger, all of a sudden, we see that "agnosticism" doesn't imply knowing so little that we have to conclude even odds. This "even-star-ism" example is egregiously misleading and outstandingly silly.

Sadly, this isn't even the most ridiculous part of this comparison. Who on earth cares if the number of stars is even or odd? More importantly, who makes any decisions based upon such a belief if one is foolish enough to hold one that points one way or another? People live and die--and kill--by theism. Getting it right matters in a way that a guess at the number of stars in the universe simply cannot.

More broadly

We lack any credible evidence for the reality of theism--the existence of any deities--and every theistic religious tradition puts forth a cornucopia of examples of expected evidence, none of which gets verified by observation. That means we have no good reasons to believe theism is true and lots of good reasons not to believe theism is true. A lack of evidence is not evidence of absence except when that evidence is predicted and expected (see modus tollens). Plantinga clearly wants to distract from this simple fact.

Teapotism?

The interview turns from this topic to the famous analogy by Bertrand Russell of a teapot in orbit around the Sun between Earth and Mars. Here, Plantinga strains the careful reader's mind by explaining exactly what I mentioned above regarding an absence of (expected) evidence:
Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.
I feel like I need to point out the irony (or is it special pleading?) that prevents Plantinga from considering the possibility that the celestial teapot could have formed by chance with the solar system, or that it is somehow a metaphysically necessary part of our universe (does it matter that it seems absurd in a field like metaphysics?). Also, I'd dare say that if someone succeeded in proving God really exists, that too would have been on the news, and we would have heard about it.

But recall that Plantinga is arguing only against the firm denial of theism when he says "atheism," which I take to be an equivocation on terms despite his open definition. He wants to make a case for agnosticism without making a case for the background likelihoods (be those probabilities, plausibilities, or simple credibility) associated with the various hypotheses. Instead of a careful discussion, he apparently wants to leave open a gap of doubt, without caring how narrow it is, that allows him to keep talking about his beliefs as if they are rational ones.

The Problem of Evil

Gary Gutting immediately raises the Problem of Evil at this point, saying that atheists use it as evidence against the God posited, at least, by Christianity. Plantinga recognizes the potency of this rock of atheism.
The so-called “problem of evil” would presumably be the strongest (and maybe the only) evidence against theism. It does indeed have some strength; it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low.
The way he deals with it is bizarre. First he says, "But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments."

There are? I'm well aware that there are some arguments that theologians and some philosophers consider to be good arguments for theism (note: arguments, not evidence), but I haven't seen one yet that doesn't have a sound refutation unless it devolves into metaphysical speculation. I wonder which ones he counts? I'm guessing his own, which are, in my estimation, not at all good ones, as we'll discuss.

Plantinga then says,
So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism.
This is more of the same--dodging the fact that there is a very small plausibility of theism by denying "straight-out atheism" in favor of agnosticism. If he defined atheism less to his advantage but still very strongly, say that one is 99.99999% sure that there is no God, for example, I wonder if he could make the same conclusion.

The issue here is that once he establishes "agnosticism" as being the only rational position, he can then play with the probabilities (which conceivably would range over the entire range of possible subjective plausibilities), or attempt to hide them, without having to admit that he's very, very much on the losing end of them. A Bayesian analysis of the evidence uniformly points away from theism, so given any prior plausibility but certainty (or no prior at all), a rational conclusion is that the probability of theism is so small as to be negligible.

By the way, see Dot, Dot, Dot for my take on his challenge. I assess that the balance of the probabilities is nowhere near anything he'd like. (I think zero, almost surely, or otherwise negligibly low is the only position that can be defended.)

Sensus divinitatis

Oh boy. When challenged by Gutting on the point that theistic arguments are not decisive, Plantinga used a characteristic dodge into the unfalsifiable (taking the epistemic question one step further up the chain instead of dealing with it directly), in this case the sensus divinitatis,
I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.
Muslim apologists, Hindus, Mormons, and the ghosts of the Aztecs all agree, but notably not on what that "sense" reveals. Atheists chalk it up to psychology and the experience of experiencing.

There's a bit to unpack here, though. First, the belief in the existence of other minds doesn't seem to pair up with the existence of God. Clearly, we see other beings, people and animals, who behave as though they have minds like we ourselves seem to. We cannot know this to be the case (every person we ask about the experience could be misleading us, after all), but it is perhaps the simplest explanation for the phenomena we observe. Similarly, belief in the past may be illusory, but it is the most credible way to understand what we experience. Theism, whatever Plantinga imagines, isn't on a level here.

So again, we see more of the same, an outright attempt to allow theistic belief to ride in a tiny epistemic gap that Plantinga has motivated reasons not to discuss honestly. Worse, here we see how he tries to skip the gap and say that it doesn't exist at all for those who favor theism. He's claiming that atheism (in its certainty) cannot be rationally held but, because of an imagined and unfalsifiable non-physical sense, theism rationally can be held with certainty without arguments for it.

If this is the best they've got, they're in big trouble.

As an aside, Plantinga seems to try to couch his assessment in the arguments for theism in the respectability of philosophy (which is a dig on philosophy if I've ever read one). Hopefully at least one noteworthy philosopher will stick this statement as full of pins as it deserves.
I think there are a large number — maybe a couple of dozen — of pretty good theistic arguments. None is conclusive, but each, or at any rate the whole bunch taken together, is about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.
Fine-tuning

The oh-boy factor keeps rising when Plantinga offers the fine-tuning argument as an example of a good one for theism. Let's not linger on this, as others have done tremendous jobs with it, but we will play with it a bit. Plantinga wrote,
If it had been even slightly different, our kind of life would not have been possible. In fact the universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.
There are a few fun comments to make here. First, observe that Plantinga seems to be assuming that intelligent life seems to be a goal of the universe. That's interesting considering, however we measure it, non-intelligent bacteria have outlived us in every regard we can imagine--they evolved first, we depend upon them for our own life, they outnumber us immeasurably, they can endure environments far beyond what we can, and they will be one of the major consumers of us when we die. Indeed, when the last lifeform on this planet dies, it's a reasonable bet that it will be bacteria that survived while eating all of the others that died first. Why shouldn't we say that this universe fine-tuned for bacteria?

A very easy argument exists that we exist only as a means for certain bacteria to have a sheltered existence in which their biological needs are provided for them by the expenditure of others--we could be their servants. And if we're going to invoke metaphysical arguments to the purpose of the universe, why not that one instead of the one that aggrandizes ourselves?

Plantinga's last sentence in this passage, though, really has some problems universal to theologians. "This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism." Let me correct it for him: "This [apparent] fine-tuning [that might only be a coincidence or an illusion and that ignores how not fine-tuned most of the universe is, and may not be for us at all,] is vastly more likely given [the unfalsifiable assumptions I call] theism [that are designed specifically to account for this matter] than given atheism."

Note also that Plantinga is quite clear about what he means by "atheism," so clear in fact that he's using it in a way that is obscurantist all by itself (by differing intentionally from the most commonly accepted meaning of the word). He is not, however, clear at all in what he means by the word "theism."

The reason is that he is not at all clear--no one ever is--on what the word "God" means. Part of the reason that "fine-tuning" seems so much more likely on theism than on atheism is because he isn't being honest about what theism means (to wit, does he really mean deism? or does he mean theism? or does he mean Christian theism? or does he mean the type of Christian theism that I, Alvin Plantinga, don't think count as heresies?). The other part has already been noted: the definition of God is usually just an explanation to give a superficially satisfactory response to all riddles of this sort.

Suffering, sin, and best-possible worlds

Gutting turns the topic back to the problem of evil, given Plantinga's attempt to use fine-tuning as a good theistic argument. In doing so, Gutting mentions that the universe isn't perfect, which gives Plantinga an opportunity to say some truly astounding things.
I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering.
Well, since sin is deviation from divine law, and we have no good reasons to believe there is divine law, I'm not sure why Plantinga would want to argue that atheists think that "sin" somehow makes the world less than perfect.

I'm not at all clear on--and I don't think Plantinga is either--what is meant by the Panglossian expression "best possible world." For all we know, there is one world. It is best-possible by default (and is likewise worst-possible, rendering this analysis meaningless). But then he gets truly weird, in a way that only religious people can.
Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.
Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.
I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.
I wish I was making that up. Maybe the best possible worlds contain one of the most ridiculous and disturbing stories possible, and therefore it would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. That's what I read here.

Let's pause to recall, though, that God--if Abrahamic theism were true--didn't boil us in oil, verily. He drowned the entire planet (Gen. 6-9) and promises to destroy it in fire later (Revelation 16).

There's so much nonsense in this story, though, that books could be written unpacking how ridiculous it is. I'll just illustrate some points:
  1. Why would free creatures in sound mind rebel against a perfectly good being that provides everything for them if they know it exists? The Abrahamic account of this is ridiculous and makes God out to be pretty bad--losing it completely over being deceived instead of blindly obedient.
  2. "God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God." This is horrible and no part of it makes the first bit of sense. How would this establish a "right relationship"? By guilt? (The Catholics, among others, seem to think so.)
  3. "God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified." What? How does Plantinga know that? What does it even mean for God to suffer?
  4. "And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures." And so appears the hallmark Abrahamic reminder of what worthless failures all people are by birthright--this being an essential characteristic of Plantinga's best possible, "truly magnificent" world that is "so good that no world could be appreciably better."
Alvin Plantinga has stars in his eyes for his cherished beliefs, and he views them through Jesus-colored glasses. No other reasonable conclusion can be drawn from this passage in the interview.

Back to evidence

Gutting presses Plantinga on the idea that we need God to explain the phenomena of the universe, and Plantinga responds predictably by pointing out again that absence of evidence is not sufficient to claim what he's calling atheism.
Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena — lightning and thunder for example. We now have science. As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame.
Not if he's ever read his Bible or any other scripture, or perhaps talked to believers in the real world. The explanation of at least some worldly phenomena seems to be a chief role of the biblical God and the God almost every practicing Christian believes in. Then he gets truly weird again with a very bizarre analogy,
We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.
We know the moon exists for other reasons (like having been there). This is not true of God. Plantinga understands this, but he seems to fail to grasp that the primary mechanism behind belief in the existence of God is its apparent explanatory power with respect to phenomena of the world (including moral and other values held by sentient beings that evolved in it, along with psychology related both to the mundane and numinous experience). All religious belief has is bad philosophy and misattributed evidence to lend it support, which sadly is more than enough.

To linger on a phrase, "the explanatory power of theism," I'd like to point out that this is one of the most pernicious aspects of theism--the mythological aspect. Theism, since it simply posits a deity as the answer to the unexplained or unexplainable, offers no explanatory power at all. "God did it" doesn't tell us anything at all that passes as an explanation. It's stuffing in lieu of an explanation that, for the simple or the desperate, will fill the cognitive hole. It's no more of an explanation than is "it is how it is," which clearly no one sees as a very good explanation of anything.

Philosophy, evidence, and religious experience

Gutting does a great job of pressing Plantinga, not that it seems to matter much. He asks what further grounds there are for believing in God. Plantinga responds,
The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience.
Again, Muslim apologists, Mormons, Hindus, and the ghosts of the Aztecs agree, just not with Plantinga's take on the matter.
Many people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship. They believe that there is such a person, but not because of the explanatory prowess of such belief. Or maybe there is something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis.
There's a simple explanation for this: psychology (and being wrong about states of mind). Human beings are very different from one another in many ways, culture being important among those, but not that different. The psychology behind these matters has been explored in depth, has high explanatory salience, offers predictive potency, and yet does not touch Plantinga, who is apparently attached to his sensus divinitatis because it allows him to pretend to have epistemic grounds for his cherished beliefs.

We see high religious diversity all claiming to have similar experiences. It's not a stretch--indeed, it's the one Plantinga seems to be taking--to assume that there's a single underlying explanation for it. Human psychology is a vastly more reasonable guess than a supernatural one, particularly a supernatural speculation that appears to be grounded by yet another, a magic sense that allows us to detect the supernatural directly.

Let's unpack Plantinga's next sentence,
Indeed, if theism is true, then very likely there is something like the sensus divinitatis.
The first thing to notice is the second word: "IF." What's the plausibility behind that if? I say zero, or as near to that as can be defended philosophically. But look at how this pressing question gets lost, apparently even to Plantinga, in his wistful sentence. Notice also how the rest of the sentence is awash with even more likelihood terms: "very likely" and "something like." And why should we believe either of those are good assessments? How can he know?

Plantinga wants us to take sensus divinitatis seriously as a grounding for theism, but even when he presents it, it is couched upon "if theism is true."

Good reasons to be creeped out by God

In the next question in the interview, about why so many very smart people don't believe in God, Plantinga provides us with some great reasons to be creeped out by God. I'll offer them without commentary.
Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.
Basically, these come down to the serious limitation of human autonomy posed by theism. This desire for autonomy ... can perhaps also motivate atheism.
Yikes!

Beliefs

The existence of beliefs apparently makes believing in materialism (that the material universe is all that there is) very difficult for Alvin Plantinga. He sets the stage,
First, if materialism is true, human beings, naturally enough, are material objects. Now what, from this point of view, would a belief be? My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures.
But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.
This requires more buildup, 
I’m interested in the fact that beliefs cause (or at least partly cause) actions. For example, my belief that there is a beer in the fridge (together with my desire to have a beer) can cause me to heave myself out of my comfortable armchair and lumber over to the fridge.
But here’s the important point: It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.
And then he lays it out,
Because if this belief — this structure — had a totally different content (even, say, if it was a belief that there is no beer in the fridge) but had the same neurophysiological properties, it would still have caused that same action of going to the fridge. This means that the content of the belief isn’t a cause of the behavior. As far as causing the behavior goes, the content of the belief doesn’t matter. 
So much has to be unpacked again. My first temptation is simply to ask how Plantinga can claim to know that the neurophysiological properties of a belief can be divorced from the content of the belief. He tries to make a case for it, but it is unconvincing. It is not at all clear that two opposing beliefs can have the same neurophysiological properties. (What would distinguish them?) Plantinga seems to see the beliefs two ways at once, one of which is ultimately dualistic. By conflating them, he seems to be confusing himself on this matter.

I think perhaps something like this can occur, though, in a way, and we see may it in various psychological disorders. In those cases, the belief (being how the person cognitively interprets the neurophysiological properties that form it) and the actions that manifest from the belief are clearly out of accord with one another (and/or reality). Those who suffer these problems often do not want to suffer these problems and sometimes even know that their behaviors and beliefs do not agree. Far from making Plantinga's case, then, I think these examples shatter it.

His case is that the cognitive interpretation of the neurophysiological properties that form a belief do not matter in terms of creating actions as much as do the neurophysiological properties themselves. These conditions, along with many others, demonstrate that fact, but we consider them to be cognitive pathologies when the beliefs do not line up with reality or behavior.

Plantinga is really using this line of discussion to introduce the close of the interview, which focuses on one of his most famous arguments.

The EAAN

The rest of the interview is dedicated to Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), which I'd rather ignore but must comment upon because it's really a trainwreck of bad assumptions.

He introduces it this way,
Evolution will have resulted in our having beliefs that are adaptive; that is, beliefs that cause adaptive actions. But as we’ve seen, if materialism is true, the belief does not cause the adaptive action by way of its content: It causes that action by way of its neurophysiological properties. Hence it doesn’t matter what the content of the belief is, and it doesn’t matter whether that content is true or false. All that’s required is that the belief have the right neurophysiological properties. If it’s also true, that’s fine; but if false, that’s equally fine. Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.
As I mentioned above, it seems to matter what the content of the belief is because when it doesn't comport with the actions or other beliefs, we see it as a cognitive pathology. We identify it as a pathology particularly because it seems detrimental to have, if not to oneself than to others.

He is right, though, to note that evolution will select for adaptive, but not necessarily true, beliefs. Of course, in many cases, true beliefs are adaptive--so part of his argument is bogus on that ground. In other cases, false beliefs can be adaptive, like being irrationally afraid of the dark or snakes or having overactive senses of patternicity and agenticity--all of which we present.

One point to raise before continuing is that his last sentence in this passage hides an important error: "Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true." No, that's not true. If I roll a pair of fair six-sided dice with the belief that I'm due to roll numbers that sum to 11 (as often happens in the gambler's fallacy at the craps table), that belief only has a 1/18 chance of being true and 17/18 chance of being false.

This example may seem too narrow, but it extends to just about everything we can conceive of. Maybe there's a hunting panther in that rustling bush only one out of every one hundred times a nearby bush rustles like that, so to believe that there is, is to hold a belief that is 99% likely to be false and only 1% likely to be true. It may be adaptive to get away from that rustle, but it may be maladaptive as well (expends energy, takes us away from food sources, etc., needlessly if there is no real threat).

Evolution is a process that balances those stresses--in the most cruel and least fine-tuned way imaginable--with tremendous efficiency. Perhaps the adaptive balance is to (incorrectly) assume that there's a 65% chance that the bush contains a panther that will kill you. That dictates how our belief-forming mechanisms will evolve then, and this kind of assessment accounts exactly for what we observe. The belief-forming mechanism is adapted to survival and reproduction (including child-rearing), not to getting things right all the time, but it's undeniable that getting things right all the time would be highly adaptive. Thus, we should expect to see our belief-forming mechanisms tipped toward forming true beliefs about many of the challenges our paleolithic ancestors (and earlier) would have faced.

Imagine, though, if using a small amount of energy, our paleolithic friend here were able to determine that the rustle is only 30% likely to indicate a life-ending panther. He would still be wrong, but he would certainly would be doing better by this assumption than by one that is more wrong because he would commit fewer maladaptive mistakes. Thus, we see an evolutionary argument to produce a belief-forming mechanism (not beliefs themselves) that invests in getting things more right than might otherwise be.

As it turns out, apparently beyond Plantinga's ability to understand, overactive agenticity and patternicity, along with phobia formation and superstition--which is rampant as well in humans--indicate that we probably didn't evolve to generate true beliefs. And so what? Even pigeons have been shown to be superstitious. That doesn't imply that there's no adaptive advantage to seeking to overcome our psychological biases away from true beliefs. Science is the most powerful tool we've developed to date for doing so, and just look at what it has done in a couple of centuries in terms of increasing potential to survive, mate, and raise our young! How much evidence does he need to see that true beliefs, at least when about mundane matters related to survival, are clearly strongly adaptive?

We don't have really good reasons to believe that we have reliable belief-producing faculties, nor do we need them to conclude that evolution could occur without the assumption of supernatural forces. Indeed, even in this scientific age, ardent belief in pseudoscience and other forms of outright bullshit run rampant among people--without even having to mention religion. Not only that, but marketers and charlatans are easily able to make careers out of exploiting our unreliable belief-producing faculties. Tide detergent really will make my clothes cleaner and my life better! If I drink Coors Light, I'll be as cool and funny as Jean Claude Van Damme! The right chiropractic treatment will cure my daughter of autism and allergies! If I rip out this child's beating heart and eat it in this ritual, the volcano will not explode! If I eat this cracker at church while pretending to be serious, I'll live forever!

So, rather like a pigeon on a chessboard, Plantinga concludes,
Right. In fact, given materialism and evolution, it follows that our belief-producing faculties are not reliable.
No kidding. Look at your beliefs, Plantinga. Turn your argument back on yourself and see what it reveals about theism!

I want to let this lie now, but because my background is in mathematics, I should address his explanation.
Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.
There are issues here.

First, we already discussed that "any particular belief" having equal likelihood of being true or false is probably not accurate except in the case of vague beliefs. I don't think, though, he can even make a statement like this--for the same reason he tried to use when talking about the number of stars being even. The probability of truth of an unspecified belief is unlikely to mean anything, and with many beliefs, a probability assessment of the truth is still unlikely to be assessable.

Here's an intriguing example. Suppose I have a six-sided die given to me. I know nothing about this die except that when I roll it, it will show a face and then immediately explode, destroying itself. I cannot assess the probability that any given face will show (I do not know that the die is fair, and I cannot use repeated rolls to determine it). I cannot conclude anything about the probability that the belief that the die is fair is either true or false.

Second, the word "independent" here is dubious. I don't know that it's clear that many, if any, of our beliefs are truly independent. All of our beliefs exist, if you will, as part of the fabric of beliefs we call a "worldview," and they all exist, again, if you will, in relationship to that. That suggests that for many, if not all, of our beliefs, there will be some correlation between them (we call this "coherence"). On beliefs that matter, the correlation is likely to be strong in many cases. Again, his construction is too abstractly sterile to be real.

Third, as noted previously, we don't actually have good reasons to believe that our belief-producing faculties are reliable. Humanity has demonstrated an outstanding track record for coming up with utterly horrible--often barbaric and brutal--nonsense beliefs. Many of these are central to the lives of the people who hold them. Most often, the worst and most sincerely held among these take the form of religious beliefs. Let's not forget that Christianity itself is a religion based centrally upon a blood sacrifice of a human/God that allegedly confers eternal life upon those who accept it and blame themselves for its need.

That's why we need something so enormously disciplined and self-correcting as science to glean (provisional) truths about the world. Our intelligence may allow us to do science, but it is in spite of our belief-forming faculties that we do it, not because of them. The clear rational and adaptive advantages to getting things right is sufficient motivation for the considerable energy expenditure to overcoming our biases, so his argument falls flat even on his oversimplifying assumptions.

Conclusion

Alvin Plantinga's main theme seems to reveal a fear that atheism can be held rationally, and that as always, God can hide in the possible-therefore-likely-therefore-warranted gap. He is in love with his ideas (particularly about theism), not about getting things right. Sic semper theologus.

14 comments:

  1. So what evidence is there for the existence of the Christian theistic God, Plantinga, making Christian belief rational?

    Plantinga: "The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience. Many people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship...maybe there is something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis."

    Interesting. So there must be some pretty sound evidence and scholarship demonstrating this "sensus divinitatus" and its reliability.

    Plantinga: "Indeed, if theism is true, then very likely there is something like the sensus divinitatis."

    Ohh...Wait, What? So the "most important ground" supporting the truth of a belief in God is the sensus divinitatus, and the sensus divinitatus very likely exists because the theistic God exists?

    Or does the sensus divinitatus very likely exist because those philosophical arguments of natural theology are sound. In which case it would seem that evidence and those arguments are of fundamental importance, NOT the experience of some sensus divinitatus.

    I'm am confused again...this is looking like more circular rhetorical game playing.

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    1. "So what evidence is there for the existence of the Christian theistic God, Plantinga, making Christian belief rational?"

      Plantinga never posits the SD as evidence for the existence of the Christian God. You make it painfully clear you don't understand what Plantinga is talking about next:

      "Interesting. So there must be some pretty sound evidence and scholarship demonstrating this "sensus divinitatus" and its reliability."

      Sad. The SD is referring to how one would arrive at knowledge of something that is a basic belief, evidence is not even part of the discussion.

      "Ohh...Wait, What? So the "most important ground" supporting the truth of a belief in God is the sensus divinitatus, and the sensus divinitatus very likely exists because the theistic God exists?"

      Try reading it again. If God exists then the faculty by which man would come to this knowledge would be through the SD. It is how experiences and evidence would become knowledge.

      "Or does the sensus divinitatus very likely exist because those philosophical arguments of natural theology are sound. In which case it would seem that evidence and those arguments are of fundamental importance, NOT the experience of some sensus divinitatus.

      I'm am confused again...this is looking like more circular rhetorical game playing."

      You (and James) are very confused but it has only to do with your lack of ability to read Plantinga and understand him. Self-appointed atheologians seem to have more trouble with Plantinga than anyone. If you folks would step back and see what Plantinga's goal is in evening the playing field for the starting point of discussions about theism and truly realized how mild most of his claims are you could perhaps stop embarrassing yourselves refuting strawmen.

      Nagel had to help A.C. Grayling out on this and perhaps it will help here:

      "Anthony Grayling’s charge of circularity would be right if Plantinga offered the sensus divinitatis as evidence for the existence of God, but he does not. He says merely that belief in God is knowledge if it is in fact caused by God in this way, much as perceptual belief in the external physical world is knowledge if it is in fact caused by the external world in the appropriate way. It would be just as circular to try to prove the existence of the external world by appealing to perception as it would be to try to prove the existence of God by appealing to the sensus divinitatis. But Plantinga holds that it is nevertheless reasonable to hold either type of belief in this basic way, without further proof. I assume he would deny that anyone has, or thinks he has, a basic, unmediated belief in goblins."

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    2. Derek: "Sad. The SD is referring to how one would arrive at knowledge of something that is a basic belief, evidence is not even part of the discussion."

      Yes, we know; evidence is not even part of the discussion (ever). Sad indeed.

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  2. No one has ever heard of Plantinga or his arguments except apologists and those who come across apologists. No one. That's because his protests about naturalism (EAAN, etc.) are meaningless, and only the apologist can find that sort of confused irrelevance appealing.

    Sagan, Feynman, Dawkins, Dennet, Hawking, Pinker, et al., these are all viable contenders for the role of Mozart in a world where the most generous role I can award to Plantinga is that of Salieri; today's apologists love him, but in 20 years fewer will have heard of him, and then his work will be forgotten because it is so, well, forgettable.

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  3. First, I have read Plantinga, and I know he wants his belief in God to count as properly basic (or "foundational") according to his theory of warrant and proper function. And if his hypothesis succeeds, then Christian belief does not need natural theology--i.e. evidence and argument--to be warranted.

    Don't be an asshole. What he said, and what I commented on, is either circular (because the SD supports God-belief which proves the SD) or false (in that his religious belief does demand the success of natural theology).

    Second, the SD is highly implausible (and surely not functioning divinely and proper) given empirical observation. Thus, the ad-hoc explanations of the fall of man and "sin" etc. must be adopted.

    Third, the hypothesis rests on the conditional "if the Christian God exists, then..." So the question is begged, "Does God exist?"

    Plantinga's work only demonstrates that Christians may be warranted in their belief so long as they never encounter a reason to question God's existence; namely, he bolsters radical fundamentalists. And obviously I am not at all impressed with this--evidence and argument are indeed necessary.

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    1. You did not address my criticisms, you ignored Nagel (I guess he doesn't get it either?), and you have completely misunderstood Plantinga's intent. I'm not sure what to say to you that isn't in my previous post. You can come to grips with the real Plantings or continue to swing at the bastard that only exists in your mind.

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    2. I did indeed respond to you. Nagel said Plantinga does not intend or support circularity, but rather a conditional interpretation. Here is what Nagel said in your quote:

      "He [Plantinga] says merely that belief in God is knowledge if it is in fact caused by God in this way [ viz. a properly basic way by a sensus divinitatus]."

      See the conditional "if" in there. And so Plantinga's model works on (1) the assumption that it is true that God exists and (2) that a belief in such is the product of a properly functioning cognitive faculty that would then likely exist.

      My critique is entirely consistent with this. Furthermore, Nagel is not a Christian, so I would guess he would probably agree with the few serious problems I briefly pointed out.

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    3. I might add that the real problem here, Derek, is with you insulting me and unjustifiably accusing of fallaciousness and lack of understanding on very, very little evidence.

      How is it that you are already so certain (after a brief comment of mine) that I am the confused jerk and not you?

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    4. Brad: "I did indeed respond to you. Nagel said Plantinga does not intend or support circularity, but rather a conditional interpretation. Here is what Nagel said in your quote:

      "He [Plantinga] says merely that belief in God is knowledge if it is in fact caused by God in this way [ viz. a properly basic way by a sensus divinitatus]." "

      You did respond to me technically in that it was directed at me but you in no way interacted with what I wrote or quoted. You did accuse Plantinga of circularity previously:

      "I'm am confused again...this is looking like more circular rhetorical game playing."

      This is only one of a few examples in this comment thread. You now seem to be abandoning that in light of Nagel's criticism of the objection. Your initial reply was the same objection A.C. Grayling made and Nagel did away with. Now we have this:

      Brad: "See the conditional "if" in there. And so Plantinga's model works on (1) the assumption that it is true that God exists and (2) that a belief in such is the product of a properly functioning cognitive faculty that would then likely exist.

      My critique is entirely consistent with this. Furthermore, Nagel is not a Christian, so I would guess he would probably agree with the few serious problems I briefly pointed out."

      The assumption that God exists is irrelevant to what Plantinga is claiming about the SD. He is merely stating how knowledge of God would be known if God exists. You are still responding as if the SD is being offered as evidence and until you come to grips with how wrong that is you will continue to swing at the wind.

      Brad: "I might add that the real problem here, Derek, is with you insulting me and unjustifiably accusing of fallaciousness and lack of understanding on very, very little evidence.

      How is it that you are already so certain (after a brief comment of mine) that I am the confused jerk and not you?"

      I did not insult you or call you a jerk so perhaps you should stop being so sensitive.

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    5. "I did not insult you or call you a jerk so perhaps you should stop being so sensitive."

      Okay, I will indeed quit being so sensitive if you would like to engage me in a discussion as peers (as you seem to have come to doing). Your first two comments came off as rather unjustifiably demeaning, and I have had it up to my eyeballs with Christians disregarding my thoughts through insulting my intelligence.

      "You did accuse Plantinga of circularity previously... You now seem to be abandoning that in light of Nagel's criticism of the objection."

      You are mistaken on account of being a bit uncharitable to me, and not recognizing how, perhaps, poorly Plantinga is posing his own theism in the interview. (I think throughout the entire interview he is making appear very simple and commonsense what is actually a very complicated and controversial--which is very dishonest.)

      First, what did I actually argue above the sentence you quoted of me? I argued a disjunction that either (a) he is being circular or (b) he is begging the question with his SD as to the existence of God; whereby it follows (c) that Natural theism is fundamental: a or (if b then c)

      I didn't make it so clear because I hammered out a brief comment while at work. But I am not an idiot and this is entirely consistent with your Nagel quote. I think Plantinga is skirting circularity--and begging the naive reader of the interview to think such is alright--or is both disingenuous (b/c the SD is inapplicable to non-Christian belief) and wrong in his following claim for the reasons I already discussed:

      "The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience. Many people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship...maybe there is something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis."

      And given this claim of his, I am confused by your claim:

      "The assumption that God exists is irrelevant to what Plantinga is claiming about the SD. He is merely stating how knowledge of God would be known if God exists."

      He is not and it is not.--(?) He said it was the most important ground of religious belief. Indeed, he thinks it warrants such belief as, not hypothetical knowledge, but knowledge knowledge.

      Peace Brotha

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  4. " So much has to be unpacked again. My first temptation is simply to ask how Plantinga can claim to know that the neurophysiological properties of a belief can be divorced from the content of the belief. He tries to make a case for it, but it is unconvincing. It is not at all clear that two opposing beliefs can have the same neurophysiological properties. (What would distinguish them?) Plantinga seems to see the beliefs two ways at once, one of which is ultimately dualistic. By conflating them, he seems to be confusing himself on this matter."

    Dude, great point that I'm shocked I've missed in looking at the EAAN. He's effectively assuming dualism with that. Great catch!

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  5. >> "My first temptation is simply to ask how Plantinga can claim to know that the neurophysiological properties of a belief can be divorced from the content of the belief."

    What properties does a belief have that the neurophysiological has and are you saying that the belief is actually *identical* to the neurophysiological in every way, If not, then they are different.

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    1. Steve, I'll take questions like this seriously when someone shows me a belief that doesn't have neurophysiological properties associated with it.

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  6. James,
    Associated with, or identical to? There's a difference, and that's why I'm asking the question.

    But on to answering your question with a request for clarification: How can I show you something that isn't inherently show-able? For example, we both agree that logic is a reality, but I don't think I could possibly list or show you its properties. If I can't do that, what does it mean?

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