Saturday, May 30, 2009
Of Philosophers And Scientists
PZ Mxyzptlk has a post on Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, as summarized in an article at Christianity Today.
I think PZ underestimates the philosophical sophistication of the argument (which, of course, does not mean it is either correct or true). The Wikipedia article on the argument shows that there is a lot of nuance going on and, indeed, an entire collection of objections to the argument and Plantinga's responses has been published.
I won't pretend to have studied Plantinga's argument or the responses thereto beyond the Wikipedia article and a few expositions of it by Plantinga and other theists, so my thoughts on it are best described, charitably, as preliminary.
In Plantinga's world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, "Is fire hot?", 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga's ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you'd actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.
Of course you are more likely to achieve your goals, and of course you are more likely to survive and reproduce if your beliefs are mostly true. ...
... This means that the neurophysiology that caused or produced that behavior has also been adaptive: it has enabled them to survive and reproduce. But what about their beliefs? These beliefs have been produced or caused by that adaptive neurophysiology; fair enough. But that gives us no reason for supposing those beliefs true. So far as adaptiveness of their behavior goes, it doesn't matter whether those beliefs are true or false.
It should be understood, as the Wikipedia article points out, that Plantinga is not arguing against the fact of evolution:
Plantinga states that he is not attacking the theory of evolution, which only yields the self-contradiction when connected with philosophical naturalism but is not equally inconsistent with theism.
PZ does touch on a point that, in my opinion, renders the argument as a whole ... well ... academic:
He's reduced to a bogus either/or distinction. Either we are organic machines that evolved and our brains are therefore collections of random beliefs, or — and this is a leap I find unbelievable — Jesus gave us reliable minds.
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. ...
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.
Remove the evolutionary account for both beliefs and the argument dissolves into the traditional theist/atheist brawl and ya pays yer money and takes yer choice.
One last point (which is what got me to write anything at all on this): PZ mocks Plantinga for being innumerate:
(First, an amusing aside: footnote  is an acknowledgment of the assistance of someone else in doing those calculations. He needed help from an expert to multiply simple probabilities? Does being a philosopher mean you're incapable of tapping buttons on a calculator?)
Caerleon, North Wales, June 19, 1869.
I am much obliged to your Correspondent1 of June 5 for having pointed out a great error in my 'Origin of Species,' on the possible rate of increase of the elephant. I inquired from the late Dr. Falconer with respect to the age of breeding, &c., and understated the data obtained from him, with the intention, vain as it has proved, of not exaggerating the result. Finding that the calculation was difficult, I applied to a good arithmetician; but he did not know any formula by which a result could easily be obtained; and he now informs me that I then applied to some Cambridge mathematician. Who this was I cannot remember, and therefore cannot find out how the error arose. From the many familiar instances of rapid geometrical increase, I confess that, if the answer had been thirty or sixty million elephants, I should not have felt much surprise; but I ought not to have relied so implicitly on my mathematical friend. I have misled your Correspondent by using language which implies that the elephant produces a pair of young at each birth; but the calculation by this assumption is rendered easier and the result but little different. A friend has extended your Correspondent's calculation to a further period of years. Commencing with a pair of elephants, at the age of thirty, and assuming that they would in each generation survive ten years after the last period of breeding—namely, when ninety years old—there would be, after a period of 750 to 760 years (instead of after 500 years, as I stated in 'The Origin of Species'), considerably more than fifteen million elephants alive, namely, 18,803,080. At the next succeeding period of 780 to 790 years there would be alive no less than 34,584,256 elephants.
Labels: Plantinga's Naturalism
Of course, there are so many responses on PZ's blog that it is impossible to follow what is going on.
I wasn't aware that there was a Wikipedia article on this particular argument. (No surprise, though.) I'll have to look at this article before proceeding. Thanks for this pointer.
The rest of his argument is a set of "You're wrong, so I must be right" nonsense, worthy of an all too clever 12-year-old. Or, as Douglas Adams puts it, "man goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed at the next zebra crossing" (rough paraphrase, from 20-year-old memory). To begin with, his argument says that the probability of "true belief", given evolution, is either low, or it's impossible to tell. But he ignores the "impossible to tell". Even worse, his argument assumes a high probability for "traditional theism". Now, I consider myself a Christian, but I believe that any rational person could consider the idea of god and religion as anything other than a highly improbable idea. That's why people make arguments based on faith...most of them are pretty loopy too, granted. Even Paul admits that what he's saying is pretty outrageous. It's just mind boggling that these people discuss the merits of Plantinga's arguments as if they were serious ideas. It like reading "baraminology" publications...you wonder how people can say things like that with a straight face.
His reasoning seems to be that since we have no a priori reason to believe that there's a necessary connection between adaptive behavior and true belief, we're not justified in assigning any non-arbitrary relationship between the two.
Plantinga is, I think, hiding a lot of sins in that claim that "the probability that our minds are reliable under a conjunction of philosophical naturalism and evolution is low or inscrutable.
"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. ..."
And I threw in my usual response, which is that critters whose "cognitive or belief-producing faculties" produce unreliable representations of (relevant aspects of) the world end up as lunch for critters whose faculties produce more reliable representations. Natural selection in action.
Of course, that ignores the question of Truth-with-a-capital-T, but that's not my concern: philosophers are welcome to their armchairing about it.
And I'm not at all convinced that Plantinga's imaginary world full of people with systematically false beliefs could exist. To the extent that beliefs are both false and have causal efficacy on behavior, they'll be weeded and pruned so that they more and more reliably represent the world -- will be better and better approximations to being "true." Incomplete, yes. Inaccurate and unreliable sometimes? Sure. But unless Plantinga thinks the body of 21st century scientific theory is no better a representation of the world than was 10th century superstition, he has to allow that our representations, honed in the selective environment of science, are more 'true' now than they were then. Truth in this sense is a scalar quantity. As Isaac Asimov wrote
"[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
--Isaac Asimov (1989). "The Relativity of Wrong." The Skeptical Inquirer, 14(1), 35-44. Fall 1989.
"There was also a fairly well-known 19th Century naturalist who had a similar problem:"
Except that Darwin didn't make a probability estimate the core of his argument. Plantinga does.