Friday, July 03, 2009


Philosophy and Naturalism

I recently took some interest in Alvin Planting'a evolutionary argument against naturalism, posting here, here and here on it.

British Philosopher Stephen Law has taken on a portion of Plantinga's argument, that Law calls the belief-cum-desire component, and, I think, neatly demolishes it. Very briefly, Plantinga argues that our cognitive beliefs are not directly adaptive but only our behavior is. But our behavior is not just a result of our beliefs but also of our desires. That means, Plantinga contends, that, on a naturalistic evolutionary account, we cannot say that our beliefs are reliable because false beliefs can, nonetheless, result in adaptive behavior. Therefore, if one of your beliefs is that naturalism is true, that belief is self-defeating.

One of Plantinga's illustrations is as follows:

So suppose Paul is a prehistoric hominid; a hungry tiger approaches. Fleeing is perhaps the most appropriate behavior: I pointed out that this behavior could be produced by a large number of different belief-desire pairs. To quote myself: 'Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief.

What Law does is take the argument out of such fanciful and isolated examples and shows how the complex interactions of humans, our ability to construct reasoning processes capable of addressing novel situations and the interlocking nature of out perceptual faculties and memory enable us to conclude that, even on a naturalistic account, the probability of our cognitive faculties, operating in tandem, are reliable, is at least pretty high. As Law summarizes:

[W]hen we turn from beliefs to belief-producing cognitive mechanisms of the sort with which we are equipped (e.g. reason, perception, memory), it is no longer clear that there are many (indeed, any) unreliable versions of such mechanisms that, by virtue of unguided evolution pairing them with certain hard-wired desires, will nevertheless result in the sort of sophisticated patterns of adaptive behaviour we exhibit.

As Law concedes, his paper does not go to other aspects of Plantinga's argument but it does constitute a significant weakening of it.

Nevertheless, the belief-cum-desire argument, even if not indispensable to Plantinga's larger project, nevertheless constitutes one of the most interesting and initially intuitively appealing parts of Plantinga's larger case, and its loss is significant.


The Plantinga quote illustrates perfectly why I think about 95% of modern philosophy is pure unadulterated crap.
Now, now.

95% of philosophy has always been pure unadulterated crap.
...listens anxiously for the sound of a great Antipodean silverback crashing through the Internet undergrowth in this direction...
I suspect Snowflake would agree with me. We have selective memories. For every Aristotle, Hume, Wittgenstein, et al. there were dozens, if not hundreds of babblers of tripe.

Of course, if you include all the self-help and lifestyle and spiritual gurus today and the sum total of what passes for "philosophy" becomes even more stomach-churning but it would be a mistake to think that sort of dreck is all that new of a phenomenon.
The argument from Plantinga quoted always seemed silly to me.

My thinking is that at its most basic our cognitive abilities are such as our ability to detect motion, sght, sound etc.

So one such ability is to predict where a moving object wil be in the close future.

For Plantinga to be true this belief should not be adaptive. But to me at least, it seems most reasonable to assume that correctly identifying where your legs will end up when you move them, would have an adaptive advantage over the belief that the leg will leave your body, go to the moon, and then turn into a turnip.

The more basic the cognitive ability the more adaptive pressure for it to be right.

What is not adaptive is our ability to recognize Gods. there seems to be no adaptive advantage to this, which could be why we are so poor at it?
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