Sunday, October 14, 2012


Planting Plantinga

There has been a flurry of renewed interest in Alvin Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism" (EAAN). Mohan Matthen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto has posted a critique at New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science:
[L]et's think about special purpose cognition vs general purpose cognition. Fleeing from predators can make organisms evolve special purpose detectors. These probably should not be very accurate, since an excess of false positives helps survival: its safer than a more accurate detector with the occasional false negative. But what about general purpose detector? Remember Rob, who runs away from tigers because he feels that is the best way to make friends—this enables him to escape the consequences of his disastrously false belief that tigers make good playmates. But if this is a general purpose attitude, he also runs away from potential mates because he believes that this is the best way to hook up with them. Evolutionarily, not so good.

Here is something the survivalists overlook. The senses are general purpose learning systems; inference and rationality helps us use them to come to know about our surroundings. Of course, we have special purpose cognition too, but these usually feed into autonomous behavioural systems that are not run by and don't produce beliefs. Belief is irrelevant to a rabbit freezing at the (often false) indication of a predator. Belief means everything to a young man or woman who is taking leadership of a group on a trek to find a better life.
Nicholas McGinnis at Engaging Science, the blog of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario (go canucks!), points out:
The problem is that an imago dei epistemology does not seem to follow from God's nature but God's free exercise of will. We therefore have a parallel problem: of all the infinite things God could do, how certain are we that he would choose to create in his image? Contrast to evolution: of all the infinite things that could evolve, why reliable faculties? The difference is that I know what kind of constraints, observations, and experiments might lead me to think evolution did lead to reliable faculties, but, short of direct personal revelation, I have no idea how to confirm imago dei.
TomS made much the same point some time ago here.

McGinnis also points out that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), which I have always thought was reliable, gives Plantinga a pass on the EAAN and his promotion of Michael Behe's "irreducible complexity" nonsense:
As a side-note, while re-reading Plantinga's SEP entry on 'Religion and Science' I am reminded of how bizarre and parochial the article is: it is not a discussion of the complex relationship between science and religion in the history of philosophy, nor an overview of the current state of affairs in the literature. Rather, it functions as a showcase for Plantinga's own views.

There is no discussion of some seminal and influential concepts–such as Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteria'–nor any mention of, say, the relationship between Islam and science. Instead we have enthusiastic citations of intellectually dishonest creationist frauds like Michael Behe, complete with summaries of discredited arguments about the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting meant to offer proof positive of the spurious, unscientific notion of 'irreducible complexity'. Writes Plantinga, "not only do [these examples] challenge Darwinism; they are also, [Behe] says, obviously designed: 'their design is about as obvious as an elephant in a living room.'" I cringe to read these words in the discipline's most publicly-visible reference source.
[Cough] Amen!


I just finished reading the EAAN section of Where the Conflict Really Lies earlier tonight. If you're interested I can write up my thoughts on where the argument seems to go most badly wrong.


Sure! I'll even post it as guest post if you want.
That would be great! I have a pretty good take on what I think is going on in the EAAN, but I want to read some recent, more 'technical' stuff of his before I commit myself to a critique in writing.
Fine. Just leave a comment here when you are ready and I'll tell you where to send it.
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