Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

By Vern Crisler, 2010

On his blog, evolutionary biologist PZ Myers has written a critique of philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s “Naturalism Defeated” argument:

Plantinga’s more detailed discussion of the subject can be found here:

Plantinga’s critique is not directed at naturalism per se or at evolutionary theory per se, but at the combination of the two.  He allows that either naturalism is true or that evolution is true, but never a combination of the two.  His argument thus allows for the rationality of theistic evolution but not of naturalistic evolution. 

On the whole, Myers’ claims in response to Plantinga are generally worthless, as are those of the cheerleading squad that follows in the Comments section of his Blog.  Here is how he starts out:

“I’ve read some of his [Plantinga’s] work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash….”

Now, I happen to disagree with Plantinga’s epistemology (reliabilism), but to call him a “pretentious clown” and to dismiss his work as “bizarre stuff” or “ludicrous” or “stupid” is hardly the sort of discourse one expects from members of the academy.  After all, professors are supposed to set an example of calm, rational argument — at least for their students.  If they bark and snicker like hyenas over a fresh kill, why should they be entrusted with the task of teaching and molding students to become scholars?

Myers doesn’t like it that Plantinga referred to books by the new atheists as “long on vituperation, but short of reasoning, long on name-calling but short on competence, long on righteous indignation but short on good sense; for the most part they are driven by hatred rather than logic.”

As I read it, Plantinga is referring to books, not people.  What he says may in fact be perfectly true.  The books may indeed be incompetent, short on reasoning, lacking in good sense, and motivated by hatred.  However, Myers thinks it’s ironic because Plantinga “opens his paper with a name-calling screed in which he lambastes others for writing name-calling screeds.”

Again, Plantinga mentioned books.  I don’t see any persons mentioned.  Does Myers think that calling a book stupid is the same as calling its author stupid?  Merely turn the question around: is calling a person stupid the same as calling his argument stupid?  See the fallacies of relevance section in your nearest book on logic.

Myers himself has no hesitation in using ad hominem, i.e., arguments against the person instead of against the argument.  He apparently wants us to understand that Plantinga is really the odd man out, “[e]specially when, as we read further, we discover that Plantinga is the one lacking in competence, good sense, and logic.”

Will Myers provide us with an argument?  Not yet, for he first wants to summarizes Plantinga’s views.  He quotes Plantinga as saying that “natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior. Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.”

In response, Myers says “Yes, exactly! Just believing in something, whether it is Christianity or physics, doesn’t mean it is necessarily true.”

We haven’t seen the argument yet — merely a faulty summary of one of Plantinga’s points.  Plantinga wasn’t talking about belief and truth-value, as Myers’ assumes, but about belief and adaptive-value.  Will we get an argument?

Not quite, for Myers merely substitutes classification for argument.  He describes Plantinga’s view as “creationist,” and believes the “naturalism defeated” argument is merely another “creationist” argument about the improbability of chance producing complex biological structures.

However, Plantinga is not providing a probabilistic argument with respect to ontology (structure).  What he is doing is providing an argument with respect to epistemology (true or false belief).  He is arguing that unlike structure, belief is invisible to natural selection.

Myers continues with his summary and refers to Plantinga’s thought experiment involving a hypothetical population who behaved in adaptive ways but had mostly false beliefs.  I shall call this a Plantinga-world.

Here is where Myers provides us with something approaching an argument.  He references fire, and believes the inhabitants of the Plantinga-world would be able to answer the question, is fire hot?  Myers comments:

“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.”

He further says, “A large part of our behavior will be functional (not contradicting reality) and some of it will even be adaptive (better fitting us to reality), and a lot of it will be neutral (contradicting reality, perhaps, but in ways that do not affect survival), but this does not imply that our cognitive faculties are necessarily and implicitly reliable. We could have highly unreliable cognition that maintains functionality by constant cross-checks against reality — we build cognitive models of how the world works that are progressively refined by experience.”

Let us examine the argument.  In the first place, Myers fails to note, or at least understand, that Plantinga had already successfully addressed this sort of objection.  In the “Naturalism Defeated” essay he said, “Could Paul’s beliefs really be mainly false, but still lead to adaptive action?  Yes indeed; perhaps the simplest way to see how is by thinking of systematic ways in which his beliefs could be false but still adaptive. Perhaps Paul is a sort of early Leibnizian and thinks everything is conscious. . . ; furthermore, his ways of referring to things all involve definite descriptions that entail consciousness, so that all of his beliefs are of the form That so-and-so conscious being is such-and-such.  Perhaps he is an animist and thinks everything is alive.  Perhaps he thinks all the plants and animals in his vicinity are witches, and his ways of referring to them all involve definite descriptions entailing witchhood.  But this would be entirely compatible with his belief’s being adaptive; so it is clear, I think, that there would be many ways in which Paul’s beliefs could be for the most part false, but adaptive nonetheless.”

To apply the lesson to the question of knowledge of fire, the inhabitants of a Plantinga-world may experience an unpleasant sensation when they touch fire, but they may have mostly false notions as to what the cause is.  Perhaps they think the fire is a god, and the pain from getting close to the fire is due to a direct punishment from the fire god rather than from the fire itself.  Others may think it’s a different god at work, punishing them at the precise moment they touch the fire.  Others may think they are suffering from a physical malady that returns at just the moment they get close to a fire.

Plantinga’s point is that there is a virtually infinite set of false beliefs that can be formed to explain any phenomena.  Yet as long as correct behavior is the result of those false beliefs, natural selection does not care.  It is only interested in behavior. In other words, natural selection is not concerned with truth-value.  It has no reason to favor true beliefs over false.

As such, there is no naturalistic explanation of why we should develop cognitive faculties that are reliable, i.e., truth-conducive — producing true belief more often than not.  If our cognitive faculties aren’t reliable, then we cannot be assured that any of our beliefs formed by such faculties are true.  Hence, it follows that even the belief in the conjunction of naturalism and evolutionary theory cannot be rationally held. 

Plantinga had pointed out that we cannot simply assume that the inhabitants of the Plantinga-world have reliable cognitive faculties. The point of the illustration was to show that if naturalism & evolution are jointly true, then it’s probable that our cognitive faculties are unreliable.

In his discussion of functional behavior and functional cognition, Myers made a leap from behavior to cognition without providing a bridge between them.  How do we get from one to the other?  Because behavior and belief are not essentially bound to one another, Myers cannot just jump from functional behavior to functional cognition without assuming the very point at issue.

Myers goes on: “Plantinga really thinks that one of the claims he is arguing against is that materialists/naturalists assume our minds are reliable.”

Of course, in light of Darwin’s Doubt, if our minds are not reliable, then the claim that our minds aren’t reliable would also be unreliable.

Myers continued: “To which I say…exactly! Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. We demand repeated and repeatable confirmation before we accept a conclusion, because our minds are not reliable. We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent. We need to supplement brains with evidence, which is the piece Plantinga is missing.”

Here is a case of a man who so desires to repudiate Plantinga’s argument that he virtually makes the argument himself.  It is obvious that this biologist has not really thought through the philosophical implications of his empiricism.  He claims that our minds aren’t reliable (self-stultifying though the claim might be), but then allows that our minds can test and confirm and measure.  He has forgotten that if our minds are unreliable in one case, they are also unreliable in the other.

One of the commentators, by no means friendly toward Plantinga, noticed the fallacy in Myers argument:

“PZ’s frustrated response that science is the way to correct our mind’s unreliability misses the mark, I’m afraid, since scientists rely on their flawed minds to decide how to use scientific tools to eliminate subjective errors.  Plantinga is positing a version of philosophical scepticism, and in this case ‘crosschecking’ the brain by using the brain just won’t do.  It’s like reading two copies of the same newspaper to double check a fact.  Sorry, PZ gets a FAIL on this one.”

I don’t think Plantinga is positing “philosophical skepticism” so much as he is showing the consequences of what happens when one combines naturalistic assumptions with the theory of evolution.

In any case, Myers needs to spend a few more years studying philosophy and epistemology before attempting to mimic the new atheists in how much he can bluster and insult and still manage to miss the whole point.


who is not Great?

Posted: October 27, 2009 in Philosophy, Politics, Theology

Christopher Hitchens has no faith.  I haven’t read his god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, partly because of the (deliberate) typo, and partly because he once called Ronald Reagan a “lizard,” but also because he doesn’t understand criticism.

His critics have noticed that Hitchens makes plenty of moral evaluations of religion, but does not produce any objective grounds for moral evaluation, or at least fails to do so in a convincing way.  So how can he rationally look down his nose on religion when he himself, as an atheist, has no leg to stand on? 

Despite these criticisms, god is not Great turned out to be a bestseller.  Some have thought that its buyers are just people who don’t like public displays of religious emotion.  I’m not sure if this really explains it, though.  I’m a Christian and I’m usually uncomfortable around public displays of religious emotion — it would have been called “enthusiasm” in an earlier day.

Maybe the success of the book has more to do with Hitchens’ refreshing lack of political correctness, his entertaining if brutal rhetoric, and his writing ability.  At least that seems more likely than any dry “leave me alone” libertarianism.

I’ve been tempted to go out and read the book, but the lizard comment about our former Magnificent President left me angry with Hitchens.  I just haven’t found the heart to forgive him yet — or fork over a large sum of money for his book.

Maybe someday I’ll repent of thinking in my heart that Mr. Hitchens is a toad.  It is not a charitable sentiment, I know, and I’m sorry for it, I really am.  It’s just a failing in me that I think of him as a toad.  And it’s because of this that I’m required to humbly confess that I’m not great myself — at least on some particular occasions.

One of the criticisms of linguistic philosophy is that it smuggles nominalism in under the guise of analysis. The idea is that philosophical problems can only be solved by analysis of grammar and word meaning, how words and expressions are used in philosophical discourse. The emphasis then becomes clarification and puzzle solving, philosophical method as “therapy” for metaphysical ailments.

Much of this stems from the later Wittgenstein, who famously used the example of “game” to illustrate relativity in meaning. This was a denial of the idea of real definitions and resulted in a nominalistic conception of meaning. There are no substantial realities corresponding to our terms, but only the way we use language. Standards are now regarded as field-dependent. Clashes between worldviews are not substantive but based on inability to understand one another’s “language.” So now the task of philosophy is to engage in linguistic archaeology.

Multi-perspectivalism is a method of doing theology or philosophy and has been popularized by the theologian John Frame.  For summary essays, see:

He is not as extreme as the general run-of-the-mill analytic philosopher, but one can still see the influence of this way of thinking on his theology.  “[A]ll of our perceptions of the world are influenced by our interpretations…” he says.  (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 100.)  According to Frame, Christians know there is an extra-interpretive world, but only by faith. We only have contact with this world through our interpretations. “[T]he world we live in is to some extent of our own making.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant had also said: “[I]t still remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us (from which we derive the whole material of knowledge, even for our inner sense) must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.”

Like Kant, Frame regards faith as the evidence of things seen rather than the evidence of things not seen.  Frame’s solution, like Kant’s, is to suggest that instead of discovering the world, we in some relevant sense, make the world.  Wittgenstein would have agreed with this, except that it would be through language that we create our world, not through ideas, as in Kant.  Frame would not go as far as Kant or Wittgenstein, to be sure, which is why he uses the phrase, “to some extent.”  It’s only to some extent that we are world-makers.

Now the whole idea of intra-personal justification, getting from ourselves to the world outside — or more precisely, justifying the out-there from the in-here — is the legacy of the Cartesian program in philosophy.  It involves an a priori separation of consciousness from the “external” world, and then tries to find a connecting bridge between the “inner” consciousness and the outside world.  Obviously, this makes the problem worse by using spatial metaphors suggestive of inner/outer, internal/external, and so on.  Kant and Wittgenstein’s solution was to give up trying to cross that bridge, and admit rather that we create our own world.

In theology, this leads to an overemphasis on interrelatedness, a move away from sharp distinctions.  This is seen in Frame’s claim, for instance, that any sin violates every commandment.  It’s seen in his dislike of theologian Charles Hodge’s view of systematic theology as exhibiting scripture in “proper” order.  Instead, Frame says that theology’s task is not to place Scripture in an “ideally perfect order” but to apply it to different situations. (Ibid., pp. 76, 79; 184.)

Thus we have a movement from the abstract to the concrete, from theory to application, from systematic order to “poetry, drama, exclamation, song, parable, symbol.” (Ibid., p. 85.)  It turns out that Frame’s multi-perspectival method is vapid in the sense that one can prove just about anything with it.  Law is gospel and gospel is law?  Heaven is hell and hell is heaven?  It all depends, I guess, upon one’s multi-perspective.

I can’t help quoting from Vern Poythress, a primary practitioner of Frame’s multi-perspectival method: “Thus, within Aristotle’s system, syllogisms can operate only with unitarian ontology.  Hence syllogistic reasoning is itself tacitly unitarian. Only so can one claim that the reasoning is mechanically valid.” (”Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy,” Westminster Theological Journal, 57/1, 1995.)

This is what multi-perspectivalism comes down to, a rejection of, or denigration of, logic.  My view is that our goal is not to be multi-perspectival in our thinking and scholarship, but to be accurate, and syllogistic reasoning is indispensible in that quest.


Was Thomas Kuhn right that reality changes in a massive way with a change in paradigms?  Philosopher of science Peter Munz appears to deny this.  He said:

“If there really were no meaning invariance it would have been impossible for Max Planck to invent the Quantum discontinuity.  When Planck started to consider the problem of Black-Body Radiation, he began by considering an experimentally determined distribution of this radiation expressed by the formula [omitted].  How, he began, was this distribution to be explained?  There had been several attempts at an explanation in terms of classical theories.  Planck, however, changed the paradigm by introducing the idea of what has become known as “Planck’s constant” and provided the now famous solution [omitted].  One will notice that in spite of the paradigm shift involved in the discovery of the constant, his solution is not a solution of a new observation, but a solution of the old observation [omitted] made long before the shift in fundamental concepts took place.”  (Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge: Popper or Wittgenstein, 1985, p. 154.  Note: the omissions are technical formulas.)

Munz’s point is that the problem situation arising with Black Body radiation did not change.  That is to say, the observation of the physical reality captured by the (omitted) mathematical expression did not change.  What changed was a different way of looking at the observations, not the observations themselves.  Reality is thus invariant, but interpretations of it vary.

On the other hand, Munz went on to claim that Planck’s intial observation was theory-laden because it was made with the help of other theories—i.e., that third theories were involved in the introduction of the constant.  He believed theory-ladenness was all right as long as it is derived from theories that are not involved in the question of the moment.

It seems to me, however, that this is a needless admission.  Munz is depending on Karl Popper’s argument against the “myth of the framework.”  Popper had correctly stated that we are not trapped within frameworks, that if we choose, we could very well escape from our particular frameworks.

 But he undermined his position by saying we could only do so by entering into another framework, or into a wider framework.  (Karl Popper, “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” in Imre Lakotos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 1970, p. 56.  See also Popper, “The Myth of the Framework,” in Eugene Freeman, ed., Abdication of Philosophy: Philosophy and the Public Good, 1976.)

This expansionist concept of framework relativism, however, does not seem to be much of a gain over Kuhn.  Popper’s falsificationist theory of science cannot work if the means of escaping one framework leads us into a wider (possibly false) framework.  Does it not need a neutral observation pool that is theory-independent?  Otherwise, what would be the point of falsification?  Falsification would be irrelevant because any proposed falsification would itself be theory-laden.

The problem of self-referential incoherence infects all relativist schemes, whether Kuhnian or Popperian.  If Kuhn or Popper’s relativistic notions were true and applied to their own claims, then their own claims would be theory-laden, incommensurable, and forever trapped within wider intellectual prisons.

A better metaphor for the discovery of truth (though not original with me) might be this: The search for truth does not consist in breaking out of one intellectual prison into a larger, wider intellectual prison, but consists in following a straight and narrow course until the final destination is reached.

I don’t deny, of course, that bias and intellectual imprisonment occur, and are in fact quite widespread.  And true there are also many biased and prejudiced people who think, and claim loudly, that they are unbiased and free from prejudice when in fact they aren’t.

But that some people don’t live up to the ideal is no reason to give up.  It’s why responsible thinkers have recommended a scientific and logical methodology in the first place — to reduce the amount of bias.  While some bias might still creep back into the process — like a masked Jason from the Friday the 13th horror movies — it’s just a risk one has to take, like suffering through another bad sequel.

It would not be possible to discover bias if there were no neutral observation framework.  In fact, the very idea of bias would no longer have any meaning if theory-ladenness could never be escaped.  For a defense of the autonomy of the observation pool, i.e., reality, see Thomas A. Russman, A Prospectus For the Triumph of Realism, 1987.