Random Thoughts On Alvin Plantinga’s Rambling Thoughts

So… there’s an interview with Alvin Plantinga on the New York Times’ “Opinionator Blog”. It’s… horrific. Embarrassing. Such a national platform for arguments from ignorance, false dichotomies, and special pleading. Really, it’s astonishing.

The questions, by Gary Gutting, are reasonable, and are followed up nicely; if anything, Gutting is not brutal enough, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for Plantinga.

There are so many times when Plantinga’s claims have reasonable answers in readily available science. One (or at least this one) gets the feeling he actively avoids the scientific literature. Ok, really, that’s unfair–science is so broad and specialized that if he were not both exposed to an extraordinarily broad swath, and sufficiently knowledgeable in depth about that broad swath (which, given time constraints, might reasonably mean that he would have no time to develop any expertise in his own philosophical areas), it is perfectly reasonable that he might miss the answers to his questions.

Fortunately, cuttlefish are very deep generalists and experts in everything, so I opened a word-processor and read the interview. (I would say “so you don’t have to”, but I actually really recommend you read it, so you can try out your own critical analysis. The weird thing is, Plantinga is not exactly a bench-warmer; when you–not “if you”–when you tear his arguments into tiny bleeding slivers, you are up against one of the best the theistic side have to offer.) Yeah, so it just so happens I take notes in rhyming verse…

In any debate between two points of view
Fifty-fifty, the odds must apply—
If we can’t prove it’s Christmas, beyond every doubt,
Then it’s likely the Fourth of July

Now, maybe the scientists figured it out
And it’s all there to read… which I won’t
Perhaps they have answers for all of my doubts
But I’m gonna assume, here, they don’t

It’s possible someone has studied this stuff
If they have, clearly, I’m not aware
So there may be a paper that proves me quite wrong
I’d go looking, but really don’t care.

My assumption is simply that nobody knows—
If they did, that would really be nifty—
In the absence of knowledge (well, knowledge of mine)
Let’s assume that it’s all fifty-fifty.

So my views on psychology? Pretty much crap
And biology, mostly, as well—
But let’s call it philosophy (really, why not?)
If it’s bullshit, most readers can’t tell.

So… go ahead, read the interview. Try commenting here–in verse, or not in verse, I don’t care. What do you think is Plantinga’s worst? Best? Anyone think he has a point?

Just for fun, two earlier bits worth mentioning:

When Alvin Plantinga’s Car Won’t Start
It’s All So Simple, Really

Which Team Is God’s Team?

You can hear the pundits prattle
Over Denver and Seattle
As they set off to do battle
In the Super Bowl today

And I’m left a bit befuddled
Cos the logic’s gotten muddled—
As I see the players huddled
Not for football, but to pray

Seems a strange thing in this setting,
But I think what I’m forgetting
Is, the Super Bowl means betting
So they’re working on the odds

We can’t tell at the beginning
Which team’s virtuous, which sinning,
But they’ll show us all, by winning,
So we’ll know which team is God’s!

As we approach game time, and every conceivable bit of trivia has been milked for its own 2-hour sports-TV retrospective, one of the variables examined is the role religion plays among the players. Yesterday’s NJ.com article “Super Bowl, 2014: Religion runs deep for many NFL players and teams” examines the phenomenon:

Each Friday afternoon, about 10 players from the Seattle Seahawks gather around Karl Payne in a room deep inside the team’s headquarters in Renton, Wash. They come carrying Bibles, notebooks and pens, dressed in their team-issued blue-and-gray sweatpants and T-shirts for an hourlong Bible study.

Payne might lead a discussion on the Book of James, outlining lessons about controlling what you say, how the price of your soul is the same as the next man’s and how challenges can either bury people or spring them to success. Or he might open a discussion, inviting the men to share their thoughts and talk about the issues they are confronting.

I have heard fairly often about the strong role of religion in sports–from controversy over prayers before games at public high schools, to a recent article on a very religious college coach in Connecticut, to Tim Tebow–but it seems to me a subject with more popular than scientific writing. The above quote, for instance, describes what the article calls a team where, in particular, several players are driven by their religion. But in a nation of 80+% Christians, the 10-player bible study group represents under 20% of the 53-player roster. Naturally, more players are Christian than attend the study group, but is having a couple handfuls of very devout players unexpected? Or simply reflective of the population from which players are drawn?

Clearly, not all NFL players are Christian, or even religious. Tebow’s requests for others to join him in prayer have not always been welcome, for instance. I have not been able to find, in any journals of sport, psychology, & religion, any information as to actual numbers–are professional (american) football players any more religious than anyone else? (Vyse reports that superstition is more prevalent among better athletes–more chances to pair success with a superstitious behavior, so no surprise there–but there are good reasons to suspect that athletic superstitions are quite different from institutionalized superstition.)

I have written before about this silliness. At least, I always assumed it was silliness to think that praying about football would matter–especially when fans and players on opposite sides desire opposite outcomes–but no less than William Lane Craig assures us that nothing is too trivial for God:

I think the overriding thing I want to say is God’s providence rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event. That includes every fumble, every catch, every run. All of these things are in the providence of God, and therefore, we should not think that these things are a matter of indifference. These are of importance to God as well even though they seem trivial.

And I don’t want to hear about praying for everybody to be safe and uninjured, and to do their best. If you wanted them safe and uninjured, enough to do more than to pay lip service, there are real world things that can be done. As is, the very hits likely to be cheered the most also happen to be the ones most likely to cause brain injury.

Which cannot be treated with prayer.


Scannily, cannily,
Use pretty pictures to
Search for the mind;

Sadly, it’s no more than
Looking for lumps of a
Different kind

I think if I read one more article using fMRI (or any other brain scan) to find the substrate for this that or the other experiential phenomenon, I may have to hurt somebody.

And not just because it is technologically inadequate; it is also that they are looking at the wrong thing. What we call “mind” is not (and, I would wager all my ink, can never be) found in snapshots of the brain–it is extended both in time and space. Don’t get me wrong–I am not proposing any sort of supernatural mind, of non-physical stuff; rather, that which we call mind is inferred from our own and others’ behavior, as we and they interact with a changing world over time. Such things are no more reducible to instantaneous brain states than “War and Peace” is reducible to a limerick.

Ken Ham Clearly Doesn’t Believe (I Hope)

So I was just out walking the cuttledogs, and it occurred to me that the whole notion of a Noah’s Ark Theme Park showed either an incredible lack of belief on the part of the planners, or a psychopathic lack of empathy.

I mean, it’s a theme park. Think Disney. But it’s built around the greatest (by percentage, at least, if not in real numbers) genocide in history (assuming, for the time being, that the planners actually believe the Noah story). Men, women, children, toddlers, babies… dogs, cats, horses, cows… bunnies, slow lorises, baby hedgehogs… all of them, bloated, stinking corpses. Family fun for everyone! (seriously, click the link–this is what the flood ride would be, were it true to the bible)

One simply cannot have a realistic picture of what the flood allegedly entailed, and believe it appropriate for a family theme park. Ham either does not believe, or lacks any shred of empathy whatsoever.

It gets worse. Remember, the ark was the centerpiece of the park, but was by no means the whole thing. There would be rides. Remember, one of the rides (I shit you not) was (again, think Disney, but on acid) a “Ten Plagues Of Egypt” theme ride! Family fun, with blisters and boils, locusts and lice, blood and death! (Again, click the link for one of my favorites–no one who believed the story would ever suggest it as a theme park ride!)

Imagine a much smaller genocide, with a much smaller fraction of the world’s population put to slaughter. Can you imagine a family-friendly Holocaust theme park? Hop on the trains, kiddies? It sickened me to write that last sentence, and yet I wrote the verses at the two links above–what’s the difference?

The difference is, I believe (I was going to write “I know”, but I’ll settle for the weaker “I believe”) that the bible’s account is false. It’s fiction. It didn’t happen. There were no real victims (well… belief in “the curse of Ham” was not victimless), so I can write about bloated bodies and plagues of locusts. It’s simple–I don’t believe. The only ones who could treat such a genocide lightly are those who don’t believe. Those for whom the flood, and the ten plagues, are nothing more than a chance to fleece those who do believe.




I do wonder, though, who would invest, and who would want such a thing built. Is everyone so mercenary? Are there any true believers who think the Ark Park is appropriate? And why?

Nonhuman Rights On Trial

An octopus solves puzzles;
A chimpanzee can add
An elephant expresses
When it’s happy or it’s sad

A finch that’s after grub-worms
Uses twigs and thorns as tools
We thought them foolish animals
They showed us we’re the fools

A honeybee has language, and
A cunning corvid plans—
Though different in important ways
From those we know as Man’s

The differences grow smaller, though,
So don’t yet raise a cup;
Today’s report is sobering….
The apes have lawyered up.

From the NYTimes article:

The Nonhuman Rights Project, an advocacy group led by Steven M. Wise, filed writs of habeas corpus in New York last week on behalf of four captive chimpanzees: Tommy, owned by a Gloversville couple; two at Stony Brook University; and one at the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. The lawsuits were dismissed, but Mr. Wise said he planned to appeal.

I was going to make a snarky comment about how we can surely afford to give animals all the rights and courtesies we give one another, simply because humans are so terrible to each other already… then I remembered the last circus I went to. And the last local “animal park”. And it took all the snark right out of me.

If Obama’s An Atheist, He’s Sure Got A Funny Way Of Showing It

I’m certain Obama’s an atheist
The clues are all there, if you search—
Like the way he supports public praying
And the way he has long gone to church
His support for the faith-based initiatives
And his scripture reflections each day
Yes, I’m certain Obama’s an atheist
Cos the clues are all there on display.

You’ve likely heard by now–Richard Dawkins, on Bill Maher’s show, expressed his confidence that President Obama is actually an atheist… which, in the context of the show, put him in the company of other good atheists… like Pope Francis.

It all makes sense now. The Obama administration’s support of town council prayers in Greece, NY, is part of an elaborate scheme to disguise Obama’s atheism so that he can be elected for a third term…

When Oprah denied Diana Nyad’s atheism, the godless movers and shakers didn’t much like it. You don’t get to simultaneously deny and appropriate someone else’s beliefs when you can’t wrap your head around the fact that someone you admire holds views you disagree with. This goes for Oprah, and it goes for Dawkins and Maher, too.

For my thinking, I really don’t care what Obama (or Diana Nyad) believes; I care what he (or she) does. When they do admirable things, I admire those accomplishments; when they do deplorable things, I deplore them. People are complex; few, if any, are all good or all bad. Looking at actions, rather than pinning a label on the actors, allows us to recognize the good and the bad, and hopefully support the former and not the latter–in those we admire and in those we… not so much.

What? You Disagree With Me?

Professor Cuttlefish? I’m scared;
I feel I might be unprepared—
I understand your point, but see,
I think I disagree!

My other classes share a view
That isn’t really shared by you
It sometimes feels like splitting hairs,
But really, I like theirs!

I’ve got this fear I cannot mask
So, much as I’m afraid to ask,
Still, all in all, I think it best…
Will this be on the test?

I don’t mean will it just be there—
Of course it will, I’m well aware—
But will it cost me points? A few?
To disagree with you?

Your other classes disagree—
With what you’ve learned, so far, from me;
It’s possible, of course, they might
Just have the view that’s right

It could just be that I am wrong—
I’ve been deluded all along—
Succumbing to some oversight
And you could set me right

The only thing that I demand
Is that you truly understand;
To know that what I mean is this
Before you just dismiss.

And if your answers represent
The point of view I really meant
While disagreeing anyway…
You’ll still have earned your “A”

And when, sometime, you recognize
Your other profs are telling lies
About my different point of view…
Then (really!), good for you!

Based on a comment from a student this week, but changed and distorted beyond any recognition, cos I don’t like to write about my real life.

How Could Anyone Disagree?

I have grown quite accustomed
To freethinking sorts
So I’m used to the things that we say
The atheist angle
On latest reports
Or our spin on the news of the day;
A breadth of opinion
(It’s quite a broad mix)
And a thorough review of the laws
With proper attention
To article six
And of course, the establishment clause
When political figures
(The folks we’ve elected)
Are shown to be pandering fools
And it’s clear they don’t care
That all rights are protected
When Christian majority rules
…And I think to myself,
“It’s so blatant; so clear;
How could any clear mind disagree?”
But a couple of clicks
And reality’s here:
It’s depressing and grim. Look and see.

So, yeah. You’ve likely seen coverage of the struggle for atheist chaplains around the atheist blogosphere. I’ve written about it a number of times, as have others on FtB and Patheos, and on unaffiliated atheist and legal blogs. It has also been covered, a bit less well, by the major media outlets–the comments there are fascinating, because they are so broad; you see people who argue with their hearts or their tribes first, those who don’t care what the law is, but what is right (this goes for people on both sides of the issue), and people who really know their constitutional law (and a small minority who know their right-wing talking points version of constitutional law; these are easily identified by their cries of “separation of church and state is not found in the constitution!” and “it’s freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion!”).

Even the Blaze, clearly opposed to atheist chaplains, has a handful of commenters who doggedly argue that true patriots and constitutional conservatives must accept that the government has no right to side with religion on this issue, that the constitution is clear–no religious test, and no establishment of religion.

My reading habits kept me in this bubble–I guess I thought that, maybe, Fox News or the Blaze were as concentrated populations of social conservatives as you might get. I was wrong. This is why I use an aggregator–to expose me to stuff I would not seek out on my own. Whereas the atheist blogosphere was admiring the courage of the young man who confronted Representative Burgess at an event in Texas, the good people at The Right Scoop title their story “GOP Rep. smacks down atheist college student who thinks the Army should have secular chaplains“. Ok, it’s not actually a story, but just the video you have probably already seen. These folks got it via the Blaze. But the story is not the important part–the comments are. I don’t know whether these people delete comments that disagree… but there aren’t any. It takes a lot to make the Blaze look reasonable, but these folks do it.

I know how easy it is to fall into the echo chamber trap–to read and watch only the sources that you agree with, and that support your views. Thing is, if you don’t subject your views to scrutiny, how do you know how they hold up against the real world? It is, at least in theory, every bit as easy for me to hear only what I want to, as it is for the Right Scoop commenters to stay in their echo chamber (the sites linked in their sidebar are a further demonstration). But it’s not good for your thinking.

There are arguments claims in their comments that are quite simply counterfactual, flimsy straw-people that would disintegrate in the slightest breeze… so that community invests quite a bit of effort in hermetically sealing their views. (And yes, I have seen similarly poor arguments on our side–but as a general rule, we also have people who really seem to enjoy tearing apart fallacies and skewering straw-men, even when they agree with the writers.)

Anyway, sorry for rambling–as Pascal said, I lacked the time to make it short. Classes start soon, and I must prioritize other things than this blog. Your take-away? Don’t just read the stuff you already agree with… or you’ll end up as ignorant as The Right Scoop.

Oh, Nothing, Really….

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
Why, their nothing has nothing at all
No time, and no space, and no matter,
Not even the quantumly small

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
It’s a special and magical word
But it isn’t the “nothing” that physicists see,
Cos the thing is, it must be inferred

Now, this doesn’t much bother philosophers
As a rule, they are rarely unnerved
But you see, this philosopher’s nothing?
It has never—not once—been observed

When philosophers argue religion
And their “nothing” implies a first cause…
If you get to assume your conclusions,
You’re not looking for natural laws

If the universe started from nothing
Which it can’t, the philosophers say
Either “nothing”, or “nothing”, is faulty
So… why swing the philosophers’ way?

There are two different versions of “nothing”
Which the sides have us choosing between
One version says God isn’t needed…
And the other has never been seen

So it’s “nothing” to fret about, really
(and “nothing” seems overly broad)
And there’s nothing that needs a creator…
But it works… if you presuppose God.

Y’know, I would swear I’ve already responded to this… but my aggregator says no. Lemme show you a video by Peter Kreeft, explaining that belief in god is more rational than atheism…

Yes, Kreeft starts with Aquinas, because the 1200′s are so modern.

Ok… I was going to go through the whole video, but I think maybe I’ll save that for later. I want to mention one other thing first.

Now… what was that?

Oh, yeah… nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, Krauss has a book out about nothing. And he’s pretty damned good at talking about it, I hear. But there are those who say he’s talking about an entirely different nothing than the philosophers are.

Which is the point of my little verse. See… Krauss’s “nothing” has the decided disadvantage of being observable. Philosophers need not restrict their nothings with such trivial matters. There is “nothing”, and then, there is “nothing”. One is easy to understand… but has never been observed. The other does not match our expectations, but does match the evidence.

There’s nothing, and then there is nothing. The philosophers’ “nothing” is an assumption, not an observation.

Really…. It’s nothing.


Thinkingly, winkingly,
Internet videos
Promise us puppies who
Patently plan;

Claim that it isn’t just
Clearly, these canines are
Thinking like Man

Over at NPR’s 13.7:Cosmos And Culture blog, Barbara J. King has another of her pieces on animal cognition. I very much enjoy these, even when I fundamentally disagree…like today.

The post is “Do Dogs Think?” (don’t jump too quickly–she explains her title very early on, and it is justified)–clearly, King is on the side of Yea. Which is fine–I also think dogs think… but I suspect that King and I differ on our conceptions of “thinking”. (I did comment at the article–I won’t reproduce those here.)

The trick is, the videos she uses to exemplify complex thought in dogs (at the link) are far too easily explained more “simply” in terms of conditioning (operant, in this case). Which gets me thinking, myself. First (as I say in my first comment, though not in these words), the videos necessarily narrow our focus onto an artificially brief segment of time; we cannot see the history of learning behind each performance. The segments end when the photographer wants them to, so we cannot see what happens next. Any editing of a segment of film may cut out important information; in this case, any trial and error, any shaping and differential reinforcement, that preceded the filmed incident.

(As an aside, the dear departed Cuttledog very cleverly put her paw on a plate to hold it still while she licked it clean. Very cleverly… until you realize that it took her 7 years to stumble on that little trick.)

King welcomed my skepticism, and asked whether it might be hypocritical (not her words!) to explain non-human behavior through conditioning, but not human. And she’d be right, except that a) I fully accept that human behavior (including thinking) is the product of our environmental histories, in a selectionist process many call “conditioning”, and b) I further assert that much of what our current view of human thought is, is utter balderdash. We are not able to feel ourselves thinking (no sensory neurons in the brain), so our introspective accounts are not a measure of our actual thinking, but rather a measure of the influence of our verbal community. For centuries, we have used a dualistic, mentalistic vocabulary (how often do you find the words “mind” or “mental” or “mentally” creeping into your sentences?), which does not correspond to what we know of the nervous system, let alone the interaction of our behavior with a dynamic environment.

So… Do animals think the way we think? I suspect that, very probably, they do. Do animals think the way that we think that we think? Almost certainly not. Do we think the way we think that we think? Again, almost certainly not. How do we think? Ah… an excellent question.