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Sep 27 2012

Plantinga and the Futility of Faith

I wrote the other day about Thomas Nagel’s review of Alvin Plantinga’s new book and the ignorance of evolution it betrayed. Sean Carroll also reviewed Nagel’s review, but he looks more at Plantinga’s ideas about faith and how untenable they are. Nagel wrote in his review:

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

Jerry Coyne points out the obvious:

Here Nagel misses a big opportunity: to point out that the sensus divinitatis is also operating improperly in every religion except Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists—you name them—have all perceived different truths with their sensi divinitati. So have the many sects of Mormons, as a reader noted yesterday. And apparently that sense didn’t exist (or wasn’t working right) in humans anywhere outside of Eurasia until fairly recently. God really screwed up here.

But Sean Carroll points out something equally important:

Plantinga is clearly trying to separate “faith” from merely “things we would like to believe are true” — faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God. Points for at least trying to offer a reason why we should put credence in beliefs based on faith even if the logic and/or evidence aren’t there…

So what about faith? Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.

The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”

There are two important things here. The first is that this is the kind of rhetorical trick Plantinga has long used. In previous books he has tried to define his beliefs as unreachable by reason by declaring them to be “properly basic.” Now he’s trying to insulate them from logical challenge by offering a very bad syllogism:

1. We know God exists because he planted the knowledge of his existence in our minds.
2. In my mind, I know God exists.
3. Therefore, God exists. And the fact that lots of people don’t have that God-infused knowledge does not, in any way, make the first premise suspect.

Voila, heads he wins and tails you lose.

But the portion in bold above is also very important, and it’s an argument I’ve been making for years. Faith defends every position equally well. Faith, whether of the traditional kind or Plantinga’s new idea of “God-implanted knowledge,” provides no means at all of distinguishing between true and false claims. Plantinga’s definition of faith as God-implanted knowledge is clearly not falsifiable; it is a pretext, not a serious argument.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    Why does anyone take Plantinga seriously? Sure, he’s “top notch” for an apologist, but that’s like being a highly-respected village idiot.

  2. 2
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary.

    And the real problem begins when God wants you to kill those people over there.

  3. 3
    Akira MacKenzie

    How quickly do terms get redefined by theists. I recall that the term “original sin” used to refer to Adam and Eve disobeying the cosmic tyrant’s command not to eat of the fruit from the magical apple/fig/pomegrante/carrot tree. Now, in a desperate attempt NOT to look like Creationist imbiciles, mainstream Christians have given Aquinas the boot and redefined original sin to mean our ability to do evil–whatever “evil” means.

    Platinga seems to be doing the same for the word “Faith.” No longer does it mean “something believed without (or, often times, in spite of) evidence” but “information magically beamed into a believer’s head by the celestial dictator.”

    Well, they don’t call the field “apologetics” for nothing, I suppose.

  4. 4
    Deen

    Plantinga is one of the prime examples that show how much modern theology has lowered its ambitions. They no longer look for arguments to convince non-believers into believing. They hardly work to find arguments to convince believers their beliefs are reasonable anymore either. Instead, all they can offer are hypothetical scenarios – never mind how likely or unlikely – under which a believer might not be totally crazy to hold on to their beliefs.

  5. 5
    DuWayne

    When I was about fourteen and just starting to engage in more than experimental drug use and not infrequent sexual liaisons, I came to Believe that God wanted me to smoke pot, use hallucinogens and have sex. I both rationalized it *and* believed that God somehow imparted this understanding to me. I couldn’t simply rationalize it and move on, I absolutely needed to *know* it was God’s will – due to the rather extreme nature of the dogma I followed at the time. I suspect that this was really the foundation for my subsequent 18 year struggle between my Beliefs and reality. Once I accepted the premise that God imparted knowledge to me – sort of downloaded it into my brain, it was relatively simple to just create my dogmatic structure, ignoring anything that was inconvenient.

    Honestly, I am not sure whether this was good or bad. It’s impossible for me to say what would have happened without it, though I have a feeling the onset of atheism would have come considerably sooner. At the same time, because I was able to adjust my religion to such a profound degree, I was able to reject outright the vile aspects of Christianity. At the same time, I struggled for almost two decades, before finally rejecting religion. And while such thinking might liberalize the faith of some, imbue it with a healthy dose of reality, it absolutely helps foster faith in many who might otherwise reject it.

    Given the prevalence of religion in U.S. culture however, I suspect that the trade-off is worth it…At least for now.

  6. 6
    Akira MacKenzie

    EDIT: Plantinga, sorry.

  7. 7
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    I’ve used the bankrupt epistemology of faith as an argument against belief for many years. Not necessarily against God, but against any kind of belief in God — or at least, any kind of faith-based knowledge of the properties of God.

    Can there be some kind of Spinozan deity? Sure. But we can know nothing about it. Anything we think we might know is not just suspect, but remains in the epistemic realm of “indistinguishable from shit we just made up.”

    Plantinga is more than aware of this argument against him. He is being completely disingenuous when he uses this argument to support his particular faith. In fact, it’s quite apparent he’s simply projecting his own cognitive dissonance in his arguments.

    Nagel:

    (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

    If Nagel is correct here, I question Plantinga’s sincerity. Our trust in the existence of the external world is the most basic necessary condition to have any kind of epistemology whatsoever. It is contingent, but reaffirmed every time multiple people report the same events (even if the interpretation of said events differ). Every time we mutually agree on observation, we affirm the reality of “external” world. (I quibble with the word “external,” as we are inherently a part of that world.)

    Any other interpretation (brain in a jar, objects in a computer simulation, delusion) leaves us without a basis for objective knowledge. Might we be a brain in a jar? Sure. But that objective reality leaves us with no option for gaining knowledge. Further, every time an hypothesis is confirmed, it also reaffirms objective existence.

    There is no similar requirement for the necessity of a god. Plantinga must know this, or he might consider turning in his title of Philosopher. Refraining from addressing rational proofs of God (even his own attempted proofs) is a feint, a way to avoid either presenting the arguments against those proofs, or from appearing intellectually dishonest when failing to present arguments against those proofs. Instead, it appears Plantinga presents a false equivalence between the necessity of objective reality, and the necessity of a god.

    This false equivalence is the core fallacy of his entire argument. (It seems to be the core fallacy of most arguments for the existence of God, really.) It’s not that his proposed epistemology is flawed (though it is). His entire metaphysics is based on the fallacy of false equivalence.

    At least, that’s how I see it. I’m not a philosopher, so I might be wrong.

  8. 8
    Akira MacKenzie

    “You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary.”

    Isn’t odd then that theists love to use that smarmy cliché about “if you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything.”

  9. 9
    timberwoof

    This argument of Plantinga’s is not new. I heard it from another schoolboy at a Catholic school in France when I was ix years old. It didn’t make sense to me back then either.

  10. 10
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    Someone tell Coyne that the plural of sensus divinitatis is sensus divinitatis*. “Sensi divinitati” is a barbarism.

    ——————
    * sensus is 4th declension and forms its plural by lengthening the final vowel.
    divinitatis is a genitive and means “of divinity”; if you wanted to make it plural (which you shouldn’t), it would be divinitatum, “of divinities”.

  11. 11
    Marcus Ranum

    Platinga seems to be doing the same for the word “Faith.” No longer does it mean “something believed without (or, often times, in spite of) evidence” but “information magically beamed into a believer’s head by the celestial dictator.”

    You can get there from “Faith” – you’re having faith that what appears to be being beamed into your head is not simply your own crazed imaginings.

    Usually when arguing with that kind of faithbot, I ask them how they can accurately distinguish god’s beamed messages from “mistakes” – by asking them “Have you ever experienced making a mistake? You know, where you walk along believing X is true but suddenly some additional bit of information makes you realize you were completely wrong? Or dreaming, in which you seem to think you believe X, but wake up and realize it was just your brain chugging along while you were asleep? How do you tell that from the messages from god?”

  12. 12
    eric

    Carroll is treating this seriously as a new or different methodology. Kudos for him for staying high brow, but its really nothing of the sort. Its just the Argument from Authority repackaged.

    Here’s why: Platinga claims we can gain knowledge directly from this sensus divinitatis, but when two people gain contradictory knowledge from their SD’s, or someone gains knowledge that is contradictory to Plantinga’s, he’s going to use an argument from authority to resolve the contradiction.

    It will go something like this:

    Plantinga: “My SD tells me to help person X.”
    Person A: “Well, my SD tells me to kill person X.”
    Plantinga: “That’s not your SD, that’s something else.”
    A: “How do you know?”
    Plantinga: “Because I say/the pope says/the bible says God wouldn’t send you such a message.”

    Its just an extra layer put on top of the standard authoritarianism.

  13. 13
    Michael Heath

    Thomas Nagel writes:

    God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

    That’s laugh-out-loud funny, especially the second sentence. I don’t know who this Nagel fellow is but he appears to have the same capacity for critical thought as Victoria Jackson.

    I wonder if one can buy a sensus divinitatis measurement device at Amazon. Does it come with advice on how to get one’s sensus back if no divinitatis is found? Who holds the world record for having the most sensus divinitatis? Is there a correlation between the amount of sensus divinitatis one has and their ability to get attractive strangers to have sex with them?

    Have I crossed skepticon’s line regarding the prohibition to not “verbally harass” an individual based on their religion and now must go? If not what do I need to state that would get me across that line?

  14. 14
    Subtract Hominem, a product of Nauseam

    1. We know God exists because he planted the knowledge of his existence in our minds.
    2. In my mind, I know God exists.
    3. Therefore, God exists.

    Or, for those who are not quite as hard of thinking:

    1. I believe God exists because there’s a feeling that God exists in my mind.
    2. In my mind, I know God exists.
    3. Therefore, my mind exists.
    4. Ergo sum.

  15. 15
    rbh3

    Marcus Ranum wrote

    You can get there from “Faith” – you’re having faith that what appears to be being beamed into your head is not simply your own crazed imaginings.

    One of the scariest books I’ve read recently is T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. It tells how some evangelicals consciously and purposefully train themselves to interpret one or another internal ‘voice’ as being God’s voice. That is, they train themselves to interpret one of the many competing trains of thought we all have as being God speaking directly to their mind/brain. For example, see How to hear God’s voice inside:

    Self-reliance on your spiritual path? Read on to learn what you gain by learning how to hear God’s voice as a conversational voice within you!

    That way lies delusion.

  16. 16
    Gretchen

    That’s laugh-out-loud funny, especially the second sentence. I don’t know who this Nagel fellow is but he appears to have the same capacity for critical thought as Victoria Jackson.

    Nagel is an atheist. What you quoted was his interpretation of Plantinga’s argument.

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    It tells how some evangelicals consciously and purposefully train themselves to interpret one or another internal ‘voice’ as being God’s voice.

    Yup. It’s pretty creepy stuff. But it’s no different from listening to Led Zeppelin backwards and convincing myself that Jimmy Page’s guitar is telling me to buy stock in Facebook. :)

    All these cheese-brains are doing is convincing themselves that they are right about something, without going to the actual trouble of looking for evidence that they are right. One could fairly easily demonstrate it to them by having them listen to the voices in their head and bet on a series of fair coin-tosses. Wanna bet god wants them to score approximately 50/50%?

    Oddly, people’s “sensus divinatus” falls silent when it comes to anything that is objectively measurable. Or, if it ventures any information, it appears to lack “divine” knowledge and performs as well as the individual, or chance. Which argues strongly that it’s: the individual, or chance.

  18. 18
    Sastra

    As far as I can tell ALL religions and spiritualities rely on the existence of some form of ESP (extra-sensory perception) just as much as they embrace Mind as a sort of independent entity or force. As eric points out in #12, this ends up turning into an Argument from Authority which can’t be questioned. In believing in an all-powerful, all-knowing God which communicates through ESP, they end up taking on a bit of God’s infallibility.

    If you look at how faith-as-method frames the issue, they can’t be wrong without God being wrong. Their supposed faith in God is actually reduced to an ultimate faith in themselves. They’ve placed themselves beyond correction. They’ve placed themselves beyond the critical objections of other people.

    I think a good part of the confusion which allows this to happen has to do with a failure to distinguish between a direct experience … and an interpretation of a direct experience. Their thinking is sloppy. If your head hurts then nobody can tell you that you don’t have a headache. Right. You know. You know it directly. But if you assume your headache is being caused by a brain tumor then you CAN be wrong about that. You’re not getting direct knowledge of the cause of the experience. Someone telling you that no, you don’t have a brain tumor isn’t telling you that you can’t know for sure if your head hurts or not. You’re making an inference while ignoring alternatives which you might not be able to spot as well as someone on the outside can — like a giant ice pick sticking out of the back of your skull.

    This lazy and self-indulgent assumption that the person having an experience is of course always the best person to know how to interpret the experience is what places the person of faith above both the skeptics and skepticism itself. It effectively rips out the common ground where you can be corrected, learn, and grow wiser by calling the refusal to do so “humility.” You’ve got ESP because you’re submissive, sensitive, and open. You’re just a receptacle for the divine, a conduit for channeling God’s own self-knowledge into yourself. Question this, you question God. If others question this, then they also question God. It’s as if you’re not there anymore. You’re so small you and your fallibility can just be ignored.

    That’s dangerous stuff. It’s dangerous whether it comes from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, New Age, neopaganism or any other supernatural system which works on the assumption that ESP exists, you have it, and your critics do not. When the special revelation is benign or reasonable it is only so as judged by the nonbeliever. But it needn’t meet that standard. Hell, It shouldn’t meet that standard because that standard is too low. Whatever is revealed, has to exceed what can makes sense to all, with and without faith, with and without the sensus divinitatus.

    That leaves the person of faith with the option of either making batshit claims no rational empiricist in the world would agree with (with no brakes on how far these claims might go) — or claiming that a reasonable person without faith is an oxymoron. Both those choices are divisive, and dangerous.

    I think Plantinga is simply articulating what all spiritual believers believe. They have ESP. How else could God or Spirit communicate? What else could grant them such certainty?

  19. 19
    kosk11348

    Instead, all [theologians] can offer are hypothetical scenarios – never mind how likely or unlikely – under which a believer might not be totally crazy to hold on to their beliefs.

    And they are still failing at even that.

  20. 20
    Taz

    God Nature endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis bullshiticus . . . (In atheists theists the sensus divinitatis bullshiticus is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

  21. 21
    Stacy

    Thomas Nagel writes:

    God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.

    That’s Plantinga’s argument, not Nagel’s.

    That’s laugh-out-loud funny, especially the second sentence. I don’t know who this Nagel fellow is but he appears to have the same capacity for critical thought as Victoria Jackson.

    You don’t know who Thomas Nagel is? Seriously?

    Comparing Nagel to Victoria Jackson is pretty idiotic.

  22. 22
    Michael Heath

    Stacy writes to me:

    You don’t know who Thomas Nagel is? Seriously?

    Comparing Nagel to Victoria Jackson is pretty idiotic.

    No, it’s ignorant, not idiotic. There is a difference, where Ed’s blog post was not clear who was being quoted where I know neither person and in spite of your reaction, consider myself pretty well read on some subjects where no one I’ve ever met is well-read on all. The comment I asserted was idiotic would be hard to defend as anything but idiotic.

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