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Jun 13 2012

I can only read Plantinga for the lulz

In a review of a new book by Alvin Plantinga, Christopher Tollefsen claims that Plantinga, “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”, has “systematically dismantled…the claims of the new atheists”. I think we can take that about as seriously as his assessment of Crazy Alvin’s status as a philosopher.

I have zero interest in Plantinga’s “philosophy” — what I’ve read of it convinces me that it’s nothing but deranged Christian apologetics gussied up in academic dress, and the words of Plantinga himself pretty much have persuaded me that I couldn’t address him without frequent invocations of the frolics of shithouse rats. But I am interested in how these gyring rodents see the New Atheists — it’s always such an easy confirmation that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The claim of the new atheists is that Darwin’s “Dangerous idea,” as Dennett calls it, proves that there is no divine agency responsible for the world. As Dennett explains, “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” But the claims of Darwin show no such thing: even if Darwinism accurately identifies the mechanism by which evolution has occurred, Plantinga notes, “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

The emphasis is there in the review; the first sentence just sings with ignorance. Here they are, carping at those New Atheists, and the first thing they say about them is blatantly false: no New Atheist claims to have a disproof of any god. We’re extremely forthright about saying it, too: Richard Dawkins explicitly laid out a scale of belief in The God Delusion, and it seems that every ferocious critic of that book never bothered to read it, because they were all stunned when Dawkins repeated the same thing on television: we don’t have absolute certainty about the nonexistence of a deity. We’re very confident that you might as well go on about your life as if gods don’t exist, but that’s about it.

Plantinga’s reservations at the end of that paragraph are also very silly. Evolution is the mechanism by which species have been shaped throughout the history of the world, and that is a fact; we can concede that there are other mechanisms besides natural selection (and in fact, we study them), and that one possibility, offered so far without evidence, is that intelligent entities have manipulated our ancestors. We don’t think it’s likely or necessary, but OK, it’s possible that one could find evidence supporting such a scenario.

As for Plantinga’s assertion that intelligence was required to create the diversity of life we have, well, please Alvin, at least wipe your filthy feet before spasming out on the carpet.

But there are things that I, as a New Atheist, am certain about, even if I remain open to the possibility of evolutionary interventionists of an undefined nature.

I am certain that “god” is a useless term. It’s utterly incoherent; some people babble about the god of the Christian Bible, which is an anthropomorphic being with vast magic powers and the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth. Others talk about an all-pervasive force in the universe, or use meaningless phrases like “the ground state of all being”, or chatter about a reified emotion like “love”. The really annoying thing about discussions with these people is that they’ll cheerfully switch definitions on you in mid-stream. Getting battered because the whole concept of an omnipotent being existing in the form of an Iron Age patriarch in the sky is silly? No problem! Just announce that god is everywhere and in you and that god is love. Trying hard to justify your regressive social policies using an amorphous principle like love, and finding the atheists turning the whole principle of benignity back on you? No problem! Just announce that god so loved us that he became a man, and if you’re opponents reject that concept, they’ll be thrown into Hell by God the Judge.

Plantinga is an excellent example of this theological muddle. On the one hand, he wants to argue for a cosmos-spanning Mind; on the other, a bigoted narrow being with a chosen race and a preferred position for sexual intercourse, who wants to be cosseted and praised for all eternity. Pick a clear definition for god, and be consistent about it, please. And then persuade all the other theologians that your definition is the correct one. Then come argue with the atheists when you know what the hell you’re talking about.

I am certain that theists have no credible evidence for their claims. Oh, sure, they can say their holy book says so, which is a kind of weak evidence; they can recite anecdotes; they can point to people who believe. But that’s about it, and it’s not adequate. I want to see independently verifiable empirical evidence that can be assessed independently of one’s sociocultural background; I want to see the stuff that would convince a Christian that Islam is an accurate description of the universe, or vice versa, and that would persuade a scientist that here’s some preliminary support for a phenomenon that is worth pursuing. Theologians don’t have that. They’ve never had that.

Religions have grown most often by the sword, or by fostering fear and emotional dependency, or by hijacking secular institutions and forcing beliefs on others, but they never expand by right of reason. Why isn’t a specific god-belief a universal, like mathematics or physics? Because unlike math or physics, religion doesn’t actually deliver on its promises. The power of religion has always been in psychological manipulation of the human mind, empowering a priesthood at the expense of genuine human advancement and understanding.

I am certain that evolution occurred. The evidence is in; the process occurred and is occurring, there are no known barriers to natural processes producing modern life from proto-life/chemistry over the course of 3.8 billion years, and all the evidence we do have shows modern forms being incrementally modified versions of earlier forms. We don’t know all the details, of course, and just maybe someone somewhere could discover a real hurdle that could not have been overcome without intelligent aid, but I know for a fact that no creationist has ever come up with a defensible objection, and that nearly all the creationists who pontificate so ponderously on the impossibility of biology, Plantinga among them, always turn out to be profoundly ignorant of the science. There’s a good inverse correlation between knowledge of biology and certainty that evolution can’t work.

So Plantinga-style arguments, that evolution cannot occur without intelligent guidance, therefore god, leave me cold. They begin with a false premise, easily refuted by the evidence, and therefore the credibility of their entire line of reasoning collapses. This true of all of the Intelligent Design creationism arguments that rest on showing natural selection (it’s the only mechanism they’ve heard of, sadly) doesn’t work, therefore you have to accept the only other alternative they offer, which is godly intervention. Not only is it bad science, it’s bad logic.

Unfortunately for them, the alternative to taking potshots at an explanation that works is to provide specific positive evidence for design, and they can’t do that. For instance, they could say, “My designer enhanced human brain performance by introducing a specific allele of microcephalin into select populations 37,000 years ago”, but then they’d have to face those awkward, demanding questions from scientists: “How do you know? What’s your evidence? Why couldn’t natural mechanisms of genetic variance have produced that specific allele?” And we know they can’t cope with those questions, because their only reason for believing that is that they wish it were so.

That’s all Plantinga has got: a peculiar historical myth-figure that he can’t define without making his whole enterprise look ridiculous, a total lack of reasonable objective evidence to support his myth, and a reliance on criticizing a science he doesn’t understand in the hope that if he stirs up enough doubt, people will cling to his myth rather than all the other myths swirling about in the confusion of his own creation. It’s pathetic. And this is from “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”? How sad that would be for philosophy, if it were true.

101 comments

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  1. 1
    Anthony K

    “My designer enhanced human brain performance by introducing a specific allele of microcephalin into select populations 37,000 years ago”

    Boy, god-claims have gotten subtler over the years. Remember when it was all “Let there be light” and blowing up whole cities and turning people into pillars of salt?

    You’ve come a long way, baby apologists!

  2. 2
    Kevin

    Pick a clear definition for god, and be consistent about it, please.

    I actually ask for something more than a definition of god. I ask for a description of its ontology.

    What is it? Not what does it do…what’s it made of?

    How do you know what it’s made of? According to what authority? Why should we believe that authority? What evidence is there for the ontological properties you describe?

    It’s a ‘spirit’? What is a spirit made of? Surely not protons, neutrons and electrons. So what, then? ‘Energy’? What kind of energy? What source? What medium does it use to act in the universe? How do you know?

    I’ve been asking for a description of god’s ontology for the better part of a decade and every time I ask, I get back-pedaling or worse.

    Mainly, though, I get conflicting descriptions of the being’s attributes. All-powerful and yet allowing evil. All-knowing and yet allowing humans free will. All-loving except for those who ‘sin’ or don’t believe in it.

    Sorry no. First describe what it is, define how you came to this conclusion, and tell me how I or any other interested or skeptical person can check your work.

    Then we can start the conversation. Until then, it’s your imaginary friend.

  3. 3
    throwaway

    Yet another variation of “the puddle fits the hole so precisely therefore the hole must have been divinely created.” Ahhh, sophisticated theology, how trite it is.

  4. 4
    Randomfactor

    What the theory of evolution by natural selection DID, is kick out one of the last props the goddists were using to hold up their arguments.

    I have strong suspicions that Thomas Jefferson expressed a belief in deism because he didn’t have any other answer for the question “how did we get here?” Likewise for the solar system/galaxy’s existence (let alone the universe as a whole.)

    Sit Jefferson down today with a good high-school textbook covering evolution and the big bang (if you can find one, or just use “The Magic of Reality”) and then ask him if there’s any other reason for a deistic stance.

  5. 5
    quatguy

    Game, set, match! ………unless you are blinded to reality by lies and your “faith” in them.

  6. 6
    kc9oq

    The theists had better pray to their non-existent god that no proof of his existence ever materializes because if it did it would put them out of business. With proof there’s no need for faith and faith is big, big, big business. Lots of folks would lose their livelihood if god were proven to be real.

  7. 7
    Alverant

    “the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth”
    I have to ask, have you seen an 8-year-old on meth?

  8. 8
    raven

    It’s utterly incoherent; some people babble about the god of the Christian Bible, which is an anthropomorphic being with vast magic powers and the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth.

    You say that like it is a bad thing.

    If the xian god existed, he would be as obvious and noncontroversial as trees, rocks, or water.

  9. 9
    rayndeonx

    I don’t think Plantinga’s arguments can be dismissed that easily. I think there are problems with the EAAN, but the epistemological questions he raises are useful I think. For a good review of the book, see http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/31324-where-the-conflict-really-lies-science-religion-and-naturalism/ Chapter nine and ten of his book are the most interesting, and arguably most substantive chapters.

  10. 10
    Zeno

    If I recall my childhood correctly, 8-year-olds need no meth to be incoherent and emotionally unstable. And I was a model child.

  11. 11
    Sean Sherman

    Philosophers I know say he is known for epistemology. From what I’ve heard they dismiss his theistic arguments. What I’d like to know is how one argues from deism -> christianity.

  12. 12
    Gregory Greenwood

    rayndeonx @ 9;

    I don’t think Plantinga’s arguments can be dismissed that easily.

    I must disagree here – until the likes of Plantinga can actually consistently and credibly define this loose, amorphous god concept they keep going on about, and then provide solid, empirical evidence of its existence, there really is no case to answer.

    The rest is simply empty semantic maneuvering.

  13. 13
    feralboy12

    I don’t think Plantinga’s arguments can be dismissed that easily.

    They just were. What, you haven’t been paying attention?
    Granted, they might not be as easy to dismiss as the Bible, but what is?
    If Yahweh was real, he’d get fired for managerial incompetence. Mistakes, lack of institutional control, that massive recall. Sheer incompetence.

  14. 14
    R Johnston

    “the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth”
    I have to ask, have you seen an 8-year-old on meth?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=R4od4QQVK1o#!

  15. 15
    Anthony K

    Look how gently God’s toe nudges this slime mould to optimise Japanese rail networks.

    I mean, you can’t prove he didn’t.

    Checkmate, atheists.

    [Earns all theology degrees ever.]

  16. 16
    Nick Gotts

    I don’t think Plantinga’s arguments can be dismissed that easily. – rayndeonx

    Why the fuck should we care what you think? If you can’t express what you consider to be valuable about them here, at least in outline, why should we bother to follow your link?

    I think there are problems with the EAAN

    It’s a leading contender for the stupidest argument produced by a professional philosopher in the last century – and that’s saying something.

    but the epistemological questions he raises are useful I think.

    Again, why the fuck should we care what you think?

  17. 17
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I don’t think Plantinga’s arguments can be dismissed that easily.

    And so it begins…

    I expect Kel will be arriving shortly.

  18. 18
    PZ Myers

    For a good review of the book, see http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/31324-where-the-conflict-really-lies-science-religion-and-naturalism/ Chapter nine and ten of his book are the most interesting, and arguably most substantive chapters.

    You know what I hate? I just know that if I go to the trouble of reading those two chapters, what I will find is a charnel house of prolix bullshit, and reading it will only make me more disgusted with theology.

  19. 19
    Nick Gotts

    Despite what I said above, I have followed your link. As expected, it provides no reason whatever to take anything Plantinga says seriously. The man’s a blithering idiot.

  20. 20
    nooneinparticular

    raydeonx

    I read the review by Paul Draper from Purdue U. There is a lot of turd polishing going on there but also some insight into Plantinga’s thesis, such as it is.

    But I was struck by this passage;

    “Instead, his main project in chapters seven and eight is to show how discourse about design can support theism even if no design arguments are sound. He points out that design beliefs are often formed in the basic way instead of by inferring them from other beliefs. It’s hard, for example, to read Behe’s descriptions of various biochemical machines and not feel any inclination at all to believe they are designed. Does this support theism? If it is assumed that Christian theism is true, then it is likely according to Plantinga that the sensus divinitatis is operating here and that in fact design discourse provides very strong support, not just for intelligent design, but specifically for theism. “

    *blink* *blink*

    “…discourse about design can support theism even if no design arguments are sound.”

    Did he really just say that?

    Then Plantigina’s argument here is nothing more than wishful thinking. Really? Is this passage by Draper an accurate description? I dunno. I haven’t read the book (and I don’t intend to…far more important things for me to do). But if so, Plantigina is basically saying that even if the evidence (arguments) for design are not sound, amazement at the complexity of a biochemical pathway is itself evidence for a god.

    *sheeesh*

    These guys keep chasing their god into smaller and smaller hidey-holes, don’t they? Pretty soon, one would hope, their god would, in their own minds, disappear in a poof of irrelevancy.

    Somehow I doubt that will happen.

  21. 21
    karlvonmox

    Im glad PZ said that the word “God” is utterly useless in describing anything – I think this is a point that too many non-theists usually concede. All too often we talk about “God” as if the word has a coherent meaning, but when you really examine the concept its completely unintelligible and vacuous.

    Ask any theist what “God” actually is and you will get a series of contradictions (something cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent at the same time, for example) and empty explanations (such as, “beyond matter”, “beyond space time”, etc, as if these statements have any real meaning). Its like saying you believe in a square circle, or simply making up a word and saying you believe in it (i.e., I believe in a unie!).

  22. 22
    No One

    Read the Plantgyno link. It boils down to “god could have done it and you can’t prove otherwise”.

    Big fucking deal.

  23. 23
    Nick Gotts

    Here’s what the review linked to by rayndeonx says about chapter 9:

    Philosophers of religion should find chapter nine (“Deep Concord”) to be of considerable interest. Plantinga describes in detail a variety of ways in which our cognitive faculties match the world and shows that the possibility or success of science depends on this match. Further, he argues plausibly for the position that, by appealing to the image of God doctrine, theists can account for this match. Naturalists, on the other hand, lack the resources to explain it (evolution is inadequate if not irrelevant here) and so must regard this multi-faceted match, implausibly, as just blind luck. Plantinga draws the provocative conclusion that theism, not naturalism, deserves to be called the “scientific worldview.

    It is utterly absurd – indeed breathtakingly stupid – to claim that evolution by natural selection cannot explain how “our cognitive faculties match the world”, and that naturalists must therefore regard this match as “blind luck”. Of course it is advantageous, other things being equal, for our perceptual apparatus to provide us with accurate information about the world, and for our reasoning faculties to allow us to draw correct conclusions from premises. Plantinga’s favourite example is that of running from a tiger: he claims that it would be just as advantageous for the tiger’s potential prey to believe that the tiger wants to play a chasing game, and to run away in the spirit of the game, as to believe correctly that it was intent on killing and eating one; and that therefore natural selection cannot account for the reliable formation of the latter belief. But of course if one believed the former, running away from the tiger would not be regarded as a top priority; nor would one be motivated to warn others of the tiger’s approach. Conversely, the belief that “God” has kindly provided us with reliable cognitive apparatus completely fails to account for all the cases where that apparatus is unreliable, such as visual illusions and cognitive biases, nor of the limitations on it, such as our feeble ablity to detect and distinguish odours, to detect the polarisation of light, and so forth. On a naturalistic view, of course, there is no such problem – because other things are not in general equal: with natural selection, there are always both resource constraints, and historical constraints, to take into account.

  24. 24
    Nick Gotts

    Then Plantigina’s argument here is nothing more than wishful thinking. – nooneinparticular

    Indeed: that’s all Plantinga’s so-called “reformed epistemology” amounts to. Your favourite belief has no evidence in its favour? Don’t worry! With Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology™, you just declare it a “properly basic belief” and you have “warrant” to believe it!

  25. 25
    frankensteinmonster

    “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

    Dear Mr Plantinga, it is also perfectly possible that your car’s engine is a non-functional mockup and the one who is really making the wheels turn is a little undetectable demon inside your gearbox who is using your own soul as fuel, slowly sucking you dry and turning you into creationist philosophical zombie.

  26. 26
    frankensteinmonster

    Then Plantigina’s argument here is nothing more than wishful thinking. Really?

    .
    More like justifying wishful thinking through indulging in the most radical sort of cognitive relativism.

  27. 27
    mbrysonb

    Just to ante up on the philosophy side here– Plantinga’s epistemological defense of belief has to be read to be believed: in outline, it appeals to original sin, arguing that we have a faculty which would, if it were in proper working order, deliver up a grasp of fundamental religious truths, including (of course) God’s existence. (This grasp is ‘properly basic’, i.e. not in need of any independent checks or confirmation by coherence with other sources.) However, original sin has damaged that faculty, and it can only be restored by God’s mercy (with Jesus as intervenor, of course). So Plantinga is right and he knows it, and we non-believers are as the blind. That a similar story could be made up about any damn crazy belief at all doesn’t seem to trouble Plantinga one bit– after all, he really does know he’s right. He has an equally crazy argument against naturalism that has received widespread attention, despite being fallacious in a number of ways (in particular, there’s a major fallacy of probabilistic reasoning involved).

  28. 28
    okstop

    First of all, even Plantinga’s epistemology is basically apologetics. Philosophers of religion think he’s hot shit. The only stuff he’s done outside of that, that would be of interest to other philosophers, is some stuff on modal logic and necessity, some of which is pretty questionable anyway.

    rayndeonx -

    Plantinga’s arguments ARE crap and have been thoroughly taken down by several prominent philosophers. No one but no one outside of the very insular phil religion crowd thinks this book is even worth the paper it’s printed on.

    And that ain’t speculatin’ from the sidelines, either. This is the scuttlebutt from inside the profession.

  29. 29
    Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just an anti-essentialist feminist with a shotgun)

    a preferred position for sexual intercourse

    This thought always cracks me up. If the purrfect goodiest creator ™ has a favourite position for the naughties – wouldn’t it make the others physically impossible. Or at least not fun.

    So, we’re back to three hypothesis: Malevolence, impotence or in-existence – and the last one is far more parsimonious.

  30. 30
    Sastra

    Plantinga has it wrong. God is not needed to explain cognitive facilities which usually match the world but often fall into error and need to be cross-checked. God is needed to explain a sensus divinitus which infallibly allows us to KNOW that God exists. But scientifically establishing the ‘sensus diviniutus’ has problems, and thus it’s a circular apologetic. Big surprise.

    PZ wrote:

    I am certain that “god” is a useless term.

    Not necessarily. Don’t assume immunizing strategies are necessary to the definition. Shifting the meaning of the term around or getting very vague and obscure usually only happens when their views are challenged (internally or externally.) That’s due to the commitments of the “faith” epistemology.

    Otherwise, I think there’s just enough basic core there to make “god” wrong, and not totally useless. After all, there’s apparently enough in the concept for them to not only think we atheists are wrong — but will someday have to recognize this.

    Consider an analogy with a proposed “healing energy” which can only be detected by the human hands of a practitioner. IF someone invented a machine that could measure such energy and verify that the Therapeutic Touch specialists were right all along, the immunizing strategy would fall away. “Healing energy” doesn’t have to be scientifically undetectable. That’s just an adaptation to avoid falsification.

  31. 31
    raven

    It’s hard, for example, to read Behe’s descriptions of various biochemical machines and not feel any inclination at all to believe they are designed. Does this support theism? If it is assumed that Christian theism is true, then it is likely…

    If it is assumed that Christian theism is true, then it is likely…

    Cthulhu, this isn’t even faulty logic.

    Plantinga or the reviewer (or both) are assuming that xian theism is true.

    If you assume xianity is true a priori than any and all arguments work.

    Anyone who has any real knowledge of biology doesn’t see any intelligent design. Everything looks kludgy and thrown together in a chaotic haphazard fashion.

    The Argument from Faulty Design.

    1. Look at the human body. An idiot could have done better. What about human backs? Human knee and hip joints? Menstruation once a month. Anemia is common in human females from all but the most food rich nations. WTH. Once a year would be enough.

    Human brains look like a bunch of modules something tried to fit together and it wears out with age. Who designed Alzheimers and all the other age related cognitive decline syndromes. I may need to know this in a few decades :>(.

    2. Look at all the pathogens and parasites out there. TB, smallpox, HIV, malaria, various worms with improbable and complicated life cycles, etc.. The brain eating amoebas. Guinea worms.

    According to the xians, god is in charge and has a plan. It seems to involve much of the human species dying young from various small beasties. You have to die so that smallpox or trichinosis can live. The only reason why it doesn’t happen to us so much these days is because we invented science and medicine.

    If you assume xianity is true, the Argument from Design makes their god look like an incompetent monster.

  32. 32
    Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just an anti-essentialist feminist with a shotgun)
    I am certain that “god” is a useless term.

    Not necessarily. Don’t assume immunizing strategies are necessary to the definition

    It rather depends. All coherent definitions I know for “god” are thoroughly falsified… (OK, this is strictly an argument from ignorance – but if you know of any that aren’t yet I’ll be happy to listen).

  33. 33
    'Tis Himself

    “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

    It is perfectly possible that all sorts of things have happened. What one must do is show evidence that they happened. The burden of proof is on those making the positive claim. Alvin has done a lot of handwaving and “gee, it seems to me” wishful thinking, but he’s quite lacking in the evidence department.

  34. 34
    nonny

    If evolution was somehow steered by god then there’d be a way to detect it, I’d have thought. Human evolution would have to look different from the evolution of the other animals- I mean, god didn’t direct their evolution in the same way, did it?

    We have a model of what evolution guided by an intelligence looks like. The animals that humans have domesticated have been changed from their wild forms into shapes more pleasing or useful for us. Of course, in order to know if our evolution was guided we’d have to know what, exactly, the one guiding it was trying to make. Is still trying to make, maybe, since evolution is a continuous process. It seems to me that some of the more popular ideas of why god made us are incompatible with evolution.

    In Islam, for example, humans were made so they could worship god. If that’s true then why do we have to eat to survive? Seems to me if we could get energy from the sun like plants it would save lots of time from not hunting and gathering that could be used to worship. Silly example, maybe, but surely if our evolution was guided it would be detectable?

  35. 35
    rayndeonx

    @MurOllavan #11: This is pretty much my impression as well. His work on modality is also pretty good.

    @Gregory Greenwood #13: I don’t think Plantinga’s conception of God, or most theistic philosophers’ conceptions of God, is really that amorphous. It is largely due to the fact that they painstakingly draw out God’s supposed properties that I think there are a number of cogent arguments to be made that either (a) make such a being highly improbable (via inductive arguments) or (b) outright impossible (given certain deductive arguments)

    nooneinparticular #20: Plantinga’s basically drawing on his arguments from Reformed Epistemology, to argue that Christians are not irrational in believing in claims such as those. He basically drew out this argument in his Warrant trilogy, where he first surveyed the field of the various positions on warrant and argued against them. The modern epistemological debate is centered really on two questions (if you oversimplify it):

    a) How to solve the infinite regress problem
    b) How to interpret the Gettier cases

    So normally, we view knowledge as true justified belief, following Plato and Aristotle. Ok. The problem is that this seems to lead to an infinite regress of justification… whatever your views on theism, this is obviously inadequate for dealing with our idea of knowledge. So there have been a number of positions on this, trying to stop the regress in some way. The most popular view is classical foundationalism or some derivative of it, which says that beliefs are ultimately grounded in some basic beliefs i.e. “1 + 1 = 2″ or “I see the color red” or so on or so forth.

    The Gettier cases basically showed that our idea of justification was insufficient, since it is possible to have justified true belief (JTB) but not knowledge. Here’s a classic Gettier case: John has justification for believing that Bob will get a certain job and that Bob has 10 quarters in his pocket. So he concludes that “the man who has 10 quarters in his pocket will get the job.” Now, as it turns out, Bob does not get the job, but instead Smith does. By sheer happenstance however, Smith does have 10 quarters in his pocket. So John’s belief satisfied JTB, but clearly doesn’t have knowledge. So, philosophers concluded we need to add something to JTB to account for our idea of knowledge. Just what that something is has ignited the debate for the last 50 years.

    One of Plantinga’s important distinctions was to note that classic foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent since classic foundationalism is itself neither self-evident nor incorrigible. He then goes on to attack other views on the regress problem and he comes to the following position on warrant, after examining the alternatives, a proper function account. Basically, he says you need to have properly functioning cognitive capacities that are able to reach true beliefs in a causal way. He then argues in the second and third book of his warrant trilogy that religious beliefs can also count as properly basic, since they can also be analogous to other supposed non-inferential beliefs.

    This view is not without controversy obviously. There are a number of obvious objections (i.e. the “Great Pumpkin”) but Plantinga has provided trenchant objections of his own. For instance, it seems to me that a number of the supposed “basic beliefs” Plantinga brings forth are not actually basic. For instance, consider the belief “I see a tree.” Plantinga would say that this is non-inferential, but I entirely disagree – it’s just that the inference is happening so fast that it doesn’t seem that way. There is an actual pattern recognition going on when we make that belief. Or take a related “basic” belief: “I see Plantinga.” This is a pretty clearly inferential belief, evidenced by the existence of prospaganosia so I think that partially undercuts Plantinga’s account.

    This view is also roundly criticized by theists, not just atheists, as well as Plantinga’s extended EAAN (evolutionary argument against naturalism). So it isn’t as the theists are just clamoring around Plantinga’s views; in fact, I’d say some of the best criticisms of Plantinga’s views come from theists! For some good resources summarizing Plantinga’s views and a quick objection to them, see: http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2010/06/posts-on-common-sense-atheism-index.html

    Plantinga’s warrant trilogy in its entirety is also online here: http://christiannews.co.nz/2009/alvin-plantingas-warrant-trilogy-all-online-for-free/

    For some other good objections, look at the Beilby anthology “Naturalism Defeated?” where a number of authors object to Plantinga’s EAAN. There are a lot of resources, both theistic and not, arguing strongly against (a) Plantinga’s reformed epistemology and (b) his EAAN.

    @KG #23: I broadly agree with you that Plantinga’s EAAN is implausible. My only concern is that it is important that people acquaint themselves with what Plantinga is actually saying in order to be able to see what is wrong with it. Plantinga made his case over several decades and to show what is wrong with the account in general (and not just EAAN) requires careful argument.

  36. 36
    jerthebarbarian

    “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God Brahma Zeus a purple Pony named Sunshine Bubbles The Architecht of the Matrix Ancient Astronauts as postulated by Erich von Daniken/Zechariah Sitchin, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

    If your argument can have those kinds of changes made and it still works equally well, your argument is useless.

    If Plantinga doesn’t see that then he’s a lousy philosopher. If he does see that and continues to make that argument anyway, then he’s a mendacious philosopher. Anyone who has a grasp of the difference between “possible” and “probable” can see what’s wrong with that argument.

  37. 37
    interrobang

    See, your comment just highlights a lot of the problems I have with philosophy qua philosophy. You say “. Or take a related ‘basic’ belief: ‘ see Plantinga.’This is a pretty clearly inferential belief, evidenced by the existence of prospaganosia so I think that partially undercuts Plantinga’s account.”

    My question would be, then, why the hell isn’t Plantinga (and I guess all the other philosophers who get hung up on stuff like that) reading at least some of the literature on cognitive science (or at least Oliver Sacks, for squid’s sake)? I mean, I’m all about argumentation; I have a degree in rhetoric, for goodness sakes, but when push comes to shove, I’m always going to go for the empirical facts that can be repeatedly demonstrated and verified independently of the flawed human sensorium and cognitive apparatus, not what I can simply derive from logical first principles, or pulling some sort of precising definition (like, I would say, your thing about “true, justified beliefs” being equivalent to “facts” in some regard) out of my rump and working from there.

    If you can, as you say with the Gettier case, essentially falsify a TJB by a coincidence, then it’s not actually a factual statement about the world at all, is it? It seems that the use of the term itself is weighted quite heavily toward the “belief” angle, moreso than is really justified by circumstances.

    If you want to really examine what goes on in the human brain and why human brains process using the heuristics they do, you need to be talking to cognitive scientists, neurologists, and other brain experts, not simply devising new and different techniques of logical argument.

  38. 38
    Kevin

    Again, the vitamin C pseudogene completely and utterly disproves the notion of a god-directed evolutionary process.

    Unless, as has been pointed out, that god is incompetent or venal.

    In other words, not the god of Plantinga, et al.

  39. 39
    rayndeonx

    @Interrobang: I don’t disagree with you that taking science seriously is important for the relevant philosophical fields. I think thought that many serious philosophers of science, mind, and epistemology ARE in fact looking into the empirical nature of things. One of the most interesting developments in philosophical history has been the rise of “x-phi” so-called Experimental Philosophy. The prospects of that are still yet unclear. On a relevant subject, see: http://freethoughtblogs.com/hallq/2012/06/13/did-notre-dame-give-me-a-skewed-view-of-philosophy/#comments

  40. 40
    shallit

    My feeling is that Plantinga’s EAAN is kind of a Turing test for intelligence. If you can’t see what is wrong with it in about 30 seconds, then you’re obviously too stupid and/or ignorant to be worth further debate. I find it useful.

  41. 41
    frankensteinmonster

    The most popular view is classical foundationalism or some derivative of it, which says that beliefs are ultimately grounded in some basic beliefs i.e. “1 + 1 = 2″ or “I see the color red” or so on or so forth

    .
    And the most correct view is, that your beliefs are ultimately grounded in the sensory input into your brain and the inference rules implicit in its neural wiring and rewiring patterns which process your sensory inputs into a mental model of your surrounding.

  42. 42
    truthspeaker

    The thing is, rayndeonx, we are familiar with Plantinga’s arguments. PZ has discussed them before. The reason we can dismiss them is because we’ve already examined them.

  43. 43
    mbrysonb

    One step in the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ that I’ve always seen as a cheat is Plantinga’s appeal to a notion of ‘truth’ and ‘content’ which are entirely independent of any of the everyday evidence we rely on in deciding what an utterance means and whether it’s true. For example, Plantinga appeals to the (widely recognized) point that we can explain successful behaviour by appeal to sensible beliefs and desires (say, climbing a tree because you believe a grizzly is about to attack you and you wish to avoid being injured or killed) or by appeal to crazy beliefs and desires (say, climbing the tree because you believe the grizzly is about to approach you in hopes of a good scratch, and you think climbing the tree would help you scratch between its toes, which you wish to do– of course you could express these beliefs and desires by screaming and climbing in a panicked way). This point can only help Plantinga’s case, though, if he thinks there’s a fact of the matter about what we really believe and what we really want that’s independent of all the normal, everyday means we use to sort out and categorize different people’s beliefs and desires. This decouples truth and meaning as Plantinga interprets them from any evolutionary (or other natural) constraints (like patterns of use and actual outcomes of various kinds of behaviour)– but it leads me (and others) to say, ‘if that’s what you call ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’, I think we can do without them’. Magical correspondences between hidden inner states and aspects of the outer world constitute a theory of truth, belief and desire that does no useful work in understanding what we are or what and how we know anything. (The mere consistency of a position like Plantinga’s is not reason enough to take it seriously;).) Pragmatic coherentism is a more constructive approach, and one which fits better with (because it actually attends to) our actual evaluations of various sources of evidence and grounds of belief (and it explicitly makes room for applying scientific evidence about how we form beliefs of various kinds in various circumstances and what that evidence suggests about the reliability of those beliefs…).

    WRT believers who are dubious about Plantinga’s approach, a colleague of mine overheard two Dutch Reform churchmen talking to each other following a talk by Plantinga about his EAAN: they apparently agreed that, if that was the sort of argument they had to make in defense of their views, they were in serious trouble.

  44. 44
    nohellbelowus

    rayndeonx @35

    I broadly agree with you that Plantinga’s EAAN is implausible. My only concern is that it is important that people acquaint themselves with what Plantinga is actually saying in order to be able to see what is wrong with it. Plantinga made his case over several decades and to show what is wrong with the account in general (and not just EAAN) requires careful argument.”

    Indeed. If an expert in knots spends a decade tying one, untying it will be problematic. PZ chose the quickest way and used a chainsaw — with the same result.

    The Emperor has no clothes, and Plantinga is his tailor.

  45. 45
    'Tis Himself

    rayndeonx #35

    My only concern is that it is important that people acquaint themselves with what Plantinga is actually saying in order to be able to see what is wrong with it. Plantinga made his case over several decades and to show what is wrong with the account in general (and not just EAAN) requires careful argument.

    I admit my reading of Plantinga is not thorough. However, I’ve read enough to recognize that he’s fond of various logical fallacies, particularly strawman and special pleading.

    In May 2009, PZ considered Plantinga’s argument about naturalism vs. evolution (Plantinga doesn’t like either, but he dislikes naturalism more, because it has no use for gods). Here’s part of the discussion:

    He imagines a hypothetical population of creatures living on another planet who operate entirely on these rules. What will happen to their beliefs?

    So consider any particular belief on the part of one of those creatures: what is the probability that it is true? Well, what we know is that the belief in question was produced by adaptive neurophysiology, neurophysiology that produces adaptive behavior. But as we’ve seen, that gives us no reason to think the belief true (and none to think it false). We must suppose, therefore, that the belief in question is about as likely to be false as to be true; the probability of any particular belief’s being true is in the neighborhood of 1/2. But then it is massively unlikely that the cognitive faculties of these creatures produce the preponderance of true beliefs over false required by reliability. If I have 1,000 independent beliefs, for example, and the probability of any particular belief’s being true is 1/2, then the probability that 3/4 or more of these beliefs are true (certainly a modest enough requirement for reliability) will be less than 10(to the power -58). And even if I am running a modest epistemic establishment of only 100 beliefs, the probability that 3/4 of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is 1/2, is very low, something like .000001.[7] So the chances that these creatures’ true beliefs substantially outnumber their false beliefs (even in a particular area) are small. The conclusion to be drawn is that it is exceedingly unlikely that their cognitive faculties are reliable.

    (First, an amusing aside: footnote [7] is an acknowledgment of the assistance of someone else in doing those calculations. He needed help from an expert to multiply simple probabilities? Does being a philosopher mean you’re incapable of tapping buttons on a calculator?)

    I think you can now see what I mean when I say Plantinga’s ideas are muddled lunacy. This is the same innumerate error creationists make when they babble about the odds of a single protein of 100 amino acids forming by chance; they assume that it’s all a matter of sudden, spontaneous good fortune that a protein (or in this case, a brain) has all of its traits fixed, with no input from history or the environment. In Plantinga’s imaginary materialist/naturalist world, beliefs are only the product of random chance.

    When Plantinga’s argument has a strawman as a major premise, then we can dismiss the rest of it. Later in the same essay, Plantinga insists that his particular, pet god is the one needed to fix evolution. Plantinga fails to give any reason for this claim, he just asserts Jesus is the answer, which is special pleading.

  46. 46
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    One of the longest threads at the old SciBlogs was one about Plantinga where he got the evolutionary science wrong in one of his 700 pages of mental wanking attempting to show his imaginary deity. The philosophs didn’t want to look at the evidence and considered it irrelevant. We scientists laughed at them, as evidence always trumps mental wanking ast the end of the day. If you can’t check your arguement against the facts of evolutionary reality, you shouldn’t write that much nonsense using evolutionary theory as key part of your argument.

  47. 47
    markholcombe

    In God, Freedom, and Evil Plantinga argued that demons shake the planet to cause earthquakes. His arguments are unclear enough that the reader gets the impression he rejects plate tectonics. If I remember my history of science correctly plate tectonics was not widely accepted until around 1976. I do not know if Plantinga has ever clarified his stance on plate tectonics or rejected the claim made in his book that demons even sometimes cause earthquakes by shaking tectonic plates. As soon as I got to that part of his book he lost all credibility. I knew I was reading someone who lives on Bizarro Earth.

    Plantinga is known for providing excellent criticisms to Classic Foundationalism in epistemological theory. However, he argues that belief in a deity is “properly basic” (a foundational belief). A properly basic belief might be something like “A circle is not a triangle”, “I know I am a thing which thinks”, or “I am having the experience of perceiving white-ness” (not the claim “I am perceiving white-ness”). Plantinga argues that belief in a deity is like those claims. My graduate school epistemology professor explained properly basic beliefs as those claims whereby the question “How do you know?” stops making sense. “How do you know you are having the experience of perceiving white-ness” just doesn’t make sense to ask, according to his version of Foundationalism. The answer to the question is circular.

  48. 48
    okstop

    interrobang #37

    The reason this all looks so hinky is that rayndeonx has grossly oversimplified, mischaracterized, and generally mishandled epistemology, basically straw-manning an entire field to make Plantinga look more “heroic” or something.

    The fact is there’s a lot more out there than worries about Gettier cases and regress. In fact, neither of them are major worries right now. Any number of plausible approaches exist to tackle the problems Plantinga takes himself to be addressing, none of which “happen” to justify theism.

    Epistemologists and philosophers of the mind are generally quite knowledgable about cognitive science – they don’t try to establish what’s going on in the brain, they are discussing how what DOES go on in the brain affects our theories.

  49. 49
    okstop

    markholcombe nailed it – Plantinga never gives a good reason to think belief in a deity is “properly basic.” It’s Descartes all over again, and it didn’t work then.

    As I’ve said repeatedly, no one outside of philosophy of religion (i.e., gussied-up apologetics) takes Plantinga’s work in this vein seriously at all. I’d appreciate it if people stopped making generalizations about philosophy from what the people in one of our more embarrassing subdisciplines are doing. There’s some hinky subdisciplines in every legitimate discipline. We’re no exception.

  50. 50
    mbrysonb

    Setting aside the particulars of Plantinga’s (suspiciously convenient) epistemological views, I have a fundamental problem with the idea of ‘properly basic’ beliefs. While foundationalism (often, in early modern forms at least, relying especially on basic beliefs about our own mental states) remains influential, it runs directly into the problem of the criterion; a more elegant approach (see Sellars’ “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” and- less well-known- “Induction as Vindication”) appeal to inductive grounds for our reliability as observers via a retrospective evaluation of the status of past reports, providing evidence that we are reliable observers. Another important feature of this is that private inner awareness of some special feature of our beliefs plays no role in establishing our status as observers: observation of the shared, public world comes first (as the language we use to give common-sense descriptions of experience and thought would suggest: it’s all rooted in language we learn first as describing how things stand in the public world).

  51. 51
    Stella

    ::sigh:: Another illustration of why you really should at least read whatever it is you’ve decided to refute.

    Pick a clear definition for god, and be consistent about it, please. And then persuade all the other theologians that your definition is the correct one. Then come argue with the atheists when you know what the hell you’re talking about.

    Oh hells yes! This is the one that really does my head in. If you’re thinking at all (and of course this is why churches ask you to check your brain in at the door), you immediately realise that equating Yaweh with the rather Neoplatonist idea that “God is love, man!” is the theological equivalent of a square triangle. And yet I’ve never met a christian who didn’t do this as a matter of routine.

  52. 52
    Amphiox

    What about human backs? Human knee and hip joints?

    And even if we allow for an incompetent designer, there is a problem. The back, knees, and hips are awful. But the ankle is much better biomechanically. So why didn’t the designer apply the same competency to the hips and knees as it apparently could apply to the ankle?

    Was the human body designed by committee? And the overseer bribed to give some work to its supervisor’s idiot brother?

  53. 53
    Amphiox

    If Yahweh was real, he’d get fired for managerial incompetence.

    Yahweh’s supposed to be CEO and majority stockholder, so I don’t think he can get fired.

    What would happen instead is that his whole company would probably get slaughtered by the competition and then threatened with a hostile takeover.

    This may, in fact, have already happened. A stockholder revolt has forced him to cede 1/3 control of the company to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

    Unfortunately, they’ve proven just as incompetent as he, so the threat of hostile takeover still looms.

  54. 54
    Jim

    I’m not sure why atheists don’t point out the obvious when believers say we can’t disprove their god idea.

    Of course we can’t disprove it. The christian god idea is logically unverifiable; by definition, it can’t be disproved. The most important characteristic of the christian god idea is that the “being” is immaterial. That is the same thing as undetectable. By definition, then, this god idea cannot be disproven.

    For example, if someone were to say that invisible, undetectable adorable purple aliens control human governments. They are quarrelsome and hence governments go to war. The adorable undetectable purple aliens have appointed me their spokesperson. They will lessen the number of wars if you acknowledge them and give me money. I know this because they favor me put this information into my mind. I’d say this statement cannot be disproved by design. A god idea is no different. I’ve read this more times than I can count: the christian god is immaterial; it exists outside time, beyond matter, and was always and will always exist. By definition this statement cannot be disproved.

    When forming any idea destined to be tested, the first part of the process is to determine if there is a condition that will disprove it. In other words, determine if the idea is logically unverifiable. If it is logically unverifiable, it gets dismissed.

    When christians smugly tell me that I can’t disprove their god idea, I tell them, yes, absolutely, I cannot disprove your god idea. Because of the way it is defined, I can’t even find one condition that would disprove your god idea. That is why I dismiss it.

    In short, logically unverifiable ideas get dismissed.

  55. 55
    Kel

    Until it can be quantified just how something external intervened, it’s blind speculation. The only thing I can gather that people are going for is “you can’t prove God didn’t intervene” and thus caricature the actual argument.

  56. 56
    tkreacher

    Jim,

    Atheists do precisely that. All the time. So often, in fact, it becomes almost unbearable to repeat the same blazingly obvious thing over and over.

    An atheist is more likely to use Sagan’s Invisible Dragon example however, which makes the same point as your aliens, but is far more simple and elegant.

    .

  57. 57
    footface

    @52: I don’t see how this is a problem for theists and cdesign proponentsists.

    Why are knees so crummy? Why are backs so shoddy? Why, why why?

    “We don’t know. The will of God is ineffable. You still can’t prove there’s no God! So there!”

    Of course, they have no way to answer the most basic questions: If God did design humans or other life forms, what would that look like? If God didn’t design humans or other life forms, what would that look like? What counts as evidence one way or another?

    How this is satisfying to them, I’ll never understand.

  58. 58
    briane

    Plantinga’s epistemological arguments don’t seem much to me. He claims belief in god is a basic belief, one that doesn’t need support. And that xtians are warranted to believe in god, even if they don’t have evidence because belief in god is basic. That’s nonsense.
    Of course, I could have it wrong, but warrant, which seems to sit in for justification in Plantinga’s epistemology doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t worry about truth….

  59. 59
    briane

    Why are knees so crummy? Why are backs so shoddy? Why, why why?
    The fall. Eve did it.

  60. 60
    coralline

    At Emory, Christopher continued to study the work of Grisez and his collaborators, often defending it in ethics and medieval philosophy classes. Both his and his wife’s dissertations relied on Grisez’s work; Christopher’s was on practical reason, Laurie’s on the nature of the contraceptive act. At Emory, they had their first child, Emma; they are currently expecting their ninth.

    I wonder what Laurie’s conclusions of “the contraceptive act” were.

  61. 61
    John Morales

    [meta]

    Good thread, this.

    Briane, Plantinga’s ontological argument is funnier, though.

    (Always worth a chuckle, to prove the maximally smelly necessary being)

  62. 62
    'Tis Himself

    briane #58

    Plantinga’s epistemological arguments don’t seem much to me. He claims belief in god is a basic belief, one that doesn’t need support. And that xtians are warranted to believe in god, even if they don’t have evidence because belief in god is basic. That’s nonsense.

    Quite simply Plantinga is begging the question. He assumes god and therefore god. The “basic belief” wankery is just to cover Plantinga’s (and all other goddist apologists’) lack of evidence for gods.

  63. 63
    mbrysonb

    @58: it’s not exactly that the Xians have no evidence– it’s that (as they see it) they have no evidence that we heathens could appreciate. The shock of finding, in the age of exploration and colonization, that others weren’t easily converted (despite big investments and aggressive campaigns) required a fall-back:the previous, relatively honest and even innocent confidence that the Xian message was somehow special and distinct from all other religions’ (Aquinas is very specific about this in quite a naturalistic, common-sense sort of way…) was undermined. One retreat is just to say, well, we’re right anyway, and anyone who can’t see it is simply demonstrating how fallen they really are. On this line, the common-sense parity of all the conflicting religions (noted by Hume, in particular) is simply rejected in the (all too familiar) ‘we’re right and you’re wrong’ way. Plantinga’s work is just a sophisticated version of this defensive tactic.

  64. 64
    Hank_Says

    I’ve always said that the only real differences between a “modern sophisticated theologian” and a backwoods redneck like Kenny Ham or Kenty Hovind are the amount of syllables used, the amount of degrees obtained and the accent in which they speak.

    If you remove all those superficial differences between edumacated theologians and slack-jawed used-god salesmen, what you are left with is precisely the same kind of ignorance, arrogance, smugnorance, appeals to emotion, appeals to popularity, appeals to scripture, arguments from incredulity/ignorance, clumsy, transparent attempts to retroactively justify an a priori belief, idiotic attempts to justify a faith position with “evidence”, embarrassingly stupid attempts to debunk evolution and, of course, fucking incessant goalpost-shifting or shrieks of “militant! stridency! intolerance! tone!” whenever a difficult question (which is nearly all of them) is asked, or a request for actual evidence is made, by a skeptic. Oh, and not to mention the same steadfast fucking refusal to actually address the arguments made by the “new” atheist writers, instead of addressing the caricatures of those arguments found in the blurbs on the backs of anti-atheist pamphlets.

    A “modern, sophisticated theologian” is little more than a fire n’ brimstone six-toed mouth-breather with a degree from a university (as opposed to a Bible college).

  65. 65
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    Question-begging, special pleading and good, old-fashioned snake-oil peddling – all with a label of ‘sophisticated theology’.

  66. 66
    marksmith

    I’d say that this post is not exactly in the Socratic tradition. Kinda makes me wonder why atheists bother to advertise themselves as the *rational* response to faith since there’s nothing in the least rational about this post. Maybe the author had a bad day at work?

  67. 67
    Hank_Says

    66:

    Your concern has been noted.

    I expect you didn’t get the part where Plantinga was being completely bloody ignorant of that which he purports to debunk (or didn’t get the actual point of the post at all), or maybe you’ve not noticed the incessant parade of theo-ninnies who claim to be able to put the New Atheists in their Proper Place without bothering to address what New Atheists actually say, instead preferring, as you’ve just done, to have a fucking whine about how irritated they are and how bad their day at work must have been.

    I will go out on a limb and say that if you were misrepresented and your arguments caricatured and strawmanned – or the same happened to a branch of science you were intimately familiar with – half as much as those of the New Atheists at the hands of apologists masquerading as intellectuals, that you might get a tad irritated too.

  68. 68
    ibyea

    I remember when my epistemology professor discussed with the students about Plantinga just for a moment in class, at one point he said something along the lines of: “I can’t believe I am defending Plantinga”. Yeah, my prof didn’t seem to like Plantinga, and this blog got me to see why.

  69. 69
    richarddean

    Back in my “Christian” days I read Plantinga and marveled at the arguments he used…I was convinced that what he was saying had to prove once and for all that there was a God and that the problem of evil wasn’t a problem at all. Now, years later, I have shed those blinders and the robes of belief and it is almost laughably easy to see those arguments for what they really are… flimsy fictional tales about a god who morphs into whatever it is a believer wants him to be.

    Rick
    http://bloganac.com

  70. 70
    feralboy12

    Kinda makes me wonder why atheists bother to advertise themselves as the *rational* response to faith since there’s nothing in the least rational about this post.

    And your post has…nothing. Nothing at all. No content. Zilch. Nada. Goose egg.
    Pretty impressive, really, in its own empty way.

  71. 71
    Hank_Says

    70:

    Yup, gotta love the simultaneous smugness, hypocrisy, flippancy and gratuitous bloody pointlessness of a drive-by concern-troll. “Oh, you’re so MEAN, that’s so not SoCRATic or rational, oh golly gee, ha ha ha.” Thanks for your input!

    Seriously, please come back and enlighten us, Mark Smith, as to how PZ should have written his post on his blog on his own time.

  72. 72
    tkreacher

    marksmith: SO-CRATES!
    tkreacher: Put him in the iron maiden.
    marksmith: exxxxcellent.
    tkreacher: Execute him.
    marksmith: boogggus.

  73. 73
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    A pissant wrote:

    I’d say that this post is not exactly in the Socratic tradition.

    Q: Is there evidence to support Plantinga’s claims about the existence of God?
    A: No.

    Done.

  74. 74
    ibyea

    @marksmith
    We don’t give a damn if it is in a Socratic tradition. We only care about well evidenced and logical arguments. PZ’s post is much better than any nonsensical crap Plantinga and his defenders spout.

  75. 75
    Amphiox

    Dear marksmith,

    As it seems you missed the memo the first time it came around, it shall be repeated to you here.

    Socrates lived and died a couple thousand years ago.

    The science and art of rational discourse have advanced since then.

    The preceding was a public service announcement intended for the benefit of the temporally disoriented.

  76. 76
    vaiyt

    @marksmith

    “I’d say that this post is not exactly in the Socratic tradition.”

    and who the fuck cares

  77. 77
    Reptile Dysfunction

    1. It’s hard to take any philostopher seriously
    if he doesn’t number his sentences.

  78. 78
    DLC

    It doesn’t matter if Plantinga’s blather is intricate, nuanced and delicately tuned, if the premise he bases his bollocks on is shit. His argument is based on a huge series of straw men and special pleadings. Science may not always deliver the goods, but it definitely does better at it than religion.

  79. 79
    Kel

    I’ve always said that the only real differences between a “modern sophisticated theologian” and a backwoods redneck like Kenny Ham or Kenty Hovind are the amount of syllables used, the amount of degrees obtained and the accent in which they speak.

    I was having a discussion about this with someone over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog. I’ll quote a portion of part of the discussion with Verbose Stoic:

    Thus, folk forms aren’t wrong or disproven in an interesting sense. So perhaps I should clean up the terminology a bit and distinguish between “everyday” forms and “academic” forms. [...] Now, the trick with theology is that a lot of the discussions and issues are philosophical, not empirical. Take, again, the Problem of Suffering. While there is an empirical aspect to it — is there suffering — most people agree that there is indeed suffering in this world. The question is over whether that in and of itself trumps omnibenevolence or if there is too much suffering or any number of other considerations. You can’t really settle these things by looking really hard at the world or running experiments. You need to do the detailed philosophical work that theology is trying to do in this area.

    His idea, as I hope is embodied by the excerpts, seems to be that the difference between the likes of Ham and the likes of Plantinga is more that Plantinga has spent more time digging around through the concepts and creating a more coherent picture in such a way that Ham has not. They’re both arguing for the same thing, but the difference is that Plantinga has given a much more thorough examination of what would be the relevant issues.

    So to be as generous as possible, the difference isn’t the presentation but the amount of academic discourse that’s behind the ideas. They’re both presenting much the same thing, but it’s only Plantinga whose reasons and arguments should be addressed for the validity of Ham’s view and not the other way around. I think, in that sense, the difference is a matter of how as opposed to what is being argued for. Whether or not this is sufficient to distinguish between the two is another matter (I have my doubts, but I don’t need to repeat a discussion I’ve linked to), but at least that’s the difference how one educated theist has explained it to me.

  80. 80
    John Morales

    Kel:

    So to be as generous as possible, the difference isn’t the presentation but the amount of academic discourse that’s behind the ideas. They’re both presenting much the same thing, but it’s only Plantinga whose reasons and arguments should be addressed for the validity of Ham’s view and not the other way around. I think, in that sense, the difference is a matter of how as opposed to what is being argued for.

    You contradict yourself for the sake of generosity?

    (Stupid, that is)

    The presentation is the how.

  81. 81
    Kel

    I’m not going to defend a view I don’t hold, John.

  82. 82
    John Morales

    [meta + OT]

    Kel, what for you play with a flea like Verbose Stoic?

    (bah)

  83. 83
    markholcombe

    Properly basic beliefs are self-evident. This is why “No circles are triangles” is properly basic (according to Leibniz) but knowledge of circles and and triangles is not properly basic. Once you know circles and know triangles it deductively follows that circles are not triangles. There lies the problem; that example is a deductive conclusion. The question “How do you know?” is answerable in a non-circular manner. Plantinga asserts that belief/knowledge of a deity is self-evident. It is unlike the other two examples I gave (“I know I am having the experience of perceiving white-ness” and “I know I exist as a thing which thinks”). His answer to how knowledge of a deity is self-evident was given in his bookWarranted Christian Belief. He claims, without offering any evidence, that belief in god is an innate idea. He doesn’t try to rely on neurology and fMRI scans like many others who are searching for a “God Spot” in the brain. He can’t use that type of evidence as he rejects naturalism and science broadly.

  84. 84
    Ingdigo Jump

    If evolution was somehow steered by god then there’d be a way to detect it, I’d have thought. Human evolution would have to look different from the evolution of the other animals- I mean, god didn’t direct their evolution in the same way, did it?

    Except every species evolution is different from every other species…that’s what made them different species :-p.

    They’re both arguing for the same thing, but the difference is that Plantinga has given a much more thorough examination of what would be the relevant issues.

    I disagree. Both have given both as thorough an examination as reasonably can be expected. Both have circled the track…Plantinga just does more laps.

  85. 85
    David Utidjian

    The apologists absolutely worship Plantinga. Plantinga has dressed up their apologetics in a way that makes it appear (to them) all logical, and reasonable, and properly basic, and whatnot. For some reason it works for them and, apparently, no one else.

    Here is an example of a Plantinga groupie:
    http://jackhudson.wordpress.com/?s=plantinga

  86. 86
    Amphiox

    Plantinga builds sandcastles on quicksand. They are nice sandcastles, imaginatively constructed, finely detailed, demonstrating an able mind behind the construction.

    They are still built of quicksand, and crumble in the breeze.

  87. 87
    coralline

    Plantinga builds sandcastles on quicksand. They are nice sandcastles, imaginatively constructed, finely detailed, demonstrating an able mind behind the construction.

    They are still built of quicksand, and crumble in the breeze.

    Very quickly steals this, and places in Bag of Holding for later use.

  88. 88
    Matt Penfold

    They are still built of quicksand, and crumble in the breeze.

    If they are not washed away by the incoming tide first.

  89. 89
    naturalcynic

    …the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth

    Which begs the question: Is God like a kid with ADHD? If so, then some meth might help [in controlled doses]. One drug less commonly used for ADHD is Desoxyn – methamphetamine.

  90. 90
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    I’d say that this post is not exactly in the Socratic tradition.

    Says the person who posted a series of insults and untruths.

  91. 91
    daniellavine

    So normally, we view knowledge as true justified belief, following Plato and Aristotle.

    This is exactly why problems of mind — just like ALL metaphysical problems that have EVER been solved by human beings — will be solved by scientists rather than philosophers. Of course, as soon as they are solved by scientists they cease to be “metaphysical” problems and become merely “physical” problems, allowing philosophers to pretend they actually have valid contributions to make to the field of metaphysics.

    Except that’s not really fair. Just the milquetoast analytical philosophers who like to pretend they’re Special Super Scientists distract themselves with this “justified true belief” nonsense. Thomas Kuhn, Nietzsche, and a whole bunch of post modernists have all effectively rebutted the notion that knowledge is rational in the first place. Neuroscientific data backs them up. So does behavioral psychology — humans just ain’t rational. How about basic common sense? Wine tasting is a learned skill. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for distinguishing a wet year from a dry year in the same vineyard? Wine tasters don’t make these distinctions rationally through logical analyses. They learn the differences between vintages unconsciously through repeated exposure. The vast majority of all human knowledge is learned operationally and unconsciously rather than rationally and deliberately.

    Basically, he says you need to have properly functioning cognitive capacities that are able to reach true beliefs in a causal way.

    This is why philosophers arguing about “cognitive capacities” need to be damned sure they’re up to date on the neuroscience. Plantinga has had more than a hundred years to read this paper. It demonstrates rather clearly that cognitive capacities do not need to be “properly functioning” to reach true beliefs in a causal way — if they’re not “properly functioning” the brain will dynamically change how it interprets the data until it gets something it can use “to reach true beliefs in a causal way” (if you didn’t have the philosophy disease you would just use the simpler and more accurate phrase: “to learn”).

    Plantinga made his case over several decades and to show what is wrong with the account in general (and not just EAAN) requires careful argument.

    Actually, EAAN falls on its face. Natural selection does not and cannot operate on beliefs, but Plantinga’s arguments only work if natural selection does operate on beliefs. He further bodges it by equivocating between beliefs and mental content in general. This is a huge problem because his argument hinges on the caveman’s beliefs being false; but this is not necessarily relevant, because only propositional content has truth value. For example, visual content has a color value but it does not have a truth value. What I see is what I see — properly basic as Plantinga says. Because of this distinction the following propositions are distinct and if you can see this then you should be able to see that EAAN is seriously flawed:
    A) False beliefs can be adaptive
    B) Unreliable sensory apparata can be adaptive
    Note that this is unreliable sensory apparata I’m talking about. Systematically misleading sensory apparata are just as good as systematically accurate sensory apparata as long as you’re aware of the bias. Naturalism doesn’t require that sensory apparata provide an undistorted view of the physical world or that they provide “direct access” to the physical world. Naturalism requires only that any distortions presented by sensory apparata are systematic. And sure enough, when we study sensory and cognitive apparata we find that they present systematically distorted data about the world — consistent with naturalism but not with the theory that Minds are Magic.

    So to carry out EAAN, Plantinga really needs to argue for (B), but he only ever argues for (A). And he can’t argue for (B) because unreliable sensory apparata could only be adaptive in asburdly improbable situations (i.e. the situations in which misrepresentations made by the unreliable sense organs just accidentally happen to be beneficial). EAAN never gets off the ground and in fact makes a bloody mess of itself trying to do so.

  92. 92
    Kel

    Kel, what for you play with a flea like Verbose Stoic?

    Lack of others willing to actually engage in reasoned discussion. Plus, there’s always that issue I’ve highlighted here in that I don’t understand theism, so I’m hoping that if I talk to enough people I might be able to see it from their point of view. I don’t understand why people believe, and bugs the hell out of me.

  93. 93
    daniellavine

    @Kel:

    Lack of others willing to actually engage in reasoned discussion. Plus, there’s always that issue I’ve highlighted here in that I don’t understand theism, so I’m hoping that if I talk to enough people I might be able to see it from their point of view.

    Yeah, I keep trying to engage VS for similar reasons but I find doing so rather frustrating. I think it’s the fact that he keeps arguing that Christan God is special because lots of people have considered it to be plausible. He does not seem the least bit willing to concede that the specialness of any particular God does not follow from the fact that people believe in it, nor that there might be somewhat more plausible God concepts that aren’t widely considered. (I mean, take all the properties theologians assign to God but drop the notion that the Bible is actually about God — the Bible is just a book, and God is not described by it. No Eden, no original sin, no virgin birth, no resurrection. That God strikes me as prima facie more plausible than the Christian God by conjunction if nothing else. OK, so drop a property: omnibenevolence. More plausible still.)

    I don’t understand why people believe, and bugs the hell out of me.

    One hypothesis I’ve been considering is that during early childhood development some very fundamental neural circuits are laid down. Some infants learn to view the world as a physical space in which they can move and manipulate physical objects, while others learn to view the world as a social space in which they can make sounds and facial expressions and manipulate people. The former tend to become atheists and the latter tend to become theists. Oversimplification of the idea, obviously.

  94. 94
    rayndeonx

    @okstop #48: I apologize if I mischaracterized epistemology. As I said, I oversimplified the field to the two issues to try to provide the context in which Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy was written, not to try to whitewash the field. I wasn’t attempting to make Plantinga look more “heroic”, since outside philosophy of religion, I don’t think very many epistemologists subscribe to Plantinga’s views. In fact, I do not even think his Reformed epistemology is all that accepted in philosophy of religion itself, besides as an apologetics talking point on the Net. I think some of the best criticisms against his views have come from theist and atheist alike. My intention was only to try to show in what frame Plantinga’s argument and epistemological theory was posited.

    @daniellavine #91: With respect to your discussion about the role of neuroscience and understanding of knowledge, I think this is taken seriously by many epistemologists in the field. In constructing a theory of justification, we must ask if it matches up to the real world, where both observation and science are paramount tools to aid in the debate. I am broadly in agreement with you in that philosophers must respect the role and utility of the scientific realm when informing philosophical opinion.

    I also agree with you that Plantinga’s epistemological account and EAAN are quite dubious. My intention behind that post was not to promote his views. It was instead to explicate his views to make them more clear. I think the EAAN is relatively simple to defeat, by pointing out the glaring scientific errors and probabilistic errors Plantinga makes. For instance, Plantinga doesn’t think the probability of us having reliable cognitive faculties given evolutionary naturalism (i.e. here, I take Plantinga to mean ‘reliable’ in a banal sense, the kind of reliability necessary to think, induct, deduce, etc) is low or inscrutable. But that seems just flatly against the scientific facts – it seems clear to me that P(R|N&E) is just about unity.

    However, his broader epistemological theory needs to be attacked more patiently and requires more detailed argument, which is what I referred to when I said that “to show what is wrong with the account in general (and not just EAAN) requires careful argument.”

  95. 95
    se habla espol

    Kel, 14 June 2012 at 4:13 pm —

    I don’t understand why people believe, and bugs the hell out of me.

    Fershure Plantinga and the other sophistimacated theosophers aren’t going to shed any insight: they’re concentrated on defense, making sure believers keep on believing (and paying). None of their stuff makes sense to nonbelievers, because it doesn’t need to. It doesn’t need to make sense to believers, either, so long as it gives believers cover for staying on the reservation.
    A young critter, of any species, often gets survival benefits from obedience to the larger critters. Ducklings follow momma duck; puppies watch and obey (to some extent) momma dawg. Baby H. saps do, think, and believe as MommyDaddy tells them to.
    Surviving ducks, pups, and (sometimes) people outgrow the need to obey, but some people (like our pets) are not allowed to outgrow their childhood, and are never allowed to outgrow their need to obey.
    Christian (and other) believers are characterized by their need to obey the authorities nominated by their parents, or such substitutes as they can identify on their own. The authority might be a local preacher, rabbi, imam, …; the institution of some dogma (LDS, RCC, SDA, …); or some more remote master, like David Barton or one of the Grahams.
    Most Pharyguloids have decided to escape their thought-masters, whether original or substitute. The remaining thought-slaves use whatever they can find to protect the obedience they call ‘faith’ — that’s what Plantinga and the like provide.
    The religion business cannot be understood on the basis of its notional content — it’s all about obedience.

  96. 96
    daniellavine

    However, his broader epistemological theory needs to be attacked more patiently and requires more detailed argument, which is what I referred to when I said that “to show what is wrong with the account in general (and not just EAAN) requires careful argument.”

    As I said before, I don’t think there’s any validity to justificationist theories of knowledge. Arguing for or against Plantinga’s views are a waste of time, the same for any justificationist theory. You can’t beat Munchausen’s trilemma. And there’s not even many reasons to try because neuroscience and common sense both strongly suggest knowledge is, for the most part, not rational. I’d argue that what we call “belief” happens far downstream in mental processes from what we call “knowledge.” Any approach starting from “belief” and trying to derive “knowledge” seems fundamentally flawed to me.

  97. 97
    daniellavine

    For instance, Plantinga doesn’t think the probability of us having reliable cognitive faculties given evolutionary naturalism (i.e. here, I take Plantinga to mean ‘reliable’ in a banal sense, the kind of reliability necessary to think, induct, deduce, etc) is low or inscrutable.

    Actually, I argued that Plantinga’s argument doesn’t have anything to do with the probability of having reliable cognitive faculties given evolutionary naturalism. This is because the basis of his argument is that false beliefs can be adaptive. But beliefs are not and cannot be subject to natural selection so this is a red herring. Beliefs don’t spring fully-formed from a human’s cognitive apparata; they are downstream effects.

    Now, the next part may be a little hard to understand, but please check the 1896 paper I’ve already linked to. The experiment has been repeated within recent decades as well. When you invert a person’s visual field — flip it completely upside down — the person has trouble navigating for a day or a few days, but then adjusts completely and has no trouble. Remove the inversion and the same thing happens — disorientation for a few hours or days followed by full adjustment to the new state of sensory input.

    Think about this: would your vision be impaired if it suddenly became the photonegative of what it “should” be? No. Black becomes white, white becomes black, but all the same information is available to your mind. This would be disorienting at first, but your brain would quickly adjust. The point of this is to demonstrate that the question of what makes cognitive apparata reliable in the first place is not obvious. Switching black and white does not really constitute an impairment. So when you talk about Plantinga’s “banal sense” that’s really not precise enough. It’s not clear that Plantinga’s really considered what sort of sensory and cognitive apparata are required for the formation of “true” beliefs.

    What would constitute an honest impairment in such a way as to cause false belief? Here are the only two relevant scenarios:
    1) When the subject senses A they are sometimes aware of A’, but sometimes are aware of B’.
    2) When the subject is aware of X’ they are sometimes sensing X but they are sometimes sensing Y.
    See why this is? If I am ALWAYS aware of B’ when I sense A, there is some sense in which I am “wrong” — but I can always correct myself by remembering “B’ means A”. Likewise, if sensing Y ALWAYS causes awareness of X’, I can still remember that “X’ means Y”. If my senses systematically mislead me I can adjust — and in fact, as I’ve already argued, the brain will do this automatically without any conscious effort on my part.

    The only scenarios under which sensory or cognitive apparata would promote false belief are ones in which the sensation is ambiguous as to the cause, or the cause can induce any of several different sensations. Plantinga doesn’t argue for this because his analysis of cognitive and sensory impairment just isn’t subtle enough to see it’s what he really needs to argue. But he can’t argue for it anyway because any reasonable Bayesian argument would demonstrate that it’s overwhelmingly probable that an organism’s senses would represent stimuli systematically, even if they introduce distortion of one kind or another.

  98. 98
    mbrysonb

    I think there’s a more straightforward way to tell that Plantinga’s epistemology is wonky. If you follow the thread all the way through his account of how religious beliefs could turn out to constitute knowledge, there’s a point where the structure of the account allows for free-substitution of any belief whatever. The only basis for choosing what belief(s) get to qualify for that slot is the content of the religious beliefs supposedly supported by the sense of the divine, when properly activated in a person. And that basis is not sharable– it gives no one aside from the ‘elect’ any way to identify which religious beliefs, promoted by which groups, really reflect the true deliverance(s) of the sense of the divine, or to account for how and why believers in other religions are apparently equally committed, equally certain and equally devoted to their particular beliefs. If some one religion were to display publically assessable indications of its special status (say, much higher levels of moral perfection, miracle cures, success in conversion on the part of believers that found in non-believers or believers of other religions) then the apparatus just might get off the ground. As it is, it’s like trying to fly by reaching up as high as you can…

  99. 99
    gravityisjustatheory

    Kel

    I don’t understand why people believe, and bugs the hell out of me.

    When I was very young, I had a number of beliefs and behaviours.

    For example, when I was playing with Lego or mechano or the like, once I had selected a particular component to go in a particular place, I had to use that component for that place. If I was putting a grey radar dish on the left wing of my model spaceship, I had to use the particular grey radar dish I had first picked up. I couldn’t use another identical one in its place. Likewise, if I had temporarily removed some components from a model, when I reatached them, they had to go back in their original positions.

    To do otherwise would somehow be “unfair” and against The Way Things Should Be.

    I don’t know where this notion came from or why I developed it, although I guess it must have been some sort of OCD, which I gather is quite common among young children. (I’ve pretty much grown out of it, although it still occasionally manifests, but generally only in situations where there might be a good reason why things should go back exactly where they came from).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if theistic beliefs (or magical thinking more generally) often developed in a similar way, but without people growing out of them. (With religions developing either when several people with similar notions got together and reinforced each other’s beliefs, or a third party head about it and decided to exploit them).

  100. 100
    khms

    @97 daniellavine

    The only scenarios under which sensory or cognitive apparata would promote false belief are ones in which the sensation is ambiguous as to the cause, or the cause can induce any of several different sensations. Plantinga doesn’t argue for this because his analysis of cognitive and sensory impairment just isn’t subtle enough to see it’s what he really needs to argue. But he can’t argue for it anyway because any reasonable Bayesian argument would demonstrate that it’s overwhelmingly probable that an organism’s senses would represent stimuli systematically, even if they introduce distortion of one kind or another.

    Actually, I have an example of this.

    I have diabetes. A consequence of this is that my blood sugar is often either too high or too low. Of course, this causes effects that I can feel.

    So, my brain can easily recognize when I need to eat more sugar, or to inject more insulin, right?

    Wrong. Unfortunately, the vast majority of effects (such as, say, getting tired) can happen with both too high and too low blood sugar. As a consequence, it happens fairly often that upon measuring the blood sugar, I find that it was actually too high when I thought it must be too low, or the other way around.

    And of course, the reason I have no reliable sense for blood sugar content (that is accessible to my brain) is that, normally, blood sugar regulation does not involve the brain. Therefore, there was no need to evolve a reliable (brain-accessible) sense for this. There was such a need for, say, the optical sense, as it works via the brain in the first place.

  101. 101
    Kel

    Thanks for the responses, daniellavine, se habla espol, and gravityisjustatheory.

    My concern is mainly that it seems so obvious that God is a fiction that it’s hard for me to understand how other people don’t see it as obvious. Sure, most theists will admit there’s a leap of faith to it, but they will also see that there’s a particular reasonableness to that leap of which an atheist is absurdly denying. I remember getting into a discussion on here with a theist named Eric, who seemed to think that my glib dismissal of the God concept meant that I wasn’t informed on the topic. I just don’t get it, I don’t get what I’m missing, and when I hear educated people going on about notions like original sin or heaven, I’m wondering just what it is that could possibly make it anything other than nonsense.

    Fershure Plantinga and the other sophistimacated theosophers aren’t going to shed any insight: they’re concentrated on defense, making sure believers keep on believing (and paying).

    I’m not sure if Plantinga or anyone else is going to offer me what I’m looking for; a defence of God is only going to be as valid as knowing what is to be defended. And on that, I’d much prefer to discuss it with people who can answer my questions directly so I could try to understand where they are coming from. Though that’s hard because my experience is that theists tend to clam up when you try to probe their beliefs, and the whole exercise becomes pointless.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if theistic beliefs (or magical thinking more generally) often developed in a similar way, but without people growing out of them.

    It’s interesting to read about promiscuous teleology, where children (and those suffering dementia) will describe things in terms of function. That the rain is FOR watering plants, that pigs are FOR being eaten (it’s nice to see Voltaire being validated 250 years later). But the phenomenon will fade for people who don’t have a fundamentalist backgrounds, but will persist into adulthood for those who do. So there’s one pillar of religious thought that can be psychologically explained as something reducible to brain function.

    Of course, God isn’t merely the arguments that people use for believing in him (in this case, the teleological argument), so even if we could show how there’s cognitive biases in terms of thinking in terms of agency, in terms of design, in terms of morality, this still wouldn’t be enough to actually show the problem of God belief as the theist can always argue that of course a God would want us to know him as the search for God would be absurd if we didn’t have the cognitive tools to come to God. What it seems like I’m left with is theists not making any specific claim at all; only on the mere consistency between a belief in God and a scientific description of our psychology. But at that point, just what does God belief become?

    I don’t understand how God isn’t discarded as a failed hypothesis, or being too nebulous to take seriously. If there is a third option, what is it?

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