Remarkably stupid remarks by a sophisticated theologian

UPDATE:  Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Ruse has also gone after Plantinga.  Ruse has apparently read the book and notes that Plantinga spends a whole chapter defending Michael Behe’s ideas about intelligent design, noting that Plantinga “spend[s] pages engaged in intellectual fawning all over Behe.”  Ruse also criticizes Plantinga for dismissing anti-ID arguments by Dawkins and me, and praises our scientific acumen while managing to get in a few licks at the same time: ” I think Dawkins is crude beyond belief when it comes to philosophy and theology. And frankly, Coyne’s obsessions are nigh psychoanalytic.”  What—Ruse doesn’t like cats or cowboy boots?

_________________________

Alvin Plantinga, like John Haught, is regarded as a sophisticated and serious theologian.  (Although he’s formally a Christian philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, he’s published lots of books defending God, engaging in apologetics, and so on, so there’s little doubt he qualifies as a theologian.)  Plantinga was also president of the American Philosophical Association, which is a serious achievement, and this week’s New York Times profile (see below) says this about his achievements:

From Calvin [College], and later from the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Plantinga has led a movement of unapologetically Christian philosophers who, if they haven’t succeeded in persuading their still overwhelmingly unbelieving colleagues, have at least made theism philosophically respectable.

I wasn’t aware that theism had become respectable among philosophers. In fact, I thought that most philosophers were atheists. Perhaps readers can enlighten me here.

At any rate, I’ve read some of Plantinga’s books and articles and haven’t been terribly impressed; they’ve merely confirmed what I said earlier:

I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.

But my already-low impression of Plantinga has been further degraded by remarks he made in a piece in Tuesday’s New York Times by reporter Jennifer Schuessler, “Philosopher sticks up for God,”   It was inspired by Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism.  I haven’t yet read it, but in the Times Plantinga says some amazingly stupid things.

First he proffers the obligatory (and uncivil!) slurs against the New Atheists:

In “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism,” published last week by Oxford University Press, he unleashes a blitz of densely reasoned argument against “the touchdown twins of current academic atheism,” the zoologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, spiced up with some trash talk of his own.

Mr. Dawkins? “Dancing on the lunatic fringe,” Mr. Plantinga declares. Mr. Dennett? A reverse fundamentalist who proceeds by “inane ridicule and burlesque” rather than by careful philosophical argument.

For those accommodationists who claim that the incivility is all on our side, or emanates on the religious side only from fundamentalists, note the invective.  But Plantinga’s main point is that the view of a theistic God is actually more supportive of science than is materialism or naturalism:

Theism, with its vision of an orderly universe superintended by a God who created rational-minded creatures in his own image, “is vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism,” with its random process of natural selection, he writes. “Indeed, it is theism, not naturalism, that deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview.’ ”

Mr. Plantinga readily admits that he has no proof that God exists. But he also thinks that doesn’t matter. Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof than the belief that the past exists, or that other people have minds, or that one plus one equals two.

“You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true,” Mr. Plantinga said. And that, he argues, is simply beyond what science can do.

A brief correction first: natural selection is not a “random process.” It’s a process that combines the random production of mutations with the deterministic process of natural selection itself. I hope he understands that.

And how can a “scientific worldview” be one that doesn’t demand proof—or, rather, strong empirical evidence?  Science is all about evidence, and is not equivalent to mathematics, which is a very refined form of logic in which results follow ineluctably from premises. And as for the past existing, well, it might all be an illusion produced by aliens, but empirical evidence tells us that the past did indeed seem to exist (we have documents, fossils, radiometric dating, and our own personal histories), so that’s something that’s empirically proven to our satisfaction.

Science simply doesn’t operate on what Plantinga calls “basic beliefs,” by which he apparently means “beliefs for which one needs no empirical support.” If Plantinga wants to call theism more hospitable to science than materialism, than by all means let us include as “science” homeopathy, astrology, and spiritual healing.  After all, for many those too are “basic beliefs.”

By all scientific lights, theism is irrational because it isn’t true.  That is, there is no evidence in its favor—not a jot. Perhaps Plantinga is using such a refined definition of “truth” here that it bears no relation to our common notion. In the same way, Plantinga could assert that “You can’t sensibly claim that belief in fairies and leprechauns is irrational without showing it isn’t true.”  The absence of evidence, where there should be evidence, is indeed evidence of absence.

Plantinga adheres, like the Catholic church, to the notion of “theistic evolution”: that God didn’t just set up the process and let it roll, but actively intervened from time to time (humans are the most obvious example for theists). That’s why Plantinga is such a fan of Michael Behe’s form of intelligent design, which does allow for some non-theistic evolution as well.

Mr. Plantinga says he accepts the scientific theory of evolution, as all Christians should. Mr. Dennett and his fellow atheists, he argues, are the ones who are misreading Darwin. Their belief that evolution rules out the existence of God — including a God who purposely created human beings through a process of guided evolution — is not a scientific claim, he writes, but “a metaphysical or theological addition.”

No, it’s a scientific claim.  The scientific understanding of evolution is that genetic variation is created by a process of random mutation (there are a few other sources as well), which is then subject to natural selection or genetic drift.  We have seen no evidence to the contrary: no evidence for non-random mutation, as would occur if God guided evolution, or of any strict directionality in the evolution of humans (remember all those extinct hominin lineages that diverged in body shape, brain size, and other traits?). And there are all those design flaws in modern humans, which must reflect the actions of a Trickster God.

But wait—there’s more!

These are fighting words to scientific atheists, but Mr. Plantinga’s game of turnabout doesn’t stop there. He argues that atheism and even agnosticism themselves are irrational.

“I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” he said, referring to the innate sense of the divine that Calvin believed all human beings possess. “So if you think of rationality as normal cognitive function, yes, there is something irrational about that kind of stance.”

“Sensus divinatis” is a fancy term for “lots of people believed and still believe in God.”  But in that case the sensus divinatis is not working properly in more and more people all the time. In fact, it’s almost disappeared in Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, and is waning in the US.  Did God remove it?  The fact that many people evince a belief or a behavior is no more evidence for God than is the fact that our ancestors used to kill each other at alarmingly high rates, and so had a sensus homicidus.

There’s some back and forth between Plantinga and Dennett (the two had a somewhat acrimonious public debate that’s been turned into a book), but Plantinga’s most damaging admission comes toward the end:

Mr. Plantinga and Mr. Dennett do agree about one thing: Religion and science can’t just call a truce and retreat back into what the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria,” with science laying claim to the empirical world, while leaving questions of ultimate meaning to religion. Religion, like science, makes claims about the truth, Mr. Plantinga insists, and theists need to stick up for the reasonableness of those claims, especially if they are philosophers.

Why is this damaging? First, because many religious claims about the “truth” have already been disproven by science.  The creation story, the fable of Adam and Eve, and the myth of Noah are just three.  (Note that many still adhere to these “truths”.) But there’s not one instance of a scientific claim that’s ever been disproven by religion.  Second, if religion lays claim to the “truth,” then why can’t religious people agree on what that truth is? If “truth” has any meaning at all, it has to be the same for everyone—at least if it is, as Plantinga implies, analogous to scientific truth. Yet we know that the fundamental “truth” claims of different faiths are not only divergent, but conflicting.  They’re not truths at all, but simply claims.  Science answers questions; religion can only “address” questions but never answer them.

But at least Plantinga, a theist, argues that God intervenes in the world and that we can discover “truths” about that intervention.  This lays him open to a whole slew of criticisms that don’t apply to deists.

If claims like Plantinga’s are taken seriously by secular philosophers, then philosophy is in more trouble than I thought.

191 Comments

  1. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Mind answering a few question about natural selection? You appear to claim to know what natural selection is and is not.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      What survives is natural selection. Unnatural selection is what you do in your garden. There you select the hen or flower you like, but after a few generations they will lose many survival traits and they would die without your protection. That is why a tiger in a Zoo is not a real tiger, because after a few generations it will lose traits essential for survival. The garden is my lab. I learn a lot.

      Eric

    • Ray Moscow
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      Techne, you really need some help with basic reading comprehension.

    • TJR
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      Please do not feed the trolls.

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Yeah, don’t feed them, Jerry does not like insults. He likes to have intellectual discussions…

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

          Lay off the insults, Techne. You’re walking a fine line, here.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Most people who made it through high school, or even middle school, biology know what it is and is not.

      1) Is natural selection a prescriptive or descriptive term?

      Descriptive, obviously.

      2) Is natural selection a mechanism?

      It depends how you define “mechanism”.

      3) Is natural selection a cause or a force?

      Nonsense question.

      4) Is natural selection a process or an outcome?

      Both.

  2. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Most religious people dismiss other religions as ridiculous. The atheist simply dismisses one more. However, the ‘creation’ or nature surrounding us do exist, and remarkably most religious people do not care much. Most religious people are obsessed with their man-made texts, man-made rituals, man-made temples and gurus. Religion=study of man’s imaginations. Science=study of the creation.

    Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden, Chiang Mai

  3. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Mind answering a few questions about natural selection? You appear to claim to know what natural selection is and is not.

  4. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Oh sorry about the double post. My mistake.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Not the only one…

      /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:06 am | Permalink

        :D

  5. Ray Moscow
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    In the same way, Plantinga could assert that “You can’t sensibly claim that belief in fairies and leprechauns is irrational without showing it isn’t true.”

    I thought that fairies were never actually disproven, just shown to be unnecessary. It’s the same with ‘god’.

    To assert that fairies are doing things for which we have well established natural explanations is irrational, though. It’s the same with ‘god’ there, too.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      You are missing the overwhelming lack of evidence for any gods. If gods existed in any of the christian forms, they would necessarily leave trace evidence.

      Interactive gods don’t exist and inactive gods merit no consideration, a dangling chad has far more influence on the state of the universe.

  6. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    My impression, is that most philosophers, if by that you mean people who teach philosophy in accredited colleges and universities and/or publish in philosophical journals, are atheists. However there are a lot of people who call themselves philosophers and who even set up bogus schools to teach things like Kaballah or one-pointedness or other such garbage who are definitely not atheists. There also seems to be a group of people like WLC of Christian philosophers who know they are in a minority but seem to think of themselves as the only really important people in the subject.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Unlike Kaballah and bullshit like that, philosophy of religion is recognized as a specialty within academic philosophy. However, it’s not a specialty that’s taken seriously, for the most part.

      Alvin Plantinga is noteworthy because he’s one of the few philosophers of religion who the mainstream does take seriously to a degree.

      And when I say “one of the few,” I mean “possibly the only,” though you could also claim spots for Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen here. But they’re pretty much it.

      William Lane Craig is a second-stringer in the philosophy of religion world, which makes him a total nobody in the broader academic philosophy world.

    • abb3w
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      “Target Faculty”, Survey says….
      God: theism or atheism?
      Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
      Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
      Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)

      The website allows a finer detail breakdown, as well as viewing other respondent groups besides “Target Faculty”, metasurvey results, and other fun.

  7. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I’m currently developing a non-negotiable sensus divinitatis for Pangu that I plan to release in early January.

  8. Rob
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Except there is a proof of 1+1=2. Not that I understand it.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      =3

    • Tulse
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      +1

      (And subscribing)

      • Kharamatha
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Ant Allan, Tulse:

        1 + 1 = 3 + 1 ?
        :P

        • Orlando
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          Don’t forget to divide by zero (*_*)

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      My introduction to Abstract Algebra was the teacher saying:

      “Imagine you have a small haystack in each of your hands. How many haystacks do you have?

      (Naturally, we all say “two”.)

      Fine. Now dump the haystack in your left hand onto the table. Now dump the haystack in your right hand on top of the haystack already on the table. How many haystacks do you have?

      (With a sense of wonder, we all slowly say “one”.)

      Now, did I just prove that one plus one equals one?”

      Needless to say, it was a very interesting math course.

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        I would think that that just shows that the set of all haystacks is isomorphic to the trivial set.

        • Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          You have one larger haystack. Did the teacher ever get to volume?

          • gr8hands
            Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

            Of course, but this was (as I wrote) the introduction. It was one of the first really interesting math thought experiments I recall.

            One person used to wittily sign his posts: 1+1=3 (for large values of 1)

          • Dan L.
            Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

            I know you’re probably joking but I hate when people do this. “Volume” is a concept from Euclidean geometry, a subject that people typically study in 10th grade or equivalent. gr8hands is talking about abstract algebra, a field of advanced mathematics that is significantly more difficult and advanced than Euclidean geometry. Chances are that if someone mentions “abstract algebra” they know more about mathematics than you do. Math majors are pretty much the only people who take the course. (Technically, CS majors are also doing abstract algebra but most CS majors I’ve known insist that they’re bad at math and refuse to believe that CS is a branch of mathematics.)

            The math professor is not stupid for not understanding the concept of volume. The professor is pointing out that when we talk about generalized algebraic systems we can define the operators any way we like.

          • Kharamatha
            Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            Is volume needed? One haystack represents a larger number of items anyway.

            The same can be expressed as, “You have two numbers; if you add them, how many numbers do you have?”

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Plantinga seems to have a decent grasp of (contemporary) logic, so he knows darn well that proofs are relative to a logic and also to a system of axioms. In fact, in most systems of logic the existence of god is trivially provable given the axiom that god exists – but this just illustrates that more than valid proofs are needed; knowingly sound ones and ones with other properties (like lack of circularity) are needed as well.

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        If you subscribe to the notion that an argument that falls back on an arbitrary axiom is important, interesting and a truth test, you are part of the problem. “Axiomatic” means needing no proof because it is true on its face.

        Plantinga ‘s logic is nothing but hot air until he sets such an undeniably true axiom at its root.

      • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        No he doesn’t have a decent grasp of logic.

        1] in order to run his argument at all he needs a form of modal logic in which the implication:

        PNx => Nx

        holds. I.e if “x is possibly necessarily true” then “x is necessarily true”. Stated like that in English it doesn’t have an obvious meaning and until one has pinned down precisely what is meant by “possibly” and “necessarily” it doesn’t. Now he appeals to “possible worlds semantics” to justify this move (he doesn’t quite state it like that, but that’s what it amounts to).

        However:
        (a) If he is using this semantics as a mathematical construct, all it shows is the consistency of a modal calculus with this rule. The applicability of this calculus to the subject range he is discussing is something further that needs to be demonstrated – he does not address this.

        On the other hand:
        (b) if he takes a Platonist view that these “possible worlds” have some sort of independent existence then he needs an argument to show this.

        Of course it is entirely possible that Plantinga takes some other view of this semantics but he fails to say what it is.

        As an aside, I think the possible worlds semantics has a serious flaw in that it hides the systematic ambiguity of modal concepts. You can find some preliminary thoughts on the matter here: http://bernardhurley.posterous.com/musings-on-necessity-1-alternative-models

        2] If we take G to mean “God exists”, where “God” is taken to be a maximally perfect being, Plantinga thinks he can prove PNG (i.e. probably necessarily God exists). Then using the sorites:

        PNG
        PNG => NG
        NG => G
        G

        he gets to the conclusion “God exits”. However I can’t see how on any interpretation of possible worlds semantics, PNG can be proved. Plantinga’s argument rests on an equivocation. I.e. confusing the everyday use of “possibly” where it can mean “imaginably” or “conceivably” etc. with whatever technical meaning it must have inside his calculus. (This is easy to miss because he never actually says what this technical meaning is but just implies he is using “laws of logic”)

        • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          I agree – possible worlds semantics is confused, as far as I am concerned. (This is, admittedly, a minority viewpoint.) As for the bit about PNp -> Np, well, yeah, it has to be clarified as to what sort of necessity is in mind. I have a feeling that like many, despite his otherwise reasonable familiarity, Plantinga doesn’t keep logic and metaphysics apart – “logical possibility” has to do with provability: hence S5 is useful as a shorthand, sometimes, as in provability logics.

  9. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof than the belief that the past exists, or that other people have minds, or that one plus one equals two.

    This is nonsense. The simple fact is that there is a lot of disagreement about the existence of God, much much more than there is disagreement about the other examples he mentions. Plantinga can hardly be unaware of this.

    If there is a “sensus divinitatus”, it isn’t working correctly for many, many people. Not just for atheists, but also for deists and non-theistic religions, such as certain forms of Buddhism. And even for the ones that are theistic, it leads to such a diversity in opinions on the nature of God, that you really should start wondering how the “sensus divinitatus” could be considered reliable at all. Who says it isn’t Plantinga’s brain that is misfiring? Especially since we actually have excellent evidence that brain can conjure up presences that aren’t there…

    • Ray Moscow
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      I thought John Locke laid that nonsense to rest in the late 17th century.

      • Observer
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        And so he did. It’s sad how eager many religionists are to undo the Enlightenment

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Plantinga’s “male fide” (to use Bunge’s term) ad hoc hypothesis is simply “sin does it”. Really.

  10. Steve Smith
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof … that one plus one equals two

    Alvin Plantinga would do well to acquaint himself with a rather well-known philosopher named Bertrand Russell. A corollary of Theorem 54.43 of the Principia:

    From this proposition it will follow, when arithmetical addition has been defined, that 1 + 1 = 2.

    Plantinga was president of the American Philosophical Association so he must know about Russell’s famous work; therefore, Plantinga misrepresentation of mathematical knowledge to support his opinion about god must be intentionally deceptive.

  11. Erp
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    “Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof than the belief that the past exists, or that other people have minds, or that one plus one equals two.”

    Philosophers have argued about all of those (Russell for instance on 1+1=2). What a basic belief is and whether it is a useful idea is within the domain of epistomology and Plantinga seems to be a foundationalist.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Part of the problem seems to be that some philosophers, and maybe all theologians, give primacy to the mind as a tool for acquiring knowledge, rather than a tool for analysing information gained empirically, or for suggesting further trains of empirical enquiry. They mistake what they think for what is. They think that epistemology determines ontology, rather than the other way round.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        Good observation!

        I would dispute that “1+1=2″ is “basic knowledge”. It’s an observation, and depends on the use of symbols to represent quantities and the concept of addition.

      • Posted December 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Brilliant. Well said!

  12. TJR
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    This is a report by a journo, so there is always the possibility that the journo stitched him up.

    But if this article even approximately represents his views then he is indeed clueless.

  13. Martin
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    ‘Second, if religion lays claim to the “truth,” then why can’t religious people agree on what that truth is? If “truth” has any meaning at all, it has to be the same for everyone’

    This is pretty much what it comes down to. If religion can produce or discover truth based on faith or revelation, then their ‘truths’ shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I’d like to hear a debate between, say, a Muslim and a Christian about whose religion is the correct one. It’s one thing to hear the “science vs. faith” discussion, but it could be quite amusing to hear one faith’s evidenceless claims argued against another faith’s evidenceless claims. Just imagine the ‘proofs’ each side would give in a debate in which faith itself is seen as a given.

    • bric
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      You don’t need to contrast actual religions; many of Cranmer’s 39 articles (which Anglicans must accept as true at Confirmation) deliberately oppose the Roman Creed. How are we to understand religious ‘truth’ here? Rather like morality, we cannot decide from the source: was Mary born without sin? The answer is yes if you are a Roman Catholic and no if you are an Anglican: a strange sort of truth, that bends to the will of men.

      • Ray Moscow
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        Just a small note: We (former) Anglicans didn’t have to actually accept the 39 articles at confirmation. They are regarded as historical doctrines but not particularly ‘binding’ or essential nowadays.

        I imagine back when Anglicanism was enforced by the state, assent was expected and demanded.

        • bric
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          Could be, when I was confirmed in the Church of England 50 years ago I thought it odd that I was asked to affirm them but not to actually know what they were; being a bit of a swot in those days I did read them up. And strangely enough that little bit of research was what gave me the clue that perhaps faith wasn’t as absolute as I had believed.

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Here is a video of that very thing:

  14. Teemo
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    This guy is the worst philosopher in all of history. He’s not even trying. How can you fail so badly at a discipline that is specifically designed so that you can never fail?

    • Myron
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      “This guy is the worst philosopher in all of history.”

      No, he’s not. For example, his book The Nature of Necessity (1974) is an important contribution to modal logic and its philosophy.

      • Teemo
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        Okay, he’s the best philosopher ever. That puts him slightly below the worst reality tv star.

        • Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          I got some huge recognition for my papers in the 1970’s. But, alas, science has moved on. Does philosophy move on?

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

            It could start by coming up with a method for answering questions instead of “addressing” them. =D

            • truthspeaker
              Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

              I’d like to try that sometime.

              COP: Is that cigarette you just threw on the ground marijuana?

              ME: Fishsticks.

              COP: Answer the question!

              ME: I addressed the question.

            • Diane G.
              Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:15 am | Permalink

              It could start by coming up with a method for answering questions instead of “addressing” them. =D

              That’s so simple & yet profound! :D

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

            Or, as I hear, it is in the business of making questions. Then we would like to see a method of coming up with well formed (testable) questions.

  15. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    What would we do without the Plantingas of the world? Plantinga gives little ol’me a sense of knowing more than I really do. I’m not a biologist or philosopher but I have no difficulty in recognizing the illogical, unscientific arguments he and other theologians desperately make in attempts to justify their beliefs. I rely on these people for a feeling of wellbeing; that I am more knowledgeable about this wonderful world than they are in spite of their education. Thank you Mr. Plantinga for your blind faith and feeble apologetics. And, thanks to Jerry and other comment makers for lucid explanations.

    • Posted December 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Withdraw his academic credentials until he can demonstrate clearly what he’s on about in a language commonly recognized and accepted by other experts in his field?

  16. Sajanas
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Does Plantinga even bother to think that the experiences in ones mind are not necessarily indicative of the experiences of other people? There are a whole host of reasons he could have this ‘divine sense’ that doesn’t mean that God exists… delusion, hallucination, wishful thinking, self justification, etc. Reading these quotes makes me think that he is operating under the assumption that his mind (and minds in general) is a perfect thinking engine rather than a convoluted goo pile. I really think that philosophers would be well served to volunteer with the mentally ill or mentally challenged, and see just how different their view of the world is, before they imagine that people’s minds can somehow be relied upon to detect a God that is completely unnoticed in science.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Indeed I find this a failing in a great many people from people in ivory towers like Plantinga to people I know personally : the assumption that everyone thinks and feels just as they do.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      . . . delusion, hallucination, wishful thinking, self justification, . . .

      . . . epilepsy, temporal lobe lesions . . .

  17. Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Science is all about evidence, and is not equivalent to mathematics, which is a very refined form of logic in which results follow ineluctably from premises.

    I agree that science is about evidence, though “all about evidence” might overstate that. And I agree that science is not mathematics. But, as a mathematician, I do have to disagree with your contention that mathematics is “a very refined form of logic.” That’s roughly the view of logicism (one of several philosophies of mathematics), but it misdescribes how mathematicians work.

    Sure, when mathematicians deduce things from their axioms, they are using logic to determine what follows from their premises. But the axioms do not come encoded in our genes, nor do we find them engraved in the universe. The axioms themselves come from the inventiveness of mathematics and mathematicians. And logicism leaves out that vital aspect of mathematics.

  18. Myron
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Background information:

    “The view that the belief that there is a God needs no prior support from other evidence in order to be held rationally is the view of ‘reformed epistemology’, advocated by Alvin Plantinga and developed in a 1984 collection on ‘Faith and Rationality’ which he co-edited. Basic beliefs are ones which the subject believes, but not for the reason that they are supported by any other beliefs which he holds. Beliefs are ‘properly basic if the subject is justified in holding them even if not supported by other beliefs’. What Plantinga calls ‘classical
    foundationalism’ is the view that the only properly basic beliefs are self-evident beliefs (beliefs in obvious logical truths, such as that 2 + 2 = 4), incorrigible beliefs (beliefs about our current mental states), and beliefs evident to the senses (beliefs about what we are now perceiving via the five senses). It would seem to follow from classical foundationalism that belief that there is a God cannot be properly basic, and so requires to be based on other beliefs, i.e. to be justified by argument from other beliefs. Plantinga argues (for reasons quite apart from those concerned with religious beliefs) that classical foundationalism has too narrow a class of properly basic beliefs (it should, for example, include memory beliefs). And further, he argues, it is self-defeating, because belief in classical foundationalism itself is neither (by its own standards) a properly basic belief nor, apparently, supportable by properly basic beliefs. Yet once we abandon classical foundationalism, he claims, we have no good reason for denying that belief that there is a God may be properly basic.
    There is much to be said for the principle that it is rational to hold any belief with which one finds oneself, in
    the absence of counter-evidence—a principle sometimes called ‘the principle of credulity’. But Plantinga is not
    advocating this as a general principle; rather, he holds that ‘there is a God’ may be held without further justification, even if ‘I am now aware of the Great Pumpkin’ may not; and he has recently developed a theory of epistemology which has this consequence. (See his ‘Warranted Christian Belief’.) This theory concerns what makes a belief ‘warranted’. Warrant is the characteristic which turns true belief into knowledge. If my belief that the Second World War ended in 1945 is warranted, then if it is also true, I know that the Second World War ended in 1945. (A belief being ‘warranted’ is very similar to its being justified or rational—that is, the believer being justified or rational in holding the belief.) Plantinga’s account of warrant is a complicated one, but its central component is that to be warranted a belief must be produced in the right way—that is, by a ‘properly functioning process’. Thus perception, memory, and induction are all processes which lead us to acquire beliefs; and plausibly we are functioningproperly when we acquire beliefs by means of them (in the absence of counter-evidence). So, any belief of mine acquired by perception will be warranted (in the absence of counter-evidence—for example, my memory that I have just ingested a hallucinatory drug). So too will any belief acquired by induction from my perceptual beliefs. Plantinga suggests that we all have a sense additional to the normal five, a ‘sense of divinity’ which produces in many of us the belief that there is a God; and that, since there is a God (Plantinga claims), our cognitive faculties are functioning properly when the ‘sense of divinity’ does produce that belief. If he is right about this, then (unless—improbably—the belief is acquired by some other process) whenever we find ourselves with the belief that there is a God, we are warranted in continuing to hold it (so long as we do not find evidence or arguments tending to show that there is no God). But if we do not find ourselves with the belief that there is a God to start with, or our belief is only a weak one outweighed by counter-evidence (for example, the evidence of suffering suggesting that there cannot be a perfectly good being in charge of the universe), Plantinga does not give any positive reason to hold that belief or hold it in a stronger form so that it is not outweighed. He is concerned only to show that a simple religious believer who can give no arguments for his belief may still be warranted in holding it.”

    (“Religion, Problems of the Philosophy of,” by Richard Swinburne. In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, 2nd ed., 805-808. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 806)

    • Myron
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Reformed Epistemology:

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/relig-ep/#SH3d

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-epistemology/#Ref

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        The Stanford Encyc. of Philosophy has Plantinga in the realm of ontology. Does ontology recapitulate philosophy or something. What is going on here?

        • Khoth
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          One of Plantinga’s contributions to philosophy has been to invent a stupider version of the ontological argument. Slightly unkindly paraphrased, it goes something like this:

          1. God exists.
          2. Therefore, God exists.
          3. If God exists, that argument was sound.
          4. Since I have an argument that God exists, even though it’s circular, it’s reasonable to believe that God exists.

          • Kharamatha
            Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

            Hey, it beats, “God doesn’t exist, therefore God exists.”

        • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          Arguably, Plantinga’s contributions to metaphysics are in the realm of almost-apologetics.

    • TJR
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      i.e. “I think Jesus, therefore Jesus”

      Bear in mind that Swinburne is the guy who claims in a book to have justified belief in god via Bayes’ Theorem. I’ve not read the book, only papers commenting on it, but if they are even half-right then he didn’t even apply it correctly, let alone any arguments about the numbers going in.

    • Laurence
      Posted December 23, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      What’s great about Reformed Epistemology is all you have to do is create a good enough story for a belief and it will be considered reasonable.

  19. Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Jerry is even aware that Darwin was a teleologist? Or if Jerry even understands why?

    There is no evidence that Jerry knows or understands this anyway.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Relevance?

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Darwin was a teleologist because of his views related to natural selection. Jerry, from the opening post, appears to claim to know what natural selection is and is not. Jerry might very well be a teleologist too based on his views of natural selection.

        Perhaps that is why he struggles to provide clear, logical, consistent and coherent answers to the questions posed here.

        Who knows?

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

          Sorry, Techne, but that’s not an answer to my question. You appear not to know what you’re talking about. And please give us your evidence for God.

        • gr8hands
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

          Techne, here is a germane quote about teleology:

          Some disciplines, in particular within evolutionary biology, are still prone to use language that appears teleological when they describe natural tendencies towards certain end conditions; but these arguments can always be rephrased in non-teleological forms.

          It is the language, not the discipline, which appears teleological. Darwin was not a teleologist. Nor Coyne.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Ummm. . . you’re trolling here, Techne. Before I’ll allow you to post further (because I see you post at Telic thoughts, please provide us with

      1. Definitive evidence that Darwin was a teleologist?

      2. What evidence you see that convinces you that there is a God.

    • Dan L.
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Techne, I wonder how much you know about computers. When I’m talking about computers, software engineering, etc. I use explicitly teleological language. Why? Because trying to speak about the operation of even the simplest programs written in, for example, the Java programming language would literally take years if not lifetimes. Each simple user action in a virtual environment consists, in reality, of thousands of lines of code being run in the background.

      That is, teleological language can serve as a vital shortcut even when the phenomenon isn’t really teleological. It’s easier to say that the thermostat “keeps” the temperature at 65 even though that’s not really what’s going on. Similarly, in electronic we might talk about components like differential amplifiers that can “compare signals” or components like integrators that can “do calculus.” When engineers speak this way they’re not implying there’s a little guy in the IC package watching the two inputs and taking notes — the actual non-teleological operation of a differential amplifier is well understood but takes at least a few hundred words to describe. So much easier to say it “compares inputs.”

      So we know that it’s possible to use teleological language to usefully describe non-teleological phenomena. The question is whether there’s any situation in which we use teleological language in which this ISN’T what we’re doing. Naturalists and materialists will tend to say no, all teleological language is a sort of shortcut around more verbose (and more correct) descriptions. Theists will tend to disagree. But it’s not enough to point out that someone uses teleological language, one has to show that the phenomenon in question CAN’T POSSIBLY be non-teleological. Unfortunately for the theist, proving a negative is damned hard.

  20. Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t aware that theism had become respectable among philosophers. In fact, I thought that most philosophers were atheists.

    As best I can tell, many philosophers are atheists, though it isn’t clear that the atheists are a majority. And, to be clear, I am a mathematician, not a philosopher, so I don’t have any inside information on this.

    It has long seemed to me that theism and philosophy are not all that different. Both seem to be engaged in the art of creative fiction. That is to say, they make stuff up, and do little in the way of empirically testing their conclusions.

    • Teemo
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Theology is the philosophy of god. It’s not properly the “study of god”, since you can’t study what isn’t there, and they don’t even try to find anything substantial.

    • MIchael
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Neil, I think if you spent some time reading good philosophy you wouldn’t believe that anymore. I’d recommend, for starters, maybe anything by Bernard Williams or Derek Parfit or Daniel Dennett (who is a philosopher, after all).

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        I have read quite a bit of Dennett, and I am underwhelmed.

        When Jean Piaget decided to investigate knowledge, he set up a lab to test his ideas. Why don’t traditional epistemologists do that?

        • MIchael
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          Because we do not know what we would be testing in the first place. Piaget’s research only works by just assuming a certain definition of knowledge.

    • bric
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Ah, but at least one theologian is an atheist (Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou)

      http://fatpie42.livejournal.com/129405.html

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      There is a noticeable distinction between philosophers of religion, and other philosophers. Quite a few philosophers of religion are theistic, the others not so much. This is a matter of self-selection; not that many people want to spend their life studying something which doesn’t exist.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      . . . the art of creative fiction.

      Like!

  21. Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    “Sensus divinatis” appears to be another term for what Bertrand Russell called “the cruel thirst for worship.”

    http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/br-fmw.html

  22. MIchael
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    You’ve talked about this before, so I think you disagree, but just to reiterate: theism per se has not become popular among philosophers (as confirmed by the PhilPapers surveys) but using theistic concepts has become a respectable venue to test philosophical theories and intuitions. For example, the past 30 odd years has seen an explosion in modal logic, and the two places philosophers mostly go to test modal intuitions are causality and theism. Plantiga’s most important contribution is in the latter (The Nature of Necessity).

    Let me also comment on this remark: “And how can a “scientific worldview” be one that doesn’t demand proof—or, rather, strong empirical evidence? Science is all about evidence…” The concern here is that only sorts of proof count as ‘scientific.’ So someone might believe that God listens when they pray because they sense his presence. That’s their evidence. It’s not verifiable, not repeatable across subjects, difficult to measure, etc., and so is ruled out of court as evidence even before the trial. To continue with the analogy: there is just a whole lot of evidence that science claims has no standing before the court.

    I would ask: what proof would you give that ‘empirical’ proof is the only proof?

    I think some such question is lurking behind Plantinga’s belief that naturalism is no more rational than theism…..

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      The concern here is that only sorts of proof count as ‘scientific.’ So someone might believe that God listens when they pray because they sense his presence. That’s their evidence. It’s not verifiable, not repeatable across subjects, difficult to measure, etc., and so is ruled out of court as evidence even before the trial. To continue with the analogy: there is just a whole lot of evidence that science claims has no standing before the court.

      And with good reason.

      I would ask: what proof would you give that ‘empirical’ proof is the only proof?

      You’ve just substituted proof for evidence. Science doesn’t prove things.

      The evidence that empirical evidence is the only kind worth considering comes from thousands of years of human experience. Long before there was such a thing as science, people had to figure out which plants were edible and which were poisonous. A sense or feeling would not be helpful with that problem. Empirical observation would. Empirical evidence helps you find a prey animal to kill and eat. Feelings don’t.

      • MIchael
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        There’s a long answer I could give to this, but I’ll keep my remarks to the following: that conception of experience in the end can support very little. For example, it can’t even ‘prove’ that all ravens are black. Hume tried to work with that definition of evidence, and ended up a skeptic about both religion and science.

        • Tulse
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          it can’t even ‘prove’ that all ravens are black

          Exactly, or even that all swans are white…hey…wait a minute….

          Science can never “prove” anything>. All scientific knowledge is provisional. And yes, that means that science itself is rooted in scepticism, even about its methodology. The best we can do is say, as the xkcd T-shirt states: “Science – it works, bitches”. In other words, its justification is ultimately pragmatic.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          Is there ANY way to prove that all ravens are black?

          Just because empiricism is limited (which it obviously is), doesn’t mean it’s not the most reliable method for determining facts.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      “proof — or, rather, strong empirical evidence” – This merely clears up the misconception that equates scientific proof (strong evidence) for logical proof (deduction, logic, maths).

      In this context (i.e. the criticism of philosophy and theology) is that philosophers and theologians think they have logical proofs, because they form valid arguments. But their arguments can always be worked back to unsubstantiated premises, presuppositions, so they never actually achieve sound arguments. But a common tendency seems to be that philosophers and theologians are content with the premises or presuppositions that they find to be ‘obvious’ – and is being so content they mistake their valid arguments for sound arguments. I find it disturbing how many philosophers rely on the ‘obvious’, since that seems to defeat one of the supposed merits of philosophy: challenging the obvious.

      I suspect that philosophers and theologians also mistake what scientists call proof, i.e. strong evidence, as a claim to logical deductive proof.

      But, what we have discovered is that both our reasoning and our empirical observations are inherently flawed. We can’t rely on deductive proof the way theologians and some philosophers like to. We are only biological organisms after all – though we do tend to get ideas above our station, that we have ‘other ways of knowing’ (sensus divinitatis?). But we have no other ways of knowing. And in this respect we have to make do with the flawed tools we have – which is precisely what ‘science’ does: pretty normal human empiricism and critical thinking, along with some constructed methodology to make it as reliable as it can be made, in our hands.

      I think such mistakes are lurking behind Plantinga’s beliefs.

      • MIchael
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        I assure you philosophers are making no such mistakes. Nor are they ever content to rest with the ‘obvious.’ And philosophers, especially those who work in epistemology, philosophy of language, cognitive science and philosophy of mind, are very aware of the differences between evidence, proof, demonstration, intuition, etc. In fact, these are all distinctions that philosophers have introduced. There seems to be a weird complacency among many commentators that they know what philosophy is all about, but I see little evidence that they do (in general).

        • josh
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          The assertion that philosophers make no such mistakes seems weirdly complacent, given that Plantinga was president of the APA.

          • MIchael
            Posted December 17, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

            whatever obvious mistakes you think Plantinga has made, not being aware of these differences is not one of them.

  23. MAUCH
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Perhaps what the NYTimes is saying is that Alvin Plantinga has finally gained enough respectability to be allowed to be categorically dismissed by the vast majority of today’s philosophers.

  24. Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    If claims like Plantinga’s are taken seriously by secular philosophers, then philosophy is in more trouble than I thought.

    Yes, they are, and yes, it is.

  25. Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    ‘ “You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true,” Mr. Plantinga said’. Piffle. As already pointed out, replace ‘theistic belief’ with ‘belief in fairies’ or, my own favourite, ‘belief in Russell’s teapot’ to see why.

    As for the claim that non-believers are defective because they cannot feel the presence of God, my own retort would be ‘Which God?’ As Russell, again, illustrates, it is perfectly possible to have deep mystic experience without linking it to any theocentric claptrap.

  26. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    “I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” he said…

    In some people it works overtime.

    What proof is there that this sense is a valid representation of the world? How does this sense differ from wishful thinking? How does it differ from the schizophrenic’s perception that he/she is Jesus? How does it differ from megalomania? Etc.

    Yeesh. L

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      That’s why the hypothesis is male fide, in Bunge’s sense – it cannot be independently tested. Bunge goes on to say, also correctly, that male fide ad hoc hypotheses are a clear mark of pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy.

  27. Doc Bill
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof than the belief that the past exists, or that other people have minds, or that one plus one equals two.

    Isn’t this how Aquinas started out in the Summa Theologica?

    It appears that theological philosophy hasn’t progressed very far in 800 years.

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      From the Philosopher’s Lexicon:

      “planting, v. To use twentieth-century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from eleventh -century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed; hence, plantinger, n. one who plantings.”

      Note the bit at the beginning of the lexicon that says that all those who are satirized therein who were alive when the lexicon entry was created have *agreed* to the inclusion of the joke!

  28. Myron
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    “Science simply doesn’t operate on what Plantinga calls ‘basic beliefs,’ by which he apparently means ‘beliefs for which one needs no empirical support.” – J. Coyne

    You’re wrong, because a belief directly derived from perception is a basic belief.
    A basic belief is one which is not based on one or more other beliefs.

    • Myron
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      A basic belief is directly derived from some source of knowledge, not being inferred from any other beliefs. That is, a belief directly derived from, e.g., perception, introspection, or rational intuition is a basic belief.
      What Plantinga claims is that there is an additional supernatural source of knowledge: Calvin’s “sensus divinitatis”, by means of which we can come to know that there is a god. And the belief that there is a god is a basic belief if it is directly derived from that alleged source of knowledge.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Matt McCormick has a sensus atheistus

        “and it assures me, beyond any possibility of mistake, that anyone who claims to have direct experience of God is mistaken.”

    • yesmyliege
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      ‘Seeing is believing’ is not a scientific precept.

    • Tulse
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      a belief directly derived from perception is a basic belief. A basic belief is one which is not based on one or more other beliefs

      So you have no beliefs about your perceptions, such as that they are veridical?

      • gr8hands
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        +1

        Very important points. Should a deaf person trust their “basic belief” that there are no sounds — simply because they can’t hear anything?

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        So you have no beliefs about your perceptions, such as that they are veridical?

        I believe that my perceptions are riddled with shortcuts and inaccuracies, many of which can be scientifically pointed out by well-designed illusions.

    • Dan L.
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      One can’t deny the fact of one’s veridical experience but one can always doubt the content of one’s experience. This is essentially what Descartes pointed out. We know when we experience seeing the color red but we can’t be sure that experience actually corresponds to actually seeing (with our eyes) the color red.

      So, for example, Plantinga’s “basic belief” in God only indicates that Plantinga believes that he believes in God. The basic belief isn’t that God exists, it’s that Plantinga believes that God exists. But I already knew that Plantinga believes in God because he won’t shut up about it. The fact that Plantinga believes in God tells me nothing about whether God actually exists.

      In other words, “basic beliefs” consist only of our knowledge of the content of our own minds. You can’t prove anything about the real world on the basis of “basic beliefs” because they’re necessarily statements about mental content and therefore necessarily fallible.

      • Myron
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        My basic belief that there is a computer in front of me is about an external object rather than a content of my mind.

        • Dan L.
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          The belief that there is a computer in front of you is not basic. What if you are hallucinating the computer?

          “I see a computer in front of me” is a basic belief. “There is a computer in front of me” is not. See the difference?

          • Dan L.
            Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

            In other words, “there is a computer in front of me” is a non-basic belief inferred from the basic belief “I see a computer in front of me” and other beliefs about the nature of computers, the nature of hallucinations, and your (mostly non-basic) beliefs about computers and hallucinations.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              MacBeth had the limitations of human perception in mind when he asked “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

        • truthspeaker
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          That’s not a basic belief, that’s an empirical observation.

    • SinSeeker
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      “a belief directly derived from perception is a basic belief”

      This is just bad psychology. No belief is “directly derived” from perception. There is an awful lot of tweaking and processing going on between the physical stimulus hitting a sense organ and our “perception” of it, let alone our development of “beliefs” based on that perception. Psychology has been aware of this for at least the last fifty years (and possibility longer depending on your interpretation of earlier work).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      a belief directly derived from perception is a basic belief.

      Oh, for the love of all empirical!

      An observation is never immediate in space or time. It is always a method of indirect detection, and has to be tested and assessed on degree of uncertainty as everything else.

      The idea that we form beliefs based on perception is no more relevant for observation of reality than other such ghosts in the mind machine such as state representations (aka “qualia”).

      Parsimony says these unnecessary ghosts shouldn’t exist, physics says dualist ghosts couldn’t exist, biology says evolutionary ghosts wouldn’t exist, and guess what – comparison of philosophy with reality has come up empty minded.

      • Dan L.
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        I think we do need to admit that qualia are real and are causal. The denial of the reality of veridical experience is, first of all, untenable because it’s the only thing we can be sure of (that we have it, not that it reflects reality). And if it isn’t causal (ie if it’s epiphenomenal) then you have to deal with the zombie arguments.

        Another reason is that qualia really are demonstrably causal. For example, the existence of both color blindness and perfect pitch demonstrates that qualia can differ from person to person (qualia “inversion” is a real thing). There was a recent video from the BBC of the differences in perception caused by the Himba’s tribe having color words that work differently from ours — another example. I think you can make a good case the qualia are the mind’s equivalent of “primitive data types” from CS.

        • Tulse
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          qualia are real

          That is undeniable, at least as far as “perception has a subjective component”

          and are causal

          This, however, doesn’t follow, and I think is far more difficult to support. The arguments against the causal efficacy of qualia are similar to those against free will — a complete physical description of brain activity can provide a full causal account of behaviour, and in that physical description there is no room for free will or qualia. You may not like that this leads to Chalmersian zombies, but the distastefulness of a conclusion is not an argument against the position (just as in free will accounts).

          the existence of both color blindness and perfect pitch demonstrates that qualia can differ from person to person

          And zombies could produce exactly the same behaviour. More to the point, if you’re a materialist, you presumably believe that things like colour blindness and perfect pitch are explicable purely in neurophysical terms. If so, how can qualia be causal?

          • Dan L.
            Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

            I DON’T believe that zombies could produce exactly the same behavior. If they could then we would all be zombies. If qualia aren’t causal, then how can we say they’re “real”? I know of nothing “real” that doesn’t have some kind of causal effect. Qualia have effects.

            More to the point, if you’re a materialist, you presumably believe that things like colour blindness and perfect pitch are explicable purely in neurophysical terms. If so, how can qualia be causal?

            It’s rather hard to explain in a comment box, but basically qualia can be causal in the same way that clicking an icon “opens a program” on your computer. There is causality involved — the program wouldn’t open if you didn’t click — but thinking in terms of “clicking the icon caused the program to open” isn’t quite right. It’s actually more complicated than that involving window managers and hardware buses and all the other working elements of a computer system.

            How can a zombie (which can’t see any colors) pass or fail a color blindness test? How can a zombie (which doesn’t hear any sounds) recognize a musical note in the hum of a fluorescent light? Would Himba zombies have the same differences in color discrimination that Himba humans have? How or why? Can a zombie prefer one color scheme to another. How or why? If your answer is that the operation of the brain does not require the animal to experience anything then the question is why DO we experience anything?

            Finally, consider whether animals are zombies. I don’t think they are. But why not? Surely if a human could be a zombie then an animal can be a zombie. But there really does seem to be something it is like to be a bat. I think this is the really vital clue: you need the idea of veridical experience to make sense of even animal behavior, not just human behavior.

            • Dan L.
              Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              More to the point, if you’re a materialist, you presumably believe that things like colour blindness and perfect pitch are explicable purely in neurophysical terms.

              Incidentally, I DON’T believe this. The qualia of a color blind person are different. When you ask a color blind person whether they see the number hidden in the dots and they say “no” it’s because the person’s internal representation of color isn’t rich enough to render the number. There IS a physiological reason that the internal representation is information-poor, but the person fails the test because his or her experience is of “not seeing a number”, not of “has defective retinae.” That’s why the optometrist asks you whether you see a number and not how your retina are doing.

            • Tulse
              Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

              I DON’T believe that zombies could produce exactly the same behavior.

              But aren’t you a materialist? Do you believe that we can fully account for behaviour by mapping the causal interactions of neurons? Where is the room for qualia in causal terms?

              How can a zombie (which can’t see any colors) pass or fail a color blindness test?

              Do you think that robots can’t distinguish different wavelengths of light? How can a thermostat (which can’t feel heat or cold) control the climate of your house?

              If your answer is that the operation of the brain does not require the animal to experience anything then the question is why DO we experience anything?

              Yes, indeed, that IS the question, and it’s notoriously a so-called “hard problem” in philosophy. I agree that it seems completely counter-intuitive for qualia to have no causal force, just like it is counter-intuitive for there to be no free will. But materialism, and more specifically neuropsychology, seems to leave no room for either.

              • Dan L.
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                But materialism, and more specifically neuropsychology, seems to leave no room for either.

                This is an “argument from lack of imagination” and as far as I’m concerned, amounts to begging the question. I tried to give you some clues above as to how I think the whole thing fits together but it would really take a few thousand words to spell out the full case. I’ll try again, though, briefly.

                Do you believe that we can fully account for behaviour by mapping the causal interactions of neurons? Where is the room for qualia in causal terms?

                I believe that we can fully account for the behavior of a computer by mapping the causal interactions of bit registers. Where is the room for Microsoft Windows in causal terms? Nonetheless, interacting with Microsoft Windows has a causal effect on the operation of the computer. Furthermore, we can reconcile these two facts without recourse to magic.

                Do you think that robots can’t distinguish different wavelengths of light?

                I agree that robots can distinguish different wavelengths of light. The question is what happens next. It’s not enough to give the robot the capacity to discriminate different wavelengths of light, it also needs to be programmed to report on its findings. The robot has to “care” about the differences in wavelengths of light that it senses — it has to be programmed to “remember” and “report” the differences. It’s easy to motivate electronic devices to do this, but I think to get a biological device to “care” about its inputs you need something like qualia. Note the scare-quoted terms are standing in for ideas that would require a lot of writing to unpack.

                I’m very familiar with these ideas, you don’t need to talk down to me by telling me that we’re talking about the hard problem of consciousness.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                This is an “argument from lack of imagination”

                By no means. Materialism deals with objective, third-party-verifiable phenomena, and qualia don’t meet these criteria — they are not possible entities in a purely materialist account. This is no more a failure of imagination than ruling out a role for “empathy” in atomic interactions, or “custard” in understanding the nature of prime numbers.

                I believe that we can fully account for the behavior of a computer by mapping the causal interactions of bit registers. Where is the room for Microsoft Windows in causal terms?

                Microsoft Windows simply is a certain pattern of activity, a certain arrangement of bits. Describing the computer’s behaviour in terms of “Windows” doesn’t change the way the bits interact. If I understand your position correctly (and I may not), you seem to be saying that, in brains, qualia are not simply the re-description of brain activity (which would make them epiphenomenal), but instead play an actual role in influencing neural activity. This makes them causal, and thus takes them out of the realm of materialism.

                It’s easy to motivate electronic devices to do this, but I think to get a biological device to “care” about its inputs you need something like qualia

                But why do you think that? What is the difference between causal activity instantiated in electronics and in neurons? Aren’t both fully material entities?

                I’m very familiar with these ideas, you don’t need to talk down to me by telling me that we’re talking about the hard problem of consciousness.

                I apologize if you were offended, as it was certainly not my intent to “talk down to you” — I didn’t know your familiarity with this issue.

              • Dan L.
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                By no means. Materialism deals with objective, third-party-verifiable phenomena, and qualia don’t meet these criteria — they are not possible entities in a purely materialist account.

                Quite simply, I disagree. Materialist accounts deal with all sorts of non-material phenomena: entropy, waves, information, numbers, and a great more besides.

                Microsoft Windows simply is a certain pattern of activity, a certain arrangement of bits.

                Again, disagree. There are MANY patterns of activity that correspond to “Microsoft Windows.” “Microsoft Windows” is an abstraction just like the concepts of entropy, waves, information, numbers, and more besides.

                But why do you think that? What is the difference between causal activity instantiated in electronics and in neurons? Aren’t both fully material entities?

                Again, I simply can’t provide a satisfying answer in the comments on a blog post. But think about what your robot would have to do to pass a color-blindness test. It can’t JUST discriminate colors — it has to keep track of the 2D field of color distinctions and then apply a pattern recognition algorithm to determine the number that’s represented as colored dots. But that means it also needs a pattern database, which means it has to have “learned” the patterns for the numbers it is trying to recognize. And it has to be “told” to do this by human beings. To explain human behavior we have to explain how we can learn the patterns we’re trying to recognize in the first place, recognize them, and report them without having to be programmed or “told” to do so by another entity.

                In brief, I think veridical experience is a virtual machine constructed by the mute, mindless mechanisms of the brain. I think this is completely analogous to the way virtual machines like Microsoft Windows or the Java virtual machine are constructed by the mute, mindless mechanisms of computer hardware. In the case of the robot taking the color-blindness test, this virtual machine is analogous to the 2D visual field the robot generates to perform pattern recognition. “Consciousness,” to put it very crudely, is what we call the process of one part of our brain interrogating the content of this virtual representation of sensory data (again, VERY crudely).

              • truthspeaker
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

                But aren’t you a materialist? Do you believe that we can fully account for behaviour by mapping the causal interactions of neurons? Where is the room for qualia in causal terms?

                In the networks of neurons.

  29. Kevin Alexander
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    My Basic Belief™ is that there’s a celestial teapot out there somewhere because it’s been a long day and I need a cuppa at the end of it.

  30. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    This is very confusing. First Plantinga says the he accepts evolution, and that all Christians should. Then he says that theists should stick by their truth claims. Well, their truth claims have included a 6 day creation, the whole Garden of Eden scene, Noah’s ark… Plantinga seems to directly contradict himself. Perhaps he is going senile.

    If you are familiar with Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, then you know that he does not understand evolution. It’s some pretty sad stuff.

    “You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true,” Mr. Plantinga said.

    He argues that atheism and even agnosticism themselves are irrational.

    Naturally, I would expect him to meet the same standard he is setting for his opponents. He can’t claim atheism is irrational unless he can show it isn’t true. and his hokey sensus dingleberrius isn’t going to get the job done.

    • Dominic
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Why is Natural Selection, a simple process, so hard for people to comprehend?

      • spinkham
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        Because we have a teleological bias. We prefer “why” questions to “how” questions, which seems related to hyperactive agency detection and our theory of mind.

        See also the video or book “Why we believe in gods” for a good overview of this and other findings of the cognitive science of religion.

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      sensus dingleberrius — +1

  31. Dominic
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    As usual you make the comments that occur to me when reading as you get to the end of your commentary.

    Plantinga thinks that there are “truths”, but as usual for the blooming god-lovers, ‘truth’ is what they say it is, it has no existence outside their minds. Theosophical mudslinging.

    “Whatever I say is true, for when I say, I say something; when I say something I say that which is; when I say that which is I say the truth”.

  32. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Why is theology so tiresome? Simple! In spite of centuries of epic quasi superhuman efforts at sophistry, theologians have yet to answer Hume’s simple objections concerning miracles. Nor have they clearly explained why Russell’s teapot (or any other fantasy) is less probable than God. Theologians can’t understand that it is ridiculous to substitute intellectual masturbation to evidence, logic and plain old common sense. They create childish illusions, joyfully embrace them and invite us to follow their lead. If we calmly dispute this nonsense we become unveiled shrill and crude atheists.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Put more succinctly:

      Why is theology so tiresome? Theologians.

      • gr8hands
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Reginald Selkirk — do you have a website or blog or book? I’d love to read it.

        +1

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          No. I only have a pseudonym. You get Internet plus points for knowing the reference though.

          • gr8hands
            Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            Mark Twain’s Mad Philospher?

            • Reginald Selkirk
              Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

              +1

  33. Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    “Remarkably stupid remarks,” indeed. That’s my properly basic belief, and I’m sticking to it.

  34. Physicalist
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Coyne: “I thought that most philosophers were atheists. Perhaps readers can enlighten me here.

    A recent survey of professional gave the following results on the question of “God: Theism or Atheism”:

    Atheist: 73%
    Theist: 15%
    Other: 12%

    So theism is a definite minority, but not non-existent. I suspect that Plantinga’s view might also be skewed by the fact that he’s now at a religious institution and travels in theistic circles.

    • Physicalist
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      that’s supposed to read “of professional philosophers”

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this link. I’ve been wondering about this question for a while now. I’m actually a little surprised that such a high percentage of philosophers are atheists. Seems philosophers are more sensible as a group than I realized.

  35. pjmad
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I’m still amused by the reporter’s characterization of the book as “densely reasoned.” What’s that supposed to mean?

    “His reasoning was so dense as to be absolutely impenetrable.”

  36. Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    “’Sensus divinatis’ is a fancy term for ‘lots of people believed and still believe in God.’”

    Yeah, well, every person on the face of the Earth believes in the depths of their “soul” – with a fervor that makes ascetic monks jealous – that if they push the button repeatedly, the elevator will come faster.

    And you know what, that isn’t true either…

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Well, I did an experiment, and the first time I pressed the button, and just waited, an elevator arrived in 8.9 seconds.

      Then I repeated the experiment, and after the first time I pressed the button, I pressed it again repeatedly for 6 seconds then stopped, an elevator arrived in less than 4 seconds.

      Just saying.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        That sounds densely reasoned.

  37. BradW
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    1776 does not “exist” in 2011, therefore the “past” does not “exist” today.

    The fact that we have documentary evidence to indicate that there was a 1776 is a whole different thing than saying that 1776 “exists” today.

    • Myron
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      To say that the past exists is certainly not to say that it exists now. According to the ontology of time called eternalism, all past and future times coexist in a tenseless sense.

  38. Circe
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    for XX in ["gods", "demons", angels, "devils", "fairies", "Santa Claus", "Tooth Fairy", "genies", "witches"]:

    “You really can’t sensibly claim (belief in XX) is irrational without showing it isn’t true,” Mr. Plantinga said. And that, he argues, is simply beyond what science can do.

  39. Posted December 15, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    What does it even mean to talk of a sophisticated theologian? What is there, in theology, to be sophisticated ABOUT?

    Richard

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Dancing angels on the head of a pin: does the answer have to be integral, or are irrational numbers allowed?

      • Chris Granger
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I think imaginary numbers would be most useful here.

      • Circe
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Danger! Sarcasm ahead.

        Actually, the answer is transcendental. This shows that theologians, and not mathematicians were the first to discover non algebraic transcendental numbers. Take that, you theology deniers!

  40. Screechy Monkey
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Obligatory Jesus & Mo reference:

    http://www.jesusandmo.net/?s=sensus&key=transcript

  41. coconnor1017
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Let’s ignore Plantinga’s obvious special pleading when claiming a Sensus Divnitatus equal to our other biology based senses, but for argument’s sake, why should I see that as anything other than a by-product of a vestigial system, no longer necessary for human survival and flourishing?

    BTW, Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology has yet to account for the “Great Pumpkin” counter argument (which he has admitted defeats his claims).

    And Jerry, Plantinga he is a five point Calvinist thus making him a fundamentalist and a hypocrite seeing that his theology is in direct conflict with that of Notre Dame (Works vs. Grace).

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      This is something I really don’t understand. How can a Calvinist work at/for a Catholic institution?

      • gr8hands
        Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        I, as a non-catholic, have worked at more than one catholic institution. It is not that uncommon.

  42. Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Plantinga might be the one modern theologian who’s made a point that I thought was interesting, if not valid for its intended purpose. He makes the argument that if naturalism is true, then evolution cannot be and vice versa – saying that evolution wouldn’t produce perfect reality-perceiving machines, so we couldn’t be certain of naturalism. This is not a good argument because it supposes that naturalists assume 100% certainty, and/or that an organism produced by evolution would be so badly clouded in its perception of reality as to never know anything true. But the lesson for naturalists is that we shouldn’t expect that evolution DID in fact, produce a perfect proposition-evaluating, rational decision-making machine. And of course right now you’re saying, “Well duh, I knew that,” but the default implicit assumption in most naturalists’ or rationalists’ thinking is that in fact, except for a few polluting false beliefs, we’re otherwise perfectly rational creatures.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      the default implicit assumption in most naturalists’ or rationalists’ thinking is that in fact, except for a few polluting false beliefs, we’re otherwise perfectly rational creatures.

      Evidence for this assertion?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      … saying that evolution wouldn’t produce perfect reality-perceiving machines …

      Right. And assuming naturalism, a majority of people wrongly perceive that their imaginary friend actually exists. So the conflict Plantinga sets up is false. Like I said, the man does not understand evolution.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Mr. Spock might beg to differ that human naturalists or rationalists are perfectly rational creatures. The success of religion and propaganda both depend on our vulnerability to emotional appeals, and even the most staunchly rational of us still needs to beware of them.

      I think it’s fair to say that we might aspire to be perfectly rational.

    • Tim
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      During my periods of lucidity I have observed that human beings are rarely rational creatures. I have more respect for rationalists than to assume that they’ve assumed that except for a few polluting false beliefs, we’re otherwise perfectly rational creatures. I think you have rationalists confused with anachronistic economists.

  43. Gareth
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    He sounds like William Lane Craig: someone who says the obviously stupid with enough force and confidence that people will thoughtlessly conclude that it must be true. Theologians are an embarrassment to academia.

  44. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    What fun!

    Coyne’s obsessions are nigh psychoanalytic.

    I don’t think Ruse has got the verdict yet – psychoanalysis is but yet another unfounded belief. Or, if you will, founded on the sloppy practices of Freud.

    natural selection is not a “random process.”

    If evolution is a “random process” then quantum mechanics is a “random process” since it too combines stochastic processes (interaction with the environment) with deterministic processes (progression of wavefunction and states).

    Not unlike gravity, when it acts on a ball dropped on a knife edge. The way the ball ends up, left or right of the knife, is stochastic. Should we then conclude theism of “intelligent falling”?

    Science is all about evidence, and is not equivalent to mathematics, which is a very refined form of logic in which results follow ineluctably from premises.

    You can test testing but, famously, you can’t prove proof theory.

    So when you think about it, the evidence for mathematics is very tenuous. Math is useful in modeling reality, but so is – models.

    religion can only “address” questions but never answer them.

    “Muddle” questions, more like.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:37 am | Permalink

      “nigh psychoanalytic”

      When I read that, I thought, ‘doesn’t he mean ‘psychoanalytic-“able” (“psychoanalyzable?”)? “Cry out for psychoanalysis?”

      Whatever. I can’t construe a meaning for the adjective “psychoanalytic” that makes sense in his context. (And isn’t even his usage of “nigh” a bit off; a blatant effort to sound writerly or something?)

      • truthspeaker
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Is he suggesting that Coyne’s criticisms of Plantinga consist of efforts to analyze Plantinga’s psychological state?

        • truthspeaker
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          checking the “subscribe” box, finally

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

          Oh . . . makes sense.

      • josh
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        I think he wanted “Freudian” in the sense of, “Freud would have a field day with this guy”, but he tried to be slightly less cliche and ended up with bad writing.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

          Ah, that sounds most feasible!

      • InfiniteImprobabilit
        Posted December 18, 2011 at 2:54 am | Permalink

        Evidently Michael Ruse doesn’t like Dawkins or Coyne very much, but he does say:

        However, Dawkins is simply the most brilliant science writer of his generation, a person whose writings are so good that they infiltrate right up to the highest levels of professional thought. The selfish gene metaphor changed our way of thinking about natural selection. Coyne is arguably the best evolutionary biologist in America today. His work on speciation is ground-breaking; his demolishing of Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory is definitive; and he can write brilliantly for the general reader. Why Evolution Is True was probably the best book published celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin (in 2009).

        Can’t complain about that! (And it’s even persuaded me to track down a copy of Dr Coyne’s book!)

  45. Posted December 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    It is but a mild crusher to say “he has no shred of evidence” or “there is no proof for the existence of god”, or “his reasoning is circular,” even though those three indeed crush Plantinga’s construction. It is more important to go right to the root:

    There is no justification for parading out a definition for a thing before that thing has been identified. The definition of an existent asserted to be real must be abstracted from the identifiable characteristics of the existent. Otherwise, not only is the existence of the thing totally irrational and arbitrary, but so is the putative definition, characteristics, behaviors, power, etc. Plantiga’s position is a complete non-starter.

    Shame on any philosopher calling themselves rational for attaching the slightest credence to it, allowing there is a valid “realm” where it validates truth, and especially stating that it could ‘constitute an important contribution that every student of epistemology [or metaphysics] would be expected to know. ‘

    One of the root causes of human evil is the perpetration of the world’s oldest profession: shaman. This is the person committing the unpardonable violence of claming special revelation outside fact and mounting an intimidation racket on other souls. “You are damaged: your sensus divinitatis is missing. I can help, believe what I tell you.”

    This shoe fits Mr. Plantinga.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      One of the root causes of human evil is the perpetration of the world’s oldest profession: shaman.

      I’d say it’s a two-part cause, the second being the predisposition of so many to accept self-proclaimed ‘experts.’

      • Posted December 16, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Agreed.

        Just as ‘shaman’ is the world’s oldest profession, the worlds oldest sin is: sacrificing the judgement of one’s mind.

  46. Myron
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Summary of Plantinga’s argument against evolutionism-cum-naturalism:

    “[S]uppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties [perception, introspection, reason, memory, etc.—my add.] have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable?
    I say you can’t. The basic idea of may argument could be put (a bit crudely) as follows. First, the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. (To put it a bit inaccurately but suggestively, if naturalism and evolution were both true, our cognitive faculties would very likely not be reliable.) But then according to the second premise of my argument, if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties. That means that I have a defeater for my belief that naturalism and evolution are true. So my belief that naturalism and evolution are true gives me a defeater for that very belief; that belief shoots itself in the foot and is self-referentially incoherent; therefore I cannot rationally accept it. And if one can’t accept both naturalism and evolution, that pillar of current science, then there is serious conflict between naturalism and science.”

    (Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. pp. 313-4)

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Does he ever support the premise that “First, the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low.”?

      • Myron
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        See his new book or his paper Naturalism Defeated:

        http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf

        • truthspeaker
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

          Just read it, and he doesn’t support it at all – he just asserts it. He attempts to use a paper by Patricia Churchland to support his case, but it doesn’t.

          He neglects the fact that being able to accurately model reality provides a survival advantage.

          Here’s where he quotes Churchland

          She insists that the most important thing about the
          human brain is that it has evolved; this means, she says, that its principal function is to enable the
          organism to move appropriately: Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the
          organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principle
          chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism
          may survive. . . . . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a
          fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life
          and enhances the organism’s chances of survival

          Cognitive faculties increase an animal’s ability to feed, flee, fight, and reproduce. Primates that can make tools are better at hunting and butchering animals, and gathering, processing, and storing plant products, than primates who can’t.

    • Posted December 16, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      That is sick. He does not deserve the appellation “philosopher” because there is no “love of wisdom” in it.

      The chief deceit is the ushering into existence “god” when no existent “god” has been identified.

      Another slap-back rejoinder to

      “…you think that there is no such person as God….”

      should be this:

      “My philosophy is complete and I don’t think about god at all. What is it and where is it? Did you want to point out god to me so we could discuss its characteristics and definition?”

    • Dan L.
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      The notion of a “defeater” is dubious. It implies that even if naturalism is true we shouldn’t believe in it. But that implies that there are true things that we shouldn’t believe. Do you agree that there are true things that we should believe to be false? I certainly don’t.

      The argument is piss-poor for a number of other reasons as well. For example, Plantinga ignores the fact that naturalists actually argue that humans aren’t that good at perceiving and reasoning about reality. Our cognitive systems have a large number of biases and limitations that are quite consistent with the notion that they are evolved.

      On the other hand, Plantinga’s argument depends on natural selection working on propositional content. If you read the argument it’s all about “the belief that lions are dangerous.” But propositional content requires language, so we aren’t BORN with the idea “lions are dangerous.” We may be born with a vague sense that very large furry creatures with big teeth are dangerous, but that isn’t propositional. More saliently, propositional beliefs are not heritable — my children will not, as a genetic necessity, believe the same things I do. That means natural selection can’t operate on propositional content at all in an evolutionary sense.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        For example, Plantinga ignores the fact that naturalists actually argue that humans aren’t that good at perceiving and reasoning about reality. Our cognitive systems have a large number of biases and limitations that are quite consistent with the notion that they are evolved.

        Yeah, that too. It really is a remarkably stupid argument.

  47. Posted December 16, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Just a quick comment. Plantinga’s book from his Gifford Lectures seems to be largely a rehashing of many thing he has already said, including the rather ridiculous claim that naturalism is defeated by the fact that since evolution takes place at random, there is no reason why we should believe the deliverances of our reason to be true. This is just silliness, and one wants to say that he must know this, but religion has warped his mind enough to make him think that it’s a knock down argument. And then, of course, there is the “possibility” that God could intervene in the process of evolution, and we could not know that he has not done so. Well, this is silly. If it looks like random mutation and environmental selection, then there is no reason to believe another force at work. Indeed, this is one causative factor too many. As to philosophy taking arguments like Plantinga’s seriously, I no longer have a feel for philosophy nowadays, since I have spent so many years in the wilderness; however, it seems to me that Christian philosophers have carved out a space for themselves in philosophy, but that philosophy has not ceded them that space. The are still interlopers in what is almost entirely a secular pursuit, and if religious arguments get a lookin that is only because there is a department of philosophy which deals with religion, and has shown, in general, that religion is pretty definitely a matter of imagination and illusion.

  48. Posted December 16, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    “The fact that many people evince a belief or a behavior is no more evidence for God than is the fact that our ancestors used to kill each other at alarmingly high rates, and so had a sensus homicidus.”

    More like a Sensus Homicidii.

  49. Posted December 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Paul Manata has responded here.

  50. Posted February 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Funny Jerry, because I have read the book and in fact he criticises Behe’s arguments in the chapter and says they are unsucessful.

    This of course is not surprise Plantinga has been a critic of the argument from Design since his book God and Other Minds, where he endorses some of Hume’s criticisms of it.

    Try being accurate just for once.

    • Posted February 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but Plantinga is an admirer of Behe and an advocate of his arguments. See my post here about his exchange with Dennett, a book I have read. And “accurate just for once”? That implies that I’m never accurate, and that’s uncalled-for and rude.


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  1. [...] Jerry Coyne has moved on to Alvin Plantinga. [...]

  2. [...] Remarkably stupid remarks by a sophisticated theologian | Why Evolution Is True. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  3. [...] calls the blog post Remarkably stupid remarks by a sophisticated theologian. Substitute “professor” for “theologian,” and it becomes a remarkably [...]

  4. [...] ended last night’s post by asking whether Jerry Coyne might have been right when he wrote, Many religious claims about the “truth” have already been disproven by [...]

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