Friday, April 9, 2010

Plantinga made me cynical of theology

I think there was a time when I had more respect for theology.  I thought that maybe there was a non-trivial chance that there was some really good theological argument for Christianity or God that would convince me.  I just hadn't heard it yet, perhaps because it was too complex to appear in popular discourse.

These days, I have little confidence that theology produces anything valid.  My change of mind was gradual, but one epiphany stands out in my recollection.  It was a couple years ago, when I looked up Albert Plantinga.

Plantinga is one of those names that is thrown around as an example of "great modern theologians" who go far above and beyond the common discourse which we find in blogs and bestsellers.  Since he's so highly praised, I thought maybe there was something to him.  If he was wrong, I figured that he would at least be wrong for very complicated reasons.

But then I actually looked him up.  Plantinga does indeed make some novel arguments, altogether unlike the most frequent ones (cosmological argument, fine tuning argument, pascal's wager, etc.)  But these arguments are worse than the traditional ones.  They aren't just wrong, they're egregiously wrong.  They're utter crap.

Case in point, consider Plantinga's argument that biological evolution by natural selection defeats philosophical naturalism.  It goes a bit like this:
If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)
(Concise wording by Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig)

In forming a counterargument, there are so many ways I could go, it's difficult to know where to start.  Let's start with how Plantinga gets evolution completely wrong.

It's true that natural selection selects traits for their survival value, not for their truth-producing value.  But evolution is not some magical philosophical ideal.  It does not simply pick out the most adaptive organism possible, and bring it to life.  Evolution has all sorts of constraints, such as the evolutionary history of an organism, and developmental limitations.

Tell me which of the following you think is a more likely evolutionary path:
  1. Humans evolve to have a multitude of ad hoc beliefs and behaviors to survive in every day life.  For instance, humans might believe that tigers are fun to pet, and that the best way to pet them is to run away from them (Plantinga's example).  Every time humans encounter a new situation (ie poisonous plants, snow, thieving rodents, neighboring tribes, hard-to-crack coconuts, you name it), they evolve a whole new set of ad hoc beliefs and behaviors to help them survive.
  2. In order to survive, humans evolve the ability to interpret observations and adjust their behaviors accordingly.
Path #1 seems rather absurd to me.  It is really hard for me to imagine anything but the broadest of beliefs being encoded into our genes.  It's true that we have some instinctive behaviors, like the fight or flight response to stress, but can you imagine having similar processes to govern every complex human behavior?  And that new instinctive behaviors evolve for every new situation we encounter?

I mean, this is one of the problems with having false beliefs.  They may, by coincidence, be useful in certain situations, but their use doesn't extend to others.

Anyways, what's so adaptive about the belief in philosophical naturalism?  If anything, it seems maladaptive, since in most cultural contexts it's a social disadvantage.  Indeed, most people disbelieve philosophical naturalism, so it's kind of difficult to claim that it's the result of evolution.

Plantinga's argument also shows unfamiliarity with critical thinking.  One of the major components of critical thinking is recognizing all the cognitive biases that humans have.  For example, we're likely to find patterns where there are none, because running away from dried grass is not as bad as failing to run from a tiger.  I'm not strictly certain that this evolutionary explanation is true, but I know from experience that people often find patterns in randomness.

Plantinga is sort of trying to make the same argument that skeptics make about false pattern recognition, but he's incompetent at it.  He simply paints a broad stroke saying that if evolution and naturalism are both true, then everything we know is probably wrong.

I also think that Plantinga's treatment of God is wrong.  Plantinga thinks that if we accept evolution and naturalism, then we must admit our cognitive faculties are unreliable.  But who is to say that a designer God would put us in the clear?  I mean, there are clearly a lot of things that God clearly didn't design to be perfect.  Who is to say that he designed reliable cognitive faculties?

See, there's the problem of evil, which argue that an all-good God is inconsistent with evil.  Someone like Plantinga would reject this argument; an all good God is consistent with evil.  Then how can he argue that an all-good God implies reliable cognitive faculties?

Well, that was a lot of garbage.  Whenever someone endorses Alvin Plantinga, I take it as a strike against their credibility.

11 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Plantinga is more egregious wrong than you suspect. Unfortunately, he's not especially wrong; his argument is a logical consequence of equally stupid ideas prevalent in the general philosophy of science.

Plantinga's argument from evolution does not really depend on each of our beliefs being evolved by natural selection. He is of course not very well-versed in evolutionary biology, but his argument applies WLOG to our evolved belief formation apparatus.

Fundamentally, the argument from evolution assumes that the infinite set of true beliefs is relatively infinitesimal to the set of survival-promoting beliefs (and likewise the set of survival-decreasing beliefs is infinitesimal relative to the set of false beliefs). This assumption has its roots in Carnap's critique of Popper's probabilism* and reflects the prevalent dismissal of science as epistemology by secular and atheist academic philosophers in general.

*To be fair to Carnap, Popper's specific construction of probabilism really is wrong.

miller said...

"...his argument applies WLOG to our evolved belief formation apparatus."

Sure, but then the necessary premise becomes completely absurd.

If he is talking about individual beliefs (ie that we should run away from tigers), I can definitely imagine many wrong but survival-promoting beliefs.

But if we are talking about an entire belief-formation apparatus, it is very difficult to imagine any apparatus that it could consistently promote survival while being consistently wrong. It would be even more difficult to imagine a real biological implementation of such an apparatus.

And finally, I don't see how evolution can possibly select for an apparatus that forms adaptive-but-wrong beliefs in scenario X, if scenario X does not occur frequently in evolutionary history.

Jaden said...

While I don't agree with Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism or his argument for the proper basicality of religious belief, I think Plantinga has done much for philosophy of religion. While he may be wrong on many points, it's admiring to me that he (almost) single-handedly brought philosophy of religion back into the philosophical conversation. It seems that there's so much more being talked about because of Plantinga. But I think that'd be the only reason why I'd ever endorse him :)

The Barefoot Bum said...

... it's admiring to me that he (almost) single-handedly brought philosophy of religion back into the philosophical conversation.

In much the same sense that one might admire the Republican party's efforts to bring racism and fascism back into the political conversation?

The Barefoot Bum said...

it is very difficult to imagine any apparatus that it could consistently promote survival while being consistently wrong.

How so? Remember, in philosophy, there's no such thing as a "little bit" wrong. Wrong is wrong.

How can we know if what we think is true really is true? Maybe you're just a brain in a vat being fed a convincing fiction by an evil demon; all of us commenters are just figments of your imagination.

Professional philosophers — of all stripes, not just theologians — take these sorts of speculations very seriously.

Jaden said...

Well, I don't think the analogy quite works. I wouldn't equate Plantinga's effect on analytic philosophy generally and philosophy of religion in specific with the actions of the GOP. I think the questions that Plantinga raises are interesting and legitimate questions - ones that can be investigated with philosophical tools.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I think the questions that Plantinga raises are interesting and legitimate questions...

I don't. I'd be happy to discuss the specifics.

... ones that can be investigated with philosophical tools.

On an especially cynical day, I might opine that a question that can be investigated with "philosophical tools" is ipso facto neither interesting nor legitimate.

Charles said...

"It was a couple years ago, when I looked up Albert Plantinga."

I think the problem might be that you looked up the wrong guy. It's ALVIN Plantinga.

"Tell me which of the following you think is a more likely evolutionary path."

I'm not seeing that the second path is inconsistent with the first. Your entire argument trades upon the idea that false beliefs are generally maladaptive, which is begging the question. My guess is that Plantinga is more than willing to grant that the belief that maintaining false beliefs is adaptive is itself maladaptive; however, why should we even assume that that belief is true if it's merely the result of a natural process? Nature, left to its own devices, does not generally do whatever's best for us; for example, if I fall off a building, the laws of nature allow that I fall to my bloody death.

"Someone like Plantinga would reject this argument; an all good God is consistent with evil. Then how can he argue that an all-good God implies reliable cognitive faculties?"

Plantinga believes in the Christian God, whose message purportedly includes that mankind was created in His image--which includes reliable cognitive faculties. So yes, the Bible doesn't imply that God is inconsistent with evil; however, it does imply that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable.

miller said...

If you think that's bad, there was one point when I was spelling his name "Platinga". Isn't that terrible?

Your entire argument trades upon the idea that false beliefs are generally maladaptive, which is begging the question.
No, it rests on the idea that it is much harder to encode a large collection of ad hoc false beliefs than the encode a single method of forming approximately true beliefs. But both could occur together, yes.

So yes, the Bible doesn't imply that God is inconsistent with evil; however, it does imply that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable.

I don't think it is inconsistent for God to allow for all evils, except for one kind of evil (unreliable cognitive faculties). But if we did have generally unreliable cognitive faculties, surely there exists some theodicy that could explain it.

miller said...

I just realized that my comment has ambiguous syntax. It should say, "I think it is consistent for God to allow for evil in general and also disallow one particular kind of evil (unreliable cognitive faculties)."

Charles said...

"No, it rests on the idea that it is much harder to encode a large collection of ad hoc false beliefs than the encode a single method of forming approximately true beliefs. But both could occur together, yes."

Sorry, but I don't know what you mean.

"I don't think it is inconsistent for God to allow for all evils, except for one kind of evil (unreliable cognitive faculties). But if we did have generally unreliable cognitive faculties, surely there exists some theodicy that could explain it."

Again, Plantinga believes in the Christian God, whose revelation is such that our cognitive faculties are not generally unreliable. There is nothing in Christianity which suggests that God allows all evil except for one, but it does entail that God made our cognitive faculties reliable.