Monday, May 26, 2014

Stephen Law on EAAN

My prior 4 posts all had to do with Alvin Plantinga, who has developed the “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism“ (EAAN) - that seeks to refute a solely naturalistic worldview by showing it to be incoherent.

There’s a refutation of EAAN by Stephen Law at Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism Refuted. He does us a favor by summarizing it thus:

Let Naturalism (N) be the view that there’s no such person as God or anything at all like God, and Evolution (E) be the view that our cognitive faculties have come to be by way of the processes postulated by contemporary evolutionary theory. Then, argues Plantinga, the combination N&E is incoherent or self-defeating. This, he maintains, is because if N&E is true, then the probability that R – that we have reliable cognitive faculties (that is to say, faculties that produce a preponderance of true over false beliefs in nearby possible worlds) – is low. But, concludes Plantinga, anyone who sees that P(R/N&E) is low then has an undefeatable defeater both for R and for any belief produced by their cognitive faculties, including their belief that N&E.

In my last post, I posited that an argument against evolution due to it’s inability (if what Plantinga believes actually obtains) to produce true beliefs was not relevant because all that is needed is an organism’s ability to develop truer beliefs within its own lifetime, and the culture to pass down the truer beliefs via the features of culture. Now, I don’t know if this is what actually happens, as I am not an expert in the relevant fields, but I don’t see the EAAN as constructed being that convincing anyway, regardless of whether my conjectural account of truer beliefs is pertinent or not.

Now Stephen Law is willing to address EAAN as written, without resorting to conjectures such as mine. In a nutshell, he takes Plantinga’s claim that evolution cannot deliver true beliefs and develops an argument that the neurophysical structures that result from evolution can tend to contain true beliefs, thus eliminating Plantinga's central complaint. It’s all very technical propositional logic, but it’s interesting. Keep in mind that EAAN, Law's refutation, and my unfounded musings are all conjectural - but I think it indicative of the obscure paths we're will to take to make a point.

I still like my wholly unwarranted presumption that an organism’s ability to develop truer beliefs within its own lifetime, combined with the ability to establish a culture to pass down the truer beliefs, is all that's required to develop extremely accurate beliefs. So I guess I’ll have to nose around and see whether anyone has traveled down this path.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

My First Look at Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Gary Gutting continues to probe Alvin Plantinga at Is Atheism Irrational? by asking

...isn’t the theist on thin ice in suggesting the need for God as an explanation of the universe?

Plantinga replies weakly:

Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact ... that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena...

As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified.

It’s almost as if Plantinga didn’t take this interview seriously. He missed the point early in the interview when he gave a detailed criticism of Russell’s Teapot, but ignored the broad parody that it intends. The “a-moonist” example above is worse yet. He should have skipped this lunacy (pun intended) and gone straight to his claim that

The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience.

Okay then! We’ve finally arrived at what the estimable Dr. William Lane Craig calls “not really an argument”. If I may interpret this, he’s saying that there’s good reason to believe because you believe you’ve experienced something. Meh.

He then proceeds to give some (psychological) reasons why non-believers might not believe. Double meh.

At this point, Gutting nudges Plantinga into a discussion of materialism, and Plantinga takes the bait.

GG: ... atheists ... think there’s nothing beyond the material entities open to scientific inquiry, so there there’s no place for immaterial beings such as God.

AP: Well, if there are only material entities, then atheism certainly follows. But there is a really serious problem for materialism: It can’t be sensibly believed, at least if, like most materialists, you also believe that humans are the product of evolution.

Thus begins what I believe is a Reader’s Digest version of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). I’m going to wuss out and quote more of this verbatim in order to avoid clipping out important subtleties. Here he outlines his conception of beliefs:

First, if materialism is true, human beings, naturally enough, are material objects. Now what, from this point of view, would a belief be? My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures.

But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.

He goes on to what (I believe) is the heart of his argument:

I’m interested in the fact that beliefs cause (or at least partly cause) actions. For example, my belief that there is a beer in the fridge (together with my desire to have a beer) can cause me to heave myself out of my comfortable armchair and lumber over to the fridge.

But here’s the important point: It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.

So far, I believe he’s saying that the belief and the action are not materially related.

...This means that the content of the belief isn’t a cause of the behavior.

Gutting and Plantinga go on to banter about whether evolution can produce beliefs that are true, or merely adaptive - as Plantinga claims. The last few paragraphs of the interview are worth quoting in full:

GG: So your claim is that if materialism is true, evolution doesn’t lead to most of our beliefs being true.

AP: Right. In fact, given materialism and evolution, it follows that our belief-producing faculties are not reliable. Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.

So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.

That’s the end of the interview, with Plantinga concluding that an atheist can’t believe in evolution because it can’t produce true beliefs, thus is self-refuting. Well!

Let me take a crack at this. There are a lot of phrases and sentences that deserve specific criticism, but it’s not worth getting mired down in details because I think he’s wrong at a more general level.

My most recent thought is simply that evolution doesn’t have to produce beliefs that are true, only animals that survive and reproduce, and can eventually hone their beliefs. Then when an animal like Homo sapiens is successful enough to do more than just survive and reproduce, it just needs to have the potential to develop beliefs that are more true than not, and must be able to do this in the space of a lifetime. If these truer-belief-developing animals are able to survive in greater numbers than non-truer-belief-developing animals, then over time, most will have that potential, and - because this particular animal developed culture - culturally the practices that take advantage of this material potential to develop truer beliefs are institutionally reinforced, institutionally passed on to descendants, and further propagated. It is that tipping point where an animal can develop a mostly true belief, coupled with the development of culture, that speeds the adoption of mostly true beliefs which, over generations, get refined until they become almost-certainly-true-beliefs. Nothing magical required. If this guy’s a great philosopher of theology, I don’t see it.

Plantinga on Fine Tuning - or "How Vladimir Putin Fixed My Toilet"

I’m continuing my review of Is Atheism Irrational?. In Alvin Plantinga at The Stone I commented on his view that non-belief in a deity is not warranted. In that early portion of Gary Gutting’s interview, Plantinga offered a refutation of “Russell’s Teapot”, a maneuver that I believe missed the broader parody of unwarranted belief that the teapot represents.

In the next section of the interview, Gutting moves the conversation into other arguments against theism, specifically the problem of evil, an argument that Plantinga acknowledges might be the best one against theism. He offers no counterargument to it, but does claim that there are “about two dozen” good arguments for theism. When pressed, he cites fine-tuning. Before we even hear the term “fine-tuning“, however, Plantinga performs a classic waffle, by voluntarily offering this comment on theistic arguments that

None is conclusive, but each, or at any rate the whole bunch taken together, is about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.

Let that sink in. “None is conclusive” and “ about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.“ He’s saying to our faces that there’s no compelling theistic arguments. When I first read this interview in February, I came away feeling that Plantinga offered indirect, kinda squishy defenses of theism. Upon further review, I’m certain of it. To be charitable, this is Gutting’s interview, and he and his editor have certainly taken the scissors to it, so it may be that my impression is due more to the editing than Plantinga himself, but clearly, he admits there’s no single knock-down argument for theism.

When pressed, Plantinga cites fine-tuning as a good argument, and summarizes by saying:

fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

Gutting gets criticism here by not simply asking “how so?”

I need to make a general comment here about the more famous arguments for the existence of God. As far as I know, arguments like fine-tuning, the cosmological argument, and the argument from objective moral values all posit that natural features and phenomena are insufficient to explain where a) fine-tuning, b) the universe, and c) objective moral values come from, therefore God must be the answer, therefore God exists. The Toulmin model of argumentationThe transcendental argument for God (TAG) takes this general approach as well. The glaring problem with all of these is that the rhetorical transition from the premise(s) to the conclusion are accompanied by no argument or explanation as to why God should be the conclusion. None. For those who are not familiar with argumentation terminology, the argument or explanation that “authorizes” us to reach the conclusion is called the “warrant”, thus these arguments may be said to be warrantless. Add to this warrantlessness the fact that God is not established as an independent fact that we can use in the argument, and we end up with a really high-minded sounding but vacuous waste of words .

Let me put this a little differently. If it could be shown that there was something in the universe that could be independently verified as god-like, you still have an obligation to present the chain of reasoning that leads you to conclude that this verified god-like thing was the reason that fine-tuning exists. My plumberIt’s like me claiming that Vladimir Putin replaced my toilet. Sure, he exists. Sure, he’s hypothetically capable of replacing my toilet. Did he replace my toilet? How would I convince you that he did? This is where these kinds of arguments seem to evaporate. My claim that Vladimir Putin replaced my toilet makes for a better argument than the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, because we know Putin exists, and we have good reason to think he’s capable of replacing a toilet in spite of my not being able to link Putin to my repaired toilet. It's at least possible. We know nothing definitive about any gods that we might claim, except for the unsubstantiated claims that we make for them. Trying to associate any unestablished entity like God to some feature of the universe is nonsense.

Another pet peeve I have about these kinds of argument is that they allow the proponent arguing this way to abandon the hard work of finding out what really could be the explanation for the mystery under consideration, and lets them claim God Did It. This is both lazy and fallacious. The correct answer is to say "we don’t presently know the answers to a), b) or c)". You can even take a step in the apologist's direction and say a) yes, there must be a fine-tuner, b) you're right, there must be a creator, and c) of course, there must be a source for objective moral values. So what? None of this gets you remotely to the existence of the supernatural, or supernatural entities, or gods, or one omni-everything Swiss-army-knife can-do-it-all God that I think most Christians believe in. They are still arguments from ignorance.

Another thought, this time about Plantinga’s claim that

the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism

He acts like no one has ever tried to “synthesize and balance the probabilities“ before.

There are much better sources for calculating probabilities than you'll ever hear from me - Richard Carrier, Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Eliezer Yudkowsy and Less Wrong all are immeasurably superior to what I can offer. Still, an example that pops into my head over and over is this. Assuming that God is a supernatural being, then assuming that a supernatural realm must exist, then assuming that we need that realm to sustain persistent entities, then we need these entities to be capable of interacting with our world, then we need one (God) to have all the attributes that we ascribe to him, then we need him to have the motive to create our universe, then we need him to have the means to create the universe, then we need him to actually create it and perform all of the other God-functions that we expect. Assuming that my individual prerequisites represent some chain of independent gates that we need to pass before we can logically conclude the existence of God is probable, then we have enough to start calculating a probability. Using a charitable .5 probability for all of the listed steps, we see the probability get reduced by half at every one. It works out to (.5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5), or 0.0078125. Less than one percent at best. So God ends up being very improbable, even when we give him an overly charitable 50-50 chance every step of the way. How does Plantinga think that the probabilities balance in the theist’s direction?

I’ll take a breather here, and leave something for another post. Next time, we may get into what appears to be Plantinga’s own Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism - an argument that I’m only vaguely familiar with. That will be fun.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Praise of The Written Word

While reflecting on “Is Atheism Irrational?” I was struck at how reading Alvin Plantinga’s words allow me to really digest what he says and examine whether it makes sense - to an extent that I might never be able to if I were in direct verbal conversation. For example, Plantinga says

...fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

Although he spent a paragraph leading up to this conclusion, he fails to (or chooses to not to) unpack what the apparent fine tuning of the universe means. First, refer to Douglas Adam’s parable of the puddle:

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'

Following Adams, we can say that we exist in a human-shaped puddle. we exist in a universe that supports our existence. We would thus expect any “tunable” parameters to be in the range in which our existence can be sustained, and we do. There’s nothing surprising about this, and absolutely nothing that implies a fine-tuner, or even a ((gasp)) god. Second, here is no reason to expect the “cause” to be a rational agent such as god is usually claimed to be. It may be a brute fact. It may be probability. The fact that we have insufficient information to say why it is this way is no reason to fabricate a cause.

It’s my freedom to read, hopefully digest and synthesize, and write down my conclusions on topics like this that makes me appreciate the written word.

Long live the written word!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Alvin Plantinga at The Stone

Gary Gutting is doing a series of interviews on religion at The Stone for the New York Times. His first one was with Alvin Plantinga, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and sometimes inspiration for the apologetics of Dr. William Lane Craig. The interview originally appeared in February, but I took the opportunity to re-read it this past week to see how it fares against my amateur counter-apologetics. The title (and subject) of the piece is “Is Atheism Irrational?”. I’ll try to summarize Plantinga’s significant points and comment on them - but I recommend reading the article to get the full context.

Gutting opens by stating that the majority of philosophers are atheist or atheist-leaning, and asks whether their views are warranted. Plantinga replies that arguments for theism can certainly be rejected as unsound, but that’s not sufficient for atheism. Even or Odd?He then gives an example that because there’s no good reason to believe that there are an even number of stars in the sky, that doesn't give you warrant to believe that there are an odd number of stars.

You can find at least two things - that while technically defensible - render his reply unconvincing, maybe even irrelevant. First, his use of the term “atheist”. When taken literally - it simply means “not theist”. Even the dictionary defines it primarily as lacking belief, with a secondary definition being an active belief that there is no god. Yet Plantinga appears to take this secondary definition to make this part of his case. I suppose if you’re in the business of shoring up the theist edifice, then arguing against people who take the “strong atheist” position makes for more impressive rhetoric. Plantinga’s second problem is his example of “even-starism”. He attempts to draw a comparison from the warrant of this to the warrant for non-belief, yet the two aren’t even remotely comparable. In the case of even-starism, the choices are concrete and limited: there are either an even number of stars or an odd number of stars in the universe. There are no other alternative answers. The question of whether god exists is purely conjectural, and sufficiently ill-defined that further debate seems (and often is) pointless. It is a different knowledge domain than that regarding the number of stars in the universe. We know there are stars, but we don’t know if a god is even a sensible concept. We don't know how one can exist, whether it has any characteristics that we normally associate with it, or whether the god we’re describing resembles, or in fact is, one described by anyone having any belief in such things. It’s apples and oranges - the first example doesn’t imply anything about how we should evaluate the soundness of the second.

Gutting then questions Plantinga’s implication that lack of belief is unwarranted, to which Plantinga replies with Russell’s Teapot. Russell’s TeapotAgain, he’s deceptively indirect here. He states that there are good reasons to believe that there is not a teapot in orbit around the sun, assuming that Russell's example is meant to refer to a real man-made object that would have to be put in place by men. Yet Russell's Teapot - as I understand it - is meant as a parody - a broad metaphor for anything that cannot be detected. This counter example is not compelling. He appears to be rebutting a specific case that the originator never intended. You might call that a straw man.
The remainder of this interview centers on two other lines of thought - a traditional “good” argument for theism - fine tuning - and what appears to be Plantinga’s own Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism .

Until next time...

Update 6/1/2014:
From the You Learn Something Every Day Department: I found out today that Bertrand Russell first formulated his Teapot example in 1952, seven years before the Russians had put Sputnik into orbit around the earth. So Plantinga's criticism of The Teapot seems even more off-point now. Bertrand Russell, speaking in 1952 when human capability to put a teapot into orbit did not exist, was well justified in lacking belief that such an artifact was in fact in orbit. I bet Plantinga didn't know that either!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Consensus on God?

Richard Carrier explains the role of Expert Opinion in his latest post "On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus". Upon reaching the reference to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, it dawned on me just how riddled with problems concepts like "conventional wisdom" ("CW") and popular opinion are.

Take the idea that God, gods, or the supernatural exists. In the world today, I presume the majority believe in a higher supernatural power or realm. This despite the lack of a jot of evidence or a tittle of rational argument that something supernatural exists. What are the chances that this majority are correct? First assume that most of us are not capable of making a correct judgement about things that we are not expert on. Conventional WisdomThis eliminates the vast vast majority of subjects that we laymen can discuss concretely and accurately. In fact, using myself as an example, 20 years in software development qualify me to claim expertise on some areas of software development, but in the overall population of software developers, I might rank in the 70th or 80th percentile. Could you go to me for software development expertise? In a certain context, absolutely. In all contexts? No, only in some cases. Can we infer something from this specific example to possible expertise on the subject of God?

First, we can say that no one has practical experience in the field of God. Face it, it is conjectural. If you were to set out on a program of research to find God, you’d have to define what you’re looking for in terms that could yield a sensible result. A god of the Greek persuasionQuestions like these will immediately muddy the waters: do we search for a general higher power, an ultimate highest power, a power described by existing sacred texts, a power described by philosophers to cover the general case? What constitutes good evidence that we’ve observed God? Can other researchers duplicate the tests and achieve the same results? How do we infer God’s concrete nature from these results? How do we map our observations and the inferences we make onto the current philosophical, theological, religious and/or spiritual landscapes - or do we carve out a new (scientific?) landscape in which to repose our findings?

Compare this conjectural research project with the current state of thought about God. There are philosophers that consider the nature of God - a specific instance like Yahweh, or the general case as in “the ground of all being. There are theologists that take specific formulations such as Yahweh, and supporting texts (the Bible, adjunct Jewish texts, apocrypha, commentary on all of the above) and develop theses about right belief, right living and so on. But where is there someone who can be called an expert? The pastors, deacons, bishops of any particular church are not experts with concrete God experience. They are practitioners in running churches, helping church-goers live in accordance with right beliefs and practices, nurturing the religious community, organizing and delivering charity (good for them!!!). Not one of them can bring a God experience to a neutral third party for evaluation, and have that deemed to be evidence for the existence of God.

This has always bothered me, and Dr. Carrier formalized the problem by pointing out how and when expert opinion is to be valued. A church, and the general congregation that accepts and reinforces the beliefs and practices of that church, are all non-experts. They have no claim to authority in a global sense, although the individual could choose to allow other individuals to assert authority over them for various reasons. Outside the church, those beliefs and practices are of lesser interest. Moreover, anyone claiming expertise must (after Carrier) be familiar with the best arguments against their claims, and be able to address them. When you start to evaluate the claims that affirm and negate the existence of God - and more generally, the supernatural - you then have a series of alternatives that can be judged for their effectiveness in explaining phenomena in the world. By this point, you then conclude that physical evidence for the supernatural does not exist, and rational argument for its existence is fundamentally circular, bare assertion, argument from personal incredulity, or appeal to emotion.

A jury - Twelve Angry MenWhere does that leave us when looking for experts on God? We don’t have experts on God. We have people who claim authority - as individuals or as representatives of a religion or sacred text - but no one that we can really acknowledge as an expert. So we return to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem:

When “each voter has an independent probability p of voting for the correct decision” then:

If p is greater than 1/2 (each voter is more likely to vote correctly), then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct. In the limit, the probability that the majority votes correctly approaches 1 as the number of voters increases.

On the other hand, if p is less than 1/2 (each voter is more likely than not to vote incorrectly), then adding more voters makes things worse: the optimal jury consists of a single voter.

Since individually, the vast vast vast majority of us are not experts on God, then a consensus on God is of no value to us, and there are no experts to then refer to.

...a consensus on God is of no value to us...