Saturday, May 24, 2014

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.

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