Naturalism Defeated? Chapter 1

William Ramsey is the first to offer a rebuttal to Plantinga’s EAAN. While the bulk of his response focuses on Plantinga’s interpretation of evolutionary epistemology, he begins by offering an externalist semantics where not only is the structure of our beliefs visible to natural selection, but the content of our beliefs is visible to natural selection. You’ll remember that Plantinga’s major step in this argument is the plausibility of semantic epiphenomenalism, where SE roughly means that the content of our beliefs rides on top of the structure. Most importantly, this means that a belief’s content doesn’t stand in a causal relation with the world in such a way that could make it visible to the mechanisms of contemporary evolutionary theory (whether or not genetic drift could is another question, and probably an implausible suggestion). Ramsey suggests, though, that the content of our beliefs is just as visible to natural selection as structure is, and illustrates this with a map analogy:

Suppose ten individuals are given ten different maps, only one of which provides an accurate route to buried treasure. If we want to explain the behavior of any given individual (including the one with the right map) then all we need to appeal to are the actual directions- the instructions and arrows and such- physically displayed on that individual’s map. The intrinsic features of the map are the causally relecant properties that produce the behavior in question, and the accuracy or inaccuracy of any given map would be, by and large, irrelevant. But now suppose that instead of explaining the actual behaviors of the treasure hunters, we want to know why the behavior of one hunter is of a certain sort- namely, of the sort that actually succeeds in finding the treasure. Clearly then it would be appropriate to appeal to the further fact that the lucky hunter’s map is the accurate one. That is, if we want to explain how one hunter actually manages to find the treasure, the accuracy of his map becomes the causally salient feature- it is what makes it the case that this particular hunter succeeds while the others fail. Indeed, if finding the treasure was in some way critical for survival, it would be the feature of the map that makes it the case that this hunter survives while others do not.
ND, p. 17.

So the content of a belief can supervene on, say, the structure of the world and our brain and the relation between them. Nevertheless, such an irreducible state such as being true can indeed be relevant with respect to explanation. So in the same sense that camouflage can be visible to natural selection (where the parts, like neurons, don’t explain it’s evolutionary worthiness), content is visible to natural selection. Essentially, I take Ramsey to simply deny Plantinga the possibility of his wedge between the structure and the content of belief. He is an externalist in the sense that beliefs aren’t in the brain, or rather, neuronal, but are relations that “reach out” and grab something in the outside world.

Ramsey’s second thrust of his essay is that Plantinga simply hasn’t provided a very good defeater for evolutionary reliabilism- the view that evolutionary processes shape our cognitive mechanisms. For one, it just seems prima facie unlikely that evolution could provide faculties that got things wrong most of the time while still proving adaptive. A point here that should probably be made clear is that Ramsey doesn’t think that evolution really selects beliefs. This is the wrong level of selection, and evolutionary forces select belief-forming mechanisms instead, which allows for error but, in a generalized analysis, tends to be conducive to truth. Without an account or explanation of those mechanisms (rather than ad hoc, highly complex Paul/tiger cases), it seems that Plantinga’s point is much weaker. Further, if we generalize Paul’s behavior with the tiger and make inferences to his belief-forming capacities, then it is a clear maladaption. Over time, his belief- or rather, the cognitive structure that produces such a belief- that petting tigers will prove destructive to his fitness.

Lastly, Ramsey goes on the offensive. Everyone realizes that there are mistakes in our inferential systems. Evolutionary reliabilism has a simple account for why this is so. But can theism provide such an account?

Naturalism Defeated?

During my free time this semester, I will be working on a project that I hope will be turned into a paper and/or presentation. I have an interest in Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, and for the past few years I’ve been reading up on different sub-debates within that particular discussion. This argument is a bit unwieldy in it’s current form, lacking precise and persuasive premises (where persuasive means something like ‘reasonable for a large portion of the philosophical community’). The gist of the argument might be summed up as follows:

“The conjunction evolution and naturalism leaves the existence of our purportedly rational cognitive faculties unexplained or very improbable.”

You can find full expositions of the argument all over the internet, and I have no intention of adding another string of bits to the collection. Instead, if you are relatively unfamiliar with the debate then I’ll just suggest you start with Plantinga himself (here is an interesting recent presentation). With that bit said, what I’ll be doing the next [months? years?] will be a kind of review of some of the major criticisms of the argument from the volume of essays devoted to it (amz) entitled Naturalism Defeated? I have notes done on the first chapter and I’ll probably upload them piecemeal over the next week.

An atheist tries to refute the Argument from Reason

Here is an example of missing the point:

Even though the argument from reason may sound good, the argument is a good example of begging the question (I.E. circular reasoning). The premise (that physical sources cannot constitute a rational source) is the conclusion (That naturalism – which says physical sources can constitute a rational source – is wrong). The reason that this is hard to see initially is due to the way in which the argument is laid out.

I think this is flatly incorrect. Saying that physical causes cannot be rational is not the same as saying naturalism is false. I think it gives a good reason to reject naturalism, but it might turn out that we are not rational and naturalism is true.

The central point of the argument is that merely physical sources cannot constitute a rational source, and therefore Lewis (and others) come to the conclusion that naturalism is self-refuting. Yet this premise is left without a proper explanation, and I don’t see why merely physical sources cannot constitute a rational source – in fact, this is one of the things that naturalism argues – that rationality can arise out of a purely physical source. A person employing the Argument from Rationality simply posits as a premise that it cannot, and then claims that this makes naturalism self-refuting. Obviously, we could refute nearly any worldview in this manner. Similarly, we could claim that any abstraction – from love to opinions to ideas to art – cannot arise out of purely physical sources and our argument would be no different. Why abstractions cannot arise out of physical sources is not explained, and I think they clearly can. It’s easy to create an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem.

No, this is a clear case of missing the point. We know that at a fundamental level physical causes don’t act for reasons. The reason an asteroid hits the Earth isn’t because it thinks colliding with our planet is the best way to achieve some end. It is acting in accordance with the laws of physics, and these laws (plus relevant physical conditions) comprehensively explains the event. So we have a prima facie case against the physical constitution of rationality. Is an emergent account possible? Perhaps. Is such an account forthcoming? Doubtful. Therefore the argument constitutes a good reason to reject naturalism.

Sophistry is a joy!


A thought or two on consciousness

I’ve been studying philosophy of mind for a while, but recently I’ve been delving into psychology, cognitive science and some of the so-called hard sciences- biology, neuroscience, chemistry. A think you learn from a particular brand of philosophers is to always attempt to take into account things like intentionality, qualia and the unity of conscious experience. However, there is a sense that those first-rate problems take a back seat when you are constructing a theory of the mind (which is, to many, apparently different than a theory of consciousness). While we certainly need a theory of our psychological architecture, it seems odd to me that a theory of the mind could leave out these kinds of things. But it is easy to begin to feel them explained away and those folk-psychological intuitions begin to melt away in a sea of billions of neurons and synapses.

All this is to say, is this what happens to eliminativists and physicalists about the mind? Are they so wrapped up in the science of neural networks that when they do confront qualia they feel they are justified in ignoring the problem? If so, I don’t blame them. It’s hard not to feel the pull of these intuitions when all these powerful scientific fields converge on a single problem. The philosophy of it all begins to look like alchemy.

Alva Noë talks about why we are not our brains

The extended mind is an interesting theory of consciousness and cognition that attempts to reshape the way we look at what it means to be human. Does they mind end at our meaty borders? Can palm-pilots become external modules of the mind? I’m not so sure if there is much about the theory that is explanatorily interesting, but it is fun to think about nonetheless.

Russell on mind and matter

A stone at the top of a hill may start rolling, but it shows no pertinacity in trying to get to the bottom. Any ledge or obstacle will stop it, and it will exhibit no signs of discontent if this happens. It is not attracted by the pleasantness of the valley, as the sheep or cow might be, but propelled by the steepness of the hill at the place where it is. In all this we have characteristic differences between the behaviour of animals and the behaviour of matter as studied by physics.

B. Russell, The Analysis of Mind, p. 14.

I think Russell’s point is important to remember when doing consciousness studies: no matter what your view of ultimate or foundational reality is, there is a prima facie difference between brains that act for reasons and the brute mechanics of dumb matter. This either needs to be explained or explained away, but either way it needs to be accounted for.

P. Z. Myers tries his hand at Plantinga’s EAAN

…with disastrous results. His tone is one of unbridled venom which, I think, is evidence of confusion and frustration:

I’ve read some of his work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate. Unfortunately, that means that what I have read is typically an indigestible muddled mess that I don’t have much interest in discussing, and what I haven’t read is something I can’t discuss.

There isn’t much in Plantinga that is bizarre unless you have no background in philosophy. But if that’s the case, why would you attempt to judge the merits of a world-class intellectual without some association with his ideas? Plantinga is anything but “pretentious”, and nearly anyone who has met him or heard him lecture knows he is a paragon of humility. With this unpromising start Myers begins his hijacking of Plantinga’s EAAN.

Paul Myers is criticizing Plantinga’s summary of the argument here. (As an aside, I think it is generally par for the course to criticize the in-depth version or the strongest possible version of an argument rather than a snapshot, but considering what Myers thinks of his stuff maybe it isn’t at all surprising he goes after the Books and Culture edition.) He agrees with a great deal of Plantinga’s preliminary remarks, but he goes after Plantinga at a curious portion of the argument:

Just believing in something, whether it is Christianity or physics, doesn’t mean it is necessarily true. Our brains attempt to model the world for functional purposes and lack any inherent, absolute means to detect truth.

Well, who knows what the latter part if this portion means. But Plantinga surely doesn’t believe that something is true just because one believes it. And doing a bit of investigative exegesis on the second sentence reveals that Myers either doesn’t believe in Plantinga’s (R) in the first place or he (mistakenly) thinks we have some kind of certainty in matters epistemic. What does it mean to say there could be an “inherent, absolute means to detect truth”? Do we “detect” truth at all? I don’t know how to interpret that wreck of a sentence, but either we do have some true beliefs or we don’t. And if we do have true beliefs to a significant degree, then we should be able to theoretically understand why we are able to produce reliable beliefs. That is the heart of Plantinga’s argument, whatever Myers makes of it.

In Plantinga’s world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, “Is fire hot?”, 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga’s ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you’d actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.

Despite Paul’s misreading of Plantinga’s intention, I do disagree with Plantinga here, but not in Paul’s favor. Given that one could have true of false beliefs and those beliefs are entirely random as to their truth value, the probability of this belief being true is far less than .5. For any given “truth”- say, the true number of gumballs in the jar- there are perhaps an infinite number of false beliefs. If the actual number of gumballs is 25, then all numbers less than or greater than 25 would be false. Plantinga makes this clear in other places, but again, since Myers chose to interact with Plantinga’s précis, we don’t see that in his post.

What it does mean, though, is that if there are ideas that are not amenable to empirical testing, such as “I will go to heaven when I die”, those ideas have a very low probability of being true. We can think of those as being the product of random input, in some ways, and since they cannot be winnowed against reality, they are unreliable.

No. This is garbled positivism, and no one will ever be able to find support for P. Z.’s odd epistemological principle which ends up looking something like this: “If beliefs aren’t empirically testable, they are unreliable.” Since it is a blanket principle it is self-referencing, and unless he has an ace up his sleeve that somehow escaped some of the worlds brightest thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, this self-referencing principle is also unreliable. Somehow I think if Myers would have kept reading Plantinga’s papers that ended up in the trash he would have gathered as much and, just maybe, tightened up his epistemology a bit. Lastly,

Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. We demand repeated and repeatable confirmation before we accept a conclusion, because our minds are not reliable. We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent. We need to supplement brains with evidence, which is the piece Plantinga is missing.

This is a strange response. He seems to be conceding the point by saying not (R), but then says our faculties are reliable through a web of input. Of course, this is simply begging the question against Plantinga. But if he really believes Plantinga sits in his chair funneling divine wisdom to the underlings of Christianity, I would expect him to think as much.