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 prĂ©cis, 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.


This is too good to pass up