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.

One reason the atheism/Christianity debate won’t progress

There is a Christian mindset that makes people think they can substitute snippet for substance. We see this is the political realm, where public visibility and electability is partly determined by who can create the snappiest zingers. As many know, these one-liners may be fun, but they certainly aren’t intellectually edifying. Case in point. Surely it is the scandal of the church that they haven’t done enough to combat such senseless taunting, but I imagine it has something to do with the body count of the church pews. But anyway….

Atheists are, at least on the interweb, a beacon of rationality, reason and a source of hope for the human race. But then they revert to the same tribalistic grunting afflicting their superstitious counterparts. These people apparently believe that we can just skip the whole process of cultivating a thinking, experiencing, growing person in favor of getting the best of their one-liner interlocutor. Blech.

This is exactly where Nietzsche scholars belong



I’m reading Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry, and she proposes a moderate evidentialist position that she believes shoots between the difficulties of foundationalism and coherentism, yet takes the best of both positions. Before I make any initial remarks on her arguments, I feel that this position may go overlooked simply because of the unfortunate word “foundherentism”. I think it’s a rule for analytic philosophers to come up with the most unwieldy names. Blech. Moving on….

FH1: A subject’s experience is relevant to the justification of his empirical beliefs, but there need be no privileged class of empirical beliefs beliefs justified exclusively by the support of experience, independently of the support of other beliefs.

FH2: Justification is not exclusively one-directional, but involves pervasive relations of mutual support.

Haack thinks experience is a necessary portion of justification which serves somewhere in the basic region of the foundations, but what is interesting to me is her claim that such experiences aren’t incorrigible. She uses the ophthalmologist’s fan test to show that you can, in fact, be mistaken about how something appears to you.

It seems that you can be confused about how you are experiencing a very basic sense deliverance. Are the lines the same size? Do some appear to be larger or bolder? For me personally, the answer isn’t entirely clear, which serves as a prima facie defeater of the incorrigibility of basic sense experiences.

Sliding from possible worlds semantics to truth

Relativism and strong forms of contextualism assert, from what I gather, that the content of a proposition is not true or false simpliciter, but rather true or false at a time/world/context. A motivation for accepting semantic relativism is the success of possible worlds semantics. It becomes easy to make the move from thinking about possible worlds semantics (specifically, what is true at some possible world) to what is true in the actual world. Quite obviously, there is an underlying assumption here that many find it reasonable to deny: that truthmaker theory of some sort is correct.

If you deny the truthmaker theory for, say, Trenton Merricks’ TSB (truth supervenes on being) account, this slide is wholly illegitimate. Perhaps the truth of a proposition is found in it’s constituent parts or a combination of those parts (the proposition) and not in relation to a possible world. One has a good defeater for analytic relativism if you deny that the truth of a proposition is dependent on a relation to a possible world.

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.