March 2, 2007

The fettered mind - Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga, philosopher, apologist and sometimes defender of "intelligent design" has written a review (response?) to Dawkins' The God Delusion that nicely demonstrates the difficulty of employing reason when hampered by absolutes of personal philosophy which preclude particular avenues of investigation and understanding.

One could see this as a variant of confirmation bias, but for the moment, I'm going to give it another name. I'll refer to this syndrome as "the fettered mind."

I do not mean for this to be pejorative. I suspect, as I have said previously, that we all have idiosyncratic cognitive obstacles with which to deal. One of mine, for instance, may be the fact that I just can't wrap my head around the idea of eating sweet potatos. Yeah, yeah, you can tell me all day long about how good they are but it won't wash, I can't go there.

In the case of discussion of theism, there are places that some theists, even philosophers of religion apparently, appear not to be able to go - the most relevant to me (and this post) being the locus of discussion within a frame of the non-existence of God.

There are, of course, many avenues of theistic discourse that do not require the ability to use this frame. However, debates revolving around the rationality of Faith, belief in God, and science vs. religion, are ones that most definitely do.

Consider the aforementioned piece by Plantinga. It begins with this,
Richard Dawkins is not pleased with God:
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. Jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal…."
Well, no need to finish the quotation; you get the idea. Dawkins seems to have chosen God as his sworn enemy. (Let's hope for Dawkins' sake God doesn't return the compliment.)
Now, although I do have some problems with Dawkins' book, I think it largely accomplishes its more rudimentary tasks. One of those, as Plantinga acknowledges in his review, is the emboldening of religious critiques. In service of this, I think the above oft-quoted passage is a powerful stroke of shock therapy. Dawkins is not displeased with God, he hasn't chosen him "as his sworn enemy." For heaven's sake, Dawkins doesn't believe in God! This is his way of saying, "Let's just take an honest look at this story without the blinders caused by reverence, or forebearance."

Plantinga's joking demeanor aside, I think his response reveals a cognitive difficulty with the notion that one can bring the full focus of rational observation to the enterprise of describing God.

Later in the article there is another, more deeply seated example of this. In rebutting Dawkins' version of the infinite regress problem, Plantinga says,
First, is God complex? According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like. Some of the discussions of divine simplicity get pretty complicated, not to say arcane. (It isn't only Catholic theology that declares God simple; according to the Belgic Confession, a splendid expression of Reformed Christianity, God is "a single and simple spiritual being.") So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.
And follows a few paragraphs later with,
So why think God must be improbable? According to classical theism, God is a necessary being; it is not so much as possible that there should be no such person as God; he exists in all possible worlds. But if God is a necessary being, if he exists in all possible worlds, then the probability that he exists, of course, is 1, and the probability that he does not exist is 0. Far from its being improbable that he exists, his existence is maximally probable. So if Dawkins proposes that God's existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God—an argument that doesn't just start from the premise that materialism is true. Neither he nor anyone else has provided even a decent argument along these lines; Dawkins doesn't even seem to be aware that he needs an argument of that sort.
It's fascinating to me that Plantinga doesn't seem to see the inherent problem with these arguments. In responding to Dawkins' ideas in The God Delusion, he is addressing an assertion that God is likely not to exist, that the theistic world is engaged largely in accepting one or another version of complex and convoluted "mythology." To which, mystifyingly, Plantinga responds by citing that very mythology as evidence to the contrary. As a result Plantinga manages to convince himself (and probably many others) that it is Dawkins' responsibility to provide evidence for God's non-existence, not his own to offer the affirmative position.

It is nearly inconceivable to me that this illogic could happen if Plantinga were able to address Dawkins' arguments within the proper frame, one that does not include God as a given.

Next, Plantinga addresses Dawkins' reaction to the "fine-tuning" argument, writing,
What is Dawkins' reply? He appeals to "the anthropic principle," the thought that the only sort of universe in which we could be discussing this question is one which is fine-tuned for life:
"...the anthropic answer, in its most general form, is that we could only be discussing the question in the kind of universe that was capable of producing us. Our existence therefore determines that the fundamental constants of physics had to be in their respective Goldilocks [life-friendly] zones."
Well, of course our universe would have to be fine-tuned, given that we live in it. But how does that so much as begin to explain why it is that alpha is fine-tuned?
Obviously, it doesn't purport to explain why the universe is "fine-tuned," it is meant to explain why the attitude that accepts these kinds of arguments is misguided. Plantinga himself almost tumbles to this with his next sentence,
One can't explain this by pointing out that we are indeed here—anymore than I can "explain" the fact that God decided to create me (instead of passing me over in favor of someone else) by pointing out that if God had not thus decided, I wouldn't be here to raise that question.
But unfortunately he loses the plot in the confusion of theistic givens. What Plantinga should realize, where he able, is that it makes no more sense to say "look at how this universe fits me so well" than it does "look at how God must have wanted me to be exactly who, what, where, and when I am today" if there is no overriding theological conviction. This self-centered illogic is neatly summed up by the Douglas Adams quote,
". . . 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!'"
I think we've all felt this intuition, to some degree, at one time or another. I suspect it's partly a result of the way our brains are wired to see the world. But when it informs a perspective that cannot conceive of a universe without God, that perspective is severely hamstrung when trying to discuss matters of the intersection of science and religion.

But on toward the end we find one of the most ubiquitous examples of flawed arguments propagating from the fettered mind. This is the assertion that naturalism, materialism, and by extension an acceptance of the sufficiency of evolutionary processes to produce complexity, has a built in contradiction. Many have made the argument, here is how Plantinga presents it:
Like most naturalists, Dawkins is a materialist about human beings: human persons are material objects; they are not immaterial selves or souls or substances joined to a body, and they don't contain any immaterial substance as a part. From this point of view, our beliefs would be dependent on neurophysiology, and (no doubt) a belief would just be a neurological structure of some complex kind. Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?


The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact he'd have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It's as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.
A theist, more specifically a theist unable to properly frame the argument, cannot conceive of truth as separate from Truth. But if one is able to imagine, and for the purposes of discussion frame his arguments from the point of view of, a universe without God one can see that truth need not involve metaphysical absolutes. Simple, adaptive strategies can be sufficient. In that frame "truth" can mean the results of cognitive processes that help us to survive and flourish. Thus, contextually, truth can be as simple as: "eating this allays my hunger."

If we are able to divorce ourselves from the need for overarching, soul-comforting, law-giving absolutes we can see that most empirical truth is merely an epistemological extension of observations like the above. It is not necessary to believe that our neurophysiology delivers anything more than succesful adaptive "truths" in order to believe that we can "actually know something about ourselves and our world." Consider also our social nature and one can easily see that through external confirmation or negation individual observations can reach the level of reliable truth. What's more, it no real stretch to understand how this same cognitive apparatus can lead us to socially adaptive, i.e., moral, strategies.

The notion that, as Plantinga writes,
the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable—a reason for rejecting that belief, for no longer holding it.


...natural- ism, therefore, is self-defeating and cannot be rationally believed.
Can thus be seen to make sense only in the light of an irrepressible conviction that God, and ultimate Truth, must exist.

Again, I'm not saying that the belief itself is the problem, just the inability to put the belief aside for the purpose of discourse with those who do not share it. Otherwise, Plantinga would see that as a response to Dawkins, his comments about naturalism being self-defeating hold no water whatsoever.

If fettered mind syndrome is a problem we all share to one degree or another, and I think it is, then it behooves us to understand and mitigate its effects upon our ability to reason contextually. I try not to tell other people that they are silly to eat sweet potatos, that such things are foul tasting lumps of unnatural origin. I try to see my own personal blinders within the greater context of any culinary discussion.

Seems to me that some theists could benefit from imagining a universe without sweet potatos.


Blogger RkBall said...

"the way our brains are wired to see the world"

I think you mean "the way our brains appear to be wired to see the world", for, with darwinian evolution, the metaphor of wiring is absurd.

And, to the extent that we discern value in human beings -- both in ourselves and others -- and develop a moral view, our brains are responsible for deep delusion, since if God is false and darwinian evolution is true, we are no more valuable than a frog, and killing a human is no more of an offence than smashing a rock.

3:49 PM  
Blogger RLC said...

rkball -

"I think you mean "the way our brains appear to be wired to see the world", for, with darwinian evolution, the metaphor of wiring is absurd."

I'm afraid you have me at something of a disadvantage here, because I'm having difficulty imagining a perspective in which the above makes any sense. The qualifier "appear to" may be applied with equal lack of insight to any empirical observation. At best, it lends an often superfluous note of caution to idle speculation, and at worst it's sophistry in service of some anti-rational view. In the case of your usage I think it's a distinction without a difference.

Feel free to elucidate your assertion though, as it seems counterintuitive to me.

"...if God is false and darwinian evolution is true, we are no more valuable than a frog, and killing a human is no more of an offence than smashing a rock."

Ahh, I think I see where you might be going wrong. You appear to be willing to accept nonsense as a basis for argument. How else am I to interpret the foregoing?

Of course it is not true that if there is no God murder (whether of frogs or humans) is less offensive. Such a silly assertion ignores the all too obvious fact that humans are in a position of determining existential value. These evaluations are derived from sociological convention, if sometimes informed secondarily by mythology (religion, legends etc.).

In other words, meaning is what we make it, and it is up to us to make it ethical and productive and inclusive. The concept of God is useful in this endeavor only to the degree it prompts individuals to be amenable to the process.

This "there is no morality without God" business is just another useful example of how the religiously fettered mind has difficulty in conceptualizing logical arguments about the ontology of their beliefs.

I thank you for your assistance.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

meretricious rhetoric. next?

4:59 PM  
Blogger RLC said...

Rob -

"Next?" What "next" would one expect in response to such a glib, content-free reply?

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Dawkins is arguing that God does not exist. I read his book a while ago and I forget exactly how he defines God, but if he is arguing against the existence of God, as defined by classical theology, then there should be no problem with Plantinga pointing out that according to classical theology, God is simple. If God, as defined by classical theology is not what Dawkins is arguing against, then there is no problem.

2. The quote you give where Plantinga talks about God being a necessary being refers to Plantinga's modal logic version of the ontological argument for the existence of God, which can be found in the last chapter of his The Nature of Necessity. In this argument, God is defined as a maximally excellent being. A being is maximally excellent iff it is maximally great (omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) in every possible world. Therefore, if such a being is possible, that is, if it exists in one possible world, then it exists in every possible world, and thus it exists in the actual world. Now the controversial premise is the possibility premise; obviously, an atheist would dispute the possibility premise, otherwise he would be logically compelled to believe that God exists in the actual world. I think Plantinga's point is that Dawkins is being inconsistent by allowing for God's possible existence (however improbable he may think that is) but denying his actual existence, given that God is defined as a necessary being.

3. If you define a true belief as any belief which produces adaptive behaviour, how can you meaningfully believe that the statement "God does not exist" is true? That seems like a belief which doesn't have much to do with adaptive behaviour (quite a significant "metaphysical absolute," as you put it).

Also, I don't see how, by "external confirmation or negation individual observations can reach the level of reliable truth." We are all the products of evolution so, according to Plantinga's argument, we are all equally likely to be mistaken in our beliefs.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

Hey it might be fun to read my refutation of this post here:

9:22 PM  
Blogger Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

If you have trouble parsing my arguments in the aforementioned link because of the lascivious amount of sarcasm, I will be more than happy to assist you.

11:39 PM  

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