Friday, June 26, 2009

PLANTINGA'S BELIEF-CUM-DESIRE ARGUMENT REFUTED

The journal Religious Studies is going to publish this paper. Thanks to everyone who commented - it was very useful. Final version of the paper is available here.

21 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

<shrugs> My original criticism still stands.

Timmo said...

I agree with you about this, Stephen. Plantinga's argument in that part of the book is interesting, and the main thrust is his observation that for any action, there is some combination of beliefs and desires that will motivate the agent to perform that action. However, it is important to flesh out, as you do in your paper, how this connects up with his claim that evolution is incompatibile with naturalism. It's more complex than just showing one adaptive action can be generated by false beliefs. There's an entire system of beliefs and desires constantly interacting with the world, facing novel circumstances, and so on.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I admit I don't follow the esoteric minutiae of this argument, so I may be totally off course with this comment.

Talking about evolution, adaptation, cognitive abilities and beliefs, I'm struck by the fact that some of our beliefs concerning physics, particularly relativity theory and quantum mechanics, have no adaptive advantages at all, except in pursuing technology.

The fact is they defy our everyday common sense, yet we believe them to be true.

The reason being that at the scale we observe and interact with the world they are not evident, therefore there is no reason for these advanced cognitive perceptions to evolve.

I guess I'm pointing out something that is obvious to me: we have developed an ability to understand the universe at levels which are not necessary for our survival.

It's a case where belief and evolutionary advantage seem at odds, yet it's also a case where our unique human cognitive abilities have led us to a comprehension of the universe that goes beyond our imagination. This is something that has always intrigued me, personally.

I really don't know if this is relevant to Plantinga's thesis or not, but it does point to an example of beliefs being independent of the evolutionary process and provides a reason why: they don't affect our normal everyday interaction with the world.

Regards, Paul.

WAT said...

I really don't know if this is relevant to Plantinga's thesis or not, but it does point to an example of beliefs being independent of the evolutionary process and provides a reason why: they don't affect our normal everyday interaction with the world.

I can click my fingers, middle and thumb to get the attention of a waiter. This is a side effect of evolution, not something necessary to survival. Why wouldn't our ability to do science and similar reasoning be a side-effect of evolution? We evolved cognitive abilities that helped us survive, but are applicable to greater circumstances.

One of the problems I have with Plantinga's argument is this strict adaptationist view, that everything we can do must have evolved for a survival purpose and cannot be retooled for other purposes. Evolution is blind and purposeless, it makes do with whatever material we have and retools them for new purposes. Why wouldn't an evolved animal end up with capabilities that don't strictly have a survival purpose?

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Wat,

I agree with your comment. I'm just giving a very obvious example.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Just to elaborate: I agree that this is an example of a by-product of evolution, which is why I raised it.

It's a case where beliefs appear to be irrelevant to evolutionary 'fitness'. So I think we agree on that.

I'm not defending Pantinga, because I don't know how evolution can be incompatible with a philosophy of 'naturalism', so I'm not addressing that per se.

I'm happy to leave that to Stephen.

Regards, Paul.

Brian said...

I was logged in as WAT before, forgot to log out of gmail. Anyway....

It's a case where beliefs appear to be irrelevant to evolutionary 'fitness'.

Well, I think the belief about whether the tiger is a safe animal to pat, etc, are relevant to fitness. That the same reasoning mechanisms can allow us to construct elaborate theories about nature and methods to test those theories (but never know if they are TRUE are further removed from fitness, but are still the same reasonings. I think that's what I mean. Then again, I'm probably being inconsistent or something. ;)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Brian,

I just started reading a book called On the Origin of Stories, subtitled, Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, by a Kiwi academic, Brian Boyd. The title is a deliberate reference to Darwin's famous tome.

He looks at art, and storytelling in particular, in the context of evolution, starting with the role of play in primates and dolphins, as he believes that's where human 'art' evolved from. A very recent book, copyright 2009, but I'm interested in his thesis.

I once argued, in a letter to New Scientist, that art could be the human equivalent of the 'peacock's tail'.

Regards, Paul.

Brian said...


I once argued, in a letter to New Scientist, that art could be the human equivalent of the 'peacock's tail'.
Without having put any thought into it, I'd say that's a pretty good analogy. Artists, poets, etc do alright with the ladies, compared to the average cro-magnon. Art then could be about showing that one is so well endowed that one doesn't need to hunt all day, or has excess energy to burn. In other words, they're so fit, they can be arty, imagine what all that extra can do for the kids.....

John Pieret said...

Very good. On this point:

If a species also possesses perceptual faculties that are partly reliable and partly, but systematically, unreliable, there arises the possibility – perhaps the probability – that the members of this species will be able to figure out that they are, to some extent, being systematically misled by those faculties. In which case, they may well adjust their beliefs accordingly. Their beliefs would now reliably reflect reality, despite the fact that they possessed unreliable perceptual faculties. If R is the reliability of their cognitive faculties acting in tandem, the probability of R might still be high, even if it was more probable than not that they possessed unreliable perceptual faculties of type (2).

... don't we actually have an example of this in mirages? Our perceptual faculties evolved to to take in light and interpret our surroundings based on that information without considering the source of the light. Desert dwelling humans have figured out that they are systematically misled by those faculties and have learned to ignore the mirages.

John Pieret said...

P.S. Tom Scharle has brought up an interesting point that Plantinga's argument equally defeats Intelligent Design Creationism (which Plantinga supports) coupled with non-naturalism, since we cannot presume that this Designer had any motive or ability to give us reliable cognitive faculties.

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