Thursday, December 27, 2012

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year.

Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns out that if such conceptual links exist, then (rather surprisingly!) natural selection will favour true belief even if belief content is epiphenomenal. So Plantinga is mistaken: even if belief content has no causal impact on behaviour, natural selection can still select for true belief. The EAAN is therefore refuted. To resurrect the EAAN, Plantinga would need to show that there are no conceptual links of the sort I envisage between content and behaviour, links of a sort that, as I say, do seem to exist.



NATURALISM, EVOLUTION AND TRUE BELIEF
Stephen Law

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is currently one of the most widely discussed arguments targeting philosophical naturalism (see, for example, Beilby 2002).  Plantinga aims to show that naturalism, in combination with evolutionary theory, is, as he puts it, ‘incoherent or self-defeating’. His argument turns crucially on the claim that, in the absence of any God-like being to guide the process, natural selection is unlikely to favour true belief. This, Plantinga supposes, is because natural selection selects only for adaptive behaviour. It is irrelevant, from the point of view of unguided evolution, whether the beliefs that happen to cause that adaptive behaviour are true.


I argue that, even in its most recent incarnation, the EAAN fails. In particular, Plantinga overlooks the fact that adherents of naturalism may hold, seemingly quite plausibly, that there exist certain conceptual links between belief content and behaviour. Given conceptual links of the sort I envisage, natural selection will indeed favour true belief.

I then point out a further interesting, and perhaps somewhat surprising, consequence of the existence of such conceptual links: that even if semantic properties such as being a true belief are epiphenomenal – even if such properties have no causal impact on behaviour – unguided evolution will still favour true belief.


The EAAN
For those unfamiliar with the EAAN, here is a brief outline.[1] Let Naturalism (N) be the view that there’s no such person as God or anything at all like God, and Evolution (E) be the view that our cognitive faculties have come to be by way of the processes postulated by contemporary evolutionary theory. Then, argues Plantinga, the combination N&E is incoherent or self-defeating. This, he maintains, is because if N&E is true, then the probability that R – that we have reliable cognitive faculties (that is to say, faculties that produce a preponderance of true over false beliefs in nearby possible worlds) – is low. But, concludes Plantinga, anyone who sees that P(R/N&E) is low then has an undefeatable defeater both for R and for any belief produced by their cognitive faculties, including their belief that N&E.

But why suppose P(R/N&E) is low? Plantinga supports this premise by means of a further argument. He begins by asserting that

materialism or physicalism is de rigeur for naturalism… A belief, presuming there are such things, will be a physical structure of some sort, presumably a neurological structure. (Forthcoming: 2)

According to a proponent of naturalism, then, this structure will have both neurophysiological (NP) properties and semantic properties. However, it is, claims Plantinga, unlikely that the semantic properties of the neurological structure will have any causal effect on behaviour:

It is easy to see how beliefs thus considered can enter the causal chain leading to behavior; current science gives us a reasonably plausible account of the process whereby volleys of impulses propagated along the efferent nerves cause muscle contraction, motor output, and thus behavior. It is exceedingly difficult to see, however, how they can enter that chain by virtue of their content. A given belief, it seems, would have had the same causal impact on behavior if it had had the same NP properties, but different content. (Forthcoming: 2-3)

Plantinga concludes that N&E makes semantic epiphenomenalism (SE) likely. But, says Plantinga, if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Given SE, truth and falsehood will be, as Plantinga puts it, invisible to natural selection. In which case, (on the modest assumptions that (i) 75% of beliefs produced must be true in order for a cognitive mechanism to be reliable and, (ii) that we have at least 100 such beliefs) P(R/N&E&SE) will be low.

So runs the EAAN. Recently, Plantinga has refined the argument by trying to tackle a certain sort of objection. The objection is that by also embracing, for example, reductive materialism (RM), adherents of naturalism may, after all, quite reasonably suppose that they have evolved reliable cognitive faculties. Why so? Well, on Plantinga’s understanding of RM, content properties just are NP properties. But then, because NP properties cause behaviour, and semantic properties just are NP properties, so semantic properties can cause behaviour. And if semantic properties can cause behaviour, then they can, after all, be selected for by unguided evolution.

Plantinga’s argument that P(R/N&E&RM) is low

In his most recent presentation of the EAAN, Plantinga attempts to deal with the above objection. He focuses his attention on one semantic property in particular – truth. Even supposing that semantic properties such as being true can causally affect behaviour, why, he asks, should we suppose, that unguided evolution favour beliefs that are true?

According to Plantinga, the combination N&E&RM gives us no reason to suppose that the content of belief/neural structures resulting in adaptive behaviour is likely to be true. Suppose the belief/neural structure resulting in a piece of adaptive behaviour has the content q. While the property of having q as content does now enter into the causal chain leading to that behaviour, it doesn’t matter whether q is true:

What matters is only that the NP property in question cause adaptive behaviour; whether the content it constitutes is also true is simply irrelevant. It can do its job of causing adaptive behaviour just as well if it is false as if it is true. It might be true, and it might be false; it doesn’t matter. (Forthcoming:10).

But if the NP property can do its job of causing adaptive behaviour just as well whether the content is true or false, true belief cannot be favoured by natural selection. In which case, concludes Plantinga, (PR/N&E&RM) remains low.

Conceptual constraints on likely semantic content
There is, it seems to me, a fatal flaw in even this latest incarnation of the EAAN.

Plantinga supposes that what unguided evolution favours, in the first instance, is adaptive behaviour. As to what causes that behaviour, evolution doesn’t care. True beliefs, false beliefs, something else - it’s all the same to evolution. It is only the result – adaptive behaviour – that is preferred.

But even if unguided evolution doesn’t care what causes adaptive behaviour, just so long as it is caused, it may not follow, given certain further facts about belief that natural selection won’t also favour true belief.

Consider the suggestion that there exist certain conceptual constraints on what content a given belief can, or is likely to, have given its causal relationships to, among other things, behaviour. My claim is that, given the existence of certain conceptual constraints, unguided evolution will then tend to favour true belief.

To begin, let me sketch out a simple illustration of how such constraints might operate.  Suppose we just stipulatively introduce certain terms/concepts. Let’s say that a subject’s belief state has content MC1 iff that state has properties achieving a threshold of at least 30 points, with points allocated thus:

Property A     +20 points
Property B      +15 points.
Property C      +20 points
Property D     -12 points

Notice there’s no one property possession of which is essential if a state is to qualify as having the content MC1. Suppose we similarly stipulate that a subject’s belief state has content MC2 iff that state possesses properties achieving a threshold of at least 30 points, with points allocated thus:

Property D     +20 points
Property E      +15 points
Property F      +20 points
Property A     -12 points

Note that if a subject has a belief state with properties A and B, then, ceteris paribus, that state is rather more likely to have the content MC1 than it is the content MC2 (though it might yet turn out to lack content MC1 and possess content MC2 instead if it also possesses properties D, E and F while lacking C). Now suppose that while not all these properties involve causal links to behaviour, some do, namely A, C, D and F. Property A is that of causing behaviour B1 in situation S1, C that of causing behaviour B2 in situation S2, D that of causing behaviour B3 in situation S3, and F that of causing behaviour B4 in situation S4.

Having introduced these conceptual constraints on what it is to have beliefs with the contents MC1 and MC2, we can now see how natural selection might select not only for or against certain behaviours in certain situations, but also for or against these two belief contents. Suppose that exhibiting B1 in S1 and B2 in S2 is in each case adaptive, while exhibiting B3 in S3 or B4 in S4 is maladaptive. Then, other things being equal, natural selection will tend to favour subjects holding beliefs with content BC1 over those holding beliefs with content BC2. So, given conceptual constraints on belief content of the sort outlined above, natural selection need not be blind to belief content. It will select for some contents over others, depending on the kinds of behavioural output with which they are conceptually associated.

So now suppose that constraints of this sort exist on the content of beliefs of the sort with which we are already familiar – contents such as that there is water five miles south, that Paris is the capital of France, and so on. Suppose these constraints conceptually link content with behavioural output. No doubt these constraints will be more complex than in my illustration. But, supposing they exist, with what sort of behaviour is a given content likely to be conceptually linked?

Suppose that, solely in combination with a very strong desire for water, a certain belief/neural structure typically results in a subject walking five miles to the south. Surely, if there are such conceptual links between behaviour and content, then the property of causing that behaviour in that situation will be among those properties lending, as it were, a considerable number of points towards that belief/neural structure achieving the threshold for having the content that there’s water five miles south. Other things being equal, that belief/neural structure is much more likely to have the content that there’s water five miles south than it is, say, the content that there’s isn’t water five miles south, or that there’s water five miles north, or that there’s a mountain of dung five miles south, or that Paris is the capital of Bolivia. Perhaps the belief/neural structure in question might yet turn out to have one of these other contents. We can know a priori, solely on the basis of conceptual reflection, that, ceteris paribus, the fact that a belief/neural structure causes that behaviour in that situation significantly raises the probability that it has the content there’s water five miles south. Among the various candidates for being the semantic content of the belief/neural structure in question, the content that there’s water five miles south will rank fairly high on the list.

But now notice that, given such conceptual constraints exist, unguided evolution will indeed favour true belief. Consider our thirsty human. He has a strong desire for water. He’ll survive only if he walks five miles south to where the only reachable water is located. He does so and survives. Suppose this adaptive behaviour is caused by a certain belief/neural structure. If there are conceptual constraints on belief content of the sort I envisage, and if a belief/neural structure in that situation typically causes subjects to walk five miles south, then it is quite likely to have the content that there’s water five miles south – a true belief. Were our thirsty human to head off north, on the other hand, as a result of his having a belief/neural structure that, in that situation, typically causes subjects to walk five miles north, then it’s rather more likely that the belief in question is that there’s water five miles north. That’s a false belief. Because it is false, our human will die.

So if beliefs/neural structures cause behaviour, and if there are conceptual constraints linking content with behavioural output of the sort I am suggesting, then natural selection won’t just favour adaptive behaviour. It will also favour true belief.

True, there are other candidates for being the content of the belief that causes our human to head off in the right direction. Perhaps some are more likely candidates. Suppose our human has no conception of miles or south. Then, instead of the belief that causes his behaviour having the content that there’s water five miles south being, perhaps it has instead the content that there’s reachable water thataway. However, notice that, either way, the content of the belief in question is still true.

To sum up: what Plantinga overlooks, it seems to me, is the possibility that there exist conceptual constraints on content of the sort outlined here. The suggestion is that if beliefs are neural structures, then it is at least partly by virtue of its having certain sorts of behavioural consequence that a given neural structure will have the content it does. If such constraints exist, then one cannot, as it were, plug any old belief content into any old neural structure, irrespective of that structure’s behavioural output. We run up against certain conceptual obstacles. If such conceptual constraints exist, it appears natural selection will favour not only adaptive behaviour, but also true belief.

Neither materialism nor functionalism not presupposed

Note that to suggest that such conceptual constraints on belief content exist is not, of course, to presuppose that beliefs are neural structures or that materialism is true. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that substance dualism is true and that beliefs are not neural structures, but soul-stuff structures. Then my suggestion is that we may be able to know on the basis of a little conceptual reflection that if beliefs are soul-stuff structures, and if a given soul-stuff structure in combination with a strong desire for water typically results in subjects walking five miles south, then ceteris paribus that soul-stuff structure is quite likely to have the content that there’s water five miles south, and is rather unlikely to have the content that there’s water five miles north.

Also note that to suggest that there exist conceptual constraints on content given behavioural output is not to presuppose the truth of some reductionist, materialist-friendly theory of content of the sort that Plantinga has gone on to attack[2], such as Dretskian indicator semantics or functionalism. Perhaps belief contents cannot be exhaustively characterized in terms of their causal connections to input and output, as some functionalists claim. That’s not to say that there are no conceptual constraints at all on what the content of a given belief is likely to be, given the causal links that belief has to behaviour. Perhaps there are. Consider my illustration involving contents MC1 and MC2. I stipulated that not all of the weighted properties involved causal connections with behavioural output. Properties B and E involved no such connections. Indeed, B and E might even be properties presenting an insurmountable obstacle to any attempt to characterize the content of MC1 and MC2 in wholly functionalist terms. It wouldn’t follow that there are no conceptual constraints at all on beliefs having content MC1 and MC2 given their behavioural output. Clearly there are.

So, while the combination N&E&RM might be self-defeating, it seems that the addition of CC – the thought that there are conceptual constraints on content of the sort I envisage – produces a combination of beliefs that is not, after all, self-defeating. It appears there are ways of embracing naturalism that sidestep Plantinga’s charge of incoherence.

How natural selection can still favour true belief even if SE is true
In fact, it turns out that in order to sidestep Plantinga’s charge of incoherence our naturalist doesn’t even have to sign up to RM. The addition of CC to R&E alone is sufficient to rescue naturalism from self-defeat, as I’ll now explain.

As we saw above, Plantinga’s initial worry about naturalism is that it makes semantic epiphenomenalism (SE) likely. He supposes the naturalist will hold that beliefs will be neural structures possessing both neurophysiological (NP) properties and semantic properties. However, Plantinga thinks that only the NP properties of those structures will then have any causal effect behaviour. A given belief would have the same causal impact on behaviour if it had the same NP properties but different semantic properties (or indeed no semantic properties at all).

So now let’s suppose our naturalist actually bites the bullet and accepts SE – they actually accept that the semantic properties of a given neurological structure have no causal impact on behaviour. Plantinga supposes such a naturalist is then compelled to accept that, because natural selection can only select for adaptive behaviour and the properties that cause it, so natural selection cannot select for the semantic property of being true. However, it turns out that Plantinga’s assumption that natural selection favours only adaptive behaviour and the properties that cause it is unwarranted. It turns out, somewhat surprisingly, that, given CC, natural selection will still favour true belief even if the property of being a true belief has no causal impact on behaviour.

To see why, let’s return again to our thirsty human. He has a certain belief/neural structure that, in conjunction his strong desire for water, causes him to walk five miles south. Given the kind of conceptual constraints outlined above, a belief/neural structure that causes a subject to walk five miles south given a strong desire for water will quite probably have the content there’s water five miles south. Notice it really doesn’t matter whether or not that belief/neural structure causes that behaviour by virtue of its having that semantic property. It remains the case that, if that sort of neural structure for whatever reason has that behavioural consequence, then, given CC, it quite probably has the content there’s water five miles south and probably doesn’t have the conceptual content there’s water five miles north. It matters not whether SE is true: the behavioural output of a belief/neural structure still places constraints on its likely content.

But then, given such conceptual constraints, natural selection is likely to favour true belief even if SE is true. Odd though it might seem, given CC, natural selection will favour true belief even if the property of being a true belief has no causal impact on behaviour. This is a rather significant discovery, even setting aside its relevance to Plantinga’s EAAN.

Conclusion

Of course, I am merely making a suggestion. Perhaps there exist no such conceptual constraints on belief content of the sort I envisage. Still, the view that there are such constraints on content is widespread (it is by no means restricted to those wedded to some form of logical behaviourism or functionalism, for example). It seems intuitively obvious to many of us that belief content is not entirely conceptually independent of behavioural output: that one cannot plug any old belief content into any old neural structure (or soul-stuff structure, or whatever) entirely independently of its behavioural output. That intuition would appear to be, philosophically speaking, largely pre-theoretical. It cannot easily be dismissed by Plantinga as a product of some prior theoretical bias towards naturalism and/or materialism.

My central conclusion, then, is this. Plantinga has not shown that naturalism in combination with the theory of evolution is unavoidably self-defeating. It appears that an adherent of N&E who also supposes CC is true can, after all, quite reasonably suppose they have evolved reliable cognitive faculties.

In response, Plantinga might now try to show that if naturalism is true, there are unlikely to be conceptual constraints on semantic content of the sort I describe. Perhaps he can do this. If so, then the EAAN might be resurrected. But as things stand, it is not naturalism that is defeated, but the EAAN.[3]


Heythrop College, University of London
London W8 5HN


References

Beilby, J. (ed) 2002. Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Plantinga, A. Forthcoming. Content and Natural Selection. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Currently available on-line at Plantinga’s departmental webpage: http://philosophy.nd.edu/people/all/profiles/plantinga-alvin/documents/CONTENTANDNATURALSELECTION.pdf
Page numbers refer to the on-line version.


[1] I here follow the most recent version of the EAAN as presented in Plantinga (Forthcoming).
[2] See the latter part of Plantinga (Forthcoming).
[3] My thanks to Alvin Plantinga for his generous comments on earlier drafts.

135 comments:

Angra Mainyu said...

Thanks for posting your arguments. It seems like a significant objection that Plantinga hasn't addressed.

P.S.: the link to Plantinga's paper isn't working for me. That paper (and many others) can be found in this page (I got the link from a post by ex-apologist on his site).

sam said...

I think Plantinga has illustrated SE in the past with an organism who might simultaneously believe that: 1) tigers are attractive 2) the proper response to attractive objects is to run from them. He suggests these false beliefs could lead to adaptive behavior, and that without his god to guide evolution and sort these things out, NE will lead to too many false beliefs.

The amygdala is an ancient neural structure which provides emotional valence to our perceptions. It’s the source of our 4 basic “F” instincts: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating. To suggest that an organism could simultaneously be attracted to an object and initiate aversive behaviors in response to that same objects belies an ignorance of basic biology on Plantinga’s part. Not to mention that any organism that held belief 2) would find mating problematic.

Would this be an example of the CCs to which you are referring?

Steven Carr said...

'His argument turns crucially on the claim that, in the absence of any God-like being to guide the process, natural selection is unlikely to favour true belief.'

Similarly, seals are very unlikely to be adapted by natural selection to be able to balance a ball on their nose.

So there must be a God.


I'm completely baffled by Plantinga's claim that he has an argument.

His claim is that, if there is no god, the chance of any species developing sophisticated brains is very small.

I look around at the number of species that have developed sophisticated brains and I see that it is very small.

Just like Plantinga said it would be.

Somehow, I am supposed to conclude that naturalism is false, simply because the number of species with sophisticated brains is exactly the same small number that the theory predicts.


Huh? Run that one by me again....

Could somebody tell me why naturalism is false when people like Plantinga keep pointing out just how successful it is at predicting what we see in the world around us?

Dave Johnson said...

Hi All,

THE MAYAN SKEPTIC APOCALYPSE 12/21/2012

We really enjoy when comfortable bourgeois atheists talk about the apocalypse...

s1.zetaboards.com/LooseChangeForums/topic/4979676/1/

Unfinished business


Are these claims "falsifiable? Millions will see this.

we're not KIDDING

eschaton2012.ca/

SKEPTIC APOCALYPSE? DOUBLE!

issuu.com/span/docs/conmag-winter2012-13?mode=window&backgroundColor=%23222222


get to the article on the APOCALYPSE - pg. 22


no, 99% have failed!

stevec said...

I think I am confused.

This:

"the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour"

seems to me to be *extremely* obviously false. So obviously false that I suspect I misapprehend the meaning of it, since, if I don't misapprehend the meaning of it, then why would anyone ever bother to argue about it at length?

It seems to me that if Plantiga's argument depends on it being true that "the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour", then his argument is sunk (actually, it's more like it spontaneously exploded during construction.)

Example: "I believe it is raining outside. Consequently I take an umbrella when I leave the house."

Is that not a trivial demonstration of the content of my beliefs causally impinging on my behavior? If so, Plantinga's argument exploded on the docks. If not, then this posting must be written in a form of English with which I've not previously been acquainted.

-- steve

Angra Mainyu said...

stevec,

Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are both true, then the content of our beliefs very probably does not have a causal effect on our behavior.

He's not claiming that the content of our beliefs does not have a causal effect on our behavior.

For more details, you could a look at his argument (I posted a link where you can find the paper).

Richard Wein said...

Nice argument, Stephen. But I suspect Plantinga would respond by suggesting that an explanation is needed for these "conceptual constraints", and that God is needed to explain them.

Personally, I would prefer to argue that Plantinga has failed to refute the sort of physicalist position that I hold. His response to RM doesn't do the job. He writes:

"What matters is only that the NP property in question cause adaptive behaviour; whether the content it constitutes is also true is simply irrelevant. It can do its job of causing adaptive behaviour just as well if it is false as if it is true. It might be true, and it might be false; it doesn’t matter. (Forthcoming:10)."

To me this makes little sense, and Plantinga's drawing of distinctions between beliefs, NP states (or properties) and "content" only serves to obfuscate the issue. Whichever of those we talk about, the fact remains that such states are (usually) only adaptive if they have the right kind of relationship to reality. The belief that there's an oasis to the south is (usually) only adaptive if there really is an oasis to the south, i.e. if the belief is true. And the same goes for the NP states on which the belief supervenes. True, we don't talk about a set of NP states being true or false. But that's because the NP level is not the appropriate level of abstraction for our ordinary discourse about propositions and propositional attitudes.

Michael Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Young said...

As someone who may have missed a turn or two in this fascinating subject, does anyone here know whether Plantinga has ever (publicly) responded to Stephen's argument?

I am still suspicious of the idea of behavior forming a "conceptual constraint" on belief content. (For the record, I am inclined to resist even functionalism about mental content.) You are clear, Stephen, that the constraint you have in mind is not something like logical behaviorism. But what is it, then? What is the (possible) constitution of the "conceptual constraint" in question?

And my apologies if the answer should already be clear here and I am just being dense. Probably I need to think harder about the examples provided in your piece to see your general view of how it is that belief content is (or could be) conceptually constrained by behavior in any case.

Happy New Year, by the way!

Angra Mainyu said...


Michael Young,

That's not clear to me, either (i.e., what kind of conceptual links there might be; I'm also inclined to reject funcionalism, btw), though I do not know of any reply by Plantinga.

In any case, Plantinga's claims that it's "de rigueur" for naturalism to "assimilate physicalism to naturalism", and then from that, he claims that a belief would be some sort of neurological structure on naturalism.

But that seems unfounded, because Plantinga's definition of naturalism is essentially that it's a claim that God does not exist (and nothing like that does), or at least plays no role in our evolution, lives, etc., and that our cognitive faculties developed through unguided evolution.

Granted, most people who hold those beliefs will hold that there are no souls, and reject substance dualism. Fair enough, but that still does not suggest that belief is a neural structure. It seems perfectly compatible (and much simpler to me) that some structures (e.g., some brains) do different things; for instance, they believe P, perceive R, desire S, and so on, but there need not be some structure that is the 'belief'.

In terms of properties, maybe one can say that the structure in question (like the brain) has some non-mental properties (e.g., mass) and some mental properties (like beliefs, desires, perceptions, etc.), but that's just what the brain does.

So, Plantinga claims that on naturalism (plus what he thinks is de rigoeur for naturalism), beliefs (which would be a type of neural structure, according to him, but I do not see why accept that) would have the same causal effect on behavior regardless of content, and depending on what he calls "neurophysiological properties", or NP.

But I do not see any good reason to accept that belief would be the structure in question, or that two brains can [nomologically] have the same NP properties but behave differently (including having different beliefs), etc.

Plantinga does not seem to argue for that.

Still, if he were right that propositional content would be invisible to selection under those hypotheses, then the same would seem to apply and for the same reasons to connections between different beliefs, perception, desire, intent (or desire content, intent content, etc., if one prefers), and so on, so we wouldn't even have reasoning, matches between intent, perception and belief (i.e., why should I perceive that I write a post if I intend to? - not that I would even have a mind that can intend to write a post), etc.

In other words, if Plantinga's reasoning were right, alternatively to arguing that our cognitive faculties would probably not be reliable, he could just point out that we shouldn't expect to see any kind of coherence in our subjective experience, but rather just disconnected streams of consciousness.

On the other hand, if a coherent mind has impact on behavior (as it sure does), then mental content impacts behavior, and there is no reason to single out belief and say that there would be any problem with belief in particular.

So, in short, what Plantinga's reasoning seems to imply is that, on naturalism (+ evolution), mental content (e.g., perceptions, belief content, desire content, intent, etc.) would have no impact on behavior; but there seems to be no good reason to accept his claim.

sam said...

“So, Plantinga claims that on naturalism, beliefs would have the same causal effect on behavior regardless of content, and depending on what he calls "neurophysiological properties", or NP.”

If that’s what Plantinga holds, then I admit that I don’t understand his position. The analogy isn’t perfect, but if a programmer wants to duplicate a popular video game from scratch, he certainly has some leeway in the structure of the code he writes. If ultimately he wants the game to look, sound and feel like the original, though, he is going to be significantly restricted. The ‘1s’ and ‘0s’ that are read by the hardware _are_ the content that determine the behavior of the machine.

The temporal & spatial sequences of synaptic firing _are_ the content. The NPs _are_ what cause the behavior. There is no ‘belief content’ within the sodium/potassium gradients of a depolarized neuron. We can magnetically or electrically (on surgery patients) stimulate specific regions in the brain and elicit phenomenological responses (the smell of oranges). These regions correspond to hyperactivity within seizure patients who experience the same perception & likely correspond to the same regions that light up in fMRI experiments of subjects who are actually smelling oranges in realtime. If two states of propositional knowledge have significantly different NPs, then they aren’t the same belief state.

“Still, if he were right that propositional content would be invisible to selection under those hypotheses, then…”

I know little neuroscience and even less philosophy of mind, but maybe Plantinga & others are drastically overestimating the consequences of the invisibility of propositional content to natural selection, if what is meant by propositional content is self-aware, conscious semantic/symbolic representation of subjective phenomenological states or sensory data.

If the capacity for formal propositional content wasn’t neurologically possible until the appearance of higher apes, then the vast majority of the history of evolution of life on this planet, and the natural selection which drove it, occurred in the complete absence of belief formation. Not just life, but the vast majority of the history of evolution of subcortical neural structures, both central and peripheral, autonomic and nonautonomic, occurred in the complete absence of belief formation.

Evolution shaped our instincts & subconscious motivations first. Only in very recent history (1 mya?) have we evolved the prefrontal cortical structures that are necessary to consciously hold, experience and tweak these instincts.

Look at our distant cousin, the multicellular sea slug Aplysia californica. It evolved not only the capacity for nonassociative learning like habituation, dishabituation & sensitization, but also the capacity for associative learning such as classical & operant conditioning of its gill & siphon withdrawl reflex (GSWR), which is under the control of a mere 13 central motor neurons.

With a very primitive nervous system, these slugs can not only sense & respond to their environment, but they can adapt & change their response to changing conditions within their environment, all without mentally representing their environment at all. Instinct & behavior (autonomic nervous system) evolved _before_ belief formation & mental representation (non-autonomic nervous system).

sam said...

As far as I understand Plantinga’s position (which I no doubt misunderstand), I get the impression that his understanding of natural evolution is backwards. His story is that an organism holds a belief about reality, and then natural selection operates on the behaviors initiated by that belief relative to how well that belief corresponds with reality. This strikes me as similar to Lamark’s view that giraffes stretch their necks to successfully obtain food, then that behavior gets reverse translated back to the giraffe’s DNA, which then gets passed down to its offspring. This is a violation of basic molecular biology.

The reality is that our genes get shuffled as gametes. This new complement of genes determines the neural structures that will develop in the individual. If this individual’s unique synaptic network gives the individual a survival advantage in the environment he finds himself (i.e. his amygdala is slightly more sensitive, so he initiates fleeing behaviors more often, and his environment contains relatively more predators), then he will outperform his competitors.

The genetic complement comes first, then the neural structures, then the subconscious instincts. Even if this organism has the capacity to hold propositional knowledge, he will likely use these higher order cognitive functions to simply rationalize and justify what are deeply felt subjective emotions. Work in basic psychology with commisurotomy patients has shown how the brain constructs narratives whole cloth in an attempt to harmonize conflicting sensory input.

This isn’t to argue that higher order cognitive structures can’t calculate if, when or how basic instincts should be initiated, but I don’t think that the invisibility of conscious thought to natural selection, if true, would have the slightest effect on the vast history of evolution on this planet, and thus is irrelevant to naturalism.

Michael Young said...

Angra,

Thanks for this. Your characterization makes me think that Plantinga is effectively burdening the naturalist with semantic epiphenomenalism at the outset, and that this is really the critical move in his argument. In fact, I suppose his larger argument does run on that assumption, i.e., on the assumption that a natural view of belief and mental contents involves (either essentially or as a "de rigueur" agglomeration) a comittment to the thesis of semantic epiphenomenalism.

If this is the right interpretation of what Plantinga is actually up to, then the answer to Plantinga is that the naturalist has resources to resist the commitment (i.e., semantic epiphenomenalism) with which Plantinga would see him saddled. As long as we are justified in thinking that the choice isn't between supernaturalism or epiphenomenalism, then we've got all the resources necessary to resist the EAAN. And perhaps, even, this resistance could occur without any idea of behavior forming a "conceptual constraint" on belief content.

Now I feel like I need to go back and re-read Plantinga to see whether all of this is really fair to him... But it seems initially promising.

Angra Mainyu said...

sam,

To be more precise, Plantinga does not take a stance on whether there are beliefs on what he calls 'materialism', but he assumes so for the sake of the argument in his paper.
In any case, yes, he claims that it's very probably the content of our beliefs would have no impact on behavior if naturalism is true (if there are no beliefs, that would be trivially true, but that aside), since he claims that materialism or physicalism are "de rigoeur for naturalism", for some reason, and claims that materialism or physicalism (however that's defined) lead to that result (i.e., semantic epiphenomenalism).

He reasons to that conclusion in the way I outlined above (see his paper for more details; I posted a link in my first post in this comments thread), and so for the reasons I gave, I would say that there appears to be no good reason to accept his claims.

Regarding your software analogy, in his paper Plantinga actually claims that on naturalism (+ physicalism or materialism) a belief would be a neurological structure with neurological properties NP and propositional content (my take on this, as I outlined before, is that the person (or, if we consider a part, the brain) believes something, perceives something, desires something, etc.; those are different things that a brain (a structure made of particles) does (i.e., those are processes, which may last for a shorter or longer period), but there is no reason at all to think that what a person (or the brain) believes would have no impact, or to assume that the belief is the structure).

However, Plantinga also implies (see note 4, where he refers to his argument against materialism) that there are serious questions about whether a neurological structure can have semantic content at all (he's just not arguing against it in that particular paper).

While I don't know how he'd react to your example, based on the above (and further details on his position, at least as I understand it), someone holding views similar to Plantinga's might reply as follows (the following is highly speculative, though):


a. In reality, those computers have no beliefs at all, no knowledge, etc. (unless God put souls in them, and only in that case do they have subjective experiences, but there is no good reason to think so).
b. Since they have no beliefs at all, the content of their beliefs is non-existent.
c. The ones and zeros are our way of programming them; what's causally effective is the physical structures we represent by those ones and zeros, and the rest of their physical structure.
d. If, on the other hand, computers have or will have souls, their beliefs will probably be generally since God will make it so.

On the other hand, on naturalism+physicalism, then...our beliefs would not be reliable, and we wouldn't even have a reliable belief that there are such computers; if there are such computers, though, then their beliefs (if they have any) would not be the ones and zeros (that would be how we represent something, probably mistakenly if naturalism is true), but the actual physical structures, with properties like mass, charge, etc.; it's questionable that they could have content at all, but if they did, content would probably be epiphenomenal, so there is no telling what that content might be.

Angra Mainyu said...


sam,

"I know little neuroscience and even less philosophy of mind, but maybe Plantinga & others are drastically overestimating the consequences of the invisibility of propositional content to natural selection, if what is meant by propositional content is self-aware, conscious semantic/symbolic representation of subjective phenomenological states or sensory data. "

I don't know that he means that. He would probably agree that we have beliefs even if unconscious. But it's not clear to me whether he would agree that, say, dogs have beliefs too. I tend to think not.

What I was trying to say is that if his reasoning to the conclusion that on naturalism+physicalism belief content would have no effect because only the NP properties would have such effect on behavior, then also subjective experience would be epiphenomenal, desire content, intent, perception, etc. (not necessarily involving self-awareness) would have no effect on behavior and would be invisible to evolution.

But if so, that would almost certainly lead to random streams of consciousness if there is consciousness at all, refuting naturalism.

Regarding Plantinga's view on evolution (or rather, what he believes a hypothesis of unguided evolution holds, not what he believes actually happens, which involves God) looks mistaken on many levels, but it's difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly that he believes, but he believes that belief content would be invisible to evolution.

"This isn’t to argue that higher order cognitive structures can’t calculate if, when or how basic instincts should be initiated, but I don’t think that the invisibility of conscious thought to natural selection, if true, would have the slightest effect on the vast history of evolution on this planet, and thus is irrelevant to naturalism. "

I'm not sure what you mean by "conscious thought", but if his reasoning were correct, it seems that not only conscious thought but much more would have no impact, and then it seems we should expect no coherent minds.

Angra Mainyu said...

Michael,

You're welcome, and thanks for your ideas as well.

I'm not sure I gave you the right impression (I posted a link where you can find his paper in my first post in this thread). Plantinga makes a quick assertion that naturalism requires materialism and that that leads to epiphenomenalism, but then he assesses possible ways out.

So, it seems to me that places a burden on the naturalist to try to resist reductionism about content (CE), so he does give some arguments, but still, I don't see why there is a burden to present any theory of mental content, consciousness, etc. (by the way, it's not as if soul believers propose a theory of interaction between souls and particles, but in any case, saying that we haven't resolve some problems and it might take centuries or more is perfectly reasonable. Science takes time, and any philosophical theory will plausibly require lots of science), or why such theory would have to be what he calls 'materialism'.

That said, I was just outlining my view; the argument against what he calls non-reductive materialism may require more attention if one wants to get into the details.

P.S: Happy New Year to you too; sorry I forgot to post that before. :(

sam said...

Angra,

Thanks for those comments. As I admit, this isn’t my field & am unfamiliar with strict definitions of terms. Add to that you’re having to interpret Plantinga’s position for me. That’s more work than I can ask of you, and I’ll just have to read the article myself.

Much of my confusion is what Plantinga means by “belief”, which by what you’re saying doesn’t necessarily entail self-awareness or any form of consciousness.

If that’s true, then natural selection still has purchase on which to operate. The neural structures (like a CPU) operate and fire in time (like 1s & 0s being read in sequence in a Turing machine) and generate behaviors that are adaptive or maladaptive to the environment. The neural & organismal behavior _is_ the content upon which natural selection is operating.

The organism’s ability to be aware of the subjective experience of cogitation or its ability to mentally represent sensory data or experience and be able to translate this into some symbolic or semantic fashion (which was what I understood by sematic ephiphenomenalism) is causally irrelevant to the long history of evolution.

So, in that sense I agree with Plantinga regarding SE. I just don’t think it has any consequence on natural evolution. He wants to find a ghost in the machine, some “belief stuff” inside of neural activity. You can take a runner and remove parts of his body until the process of running becomes impossible. I think Plantinga would argue that at this point the “running stuff” then leaves the body and lives in some Platonic realm until it can find another running-able body to inhabit. Very unparsimonious.

“But it's not clear to me whether he would agree that, say, dogs have beliefs too. I tend to think not.”

There’s a YouTube video of a sleeping dog chasing something in his dream until he wakes up, gets on all fours, and subsequently slams his body full tilt into a wall. I can’t stop laughing at it. That dog sure seems to have beliefs, and it sure seems like he had a false belief, and that false belief led to maladaptive behavior. If his brain caused him to misrepresent reality too much, he would be selected out of the gene pool. So Plantinga’s god wants 25% of our beliefs to be false under theistic evolution? Why? Does it enjoy watching YouTube videos too? Given the Hebrew bible, I suspect Plantinga’s god enjoys much worse.

Angra Mainyu said...


sam, regarding the word 'belief', I think Plantinga is using 'belief' in the colloquial, intuitive folk-psychology sense of the word, so he means what we mean. He might have a particular theory of what 'belief' means, but that doesn't determine the meaning.

I do not think belief requires self-awareness; it does not require consciousness at every moment; it's more debatable whether it requires any consciousness at all; maybe not, or maybe there is more than one folk sense of 'belief'. My very tentative guess is that Plantinga might actually require consciousness at some point, while recognizing that an unconscious person still has beliefs.

By the way, I do agree that dogs have beliefs; I was very tentatively speculating about what Plantinga's position might be. But it was just a guess. Maybe he thinks dogs have beliefs.

You say: "If that’s true, then natural selection still has purchase on which to operate. The neural structures (like a CPU) operate and fire in time (like 1s & 0s being read in sequence in a Turing machine) and generate behaviors that are adaptive or maladaptive to the environment. The neural & organismal behavior _is_ the content upon which natural selection is operating."
But Plantinga denies that that is the content. On naturalism+physicalism, the neural structures have semantic content, according to Plantinga, but aren't the semantic content.


Regarding your point about causal irrelevance, I'm not sure I get your point.

Plantinga's reasoning would seem to lead to the conclusion that belief isn't the only problem, but that also perception, intent, belief, desire, etc., and the ability to acquire them, would play no causal role that selection can operate on. But if so, we would probably have a random stream of consciousness, not coherent minds.

Steven Carr said...

'Maybe he thinks dogs have beliefs.'

Really?

According to Plantinga's 'argument', this means dogs brains are designed by his god to produce reliable cognitive faculties, as natural selection just would not be able to produce beliefs in dogs. (Plantinga, passim)


So if god designed dogs to have reliable cognitive faculties, why aren't dogs as intelligent as we are?

Perhaps their god-designed reliable cognitive faculties are more affected by sin than ours are?

sam said...

“But Plantinga denies that that is the content. On naturalism+physicalism, the neural structures have semantic content, according to Plantinga, but aren't the semantic content.”

This may be the fundamental disagreement between Plantinga’s & my position. An athlete engaged in a marathon doesn’t _have_ running inside him, he _is_ running. “Running” is a verb or a gerund which describes a temporal sequence of events. A methodological naturalist like a training coach doesn’t posit the existence of “soul stuff” to explain the phenomenon of running, because this hypothetical stuff doesn’t seem to _do_ anything. The machine works well without it.

“Regarding your point about causal irrelevance, I'm not sure I get your point.”

If Plantinga is suggesting that a purely material chain of causal events cannot account for naturally selected, properly functioning cognitive faculties, then I disagree even if semantic epiphenomenalism (if I understand what that is) is true.

Take, for example, patients suffering from blindsight. They have no conscious experience of sight due to a lesion in the neural pathways connecting the thalamus to the visual cortex. You can point a stretched rubberband to their face and they will flinch. If you ask them why they flinch, they have no idea, no propositional knowledge, no conscious beliefs, intentions or desires, that would explain their own behavior to themselves. They flinch because the neural pathways connecting the optic nerve to the amygdala, which provides emotional valence, are intact.

Blind instinct controls behavior. Natural selection operates on the neural pathways which control instinct. Higher order processing which generate beliefs and conscious interpretations of sensory perceptions comes later. Even if these higher order processes are invisible to natural selection directly, they are causally determined by these lower order instincts.

This doesn’t mean that our beliefs or higher order interpretations don’t control our behavior. Take, for example, patients suffering from psychic blindness. These patients have a lesion in the pathways to the amygdala, but not the pathways leading to the visual cortex. You can ask this patient to give detailed visual description of his wife of 40 years, and you can ask him to give detailed visual description of a particular woman in a crowded room. All his propositional knowledge of visual sensory data is intact. Yet he cannot equate the woman in the crowd with his wife because he cannot emotionally “identify” her. The moment she speaks, he identifies her because the auditory pathways to the amygdala and temporal lobes are intact.

Or take patients suffering from anosognosia. They come into the doctor’s office asking to have their arm amputated because they are convinced that it is an “impostor”. They don’t emotionally identify with it, even though all their propositional knowledge is intact (they know it looks just like their arm, they know it’s attached to their body, etc.).

We can lesion half the brain in chimps in these same areas. If we starve the chimps and place food in the visual field who’s emotional valence has been lesioned, they do not react to the food as food. If we place the food in the unlesioned visual field as a control, they respond appropriately. The chimp’s visual field & processing (and presumably propositional knowledge) are intact, and yet without the emotional instinct to eat, they don’t initiate properly functioning, naturally selected behavior.

You can electrically stimulate the motor cortex of a dead frog, initiate neural depolarization, releasing calcium stores within striated muscle, and cause flexation of the frog’s legs. If your interpretation of Plantinga is correct, I get the sense that he would argue that this causal chain of physical events must have semantic content, some ghost in the machine. The physical phenomena _are_ the information which induces this causal chain of events. Outside of this, I don’t know what he means by semantic content.

Angra Mainyu said...

Steven Carr,

I was expressing doubt about Plantinga's position, not making a claim about them.

Also, I guess he might say that God did not choose to make dogs as intelligent as we are. I don't see this as a particular difficulty for his position.

Angra Mainyu said...

Just to clarify a couple of my points, the following is a somewhat more elaborate explanation of my take on some of the reasons why Plantinga's argument in his latest incarnation fails:

Among other issues, Plantinga argues that on naturalism non-reductive materialism (N+NRM), a view according to which (on his definition) mental properties emerge and strongly supervene on NP properties, his EAAN succeeds.

In particular, Plantinga argues that that whether a mental property has true content would have nothing to do with whether the NP properties are adaptive, since if the belief were false, then the NP property would be just as adaptive. With Plantinga's criterion, then for that matter one could say that if the NP property were adaptive, then whatever mental property (perceptions, desires, intent, etc.) supervene on them would not impinge on their adaptability, so Plantinga might as well forget about beliefs in particular and just argue that on N+NRM we wouldn't get coherent minds, but a completely random stream of consciousness, with no connection between intent, belief, perceptions, etc.

However, in any event, we may consider the following points:

a. It makes perfect sense to say that person A felt outraged about the injustice that happened to person B because A is a good person. That moral properties supervene on non-moral ones is no objection to that.

b. At least most extant dinosaur species alive at the time of the K-T event became extinct because of an asteroid impact, or asteroid impact + volcanic eruptions, etc.. The fact that we can put all of that in terms of particles, or that the properties of the asteroid, the volcanoes, etc., supervene on the properties of some particles does not mean that the asteroid or the volcanoes were causally effete, or that the explanation is no good.

c. Plantinga himself recognizes that neurophysiological properties (NP properties) are adaptive and causally effective. Yet, NP properties too strongly supervene on some properties of particles.

So, similarly, if mental properties and faculties strongly supervene on NP properties, mental properties still may play causal and explanatory roles, just as NP properties may play those roles even though they strongly supervene on some of the properties of particles.

Also, similarly, if mental properties and faculties strongly supervene on NP properties, they may still be selected for or against.

In particular, that applies to beliefs.
For instance, it still makes perfect sense to say that, say, Koko the gorilla walked 10 kilometers because she was hungry and believed that she would find bananas. And of course, an animal that can feed on bananas will be more likely to survive, all other things equal, if she wants bananas and knows how to get them, so the tendency to have some kind of beliefs and desires can be selected for.

But if our mental faculties can be subject to selective pressure, reliable faculties are plausibly usually better for reproductive success than unreliable faculties, all other things equal.

Now, Plantinga might reply to that claiming that, perhaps, having a false belief about the bananas, combined with other desires (i.e., believing that there are rocks, not bananas, but wanting to eat rocks) would be adaptive too. However, the chances of such capricious mental faculties becoming adaptive seems pretty unlikely; in any case, that would be a completely different argument, since the supervenience issue no longer plays a role, and Plantinga would have to fall back to something like part of his original argument.

Angra Mainyu said...

sam,

If I get your point about running that right, that might be something similar to my view: I would say from the perspective of a naturalist, one can say that what is adaptive is a brain or generally organs that do something, like perceiving some object, feeling in a certain way, desiring something, believing this or that, and so on. It's also a brain that has a certain mass, weight, etc., but there is no need to take a stance on some kind of theory about the relation between mental properties and NP properties.

Regarding blindsight, I don't know that they have no phenomenology associated with the stretched rubberband, An alternative interpretation is that part of their brain does have such phenomenology, but it's not the one that talks to the researchers.

I don't think (for instance) that it's (causally) possible to fully separate conscious experience from usual behavior in humans (even if the interpretation of the experiment you mention is correct and it's partially possible to do so); else, experience would be epiphenomenal, which seems clearly not the case.

sam: "Blind instinct controls behavior. Natural selection operates on the neural pathways which control instinct. Higher order processing which generate beliefs and conscious interpretations of sensory perceptions comes later. Even if these higher order processes are invisible to natural selection directly, they are causally determined by these lower order instincts."

I'm not sure I get your point here.
I don't think causation at a lower level precludes causation at a higher level, and also the causal impact of minds is a very good explanation of behavior (e.g., consider the human behavior of using a condom (deliberately against reproductive success in many cases), or – an example from a poster nicknamed "Bomb#20"; he used to make a point about zombies – the fact that otters masturbate). Talk of selection is also explanation of a process at a higher level than, say, particles, so I'm not sure in which sense higher order processes might be invisible to selection if 'lower order instincts' aren't.

sam: "This doesn’t mean that our beliefs or higher order interpretations don’t control our behavior."

Yes, I agree that they're causally efficacious. But then, I do not see how they would be invisible to selection (more precisely, having some reliably cognitive higher order faculties may plausibly be selected for, and in any case generally our tendency to form higher order beliefs in this or that manner would not be invisible).

sam "You can electrically stimulate the motor cortex of a dead frog, initiate neural depolarization, releasing calcium stores within striated muscle, and cause flexation of the frog’s legs. If your interpretation of Plantinga is correct, I get the sense that he would argue that this causal chain of physical events must have semantic content, some ghost in the machine. The physical phenomena _are_ the information which induces this causal chain of events. Outside of this, I don’t know what he means by semantic content."
I don't know what he would say. I think he'd say that there is a ghost in the machine (i.e., a soul) if there is subjective experience.

As for 'semantic content', in the case of beliefs, he specifically talks about propositional content, so he's talking about propositions; but his argumentation, if correct, would lead to the conclusion that perceptions, desires, etc., are causally effete as well.

Steven Carr said...

'Also, I guess he might say that God did not choose to make dogs as intelligent as we are. I don't see this as a particular difficulty for his position.'

Of course it is!

Why does Plantinga's god deprive us of the company of a truly intelligent species?

And how did dogs develop ANY sort of intelligence, bearing in mind Plantinga's denial that any intelligence can evolve by itself?

And why did Plantinga's god select our species for this 'guided evolution'?

Did we win God's lottery?

Did his god just choose a species at random, or was there something about Homo sapiens which made their brains particularly suitable for generating true beliefs?

But if we were selected for 'guided evolution' because we were the most suitable species for evolution to work on....

Of course, any problems naturalism has are tiny flecks compared to the fact that we can all safely ignore anything Plantinga says.

For on his worldview, his reasoning and senses are being constantly attacked by demons.

So we can ignore what he says.

Until Plantinga proves that his 'arguments' are not the product of a malfunctioning demon possessed brain, there is absolutely no reason to suppose his brain is working according to God's will.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Angra,

"So, similarly, if mental properties and faculties strongly supervene on NP properties, mental properties still may play causal and explanatory roles, just as NP properties may play those roles even though they strongly supervene on some of the properties of particles."

Quite. But Plantinga seems to see the relationship between beliefs and NP properties as arbitrary (under NRM), so a particular NP property (or set of properties) could equally well correspond to any belief at all. Let's say some raindrops fall on your head, causing NP properties which in turn cause you to put up your umbrella. Plantinga seems to think that (under NRM) those NP properties could just as well correspond to the belief that it's not raining (or that the world is flat) as to the belief that it's raining!

In the section on functionalism he insists that there are no constraints on the belief. But no reasonable person would call this a belief that it's not raining, or a belief that the Earth is flat. In Plantinga's own example, no reasonable person would say that the frog has a belief that 2+1=3. The facts which incline us to make such judgements provide the relevant constraints.

As you suggest, this isn't fundamentally different from the supervenience of higher-level physical properties on lower-level ones. Plantinga seems to be complaining that we haven't got a formula for mapping NP properties onto particular beliefs. But we don't need no steenkin' formula. There are plenty of physical properties for which we can give no such formula, and that doesn't call naturalism into doubt. What's the formula for deriving the species of an organism or the given name of a human from fundamental physical properties?

I feel part of the problem here is our tendency to draw a dichotomy between the physical and the mental. It helps if we realise that all the entities in our models are abstractions to some degree. Mental entities (like beliefs) are just another type of abstraction, albeit at a particularly high level of abstraction.

sam said...

Hi Angra,

“,but there is no need to take a stance on some kind of theory about the relation between mental properties and NP properties.”


Yes, I don’t think we disagree. Perceiving, feeling, desiring, believing are computational processes produced by orderly neural firing. If NP properties include all physical brain activity, then I’m not sure what ‘mental properties’ are. Maybe ‘NP properties’ are nouns; they are what exist. ‘Mental properties’ are adjectives or gerunds which we use to describe the activities of the nouns. They ‘exist’ in the sense that they are complex operations in space _and_ time.


“Regarding blindsight, I don't know that they have no phenomenology associated with the stretched rubberband…”

Yes, I tried to describe the phenomenology. The causal chain of events begins with photons of a certain wavelength striking the rods & cones of the retina. The depolarized optic nerve sends a signal which eventually reaches the amygdala, which induces a fear response: the hypothalamus sends a hormone to the adrenal cortex, which dumps a bolus of norepinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream, the heart rate increases, the pupils dilate, sweating and piloerection increases, all due to simple ligand/receptor signal transduction.


The patient is subjectively experiencing the mental process of fear. All of this occurs, contra Plantinga, in the absence of “semantic content”. There is no conscious, self-aware perception of a threat, there is no propositional content, there is no belief or desire with regard to the source of the stimulus. The patient knows he’s afraid, but he has no idea why.


I would argue that for most of evolution (and Plantinga’s theistic evolution addresses _all_ evolution), organisms including animals were shaped by natural selection in the complete absence of semantic content and propositional knowledge. The sensory organs & the responses they induce were increasingly improved to more closely approximate reality. Natural selection hones this instinct, so that successive generations respond to their environment in an increasingly adaptive fashion (of course, environments change, though).


It’s a complex, causal chain of dominos at which no point do the dominos hold true or false beliefs about the previous or successive domino. That’s why I object to Plantinga’s cartoonishly false examples of animals holding two false “beliefs” that together become adaptive, but from what I gather from your comments, that’s an older version of his EAAN.


“I'm not sure I get your point here. Talk of selection is also explanation of a process at a higher level than, say, particles, so I'm not sure in which sense higher order processes might be invisible to selection if 'lower order instincts' aren't.”


I am in full agreement with you. Since I don’t know what Plantinga means when he argues that they are invisible to selection, I’ll have to read the paper.


“I think he'd say that there is a ghost in the machine (i.e., a soul) if there is subjective experience.”


Yes, and I’d argue that our subjective experience is causally determined by NP properties. NP properties are necessary _and_ sufficient (more difficult to prove) to create them. The examples of psychic blindness & anosognosia in humans and experimental animals indicate that we can specifically lesion small neural pathways and eliminate subjective experience without destroying sensation, perception, propositional knowledge, and semantic content. Antonio Damasio has also done a lot of work with stroke victims and how loss of affect impairs one’s ability to synthesize propositional knowledge. Plantinga would then probably argue that those lesions severed the connection between the soul stuff and the body, as the pineal gland with Descarte’s soul stuff.

Angra Mainyu said...


Hi Richard,

I agree that Plantinga seems to believe that the relation between beliefs (and similarly, one should say perception, desires, etc.) and NP properties is arbitrary.

I also agree with your comments about the unreasonableness of Plantinga's stance on their being no constraints on belief, but I just wanted to debunk the argument from supervenience, so that the discussion could be focused on what kind of minds (including reliability of belief systems) would be more likely to be favored by selection, without the contamination from the supervenience argument and talk about NP properties.

In a nutshell:

Under the assumption that NP properties strongly supervene on properties of particles, that would not prevent NP properties from playing causal and explanatory roles, including a role in natural selection (i.e., they're still subject to selection, etc.); Plantinga seems to accept that.

Moreover, it would be legitimate to speculate about what kind of NP properties are likely to be adaptive based partly on what we know about the effects of NP properties (if we know them), even without considering the properties of basic particles on which NP properties supervene. In fact, we don't even need to know anything about the connection between properties of particles and NP properties.

Similarly, it is equally legitimate to assess what kind of minds would likely be favored by selection taking into consideration the effects such minds would have, without having to consider either the NP properties on which they supervene, or the properties of particles on which they supervene, assuming strong supervenience.

Now, often we know more about the effects of having some kind of mind (desires, beliefs, etc.) than of having some NP properties, so making an assessment in terms of minds is preferable in at least many cases, and in any event legitimate.

The fact that we do not know what precise connections exist between NP properties and mental properties is no objection to that, and claiming that the connections are arbitrary in a way that would make any connections to truth unlikely is not warranted on the basis of supervenience.

Moreover, it's almost certainly false. An example might help here: let's say that there is an ancestor of humans and chimps, say 7 million years ago, who already has mostly reliable cognitive faculties (however they got them), even if their beliefs are simpler than ours, they're less intelligent, etc.

In that case, clearly some modifications to their cognitive system that would allow them to increase the number and rate of true beliefs will, all other things equal, be favored by selection over one that gives them more false beliefs; note that we can make that assessment without having to deal with NP properties at all.

But that also shows that Plantinga's attempt to deny legitimacy to assessing what kind of minds would be favored by selection using the effects those minds are likely to have on behavior as a guide, fails.

Granted, Plantinga might still say that, for instance, a desire to cuddle a tiger plus the belief that running towards the tiger works just as well as the belief that one has to escape from the tiger, deny that our ancestor had a mostly reliable cognitive system and move the discussion to earlier ancestors, etc. However, those arguments would be entirely different from the argument from supervenience; in fact, supervenience no longer plays a role.

So, Plantinga's argument against reliability of our faculties under N+NRM fails. He may give other arguments of course, but that one is defeated.

Angra Mainyu said...

sam,


Thanks for the clarification.

I'm not sure I get your point about things occurring contra Plantinga's claim, in the case of blindsight. He does not seem to claim that there would be beliefs regarding the source of the stimuli.

sam said...

Hi Angra,

“He does not seem to claim that there would be beliefs regarding the source of the stimuli.”

I was operating on your interpretation of Plantinga’s definition of “semantic content”. You said, “As for 'semantic content', in the case of beliefs, he specifically talks about propositional content, so he's talking about propositions.”

My point was that our brains can sense, perceive & initiate reflexive behavioral responses all in the absence of propositional knowledge. Lesions that cause blindsight uncover this. Instead of “There is a threat (and I know there is a threat)”, there is only stimulus and response. Natural selection operates on these processes. A vine doesn’t hold true or false beliefs about the direction of sunlight. It either senses & migrates toward the direction of sunlight better or worse than its competitors. Those individuals who are worse reproduce less often.

“But that also shows that Plantinga's attempt to deny legitimacy to assessing what kind of minds would be favored by selection using the effects those minds are likely to have on behavior as a guide, fails.”

Agreed.

“Granted, Plantinga might still say that, for instance, a desire to cuddle a tiger plus the belief that running towards the tiger works just as well as the belief that one has to escape from the tiger…”

In these examples he’s given, these hypothetical individuals would be _less_ fit overall, even if these two mutations in perception occurred simultaneously, so the argument fails. Plantinga doesn’t appear to understand either how the brain works or how evolution works in these examples.

Angra Mainyu said...


hi sam,

"My point was that our brains can sense, perceive & initiate reflexive behavioral responses all in the absence of propositional knowledge."
Okay; my point was that he didn't seem to claim that specific beliefs about the source of the stimuli in question were required in order to be afraid of something, so I'm not sure how that contradicts Plantinga's claims.

"Lesions that cause blindsight uncover this. Instead of “There is a threat (and I know there is a threat)”, there is only stimulus and response. Natural selection operates on these processes. A vine doesn’t hold true or false beliefs about the direction of sunlight. It either senses & migrates toward the direction of sunlight better or worse than its competitors. Those individuals who are worse reproduce less often."
Yes, vines have no beliefs as far as I can tell. But if a mutation makes a chimpanzee (or, for that matter, a hyena) more likely to acquire false beliefs about where to get food, then that mutation will be selected against all other things equal, because chimpanzees with that mutation will tend to have false beliefs about where to get food more often, and as a result in hunger more often, which will result in less reproductive success.

sam said...

Hi Angra,


“My point was that he didn't seem to claim that specific beliefs about the source of the stimuli in question were required in order to be afraid of something, so I'm not sure how that contradicts Plantinga's claims.”


Yes, I understand your point. The confusion lies in the definition of Plantinga’s use of “belief”. Based on his examples of frogs “forming beliefs” about flies or our ancestors “forming beliefs” about tigers, I had the impression that Plantinga was speaking of propositional knowledge, a higher order form of cognition (i.e. not only do I sense an object, but I have self-aware, relational knowledge _of_ and _to_ that object, and even orders of intentionality above that –- i.e. I know that I know that an object exists in front of me.)


Your interpretation of Plantinga’s definition of ‘semantic content’ further validates that usage. “As for 'semantic content', in the case of beliefs, he specifically talks about propositional content, so he's talking about propositions.”


My point was that organisms can engage in cause and effect, stimulus/response, adaptive behaviors (which are naturally selected) all in the absence of anything that can (at least colloquially) be referred to as “knowledge”. This includes any what, where, when, why, how question about the stimulus. Anosognosia patients not only suffer from a neural defect and/or paralysis, _they don’t even know they suffer from paralysis_. When you ask them about their paralysis, they construct elaborate narratives rationalizing away their lack of adaptive behavior.


An older example from William James would be an earthshaking thunderclap. If you’ve experienced one, you know that there is a fraction of a second during which you are in the grips of heart-stopping, paralyzing fear _and you haven’t the slightest idea why you are in that state_. We know the neural pathways that are responsible for this. Your body and brain exhibit adaptive behavior to a stimulus eons (in neurological time) before ‘higher’ brain functions can begin to process, perceive & interpret the raw sensory data.


“But if a mutation makes a chimpanzee (or, for that matter, a hyena) more likely to acquire false beliefs about where to get food, then that mutation will be selected against all other things equal, because chimpanzees with that mutation will tend to have false beliefs about where to get food more often, and as a result in hunger more often, which will result in less reproductive success.”


Yes, that’s exactly right. And Plantinga then takes your “all other things equal”, and argues that 2 mutations that behaviorally cancel each other out will still lead to adaptive behavior. Plantinga appears to be completely unaware of the polygenic effects of most phenotypes and the pleotropic effects of most genes. He doesn’t appear to be aware that all “belief-forming” species are diploid, or above, organisms with compensatory gene expression.


Frogs who preyed on poisonous Monarch butterflies died. Those who became better able to detect and avoid Monarchs lived and mated. Plantinga argues that, within a single generation, a predator might develop a yearning for Monarchs, but also develop an instinct to respond to feelings of yearning with evasive maneuvers. Set aside the absurdity of two single mutations causing such massive effects on two highly polygenic phenotypes. The problem is that organisms that develop an instinct to respond to feelings of yearning with evasive maneuvers will not mate or eat _anything_. They get selected out of the gene pool. These examples he gives are ignorant of both neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Angra,

I think Plantinga's argument has morphed from the original evolutionary argument into a more general attack on naturalist accounts of belief. I'm still looking for the best way to deflate the concerns that he raises on that score. I'm not limiting my response to the supervenience argument, because I think his attack is more general.

At the root of Plantinga's attack is the claim that behaviour is caused by NP structures, not by beliefs. This is like claiming that the fluttering of a flag is caused by air atoms, and not by the wind. In both cases the two go together. We just have two different ways of modelling the same processes, at different levels of abstraction.

Plantinga takes a traditional non-naturalized approach to philosophy, even when he needs to put himself in the naturalist's shoes for the sake of argument. Consequently he is unable to understand and do justice to the most naturalized accounts of belief. In particular, he tries to locate belief "content" in particular NP structures, when the propositions we attach to beliefs are better seen as entities in our higher-level models.

To take my earlier example, let's say some raindrops fall on your head, causing you to put up your umbrella. The reason why I sensibly attribute to you a belief that it's raining--and not some other belief--is because that belief makes for the best causal model. It allows me to explain and predict your behaviour. What makes this a belief that it's raining is the web of causal relationships: what caused it, and what sort of behaviour it causes. It is these higher-level considerations that determine the most appropriate proposition to associate with the belief, not NP-level considerations. That's why it's a mistake to look for a mapping from NP structures to beliefs. We don't need any formula, law or supernatural entity to map NP structures onto beliefs. NP structures are just not relevant at the level of model where beliefs and "content" appear.

Angra Mainyu said...

sam,

I don't know that Plantinga's usage of 'belief' (which, I think, is meant to match common usage) requires self-awareness. I'm not sure how propositional content would require self-awareness.
But that aside, as far as I can tell, Plantinga didn't seem to say that always there is knowledge that an object is in front of a person, even in cases of illness. In the case of blindsight, for example, it's clear that the person has less knowledge than a person who has no illness and can see the object and acquire a lot more information. But I don't see the contradiction between Plantinga's claim and the results of that pathological case.

Maybe you're thinking about some specific claim by Plantinga in another paper?
If so, please let me know.

"My point was that organisms can engage in cause and effect, stimulus/response, adaptive behaviors (which are naturally selected) all in the absence of anything that can (at least colloquially) be referred to as “knowledge”. This includes any what, where, when, why, how question about the stimulus. Anosognosia patients not only suffer from a neural defect and/or paralysis, _they don’t even know they suffer from paralysis_. When you ask them about their paralysis, they construct elaborate narratives rationalizing away their lack of adaptive behavior."
Yes, that's true; there are pathological cases, though cognitive structures favoring reliable belief-acquiring systems are still subject to selective pressures. Also, in the pathological cases, cognitive abilities are diminished, and that would be selected against if it were the result of genetic mutations (e.g., a mutation that resulted in blindsight (for instance) would almost certainly be maladaptive in nearly all cases).

"Yes, that’s exactly right. And Plantinga then takes your “all other things equal”, and argues that 2 mutations that behaviorally cancel each other out will still lead to adaptive behavior. Plantinga appears to be completely unaware of the polygenic effects of most phenotypes and the pleotropic effects of most genes. He doesn’t appear to be aware that all “belief-forming” species are diploid, or above, organisms with compensatory gene expression. "
Yes, and he's apparently ignoring that the mutations in question wouldn't result in a single, specific belief that can be canceled by a single, specific desire. There would be a previous cognitive structures with some tendencies to form desires, beliefs, etc., and genetic changes that reduce reliability of belief formation would not be compensated by a change in desire formation that can't predict in advance what beliefs will go wrong and need compensating.

In short, it's a mess.

"Frogs who preyed on poisonous Monarch butterflies died. Those who became better able to detect and avoid Monarchs lived and mated. Plantinga argues that, within a single generation, a predator might develop a yearning for Monarchs, but also develop an instinct to respond to feelings of yearning with evasive maneuvers. Set aside the absurdity of two single mutations causing such massive effects on two highly polygenic phenotypes. The problem is that organisms that develop an instinct to respond to feelings of yearning with evasive maneuvers will not mate or eat _anything_. They get selected out of the gene pool. These examples he gives are ignorant of both neuroscience and evolutionary biology. "
Yes, that's an excellent example.
Plantinga's argument would require mutations that respond to only that kind of yearning with evasion, but not the others, etc.; in short, it would be an incredibly complex set of instructions resulted from those mutations, and still would be unable to cope with new cases as a normal system would.

sam said...

“At the root of Plantinga's attack is....better seen as entities in our higher-level models.”


Yes, that is spot-on.


“It allows me to explain and predict your behaviour.”


This predictive power or reliablism gives physical, naturalist, causal models superior value to teleological ones. When you assume that a non-teleological “process” like astrology, prayer or goat entrails-reading is teleological and efficacious, your success rate of predicting future behavior is equivalent to a coin-toss, and no causal mechanism has been reasonably defended. When you assume that a genuinely teleological process like an animal mind is teleological, your success rate of predicting future behavior is higher than chance.


Theistic hypotheses also suffer in that, like all ad hoc explanations, it has no predictive value. All negative or contradictory data are made to fit the hypothesis after the fact. It doesn’t matter whether or not rain follows the rain dance, or whether or not the crops grow following the child sacrifice to the gods. An ad hoc explanation is always available.


“It is these higher-level considerations that determine the most appropriate proposition to associate with the belief, not NP-level considerations. That's why it's a mistake to look for a mapping from NP structures to beliefs.”


And yet, like your analogy of the collective process we call ‘wind’ emerging from the movement of individual gas molecules in time & space, the NP properties are both necessary _and_ sufficient to produce these “higher level considerations”, like Gestalt perceptions. It’s a difference in scale, not kind, as Plantinga seems to indicate.


We can mathematically model the flight patterns of flocks of birds. No individual bird possesses a plan or goal which determines the shape in which the whole flock takes. Each bird possesses and follows a very limited set of instinctive “rules”, such as proximity to his neighbor. The collective response emerges out of individuals with no overarching goal. There are real, physical, unique, causal consequences that the whole can have on other objects, such as when a commercial airliner passes through a flock of, or just one, seagull. One molecule of oxytocin does not induce nurturing behaviors in mammals, but many nanomoles of oxytocin in the correct locations (combined with serotonin & dopamine) do.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Richard,

I was focusing on the issue of supervenience because in the context of my conversation with Michael, we addressed the issue of what burden Plantinga was placing on the naturalist; it seems he places on naturalists the burden of finding some way out of epiphenomenalism, and considers a few possibilities, [mistakenly] concluding that his EAAN still succeeds. One of the potential ways out he considers is NRM, and I was focusing on showing that his argument to the conclusion that N+NRM still supports his EAAN because of supervenience, fails.

I agree that saying that behavior is caused by NP structures and not by beliefs is confused.
I'm not sure I understand your point that what makes something a belief is a web of causal relationships. It sounds to me kind of like functionalism, but I might be misreading. In any case, I do not think that the naturalist needs to have a theory about beliefs. She may simply say that she does not have a theory, and point out that that Plantinga's arguments do nothing to challenge that on naturalism, beliefs are not causally effective.

sam said...

Hi Angra,

“I don't know that Plantinga's usage of 'belief' (which, I think, is meant to match common usage) requires self-awareness. I'm not sure how propositional content would require self-awareness.”

Maybe I’m being too loose with semantics. Not self-awareness, sorry. If a patient lacks knowledge (propositional content) of the existence of the rubber-band because he’s consciously blind, I don’t see how he can have a “belief” (colloquially defined) about that rubber band, if belief is a higher-order function. The pathological case isn’t used to highlight the pathology, but to uncover what normally happens in the brain. It’s just stimulus-response in the reptilian portion of our brains. The higher order perceptual capacities evolved much later and weren’t around for natural selection to “tinker” with until very late in evolution’s history. I don’t want to belabor the point.

Michael Young said...

Hi Sam,

On the semantical point, and a small point possibly worth clarifying-- contemporary philosophers customarily distinguish strongly between propositional content and phenomenal/psychological mental states of any kind. There's content (on the one hand) and there's mental states (on the other). Even if some mental states (like belief or knowledge) require propositional content, the thought is that we can still make sense of propositional content as its own, non-psychological, sort of thing. (So, e.g., the standard view is that belief requires propositional content but propositional content doesn't require belief.)

I think this way of thinking and talking is harmless, and it can be useful. But the distinction may be a slightly unnatural and technical one, and it's probably not just transparently obvious.

Anyway, for some reason I thought that might help. Apologies if not.

sam said...

Hi Michael,


“…the thought is that we can still make sense of propositional content as its own, non-psychological, sort of thing. (So, e.g., the standard view is that belief requires propositional content but propositional content doesn't require belief.)”


Thanks for the input, but I’m still not clear. I should shut up until I look up some definitions. I don’t understand to what extent propositional content can be described as non-psychological (or, independent of neural activity), unless you define propositional content as the physical stimulus prior to impingement on the sensory organs.


That reminds me of the old Buddhist koan of “If a tree falls in an empty forest, will it make a sound?” It seems trivially true to me that, yes, the tree impact will create differential waves of air pressure, but ‘sound’ refers to a psychological perception, and without a tympanic membrane and brain to detect and interpret the raw physical phenomenon, then no, no sound will issue forth.


So, while I get “belief requires propositional content”, the only way I can understand “propositional content doesn’t require belief” is if I understand “propositional content” to mean the spatio-temporally organized firing of a specific subset of neurons with a specific complement of neurotransmitters which collectively encode the received sensory data. This is still what I would describe as psychological activity, but again, these may just be sematic disagreements. I should do more reading.

Michael Young said...

Sam, maybe you could think of a proposition as an abstract object, in the way that, say, numbers or sets are abstract.

At the risk of going widely off point, my (potentially controversial) view is that the point in philosophical discourse of categories like 'proposition' and 'propositional content' is to have a certain kind of conceptual tool at hand for thinking (somewhat) more clearly about fundamental questions in the philosophy of language and mind. For an easy example, we may want to ask about the in principle possiblerelations between physical and psychological states: could it be identity? could it be emergence? could it be purely functional? could it be dualistic? could the mental be eliminated? Having a somewhat abstract idea of propositional content around makes it easier to formulate and approach these questions. It's hard even to get a grip on these questions unless you have some way of conceiving of content distinctly from psychological or physiological states. And the danger is that, unless we have a clear grip on these questions, we're likely to have some view of these questions that fails to be the product of proper reflection. We'll probably just take for granted one or the other of the many available options.

In other words, I'm inclined to view 'proposition' and 'propositional content' as useful labels for certain parts of a theoretical model whose main point is to allow us to think about some fundamental questions or get to some rough-and-ready characterizations of certain linguistic and mental phenomena. (However, others will want to go farther than this.) Threated in this way, I think the idea makes sense and is really pretty harmless.

sam said...

Thanks, Michael. This gives me something to chew on.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Angra,

Yes, I am giving a kind of functionalist explanation. I'm certainly not demanding that you give any such specific explanation. But Plantinga has raised the question of how beliefs get to have "content". And I think our response to him will be more persuasive if we give a brief answer to that question.

You and I have both argued against Plantinga on the basis of analogy with physical properties. It's a good argument, but it depends on the listener accepting that there is no relevant disanalogy. You may say that the onus is on Plantinga to demonstrate a disanalogy, and he has failed to do so. But the reality is that he is appealing to a very common and deeply-felt intuition that mental "content" is something special, with no analogy in the physical world. It's that sort of intuition that leads so many philosophers--even naturalists--to worry about "intentionality". Anything we can do to deflate that intuition will weaken Plantinga's appeal.

Perhaps it's over-optimistic to think that many people (if any) will accept my explanation of how beliefs get to have content. But I feel that giving an explanation puts the ball more decisively back in Plantinga's court. Moreover, Plantinga claims already to have addressed the functionalist explanation, and I want to show that he has addressed only a straw man.

I think you're right that in this paper Plantinga places the onus on the naturalist to find a way out of epiphenomenalism. I suspect he feels entitled to do so because he has previously argued at some length that naturalism requires epiphenomenalism. I read that argument some time ago and can barely remember it now (or remember where I found it). I think the essence of it was that some "law" is required to map NP states onto belief content, and naturalism lacks the resources for the existence of such a law. My giving an explanation is partly motivated by the desire to respond to that argument, but I can't remember it well enough to respond directly.

sam said...

Hi Richard,

“I think the essence of it was that some "law" is required to map NP states onto belief content, and naturalism lacks the resources for the existence of such a law.”


If I assume that Plantinga has found a gap in naturalism to fit his god in, can you recall where Plantinga identifies this gap where naturalism lacks resources (or give me the reference to the paper?)


If you take the example of Parkinson’s disease, one can perform gain-of-function and (serendipitously) loss-of-function experiments to elucidate the physical causal chain of events that lead to mental content. We know that patients who naturally develop the disease lose dopamine-expressing neurons specifically within the substantia nigra. We know that patients who unintentionally ingest MPTP, a toxin that specifically destroys dopamine-expressing substantia nigra neurons, reduces motor coordination identically to the symptoms of PD. If we administer L-DOPA (which increases dopamine signaling within substantia nigra neurons) to either PD or MPTP patients, motor coordination improves.


If Plantinga is arguing that “soulstuff” glue must bridge the gap between NP properties and a patient’s first-person, conscious, self-aware & intentional control of motor coordination, where is the gap in this physical, causal chain of events in which the Cartesian glue must lie (setting aside the nonfunctionality of noncorporeal glue on corporeal substrates)?


We have a similar natural, causal story with opiates. Opiates fairly reproducibly induce the experiential phenomenon of euphoria. We know the receptor subtypes, the nociceptive fiber subtypes & the brain regions that are necessary and sufficient to create this mental content. Would it be consistent with Plantinga’s position to argue that his god (or opiate angels) are required to map this experiential phenomenon or belief content onto the NP states?

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Richard,

In the argument I criticized, Plantinga argued on the basis of supervenience (rather than on the basis of intuitions about mental content being 'special') that that belief content – and one could extend his reasoning to perceptions, desires, etc. - were not subject to the pressure of natural selection, which operated on NP properties on naturalism + non-reductive materialism.

More precisely, he implicitly or explicitly was rejecting the legitimacy of assessing what kind of mind would plausible be favored by natural selection based at least partly on the effects of said mind, and maintained instead that the focus should be on NP properties, and then any mind might go with that.

My argument used the case of properties of particles as an example in order to show that supervenience, even strong supervenience, does not have the consequences Plantinga was attributing to it.

On the issue of offering a specific explanation, I do not have one, but for the reasons I mentioned, I don't think that I have a burden to offer one.

Regarding the persuasiveness of the argument, I'm not sure what your intended audience is (e.g., it won't be persuasive to Plantinga, no matter what), but while I agree that briefly offering a plausible account might help. A difficulty is how plausible functionalism is. Do you have any particular version in mind?

As for Plantinga's argument to epiphenomenalism under naturalism, I don't know which particular argument you have in mind; I've read some arguments to that conclusion, but not good ones. In any case, I would argue that (purely for example) N+NRM resists the arguments he provides in his latest paper.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Angra,

"A difficulty is how plausible functionalism is. Do you have any particular version in mind?"

I'm not familiar with specific versions, except for a slight acquaintance with Dennett's Intentional Stance (which seems broadly similar to my view). Anyway, I don't want to get too specific. I think I've said enough for the purpose of responding to Plantinga, though I'm still thinking about how to express those points more clearly.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Platinga’s argument seems to forget that evolution includes other species other than humanity. It’s only humans who appear to have beliefs, whereas other species have ‘instincts’ to guide their behaviour. The fundamental difference is that we evolved rational thought and use reason to justify our beliefs; even so-called irrational beliefs are rationalised by those who hold them.

The success of other species tells us that ‘beliefs’ are not necessary to evolution, but I would argue that beliefs are a byproduct of rational thought, replacing instinct, which is what has made humans spectacularly evolutionary successful. Why religious beliefs have persisted and been evolutionary successful is another argument. I think religion fundamentally arises from our ability to imagine life beyond the grave – something I suspect other species would not be able to do.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, Richard

Okay, thanks for the reply.


Hi, Paul,

I don't think that only humans have beliefs.

For instance, if you do everything you usually do before you give a dog food, it seems to me that the dog will believe that you're going to give him food, and will be surprised if you don't.

It's true that beliefs are not required for evolution, since bacteria and plants (for instance) evolve without beliefs. But cognitive structures that facilitate acquiring certain beliefs (like true ones about a certain domain) may still be favored by selection, as other traits may.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Angra,

Yes, I think 'beliefs' have evolved from instincts to deductions, if you like. The dog, in the example you give, makes a deduction based on previous experience, or it could just be a Pavlovian response. But I think there's good reason to believe that some animals can make deductions - use logic - like when they use 'tools' to access food.

Humans have elevated beliefs into entire cultural systems, which is unique, and has had evolutionary advantage I would suggest.

Regards, Paul.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Paul and Angra,

I think there's an understandable reluctance to associate beliefs with animals, because we characterise beliefs in terms of propositions (e.g. a belief that p) and animals don't have access to propositional language.

Modelling people in terms of beliefs (with associated propositions) is effective for predicting and explaining their behaviour. I think that's why we originally started doing it. It probably seemed natural to associate propositions with beliefs, because people tend to express their beliefs as propositions. But the same models work very well even when people don't express their beliefs as propositions, even to themselves. And I think that's why we apply them more broadly, without necessarily committing ourselves to the idea that a person must have expressed the proposition in question.

Suppose someone has seen and remembered pictures of the round Earth and has planned round-the-world trips. We happily attribute to him the belief that the Earth is round without worrying whether he has ever said or thought "the Earth is round" or a similar proposition. His planning of round-the-world trips is itself a kind of expression of that belief.
So it seems unnecessarily restrictive to tie our attributions of beliefs too closely to propositional thoughts and speech.

Once we accept that beliefs need not be tied to propositional utterances, there's no fundamental barrier to attributing beliefs to animals. Why not say that a dog believes his bowl will contain food in the morning? Doing so can help us explain and predict the dog's behaviour, just as it does with humans.

But then, where do we draw the line? Can we say that a plant believes it's daytime (so it opens its flowers), or a thermstat believes the temperature is 20 degrees (so it switches off the heating)? We naturally feel some reluctance to extend the concept of beliefs as far as plants and thermostats. But the reasons I gave above still apply. Such models are still useful, and people do in fact sometimes use them, without committing themselves to the idea that plants and thermostats have thoughts or brains. You may say that this is just a convenient way of speaking, and that they don't really have beliefs. But I think this is to misunderstand the nature of language.

Language is fuzzy, with many of our categories having no well-defined boundaries. And insisting on such boundaries often misleads us. For example, insisting on a fundamental boundary between life and non-life makes it harder to see how life can evolve from non-life. Similarly, insisting on a fundamental boundary between beliefs and simpler informational states can make it harder to understand the nature and origin of beliefs. I'm not recommending that we state baldly that plants do have beliefs. My point is that there isn't a substantive fact of the matter as to whether plants have beliefs. It's a semantic matter of how far we feel comfortable extending the word "belief". What matters to me is seeing the continuity of informational states, from the simple states of a thermostat (or the simplest organisms) all the way up the spectrum to human beliefs, and then asking what these states have in common.

(If you're familiar with Wittgenstein, you might have guessed by now that I take a Wittgensteinian view of language.)

Richard Wein said...

P.S. It's interesting to note the ambiguity of the words "think" and "thought". These can refer to cognitive processes, such as (but not limited to) the inward expression of a proposition. E.g. he thought about the problem, or he thinks (has the thought) "The Earth is round". They can also refer to states of belief. E.g. he thinks (believes) the Earth is round, or he thought (used to believe) the Earth was round.

I suspect this ambiguity can add to our reluctance to attribute beliefs to objects that don't have thoughts. Conflating these senses, we might say: of course a plant can't think that it's daytime; plants can't think! (This would be a fallacy of equivocation, since the first "think" means believe, while the second "think" probably means cogitate.)

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, Richard,

Personally, I don't have any problem associating beliefs with non-human animals like cats, dogs, rats and chimpanzees, or with humans who do not have language because (say), they're deaf and didn't have access to sign language, or human children, or feral humans, etc.

It seems clear to me that they can have beliefs.

As for propositions, I see talk about propositions as a way of talking about (among other things) the content of the beliefs, either of humans or of other entities, but I do not think that they need language; a dog can believe that there's food on the plate, and "that there is food on the plate" is a proposition, but that's our way of talking about what the dog believes, and doesn't require language on the dog's part.

I also agree about the fuzziness of language, and the lack of boundaries.

I would not insist on a strict boundary between life and no life or between beliefs and non-beliefs, but between humans and non-human animals for that matter.

That aside, there are cases in which something clearly is not alive, is not human, and does not have beliefs. On that note, I would be very reluctant to assign beliefs to, say, thermostats.
While assigning beliefs to them would not commit one to the idea that they have language, or that they can cogitate (if I' understand your usage of 'cogitate' correctly), I do not know that it wouldn't imply that they have some kind of mind or mental complexity that they do not have.

Also, I don't know whether there is a fact of the matter as to whether plants have beliefs. For all I know, it might be that plants are within the fuzzy zone; or maybe they're not; or maybe there is no fact of the matter in the case of plants, but thermostats do not have beliefs.

Paul P. Mealing said...

The fundamental point or difference is that humans actually think in a language, which is unique to our species, so beliefs have a different context for us. We can contemplate our beliefs and discuss them and rationalise them, which we do all the time.

Other species, on the other hand, have emotions and instinctive urges, which we call 'beliefs' in a metaphorical sense. As for thermostats and computers, and the like, having 'beliefs' and 'thoughts' is strictly metaphorical. Anyone who contends that they’re literal is having a lend.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

Paul,

The claim that other species have beliefs in a metaphorical sense implies that, for example, chimpanzees do not have beliefs, apparently because of their lack of human-like language (given your context).

But that would entail that the meaning of the word 'belief' is such that it requires that kind of language.

I do not find that plausible. As I explained in my examples, feral humans (with no language), deaf humans who haven't learned any sign language, etc., clearly have beliefs.

Moreover, young children have beliefs as well. Adult chimps are just as intelligent or more intelligent than young human children (it depends on the age; I'm talking about normal adults), and I do not see any reason to think that they do not have beliefs (btw, they make tools, like makeshift spears to hunt bushbabies, etc.; they make complicated plans, like elaborate hunting strategies, etc.; granted, they too have complex communication systems, even if less complex than ours)

Other animals are less smart than chimps, but still, using the word 'belief' as I intuitively grasp it, it seems to me that dogs and cats have beliefs.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Angra,

I think it depends on what you mean by ‘belief’. Animals, like dogs, cats etc, anticipate events, especially when they’re hunting, and one can call that ‘belief’, but I think it’s a very narrow interpretation of belief. For humans, belief has a wider connotation, because it’s implied knowledge, so I make a distinction. For us, belief is something distinct from what we actually know. Other species don’t have the cognitive capacity to distinguish belief from actual knowledge.

You’re right that young children can have beliefs, even without language. For example, when they see something, like a toy, put behind a piece of furniture, they believe it’s still there, even though they can’t see it. I expect some animals would also have that ability of belief. But, in reality, I would call that knowledge rather than belief.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, Paul.

While other species may not have the capacity to engage in philosophy and ponder the relation between knowledge and belief, it seems to me that there is such difference.

For instance, a dog may well know (and hence, also believe) that there is a cat in front of him; but a dog can have false beliefs as well.

At least, that's my intuitive grasp of the words.

Regards,
Angra,

Paul P. Mealing said...

Yes, I would agree that a dog can hold false 'beliefs'. For example, he might anticipate getting food at a certain time of day and it doesn't arrive.

I make a distinction, because, in animals, I would contend that 'beliefs' are emotionally driven, whereas, in humans, beliefs can be reason-driven as well as emotionally driven, and I think this is an important distinction.

From an evolutionary point of view, reason-driven beliefs have been a significant part of our 'cultural' evolution, as opposed to our genetic evolution.

I'd recommend E. Brian Davies book, Why Beliefs Matter, subtitled Reflections on the Nature of Science. Davies is Professor of Mathematics at King's College, London. The book covers science, mathematics, philosophy and religion - a good read.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...


Paul,

Thanks for the recommendation.
With respect to reason-driven vs. emotionally driven beliefs, I'm not sure I get what you mean by your distinction. Could you elaborate a bit, please?

Regards,
Angra.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I believe emotions came first in the evolution of sentience. But humans have elevated reason, as I think Aristotle pointed out.

We rationalise our beliefs with reason, even when they're emotionally based, which includes our prejudices and moral attitudes. Even evil is rationalised, which is what makes it evil in my view.

I'm not sure if that clarifies or confuses.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

I agree that emotions came first than the kind of complex reasoning that you're talking about. I'm not yet sure I get in which sense beliefs are reason-driven vs. emotionally driven.
When you say 'reason driven', you mean that humans engage in conscious reasoning about their beliefs?

If so, I agree that normal adult humans clearly can engage in conscious reasoning that individuals of other species can't, though the capability for doing so also came gradually; humans are the result of a gradual process of evolution, and there is no clear line separating us from other animals.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Yes and no. The distinction is that in humans, cultural evolution has overtaken biological evolution, and in a huge way.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

But the capabilities that human minds have are the result of biological evolution, and that includes the capability for engaging in the kind of conscious reasoning we engage in, and that was gradual.


Paul P. Mealing said...

Of course human minds have evolved, but there is a huge gap between us and other species, cognitively.

Possibly other hominids had similar abilities but are now extinct - we don't know. Evolution could occur in quantum leaps - what Stephen Jay Gould called punctuated equilibrium.

The big change for humans came when we developed language as being evolutionarily independent of our genes. We 'download' language from generation to generation, analogous to software, and we think in that language, which is what really separates us from other species. This evolutionary innovation has given us an enormous advantage as a species, because it led to civilisation. With language we can extend memories across generations and no other species can do that.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

Okay, there could be punctuated equilibrium, but punctuated equilibrium would include changes that are fast in terms of evolutionary periods, but still gradual in our usual sense of the term (see the Wikipedia article for more details).

By the way, tool making among our ancestors existed for millions of years, and the knowledge was transmitted from generation to generation.

Cultural transmission of that sort exists in chimps, killer whales (they don't make tools, of course, but they learn hunting techniques), etc.

Regards,
Angra

Of course, our language allows us for more complex cultural transmission than theirs allows them. But it's there too.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Yes, people make comparisons with other species, in terms of teaching their young, but they're not in the same ball park. We are the only species where cultural evolution has overtaken biological evolution and that's what makes us different, and language has been a big driver for that.

To be honest, I don't know if punctuated equilibrium is true or not, but what we do know is that evolution is chaotic (mathematically) which means it's totally unpredictable. It's fractal as many things in nature are.

I'm not arguing that we haven't evolved the same as every other creature on the planet, I'm just arguing that cognitively there is a huge gap between us and anything else. We are the only species that can even attempt to understand the universe in which we live. That alone makes us exceptional. If you don't agree then I won't argue with you.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

I agree that we're very different in that regard from any other extant species on the planet.

On the other hand, I would still say that there is no clear line distinguishing humans from non-humans, across time, and there wouldn't have to be such line if, say, gradual genetic modifications were introduced to get from human to non-human.

Paul P. Mealing said...

No one argues that we’re not primates, if that's the point you're trying to make - after all we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees; so somewhere we had common ancestors with apes. Can we stop this now?

Believe it or not, no one knows how speciation happens. You can read about it here.

Regards, Paul.

Angra Mainyu said...

No, I wasn't arguing that we're not primates, but that there is no clear line separating humans from non-humans, as changes were gradual (and can be made so).
But since you'd like to stop it, I'll leave it there. :)

Regarding speciation, I would have to read the article to see what they mean by saying that no one knows (perhaps, they mean that some facts about the causes of some mutations are unknown, etc.), but it's behind a paywall.

Still, if you're interested in the issue of what is known about speciation, I would suggest (for instance) that you go to either Secular Cafe (subforum Life, etc.) or freeration (subforum Evolution/Creation), post the link you posted above, and you'll find interlocutors that are more informed on that subject than I am, and probably have access to the article.

Best Regards,
Angra

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Angra,

I'll check it out.

Regards, Paul.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys, I saw a lot of interesting ideas scattered over the responses and the arguments got pretty far from the refuting Plantinga's. I'll try to summarize concisely:
1. What is "desire"? We can agree that it is an intrinsic physiologically-driven reaction to specific very common circumstances (eg, prolonged lack of food, presence of harming agent, etc). "Desire of food" otherwise called "hunger" universally appears in all humans, animals, plants and even amoebas at the circumstances of prolonged lack of food, unless sensing physiological mechanisms are out of order. So, desires are basically the same in ALL live forms (i.e. known 4 F's), genetically coded and clearly have evolutionary benefit.
2. "Beliefs" can be loosely seen in the framework of classical Pavlovian reflexes: a dog believes that the food will be in the bowl after a bell sound since this happened in the past many times, enabling establishment of a stable connection between several areas in its brain - one in the auditory cortex (hearing the bell), one in the lower brain (salivation, food-seeking) and one in the hippocampus (memory). Beliefs as learned reflexes actually mirror repeated co-incidences in the surrounding nature (i.e. correlations between certain seemingly unrelated things). Whether language is present or not, beliefs defined as such simply ARE specific established connections between neurons. Can we say that exactly the same neural structures in two different individuals of the same species HAS to be coding the same belief? Clearly not, exactly as in two identical computers the same program can be stored in different particular semiconductors. This obviously does not mean that this program has some mysterious properties irreducible to the semiconductors.
3. What is different with humans?
a. We can make correlations between things that are much more separate in time than other animals. Actually there is a clear trend in neurology - the more complex the brain the bigger temporal gap between correlated events it can overcome.
b. Language is a sophisticated way of transferring beliefs (information about correlated external events) between individuals. It adds a layer to genetically transferred correlations and those transferred using lower forms of language - sounds, gestures and imitated behavior. "Content" is simply coded information that (upon learning a language) allow one individual by shouting "tiger" to "arouse" in his friend's brain the same area as an actual tiger would. Again, it is nothing but modulated air waves inducing firing of groups of neurons.

Anonymous said...

In this framework:
1. Semantic epiphenomenalism is at best non-sequetur from naturalism/materialism, and in my view simply nonsense.
2. Content directly affects behavior.
3. Content reflects correlations in the surrounding world. Therefore, it clearly is the subject of adaptation and evolution.
4. As correlation is not causation, content may reflect true underlying link or simply frequent co-incidence. And here lies the only rational conclusion of Plantinga's - given naturalism and evolution many of our beliefs while adaptive are not true. He is right. And human history indeed proves that this is the case - huge number of human beliefs turned out to be false.
This is exactly why "revelations" are unreliable and the only way to get any true (or actually better say as close to truth as possible) beliefs/knowledge is through tedious and meticulous scientific inquiry with constantly doubting our observations and conclusions.

BTW Plantinga's case of various possible adaptive desire-belief pairs is obviously BS: desires come first evolutionary and they are very simple and few: survive, feed, mate. Any beliefs evolve to satisfy those desires as a later development. Therefore, Plantinga's desire to pet a tiger is neurobiologically and evolutionary nonsense.
The necessity to satisfy basic deep evolutionary-developed desires is exactly the constraint that makes true beliefs to be more likely adaptive i.e. selected.

The Thinker said...

I've come up with a counter argument called the Evolutionary Argument Against God or the EAAG. See below:

1. If god chose to use evolution as the method of creating human beings and all other forms of life, then god knowingly chose the method that requires the greatest amount of suffering.
2. If humans are the product of gradual evolution guided by god, humans must have acquired souls at some point during the process.
3. Once human beings had souls, they could be rewarded in an afterlife for the suffering they endured while they were alive.
4. If higher level primates are capable of third order pain awareness (knowing they are experiencing pain) then our pre-human hominid ancestors did too and they did not have souls.
5. Therefore god chose to create humans using a method that knowingly would involve conscious suffering that was not logically necessary.
6. An all-good, perfectly moral god who is incapable of unwarranted cruelty would not create beings that could consciously suffer in a way that was not logically necessary.
7. Therefore, the traditional notion of god who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good does not exist.

Premise one is relatively uncontroversial to most theistic evolutionists, although they certainly wouldn’t like my choice of wording. Some theists like William Lane Craig think of god like an artist who takes pleasure in the method for creating life using evolution. Another theory is that god chose to use evolution as a punishment for original sin. Regardless, god still willingly chose to create man using millions of other species merely as a means, and many of those species contained sentient beings who suffered tremendous ordeals. It seems odd to me that god would choose a method of bringing about man that requires millions of years of suffering.

For premise two, even if you believe that fully rational humans appeared at once in a single generation as some theistic evolutionists do, we still have enough evidence that our hominid ancestors and cousins like Neanderthals had language capability and that means they certainly had higher functioning cognitive rational faculties than modern day chimps and gorillas. So they were capable of consciously suffering and knowing they were suffering.

If premise 4 is correct, then this argument is logically valid and its conclusion follows.

So if this argument is successful this means theists like William Lane Craig and Alvin Pantinga have to accept that god is intentionally cruel and capable of committing unwarranted suffering. Which means he doesn't exist!

Jeff said...

Hi Dr. Law! I appreciate your work on this and so many other issues--your evil god argument was a key factor in my move from theism to atheism.

With a big tip of the hat to Justin Schieber of the Reasonable Doubts podcast, it occurs to me that I think a successful parallel argument can be leveled right back at Plantinga. (I won't present this as a tight argument, but in a more conversational manner):

Consider a horrific evil such as the Holocaust (though any evil will do). The theist will say something like, "It's possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for having allowed the Holocaust."

The atheist replies, "That may be possible, by why think that's likely to be the case?"

The theist replies, "We simply have no good reasons to think that the goods, evils and entailment relations between these things that we can think of are representative of those that actually exist. Therefore, all talk of probabilities in this context is off."

Fast forward to a different conversation. The atheist may say something like, "It's possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for endowing us with heavily deficient cognitive faculties."

The theist replies, "That may be possible, but why think it's likely that a loving God would do such a thing?"

The atheist replies, "Listen, you're the one who insisted in the context of theodicy that all talk of probabilities is off, that all these goods, evils, and entailment relations are simply inaccessible to us. Therefore, you yourself have undermined any means by which you can validly claim that God is more likely to have endowed us with adequate rather than deficient cognitive faculties."

Any thoughts?

Michael Young said...

Jeff,

Maybe I'm missing something, but the conclusion isn't opposed to Plantinga unless he's committed to denying that, possibly, God may have a morally sufficient reason for endowing us with defective cognition. But I don't see that Plantinga must deny this. The EAAN assumes otherwise, but the point there is that the assumption of effective cognition is for the atheist, not the theist.

So, I guess the question is: why should your conclusion matter to Plantinga? It seems to be part of a bigger argument I'm not seeing yet.

Jeff said...

Michael,

The theist certainly has no reason to deny that, possibly, God has morally sufficient reasons for endowing us with defective cognition. Certainly the theist must maintain that, possibly, God has morally sufficient reasons for having allowed the Holocaust, so I don't see how the theist could then turn around and deny the possibility of defective cognition.

So the theist will accept the possibility of defective cognition, but will say that there's no reason to seriously consider such a possibility.

My point is that, in the context of theodicy, the theist has said, in effect, that all bets are off with divine action--all talk of probabilities is off. The theist must claim this, I think, if the possibility is to be taken seriously that God has morally sufficient reasons for having allowed the Holocaust.

So if all bets are thus off when it comes to divine action--all talk of probabilities is off--then there's no reason for the theist to take the possibility of deficient cognition any less seriously than its alternative.

Does that help to clarify my argument?

Michael Young said...

I'm not unsympathetic, but I'm just wondering -- to continue the conversation from your first post, suppose the theist says, "You're right. I can't a priori discount the possibility that I am cognitively deficient."

My question is- where does this then leave things? Does it compel the theist to atheism? Or is the idea just that it's a somewhat ridiculous thing to think, and that nobody who asserts it can actually believe it? Does it specifically undermine the EAAN or Plantinga? If so, how?

Why can't one be a theist who thinks he may well be cognitively deficient?

Jeff said...

This argument doesn't directly undermine the EAAN. But if successful, it undermines theism in precisely the same way the EAAN is supposed to undermine naturalism. Namely, it would demonstrate that theism is self-defeating; that if one accepts this argument, then one cannot rationally accept theism due to an incoherence internal to theism.

Now perhaps there's some flaw in this argument. Perhaps the EAAN is flawed (as Dr. Law has gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate). Perhaps both this argument and the EAAN are successful, in which case both theism and evolutionary naturalism are self-refuting and thus both should be abandoned (for some other alternative?). Or perhaps there's some very fundamental flaw shared by this argument and the EAAN which renders both unsuccessful.

Jeff said...

And I'd clarify something here. You said the theist might concede, "You're right. I can't a priori discount the possibility that I am cognitively deficient." Just to be clear, this could be restated as, "On theism, I have no valid reason whatsoever to think my cognitive faculties are adequately effective."

Steven Carr said...

JEFF
The atheist may say something like, "It's possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for endowing us with heavily deficient cognitive faculties."

CARR
Are you claiming the hypothetical Christian god may have reasons to allow demons to exist which are motivated and capable of attacking our senses?

But Plantinga claims it is perfectly possible that demons exist which cause natural evils.

So why is it not possible that these Plantinga-demons do not attack our cognitive faculties?

Or do these demons only appear when Plantinga needs to put Polyfilla in a hole in his arguments and then disappear when they might cause trouble when he talks out of the other corner of his mouth?

Jeff said...

Steven, yeah I suppose you could go the demon route (that sounds pretty fun and exotic!). But you wouldn't have to try to specify any particular mechanism. You could simply posit that somehow God directly caused or indirectly "allowed" our cognition to be defective.

frances said...

Could we go right back to ground zero and could some kind person explain to me how this argument is supposed to work? I realise that we are all agreed that it is flawed but I can’t even get to first base with it.

I’ve debated this on another site where the only person defending it was a complete idiot who didn’t understand it himself (although he thought he did) so of course was quite unable to explain it to anyone else. What all the non-theists on the site couldn’t understand (and neither can I) is why the ability to make reliable judgments about what is true or false wouldn’t have inherent adaptive advantages.

I’ve noticed that on philosophical sites that issue doesn’t seem to be regarded as a problem by those who reject the argument (who attack it on other grounds). So I’m assuming that there is something I (and my fellow atheists on the other forum) were overlooking either in terms of the way the argument works (I’m just missing the point) or the way it is explained (Plantinga has dealt with this objection in the argument but I’ve not understood his explanation).

Sometimes Plantinga seems to be about to cover the point, such as where he talks about “some kind of regular relation between belief content and behaviour…such that when that content is true, then the behaviour it causes is adaptive…” But several paragraphs later I can’t see that he has explained how this would come about without what we recognise as rationality guiding the process.

To go back to Plantinga’s earlier paper on the same argument, how does “Paul” come by his belief that tigers are friendly in the first place? What might make him change that belief? Would he (for instance) be able to adapt his beliefs after seeing his mate Peter running away from a tiger (the better to befriend it) but falling over so that the tiger catches him? Can he think “Hmm, that didn’t go so well did it? OK, time to reassess my thoughts on the tiger/human relationship.”

Rand al'Thor said...

To Michael and Jeff above -

The reason why theist will have hard time to accept an argument that they are cognitive deficient is because "Christian God made humans in God's perfect image" - this appears to be the driving force behind EAAN argument; i.e. if you believe humans are rational and logical, you ought not believe in naturalism.

Rand al'Thor said...

To Frances above,

My understanding of Plantinga's argument is as follows

1) naturalism believes there isn't God
2) hence, evolution under naturalism isn't guided
3) as we know, evolution selects behaviors; not beliefs
4) as long as the behavior is adaptive, you can have false believes and yet still be selected (the petting tigers by running away scenario)
5) this means that the probability of holding true beliefs is low (because even false belief can be adaptive)
6) hence - people should not trust their believes, if naturalism is "correct"

The assumptions behind the above are:

1) people are rational and logical
2) hence, naturalism can't possibly be correct
3) The correct one therefore is what we've been taught by theism; God made us in his perfect image; hence we are rational and logical

Obviously - there are many places you can poke hole in the above argument. But abstract thought experiment that have little bearing with reality apparently are the modus operandi of philosophy, so maybe that's why he's getting some free pass.

But one thing about Plantinga's argument is right - humans aren't all rational and logical, and we have many false beliefs (i.e. santa clause). I'm sure everyone of us can attest to it everyday. I.e. he derived the correct conclusion matching reality even though he thought to caste incredulity on naturalism.

So actually - it's the premise Plantinga starts from is wrong; that we are rational and logical, and that if we are made in God's perfect image, it means God isn't all rational and logical.

I bet he didn't see that coming.









Anonymous said...

Rand al'Thor, thanks for getting back to me, but that wasn't quite where I was having the problem.
I think I follow the philosophy ok, but it's the science under-pinning the philosophy which baffles me.
Why is this "evolutionary" argument so lacking in any examples of anything actually evolving? Plantinga seems to deal almost exclusively with survival, but survival is only a part of part of evolution. Also, survival can happen without there being any evolutionary impact at all.
The requirements for evolution are:
1. An organism which reproduces
2. The reproduction is not a perfect copy (random variations)
3. The variations are capable of giving the reproductions an "edge" in spreading their genes further.
So, before you can talk about "evolution" you have to identify a heritable characteristic which provides the bearer with an advantage, so that in due course the descendants after many generations will have changed noticeably so as to exhibit that characteristic in a more pronounced way. How is this true of Paul? Beliefs are not heritable characteristics, so however long Paul survives to pass on his genes through the lucky combination of beliefs & desires, this has nothing to do with evolution, because nothing is changing. His descendants will not cultivate some distinctive ability which gives them an advantage, because he has no such distinctive ability to bequeath to them.
Plantinga skews the argument by referring to beliefs rather than "the ability to learn". I think he would find it much harder to sustain his argument if he had to phrase it in terms of the ability to learn. This is much more fundemental and it's how we come by our beliefs in the first place. Plantinga never deals with how Paul is supposed to have developed his beliefs and it would be hard for him to explain this on his model, which just starts with the beliefs, fully formed and in place.
The following link was quite useful for me in addressing the science on the EAAN:
http://evolvingthoughts.net/2011/05/discussing-the-evolutionary-debunking-argument/

Robert Firth said...

Two tribes live in a forest. One believes that fire burns; the other believes that it doesn't. After the forest fire, which tribe survives?

The ides that unguided evolution is as likely to produce false beliefs as true ones is so absurd only a philosopher would believe it. Let me correct myself - only a philosopher of religion with a desperate need to "prove" what he already believes.

I live at the tip of the Malay peninsula, a region noted for its tigers. And the Malay have many, many beliefs about tigers, almost all of them absolutely true. They know, for example, that you can't escape a tiger by jumping into the river.

These true beliefs have evolved over time because Nature has a way of dealing with false beliefs about tigers. It's called "death".

But the Malay also have false beliefs - indeed, different groups have contradictory false beliefs, and have been known to hack each other to pieces over them. These beliefs are about invisible things called "gods", and they have evolved, not by experience, but largely by conquest.

And the reason, again, is clear. Beliefs about tigers tend to be true because they are continually being checked agains real tigers. But the same cannot happen to beliefs about gods, because there are no real gods against which to check them.

If Plantinga were right, Malays would have contradictory beliefs about tigers, but be in substantial agreement about gods, courtesy of theyr supposed sensus divinitatis. This is the exact opposite of what we observe.

Ryan Ashton said...

Hi Professor Law,

I enjoyed reading your rebuttal to Plantinga's EAAN and listening to your radio debate on Premier Christian Radio. Thank you for putting all of this great philosophy on your blog.

I do disagree with your criticism of the EAAN and wrote a reply to you myself. If you or any of your readers have the interest, you can find it at ryansashton.blogspot.com.

I argue that you have yet to show that the conceptual links between beliefs and behaviors you rely on follow from naturalism; you seem to suppose that they exist in a naturalist world inexplicably, like a 'brute fact.' I find this maneuver rather suspicious because it appears to grant the EAAN is correct in asserting that naturalism (without help from added brute facts)lacks the resources to account for the perceived fit between human cognitive faculties and true beliefs. Given this, it strikes me as ad hoc to respond to the EAAN by inserting these conceptual links into a naturalist world in a single step, independently of the dictates of naturalist theory. I think the burden is to show that these links are downstream from naturalist commitments, not upstream.

Or so I attempt to argue, anyway.

Cheers,
Ryan

Steven Carr said...

Should philosophers produce theories of knowledge which help and guide people to believe important, true things?

Or should philosophers produce theories of knowledge which block and hinder people from believing important, true things?

Plantinga's argument seems to run 'I have a philosophy about knowledge, which means that even if evolution is true and important, people should not believe it.'

Obviously, this means that Plantinga's philosophy is broken.

If his philosophy theories mean he has a theory of knowledge which actually prevents people believing true and important things, then his theories are fit for the scrapheap,

He should go back and fix them.

Once he has produced a theory of knowledge which says 'If evolution is true and important, then we are justified in believing it', then we will know that his philosophical theories about knowledge are not broken.

At present, Plantinga's philosophy of knowledge is not fit for purpose.

It actually prevents people from believing important , true things and Plantinga actually boasts about how good his philosophy is at doing that.

Ryan Ashton said...

Stephen,

Plantinga's argument does not prevent people from believing their cognitive faculties are reliable wholesale; rather, it only prevents people from believing their cognitive faculties are reliable if naturalism were true. Plantinga, obviously, is a theist so he does not think we live in a naturalist world. He personally holds that our cognitive faculties are reliable because God wired them to track true propositions.

Suppose for the moment that Plantinga's EAAN is successful; then what you say is indeed valid, but it would need to be directed at naturalism rather than Plantinga: naturalism would be the barrier to our believing important, true propositions.

Best,
Ryan

Ryan Ashton said...

Correction: The previous comment was directed at Steven Carr, not Stephen Law.

Steven Carr said...

SO Plantinga's claim is that if naturalism is true, then philosophy has not advanced enough to let it distinguish between the true and the false beliefs generated by naturalism.

This is a problem for philosophy, not naturalism.

I guess Plantinga is like those mathematicians who have stopped doing maths, because , if the Riemann hypothesis is true, then they are unable to prove it is true.

The answer is to do better maths, not just declare that the Riemann hypothesis is false.

Plantinga needs to do whatever philosophy is necessary so he can get a theory of knowledge that is compatible with naturalism.

He can't just say that his theories about knowledge are inadequate to cope with the implications of naturalism so scientists should stop work.

Philosophicalinguist said...
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Philosophicalinguist said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't Plantinga's argument unduly timid? Let's grant (for the sake of argument, against Plantinga and for Stephen Law) that if naturalistic evolution is true, then our cognitive faculties have evolved to be reliable. How do we know that naturalistic evolution is true? Presumably, because our cognitive faculties tell us so. How do we know our cognitive faculties are reliable? Because they've evolved to be reliable? Am I the only one who sees plain vanilla circularity here? If there is indeed circularity, Plantinga would seem to win hands down, despite conceding his major premise (and presumably, rendering Stephen Law's objection to that premise irrelevant).

Stephen Law said...

Plain vanilla circularity is not a problem for Plantinga - see his reformed epistemology and appeal to principle of credence. If this were a good objection it would undercut his own appeal to religious experience.

Philosophicalinguist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philosophicalinguist said...

"Plain vanilla circularity is not a problem for Plantinga - see his reformed epistemology and appeal to principle of credence. If this were a good objection it would undercut his own appeal to religious experience."

As the saying goes, 'Two wrongs don't make a right'. Are you conceding the point about circularity in my previous comment? I've not read Plantinga's apologetics, but taking the word 'experience' at face-value, you would seem to be right about the same circularity undercutting appeals to religious experience (such appeals are suspect on other grounds anyway).

However, one doesn't have to appeal to special experience to defend (some) religious beliefs. A religious belief (if true) is the kind of knowledge that the knower doesn't know she knows. A dog can know when it's lunchtime, but he presumably doesn't know that he knows it. Can a human not have the same kind of knowledge? If we can, then it is possible to know (as religious dogma) that our cognitive apparatus is reliable, or that God exists, without knowing (but merely believing) that we know it.

That might sound counter-intuitive, so here's a mundane example of knowing something but only believing that I know it. Bob tells me the nearest post office is in the next town. I've never been there, but I see no reason not to believe him (maybe I know him to be fairly reliable). Pam asks if I know where the nearest post office is. I reply "I believe I know where it is, but I don't know if I know. I heard it from Bob, he's pretty reliable but could be mistaken."

Of course, if religious beliefs can only be knowledge of the above sort, this raises the question of how we could verify if our religious beliefs are true. There are various grounds on which we can justifiably discount the credibility of a testimony (religious or otherwise). These include self-contradiction; making empirical claims that are patently false; and ulterior motives, unreliability or psychological impairment in the testifier.

That still leaves a number of religious beliefs in the running, so whether we end up with the right ones is at least partly a matter of Providence. But isn't that the case with beliefs in general? Despite our best efforts at picking true beliefs, all of us are likely to go to our graves with many false ones (maybe more than true ones). Deciding which beliefs to retain or jettison in one's lifetime is not (in practice) a straightforward matter. Is it irrational to hope in Providence that our religious beliefs are true (if we have made our best efforts to test if they are untrue)?

Richard Wein said...

"How do we know that naturalistic evolution is true? Presumably, because our cognitive faculties tell us so. How do we know our cognitive faculties are reliable? Because they've evolved to be reliable? Am I the only one who sees plain vanilla circularity here?"

That's a straw man. The responses that you're putting into the mouths of evolution's defenders are not ones that a sensible defender would give. First, you need to decide whether these responses are supposed to be arguments or explanations. One could indeed give "because our cognitive faculties tell us so" as a very broad explanation of how we know anything (including that naturalistic evolution is true). But no one would ever give it as an argument for naturalistic evolution. So it certainly doesn't form part of a circular argument.

I think your second question is itself fundamentally misguided. It seems to me that it's incoherent to say that "we know our cognitive faculties are reliable". To me this is a case of what Wittgenstein called "language going on holiday", that is taking words (in this case "know") out of any context in which we can make sense of them, putting them in a peculiar context which deprives them of any meaning. In any case, it's futile to try to argue that our cognitive faculties are (at all) reliable, because any attempt at argument presupposes some degree of ability to make and understand arguments, which presupposes some degree of reliable cognitive faculties.

If we're giving explanations (not arguments), then there's nothing circular in saying that naturalistic evolution has given us (somewhat) reliable cognitive faculties, and then we've used those cognitive faculties to discover the truth of naturalistic evolution.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Richard Wein says: "If we're giving explanations (not arguments), then there's nothing circular in saying that naturalistic evolution has given us (somewhat) reliable cognitive faculties, and then we've used those cognitive faculties to discover the truth of naturalistic evolution."

I understand that global skepticism is unwarranted in most circumstances. But evolutionary theory is a special case, because it offers a causal explanation for our cognitive faculties. Think of our cognitive faculties as a pair of sophisticated electronic goggles, but ones everybody's worn their whole lives and can't take off. We've come up with a theory to explain the causal origin of these goggles. In what sense is the theory true, since all the evidence for the theory is viewed through the goggles? The best we can say is 'This is the best theory for the causal origin of these goggles as viewed through the goggles'. That's just lame, as scientific theories go.

Not a problem for scientific theories that are concerned solely with what's in front of the goggles, and not with the goggles themselves. We can do all sorts of science without worrying if our cognitive faculties are generally reliable. But any theory that incorporates a causal account of our cognitive faculties runs into the observer effect, the fact that we don't know if we're affecting the thing we're observing in ways that render our findings either false or unreliable. Such theories include naturalistic origin-of-all-life theories, origin-of-the-universe cosmologies, atomic and quantum theory, and neuroscience. However, such theories are only affected in terms of their veracity, not in terms of their technological efficacy if any.

Richard Wein said...

"The best we can say is 'This is the best theory for the causal origin of these goggles as viewed through the goggles'. That's just lame, as scientific theories go."

All of our scientific (and other) knowledge is seen through the same goggles (our fallible cognitive faculties). Evolutionary theory is no lamer on those grounds than any other scientific theory.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Richard Wein said: "All of our scientific (and other) knowledge is seen through the same goggles (our fallible cognitive faculties). Evolutionary theory is no lamer on those grounds than any other scientific theory."

Most scientific theories are considered 'true' based on their pragmatic value, the fact that they make accurate predictions and help us get things done (predict the weather, launch rockets, etc). For such theories (judged on their pragmatic value), the general reliability of our cognitive apparatus is not an issue. Even if we are all brains in a vat, such theories could still be valid within the realm of human experience (e.g. Newton's Laws can still apply in the experience of a brain in a vat, even if they don't apply outside the vat)

It's a whole different ball-game when you're judging a theory on its veracity, whether it tells us what the world is 'really' like in the absence of observers (or to a properly functioning observer). Theories that incorporate causal explanations of the origin of the human cognitive faculties (such as naturalistic theories of the evolution of all life or the origin of the universe, and atomic and quantum theory; all of which purport to account for human cognitive functions) are usually claimed to have veracity, alongside any pragmatic value they hold.

The problem with such theories (judged on their veracity) is that they run into the observer effect. You're using your cognitive faculties to check the veracity of a theory of the origin of your cognitive faculties; but you can't account for distortions caused by your cognitive faculties, because you have to use those faculties to check for distortions. This problem only applies to the veracity of empirical theories, not their practical value if any (e.g. atomic theory and neuroscience have practical applications, where veracity isn't an issue).

Where it does apply, the observer problem is only significant when there is something at stake in the claim to veracity. E.g. in the claims that "all life evolved from non-life" or "everything originated in the Big Bang", the universal scope of the claims (indicated by the words 'all' and 'everything') ride on their claim to veracity. The observer effect limits the scope of such claims to the realm of the observable as experienced through our cognitive faculties, not to 'all life' or 'everything' without qualification.

Steven Carr said...

Of course, Plantinga is in a much worse position.

Not only does he claim that science does not produce a 'true' model of reality (as if scientists care), but he also claims that his senses and reasoning are under constant attack by demons.

So why should we believe a word Plantinga says when he literally has no idea whether or not his thoughts are being controlled by demons?

Steven Carr said...

PL
You're using your cognitive faculties to check the veracity of a theory of the origin of your cognitive faculties; but you can't account for distortions caused by your cognitive faculties...

CARR
I see.

So if my eyes are bad, and I just about make out some words saying 'Wearing glasses will improve my eyesight', then I really can't account for the fact that this message may be distorted by my cognitive faculties.

So why does Plantinga wear glasses when he is busy telling us that if you can't trust your unaided cognitive faculties, then you can't rely on science to help them?

Perhaps he could use his 'glasses' to help him read out his articles about how scientists can't justify optics....

Philosophicalinguist said...
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Philosophicalinguist said...

Steve Carr said: "So why should we believe a word Plantinga says when he literally has no idea whether or not his thoughts are being controlled by demons?"

Plantinga is referring to the first-person perspective (that I cannot confirm if my experiences are veridical based on my experiences alone). Nothing to do with whether we have reason to believe what he says, based on independent evidence. If Plantinga says '1 + 1 = 2' then he's right, even if he thinks he's a potato.


Steve Carr said: "So if my eyes are bad, and I just about make out some words saying 'Wearing glasses will improve my eyesight', then I really can't account for the fact that this message may be distorted by my cognitive faculties."

Correct (and it doesn't matter how good or bad you think your eyes are). But that only applies to the veracity, not the pragmatic value, of your perceptions. In the example you gave, your primary concern is whether the message you read would help you improve your ability to get things done. Not whether the words you're seeing (and the world around you) is actually there.

Most of the time, our main concern is with the pragmatic value of what we perceive, not its veracity. Whether our lack of concern for veracity is justified, that's another matter. I suspect most of us are uninterested in veracity because we're just too busy getting stuff done, or think it's a waste of time thinking about it (based on what we already know).

I'm not sure if either of those are good reasons, especially when there's so much we don't know (and possibly cannot know, if we relied solely on what we can verify through our cognitive faculties). That's why I raised the issue earlier about the role of 'Providence' (an atheist would call it 'luck') in ensuring we have true beliefs when it matters. Unfortunately, if it really is down to Providence, then it isn't something within out conscious control. Unless, maybe, Providence answers prayers and you can ask him to do for you what you can't do for yourself.

Richard Wein said...

PL,

Let me put Steven's point a bit differently. If you applied your weird claims consistently, you would have to say that only blind scientists (or scientists who keep their eyes closed) can learn anything valid about optics, because sighted scientists are doing something "circular" in using their faculty of sight to learn about their faculty of sight.

It seems to me that you was originally complaining about circular arguments. I refuted that complaint. Rather than admit you were wrong, you have resorted to (a) making the absurd assertion that we can't use our cognitive faculties to learn about the origin of our cognitive faculties, and (b) switching to an entirely new argument about veracity and pragmatic value, which has nothing to do with your original argument about circularity.

Richard Wein said...

PS1. Oops. I wrote "you was". That was bad editing, not dialect. ;-)

PS2. PL, you claim that it's "lame" to use our cognitive faculties to learn about the origin of our cognitive faculties. If that weird assertion were true, wouldn't it be equally true for theists? It would be equally "lame" for theists to believe that God was the source of their cognitive faculties. Tu quoque.

Steven Carr said...

PL
If Plantinga says '1 + 1 = 2' then he's right, even if he thinks he's a potato.


CARR
How do you know that?

Remember, Plantinga claims your reasoning and senses are being attacked by demons.

You might think '1+1=2', but that could just be the demons fooling you.


Without naturalism, you can't even take part in a discussion about logic.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Richard Wein said "It seems to me that you was originally complaining about circular arguments. I refuted that complaint. Rather than admit you were wrong, you have resorted to (a) making the absurd assertion that we can't use our cognitive faculties to learn about the origin of our cognitive faculties, and (b) switching to an entirely new argument about veracity and pragmatic value, which has nothing to do with your original argument about circularity."

So can I take it you're claiming (1) the assumption that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable is not grounded in circular reasoning. Am I right to assume you also claim that (2) our non-skepticism about the general reliability of our cognitive faculties is internal to the practice of using language, a practice which, as you say, "presupposes some degree of reliable cognitive faculties"? I just want to be clear about what you're claiming, so I can respond to your specific claims.

Philosophicalinguist said...

CARR said: "How do you know that? Remember, Plantinga claims your reasoning and senses are being attacked by demons."

I was careful to draw a distinction between the 'veracity' and the 'pragmatic value' of your perceptions. As I said, most of the time we are just concerned with the pragmatic value of our perceptions, regardless of their veracity. So if in your (let's say) demon-possessed mind, '1 + 1 = 2' is true, then that's good enough to count as 'knowledge' for you. It allows you to balance your checkbook, measure your living-room, etc. Even if you don't really have a checkbook or a living-room, and it's all just in your demon-possessed mind. The point Plantinga is making is, your perceptions (though good enough to get you through the realm of your own demon-possessed experiences), are not reliable evidence for their own veracity (hence his example of demon-possession screwing with our faculties).

Steven Carr said...

As for circular reasoning, Plantinga is the one who claims there is no logical proof we have two legs.

Sure, our senses tell us that we have two legs, but there is a logically possible world in which we are mistaken about how many legs we really have.

(Just like in this world most people are mistaken about how many legs a millipede has)

So all we need to do is apply Plantinga's 'defense' against the logical problem of evil, declare that there is a possible world in which we are mistaken about how many legs we have and triumphantly point out there is no logical proof we have two legs.

This is crazy logic.

It is Plantinga's logic.

And he has the gall to claim that naturalists can't tell you how mankind evolved when his own logic lets him deny there is any logical proof we have two legs!

Plantinga is just a bundle of sophistry, of no us in advancing the knowledge of mankind.

Steven Carr said...

PL
I was careful to draw a distinction between the 'veracity' and the 'pragmatic value' of your perceptions. As I said, most of the time we are just concerned with the pragmatic value of our perceptions, regardless of their veracity.


CARR
Why should I believe what you just said is true when you only think what it is true, because that is what the demons want you to think?

Without presupposing naturalism, you don't get to have a say in this discussion.

Sorry.

Come back when you are a naturalist.

Steven Carr said...

Suppose the following statement is true :-

'If naturalism is true, there is no philosophical basis for saying that naturalism is true'.

Is that a problem for naturalists?

No.

Is that a problem for philosophers?

Yes.

They might think they are clever, but clearly the state-of-the-art of philosophy is such that there are big holes in the philospher's toolbox.

If Plantinga's arguments are valid, all it means is that philosophy is not a useful tool yet. It needs more work doing to it before it can be applied to the real world.


That's not to diss philosophy.

After all, there are a lot of unsolved problems in maths.

But mathematicians don't start declaring that the real world can only be the kind of world that gives them problems they can solve.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Richard Wein said: "PL, you claim that it's "lame" to use our cognitive faculties to learn about the origin of our cognitive faculties. If that weird assertion were true, wouldn't it be equally true for theists? It would be equally "lame" for theists to believe that God was the source of their cognitive faculties."

It's 'lame' for theists (and atheists) in the sense that there are many competing belief-systems, and based solely on what our cognitive faculties tell us, we can't guarantee that we've made the right choices. So Providence (atheists would call it 'luck') seems to play a role in whether we have the right beliefs about things that ultimately matter. None of us knows who's ultimately right or wrong (or at least we don't know if we know), so we can only hope that we're right (and that our faculties are reliable enough for the purpose). But what would it be more rational to hope in, a material universe with arbitrary laws in which out cognitive faculties could be unreliable, or a universe governed by a sentient law-giver who wants us to have the right beliefs?

Richard Wein said...

@PL

Sorry, but I'm not willing to go back and explain what I wrote several comments ago, when you made no objection or request for clarification back then, and when your latest comment indicates that you're not reading me carefully enough. My more recent comments have been about the absurdity of your subsequent claims, and your latest comment hasn't addressed that subject. I think further discussion would not be useful.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Richard Wein said "It seems to me that you was originally complaining about circular arguments. I refuted that complaint. Rather than admit you were wrong, you have resorted to (a) making the absurd assertion that we can't use our cognitive faculties to learn about the origin of our cognitive faculties, and (b) switching to an entirely new argument about veracity and pragmatic value, which has nothing to do with your original argument about circularity."

So can I take it you're claiming (1) the assumption that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable is not grounded in circular reasoning. Am I right to assume you also claim that (2) our non-skepticism about the general reliability of our cognitive faculties is internal to the practice of using language, a practice which, as you say, "presupposes some degree of reliable cognitive faculties"? I just want to be clear about what you're claiming, so I can respond to your specific claims.

[Some time passes . . .] You haven't replied, so I'll just respond to [1] and [2]. In the case of [2], even if non-skepticism about our cognitive faculties is internal to the practice of using language, it doesn't follow that our cognitive faculties are reliable (it just follows that we have to assume they are, if we want to 'get on' with using language). So even if I concede [1], it doesn't follow that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Even if our non-skepticism is not grounded in circular reasoning, it's still not sufficiently grounded to demonstrate veracity.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Richard Wein said: "I think further discussion would not be useful."

Steven Carr said: "Without presupposing naturalism, you don't get to have a say in this discussion."

OK, have a nice day:)

Richard Wein said...

@PL

"OK, have a nice day:)"

I feel bad now at having been rather abrupt with you. Sorry. I get frustrated when I feel discussions are going nowhere. I wish you a nice day too.

Philosophicalinguist said...

I haven't heard a positive defense from Stephen Law against my argument (repeated below), that his objection to Plantinga's major premise fails to falsify EAAN's conclusion:

I understand that global skepticism is unwarranted in most circumstances. But evolutionary theory is a special case, because it offers a causal explanation for our cognitive faculties. Think of our cognitive faculties as a pair of sophisticated electronic goggles, but ones everybody's worn their whole lives and can't take off. We've come up with a theory to explain the causal origin of these goggles. In what sense is the theory true, since all the evidence for the theory is viewed through the goggles? The best we can say is 'This is the best theory for the causal origin of these goggles as viewed through the goggles'. That's just lame, as scientific theories go.

Most scientific theories are considered 'true' based on their pragmatic value, the fact that they make accurate predictions and help us get things done (predict the weather, launch rockets, etc). For such theories (judged on their pragmatic value), the general reliability of our cognitive apparatus is not an issue. Even if we are all brains in a vat, such theories could still be valid within the realm of human experience (e.g. Newton's Laws can still apply in the experience of a brain in a vat, even if they don't apply outside the vat)

It's a whole different ball-game when you're judging a theory on its veracity, whether it tells us what the world is 'really' like in the absence of observers (or to a properly functioning observer). Theories that incorporate causal explanations of the origin of the human cognitive faculties (such as naturalistic theories of the evolution of all life or the origin of the universe, and atomic and quantum theory; all of which purport to account for human cognitive functions) are usually claimed to have veracity, alongside any pragmatic value they hold.

The problem with such theories (judged on their veracity) is that they run into the observer effect. You're using your cognitive faculties to check the veracity of a theory of the origin of your cognitive faculties; but you can't account for distortions caused by your cognitive faculties, because you have to use those faculties to check for distortions. This problem only applies to the veracity of empirical theories, not their practical value if any (e.g. atomic theory and neuroscience have practical applications, where veracity isn't an issue).

Where it does apply, the observer problem is only significant when there is something at stake in the claim to veracity. E.g. in the claims that "all life evolved from non-life" or "everything originated in the Big Bang", the universal scope of the claims (indicated by the words 'all' and 'everything') ride on their claim to veracity. The observer effect limits the scope of such claims to the realm of the observable as experienced through our cognitive faculties, not to 'all life' or 'everything' without qualification.

Stephen Law said...

"I haven't heard a positive defense from Stephen Law against my argument (repeated below), that his objection to Plantinga's major premise fails to falsify EAAN's conclusion."

It wasn't supposed to. If you are trying to get me to comment on your own EAAN, sorry I just don't have time right now...

Stephen Law said...

I should clarify - the conclusion of the EAAN is that naturalism is self-defeating. I point out P's argument for that conclusion fails. I also point out what given N&E and plausible conceptual constraints on content, we will likely evolve reliable cognitive faculties.

Your argument is for a different conclusion to P's EAAN - you argue naturalism cannot be justified in a non-circular manner, and thus cannot be justified. I have views on that but I don't have time to unpack all the issues right now.

Philosophicalinguist said...
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Philosophicalinguist said...
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Philosophicalinguist said...

Stephen Law writes: "I should clarify - the conclusion of the EAAN is that naturalism is self-defeating. I point out P's argument for that conclusion fails. I also point out what given N&E and plausible conceptual constraints on content, we will likely evolve reliable cognitive faculties.

Your argument is for a different conclusion to P's EAAN - you argue naturalism cannot be justified in a non-circular manner, and thus cannot be justified. I have views on that but I don't have time to unpack all the issues right now."

Thank you for your reply. My point is simply that you were attempting to argue that naturalism (via N&E and "plausible conceptual constraints on content") gives us reason to believe that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable. I argued that naturalism is unjustified, either because of circularity or lack of sufficient reason (depending on how naturalism is defended).

If the argument for naturalism is based on purported empirical evidence, then it is circular. If based on the Wittgensteinean premise that non-skepticism (about the general reliability of our cognitive faculties) is a normative requirement of the practice of using language, then that is insufficient reason to believe that non-skepticism is justified by anything more than practical necessity (i.e. praxis rather than theoria).

To avoid complications, I am happy to have my argument treated as a separate one from Plantinga's. My objection can't be a trivial one, if as you say, it requires some "unpacking". I very much look forward to your considered response.

Ryan Ashton said...

I don't think the charge of circularity you suggest, PL, applies uniquely to naturalism. For example, if a theist argues that his or her rational faculties are reliable because God wired them that way, that explanation would require that God is somehow known to exist. But, to know that God exists would be a kind of rationally held belief. Thus, the theist would be presupposing that his or her rational faculties are reliable to know that God exists, then using God's existence to make his or her rational faculties reliable.

I think the more general problem is that no one can get outside of his or her rational faculties to verify that they are reliable; we're always going to have to presuppose their reliability to do any kind of analysis.

Now, there is a relevant difference between naturalism and theism with respect to explaining how our rational faculties came to be reliable. I also think Plantinga's version of the EAAN illustrates this nicely. Briefly, Plantinga's EAAN holds that naturalism entails that a non-rational cause produced a rational entity. Theism, by contrast, entails that a rational cause produced a rational entity. The relevant question for the naturalist, then, is whether it is plausible to hold that a non-rational (or a-rational) cause could reliably produce a rational entity? Could undirected, purposeless molecules in motion give rise to a creature who can have beliefs about certain propositions and filter those beliefs through some kind of truth-preserving mechanism? Can the non-rational produce the rational? Plantinga's EAAN argues that it cannot, which, if correct, does pose a problem unique to naturalism.

The theist, who does not propose that non-rational processes produced rational creatures, is in no such dilemma. The theist is rather in the position of explaining a calculator's reliability in producing true computations by reference to the mathematician who himself is capable of computation and who programmed the calculator purposefully. The naturalist is in the position of explaining the calculator's reliability by reference to the random, chance-like collision of particles, none of which comprehend the mathematics themselves.

So, in sum, the charge of circularity applies symmetrically to the naturalist and the theist alike, but the causal accounts of the reliability of rational faculties applies asymmetrically to the naturalist and theist. It is the latter that the EAAN targets, and I find it to be rather decisive at that.

Steven Carr said...

There is no such thing as a rational cause or an irrational cause.

You may as well talk about red or yellow causes.

Do theists claim their god caused them to believe things?

Is that after or before they claim their god allows them free will to believe what they like?

Philosophicalinguist said...
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Philosophicalinguist said...

In reply to Ryan Ashton:
Well put, but a Wittgensteinean could reply that non-skepticism (about the general reliability of our cognitive faculties) is integral to the practice of using language. There's no point in using language if you don't believe you and your interlocutors are generally rational, existent, and inhabit the same external world that we can all talk about. So the Wittgensteinean could say that we just can't help being generally non-skeptical, because that's the necessary attitude of a language-using creature.

The Wittgensteinean could then argue that adding God could actually makes the equation less, not more, rational. Because as long as we are relying solely on the assumptions integral to language-use, we have a universal and necessary set of norms by which to regulate our individual and collective reasoning. But if you're allowed to bring your favorite deity into the equation, then you're giving yourself a free pass to violate those norms whenever it suits you (e.g. if your deity 'reveals' to you that you shouldn't listen to people who disagree with you, but should get as far away as possible).

On the other hand, the same Wittgensteinean objection applies to attempts at underwriting the reliability of our cognitive faculties by appealing to naturalistic evolutionary theory. The Wittgensteinean could say that since non-skepticism about our cognitive reliability effectively rests on nothing more than the norms integral to language-use, adding a further empirical 'justification' is putting the cart before the horse. Not only would such an empirical claim add an unnecessary layer of argument on behalf of an already well-grounded non-skepticism, but the argument actually presupposes the non-skepticism that it purports to justify. So it is arguable that neither the assumption of theism nor naturalistic evolutionary theory adds anything in support of the non-skepticism that is integral to language-use.

But that non-skepticism has its limits, and that is where the theist might have an advantage over the atheist. The norms integral to language-use cannot underwrite the veracity of what we observe, because there is no way to account for relevant distortions caused by our cognitive faculties (since we have to rely on those faculties to check for distortions). This problem is particularly significant for any naturalistic theory that places a premium on veracity (such as a theory that makes universal claims like 'all life evolved from non-life' or 'everything originated in the Big Bang').

Most scientific theories and everyday judgements are unaffected, because they are aimed at predictive efficacy within human experience rather than unqualified veracity. It is possible for religious dogma to bridge the gap towards veracity, but the Wittgensteinean would argue that dogma cannot justify violation of the norms of rationality and non-skepticism that are integral to language-use. So such norms set limits to what we can rationally believe (in religion or any other matter), but they also have epistemic limitations that religious beliefs can possibly transcend. Given those limitations, whether we have veridical beliefs about what truly matters (given the variety of options, the possibility of self-deception, and the limitations of time and our cognitive faculties) is something that would probably have to be left to Providence (the atheist would prefer to call it 'luck'). At least you can pray for Providence.

Steven Carr said...

RYAN AHSTON
The naturalist is in the position of explaining the calculator's reliability by reference to the random, chance-like collision of particles, none of which comprehend the mathematics themselves.

CARR
Is this a joke?

Have you actually opened a book on computer science and seen how naturalists explain computers?

You don't have to read it all.

Just get a book on computer science, turn to any one page, see how naturalists explain computing and perform a, what philosophers call 'reality check'.

This is one of the reasons Plantinga's arguments are ignored by scientists doing science.

They literally don't correspond to the real world.

Ryan Ashton said...

Reply to PL,

I'll confess that I'm not well-rounded in my Wittgenstein, but to the extent that I understand your point about non-skepticism and language use, I am inclined to agree with you. When you say, "So it is arguable that neither the assumption of theism nor naturalistic evolutionary theory adds anything in support of the non-skepticism that is integral to language-use," I take you to mean something similar to my claim that the circularity in justifying the reliability of our rational faculties applies symmetrically to theism and naturalism: the non-skepticism about our rational faculties is assumed by both views, not demonstrated by them.

Since this conversation is in the context of Plantinga's EAAN, I'd like to plug in how I think what Plantinga says is relevant here. The language of Plantinga's book Where the Conflict Really Lies is more about "concord" and "conflict" than about justification or demonstration. I think the advantage that the theist has is that his or her view is in concord with the assumption that human rational faculties are generally reliable, whereas the naturalist's view is in conflict with human rational faculties being generally reliable. Although this concord/conflict assessment says nothing one way or the other about whether our faculties are in fact reliable, it shows that the theist at least does not have a defeater for his belief that his faculties are reliable. I think you are correct to point out the theist's reliance on providence, though, because, presumably, God could very well wire our cognitive faculties in a non-truth-preserving way. The theist has to assume that God would endow us with truth-tropic faculties. Nevertheless, if Plantinga is on target, theism remains the best option if one wishes to avoid undercutting his belief that he is properly rational--the possibility of concord should be objectively preferable to certain conflict.

Steven Carr said...
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Steven Carr said...

ASHTON
it shows that the theist at least does not have a defeater for his belief that his faculties are reliable

CARR
You haven't been paying attention to what Plantinga says.

He claims demons exist.

Demons are perfectly capable of attacking your senses and reasoning.

So if your belief system is true, you have no idea if your thoughts are being manipulated by outside agents.

And, of course, Plantinga still has to show that his belief that there is a god is reliable.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Ryan Ashton said: "I think the advantage that the theist has is that his or her view is in concord with the assumption that human rational faculties are generally reliable, whereas the naturalist's view is in conflict with human rational faculties being generally reliable."

That depends on which kind of naturalist you're talking about. The metaphysical naturalist would seem to be in trouble. However, it is possible to be a methodological naturalist who is careful to limit himself to hypotheses that are non-circular and make no claim to veracity (but only predictive efficacy).

Such a naturalist could be agnostic about both metaphysical naturalism and theism (unless he subscribes to a theory about either that he believes is non-circular and non-empirical). I think quite a lot of people fall in that category. I may be one of them, though I'm a theist (for reasons that I believe are non-circular and non-empirical, namely that I was brought up that way and can't think of good reasons to stop believing, empirical or otherwise).

To someone like that, EAAN would presumably not seem a good argument for theism, since it presents an either/or choice between metaphysical naturalism and theism. Someone who believes he could be agnostic about both would not see a need to commit to either.

He could simply say "I don't know where we came from or where we're going. Because of the problem of veracity, I can't draw metaphysical conclusions from evolutionary biology, cosmology or atomic physics. I'm a methodological naturalist because that's integral to being a language-user. I believe in the efficacy of applied science." So in order for EAAN to be a valid argument for theism, it would have to force an either/or choice, one that rules out sitting on the fence. I'm not sure if it does that.

Steven Carr said...

PL still doesn't seem to realise that on his worldview, there is no justification for taking anything he says seriously, as he is unable to show that he is not a sockpuppet for a demon.

Ryan Ashton said...

PL,

Yes, the EAAN only has force against metaphysical naturalism. Plantinga explicitly takes metaphysical naturalism to include materialism about human beings. The argument seems to be neutral over whether naturalism permits abstract entities like numbers into its ontology. Methodological naturalism by itself seems to be unaffected by the EAAN as well.

Furthermore, I should be careful to point out that I'm not suggesting that the EAAN is an argument for theism; it is rather an argument against naturalism, as its name implies. My claim that theism is preferable to naturalism in light of the conflict illustrated by the EAAN is a further inference added on to the EAAN, not an assertion in the EAAN itself. It is probably accurate to say, though, that Plantinga's overall argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies (wherein the EAAN takes up only the final chapter) is that theism is preferable to naturalism. But this argument admittedly extends beyond the scope of the EAAN, so I agree with your observation that the EAAN does not by itself rule out sitting on the fence.

Philosophicalinguist said...

PL said: "Because as long as we are relying solely on the assumptions integral to language-use, we have a universal and necessary set of norms by which to regulate our individual and collective reasoning. But if you're allowed to bring your favorite deity into the equation, then you're giving yourself a free pass to violate those norms whenever it suits you (e.g. if your deity 'reveals' to you that you shouldn't listen to people who disagree with you, but should get as far away as possible)."

I think I should elaborate a little more on this point, because it's an important one and quite vague as it stands. I'll have to do it in 2 parts, because of the word-limit.

Part 1. The discourses of science and technical (or 'how-to') disciplines generally have a 'building block' configuration. What I mean by that is, the knowledge-base of the discipline consists of predictions that can be tested by persons who are not experts in that discipline. E.g. I'm no chemist, but I can test if a solution is alkaline or acidic by dipping litmus paper in it (though I'd need a chemist to explain the significance of the result). So if the chemist predicts the paper will turn red in solution X, a layperson like me can test that prediction. A discipline has a 'building block' configuration if it consists mainly of predictions like that, with deductive and inductive linkages between them (forming theories). Laypersons like me lack the expertise to evaluate scientific theories in detail, but we can (collectively) test the many little predictions that support or falsify the theory.

This 'building block' configuration allows for a 'division of labor' in scientific and technical disciplines. A bunch of experts in different disciplines, along with non-experts in any discipline, can work together to build theories and test them; without any one person knowing what the others know. Why is this important? Because this building block configuration mirrors the way language works. You could even say language is structured to facilitate this kind of conceptual division of labor. Imagine a discipline that doesn't have a 'building block' configuration. Instead, the discipline has a 'top down' configuration. To have your opinions considered even remotely relevant within the discipline, you have to be 'approved' by the discipline's thought-leaders. Such a 'top down' configuration is characteristic of cults and 'ivory tower' disciplines. But there is also a sense in which such a configuration distorts and undermines language itself.

Philosophicalinguist said...

Part 2. This kind of distortion is suggested by Wittgenstein's 'private language argument'. The private-language user is the sole arbiter of what the words in his language mean, but that entails that the words don't have a determinate meaning (and hence no meaning at all). As Wittgenstein put it, "Whatever seems right to him [the private-language user] is right, so here we can't talk about 'right'?" This mirrors the situation in a 'top-down' discipline, where the 'thought-leaders' are the sole arbiters of whether anyone is making sufficient sense to be worth listening to. In such a discipline, the possibility arises that the thought-leaders are speaking a collective 'private language' (even if they're using words from a known language like English). Certain 'ivory-tower' disciplines (which shall remain nameless) have raises suspicions of distorting language in precisely this way (e.g. google 'Sokal affair').

Of course, it's also possible to be a one-man 'thought-leader', if you're in the habit of dismissing someone else's views if they simply disagree with yours on certain topics (e.g. your religion, or for that matter, your atheism). In which case, you could end up not making sense when thinking or talking about those topics (and not be aware of it). So language has a built-in structure that dictates we, individually and collectively, adopt certain norms and attitudes if we want to make sense, in both thought and speech. Some of these norms are covered in Habermas's 'Ideal Speech Situation', though I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on how complete or accurate Habermas's description is in all its detail. So our general aversion to cults and ivory towers isn't a non-rational instinctive rejection of authority or attempts to discipline our thoughts, it's actually a rational desire to preserve the norms that make language work. Having said that, I don't think all religious thought necessarily falls in the 'cult' or 'ivory tower' categories. After all, 'religion' is a broad concept with vague boundaries.

Philosophicalinguist said...
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Binary Slim said...

Stephen, I was having a bit of difficulty understanding your illustration of how cognitive constraints might operate, until I considered a possible typo:

"Then, other things being equal, natural selection will tend to favour subjects holding beliefs with content BC1 over those holding beliefs with content BC2."

Might the correct terms for BC1 and BC2 be MC1 and MC2, respectively?