Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Alvin Plantinga is Bad Ass

For those of you who don't know who Alvin Plantinga is...well you ought to. He was professor at Notre Dame University and is primarily known for his work in the philosophy of religion, epistemology and metaphysics.

Unfortunately for him, most Christians are not philosophically literate enough to appreciate his work and are more googly eyed over hacks like Ravi Zacharias and Greg Koukl.

Atheists on the other hand, hate his Anti-evolutionary argument and his most recent book Where the Conflict Really Lies.

Okay I'll be honest here, most people are not fans of his anti-evolutionary arguments. Also many have criticised Plantinga for dancing around the fence regarding intelligent design. It is unclear what his actual beliefs are regarding those issues.

 I will address the vitriol against his Anti-evolutionary argument as shown in this post below- it appeared on the first page when I searched for Plantinga. If you can't be bothered about it then just skip this part. I must preface this by saying I in no way believe in intelligent design, rather I am just irked by biologists who go around trying to play philosopher. WARNING, this takes a while
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PZ Myers has a few arguments against the EAAN

In Plantinga’s world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, “Is fire hot?”, 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga’s ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you’d actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either

Yes, nearly 100% of them will answer that fire is hot, but we have no reason to believe any of those answers. They are all based on our empirical senses which are (according to Plantinga) unreliable. Once you accept that our empirical senses are unreliable, (as PZ Myers does) then no matter how many times your skin tells you that fire is hot, that doesn't mean that it is hot.

A large part of our behavior will be functional (not contradicting reality) and some of it will even be adaptive (better fitting us to reality)

Okay, but how do you know that we have truth adaptive senses? By our senses! which are unreliable in the first place.

We could have highly unreliable cognition that maintains functionality by constant cross-checks against reality — we build cognitive models of how the world works that are progressively refined by experience.

All your beliefs maybe functional, but if they are unreliable then they play no role towards telling us if they are true. Unless you say that because they are largely functional, they are also reliable...which is not what PZ Myers claims as in the following quote:

To which I say…exactly! Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. 

I think what PZ Myers doesn't really get is that Plantinga is trying to argue that unreliable senses=scepticism.
Not the I'm a healthy sceptic who doesn't believe in healing crystals. It's the I'm a sceptic who doesn't believe you can know ANYTHING. That's right, because my brains are unreliable I cannot know if 2+2=4. Of course, needless to say a sceptic can also not know if evolution is true. [radical scepticism is an actual position in philosophy, many philosopher's believe in it]

One last thing that Myers says is

He’s reduced to a bogus either/or distinction. Either we are organic machines that evolved and our brains are therefore collections of random beliefs, or — and this is a leap I find unbelievable — Jesus gave us reliable minds. 

That is simply incorrect, see the following from here on the last page:

The traditional theist, on the other hand, has no corresponding reason for doubting that it 
is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs, nor any reason for thinking 
the probability of a belief's being true, given that it is a product of her cognitive faculties, 
is low or inscrutable. She may indeed endorse some form of evolution; but if she does, it 
will be a form of evolution guided and orchestrated by God. And qua traditional theist -- 
qua Jewish, Moslem, or Christian theist - she believes that God is the premier knower 
and has created us human beings in his image, an important part of which involves his 
giving them what is needed to have knowledge, just as he does. 

He is not saying because evolution = unreliable brains therefore God gave us reliability! He's saying we have two options: (1) evolution with unreliable knowledge OR (2) theism with reliable knowledge, which one is a better worldview?

Now personally, that still doesn't really go where Plantinga wants it to go. Just because we have 2 options, doesn't mean I can choose (2) just because I want reliable knowledge. I might just have to admit that no one can know anything and choose (1) and decide to be sceptic. Also, (2) is clearly not true. There is no reason to believe that God would give us reliable brains. Descartes argues this as he says God is good and therefore will not deceive us, but implicitly both Descartes and Plantinga assume that God is good and that good is what we think it is (God's version of good could be totally different).
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Okay now, four reasons why Plantinga is badass, even if you believe he was totally wrong about the Anti-evolutionary argument

(1) For atheists who believe Plantinga is some conservative hill-billy: Plantinga often attacks Christian arguments. Read God and other Minds and he spends the first third of his book showing why all Christian arguments for God are basically shit (except the ontological argument, he likes that). He also has the Principle of Dwindling Probabilities where he argues that you really can't prove anything in the Bible based on historical argument and philosophy alone.

(2) He has been widely regarded as having rebutted the Logical Problem of Evil...don't believe me? Even this atheist site admits it. Widespread acceptance that your argument has rebutted someone else in philosophy is rather rare.

(3) He is recommended reading in non-philosophy of religion subjects. He is a well recognised proponent of foundationalism in epistemology and is often the poster boy of Actualism in talks about counterfactuals. [it's obvious that Myer didn't read these stuff]

(4) He is largely recognised as writing some of the most important works in analytic philosophy of religion. Again don't believe me? Take it from atheist philosopher William Rowe here.

So, whatever your opinion on his recent attempts to do some evangelical work in publishing the much hated Where the Conflict Lies, his previous academic achievements in the past 40 years should more than make up for that. For some reason it is only non-philosophers who dislike Plantinga with a vengeance, even Leiter with his scepticism of Plantinga's latest book admits that he has done "high quality professional work". The others probably aren't technically proficient enough to understand him.

EDIT: perhaps if you do want to find a problem with Plantinga, this would be a good place to go to.



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