Posts tagged ‘theism’


More on Alvin Plantinga’s “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality”

I actually wrote “Is it rational to believe random stuff for no good reason?“, or 80% of it anyway, twice; WordPress whimsically threw away the first version.

In the second version there, I left out one argument that I discussed the first time. Between saying that he doesn’t believe in God by choice, and saying that the atheological evidentialist objector may regard the theist-without-evidence as sick or malfunctioning, Plantinga argues that there is not a general obligation to have evidence for everything you believe, thus:

[T]here seems no reason to think that I have such an obligation. Clearly I am not under an obligation to have evidence for everything I believe; that would not be possible. But why, then, suppose that I have an obligation to accept belief in God only if I accept other propositions which serve as evidence for it?

Well, he’s not so much arguing as he is baldly asserting, with a “clearly” in there for emphasis. But we can think about what he might mean by it.

I can think of three things he might be saying here.

First, he might be pointing out that I’m not obliged to have prepared in advance evidence for everything that I believe. That would be an awful lot of stuff to carry around with one just in case, so to speak, either physically or cognitively. And that’s fine, it seems reasonable to state the requirement of rationality that one should be able to produce good reasons for one’s beliefs, if asked, not so much that one should be aware of those reasons at all times.

Second, he might be making a sort of foundational or preconditional argument, saying that we can’t have evidence for stuff that is so basic to thinking itself that it’s really a precondition for anything even counting as evidence. Things like the reality of the past (as opposed to the world having sprung into being ready-made ten seconds ago), not being a brain in a vat, etc. You can’t really have evidence for them (or against them) since ex hypothesi they are entirely consistent with all of our experiences.

And this is reasonable also. It means that we can’t demand that all beliefs are based on sufficient evidence, and I think the right rationalist response to that is to say that all beliefs should be based on good reasons, where reasons are a superset of evidence, and also include things being preconditions for thought or evidence itself. Someone may someday come up with a system where we can do rational discourse without presupposing the reality of the past or our own nonvatness, but until that happens we have good reason to believe them, just because otherwise you’re dead in the water.

Third, he might just mean “there’s no reason to require that anyone have any reason for believing anything”, but since interpreted one way that’s just asserting as obvious the whole conclusion that the paper is aiming at (which would be silly), and interpreted another way it’s just weird (of course rationality requires something of our cognitive behavior, or it has no content at all), I will assume that he doesn’t mean that.

So we can take this argument to be pointing out that rationality doesn’t require us to, at all times, have in mind evidence for everything that we believe, but rather that it requires that we can, if asked, produce good reasons for believing each thing that we believe, where reasons are broader than just evidence.

This doesn’t actually work very well as as argument for what he wants to argue, though, since he seems to want to say not just that it’s okay to believe in God even if you don’t have sufficient evidence on the tip of your tongue, but also that it’s okay to believe in God for no good reason at all. And that’s far too strong a proposition to demonstrate by mere assertion.

While I’m here saying more stuff about this Plantinga paper, I’d also like to note not only how he slips from talking about believing in God for reasons into talking about believing in God simpliciter, but also how he conflates theism in general with his particular Christian theism.

Here’s a passage that especially raised my eyebrows:

[The theist] will see the atheist as somehow the victim of sin in the world — his own sin or the sin of others. According to the book of Romans, unbelief is a result of sin; it originates in an effort to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

Of course not all theists have any particular theory about “sin”, or about the causes of unbelief, or about Romans (bookish or otherwise); last I looked, most theists weren’t Christian at all. Again, despite the putative topic of the paper, Plantinga doesn’t seem to be interested in a general philosophical point about the rationality of believing in God without evidence; really he’s just launching a salvo in the defense of Christianity. I’d have more respect for him if he’d just do that, and not pretend to be doing something else…


Is it rational to believe random stuff for no good reason?

So yesterday I got into the car to go get something from somewhere, and I heard the tail-end of an interview with some philosopher-guy. All they said in the twenty seconds I heard was that God and football are the main topics at Notre Dame, although there are a few others ha ha, and then they said his name is Alvin Plantinga, and he has a new book.

Thanks to the magic of the Innertubes, in this case the NPR app for the iPad, I was able to listen to the entire piece (and you can too if that link still works; it’s just six minutes). It’s Alvin Plantinga, who’s an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, talking in very general terms about how science and religion are compatible, and how in fact it’s “naturalism” (i.e. the idea that there are no “supernatural entities”, by which he means God, because no one believes in Santa anymore) that’s the weird belief, and that science is a great thing, but just limited in scope, and there are lots of things that you can’t scientifically prove, like the reality of the past (that is, the entire universe could have been created five minutes ago in exactly the state that we all remember, and you wouldn’t be able to tell), and (I’m guessing) the divinity of Jesus.

I’m always interested in religious people who claim to have a rational (or rough equivalent) argument for their religiousness, so I poked around the web a bit, and found a site that has a bunch of his papers, and I read a couple of them.

There’s some interesting stuff here, but I think he tends to (rather Searle-like) skip very quickly past the obvious problems with his theories, and dive into the complex and arguable ones instead. Admittedly those are more fun :) but…

On to the arguments! The first paper I read was “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality“; it’s intended as a response to the claim that “[a] person who believed without evidence that there are an even number of ducks would be believing foolishly or irrationally; the same goes for the person who believes in God without evidence”, and that therefore “one who accepts belief in God but has no evidence for that belief is not, intellectually speaking, up to snuff.”

He examines this first as a claim that the “theist without evidence” is violating an ethical or cognitive duty or responsibility that applies to any member of some cognitive or rational community, and that by violating this duty e opens emself to criticism and disapprobation by (other) members of the community, that being the way that communities work.

Plantinga’s first response to this is to note that he doesn’t exactly choose to believe in God. Although there may be “some sort of regimen” that he could use to eventually change or extinguish that belief, it’s not like if offered a million dollars he could just change his belief in a moment.

And that’s fair; no one needs to claim that he’s being irrational on purpose, I don’t think.

So what’s the alternative? The next possibility he considers is that, rather than choosing to do something wrong, perhaps the theist without evidence is defective in some way, broken, or ill, or otherwise malfunctioning. That’s all very well, he says, but the theist might also say that the atheist is broken or ill or malfunctioning or full of sin or whatever, and doing the wrong thing for that reason. How do we decide which one is actually malfunctioning?

(It’s interesting to note at this point that while he started out talking about someone who thinks it’s irrational to believe in God without sufficient evidence versus someone who thinks that’s fine, he’s now talking in plainer terms of atheist versus theist; that will become key a bit later.)

It’s easy for the theist, he says, in that correct functioning means functioning as God intended, and God wants us to believe in him, so believing in him is correct functioning. (Which makes alot of unwarranted assumptions about God and belief, but we’ll let that pass for now.) What, he asks, can the atheist offer instead?

Here Plantinga considers, and instantly dismisses, the right answer. The “atheological evidentialist objector” (love the phrase) “may be thinking of proper functioning as functioning in a way that helps us attain our ends“. And that’s basically right: for pretty much any plausible set of plans and goals and desires, believing stuff only for good reasons is much more conducive to attaining them than is believing stuff without good reasons (because it feels nice, or because you saw it in a dream, or whatever). If I believe in a traditional Christian God for no good reason, for instance, I will probably defer various pleasant things on the theory that I will be infinitely rewarded after death as a result; but if I don’t have good reasons to believe that, it’s quite likely false, and I will have deferred those pleasant things unnecessarily.

Plantinga, though, doesn’t look this deeply into the claim. He just notes that although the atheist may not want to believe in God, the theist probably does, so believing in God helps him attain his ends, and the atheist is just wishing that he wouldn’t. But that’s confusing “doing things that help me attain my ends in the long-run” with “doing things that I want to do right now”. One of the benefits of rationality, in fact, is just that it can help us see what will work out best in the long term, even when it’s not the thing we most want to do right now.

Next Plantinga does consider a version of the argument I give above:

A second possibility: proper functioning and allied notions are to be explained in terms of aptness for promoting survival, either at an individual or species level.

And that works, too, and in fact it’s a special case of the end-attaining argument above to the extent that in general our ends include individual and species survival.

Plantinga waves this one away, also, saying “the atheological objector would then owe us an argument for the conclusion that belief in God is indeed less likely to contribute to our individual survival, or the survival of our species than is atheism or agnosticism”, and concludes that that would be a hard argument to make.

I find this baffling! Suddenly, rather than replying to the suggestion that we shouldn’t believe in things (including God) for no good reason, he’s defending theism per se. Surely all that the atheological evidentialist objector (and note that Plantinga has dropped that middle word this time) has to argue is, not that believing in God is less survival promoting than not believing in God, but that believing things for no good reason is less survival promoting than believing things only for good reasons.

And doesn’t that seem awfully plausible?

Plantinga seems to have just dodged here, and that’s disappointing. He seems to entirely forgotten that he started out to respond to the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God without evidence, and reverted to just “well, you can’t prove that believing in God causes bad results!”, which is not the same thing at all.

The last paragraph of the paper is equally disappointing, raising a question that should be so obvious to any philosopher as to not even need asking. I’ll just quote the last three sentences:

The theist has an easy time explaining the notion of our cognitive equipment’s functioning properly: our cognitive equipment functions properly when it functions in the way God designed it to function. The atheist evidential objector, however, owes us an account of this notion. What does he mean when he complains that the theist without evidence displays a cognitive defect of some sort? How does he understand the notion of cognitive malfunction?

If only there were a vast existing literature, much of it not making reference to God at all, about what rationality and cognitive obligation and function and malfunction might mean! If only this vast literature were available in any decent university library, easily accessible by anyone in the Philosophy profession!

Oh, wait…

Next time: the next paper I read, in which Plantinga approaches some of these same things, and some different things, from a different angle, and raises some interesting questions, but still dodges the correct answer. His new book is apparently based on essentially the same argument.

Update: some stuff I forgot to mention. :)


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Yesterday I opined that the Republican presidential candidates are all either insane, lying hypocrites, or both. Just now I heard a WNYC interview with Jon Huntsman, and he sounded relatively sane and honest (if wrong about some of the obvious things).

I may not have to change my statement, though, as it’s not clear that with something like 1% of the current Republican marketshare he actually counts as a candidate.

Someone else on WNYC (yeah, I listen to them alot in the car an’ all) said that the key thing about conservatives (Conservatives?) is something like that they believe that there is a fixed moral base out there. Which pulled me up short for a minute, as an interesting statement.

Because of course there isn’t a fixed moral base out there.

There isn’t in a couple of senses: first, there isn’t some big supernatural divine being who created the universe and has opinions about the morality or otherwise of abortion, same-sex marriage, murder, and so on.

And second, even if there was such a being, that wouldn’t take away the responsibility that every one of us has to decide what’s right and wrong. Sure, one could decide that the Big Being’s moral opinions all are correct, and that one will behave accordingly, but one would still be responsible for having made that decision.

(Personally I would not decide that way; if there were a Big Being, and he did think that oral sex or dancing or chocolate ice cream was evil, I would continue to disagree with him without an awfully good argument. Might, as a matter of simple fact, does not make right.)

Now I don’t think that all Conservatives really believe that there is a fixed moral base out there in this sense, but probably an awful lot of them do, and it’s interesting to think about what the widespread holding of a false belief like that might lead to.

First of all, they will not have much respect for the project of figuring out right and wrong, which the rest of us see as one of the Important Things that we have to do. There’s just no need to talk much about it, to try different things, to have protests; just look up what the Bible (or the Original Framers of the Constitution, or whoever) think on the subject, and you’re done.

Also, they must be sort of frustrated and/or baffled. The world just refuses to behave as it should given that there is a fixed moral base! People do all sorts of immoral things, and they are not struck by lightning or turned to salt or anything. People who believe in other fixed moral bases (which is either nearly as bad as, or even worse than, not believing in any) continue to exist, sometimes even prosper, win wars, and so on. People who believe in no fixed moral basis at all have nice families, pretty clothes, and hardly ever consume human flesh at dreadful midnight rituals. Booming voices from the clouds hardly ever sound to remind us of the rules, and we have had no freshly-minted divinely-inscribed marble slabs in simply ages. How can all this be?

There’s the very popular theory that not following the fixed moral base results in punishments after you die, when you are well out of sight. But how satisfactory can that be, really? It seems so obviously a dodge, even the conservatives in question must feel it sometimes. There must be a terrible yearning for concrete evidence of the fixed moral base, for a voice that will, if not actually boom from the clouds, at least sound so very sure of itself that it makes the doubts seem less devouring.

It must be a sort of scary and lonely thing, really. And it may go quite a ways toward explaining the Republican Presidential field…

(Hm, do I wax a bit condescending there? Nah!)

And to close, here is a Blast from the Past, just because it somehow got stuck in my head earlier today. From a posting of mine to alt.hackers ‘way back in 1996, we present:

  All I Really Want
  (with apologies to Alanis Morissette)

  Well, it's stressing me out,
  The GUI is crawling and all greyed out,
  And you say wha-a-a-a-a-a-a-t a loser!
  I don't want to select anything today,
  I don't like to drag and drop you see
  But I ca-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n't help it.

  There I go clicking before the mouse has settled down
  Slap me with another menu
  And it would use up all my core
  If it hadn't crashed already
  If only I could hunt the Wumpus.

  And all I really want is a shell prompt,
  A place to type netstat -s.
  And all I really want are free cycles,

  Do I wear you out?
  You must wonder why I'm thrashing and all swapped out,
  I'm consumed by the system's bitmaps.
  I'm like Estella
  I like to type it in and then compile it out
  I'm frustrated by your interface.

  And I am frightened by the bloated hugeness of this code,
  If only I could grep the source-tree
  And I am fascinated by the bitly-conscious man,
  I'm humbled by his hacker nature

  What I wouldn't give to find a guru
  Someone who can write tight code
  And what I wouldn't give to find a hacker

Peace, as they say, out.