Alvin Plantinga debates Stephen Law
November 19, 2010 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga discusses the evolutionary argument against naturalism with philosopher Stephen Law. Plantinga, now retired from his position at Notre Dame, is one of the most well known analytic philosophers of recent times. The podcast is targeted at a non academic audience and keeps things on a fairly basic level in non-technical language. Plantinga and Law conduct a congenial, mutually respectful discussion of the issue. Previously.

Briefly, the EAAN is the view that if our minds are the product of evolution, they are unlikely to produce true beliefs because evolution selects for adaptive behaviours, not true beliefs.
posted by fleetmouse (107 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Briefly, the EAAN is the view that if our minds are the product of evolution, they are unlikely to produce true beliefs because evolution selects for adaptive behaviours, not true beliefs.

Indeed, it has taken at least 3.5 billion years of evolution for there to emerge even a single species capable of having what could be called "beliefs;" and the majority of the beliefs this species has ever held have been wrong.

Sounds like the math checks out.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:51 AM on November 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


I always feel like arguments like these are exercises in word-definition, and have nothing to do with logic or philosophy.

Science doesn't depend on people having true beliefs, nor does it depend merely on the power of the human mind to accurately perceive its environment. It depends on reliable and repeatable measurements, and the logical consistency of mathematics and nothing more.
posted by empath at 9:53 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's also very easy to find flaws in human perception psychology. Any book of optical illusions or dime store magic show will expose dozens of ways the human mind can be tricked. Thankfully, we aren't limited to the power of a single human mind when trying to explain and understand the world.
posted by empath at 9:55 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always feel like arguments like these are exercises in word-definition, and have nothing to do with logic or philosophy.

Welcome to the field of analytic philosophy! I'd ask you to enjoy your stay, but that would require a rigorous definition of "you," "enjoy," and "stay," so I won't bother.

Did philosophy as an undergrad. My advisor was actually one of Plantinga's TAs. Glad I did it. Would never, ever want to do it professionally. Wankers.
posted by valkyryn at 10:01 AM on November 19, 2010 [17 favorites]


Briefly, the EAAN is the view that if our minds are the product of evolution, they are unlikely to produce true beliefs because evolution selects for adaptive behaviours, not true beliefs.

Why could something adaptive not also be true? Surely true information about the outside world would be more helpful than false information, in general.

We already know that uneducated human minds don't "produce true beliefs"--look at the tooth fairy and God. The question is whether we can use the subset of our beliefs that seem to be/are true to build up the rest.
posted by DU at 10:01 AM on November 19, 2010


Although there is no logical necessity for adaptive behavior to be based on truth, it often is. Some examples: in order to be able to find food, and also to be able to avoid poisoning yourself, you have to have reasonably true beliefs about what is edible and what is not. In order to avoid being killed by predators, you should have reasonably true beliefs about what kind of creatures are dangerous to people. And so forth. True beliefs are generally quite adaptive. I see no problem with the idea that although human beings are the products of biological evolution, we nonetheless have managed to come up with many true beliefs (along with many delusions, of course - but the advance of human civilization is in part a process of overcoming delusion).
posted by grizzled at 10:01 AM on November 19, 2010


Not to monopolize the thread or anything, but I think the complete inability of human beings to really understand quantum mechanics (its even difficult for quantum physicists!) is a perfect example of the brain being utterly unsuited to having an accurate understanding or perception of a phenomenon. I don't see how that argues against naturalism. We can't directly perceive quantum mechanics, we can't even properly imagine it, and yet we have the formulas and they work. Do we have justified true beliefs about quantum mechanics? I don't know. I don't think we can ever know, but we have a model that works pretty well.

The absolute necessity of theists to have Truth with a capital T is frustrating.
posted by empath at 10:06 AM on November 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


I'm pretty sure Naturalism doesn't care if you believe in it. It doesn't even care if you capitalize it. Evolution does, however, bestow us with an excellent gag reflex. Which makes it difficult for me to continue listening to a podcast that begins with an ad for a Michael Behe lecture.
posted by condour75 at 10:10 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the link. Law v. Platinga seems like a much friendlier debate than Dennett v. Platinga.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:11 AM on November 19, 2010


More seriously, analytic philosophy is the branch of philosophical inquiry which has dominated most English-speaking philosophy departments since the beginning of the last century. We're talking Russell, Wittgenstein, those guys. Conversations are focused largely on language and logic, specifically formal logic. There has been a lot of really interesting and important stuff which has come out of this tradition, but the tradition remains somewhat vulnerable to a emperor-has-no-clothes "You guys are speaking in very precise, rigorous terms about stuff absolutely no one cares about," type challenge. The temptation to avoid getting pulled into rarified discussions of logic and computability is, apparently, difficult to resist.

This is in broad contrast to continental philosophy, which dominated most, well, continental European departments, and is concerned with existentialism, phenomenology, various forms of feminism, post-structuralism, etc. Again, lots of really interesting and important stuff, only here, the challenge is more, "You guys are talking about really important stuff, but you're doing so in impossibly vague, deliberately obfuscatory terms." As in, "I recognize those are all well-formed English/French/German sentences, but what the f*ck are you talking about?"

Obviously, there is a lot of overlap here, and the two traditions are neither mutually exclusive nor defined in opposition to each other. But Plantinga is engaged in a pretty well-defined analytic project, so the instinctive reaction that this is just playing games with words is not entirely off-base.
posted by valkyryn at 10:12 AM on November 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


The absolute necessity of theists to have Truth with a capital T is frustrating.

It's, umm, kind of the whole point, yes?
posted by valkyryn at 10:13 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not to monopolize the thread or anything, but I think the complete inability of human beings to really understand quantum mechanics (its even difficult for quantum physicists!) is a perfect example of the brain being utterly unsuited to having an accurate understanding or perception of a phenomenon.

It starts to make some sense if you do a lot of drugs. Which is also a good entry point for philosophy (and physics for that matter - physicists being our proof here). This is why analytic philosophy is so terrible - these people have clearly never had a good time in their lives. I kid, but, not really.
posted by mek at 10:13 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm always skeptical of probability-based arguments against naturalism, evolution, the age of the earth, etc. It's just a variant of the old "everything is finely-tuned" canard. You can get any output you want (and make your target look ridiculous) just by adjusting the inputs in your little equation.

Most beliefs people have ever held or hold now are false. But so what? That's what science is for.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 10:14 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I shall certainly give this a chance although I find Plantinga extremely unpersuasive in this and many other arguments.

To put it extremely simplistically it seems to me that the EAAN is crucially flawed in several ways, not least the unjustifiably over-generalised degree to which Plantinga ascribes evolutionary "flaws" to our minds. He seems to suggest that because adaptive behaviour can sometimes be "wrong" then none of it can be trusted. This seems self-evidently ridiculous to me. Even more problematical is the way he treats beliefs and ideas as if they were impervious to testing and analysis which, of course, they are not. Further, if we were to accept his reasoning then we can dismiss it as unreliable using, well, the very same reasoning. And that is because the argument is, at root, circular. He's basically saying "I'm going to do some dubious Bayesian assuming to pre-weight the argument the way I want it to be weighted. Then I'm going to use the outcome of that to make an unjustifiably large leap to an unjustifiably general conclusion about the unreliability of beliefs. If you accept that beliefs and ideas are inherently unreliable then, hey, guess what? This particular belief of yours which I don't like should be dismissed, because it's unreliable. Now please don't mention my idea being unreliable."

Right, now I shall actually listen to the thing. :-)
posted by Decani at 10:16 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Analytic philosophy very, very far past its sell-by date. It needs to face up to the fact that it's failed utterly to replace religion and has itself been replaced by science.
posted by lodurr at 10:16 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's, umm, kind of the whole point, yes?

Of what? I'm pretty happy with a reasonable guess.
posted by empath at 10:19 AM on November 19, 2010


Also, it's pretty rich for a theist to be dissing science as having no logical basis. A parable to illustrate:

One day a philosopher and a man discovered they needed to build a house. They had no saw, no hammer and no nails. Only a screwdriver and a pile of wood.

"How can we build a house with a screwdriver?" asked the philosopher.

"It's all we have," said the man.

"But it's completely unsuitable. Only with the greatest of luck will we be able to hack apart a piece and then how will we fasten it together."

"I'm sure we'll figure something out," said the man.

"I prefer to build my house upon a firm, logical foundation," declared the philosopher.

"So....how are you going to build it?" asked the man.

"I will ponder various redefinitions of 'house', 'build' and 'tool' until the problem is solved," he haughtily replied.

Moral: Trying the best you can with what you've got will get you a lot farther a lot more often than defining your beliefs into existence.
posted by DU at 10:20 AM on November 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


This bothers me more and more because it's like listening to flat-earthers. Okay, we are talking about how to put people on Mars, right? Scientists are seriously trying to figure out how that might work, should we just leave them there, etc. And then these people are still stuck on whether the earth is flat, or round. That question is over, it's solved, science left it behind hundreds (maybe thousands) of years ago.

This is the same way. Just today I was thinking of buying this book, which in part discusses how trees independently evolved similar structures for trunks, leaves, photosynthesis, etc. over the past millions of years or whatever.

It's a weird world we live in, where that guy (Colin Tudge) is tracking and figuring out how trees and plants evolved since cyanobacteria slimed their way out of the ocean; meanwhile, people like this guy, Plantinga, are still using very basic reasoning errors (mostly question-begging [c.f. his statements re that theists don't have to worry about unreliable cognition because God created them in his image...]) to argue against a scientific theory people are applying empirically in the real world all the time!
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 10:24 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


We already know that uneducated human minds don't "produce true beliefs"--look at the tooth fairy and God.

I am fairly certain that Plantinga has an ontological proof for the existence of the tooth fairy buried somewhere in his briefcase.

Look, I get it: Plantinga does not want to die, does not want his personal existence to end when his brain activity ceases. I do not want to die, and I do not want my personal existence to end when my brain activity ceases. But I am not going to waste your or my time constructing elaborate proofs to justify and defuse my animal fear of oblivion. I am going to go outside and enjoy this ride while I can and thank the Universe (in impersonal terms) for coughing me up with self-consciousness (however maladaptive it may be) and kiss my wife and then eat a delicious sandwich. Probably not in that order.

I am aware that is not a rigorous refutation. Life is the refutation.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:25 AM on November 19, 2010 [12 favorites]


dammit, now I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to build a house with just 2x4s and a screwdriver.
posted by lodurr at 10:25 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


>It's, umm, kind of the whole point, yes?

Of what? I'm pretty happy with a reasonable guess.


Of being a theist. It's not exactly a philosophically unproblematic position to take, but if you do take it, one of the benefits is that "God said so"/"God made the world that way" becomes a potential answer to other philosophical problems.* If you aren't going to let God, or at least the concept of a god, do any work for you in working out your beliefs, why bother believing in him/one at all?

*Obviously, non-theists won't buy this, but if we're just looking at developing a potentially consistent philosophical framework, this is certainly something a theist can say, yes?
posted by valkyryn at 10:26 AM on November 19, 2010


Look, I went to Notre Dame for law school, where I hung out with a bunch of philosophy students and heard Plantinga speak on a number of occasions. My philosophy professor in undergrad was one of Plantinga's TAs; we read a good chunk of his major epistemological trilogy. If there's one thing I've learned about Plantinga, it's that he enjoys playing around. I'm at work, so I haven't had a chance to listen to this yet, but I can't discount the possibility that he's taking some kind of devil's advocate position and poking holes in naturalism just for shits and giggles.

If this is the case, he wouldn't be alone. This is what analytical philosophers of all stripes do for fun.
posted by valkyryn at 10:31 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


In reply to this problem:
dammit, now I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to build a house with just 2x4s and a screwdriver.
posted by lodurr
I suggest that the first step would be to buy some screws, and a drill (for guide holes).
posted by grizzled at 10:31 AM on November 19, 2010


I was actually picturing using the screwdriver as a chisel-like tool for cutting and fashioning dovetail-like fasteners. Maybe not "true beliefs" but pretty adaptive.
posted by DU at 10:34 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Jeez, philosophy needs better publicists.
posted by painquale at 10:47 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


dammit, now I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to build a house with just 2x4s and a screwdriver.

Step 1: Punch a tree.
posted by empath at 10:56 AM on November 19, 2010 [14 favorites]


On the whole, my impression is that analytical philosophers and scientists are more likely than thoughtful theists to get hot under the collar if you suggest that The Truth doesn't exist. See recent popular philosophy books by Simon Blackburn, Benson and Stangroom, Law himself, and so on. What various people have defended here as the scientific view of the truth is pretty much the pragmatist one, which seems to me to be about as unfashionable among "new atheist" types as creationism (obviously Dennett is informed enough not to dismiss it out of hand, but try mentioning James or even worse Rorty in those sorts of circles and see where it gets you). But what I think James would say (indeed, he probably did say it somewhere) is that if a belief has arisen through evolution because it is useful to that organism, then it is the truth, end of discussion.
posted by nja at 10:58 AM on November 19, 2010


if a belief has arisen through evolution because it is useful to that organism, then it is the truth, end of discussion.

That's fine, but what if you actually do believe in absolute truth and disbelieve in evolution, and find it very useful to do so? Wouldn't that then be the truth, end of discussion?
posted by No Robots at 11:05 AM on November 19, 2010


I was thinking of putting together a post, but will just drop this in here...

So you want to major in analytic philosophy? (via Leiter)

(I am currently a graduate student in analytic philosophy.)

Analytic philosophy very, very far past its sell-by date. It needs to face up to the fact that it's failed utterly to replace religion and has itself been replaced by science.

Huh? Analytic philosophers today include many people who are thiests and religious believers. They're obviously not trying to replace religion. As for being replaced by science, the methods and aims of science and philosophy are rather different. Perhaps if you expand more broadly on how you think science has replaced philosophy, someone will be able to respond.

Valkyrn, I appreciate your sketching out the history, but I don't think your criticism is entirely fair.

It can sometimes be hard to see how philosophical questions bear on practical concerns, but e.g. all these questions about modal logic are related to questions about the existence of God, which in turn effect ethical questions. There's specialization, but the logician, metaphysician, philosopher of religion, ethicist, physician chain of collaboration has real world effects just like the mathematician, physicist, biomedical engineer, physician (say a radiologist) chain of collaboration does. The work of the mathematician and the logician might be obscure, but it's not useless. (But I think you know this or at least you once did [Plato joke!]).

I also haven't watched the podcast yet, but I definitely agree with this:
[You] can't discount the possibility that he's taking some kind of devil's advocate position and poking holes in naturalism just for shits and giggles.

If this is the case, he wouldn't be alone. This is what analytical philosophers of all stripes do for fun.
Even if he takes his argument seriously, it's entirely possible that he's more invested in poking holes in his opponents argument than in defending his own particular account.
posted by Jahaza at 11:10 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


What various people have defended here as the scientific view of the truth is pretty much the pragmatist one, which seems to me to be about as unfashionable among "new atheist" types as creationism

From what I've read of the "New Atheism" authors, your characterization strikes me as a frequently-asserted strawman. As far as I've encountered, they don't so much assert capital-T Truth as shift the burden of proof to the theist. Being outspoken or even "militant" isn't the same as either fundamentalism or claiming absolute knowledge or certainty.
posted by treepour at 11:19 AM on November 19, 2010


On the whole, my impression is that analytical philosophers and scientists are more likely than thoughtful theists to get hot under the collar if you suggest that The Truth doesn't exist.

Huh? The foundation of science lies in the fact that everything is questionable - nothing should be taken as "The Truth". Now, scientists may believe that a "The Truth" exists somewhere out there, but in order to be good at your job you need to be able to come to grips with the fact that you will never know "The Truth" completely. While it is necessary for there to be a "The Truth" in the physical world, it currently does not seem to be necessary in the ethical world.

Also in response to Empath's comment a way back - While science utilizes measurements and other objective tools it still relies on subjective interpretations. How is it determined that a scientific theory has validity? Only by subjective majority opinion. So let's not put science on too high a horse - measurements can be made but it is often difficult to really understand what they mean. So one must always resort to more squishy human judgement in the end.
posted by spaceviking at 11:26 AM on November 19, 2010


The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live--that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.

Nietzsche
posted by phrontist at 11:29 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


It can sometimes be hard to see how philosophical questions bear on practical concerns, but e.g. all these questions about modal logic are related to questions about the existence of God.

In what way to questions about the existence of God have any practical ramifications, beyond the purely political?
posted by empath at 11:34 AM on November 19, 2010


I mean, one scientist believes in god, another doesn't. What practical difference does it make? Where does god factor into their equations?
posted by empath at 11:35 AM on November 19, 2010


Analytic philosophy very, very far past its sell-by date. It needs to face up to the fact that it's failed utterly to replace religion and has itself been replaced by science.

You have no idea what you're talking about.
posted by phrontist at 11:35 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now, scientists may believe that a "The Truth" exists somewhere out there, but in order to be good at your job you need to be able to come to grips with the fact that you will never know "The Truth" completely.

That's the point. Generally, scientists and analytical philosophers (excepting e.g. anti-realists) tend more than (certain) religious types to believe that there is a "fact of the matter" even if they don't know what the fact of the matter is. Certain kinds of religious believers without philsophical or scientific training will fall back on a "this is true for me" stance which those who have that kind of training often find hard to take seriously (perhaps for good reason).
posted by Jahaza at 11:36 AM on November 19, 2010


In what way to questions about the existence of God have any practical ramifications, beyond the purely political?

Are political (and ethical) questions not practical?
posted by Jahaza at 11:37 AM on November 19, 2010


Jahaza: 'Philosophy' and 'Science' were once the same discipline. They aren't anymore and haven't been for a long time, but many philosophers continue to behave as though they have something interesting to say about the nature of reality. In fact, they can only ever really talk about the nature of how we relate to reality. And of that, they're somewhat less qualified to speak than cognitive scientists (who've had the good sense to stop calling themselves philosophers), neurologists, biologists -- well, hell, just about anyone who doesn't make a living doing something like deciding what the difference is between "true beliefs" and "false beliefs" based on thought experiments.

As for philosophy and religion, it's quite clear that the program of philosophers generally has been to claim that they have something to say about the fundamental nature of things. That's traditionally religion's province; more recently it's ground that science and religion have struggled over, with questionable profit to either. Philosophy in general certainly can have a role to play in that; but analytic philosophy can't do anything but make the fight bloodier by increasing the confusion on all sides.

This isn't really a question that's very debatable, in the sense that as a philosopher you're going to want to assume there's value in what you do, and as a reformed philosopher, I'm going to generally assume that 90% of academic philosophy is make-work.

I'll close by posing a question: Since 1950, how has analytic philosophy profited humankind?
posted by lodurr at 11:37 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


You have no idea what you're talking about.

Spoken like someone deeply invested in analytic philosophy.
posted by lodurr at 11:39 AM on November 19, 2010


That's fine, but what if you actually do believe in absolute truth and disbelieve in evolution, and find it very useful to do so? Wouldn't that then be the truth, end of discussion?

It certainly wouldn't be worth debating with someone who believed that on the grounds that they hadn't actually got any knowledge of The Truth. You might be able to show that their beliefs were not in fact useful (James didn't disbelieve in the existence of verifiable facts about the external world, and obviously a belief which is at variance with reality is often going to be extremely damaging). But basically, yes - this as I understand it is more or less why Rorty gave up banging his head against other philosophers (who then took against him for refusing to play that game any more). There are more congenial things to do with your life than arguing about something that nobody can possibly agree on, just because you enjoy arguing.

Treepour - are you saying that Pragmatism is widely accepted and admired among "new atheists", or that it is incompatible with science? Neither is true, in my experience.
posted by nja at 11:40 AM on November 19, 2010


I'll close by posing a question: Since 1950, how has analytic philosophy profited humankind?

Meh, thinking about stuff is always valuable on some level, even if you're you're wrong.

That said, computer science and AI is pretty hard to distinguish from philosophy, and a lot of theoretical AI work grew out of analytical philosophy from what I understand.
posted by empath at 11:44 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


phrontist, I'll really close out of this debate with one observation: The passage you quote from Nietzsche is basically a scientific insight, not a philosophical one, and it's one that modern analytical philosophers would be loathe to accept in that simple form. Yet that simple form is basically the crux of evolutionary biology.

I'm an empiricist at heart. Even the wildest theoretical science is empirical at some level. Philosophy is usually (and analytic philosophy moreso) anti-empirical, and so I don't see it as having much value for the practical business of living and of advancing human knowledge.

And with that, I will bow out. I am frankly not at my spiritual best, as it were, in these discussions; I hold the field in contempt, and it's very difficult for me to keep that in check.
posted by lodurr at 11:45 AM on November 19, 2010


how has analytic philosophy profited humankind

It has resolved conceptual confusions, clearing the way for creative thought in other disciplines - physics and neuroscience come to mind.
posted by phrontist at 11:46 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


The passage you quote from Nietzsche is basically a scientific insight, not a philosophical one

That statement is a philosophical one. You disagree? Congratulations, you're philosophizing.
posted by phrontist at 11:47 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


empath, CS and AI are nevertheless pretty ruthlessly empirical -- it's just that the results aren't necessarily physical. AI started making a lot more progress when it stopped spending so much time worrying about whether the 'bots had mental states, and just started trying to build the damn things.
posted by lodurr at 11:47 AM on November 19, 2010


Phrontist basically puts his finger on the problem. When you say "I'm an empiricist at heart." You're not doing SCIENCE!, you're doing philosophy.
posted by Jahaza at 11:48 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since 1950, what conceptual confusions have been cleared by analytic philosophy, and how have they cleared the way for what creating thought in which disciplines?

And "congratulations, you're philosophizing" -- ah, I think you mistake me. I simply object to the idea that a bunch of academic philosophers have anything to tell me that I shouldn't regard as over-ruled by empirical results.
posted by lodurr at 11:51 AM on November 19, 2010


DU: Why could something adaptive not also be true? Surely true information about the outside world would be more helpful than false information, in general.

Not really. Take for example the gambler's fallacy in which even very smart people who should know better usually make the wrong choice. A cognitive bias that prevents us from recognizing independent random events is certainly adaptive for an environment where independent random events tend to be rare but a financial disaster for gambling addicts.

There's also the rather interesting behavioral quirk that intermittent reinforcement is stronger than consistent reinforcement. Again, less than ideal behavior from a game perspective but reasonable when you think about the fact that a primate needs to know about marginal resources in addition to easy ones.

Pinker before he jumped the shark by yelling that everyone else in the field is wrong cited some clever research around disgust and food taboos. Which suggest adaptive value in terms of knowing what's safe in a hostile environment, but false in our modern markets.

Then there's the problem of memory as an imaginative, inferential, and creative process. The bottom line: all your memories are false to varying degrees. But silly me, I'm mostly comfortable with the possibility that "Truth" is problematic and not especially worried about our status as rationalizing rather than rational animals.

treepour: From what I've read of the "New Atheism" authors, your characterization strikes me as a frequently-asserted strawman. As far as I've encountered, they don't so much assert capital-T Truth as shift the burden of proof to the theist. Being outspoken or even "militant" isn't the same as either fundamentalism or claiming absolute knowledge or certainty.

Yes, I agree with this. New Atheists admit that the theory of evolution is likely to change with new evidence over the next century. However, the odds of evolution being completely false in favor of ID or YEC are vanishingly small in the face of overwhelming evidence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:55 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jahaza and phrontist: I was unaware that by buying into basic ideas about empirical reasoning and using my brain I was engaging in academic analytical philosophy. But if you say that's true, I'm prepared to assume my professorship.

BTW, I think your professors would probably cringe at the equivalence of what we're engaging in here with "philosophy" as performed by Plantinga et al.
posted by lodurr at 11:55 AM on November 19, 2010


Science doesn't depend on people having true beliefs, nor does it depend merely on the power of the human mind to accurately perceive its environment. It depends on reliable and repeatable measurements, and the logical consistency of mathematics and nothing more.

This explains why science measured the ways in which white men were so awesome for so long, with numbers and everything -- no inquiry into beliefs required!
posted by mobunited at 11:57 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


lodurr: Oh, so you were talking about academic analytic philosophy the whole time?
posted by phrontist at 11:58 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


In what way to questions about the existence of God have any practical ramifications, beyond the purely political?

Doesn't Wittgenstein make a point about someone who has survived unspeakable horrors, disemboweled children, rape, etc. That person understandably just wants to die. Religion comforts them to the point that they can go on, and continue living. That the most practical ramification ever.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:59 AM on November 19, 2010


The existence of God has no practical ramifications whatsoever, and anyone who disagrees can burn in hell for all I care.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 12:03 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem with analytic philosophy is that it was pretty much destroyed by Godel. Well at least any hope of constructing a self consistent philosophy that is. The only "real" philosophy that is of any lasting value goes on in physics departments. In my opinion the real exciting stuff is going on pertains the interface between quantum physics, cognitive neuroscience, and consciousness studies.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:09 PM on November 19, 2010


Much of Vonnegut's work in general and Galapagos explicitly is based around the concept that self-conscious cognition is an evolutionary dead-end. It emerged as the culmination of a huge set of successful adaptations but is itself an evolutionary branch that is sure to fail; a branch that nature will inevitably grind back out of existence as it leads to non-survival-enhancing behaviors like neuroses, greed, self-doubt, and ennui.
posted by Babblesort at 12:23 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


In what way to questions about the existence of God have any practical ramifications, beyond the purely political?

They allow us to examine the ways in which very big claims can be examined and tested. Also, all of Western philosophy after the Dark Ages.

I'll close by posing a question: Since 1950, how has analytic philosophy profited humankind?

Nuclear deterrence, logistics, computer programming -- the applications of game theory alone have been extraordinarily beneficial. They have created problems of their own, however. Watching a documentary the other day I saw John Nash speculate that the extreme selfish orientation of his own work was probably related to the mental health issues he was battling at the time, and were probably too dismal.

Cultural and personal biases can creep into our thinking at such a fundamental level that we should be skeptical of projects that claim to describe and organize the prosaic elements of life according to a rational system. We can never be sure we are generating rational premises due to unexamined biases and insufficient information.

One of the ironies of religious thinking is that it has historically been a vehicle for intellectual liberation as well as repression. Having an anchor for one's thinking that is non-falsifiable and vaguely defined means we approach everything related to it with some uncertainty and maybe a feeling of "play" -- but the social role of religion as authority has encouraged the a kind of closet Platonism. When the Church ran science and philosophy, the tendency was to believe that God must have made the place rational as the Awesome Greeks understood it, and that pragmatically useful things must also be profoundly true. New Atheism has not really abandoned that cultural bias.

By the way, this bias is so deeply embedded in our thinking that it is really hard to get at. Sometimes we can find ways to liberate ourselves in alternative traditions, but the danger is that we end up acting like pseudoscientific flakes. For example, in Mahayana Buddhism you have Nagarjuna and two-truths doctrine, which arise not from the pot-smoking of college Buddhists that make us all cringe, but a methodical set of arguments against the ability to categorize phenomena with certainty (sunyata) -- and the understanding that we have to pretend things are comprehensible to get by.

Emptiness may represent a cognitive limitation that we cannot overcome, and which we need to set aside to get things done, but it can still be useful as a check on assumptions that keeps us from, say, pursuing existentially risky projects. We currently carry burdens that arose from believing we could rationalize our way out of problems without examining premises -- environmental and ecological problems stand out here. We are powerful enough actors on the world now that we can no longer act, then play catch-up with the side effects of our cognitive limitations. I think we need a more developed philosophy of uncertainty as a cultural value and as an factor in decision theory.

TL; DR: Analytical philosophy has been and is useful, but it's not perfect, and we need tools that take into account the fact that we may suck the whole process of thinking about things.
posted by mobunited at 12:36 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


The work of the mathematician and the logician might be obscure, but it's not useless.

Oh, I know. In principle anyway. At its most basic, analytic philosophy is incredibly useful in detecting and resolving misunderstandings based on equivocation. It's certainly done me a lot of good. I'd be willing to advance an argument that a significant number of societal and inter-personal conflicts are, at root, basically just equivocation problems, and that there is no better tool for resolving such problems than a dose of analytic philosophy.

But I'm going to be pretty insistent that both fields have a sort of threshold of abstruseness, beyond which you're just goofing off, and that a depressing percentage of the output in both fields is on the wrong side of that threshold.
posted by valkyryn at 12:44 PM on November 19, 2010


When the Church ran science and philosophy, the tendency was to believe that God must have made the place rational as the Awesome Greeks understood it, and that pragmatically useful things must also be profoundly true.

Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the belief in the profound truth of pragmatically useful things is one of the intellectual distinctions between European (and Islamic) cultures and African/East Asian cultures. If you don't have a compelling cultural reason to believe that the world is going to act in any kind of predictable way, empirical science isn't a terribly intuitive notion.
posted by valkyryn at 12:47 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


... the applications of game theory alone have been extraordinarily beneficial.

Yikes! If game theory falls under this domain, I am suddenly in possession of advanced degrees in Analytic Philosophy. Given these exciting new qualifications let me say: this problem is typically solved by papers having a 'true' title, followed by a colon and then an 'empirical' subtitle. e.g.: "Evolving Towards Truthiness: Uniform Convergence in Beliefs in Multi-Arm Bandit Problems". This way, scientists can like the useful subtitle, and philosophers can take the silly title a bit too seriously.
posted by ~ at 1:09 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


When the Church ran science and philosophy, the tendency was to believe that God must have made the place rational as the Awesome Greeks understood it, and that pragmatically useful things must also be profoundly true.

Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the belief in the profound truth of pragmatically useful things is one of the intellectual distinctions between European (and Islamic) cultures and African/East Asian cultures. If you don't have a compelling cultural reason to believe that the world is going to act in any kind of predictable way, empirical science isn't a terribly intuitive notion.


Ugh. So you are saying there was no empirical science in Asia?
posted by empath at 1:21 PM on November 19, 2010


I like Stephen Law's example of a person dying of thirst believing that water is to be found to the south (perhaps based on evidence?), and surviving because that is a true belief.

It's obviously highly unlikely that someone in this situation, believing (correctly) that water is to the south, would end up actually going north (in the absence of any other reasoning), because human "beliefs" (at least about everyday things like the location of objects in space) are always closely connected to the mental model of the world we use to plan and execute our actions.

Doesn't that thought experiment basically destroy the whole idea of Plantinga?
posted by snoktruix at 1:56 PM on November 19, 2010


Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the belief in the profound truth of pragmatically useful things is one of the intellectual distinctions between European (and Islamic) cultures and African/East Asian cultures. If you don't have a compelling cultural reason to believe that the world is going to act in any kind of predictable way, empirical science isn't a terribly intuitive notion.

This makes no sense to me. Culture and beliefs around tool use, social interaction, interaction with other animals (hunting, domestication, etc.), all of the very basic things shared by all cultures rely on the world acting in a predictable way. In fact, I would say that the primary function of our conscious mind, logical manipulations, communication, or whatever you want to throw in there, is to build up models of the world that produce useful predictions (useful to basic survival and reproduction, maybe).

The scientific method happens to be a very good tool for producing models that not only produce reliable predictions but that can be communicated between people with a common framework, but the idea that "belief in the profound truth of pragmatically useful things" is not a belief that is common across cultures is strange to me. I think it would be trivial to think of profound truths that are considered worth believing in because of their pragmatic implications in every culture in the world, and that has nothing to do with science.

I think that common ground exactly what makes science "intuitive" for people in any culture, once it's pragmatism and the quality of its predictions have been demonstrated. We all want to make predictions that have beneficial outcomes for our lives, and that is because we are trying to survive and live well, not because of any specific cultural underpinnings.
posted by beegull at 2:02 PM on November 19, 2010


The analogy I sometimes use to explain the value of philosophy as a discipline to people who like to shrug it off is this:

Think of it as akin to political protests in the capital, or even political muckraking in journalism.

A lot of political protests are incomprehensible, stupid, or just kookie to people who aren't invested in them. A lot of political muckraking in journalism is a muddy waste of time that leaves everybody smelling of shit. However, every once in a while those protests acheive something valuable in spite of the hecklers. Every once on a while, those muckrakers come upon a real scandal to break.

All these things help keep the government honest, when they work correctly.

Philosophy like this serves a similar purpose. By constantly picking at very basic questions like "what does it mean when I say I 'know' something?" philosophy works to keep other disciplines honest. It chips at assumptions, and works to make them stronger in the process.

Philosophy is the "root discipline" behind all others. It's purpose is to stop others from getting dishonest, or straying from working towards "truth."

But that could just be the bias of a few too many years of doing it speaking.
posted by generichuman at 2:03 PM on November 19, 2010


I suppose you can always redefine what you think "belief" means to muddy the waters. "The mental model of the world we use to plan and execute our actions" could even be taken as a reasonable definition of "beliefs", in which case there is trivially no disconnect between them. In reality, we don't know enough about how the human mind works to rigorously connect the idea of beliefs and the physical neural structures that natural selection operates on, but we can be reasonably certain (based on things like that thought experiment) that at least in sentient beings they are extremely closely connected (in some difficult to define sense..).
posted by snoktruix at 2:03 PM on November 19, 2010


I like Stephen Law's example of a person dying of thirst believing that water is to be found to the south (perhaps based on evidence?), and surviving because that is a true belief.

It's obviously highly unlikely that someone in this situation, believing (correctly) that water is to the south, would end up actually going north (in the absence of any other reasoning), because human "beliefs" (at least about everyday things like the location of objects in space) are always closely connected to the mental model of the world we use to plan and execute our actions.

Doesn't that thought experiment basically destroy the whole idea of Plantinga?


I may be wrong, but to me it's the disconnect between the truth of a belief and its potential positive selective effect that Plantinga is getting at. So, if you accept naturalism and evolution, it is entirely possible to have false beliefs that do not effect or even has a positive effect the survival and reproduction of a living thing. Since it is the final effect on survival that determines whether a belief is selected for or not, you would have to work backwards to judge the truth of the belief. If the final behavior that helped a creature survive is to go south to find water, well I think it is pretty easy to imagine myriad possible beliefs that would lead to that behavior, many of which could contradict each other or seem on their surface obviously untrue. So given the evolution/naturalism combination, the truth of all beliefs becomes no more likely than the untruth.

Here's a silly example. I am thirsty and have to decide to go either north or south. I believe that there is a thirst demon that lives to the north, and that I must battle it with my willpower, by travelling away from it's influence. When I have won that battle, water will appear to alleviate my thirst and signal my victory. I win the battle and survive, does that mean my belief was true? What would make a simple belief that there is water to the south more true?

Personally, I tend towards the killer combo of naturalism/evolution and have no problem with accepting that (assuming Plantinga's arguments were coherent) you cannot simultaneously believe in those things AND believe in the truth of naturalism. I am fine with a naturalistic view being merely a part of an overall model of the universe that is neither true, nor untrue, but that fits with my perception of the world and provides meaningful predictions for living my life and building up my model further. For me, it's about probabilities and pragmatism, and I think making the issue about truth just works in favor of religions and philosophies that rely on that sort of truth to have any predictive weight.
posted by beegull at 2:50 PM on November 19, 2010


Here's a silly example. I am thirsty and have to decide to go either north or south. I believe that there is a thirst demon that lives to the north, and that I must battle it with my willpower, by travelling away from it's influence. When I have won that battle, water will appear to alleviate my thirst and signal my victory. I win the battle and survive, does that mean my belief was true? What would make a simple belief that there is water to the south more true?

Well, in one case we have a man who goes south because (say) he sees a glint of what could be a lake on the horizon. In the other, we have a man who goes south because of his spurious belief in the thirst demon. Both get to have a drink, but the demonist obviously just got really lucky. Clearly, the other guy is actually going to do better in the long run because his actions are based on reality.

It's simply less likely that having false beliefs is going to lead to a successful life. Maybe that's hard to prove, but I think it's intuitively obvious. Therefore evolution selects for true beliefs.
posted by snoktruix at 3:07 PM on November 19, 2010


So you are saying there was no empirical science in Asia?

Not a ton. The scientific revolution, insofar as it represented an attempt to be thoroughly empirical endeavor, was pretty uniquely a European phenomenon. East Asia, heck, the entire world except for Europe, North America, and various colonies, was scientifically essentially the same in AD 900 and AD 1900.

I think it would be trivial to think of profound truths that are considered worth believing in because of their pragmatic implications in every culture in the world, and that has nothing to do with science.

I think that common ground exactly what makes science "intuitive" for people in any culture, once it's pragmatism and the quality of its predictions have been demonstrated.


Except, empirically speaking, that just isn't true. In fact, it's a controversial idea in the philosophy of science. "Scientific" thought, i.e. making conclusions based on evidence backed by observation rather than on intuition and thought experiments, is actually pretty damned counter-intuitive. I mean, Aristotle thought that a body in motion would eventually come to rest on its own, and that's still how most people think about physics. People intuitively think that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and that the Earth is flat. As to that last one, I don't mean flat-earthers, I mean the way people think about maps and distances; they may intellectual know that the world is round, but they treat it like it's flat.

Science is not only not intuitive for most cultures, it may not even be intuitive in ours. But somehow, despite that cultural inertia (if you'll forgive the pun), Europeans somehow came up with the scientific method. No one else did, not in millennia of human history. If empirical science was as intuitive as you seem to think, why didn't someone come up with it before?
posted by valkyryn at 3:23 PM on November 19, 2010


Actually I suppose you could religion as a counterexample - in many highly successful human cultures the entire population had (and has..) false beliefs in various gods and demons. But this is because the survival disadvantage of believing in a false religion is low (or maybe it is even an advantage, to help cohere society and so on).
posted by snoktruix at 3:27 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, in one case we have a man who goes south because (say) he sees a glint of what could be a lake on the horizon. In the other, we have a man who goes south because of his spurious belief in the thirst demon. Both get to have a drink, but the demonist obviously just got really lucky. Clearly, the other guy is actually going to do better in the long run because his actions are based on reality.

It's simply less likely that having false beliefs is going to lead to a successful life. Maybe that's hard to prove, but I think it's intuitively obvious. Therefore evolution selects for true beliefs.


No, I don't think so. Evolution selects for beliefs that for whatever reason produce behaviors that have a positive effect on survival and reproduction. That does not mean that evolution selects for true beliefs. If you add in the glint of the lake, in the above example, that might be the clue the demon-believer needs to determine the direction of the demon. That could produce a behavior just as consistent and predictable as the person with a simple belief that the glint signifies water. The predictive outcome of the model determines it's effect on selection, but not it's truth or untruth.
posted by beegull at 3:32 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


beegull: Since it is the final effect on survival that determines whether a belief is selected for or not, you would have to work backwards to judge the truth of the belief.

snoktruix: Therefore evolution selects for true beliefs.

Oh, as someone who jumped out of biology for cognitive psychology, these are statements that make me cringe. Establish that mental maps of the world (a high-level and learned form of knowledge) are genetic and then we can talk about evolutionary selective pressure on belief. Until you can show how and to what extent inheritance influences a behavior, you can't say much about biological evolution WRT that behavior.

Now having said that, irrational behavior of various kinds is so ubiquitous among human beings that Plantinga's statement that human cognition isn't reliable is trivially true. Your first memory? Wrong. Your ability to fairly judge people having seen them? Wrong. (You think you can? Almost certainly wrong.) Your ability to evaluate the odds of a game of chance? Wrong unless you have training otherwise. Understanding the dynamics of heliocentrism? 50% of Harvard graduates get that wrong even with basic science education.

So the problem of getting True beliefs in spite of human brains being subjective, biased, and error-prone is a serious conundrum. Plantinga appears to handwave the problem, not with methodology, but by saying that our crappy, irrational, and biased brains are divine works of God and therefore occasionally able to be right. And to me, that's wishful thinking. The fact that he's spinning off of Lewis's TAG is a clear sign to me that it's rationalizing away a hard problem because the thought of no easy objective knowledge is horrifying.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:37 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't get what the big deal is. The incompatibility between evolution and naturalism is actually a very good starting point. It would help explain why our civilization is basically on the verge of destroying itself. But instead this otherwise very deep thinker couches it as an attack on irreligious science and philosophy as a way to push his Christian stuff. It certainly reads way in the Wikipedia articles.
posted by polymodus at 3:43 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Except, empirically speaking, that just isn't true. In fact, it's a controversial idea in the philosophy of science. "Scientific" thought, i.e. making conclusions based on evidence backed by observation rather than on intuition and thought experiments, is actually pretty damned counter-intuitive. I mean, Aristotle thought that a body in motion would eventually come to rest on its own, and that's still how most people think about physics. People intuitively think that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and that the Earth is flat. As to that last one, I don't mean flat-earthers, I mean the way people think about maps and distances; they may intellectual know that the world is round, but they treat it like it's flat.

Science is not only not intuitive for most cultures, it may not even be intuitive in ours. But somehow, despite that cultural inertia (if you'll forgive the pun), Europeans somehow came up with the scientific method. No one else did, not in millennia of human history. If empirical science was as intuitive as you seem to think, why didn't someone come up with it before?


Yah, the idea the fact that people "think that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and that the Earth is flat" is based on people's direct observations, not intuition or thought experiments. If you flew an open minded flat-earther up in a space shuttle, what they observed would quickly overwhelm any thought experiments that may have "proving" the earth was flat. Thought experiments do not, and never have, happened in a vacuum without any input from observations. Do you think people have developed and improved tools, for example, entirely through thought experiments, and an intuitive knack for random tool improvements? Science leads to counter-intuitive conclusions because the models that we are building are becoming increasingly complex and divorced from the normal interactions with the world that we perceive day to day, but that doesn't mean that less rigorous cycles of prediction and observation haven't been used for a very long time to produce meaningful models of the world.
posted by beegull at 3:45 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


People intuitively think that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and that the Earth is flat. As to that last one, I don't mean flat-earthers, I mean the way people think about maps and distances; they may intellectual know that the world is round, but they treat it like it's flat.

Sorry, i talked about flat-earthers when that was explicitly not what you were talking about. But the same point still holds, people think of the earth as flat because they perceive it that way, not because of intuition, or because of thought experiments that lead them to conclude the earth is indeed flat.
posted by beegull at 3:49 PM on November 19, 2010


And for the record, I don't actually think science is "intuitive" in our culture or any other culture. I think people, in general and certainly across cultures, share an appreciation for any model or tool that produces meaningful and useful predictions. Science is good at that. It was the idea that some underlying cultural values favoring pragmatic truths somehow made science MORE intuitive in some cultures that I found to be strange and unsupported. I think all cultures favor pragmatic models (and the "truths" that go with them), so it only took the demonstration of science as a tool for producing those models for non-western cultures to adopt science.
posted by beegull at 4:04 PM on November 19, 2010


Oh, as someone who jumped out of biology for cognitive psychology, these are statements that make me cringe. Establish that mental maps of the world (a high-level and learned form of knowledge) are genetic and then we can talk about evolutionary selective pressure on belief. Until you can show how and to what extent inheritance influences a behavior, you can't say much about biological evolution WRT that behavior.

I don't think that individual beliefs are selected for, but I think the idea was that the evolution/naturalism combo implies that beliefs, in general, have to confer some selective advantage to exist at all. Individual beliefs are built up in a model that is connected somehow but very separate from the inherited model, but the capacity for belief must have evolved, right? And this is about the disconnect between that capacity and any true beliefs.
posted by beegull at 4:17 PM on November 19, 2010


If you don't have a compelling cultural reason to believe that the world is going to act in any kind of predictable way, empirical science isn't a terribly intuitive notion.

This is not really what I was talking about.

The Western tradition is not about how awesome science is. The Western tradition is about how the models created by rational thinking (empirical or not) reflect an ensemble of transcendentally true things. These beliefs do not exist in spite of theism. In fact, these beliefs were transmitted to the West specifically because it looked like they supported theist beliefs.

You can have all the cool science you want without believing you're flying toward God or an ultimate ensemble of Forms. In my view the tendency to think this way contains a psychological trap where we believe that we can overcome any cognitive or practical limitation because completeness and omnipotence, like AI, are just five years away. Intellectual-religious thinking of the type that dominates liberal monotheism may actually be better at protecting us from this trick than atheism because it is so wishy-washy, lets-talk-about-it about what it puts at the head of Truth. Compare with accounts of Raptures as literal predictions, be it by animal-mashup angels or uploaded consciousness.

(Liberal religion is a lot like the Queen in Commonwealth countries. She doesn't make any sense, but her existence takes away ritual power from decision makers, allowing you to ask them questions without being accused of disloyalty.)

What I'm saying is that we need to get rid of the last vestiges of the quasi-Platonism and replace it with some principle of self-doubt that does not feed back into arrogance either through overbroad claims of rigour (New Atheism) or through arbitrary morality (religious belief). The reason I referred to sunyata is that even though it's a Buddhist thing, it can be looked at without Buddhist premises -- it's only mystical when you get to the special pleading that the Buddha-nature is capable of breaking through that ignorance. Certainly I would never say that this is about science vs. nonscience via the West knowing anything special.
posted by mobunited at 4:24 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I agree my statement was naive. I've tried to refine my position into a set of assertions:

1) Evolution selects for genes that build brains that "produce behaviors that have a positive effect on survival and reproduction".

2) In humans, behaviors are determined by a (strongly genetically influenced) mental model of the world in the brain (and associated 'executive decision maker' which takes its raw data from the model), what we call a human's "beliefs" about the world.

3) The closer the mental model of the world in the brain is to the real world, the better equipped the executive is to command behaviors which improve survival and reproduction chances.

4) Therefore, natural selection tends to produce mental models i.e. beliefs (being the underling mechanism of human behavior) which more and more closely resemble reality (i.e. "true beliefs").

I assume statement 2) would be the most objectionable to the cognitive psychologist, who questions whether our mental models/maps are genetically influenced at all.

He might still agree with statement 3) though, which if true is the source of the connection "between the truth of a belief and its potential positive selective effect" which Plantinga is questioning.

So I think while it is true that "evolution does not select for true beliefs", I think it does select for accurate mental models because those are better at producing survival benefits. [A plausible argument for 3) is that a mental model more accurate in some respect is likely to confer a net benefit and unlikely to cause harm, while one less accurate might by lucky chance confer benefit but is equally or more likely to cause harm].

A human who reasons "the glint of the lake determines the direction of the demon" was rather lucky to have decided that the demon is exactly in the opposite direction to the glint. The human who reasons that "the glint of the link is where the water is" required no luck.
posted by snoktruix at 4:27 PM on November 19, 2010


Do you think people have developed and improved tools, for example, entirely through thought experiments, and an intuitive knack for random tool improvements?

Considering that peasants in 1950s China were using the same tools their ancestors were using in pre-historic times and that plenty of people in Africa still are, they may as well have been. Whatever people were doing, it wasn't working very well. Something new and different happened in Europe starting around 1500. There's certainly discussion about what that is and why it happened there, but no real debate on that point.
posted by valkyryn at 4:36 PM on November 19, 2010


I think all cultures favor pragmatic models (and the "truths" that go with them), so it only took the demonstration of science as a tool for producing those models for non-western cultures to adopt science.

And I think that you're setting up "science" as some kind of neutral universal instead of the incredibly Western cultural phenomenon that it is.
posted by valkyryn at 4:37 PM on November 19, 2010


I am so off base it alarms me
posted by clavdivs at 4:49 PM on November 19, 2010


And I think that you're setting up "science" as some kind of neutral universal instead of the incredibly Western cultural phenomenon that it is.

Nope, I'm saying that science is a tool whose value can be recognized because of a common desire for good predictions, and there's nothing special (when it comes to valuing predictive, pragmatic truths) about western culture that makes it so. I think there are currently scientists and science being done in many places, and not all of those places are also adopting other, unscientific, aspects of western culture.
posted by beegull at 5:28 PM on November 19, 2010


Yikes! If game theory falls under this domain, I am suddenly in possession of advanced degrees in Analytic Philosophy.

Well, there's some debate about the continuity of decision theory and game theory, but here are two philosophers famous for their work in decision theory. Richard Jeffry, Michael Resnik.

But if it's game theory you specifically want, there's an argument (that I think is correct, but I'm open to correction) that the prisoner's dilemma is variation of Newcomb's Paradox, which the philosopher Robert Nozick made into a famous philosophical problem. If you get deep into game and decision theory, you end up in philosophy.

So don't be so snide about the uselessness of philosophy. It's a broad field and includes people doing a wide variety of work, much of which underpins the "real" stuff done by natural and social scientists.
posted by Marty Marx at 5:32 PM on November 19, 2010


"...Feed me Jack and You Fed Me"
posted by clavdivs at 6:07 PM on November 19, 2010


2) In humans, behaviors are determined by a (strongly genetically influenced) mental model of the world in the brain (and associated 'executive decision maker' which takes its raw data from the model), what we call a human's "beliefs" about the world.

This is sloppy because it looks to be doubtful that there's a singular "mental model" of the world. We have neural pathways that understand the motion of objects. We have neural pathways that relate to reward/response behavior. We have neural pathways for flight/fight response. We have neural pathways for recognizing facial expression. We have neural pathways for determining the significance of memory.

"Mental models" are post-hoc imaginative rationalizations, as are "beliefs."

3) The closer the mental model of the world in the brain is to the real world, the better equipped the executive is to command behaviors which improve survival and reproduction
chances.


Well, setting aside the issue that "mental models" are only slightly less dubious than an Oedipal complex, this is demonstrably false.

Reason 1, Game Theory: Let's take flight/fight for example. False positives pose little risk. False negatives pose severe risks. Therefore, our instinctive risk assessment is primed for over-detection of threats, from your nephew jumping out of a hallway and shouting "boo" to initial disgust at unfamiliar food. This also explains why intermittent rewards are more satisfying than consistent ones. Reinforcing the high-effort, low-reward actions is critically important in an environment where every reward counts.

Reason 2, Information Processing: Our algorithms for processing visual information use lossy perceptual compression. Most of the stuff outside of your immediate focus attention is filled in using your imagination. The more trivial examples of this are so-called optical illusions, but more interesting is the fact that it's possible to knock out parts of the brain that handle specific types of visual stimuli. So you have people for whom moving objects are completely invisible.

Reason 3, Memory: Again lossy perceptual compression at work. The details of your first memory? All bullshit cobbled together from other events, family stories, and your imagination. Perhaps more critically, given 15 minutes and a reasonably good relationship, a skilled psychologist or lawyer can make you remember things about last Monday that never even happened.

If human cognition was primed for accuracy, con men, casinos, and magicians wouldn't make a cent. 90% of stage magic is manipulating the audience's attention so that a magician can walk a guy in a gorilla suit through the nice big comfy hole in your "mental model."

I assume statement 2) would be the most objectionable to the cognitive psychologist, who questions whether our mental models/maps are genetically influenced at all.

Well, the the most probable reading of this is that this is a straw man. I didn't argue that genetics had no influence. I argued that beliefs defined in the form of context-specific declarative and procedural knowledge are probably not genetic, and therefore not directly influenced by evolution. How do you find water? If you're in a city, look for a water fountain. If you're in Hoosier National Forest, look downhill for sycamore trees. If you're in rural lowcountry, walk in a straight line until you fall in it. If you're in a seasonal desert, look for safe pulpy plants.

But taking it at face value, how genetics and learned behaviors interact is a key question in looking at the evolution of behavior. If you're not asking that question, you're not doing your job as a participant in this discussion. And there again, you have to deal with the fact that just about every form of human information processing cuts corners and produces adaptive wrong answers.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:56 PM on November 19, 2010


To take as an example, even after 275 years of urbanization, squirrels in my city run away when a human walks in their general direction. Humans that actually pose a threat are relatively rare (and they have guns, so running away won't help), but natural selection works on the principle of "better safe than sorry." The safe risk assessment that every big land-bound mammal is a potential predator is more adaptive than the accurate risk assessment that most humans don't care as long as you don't crap on them.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:13 PM on November 19, 2010


To calibrate an instinct to be "primed for over-detection of threats" don't you ned to be getting accurate data about the threat in the first place? That seems to be a question of response, not of having an accurate model.

It's interesting that various systems in our brains are lossy and fuzzy and prone to various mistakes in special circumstances, but I suspect this has more to do with having to "cut corners" in order to process vast amounts of data in realtime, than any inherent benefit to being fuzzy over being perfect. Also, these systems are surely also incredibly good at their jobs despite not being perfect, some of the most amazing examples of selection producing a sophisticated biological system tuned to perform a specific complex function very well (if not perfectly).

Obviously genetics doesn't provide our specific beliefs, but we clearly have some form of relatively sophisticated mental model pre-programmed in which to slot our specific experiences (perhaps in the form of multiple interacting systems rather than one overarching one, but it surely must be there).
posted by snoktruix at 7:27 PM on November 19, 2010


Sorry, translate "mental model" into say "cognitive systems" to make it less painful. I don't want to claim that the brain literally generates a model of the world in some internal representation - as you say, that's doubtful.
posted by snoktruix at 7:46 PM on November 19, 2010


I like how at the very end, they played a tiny, tiny snippet of the song "Unbelievable" by EMF.

By my estimation, theism dies by the same sword Plantinga would have naturalism die. So the argument says nothing, as it works equally well (or poorly) against all positions.

Here's a nice pie:
http://www.adherents.com/images/rel_pie.gif

At most, one slice of the above pie can be correct. This leaves the majority of the people, regardless of which slice is correct, if any, in the state of being incorrect. What was that about our unreliable cognitive faculties? Duh.

Science is our way of cross-checking our unreliable cognitive faculties and weeding out the mistakes.

Contrast this with, oh, lets say, Christianity's demand for faith -- which, so far as I can tell is the demand for belief to a degree of certainty which exceeds what it warranted by the available evidence. There is no mechanism in "faith" at all for weeding out mistakes. There is no way to tell mistaken faith from "true" faith at all. If something is taken on faith, something is taken on nothing. It is just taken, like a little child, like a fool, like an idiot.

Also, consider the oh-so-far-fetched notion that members of any given slice of the above pie might be disinclined to associate, much less mate, with members of different pie slices, and you have a recipe for natural selection favoring membership of a pie slice not because its beliefs are true, but because they are popular. Members of the popular pie slices will have more choices in friendships, allies and mates than members of unpopular pie slices. This is how theism dies by the same sword Plantinga would wield against naturalism. Theisms -- beliefs about deities -- are subject to the same criticisms by way of the EAAN as are the lack of belief in deities, or as the belief in naturalism.

Then, at the end, Plantinga drags out the old God sacrifices himself to himself in order to save us from himself as the ultimate example of "love," for no apparent reason other than to proselytize. Lame.
posted by smcameron at 7:58 PM on November 19, 2010


And I think that you're setting up "science" as some kind of neutral universal instead of the incredibly Western cultural phenomenon that it is.

I really, really dislike this east/west bullshit. People everywhere do science, and always have, going back to the Egyptians and Babylonians. The Europeans only had the good luck of having the printing press at the right time and the right place.
posted by empath at 9:51 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


And I think that you're setting up "science" as some kind of neutral universal instead of the incredibly Western cultural phenomenon that it is.

Bull. There is no "eastern" science nor "western" science any more than there is an "eastern" mathematics or "western" mathematics. There's just science, and there's just math. It transcends language and culture, despite how much you might wish it wouldn't.
posted by smcameron at 10:09 PM on November 19, 2010


There's just science, and there's just math. It transcends language and culture, despite how much you might wish it wouldn't.

That might be too strong, at least with respect to science, and probably with respect to math. The Pythagoreans attached tremendous religious significance to math, in ways that would be alien to anyone alive today (and would impede further mathematical progress, if the stories about their distaste for irrational numbers is true). Science didn't spring forth fully formed either. And even at the height of the Enlightenment, scientists had a radically different view of what "doing science" meant than we do today. (The pragmatist view is pretty recent).

But if you mean that science and math make claims that are true independent of language and culture, or that they make claims about things that are true independent of the listener's language or culture, I think I'd agree. I'm not sure that's a feature limited to science and math, but that's a different philosophical argument altogether.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:02 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Empath wrote: Science [...] depends on reliable and repeatable measurements, and the logical consistency of mathematics and nothing more.

In that case science is in trouble, because mathematics cannot be shown to be consistent.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:51 AM on November 20, 2010


Mathematics can't be shown to be complete and consistent. There's a big difference.
posted by empath at 6:31 AM on November 20, 2010


In that case science is in trouble, because mathematics cannot be shown to be consistent.

: 2nd incompleteness theorem

::

Mathematics can't be shown to be complete and consistent

: 1st incompleteness theorem


There's a big difference

Yah, I know stuff too. Smarty pants.
posted by polymodus at 8:47 AM on November 20, 2010


The second theorem only proves that you can't prove the consistency of a complete system within the system itself. Mathematics is larger than any one mathematical system.
posted by empath at 9:50 AM on November 20, 2010


In other words, even given system A can be proven consistent by some other system B, but A can't prove that either A or B is consistent.
posted by empath at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2010


(err any given)
posted by empath at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2010


There are still big problems with proposing that evolution selects for true beliefs. The first is that the plethora of cases where evolution selects for "good enough" rather than "best" choices is so overwhelming that it's one of the strongest arguments against intelligent design. DNA repair mechanisms are inherently faulty. Photosynthesis is inefficient in certain temperature ranges. Human childbirth is horribly traumatic for both mother and child, a compromise between big-brained infants and a pelvis that enables efficient bipedal locomotion. Whales still have useless bones for a nonexistent hindleg.

The other problem is that if you admit that human cognition cuts corners and approximates, well, approximations of truth are not the same thing as absolute Truth. This is something that's understood even when you're dealing with even more reliable physical measurement systems. So Plantinga's argument is trivially true.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:10 PM on November 20, 2010


So Plantinga's argument is trivially true.

Right, these snakes aren't really moving.

This is not a pipe.

There are not 2 shades of gray here.

It's trivially easy to trick the mind into perceiving things that aren't there. Fortunately, we've developed tools that allow us to measure things so that we don't depend on what our faulty brain thinks it sees.
posted by empath at 2:22 PM on November 20, 2010


That said, if you want to talk about truth with a Capital T, nothing that he seems to believe is real is real. You aren't made of flesh, you are made of cells, and bacteria, which are made of proteins, which are made of atoms, which are made of elementary particles, which are tiny strings vibrating in 11 dimensional space.

You don't in any sense directly see anything, only photons emitted by particles, you reconstruct a model of reality based on those reflected photons, but in no sense are things 'really' as they appear to you to be. Everything is a theater set constructed in your mind.

You don't have a single unitary consciousness, you may not even have free will.

Every part of you gets replaced every few years, so the you that you are now, isn't made of a gram of the same stuff that the you of 10 years ago was made of, and the you of the future won't be made of a gram of what you are now.

If you read Stephen Pinker's books, he explains the collection of lies that human consciousness is based on in some detail. Almost every pragmatic, every-day belief you have about the nature of reality, even of yourself, is in some way profoundly wrong.

And yet, through the scientific method, we are able to step outside of the tissue of lies that our brain creates for us to live in and measure and predict phenomena that we will never perceive, and never really thoroughly understand, in the same way that despite the fact that we were born without wings we are able to fly in the planes we've created.
posted by empath at 2:32 PM on November 20, 2010


All of which is to say, science is very familiar with how unsuited the human mind is as a truth machine, which is why we've built better ones.
posted by empath at 2:35 PM on November 20, 2010


empath: Yes, my point is that you can't counter Plantinga's argument by saying that evolution selects for true beliefs, it doesn't. You counter Plantinga's argument by pointing out that human subjectivity is a known problem and a deus ex machina of "made in god's image" isn't much of a solution.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:48 PM on November 20, 2010


The second theorem only proves that you can't prove the consistency of a complete system within the system itself. Mathematics is larger than any one mathematical system.

Huh? The only way to show the consistency of mathematics is to use mathematics itself. So Joe's statement is, loosely, a valid philosophical implication of the 2nd theorem. To clarify: the underlying relation used in the analogy was "consequence of", not "equivalent to".

As for the scope of mathematics—if you are already making an argument about (some vague notion of) consistency and completeness of math (for any definition of math), then either a) both incompleteness theorems apply, or b) neither apply. It is incorrect to rule out the 2nd theorem while admitting consequences from the 1st. More specifically, if one includes the parts of mathematics that are not systematizable (is that even fair?), then I would have trouble comprehending any assertions about its (logical) consistency or completeness.

/scratchhead
posted by polymodus at 3:33 PM on November 20, 2010


DNA repair mechanisms are inherently faulty.

On purpose. (I know, bad choice of words). Mutation allows for the random development of new ideas. Perfect re-generation would end up being stuck in the past, over time.
posted by ovvl at 3:41 PM on November 20, 2010


I'm not ruling out the second theorem, I just think you dont understand. You construct a mathematical system from axioms and rules. The axioms and rules you use can be somewhat arbitrary. Whatever system you construct however, should it be sufficiently complete, can't prove it's own consistency.

However, you can construct a second system from different axioms that can prove the consistency of the first system.

However, the first system can't prove the consistency of the second system and the second system can't prove the consistency of itself.

If you want to prove the consistency of the second system, you have to construct a third and so on to infinity.

Which isn't the same as saying math isn't consistent, only that it's impossible to construct a single system of math which can prove it's own consistency.
posted by empath at 3:44 PM on November 20, 2010


Actually I suppose you could use religion as a counterexample - in many highly successful human cultures the entire population had (and has..) false beliefs in various gods and demons. But this is because the survival disadvantage of believing in a false religion is low (or maybe it is even an advantage, to help cohere society and so on).

I agree. E.O. Wilson: "Religion is essentially an extension of tribalism..."

I believe that Tribalism is an evolutionary adaptation which fosters social cohesion in groups of individuals in order to enhance their collective survival.

Now if we were to compare group evolution to individual evolution, that could be interesting...

(This doesn't lead to Memetics, does it?)
posted by ovvl at 4:05 PM on November 20, 2010


This thread has died down so I'm going to editorialize a bit.

It seems to me that in Plantinga's famous example of Paul "petting the kitty" by running from the tiger, Paul has to have a great deal of things right in order to be wrong - rather than "not even wrong". He's able to recognize the tiger, so he can distinguish figure from ground and recognizes the tiger as one of a particular category of things. He recognizes that there's a relationship between them and that he can alter the relationship through his behaviour. He just happens to be trivially wrong about one aspect of the whole scenario. He'll probably figure out the rest. It's even OK if he's wrong about most things, because like a primitive eye spot it's better than no eye at all. Selective pressure can work with "better than nothing".

The thing is, I think what Plantinga really wants to say because he's a substance dualist (but doesn't because it would give away the game) is that it's possible for the mental to become completely and utterly dissociated from the physical. And a godless dualistic situation would be like Malebranche's occasionalism without God there to create mental events on physical occasions and vice versa. Thus our pictures of the world can go adrift and we could potentially think that we're drinking tea with the queen while we're being chased by a tiger. We'd be a bit like philosophical zombies, behaving correctly for survival purposes except with these superfluous mental entities dreaming away of irrelevancies.

But you can't import a non-naturalist view of the mental into the naturalist worldview and then talk about the epistemological consequences of naturalism on those grounds. And that's where I find a tension in Plantinga's EAAN. On naturalism, the mental is at the very least supervenient upon the physical.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:36 AM on November 23, 2010


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