Tag Archives: alvin plantinga

Human Minds Prefer Survival More Than Truth

1. Per Plantinga, and some forms of natural selection, ceteris paribus, life selects for organisms that adapt towards survival cues, not for truth. Plantinga frames this as an argument against evolutionary naturalism. This is not false, but could be true in other cases than have nothing to do with theism.

2. The survival vs truth dichotomy is exaggerated, however, since there are many, if not most, factors that both satisfy survival and truth criteria. Bartering the correct number of bushels of strawberries for the correct quarter of cow ensures my survival because it involves food and mathematically falls within the going rate of strawberry-bushels-to-meat in the local market—both survival and (arithmetical) truth criteria are satisfied.

3. Additionally, in this bartering scenario, there is a runoff benefit of social stability because both sides of the transaction are gaining something, don’t feel as though they are being cheated, etc. This nudges the even more towards survival benefits than truth benefits.

4. The “meat” of the survival vs truth Venn diagram is biggest when we can confirm phenomena that are falsifiable, which favors first-hand sensory accounts over most other ways of gaining knowledge. I may make a habit of relieving myself in Swamp A instead of Swamp B because my parents told me there are hungry alligators in Swamp B. I definitely survive by gracing Swamp A with my unwanted matter, yet the truth of Swamp B’s alligatorness is undetermined until I begin to take frequent slashes into Swamp B and determine there are no alligators at all. I still survive and know a bit of truth, though the truth was irrelevant to my survival.

5. The “meat” gets skinnier and skinnier—the truth and survival protocols (diagram circles) separate more and more—as the epistemic certainty of an event goes down. News of civilian unrest a village over from Town A would more likely cause folks to prepare for possible conflict, though its likelihood of conflict spreading to Town A is not likely or impossible.

6. To continue with this analogy, those in Town A who are epistemically convinced that they are safe from a spreading conflict may “join in” in preparing for a defense on the border, since not doing so could cause internecine conflict in Town A. In such a case, survival cues can be met over truth cues at multiple levels.

7. However, adherence to truth cues can overcome survival cues, if the person holds to a certain truth (with its consequences) to such a degree that it acts as an epistemic defeater for survival. This is most notable in political and religious martyrdom. The saint or revolutionary holds his truth and its consequences strongly enough to maintain them through bodily harm. Thus, there can be some truths that can produce great enough sentiment to risk not just social ostracism but death. This is seen in a less dramatic degree in the conservative professor who has to keep his political beliefs hush-hush to avoid being targeted, or the atheist going to church with his highly-religious family on Sundays.

8. Truth, therefore, is less important to individual survival than survival cues—though that is tautological. In cases where interpersonal social bonds are more crucial to survival—probably more in societies where there is less labor-saving technology. Thus, we can see that beliefs of remote phenomena, like national politics, are more oriented with interpersonal agreement—”we vote party A in this town because party B is xyz and that’s not in our best interests”—even though party B is not xyz at all. The social bonds created in voting for part A and maligning party B are stronger than the bonds created in voting according to the truth.

9. This phenomena is likely more prevalent the further away the people and events in question are, and unrelated to the technological level the society enjoys, since the truth about the phenomena after a certain epistemic distance is unknowable. Example conclusion from this: 100% of any news report of a national political event or politician have nothing to truth but can be used a social bonding mechanism.

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Utterly Shocking: First Episode of Cosmos Reboot Contains Unscientific Propositions

I was going to do an original post on this but Wintery Knight did it sooner and better. Quoting J.W. Wartick:

The depiction of the multiverse with little-to-no qualification was alarming, for there is much debate over whether there even is such a multiverse, and if there is, to what extent it may be called a multiverse. The portrayal within this episode was essentially a fictitious account being passed off without qualification as something a lot of people believe. The wording used was that “many… suspect” there is such a universe. Well yes, that may be true, but to what extent can we test for these other universes? What models predict them and why? I am uninterested in how many people hold to a belief; I am interested in whether that belief is true.

I personally don’t care if it’s true or not. I’d care, if we’re talking about a material sciences program, whether a proposition is actually scientific in nature. Or, if not, if it is properly presented as non-scientific.

There are other errors besides scientific ones, and more in keeping with the tradition of Sagan’s wishful-thinking hagiography of Hypatia*. Quoting Casey Luskin:

During the first episode, Tyson devotes lengthy segments to promoting the old tale that religion is at war science, and strongly promotes the idea that religion opposes intellectual advancement.

One sec…going to ram my head through my Macbook screen here, then go buy a new one.

Okay, back.

I’ve punched this horse in the teeth many times before. I get the idea of needing a bad guy—I really do. It enhances your narrative and rallies people to your new idea. It’s the elephant gun for the modern marketing arsenal and we come to expect it from anything on TV. But the science vs. religion conflict is an Enlightenment myth and it’s the most egregious bit of misinformation that persists over the heads of general American media consumers like a dusty, crusty, un-touched-up halo from Masaccio’s Tribute Money.

From the Wikipedia entry on Draper-White’s conflict thesis (see also this essay on the subject from Alvin Plantinga):

Research on perceptions of science among the American public concludes that most religious groups see no general epistemological conflict with science, and that they have no differences with nonreligious groups in propensity to seek out scientific knowledge, although there may be epistemic or moral conflicts when scientists make counterclaims to religious tenets.[28][29] The Pew Center made similar findings and also noted that the majority of Americans (80–90%) strongly support scientific research, agree that science makes society and individual’s lives better, and 8 in 10 Americans would be happy if their children were to become scientists.[30] Even strict creationists tend to express very favorable views towards science.[31] A study of US college students concluded that the majority of undergraduates in both the natural and social sciences do not see conflict between science and religion. Another finding in the study was that it is more likely for students to move from a conflict perspective to an independence or collaboration perspective than vice versa.[32]

* I can’t entirely hate on Sagan. I read Pale Blue Dot and mostly loved it—loved it enough to use its title as a phrasal template for my new book’s title. I just don’t want to intellectually make out with the guy like some people do.

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Personal Employment History and Happiness

This was a neat exercise, mapping my employment history and assigning levels of happiness to them. I used the word “nurp” as a unit of happiness, a play off of Alvin Plantinga’s “turp” as a theoretical unit of evil.

THe ratings I gave each position were based on pay (duh), the actual work itself and the environment, and how it compared to my basic position in life—so it’s very contextual. An 8 position 20 years ago could be a 2 position now.

I used this kid-friendly graph creator.


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Evolutionary Argument Against The State?

Rock the vote!

Alvin Plantinga argued for the evolutionary argument against naturalism (PDF link): if modern humans macroly evolved over a large period of time, our cognitive processes are tailored more towards seeking survival rather than truth.

If evolutionary theory were true, that would mean that modern forms of government came extremely late in the game. It could be argued that we are biologically adapted to form tribes and to seek leadership or eldership as a form of guidance for a tribal collective. In that sense, some form of government is a natural outgrowth of biomechanics that could be trimmed through trial and error.

But if the state gets too large and authoritative, it can (and does) seek to disconnect and rewire our natural tendencies, for good or bad, through a series of perverse and conflicting incentives, backed by the use of force. So, for instance, we have a highway system, built by a large, centralized government, with laws concerning its use. This makes drivers feel safer and therefore drive faster (enforced safety rules begets higher risk-taking), but then there’s the artificial disincentive of speeding tickets which is a contradicting incentive to drive slower. This adds an additional layer of risk management that our minds wouldn’t normally need to reconcile.

This is all assuming that roads and their usage would be different under a free market system, but you can see where I’m going with this. Large governments (“large”, as in, a larger set of administers and executors than what we’d get from a tribal, semi-panarchist structure…I don’t know the numbers) have incentives to grow itself, and to convince people to “allow” them growth is to create problems that aren’t really there and offer itself as the only avenue of resolution. The methods are insidious, i.e., Marxism aims to fix am inequal class structure based on arbitrary levels of income and somewhat unarbitrary social status, state-sponsored feminism aims to reconcile an inequal balance of power of genders, that may just be a automatic, uncoerced division of labor brought about by millions of years of biochemical tinkering by God/nature.

There’s more but I’m too uneducated to go much deeper. The point is, how is it that so many lawmakers think they can, right or wrong, wish away the conclusions of evolution—the automata of human drive and adaptability—by fiat and force? People, individually or in small groups, tend to discourage the initiation of force applied against it, but the use of force has become institutionalized and even supported by most of the group in the form of governments. The power of managing risk under a government seems unsuited to the mental skillset of the evolved human brain (pure coincidence, in a new Stephan Molyneux video he mentions human adaptability vis-a-vis the state).

There’s a danger of falling into an argument from antiquity with this, and it can apply to other aspects of civilization as well. Does anyone know if this question has been explored at all?

* I am mostly undecided on the evolution debate. I swing between orthodox evolution to that one form of “animals and plants evolved, humans experienced direct creation” type of theistic evolution. The amount of knowledge needed, both biologically and theologically, to make an informed decision is too large for me to be overly concerned with it.

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A Quick Thought on Non-Aristotelian Epistemology

Flowin’ straight from the survival scrolls.

I’ve mentioned a few times on here, and in a roundabout way in the review of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, about non-Aristotelian epistemology. This is sometimes called Middle Eastern (ME) or Hebraic epistemology. ME epistemology utilizes divine revelation as a legitimate, basic form of knowledge, the same way we accept sense perception or memory or logic, etc., as presupposed methods of knowing things.

Plantinga, armed with some Aquinas and Calvin ordinance, called the working apparatus that utilizes this epistemology the sensus divinatus; our “sense of the divine”. I’m not aware of how much Plantinga knew of ME epistemology but from what I know of his ideas and the ME method, he seems to describe some version of it. If you are a Christian or any kind of religious person you accept the ME method of knowing things of the supernatural even if you don’t name it as such.

The other side of that coin is that, if someone makes any statement at all concerning the metaphysical realm, he uses the ME epistemological method to induce this. In other words, a definitive statement about metaphysical things is intrinsically a-rational, because it does not involve the Aristotelian faculties. This includes claims of atheists, who have the tendency, de rigueur, to claim religious belief as irrational. All of the philosophical dodges involving withheld judgments of God’s existence until “scientific proof” is presented are incoherent because science is unable to measure anything metaphysical. Those who maintain a “scientific, rational” mind while at the same time insist on God’s nonexistence are using non-scientific, non-rational methods to conclude it.

It’s easy if we think of ME epistemology as a sense, like sight. There are people who look and see a tree outside of the window and maybe determine some of its qualities, and there are people who look and see no tree. Both are using their eyes, even if the latter claim that eyes do not exist in the first place and that trees do not exist because they conclude that trees must be, say, felt in order to really exist.

Looking at it this way, the only ones who can legitimately claim non-use of the ME method are strong agnostics (“No one has eyes to see this concept of the tree, so we cannot say whether or not they exist.”), and possibly weak ones (“I don’t know if we have eyes or not, but if we do we may be able to figure out if tree exist.”). If one claims Aristotelian epistemological methods are the only valid ones, then a statement about the supernatural cannot be made. Such a statement would be considered incoherent. There are no eyes to determine if the tree is not there.

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A Very Clear Post About the Definition of Religious Faith

"Knowledge? Alls I know is that I'm skeptical of it."

Whenever you want to get a lot of response from religious people, ask something basic yet broadly-defined and colored by perspective. At the Christian Libertarians group on facebook, someone asked what faith was. The responses were varied as you’d expect with such a word with varied usage. I was surprised there wasn’t the guy that said, “Anything other than what the Bible says is wrong!”, but if you read carefully someone came close.

Here was my response to the question:

‎”Faith” is any a priori proposition, something we use as a premise for inferences. Other people have mentioned something similar. “Religious faith” is an assumption about truth concerning the supernatural, i.e., “God exists”, “God is a blue octopus”, or “God doesn’t exist”.

Usually these assumptions cannot be proofed true or false (else they would be conclusions and not assumptions); they are subject to a rational actor’s internal epistemological workings and not demonstrable.

Of course, now I that I read it, I’m second guessing it. Religious faith can be demonstrably true or false but that is dependent on another actor’s “internal epistemological workings”. Person A can demonstrate—through, say, the presentation of evidence via reliable authority—that a defeating belief for Person’s B belief in God is wrong. To wit, if Person B disbelieves in God primarily because they believe Christians killed millions of witches in the Medieval period, though it is a non-sequitur, Person B might come to a belief if Person A presents them with evidence by authority that the “9 million women” belief is out-of-this-world untrue.

In this scenario, Person A isn’t dissolving a belief about God and replacing it with another belief about God, Person A is removing a barrier to further epistemic action such that Person B, believing God doesn’t exist because of an historical mass murder, is now able to exercise better epistemic due diligence concerning God’s existence.

I still somewhat maintain, as Plantinga does, that beliefs about God—any belief save for maybe strong agnosticism— is a priori, like sense perception or the rules of logic, unable to be arrived to rationally (or scientifically, if you really want to shoehorn the religion vs. science dichotomy). In this way, most beliefs about God are unscientific* yet not in the way skeptics like to frame the debate.

*An interesting note about unscientific belief. 99% of what we believe about what science has taught humanity is taken a priori (faithfully), via the reliable authority of scientists and journalists. Unless we do the (instrument aided) sense perception and inductive logic** that entails experiments ourselves, reliable authority is as close as we’ll ever be.

**Don’t forget Hume’s infamous problem of induction, a further element of faith involved with knowledge brought about by the scientific method.

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The Problem of Anvils

"Here you go, lazy bum. Don't screw it up."

I will get to the falling anvils later. But first, here’s the problem of evil set in deductive logic form. My church’s small group dealt with this idea a few weeks ago, and I think it’s the best argument against the Christian God there is.

  1. God is omnibenevolent.
  2. God is omnipotent.
  3. God is omniscient.
  4. Evil exists.
  5. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent entity would not allow evil to exist.
  6. Therefore, God is not omnibenevolent, or God is not omnipotent, or God is not omniscient, or God does not exist.

There are some counterarguments to this which can be Googled easily, but I like Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. There are two videos below that has him explaining a bit about it, and you can read more details on it here and here.

Some random thoughts/ideas:

  1. That this universe contains a free moral agent is axiomatic. Therefore we know that God prefers at least one universe with free moral agency. If he prefers it once, what would make him not prefer it inside another universe?
  2. Could God create a universe filled with automatons, with no free moral agency? We know he created one with at least one type of free moral agent (humans), we can assume he prefers free moral agency over automata in every universe created. Why would he create a universe he does not fully prefer? This is assuming propositions 1-3 above, and that there’s no law of diminishing returns with having too many free moral agents.
  3. Could our free moral agency be an aspect of our being “made in the image of God”? Assuming God cannot choose wrongly, we can’t say God is a free moral agent since he cannot possibly choose wrong; the “freeness” aspect is a non-entity since every one of God’s actions is perfect. Therefore it’s faulty to say our free moral agency is an exact mirror-image of God’s property.
  4. If every universe would have free moral agency, is it possible that there’s an instance that all free moral agents in a universe would always choose good? Probably not (see Plantinga’s trans-world depravity). To always choose good would imply perfection. The first morally evil choice is like an anvil dropping into the previously perfect universe, knocking things out of order.
  5. If all universes are the way that God planned, with imperfect creations that have free moral agency, it implies that evil is an inevitability. But since God prefers creatures that are not automata it seems he prefers it more than the preference of evil not existing. God may have a hierarchy of preferences in this way, with the existence of a free moral agency at the top.

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Book Review: Warranted Christian Belief

Book Review: Warranted Christian BeliefAfter reading Why I Am Not A Christian I wanted to balance it out with the other side, though the intent of the books are very different. I had read Warranted a few years ago, but a second pass through helped me retain a whole lot more of Platinga’s idea. As barely an amateur philosopher that I was appreciative of that fact, and this review is more of a summarization than an analysis of Plantinga’s work in this book.

Warranted Christian Belief caps off the Plantinga’s trilogy series on the idea of warrant and is kind of the culmination of his work in epistemology (the study of beliefs and knowledge). Plantinga, a Notre Dame professor, recently retired but is well-known in philosophical circles — so much so that Time did a story in the 80’s on the growing influence of his work.

Plantinga sought to answer the question (rather, the implicit complaint of skeptics) of whether belief in God is irrational or lacking warrant. He cites Freud and Marx as the dual originating sources of this question that is asked . What Plantinga proposes in WBC is a model by which theistic belief, particularly Christian belief, enjoys epistemic (relating to epistemology) warrant because it is properly basic and can qualify as knowledge, like how we come to know things through sense perception or memory and not on the basis of other propositions.

I will explain this a little bit because epistemology sometimes isn’t the most intuitive subject. Memory beliefs are probably the easiest to explain. Let’s say that you remember at what time you woke up this morning, say 7:05. You have strong confidence in this memory because you have a nice bright clock that you always look at the moment you wake up and you know yourself to wake up at around the same time every morning. For you, this belief is incorrigible, meaning that you have knowledge of this based on your memory alone and not on the basis of propositions (facts or evidence that you can present to other as reasons), assuming there are no defeaters (evidence or reasons to the contrary) for your memory belief and you know your memory to be rather reliable. Your memory says you saw the clock at 7:05 and you have no reason to think otherwise, even if someone (very creepily) presented you a photograph of you waking up with the clock at 7:10. You are warranted in maintaining your original belief — Plantinga phrases it as “not flouting your epistemic duty” — and not accepting the photograph as enough of a defeater for that belief.

Plantinga proposes that Christians can hold their beliefs about God in the same way, this “properly basic” way, and he appropriates ideas from Calvin and Aquinas as that basis for this model, called the “A/C model”, wherein our seemingly natural sense of the divine, Aquinas’ sensus divinitatis, can confer this properly basic belief in God. From pg. 175:

According to the A/C model, this natural knowledge of God is not arrived at by inference or argument (for example, the famous theistic proofs of natural theology), but in a much more immediate way. …It isn’t that one beholds the night sky, notes that it is grand, and concludes that there must be such a person as God; an argument like that would be ridiculously weak. It’s rather that, upon the perception of the night sky or the mountain vista or the tiny flower, these beliefs just arise within us. They are occasioned by the circumstances; they are not conclusions from them. …In this regard, the sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief.

The basic idea (pardon the pun) is that believers can be justified, in the epistemic sense of the word, in believing in God yet unable to produce the reasons or evidence that skepticism consistently demands. There’s may be no way you can prove to someone that you woke up at 7:05 that morning; indeed, with that pesky photograph there may be all the reason in the world for others to believe that you in fact are wrong. Yet your persistently reliable memory maintains your belief even in the face of external, propositional evidence.

This is certainly a heady claim to make, especially to our post-Enlightenment minds, where we tend to tailor our beliefs, especially important ones as to whether God exists or not, against what we know for sure, via “the facts” and propositional truths. Incorrigible knowledge that we get via the senses and our memory are not received this way and Plantinga places Christian belief in the same realm as these ways of attaining knowledge.

This idea is not without its criticisms and I have nowhere near the working framework of philosophy to affirm or deny the strength of this claim. Here’s a good review contradicting it, for instance, and you can read the entire text here, at Google books. According to the sundry experts in the field that I’ve read, even the ones that disagree with him, Plantinga made a case worth considering.

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Planting(a) Seeds

Seed Planting - Alvin Plantinga

A few years ago I started the official site for Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. I had contacted him about doing a site after reading Warranted Christian Belief (read it all for free here). There were papers and other things floating around the web that weren’t really consolidated into one place. He was interested in the idea of culling together everything, so with the help of the illustrating skills of one Mr. Sean Cannon, alvinplantinga.org was launched.

Unfortunately, Dr. Plantinga and I were and are very busy people so the site didn’t develop much, and the domain expired and is now in registration limbo. I have been emailing another Plantinga fan about having him resurrect the site, or some variant of it. He purchased alvinplantinga.net and will be taking over maintenance of the site once it gets going. Whether or not it will be an official site remains to be seen; Dr. P retired last month so I don’t know how interested he will be in this sort of thing.

Warranted is the only book of his that I’ve read, but having only a primitive understand of epistemology I can say that it still affected me greatly — and even though it’s very readable there were some parts that just fell out my ear. I never thought that the “religious faith = irrational” argument was really much more than a strawman, but the idea that religious faith can be rationally consistent with what we epistemically know already and not coming to it ex nihilo was an interesting idea. And like any good philosophy book it has affected my fiction writing, although I wouldn’t be able to point out exactly where (chalk it up to just “general knowledge expansion” and leave it at that).

Below is a quote from the book, like Economics In One Lesson, that sums up the entire “lesson”:

Christian belief is produced by a cognitive process (the “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit” [in Aquinas’ words] or the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” [in Calvin’s words] functioning properly in an appropriate epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.

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