"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Timmo on Plantinga

ISOHP regular Timmo is currently writing a series of posts on Alvin Plantinga's reformed epistemology over on his own blog. I won't attempt to summarise as, frankly, it's just too difficult. So, part 1 can be found here, part 2 here and the 3rd and final part here.

As an atheist I obviously have issues with Plantinga's argument (as it seems to suggest that I'm probably either delusional, defective or lying about my - lack of - a divine sense), but it's interesting nonetheless.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

Thanks for the heads up Matt.

6:45 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Seems like Plantinga's sacrificing his King to save the Bishop here.

Under RF, can people not essentially assign any belief as being properly basic, simply by believing that holding the belief is in tune with their believed origin of their cognitive faculties?

To clarify, is he essentially saying the following?

My belief in p is properly basic because p endowed in me the capacity for thought and belief, and these faculties are functioning in their normal environment


I don't think Matt has to be too concerned by the suggestion that non-theists (or presumably anyone, theists included, that don't subscribe to that particular doctrine) are dysfunctional, because by dismissing any need to appeal to inferences, there is absolutely no way for Plantinga to know with certainty who holds the correct proper basic belief, and who is simply dysfunctional.

Maybe the proper basic belief is that we are all super-sentient strawberries, and anyone who doesn't hold to that belief is simply suffering from a short in their strawberry-designed sensory apparatus?

And how does RF gel with Free Will? Sounds like he's suggesting that belief in God is essentially hardwired into us, which kinda puts the kibosh on a pretty fundamental piece of dogma.

Yes, Plantinga is saving God in his argument, but he's surely destroying the rest of Christian theology in the process.

2:34 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

I finished Part III.l

12:52 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I've added it to the post. :-)

This is what Plantinga calls the noetic effect of sin: moral corruption spills over into epistemic corruption.

The vagueness of this is where the argument really falls down for me.

There are no objective standards of moral standing, so there's always a get-out clause for the theist: Sure, X may look like a perfectly moral person, but his heart may be corrupt and that's why he has no sense of my God.

But then I'm just a moral degenerate (apparently), so what would I know. ;-)

6:36 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

Under RF, can people not essentially assign any belief as being properly basic, simply by believing that holding the belief is in tune with their believed origin of their cognitive faculties?

No. What you believe about your faculties has nothing to do with what those faculties actually do, including whether those faculties produce true beliefs. Recall the statement of (RF):

(RF) If S believes that p, then S's belief that p is properly basic if and only if S's belief that p is produced in S by his/her cognitive faculties working properly in an appropriate environment.

On (RF), a belief is properly basic exactly if that belief is produced by properly functioning faculties in an appropriate environment. Someone who insisted that their basic belief in the Great Pumpkin has warrant would be wrong. (RF) does not mean anything goes; it means that what goes always starts from beliefs which are produced within us by faculties which function properly. Plantinga concurs with Calvin that God has implanted in us a natural tendency to see Him in the world, a sensus divinitatis. This can not be said about the Great Pumpkin since there neither is a Great Pumpkin nor any natural, spontaneous tendency for us to believe in such a thing.

And how does RF gel with Free Will? Sounds like he's suggesting that belief in God is essentially hardwired into us, which kinda puts the kibosh on a pretty fundamental piece of dogma.

I do not understand the conflict. How is (RF) incompatible with the claim that human beings sometimes perform actions for which there are no causally sufficient conditions in place which in fact cause that action? To some extent, beliefs are things which happen to us. They are automatically generated inside us by our cognitive apparatus. This fact is no threat to libertarian freedom.

Matt m,

There are no objective standards of moral standing, so there's always a get-out clause for the theist: Sure, X may look like a perfectly moral person, but his heart may be corrupt and that's why he has no sense of my God.

Plantinga's ideas are somewhat more subtle than this. I was not explicit about this, but the noetic effects of sin are specifically the consequence of Original Sin. Everyone, by default, suffers from the noetic effect of sin and has a malfunctioning sensus divinitatis. It is the the grace of the Holy Spirit that is supposed to repair the sensus divinitatis in believers.

So, even morally good people suffer from disbelief, and, as I discuss in my post, believers don't always have an up and running sensus divinitatis.

11:45 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"
(RF) If S believes that p, then S's belief that p is properly basic if and only if S's belief that p is produced in S by his/her cognitive faculties working properly in an appropriate environment."


Okay, I misread the bolded section to mean "if S believes..."

However,
"How is (RF) incompatible with the claim that human beings sometimes perform actions for which there are no causally sufficient conditions in place which in fact cause that action?"

If we say that our beliefs are a result of our "properly functioning faculties in an appropriate environment", then doesn't that imply that belief is something predetermined? i.e. [predetermined by the correct or incorrect functioning of our faculties? A person who lacks belief in God would clearly be argued to possess a deficiency in their sensory faculties, which is presumably not a result of a conscious choice on their part, but a pre-determined error in the formation of those faculties prior to their attaining consciousness.

I don't see how Free Will can be preserved here. Belief appears to be causally tied to the nature of our faculties, which we cannot choose.

"Plantinga concurs with Calvin that God has implanted in us a natural tendency to see Him in the world, a sensus divinitatis."

Isn't implanting essentially the same as pre-programming?

12:56 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

I am afraid that I still do not understand the conflict you are describing. It is true that our beliefs is, in some sense, "predetermined," by the automatic operations of our faculties and the states of affairs which trigger them. But, this is not logically incompatible with the idea that there are sets of actions which agents are capable of performing, and they perform those actions as causa sui, or first causes. Libertarian free will is something like this:

(LF) X has libertarian freedom if and only if there is some nonempty set S of actions A such that for every A S, X has the ability to perform, or refrain from performing, A without the presence of some antecedent, causally sufficient conditions which make X perform A.

(LF) just says that an agent with libertarian freedom has a range of options available to him/her, and he/she may select an option without some prior states of affairs causing or inducing that choice.

Libertarianism about free will is perfectly compatible with Reformed Epistemology -- in fact, Plantinga is a libertarian about free will! Perhaps you are worried that if we are built for theistic beliefs, then our freedom to accept or reject God has been curtailed. This is not necessarily the case however; as the Scriptures say, the devils believe and they tremble. But, they still freely choose to reject God, to refuse to adore, love, and participate in His Kingdom. One might even argue that this knowledge on their part is a precondition for them having such freedom in the first place!

2:45 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I'm still not entirely sure about how Plantinga's argument is more compatible with LFW rather than, at the very least, compatibilism. I can't shake the sense that there is something deterministic about the divine sense argument. However, I'll think about it some more while I'm rocking my newborn to sleep at 3 AM in the mornings.


I enjoyed reading Part III, but I'm still not convinced by the strength of the reasoning. I think Plantinga makes a solid, if not necessarily original, case for the idea that faith is not something that necessarily needs to be evidential (the sky analogy is effective). There's no way to shut the door on God, and that is something I think many atheists will accept. However, through this line of reasoning, although the belief in the potential existence of God is protected, the actual identity of that God, and the correct narrative underlying the theology of the associated faith is completely wide open.

You speak specifically of Christian faith, but of course there is absolutely no way of knowing that this faith is more or less legitimate than any other. To adapt your analogy, we have a world full of blind men among whom the few sighted individuals are giving wildly different descriptions of the sky. This one says it's pink, with green clouds and flying cows, and the other says it's more a kind of pale yellow, with square clouds and and herrings. Each one imploring the blind to "have faith!", even though the one issue of clarity is that some of the sighted are lying or mad.

I don't think Plantinga is doing any justice to the essential difficulty faced by your blind people (relating to our earlier exchange: are they blind by fate or by choice?). We know that any fool with a touch of charisma can cook up a story about something nobody else can verify. The reason behind skepticism is that we know that many have abused this trust in the past, and often done so under the cloak of faith. So the question is this: if the blind concede that yes, there might be a sky above them, what protects them from the liars who will deceive them about the nature of that sky (or perhaps whether it is even there at all?) and from this artful deception of trust, endeavour to dictate the rules of the world in a manner most favourable to the fool rather than the flock?

As an atheist, I am not pragmatically concerned with existence or non-existence of God (although I think it is an interesting intellectual enterprise to ponder it), but I am very much concerned with the vulnerability of those not strong enough to see through a cynical ruse pedaled by either an opportunist conman or, equally possible, a simple madman.

To me, Plantinga has done no more than put his own hand on a door that is already being held ajar by many others (even I have a finger on it). There is still no clear way of evaluating who stands on the threshold to be invited in; Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, TFSM... Which of these various belief systems embodies the genuine sensus divinitatus? I could accept the new age argument that they are all interpretations of the same program, but that certainly won't square with the majority of believers, who are too emotionally and traditionally tied to their individual doctrines to be able to accept such a liberal proposal.

As it is, I think Plantinga's hypothesis is, at least in part, subjectable to empirical evaluation: I think I;ve raised this point earlier, but if this divine sense is specifically Christian, then one might predict that the emergence of the semitic faith would have happened in multiple but isolated geographical locations. The Christianity is a convergent rather than divergent phenomenon. But it seems that Christianity thrived only where preachers preached, and sometimes not without considerable challenge by competing theologies. The neolithic Britons, the Clovis people, and the sub-Saharan tribes of Africa would appear to have been running a completely different God chip irreconcilable with the one we consider to be Christian.

It's important to realise in all this that personal faith is not something many atheists feel compelled to object to; it is only when that personal faith is called upon by others to justify their dictation of the moral rules that the rest of us must subsequently follow that a challenge is issued.

Plantinga may justify his belief in his interpretation of God, but can this argument extend to a sufficient justification to enforce this view upon the blind? This is the most worrisome aspect of his argument. When a small group of people decide, quite arbitrarily, that the rest of us are bonkers/deficient/misguided, whether willfully or no, liberty is usually in a lot of trouble.

10:18 AM

 

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