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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Is Alvin Plantinga for real? Alas, it appears so

by Massimo Pigliucci

I keep hearing that Notre Dame philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga is a really smart guy, capable of powerfully subtle arguments about theism and Christianity. But every time I look, I am dismayed by what I see. If this is the best that theology can do, theology is in big trouble. (Well, to be fair, it has been at least since David Hume.)

Recently, Plantinga has been interviewed by another Notre Dame philosopher with theistic leanings, Gary Gutting, for the New York Time’s “Stone” blog. I often enjoy Gutting’s columns, for instance his argument for why the Pope should revisit the Catholic’s Church position on abortion. Then again, whenever Gutting veers close to theism I have no problem taking him to task either.

In this case, Gutting’s interview is reasonably well structured, and he did ask some serious questions of Plantinga. It is the latter’s performance that left me aghast. Here is why.

The first question was based on recent surveys that put the proportion of atheists among academic philosophers at around 62%, slightly above what it is for scientists (it varies from sub-discipline to sub-discipline, too). Plantinga concedes that this is problematic for theism, considering that philosophers are the ones who are most familiar with all the arguments for and against the theistic position. So what does he do? He quotes Richard Dawkins, quoting Bertrand Russell, who famously said that if he found himself in front of god after his death he would point out to him that there just wasn’t enough evidence.

And here comes Plantinga’s first non sequitur: “But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.” Right, except for the not-so-minor detail that the priors for there to be an even or odd number of stars are nowhere near the priors for there to be or not to be a god. More on this in a second, when we come to teapots.

Following up on the above (puzzling, to say the least) response, Gutting pointed out that the analogy with “even-star-ism” is a bit odd, and that atheists would bring up instead Russell’s famous example of a teapot orbiting the sun. Should we be agnostic about that? No, says Plantinga, because we have very good reasons to reject the possibility based on what we know about teapots and what it takes to put one in orbit around the sun. Precisely! Analogously — and this was Russell’s point — we have very good reasons not to take seriously the concept of a supernatural being (see comment above about priors). To see why, let’s bring in my favorite analogy. My Facebook profile (reserved for friends and family, please follow me on Twitter…) includes the usual question about religion, to which my response is that I’m an a-theist in the same way in which I am an a-unicornist: this is not to say that I know for a fact that nowhere in the universe there are horse-like animals with a single horn on their head. Rather, it is to say that — given all I know about biology, as well as human cultural history (i.e., where the legend of unicorns came from) — I don’t think there is any reason to believe in unicorns. That most certainly doesn’t make me an agnostic about unicorns, a position that not even Plantinga would likely feel comfortable endorsing. (I am, however, for the record, agnostic about even-star-ism. So, there.)

Gutting then brings up the usual trump card of atheists: the problem of evil (which, to be precise, is actually a problem only for the Judeo-Christian-Muslim concept of god, and therefore not really an argument for atheism per se). Plantinga admits that the argument “does indeed have some strength” but responds that there are also “at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments” so that on balance it is more rational to be a theist.

Gutting, however, had to do quite a bit more prodding to get at least one example sampled from the alleged couple dozen on offer. First off, Plantinga states very clearly that the best reason to believe in (his) god is not a rational argument at all, but the infamous sensus divinitatis of Calvinistic memory, i.e. the idea that people experience god directly as a result of “an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God.”

This is so weak that it is hardly worth rebutting, but let’s elucidate the obvious for Prof. Plantinga anyway. To begin with, it is not clear even what counts as a sensus divinitatis in the first place. Does it equate to simply believing in god? If so, the “evidence” is circular. Or does it mean that some people have had some kind of direct and tangible experience of the divine, like witnessing a miracle? In that case, I’m pretty sure the number of such experiences is far less than Plantinga would like, and at any rate plenty of people claim to have seen UFOs or having had out-of-body experiences. Neither of which is a good reason to believe in UFOs or astral projection. Lastly, we begin to have perfectly good naturalistic explanations of the sensus divinitatis, broadly construed as the projection of agency where it doesn’t belong. The latter truly seems to me a near-universal characteristic of human beings, but it is the result of a cognitive misfire, as when we immediately think that someone must have made that noise whose origin currently escapes us (ghosts? a lurking predator?). It is sensible to think that this compulsive tendency to project agency was adaptive during human history, probably saving a lot of our ancestors’ lives. Better to mistake the noise made by the wind for a predator and take cover than to dismiss the possibility out of too much skepticism and end up as the dinner entree of said predator.

So Gutting pushed a bit more: could Plantinga please give us an example of at least one good theistic argument among those several dozens he seems to think exist? Well, all right, says the esteemed theologian, how about fine tuning? That does move the discussion a bit, as the fine tuning problem is a genuine scientific issue, which has by no means been resolved by modern physics (see recent Rationally Speaking entries on related topics).

Of course invoking fine tuning in support of theism is simply a variant of the old god-of-the-gaps argument, one that is increasingly weak in the face of continuous scientific progress, an obvious observation that Gutting was smart enough to make. Besides, even if it should turn out that fine tuning is best seen as evidence of intelligent design, there are alternatives on offer, some of which are particularly problematic for Christian theists.

Plantinga does concede that god-of-the-gap arguments are a bit weak, but insists: “We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified.” Wow. I think I’m going to leave this one as an exercise to the reader (hint: consider the obvious disanalogy between the moon — which everyone can plainly see — and god, which…).

Eventually, Plantinga veers back toward the (alleged, in his mind) problem of evil, and takes it head on in what I consider a philosophically suicidal fashion: “Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story. … [insert brief recap of “the Christian story”] … I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.”

Seriously? The argument boils down to the fact that Plantinga, as a Christian, finds the Christian story “magnificent,” that is, aesthetically pleasing, and that’s enough to establish that this is the best of all possible worlds. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find a world with so much natural and human imposed suffering “magnificent” at all, and it seems to me that if an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good god were responsible for said world he ought to be resisted at all costs as being by far the greatest villain in the history of the universe. But that’s just me.

Moving on, Gutting at one point asks Plantinga why — if belief in atheism is so questionable on rational grounds — so many philosophers, i.e. people trained in the analysis of rational arguments, cling to atheism. Plantinga admits to not being a psychologist, but ventures to propose that perhaps atheists reject the idea of god because they value too much their privacy and autonomy: “God would know my every thought long before I thought it. … my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.” Well, I’m no psychologist either, but by the same token theists like Plantinga (and Gutting, let’s not forget) delude themselves into believing in god because they really like the idea of being judged every moment (especially about what they do in the non-privacy of their bedrooms) and much prefer to be puppets in the hands of a cosmic puppeteer. Okay, suit yourselves, boys, just don’t pretend that your psychological quirks amount to rational arguments.

And we then come to “materialism,” which Gutting thinks is a “primary motive” for being an atheist. Here things get (mildly) interesting, because Plantinga launches his well known attack against materialism, suggesting that evolution (of all notions!) is incompatible with materialism.

Come again, you say? Here’s is the “argument” (I’m using the term loosely, and very charitably). How is it possible, asks the eminent theologian, that we are material beings, and yet are capable of beliefs, which are clearly immaterial? To quote:

“My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures. But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.”

This, of course, is an old chestnut in philosophy of mind, which would take us into much too long a detour (but in case you are interested, check this). There are, however, at least two very basic things to note here. First, a materialist would not say that a belief is a material structure in the brain, but rather that beliefs are instantiated by given material structures in the brain. This is no different from saying that numbers, for instance, are concepts that are thought of by human beings by means of their brains, they are not material structures in human brains. Second, as the analogy with numbers may have hinted at, a naturalist (as opposed to a materialist, which is a sub-set of naturalist positions) has no problem allowing for some kind of ontological status for non-material things, like beliefs, concepts, numbers and so on. Needless to say, this is not at all a concession to the supernaturalist, and it is a position commonly held by a number of philosophers.

Plantinga goes on with his philosophy of mind 101 lesson and states that the real problem is not with the existence of beliefs per se, but rather with the fact that beliefs cause actions. He brings up the standard example of having a belief that there is some beer in the fridge, which — together with the desire (another non-material thingy, instantiated in another part of the brain!) to quench one’s thirst — somehow triggers the action of getting up from the darn couch, walk to the fridge, and fetch the beer (presumably, to get right back to the couch). Again, the full quote so you don’t think I’m making things up:

“It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.”

But of course the content of the belief is also such in virtue of particular electrical signals in the brain. If those signals were different we would have a different belief, say that there is no beer in the fridge. Or is Plantinga suggesting that it is somehow the presence of god that gives content to our beliefs? And how, exactly, would that work anyway?

Whatever, you may say, didn’t I mention something about evolution above? Yes, I’m coming to that. Here is Plantinga again, after Gutting suggested that perhaps we get a reasonable correspondence between beliefs and action because natural selection eliminated people whose brains were wired so to persistently equip them with the wrong belief (i.e., believing that the beer is in the refrigerator, when it’s not because you already drank yourself into oblivion last night):

“Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.”

The first part of this is true enough, and consistent with the fact that we do, indeed, get a lot of our natural beliefs wrong. To pick just one example among many, most people, for most of human history, believed that they were living on a flat surface. It took the sophistication of science to show otherwise (so much for the “science is just commonsense writ large” sort of platitude). It is the last part of Plantinga’s statement that is bizarre: 50-50 chances that our beliefs are true or false, given materialism and evolution? Where the heck do those priors come from?

But it gets worse: “If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like 0.0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.”

Again, wow. Just, wow. This is reminiscent of the type of silly “calculations” that creationists do to “demonstrate” that the likelihood of evolution producing a complex structure like the human eye is less than that of a tornado going through a junkyard and assembling a perfectly functional Boeing 747 (the original analogy is actually due to physicist Fred Hoyle, which doesn’t make it any better).

The chief thing that is wrong with Plantinga’s account is that our beliefs are far from being independent of each other. Indeed, human progress in terms of both scientific and otherwise (e.g., mathematical) knowledge depends crucially on the fact that we continuously build (and revise, when necessary) on previously held beliefs. In fact, there is an analogous reason why the tornado in the junkyard objection doesn’t work: natural selection too builds on previous results, so that calculating the probability of a number of independent mutations occurring by chance in the right order is a pointless exercise, and moreover one that betrays the “reasoner's utter incomprehension of the theory of evolution. Just like Plantinga apparently knows little about epistemology.

So, to recap, Plantinga’s best “arguments” are: we don’t have a scientific explanation for the apparent fine tuning of the universe (true, so?); we don’t have a philosophical account and/or a scientific explanation of the problem of “aboutness” in philosophy of mind (again, true, so?); some people claim to have a mysterious sensus divinitatis (oh boy). Therefore, not only god, but the Christian god in particular, exists. Equipped with that sort of reasoning, I’m afraid Plantinga would fail my introductory critical thinking class. But he is a great theologian.

268 comments:

  1. He has the reputation of being a terrific technical logician, which seems hard to believe.

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    1. It's not so hard to believe. Technical skill is rather specialized and doesn't necessarily translate into good reasoning in other domains - I've seen lots of gifted scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, etc., suddenly become a lot less reasonable when they start talking about religion or politics (especially politics).

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  2. It is hard to see how false beliefs about the immediate environment could be evolutionarily useful. False beliefs about stuff beyond the horizon, maybe.

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    1. Surely there are many evolutionarily useful false beliefs (or dispositions towards false beliefs) about the immediate environment. Massimo mentioned one himself in the post - we have an overly-active tendency to identify signs of agency in the immediate environment (better to be safe than sorry).

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  3. And no, he isn't even a great theologian. They don't make theologians like St Augie any more.

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  4. Massimo wrote: "... to which my response is that I’m an a-theist in the same way in which I am an a-unicornist: this is not to say that I know for a fact that nowhere in the universe there are horse-like animals with a single horn on their head."

    However I may have to take you to task about your own logic, because these are not analogous situations.

    "God" is a theory about the fundamental nature of all of reality, "Unicorn" is a theory about a horse with a horn on it's head.

    Eliminating the theory of the unicorn does not imply any counter theory, however eliminating a theory about the fundamental nature of all of reality surely constitutes and alternative claim about the nature of reality.

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  5. “we have very good reasons not to take seriously the concept of a supernatural being (see comment above about priors)”

    But again, if these “good reasons” are not logically-binding, they are merely evidential and so are neither susceptible of justification nor amenable to debate “on rational grounds” (insofar as rational is construed as conforming to established rules of logical inference).

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    1. Hi Attlee,

      I think there are good reasons to reject the supernatural on logical grounds. The one thing that distinguishes the supernatural from the natural is that the supernatural operates on "storybook logic". High level phenomena emerge with no underlying basic physical mechanism, e.g. ghosts and spirits which appear to be conscious but have no brain to think with.

      If a supernatural phenomenon were ever discovered, one of two things could happen. It could either be classified as a new type of natural phenomenon, or we could throw naturalism out. I think what distinguishes the two cases is whether the phenomenon can be analysed reductively (e.g. ultimately reduced to mathematical physical law) or not.

      If not, it's supernatural, but it's also entirely arbitrary and ultimately makes no sense. I think there are logical reasons for rejecting arbitrary and incoherent entities. If there's no logic underlying how they work, then these phenomena are logically impossible

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  6. Hello Massimo,

    I’m an a-theist in the same way in which I am an a-unicornist: this is not to say that I know for a fact that nowhere in the universe there are horse-like animals with a single horn on their head. Rather, it is to say that — given all I know about biology, as well as human cultural history (i.e., where the legend of unicorns came from) — I don’t think there is any reason to believe in unicorns. That most certainly doesn’t make me an agnostic about unicorns, a position that not even Plantinga would likely feel comfortable endorsing.

    What is your definition of agnostic? For me it is that you are uncertain about the truth value of a claim. In this sense, you admit to being an agnostic about unicorns in the sense that you are not certain they don't exist somewhere in the universe. Now, you might be certain that they don't exit, or didn't exist, on earth in the way that is generally depicted in myth and then I would say you were an earth-myth-a-unicornist, but an agnostic universe-unicornist.

    For me, agnostic implies uncertainty whereas atheist implies certainty.

    I'm generally agnostic about most things that I don't believe. I allow myself pretty high error bars on most beliefs.

    In this sense, I think I agree with Plantinga at least in this limited fashion. I am agnostic, but deeply doubtful about the idea of a monotheistic god.

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    1. Hi Adam,

      Absolute certainty is generally impossible or irrational. Certainty, properly used, merely implies very high confidence.

      I think your distinction between atheist and agnostic is a little too unsubtle. A 99.999999% confidence that God does not exist is not the same as a 50% uncertainty either way. "Agnostic" as commonly used implies the latter much more than the former. To call someone with a 99.999999% confidence an agnostic is to lose the power of language to discriminate between these very different positions.

      On this view, I think atheism is justifiable, even if absolute certainty is not.

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    2. I would like to see Massimo's reply to that question. I take atheism to be the belief that there are no gods, period (I don't think that atheism implies certainty, it only implies a belief strong enough to be worthy of being held or affirmed). For instance, I think that you can be an atheist and an agnostic (in that case you do believe that there are no gods but also believe that you don't know such a thing, so you take atheism in a kind of expressivist way).

      If Massimo doesn't believe that there are no gods, just that there is no evidence for the contrary belief, then he's not an atheist. He may be agnostic, maybe a skeptic, but not an atheist. In order to be an (reasonable) atheist you must believe that there are no gods and must also have some argument supporting your conclusion (an argument for ontological naturalism will work, for example).

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    3. Your dichotomy between "uncertain" and "certain" beliefs is epistemologically suspect. No belief about the state of affaires (ie no empirical belief) can ever justifiably be "certain". Certainty of belief is a hallmark of either formal science (like logic or mathematics, where it can be justified) or dogmatic 'reasoning'.
      An agnostic stance implies a methodological uncertainty about specific beliefs: "We are incapable - at this moment - of knowing the probable (!) or correct answer to the question." This incapability can be contingent (due to empirical/technical limitations) or necessary (due to logical limitations).

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    4. I think your distinction between atheist and agnostic is a little too unsubtle. A 99.999999% confidence that God does not exist is not the same as a 50% uncertainty either way."

      Why can't agnostic be synonymous with uncertain? What we do lose with language if Massimo said, "I am agnostic, but leaning against the idea with N confidence level" rather than he is an atheist?

      I think there are many true believers who would describe themselves as 100% certain that there is a god. Why is it unacceptable to reserve the word 'atheist' for those people who are the diametric opposite?

      And leave 'agnostic, but leaning in favor' or 'agnostic, but leaning against' for the rest of us?

      Perhaps that is the problem. We have the following set of people:

      1) People 100% certain of the existence of a god...
      2) People who are <100% certain, but leaning in favor with N confidence level
      3) People who are <100% certain, but leaning against with N confidence level
      4) People 100% certain that there is no god...

      I think we could find examples of all the above. We only have three terms though... believer, agnostic and atheist.

      Hence the arguing over definitions.

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    5. Hi Adam,

      >Why can't agnostic be synonymous with uncertain?<

      It should be. However, uncertain should not be synonymous with <100% certainty, because 100% certainty on anything is irrational. Certainty should refer to very high levels of confidence (e.g. 99.9%) not 100%.

      >What we do lose with language if Massimo said<

      We'd lose the word atheist, because based on 100% certainty, there are no (rational/honest) atheists.

      >I think there are many true believers who would describe themselves as 100% certain that there is a god.<

      Then they are either irrational or dishonest/hyperbolic. I'm sure there are also those who would describe themselves as 110% certain there is a God.

      >Why is it unacceptable to reserve the word 'atheist' for those people who are the diametric opposite?<

      Because many who are atheists understand that 100% certainty is irrational, but see a value in distinguishing between extremely high levels of certainty and being entirely undecided.

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    6. What about people who are approximately in the middle?

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    7. Agnostics are people like me who can see no way of giving preference to one metalhysical conjecture over another. So I would give Naturalism and Theism equal *prior* probability but don't see any evidence yet to go beyond that.

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    8. There's another position - which happens to be mine.

      Believer = "I believe that god exists"
      Agnostic = "Perhaps, perhaps not"
      Atheist = "I dont believe that god exists" or "I believe that god doesn't exist"
      Another position = "I don't care".

      Asking me if god exists is like asking me if Jeff Bridges really is a nice guy. I don't care.

      I get the impression that my attitude is becoming more and more common, if I look at my friends. It's high time that people who like to classify other people find a name for the group I'm belonging to.


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    9. Disagreeable Me,

      Certainty should refer to very high levels of confidence (e.g. 99.9%) not 100%.

      That is just an abuse of language. Look up the definition of the word in everyday parlance. A quick google:

      google has "known for sure; established beyond doubt."
      dictionary.com has "free from doubt or reservation"
      mirriam webster has "not having any doubt about something"

      Synonyms include: unquestionable, sure, definite, beyond question, not in doubt, indubitable, undeniable, irrefutable, indisputable;

      All of those are 100%.

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    10. English is not my first or even my second language, but apatheist seems to have negative connotation. I'd rather have something more neutral. But it's a good start, I guess. Other suggestions?

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    11. @Patrick,

      I think apathy only means that you don't care about something. There's no negative connotation beyond the negativity implied by not caring. I did come up with the word just then, but it struck me that it was a bit too apt to be a genuine neologism. Sure enough: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheism

      @Manyoso

      Again, 100% belief in anything is irrational. People almost always discount 0.00001% doubts to no doubt at all. This is true for all of those terms. That's just how people speak. Would you not say that you are certain that fairies don't exist? I would. Could you justify 100% certainty, as opposed to 99.999999999% certainty? I could not.

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  7. Replies
    1. My original post got missed here. I was saying that Dawkins 1-7 scale is useful here and that I am around a 4 edging one way or the other from time to time.

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  8. Any philosophiphiles have a take on Plantinga's contribution to modal logic? I have no interest in his religious philosophy. But I lack the education to read any modal logic papers on my own.

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    1. I haven't read any in full. In one he addresses Quine's objection to the combination of modal operators and quantifiers and is probably more or less right.

      In general they are about rather esoteric topics like actualism. His supposedly brilliant observation about actualism - that if a leaf fell in a forest 100 years ago then he wouldn't exist and this must be false.

      I don't quite get it but it may be me, not him.

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    2. Personally, I would characterize his work more as "modal metaphysics" than "modal logic" (e.g., you won't find him cited on the SEP article for 'modal logic', but you'll find him cited on topics concerning the metaphysics of possible worlds, possibilism vs. actualism, transworld identity, etc.)

      Anyway, from what little I read of his work on those topics, I would say it was at the very least competent. It fit into the style of mainstream analytic philosophy and he didn't seem like a nutjob (well, no more than the other people who engage in that style of metaphysics). I don't know how important or influential that work is regarded anymore - I suspect, for example, that the rave reviews for "The Nature of Necessity" on Amazon are primarily from his religious acolytes.

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    3. In fairness I should note that I have rather misrepresented Plantinga's actualism argument in my hurry.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. There are stupid atheist arguments too. For example Sam Harris repeats the old chestnut about resurrection and eternal life being impossible because brains become damaged and memories and abilities are lost. I hear this argument all the time.

    So what exactly is the impossibility here?

    As an analogy if I want to “resurrect” a disk with lots of bad sectors, I don’t try to resurrect it with all the bad sectors in place but create a consistent version of it.

    I am not saying that resurrecting a mind would be exactly the same principle but I can’t see any in principle problem with an omniscient and omnipotent being resurrecting a mind in a consistent state.

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    1. Sure there are stupid atheist arguments. But I would say there are no good theist arguments, and if Plantinga is supposed to be one of the most astute thinkers in theology, that doesn't say much for theology.

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    2. Are there any good arguments in favour of Naturalism?

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    3. And don't say "science" because science has no need of the hypothesis of Naturalism.

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    4. DM said:

      >There are good reasons to have high [priors] for naturalism. See my response to Attlee above.<

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    5. You can't base an argument in favour of Naturalism on the premise that Naturalism is coherent and nothing else is.

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    6. Here is your definition: "Naturalism is the position that all physical events, everything that can ever be objectively observed, can be accounted for with the laws of physics"

      So at a starting point the "laws of physics" refers to a set of symbols manipulated according to a set of rules which happens to describe and predict our sense data.

      Logically there does not need to be a fact of the matter of "what they describe" apart from the mathematical regularity in our shared sense data, a "somewhat" as De Morgan put it.

      So what is your argument in favour of Naturalism?

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    7. Hi Robin,

      >You can't base an argument in favour of Naturalism on the premise that Naturalism is coherent and nothing else is.<

      It's not a premise so much as a conclusion or unpacking what the term "naturalism" means. Naturalism means that the universe obeys laws. If the universe doesn't obey laws, then the behaviour of the universe is without a consistent pattern, essentially arbitrary, which means the universe cannot be consistently described and is therefore incoherent. Even if the universe *mostly* obeys laws, the possibility that those laws might arbitrarily fail to describe the universe at unpredictable times and places still makes the universe as a whole incoherent.

      >refers to a set of symbols manipulated according to a set of rules<

      Hmm, ok, but I don't think in terms of symbols being manipulated. Symbols and syntax are just ways of expressing underlying mathematical regularity.

      >Logically there does not need to be a fact of the matter of "what they describe" <

      I don't understand your objection. Are you making an argument from qualia, or are you drawing a distinction between what we think we see and what is actually there in the universe?

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    8. I am not aware of having made an objection.

      I just asked you to make an argument in favour of Naturalism and pointing out that the only physical laws we know of consist of symbols being manipulated according to a set of rules.

      I pointed out that there is no logical necessity for them to be "about" something or to express anything more than than the symbol manipulation itself.

      Other than that I can't explain your metaphysical system to you, you have to explain it to me.

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    9. I would also point out that you can't start an argument in favour of Naturalism by simply assuming that there is a universe - you have to unpack that too. From a point of view of pure Empiricism I cannot simply accept the proposition that there is a universe or know what it is.

      The starting point for me is this - there are sensations and there is a set of symbols and rules which describe and predict those sensations well.

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    10. >that the only physical laws we know of consist of symbols being manipulated according to a set of rules.<

      Except that I don't accept that that's what physical laws are. They are abstract mathematical relations independent of how they might be represented.

      >I pointed out that there is no logical necessity for them to be "about" something <

      OK, I didn't understand what you meant by that but now I do.

      Well, you know that I think the universe is a mathematical structure, so I don't actually think the laws are "about" anything. They are pure math. Aboutness is just how our brains make sense of the abstract structure we inhabit.

      But putting that aside for the moment, let's assume the universe is made of "stuff" and the MUH is false. In that case, perhaps they do have aboutness. My argument is that how the stuff behaves must follow rules. So there is no logical necessity that any arbitrary imagined set of rules be about anything, but there is a logical necessity that there is a particular set of rules to describe the behaviour of the stuff. These rules can't be deduced from the armchair, they are inferred from observation of the stuff. We know what the rules are about from this observation.

      > would also point out that you can't start an argument in favour of Naturalism by simply assuming that there is a universe - you have to unpack that too.<

      Well, if you want to take it this far ok. In that case I would instead be assuming that there is some laws governing sensory input. The most parsimonious set of laws we can come up with include the hypothesis that there is a universe.

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  11. Massimo wrote: "... to which my response is that I’m an a-theist in the same way in which I am an a-unicornist: this is not to say that I know for a fact that nowhere in the universe there are horse-like animals with a single horn on their head. "

    I have to take your own logic to task here, this is a false analogy. A theory about God is a theory about the fundamental nature of all reality. A theory about a unicorn is a theory about a horse with a horn on its head.

    Eliminating the unicorn theory implies no particular counter theory, but eliminating a theory about the fundamental nature of all reality sure does constitute an alternate claim about reality.

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    1. True but irrelevant. Massimo simply means that when he says he doesn't believe in unicorns, he doesn't mean that he can prove they do not exist. He means that he has no reason to believe that they exist, and since they have low priors he feels confident in his claim that they do not exist. It is just the same with God.

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    2. False analogy is fallacious reasoning so basically you are saying - yes it is fallacious reasoning but that is irrelavant.

      If there are low priors for God that must mean there are high priors for Naturalism which would imply that there are good arguments in favour of some alternative position, which is not the case for the unicorn.

      If no such argument is forthcoming then clearly Massimo is an agnostic or is believing something as "properly basic" as Plantinga would put it. Plantinga says that Theism is properly basic. So what is there to decide between the positions.

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    3. Hi Robin,

      It's not a false analogy.

      An analogy is a metaphorical argument, and like all metaphors the things being compared are alike in some respects and not in others. A good analogy is one where the differences are irrelevant to the point being made.

      So yes, you identified some profound differences between God and the unicorns, but these differences are irrelevant to the point Massimo was making. That's what I meant by "True but irrelevant".

      >If there are low priors for God that must mean there are high priors for Naturalism<
      There are good reasons to have high priros for naturalism. See my response to Attlee above.

      >clearly Massimo is an agnostic<
      Calling 99.9% certainty "agnosticism" makes the term meaningless. See my responses to manyoso above.

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    4. Um. It appears you didn't actually read what I said.

      My point was that eliminating a unicorn theory does not imply an alternative theory of reality, whereas eliminating God does.

      If Massimo is 99.o% convinced of Naturalism then I guess he has a really killer argument for it. I would be interested to hear it.

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    5. So let's say it is a misleading analogy in that implies that eliminating the God theory involves nothing more than eliminating the unicorn theory.

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    6. Let me put it another way. Suppose Plantinga had argued: "I am an a- Naturalist in the same way as I am an a-Unicornist" and then was asked "so are you an agnostic?" had replied "No, because I am 99.9% sure that Naturalism is not true"

      Would you have said that was reasonable?

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    7. Hi Robin,

      >My point was that eliminating a unicorn theory does not imply an alternative theory of reality, whereas eliminating God does.<

      Well, I don't agree. I think accepting God implies accepting an alternative theory of reality, whereas accepting unicorns does not. I guess it depends where you're starting from.

      Anyway, while I agree that there are major metaphysical differences between the significance of unicorns and God, I don't see these as relevant to Massimo's explanation of what he means when he says he does not believe in God.

      >Would you have said that was reasonable?<

      Sure.

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  12. Even if evolution couldn't equip us with reliable truth-recognizing intuitions, couldn't that deficiency be circumvented by means of systematic methods of investigation that don't ultimately rely on our intuitions for their conclusions? Such as science?

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    1. Plantinga's argument is that if human reason is entirely unreliable then so are the tools we develop, including science.

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  13. I'm curious about the moon example. Could it have been a product of an interview for want of a better example (we aren't inferring the existence of the moon from the existence of lunacy)? I get what Plantinga is trying to say, that the lack of a good argument isn't the same thing as demonstrating its absence, Would this be a mistake that comes from the situation, or a failed illustration under pressure?

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  14. I can't believe people buy his arguments. How is this guy so revered?

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    1. He is mostly credited for killing the problem of evil, or at least what is known as the "logical" problem of evil, or at least that is what most philosophers of religion think. Also , his works are told to be very hard and elaborate and require at least a phD in philosophy to understand them.

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    2. I can understand how he might be revered by the people who don't actually read what he says, I think a lot of the popularity is due to people who don't actually understand what is being said. I am pretty sure Derrida's popularity can be explained that way.

      But I can't understand him having respect among academia for this stuff.

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    3. Plantinga having 'solved' the problem of evil is a myth.
      The supposed majority of professional philosophers in favour of his free-will-defense consits of those who believe in a strong concept of free will (against which there are compelling arguments - see Dennett or Hume or Schopenhauer or...) or who are philosophers of religion who 'happen to be' theists themselves. Duh.
      Leading analytic philosophers have criticised Plantinga's theodicee as a failed attempt, amongst them John Leslie Mackie. In 1992, Austrian philosopher Gerhard Streminger (himself the leading expert on David Hume in germanophone philosophy) published an exceptionally thorough book on the problem of evil ("Gottes Güte und die Übel der Welt") in which he obliterates all the arguments of philosophical theism, including the free-will defense in its various forms. The book was never translated into English, which is a shame because there is no comparable work in anglophone analytic philosophy as of yet.

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    4. Doesn't arguing that this is the best of all possible worlds create a problem for commonsense morality? If this is always going to be the best world irrespective of my deeds, what's the motive for doing good? Is this where divine command comes in? I'm completely mystified at how divine command theory could have a coherent epistemology.

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  15. What would a scientific explanation for the apparent fine tuning of the universe look like? Why can't we counter the design argument with the anthropic principle?

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  16. @ Massimo

    > Second, as the analogy with numbers may have hinted at, a naturalist (as opposed to a materialist, which is a sub-set of naturalist positions) has no problem allowing for some kind of ontological status for non-material things, like beliefs, concepts, numbers and so on. Needless to say, this is not at all a concession to the supernaturalist, and it is a position commonly held by a number of philosophers. <

    All you have done here is simply redefined naturalism to be compatible with supernaturalism. (It's easy to win the game if you allow yourself the luxury of moving the goalposts.)

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  17. The problem with "sensus divinitas" is that we cannot distinguish a genuine SD from a mental delusion. There are numerous people who honestly believe that their delusions (such as paranoia) are real, while most people, probably including Platinga, will reject this as nonsense.

    Also Plantinga seems not to understand either evolution or naturalism when he criticizes both.

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    1. >The problem with "sensus divinitas" is that we cannot distinguish a genuine SD from a mental delusion.

      Presumably Plantinga would reply that the same is true for ordinary sensory experience, yet we treat the latter as strong evidence in favour of sundry things, most importantly in favour of the existence of the external world itself.

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  18. Of course it is often the case that very clever people say pretty silly things sometimes. Surely "A Universe from Nothing" is proof of that. Or the occasionally potty history of science in "The Grand Design".

    Or maybe he just thinks that he can get away with it because his target audience will buy what he is saying - as they seem to.

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  19. Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism was of course discussed on this blog before. At that time, I thought Massimo's critique of the argument was a little unfair, while the argument itself was still of course incorrect.

    I wrote a pair of blog articles on the subject, the first defending Plantinga against misunderstandings of his point of view, and the second explaining the problems with the argument as I see them.

    Defending Plantinga

    Attacking Plantinga

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  20. I think this is the first time I've read the distinction between naturalist and materialist defined as above. Now I know I'm not a naturalist. :)

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    1. @ Philip Thrift

      > I think this is the first time I've read the distinction between naturalist and materialist defined as above. Now I know I'm not a naturalist. :) <

      Just curious. What exactly is your metaphysical position?

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    2. compumaterialism: The material is all there is and it's all computational.


      (There is no computation – or mathematics for that matter – outside the material. )

      Computation could (maybe) include hypercomputation.

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    3. Hi Philip,

      You are certainly a naturalist. I don't understand what part of Massimo's distinction you object to. The belief in belief, etc? Not all naturalists do, but some do. Positions on this issue are just different subsets of naturalism.

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    4. I don't think there is anything that is nonmaterial. (I do not allow "for some kind of ontological status for non-material things.") So I'm not a naturalist.

      Of course we can create new things and concepts (lucky humans that we are), but in reality those creations are all material.

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    5. >I don't think there is anything that is nonmaterial.<

      Therefore you are a materialist, which means you are a naturalist, because materialism is a subset of naturalism.

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    6. @ Philip Thrift

      > compumaterialism: The material is all there is and it's all computational. <

      What kind of computation is it? Digital or quantum?

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    7. Some say there is evidence of quantum computation in nature.
      Quantum Computing for Plants and Algae

      But (as I understand it) quantum programs running on (currently-understood, qubit-based) quantum computers running in polynomial time can be simulated by a classical computer running in polynomial space. What lies beyond classical and and (standard) quantum computation is hypercomputation, e.g. as Max Tegmark (MUH) points out: "Based on a Godel-undecidable statement, one can even define a function which is guaranteed to be uncomputable, yet would be computable if infinitely many computational steps [completed in finite time] were allowed."

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  21. Plaatinga: Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs.

    I never understood this argument. Yes, we have quite a bit of motivated reasoning going on, especially around our self-image, but surely it is blatantly obvious that producing true beliefs about the world around us is adaptive and producing false beliefs about the world around us is seriously maladaptive? I mean, for example, false beliefs like "gravity can be overcome by force of will", "a wet noodle makes a good offensive weapon", "having children with close relatives is a good idea", or "toadstools are edible"? Surely one has to be a bit disingenuous to doubt this?

    To pick just one example among many, most people, for most of human history, believed that they were living on a flat surface. It took the sophistication of science to show otherwise (so much for the “science is just commonsense writ large” sort of platitude).

    Of course there is always one sentence that makes me bite. Methinks you are conflating common sense as a word for knowledge generating heuristics with common sense as a word for widely held beliefs. Yes, science is the former refined, formalized and writ large, but not the latter.

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    1. Hi Alex,

      I don't think you really understand Plantinga's argument. It's wrong, but it's not as obviously ridiculous as it seems to you.

      Plantinga sees no reason for the semantic content of a belief to have any connection the physical behaviours it affords. So, we could believe toadstools are edible but not eat them, and we could believe having children with close relatives are a good idea but never actually do it. He thinks naturalism can account for the chain of events that causes a brain state to lead to bodily action, but he sees no way to map semantic content onto brain states, and seems to think that this mapping can be entirely arbitrary.

      http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/defending-evolutionary-argument-against.html

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    2. John Wilkins also has several posts on Plantinga's EAAN:
      http://evolvingthoughts.net/2012/03/what-however-is-the-eaan/

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    3. Disagreeable Me,

      That seems unnecessarily complicated, so I would rule such a relationship between reality and our actions out on grounds of 'most parsimonious explanation' until we had good evidence that that is what happens.

      Note also that in these particular cases we know that humans have taboos against incest and have indeed learned that toadstools are poisonous. We know that we are good at forming an accurate picture of the world - the more immediately relevant to our short-term welfare, the better.

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    4. Hi Alex,

      It is unnecessarily complicated, that's one of the ways in which he's wrong. But your initial interpretation is even more crazy, that he doesn't realise that it is adaptive to behave as though we hold true beliefs.

      >We know that we are good at forming an accurate picture of the world<

      We don't know anything at all unless we assume that we can reason, which is what Plantinga argues we cannot on naturalism. The only way to tackle his argument is to challenge the assumption that there is no evolutionary advantage in having adaptive *beliefs* as well as adaptive behaviour.

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  22. Wow, just wow. A thoroughly enjoyable mastication.I wrote a critique of the Plantinga intvu for HuffPost and got a spanking from Gutting for leaving out the "beer in the fridge" argument from consideration. Nice to see it get the treatment it deserves here. Cheers, Clay

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  23. Attlee,

    > insofar as rational is construed as conforming to established rules of logical inference <

    But logical inference goes well beyond what is strictly (i.e., deductively) logically entailed.

    manyoso,

    > What is your definition of agnostic? For me it is that you are uncertain about the truth value of a claim <

    As DM pointed out, that's not what is usually understood by agnosticism. The latter is a position where your priors are about 50-50, which I don't think is reasonable either in the case of unicorns or in that of god.

    Robin,

    > this is a false analogy. A theory about God is a theory about the fundamental nature of all reality. A theory about a unicorn is a theory about a horse with a horn on its head. <

    See DM's response above. I agree with his take.

    Björn,

    > couldn't that deficiency be circumvented by means of systematic methods of investigation that don't ultimately rely on our intuitions for their conclusions? Such as science? <

    Precisely. Just like our natural deficiencies in logical and mathematical thinking can be ameliorated by the rigorous practice of logic and mathematics. <

    Kel,

    > I'm curious about the moon example. Could it have been a product of an interview for want of a better example (we aren't inferring the existence of the moon from the existence of lunacy)? <

    Well, the interview was conducted via email, according to Gutting, so Plantinga had plenty of time to think of a better example. Apparently, he couldn't come up with one...

    Jake,

    > What would a scientific explanation for the apparent fine tuning of the universe look like? Why can't we counter the design argument with the anthropic principle? <

    It would look like, say, the multiverse theory, if the multiverse itself were a scientific explanation (which, at the moment, is at least doubtful). The anthropic principle is either trivial (weak form) or no explanation at all (strong form).

    Alastair,

    > All you have done here is simply redefined naturalism to be compatible with supernaturalism. (It's easy to win the game if you allow yourself the luxury of moving the goalposts.) <

    I did no such thing, the definition of naturalism I out forth is well established in philosophy, and I even added a link precisely to pre-empt this sort of objection.

    paco,

    > He is mostly credited for killing the problem of evil, or at least what is known as the "logical" problem of evil, or at least that is what most philosophers of religion think. <

    I agree with St. David's response on this point.

    DM,

    > Plantinga's argument is that if human reason is entirely unreliable then so are the tools we develop, including science. <

    Right, but then why should we trust Plantinga's own (or anyone else's) ability to reason? That sort of line degenerates pretty quickly into solipsism. And Plantinga should have learned better from Descartes and his famous vicious circle.

    Grégory,

    > I think that you can be an atheist and an agnostic (in that case you do believe that there are no gods but also believe that you don't know such a thing, so you take atheism in a kind of expressivist way). If Massimo doesn't believe that there are no gods, just that there is no evidence for the contrary belief, then he's not an atheist. <

    No, for the reason explained above in response to manyoso.

    Philip,

    > Now I know I'm not a naturalist. <

    That surprises me, I would have thought you were a naturalist, but not a materialist (like myself, though perhaps for different reasons and in a different sense).

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      >Right, but then why should we trust Plantinga's own (or anyone else's) ability to reason?<

      On naturalism, we shouldn't! That's the point. Plantinga's skepticism of human reason only applies if naturalism is true. By adopting theism, as Plantinga does, we have a justification for human reason. The criticism you have made here just doesn't work. Other criticisms do, however.

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    2. Hi Massimo,

      >Right, but then why should we trust Plantinga's own (or anyone else's) ability to reason? <

      I think I may have missed your point. I think you're not saying that Plantinga's argument directly undermines his own position just as much as a naturalist's, but instead that an analogous argument could be made about theist confidence in reason. How can theists know that their god-given reasoning is correct?

      In that case, you have a point, but it's still not a knock-down argument. Plantinga can agree that he cannot be certain his reasoning is valid, just like anyone else. The difference between theism and naturalism, Plantinga would say, is that naturalism lacks any plausible explanation of true beliefs. On the other hand, it is plausible, though not certain, that God gave us the ability to reason reliably.

      So we're back to refuting him by disagreeing with his premise that the ability to form true beliefs is unlikely to have evolved. This premise is certainly wrong, and it is the weak point of his argument in my view, not the argument that we have developed science and education. I think even animals have the ability to form true beliefs reliably in certain domains.

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    3. Massimo, in what sense is the weak anthropic principle trivial? It seems a good counter to the design argument. The universe looks fine tuned for us not because it was designed intentionally but because the conditions that happened to occur were suitable for our evolving to be creatures that can observe those conditions.

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    4. Massimo,

      See my reply above. I think we are missing a word. We can divide into four groups of people when it comes to the question of god, but we only really have three words to describe these groups. Hence the confusion.

      Cheers,
      Adam

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    5. Hi Massimo - didn't really undersrand DM's reply as I said above, it seems to imply agreement that you argument was fallacious but that this is irrelavant. Do you regard Naturalism as properly basic?

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    6. As with DM, this is Nagel's conclusion from his review of Plantinga's book. What makes sense to a theist is different from that of an atheist because each is starting with different premises.

      See the NYRB for September 27 2012
      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/sep/27/philosopher-defends-religion/?pagination=false

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    7. "Well, the interview was conducted via email, according to Gutting, so Plantinga had plenty of time to think of a better example. Apparently, he couldn't come up with one..."
      That's quite sad, then. Given his reputation, I would have expected better.

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  24. @ Massimo

    If we redefine naturalism to be compatible with ontological dualism, then theism is completely compatible with naturalism. Or, if we redefine dualism to be compatible with physicalism (oh yeah, philosopher do that too), then theism is completely compatible with physicalism. Also, if you are willing to allow "for some kind of ontological status for non-material things, like beliefs, concepts, numbers and so on," then I'm failing to understand your rationale for why you are not willing to allow for the ontological status of the non-material being of God. Intellectual consistency would seem to demand this much.

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    1. You're just wrong on this, Alastair.

      Naturalism is the position that all physical events, everything that can ever be objectively observed, can be accounted for with the laws of physics.

      Materialism is the position that only physical objects exist.

      Mathematical Platonism is compatible with naturalism but not with materialism.

      Theism is compatible with neither if God has ever interacted with the world.

      Deism, on the other hand, is compatible with naturalism in my view.

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    2. @ Disagreeable Me

      > You're just wrong on this, Alastair <

      No, I'm not. If philosophers can redefine terms as they see fit, then they can make anything compatible with anything else. That's why it is so important to define terms in philosophy. If we can't agree on the meaning of terms, then we can't verbally communicate with each other. And if we can't verbally communicate with each other, then any attempt on our part to engage in a philosophical debate would be nothing more than an exercise in futility.

      > Naturalism is the position that all physical events, everything that can ever be objectively observed, can be accounted for with the laws of physics. <

      That sounds more like scientific materialism (a variant of naturalism). And since we cannot objectively observe our own subjectivity (nor account for it by the laws of physics), it is self-evident that this version of naturalism is not true.

      > Materialism is the position that only physical objects exist. <

      This depends on which philosopher you ask. I'm fairly confident that Daniel Dennett (who refers to himself as a "materialist" in his writings) would not agree with this definition.

      > Mathematical Platonism is compatible with naturalism but not with materialism <

      I would classify "mathematical monism" as an untenable version of (atheistic) immaterialism. But subjective idealism is a tenable version of (theistic) immaterialism.

      > Theism is compatible with neither if God has ever interacted with the world. <

      Process theology is considered by its proponents to be naturalistic theism.

      > Deism, on the other hand, is compatible with naturalism in my view. <

      Deists, generally speaking, believe that God created the world. So, I guess you believe that is a naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe.
      I

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    3. >If philosophers can redefine terms as they see fit, then they can make anything compatible with anything else. That's why it is so important to define terms in philosophy. If we can't agree on the meaning of terms, then we can't verbally communicate with each other. And if we can't verbally communicate with each other, then any attempt on our part to engage in a philosophical debate would be nothing more than an exercise in futility.<

      Absolutely. So this is where you accuse me of moving the goalposts, and I deny it because I think you just had the wrong idea of where the goalposts were.

      >That sounds more like scientific materialism (a variant of naturalism).<
      OK, so can you explain to me a naturalist viewpoint which disagrees with what I wrote?

      >And since we cannot objectively observe our own subjectivity (nor account for it by the laws of physics), it is self-evident that this version of naturalism is not true.<

      Reading comprehension failure on your part, I'm afraid. I didn't say that only that which can be objectively observed exists. I said that that which can be objectively observed can be accounted for with the laws of physics.

      >This depends on which philosopher you ask.<

      Perhaps so. I'm asking Massimo Pigliucci, as are you.

      >Process theology is considered by its proponents to be naturalistic theism.<

      And no doubt it is considered by almost everyone else to be supernatural just like any other theism.

      >So, I guess you believe that is a naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe.<

      No, but I don't think that the origin of the universe is something that can be observed, even in principle, so this is outside the scope of naturalism. Even a correct naturalistic account of the origin of the universe would necessarily look something like Krauss's A Universe From Nothing, which fails to explain where the laws of nature ultimately come from. Naturalism assumes these laws, it can by definition offer no account of where they come from.

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    4. @ Disagreeable Me

      > OK, so can you explain to me a naturalist viewpoint which disagrees with what I wrote? <

      Yeah, mathematical Platonism. We cannot objectively observe mathematical abstractions employing the laws of physics.

      > Reading comprehension failure on your part, I'm afraid. I didn't say that only that which can be objectively observed exists. I said that that which can be objectively observed can be accounted for with the laws of physics <

      The point of metaphysics is to define what is ultimately real. So, if there are other real things besides those things which are objectively observed by the laws of physics, then we have no clue what those things might be based on your definition.

      > Perhaps so. I'm asking Massimo Pigliucci, as are you., <

      No, I am not asking Massimo to define "materialism" for me.

      > And no doubt it is considered by almost everyone else to be supernatural just like any other theism. <

      You're making my point. Almost everyone else considers naturalism to be interchangeable with materialism. That's why the natural sciences are known as the physical sciences in academia. And that's why your definition of naturalism was very reminiscent of the definition physicalism.

      "In answer to the first question (What is meant by "the physical"?), physicalists have traditionally opted for a "theory-based" characterization of the physical either in terms of current physics,[2] or a future (ideal) physics.[3]" (source: Wikipedia: Physicalism)

      > No, but I don't think that the origin of the universe is something that can be observed, even in principle, so this is outside the scope of naturalism. <

      It may be outside the scope of "methodological naturalism," but it shouldn't be outside the scope of "metaphysical naturalism." And if it is, then this doesn't say very much for the explanatory power of metaphysical naturalism.

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    5. Mathematical Platonism does not disagree with what I wrote. Again, your reading comprehension skills failed you.

      I never said that only objectively observable entities exist.

      I never said that only objectively observable entities exist.

      I never said that only objectively observable entities exist.

      Got that?

      I said only that naturalism is the position that objectively observable phenomena can be explained by appeal to physical law. Mathematical platonism is entirely compatible with this.

      >The point of metaphysics is to define what is ultimately real.<
      So what? That doesn't mean that all metaphysical positions entail an opinion on all metaphysical questions. Mathematical Platonism doesn't say whether God exists or not. Similarly naturalism doesn't say whether mathematical objects exist or not.

      >Almost everyone else considers naturalism to be interchangeable with materialism.<

      Because the distinction is subtle and irrelevant to most people, specifically scientists. Scientists deal in objective phenomena, not mathematical Platonism or moral truth. Physicalism and naturalism are interchangeable from this point of view. The distinction is only important in the context of philosophical discussion.

      >t shouldn't be outside the scope of "metaphysical naturalism."<

      Yet I claim it is. Go figure.

      >this doesn't say very much for the explanatory power of metaphysical naturalism.<

      Questions that are in scope are wonderfully explained by metaphysical naturalism. Your comment strikes me as like someone criticising the explanatory power of population genetics because it doesn't account for the existence of the Andromeda galaxy.

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    6. @ Disagreeable Me

      > Mathematical Platonism does not disagree with what I wrote. Again, your reading comprehension skills failed you.

      I never said that only objectively observable entities exist. <

      Previously, you stated: "Naturalism is the position that all physical events, everything that can ever be objectively observed, can be accounted for with the laws of physics.states"

      If mathematical Platonism is compatible with that, then please explain to me why theism is not compatible with that.

      > So what? That doesn't mean that all metaphysical positions entail an opinion on all metaphysical questions. Mathematical Platonism doesn't say whether God exists or not. Similarly naturalism doesn't say whether mathematical objects exist or not. <

      Here's what. You definition of naturalism doesn't appear to tell us anything at all about what may or may not exist. All it appears to say is that naturalism allows us to do physics. Well, theism allows us to do physics too.

      > Because the distinction is subtle and irrelevant to most people, specifically scientists. Scientists deal in objective phenomena, not mathematical Platonism or moral truth. Physicalism and naturalism are interchangeable from this point of view. The distinction is only important in the context of philosophical discussion. <

      Well, I can say the same thing about naturalistic theism. The distinction is only important in the context of philosophical and theological discussion.

      > Yet I claim it is. Go figure. <

      What I figure is that you're conflating "metaphysical naturalism" with "methodological naturalism."

      > Questions that are in scope are wonderfully explained by metaphysical naturalism. <

      To reiterate: It seems to me that you're conflating "metaphysical naturalism" with "methodological naturalism."

      Yeah, questions that are in the scope of the natural sciences are wonderfullly explained by "methodological naturalism." Questions that are not in the scope of the natural sciences are not wonderfully explained by "methodological naturalism" (e.g. subjective awareness or anything else that may be characterized as nonphysical and beyond the domain of physics.).














      "

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    7. Hi Alastair,

      >If mathematical Platonism is compatible with that, then please explain to me why theism is not compatible with that.<

      Well, it is if you count deism as a flavour of theism. If you regard theism to be distinct from deism then you believe that God intervenes occasionally in the physical world, meaning that the physical world cannot be completely described with laws of physics, contravening naturalism.

      >You definition of naturalism doesn't appear to tell us anything at all about what may or may not exist.<

      Nor is it supposed to. It's not really an ontological position, it's instead a broad category of viewpoints that agree about how the world works.There are flavours of naturalism which take an ontological position though, e.g. materialism or deism.

      >The distinction is only important in the context of philosophical and theological discussion.<

      OK, maybe I don't understand naturalistic theism. Does a naturalistic theist believe that a conscious incorporeal God can or has ever intervened in the physical world? If so, I reject it as naturalism, although I would be interested to hear why you think it does count as naturalism.

      >What I figure is that you're conflating "metaphysical naturalism" with "methodological naturalism."<

      I'm not. Methodological naturalism adopts the pragmatic attitude that we ought to assume that everything conforms to physical law. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that this is actually true.

      >Questions that are not in the scope of the natural sciences are not wonderfully explained by "methodological naturalism" (e.g. subjective awareness or anything else that may be characterized as nonphysical and beyond the domain of physics.). <

      I agree. That's why I value philosophy.

      Delete
    8. To anticipate a criticism, I wrote a bit loosely here:

      >Methodological naturalism adopts the pragmatic attitude that we ought to assume that everything conforms to physical law<

      Should be:

      >Methodological naturalism adopts the pragmatic attitude that we ought to assume that all objectively observable phenomena are explicable by appeal to physical law<

      Delete
    9. @ Disagreeable Me

      > OK, maybe I don't understand naturalistic theism. Does a naturalistic theist believe that a conscious incorporeal God can or has ever intervened in the physical world? If so, I reject it as naturalism, although I would be interested to hear why you think it does count as naturalism. <

      God does not intervene. God's agency works through final causation. Physics is based on effecient causation. So, God does not contravene the laws of physics. It's quite the contrary; God makes the laws of physics possible.

      > Nor is it supposed to. It's not really an ontological position, it's instead a broad category of viewpoints that agree about how the world works. <

      Merriam-Webster defines "metaphysics" as "a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology"

      > Methodological naturalism adopts the pragmatic attitude that we ought to assume that everything conforms to physical law. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that this is actually true. <

      This has not historically been the case.The natural sciences study physical causation (a.k.a. efficient causation). That's why academia considers the natural sciences to be the physical sciences. And this is also why academia makes a distinction between the natural sciences and the social sciences. (Methodological naturalism does not assume that everything has a physical cause. It just limits its field of study to physical causation.)

      If we understand a natural explanation to be a physical explanation (which historically has been the case), then the study of natural phenomena is the study of physical phenomena. And that is exactly what physics is. It is the study of physical phenomena - hence the designation of the term "physics" to this field of study.

      Delete
    10. >God does not intervene. God's agency works through final causation. Physics is based on effecient causation<

      Do you even read your own links? The two links you gave are not about causation at all, but about cause. Final cause is the idea of teleology, that things are explained by their purpose. Effective cause is the physical explanation for what happens. Final cause does not explain how God's agency works, it is an account of what purpose God is trying to achieve.

      So, let's get more specific. Can miracles occur? Did Jesus rise from the dead, or change water to wine, or cure the sick by laying on hands? Are prayers answered? Does God have the ability to affect the course of events in the physical realm (one would think so if he is omnipotent)?

      If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think he intervenes (or has the potential to intervene) which contradicts naturalism.

      >Merriam-Webster defines "metaphysics"<

      Who cares what Merriam-Webster says about metaphysics? Another irrelevant dictionary definition. What I said was very very clearly about naturalism, not metaphysics. You can't just substitute one for the other because they are not the same thing. Naturalism is a branch of metaphysics, yes, which is a field that covers more than just ontology, as your quote shows. So it is perfectly reasonable for me to say that bare bones naturalism is not an ontological position, although there are subtypes of naturalism that make ontological claims.

      However, if you insist, I will grant that naturalism can be formulated as an ontological position also. We can state it as "nothing exists which can affect the objective physical world but that which obeys physical law". My point is that it makes no claims about any entities which do not affect the objective physical world.

      >Methodological naturalism does not assume that everything has a physical cause. It just limits its field of study to physical causation.<

      Well, assuming you read my clarification of what I meant by "everything", this is nonsense. You seem to be implying that we do not assume physical causes for social phenomena. This is false. Naturalism does assume physical causes, ultimately. It's just that those causes are so complex that it is completely impractical to study these phenomena in terms of low-level physics. The same is many of the natural sciences also, e.g. biology. That doesn't mean that biologists think that anything supernatural is happening.

      Delete
  25. DM,
    "Plantinga's argument is that if human reason is entirely unreliable then so are the tools we develop, including science."

    It seems to me that the standard arguments for scientific realism apply here. Why are our scientific beliefs so phenomenally instrumentally useful if they do not track reality in any meaningful way? (the no-miracles argument)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How do you know that science tracks reality if your ability to form true beliefs is in doubt? Perhaps we are all deluded and science does not track reality at all.

      The key is not to accept that perhaps our native reasoning faculties are highly unreliable but to attack the claim that they are.

      Delete
  26. The fine infidels at Reasonable Doubts do a drive-by on Plantinga in this episode: http://freethoughtblogs.com/reasonabledoubts/2014/01/27/episode-124-religions-role-in-global-conflict/
    Religious philosophy seems to be a sub-set withing academic philosophy that does not reflect wider philosophical trends. The hosts raise the issue that some recent religious philosophy has not been countered with sustained argument.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi Massimo,

    This is an off-topic question: have you ever considered doing a post about the status of women in academic philosophy? (This is an old issue, of course, but there have been a number of unfortunate stories on the subject in just the past couple of weeks.) In particular, you might be able to offer some insight into the cultural differences between philosophy and biology departments as far as the treatment of women is concerned (my understanding is that biology is one of the better scientific fields when it comes to the treatment of women).

    ReplyDelete
  28. You kindly devoted way too much time and space to this, Massimo. Gutting was more than charitable to Plantinga and he still was a massive fail. Of course, he believes in a gussied up cosmological argument as a key talking point, so what can you expect? And, his defense of the problem of evil has always been full of holes.

    ReplyDelete
  29. In a world where the existence of electron bonding between atoms has not been proven, what would it mean for people to claim 'expertise' in chemistry?

    That's where we are in terms of theological 'experts.' To borrow Mr. Frost's timeless snark, their intellectual output is "tennis without the net."

    ReplyDelete
  30. There were some people on Twitter singing the praises of The God Delusion saying how it made atheists of them. But in discussion it seemed they had no idea of the contents. They disagreed with.me about the conclusion of his central argument saying that his conclusion was that the burden of evidence was on those making the claim.

    So they changed their metaphysical views based on a book.they hadn't actually read. What other book does that remind you of?

    But what it seems to suggest is that maybe good reasoning is not the point and being able to create an aura of intellectual authority is what actually changes people's minds.

    ReplyDelete
  31. What do you folks mean by "materialism"? Seems to me that, eg., radio waves (EM & other radiation) are clearly immaterial (nonphysical, incorporeal).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For myself, I like the SEP article's definition: plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism ("In this entry, I will adopt the policy of using both terms ['materialism' and 'physicalism'] interchangeably"). So 'physical' and 'material' are interchangeable.

      Delete
  32. @Massimo

    "The first question was based on recent surveys that put the proportion of atheists among academic philosophers at around 62%, slightly above what it is for scientists (it varies from sub-discipline to sub-discipline, too). Plantinga concedes that this is problematic for theism, considering that philosophers are the ones who are most familiar with all the arguments for and against the theistic position. So what does he do? He quotes Richard Dawkins, quoting Bertrand Russell, who famously said that if he found himself in front of god after his death he would point out to him that there just wasn’t enough evidence."

    Well I actually disagree with Plantinga and anyone else who thinks that this is a problem, only because we are speaking of 'philosophers' in general. Why should we care what a philosopher of Aesthetics, Social and Political Philosophy, Computing and information have to say about the God question?

    I believe the more important question is to ask, how many philosophers of religion are Theists as they are the philosophers who engage this subject the most. There are of course other branches that are of importance (Mind, Epistemology, Ethics) though I still think the most action takes place in the philosophy of religion. So my response to this 62% is, so what?

    Massimo says "I keep hearing that Notre Dame philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga is a really smart guy, capable of powerfully subtle arguments about theism and Christianity. But every time I look, I am dismayed by what I see. If this is the best that theology can do, theology is in big trouble."

    Plantinga doesn't think too highly of natural theology, and I think that if you are going to look for arguments for Theism you will have to go elsewhere.

    cf: 'Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology' JP Moreland, William Lane Craig

    Especially the articles from Alexander Pruss (Leibnizian Cosmological Argument); Victor Reppert (Argument from Reason); Robert Maydole (Ontological Argument);

    Pruss goes deeper in 'Principle of Sufficient Reason: A reassessment'

    Reppert 'C.S Lewis' Dangerous Idea'


    Then we have Richard Swinburne's 'Existence of God' & 'Mind, Brain, and Free Will'

    Chad Meister & JP Moreland's 'Debating Christian Theism' which has counterpoints from Atheists and non-Christians

    Timothy O'Connor 'Theism and Ultimate Explanation'

    Robert M Adams 'Finite and Infinite Goods'

    I've also heard that William Hasker's 'Emergent Self' is very good; along with Robert Adams' 'The Virtue of Faith' and Robert Koons 'The Waning of Materialism'

    I'm picking those up later this year.

    Anyways, Sure the EAAN is an argument against materialism, but not necessarily and argument for Theism per se', however I still think it is pretty good. I'll go into that later on

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I believe the more important question is to ask, how many philosophers of religion are Theists as they are the philosophers who engage this subject the most."
      Turns out most philosophers of religion are theists, though there's probably a good sociological reason for that - namely that it's an area of philosophy that attracts theists more than atheists.

      What would be curious, though, given this bias of theists favouring philosophy of religion, how well that has strengthened the case for theism. Or to put it another way, with so many theistic philosophers dedicated to the discipline, do we have a good case for God that comes from it? Given all those bright minds and the huge weight of history on the matter, what has been the product of the discipline? For instance, Keith Parson recently quit the discipline, calling the case for theism a fraud. Is he correct to do so?

      Delete
    2. "Turns out most philosophers of religion are theists, though there's probably a good sociological reason for that - namely that it's an area of philosophy that attracts theists more than atheists.

      What would be curious, though, given this bias of theists favouring philosophy of religion, how well that has strengthened the case for theism. Or to put it another way, with so many theistic philosophers dedicated to the discipline, do we have a good case for God that comes from it? Given all those bright minds and the huge weight of history on the matter, what has been the product of the discipline? For instance, Keith Parson recently quit the discipline, calling the case for theism a fraud. Is he correct to do so? "

      Kel, Keith Parson just contributed to 'Debating Christian Theism' which was published last June by Oxford University Press, he obviously can't get away form the discipline and is an abject hypocrite. Parsons let's his emotions take the best of him sometimes.

      The reason why Theists sway more towards this discipline is probably the same reason why I sway towards it, it's arguing about something that is of great interest to us. I can't speak for others, but I have an obsession with God to the point where I want to know as much knowledge of his creation that I possibly can, this makes me want to learn about branches of philosophy such as epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, logic, mind and science just to name a few. I feel called to love the Lord with all my heart, soul and mind, so I really love the 'mind' aspect of it. With that being said I also like challenges, and I'm very interesting in seeing what the other side has to offer. So you'll notice me giving much praise to the opposition when it comes to Graham Oppy, JL Mackie, William Rowe, Michael Tooley, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fredrick Neitzsche, Nicholas Everitt, and Jordan Sobel just to name a few.

      If you want to know what the product of the discipline has brought, just pick up an introductory book on the subject. This question has been argued for since the Pre-Socratic days and I believe it will continue on for quite some time. Down below I published a piece written in the early 2000s by atheist philosopher Quentin Smith. He says that the philosophy of religion is starting to surge, and by looking at all the books that are coming out by top publishers, I think he is right.


      Mutual respect needs to be a target here, because I think that once both sides start respecting each other more and more, then the debate will get even more interesting.

      One more thing to keep in mind is the fact that Theists argue against themselves as well, and this is also something that brings interest. for example: Wes Morriston is a Theist who argues against William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument, and Morriston is no scrub, he has been around for awhile and can argue with the best of them.

      Delete
    3. I've read enough on the topic to know what the arguments are and what they can say about reality (turns out very little), but what I was after in your own words what you think has been the fruits of the discipline. I.e. How that majority has advanced the case. It's better to have a theist explain how good the case is than for me as an atheist to say I've found it extremely weak. If we were to survey biology departments, for example, we'd find lots of answers as to the evidence in favour of evolution that justifies the disparity between biologists who accept evolution and the laypeople who don't. If the gap is because people go into the discipline with prior theological commitments, then the majority wouldn't indicate the strength of the arguments within. Hence why I ask about the strength of the arguments.

      Delete
    4. Kel says "I've read enough on the topic to know what the arguments are and what they can say about reality (turns out very little), but what I was after in your own words what you think has been the fruits of the discipline. I.e. How that majority has advanced the case. It's better to have a theist explain how good the case is than for me as an atheist to say I've found it extremely weak. If we were to survey biology departments, for example, we'd find lots of answers as to the evidence in favour of evolution that justifies the disparity between biologists who accept evolution and the laypeople who don't. If the gap is because people go into the discipline with prior theological commitments, then the majority wouldn't indicate the strength of the arguments within. Hence why I ask about the strength of the arguments."

      Well I'm going to challenge the claim that you've read enough on the subject, what exactly have you read?

      Delete
    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  33. Concerning agnosticism versus atheism, I think both those who think that agnosticism is a 50% prior and those who think that agnosticism is anything smaller than a 0% prior for belief are wrong.

    Formally, agnosticism is the position that we cannot ultimately decide an issue at the moment because we lack sufficient information. This is, however, not a very helpful position because we can rarely know anything with perfect confidence, and we simply have to live our lives in a way that assumes a proposition to be either true or false. I cannot personally confirm that there are no fairies but life my life under the assumption that there aren't.

    Also, because atheism is merely the stance of not believing, agnosticism and atheism are orthogonal, and one can be both at the same time.

    So what it boils down to is that the atheist says,

    "I am not convinced that there are gods, consequently I will withhold belief",

    whereas the agnostic says,

    "I really want to stress that we cannot prove a negative, and I don't want to call myself an atheist because it sounds so bad, but I am not convinced that there are gods, consequently I will withhold belief."

    Big difference, right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're right in a way, but it is also true that common usage at least often interprets agnosticism as uncertainty.

      My point is that uncertainty ought not to be taken as anything less than 100% confidence. 99.99% confidence is certainty for all practical purposes and in common usage.

      Delete
  34. Here is one site listing Plantinga's arguments for theism:
    http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/two_dozen_or_so_theistic_arguments.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  35. "But logical inference goes well beyond what is strictly (i.e., deductively) logically entailed"

    It’s not only pointless but unnecessary to engage theists on grounds other than that which “strictly (i.e. deductively) logically entailed"

    ReplyDelete
  36. Massimo says "Plantinga does concede that god-of-the-gap arguments are a bit weak, but insists: “We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified.” Wow. I think I’m going to leave this one as an exercise to the reader (hint: consider the obvious disanalogy between the moon — which everyone can plainly see — and god, which…)."

    Well, God of the gaps are weak

    First off, it's silly to move from many gaps in science have been naturalistically explained to all gaps will be filled with naturalistic explanations. I'd argue that after all, direct actions of God are, even given Theism, far and few between.

    For the sake of argument let's say 10,000 years from now humanity still can't find a natural explanation to 'why there is a universe' should we still say 'well if we haven't found a natural explanation, we can't punt to God as an explanation, because God of the gaps'

    Well this is silly, what exactly is the indicator that tells us when we are just going to have to concede the point in which one says "there just is no natural explanation"?

    What exactly is the special ingredient that works as an indicator for destroying the optimism of naturalism? I mean I could just very well respond with 'nature of the gaps' as well, or just take a pessimistic approach to naturalism.

    Richard Swinburne also weighs in "Note that I am not postulating a 'God of the Gaps', a god merely to explain the things that science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain why science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains. The very success of science in showing us how deeply ordered the natural world is provides strong grounds for believing that there is an even deeper cause for that order'

    - Richard Swinburne 'Is there a God?' (1996) pg 68



    Massimo says "Of course invoking fine tuning in support of theism is simply a variant of the old god-of-the-gaps argument, one that is increasingly weak in the face of continuous scientific progress, an obvious observation that Gutting was smart enough to make."

    I don't really defend the this teleological argument, but this objection is clearly unpersuasive. Pace, Robin Collins, God should be considered a philosophical or metaphysical explanation of a life permitting universe. All the advocate of the fine-tuning argument needs is to argue that it is unlikely that all the cases can be given a natural explanation that removes their epistemic improbability without transferring that improbability up one level.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Cornell,

      >Well this is silly, what exactly is the indicator that tells us when we are just going to have to concede the point in which one says "there just is no natural explanation"?<

      Well, I'm an atheist, but as far as I can see there can in principle be no naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe. Naturalism assumes the existence of physical law, and naturalistic explanations appeal to physical law to account for the existence of the universe. But any ultimate explanation must account for the physical law in the first place.

      For this reason I think ultimate questions about origins are outside the scope of science. But I think God remains a poor explanation. My money is on the MUH.

      Delete
    2. "Well, I'm an atheist, but as far as I can see there can in principle be no naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe. Naturalism assumes the existence of physical law, and naturalistic explanations appeal to physical law to account for the existence of the universe. But any ultimate explanation must account for the physical law in the first place.

      For this reason I think ultimate questions about origins are outside the scope of science. But I think God remains a poor explanation. My money is on the MUH."

      So you reject naturalism and Theism?

      How are you defining 'God'?

      Why does God remain a poor explanation? What exactly is God lacking?

      Delete
    3. Hi Cornell,

      No, I'm a naturalist. I just don't think you can explain the origins of physical law by appealing to physical law. I think whatever the explanation is, it cannot be contingent. The universe must exist as a logical necessity, and in particular the MUH is true.

      God is contingent, and possibly an incoherent concept.

      Delete
    4. Disagreeable Me

      you say "No, I'm a naturalist. I just don't think you can explain the origins of physical law by appealing to physical law. I think whatever the explanation is, it cannot be contingent."

      I agree,

      " The universe must exist as a logical necessity, and in particular the MUH is true."

      Seems question begging, why is it the case where the universe doesn't demand an explanation? Are you one of those who think that since something exists, then nothing (what rocks dream about) is impossible?

      I'm sorry, but what does MUH stand for?

      "God is contingent, and possibly an incoherent concept."

      A contingent God, really? Well I have to say that we are both atheists with respect to your concept of God.

      Delete
    5. Hi Cornell,

      >why is it the case where the universe doesn't demand an explanation?<

      It does demand an explanation. But the explanation cannot appeal to physical law. It must appeal to logical necessity. The MUH is one such explanation. A logically necessary God would be another.

      >Are you one of those who think that since something exists, then nothing (what rocks dream about) is impossible? <

      Not exactly. I don't think it is satisfactory to say the universe must exist logically simply because we observe it to exist. I do think nothing is possible, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I think all kinds of consistent reality exist, and one of those realities corresponds to nothingness.

      >I'm sorry, but what does MUH stand for?<
      The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. Discussed extensively on the previous post on this blog, and here on mine:

      http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-universe-is-made-of-mathematics.html

      >A contingent God, really?<

      Yes. I know theists typically believe God is not contingent. I don't generally find that any of these arguments hold water. I see no basis for the logical necessity of God. The ontological/modal argument in particular is really really poor. If you want to debate this, I suggest pick your favourite argument for God, I'll write a blog post dissecting it. We can then discuss.

      Delete
    6. Hi DM

      you say “It does demand an explanation. But the explanation cannot appeal to physical law. It must appeal to logical necessity. The MUH is one such explanation. A logically necessary God would be another.”

      Ok, so do you deny materialism then and accept some form of dualism (property dualism)?


      you say “Not exactly. I don't think it is satisfactory to say the universe must exist logically simply because we observe it to exist. I do think nothing is possible, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I think all kinds of consistent reality exist, and one of those realities corresponds to nothingness.”

      This makes sense, though I don’t understand why you think the universe is necessary but yet still demands an explanation at the same time, however I guess I’d have to read up on this The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis that you speak of in the next comment

      “The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. Discussed extensively on the previous post on this blog, and here on mine:

      http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-universe-is-made-of-mathematics.html”

      I’ll have to get familiar with this before I engage with objections, might take awhile though but I’ll check this out in the future.


      You say “Yes. I know theists typically believe God is not contingent. I don't generally find that any of these arguments hold water. I see no basis for the logical necessity of God. The ontological/modal argument in particular is really really poor. If you want to debate this, I suggest pick your favourite argument for God, I'll write a blog post dissecting it. We can then discuss.”

      And I think the Modal versions of the Ontological argument are BY FAR the best arguments for the existence of God, so sure, I’ll start with defining God as a necessary concrete being

      Necessary is defined as:

      (D1) x is a necessary being = df x exists in every possible world


      Concrete is defined as:

      (D3) x is a concrete being = df x exists in space and time, or at least in time

      I’ll look for this on your blog!

      Delete
    7. Hi Cornell

      >Ok, so do you deny materialism then and accept some form of dualism (property dualism)?<

      Ultimately I'm a mathematical monist. Only mathematical objects exist. I am such an object and so is my universe. But at different levels of description you could say that I'm a dualist. I don't think the mind is the same thing as the brain, for example, though I think both exist.

      >I don’t understand why you think the universe is necessary but yet still demands an explanation at the same time<

      Because we need to explain why it is necessary. You can measure all the hypotenuses you like, but until you've found a theorem, you haven't really explained why the length is always equal to the root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

      >I’ll look for this on your blog!<

      OK, I will write up a critique of the ontological argument on my blog in the next week or so.

      Delete
    8. "Ultimately I'm a mathematical monist. Only mathematical objects exist. I am such an object and so is my universe. But at different levels of description you could say that I'm a dualist. I don't think the mind is the same thing as the brain, for example, though I think both exist."

      Is this similar to what Bertrand Russell held to?

      "Because we need to explain why it is necessary. You can measure all the hypotenuses you like, but until you've found a theorem, you haven't really explained why the length is always equal to the root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides."

      Ah I see, yeah that makes sense. Never argued with a monist before so forgive me as this caught me by surprise.

      "OK, I will write up a critique of the ontological argument on my blog in the next week or so."

      Okie dokie,

      Delete
  37. Replies
    1. I think most theologians would agree that he is.

      Delete
  38. "For the sake of argument let's say 10,000 years from now humanity still can't find a natural explanation to 'why there is a universe' should we still say 'well if we haven't found a natural explanation, we can't punt to God as an explanation, because God of the gaps'

    If we never have a convincing naturalistic account of the creation of the universe, does that fact make other accounts more credible?

    ReplyDelete
  39. Alastair,

    > If we redefine naturalism to be compatible with ontological dualism, then theism is completely compatible with naturalism. <

    Not at all. Let's say one is a mathematical Platonist, which according to you means he's a dualist (though he is really an ontological pluralist, the term "dualism" is usually referred to a particular type of metaphysical position). It does not follow at all that he is committed to theism.

    > if you are willing to allow "for some kind of ontological status for non-material things, like beliefs, concepts, numbers and so on," then I'm failing to understand your rationale for why you are not willing to allow for the ontological status of the non-material being of God <

    Because numbers exist, gods don't.

    DM,

    > you're not saying that Plantinga's argument directly undermines his own position just as much as a naturalist's, but instead that an analogous argument could be made about theist confidence in reason. <

    Right, hence my mention of the vicious Cartesian circle. Seems like Plantinga is stuck in the early 17th century.

    > I think even animals have the ability to form true beliefs reliably in certain domains. <

    I agree, but how do you go from "certain domains" to domains for which natural selection clearly didn't do any work, like abstract math? In my mind our ability to reason - reliably - in those domains is simply a cultural byproduct of our basic reasoning abilities, refined via cultural evolution.

    C,

    > have you ever considered doing a post about the status of women in academic philosophy? <

    It's a delicate topic, about which I actually don't have a lot of original insight to offer. I have published a post on that her recently, though: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2013/08/does-philosophy-have-sexual-harassment.html

    Jake,

    > in what sense is the weak anthropic principle trivial? It seems a good counter to the design argument. The universe looks fine tuned for us not because it was designed intentionally but because the conditions that happened to occur were suitable for our evolving to be creatures that can observe those conditions <

    But that's simply a restatement of the facts, not an explanation.

    manyoso,

    > Why can't agnostic be synonymous with uncertain? What we do lose with language if Massimo said, "I am agnostic, but leaning against the idea with N confidence level" rather than he is an atheist? <

    That's the point: uncertainty comes in degrees. If one hovers around 50% priors then one is in the agnostic zone; the more one's priors go down (i.e., toward the proposition that gods don't exist) the more atheistic his position becomes.

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    Replies
    1. > Seems like Plantinga is stuck in the early 17th century.<
      He's not quite making Descartes' mistake, though. He's not exactky arguing that God must exist, he's arguing that naturalism is untenable. If he was right that evolution can't account for reliable belief generation, he would have a point.

      > In my mind our ability to reason - reliably - in those domains is simply a cultural byproduct of our basic reasoning abilities, refined via cultural evolution.<

      This is also my view. But to support this view you need to assume that we evolved those basic reasoning abilities in the first place, which is what Plantinga doubts, so that is where you need to take him to task.
      <

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    2. Plantinga believes God is basic. His EAAN follows directly from that.

      Delete
    3. @ Massimo

      > Not at all. Let's say one is a mathematical Platonist, which according to you means he's a dualist (though he is really an ontological pluralist, the term "dualism" is usually referred to a particular type of metaphysical position). It does not follow at all that he is committed to theism. <

      But that wasn't my argument. So, let me try again and rephrase my argument as a question. If the academy allows some philosophers to redefine naturalism to be compatible with mathematical Platonism, then why can't the academy allow other philosophers to also redefine naturalism to be compatible with theism?

      Also, what exactly do you mean by ontological pluralism? To my understanding, there are only two possible kinds of 'things' - physical or nonphysical. Are you proposing there are some other things that are neither physical nor nonphysical?

      > Because numbers exist, gods don't. <

      I believe my position is the more tenable one. Mathematical abstractions do not have any independent existence outside a mind that abstracts. So, if you would argue that we must posit some set of eternal mathematical abstractions in order to rationally account for our world, then I would argue that we must also posit an eternal mind to rationally account for such a set.

      Delete
    4. >If the academy allows some philosophers to redefine naturalism to be compatible with mathematical Platonism,<

      No such redefinition is necessary, because platonism has always been compatible with naturalism.

      Delete
  40. Robin,

    > didn't really understand DM's reply as I said above, it seems to imply agreement that you argument was fallacious but that this is irrelevant. Do you regard Naturalism as properly basic? <

    At this point yes. Centuries ago the theistic position was more reasonable, but with modern philosophical and scientific understanding of the world I think it is now out of the (rational) window.

    > And don't say "science" because science has no need of the hypothesis of Naturalism. <

    First off, yes it does, at least methodologically. Second, it is a scientific understanding of the world that has made naturalism an increasingly sound metaphysical position. (On metaphysics I lean toward Ladyman's et al.'s position that it better take science seriously.)

    > Suppose Plantinga had argued: "I am an a- Naturalist in the same way as I am an a-Unicornist" and then was asked "so are you an agnostic?" had replied "No, because I am 99.9% sure that Naturalism is not true." Would you have said that was reasonable? <

    I would have said it's an unusual but perfectly intelligible description of his position. Reasonable? No.

    Patrick,

    > Asking me if god exists is like asking me if Jeff Bridges really is a nice guy. I don't care. <

    But not caring is not an epistemic position, like the other ones, it is an emotive one, so it belongs to a different category altogether.

    Cornell,

    > I believe the more important question is to ask, how many philosophers of religion are Theists as they are the philosophers who engage this subject the most <

    Well, actually I think metaphysicians and epistemologists are a better target, considering the well known theistic bias of philosophers of religion. The 62% figure is interesting only because it allows a comparison of the whole profession with the whole profession of scientists, for which the figures are analogous.

    > Sure the EAAN is an argument against materialism, but not necessarily and argument for Theism per se', however I still think it is pretty good. <

    Agreed on first point, definitely not on the second one.

    > it's silly to move from many gaps in science have been naturalistically explained to all gaps will be filled with naturalistic explanations <

    First of all, I never said that science will fill all the gaps. Second, the argument is a straightforward application of inductive logic, so not silly at all.

    > what exactly is the indicator that tells us when we are just going to have to concede the point in which one says "there just is no natural explanation"? <

    Perhaps never, especially if no alternative explanation is put forth. But we may very well reach the point where we say "we just can't do any better than this in terms of natural explanations." But nothing good obtains for the theist even at that point.

    > I am postulating a God to explain why science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains. <

    Now that (from Swinburne) does come much closer to qualify as "silly" in my mind.

    > God should be considered a philosophical or metaphysical explanation of a life permitting universe. <

    Since god has a completely mysterious nature (we do not and cannot know his powers, reasons and methods) it counts as no explanation, at all, under any circumstances. Hence the emptiness of theism as an alternative to naturalism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Massimo wrote: "First off, yes it does, at least methodologically"

      Why? Some of our best science was done at a time when many scientists did no employ any assumption or hypothesis of Naturalism. Einstein complained to Schrodinger and counted him as an ally, which was ironic since Schrodinger was to become a convinced Idealist without changing his scientific view at all.

      Niels Bohr was an out and out positivist and rejected Naturalism along with every other metaphysical system. He would say that questions of an external reality were meaningless.

      I would have thought that Bohr and Schrodinger were not completely useless as scientists.

      In fact a very good case could be made that jettisoning metaphysical baggage was a contributing factor in being able to make the breakthroughs of Quantum Physics.

      Delete
    2. Massimo, Also it seems to me that you have simply stated that Naturalism is the better position without saying why.

      It seems that you are simply saying that your argument is reasonable with respect to your own metaphysical system but not with respect to Plantinga's without saying why.

      Delete
    3. Massimo wrote: "Since god has a completely mysterious nature (we do not and cannot know his powers, reasons and methods) it counts as no explanation, at all, under any circumstances. Hence the emptiness of theism as an alternative to naturalism."

      How exactly does Naturalism count as an explanation? Seriously.

      Which version of Naturalism are we talking about? Physical things or mathematical Platonism?

      If Tegmark was correct that the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is implied by the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis then it would seem that Naturalism itself is hanging on some fairly dubious threads and undeveloped concepts.

      Or if he is wrong how is a physical object any less mysterious?

      Can we demonstrate that a physical object exists? No.

      Does science have the need of the hypothesis of physical objects?

      No. Can we give an account of what sort of thing a physical object would be if it existed? No

      Do we have reasons to know why physical objects are things that can become more complex in certain circumstances rather than things that can not become more complex in any circumstances? No.

      Naturalism is a metaphysical system which is less developed than even Theism. It is certainly a lot less examined.

      Delete
    4. Part 1

      Massimo says “Well, actually I think metaphysicians and epistemologists are a better target, considering the well known theistic bias of philosophers of religion. The 62% figure is interesting only because it allows a comparison of the whole profession with the whole profession of scientists, for which the figures are analogous.”

      I disagree, simply because of the amount of radicalist fundies out there who don’t want their children being part of philosophy and/or science. This anti-intellectualism from fundy Theists is absolutely devastating to academia, and the dictating methods by parents are going to effect the numbers of Theist philosophers, I don’t know by how much, but it is noticeable. Though luckily the truth of a worldview isn’t determined by how any people hold to it in academia.

      Secondly why doesn’t the bias go both ways, should we call Graham Oppy, William Rowe, and Michael Tooley bias too?

      Also I don’t know why Theists need to dominate epistemology and metaphysics anyways, and with that being said, you still have some good philosophers representing both of those fields anyways. I am one who values quality over quanitity, so as long as there is quality there, then I’m ok.

      For quality you Robert Audi who has authored ‘Routledge’s introduction to epistemology’ and the ‘Cambridge Dictionary to Philosophy’,

      The late E.J Lowe, who written a ‘Cambridge Introduction to the Philosophy of mind’ and “Survey of Metaphysics’ published by Oxford.

      Let’s not forget Theist philosopher Tim Mcgrew ‘Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology’ published by Blackwell

      How about Peter Van Inwagen and his ‘Metaphysics’ published by Westview press and ‘Metaphysics: The Big Questions’ published by Wiley Blackwell?

      How about Edward Feser, the late William Alson, Paul Moser, George Bealer? Let’s not forget Plantiga who won the Rescher prize a few years ago.

      So would you agree with me on the fact that there are quality Theists philosophers in academia represented epistemology and metaphysics?

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    5. Part 2

      Lastly, I’d like for you take a look at part of this article written by atheist philosopher Quentin Smith

      “Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. Although many theists do not work in the area of the philosophy of religion, so many of them do work in this area that there are now over five philosophy journals devoted to theism or the philosophy of religion, such as Faith and Philosophy, Religious Studies, International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, Sophia, Philosophia Christi, etc. Philosophia Christi began in the late 1990s and already is overflowing with submissions from leading philosophers. Can you imagine a sizeable portion of the articles in contemporary physics journals suddenly presenting arguments that space and time are God’s sensorium (Newton’s view) or biology journals becoming filled with theories defending élan vital or a guiding intelligence? Of course, some professors in these other, non-philosophical, fields are theists; for example, a recent study indicated that seven percent of the top scientists are theists.1 However, theists in other fields tend to compartmentalize their theistic beliefs from their scholarly work; they rarely assume and never argue for theism in their scholarly work. If they did, they would be committing academic suicide or, more exactly, their articles would quickly be rejected, requiring them to write secular articles if they wanted to be published. If a scientist did argue for theism in professional academic journals, such as Michael Behe in biology, the arguments are not published in scholarly journals in his field (e.g., biology), but in philosophy journals (e.g., Philosophy of Science and Philo, in Behe’s case). But in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, “academically respectable” to argue for theism, making philosophy a favored field of entry for the most intelligent and talented theists entering academia today. A count would show that in Oxford University Press’ 2000–2001 catalogue, there are 96 recently published books on the philosophy of religion (94 advancing theism and 2 presenting “both sides”). By contrast, there are 28 books in this catalogue on the philosophy of language, 23 on epistemology (including religious epistemology, such as Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief), 14 on metaphysics, 61 books on the philosophy of mind, and 51 books on the philosophy of science.”

      Quentin Smith ‘The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism’ Philo Volume 4, Number 2

      Massimo says ‘Agreed on first point, definitely not on the second one.’
      Well how do I know that I am not just evolved PURELY for the purposes of survival and nothing else? This means that what I take to be true is just what my genes want me to take as true because it is best for the heuristic purposes it is being put to task to perform.



      Massimo says “First of all, I never said that science will fill all the gaps. Second, the argument is a straightforward application of inductive logic, so not silly at all.”

      First of all I never said you did, secondly, so what? Even if the fine-tuning of the constants of physics can be explained in terms of some set of deeper physical laws, as hypothesized by the so-called ‘theory of everything’ or by an inflationary multiverse, this would simply transfer the improbability up one level to the existence of these deeper laws. Therefore the ‘God of the gaps’ objection to fine-tuning ultimately fails.

      Delete
    6. Part 3

      Massimo says “Perhaps never, especially if no alternative explanation is put forth. “But we may very well reach the point where we say "we just can't do any better than this in terms of natural explanations." But nothing good obtains for the theist even at that point.”

      This doesn’t solve anything and puts us right back at the beginning. At what ‘point’ do scientists or philosophers in the future get up and say we’ve reached this ‘point’ that you speak of? What is the indicator that we are looking for? Do we have to put an expiration date on it? All I see here is a bit of special treatment given to naturalism, and if naturalists need a handicap to get around God that’s fine with me!

      Massimo says “Now that (from Swinburne) does come much closer to qualify as "silly" in my mind.”

      What is so silly about it? All he is doing is telling everyone that he posits God as the best explanation, not it must be God or that he is 100% certain that it’s God.

      Massimo says “Since god has a completely mysterious nature (we do not and cannot know his powers, reasons and methods) it counts as no explanation, at all, under any circumstances. Hence the emptiness of theism as an alternative to naturalism.”

      This is egregiously false, The God hypothesis (Philosophical) agrees completely with the argument that, if there is going to be a final explanation of the universe, it has to be in terms of an eternal and necessary being. But instead of having a huge set of complicated quantum laws and a very finely balanced set of fundamental physical forces, all of which are realized sooner or later by some unknown principle, it postulates just one being, a cosmic mind or consciousness. Since when do we have to know God’s reasons in order to posit God as the best explanation? Why do we need to have an idea of God’s power to posit God as an explanation for why there is a universe?

      Graham Oppy says it best

      "How do we determine whether arguments are successful? In the context of evaluation of the relative merits of naturalism and theism, we imagine a dialogue between proponents of two views. (Perhaps we can think of these proponents as embodiments or personifications of the two views.) The overall aim of the dialogue is to try to reach a consensus about which of the two views scores best across the full range of theoretical virtues: simplicity, scope, coherence, evidential fit, predictive power, and so forth. While there are many different aspects to the dialogue --sharing information, clarifying points of detail, and so forth --we are here primarily interested the role that might be played by the introduction of the arguments. That is, we are interested in pars of the dialogue that involve moves with the following form:

      Proponent: "P1,.....Pn, therefore C."

      QED

      - Graham Oppy 'Debating Christian Theism' pg 72

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    7. Just want to revise this:

      Part 1

      " This anti-intellectualism from fundy Theists is absolutely devastating to academia"

      changed to

      This anti-intellectualism from fundy Theists is absolutely devastating to Theistic representation in academia

      Delete
    8. I would love to debate Graham Oppy. Not that I would expect to win - he is a mightily clever guy - but that I could learn a great deal in losing a debate to Graham Oppy.

      Delete
    9. >Since when do we have to know God’s reasons in order to posit God as the best explanation? Why do we need to have an idea of God’s power to posit God as an explanation for why there is a universe? <

      Why don't we need to know these things? Don't we need to know how something works if it is to be an explanation?

      Delete
    10. Michael

      "Why don't we need to know these things? Don't we need to know how something works if it is to be an explanation?"

      Well I'm not sure what you mean by 'something works' so I'll stick to what I was originally arguing, and that is the fact that we don't need to know God down to a T (especially his plan) in order to posit God as the best explanation.

      No I don't think we need to explain the explanation in order for it to be the best explanation, this because if every explanation in turn required another explanation, then no explanation would ever be accepted, due to the infinite regress of explanations.


      Delete
    11. > then no explanation would ever be accepted, due to the infinite regress of explanations.<

      I beg to differ with you here. If the ultimate explanation is simple and logically necessary, no further explanation is required.

      Delete
    12. Really Cornell that's your best answer. Might as well say it's a mystery and move on to what's for dinner, honey.

      Delete
    13. "I beg to differ with you here. If the ultimate explanation is simple and logically necessary, no further explanation is required.I beg to differ with you here. If the ultimate explanation is simple and logically necessary, no further explanation is required."

      Sure, but this doesn't mean that somewhere down the road a simpler answer will be discovered. We have no way to tell when the buck stops, because we don't know all of the facts of the universe. Even if I thought God was a simpler solution now, that still doesn't mean that somewhere in the future a better natural explanation will be given, or vice versa. This is kinda where I was going before when I spoke of indicators.

      And why logical necessity and not metaphysical necessity?

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    14. Michael "Well, our understanding of how the world or universe "really is" has changed, and continues to change"

      I don't see how that follows, you make it like we need to know GOd down to a T in order to posit God as the best explanation, but why is this? If God existed then God would be a mind-independent fact, and God's existence doesn't rely on the existence of humans so why do 'we' need to know God in order to posit God as the best explanation?

      I smell pragmatism here, so please go grab that dinner

      Delete
    15. Michael Fugate just to add

      here is an example a friend of mine brings up, and I think this makes a lot of sense.

      Step 1: Assume that Craig Venter succeeds in developing an artificial life form and releases it into the wild.

      Step 2: Assume that a researcher (let’s call him John) later finds one of Venter’s life forms, examines it, and concludes that it was designed by an intelligent designer.

      Step 3: John’s design inference is obviously correct. Note that John’s design inference is not any less correct if he (a) does not know who Craig Venter is; and (b) is unable to say who designed Craig Venter.

      QED

      So I think that you are just raising the bar a bit when it comes to God, and this act of raising your skeptical antennae when God enters the scene ultimately becomes unnecessary.

      Delete
    16. Hi Cornell,

      >Sure, but this doesn't mean that somewhere down the road a simpler answer will be discovered.<

      I didn't say it would be. I'm just outlining what I think an ultimate explanation must look like, and as far as I can see neither theism nor naturalism can offer such an explanation (although if the ontological argument made sense, then perhaps theism could).

      >And why logical necessity and not metaphysical necessity?<

      Because if there is a distinction between the two, then there must be some kind of metaphysical law describing what can metaphysically exist and what cannot. If such a metaphysical law is not logically necessary, then it is contingent and we have not found an ultimate explanation. We are left in a position of wondering where this metaphysical law came from and why could it not be otherwise.

      >Note that John’s design inference is not any less correct if he (a) does not know who Craig Venter is; and (b) is unable to say who designed Craig Venter.<

      I don't think this argument succeeds. Presumably, John's belief that Venter's life form was designed is warranted. Perhaps a portion of the genome encodes a quotation from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. John therefore needs to introduce the concept of a geneticist in order to explain his observation. He's not multiplying entities beyond necessity. Furthermore, John knows of geneticists in general and John knows where geneticists come from, so his hypothesis invokes nothing mysterious and has good priors.

      On the other hand, there is very little evidence that this universe was created by a conscious creator, so invoking such a being is a violation of Occam's razor. Furthermore, if we cannot say anything in detail about how this creator works or where he came from, then we are just as in the dark as we were before with regard to ultimate origins, only now there is another unnecessary unsubstantiated entity to explain.

      Delete
    17. Cornell, I think your presume to know much more about God than you actually do. You cannot make the analogy to human design without knowing that God would design in an analogous manner, but having no experience with how God designs you cannot make such a conclusion. Even if we don't know Craig Ventner, we do know why and how humans make things. If we see a flaked stone or a pot shard from 100,000 years ago, we also see the bones from which meat was stripped using the stone knife or food residues in the cooking pot.

      When one understands the biology, organisms don't much resemble human-designed objects at all. As DM points out, a human might leave a message in the genome that other humans would be able to interpret, but what would God put in and how would we know it was a coded message from God?

      To conclude design, you need to know the designer and you need to know how and why they design.

      Delete
    18. Michael fugate

      Cornell, I think your presume to know much more about God than you actually do.”

      And I think you do just the opposite, I also smell an empiricist of some sorts, and I think this is where the debate really lies.

      “ You cannot make the analogy to human design without knowing that God would design in an analogous manner, but having no experience with how God designs you cannot make such a conclusion.”

      Why not, did you experience this? Secondly my experience doesn’t determine whether or not God exists, so this is a non-sequitur. You make it like God is obligated to make his existence known to the point where we can easily discern his reasons for making us, but why is this?

      “ Even if we don't know Craig Ventner, we do know why and how humans make things. If we see a flaked stone or a pot shard from 100,000 years ago, we also see the bones from which meat was stripped using the stone knife or food residues in the cooking pot. “

      You didn’t undertstand the analogy, who cares if we know how humans make things as this wasn’t about humans, this was about Craig Venter, and yet that was my point. For all we know an alien species could have done the same thing, so are you saying we should rule this out, because we haven’t experienced aliens?


      “When one understands the biology, organisms don't much resemble human-designed objects at all.”

      And how much biology do humans actually understand in the year 2014? Do we understand 100% it? 50% of it? How exactly is this an objection anyways?

      “ As DM points out, a human might leave a message in the genome that other humans would be able to interpret, but what would God put in and how would we know it was a coded message from God?”

      Well the problem is not what we expect, but moreso did God put something in there. Again God is a mind-independent fact that doesn’t depend on the existence of human experience, we don’t need to look at a coded message from God, as it isn’t necessary for God’s existence.

      “To conclude design, you need to know the designer and you need to know how and why they design.”

      And yet you just said before “ Even if we don't know Craig Ventner” so this is double-talk on your part.

      Delete
  41. Attlee,

    > It’s not only pointless but unnecessary to engage theists on grounds other than that which “strictly (i.e. deductively) logically entailed" <

    Why on earth would that be the case? Because theists wish to stick to only a narrow subset of logic, arbitrarily chosen by them??

    Philip,

    > I like the SEP article's definition: plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism ("In this entry, I will adopt the policy of using both terms ['materialism' and 'physicalism'] interchangeably"). So 'physical' and 'material' are interchangeable <

    I don't like it at all, and I'm surprised at the author. As DM pointed out, it is certainly contra to much debate in metaphysics these days. The most sound position is still that materialism is a sub-species of naturalism, which includes also a variety of other ontological positions, like (certain types of) mathematical Platonism.

    Stewy,

    > If we never have a convincing naturalistic account of the creation of the universe, does that fact make other accounts more credible? <

    Depends on what these "other accounts" consists of. Certainly it wouldn't make theism any more credible because it is no account at all. And at the moment there simply are no other accounts on offer.

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  42. The Universe creates everything including itself. And if you choose to call the Universe, God, everything, infinite, self-evident, united, equal, or One, so be it. As for the fine tuning or playing in harmony, equality is the key. =

    ReplyDelete
  43. Proving the moon (or any other physical object) does not exist without observers is not in itself grounds for a belief in gods. But humans having created machine life is indeed grounds for such a belief, because one can easily see how we too were created, even if the evidence for the latter is lacking using today's benchmarks for evidence. Of course, we need to tweak the definition of life, but when we get to the point that one cannot tell the difference between something made by humans and something commonly thought to be alive, then the definition is ripe for the tweaking.

    As long as we remain stuck in a human-centric world where only 'sentient' beings are alive, physical stuff exists, and gods are treated like all-knowing and all-loving Mommies and Daddies, we will probably get nowhere on theistic questions

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  44. Dr. Pigliucci,

    I've heard and read you say more than once that David Hume somehow buries theology as a credible discipline. As an aspiring Christian philosopher (grad student), this puzzles me. I'm not really interested in the weird polemics, but could you help me out with some reasons why you think this is the case? I mean, Christian philosophers engage with Hume all the time and they don't find him convincing at all. See the following link, for a recent and short example:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.ca/2014/02/a-world-of-pure-imagination.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I stopped reading your link after the second sentence: "Philosophical adolescents of all ages thrill to his[...]" If you can't get off the ground without an ad hominem attack against your opponents, then you don't deserve to be read.

      Delete
    2. "As an aspiring Christian philosopher"

      You're doing philosophy wrong.

      Delete
    3. @cookie: The "adolescents" comment is not meant to apply to everyone who admires Hume. It merely catches a trend that is obviously true: namely, that philosophically young or inexperienced critics of "religion" are enamored of thinkers like Hume because they seem edgy and iconoclastic. Most of the post deals with specific claims advanced by Hume and what he perceives to be their problems.

      @Being: Maybe, but you give the impression of someone who would not be able to say why.

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  45. "Rather, it is to say that — given all I know about biology, as well as human cultural history (i.e., where the legend of unicorns came from) — I don’t think there is any reason to believe in unicorns. That most certainly doesn’t make me an agnostic about unicorns, a position that not even Plantinga would likely feel comfortable endorsing. "

    This, of course, depends on the degree to which you are familiar with biology and human cultural history. There is a difference, of course, between biology and the nature of existence, the universe, and (perhaps) the meaning to one's existence. Maybe, having studied all these, it is appropriate for you to say that you don't have any reason for theistic belief, but when presented with a list of arguments for such beliefs:

    http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/10/contemporary-christian-philosophy-a-primer/

    although some may take the position of 'I have no good reason to believe', it seems a far more plausible position is that 'I just don't know'

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  46. I wanted to make a general comment regarding agnosticism, since it was heavily discussed earlier in this comment section. To me, as well as etymologically speaking, an agnostic is someone who lacks knowledge about something. Conversely, a gnostic is someone who claims to have knowledge about something. An atheist is someone who lacks belief in God. A theist is someone who has belief in God. Knowledge and belief are not the same.

    So the fourfold typology based on this is as follows:

    1. Agnostic atheist: Lacks knowledge and belief about God.
    2. Gnostic atheist: Has knowledge and belief that God does not exist (a strange position which probably doesn't apply to anyone, considering that knowledge is usually construed positively as "knowledge of something").
    3. Agnostic theist: Lacks knowledge but has belief that God exists.
    4. Gnostic theist: Has knowledge and belief that God exists.

    I often hear people use the term agnostic as if it were somehow contrary to the a/theism dichotomy, like a third position, but it is actually compatible with both.

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  47. By the way Massimo, are you also from Long Island, NY?

    I live in Suffolk County NY, not too far from SUNY Stony Brook College, and sometime in the future I'd like to take a philosophy program in Stony Brook (as there isn't much to choose from around here unless I want to go to Hofstra. I know that Non-Theist philosopher Patrick Grim teaches at Stony Brook as well.

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    Replies
    1. Cornell, no, I live in Manhattan. Was working at Stony Brook (ecology & evolution) until 2006, then moved to CUNY.

      Delete
  48. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  49. Great theologian? This rings implausibly. There's no such thing as a great theologian, just as there is no such thing as a great alchemist or a great astrologer.

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    1. I think that there are great theologians in the sense that they have applied reason with such rigour to an impossible task that they have come up with ideas that are interesting in their own right even if they have not satisfied the original intention of the reasoning process.

      For example St Anselm's Ontological Argument led to an important new insight into logic. St Augustine's reasoning on time is fascinating and somewhat anticipates concepts of modern physics.

      And I often wonder if Einstein had read Nicolas of Cusa on the possibility that the geometry of space might be dependent on the speed of the observer. Cusa had it the wrong way round, however it would have been a good intuition pump into thinking of empty space as a physical object rather than just nothing.

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  50. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. What if we have read at least some of these individuals and remained unmoved? Will you just tell us to read more? This sounds so much like apologetics - where one keeps trying out arguments until one works to keep the person believing.

      I would like to see you make an argument about what we are missing rather than just telling us to go read a bunch of books. In a nutshell, what makes these people great theologians and why is modern theology worth visiting?

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    2. Putnam, Taylor, Nussbaum, etc. aren't theologians in any ordinary sense of the term 'theologian.' And just as I wouldn't read the best representative astrologers, so I don't read the best representative theologians (at least not anymore: I used to read many of them, and patiently too). And classical theism hasn't gone the way of the dodo. Many academic philosophers (Plantinga, van Inwagen, Craig, etc.) are classical theists, i.e., they believe in the existence of an invisible person who's omnipotent, omniscient, etc. and who answers prayers, performs miracles, etc.

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  51. It seems to me that, after you clear away all the clutter, Theism and Naturalism are basically just the same position except that Naturalism posits a simpler base unit of self-organisation.

    That immediately swings the equation in favour of Naturalism, not because of the improbability as Dawkins suggests, but simply that, even if we don't know what that base unit if self organisation is, we know of units of self organisation that are simpler than any mind that has ever been observed.

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    1. I'll go to Oppy again as I think this makes perfect sense:

      "A key difference between Naturalism and Theism is that naturalists suppose that agency and consciousness are late and local features of reality, whereas Theists suppose that agency and consciousness are initial features of reality"

      - Graham Oppy 'Debating Christian Theism' pg 75

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    2. And Cornell, which is a better answer and why?

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    3. However he has left something out of that - what do Naturalists suppose are the initial features of reality?

      Simply leaving that out is, be definition, agnosticism.

      I think what I said covers it. Theism and Naturalism are simply different positions about the fundamental unit of self organisation.

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    4. Here is why I can’t accept Naturalism as some kind of natural default position:

      If Naturalism is true then there are two cases with respect to my consciousness:

      1. It is a computation
      2. It is not a computation

      In the first case, any computation is substrate independent and so if my conscious experience is a computation then it could, in principle, be - not a brain - but teams of mathematicians working round the clock with pen and paper in shifts for billions of years.

      For various reasons (ask if you want) I reject that I could, even in principle, be teams of mathematicians working round the clock with pen and paper in shifts for billions of yeas and so I reject computationalism

      Now I take the second case - my mind is not a computation. If Naturalism is true then there can be a computational simulation of an entire human being faithfully modelling all of our biological systems including our brain and some sufficiently fine grained environmental data and this simulation should be able to reproduce all the outwardly observable behaviours of a human being.

      But if computationalism is not true then it will not be conscious.

      It will react with pain and yet feel no pain. It will show pleasure and yet feel no pleasure. It will enthuse over a wonderful piece of music and yet have no conscious experience of music.

      It will discuss it’s own conscious states and if anyone suggested that it had none, that it was in fact a p-zombie, then it would insist it was conscious and that the suggestion that it was not conscious could not be serious.

      And yet it would not be conscious.

      This appears to me to be an equally absurd position as the first. It would suggest that the reason I claim to be conscious has nothing to do with the fact that I am conscious. It would suggest that none of our language about internal states such as misery or pleasure really relates to those states.

      But either computationalism is, or is not the case and so if I am to accept Naturalism I must decide which of these absurd propositions in which to believe.

      If I am to avoid both absurd propositions then I must reject Naturalism altogether.

      So for this reason I cannot accept this position as some sort of logical default. In fact it is a position that seems deeply problematical to me.

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    5. "And Cornell, which is a better answer and why?"

      Michael I'd argue that it's obviously Theism, for starters does it make sense to state that one physical state is about another physical state?

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    6. On what basis is god not physical - is it by definition or do you have additional evidence?

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    7. "A key difference between Naturalism and Theism is that naturalists suppose that agency and consciousness are late and local features of reality, whereas Theists suppose that agency and consciousness are initial features of reality"

      - Graham Oppy 'Debating Christian Theism' pg 75

      Again let me state why this does not make sense. Oppy has defined what Naturalism isn't here but not what it is.

      By this definition Naturalism means "agency and consciousness are late and local features of reality" which surely does not define the position.

      Oppy is sneaking in what I call the "Flying Spaghetti Monster Fallacy" ie "lack of evidence for your metaphysical hypothesis counts as sufficient evidence for my metaphysical hypothesis".

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    8. Hi Robin,

      >For various reasons (ask if you want) I reject that I could, even in principle, be teams of mathematicians working round the clock with pen and paper in shifts for billions of yeas and so I reject computationalism<

      I, on the other hand, don't reject this at all, except on grounds of feasibility.

      Although, it should be noted that on the virtual minds interpretation of computationalism, you are not the team of mathematicians but the computation they are performing. You are a mathematical object, not a computer.

      >But if computationalism is not true then it will not be conscious.<

      I agree that this is absurd.

      Unfortunately, you will not find general agreement on these points among naturalists. Massimo would find the former option absurd and apparently has no problem with the latter, a view I regard to be incoherent.

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    9. I will try later to go into detail about why I don't think that I could, in principle, be a team of mathematicians hand working a calculation.

      The problem, in general, is that you have a mark on a paper which has no meaning in nature beyond what some minds have agreed it to mean. Light reflects off it, is focussed by a lens onto some light sensitive cells, translated in to electro-chemical signals and then processed and a signal sent to a hand and arm to make some more marks on paper.

      This person might then quit and another person takes over and the process repeats. These events mixed among countless quintillions of other events happening around and something is keeping track of them to recognise them as a computation.

      That would seem to involve something which had intelligence to understand the marks and to follow the vectors of light and electro-chemical signals etc.

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    10. Hi Robin,

      I have had similar thoughts. That's why I don't think I am my brain but my mind: the computation performed by my brain, which is an abstract mathematical object. A physical computational process is just a way of instantiating this abstract object in the physical world. Substrate doesn't matter. Mind-uploading is possible in principle.

      >something is keeping track of them to recognise them as a computation.<

      Nothing needs to keep track of it or recognise it as a computation. Nothing is keeping track of the brain and recognising that it is performing a computation. It is a computation, whether recognised or not.

      Therefore no need of an external intelligence keeping track of it.

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    11. Hi DM,

      "That's why I don't think I am my brain but my mind"

      My current thinking is I don't think I am my brain, biologically or conceptually, I think I am my body and my mind is an inherent part of that.

      "That's why I don't think I am my brain but my mind: the computation performed by my brain, which is an abstract mathematical object."

      I'm reading that as "Mind is an abstract mathematical object computed by brain."

      "A physical computational process is just a way of instantiating this abstract object in the physical world. Substrate doesn't matter. Mind-uploading is possible in principle.""

      I'm reading that as "Physical brain computing instantiates abstract mathematical minds in the physical world — and it could be anything doing the computing, as long as you are doing the same computing you will always get the same mind."

      Assuming I read you right, do you mean abstract mathematical objects instantiate everything including the physical world, and when a brain which is part of this physical world is computing, part of the physical world is instantiating an abstract mathematical object?

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    12. Hi DM

      Here are two calculations:

      3+5=8
      8+1=9

      They could be related, or they could be independent depending upon the decision of whoever made those calculations.

      Would you say that those two calculations form a single computation?

      Would that depend upon whether or not the person who made them intended them to be a single computation or whether it is just a coincidence that one of the inputs to the second calculations was the output to the second?

      If two people didn't know other and were not aware of each other's presence or actions had written down those calculations in that order, would that still be a single computation?

      No matter how far apart they were from each other?

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    13. Michael Fugate "On what basis is god not physical - is it by definition or do you have additional evidence?"

      What does this have to do with what I said?

      I asked you how one physical state can say something about another physical state, how do you go from that to on what basis is God not physical?

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    14. Hi Marc,

      >I think I am my body and my mind is an inherent part of that.<

      Then you wouldn't for example use a Star Trek style teleporter which disassembles you and reassembles you - you think that would be dying and another copy being created. I would use a teleporter.

      >do you mean abstract mathematical objects instantiate everything including the physical world, and when a brain which is part of this physical world is computing, part of the physical world is instantiating an abstract mathematical object?<

      Well, I think the physical world IS an abstract mathematical object. The brain is a very complex physical (but ultimately abstract and mathematical) object which shares some isomorphisms with the much simpler mathematical object comprising a human mind, in the same way that a digital logic circuit shares isomorphisms with the logical function it computes but is actually much more complex (being composed of billions of electrons and quarks in a very specific configuration). More to the point, since I think the brain is also a mathematical object, I can compare the mind to an algorithm and the brain to a simulation of a physical circuit which implements that algorithm.

      It's much easier to understand by analogy to hardware and software. The brain is a microprocessor. The mind is an operating system. I don't think I am an intel chip, I think I am Linux. The intel chip does not create Linux, it just gives it a means to interact with other hardware. But Linux doesn't do anything until it is running on a chip, so the idea of conscious disembodied minds floating around doesn't really work.

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    15. What does that even mean then?

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    16. Hi Robin,

      I think you have not appreciated my view that algorithms exist independently of mathematicians.

      It is the algorithm itself which is a conscious mind. The calculations we do are only ways of investigating the algorithm, they don't create it or sustain it. The algorithm exists regardless of what we do.

      But, per comments I gave above, it doesn't make sense to think of a mind as a disembodied algorithm without also considering input to the mind. For the mind to be really thinking and experiencing, it would have to be taking in sensory data from an environment which would also have to be defined mathematically. So you couldn't just have the mathematicians doing the computation for a mind alone, you would also have to have them simulating the mind's environment.

      Now, if you have done that, I think that mind is truly conscious and it truly exists independently of the mathematicians. The mathematicians have only opened a window into a possible world where that mind exists. This, you may have realised, is the MUH in a nutshell. All possible mathematically describable worlds exist, and this is just one of them.

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  52. Dr. Pigliucci,

    You begin your comments on Plantinga by saying: “I keep hearing that Notre Dame philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga is a really smart guy, capable of powerfully subtle arguments about theism and Christianity. But every time I look, I am dismayed by what I see.”

    I’d like to offer a different perspective, from someone who thinks that Plantinga is a really smart guy, who has produced and continues to produce demonstrably powerful and subtle arguments about theism and Christianity. (Full disclosure: He was my thesis advisor when I did my Ph.D. and I consider him a friend as well as a fellow Christian philosopher whose example is well worth trying to follow.)

    When you look at his work, you are dismayed. I’m not sure which parts of his work you have in mind, but I think if you look at his work written for academics, on metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion, it is clear that he is among the best living philosophers. You can find a list of such work on the Phil Papers page on him here: http://philpapers.org/s/alvin%20plantinga. There are also numerous books in his honor and/or devoted to engaging his work. The editors and contributors to these volumes consider his work worth engaging in a serious manner and in most if not all cases think extremely highly of it. In light of all this, it’s rather hard to take you seriously when you say: “I’m afraid Plantinga would fail my introductory critical thinking class”. (That must be quite a class!)

    Your commentary applies, for the most part, to an interview in the NYT, a popular venue, with a low word limit, whose audience is not mainly professional philosophers. I didn’t myself think he came off badly at all in that interview. But quite apart from this, I think there are a few obvious things to keep in mind about such an interview. First, if you've got excellent reason to think the person is an incredibly strong philosopher (as we do in Plantinga's case), that should make you hesitant to interpret the interview as indicating that he's not an incredibly strong philosopher; it's better to consider whether there might not be other more plausible interpretations. Second, if the interviewee has lots of published work aimed at academics, in which views expressed briefly in the interview have been expanded and defended in response to numerous criticisms from top-notch philosophers (again, this is the case for Plantinga), then that academic work provides the natural context to use as a guide in interpreting the interview charitably and reasonably. Lastly, when writing in a venue such as the NYT, one has to make judgments about how best to communicate one's philosophical views for that audience in the short space available, keeping in mind how varied the audience is in terms of interests, education, and background assumptions. There are many and varied views on how best to communicate in such a venue, and no matter how one does it, one is bound to have readers who will misunderstand and interpret uncharitably. One simply can't avoid all the misunderstandings and objections one might reasonably anticipate, so one has to be willing to be interpreted uncharitably and even unreasonably by some, if one is going to write in that venue at all.

    Obviously, none of this settles things on any of the particular criticisms you raised. (In fact, if you’re convinced that Plantinga’s views are mistaken and poorly defended, you should try publishing a journal article objecting to his academic work on these topics.) My main point is just this: his work aimed at professional philosophers gives us excellent reason to think Plantinga is an exceptionally good philosopher, one of the best alive, and in my view, his column in the NYT gives us no good reason to think that is false.

    Michael Bergmann

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    1. Michael,

      If we are to assume Plantinga is a smart man and that he “dumbed” down his arguments because of the intended audience, then we should further assume he is aware that those arguments are very weak (if he is a smart man). If this is the case then Massimo is being very generous by saying he isn’t smart because the alternative is that he is intellectually dishonest and prefers to use rhetoric to persuade instead of using reasoned arguments.

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  53. > I don’t think there is any reason to believe in unicorns. That most certainly doesn’t make me an agnostic about unicorns <

    Yes it does "no reason to believe" does not mean you have a reason to know there are no unicorns.

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  54. > This is reminiscent of the type of silly “calculations” that creationists do to “demonstrate” that the likelihood of evolution producing a complex structure like the human eye is less than that of a tornado going through a junkyard <

    Not silly, 3 billion years to mutate a specific 3 billion sequence of nucleotides from 100 random point mutations per individual (currently, for humans) together with random deletions and insertions, with 70% deleterious. Without Epigenetics to make it non-random, Hoyle has a point.

    The only issue is Hoyle exaggerates by putting it in a whirlwind and not giving it 5 minutes or so to assemble in his analogy.

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  55. Interesting comments overall, but I would say Parsimony is the best argument, together with agnosticism in saying "I believe from knowledge to knowledge to secure it further and extend it, and God cannot be defined based on knowledge if Parsimony applies".

    That means it doesn't get to the first stage of belief formation based on knowledge, but it might one day (if a miracle etc happens, who knows?) so its in limbo until then.

    Logically you cannot disbelieve something that cannot found a belief for testing for disbelief. Anyway, not founding a belief is much heavier anyway than the errant logic of "not believing" in God. It means something just does not exist at all and can be ignored completely until evidence of it.

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  56. In ”The Moral Landscape” Sam Harris writes this:

    “The phrase ‘free will’ describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness.”

    If this sentence is true it is written by some mechanism which has no concept of “what it feels like”.

    So what can the phrase “what it feels like” mean when composed by a mechanism which has no concept of what anything feels like? Nothing.

    So the sentence, if true, is meaningless.

    If Sam Harris believes his own thesis then he must know this. So why does he say it? Force of habit?

    If this were true then the entire thesis of his book would be radically false because it depends upon the thinking being done by beings which can feel misery and well being. But if all our thinking is done by mechanisms which cannot feel this then none of these words have any meaning.

    But really the whole thesis is incoherent. I thought I chose my lunch yesterday because I enjoyed the taste but apparently the choice was made by a mechanism which has no concept of how something tastes, so I was wrong. In fact “how it tastes” would apparently not mean what I think it means. In fact I cannot really think it means what I think it means because my thinking is done by something which does not have the concept.

    So we should immediately dump most of our vocabulary and refer only to things which are not the content of conscious experience - if we can.

    I should believe this nonsense if I were given any reason to believe it but I am never given this reason. The entire position is incoherent and yet it is firmly believed by people who cannot explain it and who write as though it were not true.

    We are being asked to deny the content of our immediate experience in order that we can be believe an incoherent metaphysical position based on the existence of something for which we have no evidence and for which science has no need of the hypothesis.

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    1. Hi Robin,

      I disagree with Sam Harris on The Moral Landscape in some ways, but not this.

      >So what can the phrase “what it feels like” mean when composed by a mechanism which has no concept of what anything feels like? Nothing.<

      Obviously, Harris believes both that he is a mechanism and that he has experiences. I believe the same thing. There is nothing in the definition of mechanism that rules out having a "concept of what anything feels like".

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    2. Rather than arguing over other's beliefs, why not simply believe what you will, freely? =

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    3. Because unlike you I am not content to believe incoherent nonsense. The best way to eliminate inconsistency in one's beliefs is to seek to understand the points of view of others, which means engaging in discussion and argument.

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    4. Hi DM,

      I think you are missing the point - Harris is implying that whatever is authoring our thoughts does not have experiences - that it is an unconscious mechanism.

      He says that experiences are just what it feels like for that to happen.

      If whatever was authoring our thoughts knew what something felt like then his argument would fall apart immediately because it would be a conscious self authoring our thoughts.

      In general any argument which depends upon the premise that the mechanism authoring our thoughts does not know what anything feels like, must fail because it is admitting that the author of our thoughts does not have a particular fact and cannot therefore decide one way or another about that fact.

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    5. In general I don't think Harris's argument even makes sense from a Naturalistic standpoint. He does not appear to understand the different types of deterministic systems. He appears to have a rather patronising and inaccurate idea of what the "Average Joe" believes about their thinking processes and is largely arguing against a sort of straw everyman.

      This is an area where science really would be useful and yet those who argue that science should become involved in these topics don't seem to think about them in a scientific way.

      The first step anybody should take when examining this topic is to find out what people actually believe. It is pointless to try and refute a claim that no one or few are making.

      The first step should be a properly designed survey to find this out. Harris or Dennett could not design this survey because it is likely they would unconciously skew the questions to get the answers they want due to their strong emotions about the subject that come through in what they say.

      Next the results would have to be analysed and a set of propositions inferred from them to express the majority beliefs.

      Ideally another survey should be done to test if these propositions really do reflect majority thinking.

      Then each proposition should be analysed to see if it represents a mathematical possibility and then if it is likely to be something that the brain does.

      My feeling is that there would be no major disparity. Both Harris and Dennett insist again and again that the "Average Joe" or "Everyday Folk" believe that people are the ultimate authors of their action or that they bear ultimate responsibility.

      But I have discussed this subject quite a lot over the years with many people from a wide range of backgrounds and have never come across this attitude at all.

      Mostly people will say that they are lucky to have had a good background, good upbringing, education, role models etc. They will say that people do really bad things as a result of nature or upbringing.

      So my guess is that a really rigorous scientific approach to this will show it it be much ado about nothing.

      And, in general, people don't really think that they might have taken a different choice in the same situation. When people say "If I had it to do again..." they mean "If I had it to do again, knowing what I know now...". Most people will accept that in exactly the same circumstances with exactly the same information and being exactly the same person they would have done the same thing.

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    6. In fact, the substitutability thing is a major furphy in this subject. If, in exactly the same circumstances with exactly the same information and feelings and knowledge I might have done differently then this would seem to count against my having free will, not for it.

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    7. Hi Robin,

      >whatever is authoring our thoughts does not have experiences - that it is an unconscious mechanism.<

      I think you misunderstand Harris. There is no one thing that authors our thoughts. Parts of our thinking process are conscious, and certainly do take experiences into account. At lower levels, we have subconscious modes of thinking, but even these are informed by experience. We may for example subconsciously avoid situations which we have found to be unpleasant in the past. That doesn't mean that we are conscious of avoiding them, or experience having thoughts about it at all.

      At even lower levels, our thoughts can be explained as a cause and effect chain of nerve impulses and then to raw sensory data and then to events in the outside world.

      Does the pattern of pixels on your monitor as you read my words constitute an author of the nascent rebuttal even now forming in your mind? Your rebuttal would not exist without that pattern of pixels after all. The light from the monitor strikes your retina which sends nerve impulses along your optic fibre which stimulates various neurons in your visual system which... blah blah blah. All this is part of the genesis of your thoughts but is unconscious.

      This is just a flavour of what Harris means. The point is that each of our thoughts has a very complex genesis, and at some levels of description there really is no consciousness.

      >
      In general any argument which depends upon the premise that the mechanism authoring our thoughts does not know what anything feels like, must fail because it is admitting that the author of our thoughts does not have a particular fact and cannot therefore decide one way or another about that fact.<

      I don't think experiences are facts. Facts are things that can be put into words and have a truth value. Experiences are not like this at all.

      Even if experiences were facts, perhaps this "author" doesn't need it. Perhaps at the level that this part of the process works, its job is defined in other terms. Neurons are involved in every mental computation, yet no single neuron knows what it feels like to feel pleasure and pain and has no big picture knowledge of what the other neurons are doing. This is not a problem because they can do their job with much simpler inputs. Experiences and big pictures emerge at higher levels from the collective operation of billions of these simple unconscious parts.

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  57. In ”The Moral Landscape” Sam Harris writes this:

    “The phrase ‘free will’ describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness.”

    If this sentence is true it is written by some mechanism which has no concept of “what it feels like”.

    So what can the phrase “what it feels like” mean when composed by a mechanism which has no concept of what anything feels like? Nothing.

    So the sentence, if true, is meaningless.

    If Sam Harris believes his own thesis then he must know this. So why does he say it? Force of habit?

    If this were true then the entire thesis of his book would be radically false because it depends upon the thinking being done by beings which can feel misery and well being. But if all our thinking is done by mechanisms which cannot feel this then none of these words have any meaning.

    But really the whole thesis is incoherent. I thought I chose my lunch yesterday because I enjoyed the taste but apparently the choice was made by a mechanism which has no concept of how something tastes, so I was wrong. In fact “how it tastes” would apparently not mean what I think it means. In fact I cannot really think it means what I think it means because my thinking is done by something which does not have the concept.

    So we should immediately dump most of our vocabulary and refer only to things which are not the content of conscious experience - if we can.

    I should believe this nonsense if I were given any reason to believe it but I am never given this reason. The entire position is incoherent and yet it is firmly believed by people who cannot explain it and who write as though it were not true.

    We are being asked to deny the content of our immediate experience in order that we can be believe an incoherent metaphysical position based on the existence of something for which we have no evidence and for which science has no need of the hypothesis.

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  58. Been an interesting read going through the comments. I think this is the first time I've heard of "computationalism" and it sounds pretty much like the way I look at things. Though looking back, I think my brother introduced me to a similar concept under a different name, at least with regard to philosophy of mind. The whole p-zombie thing gets a bit disturbing since I can imagine people using that absurdity as an excuse to discriminate against AIs, someday (and, no doubt, have an existing history against other humans). At least Futurama gave us a bit of humor out of it:

    Bender: "As a robot, I don't have emotions, (looks dejected) and that makes me feel sad."

    Regarding definitions of agnostic and atheist, I say I'm an agnostic atheist when the topic is generic gods: I lack belief in them because I lack knowledge of a good reason to believe in them. I'm a gnostic atheist with regard to certain specific deities who have self-contradicting definitions, properties, or whatever (can't logically exist), and those who make false predictions (Evidence against at least that formulation of the hypothesis). Of course, one additional reason to put it as a low percentage of them existing because positing human-like agents to explain stuff has a poor track record. No Zeus hurling lightning, no rain gods with a fondness for dance, etcetera.

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  59. Michael Bergmann, if your going to make that sort of argument, it seems fair for me to say that in 4 and a half years at the 2nd ranked grad program in philosophy at the English speaking world, I cannot ever recall Plantinga's name coming up in conversation with any of my supervisors (and my current supervisor is a sympathetic atheist who used to be a Christian and is currently working in the philosophy of religion, and likes externalist epistemology) or in conversation with any other grads, or in any of the seminars I have been to here featuring many papers given by very, very good philosophers from all over the UK and US. Nor did I ever hear him referred to in conversation on a wide variety of philosophical topics when I was a student at ANU in Australia. Nor do I come across his work in readings much, even when I venture outside of my own specialism of philosophy of perception. Plantinga is a hero to Christian philosophers of course, and revived philosophy of religion almost single-handedly, but I'm just not sure he's especially widely respected outside of that clique (although most people rate his 70s work on modality I think.) I certainly don't think he has the sort of wide influence in the discipline that Timothy Williamson, or David Chalmers have had recently. (Admittedly, I haven't heard that much discussion of Dave's work amongst students and facutly at Oxford, but I have heard some, and besides he's clearly a figure much discussed across a whole set of sub-areas at the moment.)

    Having said that, I do think you're point about an interview in a general publication being unlikely to represent someone's best work is fair. I wasn't persuaded by the argument of the parts of Warranted Christian Belief I read, but it was nowhere near as bad as the interview seems to me, to the point that the interview somewhat surprised me. The interview doesn't sound like a good philosopher to me, whereas with Warranted Christian Belief, it felt more like a good philosopher rationalizing implausible beliefs. (In particular, I think he's correct that if there were something like a sensus divinitatis then Christian beliefs would be warranted and would count as knowledge. I think he's correct that in some very abstract sense, at the start of inquiry, the burden of proof isn't on the Christian to prove there is such a thing, any more than it's on all of us to prove that vision is reliable. Its just I think that in our current empirical situation, there is very good reason to think that no such thing as the sensus divinitatis exists, for a variety of reasons.)

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