Plantinga’s Hitler Case
July 3, 2008 — 13:00

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God  Comments: 17

Suppose Hitler won the war. Furthermore, there were certain nonAryans who had a mutation such that everything they saw was tinted green and caused a harsh pain. Let ‘G’ denote this new property of their eyes. Hitler enjoyed this suffering, so he allowed these nonAryans to survive. After a few generations, nonAryans with eyes like ours died out, and the nonAryans with these mutated eyes continued to survive. This mutation spread throughout the population.
Consider one such creature, m. Plantinga asks, “But wouldn’t it be wrong (not to mention crazy) to say that m’s visual system is functioning properly? Or that its function is to produce both pain and a visual field that is uniformly green? Or that the resistance medical technicians who desperately try to repair the damage are interfering with the proper function of the visual system?” (p. 26) This example seems to work against any evolutionary theory of proper function.
Here’s one worry for this example.


On an evolutionary theory of proper function, m’s eyes would not be functioning properly when producing G according to an earlier design plan. For thousands of years, humans evolved in such a way that being able to see clearly (the actual colors of objects and without pain) contributed to their survival. Let “S” denote the property of “seeing real colors easily and uninhibitedly (i.e., without pain)”. A function of the eye, because of evolution, is to exhibit S. And G interferes with an eye’s successfully exhibiting S.
So this point should at least explain why it is intuitive that m’s eyes are malfunctioning. They are not functioning properly according to their previous design plan.
But Plantinga could press that it’s also odd to think that m’s eyes are functioning properly. It’s weird to think that the function of m’s eyes, according to this new design plan, is to produce G.
But it’s not too crazy. If I pinch my arm, I feel pain. It’s the function of many mechanisms in my body to produce this pain. The evolutionist will say that this function arose because having mechanisms which produced this pain helped my ancestors to survive.
And is it crazy to say this same thing for a creature whose eyes exhibited G? Call this creature S. For S’s ancestors, any time they were about to be killed by Nazis, they saw that the creature exhibited G, and so they avoided them. The mutation which produced G helped these creatures to survive. If we waited enough generations, it seems intuitive that m’s eyes are supposed to produce G. If a Nazi were about to corner S, and S’s eyes suddenly stopped producing G, S might think, “oh crap! my eyes are supposed to be producing G! What’s going on?” So Plantinga’s Hitler case doesn’t successfully refute evolutionary theories of proper function.
(I used S instead of m in this example, because by the time m exists, the Nazis would no longer be hunting people because the mutation would’ve spread into their population as well.)
(I’m thinking of turning these ideas into a paper, so please pay the proper respects. However, you guys might have such forceful objections to my ideas that I will no longer want to turn it into a paper. We’ll see!)

Comments:
  • Mike Almeida

    Andrew,
    Here’s a small worry. Suppose you choose the function of human eyes at time t (just prior to Hitler’s success) as the proper function of human eyes. Certainly, the function of our eyes has evolved over time. Earlier functions certainly did not display all of the properties they currently do. Here’s the question. If eyes with G are malfunctioning relative to the function of eyes at t, then similarly, our eyes at t are malfunctioning relative to the function of eyes at a much earlier time in their evolution t-1. And so on backward. We are not going to have our eyes functioning properly at any time, since they are malfunctioning relative to an earlier time in our evolution. I’m guessing Plantinga would be happy with that.

    July 3, 2008 — 14:13
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Mike,
    Well, I think that objects can function properly and not function properly at the same time. Contradiction? Well, an object can function properly according to design plan D, and not according to D1. No contradiction. So I wouldn’t conclude that our eyes never properly function.
    (So I was thinking that the creatures in the Hitler scenario were still properly functioning according to a design plan aimed at producing G, but malfunctioning according to a design plan aimed at producing S. This hopefully accounts for our intuitions.)

    July 3, 2008 — 14:37
  • Mike Almeida

    I think I see. When Plantinga says,
    Consider one such creature, m. Plantinga asks, “But wouldn’t it be wrong (not to mention crazy) to say that m’s visual system is functioning properly?
    Your answer is to say “no, it would not be crazy to say that, since it is both functioning properly and not functioning properly.” For some reason I thought your answer was to say that it was malfunctioning full stop.
    It is interesting that you say,
    Contradiction? Well, an object can function properly according to design plan D, and not according to D1. No contradiction. So I wouldn’t conclude that our eyes never properly function
    Right, if functioning properly is not an intrinsic property, but a relation, then no contradiction. But it doesn’t follow from this that you can avoid concluding that our eyes never properly function. After all, failing to function properly is also going to be a relation. And it will be true of our eyes at each time in their evolution that, relative to some earlier design plan D, they are not functioning properly relative to D. But then our eyes never function properly. And, also, they always do.

    July 3, 2008 — 15:17
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    I think we’re on the same page. My only worry is whether it is, indeed, intuitive that S’s eyes are properly functioning in my scenario (or whether its intuitive that she has this new design plan supposedly conferred by evolution). I’m not sure how convincing my case is. And I don’t know if it’s enough to motivate the intuition that m’s eyes are properly functioning (or have this new design plan conferred by evolution) as well.

    July 3, 2008 — 16:02
  • John

    The main problem with this objection is that it functions (pardon the pun) with a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. You state: “On an evolutionary theory of proper function, m’s eyes would not be functioning properly when producing G according to an earlier design plan.” And you further state: “If I pinch my arm, I feel pain. It’s the function of many mechanisms in my body to produce this pain. The evolutionist will say that this function arose because having mechanisms which produced this pain helped my ancestors to survive.”
    In evolutionary theory, there is no design plan. Indeed, there is no place for purposive language in evolutionary theory. The best evolutionary theory can do is to say that m’s eyes are functioning “differently” than before. But, of course, differently does not mean improperly. And an evolutionist will never explain pain by claiming that it arose because having it helped your ancestors survive. Rather the evolutionist will claim that your ancestors survived because the function arose. Evolution theory that deals solely with prior causes and never with future effects or goals.

    July 3, 2008 — 17:10
  • Andrew Moon

    John,
    This is all a red herring. It doesn’t matter what evolutionary theory says. What matters are ‘evolutionary theories of proper function’, which are philosophical theories promoted by philosophers of biology and are the dominant view among naturalists today. See the references in the Plantinga reading.

    July 3, 2008 — 17:28
  • John

    I don’t currently have Plantinga’s book. Who are the references? Are they the standards, namely, Larry Wright’s “Functions” and “Explanation and Teleology”; Robert Cummins’ “Functional Analysis”; and Ruth Garrett Mallikin’s “In Defense of Proper Functions”? Does he discuss Ron Amundson’s and George Lauder’s “Function without Purpose” or Amundson’s “Against Normal Function”?
    I am of the opinion that all functional language can be eliminated from biological speak. It may be difficult and cumbersome and, thus, allowed for the sake of ease. But ultimately, it is eliminable. Do you disagree?

    July 3, 2008 — 20:29
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi John,
    Those first few are some of the big classics. I don’t think he discusses those last two.
    No, I don’t think functional language can be eliminated, but I think that that’s another subject. I was arguing against Plantinga’s counterexample to those naturalists (and there are many) who do think there are functions in biology and who do think that these functions have evolutionary analyses.

    July 4, 2008 — 8:57
  • Mike Almeida

    Andrew,
    One serious worry for your approach, I think, is that no matter what virtues humans display cognitively–no matter how great their abilities at perception, deduction, induction, counterexample, factual information, etc.–it is going to be true that their cognitive faculties are, by some earlier standard, not functioning properly. But the claim that such cognitive virtues display improper functioning seems ridiculous. The right conclusion is that the standard is wrong, not the functioning. This seems like a good reason to deny that proper cognitive functioning is relational.

    July 4, 2008 — 16:04
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    Well, it might be go too far to say it’s not relational at all. If I’ve got you right on what “relational” means, a designer view of proper functions is also relational. Cognitive faculties are functioning properly only if they’re functioning the way their designer designed them to. So something exhibits proper function only if they’re related in the correct way to the mental states of their designer.
    Now I don’t see the ridiculousness. Say that some organism has a mutation and one of its organs exhibits trait A, which helps the organism survive. After a sufficient number of reproductions, A spreads throughout the population and, on many evolutionary view, will come to count as a function of that organ. And the mechanisms which go into producing A will count as properly functioning if they are successfully able to produce A. (I’m leaving out a lot of details, I know, but I hope the story’s clear enough.)
    Suddenly, there’s a mutation in the organism which interferes with that organ’s exhibiting A and instead produces B. However, B is overall better at helping the organism to survive than A did. Eventually, organisms with organs that exhibited A die out and (after time) it is the function of the organ to produce B instead. Not only that, but that organ is malfunctioning w/r/t the earlier (inferior) design plan responsible for producing A.
    And you’re pointing out that this will be the case for most of our organ’s traits (including our brain, which is composed of numerous mental organs). But I just don’t see what’s so ridiculous about it. I don’t accept the evolutionary view (I’m not sure what I think, even as a theist), but I don’t think it’s crazy to think that many (most?) of the functions of our bodies’ organs are malfunctions of previous inferior designs. We still get our intuitions right about our hearts counting as functioning properly when they are pumping blood and not properly functioning when they’re not able to pump blood.
    (I hope this isn’t just one of those “You think it’s ridiculous; I don’t think it’s ridiculous, and there’s no more to be said”, but it may be that.)

    July 4, 2008 — 16:47
  • Mike Almeida

    To make the discussion easier to track, let’s stick with the proper function of cognitive faculties. On your view, the proper function of cognitive faculties is unrelated to the reliability of its deliverances. Doesn’t that seem to you a priori false? Doesn’t it seem close to obvious that the faculty whose function is to issue in belief is functioning well only if what it issues in is good (i.e. likely to be true)? Don’t you want to be in a postion to say that S’s cognitive faculties are malfunctioning in those cases where S is committed to all sorts of false beliefs and making all sorts of bad inferences? You are just assuming that the proper functioning of cognitive faculties (and everything else) is determined by its survival value.

    July 4, 2008 — 19:55
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Mike,
    No, it’s not weird to me that the proper function of certain cognitive faculties might not be to produce true beliefs. One of Plantinga’s big examples (in the reading, pp. 11-12) is of a faculty whose function is to produce beliefs that are able to help a person survive (regardless of whether they are true).

    July 6, 2008 — 22:15
  • Faculties that serve goals of practical rationality only–faculties that do not aim at either true belief or knowledge–seem badly misdescribed as “cognitive”. This is why it sounds a priori false that a cognitive faculty might “aim” at survival only. Probably what Plantinga has in mind is that what we believe are cognitive faculties might have noncognitive functions. That’s something like saying that what we believe are sentient beings might be robots.

    July 7, 2008 — 8:10
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    Okay, I’ll grant (though I’m still doubtful) that a faculty is cognitive only if it has a function of producing true beliefs. How does that get us anywhere against an evolutionary theory of functions? A cognitive faculty will have the function of producing true beliefs only if that helped it (or the appropriate ancestors survive) just as the function of the heart is to pump blood only if that helped it (or the appropriate ancestors) survive.

    July 7, 2008 — 10:05
  • Mike Almeida

    How does that get us anywhere against an evolutionary theory of functions?
    It gets us to what looks like a verbal dispute between you and Plantinga. Plantinga asserts this,
    Consider one such creature, m. Plantinga asks, “But wouldn’t it be wrong (not to mention crazy) to say that m’s visual system is functioning properly?
    Surely you don’t think he just didn’t grasp the possibility that m’s visual system has survival value. Obviously, he sees that it could have had what you’re calling an “evolutionary function”. His position must be that such a function could not be the proper function for cognitive faculties. And about that what he says sounds right. If all these faculties did was help with survival then they would not be rightly described as ‘cognitive’. I otherwise cannot make sense of Plantinga’s “craziness” claim.

    July 7, 2008 — 11:27
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    I think that the mechanisms producing the green vision or the pain are not cognitive faculties. On your definition, for x to be a cognitive faculty, it must be for the production of true beliefs.
    Notice that, in general then, the mechanisms responsible in us for producing pain or color appearances are also not cognitive faculties. But surely they can properly function. If I pinch my arm and I feel pain, it seems plausible that the mechanisms producing that pain are properly functioning.
    But I think that I’ve lost track of the dialectic. Here’s how I see things as of now. I agree that the mechanisms producing the pain and greenness are causing malfunction in m’s visual system. It is causing them to malfunction. But it is not implausible to me that these mechanisms now have the function of producing pain and greenness. Maybe more work needs to be done individuating mechanisms and faculties. I’ve spent enough time blogging for today, though!

    July 8, 2008 — 9:41
  • Mike Almeida

    I think I’m lost. How does this respond to my assertion that the dispute seems verbal??
    When Plantinga says,
    “. . .wouldn’t it be wrong (not to mention crazy) to say that m’s visual system is functioning properly?
    He’s not saying that there could not be an evolutionary function for that visual system. What he is saying is that any evolutionary function for that visual system would not be that system’s proper function. A visual system’s proper function is to produce reliable perceptions. But Plantinga builds into the notion of reliabilty that,
    . . . a cognitive faculty–memory, perception, reason– is reliable when the great bulk of its deliverances are true.
    So, the proper function of a cognitive faculty such as perception, memory or reason could not consist in its contribution to survival. Your response that m’s visual system could be functioning properly relative to standards of survival talks right past Plantinga’s point that proper functioning entails that it’s deliverances are largely accurate. This is why I see it as a verbal dispute. You’re using ‘a proper function of visual systems’ in a way that Plantinga is not.

    July 8, 2008 — 12:48