I’ve never been strongly moved by Plantinga’s EAAN’s general sceptical conclusions allegedly following from naturalism and evolution. It has seemed to me that on the best causal (sketches of) accounts of intentionality, it’s pretty much guaranteed that a significant portion of our empirical beliefs are true. I have serious problems with these causal accounts, but given the accounts, EAAN does not appear that persuasive to me.
However, I think one can use EAAN-type arguments for a more limited conclusion, namely that if naturalism and evolution are true, then certain important kinds of knowledge are seriously threatened, specifically moral (and maybe more generally normative) knowledge (I think certain kinds of modal and metaphysical knowledge are also threatened, and it may be that metaphysical naturalism falls within the class of threatened knowledge).
The standard naturalistic evolutionary story about how we get moral beliefs is something like this. Certain kinds of beliefs about what one ought to do promote the fitness of communities and individuals. Consequently, as a result of certain mimetic and/or genetic evolutionary processes, we have roughly the moral beliefs we do. There might be causal intermediaries like propensities for making certain kinds of moral inference.
But notice a crucial difference between this explanation and evolutionary explanations of our ordinary empirical beliefs. In the ordinary empirical case, Plantinga’s critics can say we are selected for propensities to have tiger-presence beliefs in the presence of tigers, because there is an obvious fitness benefit from having such beliefs when the beliefs are true. One might worry about details here, but the story has an initial plausibility. However, in the case of moral beliefs, the benefit of having the beliefs does not come from the beliefs’ being true.
In the moral case, assuming naturalism and evolution, at best we have a Gettier case instead of knowledge. If we are lucky, there is a large overlap between those moral beliefs that promote fitness and those moral beliefs that are true. Our moral beliefs, based as they are on natural propensities to believe, may be justified. But they are not knowledge, because the connection is too coincidental on this story.
To see that the connection is coincidental, consider this story that is meant to be parallel to the story about moral beliefs. Outside of our community, there is a dark forest. People who go deep into the forest never come back. Eventually, we evolve (mimetically and/or genetically) a propensity to believe that the depths of the forest are full of tigers, and this propensity keeps us out of the forest. In fact, there are tigers deep in the forest, but they are nice tigers and never eat people. The reason people who went deep into the forest never come back is not because the tigers ate them, but because boa constrictors killed them. Maybe we have a justified and true belief that there are tigers in the forest, but it is at best a Gettier case.
Aficionados of the fine-tuning argument will be familiar with the normalizability problem presented by the McGrews and Vestrup in their (2001) Mind article. The normalizability problem is that one cannot make sense of probabilities within an infinite space of possibilities in which each possibility is equi-probable. Suppose, for illustration, that there is a lottery on the natural numbers. For each natural number it’s possible that it wins but no natural number has any greater chance of winning than any other natural number. If we assign each natural number some very small finite chance of winning then the total space of possibilities sums to a probability greater than 1 (which is to say that the space of possibilities isn’t normalizable). Because talk of probabilities makes sense only if the total outcome space equals 1 then we can’t make sense of probabilities in this case. One move here is to deny countable additivity, the claim that you can sum probabilities in an infinite space. Another move is to introduce infinitesimals to recover a positive probability without denying countable additivity. Yet another move is to hold that the space of possibilities is uneven in terms of probabilities. The basic idea is that the probabilities in an infinite range is curved and not a straight line. I don’t want to talk about any of these moves. Instead I want to focus on a curious result that arises from the normalizability problem. Hence the title of the post: the Normalizality Problem problem (or, the NP problem). To begin let’s step back a bit and ask why the fine-tuning argument is a fairly recent newcomer among the catalog of arguments for theism. The basic idea is that prior to the scientific developments in the beginning of the 20th century the universe as a whole was conceived to be too vague to present any arguments from its nature. One couldn’t sensibly talk about specific properties of the universe as a whole and thus there was no sense to be made of the universe as a whole being fine-tuned. But all that changed with the discovery that the universe was expanding and that the initial state of the universe must have had very specific properties and was governed by specific laws with various mathematical constants. Thus, it became appropriate to consider why the initial conditions of the universe and the constants of the laws had the specific values it in fact had. These developments gave rise to the fine-tuning argument and also lots of concern among physicists to find a more fundamental theory to remove some of the improbability that just this ensemble of conditions and constants occurs. In short, it looks like there’s a significant change in our epistemic position vis-Ã -vis the nature of the universe as a whole. Prior to the scientific developments in the 20th century the nature of the universe as a whole was too vague to give rise to probability intuitions, but after those developments it was.
Now for the NP problem: suppose some 18th century mathematician advanced for his age presented the following a priori argument that the nature of the universe could never be used to evoke probability considerations. Either the universe as a whole is too vague to be the proper object of thought or it’s not. It it’s too vague then the nature of the universe can’t be used in probability arguments. But, if the universe isn’t too vague then we must have some grip on the universe having specific conditions and/or laws with various fundamental constants. But in this latter case we still can’t appeal to the nature of the universe to evoke probability considerations because the space of possibilities for the conditions and constants is infinite (and seems to be equi-probable). So no matter how you look at it the universe as a whole can’t be the used to evoke probability considerations. That’s the NP problem. It looks like it’s simply too strong because it provides the basis for an a priori argument that the nature of the universe can’t be used to evoke probability considerations.
You may have already seen this, but in case you haven’t, philosopher Keith Parsons, author of the 1990 God and the Burden of Proof, among many other articles, has quit philosophy of religion.
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position–no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.
In the comments, Theodore Drange, author of Nonbelief and Evil, adds, “I, too, have little interest in religion, which I regard to be a kind of insanity (loss of touch with reality) that advanced species perhaps go through in the course of their evolution.” (I should note that Drange did not exactly support Parsons’s decision, but instead pointed out that there are other things to talk about in the philosophy of religion besides the ontological status of theistic religious beliefs).
Finally, John Beversluis, author of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, as well as professor of philosophy (emeritus) at Butler University, tells John Loftus that he independently arrived at the same conclusion as Parsons.
I have a trio of wonderings about this:
First, it makes me wonder how often this phenomenon occurs. Are there a substantial number of atheists who dabble in philosophy of religion and find the best theistic arguments and defenses so wanting that they decide, “no, not for me. These people [e.g., van Fraassen, Plantinga, van Inwagen, Adams, etc.] are smart, but they leave their brains at the door when they do philosophy of religion”? Personally, I doubt this; or at least, I doubt that it happens after they read the aforementioned authors, as most of the atheists I know have never read any of van Inwagen’s, Plantinga’s, etc.’s, philosophy of religion.
Second, what do these philosophers think is happening to those philosophers who do top-notch work in other fields but who are also orthodox Christians? Do they have a theory? If their theory is indeed “compartmentalized insanity”, have they looked into the psychological research on this? And what do they make of some of their smart atheist colleagues, like Quentin Smith, David Lewis, and William Rowe, who don’t share their disdain for their theistic counterparts?
Third and finally, if I am wrong in my first speculation, and it is indeed the case that many atheists who read the best and brightest of theistic philosophy of religion come away thinking that the case for theism is as weak as, say, the case for intelligent design (assuming, of course, that the case for intelligent design is indeed weak; if you don’t like that example, replace it with one you think is more apt), then should we expect philosophy of religion to become more and more dominated by religious theists? And if so, what will that mean for the direction of philosophy of religion? I expect that it would encourage more and more philosophers of religion to engage in philosophical theology and other such endeavors rather than defending the propriety of religious belief.
I’d love to hear what other people make of this, but I’d be especially curious to hear from atheists about this.
Plantinga’s EAAN argues that evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating, i.e., the belief that naturalism (N) & evolution (E) is true defeats itself because E&N imply that probability that we are reliable (R) is low or inscrutable, which in turn provides a defeater to the belief that E&N are true. One of the crucial claims of Plantinga’s argument, if not the most crucial claim, is that the Pr(R/E&N) is low or inscrutable. This means that if evolutionary naturalism is true then the chance that our belief forming mechanisms are reliable, i.e., produce mainly true beliefs, is very low or just can’t be determined. Plantinga’s argument for this claim involves the claim that evolution selects adaptive behavior. So the role of belief in the course of evolution lies in its adaptiveness, not solely in its truth-conditions. So far so good, but consider the problem of intentionality, “Brentano’s problem”. Brentano’s problem is a possibility problem: how is it possible that there are states with intentional contents? For instance a belief that there are cats is an intentional state whose content is “there are cats.” This content is true iff there exist an x such that x is a cat. Cat-facades, dogs that look like cats, tv-cats, raccoons on a dark night don’t make that content true. The content “there are cats” zeroes in on a specific kind of biological organism–cats. Brentano’s problem is very difficult for physicalists. Bill Lycan has a series of papers taking up this challenge again to existing physicalist accounts of intentionality (for starters, see Bill’s paper “Giving Dualism Its Due” AJP, 2009). What does Brentano’s problem have to do with Plantinga’s EAAN? In short, Plantinga’s right that evolutionary naturalism has a problem with true beliefs, but the reason this is a problem is because evolutionary naturalism has a problem with intentional content. One of Plantinga’s examples is that the different beliefs “that is a tree” and “that is a witch-tree” might have the same adaptive behaviors. This is supposed to illustrate the point that false beliefs might be on par with true belief when it comes to adaptive behavior. That’s right as far as it goes. But given that evolutionary naturalism can’t explain intentional content, it’s hard to see how it might throw up a belief that there are witch-trees, let alone throw up the belief that there are trees. I think the Brentano’s problem is fundamental here. To put it contentiously: until we get a solution to Brentano’s problem Plantinga’s EAAN simply is too “down stream” to evaluate. A more agreeable way to put the point is this: Plantinga’s right that evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating but the reason for this is that evolutionary naturalism can’t answer Brentano’s problem.
The Plantinga Retirement conference was just amazing. It was a blast to see so many of the folks I like to talk to in one place, the average quality of participants and attendees was astounding.
Anecdotes were oft in play, and I’ve got a few of my own below the fold, but this is an occasion where I think I can safely say, without even taking a poll, that on behalf of the contributors to Prosblogion, we express our profound respect for Al’s amazing career and gratitude in teaching us (even those of us who disagree the most!)
We wish him the best for his “retirement.”
God bless you Al!
[This is perhaps a good time to revisit the winners of my little photo contest]
Let Egalitarian Universalism (EU) be the doctrine that God exists and gives everyone infinite happiness, and that the quantity fo this happiness is the same for everyone. The traditional formulation of Pascal’s Wager obviously does not work in the case of the God of EU. What is surprising, however, is that one can make Pascal’s Wager work even given the God of EU if one thinks that Bayesian decision theory, and hence one-boxing, is the right way to go in the case of Newcomb’s Paradox with a not quite perfect predictor (i.e., Nozick’s original formulation).
Here is how the trick works. Suppose that the only two epistemically available options are EU and atheism, and I need to decide whether or not to believe in God. Given Bayesian decision theory, I should choose whether to believe based on the conditional expected utilities. I need to calculate:
- U1=rP(EU|believe) + aP(atheism|believe)
- U2=rP(EU|~believe) + bP(atheism|~believe)
where r is the infinite positive reward that EU guarantees everybody, and a and b are the finite goods or bads of this life available if atheism is true. If U1 is greater than U2, then I should believe.
We’ll need to use our favorite form of non-standard analysis for handling infinities. Observe that
since a God would be moderately to want people to believe in him, and hence it is somewhat more likely that there would be theistic belief if God existed than if atheism were true (and I assumed that atheism and EU are the only options). But then by Bayes’ Theorem it follows from (3) that:
Let c=P(EU|believe)-P(EU|~believe). By (4), c is a positive number. Then:
- U1âU2=rc + something finite.
Since r is infinite and positive, it follows that U1âU2>0, and hence U1>U2, so I should believe in EU.
The argument works on non-egalitarian universalism, too, as long as we don’t think God gives an infinitely greater reward to those who don’t believe in him.
(However, universalism is false and one-boxing is mistaken.)
Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion now has a Younger Scholars Prize in Philosophical Theology, to be awarded annually. The deadline for submission for this year is August 31, 2010. Details of the award and current competition details below the fold.
Help spread the word on this fantastic opportunity!
I can’t see how the data collected is related to the question in the title of [this link](http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=6482). The statistics tells us (I think) something about the number of philosophers who claim a specialization in philosophy of religion and who occupy a position in a Ph.D. granting institution. There is [data here](http://philpapers.org/surveys/demographics.pl?affil=Target+faculty&survey=8), too. But what does that have to do with whether or not philosophy of religion is taken seriously? And supposing it did tell us something about that, what would that tell us about whether philosophy of religion is serious philosophy? It makes me wonder about the real point of the post. Source of the link is the [Leiter Report](http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/02/how-many-philosophers-of-religion-at-phdgranting-departments.html).
The University of St. Thomas Philosophy Department was just approved to run a tenure-track search this Spring, for a job starting next fall (2010). The text for the ad is below. The ad will appear on the JFP within 48 hours.
Our application site hasn’t yet added this position, but within 48 hours we should be up and receiving applications. The job ad is now up on the UST website, so we can now receive applications
Philosophy position at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul
The University of St. Thomas Philosophy Department invites applications for at least one tenure-track position to begin Sept. 2010, at the rank of assistant professor or instructor. AOS and AOC are open, but we seek individuals with strengths and interests that complement those of the current department members (we have 23 tenured/tenure-track lines). Applicants should have outstanding reasoning, teaching, and writing skills, and the virtues of collegiality. Ph.D. prior to appointment is preferred but not required. The department is committed to sustaining and developing the Catholic intellectual tradition; in this we are guided by the principles of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Fides et Ratio. We seek candidates who share these commitments. The teaching load is six courses per year (semester system); there are standard non-teaching duties.
Established in 1885, the University of St. Thomas is located in the major metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and is Minnesota’s largest private university. Its 11,000 students pursue degrees in a wide range of liberal arts, professional, and graduate programs.
Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely, and work skillfully to advance the common good, and seeks to develop individuals who combine career competency with cultural awareness and intellectual curiosity. The successful candidate will possess a commitment to the ideals of this mission.
The University of St. Thomas has a strong commitment to the principles of diversity and inclusion, to equal opportunity policies and practices, and to the principles and goals of affirmative action. In that spirit, the University welcomes nominations and applications from a broad and diverse applicant pool.
Applications should be submitted online at www.stthomas.edu/jobsatust, and include 1) a cover letter that includes discussion of the candidate’s commitment to sustaining and developing the Catholic intellectual tradition, 2) a curriculum vitae, 3) a sample of philosophical writing, 4) evidence of teaching effectiveness, including data from student evaluations of recent courses if available, and 5) transcripts (unofficial versions are acceptable). In addition, candidates should arrange to have at least three letters of recommendation sent, either by email to email@example.com (pdf format preferred) or by mail to: Philosophy Dept. Chair – JRC 241; University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Ave.; St. Paul, MN 55105-1096. To be guaranteed full consideration all application materials should be received by February 11. We expect to bring finalists to campus in early March. Review of applications will continue until the position is filled. Please direct any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are cordially invited to attend the 2010 Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion Workshop at the University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, April 9-10. If you’re interested in participating (chairing-moderating a session) please send me an email email@example.com. The [webpage](http://colfa.utsa.edu/pc/news_and_events/) for the workshop is now up, though not all of the papers have been posted. Be sure to “click” on the Participants and Moderators link. The workshop is free and open to the public. Attendees are encouraged to read all of the posted papers. Please don’t hesitate to write, if you have any questions.