bookmark_borderPlantinga Calls This A Good Argument for God’s Existence?

The title of my post might come across as snarky, so I want to begin my making it clear that is not my intent. In fact, I want to go on record as saying I have great respect for Plantinga’s skill as a philosopher. Among other things, I think he succeeded in his attempt to refute Mackie’s version of the argument from evil.
Perhaps because I have to come hold Plantinga’s work to such a high standard, I continue to be surprised whenever I read Plantinga’s version of the so-called argument from beauty. In his famous lecture, “Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments,” Alvin Plantinga sketches what he calls the “Mozart Argument.”

On a naturalistic anthropology, our alleged grasp and appreciation of (alleged) beauty is to be explained in terms of evolution: somehow arose in the course of evolution, and something about its early manifestations had survival value. But miserable and disgusting cacophony (heavy metal rock?) could as well have been what we took to be beautiful. On the theistic view, God recognizes beauty; indeed, it is deeply involved in his very nature. To grasp the beauty of a Mozart’s D Minor piano concerto is to grasp something that is objectively there; it is to appreciate what is objectively worthy of appreciation.

Plantinga doesn’t say how he rates the strength of the individual arguments; it’s possible that he views this argument as providing just a teeny-tiny bit of evidence that is just barely more probable on theism than on naturalism. Of course, it’s also possible that he views this argument as a “killer refutation” of a naturalism. Or, perhaps more likely, maybe he views it somewhere in between.
Let’s evaluate this argument the same way Plantinga evaluates arguments from evil against theism. How do we do that? By trying to clarify the claim the argument makes about the relationship between the evidence to be explained (in this case, objective beauty) and the rival explanatory hypotheses (e.g., theism and naturalism). Nothing in the passage above suggests that Plantinga claims that objective beauty is logically inconsistent with naturalism. Rather, Plantinga seems to be suggesting that objective beauty is less probable on naturalism than on theism.
I’m going to attempt to “steel man” Plantinga’s argument. The most charitable interpretation of Plantinga is that he’s offering the following argument:
(1) Objective beauty exists.
(2) Naturalism is not intrinsically much more probable than theism. [See Plantinga’s argument L]
(3) The existence of objective beauty is more probable on theism than on naturalism, i.e., Pr(beauty|theism) > Pr(beauty|naturalism).
(4) Therefore, everything else held equal, naturalism is probably false, i.e., Pr(naturalism) < 1/2.
I find this argument unconvincing; indeed, I find it so unconvincing I confess I find it hard to understand why Plantinga would endorse it.
First, I think the truth of (1) is far from certain. It’s far from obvious to me that such a thing as objective beauty exists; I don’t even have the intuition that it exists. And Plantinga offers no reason to think that it does. If it doesn’t exist, then there is nothing to explain and this argument cannot even get off the ground.
Second, I think (2) is false. Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper has convinced me that intrinsic probability is determined by modesty, coherence, and nothing else. Again, the only thing I could find in Plantinga’s lecture is a reference to Swinburne’s work on intrinsic probability. Swinburne argues that simplicity determines intrinsic probability. To be sure, there is a correlation between modesty, coherence, and simplicity. But correlation is as far as it goes. And if Draper is correct that intrinsic probability is determined by modesty and coherence, then naturalism is intrinsically much more probable than theism for the simple fact that naturalism (a/k/a “source physicalism”) is much more modest than theism, just as supernaturalism (a/k/a “source idealism”) is much more modest than theism.
Third, let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that (1) is true. There really is such a thing as “objective beauty.” What might be the metaphysical or ontological grounding for it? One option is Platonism, i.e., abstract objects. In other words, facts about objective beauty would be nothing more or less than necessary truths about beauty. And since Draperian naturalism (or “source physicalism”) says nothing about whether abstract objects exist, this metaphysical grounding is available not just to theists, but also to naturalists. And Plantinga offers no reason to reject this naturalistic explanation.
Instead, Plantinga considers an evolutionary explanation. Perhaps, he suggests,

our alleged grasp and appreciation of (alleged) beauty is to be explained in terms of evolution: [it] somehow arose in the course of evolution.

But this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Plantinga isn’t comparing a naturalistic explanation of objective beauty to a theistic explanation of objective beauty. On the naturalistic side of the equation, he’s not considering the explanatory power of naturalism to account for objective beauty; rather, he’s considering the explanatory power of naturalism conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis (about evolution) to account for our grasp and appreciation of alleged beauty. Similarly, on the theistic side of the equation, he’s not considering the explanatory power of theism to account for objective beauty; rather, he’s considering the explanatory power of theism conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis (about God’s nature) to account for … what, precisely? Our grasp and appreciation of real, not just merely alleged, beauty? God’s causation of objectively beautiful features of the natural world? Something else? Plantinga never says.
The problem isn’t that he invokes auxiliary hypotheses; the problem is that doing so raises a whole bunch of questions which Plantinga doesn’t even ask, much less answer. For example, what’s the antecedent probability of his proffered evolutionary explanation, conditional upon the truth of naturalism? Likewise, what’s the antecedent probability of his auxiliary hypothesis to theism, that facts about objective beauty are somehow related to God’s nature, conditional upon the truth of theism? (And how does that compare to an alternative auxiliary hypothesis about theism, namely, that facts about objectively beauty are grounded in an autonomous realm of abstract objects?) Since Plantinga doesn’t answer these questions, his defense of his Mozart argument is far from complete.
Fourth, let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that premise (3) is true. The fact, if it is (were?) a fact, that objective beauty exists hardly exhausts what we (would?) know about “beauty.” As Draper points out, while the universe is saturated with visual beauty, it is not saturated with auditory, tactile, or other sensory beauty. Given that beauty “exists” at all, facts about the kinds and distribution of beauty favor naturalism over theism. So, once the evidence about beauty is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over naturalism.
In fairness to Plantinga, I want to remind readers that Plantinga was merely sketching his Mozart argument in the context of a speech about two dozen or so arguments; he wasn’t trying to give a sustained or even a precise defense of the argument. Nevertheless, I think the above objections pose significant obstacles to such an argument. Even when the argument is steel manned, as I have tried to do here, I cannot see how the argument can overcome these objections.

bookmark_borderChristian Apologists Ignore the Best Objections to the Moral Argument

(Redated post originally published on 2 August 2014)
To be precise, there are many kinds of moral arguments for theism. The question in the title is really talking about what we might call “ontological” or “metaphysical” moral arguments, the kind which claim that we need God in order to have an “ontological foundation” for objective or absolute morality.
People who defend a version of this kind of argument include a veritable “Who’s Who?” of contemporary Christian apologists: C.S. Lewis (see here and here), Alvin Plantinga (see here and here), William Lane Craig, Paul Copan, J.P. Moreland, Randal Rauser, David Baggett, Jerry Walls, Norman Geisler, Frank Turek, Roger Olson, Michael Horner, and so forth.
While there have been many critics who seem to be clueless about how to refute such arguments (see here and here for just two of probably 100+ available examples), there are many other philosophers who understand the arguments perfectly well and–gasp!–actually offer relevant objections. (What a concept!) In my opinion, the two best critics of ontological moral arguments are Erik Wielenberg (see here and here) and Wes Morriston (see here and here). Why, then, do apologists who’ve written on the topic in the last decade continue to ignore Wielenberg and Morriston?
I’m starting to think Ex-Apologist has a great explanation, albeit one he didn’t invent specifically for this topic. In fact, I think he has a great name for this great explanation. In a post entitled, “Proposal for a New Entry in the Philosophical Lexicon,” he calls this behavior “craiging.” Here is how he defines it.

craig, v. (a) to engage in dialectically illegitimate argumentative maneuvering, such as (e.g.) construing an interlocutor as offering a rebutting defeater for P when it’s more charitable to construe them as offering an undercutting defeater for P[1]; (b) to maintain a somewhat positive image of one’s positions in part by choosing not to address, mention, or cite the strongest criticisms of them; (c) to take up, critique, and/or ridicule an uncharitable construal of the theses and arguments of one’s interlocutor.

——————————————-
[1] Relatedly: to infer or otherwise assume that because a reply fails to rebut P, it also fails to undercut P.

It is (b) which I think applies to contemporary defenders of ontological moral arguments for theism: they simply act as if these critiques don’t exist.

bookmark_borderIn Defense of Dwindling Probability – Part 2

I see that Plantinga’s skeptical argument refers to “Dwindling Probabilities” rather than “Dwindling Probability”.  Sorry about my failure to get the name of this topic quite right.
I should mention that I did not learn about this sort of skeptical argument from the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  I learned about the Multiplication Rule of probablity in high school math, and then again in one of many courses on logic and critical thinking that I took in college and as a graduate student of philosophy.
Although I enjoyed learning about basic probability calculations in a Critical Thinking class at UCSB (esp. from The Elements of Logic by Stephen Barker, Chapter 7, 5th edition), the significance of the Multiplication Rule did not fully register with me until (I think) I read a skeptical argument by a Christian bible scholar: Robert Stein.
In his book Jesus the Messiah, Stein makes a skeptical argument about scholarly attempts to reconstruct the historical development of Q, a hypothetical source that most N.T. scholars believe was used by the authors of the Gospel of Luke and of the Gospel of Matthew.  Stein notes eight different hypotheses required in order to arrive at such a reconstruction of the history of Q.  Then Stein suggests estimated probabilities for each of the first five of the eight hypotheses, and argues that the probability that all five of those hypotheses is true is equal to the multiplication of the probabilities of those five hypotheses:
In other words, if the probability of the first five hypotheses were (1) 90 percent, (2) 80 percent, (3) 60 percent, (4) 50 percent, (5) 40 percent, the possibility of the fifth being true is .90 x .80 x .60 x .50 x .40, or a little more than 8 percent!  (Jesus the Messiah, p. 40)
Stein is a little sloppy here, and he appears to contradict himself.  He seems to be saying that the probability of the fifth hypothesis being true is 40 percent and also saying that the probability of this hypothesis being true is a little more than 8 percent.  But I think what he means is that the probabilty of the fifth hypothesis being true GIVEN the relevant facts AND the truth of the previous four hypotheses is 40 percent, and I think what he means is that the probability of the fifth hypothesis being true GIVEN only the relevant factual data is a little more than 8 percent (because the truth of the conjunction of the previous four hypotheses is NOT certain, but is actually somewhat improbable).
In any case, this skeptical argument presented by Stein inspired me to make use of the Multiplication Rule of probability in constructing skeptical arguments.
Richard Swinburne has raised some objections to Plantinga’s “Dwindling Probabilities” argument, and I am going to state and clarify those objections, and respond to each objection in relation to my example of “Dwindling Probabilities” presented in Part 1 of this series of posts.
Swinburne presents one primary objection, and then presents two more objections.  Swinburne’s primary objection is stated early in his essay on this issue:
Now, strictly speaking – as Plantinga acknowledges, but takes no further – P(G/K) is the sum of the probabilities of the different routes to it.   G might be true without some of these intermediate propositions being true.  
First, let me explain the meaning of P(G/K).   Read this as “The probability of G given K.”
G means:
The central elements of  Christian doctrine are true.
(e.g. God exists; Jesus rose from the dead; Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for our sins; etc.).
K refers to:
The totality of what we know apart from theism.
So P(G/K) means:
The probability that the central elements of Christian doctrine are true GIVEN the totality of what we know apart from theism.
One “route” to G is to establish the authority of the teachings of Jesus, and the reliability of the Gospel accounts of the teachings of Jesus.  If one could show that the teachings of Jesus are a reliable source of theological truths, and that  the Gospel accounts of the teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable, then one could establish the probable truth of many or most Christian doctrines on the basis of the teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels.
So, one could break this line of reasoning down into various components, assign probabilities to each of the components, and then multiply the probabilities to arrive at a probability for G, for it being the case that the central elements of Christian doctrine are true:
1.  God exists.
2. Jesus existed.
3. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE, assuming that Jesus existed.
4. Jesus rose from the dead, assuming that God exists, and that Jesus existed, and that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE.
5.  God showed approval for Jesus’ claims about himself by raising Jesus from the dead, assuming that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead.
6.  The Gospel accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable accounts, assuming that Jesus existed.
7.  Jesus claimed to be a prophet who was a reliable source of truth about God and theological matters, assuming that Jesus existed and assuming that the Gospel accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable accounts.
8.  Jesus’ teachings about God and theological matters are a reliable source of truth, assuming that God showed approval for Jesus’ claims about himself by raising Jesus from the dead and assuming that Jesus claimed to be a prophet who was a reliable source of truth about God and theological matters.
9.  The central elements of Christian doctrine are true, assuming that Jesus’ teachings about God and theological matters are a reliable source of truth and assuming that the Gospel accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable accounts.
None of these claims is certain.
A careful and rational evaluation of this line of reasoning would require assigning probabilities to each of these claims.  There is some probability that God exists, and some probability that Jesus existed, and some probability that Jesus was crucified (given that he existed), and some probability that Jesus rose from the dead (given that he existed and was crucified), etc.
Even if we assign a high probability to each of these claims (such as .8 or .9), when we use the Multiplication Rule of probability to determine the probability of G, the claim that the central elements of Christian doctrine are true, the probability will be fairly low.  For example, suppose that we assign a probability of .9 to each of the first four claims.  In that case the probability of the conjunction of these four claims would be: .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 =  .81 x .81 = .6561  or about .7  which is not exactly a high probability.
If we assigned a probability of .8 to each of the first four claims, then the probability of the conjunction of those claims would be:
.8 x .8 x .8 x .8 =  .64 x .64 = .4096 or about .4 which is clearly NOT a high probability.
Swinburne’s objection is that there may be other “routes” to the ultimate conclusion that G is the case, and if this is so, then we have to add the probability of arriving at G from other routes to the probabilty of G based on the particular route described above.
Let’s consider a simpler example to make Swinburne’s point more clearly:
1.  It will (probably) rain this afternoon.
2. If it rains this afternoon, then your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
Therefore:
3.  Your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
Neither premise of this argument is certain.  We coud assign a probability to each premise and use that to calculate the probability of the conclusion.  Supose that there is an 80% chance of rain this afternoon, and if it rains this afternoon, there is a 90% chance that your lawn will be wet this evening.  We could calculate the probability of the conclusion (3) by multiplying .8 x .9  to get:  .72.  Thus, the probability of (3) appears to be about .7 based on these assumptions about the probability of the premises.
However, there could be other “routes” or ways that your lawn could become wet:
4. Your lawn sprinkler system will (probably) turn on and water the lawn for an hour this afternoon.
5. If your lawn sprinkler system turns on and waters the lawn for an hour this afternoon, then your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
Therefore:
3.  Your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
We could assign probabilities to each of the premises in this argument to arrive at a probability for the conclusion.  Suppose that the sprinkler system is fairly reliable, and has been set to water the lawn for an hour each afternoon.  In that case, we might assign a high probabililty of .9 to premise (4), and a probability of .9 to premise (5).  We could calculate the probability of conclusion (3) by multiplying .9 x .9 to get:  .81.  Thus, the probabilty of (3) appears to be about .8 based on these assumptions.  But this is a different probability than what we arrived at based on the previous argument.  Which probability is correct?  .7 or .8?
If both arguments apply on the same day to the same lawn, then NEITHER estimate is correct, because the probabilty that (3) will be true would be higher than either estimate, since there are TWO DIFFERENT WAYS, each of which has a significant probability, that your lawn could become wet this afternoon.
Presumably the operation of the sprinkler system would NOT affect the weather, and thus NOT affect the chance of rain.  However, if it rains, that could affect the operation of the sprinkler system.  Some sprinkler systems can detect rain or detect moisture in the soil and adjust the watering schedule based on that data.  A sprinkler system might be designed to cancel the scheduled watering for the afternoon if it starts to rain early in the afternoon.   So, with some sprinkler systems, rain in the early afternoon would reduce the probability of the scheduled afternoon watering to nearly ZERO.  But if the scheduled watering begins early in the afternoon, that would have no impact on whether it would rain later that afternoon.
But suppose the sprinkler system has a simple timer and no mechanism for detecting rain.  In this case the sprinkler system which is set to water the lawn each afternoon, will turn the sprinklers on whether it rains that afternoon or not.  In that case, we could reasonably assume that these two different ways of making your lawn wet, operate INDEPENDENTLY of each other, and thus both of the above calculations of the probability of (3) would be too low, because each calculation assumes that there is only ONE WAY for your lawn to become wet, when there are actually (at least) TWO WAYS for this to occur.  Rain is one ROUTE for making your lawn wet, but a sprinkler system is another different ROUTE for making your lawn wet.
One ROUTE for showing central Christian doctrines to be true, is through the resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the authority (reliability) of the teachings of Jesus about God and theological matters.  But other ROUTES are possible,  as Swinburne points out, so the probability of the truth of central Christian doctrines does NOT rest exclusively on the ROUTE through the resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the authority (reliability) of the teachings of Jesus.  In order to arrive at an accurate probabilty of G, one must take into account any and every ROUTE that contributes some degree of probability to G.
My response to this objection in relation to my example of dwindling probabilities in the previous post is that there is ONLY ONE ROUTE (that has a probability higher than ZERO) to the claim “Jesus died on the same day he was crucified” in my probability tree diagram.  So, although I agree with Swinburne’s point and his logic, this point has NO RELEVANCE in relation to my particular example of dwindling probabilities.
There is some relevance to Swinburne’s point, however, if one uses my example probability tree diagram as part of one’s thinking about the resurrection of Jesus. The claim “Jesus died on the same day he was crucified” reflects the standard Christian view or scenario about the death of Jesus. According to the Gospels, Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified (which is somewhat unusual – crucifixion was intended to be a slow, long, drawn-out, and painful death).  But it is possible that Jesus rose from the dead, even if he did not die on the day that he was crucified.
Jesus might have been barely alive when removed from the cross, the soldiers mistakenly believing that he was already dead, and Jesus might have been placed in a nearby tomb, again by someone who mistakenly believed he was already dead, and then Jesus might have survived that Friday night and died in the cold, dark tomb early on Saturday morning, but came back to life on Sunday morning about 24 hours later.
This would still count as rising from the dead, and would still be more-or-less in line with Christian belief and doctrine. Therefore, it is not absolutely required that “Jesus died on the same day he was crucified” in order for it to be the case that “Jesus rose from the dead”. So, there is this alternative ROUTE or WAY that the resurrection could have occured, and in order to accurately assess the probability of the resurrection of Jesus, the probability of this alternative ROUTE must be added to the probability of the standard ROUTE, where Jesus dies on the same day that he was crucified.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderIn Defense of Dwindling Probability

One claim involved in the case for the resurrection of Jesus is this:
D.  Jesus died on the same day he was crucified.
The truth of this claim depends on the truth of some prior claims:
E.  Jesus existed.
C. Jesus was crucified.
A probability tree diagram can illustrate how claim (D) involves dwindling probability (for a better view, click on the image):
Dwindling Probability                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               There is ONLY ONE PATH that results in a probability greater than ZERO for claim (D).  I will not argue for the correctness or accuracy of the probability estimates used in the diagram.  These numbers are for the purpose of illustration, to show the way dwindling probabilty works.
Let’s say that our basic stock of historical facts is f.  These facts would include the contents of the canonical Gospels, plus “outsider” sources, plus “insider” non-narrative sources, plus non-canonical Gospels/narrative sources related to Jesus.
The first green branch indicates that the probability that Jesus existed, given our basic stock of historical facts is .8 :
P(E/f) = .8
The second green branch indicates that the probability that Jesus was crucified, given our basic stock of historical facts PLUS the existence of Jesus is .8:
P(C/f & E) = .8
The third green branch indicates that the probability that Jesus died on the same day he was crucified, given our basic stock of historical facts PLUS the existence of Jesus PLUS the crucifixion of Jesus is .8:
P(D/f & E & C) = .8
The probability that Jesus died on the same day he was crucified given our stock of historical facts is equal to:
the probability of Jesus existing given our historical facts TIMES the probability of Jesus being crucified given our historical facts and the existence of Jesus TIMES the probability of Jesus dying on the same day he was crucified given our historical facts and the existence of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus.
P(D/f)P(E/f) x P(C/f & E) x P(D/f & E & C)
Based on the probability estimates in the above diagram, we can fill in the numbers:
P(D/f) = .8 x .8 x .8 = .512  or approximately .5
Although at each branch the probability was high (.8), multiplying the three probabilities together reduces the probability of claim (D) to about .5 which is NOT a high probability.

bookmark_borderHypocrisy on Moral Arguments, Arguments from Evil, and Logical Inconsistency

Many theists are fond of linking the problem of evil with a moral argument for God’s existence. The idea is that by making an argument from evil against God’s existence, the atheist has supposedly contradicted herself since the the argument from evil presupposes an objective evil and objective evil, in turn, presupposes God’s existence.
Since I’ve refuted that claim before, I want to explore a different aspect of linking these two kinds of arguments, namely, the double standard which some theists apply to these (allegedly) linked arguments. When it comes to the problem of evil, these theists will say there are two kinds of arguments from evil, logical and evidential. Logical versions claim that God and evil are logically incompatible, while evidential versions merely claim that evil is evidence against God. These theists will be quick to tell you that logical arguments from evil were discredited long ago by Alvin Plantinga, who demonstrated there is no logical inconsistency between:

(1) God exists.

and:

(2) Evil exists.

Yet these same theists seem to forget everything Plantinga taught them about proving two propositions are logically inconsistent when it comes to making a moral argument for God’s existence. Since these theists think the problem of evil is linked to (their favorite version of) the moral argument for God’s existence, it’s hypocritical for them not to apply the same logical scrutiny to both families of arguments.
Allow me to expain. Let’s begin by saying there are two kinds of moral arguments for God’s existence, logical and evidential. Logical versions claim that moral values and/or duties are logically incompatible with God’s nonexistence, while evidential versions merely claim that moral values and/or duties is evidence for God’s existence. Using the exact same techniques applied by Plantinga to logical arguments from evil, these theists should recognize that no one has ever successfully proven a logical contradiction between atheism and objective morality. To be precise, no one has ever proven that:

(3) God does not exist.

and:

(4) Objective moral values and/or duties exist.

are logically inconsistent.
It seems rather one-sided and, indeed, hypocritical to require proof of logical inconsistency when it’s convenient (in response to an atheistic argument) but then not require the parallel proof when it’s inconvenient (in support of a theistic argument).
For my part, I agree that Plantinga refuted J.L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil and I think no one has ever demonstrated a logical incompatibility between atheism and ontologically objective moral values or duties.

bookmark_borderA Very Rough Sketch of an Objection to Quentin Smith’s Argument for Moral Realism

In his book, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, Quentin Smith defends an argument for moral realism which he calls the argument from veridical seeming.

(1)  Ordinary ethical sentences and commonsense first-level moral beliefs imply moral realism (or “Moral realism tacitly seems to be true in ordinary commonsense moral attitudes”).
(2)  There are no empirical or a priori reasons to believe that first-level moral beliefs are all false.


(3)  Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe moral realism that not to believe this.
(4)  There is no reason to believe that the conjunction of (1) and (2) is a defective reason to believe moral realism.


(5)  Therefore, the belief in moral realism is indefeasibly justified.[1]

In this post, I’m going to sketch a brief objection to (4) based on what I will call “naturalistic evolution.” According to this objection, naturalistic evolution furnishes naturalistic evolutionists who are also moral realists with a defeater for their belief in moral realism, a defeater which cannot be defeated.
Let us begin by reviewing Smith’s definitions of key terms.

“moral realism” = df. “the metaethical theory that human life has an objective ethical meaning,”[2] viz., “moral facts obtain independently of whether humans believe they obtain.”[3]
“objective ethical meaning” = df. “ethical sentence have truth-value and sometimes correspond to moral facts that obtain independently of our beliefs about whether they obtain.” [4] “If human life has an objective ethical meaning, then there is a class of intrinsic goods, a class of properties and relations that possess the property of goodness.”[5]
“first-level ethical belief” = df. the belief that “something is good or evil or that something is of equal or greater value than something else, for example, that philosophical understanding is at least as valuable as aesthetic enjoyment.”[6]
“second-level ethical belief” = df. a belief “about some or all first-level ethical beliefs. The belief that ‘the intuition that the proposition that philosophical understanding is at least as valuable as aesthetic enjoyment is true does not absolutely justify belief in the proposition’ is an example of a particular second-level ethical belief, and the belief that “life is meaningful but absurd’ is an example of a general second-level ethical belief.”[7]

To Smith’s definitions I will add the following definitions (all taken from Paul Draper):

“hypothesis” = df. a proposition which we do not know with certainty to be true or false
“metaphysical naturalism” = df. the hypothesis that the universe is a closed system, which means that nothing that is not part of the natural world affects it

“genealogical thesis” = df. complex life evolved from simple life

“genetic thesis” = df.  all evolutionary change in populations of complex organisms either is or is the result of trans-generational genetic change
“evolution” = df. the genealogical thesis conjoined with the genetic thesis

The objection goes as follows. If evolution is true, then human beings have developed from non-human animals as a result of natural selection, genetic drift, etc.  As many writers have observed, evolution provides a plausible reason to expect (1) even on the assumption that moral realism is false. Theism provides a strong antecedent reason to trust the reliability of our metaethical intuitions (i.e., our second-level ethical intuitions), namely, God, as a morally perfect being, would want to ensure that all moral agents had moral intuitions which corresponded with what we might call “moral reality.” In contrast, if metaphysical naturalism is true, there is no God overseeing our development and orchestrating the course of our evolution, including the evolution of reliable metaethical intuitions. In short, “blind nature” provides us with no antecedent reason at all to believe that our metaethical intuitions are correct.
The potential unreliability of naturalistic metaethical intuitions does not prove that moral realism is false. (To suggest otherwise would be to commit the genetic fallacy by confusing moral epistemology with moral ontology.) For all the metaphysical naturalist knows, it could be the case that both metaphysical naturalism and moral realism are true. Nevertheless, a metaphysical naturalist’s belief in naturalistic evolution seems to undermine a metaphysical naturalist’s belief that moral realism is true. In other words, it could be the case that both metaphysical naturalism and moral realism are true, but if one knows the former, one cannot know the latter. At least, that’s what this objection claims.
This argument is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s famous Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, but it has an important difference. As I understand it, Plantinga’s EAAN seeks to show that the naturalist has what I will call a ‘global defeater,’ i.e., a defeater for all of her beliefs, including her belief that naturalism is true. In contrast, the objection I’ve sketched above only claims there is a ‘local’ (or localized?) defeater, i.e., a defeater just for the belief that moral realism is true.
Notes
[1] Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 171-72.
[2] Smith 1997, 159.
[3] Smith 1997, viii.
[4] Smith 1997, 159.
[5] Smith 1997, 11.
[6] Smith 1997, 18.
[7] Smith 1997, 19.

bookmark_borderPlantinga on the Alleged “Irrationality” of Atheism

Alvin Plantinga
 
I want to comment on Gary Gutting’s recent interview of Alvin Plantinga in the New York Times. Unless otherwise indicated, the quotations are quotations of Plantinga.

Still, that’s not nearly sufficient for atheism. In the British newspaper The Independent, the scientist Richard Dawkins was recently asked the following question: “If you died and arrived at the gates of heaven, what would you say to God to justify your lifelong atheism?” His response: “I’d quote Bertrand Russell: ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’” 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.
In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.

1. Unlike some people who identify as atheists, I’m fine with joining Plantinga in defining atheism as the belief that there is no God. Notice, however, that there is an equivocation or, at least, a sort of ‘translation error’ here on Plantinga’s part. What Plantinga seems to forget is that many of the people who identify as atheists don’t use the definition of atheism Plantinga (and I) do; they define atheism as merely the lack of belief that God exists. As such, they are precisely what Plantinga would call an agnostic. So when those people say “the lack of evidence for theism is justification for atheism,” they are NOT saying “the lack of evidence for God’s existence is evidence against God’s existence.” Rather, they are are saying, “the lack of evidence for God’s existence is justification for lacking the belief that God exists.”
2. On the other hand, there are some atheists who indeed do argue that the lack of evidence for God’s existence is evidence against God’s existence. Atheist philosopher Theodore Drange calls that argument the “lack of evidence argument” (LEA). Drange has refuted that argument; I join both Plantinga and Drange in rejecting it.
3. While I agree that atheism (the belief that God does not exist version) does have a burden of proof, atheism doesn’t have nearly the same burden of proof as theism. Why? Because theism has a lower prior probability than naturalism and naturalism entails atheism. This contradicts Plantinga’s claim, “Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence” (my italics).

The so-called “problem of evil” would presumably be the strongest (and maybe the only) evidence against theism. It does indeed have some strength; it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low. But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments. So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism. (emphasis mine)

1. The text I have italicized and boldfaced is ridiculous. His “two dozen or so” theistic arguments, philosophically speaking, consist of practically everything but the kitchen sink as evidence for theism. When it comes to arguments for atheism, however, he writes as if the argument from evil is the only argument for atheism (or, at least, the only argument for atheism that provides evidence against theism.) This reeks of a double standard. Plantinga knows very well that atheists have offered serious arguments for naturalism (which entails atheism), including the argument from nonculpable nonbelief (aka “divine hiddenness”), the evidential argument from biological evolution, and the evidential argument from mind-brain dependence. Once we consider the total evidence, it’s far from obvious that it ‘nearly supports straight-out theism as opposed to agnosticism.’
2. Indeed, this paragraph is notable for the fact that it refers to one or more arguments which commit the fallacy of understated evidence. By way of review: in the context of arguments for theism and against naturalism, proponents of a theistic argument are guilty of this fallacy if they “successfully identify some general fact F about a topic X that is antecedently more likely on theism than on naturalism, but ignore other more specific facts about X, facts that, given F, are more likely on naturalism than on theism.” (More on that in a moment.)

I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.

1. As Paul Draper has argued, “if theism does make it likely that some human beings have a properly functioning sensus divinitatis, then it makes it likely that everyone has one or at least that everyone who is not resistant to belief in God has one, which, pace John Calvin, is not what we observe.”
2. Furthermore, as Draper goes on to point out,

… the cognitive science of religion is not wholly supportive of Plantinga’s position. Human beings instinctively believe in all sorts of invisible agents, not just in gods and certainly not just in a single creator-God let alone the specific creator-God of metaphysical theism. So we seem to have a broad sensus actoris instead of a narrow sensus divinitatis. (Cognitive scientists sometimes use the term “hyperactive agency detector,” which sounds so much less impressive than a “sensus divinitatis.”) …

3. As Keith Parsons has argued, the non-existence of the sensus divinitatis is evidence for the non-existence of God.

My argument is simple. I think that Alvin Plantinga is right. If God exists, humans will very likely possess a sensus divinitatis, a God-detecting faculty, which, when functioning properly and in the appropriate circumstances, will present us with warrant-basic (both warranted and epistemologically basic) awareness of his existence. If this is so, and if God does exist, then humans, provided that their sinfulness has not impaired the proper functioning of their sensus, will have a warrant-basic awareness of God’s existence. On the other hand, if there is no God, it is extremely unlikely that humans would possess a cognitive faculty that would produce the warranted (but false) belief that God exists. In this case, evidence that belief in God is not caused by a warrant-conferring cognitive faculty, but rather is generated by a noncognitive process that does not confer warrant on that belief, will, ipso facto, constitute evidence against the existence of God. An atheological argument can therefore be set out semi-formally like this:
1) If God exists, then humans very likely possess a sensus divinitatis, a cognitive faculty which, when functioning properly and in the appropriate circumstances, produces the warrant-basic belief that God exists.
2) If there is no sensus divinitatis, then God probably does not exist, unless the background probability of his existence is very high.
3) It is not the case that the background probability of God’s existence is very high.
4) There is no sensus divinitatis.
5) Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Let’s move on and return to quoting Plantinga.

One presently rather popular argument: fine-tuning. Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life. For example, if the force of the Big Bang had been different by one part in 10 to the 60th, life of our sort would not have been possible. The same goes for the ratio of the gravitational force to the force driving the expansion of the universe: If it had been even slightly different, our kind of life would not have been possible. In fact the universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

This would be exhibit A of the fallacy of understated evidence in Plantinga’s interview. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that cosmological fine-tuning is evidence for theism over naturalism (and hence atheism). Given that the universe is fine-tuned, however, there are three more specific facts which favor naturalism over theism. First, the only intelligent life we know of is human and it exists in this universe. As Paul Draper explains:

“while it may be true that on single-universe naturalism the existence of anything as impressive as human beings is very unlikely, it is also true that on theism the existence of intelligent beings as unimpressive and flawed as humans is very unlikely. Further, given that human beings do exist, it is certain on single-universe naturalism, but not on theism, that they exist in this universe (i.e., in the one universe that we know to exist).”

Second, intelligent life is the result of evolutionGiven that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that it developed as a result of biological evolution is more probable on naturalism than on it is on theism.
Third, so much of the universe is hostile to lifeGiven that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that so much of our universe is highly hostile to life–such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth–is more probable on naturalism than it is on theism.
The upshot is this. Even if the general fact of cosmic “fine-tuning” is more probable on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that naturalism is true, there are other, more specific facts about cosmic “fine-tuning,” facts that, given cosmic “fine-tuning,” are more likely on naturalism than on theism. Once all of the evidence about cosmic “fine-tuning” has been fully stated, it’s far from obvious that facts about cosmic “fine-tuning” favor theism over naturalism.

Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena — lightning and thunder for example. We now have science.
As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. 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. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.

What is lame is Plantinga’s rather uncharitable representation of the evidential argument from the history of science. The explanatory success of non-lunar explanations for lunacy is not greater (or, at least, not significantly greater) on the assumption that a-moonism is true than on the assumption that moonism true. In contrast, the explanatory success of naturalistic explanations is antecedently more likely on naturalism than on theism.

Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.

1. This ignores the evidence from the testimony of other atheists, including myself, who say that they wish that theism were true.
2. Even with Nagel, his hope that atheism is true doesn’t entail or make probable that his reasons for atheism are wrong. Consider an analogy. A Holocaust survivor hopes that what the Nazis did was morally wrong, but no one would argue that the Holocaust survivor is incorrect simply because they hoped that the Nazis were morally wrong.
3. It gets worse. To see why, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you are arrested, put on trial, convicted for a crime you did commit, and are sentenced to prison. You probably wouldn’t say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to live as if I am going to prison, so I’m going to invent a bunch of arguments in order to justify the belief that I am not going to prison.” While it’s possible that someone might do that, probably virtually everyone would accept the reality that they are going to prison. To be sure, they might complain about things (such as the fairness of the law, the judge, or the sentence), but they wouldn’t deny the reality that they were going to prison.
4. Besides, Plantinga’s dismissive attitude towards the reasons why atheists are atheists just assumes that all atheists want to “live as if God does not exist” and that desire outweighs any other desires atheists might have. So far as I can tell, that assumption is false. First, though I don’t have the data to back this up, I suspect that even most atheists wish that some sort of life after death is true. (They may not want to live forever and they may want a different kind of afterlife than the one offered by Christianity, but that’s beside the point.) And any sane, rational person desires to avoid torture, especially eternal torture in Hell. It’s not obvious why anyone should think that those desires would always be outweighed by the desire to “live as if God does not exist.”

Evolution will have resulted in our having beliefs that are adaptive; that is, beliefs that cause adaptive actions. But as we’ve seen, if materialism is true, the belief does not cause the adaptive action by way of its content: It causes that action by way of its neurophysiological properties. Hence it doesn’t matter what the content of the belief is, and it doesn’t matter whether that content is true or false. All that’s required is that the belief have the right neurophysiologicalproperties. If it’s also true, that’s fine; but if false, that’s equally fine.
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.

This is Plantinga’s well-known “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” (EAAN).
1. The basic problem with the argument is that it’s false that “Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.” Rather, as Draper pointed out in his debate with Plantinga, “More generally, the long term survival of our species is much more to be expected if our cognitive faculties are reliable than if they are unreliable, and that entails that the long term survival of our species is strong evidence for R.”
2. Furthermore, “In addition, it is very unlikely that belief-producing mechanisms that do not track the truth would systematically promote survival in a very diverse and often rapidly changing environment.”

bookmark_borderThoughts about Plantinga’s Interesting Paper on “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation, and Supervenience”

I’ve been studying Plantinga’s very interesting paper, “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation, and Supervenience.” (See here for Ex-Apologist’s very brief post about it.) Plantinga’s stated goal is to show that metaphysical naturalism cannot accommodate realism about moral obligation by "displaying the failure of the most natural way of arguing" that metaphysical naturalism can accommodate moral realism, viz., supervenience.


There are many things about this paper which I find interesting.

First, unlike William Lane Craig, Plantinga directly interacts with some of the strongest cases for naturalistic moral realism, such as those provided by David Brink and Peter Railton.

Second, Plantinga concedes what many critics of moral arguments (ranging from Richard Swinburne to Michael Martin) have argued, viz., that moral properties do supervene on nonmoral properties. Indeed, Plantinga argues that moral properties strongly supervene on nonmoral (or descriptive) properties and so the two are, in some sense, equivalent.

Third, (in footnote 14) Plantinga makes the interesting (and, IMO, correct) observation that theism does not entail that there be such a thing as moral obligation, since theism does not entail that there be created rational agents. Rather, he says, “what is necessary is that if there are rational agents, there is such a thing as moral obligation.”

Fourth, he argues that the supervenience of moral properties on nonmoral properties (hereafter, SMPNMP) is logically compatible with the truth of divine command ethics. This is significant, he says, since divine command ethics is one of the options. Thus, even if a moral obligation is equivalent to some naturalistic property P, it could also be the case that P is equivalent to the property, “being such that it is an essential property of God to command all persons to perform it.”

This is arguably the most important (and most interesting) part of the entire paper. In his words, “To show that obligation is naturalistic, one must find a naturalistic property that is much more tightly connected with obligation; mere equivalence isn’t sufficient.” Plantinga thinks SMPNMP is an insoluble problem for metaphysical naturalism conjoined with moral realism: in his words, “one can’t show that rightness is naturalistically acceptable by finding a naturalistic property to which it is equivalent.”

If, like me, you find these things interesting, then you’ll want to read his paper for yourself.