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What, however, is the EAAN?

[Previous posts: One and Two]

I may have been too hasty in my acceptance that Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism was not what I had originally given. As commenter Nick Matzke pointed out, Plantinga seems to be doing a bit of historical revision here. In the version he gives now, this is an argument against a metaphysical claim, but the original (or at least the 1993 version in Warrant and Proper Function [1]) appeals to empirical claims like “there is a tiger here about to attack”. Moreover, Darwin’s doubt was never about the intentional content of such empirical claims – like Quine and Popper, who Plantinga also mentions, Darwin’s evolutionary epistemology is fine for giving reliable empirical beliefs. As Paul Griffiths and I argue in our chapters on evolutionary debunking arguments [2, 3], the problem arises when trying to support or arrive at non-empirical claims, like moral realism or the existence of God and purpose.

I concede that I misread the argument as rejecting evolutionary theory (although given some of Plantinga’s comments about God’s ability to intervene in the course of evolution I feel that he’s not entirely happy with it, on which see my paper on how theists can be good Darwinians [4]), when he is arguing against his definition of “Naturalism”. But I think that this is understandable given how convoluted the presentation of the argument is in the 1993 chapter. So here are some claims made in that chapter (I thank Helen De Cruz for sending me the text; all quotations lack page numbers but it’s a short enough chapter). Here is Plantinga’s own summary of the argument (or two arguments, one of which extends the first):

… the first argument is for the falsehood of naturalism, the second, and more developed, is for the conclusion that it is irrational to accept naturalism. Crucial to both arguments is the estimation of the value of a certain conditional probability, P(R/(N&E&C)), where (roughly) R is the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable, N is metaphysical naturalism, E is the proposition that our cognitive faculties arose by way of the mechanisms of evolution (i.e., the mechanisms to which contemporary evolutionary thought directs our attention),and C is a complex proposition stating what cognitive faculties we have and what sorts of beliefs they produce. In the second argument I contend that (1) it is quite plausible to think either that the rational attitude to take towards the conditional probability mentioned above is the judgment that it is low or that the rational attitude is agnosticism with respect to it, and, (2) in either case, the devotee of N & E has a defeater for any belief he holds, including N. Further, since this defeater is an ultimately undefeated defeater (as I argue), it is irrational to accept N, since it is irrational to accept any proposition such that one knows one has an ultimately undefeated defeater for it.

He there spends time criticising the view that our cognitive faculties are reliable from evolution, since so long as they deliver the fitness enhancing outcomes, the content doesn’t matter:

But isn’t there a problem, here, for the naturalist? At any rate for the naturalist who thinks that we and our cognitive capacities arrived upon the scene after some billions of years of evolution (by way of natural selection, genetic drift, and other blind processes working on such sources of genetic variation as random genetic mutation)? … If our cognitive faculties have originated as Dawkins thinks, then their ultimate purpose or function (if they have a purpose or function) will be something like survival (of individual, species, gene, or genotype); but then it seems initially doubtful that among their functions—ultimate, proximate, or otherwise—would be the production of true beliefs. … The principal function or purpose, then, (the ‘chore’ says Churchland) of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place. What evolution underwrites is only (at most) that our behavior be reasonably adaptive to the circumstances in which our ancestors found themselves; hence (so far forth) it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. Of course our beliefs might be mostly true or verisimilitudinous (hereafter I’ll omit the ‘verisimilitudinous’); but there is no particular reason to think they would be: natural selection is interested not in truth, but in appropriate behavior.

So, then he sets up the “Darwin’s Doubt” frame:

… perhaps Darwin and Churchland mean to propose that a certain objective conditional probability is relatively low: the probability of human cognitive faculties’ being reliable (producing mostly true beliefs), given that human beings have cognitive faculties (of the sort we have) and given that these faculties have been produced by evolution (Dawkin’s blind evolution, unguided by the hand of God orany other person). If metaphysical naturalism and this evolutionary account are both true, then our cognitive faculties will have resulted from blind mechanisms like natural selection, working on such sources of genetic variation as random genetic mutation. Evolution is interested, not in true belief, but in survival or fitness. It is therefore unlikely that our cognitive faculties have the production of true belief as a proximate or any other function, and the probability of our faculties’ being reliable (given naturalistic evolution) would be fairly low.

Griffiths and I argue against this view. We can distinguish between two (or three) kinds of beliefs: environmental beliefs, social beliefs and possibly, if they are different in kind from social beliefs, metaphysical beliefs. There is every reason to think that beliefs about the environment are reliable and true. While evolution also provides behaviours not underwritten by beliefs (flatworms and bacteria probably have no beliefs of any kind and yet they evolve by behavioural fitness), if you do have cognitive faculties, and thus can reason from them, the prior probability is high that those cognitive faculties that deliver beliefs that are false will end up causing unfit behaviours (if you can’t tell that it’s a lion and that it wants to eat you, you will, as Quine put it, demonstrate a pathetic tendency not to reproduce your epistemic preferences).

As to social beliefs, here the content of the belief is largely decoupled from the fitness effects of the belief. If you fail to believe in the God of the surrounding society, you could be excluded from socially remunerative activities, from business deals and employment up to and including breathing. So argumentum ex consensu gentium, or appeal to the consensus of the people, fails to give us any confidence in the truth of the beliefs, although it clearly gives the conditions under which such beliefs will be fit or unfit.

Metaphysical beliefs, however, lack any kind of fitness value, except as far as they are socially acceptable. While some people have been killed for failing to accept the metaphysics of, say, the Host (read up on trans- and con-substantiation sometime), usually what causes the lack of fitness is deviation from the consensus, not a deviation from the true metaphysics.

So Plantinga’s attack on “naturalism” as he defines it, or positive atheism as I define it, rests on a conflation of ecological fitness of beliefs and metaphysical fitness, which so far as anyone can tell is entirely lacking. His two-pronged attack – on evolution producing true beliefs; and on evolution warranting metaphysical beliefs – fails to connect. Evolution does produce true beliefs of many kinds, and he accepts this:

The issue, then, is the value of a certain conditional probability: P(R/ (N&E&C)). Here N is metaphysical naturalism. It isn’t easy to say precisely what naturalism is, but perhaps that isn’t necessary in this context; prominent examples would be the views of (say) David Armstrong, the later Darwin, Quine, and Bertrand Russell. (Crucial to metaphysical naturalism, of course, is the view that there is no such person as the God of traditional theism.) E is the proposition that human cognitive faculties arose by way of the mechanisms to which contemporary evolutionary thought directs our attention; and C is a complex proposition whose precise formulation is both difficult and unnecessary, but which states what cognitive faculties we have—memory, perception, reason, Reid’s sympathy—and what sorts of beliefs they produce. R, on the other hand, is the claim that our cognitive faculties are reliable (on the whole, and with the qualifications mentioned), in the sense that they produce mostly true beliefs in the sorts of environments that are normal for them. And the question is: what is the probability of R on N&E&C? (Alternatively, perhaps the interest of that question lies in its bearing on this question: what is the probability that a belief produced by human cognitive faculties is true, given N&E&C?) And if we construe the dispute in this way, then what Darwin and Churchland propose is that this probability is relatively low, whereas Quine and Popper think it fairly high.

The bolded passages highlight some problems I have with this argument. First, Darwin never rejected the possibility of a God of traditional theism, and I challenge Plantinga to show otherwise. He certainly didn’t believe in such a God, but he takes great care to his dying breath not to reject it as a possibility. Armstrong, Quine and possibly (but I think actually not) Russell are positive atheists, but not Darwin (and not Russell). This is just poisoning the well. I have already attacked the view that naturalism requires rejecting the possibility of that deity (Plantinga dismisses agnosticism as leading to the same conclusion, but I won’t address that here). Let us focus on Plantinga’s R.

Remember that the version he gave to my account was that the beliefs in question were metaphysical beliefs. So the reliability (R) of beliefs that are not metaphysical is, basically, a side issue. If we can show that empirical beliefs are reliable, and I think we can, this says nothing about our ability to produce metaphysical beliefs. And if N is a metaphysical belief, then the probability of N&E&C given R is simply undetermined. But if N is not a metaphysical belief (as I argued for last post), then it is probably reasonably high, since our knowledge claims regarding E and C are also empirical beliefs.

So I think that Plantinga plays a little card trick here. He shifts from talking about ecological beliefs to metaphysical beliefs after gerrymandering the territory so positive atheism is the core content of the metaphysical beliefs and cannot be anything else (like an empirical estimate of the likelihood gods etc exist).

Can I revise my original argument form then? Here’s what I put up:

P1. If evolution is true, then we have modified monkey brains.

P2. Modified monkey brains are not evolved to find out the truth

P3. Evolutionary naturalism (the view that everything about humans, including their cognitive capacities, evolved) is the output of modified monkey brains.

C1. Therefore evolutionary theory is unreliable and should be rejected

C2. Therefore evolutionary naturalism should be rejected

Here’s how I would now frame it:

P1. If evolution is true our cognitive faculties evolved (we have modified monkey brains)

P2. Our cognitive faculties (modified monkey brains) do not give a high probability for our beliefs

P3. Our positive atheist (“naturalist”) beliefs that gods do not exist is the output of modified monkey brains

C1. Therefore our beliefs that gods do not exist are unreliable and should be rejected

C2. Therefore we should reject positive atheism (“naturalism”)

And I challenge P2, and argue there is an equivocation on the step from P3 (only some of our beliefs are unreliable) to C1 (even if our beliefs there are no gods are metaphysical, the argument doesn’t establish that empirical beliefs are unreliable), and reject the identification of positive atheism with naturalism. In Plantinga’s terms, we do not have a defeater for all evolved beliefs, nor do we have a defeater for beliefs about the nonexistence of gods where that is an empirical, not a metaphysical, conclusion.

In fact, as I argued in the first post on the EAAN, evolution provides a good reason to dismiss all metaphysical beliefs as not truth tracking, including (and especially) about the existence of gods and the supernatural. There is no fitness value to tracking such arcane entities and propositions as “there are universals” or “supernatural beings exist” apart from their social value. This means that, in the absence of any other source of reliable information, belief in gods is contrary to evolved cognition and so there is a defeater, in Plantinga’s terminology, for theism, not atheism. Plantinga writes:

The traditional theist, on the other hand, isn’t forced into that appalling loop. On this point his set of beliefs is stable. He has no corresponding reason for doubting that it is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs, nor any reason for thinking that P(R/(N&E&C)) is low, nor any reason for thinking the probability of a belief’sbeing true, given that it is a product of his cognitive faculties, is no better than in the neighborhood of 1?2. He may indeed endorse some form of evolution; but if he does, it will be a form of evolution guided and orchestrated by God. And qua traditional theist —qua Jewish, Moslem, or Christian theist—he believes that God is the premier knower and has created us human beings in his image, an important part of which involves his endowing them with a reflection of his powers as a knower.

This is simple assertion, a form of special pleading. Why isn’t the theist who accepts evolution forced into the same views as the atheist? Evolution doesn’t happen differently if God exists than if he doesn’t, from the evolutionary science point of view. If cognitive functions evolved by natural selection and other unguided processes when God exists, then our cognitive faculties are just as unreliable as when he does exist. The final sentence indicates that Plantinga thinks one cannot believe we are the product of evolution by unguided processes at all. So he is, in the end, rejecting evolutionary biology. I may have misread the structure of his argument, but I don’t believe I misread the intent.

1. Plantinga, Alvin. 1993. Is Naturalism Irrational? in Warrant and Proper Function. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Griffiths, Paul  E, and John S. Wilkins. In Press. When do evolutionary explanations of belief debunk belief? In Darwin in the 21st Century: Nature, Humanity, and God, edited by P. R. Sloan. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press.


3. Wilkins, John S., and Paul E. Griffiths. In Press. Evolutionary debunking arguments in three domains: Fact, value, and religion. In A New Science of Religion, edited by J. Maclaurin and G. Dawes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4.Wilkins, John S. 2012. Could God create Darwinian accidents? Zygon 47 (1):30-42.


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    Crucial to both arguments is the estimation of the value of a certain conditional probability, P(R/(S&E&C)), where (roughly) R is the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable, S is metaphysical spiritualism, E is the proposition that our cognitive faculties were provided for a purpose decided by a god/gods , and C is a complex proposition stating what cognitive faculties we have and what sorts of beliefs they produce.

    Now when you consider that S must be very large (because of the huge number of different beliefs, religions, and non-natural entities such as ghosts, faeries, imps, sprites, dryads, etc.) then P must be very small…

    P1. If faith is true our cognitive faculties were given to us (we have modified god brains for god’s purpose)
    P2. Our cognitive faculties (modified god brains) do not give a high probability for our beliefs
    P3. Our positive theist (“spiritual”) beliefs that gods exist is the output of modified god brains
    C1. Therefore our beliefs that gods exist are unreliable and should be rejected
    C2. Therefore we should reject positive theism (“spiritual beliefs”)

    Or did I misunderstand the inverse of Plantinga’s argument?

  2. I don’t see that this way of motivating the metaphysical/empirical distinction ends up making any sense at all. If I see a lion and believe,

    [A] There’s a mammal of the species Felix leonis; if it catches me, it will kill me!

    This is obviously the kind of thing that has fitness value. But so does, in exactly the same circumstances:

    [B] There’s the Great God Jabango in one of his myriad manifestations, who will send me to the underworld if he catches me!

    The reason is that they structurally link the empirical situation — something that looks/sounds/etc. like this — with a behavior motivator — something to be avoided or accepted — in structurally similar ways. So belief the Great God Jabango, who shows up in these shapes and kills people, ends up being an empirical belief on this account. And and anthropologically constructions like [B] are extraordinarily common, and all of them weirdly end up being empirical beliefs. You can, after all, point to the Great God Jabango, and it will indeed be bad for you if he catches you.

    Likewise, just based on what you’ve said here, and what you’ve briefly said in the past about your paper with Griffiths, we get some weirdness on the metaphysical side as well. Since metaphysical beliefs are on this account any belief that has no survival value beyond its social value, virtually all beliefs about human society, and many about human biology, end up as metaphysical beliefs. It would seem that my name is Brandon; that “Snow is white” is a sentence in the English language; that this person is a biologist studying evolutionary theory; that I have a sister who works at a university; that Hume lived in the eighteenth century; that Jane Austen wrote novels; that anything happened in the Roman Empire, or that there was even a Roman Empire; that Charles Darwin isn’t a made-up character that the Victorians foisted on the world as a practical joke; that the pointy piece in chess is called a bishop and that trying to move it onto a square of different color might make a chessplayer angry at you; that there is any such thing as chess at all; that philosophers ask questions and make arguments; etc. No beliefs of these general kinds have any identifiable survival value beyond the social. What is more, there seem to be scientific claims that have no identifiable fitness value: for instance, that there is a galaxy, called by astronomers the Andromeda galaxy, that is 2.6 million light-years away, or that we did not evolve from dolphins over the course of a billion years. In terms of anything that has ever been relevant to our biological survival, that’s as arcane as anything can get; primates survive just fine without thinking that the universe is anywhere near that large or that there is any sense to be made of distances or time periods that big.

    • Suppose I have two beliefs:

      L: that is a lion
      G: that is the Great God Jabango (GGJ)

      On the basis of many observations I come to associate L with a host of properties about lions. I make inferences based upon those properties (they eat meat, have sharp claws, hunt in packs, hide well, smell like that) and as a result, I survive.

      Now, suppose I adopt G. I may think the properties of the GGJ are that he likes honey and flowers, will stop assaulting me if I pray, and so forth. The empirical effects of the two beliefs are wildly different. Over time, I may make G much more like L. I would then say that GGJ has become a synonym of “lion”, and so all we are disputing is the name.

      A belief is not a proposition, but also all the inferences one can make from it. So to have false beliefs will license bad inferences and lower fitness, so they are not evolutionarily equivalent.

      As to your second point, I am not supposing that social beliefs are metaphysical, but that metaphysical beliefs are deflatable to social beliefs in terms of truth value. You are affirming my consequent. I say that metaphysical beliefs are just a form of social belief (about what other humans think). It may be that we have reason to think they are true in other ways (most elegant, etc.) but I fail to see how they could in the slightest sense be thought of as empirical. Metaphysics is a language game.

      And scientific beliefs always (potentially) have ecological differences (in the right environment they will be reliable). Untestable beliefs like the string theoretic account of fundamental physics are challenged precisely because they do not (so far as we know). The point is not whether it supports our survival now but whether such beliefs increase our fitness.

      As I have often argued, science is its own evolutionary process. It accrues beliefs that are fit in the scientific context. But the reason why the practice of science persists is entirely about fitnesses, of social institutions, nations, societies and their members. If you doubt that, ask about the survival rates of people around 600 years ago compared to now. Ask about trade distances of food. Ask about the population densities that could be supported before science and its technological implementation. Science is a form of niche construction, which humans and other animals have done for a very long time.

      • So if it’s a dispute about names — and every statement about lions can be translated into a statement about the Great God Jabango — it’s as right or wrong to say that something is the Great God Jabango who will harm you as to say that it is a lion that will harm you; certainly fitness value can’t tell them apart, and since in terms of truth value they are names for the empirically indistinguishable, and there is no reliable way of distinguishing them metaphysically, we would have to treat the following as a contradiction: “This is a big cat empirically describable in terms of features {F}, not the Great God Jabango”. I see why you like this approach; it means that agnosticism is automatically our only possible position, because there ends up being no empirical way to prove on the basis of reliable cognition that either atheism or theism is true; they can both point to exactly the same world and in such a case it’s impossible to distinguish them. While I don’t agree with it, I like it; Hume has Philo argue that at one point. But at the same time, it would seem that we have no way of saying Berkeley’s idealism, in which God as a cause arranges all our empirical experiences exactly as they occur to us, is wrong, and no way of saying it is right, because empirically it makes no difference; and it would therefore seem to follow that we have no way of affirming or denying naturalism, because affirming naturalism would seem to require denying outright that Berkeley’s idealism is right, because if naturalism is right we can’t all be pure minds in a story told by God — but we have no way of affirming that, since all empirical evidence is the same in both cases. That looks like a Wilkinsian EAAN. Where does it go wrong? Is it that the difference between Berkeleyan idealism and naturalism is just a verbal one? That would make it not an EAAN, but it would mean that being naturalistic is just playing a word game. That seems a Pyrrhic victory. Is there another route.

        This gets into the point about sense-data; on this account it seems that, if we go beyond just how things sensibly appear, we are in metaphysical territory — whether we call this a lion or one of the manifestations of the Great God Jabango is just a matter of linguistic convenience, and we are just using the terms to organize our sense-data into practically convenient constructions.

        I am not supposing that social beliefs are metaphysical, but that metaphysical beliefs are deflatable to social beliefs in terms of truth value.

        OK, then you aren’t defining metaphysical beliefs in terms of the claim that they have no value beyond the social; obviously, too, we can’t define metaphysical beliefs as beliefs that just turn out to be word games, because that would make your whole argument useless, since we would be unable to call “God exists” a metaphysical belief until we had independently established that talk about God was just a word game. That means we still need to know what metaphysical beliefs are, because you haven’t given any definition of them so that we know what’s going to count.

        I am utterly baffled by your potentiality argument. The only thing we can possibly be trying to do here is say how our actual evolutionary history relates to our actual cognitive capabilities. Things that don’t actually show up in our actual evolutionary history as relevant to survival and propagation by their very nature have had no effect whatsoever on the cognitive capabilities we actually do have. Thus the fact that something would have fitness value if, say, we had evolved on spaceships orbiting a black hole is absolutely useless for saying anything about which of our beliefs are truth-tracking.

        Moreover, you cannot help yourself to the claim that anything has potential fitness value (except for potential fitness values that are the same as the actual fitness values found in our actual evolutionary history) until you’ve established that beliefs about such potential fitness value could be reached by reliable cognitive capabilities we actually have. You run into a Humean problem here. That our cognitive capabilities are reliable beyond the limits of what has evolutionarily been required for survival and propagation cannot be established by any argument that can only establish the reliability of cognitive capabilities on the basis of what has evolutionarily been required for survival and propagation. It’s just special pleading.

        • Isa Kocher Isa Kocher

          if god can be reduced to a syllogism, you are not talking about god. any statement anybody anywhere makes about god has equal truth value. god is great god is a pizza god hates sinners all equal god loves sinners god is queer god is plural there is no god all equal in truth. thank god.

      • Isa Kocher Isa Kocher

        god by definition is outside beyond not bound by anything relevant to any kind of syllogism. so any discussion about god per se is irrational illogical absurd and a waste of time.

  3. Platinga must be a jiujitsu master given how he concluded that: if evolution is true then naturalism is false (or unlikely).

  4. If you doubt that, ask about the survival rates of people around 600 years ago compared to now. Ask about trade distances of food. Ask about the population densities that could be supported before science and its technological implementation.

    This seems to me to skate very close to Whiggism, in its tacit presumption that science will and must be wielded with an enlightened rationality.

    Is the differential survival rate (or population density) between 1400AD and 2000AD really all that fitness related? Do we have some sense that our species would been at great risk if it had not been for the scientific revolution? I see no evidence for this, and much to suggest the opposite. (We are perhaps more *efficient* at survival, now, but if anything this is an anti-Darwinian development, given his emphasis on the enormous waste naturally entailed by propagation.)

    It is because of science we now face a climate crisis. it is because of science we may be able to mitigate this crisis by changing our fuel use patterns. On which side of the fitness ledger should science then fall?

    More broadly, when it comes to Plantinga, I find a double standard in a number of the the critiques of his EAAN. It’s fine for Haldane to suggest the universe is “queerer than we can suppose.” It’s fine for Dawkins to speak of the illusion of the “Middle World” bequeathed us by our sensorium. You, John, have spoken here several times of von Uexkull’s concept of the Umwelt as the crucible of perception–all of which raise, while not specifically articulating, questions very similar to Plantinga’s. (You have written here that human perception begins “but does not end” in the primate Umwelt, though I have not seen you specify the mechanism we have employed to breach its boundaries.)

    This is meant to resonate with Brandon’s critique that you unduly dismiss metaphysical considerations. I agree with him that you seem to do this out of hand, and it seems especially strange to me given your own repeated evocation of Uexkullian biology which points directly to the problem. (It’s important here that von Uexhull specifically develops his ideas in relation to semiotics and language. This was not something tacked on by postmodernist usurpers.)

    At any rate I think it is useful here to check the presumption that pre-scientific humans, whose metaphysical beliefs were so divergent from our own, were any worse at survival (in a Darwinian or neo-Darwinian sense) than we are today. The historical record would, I think, beg to differ.

    • David Duffy David Duffy

      “(You have written here that human perception begins “but does not end” in the primate Umwelt, though I have not seen you specify the mechanism we have employed to breach its boundaries.)”

      I believe he alludes to it

      Bogen J, Woodward J. 1988. Saving the phenomena. The Philosophical Review 67 (3):303–352.

      Re fitness, I think you are mixing up different levels or definitions. At a Darwinian or genetic fitness level, a la number of grandchildren reaching reproductive age, it is fairly safe to argue that we are doing better on average. In terms of longer term species extinction probability, it is quite possible that the risk is now greater (technophiles might claim we have reduced the risk of extinction due to novel non-anthropogenic disease or asteroid strike, at least).

      • David: The problem I am getting at is that there is no “we” in Darwinian logic, or at least in orthodox neo-Darwinian (e.g. Dawkinsian) logic. There is only the success or failure of individual allelles in the gene pool. We cannot apply “science” to individual allelles; if science has an impact, it has such impact on society or civilization generally, which is to say without regard to individual allelles.

        Even in a group selectionist analysis, it is far from clear to me that “we” (the human species) has benefited (in a Darwinian sense) from the application of scientific knowledge or technology. We are more efficient at survival, perhaps, needing fewer offspring to prosper. But this in itself does not indicate improved fitness. Human population growth does not currently track to a level of scientific sophistication. The most advanced societies today (scientifically) are actually experiencing a zero or negative growth rate. There is no simple analysis I am aware of that can attribute human flourishing (in the Darwinian sense, not in any moral sense) to scientific principles. But even if there were, this analysis would still have to account for the paucity of group selectionist mechanisms in contemporary neo-Darwinian theory. If there is a confusion of levels of fitness here, I don’t think it is mine.

        If we want to advance the argument that science has enhanced human fitness either on a gene-selectionist level or a group selectionist level, we need to show our work. It is not sufficient to point to improved survival rates without a contextual analysis of comparative differential survival of groups or genes, which neither you or John have provided.

        Regarding the SciAm article y0u link to, JW writes there that modern phsyics rejects specifically Aristotlean metaphysics (hylomorphism), and so it does, but this is not the same as rejecting metaphysics itself, which I take to be Brandon’s point. (Or part of it). What John does not expand upon therein is the desideratum I refer to above: a mechanism for humans to transcend, in perception and thought, the Umwelt of their primate heritage. This is just another way of saying that either (a) some kind of metaphysics must bind even scientific thought, or (b) we must show the means through which scientific thought is a special case, unreliant upon prior conceptual schemes to convey its meaning. The positivists of the early 20th c. thought they had a solution to this problem, and were quickly shown to be mistaken. A century later we are still waiting for a satisfactory response, one which would certainly shake the ground beneath my feet, if no one else’s.

        • David Duffy David Duffy

          The problem I am getting at is that there is no “we” in Darwinian logic, or at least in orthodox neo-Darwinian (e.g. Dawkinsian) logic.

          No, we can in fact talk about fitness of a culturally acquired phenotype, just google “fitness culturally transmitted phenotype”. Fitness is at the level of the organism, and specific alleles make a (generally small) contribution to a total which is a property of organism + environment. All populations meet limits to growth, and the point of intelligence is to not have to rely on the four horsemen. Population growth worldwide is a consequence of scientific improvements with a slower rate of cultural change.

          re scientific thought is a special case and metaphysics, my simple-minded impression is that science uses the smallest amount of metaphysics needed to do what it does; equivalently that scientific knowledge is metaphysics-invariant as much as possible.

        • David, let me grant that I agree that in theory, we could perhaps apply conditions across the board that could–in theory–improve the fitness of everyone they were applied to. Maybe giving everyone wings, or the ability to photosynthesize. My question is, is “science” such a condition? It’s flattering to think so, but the evidence isn’t really there. We can’t simply point to increased population densities for at least two reasons I can think of off the top of my head: first, any connection between science and population growth is strictly coincidental until we can quantify the relationship between the two. Second, population densities in the most advanced societies have a zero or negative growth rate–so if this is our rubric, the hypothesis is already falsified.

          I should add that there are ways to be “fit” that are nothing to be proud of, whether or not they have anything to do with science. In the settlement of the Americas, for instance, we can attribute the rubbing out of the aboriginal peoples to, in part, the advanced military technology of the Europeans. But we also have to assign an important role to ruthlessness and homicidal mania. Killing off bison at close to the extinction point just to destroy the livelihood of the Plains Indians was made possible by science (trains, rifles) but it was not an act of science–it was not inevitable given the scientific knowledge of the day; it was rather a moral decision. In many cases, especially in New Spain, we can look to religious motivations for the destruction of entire tribes who would not conform to the ethical precepts of the conquerors. Again, these were moral decisions, not inevitable outcomes based on a scientific or technological disparity between two cultures.

          The point I return to, if it needs spelling out, is that science is not intrinsically fitness-enhancing in large part because it is employed at all times by moral agents. This is where your word “intelligence” comes in handy. Intelligence, or rationality, is a much larger concern than the mere aggregate of empirical and technological discovery. It includes the important distinction between “can we?” and “should we?”. This is what motivates my objection to John’s statement, and my characterization of it as Whiggish–which it is.

          My simple-minded impression is that science uses the smallest amount of metaphysics needed to do what it does; equivalently that scientific knowledge is metaphysics-invariant as much as possible.

          You’re right, that is simple-minded. Metaphysics, by its very nature, does not come in “amounts.” Again, this is a very Positivistic view, that metaphysics is something that can be weaned from or cast aside. Nobody likes it when sociology is turned on themselves; we all tend to think of our baseline beliefs as value-neutral–but to succumb to this bias would hardly be the scientific approach, would it?

  5. Isa Kocher Isa Kocher

    was this written as a joke, a parody, or are people really that stupid. given that we have santorum running for president, i guess empirically people are that stupid. but, for example, in 1970, nobody imagined computers bringing forth facebook. evolution does not determine outcomes. at any moment the outcome is unknown and unknowable. 15 billion years ago no one could have predicted the existence of Akron Ohio. to think so is absurd. whatever capabilities the human brain has is an outcome. unpredictable as it is however the fact is that the human brain is one outcome of the process of primate brain evolution. no one can give any reason beyond empty speculation that what happened is anything other than what happened as improbable as it seems. santorum is running for president.

    as god has no form no quality no limit no substance no presence and no absence any discussion of god is irrational meaningless and absurd. belief disbelief agnosticism sketicism all equally absurd. it is a matter of choice preference taste and character. what you choose or don’t choose regarding god is personal. an outcome determined by your own working out of self. of no interest beyond any other preference you have for say vanilla, Joy or Florida Water, miso soup, or miniature golf. I like the boy across the street myself.

  6. Isa Kocher Isa Kocher

    who is a greater athlete, babe zaharias or pele. which champion surfer surfed the best wave. what candy bar is the most memorable. who is a bigger dick head, my older brother or my next door neighbors. this discussion is a bar argument. not thought.

    • Isa Kocher Isa Kocher

      this isn’t philosophy or science, it’s BBQ Beef Jerky, chewed on too long.

  7. Jeb Jeb

    I have to lower the tone, but this one does make me laugh and its not utterly off topic. The social transformation that potentially awaits any non- empirical belief we may hold.

    This one morphs utterly in meaning to survive and now seeks to demonstrate the stupidity of my ancestral Island homeland. I heard the modern version first with no idea of its origin before straying across it’s origin by chance.

    Mick and Paddy are walking through the jungle when Mick spots a lion, he picks up a rock, throws it at the lion, hits him full in the face, and shouts “quick paddy run.”

    Paddy replies “sure I’m not running it was you that threw the rock”

    Paddy it turns out is not simply stupid and utterly irrational, he is a living cultural relic; an example of old school, renaissance culture and learning. The lion for Paddy is filled with meaning, an embodiment of virtue, a demonstration of the wonder of creation and creator. His faith is somewhat misplaced and he is about to become the victim of a fable that is not fit for life in the jungle and set to become a tasty lion snack.

    “The lion is never afraid, but rather, with a bold spirit in fiery combat with a multitude of hunters, always seeks to injure the first one who injures him”

    epigraph; Leonardo da Vinci

  8. Jeb Jeb

    This thing only holds it’s form as a joke if you are utterly ignorant of context. Bit like laughing or scoffing at philosophical ideas I think. Does not make things any more truthful when context is understood but humor works in unusual ways, what makes you laugh may say something foolish about you.
    The stereotypical fool becomes stereotypical genius and the audience in it’s laughter becomes the clown. Upside down world of the fool is always a funny place.

  9. Raving Raving

    Metaphysical belief: ‘disinterested agnostic’

    Don’t consider the question interesting (not condense) and push back at being forced to decide and answer.

    Not undecidable, rather deciding not to go there

  10. Vladimir Vladimir

    I think that EAAN generally fails irrespective of whether it refers to metaphysical, environmental or any other beliefs. Actually, when Plantinga formulates his argument he writes about evolution of our “cognitive faculties” and then switches to reliability of “content/beliefs”. What are these faculties? While there are many definitions of intelligence, let’s for the sake of simplicity define memory, ability of identifying similar/dissimilar, ability of perceiving temporal occurrence (i.e., identifying what happened first and what next) and ability to perform basic logical operations as sufficient faculties to produce significant “content”. Then content is the product of application of the “faculties” to an “input”. Clearly, an individuum totally deprived of any sensory input right from the beginning of his/her life cannot produce any significant reliable content even if he/she is an absolute genius. Consequently, the reliability of the content crucially depends on reliability of the faculties AND reliability of the input. The whole discussion of EAAN totally lacks this notion of the necessity of the reliable input!
    The evolutionary survival benefit of the aforementioned faculties given regular environmental input is absolutely clear, IF it is applied to the reliable sensory input. As our sensory organs also evolved together with cognitive faculties, they should in general reliably depict the environment in order to be preserved during evolution.
    Obviously, there are many cases where our sensory organs/faculties fail to produce reliable content due to their physical imprecision (visual illusions just to mention a few). However, on average we do have quite a reliable picture of the environment.
    As our cognitive faculties became more and more sophisticated, we are able to analyze inputs with less and less direct connection to the immediate environment. Notably, we use EXACTLY the same faculties, but the INPUT is much less reliable! Our beliefs/content regarding existence of life somewhere in Andromeda galaxy is nearly totally unreliable despite great cognitive faculties of the leading world astronomers and cosmologists simply because of lack of sufficient resolution of our telescopes.
    So, the probability of our cognitive faculties to evolve naturally is quite high IN CONJUNCTION with reliable sensory organs, as this combination produces reliable image of the reality and therefore provides clear survival benefit. But, application of the same faculties to totally unreliable input (i.e., lacking clear rooting in the measurable and observable environment) leads to unreliable beliefs.
    As we start to discuss metaphysical entities such as “God”, “eternity”, “an ultimate cause”, “Holy Spirit”, “soul” etc., we definitely enter an ephemeral realm which does not have any connection with our observable environment, so it is absolutely non surprising that even the best cognitive faculties (such as those of Dr Plantinga, who definitely has a great intellect) produce totally unreliable content.
    To summarize, unreliable input (be it purely metaphysical axioms or purely physical visual illusion) produces unreliable content despite application of reliable, generally survival-benefiting and evolutionary-acquired cognitive faculties.
    We should simply avoid any attempt to connect this unreliable content to our scientific endeavor.
    The question may be raised why during the evolution this ability to produce unreliable content from unreliable input appeared at all? My answer will be that this is a survival-neutral by-product of survival-benefiting traits (memory, logical abilities, etc.). We also can scrap our left ear with right hand while simultaneously whistling, jumping on the left leg and staring in the sky. This activity has absolutely no survival benefit (exactly as metaphysics), but it will be absurd to ascribe our ability to perform this very complicated task to some divine purposeful design.

  11. Pierce R. Butler Pierce R. Butler

    Every once in a while I run across an argument from Plantinga, and each time I try to remember it because he’s a Big Name, but all I end up recalling later is [various blatant fallacies].

    This time maybe I’ll retain a little more in the way of specifics, such as dualism/false dichotomy, strawmanning, and exploitation of ambiguous meaning. Or maybe it would be easier to try memorizing a short list of fallacies not employed.

    AP here relies heavily on the word “belief”, and merrily skips among various loosely-connected concepts as if brains were purely belief machines outputting behavior. He’d do better to think of minds as modeling systems, starting with (say) how a fish remembers to stay concealed after dodging behind a rock when a predator approaches, and how the predator decides to look behind those rocks where that little fish was a second ago. This leads to cognitive mechanisms, a significantly more sophisticated approach than AP’s crude Skinnerism.

    A modeling system, aka a mind, provides a spectrum of possibilities, not just a true/false “belief” percept. It can (and under Darwinian conditions, must) continually refine its product, leading to some fairly elaborate structures – particularly when its powers of generalization result in abstractions (not just “lion” but “danger”; not just “me and the alpha” but “status”; …).

    Our thought processes are primarily based on our evolutionary past, which is to say that we think primarily by association – knowing that the bug with a red shell tastes bad is quite good enough for daily jungle life. Needing – in large part due to social demands, beyond the pursuit of eating/not-being-eaten – a modeling system capable of creating and choosing among multiple contingencies, each with numerous potential ramifications, human frontal cortices function at a level where both induction and deduction occur without effort. Language (another modeling operation), for all its flaws, enables such processes to be shared and further refined … and the rest is history.

    For poor Prof. Plantinga to lump such sophisticated activities under the crude rubric of “beliefs”, implicitly simplistic and inflexible, indicates such failure of modeling mechanisms that I suspect his own may call for clinical diagnosis. I fear that the field of philosophy may associate prolix jargon with profundity to its own detriment – just how did this guy get to claim alpha status?

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