Friday, 25 October 2013

Planting a Swiss Army Knife

It is vaguely possible that there are people who don’t know what a Swiss Army knife is.  Fortunately these sorts of people are evolutionary dead ends, so we don’t need to worry about them.

Plantinga has, along with Humble Don and the Shaved Chimp and many other apologists, tried to argue something along these lines:

Proper function of the heart is the pumping blood around the body.

If the heart fails to pump blood around the body, the owner of the said heart dies.

However, proper function implies conformance with specifications, which in turn implies a designer.

Therefore, god exists, or you die of heart failure … your choice.

Ironically, Plantinga had a triple bypass operation earlier this year (discovered when trying to find his quote using the string “Plantinga and the heart”).  Thank god for those surgeons, eh?

The idea behind this argument is that the human heart (or whatever human organ you want to use) does a particular job, and apparently does it exceptionally well.  Without it we would die – unless science stepped in.  But if you are going to argue along evolutionary lines, what did the heart do before it pumped blood?  How did it get from there to where it is today?

This is sort of where the argument of “irreducible complexity” tries to get purchase.  One can understand how a heart might scale up along with the owners.  A small shrew-like mammal precursor would not need the half-kilo heart that humans carry around with them.

However, there comes a point where there are simply not enough cells in a heart to support any pumping at all.  In the “irreducible complexity” argument there is a gap between a few cells joining up together and not doing anything particularly important, and a quite large number of cells being assembled with the express purpose of pumping (the smallest known mammal has a heart which weighs about 15mg which comprises in the order of half a billion cells).  People like Plantinga try to slot god into this gap.

A problem with this argument (apart from the fact that the mammalian precursor had a lineage which included smaller creatures with smaller heart like structures – for example insects, the smallest known of which is 0.139mm long) is that it assumes a continuity of function.  Nature doesn’t seem to consider itself thus constrained.  For example, scales and feathers and fur are variants of the same basic thing, petals and leaves and thorns are variants of the same thing.  Plants didn’t specifically develop “pointy things to dissuade grazing animals”, they simply co-opted and perfected pointier than average leaves.  (Don’t take this too literally – there was no Supreme Council of Plants with a 1,000 Year Plan to develop thorns.)

The problem comes in when you assume design and you assume that a function that you are bright enough to recognise must have been designed in (and you’re not overly bright).  This is understandable, to a certain extent, in a technological society like ours.  Everything is designed with function in mind (and somewhere close to half of the population are of below average intelligence – not my readers of course, you are all brilliant).

However, getting back on track … I draw your attention to the Swiss Army knife.  This is a perfect example of something specifically designed for one purpose being co-opted for another.

My variant of the Swiss Army knife has a number of goodies:

two sharp blades – occasionally used

              (when I can’t be bothered getting a proper knife)

two screwdrivers – occasionally used

              (when I can’t be bothered getting my screwdriver set)

a corkscrew – never used (I have better corkscrews around)

a fish-scaler – never used

a helping you to tie fishing line thingie – never used

a thingie for getting stones out of horses hooves (I assume) – never used

a can opener – never used

a toothpick – lost and never used

a tiny pair or tweezers – never used

a little pair of grips – occasionally used

              (when I can’t be bothered getting my socket set)

solid construction (ie a hammer) – occasionally used

              (when I can’t be bothered getting anything more hammer-like)

a lovely pair of scissors – used all the freaking time to cut my nails

In terms of evolution, the Swiss Army knife is in a transitional state between being something which does various things not particularly well into a magnificent device that appears to be designed specifically for cutting nails.  Nothing cuts nails better.

Now, I am pretty sure that the gnomes in Switzerland are not designing towards a perfect pair of nail scissors.  They are just churning out variants of their product, trying to maximise sales.  All that has happened is that I, representing natural selection, have favoured a variant of the Swiss Army knife which performs a key task well.  If the vast majority of Swiss Army knife buyers, like me, purchase them primarily to cut their nails, and a later design change eliminates that function, the Swiss Army knife will die out.  If a later design change maintains the heft of the Swiss Army knife and the scissors but removes unnecessary stuff like the fish-scaler and thus improves its attractiveness on price, then it will become more popular at the expense of more awkward variants.

I suggest that the same thing happened with the heart.  A bunch of cells were already huddled together with some other goal in mind, or even a range of goals, (entirely metaphorically, cells don’t huddle and they don’t have intentions) before being co-opted into the pumping blood malarkey.  

(Similarly, at a much smaller scale, the supposed “irreducible complexity” involved in the inner workings of a cell would also have involved the co-opting of an existing function.)

So, as a last word, if something that was specifically designed for a purpose, like the Swiss Army knife being designed to deprive tourists of their hard-earned Euros, can be co-opted for another purpose, like cutting my toe-nails, then it is surely not too much of a stretch to think that non-directed “design” could co-opt existing structures and modify them to suit a new purpose.  Is it?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Moral Ontology and Moral Epistemology

Earlier in the year, I was entertaining myself at the Reasonable Faith forums.  A thread which attracted some minor interest for a short while was one on William Lane Craig’s moral argument.

In summary, I linked When Morality Arguments Are Bad and asked if anyone was convinced by Craig on this point.  What followed was a lot of jiggery-pokery concerning various definitions of “objective morality”.  Most of my interaction was with a chap called LNC.  (I assume masculinity due to aggressive stupidity and total lack of conciliation on his part.)

We had some minor skirmishes over various axes of morality, but an issue that LNC returned to a few times was the distinction between “moral ontology” and “moral epistemology”, in both a strand with myself and with another visitor to the forums, Jabberwock.

(sub-strand 1) I think the problem with your article in relation to this argument is: First, it confuses the grounding of morality (ontology) with applied morality (epistemology) ...

(sub-strand 1) Well, I’m glad that Christians seem to be thinking about these issues, but it is not a theistic concept. Moral ontology simply deals with the metaphysics of morality. You can find plenty of discussion on the topic at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. However, it is a philosophical term, not necessarily a theistic term. And no, I didn’t mean “some special Christian interpretation of moral epistemology.” I just meant, moral epistemology.
(sub-strand 2) Here, I believe, you are confusing two arguments. The first is the metaphysical basis of morality or what is known as moral ontology; the second is how we know what is or isn't moral, that is moral epistemology.

Also, Christians don't believe that memory is a basis for morality. Sure, memory is used in our reasoning about morality, but that is not a basis for morality. Again, this confuses ontology and epistemology.


I believe you are confusing the issues of ontology and epistemology again.

(sub-strand 2) You are confusing moral ontology and moral epistemology again. Please keep the arguments straight. Applied ethics is different from the grounding of ethics. Just because some people get morality wrong does not mean that moral facts don’t exist. The same is true for science. Just because scientists in the past had wrong ideas about how the world works, doesn’t mean that there are not facts about how the world works.

Investigation time!

I did point out to LNC that he was not using standard definitions of ontology and epistemology in his first mention of them:

ontology - the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations
epistemology - the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge - if you look up "moral epistemology" you get directed to "meta-ethics" this is not about "applied morality".
… when I look up "moral ontology", I see a lot of Christian sites - it seems to be a particularly theistic usage, one which seems to assume moral realism, since the "existence" of morality is intertwined with its "reality". I think, therefore, that you meant "moral ontology" and some special Christian interpretation of "moral epistemology".

As indicated above, LNC responded by saying that “(m)oral ontology simply deals with the metaphysics of morality”.

According to Wikipedia, metaphysics is:

Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. <snip> The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, e.g., existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility. A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into the basic categories of being and how they relate to each other. Another central branch of metaphysics is cosmology, the study of the totality of all phenomena within the universe.

Given that I am not totally convinced by this, I looked further, given that LNC suggested taking a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  While both have entries on “moral epistemology”, neither has an entry on “moral ontology”, although the IEP’s entry on “moral epistemology” includes one of two uses of term “moral ontology” (the other being in the title of a referred document).  The SEP only mentions “moral ontology” three times, once in a quotation, once in the title of a referred document and once in an article on deontology.  There is, however, an inferred reference to moral ontology in SEP’s “moral epistemology” article (noted below).

SEP: Deontological theories are normative theories. They do not presuppose any particular position on moral ontology or on moral epistemology.

IEP: moral ontology, the study of what sort(s) of reality underwrites the truth or reasonableness of moral claims or attitudes.

SEP: Moral epistemologyHow is moral knowledge possible? This question is central in moral epistemology and marks a cluster of problems … :

·         Sociological …

·         Psychological …

·         Ontological: Moral knowledge is about moral reality. How is that reality constituted? Three general possibilities present themselves. (a) Moral reality might be theological in nature, pertaining to (say) the will of God. (b) It might be a non-natural realm that is neither theological nor natural, but sui generis. (c) It might be comprehensible as a part of the natural world studied by science. Each of these possibilities, however, is beset with difficulties, and no viable fourth alternative has been conceived.

·         Evolutionary …

·         Methodological …

·         Moral …

IEP: Moral epistemology – Can we ever know that it’s wrong to torture innocent children? More generally, can we ever know, or at least have some justification for believing, whether anything is morally right or wrong, just or unjust, virtuous or vicious, noble or base, good or bad? Most of us make moral judgments every day; so most of us would like to think so. But how is such knowledge, or justification, possible? We do not seem to simply perceive moral truth, as we perceive the truth that there is a computer screen before us. We do not seem to simply understand it, as we understand that all roosters are male. And we do not seem to simply feel it, as we feel a bit hungry right now. Moral epistemology explores this problem about knowledge and justification.

So, in summary, having synthesised the definitions above:

moral ontology does relate to moral realism, as I suspected, and

moral epistemology is about how we might have and justify moral knowledge.

This doesn’t seem to link particularly well to LNC’s claims, at least with relation to the latter:

grounding of morality (LNC’s definition of moral ontology)

applied morality (LNC’s definition of moral epistemology)

So we move on, or rather backwards.

The whole discussion centred on an argument raised by Craig.  Craig did not, in his debates with Sam Harris or Stephen Law, get into discussions on moral ontology and moral epistemology.  He did say, however, in his debate with Harris:

Here Dr. Harris didn’t have anything by way of disagreement to say, but I do want to clear up a possible confusion. He represented this by saying that if religion were not true, then words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” would have no meaning. I’m not maintaining that. That is to confuse moral ontology with moral semantics. Moral ontology asks, “What is the foundation of objective moral values and duties?” Moral semantics asks, “What is the meaning of moral terms?” And I am not making any kind of semantical claim tonight that “good” means something like “commanded by God”. Rather, my concern is moral ontology: What is the ground, or foundation, of moral values and duties?

This seems to match quite well with LNC’s words, and with IEP’s definition of moral ontology: “what sort of reality underwrites the truth or reasonableness of moral claims or attitudes?”  That is, so long as a question is involved, rather than an answer.

Craig does get into the distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology at  This is an interesting little article in a couple of ways.  Firstly, the person posing the question talks of “wiggling out of this one” – this is odd terminology for someone who is presenting an apologetic argument (although I can imagine it being used by someone describing an apologetic argument).

Secondly, Craig himself writes:

I’m convinced that keeping the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology clear is the most important task in formulating and defending a moral argument for God’s existence of the type I defend.

This indicates a weakness in the argument, one that Craig appears to recognise, and leads one to suspect that the argument is little more than fancy word play.

Thirdly, Craig uses an image from Moral Skepticism and Justification, supposedly for the purposes of showing that Moral Ontology and Moral Epistemology are distinct.

So far so good, but when we look at the surrounding text, what do Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons have to say?

In order to better understand the field of moral epistemology, it is useful to locate it within the larger territory of moral theory. Any division of moral theory is bound to be controversial, but some framework can help in comparing various views. For this purpose, moral theory is often divided, first, into substantive ethics and meta-ethics.


Metaethics also includes moral ontology, which asks about the metaphysical status of moral properties and facts, if any.


Moral epistemology is yet another area of meta-ethics. Moral epistemologists study justification and knowledge of substantive moral claims and beliefs.  Of course, one cannot determine whether a claim is justified or known to be true if one has no idea what that claim means, so moral epistemology depends in some ways on moral semantics.  It also depends on moral ontology and on the definition of morality. Nonetheless, moral epistemology differs from other areas of meta-ethics in that it focuses directly on justification and knowledge of morality and brings in other theories only insofar as they are relevant to these central concerns.


Moral epistemology is simply epistemology applied to substantive moral claims and beliefs. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justification in general.  It asks whether, when, and how claims or beliefs can be justified or known or shown to be true. Moral epistemology then asks whether, when, and how substantive moral beliefs and claims can be justified or known or shown to be true.

So, in Craig’s source, moral ontology involves questions on the metaphysical status of moral claims without any presumption of moral realism (since the caveat “if any” is used) and moral epistemology asks about how moral beliefs and claims may be known and justified, which aligns with what SEP and IEP tell us.

But what did Craig himself have to say?

The claim that moral values and duties are rooted in God is a Meta-Ethical claim about Moral Ontology, not about Moral Linguistics or Epistemology. It is fundamentally a claim about the objective status of moral properties, not a claim about the meaning of moral sentences or about the justification or knowledge of moral principles.


The salient point is that God’s commands constitute our moral duties. That is a claim of moral ontology. How we come to know our moral duties is a matter of moral epistemology and is irrelevant to the argument. There’s nothing to wriggle out of.

Well, ok.  I’ll quibble about the words, since I think that Craig is the person making an ontological claim about morality.  Alternatively, Craig is the person making a claim which may be considered under the broader topic of moral ontology.  However, either way, Craig is simply wrong if he thinks he can make an ontological claim and then ignore epistemology.  He has to justify his claim.

Craig would, of course, argue that I’ve missed the point.

He would do so by saying that in the second sentence in the quote above, he is talking about specific moral duties, for example “Thou shalt not rape” (an example that Craig raises in his debate with Harris).  How we come to know that rape is “really wrong” is a question of moral epistemology.

That’s correct.  But it’s not what I am saying, so in this Craig would have missed the point – or perhaps more accurately, he would have been doing some Olympics-grade wriggling.

The epistemology that Craig is trying desperately to avoid is associated with his ontological claim that “God’s commands constitute our moral duties”.  How does Craig know that?  How does Craig justify that particular claim?

The point is that so long as that claim is not justified, Craig cannot use the associated claim that “moral values and duties are rooted in God” (or, per his debates, “if God did not exist, (then) objective moral values and duties would not exist”) to prove the existence of his god.

So, for once, I have to agree with Craig.  It is very important for his argument that moral epistemology is avoided – because when moral epistemology is not avoided his argument fails.

When he does avoid moral epistemology, on the other hand, his argument is merely trivial.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Other Euthanasia Issue

Okay, there’s been some discussion about euthanasia recently.  I know that euthanasia was selected as an example of a thorny issue and Lokee’s article wasn’t intended to be limited to that topic.  That said, however, the consequent discussion (largely at r/philosophy) focussed on the specific rather than the general.

A question that arose in my mind was whether those responding negatively to the idea of legalised euthanasia are also against legalised suicide.

Suicide is has been decriminalised in most nations although it is illegal (and punishable!) in North Korea.  Attempted suicide is punishable in both Singapore and India and, in Russia, it may result in one being taking into psychiatric care.

To make things easy on ourselves, let’s consider only the larger of the western English speaking nations – the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.  In all these nations, suicide is legal while assisted suicide is (perhaps only briefly) legal in only Canada.

In general, it’s not a crime to assist someone do perform an act that is legal.  The legislation of these nations, however, makes a special case for suicide – even in Canada where the current legality of assisted suicide is due to a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the relevant legislation.

But that’s just the law.  So long as all the necessary boxes are ticked, legislative bodies can make anything illegal – here are a couple of random examples:  (1) In Maryborough, Massachusetts, you may not shoot a Welsh person on Sunday with a longbow in the Cathedral Close (personally, my preference is for a crossbow anyway, so this law is unlikely to affect me), and (2) in Palm Bay Florida, women may not wear pants (one wonders whether there was a deliberate decision to not use the word “trousers”).

Right, let’s get back to the more serious topic of suicide.

As far as I can tell suicide is legal in all the nations being considered, and it's not illegal in any of the countries, states or provinces that make up those nations.  It is vaguely possible that some cities in the US have misdemeanour laws against it.

Before I reach the point I want to make, I need to clarify that I am talking only about successful and seriously intended suicide.  Threatening to commit suicide is a tricky issue, since some people are at risk of following through on the threat, while others who make such threats are little more than a nuisance.  People who threaten to commit suicide should be taken seriously and, preferably, into care.  However, in the rare case that malign intent can be satisfactorily demonstrated, I have no issue with a person who maliciously threatens to commit suicide being punished by the law.  It is reasonable to expect that concern for the well-being of others should not be abused in this way.

Imagine then that a person is serious in their intent to commit suicide.  They make their plans in secret, in order to avoid causing legal problems for any loved ones, and follow those plans through to success – unassisted.  No law has been broken, but what are the consequences?

In an ideal case, the suicide would use a clean method of departure and someone would find the body just after it has gone cold – beyond the point at which resuscitation is possible but before the corpse has begun to decompose.  A thoughtful suicide could even organise the recovery of mortal remains in good time – perhaps via a scheduled email or the delivery of a letter at an appropriate time.

However, this is an ideal case.  There are just so many elements of a plan which may go awry.  Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 1992 to 2002 tell us that of the 26,500 recorded suicides, poisoning by drugs was only used in about 13% of cases.  Other forms of poisoning, including the use of other more serious poisons, alcohol and car exhaust, accounted for almost 23%.  Hanging and suffocation made up 36%, although this was steadily rising in popularity from 25% in 1992 to 45% in 2002.  Firearms and explosives had a reverse trend, 14% over all, 21% in 1992 and 9% in 2002.  The remaining 14% of suicides were due to drowning, cutting (slit wrists), jumping and “unspecified means”.

About 1000 people die each year on the roads, and it is reasonable to assume that a significant, if not necessarily large, proportion of single vehicle accidents are suicide.  Data for this does not seem to be recorded and it is unclear how many of “unspecified means” were car accidents.  Let’s assume no more than 50 undetected suicides a year over a period of 11 years to total about 27,000 suicides in that period.

Of these, maybe as many as 5,000 were potentially clean drug suicides, in which the body could have been found without an unpleasant mess to deal with.  But there were in the order of 20,000 messy suicides – 2000 a year, all of which had to be dealt with by someone.

And these messy suicides would also almost always have come as a shock.  Someone has to identify the corpse which, already a harrowing task, will be made worse by any visible signs of the suicide method.  Certain methods can result in a period of great uncertainty and suffering for loved ones, for example jumping from a cliff into the surf can result in the body being lost for extended periods, if not forever. A method not overly popular in Australia, but apparently more common in the US, is “suicide by cop” – a method which can potentially lead to suffering on a massive scale if the trigger for the officer-assisted suicide is the shooting of innocent bystanders (such as the Aramoana massacre in New Zealand).
Another form of unwitting assistance provided to a suicide arises when someone leaps in front of a train or other vehicle – a method which again can lead to widespread suffering, from the poor person in command of the train (or other vehicle) to those responsible for clearing up afterwards and any witnesses to the death as well as relatives and friends.

So … my question is, if a person is seriously intent on committing suicide, why do we insist that there be a high likelihood that the consequences of that suicide should be messy and devastating for those they leave behind by denying them the option of a better planned, assisted suicide?


Imagine for a moment, the idea that assisted suicide, euthanasia, was freely available to anyone who wished to avail themselves of it.  Clearly, some form of regulation would be required.  There would be a requirement to ensure that someone petitioning for their own demise should be fully cognisant of their decision (possibly in advance for those suffering comas or intellectual deterioration).

Legislating for regulated euthanasia, I believe, would actually lead to a reduction in the number of suicides.

If I were so inclined, and had the option of a clean, painless, organised suicide in a clinic that was obligated to inform my next of kin at a time of my choosing, I would surely prefer that to the more risky and potentially agonising option of swerving into an on-coming truck, or of jumping from a cliff, or shooting myself.  I would take myself off to the clinic and talk to someone – and it is at this stage that, I believe, a lot of suicides could be averted.

If I had the opportunity to discuss my options with someone properly trained in dealing with potential suicides, I would have to clarify my reasoning not only to that counsellor, but also to myself.  How many people, given the time to stop and think it through properly, would go through with a suicide?  Some, certainly, but quite probably a lot fewer than currently have to screw their courage to the sticking place and do the deed.

Such a regime would not help those who act impulsively, nor those who commit suicide out of shame, but it’s difficult to believe that the option of assisted suicide would not be a far better option for everyone involved.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Planting a Defeat

A while back, I got the following feedback on the article Planting a Tiger (I can’t help myself, so I’ve marked typos in red – I just feel so proud when I notice any typos myself rather than having others point them out to me):

Quote: neopolitan (reddit/r/atheism)

A person, on the other hand, who commences with a huge assumption and then brutally twists logic to form a disparate array of lesser assumptions into a bridge between the state of things as they are and the state one should expect if the initial huge assumption were true, is not a philosopher. He is what we refer to as an "apologist".

But both Craig and Plantinga would argue that they are seeking knowledge and understanding. They would argue that they are following the evidence where it leads and not shying away from reality. You can both be an apologist and a philosopher. It is one thing to say that they are wrong (maybe they are) but it is something completely else to say that they are deliberately twisting the truth and don't deserve the title of 'philosopher'.

The article's well written. Correct me if I'm wrong but the crux of your argument seems to be here:

Quote: neopolitan (Planting a Tiger)

Plantinga totally ignores that the scientific method takes into account the suggestion that, individually, our cognition is faulty but that this may be overcome if we don’t assume our beliefs to be true, we gather evidence to support or refute our beliefs, we have the intellectual courage to accept when evidence does refute our beliefs, we invite others to critically assess our evidence and our interpretations of that evidence where it seems to support our beliefs and we have the grace to accept that we were wrong if the evidence or interpretation is shown to be problematic.

What Plantinga tries to show is that the scientific method can't stand up to the same criteria by which it judges everything else. You said at the beginning of your article that scientists are 99.99999% sure before committing to the truth of a claim. Can scientists be 99.99999% sure that our cognitive abilities align with reality? If not, then what does that say about using science as a criterion for judging truth? If we are not 99.99999% sure that our cognitive abilities are reliable then doesn't science itself rest on an unfounded belief?

I was initially responding to a claim (by another redditor) that I had erred in bracketing the word “philosopher” with quotation marks when using that word in reference to Alvin Plantinga.  My contention, as my quote above indicates, is that Plantinga is not so much a philosopher as an apologist (and possibly theologian) despite his apparently impressive academic qualifications in philosophy.  (To address what might seem like a valid reason to call Plantinga a philosopher – and even Craig, for that matter – please see Draconic Philosophy.)

In Planting a Courted Controversy, I related what happened after I had actively sought feedback from the WLC Fan Club at the Reasonable Faith website.  In the conclusion to that article, I agreed that I had not provided a comprehensive argument against the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), which is what is being alluded to above with “If we are not 99.99999% sure that our cognitive abilities are reliable then doesn't science itself rest on an unfounded belief?”

Here then is my argument as to why the EAAN fails …


I’ll explain what the EAAN is, as best I can (generally using Plantinga’s words) and put in comments where necessary:

Step 1 – Develop the probability expression P(R|N&E)


R is the claim that our cognitive faculties are reliable,

N is metaphysical naturalism, including the claim that there is no God

E is the claim that our cognitive faculties are the product of evolution


P(R|N&E)  is the question “What is the probability of R if both N and E are true?”

Step 2 – Argue that P(R|N&E) is low

Since there is no reason to suppose that evolution unguided by God will favour reliable cognitive faculties (see Planting a Tiger for why he thinks this is the case), then P(R|N&E) is “relatively low, somewhat less than 1/2”.

Comment: This is an extraordinarily weak argument.  There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that animals with poor cognitive faculties will die out, this is particularly so if they are delicious – roasted dodo, anyone?

In reality, Plantinga’s argument falls down right here, he fails to provide a convincing argument as to why the beliefs of a human, if they were evolved, would be unlikely to be true.  His argument is so laughable that originally I didn’t think it needed more effort, but let’s continue ...

Step 3 – Argue that P(R|N&E) is inscrutable

Admit that “the argument for a low estimate for P(R|N&E) is pretty weak” and then claim that perhaps it is better to be agnostic with regard to this probability, on the grounds of it being “inscrutable; we just can’t tell what it is”.

Comment: This raises the question of why the argument was presented at all if it’s considered, even by Plantinga, as “pretty weak”.  Cynically, one could suggest that he does so in order that the “inscrutable argument” might appear less weak in comparison.  If that was the intent, it worked … by a narrow margin.

Step 4 – Argue that if P(R|N&E) is inscrutable, then P(R|N&E) is inscrutable

I’ll have to use Plantinga’s words here or it will sound like I am misrepresenting his argument (taken from his lecture notes):

Of course the argument for a low estimate of P(R/N&E) is pretty weak. In particular, our estimates of the various probabilities involved in estimating P(R/N&E) with respect to that hypothetical population (comment - a hypothetical population of creatures rather like ourselves on a planet similar to Earth … (that had) arisen by way of the selection processes endorsed by contemporary evolutionary thought as indicated in an earlier paragraph – ed.) were pretty shaky. So perhaps the right course here is simple agnosticism: that probability is inscrutable; we just can’t tell what it is. This also seems sensible.

What would then be the appropriate attitude towards R (specified to that hypothetical population)? Someone who accepts N&E and also believes that the proper attitude towards P(R/N&E) is one of agnosticism, clearly, has good reason for being agnostic about R as well.

But now suppose we again apply the same sort of reasoning to ourselves and our condition. Suppose we think N&E is true: we ourselves have evolved according to the mechanisms suggested by contemporary evolutionary theory, unguided and unorchestrated by God or anyone else. Suppose we think, furthermore, that there is no way to determine P(R/N&E) (specified to us). What would be the right attitude to take to R? Well, if we have no further information, then wouldn’t the right attitude here, just as with respect to that hypothetical population, be agnosticism, withholding belief? If this probability is inscrutable, then we have a defeater for R, just as in the case where that probability is low.

So P(R/N&E) is either low or inscrutable; and if we accept N&E, then in either case we have a defeater for R.

Now, trying to turn this into English for the rest of us ... the value of P(R|N&E) with respect to a population of evolved creatures is unknown and, according to Plantinga, unknowable (i.e. inscrutable).   If we, as evolved creatures, accept that both N and E are true, but are agnostic about P(R|N&E), as Plantinga argues we must be, then we should rightly be agnostic about R (by which Plantinga seems to mean P(R) since he refers to “this probability”).

In short, if P(R|N&E) is inscrutable and N&E is true, then P(R) is inscrutable.

Comment: My sarcastic wording of this step reflects the fact that, if N&E is true, P(R) = P(R|N&E), irrespective of what the value of that probability is – inscrutable or low or, indeed, high.

Step 5 – Argue that if P(R|N&E) is inscrutable (or low) then R has a defeater

Actually, I can’t really see how he justified this step, but I can see why he does it.

A “defeater” is a proposition which, if in the possession of a person who otherwise would have a justified true belief constituting knowledge about something, would negate the justification or the belief (but not the truth).  It’s a term from epistemology, the study of knowledge, and it relates a particularly esoteric discussion as regards to what we can “know”.

In the tripartite theory of knowledge, in order to truly know something rather than just believe something to be true:

the something in question must be true;

one must maintain a belief that that something is true; and

that belief must be justified.

If you are deluded in your belief about something then you cannot know it (for example, correctly believing that the sun is not the centre of the universe would not count as knowing if your reason for believing is that you also believe that the Earth is the centre of the universe).

Perhaps you might be in possession of a fact which you do not accept or do not understand, for example the fact that the Bertrand Paradox has a unique resolution such that p=0.5, you can’t really say that you know this if you don’t believe it.  (If you believe this fact to be true, but you don’t understand it, you might still know it if, for example, you had been informed by an expert in the field.  So long as it is true, of course.)

Finally, you can’t know something that is not true.

I suspect that there’s an element of equivocation and conflation involved here.  Plantinga talks about R as if it means:

the claim that our cognitive faculties are reliable, **AND**

the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, **AND**

the knowledge that our cognitive faculties are reliable, **AND**

the fact that our cognitive faculties are reliable

This is cheating on a major scale.

Step 6 – The Grand Finale

If you have a defeater for R, then you have a defeater for any belief you hold, including the belief that N&E is true.  Therefore it is irrational to hold the belief that N&E is true.

That’s it.  Well, he does go into a little pre-emptive defence against defeater-defeaters, but that’s largely irrelevant since you’d have to agree with Plantinga’s arrival at Step 6 and still want to hold onto N&E.  That would mean that you’d have to agree with Step 5 (and maybe Step 2) and you wouldn’t do that unless you were already presupposing the whole outcome with respect to N&E.

Let us look at Step 5 a bit more closely.

Plantinga is arguing that if we don’t know how probable it is that our cognitive faculties are reliable then it is probable that our cognitive faculties are unreliable.  Presumably, therefore, the only way that our cognitive faculties could be reliable would be for us to know that it is probable that our cognitive faculties are reliable.  But we’d only know that if they were reliable, otherwise we couldn’t know anything.

What Plantinga seems to be supposing here is some sort of bizarre bootstrapping – if you know that your cognitive faculties are reliable, then they are, and you know they are because those faculties are reliable, making your belief both true and justified.  However, if you are in doubt about the reliability of your cognitive faculties, they are unreliable by default, you know nothing and everything you believe is suspect.

This is, of course, nonsense.

As I have said elsewhere:

All (Plantinga) manages to do … is show that if naturalism and evolution are true, then we cannot know with 100% certainty that naturalism and evolution are true.  In other words, if naturalism and evolution are true, the scientific fact of naturalism and evolution is precisely the same as any other scientific fact – (because) we don’t know anything to be true with 100% certainty.

(There’s an extremely remote, non-zero chance that The Matrix was actually an ironic mockumentary screened by our mechanical overlords to taunt us and we are plugged into vats precisely as shown in what is portrayed to us as “fiction”.  This extremely unlikely possibility chips away from any otherwise perfect certainty we might have had about our world.  Scientists will think you are some sort of batty philosopher if you raise this argument, but eventually will concede that they cannot know that we aren’t in vats.)

What rational people will do is assume that the world is as it appears to be until illusions can be shown to exist.  As we detect illusions, we try to understand them so that we can account for them in our theories.  Rational people won’t deny that our cognitive faculties are limited, and prone to failure.  Nor will they assume that because those faculties are limited, and prone to failure, that they are completely useless.

And they won’t hang onto illusions just because they are comforting.

Now that I’ve explained, as best I can, the EAAN, I’d like to introduce the EAAT, which is the EAAN Argument Against Theism, or to give it its full glory …

“Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” Argument Against Theism Version 1

Step 1 – Do the whole EAAN thing

Step 2 – Point out that if N&E is true, then it is irrational to believe anything Plantinga has to say, given that he is just an evolved form of tiger food

“Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” Argument Against Theism Version 2

Step 1 – Do the whole EAAN thing

Step 2 – Consider the following:

·         If N&E is true then, irrespective of whether or not you believe that N&E is true, then it is quite likely that you will hold beliefs that are incorrect

·         If you continually challenge all of your beliefs, then those beliefs which consistently survive challenge will be more likely to be true

·         If a belief which fails a challenge is modified and then, as a consequence of being modified, consistently survives challenge, then that modified belief is more likely to be true

·         If N&E is continually challenged and consistently survives, then it is likely to be true

·         If N&E is challenged and fails, then is modified and the modified variant, N&E*, consistently survives challenge, then it is likely to be true

·         If another belief, say theism (T), is continually challenged and consistently fails, then it is unlikely to be true

·         If a belief is unchallenged and the holders of that belief are not willing to accept challenge, then the probability of that belief being true is inscrutable (you might want to follow Plantinga’s own argument here to reach the conclusion that holding such a belief is irrational)

From all this, we can conclude that:

·         P(R|N&E|S) is high when S is high (where S is the extent to which naturalism and evolution consistently survive challenges), and

·         P(R|S) is high when S is high (because the reliability of our cognitive faculties is also continually challenged)

The fact that N&E have been modified throughout the years, particularly the E component, is an indication that N&E is more likely to be true.  As a consequence, it is entirely rational to believe both that R is true and N&E is true.

On the other hand, however:

·         P(T|F) is low when F is high (where F is the extent to which theism fails being challenged), and

·         P(T|A) is low when A is high (where A is the extent to which theism avoids being challenged – see also being an infidel and apostasy).

Unlike with many other sorts of beliefs, there is great resistance to variations to T, therefore there is no T* as such (where T* is an improved version of theism) and T has no avenue by which to evolve towards a truth statement.

In other words, yes, I agree with Plantinga: many beliefs held by evolved creatures are likely to wrong, especially if they are untreated.  Even some of the smartest humans that ever lived used to believe such things as:

·         everything is a combination of up to four elements

·         phlogiston is a substance that escapes matter when it burns

·         there is an aether that conducts light

·         those enormous bones unearthed by mining and erosion are the bones of dragons

·         narwhal horns belonged to unicorns

These people were wrong.

Who knows, maybe string theory is a load of old cobbler’s.  But the point is, even if this is the case, scientists are actively encouraged to investigate string theory, to uncover how the theory is wrong and which associated beliefs are wrong.  Scientists working in the field will then, collectively, attempt to come up with something that is slightly better, but almost certainly also wrong in its own special way – and the process will continue.

This sounds like a terrible system, and perhaps it is.  A far worse system, however, is to cling unquestioningly to a demonstrably false belief which requires you to brutally corrupt logic in order to divert attention from the wealth of evidence against that belief.