Thursday, 30 May 2013

Chili Flavoured Ice Cream


This is another in what could be called a series of articles on the raging debate over objectivity and subjectivity.  I’ll try to make this particular article freestanding, but those who want context could look at:





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One might be forgiven for thinking that a popular argument for the existence of god, or at least the Christian God, is that based on the claim that objective moral values and duties do exist.  A simple Google search on the string “objective moral values” appears to return just under half a million hits.  However, we’ve experienced the vagaries of Google before.  Suffice to say, these are the figures after repeated clicking on the last o in Goooooooooogle, without looking at “similar results” (I did something similar with Bing as well):

·         “objective moral values” – 472 (Bing 543)

o   as above without “Craig” – 450 (Bing 622)

o   as above without “god” – 463 (Bing 248)

o   as above with neither “Craig” nor “god” – 460 (Bing 240)

o   as above with neither “theism” nor “theist” – 473 (Bing 569)

§  as above without “Craig” – 442 (Bing 564)

§  as above without “god” – 441 (Bing 242)

§  as above with neither “Craig” nor “god” – 417 (Bing 235)

The figures are a little screwy, but the conclusion that there isn’t really that much interest in “objective moral values” seems to be reasonably well founded.

Nevertheless, let us soldier on.

During my interchange with a chap with the handle LNC over at the Reasonable Faith forums (link above), he was if not evasive at least inconsistent in his definition of “objective”.  I just want to focus in on one particular aspect of the debate; centred on the idea that objective is the opposite of subjective.  I don’t want to use LNC’s grammar-based definitions here because, to be frank, they are ludicrous.  Instead I’ll try to explain what I think people generally mean by subjective and objective in these types of debates.

A common example used involves ice cream.  The argument might be something like this (thanks to LNC for the example):

Really, you are saying that right and wrong do exist, but they are subjective?  That’s your argument?  Do you know the difference between what are called moral realism and moral non-realism?  How do you take personal preferences and apply them beyond yourself?  For example, I like coconut ice cream.  That is my personal preference.  That doesn’t make coconut ice cream the “right” ice cream and all others “wrong.”  I have expressed my subjective preference.  Just because I like it, doesn’t make it right for everyone.  The same can be said for subjective morality.  You may prefer not murdering people while James Holmes prefers shooting people, even killing them.  If morality is subjective, then both of you are right and both of you are wrong.  Your morality is right for you and Holmes morality is wrong for you and vice versa.  If there is no objective standard, then there is not legitimate way for you to say that he is wrong and you are right.

Okay.  Let’s address the realism/non-realism thing first.  By “coconut ice cream”, I am assuming that LNC means “coconut flavoured ice cream”, which is ice cream that might be flavoured naturally with real bits of coconut.  I am not assuming that he means some sort of ice confection made of nothing but coconut.  So it’s the flavour that matters – an ice confection made almost entirely from coconut but with flavorants added would not be “coconut ice cream” for the purposes of the discussion.  If, for example, the right combination of flavorants to achieve a chocolate flavour were added, it would more accurately be described as “chocolate flavoured coconut-based ice confection”.

If one were a realist with respect to “coconut ice cream”, one would argue that there is in fact a real coconut flavour.  Such a realist would not be referring to a combination of flavours that are not coconut in themselves and which, under certain circumstances can result in a coconut flavour, but an actual, real, unitary thing – “coconut flavour” that conceptually could be distilled from a coconut and added by the spoonful to whatever food product you wanted.  There is no such thing, of course, and I don’t even think LNC (or indeed WLC) would argue that there was. 

With respect to “coconut flavour”, we are all non-realists.  We know that this flavour is just something that emerges from the combination of certain chemicals interacting with our senses of taste and smell.  The impression of “coconut-ness” of the ice cream occurs in our head, along with the impression that leads one to state “this coconut ice cream is more delicious than the chocolate”.

If we considered chili flavoured ice cream instead, we could identify a single compound that we know has a specific impact on the human mouth – capsaicin.  We can say, with some level of confidence, that if capsaicin was in your ice cream in greater than trace quantities, you’d be soon aware of it (unless your TRPV1 receptors were defective, desensitised or destroyed).

With chili flavoured ice cream we can make both subjective and objective assessments.

I could hand out samples of chili flavoured ice cream to unsuspecting punters and afterwards ask if it was “hot”.  The responses from my victims would be subjective, and possibly even violent.  They (when not hitting me) would be saying that the chili flavoured ice cream was “too hot for me” or “not too hot for me” or “funny tasting to me” or “delicious to me, can I have some more”.

Alternatively, I could send a sample off to a laboratory.  The boffins could analyse the sample and provide a report on how much capsaicin was in it.  If I sent them a range of samples, from different batches of ice cream for example, they could even tell me which has more or less capsaicin than the others.  This response would be objective.  The report that there is 0.28mg/g of capsaicin in the ice cream is not the result of a subjective assessment.

What the boffins could not detect is the objective level of deliciousness associated with the chili flavoured ice cream, in much the same way as they cannot detect the objective level of deliciousness associated with coconut ice cream.  Deliciousness is not real.

The boffins might, after some research, be able to assess just which combination of chemicals reliably results in an impression of “coconut-ness” – but to argue that we can quantify the chemical combination that we associate with “coconut” is to miss the point.  In other words, while the “coconut flavour” is not real, it is nevertheless more real than the “deliciousness” of the coconut ice cream.

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Now we are in a position to say something about “objective” and “subjective”.

Objective implies that an assessment may be made based on something real, like the volatile aromatics that we associate with flavour, or the capsaicin that we associate with a hot chili.  An objective assessment can be repeated reliably: one kilo of chili flavoured ice cream containing almost three grams of capsaicin always contains almost three grams of capsaicin – it’s not half a gram for me and twelve for you.

When an assessment is subjective, however, it is based on something which cannot be measured or quantified, or on a perception which particular to a person or a situation.  A subjective assessment cannot be repeated reliably: even the most avid fan of chili flavoured ice cream today would have probably hated it as a child, and while I think it sounds perfectly delicious it would be irrational of me to assume that it would necessarily be delicious for you also.

So, the question we are left with is:

What are “objective moral values” tied to that would justify a claim, by theists, that they exist?

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Anyone who identifies something real that could be argued to justify the “objective moral values” claim, for instance “the minimisation of suffering and the maximisation of well-being”, may be interested in a reading a book called “The Moral Landscape”.  Theists might not like it though.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Relative Criticism

Over the past few months, I sketched out a theoretical ethical structure based on the idea that a successful ethical structure will promote survival of those who use it.  Something I wrote in Morality as Playing Games could be (and in fact has already been) construed as saying that the ethical structure of another person cannot be challenged or criticised:

it is unreasonable to assess the morality of another person’s ethical structure

Yes, I did write this and I stand by it.  But please note the context in which I wrote the words, namely:

It seems that once the argument that ethical structures are inherently amoral has been accepted, it is unreasonable to assess the morality of another person’s ethical structure – which would be inherently amoral from their perspective.

Also note that later in the same article, I wrote:

An example might be useful here, since I appear to be straying very close to the form of moral and cultural relativism that is better labelled as “moral cowardice”.

This was not the first time that I have addressed concerns with moral relativism, having touched on it in The Problem with Sam.  However, after listening to a little discussion piece, “Moral Relativism”, I realise that it’s an issue of such import that it warrants further attention.

When discussing the problem with Sam, I wrote about how moral relativism is accused of being equivalent to moral nihilism which, at least in a pejorative sense, implies a belief that nothing is moral or immoral.  A stricter definition of moral nihilism refers to the lack of intrinsic morality.  This kinder perspective does not deny the possibility of an emergent morality, within the context of a society, but does deny the claim that morality is somehow inherent to the universe.

If one listens to conservatives such as Roger Scrunton, one gets the impression that those who subscribe to moral relativism have totally abandoned the idea of morality, as if there are only two choices: moral absolutism or nothing.   Apparently, the moral relativist makes a claim along the lines of “No-one else may judge me.  Only I may judge me.”

At the risk of appearing to agree with Scrunton, such a claim is patent nonsense – but not even the most intellectually feeble-minded moral relativist makes this claim.  What Scrunton is alluding to is some form of inwards-looking normative moral relativism, but the standard phrasing and I dare say the standard understanding is outwards-looking.  Moral relativism is not so much a question of what other people may and may not do with respect to me, but more about what I ought to do with respect to other people.  It’s an expression of a(n emergent) moral obligation to be tolerant, not a moral injunction against judging others at all. 

It would appear that Scrunton argues against a somewhat extreme, self-obsessed and rather conservative form of moral relativism – or at least moral relativism viewed darkly through a conservative lens.  It should be no surprise that he takes a dim view of moral relativism, since tolerance (2) is a liberal sort of concept.  Scrunton himself seems to prefer the term toleration.  Unfortunately, these two terms have merged to the extent Wikipedia’s entry on tolerance provides in its definition a link to toleration, even though the two words have quite distinct implications.

If I am characterised by tolerance, I am free from bigotry – I don’t look down on those who are different as being inferior or bad.  If on the other hand, I am characterised by toleration, I may be bigoted – I may see others as inferior or bad, but I put up with them.

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Let us return to the ethical structure and the confusion about inviolability of the structure.  I do not wish to imply that you cannot make a moral judgment regarding other people, nor that one should not make such a moral judgment, even if they have a different ethical structure to yours.  All I am saying is that you cannot justify making a moral judgment on an ethical structure, your own or theirs.

In my argument, the whole point of an ethical structure is to make moral judgments on other people, and thereby assess whether they constitute a threat.  As an individual, therefore, it is rational to expect that you will be subject to the moral judgments of others.  In fact, it is rational to welcome those judgments.

If someone were to tell me that they did not want me to make moral judgements on them, my first inclination would be to ask myself why.  How would someone benefit by me not making a moral judgment on them?  Perhaps by evading my finely tuned threat detection mechanisms?  Equally, if other people make no moral judgments on me, how are they going to assess whether I am threat to them?  If no moral judgments are made, how can I signal to them that I am benign?  I could make my good intentions explicit by telling them that I am not a threat, but if they don’t make any assessment as to whether I am telling the truth then my declaration of good intent means nothing.

A sort of moral relativism is that is entirely rational exists in tier six, the lowest tier of the ethical structure that I recently discussed.  This layer involves conformance with a largely arbitrary set of societal standards and cultural mores, along with rules and laws which are derived from the upper tiers.  Some of these rules exist simply to be obeyed.  The more irrational such a rule is the better it functions, since obedience to an irrational rule is a better indicator of an inclination to conform than obedience to a rational rule.  For a good exposition on this sort of argument, I can heartily recommend Michael Shermer’s How We Believe.

An example of an irrational rule that indicates our inclination to conform is the wearing of a tie.  Ties are uncomfortable and, almost without exception, look rather stupid.  They can be positively dangerous, especially when using a shredder.  The only valid reason for wearing a tie is in order to send a signal that you conform (even if you have a tie in your uniform, you are still indicating an inclination to conform by wearing it – perhaps only to the extent that you are not expelled or sacked).  All societies and social groups have a range of such rules applying to not only what we wear, or how we cut our hair or colour our bodies, but also how we eat, what we eat, how we talk, how we sit, stand and walk, what we do on certain days of the week, who we have sex with and how, what animals we cultivate and which we have as pets and so on.

It is entirely reasonable to take a relativist stance on these “conformance rules” since they are arbitrary, even if they seem alien or odd to us.  However, when it comes to the five main moral injunctions, or tiers one to five, moral relativism is no longer a reasonable stance to take.

If it is ever unclear whether tolerance of an act is appropriate or not, I suggest asking yourself the following two questions:

Is any innocent party harmed by the act?

Is the act fair?

If an act is fair and no innocent party is harmed by an act, then I suggest that tolerance is warranted.  If an act is not fair, or it leads to actual harm, then I suggest that tolerance is not warranted.

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By an “innocent party” I mean someone not involved in the act, meaning that consensual harm is excluded.  Consensual harm could be such things as involvement in a boxing match, being tattooed, pierced or ritually scarred, or engaging in sexual activity that is believed by some to condemn the participants to posthumous suffering or incorporates play which may be literally harmful (so long as such activity is consensual).

I don’t consider “being offended” as universally equivalent to “being harmed”.  In some instances offence may cross a line and thus constitute harm – an example being racial vilification.

In other instances, however, taking offence can be inappropriate – for example the offence one might feel when witness to the paucity of a builder’s vocabulary, especially in regard to adjectives but also adverbs, verbs, nouns and expletives.  (“#@&*! The #@&*ing little #@&*ers totally #@&*ing #@&*ed!  We’re #@&*ed!”).

You might be justified in feeling offended if the school principal spoke like that, unless he came from Australia (and more specifically Queensland), but that sort of language is usually expected from a tradesman.  You might even be somewhat disconcerted to hear one say “Oh my!  This irritating thing (the name for which I am temporarily unable to recall due to a sudden onset of incoherent rage) appears to be irrevocably impaired!  This is likely to have an adverse and maybe even devastating effect on our rather tight schedule and consequently on my finances as well as the economic viability of my company as a whole.  My distress at this situation is of such import that I am sorely tempted to abandon my endeavours and decamp forthwith, in my tastefully appointed and decal-adorned utility vehicle, with the intent of relocating with immediate effect to the nearest establishment providing alcoholic refreshment at a reasonable price.”  (For the Queenslanders among us, that last sentence can be roughly translated as “#@&* it, ’m’gar’n’th’pub.”)

Friday, 17 May 2013

Self-Reverence

I was pondering the problem of evil recently, particularly in relation to WLC’s attempt to wriggle out of it.  (Of tangential note, it occurred to me that WLC has had masses of debates.)

His arguments are:

Without a god, there’d be no concept of good or evil, so evil proves god, rather than presenting any problem at all; and

We simply are not in a position to judge whether god has sufficient justification to allow evil.

A major contributor to the apparent success of these arguments is the fact that they ignore the formulation of the problem of evil.

Let me explain …

Other gods, such as Zeus and the gods of Olympus, did not have the same qualities as the Hebrew god.  They weren’t omnipotent (Zeus commissioned Prometheus and Epimetheus to create the current batch of humans), they weren’t omniscient (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite had to appeal to the human Paris to ascertain which of them was the most beautiful) and they weren’t omnibeneficient (they were capricious instead, and had to be appeased).

WLC’s god, however, is painted as having these qualities and this is how the problem of evil arises.  According to the argument, god himself is omnibeneficient and therefore not capable of evil so evil doesn’t come from him, and he is actively inclined against evil – often railing against it in the Old Testament, wiping out cities for indulging in it and even flooding the entire planet at one point.  The idea of sacrificing his only self-son to forgive us our evil is an indication that he, god, is not the source of evil.

An argument based on a lack of awareness of evil might have worked on with the Greek gods, since there is a sense in which they were pure and untainted, unlike (adult) humans.  The Greek gods were like enormously powerful children, unrestrained in their actions and often acting without having thought it all through.  It is possible to argue that they would not have understood the concept of evil, which results from the impurity of the human state.

WLC’s god doesn’t have this escape clause.  An omniscient god knows (and one would assume understands) all.

Finally, there is the argument that the gods cannot act to prevent or eliminate evil.  For the Greek gods this is a perfectly workable argument.  The gods were not all-powerful, they worked within a framework of fate and were occasionally reported as seeking the words of the oracles as eagerly as the more frail humans do.  Zeus’ father, Kronos (alternatively Cronus, a Titan, who should not to be confused with Chronus, the god of time), swallowed all his children immediately after birth due to a prophecy predicting that he would be deposed by a child greater than he.  Zeus received a similar prophecy; that he would be deposed by the second, male child of Metis (his wife before Hera) but he managed to escape it (by swallowing Metis who was pregnant with Pallas Athena – the gods were apparently good swallowers).

The gods, and their precursor Titans, were also subject to the personified Fates, the Moirai – and dabbling in the affairs of the Fates was a dangerous business even for Zeus.

Again, WLC’s god can’t appeal to an inability to control his destiny or his actions.  An omnipotent god is able to do as he wishes, when he wishes, to whomever he wishes.

The question then is why an omnipotent and omniscient god who doesn’t like evil would let it continue.  Human evil is easily, if not overly convincingly, explained away via the free will defence – human evil is merely a necessary side-effect of giving humans self-determination, allowing them to freely choose good or evil.

Natural evil, however, is somewhat harder to explain.  It is in response to natural evil that WLC claims that we puny humans are not in a position to judge god’s choice to allow, or deliberately inflict us with, all the calamities that beset us; disease, earthquakes, droughts, floods, death in child-birth, “reality” television and so on.

Well sure, if god exists and is significantly grander than us, then we aren’t in a position to understand but, as Austin Dacey pointed out in a debate with Craig, a significantly superior being such as god would be expected to explain why these things happen to us and provide comfort to those who suffer as part of his great plan.  But he doesn’t.

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By far the best escape route from the problem of evil is provided by Mr Deity – god (also known as “El”, the supreme being who went rogue and broke away from the Consortium) turned off his omniscience early in his reign due to what we could euphemistically refer to as “all that monkey spanking”.



 



Being mathematically minded, I thought I might just work out the figures.

There are about 1.4 billion teenagers in the world at the moment, slightly more than half of which are male (the more frequent offenders are supposedly male and they supposedly grow out of the habit).  Let’s assume that “monkey spanking” takes about 15 seconds, I know I’m being generous here but to make up for that let’s say that monkeys are spanked by the average male teenage no more frequently than once every second day.  Assuming a uniform distribution, this means that at any one time there are about two million monkeys spanked every minute.

And this is if you only count humans.  The number rises when you add in all the chimps (who call it “shaking hands with the human” – and don’t go getting all hot and bothered about chimps not being monkeys because monkeys call it “choking the chimp”, so it all balances out).

Of course, Mr Deity is a parody.  There is no indication whatsoever that god even can turn off his omniscience, let alone that he does.

Consequently, when WLC is next debating, he should perhaps take advantage of this research and argue that the reason god allows all the evil in the world to go ahead is because he’s too busy dealing with the constant and simultaneous corporal punishment of vast numbers of simians and the requirement to organise the unfortunate demise of one hundred and twenty million puppies every hour.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Planting a Courted Controversy


Earlier this year, I courted a little controversy by posting at the Craig-Land (as of writing the link worked, if it doesn’t then either the site has been taken down, the forums have been moved in entirety or the thread has been removed).  Ostensibly, my interest was focused on Alvin Plantinga and some of his claims to being a philosopher, whether the WLC fan club have read Plantinga’s philosophical arguments, if they believe that those arguments are valid and strong and, if so, why.

I did worry that I’d just get shut down, so I prefaced my question with an appeal for the same level of respect accorded to William Lane Craig in his many debates.

So, this was what happened (as of 2 February 2013):

Initial post (neopolitan)

I'd like to be as polite as possible, so I should point out that I am a fan of neither Doctor Craig, nor Professor Plantinga.  That said, Dr Craig often goes out of his way to discuss his case with people who disagree with him.  I am doing the same sort of thing here and would appreciate being given the same level of courtesy he is offered.  My thanks in advance for your forbearance.

I find Professor Plantinga's arguments to be particularly weak, as I've outlined here in an article about his tiger problem.  His Ontological argument (as portrayed by Dr Craig) is more than weak, it's deceptive in its misuse of logical forms.

What I'd like to ask is, have people here actually sat down and thought these arguments through carefully, after doing so do you still think they are strong and valid arguments and, outside of a debate format, can you provide a convincing case why a) Plantinga isn't mistaken about his tiger and b) why his misuse of logic is acceptable.  The logic question is quite specialised, so if you only feel confident addressing the tiger, I fully understand.

Reply 1 (Geneticist)

I didn't get much farther than this:

Quote

Scientists like to use something around 99.9999% certain, while theists (like Craig and Plantinga) like to use something above 50%.

This is an obvious strawman. You claim Craig and Plantinga use >50% as the level at of determining truth. In your previous post, you make this argument citing as evidence the debate between Craig and Krauss. In that debate Krauss accuses Craig of exactly the same thing you have done (I wonder if that is where you got your argument?) but then apparently failed to read Craig's rebuttal where he clearly refutes this accusation:

"I realized from the start that the question proposed for debate was unusual in that it did not ask whether God exists, but merely whether there is evidence for God. So what does it mean to say that there is evidence for the hypothesis that “God exists”? Probability theory defines this as saying that the probability of God’s existence is greater given certain facts than it would have been without them (Pr (G | E & B) > Pr (G | B)). Far from being “meaningless,” this construal of the question under debate should be non-controversial. Moreover, it does not presuppose a frequency model of probability, as Dr. Krauss seems to assume. Dr. Krauss seems to think that I was arguing on the basis of the above that the probability of God’s existence is greater than 50% (Pr (G | E & B) > 0.5). But I explicitly said in my opening statement that I would not be discussing that probability. For that would involve assessing the so-called prior probability Pr (G | B) of God’s existence given the background information alone, thereby turning the debate into a debate over God’s existence, which was not the topic. Dr. Krauss seems to think that the prior probability of God’s existence is very low. I happen to disagree; but that assessment was irrelevant to our debate topic that evening.

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-craig-krauss-debate-at-north-carolina-state-university#ixzz2JFpkEAnT"

Craig makes it explicitly clear that he is not arguing that >50% is all that one needs to be certain that God exists. In fact he even states he is not arguing that God exists. All he is arguing for is that there is evidence for God's existence and that the criteria that something count as evidence is that it it makes it more probable than not.....in other words raise the probability above 50%. If something increases the probability to 51%, its evidence. You have profoundly misrepresented Craig's argument, presenting instead an obvious strawman which you proceed to attack.

As an aside, there are no absolute levels of certainty in science. I see in your previous post that you used the reporting measures from the those who work on the Higgs Boson from which you make a hasty generalization about the acceptable level of probability used in science. You might pick up some papers from evolution or psychology (seeing as they are the most relevant fields to this topic) because, there, the convention is to use a p-value of less than or equal to 0.05 (95%), which is certainly not 99.9999%. Why 0.05? Well because that is the cutoff Fisher chose back in the day. Its a completely arbitrary cutoff and it is what the vast majority of all published research uses. You will find papers that use even less stringent cutoffs. Its all very arbitrary. The physicists at CERN just happen to be making a Nobel winning announcement that has cost taxpayers billions, so its not surprising they went with higher p-values.

Reply 2 (Geneticist)

I also can't get past the completely irrelevant (not to mention incorrect) jabs you take at Plantinga. For instance this:

"Note here that prehistoric hominids could arguably include humans since there were preliterate humans who were not able to write down history, there is a possibility that there were early humans who did not have a language that was sufficiently rich to convey history and there were certainly early humans who had no real history to convey.  However, if Plantinga meant to imply that Paul is pre-human hominid, then one might wonder why he is worried about tigers at all, tigers never having lived in Africa.  To be as fair as possible, let’s assume that the “tiger” is really a large cat-like thing with a taste for prehistoric hominid flesh."

....this is really quite irrelevant. Plantinga is making an analogy and analogies do not need to be 100% historically accurate, but since you went out of your way to criticize Plantinga on this, I should point out that you are wrong historically. Prehistoric hominids were not isolated to Africa. The Neanderthals lived throughout Europe and parts of Asia. The Denisovans and Homo Erectus both were found in Eastern Asia. The first Homo Sapians out of Africa were pre-literate and they spread throughout all this range and doubtless would have encountered tigers.

Reply 3 (neopolitan)

Prehistoric hominid is a sufficiently vague term that I can use it to mean what I like, unless the person using it explains what he means.  And Professor Plantinga didn't.  I chose to use it for humour.

You are correct in saying that pre-literate humans would have met tigers.  Not in particularly good circumstances perhaps.  You are also correct in that some of our non-human hominid cousins would have met tigers.  But, I think that Plantinga is specifically talking about what led us to thinking about evolution, so you have to include Darwin in that chain, and I doubt that his forefathers had travelled via East Asia.

I fully accept that I might wrong on that.

Edit: That all said, you haven't addressed the key point.  Have you sat down and thought through Plantinga's arguments, if so do you still think they are strong and valid and if so, why?

With regard to the tiger, it's not so much that he might have been wrong about the species, or the location in which prehistoric hominids might need to ponder the dining habits of tigers, but that our ancestors might have easily done the right thing to avoid tigers without having any rational thought process or cognition process preceding it.

Reply 4 (neopolitan)

Quote from: Geneticist …

This is an obvious strawman. You claim Craig and Plantinga use >50% as the level at of determining truth. In your previous post, you make this argument citing as evidence the debate between Craig and Krauss. In that debate Krauss accuses Craig of exactly the same thing you have done (I wonder if that is where you got your argument?)

Nope, but I applaud Krauss for picking up Dr Craig on what he does.

I put a lot more effort into Dr Craig's probability arguments in Sweet Probability.  In this article, I show that his use of the equation that he is relying on is poor.

My question was about Professor Plantinga, and I notice that you haven't addressed it.  Could you possibly do so?  Thanks.

Reply 5 (Geneticist)

Quote from: neopolitan …

Prehistoric hominid is a sufficiently vague term that I can use it to mean what I like, unless the person using it explains what he means.  And Professor Plantinga didn't.  I chose to use it for humour.

You are correct in saying that pre-literate humans would have met tigers.  Not in particularly good circumstances perhaps.  You are also correct in that some of our non-human hominid cousins would have met tigers.  But, I think that Plantinga is specifically talking about what led us to thinking about evolution, so you have to include Darwin in that chain, and I doubt that his forefathers had travelled via East Asia.

I fully accept that I might wrong on that.

Edit: That all said, you haven't addressed the key point.  Have you sat down and thought through Plantinga's arguments, if so do you still think they are strong and valid and if so, why?

With regard to the tiger, it's not so much that he might have been wrong about the species, or the location in which prehistoric hominids might need to ponder the dining habits of tigers, but that our ancestors might have easily done the right thing to avoid tigers without having any rational thought process or cognition process preceding it.

You missed the real point....that this is an irrelevant criticism. What it is, is an attempt to discredit Plantinga to the readers of your blog, even though the criticisms are not relevant to the validity of his argument. Humour is fine, except when humour is used as a red herring, which is the real point of your humour.

I honestly don't even get what this statement means or why its relevant:

"But, I think that Plantinga is specifically talking about what led us to thinking about evolution, so you have to include Darwin in that chain, and I doubt that his forefathers had travelled via East Asia."

I understand the relevance of Plantinga's analogy. I was taking issue with the red herrings you consistently toss in your blogs. Plantinga is right, per Naturalistic Evolution, it is not necessary for man to possess rational thoughts regarding his actions. All that matters is that those actions perpetuate survival of the individuals genetics. Most life forms do exactly this, they react to their environment without rational thought. A plant will move and grow towards the light, though it is incapable of reasoning "I should move towards the light".

Certainly his list of possible explanations are incomplete and sometimes silly, but considering that this is an analogy, that is all that is necessary to clarify the point and that is what Plantinga is doing, using analogy to clarify the issue. A lot of your counter argument gets lost in the red herring of mocking this analogy.

I honestly think Plantinga makes a very valid point. Evolution will not necessarily favor rational thought. It favors reproductive success. Rational thought can contribute to reproductive success, but that does not mean it is the only viable strategy and if incorrect beliefs lead to reproductive success, then they too will perpetuate. Where I differ with Plantinga is that I am uncertain as to what the probability that Evolution would favor this over rational thought would be. I don't discount that he could be right about the probability, I certainly agree with how he describes the relationship between Evolution and correct belief, I just am uncertain about the actual probability and that is the weakness of his argument.

The kicker is, that if we assume Naturalism, then we actually have very strong evidence for Plantinga's argument. If Naturalism is true, then all Religion is false. Assuming Naturalistic Evolution, then religion is a clear example of false beliefs that exist to promote survival in some fashion. So we know with certainty that we have reason to doubt our cognitive abilities given Naturalistic Evolution. But since Religion is not limited to individuals, but is pervasive throughout a group, then this same reason to doubt individual cognitive abilities extends to the group.

Hominid, FYI, is a term that typically includes Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo Erectus, and even older ancestors.

Reply 6 (Geneticist)

Quote from: neopolitan …

Quote from: Geneticist …

This is an obvious strawman. You claim Craig and Plantinga use >50% as the level at of determining truth. In your previous post, you make this argument citing as evidence the debate between Craig and Krauss. In that debate Krauss accuses Craig of exactly the same thing you have done (I wonder if that is where you got your argument?)

Nope, but I applaud Krauss for picking up Dr Craig on what he does.

I put a lot more effort into Dr Craig's probability arguments in Sweet Probability.  In this article, I show that his use of the equation that he is relying on is poor.

My question was about Professor Plantinga, and I notice that you haven't addressed it.  Could you possibly do so?  Thanks.

I read that post earlier and it is irrelevant to this particular case. The calculation of probability Craig does regarding the resurrection is quite distinct from what he does in his debate with Krauss, where he is merely giving a definition of evidence. Seeing as you reference the Krauss-Craig debate as the source of your "anything above 50%" claim and given that this is a strawman of what Craig said in that debate, this other post is another red herring (specifically poisoning the well) as it relates to your post on Plantinga's argument.

I think your specific arguments in that post are flawed as well. For instance, I disagree that in talking about the resurrection, one is talking about the intersection of background and specific evidence, rather than both background and specific evidence. In this the analogy of the jelly beans is misleading. If we were to consider a murder case, where the suspect is known to be a violent individual, that background evidence sits independent of the specific evidence that his hands are found on the gun. Because if we were to change the background information to the suspect being a kind and loving pacifist, the evidence of his finger prints on the gun still supports that he did the murder, even if it does not intersect with the background. The background and specific evidence add together to make the case more or less likely, but individually they can also make the case more or less likely. So we are talking about a broader inclusion than the mere intersection of the two. The jelly bean analogy, does a very poor job of modeling the background and specific evidence in its calculations, if it does it at all.

Reply 7 (neopolitan) – this was the last post a week later

Hi Geneticist,

You seem to be keen on the straw-man, since your posts have focussed on that accusation almost to the point of totally excluding everything else, for example considerations as to whether Plantinga’s arguments are sound.  So I’ve had a good look to see if either of us has committed that fallacy.

Accusation: the “scientists use 99.9999% while Professor Plantinga and Doctor Craig use 50%” argument is a strawman

Response: for the sake of background, if anyone else is reading, I make reference to the certainty that scientists need before they say something is likely to be true, an example being when they announced results for the Higg’s Boson for which the level of certainty was 99.9999% in Planting a Demigod.  In that article, I said “Craig indicates that he is setting out to show that the likelihood of god (given specific evidence and background evidence) is greater than 50%, implying that when any statement is more than 50% probable then it is somehow equivalent to a truth statement”.

Now what Doctor Craig actually said was (from the same transcript that you quoted to me):

Quote from: Doctor Craig's debate with Krauss

Now at one level it seems to me indisputable that there’s evidence for God. To say that there’s evidence for some hypothesis is just to say that that hypothesis is more probable given certain facts than it would have been without them. That is to say, there is evidence for some hypothesis H if the probability of H is greater on the evidence and background information than on the background information alone. That is to say,

Pr (H | E & B) > Pr (H | B).

H = hypothesis
E = evidence
B = background information

Now, in the case of God, if we let G stand for the hypothesis that God exists, it seems to me indisputable that God’s existence is more probable given certain facts—like the origin of the universe, the complex order of the universe, the existence of objective moral values, and so forth—than it would have been without them. That is,

Pr (G | E & B) > Pr (G | B).

G = God exists
E = existence of contingent beings, origin of the universe, fine-tuning of the universe, etc.
B = background information

And I suspect that even most atheists would agree with that statement.

So the question “Is There Evidence for God?” isn’t really very debatable. Rather the really interesting question is whether God’s existence is more probable than not. That is, is

Pr (G | E & B) > 0.5 ?

Now I’ll leave it up to you to assess that probability.

So, sure, Doctor Craig was not explicitly saying >50% = truth, but neither was he saying “for us to accept than anything is true we need to have a high level of certainty, and being cognizant of the fact that any certainty we allocate is going to be arbitrary, I will use the best practice for my field and use X% as being the minimum acceptable certainty”.  If we say that apologetics and theology is as “soft” as psychology, then we could make X=95.  I’d be happy with that (although still not happy with his abuse of probability as discussed in Sweet Probability).

But am I guilty of setting up a straw man?  With respect to Doctor Craig, no.  I wasn’t really talking about Doctor Craig, I was talking about Professor Plantinga.  Professor Plantinga repeatedly uses the “about half” or “about 50%”.  I’ve heard him say it in a number of debates and discussions, he makes an oblique reference to it in an EAAN lecture and he uses it in the video linked here and he uses it a few times in his debate with Daniel Dennett.

If I was guilty of anything, I was guilty of not referencing Professor Plantinga’s repeated use of the 50% argument.

Even if you successfully argue that I inadvertently tarred Doctor Craig with Professor Plantinga’s brush, you still have to prove that Doctor Craig did not intentionally sow the seed of the 50% argument in his debate with Krauss.  I personally think he did, but I can’t prove it, so I don’t make the claim, I merely advise what I think is likely to be the case.

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I did say “almost to the point of excluding everything else”, because you also wanted to focus on the fact that hominids in general might have met tigers.  I grant you that, tigers may well have tried to eat hominids who are related to the sorts of people who may well have come up with a natural selection theory (for example, in a slightly alternative universe in which Darwin didn’t do it).  For someone who also is keen on accusations of red herrings, you like to run off down side alleys a lot.

The major problem with Professor Plantinga, as you aptly point out, is that he uses probabilities that are questionable.

Quote from: Geneticist

Rational thought can contribute to reproductive success, but that does not mean it is the only viable strategy and if incorrect beliefs lead to reproductive success, then they too will perpetuate. Where I differ with Plantinga is that I am uncertain as to what the probability that Evolution would favor this over rational thought would be. I don't discount that he could be right about the probability, I certainly agree with how he describes the relationship between Evolution and correct belief, I just am uncertain about the actual probability and that is the weakness of his argument.

Note that you are questioning his probability calculus, by definition making his probabilities questionable, and I do the same thing.  All we differ on is the extent to which we disagree with him.  You think it is a defect which makes his argument weak, while I think it is a fatal flaw which makes his argument ridiculous.

Something which we all agree on is that humans are more than capable of holding false beliefs, which may be evolutionarily advantageous.  What we differ on is 1) whether all religions are just advantageous false beliefs and 2) whether evolution qualifies as “a belief”.

Natural evolution may well be true (that is some variant of it), irrespective of how poor our individual understanding of it may be.  Individually, we may all be more than 75% wrong in our comprehension of it and that won’t necessarily make evolution a less correct explanation of how we got here than a god hypothesis.  We don’t have to individually hold a true belief with respect to evolution, the understanding that we have is a joint effort.

And one of the revolutionary things about evolution is that, when combined with natural selection, it makes the creator hypothesis unnecessary.  This is why Professor Plantinga is willing to make the sort of wild claims he does, because evolution is a clear threat to his belief.

Edit, I had a quick look to see if I had accused you of presenting a straw man.  I can't see where I did so.  However, even if you did present a straw man, pointing it out would effectively be a straw man in itself, since the thread is about Plantinga's arguments, not your arguments in support of Plantinga nor your arguments against my criticism of Plantinga.  So, I've decided not to get into that.

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Now, when I prefaced my question with a plea for being accorded the same level of courtesy that William Lane Craig is offered by his debate opponents, I was primarily thinking of the possibility that some forum moderator would simply shut down the thread, that I would be unceremoniously evicted.  To their credit, this did not happen.

However, there was something else that I noticed which was significantly more worrisome.  A day after the forum thread was created, the thread had been viewed 1000 times – which conceivable could have been say, the same people viewing it on average four times each, so make that 250 interested bodies.  Of those interested bodies, only one deigned to respond and only seven (yes, 7) followed either of the links.  (A week later there were more than 5000 views and, still, only 7 click-throughs.)

I accept that some people arrive at this blog to find that the contents are not to their taste – such is life, you can’t please everyone and similar homilies.  But … the fact that of the regulars at the Reasonable Faith web-site, a web-site which is dedicated to apologetics and spreading the “reasonable faith” message, only a tiny percentage who were sufficiently interested to look at the post titled “Criticism of Plantinga” saw fit to even look at the detail of that criticism is, frankly, quite scary.

The positive thing about it, such as there is anything positive, is that William Lane Craig only seems to be using this cultish following to push a relatively benign variant of Christianity.  This level of mind-control in other hands would be well beyond scary.

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In his own way, Geneticist sort of makes a good point.  Planting a Tiger was never intended as a comprehensive argument against the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  I only intended to mock Plantinga.  So, I thought that I could put together a more serious article addressing some of Plantinga’s nonsense – even though I risk giving him more credit that he deserves by doing so.

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Oh, and as of posting, in May 2013, no further response has been forthcoming from Geneticist.