Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Idiocy as Mastered by Plantinga

Among the most read posts on this blog are the ones in which I dissect the artful dodger named William Lane Craig.  I have plenty more to say about him and his outright intellectual dishonesty and endless double standards, and his tendency to change the definitions of words so long as it suits him.  The thing is that I mentioned in the past that I'd also address another mind-numbingly laughable apologist.  In relation to that, I've been getting emails that rather make me think even less of Christian apologetics than I already had.  Yes, some people picked up on my use of the term "Plantinga-class circularity" and decided they should defend by singing the praises of the Magister Stultitia, Alvin Plantinga.

It's kind of fun to see them all act so desperate.  But in general, a lot of Christians seem to think Plantinga is one of the premier purveyors of apologetics out there.  A lot of theists of various religions consider him one of the most important of all modern philosophers because of his arguments for theism, dualism, etc.  They seem to miss the fact that that's really quite pathetic.  Really, the man peddles the sort of idiocy packaged in such a shoddy veneer of fake sophistication that it would make even William Lane Craig blush.  If this is really the best Christian apologists have to offer, it's pretty astonishingly sad.

The easiest way to identify instances of Plantinga-class circularity when someone begins a sentence the same way Plantinga invariably does whenever he wants to accumulate details on his arguments in order to make it sound more solid -- "If Christianity is true..."
Yeah...  I kid you not, this is how the man tries to prove Christianity.  He regurgitates that which should be true if Christianity is also true.  Well, that's great, but it necessarily gets you nowhere, but he is never willing to discuss anything else and proclaims without a second thought (for that matter, without even a first thought) that he's done at that point.  Now I know a lot of his fans will often argue that the scientific method includes just such a line of inductive reasoning.  This is in fact, true.  Part of the scientific method involves computing the consequences of a given hypothesis -- and this is, in effect, determining what should follow "if the hypothesis is true."  What they miss is that this is not where the scientific method ends.  It's merely another step along the way.  Scientists go on to actually empirically verify whether or not those consequences actually apply in reality.  The entirety of Plantinga's enterprise is built on never doing that, but simply declaring by fiat that it is valid.  If science went the Plantinga route, we'd simply determine the predictions of a given hypothesis and declare that said predictions prove that we are warranted in issuing and furthermore, accepting that hypothesis.

Sure, Plantinga has arguments which aren't entirely circular, but they're every bit as invalid.  His modal argument for mind-brain dualism, for instance, has an obvious flaw that he contends does not exist.  The short form of it is as follows --
P1. Leibniz's Law -- a corollary of which is that two things are distinct objects if there is at least one property that differs between them.
P2. I can imagine my mind being separate from my physical body.
C. Therefore, my mind is not the same as my physical body.
Anybody see the problem here?  Generally, no one refutes Leibniz's Law, though, in many arguments in which it is used, it often leads to highly irrelevant constructs.  The real obvious fallacy is in premise #2...  He can imagine his mind as a separate thing?  He can imagine all he wants, but equivocating an imagined property with an actual one is hardly valid.  Plantinga likes to pretend that merely having the capacity to imagine something about an object is a property in itself, but he forgets that that capacity doesn't lie with the object itself, but with the person doing the imagining.  And the man seriously contends that this is a strong argument for dualism because none of the premises can be refuted.  Premise 2, in particular, is incorrigible because no one can really say that he's wrong in saying that he can imagine something to be true...  had he worded it as a truth statement that his mind actually can be separate, then he'd have been in trouble.  Strangely enough, he likes to contend not merely that he can imagine it, but that it's actually possible for the mind to exist separate from the body.  What evidence does he have that it's possible at all?  Why, the fact that he can easily imagine it, of course!  Yeah, that's what counts for "evidence."  It's the sort of wordplay that makes all Christian apologists proud.

I'd have to say that what may be Plantinga's most serious factual failure would be his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  I say this is the most serious not simply because it is so wrong and stupid, but because it is also highly regarded in spite of it.  It is really built on a pillar of sand in that it exposes his outright ignorance of science.  And I don't just mean to the extent of his earlier gaffes which he later corrected such as his failure to realize that tigers actually like water.  This is one where is factually 200% wrong (as in he contends the extreme polar opposite of the truth), and has to stick by his wrongness, because he knows he has no case without doing so.  In his argument, he points out, correctly so, that evolution predicts not that our senses and our intellects would be accurate, but be reasonably accurate most of the time, with other adaptations which may not be accurate per se, but potentially useful in a variety of circumstances insofar as maintaining our survival.  Our general aversion to bitter foods, for instance, is actually a defense mechanism our bodies have adapted so that we might avoid poisonous plants or rotten food, but it is not intrinsically valid.  Plantinga seems to think this tendency towards inaccuracy flies in the face of science.  In an earlier version of the argument, he seemed to believe that scientists think our senses are highly accurate, which is in fact, the most wrong one can ever possibly be on that subject.  We know our senses, our memories, our intellects...  all of them are quite flawed, and grossly incomplete.  This is fully in concert with the predictions of evolution, and consistent with methodological naturalism.  We base practices that we do on the assumption that these cognitive faculties are not really all that reliable.  The very existence of the scientific method is a result of that.  Why would we bother with such things as repetition, controls, independent verification, and peer review if our own senses were accurate?  It's precisely because our senses are inaccurate and unreliable that science demands all the rigor that it does.

In the more recent version of this argument, he makes the contention that in a purely evolutionary framework, it is only valuable that our senses be cognitively useful in maintaining our survival, and not that they be accurate.  Because of this, he argues that at any given point in the evolution of our senses, there would be at best a 50-50 shot of getting accurate senses.  And when you multiply that 50-50 random shot down the generations, supposedly it means there's little chance that our cognitive faculties are in any way accurate, therefore making the assumption that the natural world is all that is real because it is all we can sense is wrong.  He makes this assignment of low probability, of course, without a single shred of empirical evidence.  But the stranger thing is that he seems to think "accurate" and "useful for survival" are mutually exclusive conditions.  When pressed to define why the probability would be low, since having some degree of accuracy should have some value to the survival of populations.  Also, he seems to be approaching accuracy as a binary quantity, rather than a sliding scale.  You can have varying degrees of accuracy in anything, and any assumption that cognitive and sensory accuracy is not necessarily functional in the survival of individuals across populations is demonstrably absurd.  I can't imagine any reason ever to believe this other than to just feed his completely fallacious argument.

Of course, when Plantinga is making this argument, he is confusing (or possibly deliberately colluding) ontological naturalism with methodological naturalism -- a practice that seems all but universal among Christan apologists. The notion that we have flawed views of reality presents no issue at all for the former, and he only seems to think it poses a problem for the latter, when in fact, it explains the need for the latter.  Plantinga likes to contend that in reality, we do have reliable senses.  This argument, as it so happens, is linked closely with his advocacy of Reformed Epistemology, and this is where Plantinga really shows the overarching weakness of his position. Plantinga's way of justifying theism is to say that it is not in need of explicit justification in the first place.  Although it cannot be taken as a purely true axiom, it is the sort of thing that is merely acceptable to believe for no reason.  What he calls a "properly basic belief" he claims, is generally warranted without need of supplying arguments for that warrant.  Yeah...  that's his master argument -- Christianity is justified because...  well, just because!  In one sense, this probably is the best possible argument that could ever be made for Christianity.  You can't actually provide any solid justification for it without actually producing Yahweh, which won't ever happen, so therefore you have to claim justification is for losers!  Nanna-nanna nah-nah!

Well, by doing this, what Plantinga is really trying to argue is the same "you can't disprove God" argument we've all already heard.  He is simply packaging it in the claim that belief in God is a properly basic belief such as the belief in the existence of other people.  But if it's supposed to be a properly basic belief, how is it warranted?  His argument invokes -- "If Christianity is true... then it's definitely warranted.  But you can't really show that it is unwarranted if you can't show that Christianity is false."  Yep.  In other words.  No one can prove it true, but you can't prove god doesn't exist!  To quote Captain Kirk... "How do you define 'unwarranted'?"  Put simply, it's all negative apologetics, which means it's inherently impossible to form a strong argument.

But there's a more basic problem here.  How is it that you can't declare just anything as "properly basic"?  Plantinga is, at least, not so naive as to think this argument wouldn't come up.  He just declines to provide any response, and merely repeats his assertion.  He had once argued that the objection assumes the criteria of Classical Foundationalism, when it does no such thing.  The point is that Plantinga's doesn't offer any criteria that wouldn't apply to just about any person.  Anybody can potentially offer the same depth and conviction of belief for any idea.  The man claims that we're inborn with a sense for the divine, which, since he asserts that all human senses and cognitive capacities are reasonably accurate within some bounds, this is enough to argue that belief in God is warranted.  Of course, we know empirically that his assertion is false, not just in most cases, but in all of them.  Moreover, even without pointing out the flaw in human senses, a mere feeling is not enough to make an argument for warrant, because the same feeling can easily apply to schizophrenics and mentally ill individuals.  A lot of defenders, and Plantinga himself argue that atheists seem to think that objections like this (most famously noted as the "Great Pumpkin Objection") attempt to reduce his positing of theism as properly basic to an absurdity.  What it really does is put forth a question of what criteria there is to argue that theistic belief can be considered as properly basic.  If there was something, anything, even remotely valid while simultaneously making theism special in any way that can't be reduced to something wholly fallacious...  which as we all know, is impossible.  This is also why there is not now, nor will there ever be an actual genuine attempt by Plantinga to respond to this question rather than straw-manning it.

Another obvious counterpoint is the simple fact that any atheist can reject the proposition of theism as a properly basic belief.  Belief in god is demonstrably groundless, after all.  Though, I'll admit that this is partly why atheism is not a properly basic belief in the same sense because it is not a positive claim in the first place.  It is a position which makes no specific claims, but is further guided by evidence, both in terms of a lack of conclusive evidence for the supernatural -- all of Plantinga's so-called examples to the contrary are historical cases of fallacious inference -- and a long history of ancient beliefs in the supernatural being proven conclusively wrong given enough time.  i.e., The theist has not only failed to meet the burden of proof, but has, in fact, put forth valid reasons not to believe.  Meaning, in fact, there is actual ground for rejecting the proposition that theism is a properly basic belief.  But either way, we're left with the fact that even if you are positing that theism is a properly basic belief, it isn't an argument for theism.  It's a desperate cry to shift the burden of proof away from the theist who actually makes the positive claim.  It's a game of claiming that your position is fair by redefining fairness.  It's a circular enterprise that imputes warrant for Christianity by couching it in Christian theological assumptions.

It fails on every level...  and Plantinga is fully aware of it.  He just does what all people of faith do.  Plug their ears and shout "la-la-la-la! I'm not listening!  Therefore, I actually win!"  Well, I guess that really is just about as good as it gets.