Thursday, April 20, 2017

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 10

In Chapter 10 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies,” Alvin Plantinga uses his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism to argue that science and naturalism are at odds, or discord. The core of the argument is this: if naturalism and evolution are true, then our minds have developed to value adaptive thinking, not necessarily true thinking. Therefore if you believe naturalism and evolution, you have no reason to believe your thinking is accurate. On the other hand, if you believe we are made in the image of god, you have a strong case for believing we can understand truth.
Books have been written about this particular argument of his, including “Naturalism Defeated?”, an anthology of criticisms of this theory. My sources for authors not hyperlinked can be found in that book. I’ve expanded my reading far beyond this chapter in the book in order to get a better bead on the argumentation. I will combine my own responses with those from others that I feel make important criticisms. I don’t think that his argument stands.

Evan Fales points out that Plantinga’s argument is unique to Judeo-Christian belief in mankind being created in the image of god. Furthermore, this conception rests upon a specific interpretation of Gen 1:26-27, one that holds that the characteristics of the human mind were given as a matter of man being made in the image of god, and makes the assumption that being made in this image actually imparts reliability. The problem of evil (we don’t really understand God’s purposes) and the Christian view of man’s sin (we are fallen and blinded by sin) very strongly argue against the reliability of our mental processes. The Judeo-Christian god tells us that his thoughts are high and far above our thoughts. Scripture tells us not to rely on our own insight, and that our hearts are deceitful. The Judeo-Christian representation of man’s mental capacity is pessimistic at best. Given the testimony of the rest of scripture, interpreting it to give mankind a reliable mind is a bit inconsistent.
What is ironic is that Plantinga would deny a literal reading of Genesis 1 anyway! This all seems very shaky ground to build an argument like this on. As we have seen throughout this book, when Plantinga says “theism,” he really means “Christian theism,” but he never stops to defend Christian theism, and specifically his understanding of it, from other theisms, much less define it. I think if he admitted he was arguing for Christian theism and was forced to defend these ideas on the basis of Christian doctrine, he would be in trouble.
Another great point is made in Richard Smith’s review of Plantinga’s book. If Plantinga is right and the accuracy of our thoughts depends on god creating the human mind, we would expect him to get it right. However we see in the physical world that god doesn’t get it right. Smith offers the examples of women dying in childbirth and children dying of fatal diseases. If our physical being is so imperfect then what gives us reason to expect that our cognitive faculties are trustworthy? So Plantinga’s alternative is unworkable and no alternative at all.
Under a naturalism+evolution framework, we can easily explain why humans hold false beliefs. If our mental faculties were an imprint of the image of god, how does he explain why humans hold false beliefs? Why is our tendency to hold false beliefs worse under naturalism+evolution than theism+evolution?
Natural selection isn’t about accuracy, but about functional sufficiency. I can be a terrible shot, but bring down a deer and have dinner if I happen to shoot it in such a way that it can’t run far. I’ve survived without being accurate. We may wince at the medical remedies of, say, the 18th century. But those remedies were functionally sufficient in that they had some success in promoting human life in certain cases. The same goes for any modern invention or theory that has functional application. We understand the forces of the atom enough to produce excess energy from fission, but not accurately enough to produce excess energy from fusion.
The same kinds of thinking we use to develop such theories and inventions as prove of benefit to us are the same kinds of thinking we use to arrive at naturalism. We see the world is messy and unoptimized in a way that does not comport with intentional design. Vestigial organs, vicious predation, traumatic insemination, childhood death, and the all too well known inefficiencies of the human body, to name just a few, do not bear the mark of a designer, but of an unguided process that allowed anybody to survive, if only they could.
A reading of the responses of Jerry Fodor and William Ramsey to Plantinga, together, suggest a that it is unlikely that false beliefs result in adaptive behavior more often than true beliefs. (It is also reasonable to assume that a mind uninterested in truth per se would happen upon true beliefs from time to time.) Therefore natural selection, while allowing for the potential adaptiveness of false beliefs, would favor true beliefs over time. Conversely, this shows that false beliefs are not systematically adaptive over the long run, even if they happen to be adaptive in a given instance. Therefore, naturalism+evolution would tend to produce reliable minds that operate more on true beliefs than false.
(Let’s not forget that while natural selection obviously perpetuates adaptive traits, it also perpetuates other traits that happen to co-exist in the same being, whether or not they are related. So we would not expect natural selection to result in the perfection of mankind’s thinking, anymore than natural selection would result in a perfect body.)
Plantinga tries to answer this objection in section 5C of chapter 10. To show how he doesn’t succeed, it is important to follow him carefully. Specifically, in the section dealing with reductive materialism (5B), he recognizes that under reductive materialism, neuro(physio)logical phenomena (NP) and content/belief are the same (“...NP properties also constitute the property of having such and such content…” p.334). Then he says “if these properties had constituted different content” (p. 335) without explaining why the same NP properties, under the reductive materialist conception, would result in different content. The concept of reductive materialism is that you CAN reduce content to NP properties. This has the effect that NP properties ARE content. Much of this chapter involves Plantinga trying to drive a wedge between NP properties and content, but you can’t do that with reductive materialism, and in fact he doesn’t even try, except for the above brief hypothetical, which doesn’t make any sense in the context.
Reviewing the section on reductive materialism with an understanding that Plantinga at least implicitly realizes that NP properties and belief content are the same under this conception, we find that his argument against reductive materialism is primarily that the NP/belief structures do not have to be true to be adaptive. He does say that they MAY be true within a naturalist conception (“...if this content, this proposition, were true; it could just as well be false” p.334). He implies that, given naturalism+evolution, truth and error would exist. In fact nowhere in his argumentation does he claim otherwise. This is important because if truth exists, then truth is an accurate representation of reality. Therefore we return to our argument that although false beliefs can be adaptive, true beliefs would be more likely to be adaptive, and thus mental processes leading to true beliefs would tend to be favored by natural selection.
It is important to lay out that there is no wedge between NP properties and beliefs under reductive materialism because his objection in section 5C to our argument tries to insert the wedge yet again. Specifically, when he says that the argument is irrelevant because it doesn’t account for how things would be under a naturalism+evolution conception, he is arguing that under naturalism+evolution, NP and belief content are unrelated. But as we see, he has no good reason to argue that, especially if we hold to reductive materialism. Richard Smith argues in his review:

“...we developed multiple levels of simple and complex representations, of the internal world, of the external world, of possible outcomes and possible threats, of the past, and of possible futures, all interlocking in fantastically complex ways. This is what humans are best at. It's how we overcame so many obstacles and learned so many problem-solving survival skills.
“These representations are what the neurophysiological structures encode. And a reasonable idea is that their activation and processing constitute our thoughts as we experience them from the inside of the processing activity. There is simply no evidence or reason to postulate that these structures also encode content confusingly different from what they have so painstakingly encoded in the first place.”

Man’s physical survival involves a response to pain. Sometimes that pain is psychological in nature, which is to say that a specific negative mental state induces an attempt to correct it. Mankind at a very early stage would be most discomfited hearing a growling predator and not seeing it. Humans who could theorize their way out of such a situation would have a significant survival advantage. This developed into a generalized discomfort with missing or conflicting information. From this evolutionary tendency spring all manner of thought and theory (including religion and philosophy) as mankind variously encounters cognitive holes or dissonance. There is no good reason to suppose that these theories are, generally speaking, any less accurate (or representative of reality) with respect to their evidence than the theory that a predator is behind a rock, given that the same kind of mental activity is involved in interpreting the evidence. These higher theories are simply derivatives of the same types of thought processes.
This is true because, as Jerry Fodor points out, the action of natural selection in relation to mental fitness is centered on mental processes, not knowledge. A child may be born with high intelligence from his parents, but must still go to school to learn. To the extent that these mental processes produce more truth, as I argued prior, they have a better shot at promoting survival than mental processes that produce more error.
Some observers of Plantinga’s argument have noted that what he is really arguing against is philosophical naturalism, not methodological naturalism. Which is to say that science approaches the world with a naturalist methodology but does not make naturalist philosophical claims. Very well; however, it should be pointed out that what has been proven by modern science via methodological naturalism is generally accepted as true. How is it that the assumption of falsity (naturalism+evolution), if it is false, produces truth on such a consistent basis? (This is why some less charitable individuals have suggested that creationists give up the conveniences of modern life, if they don’t agree with the science that made them possible. Ostensibly they might now feel justified in extending this suggestion to Plantinga and those who agree with him.)

In my look at Chapter 9 we saw that the activity of the universe after the big bang created our universe with laws that were frozen shortly after, making the laws of the universe “accidental truths,” over against the necessitarianism advocated by Plantinga. If we consider multiple universes, each with their own big bang, each with their own laws of physics, we will not assume that truth in one universe is truth in another. Truth is dependant upon the state of universe one finds themselves in. It is necessarily incumbent upon the inhabitants of any given universe to discover these “accidental truths” on their own. It cannot be any other way.
So we see he must defend necessitarianism to defend his argument against evolution+naturalism, but our current knowledge of physics very much calls necessitarianism into question.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 9

In Chapter 9 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, Plantinga tries to show that science and theism are, at the root, very compatible, or as he puts it, in “deep concord”.

Plantinga tries to ground the logical and physical necessity of the laws of the universe on the existence of a god who set these laws. When he speaks of necessity he means that, in a logical or physical sense, it is necessary that the laws be the way they are, as opposed to common everyday conceptions of “necessity” that revolve around the inevitability of these laws.
It is important to make this distinction because his argument for theism in this area (or at least his version of it) requires the establishment of what is known as Necessitarianism, or the idea that the laws of nature are necessarily so, rather than merely a matter of uniformity or regularity. If the laws of nature are a matter of ad hoc convention, it’s hard to argue for god on that basis.
Plantinga uses the argument that just because something is true doesn’t make it a law, and gives the example of a house full of elderly people. Of course there is no reason that it has to be that way; younger people can also stay in houses. it just so happens that it is that way, in a given case.
The other argument against the alternative view that the laws of nature are accidental truths (Regularity) is that if a law does not exist out of necessity, how can we have order and law in our world? Wouldn’t laws so formed change all the time?
The flaws in this argument are several. First, there is no warrant to view the laws of nature as a single monolithic whole. Second, this argument is not compatible with science.
We now understand that the laws in operation within the extreme heat of the big bang are different than the laws of our universe as we know them today. In the aftermath of the big bang, as the universe expanded and cooled, the physical characteristics and associated “laws” literally froze into place. In another big bang, the physical characteristics and “laws” will freeze in a different state. Truly the laws of nature to which we are accustomed are very clearly accidental truths. These truths will not change until the conditions of the next big bang recur.
The complaint may be raised that I am simply moving the question a step back. However it is sufficient for the present discussion revolving around why any particular universe is the way it is and why us humans in this universe understand it as we do. You can try to argue that god is “upholding” the “laws” frozen in place during the random splurging of the last big bang but why?

Plantinga goes on to claim that the fact that the universe is (mostly) explainable through complex mathematics is evidence of intelligent design. I find this not so odd at all. Mathematics is, fundamentally, about relationships. In any universe, you’ll find certain relationships between things. Those relationships will be able to be described through some sort of math. He tries to say that the level of complexity is not to be expected and is greater than what you might find in another universe. However, I fail to see why this must be the case. Anyway this line of argument is just the watchmaker argument all over again.
Consider two things: that the application of mathematics to the real world is understood as quantitative reasoning, and that mathematics is an abstraction. Mathematics is an abstraction because it merely quantifies and thus necessarily does not account for the whole of any situation; any abstraction is necessarily missing data and is at risk of becoming an over-simplification. Consider scientific theories that look great on paper but end up being devilishly hard to prove in an experimental setting. Then some scientist has a eureka moment and realizes the missing factor that makes it all work. We get so caught up in the abstraction we sometimes miss a crucial piece.
That mathematics is an abstract, synthetic framework for dealing with reality is rather obvious in specific cases. As the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone divides by zero. Our mathematical frameworks allow us to consider things like this even though they “break” reality.
Back to the point, arguing for a designer based on the fact that our description of things is complex is the same as arguing for a designer based on our impression that things are complex. The latter argument has already been discussed.

So very much of his argument in this chapter rests on the concept that mankind was made in the image of god. Having been made in the image of god, and seeing that we value the following things, it is held to be obvious that god holds these values, and has endowed us so that we would, in fact, value these things:
Simplicity, elegance, and beauty
Inductive reasoning
Abstract concepts and reasoning (including mathematics)
I’ll look at each of these, but three replies must be made immediately. First, such theism is merely creating god in mankind’s own image. Seeing that mankind values such things, it assumes there is a god that values such things, and further assumes that god created mankind to innately value such things.
Secondly and consequently, unfounded assumptions are made as to the nature, character and intent of god’s being.
Third, such argumentation is basically the same as the fine-tuning argument, and the same reply applies here. It is much more likely that we have come to be precisely what we are because natural selection has tuned us to the environment and universe we are in--I mean, that is the whole function of natural selection!

Simplicity can be understood as mental efficiency. Why waste effort with complexity when you have a simple explanation? Many people in fact take this too far and oversimplify things. Our sense of elegance and beauty are derivatives of desirable/adaptive traits in the real world applied in different contexts.

Plantinga seems to think that because it is impossible for a human being to think of all abstract concepts, then these must have an origin in the divine mind. The fact that an unknown abstract can be used to describe a state or action does not mean the abstract exists on its own, but neither must the abstract be known for the state or action it describes to be valid. I don’t label my trash can “trash can” but it still functions as a trash can even if I were 3 years old and knew little of the idea but just knew that’s where I put stuff I didn’t want.

Confusion can arise here because the common use of the term abstract is to refer to anything that is intangible, such as love or addiction. Plantinga’s “abstract” seems to reference concepts, not intangible things, as evidenced by his example of real numbers. But then he turns around and talks about “abstract objects.” He still means concepts, as he is arguing along the lines of who is thinking these things, but it is important to note that he is not referencing intangible realities here (unless he truly is confusing these points, then I’d like to know the difference between pain and the number three). So of course no human being is going to think of all possible concepts for explaining everything, but that doesn’t mean god had to think of them first for everything to function like it does. Things function like they do because of the physical laws of the universe, and the physical laws of the universe are the way they are regardless of how we conceive of them.

He makes the argument that the development of advanced science and mathematics indicates a divine impulse since that would not be required for survival. While understanding trigonometry would be of little use to the Flintstones, perhaps, understanding trigonometry today is essential to certain good careers that can provide a good living. Basically, as our society became more complex, man looked for more advantages over nature, and eventually that began to require advanced concepts. In the service of applied science for mankind’s benefit, all manner of theoretical science flourished.

Plantinga claims there is no rational reason for inductive reasoning since the future could be different. In other words, there is no reason to believe we can truly learn by experience since we can’t predict the future. His answer is that god has given us the faculty of inductive reasoning along with a world that makes it successful. Aside from being another flavor of the fine tuning argument, it argues too much. I think of the line they always tell you when pitching financial investments, that past performance does not predict future returns. This is true, just as much as you don’t know if you will be in an auto accident tomorrow.

This being the case, if god gave us a world where inductive reasoning is successful then how can we explain the failures of the weatherman, the drop in the stock portfolio that was a sure thing, the failure of a previously committed relationship, or the death of someone in an accident even though they were driving a car with top safety ratings and no fatalities to date?

We understand inductive reasoning to be pretty infallible at the level of physics and extremely tentative when predicting the outcome of a football game. In between are grades of reliance; we inductively reason about everything but rely on those conclusions in wildly different amounts depending on the situation.

Again, the physical laws of universe remain constant until the next big bang, so there is no reason to suspect that an alternative reality branching off from any time after the last big bang would make those physical laws any different than we now experience them. It is just not relevant to humanity as it has ever existed post-big bang.

I must comment on the dichotomy he draws between god’s will and his intelligence. He seems to claim that god’s will is capricious and arbitrary and god’s intelligence is reasonable and measured. It’s like god has the characteristics of an angry Zeus but suppresses them in his infinite greatness, at least sometimes, and especially as it relates to creation. It seems, again, like we are making god in our image.

The Judeo-Christian god is in fact, sometimes benevolent and sometimes very hurtful and violent, so I guess I get Plantinga’s impulse. However the Christian church sees one god, as far as I know, so if you are going to claim that he is always good, then his will and his intelligence must be good. In fact, wouldn’t it be easier to claim that his will is good and the outworking of that will as expressed in his wisdom and intelligence is also good? I think he wants to believe this, despite saying otherwise, especially when he defends the primacy of god’s intelligence over his will by quoting Samuel Clarke ascribing the orderliness of the law of nature to the “will of god”.

In the last portion of this chapter, Plantinga builds on his earlier argument that our understanding of logic and the abstract is a characteristic given by god, adding to it that god chose to create the universe in the way he did and not any other way, not of necessity but of choice. Therefore mankind understands the need for empirical science, to scope out the characteristics of the universe that god chose. There is a boundary between a-priori knowledge involving logic and reason and abstract and posteriori knowledge involving the empirical evidence, and it is defined by the character of god on the one hand and the contingency of creation on the other.

This whole argument screams “unnecessary hypothesis” to me. Why not empiricism the whole way down, aided by logic and reason and abstract thinking that has been bred into us by many generations of natural selection? We’ve encountered a world of regularity, and our brains have evolved to process it in a regular way.

Finally I must take note of a quote from Einstein that he uses in a rather misleading way on pp. 275-276:

“Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men.”

The context of this quote is set by another quote from Robert Boyle on p. 275:

“God [is] the author of the universe, and the free establisher of the laws of motion.”

To the effect that Einstein is represented as concurring with the same idea as Boyle. However, the full quote from Einstein shows he meant differently:

“On the other hand, however, every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. The pursuit of science leads therefore to a religious feeling of a special kind, which differs essentially from the religiosity of more naive people.”

He is speaking of spirit as a “religious feeling”, not a spirit being, which he instead ascribes to naive religiosity.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 8

In Chapter 8 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, Alvin Plantinga advances the arguments of intelligent design proponent Michael Behe, argues for the design argument on the basis of the foundationalist epistemology, and concludes that evolutionary science does not defeat the design argument.

It’s been very beneficial to examine each chapter thoroughly as Plantinga starts building on his earlier argumentation in earnest in this chapter.

The arguments of Michael Behe make it very clear that proponents of intelligent design simply do not understand natural selection. It has been clear throughout that fundamental misunderstandings of natural selection are at the root of many arguments in favor of intelligent design and divine intervention. It seems necessary to restate again the principles of natural selection as it relates to evolution.

Evolution is the confluence of natural selection and deep time. Deep time provides an excellent probability that natural selection occurred.
By natural selection we mean unguided natural selection involving nothing more than the actions of the laws of nature and the universe. Otherwise it would perhaps be supernatural selection.
Natural selection does not mean that only adaptive traits get passed on. It means that organisms that survive get to pass on their traits, which include adaptive and nonadaptive traits.
Natural selection operates through descent with modification. The modification that occurs may occur in any direction. It may add characteristics, remove characteristics, or change characteristics.
This means that although natural selection tends to be adaptive in the long run, each modification is not necessarily adaptive. Thus natural selection is an unoptimized process. We would not expect to see natural selection resulting in optimal designs.
Sometimes non-adaptive traits get modified to become adaptive traits. There exist multiple paths to any given adaptation that do not always involve adaptation at each step.
Thus, natural selection predicts nothing. It is a bottom-up process that may or may not result in the survival of a species. Where it results in survival, the results will be seen to be very much in tune with the environment the surviving species find themselves in.

With that basis, the first order of business is to examine the “irreducible complexity” argument directly. Behe is not a pioneer here by any means, either logically or scientifically, merely repurposing ideas for his own conclusions. Logically, “irreducible complexity” is nothing more than the “watchmaker argument” at a smaller level. His argument then is really only (potentially) novel at the level of his scientific evidence.
Scientifically, “irreducible complexity” is design-inspired reimagining of what was understood as far back as 1918 as “interlocking complexity” by geneticist Hermann Muller. Muller argued that interlocking complexity is an expected result of evolution through natural selection. Evolution is not just gradual addition, but gradual modification, and this provides the mechanism through complexity can arise by degrees yet end up functionally “irreducible”. The image that comes to my mind is that of an ocean liner whose smokestacks have rusted away leaving only the many, many layers of paint applied through the years.
Sometimes an unnecessary part becomes necessary. In a primer on Muller’s idea, Dr. Douglas Theobald explains it this way: consider a bridge made of three blocks. You then overlay a flat surface over all three blocks. Finally, you remove the middle block. You still have a bridge, and the flat surface, initially unnecessary, has become necessary, while the middle block, initially necessary, has become unnecessary.
H. Allen Orr, in his review of “Darwin’s Black Box”, describes another potential mechanism in the form of increasingly symbiotic relationships. Consider that adaptation A is advantageous, and is subsequently joined by adaptation is B, which is advantageous in that it assists the function of A. Later, adaptation A further adapts to make better use of B, to the point where A now requires B. B, which at one point was unnecessary, served to turn both A and B into necessary parts of a system.
The fatal flaw in Behe’s concept of “irreducible complexity” is that natural selection, as I highlighted above, is not merely the addition of parts in a linear fashion. There are steps forward, steps back, additions, subtractions, modifications, etc. and these play together to give us the world we have today.

In his book “The Edge of Evolution”, Behe narrows the scope of intelligent design to the molecular level. In particular, he argues that evolution has produced no new protein-protein interactions (combinations of proteins that carry out cellular tasks) since the first cells showed up on the scene. These interactions are seemingly held to be “irreducibly complex.”

He further argues that natural selection can’t adapt to threats that require multiple mutations in the protein-protein interactions. He uses the example of malaria, which has multiplied massively since the introduction of anti-malarial drugs many years ago. Although it has acquired resistance to chloroquine in a number of cases, it has only done so after a massive number of generations, which demonstrates that in more complex organisms with longer life-times, it is highly unlikely that such a thing would happen.

Plantinga notes two good objections to this; first, that what happens with host-parasite interactions such as malaria and HIV might not apply more generally. Second, that if two protein-protein mutations are required, a single mutation may be preserved by natural selection (either in conjunction with another adaptive trait or by virtue of conferring some adaptive benefit on its own) until the second mutation comes into being. He does not reply to these arguments but instead turns to the probabilities and realizes we have no good way of evaluating that.

So Behe’s argument here seems to just lose its legs, especially given that there is evidence that new protein-protein interactions have evolved. From a review of “The Edge of Evolution” by David Levin:

“Behe is likely aware of at least some of the existing evidence that new protein-to-protein interactions have evolved. One must look no further than one of his acknowledged examples of evolutionary prowess. Under the heading of "What Darwinism Can Do," he describes the stepwise evolution of an antifreeze protein from a digestive enzyme in Antarctic fish. This was an important evolutionary adaptation that allowed fish that possess this protein to survive in frigid Antarctic waters. However, he omits an interesting detail from his description - the antifreeze protein has sugars added to it (by an enzyme), whereas the protein from which it evolved does not. Therefore, a new protein-to-protein interaction must also have evolved to allow modification of the antifreeze protein. In fact, this beautiful example of evolution involves the construction of significant complexity.”

Plantinga skips by defending the watchmaker argument as an argument and defends it on the basis of the foundationalist “given”. That is to say, that if we perceive something by direct observation, the truth of that perception is a given. Foundationalism (or, at least, a specific version of it) then will regard that that perception as a proper ground of knowledge. He goes on to argue that when we perceive nature’s complexity as the work of a designer, that perception then, is valid as a basis of knowledge.

This particular brand of foundationalism involves what is called phenomenal conservatism. From the article on Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“the justifying state is a “seeming” or “appearance”: if it seems to S that P, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has some degree of justification for believing that P”

Plantinga defends such phenomenal conservatism and the impression of nature as intelligently designed as an independently sound justification under this form of epistemology.

It is unlikely that the impression of nature as intelligently designed qualifies as a justification under the measure of phenomenal conservatism, since it is inferential itself. For example, one would not approach such an impression unless one decided that it first seemed like nature was complex. In the sense that we are discussing, the concept that nature is complex might be a justified belief (or might not), but derivations of that belief are by definition not foundationally justifiable on their own.

The impression of intelligent design also would not count as a foundationally justifiable seeming/perception since it is affected by propositional attitudes. Especially for the theist, they would have prior justification to believe there is a designer. For the non-theist, the impression of intelligent design would be based in a prior justification that certain levels of complexity require agency.

As an inferential belief, the watchmaker/design argument is fair game for logical argumentation. The perception of design cannot stand on its own as a foundational belief.

Having bypassed dealing with the widely accepted defeat of the watchmaker argument by claiming it finds its basis in perception, he then claims that Darwinism can only provide a rebuttal if it demonstrates that evolutionary science has proven that natural selection is unguided. He rests on his arguments against Dawkins and Dennett in chapters 1 and 2 to claim that Darwinism has not, in fact, shown this.

I am also unsure how a theistic evidence base fits into this. He never really told us what defines a theistic evidence base; if I assume it is revelation, how does that fit into his foundationalism? Or do we really have the truth “written on our hearts” and a proper application of foundationalism will reveal that all men understand the truth of this theistic evidence base?

He moves on to rebutting and undercutting defeaters. He claims that Darwinism does not rebut guided natural selection since it only describes the mechanism. Here we have an admission from Dennett himself (which I am surprised wasn’t quoted) in chapter 11 of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (pp.317-318):

“It would be foolhardy, however, for any defender of neo-Darwinism to claim that contemporary evolution theory gives one the power to read history so finely from present data as to rule out the earlier historical presence of rational designers—a wildly implausible fantasy, but a possibility after all.”

We won’t argue something these two men agree on.

However, the inability to rule out something does not make an idea worth holding.

So then moving past rebutting we come to what Plantinga calls undercutting defeaters. This is where is has become vitally important for him to have established the truth of the design argument, since it is now presented as a justified belief that is not sufficiently undercut by Darwinism. Let us remember that his attempt to put the design argument on foundationalist footing failed, and he did not attempt a refutation of the well established arguments against it. So the design argument fails, leaving us with no argument for Darwinism to undercut. We are merely left with a battle of probabilities between guided and unguided evolution.

He goes back to his foundationalist argumentation to argue that fine-tuning and Behe’s irreducible complexity can be accepted on the same grounds; that is, we perceive fine-tuning and irreducible complexity, therefore, we can accept them as justified beliefs in much the same way that we accept what we perceive what is around us. The same objections apply--these concepts are derivative of other basic perceptions and involve propositional attitudes and so ought to be dealt with on the level of argument and not, as he calls it, “discourse”.

Having no design argument for Darwinism to undercut, he then pulls out Behe’s biological evidence for irreducible complexity. Now keep in mind that Behe’s argument here is that you can’t explain how this came to be by unguided natural selection so it must be designed. Besides being a non-sequitur on the face of it, since then science has explained more, and gathered more evidence, to substantiate unguided evolution in those areas Behe mentioned. It just seems like hanging on to Behe is another god-of-the-gaps bit of thinking.

Plantinga seems to back off to the level of saying that Darwinism doesn’t provide significant undercutters and so does not offer any defeaters. But again, defeaters for what? What argument has Plantinga successfully defended that Darwinism is undercutting? Argument from design? Fine-tuning? Irreducible complexity? None of these has he successfully defended outside of trying to claim some are epistemologically valid on their own, which doesn’t work either.

He wraps up the chapter with a discussion of what he calls “deflector beliefs”, those beliefs that result in not being able to arrive at a separate specific belief. At a very simple level the concept is one of presuppositions; the beliefs you bring into a situation will influence the beliefs you form about a situation. This is just as much an argument against the argument from design as anything else. If my children are taught evolution through natural selection at a young age and do not receive religious teachings, the argument from design will have no foothold. The argument from design will be, quite simply, a non-starter. They won’t be employing the same propositional attitudes as a theist. Plantinga offers that a hypothetical neutral observer would likely be pre-disposed to conclude design, but doesn’t thoroughly argue that point. I don’t think it can be well defended in any case.

At this point I think he is far from disproving unguided natural selection (UNS). I think it is very important to argue here for it. In Dennett’s book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, he notes Aristotle’s four basic questions that man asks about anything, also known as the four causes. From page 23:

“(1) We may be curious about what something is made of, its matter or material cause.
(2) We may be curious about the form (or structure or shape) that that matter takes, its formal cause.
(3) We may be curious about its beginning, how it got started, or its efficient cause.
(4) We may be curious about its purpose or goal or end (as in "Do the ends justify the means?" ), which Aristotle called its telos, sometimes translated in English, awkwardly, as "final cause."”

#1 asks what is it? #2 asks what is it made of? #3 asks how did come about? #4 asks why is it, or what is its purpose?
Let’s take for our subject the universe as it exists today, and reflect on these four questions, as they would be answered by UNS, versus how they would be answered by natural selection guided by a designer (TE, theistic evolution).

#1: The material and final result of TE is indistinguishable from UNS.
#2: The mechanism of TE is indistinguishable from UNS.
#3: TE involves an unnecessary hypothesis that is not required by UNS.
#4: UNS is by definition purposeless. TE, on the other hand, requires purpose, but does not tell us what that purpose is. Where it attempts to do so, it establishes religion and fails by way of the argument from pluralism. For example, why did god use evolution, not 6 days of creation? Why did god cause the world to come into being the way it did?

Unguided natural selection is the better explanation. Arguing for TE is a grand exercise in scientific proof texting.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 7

In Chapter 7 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, Alvin Plantinga advances the fine-tuning argument (FTA). FTA argues that since the conditions required for life as we know it are exacting, and we happen to be in a universe in which those conditions exist, this indicates a designer that set those conditions.

The main objection to the fine-tuning argument is the anthropic objection, which states that, well, of course things look fine-tuned, because we exist. This involves the observer selection principle: we can only observe fine-tuning because it is required for us to be here. If it was otherwise, we wouldn’t observe it.
Plantinga replies by pointing out that just because this is the case, it doesn’t mean that fine-tuning can’t say anything about how we got here. FTA is a question not just of circumstantial alternatives but of intentional intervention which he claims carries a greater probability.
However I think the main point of the anthropic objection is that we can’t discover any purpose for such tuning merely through reverse engineering, because we will see it in terms biased to our own existence. Theistic FTA works backward from the way things are (a finely-tuned universe) to argue for intelligent design. It’s like assuming a frozen lake you run across was made that way so you can ice skate. Or that a good sledding hill was explicitly made so you could sled. Or that oil deposits formed so that mankind could drive SUVs in the 21st century. It’s a non-sequitur to say these things were made for those purposes, even though they serve these purposes quite well.

We don’t make those kind of arguments about frozen lakes and oil deposits and snow covered, steep hills because it is obvious that natural processes just happened to work in our favor. More to the point, the existing use and purposes of snowy hills, frozen lakes, and oil deposits built upon natural phenomena that were not designed for those functions.

Just like we assume the natural processes occurring today were the driving force behind natural selection, so we, as a corollary, understand the emergence of life to be contingent on the natural forces that guided natural selection. Which is to say, that natural selection proceeded on the basis of those characteristics of the universe that are said to be fine-tuned. It is no wonder then, that the outcome of natural selection comports very nicely with how the universe is. Put simply, natural selection fine-tuned life for the universe, rather than the other way around.

Natural selection could have done so even if the characteristics of the universe were different than what they happen to be. The variables would have been different and the outcomes would have been different, but the universe, in that different state, would seem fine-tuned to “life”, courtesy of natural selection.

It should be pointed out, that although natural selection may proceed under the different physical laws of an alternate universe or the different chemistries of other planets, it is not a given when or if the process of natural selection begins. The particular tuning of the universe does not automatically result in life. To me this is another argument against FTA.

Plantinga offers a poker analogy, whereby he claims that, as the circumstances for life come into place, it becomes more and more exceptional that this is so, much like a poker player playing several very high valued hands in a row is exceptional. However this poker analogy doesn’t work. A succession of high valued hands is only exceptional if the hands are known to be valuable. Within the paradigm of unguided natural selection, the characteristics of the universe that we might consider fine-tuned were not understood to be “valuable hands” yet, until natural selection produced life favorable to those characteristics.

At this point the whole fine-tuning argument breaks down when you realize that FTA primarily deals with the probabilities of the universe having specific characteristics. For if we see that the characteristics in question are not, on a perfectly unbiased and objective level, necessarily favorable to anything specific at their instantiation, then the probability of the universe being fine-tuned is irrelevant (to the theist anyway), and the probability of natural selection is really the whole question. (I’ve already defended that earlier.)

Of course, Plantinga has (prematurely) dispensed with unguided natural selection by this point in the book.

Another response to the fine-tuning argument is the many universe argument. Given what we know about the big bang and the expansion and contraction of the universe, it seems that there are many universes, if not parallel with each other, than at least in succession. The big bang results in a universe with specific characteristics, which then exists for a time and collapses on itself, resulting in another big bang and a new universe with new characteristics. I think of it like a string of pearls, each pearl representing a universe. Given then, countless numbers of universes, it isn’t improbable that at least one of them would have the conditions our universe has.

Plantinga’s answer is that this doesn’t answer the probability that OUR universe had these characteristics, out of all of them. The problem with this reply is that “our universe” has no meaning in this context. Every universe belongs to whatever life-forms find themselves in it; the fact of adaptation through natural selection says nothing about how special our universe is, and much more about how ordinary it is. That fact that the universe happens to be “ours” doesn’t make it special. It doesn’t make it rarer or less likely. Unless you are a theist that believes god has made man for a special purpose and importance.

It is this last bit where Plantinga allows some of his “theist evidence base” to play a role in his argumentation. Of course, as we discussed in the last chapter, any “theist evidence base” is making a ton of assumptions, and he makes assumptions here. In arguing against the many universe argument, he says that the existence of god makes the fine-tuning argument more likely, because god would be interested in creating life. This is an assumption; why is god interested in creating life? Why would he care or take notice at all? As I said earlier, perhaps our universe is like a splotch of mold in god’s backyard that he would surely destroy if he gave us any attention at all.

One of the major corroborating arguments against fine-tuning and for natural selection fine-tuning life to the universe is the lack of optimization. The existence of life is a messy affair. Natural selection has surely adapted life to the universe in certain places but not optimized it. A designer would optimize. Natural processes merely adapt, and unoptimized adaptation is exactly what we see.

If god had a hand in fine-tuning the universe or guiding evolution, he did a sloppy job.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 6

Here is my critique on Chapter 6 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies” by Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga argues that science does not defeat Christian belief because it excludes the evidence base of Christian theists. Basically, the inclusion of the evidence base of Christian theism makes scientific theories denying religion and the supernatural improbable.

I must quote a portion of this chapter here because I believe it is one of the keystone passages of this book:

“(...) the evidence base of a Christian theist will include theism, belief in God and also the main lines of the Christian faith, therefore it will assign a high probability to hypotheses probable with respect to the Christian faith.” (p.168)

This statement seems tautologically irrelevant. Of course if you start with certain assumptions then you will end up favoring theories that comport with those assumptions. That proves nothing.

However I think the thing to really be aware of in this chapter is how Plantinga starts slipping in new ideas and concepts by using words that he doesn’t take time to properly define and defend. The first being “Christian theism”. Up to this point theism has been treated rather generically. In fact you’ll remember a few chapters ago were Plantinga attempted to answer the argument from pluralism by resorting to generic theism. Now all of a sudden the topic is Christian theism, and the special set of evidence that Christian theism brings to the table. He doesn’t talk about why we are focusing on Christian theism, as opposed to say Islamic theism, or the theism of a random Amazon river tribe. Or for that matter, the Christian theism of a liberal mainline denomination, which night have no problem joining agnostic scientists in excising the supernatural from our “evidence base.”

To say that agnosticism doesn’t disprove theism is something anyone can accept. However the author goes further than this in placing the facts of Christian theism on the same level of evidence as the facts of science. This is where he fails spectacularly. Like I said above, he uses words like faith, belief, memory, perception, and revelation more or less interchangeably. He illustrates the idea of the “evidence” afforded by belief by giving an analogy where he is falsely accused, and can’t defend his alibi although he remembers clearly being elsewhere than the scene of the crime. He implies that asking theists to not include theistic beliefs in their evidence base is like asking scientists to not include anything from memory. The problem with comparing memory of events to a theistic evidence base is that the memory of events is a matter of recalled observation and lies firmly within the realm of reason, not faith.

What is very clear here is that we are dealing with very different categories which are muddled by virtue of the author inserting words like these without introducing their concepts and integrating them properly into his argument. Specifically, he needed to elucidate the concept of revelation and make an argument for its parity with normal scientific evidence. He doesn’t do so.

His first use of the word “revelation” is on p.172:

“(...) according to MN [methodological naturalism] the parameters for a scientific theory are not to include reference to God or any other supernatural agents (although, again, they can refer to beliefs about the supernatural); and the theory, like the data set, also can’t employ what one knows or thinks one knows by way of revelation.”

He seems to equate faith and revelation on p.178:

“(...) faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment.”

Then almost denies revelation on p.179:

“But there are many of the deliverances of faith such that it is at least plausible to think that they cannot be known by way of reason.”

The can of worms is now open for business. Which is it, Plantinga? Is revelation central to faith or not? If it is plausible that faith “cannot be known by way of reason” then is it also plausible that faith CAN be known by way of reason? If can be known by way of reason then whither faith? Let’s all be methodologically naturalistic scientists. He throws his whole argument away here.

Assuming that faith requires revelation, what places this revelation on par with scientific evidence obtained by reason/observation? According to our quote from p.172, revelation can be “what one knows or thinks one knows”. It seems like we can’t even be sure about the content of revelation let alone its importance. He admits in footnote 3 in this chapter that this will differ between Christian sects, and his non-treatment of non-Christian theism doesn’t even touch the fact that it will REALLY differ between all religions. And not all religions (or even Christian sects) need a defense against “methodologically naturalistic” science.

Assuming the revelation in question is an interpretation of the Christian faith that requires such a defense (that’s a WHOLE LOT OF GIVENS for the sake of argument) then aren’t we qualified to inquire as to the validity of that revelation? How does the revelation primarily come? Christians are split on this; evangelicals will say scripture, Catholics will admit the revelation of scripture but condition its interpretation by the church, Pentecostals will add revelation through the spirit, etc. Mormons, for their part, believe writings from a set of gold plates that are no longer available because Joseph Smith returned them to the angel Moroni. I grew up around Christians that claimed to receive leading from god all the time.

(It is an interesting commentary on the whole issue that the conflict between science and religion tends to be the sharpest for those Christian sects that hold most closely to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Sola scriptura has evolved, through the classic fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and into the modern evangelical era, to incorporate a doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy. This means that every word (“verbal plenary”) is without error (“inerrant”) by virtue of being given by god to the writers of scripture (“inspiration”). Thus the stage is set where these battles must be fought.)

Anybody can claim a revelation, thereby creating their own body of evidence, and go on to challenge science, I suppose. If we allow the Christians to do this, we must allow all religions to do this. What about the claims of Scientology? Unless Plantinga wants to clarify for us what a valid revelation is, how we can know it, and whether faith even requires revelation at all!

Thus the chapter ends very “head-scratchingly”. On page 187 he contrasts “empirical evidence” with theism, but at the end of the chapter says that we should engage in “empirical study unconstrained by methodological naturalism”, when he hasn’t even told us why we should consider revelation empirical, much less what kind of revelation is valid in the first place. He suggests we practice “Christian science”, but not the “Mary Baker Eddy” type. Well, why NOT the Mary Baker Eddy type?

Is not science very rightly justified in bypassing all of this mess with an agnostic view of the supernatural? We should be very thankful for such “methodological naturalism.”

I am just so incredulous about this chapter. Let me just say that I’ve never taken my car to the mechanic for a problem and had it traced back to the supernatural. I suppose Plantinga would disagree that maybe in some instances some kind of god-directed quantum system wave function collapse might have caused what appears to be a natural problem? Or does all this theory only apply to questions of origins. Of course some Christians will claim that god made my car break down because I am in rebellion to him. If my mechanic is a Christian maybe he will print that up on the service receipt. I mean it IS part of his evidence base, right? I can see it now, “FAILURE OF STARTER MOTOR DUE TO DIVINE INTERVENTION TO COUNTER CUSTOMER’S SPIRITUAL REBELLION.” There is scriptural warrant for such a conclusion. It’s no worse than “THE UNIVERSE AS WE KNOW IT TODAY BROUGHT INTO EXISTENCE DUE TO DIVINE INTERVENTION TO BRING MORE GLORY TO GOD.”

The author tries to claim that the beliefs involved in a theistic evidence base can in fact be defeated. He gives the example of several passages in scripture that imply a flat earth. (In other words, revelation appears to contradict direct observation.) Obviously a part of the Christian theist evidence base is falsified right? Well… the short version of the author’s argument is that it is not the revelation itself that is at fault but his interpretation that is at fault.

The second can of worms is now open for business. There’s the obvious bait and switch--we thought the theistic evidence base was important but now it can be a matter of individual interpretation, and only that can be defeated, not the faith itself. Okay that’s fine but as your theistic evidence base is now shown to be merely an interpretation of revelation, there is nothing preventing anyone from reinterpreting away the revelation underpinning the theistic evidence base. If your revelation is the Old and New Testaments, call it all symbolic and literary and let’s all agree with the scientists. You say you can’t call it all symbolic and literary? What characteristic of your revelation, or what secondary revelation, provides the authority to interpret it in the way that results in your preferred theistic evidence base? Or are you just being a good Protestant and making this decision on your own? The author hasn’t really laid a framework for the concept of revelation.

All the logical formulaic argumentation he uses in section 7 (“The Reduction Test”) is a fancy way of saying when the observed phenomena contradict the theistic evidence base, toss the existing interpretation (reduce) and reinterpret revelation so that it matches what you observe. It’s as if we can’t possibly know what god has to say so we have to keep figuring out what we think god is saying as science shows us new things by continuing to shove him further and further into gaps where science does not speak or contravene. I am very strongly of the opinion that such a Christianity is worthless.

So basically when science contradicts your religion, simply overweight your side of the argument with your interpretation of your religion’s revelation or, failing that, reinterpret your religion’s revelation to eliminate the inconsistency. It’s old “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bulls**t” routine, except in reverse.

This is the “Christian science” Plantinga thinks we should engage in.

I’ll end my critique of this chapter by highlighting a very interesting admission that he makes in regard to human facilities of knowledge. In section 5 (“Faith and Reason”) he tells us that Reason is “part of our created cognitive nature; every properly functioning human being” has it. Faith, on the other hand, is a gift from god. So not everybody has faith; it is not something all humans are created with. This goes against against the argument he made earlier in the book that religion is something that god primed all humans to search god out with.

Also, if he is going to argue that science in its most complete form must include a theistic evidence base, then only those with the special gift of faith can conduct science properly. So are the only proper scientists those who are believers? I’ve heard this argument from a few fundamentalists but not really from the broader Christian church. It’s just demeaning to non-believers who are told that they are locked out of real truth.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 5

In Chapter 5, Plantinga discusses the theories of evolutionary psychology and higher biblical criticism and how they relate to the truthfulness of Christianity. He concludes that on some levels both of these leave room for Christianity, on other levels they do seem to contradict Christianity. The author promises to address the import of these contradictions in the next chapter.

This chapter was mainly a quick review of the two fields versus Christian theism. I feel like he treated them fairly enough. However I think there are some important critiques to make.

One of the questions Plantinga asks early in the chapter is, how can it be that intellectual pursuits, such as philosophy and the sciences, aid in evolution? What place do these have in evolutionary adaptation? I might answer that these are phenomenon of the emergence of self-awareness. Primitive self-awareness traits could protect against predators while advanced self-awareness would compel a scientific understanding of the world giving rise to adaptive advances such as medicine.

I think the concept of religion as existential justification is very important and deserved more time in this chapter. Again, the development of self-awareness naturally gives rise to other intellectual pursuits, involving existential questions which give rise to religion and philosophy. The author’s take here is basically the notion of a “god-shaped hole,” which god allowed to come into existence by guiding evolution in the way that he did. But is this so? Did god really create man in his image? Or did man create god in his image?

Of course, as he points out, a natural origin for religion does not, specifically, falsify religion. We are really saying nothing here, either way. However, which is simpler to accept: religion as a purely utilitarian construct, or an elaborate god-shaped hole designed into man through evolution guided by god. You only strive for the latter if you really must defend theism for some reason. Most of the time, though, people go for the simple explanation, the one that we can better understand and explain by means of the available evidence. That’s science.

In any case, any defense of theism in the face of evolutionary psychology begs all the same questions that were “begged” back in Chapter 2: what version of god are we defending: monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, deism? And of course these questions feed back into the argument from pluralism against religion; namely, that the rise of religion among mankind has taken many very different forms, which argues against their factualness. The argument from pluralism actually makes a very strong case for evolutionary psychology against religion. And let’s not forget that the attempt to evade that argument by appeal to generic spirituality makes god meaningless.

So how do we know that the god-shaped hole is supposed to look like it does? Because Christianity says so? Isn’t it easier to subscribe to a utilitarian viewpoint?

How will Plantinga handle the emergence of atheism and agnosticism? Will he admit these are evolutionary adaptations beyond religion? Why shouldn’t they be? Can he defend the god-shaped hole as the terminus of the evolution of religious thought? Will he really chalk up atheism and agnosticism to mistakes of the intellect while arguing that the evolutionary rise of religion is not merely a useful mental deceit?

In the last portion of the chapter he focuses on higher biblical criticism and the contention that much of what is recorded in the bible isn’t necessarily a historical certainty. I just find it a bit interesting that the science of higher criticism would come into question but the science on lower criticism doesn’t. The advent of modern lower textual criticism, specifically since Westcott and Hort, has resulted in a text that is not as full as the text-types that predominated the church for 1500 years. Which is to say that Plantinga’s bible (he quotes from the 1984 NIV, which is based on the UBS 1st and 2nd editions which are modern critical texts) is quite literally missing scripture. At least what the church considered scripture for a very, very, long time. But he is willing to accept the pronouncement of “science” that the “authentic” text was not available to the majority of god’s people for the majority of the Christian era. Yet he presumably posits a “plenary” inspiration that seems rather confusing in light of such a conclusion.

There are a vocal minority of Christians that understand this problem and won’t use any of the modern translations based on modern critical texts. An interesting fact is that there is significant overlap between this community and young-earth creationists. These are people call science into question with amazing consistency.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 4

In Chapter 4, Plantinga argues for the compatibility of god and science by way of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is something that even the physicists who work with it will tell is something that no one fully understands. I have some comments to make on Plantinga’s use of quantum mechanics, but first I want to spend some time reviewing it, distilling some of the basics for readers who, like me, may not have had much acquaintance with it.

Quantum mechanics refers to the idea that there are quanta, indivisible units of energy action. Particles jump between quanta depending on their wavelength and the amount of energy absorbed or emitted. Think of quanta as the “pixels” of reality.

Particle-wave duality tends to manifest itself at these scales where the wavelength of the particle as expressed by its energy and momentum is of the same magnitude as the system it acts within. Thus we use it to explain sub atomic activity but not the movements of the planets or the operation of combustion engines. Those types of things are explained using classical mechanics (think Isaac Newton).

The action of a system at the quantum scale is given by a waveform function. Because of our inability to measure certain quantum phenomenon, and the apparently random outcome of quantum activity, the waveform function is probabilistic. In other words, the waveform function describes the probabilities of a certain outcome, it does not necessarily tell us the outcome.

This not being able to see into the inner workings of quantum state changes has spawned a number of theories. Some believe that whatever is going on is deterministic, and some believe it is indeterministic. Among indeterministic theories are those that believe the waveform function resolves once the state is observed and those that believe the waveform function resolves randomly on its own. These are called waveform collapse theories.

Among the deterministic theories of quantum mechanics, you have the many worlds interpretation, which claims that all probabilities of the waveform function come into being in their own separate universes, and the pilot-wave theory, which holds that the wavelike nature of particles at particular wavelengths is the result of the action of waves upon the particle.

I’ll stop right here to fault Plantinga for not mentioning anything about deterministic theories of quantum mechanics. He practically acts as if quantum mechanics and indeterminism are the same thing. Of course he narrows in on the indeterministic theories of quantum mechanics because he needs these to be able to provide the necessary scientific justification for divine intervention. It reminds me of his omissions of alternative theisms in chapter 2.

Nevermind that the physicists themselves don’t agree on a theory. If anything, the conventional wisdom in current physics tends to lean to the Copenhagen interpretation, an indeterministic theory that holds that waveform collapse happens upon observation(measurement), with the many worlds interpretation coming in second. Plantinga’s vision of divine intervention favors the alternate indeterminate theory called GRW (Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber) that holds that waveform collapse happens at a random point. GRW is probably the theory with the strongest element of indeterminism; its outcome does not depend on an outside measurement but wholly on an apparently internal “random” process. It’s in this tight black box offered by one of many possible theories of quantum mechanics that Plantinga claims that science is not incompatible with god after all.

Even assuming that quantum mechanics isn’t compatible with deterministic certainty, Plantinga goes too far in assuming an irreducible uncertainty. And he must prove that, at the heart of quantum mechanics, there exists such an irreducible uncertainty, if he wants to insert the possibility of divine intervention. (This would be the corollary of intelligent design’s “irreducible complexity”.) The level of uncertainty surrounding quantum mechanics is at least partially reducible, if not fully reducible, given our current level of scientific understanding.

(The previous line of criticism was suggested to me in a paper by Andrew W. Lo and Mark T. Mueller titled “WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous To Your Wealth!”)

It’s a classic god-of-the-gaps argument. At least until science closes it, too. He says that even if an explanation comes along that eliminates his argument, faith is still a warrant for believing in divine intervention. And this is precisely the point at which Plantinga gives the whole enterprise away---the argument is a bit inconsistent, when you say that science has no right to assume what CAN’T be happening because our knowledge is limited, and then turn around and say what SHOULD be there. What Plantinga won’t do is the same thing Ken Ham wouldn’t do with Bill Nye, and the same thing no Christian apologist will do, is provide criterion regarding divine intervention or creation by which they would accept they are wrong. They are not bound by the scientific method while insisting that their opposition be.
If you are going to do that, then in a very practical way you are vouching for the NOMA principle. Just point to Gould and call it a day instead of writing a book trying to show how science “leaves room for god.”

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 3

The author’s argument in the third chapter is that the laws of classical mechanics only operate in a closed system, and because science does not claim the universe is a closed system, divine intervention is not a violation of those laws.

It must first be said that there is no point in defining a system unless you can specify the boundaries of that system. If modern science does not define the universe as a closed system it is because we know that the boundary is not fixed; the universe is expanding at a great rate. This is entirely different from an otherwise closed universe that is merely able to opened by god at his whim.

Truthfully, though, Plantinga makes no attempt to define system boundaries, for either the universe or god. It’s as if the concept of an open system means that energy and mass can intrude from just about anywhere, which isn’t the case. Left unanswered is how god would interact with the system of our universe. Why would god want to intervene? What if god doesn’t want to intervene? What if there is no god? Why assume that the god-system is in close enough proximity to our system to affect us?

Certainly no evidence is given to show where it has been observed that a transfer of mass or energy from outside our universe has made any difference, on earth, or within the solar system, or in the Milky Way, or in the next galaxy over. Where’s the evidence?

The universe is open as a matter of its expansion, but the boundary is understood, and any energy and matter coming into being or being destroyed as the universe expands will only have local effects, 45 billion light years away. I suppose it is possible that an occurrence at this boundary right now could affect us in 45 billion years. Perhaps god is timing energy and matter transfers 45 billion years in advance to affect earth, but we don’t see evidence of that.

Keep in mind that if god was intervening in the process of evolution, every intervention would have to be a miracle; if it wasn’t, it could be explained by natural laws. So Plantinga paints a picture of god allowing evolution to take place and then working miracle after miracle after miracle to get it the way it ought to be. Wouldn’t it be easier and more logical to just create it all in a week, like a literal reading of Genesis 1 would give us?

I should also point out that just because people hold on to religion and science, it does not follow that they can be harmonized. It is likely many such people compartmentalize, perhaps with the aid of the NOMA principle.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 2

This is the second part of my critique of Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”.
I will cover Chapter 2, in which Plantinga attempts to answer some arguments from Daniel Dennett, Paul Draper, and Philip Kitcher.

The author states that natural selection doesn’t prove that evolution was unguided, in response to an argument from Dennett. Again, Plantinga hasn’t spilled enough ink yet in this book on natural selection for me to believe he really gets what natural selection actually is. Later in the chapter he claims that natural selection does not “cut” against theism. I think it is important, for the thoroughness of my response, make clear what natural selection actually is, in comparison that what the author thinks it is.

Natural selection is simply this, that individuals that are best adapted to their environment, as measured by the metric of physical survival rates, get to pass on their specific traits. Not only is natural selection “natural” in the sense that the forces of nature make the selection, but it is natural in that the natural qualities of an organism, to be successful in this game, must be most advantageous in relation to the environment.
To claim that natural selection operates on any other basis than physical survival rates entails the requirement that not only must the organism be specially guided to a certain form, but that the environment around the organism be guided to a complementary form that ensures the survival of the divinely customized organism in question. God intervening in natural selection results in a “butterfly effect” on such a scale as to require that god to intervene in virtually EVERY element of the physical universe.
The above suggests an additional interesting argument against theistic evolution. Given that god would be required to superintend nearly every aspect of evolution, wouldn’t god find it easier to simply create it all, ex nihilo, literal Genesis 1 style? Why would god choose the former?

Suffice it to say that any natural selection, both in its etymology and its full definition, exclude “super”-natural mechanisms. It’s not divine-selection, hybrid-selection, or any other type of selection than natural selection. Plantinga just isn’t providing a strong argument for any other understanding of natural selection.

Also, where is the physical evidence that god intervened in natural selection? How do we detect such interventions? So then I can say, that unguided evolution proceeding by natural laws that we can observe today, is as legitimate of an explanation and likely more, then guided evolution proceeding by a divine hand we cannot detect in physical phenomena.
If science isn’t paying attention to the possibility of guided evolution it is because the proposed “force” cannot be identified and observed as a physical manifestation, like various laws and other natural processes.

Plantinga makes a huge assumption by assuming that god, if he existed, would even care about the development and creation of the world. What if our universe is nothing more than an untended splotch of mold or fungi in god’s backyard. If god took the time to pay attention he would perhaps be likely to wipe us out entirely. That is all to say that god and unguided evolution can go together very well.
As a matter of fact, the Epicureans of old believed just this: an uninvolved god, and a universe that organized itself into being. Why can’t we take that route?

So the author ignores deism, probably because it cuts his necessary ties between god and evolution, which he uses to argue for guided evolution.
And yet, he answers the argument against religion from pluralism by resorting to generic spirituality. In his reply to Kitcher, Plantinga notices the argument that the existence of many religions is argument against them all. It’s the same argument that is made in reply to Pascal’s wager, the concept that you ought to believe in god to avoid the chance of going to hell. It’s all well and good until you ask the question of WHICH religion offers true salvation.
The counter-response is generic theism: you just need to believe in “A” god or have some sort of spirituality. Plantinga makes sort of the same argument, that some sort of spirituality is a reality in spite of differences in religion.
But as soon as you run from the force of the pluralism argument by resorting to generic spirituality, you are left with a meaningless god. As soon as you start making claims about how god intervenes in our universe and relates to man you start making religious claims that are at variance with other religions. And so then you are forced back into the pluralism argument. But if you don’t make any claims about how god works, of what use is god, since we can’t claim to know anything useful about him? All theists have a religion, whether it is organized or not.
Plantinga’s tunnel-vision about what god must be also means he doesn’t consider polytheism. It is an interesting thought to consider how polytheistic evolution might work.
What about pantheism? Perhaps the elemental gods of the universe organized themselves through evolution into physical forms we know today.
In fact, the creation legends from around the world involve very many different conceptions of god.
Why in the world would science want to get mixed up in all of this?

The author also creates a sharp divide between mind and matter without justification. He appeals to the difficulty in understanding how mindful life can arise from non-mindful life quite often. But why is it so difficult? What if the mind is simply the result of organized neurological phenomena in the brain? What if natural selection favored the beings who had the best capability of organizing this neurological phenomena and so brought into existence a more advanced brain state that we now call the mind?
Isn’t it nothing less than the disintegration of this organization that is responsible for mental disorder? We generally treat mental disorder through a combination of cognitive therapy (reorganization of thinking) and psychiatric medications (reorganization of neurological phenomena). As a matter of fact, many Christians distrust psychology and psychiatry as so much psycho-babble because it directly contradicts the traditional Christian thinking that it is sin that plagues the soul and spirit. A whole cottage industry of nouthetic counseling exists as an alternative for these kinds of people.
If people think Darwin started something dangerous to Christianity, they haven’t seen anything until they’ve truly considered what Freud started.
(Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer argued, what if the mind and body are simply different ends of the continuum of human will?)

His answer to Dennett is two fold. First, that merely arguing the possibility of something doesn’t rule out the alternative (same issue as with Dawkins). Second, that Dennett’s attempt to claim that god does not exist, fails. I’ll simply say that his problem with the possibility argument of both Dawkins and Dennett rests in his low estimation of the probability of a Darwinian chain of descent under unguided natural selection, and his low estimation is based on his misunderstanding of the relationship of natural selection and deep time. With a proper understanding of these, the probability of unguided natural selection is much more compelling than Plantinga allows. Nor do we need to disprove god to argue against guided natural selection. We simply need to show that god’s character and purposes are not necessarily compatible with the idea.
We’ll look at these things in chapter 8 where he picks up his arguments against Dawkins and Dennett again.

Plantinga spends some time arguing that faith and reason can coexist. Supposedly, he would not propose that faith should contradict reason. However regarding evolution, the problem is one of simplicity. Evolution can be explained without god, so why add god? If reason alone provides a coherent explanation for something, why add anything else? If I ordered lunch at a restaurant, I could suppose that god superintended its preparation, to ensure that everything was made a certain way and ended up a certain way on my plate. Usually, however, I take the view that the characteristics of my meal are simply the product of human effort and skill.

The author argues that belief, with no support from reason, is rational. The reason he gives is that the components of human reason (intuition, memory, and perception) are not required to prove each other before we can accept them. The problem with that argument is that intuition, memory, and perception are all based on physical experience. We argue that the belief in little green men that hide in the refrigerator and disappear when you open the door is irrational, because there is no way to observe it. We criticize many ideas as conspiracy theories because of the claim that an unobserved person or group is guiding world events and calling the shots. In the same vein, if you propose something by faith, there is no requirement to accept it if it is not backed up by observation. Reason takes observation and extends it to logical conclusions that can be reached only with what is given by physical experience. Anyone who has been made to construct proofs in geometry will understand this process.

Critique of Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, Ch. 1

I am going to provide a critique of Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies” on a chapter by chapter basis. There is a lot of material that will not get covered if I try to do the whole book at once.

Chapter 1

Plantinga gives us six ideas behind evolution. The first is ancient time, or the idea that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, the second is that life has progressed from simple to complex forms, the third is descent with modification, the fourth is common ancestry, the idea that all life descended from a common ancestor, the fifth is that descent with modification is a random natural process, and the last is that life originated from non-living elements without special intervention.
He claims that these ideas are independent with the exception of 3 and 5; that is to say, that descent with modification is required for evolution to be a random natural process.
Plantinga, at this point, ALMOST leaves out the idea of “natural selection.” He mentions it only as the most popular theory explaining random natural descent with modification. This is like saying that the most popular theory about the solar system is that everything rotates around the sun, not the earth. Nor does the author tell us what natural selection really means. The proper understanding of natural selection weakens his argument against Dawkins in this chapter. His (non-)treatment of natural selection is very surprising.
A proper definition of evolution understands that evolution is, at a very basic level, the intersection of natural selection and deep time. So Plantinga’s first idea of evolution (ancient time) is also not given the attention it deserves. He pays next to no attention to the implications of deep time.
Natural selection is the idea that die off rates will determine which genetic traits get passed on or not. The living things that survive are those that get to pass their traits onward. Deep time (4.5 billion years) gives natural selection the ability to produce the complexity we see today. The progression from simple to complex forms is a logical corollary of the emergence of life from non-living elements that existed at the beginning.
Natural selection does not care about the traits themselves; therefore, traits that do not aid survival get passed on when they are found with traits that do aid survival.
Evolutionary biology is not blind to improbability of unguided macro evolution on the face of it, but the addition of deep time balances out the apparent improbability. Along with common ancestry and the geological and fossil evidence, the theory is a force to be reckoned with.
Throughout the chapter, the author keeps insisting that at least some occurrences of descent with modification could be god directing evolution, not natural selection. The problem with this is how do you know? What markers (other than probability) exist to distinguish a link in the evolutionary chain as either a process of natural selection or a divine intervention?
Plantinga goes on and on about probabilities, but what is the probability of divine intervention against the probability of the same physical laws and processes we observe today being the formative force of descent with modification?
Simply put, if we are going to claim divine intervention, what is the physical evidence? What does such divine intervention tell us about the working of nature? Can we then predict with any logical consistency how and when this divine intervention will affect our world in the future? Is the proposal of divine intervention proposing an exception to the laws of physics? How does such a proposal not destroy the scientific method? (The author has promised to address these kinds of objections in a later chapter.)
The concept of divine intervention does not give us a model to test. Who reading this can show and prove a specific example of divinely guided descent with modification? Whereas we can observe natural selection occurring, not just with virii, but with African elephants increasingly born without tusks because the ones with tusks are being killed.
His argument with Dawkins is that Dawkins’ argument that unguided natural selection is possible is weak as it doesn’t prove anything but merely is an argument from probability. I’ll say something about that in my look at the next chapter where he deals with Dennett saying the same thing.
Plantinga goes so far as to claim that even if a complete chain of Darwinian descent could be proven, it would be equally as valid to claim agnosticism on the issue. Essentially, he is claiming that his theory can’t ever be proven wrong. And that’s not science.
He concludes the chapter by making some arguments concerning the nature of god. Dawkins makes the argument that the existence of God is as improbable as evolution since God is also complex. The author responds that God is not complex because he is not matter, he is spirit. So then God exists in a different context than the material world. However this understanding only works within a narrow context. What if God is more complex even though he is spirit by virtue of the spiritual plane being so much more complex on a basic level? The Bible implies over and over again that the spiritual realm is much more advanced than man can ever comprehend.
Plantinga asks for a rebuttal to the argument that god is a necessary being. I think the simple response is that, at least to science, necessary implies the ability to be observed, either in form or in effect. Science can’t observe god, so we err on the side of him not being necessary. This goes back to my argument regarding divine intervention being a violation of physical laws.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Creating Video Files for a Sylvania Portable DVD Player

I had the great idea, instead of lugging around DVDs for my Sylvania Portable DVD Player (SDVD7040B), to make use of the USB port and just use video files instead.
However this device didn't like MP4 or some other video formats I threw at it.
I finally figured out it wants XviD encoded video in an AVI container with MP3 audio at a constant bitrate. Using ffmpeg I used the following options:

-r 29.97 -vcodec libxvid -q:v 5 -aspect 4:3 -acodec libmp3lame -ab 128k -ac 2

(use XviD codec for video, set output framerate to 29.97fps, use quality setting 5,  use the aspect ratio 5:4, use MP3 codec for audio, use 128kbps constant bit-rate for audio, and the audio is 2 channels (stereo))
The q:v option isn't required but -q:v 5 sets it at a decent quality at least for playback on this device. (Worked out to a little under 9.5MB/min for me.) Setting the frame rate to 29.97fps results in a smaller file.
The aspect ratio of 4:3 is important because if you encode in 16:9 (which most shows and movies are in nowdays) then the player will letterbox your video. Even starting with 16:9 video, the resulting 4:3 aspect won't look squished because the physical screen on the device is spread out to compensate. (If you need to play the file on a computer, you can force playback in 16:9 in VLC, for example.)
The source file was created by Handbrake so it was already a DVD friendly 720x480. When I was testing various other formats on this device sometimes I got a resolution not supported error. Again there is nothing saying what resolutions are supported, but as far as I can tell this device does not like anything over 720 (horizontal). If you are using this settings to convert widescreen video sources over 720 width, add this parameter:
-vf "scale=720:-2"

I am also hoping that this has the advantage of extending battery life since it doesn't have to spin a DVD.

If you have 4:3 aspect video (full screen not widescreen) then the Sylvania Portable DVD Player is a little wonky. Even directly playing a full screen DVD the device stretches the image out instead of pillarboxing and shrinking the image horizontally to maintain the aspect ratio. So using the same settings I used for a 16:9 widescreen film resulted in the video being stretched to fill the screen.
To compensate for this, you need your source video to be 640x480 (if you are using Handbrake, set Anamorphic to none.) Then use the following ffmpeg settings to manually pillarbox the video when you convert to XviD:

-r 29.97 -vcodec libxvid -q:v 5 -aspect 4:3 -vf "scale=560:480, pad=720:480:80:0" -acodec libmp3lame -ab 128k

The reason you have to further scale down to 560x480 because of the wonky screen on the device. (Took some trial and error to figure out 560 was best.) You still have to specify an aspect of 4:3 or the device will letterbox your video as well because ffmpeg will output an aspect of 3:2.