Thursday, April 20, 2017

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.

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