Why Plantinga’s Tiger Is Pseudoscience

You remember a while back when I dared to call Alvin Plantinga a terrible philosopher spewing pseudoscience? (Plantinga’s Tiger and Other Stupid Shit) Soon after, the Christian presuppositionalist Josh Sommer was having none of that. So he wrote three whole articles trying to argue against me. As is typical for Christian apologists (especially presuppositionalists), his response ignores everything I actually said, doesn’t understand the argument I made, and attempts a defense of Plantinga that’s just as illogical and pseudoscientific as Plantinga. (“Second Guessing Richard Carrier” Part I / Part II / Part III)

First, the Yawns

Screen shot of the Amazon rankings for Keller's The Reason for God.
Above: Amazon sales rankings for Keller’s book The Reason for God (as of 19 September 2017).

His articles also contain the usual non sequiturs that deserve little more than a yawn. Sommer clutches pearls over my use of the word shit. So he is living in the past and chafes at irrelevancies. But he even tries to claim Timothy Keller is an irrelevant nobody, so I should never have written a series against his book The Reason for God. Sommer must suck at math and facts, because that book is still, even as I write this right now, ranked #1000 on Amazon in all categories (that’s extraordinary), and is literally the number three seller in both the categories of “Evangelism” and “Christianity” and the number eight best-seller in “Apologetics.” Outselling literally every other Christian apologist on record—except C.S. Lewis (numbers 4 and 7) and Nabeel Qureshi (and he only topped the list because he literally just died, and Christian apologists have been spraying the internet with eulogies of this Muslim author who converted to Christianity thereby proving Jesus Is Real). Previously, Keller’s book was number three in Christian apologetics! And the only book of those three written in this century.

So Sommer is deeply fact-challenged, deploying the typical dishonest tactics of presuppers (like lying about Keller being insignificant) and typical well-poisoning fallacious reasoning (Keller’s book’s popularity is 100% irrelevant to what Sommer and I are discussing; as is what dialect of English I write in).

Next, the Argument

What are we debating?

Plantinga argues that naturalism should not be believed because it could not have made our faculties reliable enough to know things like that evolution is true (and here and throughout when I say “could not” I mean that such an outcome would be extraordinarily improbable, not literally impossible; and whenever I say “is true,” I mean extremely likely to be true). But if God made us, that would entail our faculties would be reliable enough to know things like that. Timothy Keller then repeats this argument. For which I took him to task.

Both prongs of his argument are shit philosophy. In the first phase of the argument, Plantinga relies on total pseudoscience (and violations of logic with false dichotomies) to argue that natural selection “could not have made our faculties reliable enough.” Which gets us to the “tiger” argument, which is just a representative example he uses, of a process he claims happens, but that in fact science establishes never happens nor ever could—betraying his profound ignorance of the science of cognitive evolution. Philosophy that relies on pseudoscience and overt fallacies, is shit philosophy. By definition. In the second phase of this argument, Plantinga produces no deductive syllogism that if God made us, our brains’ faculties would be as they are (and certainly no evidentiary argument, as there is no evidence to appeal to that God made how our brains work…search the entirety of the scientific literature in cognitive science, you won’t find that anywhere); and worse, the evidence of how our faculties actually are, is extraordinarily improbable on Plantinga’s theory of creation, the exact opposite of his intended conclusion. To the contrary, what we’ve found to be the case about how our brains work, is actually very strong evidence against creationism of any form.

The actual science? Our evolved faculties are in fact very poor; so poor, that they were indeed wholly incapable of discovering things like that evolution is true. But they were not so poor as to be totally unreliable, and in fact were good enough to make it possible that, given enough time to explore and experiment, we could invent “software patches” that would fix the things wrong with them, and produce an algorithm (a new way of using them) that was and is capable of discovering things like that naturalism is true. For example, we invented science, logic, and mathematics (and yes, we invented them). It took us hundreds of thousands of years to do that. So we were clearly not evolved to do that. It was just an inevitable byproduct of randomly wandering around possibility space trying things out until we stumbled across things that actually worked. Which fact is so easy to verify, that we could verify it even with the poor faculties we evolved to have.

Note the distinctions here. Scientifically we know that our faculties are far too poor to be intelligently designed; and in fact all their defects are far more easily explained as a product of their having been naturally selected piecemeal over hundreds of millions of years, than as being any sentient engineer’s intelligent plan. That kills the second part of Plantinga’s argument. Like all Christian apologetics, put the evidence back in that they left out, and all their own arguments for God, become arguments against God. Our brain, blindly by natural selection, is better designed than Plantinga believes; but far too poorly designed to have come from any intelligence.

At the same time, also scientifically, we know that our evolved faculties were not too poor to have invented better faculties, if they were intelligently tasked for hundreds of thousands of years with trying to find better ones—as in fact we now know they were. There is a reason, for example, that formal logics and mathematics and scientific methods, were only ever invented by people thousands of years after civilization was, which in turn was only ever invented hundreds of thousands of years after our innate cognitive faculties had evolved. And it wasn’t discovered, communicated, or invented by any Christian or Jew or any Prophet of God or the Bible. But total pagans. Before Christianity ever existed. And with no knowledge of the Bible. Plantinga’s God hypothesis makes exactly zero sense of any of that. But more to the point, because our poor faculties were good enough to make this leap in the timescale observed (and in fact by then could not have failed to have been), the first part of Plantinga’s argument is killed, too. Natural selection would inevitably lead to faculties of sufficient ability to discover those new cognitive skills, just as we observe happened. Therefore, the claim that it couldn’t happen, is false.

It’s important to emphasize the connection between both of those points: not only is the fact that our faculties display a shit design from top to bottom evidence against their having been in any way intelligently designed (and clear evidence they were produced by blind natural selection instead), but the fact that we ourselves had to intelligently invent fixes to get them to work well enough to know advanced things like physics and philosophy—with no assistance from any deity (no advice, no revelation, nothing), thus taking us hundreds of thousands of years all on our own—and that still our brains are a shit design, and all we can do is arduously keep installing the cultural software patch (of science, math, and logic) into every child born (and even then with it often failing to take) that leverages our shit faculties into a combined system capable of knowing more advanced things like physics and philosophy. The mere fact that that’s how it had to happen and still has to happen is confirmation no God exists.

And to get to all that, Plantinga argues for a model of cognitive evolution by which all human knowledge is formed as a system of belief-desire pairs, like “see tiger, run.” Which Plantinga shows could not get us to any system of cognition capable of scientific knowledge. Which is fine. Because no mammalian cognitive system on earth evolved that way. So his bogus model is irrelevant to how natural selection gave us the brains that we (being mammals) now have. So his argument that it couldn’t do that, is unsound. And it’s unsound, because it’s premised on pseudoscience.

That was my argument.

How does Sommer answer that?

Let’s count the mistakes of critical reasoning in Sommer’s Part I

Science vs. Pseudoscience

Sommer incorrectly says “Carrier seems to think that since Plantinga has no expertise in evolutionary science, then he’s not qualified to speak on the subject.” False. I said he is not qualified to invent new theories in that field and declare them true. He is (or ought to be) fully qualified to consult the actual science there is, and correctly represent it, and use its demonstrated true premises in his arguments. My criticism of Plantinga is that he never does that. He never references any actual scientific fact or literature in cognition or cognitive evolution (establishing his model of cognitive evolution). Instead, he makes a bunch of Ken Ham bullshit up, and uses that as true premises in his argument. That’s pseudoscience.

Sommer incorrectly says “Plantinga is not trying to develop a model for evolutionary anthropological cognition, or characterize how natural selection developed the biological neurological synapses in the human brain.” False. Plantinga makes the assertion that a particular model of cognitive evolution (the selection of his “belief-desire” pairs, like “see tiger, run”) is the most probable way cognitive evolution works; that such a mechanism could not produce our ability to achieve scientific and philosophical knowledge; therefore cognitive evolution could not produce our ability to achieve scientific and philosophical knowledge. That’s Plantinga’s argument. And that argument does not work if his model of cognition is not probable. And science already tells us it’s not probable.

Sommer incorrectly says “I’m not entirely sure where Carrier gets this from (perhaps a dream?).” False. Unless Sommer thinks this paper by Alving Plantinga is a dream. Not actually doing their research and not actually reading what their own apologists have written? Not an uncommon tactic among Christian apologists like Sommer.

Sommer incorrectly says “Plantinga isn’t trying to say he believes, per se, in a theistic natural selection, but merely points out that God, in His power, could have ordained an evolutionary process to His glory.” False. Plantinga argues that a naturally evolved ability to know scientific facts is factually improbable, therefore theism is more probable than naturalism. He is therefore indeed asserting that it is factually improbable that natural evolution could make our minds (given what we now observe them to be capable of). He is not arguing that “maybe” God made our minds. He is arguing God probably made our minds. That any other thesis is improbable. Strictly speaking, he is making an argument from Bayesian likelihood: our ability to do science is not probable on naturalism, but probable on theism, therefore it is evidence for theism.

Even Wikipedia gets this right:

Plantinga argued the probability that our minds are reliable under a conjunction of philosophical naturalism and naturalistic evolution is low or inscrutable. Therefore, to assert that naturalistic evolution is true also asserts that one has a low or unknown probability of being right. This, Plantinga argued, epistemically defeats the belief that naturalistic evolution is true and that ascribing truth to naturalism and evolution is internally dubious or inconsistent.

[And then] Plantinga asserts that “this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know; but then most of what we believe might be true even if our minds have developed from those of the lower animals.”

And when a Christian apologist is doing worse at understanding his own apologists’ arguments than Wikipedia, it’s face-palm time. Yes, Josh, Plantinga is arguing that our brains being able to do science is more probable on theism than on naturalism. And he uses his made-up, pseudoscientific “system of belief-desire pairs”-theory of cognitive evolution to argue that. Which is totally contradicted by science. And yes, I get to call stupid on that.

So when Sommer asks “His model of what, exactly?” Sommer seems bizarrely clueless. Plantinga argues that cognition evolves by accumulating belief-desire pairs. That such a mechanism would not probably lead to any faculty that could gain reliable scientific knowledge. And therefore natural selection would not probably lead to any faculty that could gain reliable scientific knowledge. That’s his entire argument. The “model” here is “that cognition evolves by accumulating belief-desire pairs.” Cognition does not evolve that way. That’s a completely made up theory. And when you admit that, and that not only is it completely made up, but that it contradicts all actual known science of cognitive evolution, you pull the whole premise out from under Plantinga’s argument. Because that model is not true, the improbability of it giving us faculties capable of scientific knowledge is 100% irrelevant.

You can’t get to “naturalism is improbable” standing on a premise that’s not only pseudoscience but outright scientifically false. Yet Sommer can’t even see what Plantinga’s argument is. He thus can’t even see how Plantinga’s argument absolutely depends on his totally bogus, made-up model of cognitive evolution.

Missing the Point 101

What does Sommer then think Plantinga’s argument is? He tries to tell us in Part II.

Right off the bat Sommer says the first premise of Plantinga’s “actual” argument is, “The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalistic evolution, is low.” Wait. You skipped the argument, Josh. We are talking about how Plantinga argues to that premise. Not how he argues from that premise. “Plantinga’s Tiger” is part of Plantinga’s argument for the conclusion that “the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalistic evolution, is low.” So why are you ignoring the entire thing my entire article was named after and about? Beats me. But this is so typical of a Christian apologist to do, I can’t honestly claim to be surprised.

Instead, Sommer ignores Plantinga’s entire tiger example that my article was about, and the entire model of cognitive evolution it entails and that Plantinga asserts to be true (and must assert to be true to get to his conclusion), and argues instead that:

According to naturalism, says Plantinga, an action would take place on the basis of the neurophysiological property alone, not at all with respects to belief content. This would mean that naturalism, taken with natural selection, is not aimed at the discovery of truth, but at neurophysiological behavioral modification which may or may not increase the chances of survival or prolonged life.

This is ironically a mere abstract version of Plantinga’s tiger. It’s false. Scientifically false. There is no science that supports this model of cognition or its evolution. That Sommer doesn’t realize this is a model of cognitive evolution and that it is false is funny but exasperating. Way to go ignoring us, Josh. Let’s count the ways:

  • It is not true that we act “not at all with respect belief content.” Mammals build cognitive models of their environment—which are hypotheses about what’s in the world, where, and how it works—and test them against experience, increasing or decreasing confidence (belief) in those models, according to the results of those tests, thereby building increasingly accurate belief systems about the world (to the limits of their cognitive abilities), which they then act on to survive.
  • It is not true that an accurate apprehension of reality is not the best way to “increase the chances of survival or prolonged life.” It becomes so only at information processing thresholds, e.g. it’s accurate enough to see green leaves, and more efficient to survival to do that than to specifically apprehend every photon striking the eye and calculating its likely origination. Likewise, brains are limited in size, and thus in processing power. Etc.
  • It is not true that we can build consistently false beliefs about the world and still successfully navigate it. False beliefs kill you, e.g. a hungry man who runs from a tiger will starve; a hungry man who endeavors to kill the tiger, will eat. More to the point, if you don’t know you can’t hide from a tiger inside of a coconut; that objects don’t cease to exist when they move behind other objects; that you can’t summon water on a journey; that a leaf doesn’t hold enough water to drink in a day; and on and on and on, you will not do very well at survival compared to someone who does know those things.
  • It is therefore not true that the selective pressures driving cognitive systems to be better at navigating reality, do not increase those systems’ access to the truth about that reality. There are limits, well explored and understood by the sciences of cognition, but they aren’t where Plantinga says they are. In my original article I explain this in detail, with links to even more detailed discussions. All based on the actual science of cognition and cognitive evolution.

In short, Sommer completely missed every single point my article made. He doesn’t know Plantinga’s argument rests on a false model of cognitive evolution. A model contrary to all known science, and based in no facts of science whatever. (BTW, unlike Plantinga’s, my own philosophy of cognition and its evolution is based on extensive reading in the actual scientific literature, and rests on established scientific facts: see Sense and Goodness without God, Chapter III.6.-10, and my Critique of Reppert, esp. this section of Part 1, the whole of Part 2, and the other sections linked to in this section.)

Failure 1: Conflating Biology with Technology

In my article I enumerated four ways Plantinga was making an ignorant, pseudoscientific, and fallacious argument. Sommer aims to respond to each one in turn.

First was this:

Plantinga’s argument confuses the biology of reason (what we were evolved with) and the technology of reason (the skills we had to invent to bypass the defects in our innate faculties so as to gain a deeper access to understanding reality). Sommer never rehabilitates Plantinga on this point. He never shows Plantinga taking this distinction into account, anywhere in Plantinga’s argument. To the contrary, Plantinga’s argument entirely depends on there being no distinction. Which is scientifically illiterate. And fatal to Plantinga’s entire argument.

Instead of actually rebutting my point, Sommer handwaves with completely irrelevant points. He implies I deny the role of environmental development in building our inborn cognitive skills—for instance, our brains are only born with the ability to learn how to walk and discover object permanence; they are not born with that stuff already installed. I never denied that. (So Sommer is making shit up about me.) Nor does it address my point. (How does my not mentioning that, relate to whether Plantinga conflates innate faculties and learned skills like formal logic and the scientific method?) But worse, by reminding us of this, Sommer is bringing up yet another point against Plantinga: contrary to Plantinga’s cognitive model (that all human action consists of a naturally selected system of belief-desire pairs), we evolved far simpler and more generalized capabilities (as I even mentioned in my article), which have the effect of leveraging our cognition upon interaction with the environment, a.k.a. reality.

That is evidence of natural selection, not intelligent design. An intelligent design could simply program our DNA to build brains in the womb that know object permanence and how to walk (in fact, a God wouldn’t need to give us brains at all). Why would our DNA be coded far more simply, with merely some rudimentary skills that would inevitably result in learning vastly many more skills and greater understanding of the universe? Skills that don’t just only teach us to walk or grasp a single principle of rudimentary physics; skills that teach us hundreds and thousands of other things besides. The same faculty that, upon interaction with the environment, teaches toddlers object permanence, also teaches them causality and the existence of unseen events. One skill; infinite cornucopia of survival-enhancing outputs. What’s easy to hit upon by natural selection? Simpler generalized faculties that can generate numerous advantages. What’s impossible to hit upon by natural selection? The vastly complex systems of belief-desire pairs Plantinga’s model absurdly thinks we operate on (just try to genetically bestow a toddler an ability to walk that way, and you’ll see what I mean). Notably, this is why those cognitive faculties were naturally selected for: because they produce so much knowledge on interaction with the environment, about that environment, that it tremendously aids survival.

Then, total face-palm time, Sommer tries addressing my actual point (that Plantinga is the one who confuses biologically evolved with culturally invented abilities) by simply restating Plantinga’s conflation! “Plantinga is not confusing biology with technology,” Sommer argues, because “cognitive faculties are not tools invented by humans in order to make life better.” Um. Josh. That’s false. And that that is false is my entire point. Why is it false? Because it conflates biological with invented cognitive tools. Ignoring everything I explained in detail in the very article Sommer claims to be responding to (seriously, read my article), Sommer doesn’t even get it. Plantinga is talking about scientific knowledge (like that evolution is true). No evolved faculty in the human brain is capable of producing such knowledge. That’s why it was never produced by it, not in hundreds of thousands of years. Until we invented a technology: the scientific method. If you install that technology (as software) on the hardware of the evolved brain, then that brain can discover scientific knowledge (like that evolution is true).

Plantinga is explaining the wrong thing. He thinks innate faculties have to generate scientific knowledge. False. All they have to be able to do is generate the ability to discover a technique (like the scientific method). And then the technique generates scientific knowledge. Using those underlying faculties. But it is not the faculties alone that are doing it. Those faculties have to be manipulated according to a procedure, one not evolved, and not innate in the brain (nor easily learned…remember, no human learned it for hundreds of thousands of years; and no human learns it today, unless they are taught it by someone else).

Note that we don’t even need evolved faculties that generate the techniques that can gain greater access to world knowledge. We only need evolved faculties to have the ability to generate those techniques. And observe history: that’s what happened. Our evolved faculties did not just generate those techniques (in the way they readily generate, for example, knowledge of object permanence). They failed to do so for countless thousands of years of countless millions of humans tinkering around and exploring different techniques. That that process would stumble across the cognitive tools we now use (science, math, logic) was statistically inevitable; it just would require a really long time. And lo and behold, we observe that’s exactly what it did. Evolution by natural selection is confirmed. Intelligent design is refuted.

Plantinga says surely God would give us the ability to gain scientific knowledge. But he didn’t. We are not born with those tools. We did not evolve with those tools in us. We did not even evolve a tool that would automatically install them in us upon interaction with the environment (like the way our knowledge of object permanence is). Nor were such tools taught to us by any God or Scripture. We had to stumble on them ourselves. By accident. So history disproves Plantinga’s theory. It confirms blind natural selection instead. And Plantinga fails to see this, because he conflates our biological faculties, with the cognitive tools we discovered ourselves and continually have to install culturally (because we can’t do it biologically—yet).

Failure 2: Conflating Different Faculties

Second was this:

Plantinga’s argument conflates the whole variety of our “cognitive faculties” as if they were all the same, when in fact the evolutionary pathways and selective pressures on each of them are different. He does so by simply asserting all that happens in cognitive evolution is the natural selection of belief-desire pairs (“see tiger, run”). That’s wildly false. As I already noted, it’s total bullshit, worthy of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter. You can’t explain the reliability of human vision in accessing reality (which gets us mostly to a correct basic physics of the world, like where objects are and what shapes they have and what the patterns of their geometry and movement tell us about reality, e.g. discriminating a live tiger from a dead one, or a tiger from a wildcat, or an angry tiger from a guy in a tiger-pelt cloak), and the evolution of human hypothesis-testing in accessing reality (which gets us things like “a spear will kill a tiger”), with the same selection model at all, much less Plantinga’s nonsense about “belief-desire pairs.”

How does Sommer reply? “Plantinga makes distinctions between all of these.” Not in his argument from belief-desire pairs to the conclusion that science-achieving faculties are an improbable outcome of natural selection. Sommer seems to not understand the difference between mentioning something, and actually involving it in the structure of your argument. Plantinga’s argument for the improbability of our faculties nowhere incorporates any distinctions between faculty systems or how they are differently selected for and developed in the animal kingdom over time. Look all you want, no premise, no syllogism, ever hangs on or includes any such distinctions. Nowhere. Certainly not in Warranted Christian Belief or Warrant and Proper Function (the two sources Sommer cites). And as one can thus expect, Sommer never shows he does. Evidently, Sommer doesn’t know what a “rebuttal” is. Want to claim Plantinga’s argument incorporates these distinctions? Show us, Josh.

More to the point, such distinctions don’t feature in Plantinga’s “argument from tigers” either. The argument we are supposed to be talking about.

For example, there is no sense in which we just “see a tiger.” Much less just “know” what to do about it. We see a system of patterns of colors and shapes, which our brain uses to construct a model of the physical space around us and what’s in it and moving and in what ways. From which we can discriminate a tiger only by learning to associate systems of those patterns, with systems of exectatations. No human is ever born with the knowledge of what a tiger is. Which is another reason Plantinga’s entire model of cognitive evolution is contrary to all science. Plantinga’s model is impossible—the complexity of information that would have to be selected for to “program” us genetically to recognize all animals and objects and everything else that we are supposed to know to survive on his model, is beyond astronomically vast. Unachievable by natural selection. No. We evolve generalized abilities and learn what to do with them. What we evolve are abilities for how to distinguish movement, shape, etc.; how to be taught in childhood useful associations between those and the dangers or opportunities they entail; how to discover repertoires of options for responding to those dangers and opportunities; etc. No one ever evolves the belief-desire pair “see tiger, run.”

Hence my point: Plantinga’s argument at no point ever operates from how cognitive faculties actually evolve. It’s completely divorced from and ignorant of all scientific knowledge. It’s pseudoscience.

Failure 3: Knowledge Nearly Always Aids Survival

My third point was that Plantinga never accounts for percentage of reliability in his argument to improbability. He simply argues “belief-desire pair selection cannot produce reliable knowledge of reality, therefore evolution cannot produce reliable knowledge of reality.” That implicitly assumes that naturally selected faculties are 100% unreliable. Even apart from the pseudoscience (“belief-desire pairs” isn’t how cognition evolves), it still does not follow that if natural selection produces unreliable faculties, that this will result in nothing but false knowledge. To the contrary, that is highly improbable. For example, we can be deceived by our visual faculties into thinking there is water on the horizon (when in fact it’s a mirage). But we quickly verify we were deceived (by going there, or sending someone there, and verifying what we are seeing isn’t there). And quickly learn to remember that (now we know what mirages look like, and can incorporate that new information in our decision-making). How on earth would you build—even intelligently, much less by blind selection—a system that, after all those independent faculties have operated on a problem, still ends up believing something false (e.g. continuing to believe mirages indicate water on the horizon)?

Plantinga’s argument is wholly incapable of accounting for this. His argument in fact simply ignores that this is a thing that cognitive evolution does. In fact this is why we have so many diverse faculties. Precisely because having one as a check against another (and another as a check on that, and so on), greatly reduces the number of false beliefs about our environment (hence, about reality) that we get saddled with. That’s why we have not just vision, but also hearing, smell, touch, taste, temperature and pressure and balance sensors, learning algorithms, testing & experimenting algorithms, and on and on and on. This is what natural selection does. It increases the reliability of our access to reality by multiplying our ability to check the failures of one faculty by use of another faculty. This is exactly contrary to what Plantinga argues. It is a scientific fact that alone refutes his entire reasoning. Because it refutes his bogus model of cognitive evolution.

Hence the reality is, if you have a system that’s only 60% reliable but keeps checking itself, over time it still gets a more and more accurate understanding of the world, far better than 60%. Because you learn from every failure that doesn’t kill you—and humans even learn from those: by watching what kills others; and teaching others what’s been seen to kill others (two faculties Plantinga’s model of cognitive evolution also completely ignores). So by not taking into account how even flawed faculty systems inevitably produce less and less flawed pictures of reality, Plantinga’s argument is inherently incapable of reaching the conclusion he does.

How does Sommer respond?

He doesn’t. He only talks about the probability of naturalism (Plantinga’s conclusion). He evidently didn’t understand I was talking about the probability of unreliable beliefs on natural selection (Plantinga’s premise). Oh well. Typical Christian apologist. Not understanding a single thing we say.

Failure 4: Conflating Different Ways Knowledge Is Formed

My fourth point was that Plantinga’s argument ignores the fact that different kinds of knowledge are acquired in different kinds of ways. His whole “belief-desire pairs” nonsense treats all knowledge-formation as the same.

How does Sommer respond? Lamely, all he says is that Carrier “never once shows why, or how, Plantinga is conflating various types of knowledge.” Um. Yes I did. Immediately before my numbered list, are the very paragraphs my numbered list was evaluating:

General intelligence is far simpler (it does not consist of a zillion one-line “if, then” commands) and scaleable (you can start with a crude general intelligence and leverage it smarter and smarter with successive adaptations). So it’s far easier to stumble on by accident; it’s therefore inherently vastly more probable as an outcome of natural selection. But it also has two huge advantages over Plantingian programming: it can save us from new and unanticipated dangers, and as such can save us from potentially infinitely many dangers, whereas Plantingian evolution is totally incapable of that (instead it requires killing a lot of people just to get a single “if, then” advantage); and a general intelligence can diversify our response to dangers in ways that greatly increase our differential reproductive success over versions of us that can’t.

For example, general intelligence can give us an array of behavioral options (run, fight, hide, shout, fart, trap it, tame it, play dead, throw a stick, distract it with a slab of meat), and can also learn to figure out which is needed or likely to be effective. Unlike the Plantingian tiger-phobe, someone who is merely just smart can encounter a tiger and not only not die, but end up with several days’ worth of food and a new cool cloak for winter. Which is, again, a huge advantage to survival. Plantinga’s guy, would inevitably get selected out of the gene pool, replaced by his far more capable peers.

Did you catch it? The reference to different kinds of knowledge?

On Plantinga’s bullshit model, we have to be “naturally selected” to have a faculty that tells us to kill the tiger for food and clothing instead of run away from it. Plantinga only ever mentions running from tigers as advantageous; which is idiotic. He never heard of hunting I guess. But on his model, the option of killing it instead of fleeing it has to be “naturally selected” as a “belief-desire pair” (one that just arises by accidental genetic mutation somehow—yeah, Plantinga doesn’t know jack about how the genetics of cognition works either). Wrong. The faculty of “recognize tiger” is different from the faculty of “decide what to do about tiger.” They are completely different systems, doing completely different things, under completely different selection pressures, with completely different reliabilities. Indeed, even “recognize tiger” conflates different faculties: visual discrimination (the ability to see a thing and distinguish it) and hypothetical discrimination (that what you are visually discriminating is called a “tiger”; that it is dangerous; that it is also edible; etc.). And “hypothetical discrimination” also conflates different faculties: enculturation (the ability to be taught those things, thus installing information memetically instead of genetically) and innovation (the ability to figure out those things, thus acquiring information from reasoning and experience).

Plantinga’s argument ignores all these distinctions. It therefore cannot validly make any statement about them. But since those distinctions are fundamental to what we need to be able to access reality (and to eventually learn skills like “science”), Plantinga’s argument cannot validly make any claim about how likely it is that natural selection would give us a collection of faculties capable of accessing reality with increasing reliability.

How It Really Works

I had already pointed out that Sommer’s first two articles completely ignored and got wrong everything I argued in my article. His Part III is simply more of that, in which he asserts not a single thing relevant to my article. No rebuttal is therefore required.

Instead, I need merely reiterate what Sommer quotes me saying to him in a Facebook thread: “Philosophers who build arguments on scientifically false or science-illiterate premises, are pretty much just engaging in pseudo-philosophy.” And that means Plantinga is engaging in pseudophilosophy. Instead, “It is the fundamental moral and professional responsibility of a philosopher to correctly understand the science they are basing their arguments on, at least such that once corrected on a science error, they’d issue a correction or retraction.” And Plantinga never does that. He just spins pseudoscientific bullshit, uninformed by any actual science of cognition or cognitive evolution. And never apologizes for it or corrects any of it. And that’s why he’s a shit philosopher.

You want to read a real philosopher, who discusses the evolution of cognition responsibly and informedly? Read Patricia Churchland. Braintrust is a good place to start. Compare. Then you’ll know. That’s not to say she’s right about everything. But she’s doing it correctly. She isn’t writing bullshit.

Plantinga’s model of cognitive evolution, by contrast with hers, is exactly as much pseudoscience as astrology or dinosaurs living with humans or the earth being only six thousand years old. It deserves no greater respect. If Plantinga actually paid attention to science, he would have to admit cognitive evolution does not operate by selecting “belief-desire pairs.” It operates by building and improving sensory and modeling faculties, which cooperate to construct and test models of reality. To keep his argument going then, would require showing that not only could natural selection have been honing and improving those kinds of faculties and still not given us any reliable access to reality, but would probably have done so. But he produces exactly zero evidence for either contention. You can’t get from “belief-desire pairs” to that conclusion, because “belief-desire pairs” aren’t how cognition evolves. And you can’t get from how cognition actually evolves, to Plantinga’s conclusion at all.

And real experts who actually know the science have told him this. He can’t get to that conclusion from real science. Because survival depends on increased access to true facts about the world. That’s why cognitive systems have evolved in exactly that gradient over hundreds of millions of years. Far from that being improbable, there is no way to avoid it happening. Once cognitive systems exist, and are being operated on by natural selection, they will simply continually improve in reliability, until topping out at an efficiency threshold (as I discussed in my original article). Because that’s why they exist at all: to give us some limited but increasingly sophisticated access to real facts. Because getting facts wrong, can kill us. Certainly more often than in populations that don’t get those facts wrong.

Our cognitive systems are a jumble of imperfections. Exactly as natural evolution would predict. Some we are no doubt still evolving improvements in. Others we have topped out at their efficiency, for us. We don’t have room in our cranium presently to improve much any one system over the others, for example; though such improvements are possible at a sacrifice of other systems, for example some animals devote a lot more processing space to vision and thus have better visual faculties than we do, because we needed to use that space to build other faculties in their place (like meta-cognition and problem-solving). And we’ll never have flawless faculties. But our faculties are, as a combined system, far more reliable in their ability to access reality than, say, a worm’s or a lizard’s. So you can’t get from “natural selection would give us unreliable faculties” to “our faculties would not gain us any reliable access to reality.” That’s the bifurcation fallacy: confusing “wholly unreliable” for “partly unreliable.”

You also can’t get from “we have sensory and modeling systems that help us survive” to “we can’t have true scientific beliefs.” Because the latter isn’t the direct output of an evolved faculty. It comes from an inevitably invented leveraging of an evolved system of faculties, the same way wheels and spears and canteens and democracy and smithing and accounting are. Our evolved faculties give us inaccurate access to reality in lots of ways (they make us think the sun revolves around the earth, that souls can exist without functioning bodies, that coincidences are designed). But we invented tools to correct for that: science, logic, mathematics, help us correct for our unreliable faculties, making them more reliable, just as telescopes and IR glasses correct the limitations of our innate visual systems, and calculators correct the limitations of our innate counting systems, and writing corrects the limitations of our memories, and so on. Since those skills didn’t evolve, Plantinga’s argument can say nothing about them. Yet his argument is supposed to only be about scientific knowledge (e.g. “that evolution is true”). The one thing his argument never discusses the faculties we had to invent to gain access to.

One could try desperately to rescue Plantinga’s model of cognitive evolution by going all the way back to worms and insects. Their cognitive systems operate almost like he imagines. “See light, approach,” “See motion, flee.” These (sort-of) belief-desire pairs give them slight survival advantages, but still kill a lot of worms and insects—directly, by leading them to make fatal decisions, e.g. turning into a waiting mouth or a flame; or indirectly, by leading them away from decisions that could have extended their survival, e.g. away from food or protective shelter. As evolution was able act on those primitive systems, it improved them by finding “corrective measures” for the defects of “light, go; motion, run.” More and more sophisticated ways, in fact, to gather and assess more data so as to start deciding whether to go toward a light or run from it or ignore it; to run from motion, or toward it, or ignore it. To the point that we, for example, still have the primitive “see motion, react” algorithm. Cells in our eyes, in fact most concentrated at the periphery, respond to movement, and can even instinctively cause us to turn our heads—of great survival value, since our visual systems have a limited visual field, and turning briefly to inspect movement outside that visual zone costs little but can save a life.

That’s the closest thing that exists to what Plantinga means by “belief-desire pairs.” But note this no longer governs our decisions; indeed it stopped governing many animals’ decision making millions of years ago. There is no analog like “see tiger, run.” Our head-turning reflex (which in fact we can even consciously override) isn’t comparable. What animals above insects do is assess a congeries of information and make a decision about it. They don’t “see tiger, run.” They think. And the more their thinking algorithms have evolved, the better they think. There is no way to increase the finding of survival-aiding resources in an environment or the avoiding of threats, without detecting them. And that requires access to reality. Likewise reducing our false beliefs: the more we “detect” fake threats or fake resources, the less effective at survival we will be—directly, by misleading us into threats or away from resources; and indirectly, by burning valuable resources on fruitless activity that we could have spent improving our situation. Hence any kin of ours who is saving those energy resources and spending them on fruitful activity instead, is going to have a genome that outlives ours. In any competing cases, a difference of even just a 1% greater survival opportunity can wipe your genome out over thousands of years. That’s why evolution has been so effective at building the faculties we have, even for all their flaws and limitations.

Contrary to Plantinga’s model, our brains construct things like information networks (connecting information, like “this face is my neighbor”, “a hammer is for nails”, etc.) and models (building “simulations” of what we think is outside, like a 3D map of our house and where everything is in it; but also maps and models of social networks; of systems that have a chain of causal functions, like an engine or a government; and so on). And then based on how testing those models and systems works out, our brains assign confidence levels to them, using features like strengthened neural connections, e.g. the stronger, denser the connections, the more signal strength results, which phenomenologically results in the more confident we feel when we bring up the models or links, that those match what’s really “out there” or whetever. Belief only exists and gets modulated after all the links and models are built. And this is all far too higher-order to be built the way Plantinga’s “Ken Ham” style idea of how cognitive evolution operates. The real way it happens, just isn’t what Plantinga imagines.

For example, first we start making associations (“seeing this face, means my neighbor”), and they get reinforced the more we encounter them. Confidence increases with every reinforcement. What Plantinga needs to know, if he wants to even begin constructing his argument honestly, is at what point can evolution falsely reinforce a connection like that? There are ways. It’s called superstition. Science has been studying that for years. But it can’t be that most are false. That would not only be extremely unlikely, it would be lethal. The frequency of false associations we can make and not be harmed by it is quite low. Plantinga has this bizarre unscientific notion that associations just instantly arise at a highly abstract level by genetic selection (“tiger, run”). That’s simply not how cognition works. No one is born with a DNA code for “recognize tiger.” They aren’t even born with any code for “run” (ever notice babies have to learn how to walk?). Much less “beliefs” pertaining to either. We are born with discriminatory senses: the ability to learn what a tiger is, the ability to learn how to run, the ability to learn that we should run from a tiger (actually you shouldn’t; Plantinga doesn’t even know running from tigers more likely kills you, but whatever).

Those things we learn come from building associations and models in our heads (including from communication from our peers, e.g. watching & listening, and being taught), and testing them against our contact with reality (our sensory discriminating functions), reinforcing when they match, de-reinforcing when they don’t. Plantinga’s argument can gain no contact with reality here. Sensory discrimination has to be more reliable than not, or we’d die (in fact the only reason we have senses at all is precisely to have better access to reality, so as to navigate it more successfully). Yet beliefs arise from comparing links and models against discriminating sensory information. Thus, the system that has to have contact with reality or we’d die, is what teaches us what to believe. We are never “born” with beliefs, or extremely few. Children have to learn from experience even such rudimentary things as object permanence; and anything that’s innate, is even more extraordinarily basic than that (like “something is moving at the limit of my visual field”).

Maybe, for example, we can say that. The belief that “something” is moving when we are still and our motion-detecting cells fire (and we should therefore turn our eyes to check), is like Plantinga’s “belief-desire pair.” This is of inestimable value to survival, and it has to be reasonably reliable even for us to have evolved it. But note even that does not generate a strong belief, nor a complex one. “Something” moved is pretty rudimentary, far more so than highly complex conclusions like “that’s a tiger,” which can take years to learn. But more importantly, remember it’s an interacting system of checks and balances: evolution selected a double feature, because yes, always chasing false motion is bad for survival. So we evolved a safety: sensing movement causes us to want to turn our eyes and check; we thus have a “verify” operation built in. Like with the mirage. Evolution has selected a safety to control for the unreliability of one system, and compensated with another. Again, that’s why we have so many systems: the odds of being wrong go down, the more independent systems we have double checking the same detail. This inevitably increases access to reality. And is inevitably always selected for when it arises without an outweighing disadvantage. Both contrary to Plantinga’s Ken Ham model of cognitive evolution.

So yes, you could say we “sort of” have a belief-desire pair coded into our DNA (“if these cells fire, maybe something moved”). But that’s still not what Plantinga means. Because the belief is weak, and triggers actions to verify it rather than simply “believe” it, actions that correct a false belief most of the time. Exactly the contrary of what Plantinga’s model predicts. And that’s exactly why we evolved those mechanisms! Plantinga’s entire argument is fantastically, embarrassingly, Ken Hammingly ignorant of even basic science facts like these, about how cognitive systems actually evolve and work. And it only gets worse when we get to talking about the cognitive systems we now use to learn things like “evolution is true,” which is a combination of memetically communicated and genetically evolved cognitive tools. Once again, on that very same point, Plantinga’s entire argument is fantastically, embarrassingly, Ken Hammingly ignorant of even basic science facts like these, that there is a difference between those two kinds of faculties, and how the cognitive systems we now rely on to gain scientific knowledge, actually include both.

And that makes Plantinga’s argument pseudophilosophy.


  1. Josh Sommer attempted a reply again (by vidcast). He once again misstates what I say, and ignores all my arguments. And just protests he is doing neither. There is no point in continuing such a conversation. He’s a broken record at this point.

    Notice how he never understands the argument:

    Plantinga argues that naturalistic evolution won’t probably give us the ability to acquire scientific knowledge because naturalistic evolution entails animals (and thus humans) evolve faculties in the form of belief-desire pairs. Since they don’t, his argument is unsound. That’s my entire case. What Plantinga says about evolution theory is false. It’s a pseudoscientific theory of cognitive evolution he just made up. And then attributes to naturalism.

    Sommer never addresses this. He never even seems to be aware that this is the problem. He seems to think I’m claiming Plantinga says this is how God evolves our faculties! That’s a bizarre failure to grasp my entire point.

    Sommer likewise seems not at all to understand any of my points about how poor faculties still accumulate reliable access to reality (by compounding probability in a way that increasingly reduces the probability of remaining incorrect), thereby contradicting Plantinga’s claim that poor faculties won’t do that; how evolution only needed to give us the ability to build tools to increase their reliability (algorithms for analyzing reality like logic, math, and science; he once again completely ignores my explanation, even though I wrote a whole other article on it and linked to it, again, that quantities and concepts are not math and logic; math and logic are the tools we use to computationally analyze quantities and concepts; we invented the tools; we were not born with them; they did not evolve by natural selection into our DNA); how the evolved faculties we do have can verify that those tools work (science allows us to do things that would be impossible if we were getting factually false information about the world; thus we directly verify, even with our poor faculties, that the scientific method works better than our natural faculties do; etc.); and so on.

    I explained this stuff repeatedly, across several articles now. He still doesn’t get it. I’ve tried my best. If he doesn’t get it by now, he may never do.

    1. Justin Legault October 4, 2017, 12:52 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to write this rebuttal. However, from the looks of things, Josh hasn’t adjusted his views based on your refutation. He’s still cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

      His last post regarding Las Vegas attack “How many atrocities will it take until people realize the gospel is the only fix?” Wouldn’t that be a false dichotomy? Isn’t there many great atrocities committed because of the gospel/Bible? Oh right “those aren’t REAL Christians”. That’s the No True Scotsman fallacy but Theists especially Presuppositionalist rely on their fallacies.The only way to perfect morality is of course the book with genocide (flood),slavery (Exodus 21), immoral verses, misogynistic views among others. How do they defend this?

      Back to Plantinga’s Tiger and Josh.

      If Josh says our faculties are flawed and we can’t reason honestly without god. His own statement is flawed since his faculties are also flawed prior to him learning about Christianity, right? How can Presups claim they have the knowledge because god revealed it to them, but everyone else our epistemology is flawed therefore our arguments are invalid? They are not enlightened, if they assume the cart before the horse. They have never proven god, yet they start with god.

      Our flawed minds evolve over time and get a better understanding each generation. Hence our technological advances over millennia.

      Presuppositionalism is defeated right off the bat. You can’t rely on circular reasoning and other fallacious premises and claim to be logical.

      Can’t we just reply to them “The universe is created by Pixies, you can’t see them, but they are there, you know they exist you’re just denying them. Your knowledge on the Biblical god is flawed and only revelation of the magical Pixies are true”.

      Isn’t that what they do regarding god and the Bible? If we can basically reverse their argument against them, isn’t that proof that it’s fallacious from the beginning?




Add a Comment (For Patrons & Select Persons Only)