Plantinga’s ‘Two Dozen or So’ Arguments for God: The Epistemological Arguments

Part 2. I just addressed Plantinga’s ontological and metaphysical arguments (A through I). Here I cover his epistemological arguments (J through Q). Next I’ll cover his moral and other arguments (R through Z). I’ll link those in when they go up. For now, part two:

II. Half a Dozen Epistemological Arguments

  • J. How Do We Know Things

Plantinga insists evolution by natural selection can’t explain how we know things. For some reason. He can’t articulate in any scientifically literate sense why. Nor can he find any scientific authority to back him up. Instead he just cites a 1966 symposium “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.” 1966. Because he has to dig back to find an obsolete collection of un-vetted conference papers from fifty years ago in order to find anything that suits his case. Actually trying to see what science has learned in the half century since, is too much of a bother. This is more of Plantinga’s science illiteracy showing. It’s just worse that he inexplicably implies we should read the paper in that collection by Houston Smith. There is no paper in that collection by Houston Smith. Either Plantinga meant instead the only author at that symposium who tried arguing against the possibility of evolution, Murray Eden—who was roasted at that very symposium for having all his facts wrong (see my discussion in “The Argument from Biogenesis” in Biology and Philosophy 19 (2004), pp. 751-52 & 756); or he meant some other tract by the late religious studies professor Huston Smith, who has no science credentials. Welcome to Christian apologetics.

  • K. Argument from Reliable Faculties

If our faculties evolved by natural selection, Plantinga says, then we could never trust them. This is false. Because his argument for this conclusion, “What evolution requires is that our behavior have survival value, not necessarily that our beliefs be true,” is false. Or at least, not relevantly true. Because beliefs evolved to regulate our behavior in ways that would be conducive to our survival. The more capable you are of forming true beliefs about the world, the more adaptable to that world you will be. Certainly, evolution would not ensure our beliefs are always true; but lo and behold, that’s exactly what we observe: our cognitive systems fail in systematic ways that are fully explicable on their having been naturally selected, but inexplicable on their having been intelligently designed. Thus, the evidence here, once again, argues against the existence of a god, not for one. I’ve already taken down his scientifically illiterate argument on this point in Why Plantinga’s Tiger is Pseudoscience.

  • L. Argument from Simplicity

Why are simple explanations more often true? Why is Occams Razor a reliable principle? Surely it must be because of God! As Plantinga puts it, “we are inclined to think that simple explanations and hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated epicyclic ones,” but “if theism is not true…there would seem to be no reason to think that the simple is more likely to be true than the complex.” It’s ironic to hear this argument from someone who had just finished arguing that the complexity of the world can only be explained by a god. Which is it? A simple world or a complex one?

In reality, of course, the explanations of things that turn out to be true are not even remotely simple at all. As I show in detail in All Godless Universes Are Mathematical, there is nothing simple about the Periodic Table. The simpler theory of Aristotle’s four or five elements, totally false. Even underlying that is the mind-bogglingly complex Standard Model. And underlying that is Quantum Mechanics and Relativity Theory and something we have yet to discover that unifies them (maybe, M Theory or Loop Theory). Which are so complicated most human beings can’t even understand them. In history (and all other historical sciences), the explanations are so vastly complex we literally can never model them. We can only sketch them. And we can’t make much beyond very general predictions of the future with them, because the causal parameters behind every event are so vast in number and so widely varying.

So what is Plantinga talking about? Well, he’s confusing metaphysics with epistemology.

In reality, every explanation of anything is vastly complex. The fall of an apple to the ground is not described by Newton’s law. It is described by Newton’s law as modified by General Relativity and in conjunction with a vast array of unknowable facts affecting the rate and direction of the apple’s fall, including but not even remotely limited to the position of the moon, the mass of an electron, whether KTLA is broadcasting nearby, and the ever-changing topography of sub-surface magmas. We can’t get our heads around it all. But we don’t need to, since we don’t need a full and complete explanation, just enough to be useful. So all those other things can usually be ignored, as the effect they have is so small we don’t care if we’re wrong about them. We like simple explanations because we can use them. Not because they are “true” in some absolute sense. They are “true enough” to meet our needs. And we don’t always find such things. We still can’t reliably predict the weather by more than a day or two. Or earthquakes. And so on. We use the ones we find. And in a world where everything is randomly distributed, there will always be some usable “simple explanations,” which are better described as “approximations.” But most of the time, even the simplest useful explanations we can find are not at all simple. Hence the Periodic Table.

Plantinga gives away the mistake when he says we “think that simplicity is a mark of truth (for hypotheses).” That’s an epistemic property. Not an ontological one. Occam’s Razor does not say “simplest explanation is most likely true.” It says “the explanation that fits with the fewest assumptions is more likely true.” This is not a statement about the construction of the universe. It’s a statement about how likely an assumption we make is to be truer than another. The more assumptions you add to an explanation that aren’t needed to explain anything, the more likely you are to be wrong about those assumptions. Because there is no evidence that makes them probable. Not because the universe was built to make them improbable.

Hence Occam’s Razor gives you the Periodic Table over Aristotelian Elementalism, not the other way around. Because the thousands of assumptions that go into the PT are actually necessary to explain observations. Whereas Aristotelian Elementalism, though vastly simpler, simply doesn’t explain all those observations. But you can’t add to PT, something like, say, “angels push the electrons around the protons,” because there is no evidence to back that addition. It isn’t needed. And isn’t evinced by any facts. A claim like that is simply always unlikely to be true when there is no evidence it’s true. Note the second half of that sentence: this is a statement about what is likely given the evidence we have; it is not a statement about what is likely “about the universe” regardless of the evidence.

I demonstrate this mathematically, and explain the logical-epistemological necessity of Occam’s Razor in all possible universes (apart from extraordinarily bizarre Cartesian Demon worlds we needn’t worry we are in), in Proving History (e.g. pp. 80-81; 104-06). Basically it works like this:

If theory [x] predicts observation [z] is 100% expected (such that every time [x] is true, [z] will be true), and someone comes along and says, “Well, maybe theory [x+y] is true, and not just theory [x],” you would ask, “Is there any evidence that [y] is true?” They’d say no. So you’d ask, “Well, since you don’t have any evidence that [y] is true, you can’t say the probability that [y] is true is 100%, can you?” They’d say no. So you’d ask, “What, then, is the probability that [y] is true?” Then maybe you both hash it out and come to realize, let’s say, that it’s equally likely one way or another whether [y] is true (e.g. there is no evidence for it or entailing it’s likely, but also no evidence against it or entailing it’s unlikely). But that means the probability of [y] being true is 50%. Which, by the logically necessary laws of probability, means the probability that [x+y] is true is 50% less than the probability that just [x] is true (because the probability of the conjunction of [x] & [y] equals the product of the probability of [x] and the probability of [y], and we just agreed the probability of [y] is 0.5). Since adding [y] does not make [z] any more likely than [x] already does (because it can’t: remember, [x] already makes [z] 100% likely, and there is no greater probability than 1), it’s simply unlikely that [x+y] is true. [y] may or may not be true, in any given case; but whether or not, it makes no difference to observations—because if it did, we’d have evidence for [y]. And as you add yet more unevidenced assumptions, e.g. [x+y+w]. [x+y+w+a], etc., the probability of your increasingly complicated theory being true on the information you have plummets geometrically. Simply because you have no reason to believe any of those additions are true.

That’s why Occam’s Razor cuts [x+y] down into just [x]. Not because the universe has been engineered by God to be easy to explain (it clearly wasn’t). But because things for which there is no evidence, are less likely to be true than things for which there is evidence. That’s a statement about our limitations as cognitive agents. Not about the cosmos. And it will be true in every godless world that is even remotely likely to exist. No God needed.

  • M. Argument from Induction

Perplexed by the Problem of Induction? Just invent a God! That’ll spackle right over that problem, easy peasy. Hence Plantinga insists “it is hard to think of a good (noncircular) reason for believing that…the future will be relevantly like the past,” but it’s not hard to think of a reason God would make sure it did! Except…wait, isn’t just assuming a God exists who wants the future to resemble the past, in order to conclude the future resembles the past, a circular argument? D’oop!

This is another confusion between metaphysics and epistemology. The problem of induction is not about the universe. It’s about knowledge. How do we know the universe is stable over time? The question why the universe is stable over time is completely different.

We have lots of godless theories about the latter, that don’t require positing ghosts or faeries. Philosophically, we have many options, all simpler than God Did It (which, far from being simple, is the most complex theory conceivable). But science has already been plugging away at this so successfully, that it’s left theology in the dust, as being completely explanatorily useless. And any wise bet is on keeping that horse running.

For example, why does the electron always have the same mass? Probably not because God wrote it down somewhere. More likely it has to do with the geometry of spacetime (e.g. String Theory). But already, we’ve figured out that it has to do with how the electron interacts with the Higgs field. Every particle with charge interacts with the Higgs boson; and the universe is awash with those bosons; so that’s why every charged particle has a mass. And the electron has the mass it does because of how the Higgs field interacts with spin and charge. Once you know a particle’s charge and spin, you can predict exactly what mass it will have. Notably, Plantinga’s theory (presumably “God just ‘chose’ what the electron’s rest mass would be”) never succeeded in predicting the mass of an electron (or anything else in physics). Which is why we conclude it’s the Higgs field. Not God. So we know why electrons always have the same mass: the Higgs field is everywhere, and nothing known can sweep it away, so any neg-1 charged half spin particle we find is going to have the electron’s mass.

One can then ask, “But why does the electron have neg-1 charge and half spin?” And so on. Which physicists are working on. But odds are, it’s not going to be some magical dial on a cosmic control panel on God’s desk. It’s probably going to be something like the Higgs explanation. It’s going to be physics. Indeed, more than likely, it’s going to be geometry. After all, String Theory can already predict why an electron would manifest neg-1 charge and half spin, simply by appealing to a particular spacetime geometry. But the point is, this is a physics question. And in physics, it’s simply a fallacy to say “We haven’t figured out the physical cause of [x], therefore it’s God!” Because that explanation has always failed every time we’ve ever gotten to test it. That’s right. Thousands and millions of times, every instance of “God did it” we have ever yet been able to actually check, we found out, it wasn’t God. It was some underlying physical fact causing it. And a horse that loses a million races and never wins, is the last horse you should ever be betting on to win the next one.

But that’s not the problem of induction.

The problem of induction can more aptly be stated, “When we don’t know what’s causing an observed stability, why should we be confident that that stability will continue?” Which is really just a question of epistemic probability.

In fact it’s well known now that induction really just means probability theory. The old problem of induction was long ago solved. It has been replaced with an array of debates over the nature of probabilities and how to determine them. Bayes’ Theorem, for example, essentially is the solution. One only has left to debate how you estimate the probabilities you plug into it. But probabilities are really just frequencies. Laplace’s Rule of Succession affords an example: back in his day (the early 19th century), on any given day, no one could know for certain the sun will shine tomorrow; but they’d seen it shine every past day as far back as records exist (thousands of years, really); so they remained confident “it will shine again tomorrow.”

Plantinga would ask why we are so confident of that. But Laplace already answered that two hundred years ago: absent any evidence to the contrary (a crucial caveat), past observations of any stability entail a continuation of that stability by the equation (s+1)/(n+2), where s is the observed instances of repetition (number of days the suns shined) and n is the total of all observed instances of an opportunity for repetition (total number of days). There is no way to argue against that probability. That is, no way, without evidence. And this is true no matter what is causing the sun to continue shining (whether God or physics, it doesn’t matter). In fact it’s true even if nothing is causing the sun to continue shining. That’s right. Even if it’s just totally random luck whether the sun shines each day, (s+1)/(n+2) still predicts the epistemic probability the sun will shine tomorrow. Because probability theory entails it is logically necessarily the case that 1 – [(s+1)/(n+2)] is the probability of getting that lucky (even when summing for all possible probabilities…other than zero, of course, but if the probability of the sun shining on any randomly selected day were zero, the sun would never have shone). And that probability is super low.

Another way to think of it is in terms of statistical sampling: if you picked 1,000,000 days at random from among all the days there are, and the sun is shining on every day you picked at random, the probability of that being an accident is logically necessarily extremely low. Unless it’s extremely likely that “the sun will continue shining from one day to the next” is true. But then, that’s exactly why we conclude that. Of course, we don’t really have a true random sample of sun days; so one might ask how we know our non-random sample is predictive. The answer is the same. What is the probability that, by random chance, we picked a sequence of 1,000,000 days of continual shining that will end exactly the next day? If you work it out, you’ll realize, it’s extremely low. In fact, it’s Laplace’s Rule of Succession. This is just a particularization of a general tautological truth: absent evidence to the contrary, it is always more likely you are ordinary than that you are exceptional. This is a tautology, because “exceptional” means by definition infrequent, and hence improbable. And the more exceptional you have to be (e.g. for “the sun to shine continually for a million days and then go out the very day after you asked whether it would”), the more improbable it is that you’re located there.

So really, the Problem of Induction is nothing more than the fact that there is always a nonzero probability of being wrong. But it does not follow that that probability is always the same regardless of how many observations you make. Obviously, the more observations you make of the sun shining from one day to the next, the more likely the hypothesis is that it will continue to. And this is for things we have no other information about them, than their frequency of occurring. But the more we learn, the more we know than that. Hence, now we actually know not only roughly when the sun will stop shining, but why—and thus why it won’t stop shining tomorrow. Because of its structure and underlying physics. Plantinga might try to ask how we know that underlying structure will continue, but that just gets us back to the Laplacean position (statistically, it’s unlikely to just stop for no reason, given that that’s never happened before) and the metaphysical question (why are structures in spacetime stable), which is the same thing (the success of physics at explaining that question, vs. theology, is so far the million-race always-winning horse).

We don’t need to posit a ridiculously complex superghost to explain why induction is reliable. It would be reliable in any world with a stable physics. And if there is no God, it’s virtually impossible to find ourselves in any other kind of world than one with a stable physics (as by far most unstable worlds, could never have produced us). And so far, observations statistically entail we are almost certainly in a world with a stable physics (and not some enormous Bolzmannian accident about to dissolve in the very next moment). So the question then becomes what produces that stability. And honestly, God has not proved a very plausible explanation.

  • N. Argument from Cartesian Demons

Plantinga says “we do not know that we are not brains in a vat,” but we know if God existed, he “would not deceive us in such a disgustingly wholesale manner,” therefore the problem of Global Skepticism is solved by God. How he claims to know that about God is beyond me; maybe God does intend to deceive us in such a disgustingly wholesale manner. How is “just assuming” he doesn’t intend to, any different from “just assuming” we aren’t brains in a vat? It’s the same supposedly intractable problem. Made all the worse by his peers in Christian apologetics who have to argue God is deceiving us all the time—from the more common insistence that God is hiding all the evidence there would otherwise be of his existence and governance and making the whole world look exactly like a world with no god in it; to less common but still alarmingly frequent claims such as that God let the Devil fake all the world’s fossils.

But I won’t hurt my brain puzzling that out. This is just another Cartesian Demon argument. Which Plantinga illogically tries to solve by…inventing an even more complicated Cartesian Demon. We already know why it’s improbable we are brains in vats. We don’t need to posit a God to assure us of that. Nor would positing a God assure us of that. For if you simply assume the God that exists is the one who wouldn’t put us in vats, you are simply arguing in the same circle as someone who assumes no one else did. The rest of us don’t assume. We don’t claim certitude. We just claim what’s likely and unlikely. And on good grounds. No God needed. In fact, God is a vastly more complicated thesis than even the brain-in-the-vat scenario. So it’s even more unlikely.

  • O. Argument from Reference

Plantinga tries to extend Hilary Putnam’s argument against being brains in a vat (which IMO is just semantic sophistry, but I’m not here to rebut Putnam) into a kind of skepticism he thinks only God can solve. Like the U.S. Cavalry at the end of some old racist movie filled with Evil Indians. While we’re left to wonder what idiot wrote a film that placed the American Civil War in West Asia. But let’s give Plantinga a shot anyway. Ready? Here goes (emphasis added)…

Maybe we are in a sort of environment of a totally different sort [than we think we are], of such a sort that in fact we can’t form the sort of thoughts we think we can form. We think we can form thoughts of certain kind, but in fact we cannot. That could be the case. … [But] God would not permit us to be deceived in this massive way.

Once again, his circular arguments are showing (how does he know God would not do that? …that that isn’t a thought he thinks he can think but really can’t?). But that’s old hat. The new thing going on here is this same weird irrational epistemological move, just like the one about Cartesian Demons, where “maybe” and “could be” is somehow being treated as “probably.” But if it’s not probably, who cares? Why are we to think it’s “probable” (or even remotely likely) that we are deceived about what we can and can’t think or are or are not thinking? It’s a trivial worry. No different from…

Maybe we are in a world haunted by vampires. That could be the case. [But] God would not permit us to be haunted by vampires.

Well, okay, except that he probably would. But even supposing he wouldn’t; is that really the reason we need to deny there are vampires? “But they’re invisible, and good at hiding, and control the world’s media…” yadayada. Just another Cartesian Demon. What reason do we have to believe there are vampires? None. So you can’t argue from “there might be vampires, therefore God exists.” That’s just stupid. Whatever weird mental illness Plantinga is positing we “might” have, it either affects our capacity to interact successfully with the world (e.g. our thoughts surprisingly fail to match experience or accurately predict the future), or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it’s semantically irrelevant (whatever thoughts we are thinking, they work just fine). If it does, it would be detectable (by the very mismatches in experience it would produce). And we already have a handle on that. It’s called cognitive biasing. And that’s evidence against God. Not the other way around.

  • P. Argument from Plus or Quus

Here all Plantinga says is “The Kripke-Wittgenstein Argument From Plus and Quus.” No explanation of how this gets us to God. Well okay. Let’s see what the Kripke-Wittgenstein Argument From Plus and Quus is. Philip Goff claims he can help us with that (in Does Mary Know). The gist of the argument?

It seems that if someone knew all the physical facts about what is going on in my head at the time I was having a given experience with cognitive phenomenology, they would not thereby know whether that state had ‘straight’ rather than ‘quus-like’ content, e.g. whether the experience was intrinsically such as [to] ground the thought that two plus two equals four or intrinsically such as to ground the thought that two quus two equals four.

Oh for fuck’s sake. Garbage like this is why academic philosophers might be the first against the wall when the revolution comes. If you want to bury yourself in the bizarre, convoluted background, you can get up to speed through this article. The idea originates from Saul Kripke. Whom I repeatedly find is a terrible philosopher whose science illiteracy rivals Plantinga’s; but that’s a rant for another day. For now, all you need know is that Kripke invented the idea of “quus” to pose a challenge for semantics. Quus means, “x quus y = x + y, if x, y < 57; = 5 otherwise.” In other words, if either x or y is 57 or more, then x quus y = 5. Otherwise x quus y is the same as x plus y. I won’t get into how Kripke uses this; for now, I’m just interested in how I must infer Plantinga is using it, along lines akin to Goff.

Goff’s argument is (basically) that a complete physical account of his brain would be unable to tell whether he was performing the function 2 plus 2 in his head, or 2 quus 2. Therefore mind-brain physicalism must be false. Therefore (enter Plantinga), God must exist. Somehow.

The thing is, this is the same mistake philosophers stumble all over when baffled by the more famous What Does Mary Know argument. The gist of that one is, Mary is a scientist trapped in a colorless lab, and never gets to see colors; but she’s a super genius from the future and knows all true statements about the physical world; yet somehow, all that knowledge never causes her to know what the color red looks like; therefore physicalism is false. Or so you’re supposed to conclude. As long as you don’t think about it too much. Then you’ll slap your palm to your face.

I cover the basics of this already in Sense and Goodness without God (index, “colors” and “knowledge, noncognitive”): propositional knowledge can only contain the code for a thing; not the thing itself. Hence, all possible propositions about a heart, will still not pump blood. If you want to actually pump blood, you have to realize the propositions in a material. If Mary knows all true propositions about hearts, it’s true she will still die without a heart; unless she can use her propositional knowledge to build and install a new one. Which she could. Because she knows all true propositions, she certainly will know how to build and install a replacement heart. But she still has to actually do it. Merely knowing how, is not the same thing. Likewise, knowing all true propositions about color is not enough to see colors, any more than to pump blood. If Mary knows all true propositions about color, then she knows what circuits of neurons she needs to install in her brain, and stimulate, in order to experience the color red. Then she’ll know what red looks like. Just as she’ll have blood circulating in her body, thanks to the heart she used her propositional knowledge to build.

Consciousness is like a circulatory system: you have to actually be the thing, to experience the thing. It would be self-contradictory to say that Mary could experience the color red without the physical circuits required to generate that experience. That would be like saying my iPhone should be able to drive my car without any software for driving a car (or learning how). It’s a direct self-contradiction to say a machine should be able to do what it has no capacity to do. Obviously, if I want my iPhone to drive my car, I need to install the requisite circuits for doing so. Just as if Mary wants to experience the color red, she needs to install the requisite program in her brain and run it. If she runs it disconnected from her brain, then she won’t experience it, because it isn’t connected to her cognitive system. And if she never builds or runs it at all, she’ll never experience what it does. She’ll be able to describe everything that can be externally explained about what it does. But there can be no proposition that refers to that experience that is identical with the experience the proposition is referring to; just as there can be no proposition about hearts, nor any conceivable system of propositions about hearts, that will pump blood. The thing being asked for is logically impossible. This doesn’t mean there is anything nonphysical about color experience. To the contrary, it’s what must necessarily be the case if color vision is wholly physical. Otherwise, we could know what colors look like, without the machinery physically required to generate the experience of color; which would be like my iPhone driving my car, without any car-driving programming in it. Which would be more like Harry Potter’s magic wand.

This is similar to why philosophical zombies are logically impossible. To be one, a person must be neurophysically identical to a nonzombie, yet not experience anything when thinking and perceiving (they see no “color red” and hear no voice when asked a question and so on), and yet always behave in exactly the same way. Those three conditions cannot logically cohere. Ever. For example, if you ask the zombie to describe the qualia of its experience (“Do you see the color red? What does it look like? Do you hear my voice? What does my voice sound like?”), it either has to behave differently (by reporting that it doesn’t), or it has to lie (by claiming it does, when in fact it doesn’t), which is also behaving differently, but more importantly, entails a different neurophysical activity: because the deception-centers of the brain have to be activated (and that will be observable on a brain-scan of suitable resolution); but also, their brain has to be structured to be a liar in that circumstance, which will physically differ from a person whose brain is structured to tell the truth when asked the same questions (and those structural differences will be physically observable to anyone with instruments of sufficient precision). To which one might say, “Well, maybe the zombie will lie and not know it’s lying.” Right. And how do you know that is not exactly what you are doing? If you genuinely (yet falsely) believe you are seeing the color red, how is that any different from just actually seeing the color red? In the end, there is no difference between you and your philosophical zombie counterpart (see my discussion of qualia in Sense and Goodness without God, III.6.4.4, pp. 146-48; and of the similar flaw in Searle’s Chinese Room: ibid., III.6.3, pp. 139-44).

So now back to the Plus or Quus. Science literacy, people. Neuroscience. Learn it. Understand it. Use it. How will Mary the Scientist know whether you are thinking plus or quus when you sum 2 and 2 to 4? Because she has all propositional knowledge about the structure of your brain. And the structure of your brain either contains the plus or the quus code. Period. That’s it. And of course, until today, the quus code wouldn’t be in there. So she’d always know you were thinking plus. And today, now that I’ve corrupted you forever with the awful knowledge of the ridiculously useless mathematical quuus function, she will find that coded in your brain, too. But guess what? When you sum 2 and 2, she’ll know which circuit you activated when you thought that—the plus or the quus function. Because it will be physically observable. Or that you activated both, and decided not to care, because it was irrelevant, since both produce the same output. And that’s simply how it is. No mystery. No ghost in the machine. And certainly no God needed. (See my discussion of Quine’s similar “gavagai” argument in my critique of Reppert’s Argument from Intentionality.)

  • Q. Why Are Intuitions Reliable?

We have lots of amazing intuitions about things. Plantinga is baffled and berfuddled. How could that be?? Must be God! As he puts it:

You may be inclined to think that all or some of these [intuitions] ought to be taken with real seriousness, and give us real and important truth. It is much easier to see how this could be so on a theistic than on a nontheistic account of the nature of human beings.

No. Sorry. It’s actually the other way around.

There has been an extensive scientific study of intuition. I give a short summary and bibliography of it in Sense and Goodness without God (III.9, pp. 177-92), which by now is already a decade obsolete, and yet vastly more up to date than anything Plantinga says on the subject! Among the things we’ve learned is this: intuition is not very reliable (an observation not expected on Plantinga’s theory); it becomes more reliable, the more experienced we become with a subject we are intuiting (an observation not expected on Plantinga’s theory); and it performs much better on analytical than empirical models, a fact that actually causes a great deal of human error (an observation not expected on Plantinga’s theory); and yet even on analytical models our intuition screws up a lot of the time, our logical and mathematical intuitions still needing a lot of training even to be good at that (an observation not expected on Plantinga’s theory), training in skills that didn’t exist for most of human history, and had to be invented by ourselves (yet another observation not expected on Plantinga’s theory).

Consider that difference between analytical and empirical intuition: we are pretty good at “walking through” analyses of models of abstract structures and concept-spaces we build and explore in our mind (because we have near complete control over them, though we still famously make all sorts of mistakes even in this, which is why we had to invent formal logic as an external processor, and even in using that we screw up plenty of the time); but then we too readily assume a model we have built, corresponds to reality, when in fact very often it doesn’t. And getting a model to better fit reality requires repeated experience, in large part by learning from repeated failures. Such a clunky, limited, and dangerous mechanism for learning how to correctly intuit facts about the world is exactly what we should expect on unguided evolution. It’s exactly the opposite of what Plantinga says we should expect if our intuition is a gift from God. So the actual evidence of intuition, is actually evidence against theism. Not for it. (See also my discussion of the ladder of knowledge, and why we’re better at logico-mathematical intuition than any other, ibid., pp. 49-61. As to “moral” intuition, we’ll get to that in Part 3 of this series. Logico-mathematical intuition, meanwhile, requires training.)

To see how bankrupt Christian apologetics is as a method of understanding the world, just look at how Robert Koons “builds out” Plantinga’s argument in The General Argument from Intuition. Notice he never even mentions much less engages with any of the quite vast and abundant science of intuition. He just completely ignores the sciences. Like some Medieval scholastic still insisting the earth must be the center of the universe because everything falls toward it; and completely ignoring a telescopic observation that Jupiter has moons. When you are completely ignoring everything science has to say about the subject you are pontificating on, you are a crank. You are just publishing pseudoscience. You are no more respectable than any garden variety Deepak Chopra. We can safely ignore you.

Plantinga also throws down here some confessedly poorly thought-out arguments about how we can have knowledge of abstract objects or conceive of an objective point of view. But these are just more science illiteracy. Cognitive Science has already sussed that an objective POV is a constructed model; we define what we mean by objective, then build the model to that parameter, and analyze the resulting model. This is how all human thinking operates. It’s what the computer of our brain evolved to do, and do pretty well. And it’s exactly what’s going on with intuition; the only difference being that intuition operates automatically without the involvement of our linear conscious analysis (System 2 reasoning, which is slow and limited in focus and the most recently evolved; whereas System 1 reasoning is fast and holistic). Abstract thought is likewise: abstractions are simply models we fabricate to operate on analytically, and build and use for pattern matching (see my refutation of Reppert’s Argument from Mental Causation). There is no such thing as an abstraction outside our brains (and other like computational and storage systems). There are only things, with identical or common properties. Which we can automatically or choose to categorize as we encounter or think about them, abstracting them. As such, all possible abstractions only potentially exist. They do not actually exist. Which means an inability to grasp this basic two-thousand-year-old Aristotelian distinction between potential and actual objects plagues Plantinga even in his naive thinking about epistemology.

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3 comments

  1. I was reviewing what Kripke says about “Quus” again because I needed to review some philosophy of mind for another purpose. As far as I can tell it immediately reduces to a skepticism about “induction” (or rather learning from experience generally). Rule following is only mysterious if you think “rules apply all the way down” – and Wittgenstein’s whole point was that eventually things just “happen”. (Reasons are causes, but only some causes are reasons.) People who are baffled by this I usually point to the experience of computer programming.

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