Stephen Law on Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism”

In the past, I’ve been a bit reluctant to comment on Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (EAAN). Plantinga has a long history of refusing to get his science right when writing about science, and when philosophers do that part of me feels our only response should be to point out what they’re doing and say, “come back when you’re not screwing up your science and then we can talk philosophy.”

But in any case, Stephen Law has just put up a blog post with a journal article published he published in Analysis last year. Here’s Law’s summary of his case:

Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true – that’s to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga’s argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it’s actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns out that if such conceptual links exist, then (rather surprisingly!) natural selection will favour true belief even if belief content is epiphenomenal. So Plantinga is mistaken: even if belief content has no causal impact on behaviour, natural selection can still select for true belief. The EAAN is therefore refuted. To resurrect the EAAN, Plantinga would need to show that there no conceptual links of the sort I envisage between content and behaviour, links of a sort that, as I say, do seem to exist.

I’ve had more or less this thought before, but I think it can be put even more simply. As I wrote at the beginning of this year: “As far as I can tell, [Plantinga's argument] makes no more sense than saying that if materialism were true, it is by virtue of the arrangement of subatomic particles that our digestive system digests food, and therefore whether or not those particles are arranged into a stomach, intestines, etc. is irrelevant with respect to digestion, and therefore evolution is unlikely to produce those organs.”

  • John Wilkins

    Paul Griffiths and I make a counterargument in a forthcoming chapter:
    with links to John Danaher’s commentary.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      The EAAN has enough wrong with it that there is plenty of room for more counterarguments.

      • John Wilkins

        Too true!

    • Frances Janusz

      Thank you! I had thought that the science was way out in the EAAN. I’m not a scientist so I thought I must be missing something, but what your blog has confirmed that I’m not going mad. The science really is crap!

  • anatman

    why on earth even waste time refuting plantinga? all of his “arguments” that i have seen resemble brain damaged babbling decorated with a few big words. too stupid and dishonest to even bother refuting. anyone silly enough to be taken in by that garbage is almost certainly a lost cause.

  • machintelligence

    Try as I will to make sense of Plantinga’s arguments, I can’t seem to do it.

    then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true – that’s to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour.

    How could it not? If we don’t behave based on our beliefs and experiences, then what is our behavior based on? I am only a lowly evolutionary biologist, but this assertion makes no sense at all.

    • Patrick

      Plantinga’s argument is that a false belief can lead to the same behavior as a true belief, and he therefore concludes that there’s no evolutionary advantage to having a true belief instead of having any number of false beliefs that would lead to the same behavior.

      He reaches this conclusion because he thinks evolution applies to beliefs, and not to belief generating cognitive features. Why he thinks this, I do not know. Its as if he thinks that there’s an evolutionary advantage to seeing a tiger, but no advantage to having eyes… and refuses to accept the wild theories of optometrists and ophthalmologists purporting any connection between the two.

      • machintelligence

        Thanks. It is becoming clearer. The problem with this argument (as I see it) is that there are many more ways for a belief to be false than true. Some of those false beliefs may result in behaviors that are adaptively neutral, but others may have a large negative selection coefficient. Only if you can make the case that all beliefs result in the same behavior does his argument make any sense.
        Backing up one step, one can treat beliefs as memes, which have their own evolutionary history. Since they are now being treated as entities, they may have a survival value that may be different from the organism that has them in its mind. (The host, if you will.) These are the “ideas to die for” that Dan Dennett mentions. Given sufficient popularity (like suicide bombers) or sufficiently delayed mortality (like smoking tobacco) they can become more common even though they reduce the fitness of the organism where they reside.
        Still, you have to measure evolution on one level or the other, otherwise it makes no sense.

    • Steven Carr

      I can’t make sense of Plantinga’s arguments either.

      He seems to say that if unguided evolution is true, the chance of any species developing sophisticated brain power like ours is very low.

      So if naturalism is true, we would expect to see the very world we do in fact see….

      So why does that make naturalism false?

      And since when did Plantinga’s god design a world to produce true beliefs in people? I could have sworn I once heard a Christian saying people had free will to choose true beliefs or false beliefs. Did I imagine that?

      • Alex

        “So if naturalism is true, we would expect to see the very world we do in fact see”

        I think his extrapolation is that *humans* are that one thing that obviously is smart beyond the natural world, ergo god. It’s just another variety on the mystery of the human capacity for thought; Plantinga sees himself as evidence for a god, as most Christians do after you wade through the hours of arguments they use in order to sound sophisticated.

        However, clever as we might be, we’re not *that* clever. The only reason we’ve come so far is standing on the shoulders of those before us. Now, if we could only attach some form of methodology on top to make sure we don’t repeat past mistakes … Oh, right; science. However, Plantinga sees that as “religion” as a “way of knowing”, which is the dumbest epistemological argument in the world, Aquinas not helping (I’m sure Aquinas argument was clever some several hundreds of years ago, but do not hold up to a smidgen of modern [say, last 200 years] scrutiny). It’s a surprising amount of Christian thought that goes back to Aquinas rather than who we tend to think of, Augustine.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • David

    When he says, “the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour,” he contradicts all the other Christian apologists who claim that only by believing in God can we shape moral behavior. Of course, if Christian’s beliefs don’t make them behave morally, then there’s nothing preventing them from [insert depravity of choice here], whereas atheists who don’t believe Plantinga’s ideas are constrained by the sense of morals that evolution has built into our brains.

  • Annatar

    I think what plantinga is trying to argue is that if our cognitive faculties evolved to favor adaptive behavior and not necessarily true belief, then we can’t trust any of our beliefs to be true, including belief in naturalism.

    Ridiculous of course, but that I think is the logic of the argument.

    • machintelligence

      I am inclined to agree. Denying reality might work in the short run, but the truth usually comes back to bite you in the ass.

    • Steven Carr

      Of course, Plantinga swears blind that his reasoning and senses are being constantly attacked by demons.

      So why should I listen to a word he says, when for all I know, and for all he knows, he may be possessed by demons?

      Anybody who believes in supernatural powers is forced to admit that their thoughts might be affected by supernatural powers, so we should not trust what they say.

    • eric

      I don’t think its a ridiculous assertion, I think Platinga is just playing on the fallacy of the excluded middle in his conclusion. An indidivual human’s senses can be turned for adaptive behavior rather than true belief, while at the same time the collected observations of science can converge on something close to true belief. (though I would probably rephrase it as: individual humans can have self-beneficial models of the physical world but combine them to form a more objectively accurate model of the physical world).

      Mechanical instruments, blinding metholodologies, experimental reproduction and confirmation – these (and other things like them) are the tools that groups of humans use to convert their individually adaptation-tuned sense observations into accuracy-tuned observations.

  • Fr.Griggs

    Adaptation leads to near optimal results, not optimal ones, so living thing do as well as they can. Our faculties then do that. They carry no guarantee to find the truth! That is why we use instruments and inter-subjectiviy and tests.
    Yes, Plantinga probably then suggests that demons just might cause our error as he suggests that might cause natural evils!
    We learn by trial and error to trust and -mistrust our faculties. Plntinga then begs the question of directed outcomes as to all teleological arguments- his from reason, to design, probability and fine-tuning as Carneades’ atelic argument notes, and each makes another fallacy .
    As Lamberth’s teleonomic argument notes, science finds no supernatural intent behind Nature than behind her forces as animists think: theism is just reduced animist, and thus as superstitious as full animism and polytheism.
    Lamberth’s argument from pareidolia notes that theists see the pareidolias of divine intent and design instead of the actual mechanism and patterns just as people see Yeshua on a tortilla or the man in the Moon. Scientists are investigating how and why people see patterns and pareidolias

    Lamberth’s non-genetic argument is that we naturalists in the end do not make the genetic fallacy in suggestng how and why theists believe as they do, because they themselves unwittingly affirm our arguments with their unsubstantiated arguments from happiness- purpose and Augustine’s from angst.
    We naturalists fathom quite well why theists would have existential angst about giving up their theism just as a few atheists have; thus, psychology enters the scence. Yes, we have to continue to debunk with emotions their apologetics,but psychology merits use here.
    Yes, they have spurious argumentation about why we disbelieve in their woo.

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