on purpose, meaning, function

from wikipedia

The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
So says the Westminster Shorter catechism and so I believe.

I’m reading a recent paper by Stephen Law (an atheist) on ‘the meaning of life'[1], so am thinking about related things; I’ve also just written a short essay on human flourishing in virtue ethics and am quite interested in teleology in general, particular with how it relates to biology. I’ll come back to this later to add to the post if I have more coherent thoughts; this is an organismic kind of thing. Dr Law has been known to comment on NZ blogs before (quite frequently); if you’re reading and have any thoughts, feel free to click the comment button (even if you’re not the philosopher in question!)
We can distinguish between purpose and value. For a life to be truly ‘meaningful’, I suggest that it should instantiate both facets.

Living in a world governed by a good God, the concept of a ‘meaningful’ life is a live hope.

God is the kind of Being who gives coherence to things. As the original Orderer of the world and its minute-by-minute Upholder, His intentions explain the world’s features. His benevolence and wisdom serve to ensure that these features have a particular character, albeit one marred by systemic defects resulting from human and cosmic rebellion in the moral sphere. All this is to say that, given God’s reality as Source and Sustainer, we can expect certain things to line up – that ultimately apparent ‘disconnects’ will be made right or shown to have an important part in the whole scheme. Two things that seem to me like they will line up given God’s existence are our natural end as He purposed and the thing of most value to which we will be attracted (when properly informed and capable; when the moral/aesthetic dimension of our will is not distorted).

In the absence of God, it seems to me, without really looking in to this much yet, that our ‘purpose’ is restricted to the biological one to which Law refers – making babies. I hope to look into his view of life’s meaning soon, but it seems to me unlikely that (even if it’s not just about the babies we can make) a concept of purpose will be able to be derived from biological facts which happens to line up with that which we consider of particular value (beyond the aforementioned children). But on a theistic view, we have whatever purpose God intended for us and because God is benevolent, this is a good purpose, which coincides with a life directed towards something of supreme value. Indeed, there is such a thing as objective value (dubious sans God) and it lines up with our intended end.

Dr Law is quite adamant that God is not necessary to give our lives meaning. In fact, He is said to be quite superfluous to such an end.

The arguments given in support of this seem to me to rely on splitting ‘purpose’ and ‘value’, whereas I would prefer a robust concept of a ‘meaning for human life’ to keep these together.
Below, if I get around to it, I will give a more technical analysis of the problem of linking purpose with value in the absence of a benevolent Purposer. For now I just note that Law seems to skip over the question of whether we really can have a ‘non-biological’ purpose in the absence of design. I’d also like to suggest that we have a chief end, namely God, but also other worthwhile ends (such as family life and pursuing worthwhile projects in general) and that all of these ends in the hierarchy are worthwhile because they are loci of overlap between objective purpose and value; both sourced in God.


[1] Think (2012), 11 : pp 25-38
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2011
DOI: 10.1017/S1477175611000388

tri-unity

from Wikipedia

God is one.

I’m spending a fair amount of time reading about different approaches to the Trinity. I’m quite fond of an approach traditionally linked with the early scholars of the Greek Orthodox Church, later developed and known as the “social” doctrine of the Trinity. This view emphasises that there are three distinct ‘persons’ in the Trinity, whereas the Western Church has tended to instead emphasise the oneness of God’s being. Both views are trinitarian, but the models are different.

The question for the ‘social’ theorist is how God can still be one.

Watching this 4 min video brought the question up for me again. The speaker emphasises that God has one mind, which before watching this I would’ve been hesitant to affirm, as, according to the social doctrine, God has three centres of consciousness – the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, albeit in closest community and of the same essence in a way that no human persons are. However, pondering this, as I understand it I can still hold that the three persons of the Trinity really are of one mind – that God’s will is not split when it comes to God’s thoughts and actions.

The main point I wanted to make in this post was to draw attention to two passages in Scripture (verses I refer to collated here). This probably isn’t original (not if it’s any good anyway), but I don’t recall these being emphasised as helpful pointers together, in the reading I’ve done.

The first is commonly referred to in Muslim-Christian dialogue. In the Gospel according to John, 10:30, Jesus says “I and the Father are one.” (Interestingly, similar to Mark 12:29, where Jesus quotes the Shema, the famous declaration that God is one, found in Deuteronomy 6:4.) The usual response[1] made by Islamic apologists to the claim that this verse suggests that Jesus is claiming divinity is that Jesus merely does God’s will, so in some way the wills of the two are ‘one’. Yet, if we are to be consistent and if this really is a good response (and I think it’s a fair one, insofar as part of Jesus’ claim is indeed to be of one will with the Father – though in the context it seems to me that Jesus also identifies, for instance, his hand, speaking metaphorically of his hold on believers, with the hand of the Father; John 10:28-29), this kind of view could I think help to explain how Christians can say that God is ‘one’, as when Jesus quotes the Shema; there is one Lord (perhaps the favourite verse of Muslim apologists in the NT). For, the three persons of the Trinity are, similarly, of one will; though also one in a more fundamental relational sense as well. In any case, following this quotation of the Shema in Mark’s Gospel is the account of Jesus claiming to be the divine figure, the “son of man”, who is described as David’s Lord. More here – particularly interesting are the OT quotes where God speaks of no-one being able to deliver out of His hand and how this relates to Jesus’ words in John 10:28.

The second, which sprung to mind when I watched the clip was Philippians 2:2 “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” We are called to be of one mind with each other. It makes sense to say that multiple persons can be of one mind; it is hence perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that the three persons of the Trinity, uniquely related to one another, have one mind. Yet, I don’t see a need to emphasise this; there are more important aspects to keep in mind in our worship of the one true God.
Some other ways that the three persons of the Trinity constitute one God:

There is only one proper object of worship, as the persons are not worshipped solely by themselves; the NT shows the closeness of relationship in particular between God the Father and Jesus, His Son. Reference is properly made to Jesus and the Spirit in worshipping God the Father; and likewise for the other persons.

The three persons act together in creation, redemption, etc. There is in effect only one final cause.

’Perichoresis’ – the three persons of the Trinity mutually indwell each other in a unique way.

Other free access resources/references:
Monotheism – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
On “not three Gods” … a primary-secondary substance reading of ousia and hypostasis


[1] There is also a common response which refers to John 17:21. See here.

on agnosticism and atheism – a soupy mess

from Wikipedia
Members of the modern ‘sceptical’ community frequently take significant pride in ‘being rational’ and having a particular affinity with philosophy and science. As I study philosophy and biology and am an evangelical Christian, I am often disappointed with how these subjects are wielded as weapons in this culture-war of epic proportions. That these fields should be associated with atheism and rejection of Christian faith is an absolute travesty, IMO. That this rejection should commonly be as a result of shocking misrepresentation of the findings of these fields is particularly unfortunate.

I’ve seen a few “QualiaSoup” (henceforth QS) videos. I’m not going to be able to adequately engage with the whole framework of thought that these videos promote – and, for the record, I’m sure there is a lot said in them that is both true and useful – so I’ll keep my critique to the points explicitly made in this video and if anyone wants to throw another one at me, I can maybe take a look at it. Some of the points I will make are debatable. That’s okay, I’m not here to prove anything much, just to show that the matter-of-fact tone with which QS asserts the entire content of this video is quite unjustified – it lacks the kind of intellectual humility that is supposedly all the rage in the sceptical community.

If you’d like to engage with this blogpost, that’s tremendous; but I ask that you read it carefully before doing so. I’ve made it in sections, so you shouldn’t have to read the whole thing to engage with some of my arguments.

Okay, let’s get into it. This clip, entitled “lack of belief in gods” provoked me enough to at least attempt to analyse the key assertions. I’m currently doing a summer project on Christian conceptions of God, so I find it interesting.

As we begin, let me say: I’m sorry to any readers who feel socially or politically isolated as a result of not believing in God or other supernatural entities. However, if we are to talk about whether God in fact exists and related issues, let’s try and be rational about it. Mere assertion and ridicule may help build up or encourage the in-group, but it’s not dialogue and it’s open to being shown as both false and puerile. (Gotta love that last word.)

”Having beliefs grants no one privileged status. Nor is there any reason for the acquisition of beliefs to be a particular goal.”
This is not convincing coming from a religious sceptic who elsewhere extols the virtues of critical thinking and the scientific worldview – and the voiceover example given, of scientific theories, is useful to examine. QS asserts that when scientific theories are formed, “the aim is not for people to form beliefs about them being true, but to account for available data with a model that has the greatest explanatory and predictive power.” This is a fairly common view in the scientific community, but cuts against scientific realism, a belief which I would suggest it is apposite for non-believers who attempt to use scientific arguments against religion to hold to. It’s a fascinating topic, as while some prominent Christians in the field (Roman Catholics Pierre Duhem and Bas van Fraassen (an adult convert), for instance) have been scientific ‘antirealists’, scientific realism seems to me to make best sense on a theistic worldview (see e.g. here). If a sceptic is then tempted to be an antirealist, her ‘scientific’ arguments against religious belief may well be undercut, but even if she goes that way, it is still the case that scientific theories and more broadly, research projects, are constituted by a set of beliefs [not about what is true, but what has explanatory/predictive power, if that’s the criteria that has been chosen for what counts as scientific], which presumably are worth acquiring. In general, truth is worth seeking – including the truth about God – and most sceptics will acknowledge this.

Agnosticism:

QS says, based on the etymology of the word (not a great start; arguing this way is notorious for leading to dubious conclusions in philosophical circles), that agnosticism concerns knowledge and not belief and an agnostic is someone who says that “nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of a proposed phenomenon.” As such, we are told, some people who believe in God can be ‘agnostics’, as can those who believe there is no God or have no belief either way. The definition actually seems fair enough to me; agnosticism is usually construed as including two possible beliefs: (1) either a claim that we can’t know whether or not God exists or not (perhaps because the agnostic believes we can only know empirical truths, or that God, if God does exist, would be epistemically inaccessible to us), or  (2) the claim that it is uncertain whether or not God exists; that the probability that God exists is around about the 50% mark. But the conclusion, that the holder of practically any belief about God can simultaneously be an ‘agnostic’, doesn’t come with much plausibility.

The standard view of knowledge, by contrast, is that it is warranted (or sometimes ‘justified’) true belief. To say you believe something, is, as far as I’m aware, a claim to having some knowledge of it. It’s a claim along the lines that “if I’m right, then I have knowledge about this”. Thus, to be both a theist and an agnostic would be a little contradictory. I’m not an expert in this and apparently there are debates about whether ‘knowledge’ comes in degrees, but it seems to me that unless there’s some special atheist-epistemology that I’m unaware of, then QS is simply confused, in suggesting that gnosis (knowledge) and belief are quite separate categories. It is also of course possible to have varying levels of belief, but I don’t think this really changes the picture. If I have a particular strength of belief in the existence of something, I’m saying there’s that particular chance that the thing exists and I’m not agnostic about its existence, except perhaps in the second sense.

Okay, now I’m getting tired of this, so I’ll speed up and just put in some comments for points made at certain approximate times in the clip:

2:30  interesting point. Seems to be suggesting that most ‘atheists’ are in fact naturalists (not that he uses that word). This is a more accurate representation of the relevant aspect of the worldview of most non-theists (at least the argumentative ones, particularly those in the mould of the ‘four horsemen’) than a mere lack of belief in a particular god. It’s interesting to compare this to the popular slogan along the lines “atheists – we just believe in one less god than you”. Actually, the atheist is generally a materialist of some form, or at least a naturalist construed in Plantinga’s sense of denying the existence of “God or anything like God”. The atheist is inclined to deny the existence of any transcendent personal cause of the universe, whereas the theist believes there is such a cause; that all contingent beings owe their existence to some entity/entities in a super-natural realm. This is far more than just the loss of one entity in our ontology.

3:00 – strange assertion that whether God exists or not is irresolvable because “no procedure available to us could reliably establish the existence or non-existence of such an unscientific entity”.  I suspect the work in this sentence is being done by the notion of ‘to reliably establish’, which has scientific undertones for QualiaSoup viewers – i.e. it’s along the lines “you can’t scientifically prove that which is unscientific”. By itself, that says nothing about whether the question of God’s existence is resolvable. The statement seems to be an assertion that, concerning a generic ‘God’, we should be agnostics in some strong sense, with the reason being derived from within scientism.

3:10 – the biblical God can’t exist, we’re told, because any perfect being can’t be one that “needs worship”.

This is perhaps the worst argument against Christian faith that I have ever heard. It’s particularly bad because it is superficially appealing (it’s not nonsensical per se, or simple ad hominem/abuse), but clearly mistaken.

The argument goes something like this:

P1: A perfect being would have no deficiency

P2: A perfect being would also need nothing (inductively or deductively derived from P1, I’m not sure)

C1: A perfect being would have no need for worship

P3: The Biblical God, if he exists, is a perfect being

P4: The Biblical God, if he exists, needs worship

C2 (from C1, P3, P4): The concept of the Biblical God is internally contradictory

C3 (from C2): The Biblical God does not exist.

I guess I could dispute P2 if I was in the mood, but, far more simply, P4 is false. God doesn’t need our worship. It’s a separate question whether we are morally obligated to worship God.

3:50 It seems to me that QS would assign a low probability to the existence of God, if I were to ask him about that. Actually, when it comes to any specific god that is claimed to be perfect and to need worship, QS ought to say that the probability of such a being existing is 0%, as it entails a contradiction. (Of course, QS is mistaken in thinking that any mainstream theism claims that God “needs to be worshipped” in any relevant sense).

4:00 – in a discussion like this, the atheist often wants the theist to have the burden of proof. So, the atheist says he doesn’t actually have any beliefs on the topic. This seems unlikely to me. Most/all atheists who give themselves the name will assign a low probability to the claim that “God exists”. This is a positive claim.

If a theist directly contrasts faith with “logic or evidence”, then I think they’re simply mistaken. QS should find some better informed interlocutors.

4:20 QS is at least strongly implying that other people should believe as he does. Accordingly, he has a burden of proof, by his own standard. In this video he has failed abysmally to meet this – at least thus far. Let’s see if the video improves.

Naturalism is not particularly plausible as a default position. See e.g. here (a paper I frequently link to. I’m not aware whether the author is a Christian or an agnostic of some sort, but he gives an effective response to the standard atheist “teapot argument” and related assertions.)

I am yet to see a convincing argument for naturalism. If there was one, surely all bright philosophers would be naturalists – but, they aren’t. The question of the existence of God is a highly technical and controversial one and it seems plausible to me that the answer one gives to the question will ultimately rest on intuitions which are not self-evident either way. QS is adding very little, if anything, to the debate; if anything, his condescending tone is more likely to build walls than convert any informed theist.

5:05 I have made this claim myself. The answer QS gives to it is primarily to repeat it in a sarcastic tone. Then, having primed his audience, he asks whether, when someone says “look around and tell me which ones aren’t married”, we would point to inanimate objects. He’s right, we wouldn’t, But this is irrelevant. If someone says that they don’t believe in any god or God at all, I feel I am well within my rights to ask them why; “I just don’t” is not a reasonable response, or at least it’s not one that the theist should be impressed with.
In any case, perhaps a more apt question for QS is this: is atheism something which can be “true” or “false”? Presumably he would like to be able to say yes, as he is implying that we should all be atheists and it also seems to me that he thinks that its corollary, theism, can be described as true or false. If atheism can be described as true or false, it is a proposition, with content, not a mere absence (of belief).

5:30 – curious ad hominem

QS is quite right that “atheist” is generally to be taken as a predicate of people; as, I would say, “communist” is. But if atheist is only applicable to people, it seems to be because only people have beliefs. To go on to reassert that atheism is not a belief strikes me as curious.

6:00 Looks to me like an equivocation on “default belief”. Just because beliefs in God take time to develop (i.e. the chronologically initial position is to not have such beliefs) doesn’t mean that the burden of proof is entirely on those who assert that there is such a being rather than those who do not believe there is (i.e. the claim that the absence of any God-beliefs is the logically initial position, which requires no argument). An example: someone who lacks belief in an external world (maybe they’ve never considered it, just taking solipsism for granted, perhaps due to a slightly unorthodox upbringing) is not without a burden of proof, are they? Interestingly, arguments for the existence of an external world rely on the reality of sense data from that external world and arguments for the existence of God similarly tend to depend in some way on the reality of action by that God. But that’s a whole other topic. Alvin Plantinga talks about a similar thing with regards to belief in the existence of other minds, in “God and other minds”.

The general claim being made in this video is an interesting upgrade of the more simplistic “if you’re making a positive claim, you have the burden of proof” – that assertion is shown to be extremely dubious by the fact that most (maybe all?) negative claims are logically equivalent to a corresponding positive claim.  QS tries to get around this by defining atheism as a mere absence of belief, but I don’t think he’s successful, for, as I’ve explained, atheism more often involves assigning a low probability to the existence of God and even if it is mere absence of belief, it is not clear where the burden of proof lies once we begin to assess the claim “God exists” (see the teapot link above).

9:40 “magical thinking” – and he wants people to take him seriously?

If ‘psychologising’ those who don’t agree with you is all good, I’d suggest that what is driving this video is an irrational fear of religion, more than rationality, science or clear thinking.

‘the one mystery of Christian faith’

Dove of the Holy Spirit - from Wikipedia

Reading lots of stuff for my studentship. Here’s something I found useful in my attempts at informal mental systematizing – dunno if it’s true, maybe it’s too simplistic. The passage is discussing Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s views, with reference to Karl Barth. Whatever it’s actually saying here (and while many of his other ideas were no doubt wrong), I like the idea that there is one key mystery in Christian faith, that is, the way in which God has revealed Himself – and that this revelation/communication has different aspects; Trinity, incarnation, and grace to those who do not deserve it (‘grace’ is always undeserved).

“For Rahner then faith in the Trinity is not primarily a speculative question but a matter of thinking through revelation to the end. Without faith in the triune God Christian revelation and the role of Jesus Christ is essentially distorted. Christianity becomes a bare monotheism and the mediatory role of Jesus is neglected. The doctrine of the Trinity is of the utmost practical significance, for what is at stake is nothing less than the fidelity of God and the radicality of God’s self-gift. If we can take these seriously, as Christian faith insists, then it must be true that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, that there is no other God than the God who has revealed not something about himself but his own being. This hermeneutical principle which Rahner (like Barth) draws from the nature of revelation itself enables him to show the inextricable links between Trinity, incarnation and grace, the three aspects of the one mystery of Christian faith, namely the self-communication of God.” [emphasis added]

J. J. O’Donnell (1982) The Doctrine of the Trinity in recent German theology. The Heythrop Journal

Oh, another insight from that article, which I quite strangely haven’t thought on before, or consciously articulated anyway:

Like von Balthasar, Jungel is strongly under the influence of Barth and his theology is also radically centred on the cross as the event which provides the key to understand God and which enables one to confess that God is love.” [emphasis added]

God is love and we can know this by the event of the death of Jesus on the cross. In the context of the letter of 1 John, which says that “God is love”, this is made quite clear. Chapter 4 of that letter ties together the incarnation, the idea that we can be born again, the love of God, the crucifixion of Jesus, the fact that we are to love others, and our confidence before God.

why study philosophy? (or theology?)

The one part of my degree I feel has been particularly useful to me as a person is philosophy. Now, don’t get me wrong – if you want to get a job, don’t just study philosophy. But if you’re going to uni just to get a job, you’re probably studying commerce and not reading this blogpost. :I

Studying philosophy – even ethics! – won’t necessarily make you a better person, either. I know people who’ve finished degrees in the subject and it doesn’t seem to have made them less arrogant or any wiser (though they may disagree). But, it does at least have that potential.

I was going to write this post anyway, but today I got back my mark for the first essay in my final philosophy course, a stage 1 paper in ethics. I expected to do fairly well, but it was rushed off fairly quickly amongst other commitments, so wasn’t expecting a lot. Gratifyingly, I got 15/15 and some ego-boosting comments; “your exposition section is very lucid and accurate … writing is clear, concise and mature … shows clever and original consideration on the relevant ideas.” Given this is my last paper, that all makes sense, but it is still good to know – for, by contrast, my first philosophy essay got about a B/B+ and whatever I thought at the time, wasn’t in fact particularly interesting or coherent. I conclude, based on this piece of data and others, that studying this subject has helped me become a better writer and thinker; or at least a better communicator in writing. And it doesn’t matter how great one’s ideas are or how precise one’s grip on a subject if that cannot be communicated.

It is said (I’m not sure by who) that “the point of all philosophy is ethics”; that philosophical frameworks will ultimately impinge on how we live – and that this is the way it should be. While it cuts a bit against my natural dispositions and interest in the abstractions of the academic project, I’m now inclined to agree – ideas really do have practical consequences and far from demeaning the ideas, it gives them a valuable context. This stuff matters at least partly because real human beings think about it and will (or may well) live differently as a result! They won’t always be straightforwardly ethical ones, but ultimately human beings will structure their lives according to the mental structures they overlay on their world of experiences, in order to make sense of it all; having ‘made sense of it’ in their minds, they will act on this understanding. If we care (as so many of us do!) how people act and for the welfare of society, the appropriate long-term location for our action must include the mental sphere. This is both the public square of reasoning and policy and the behind-the-scenes world of theorising and testing ideas before they make it into the square or get widely accepted there. There are few shortcuts in this area and there is much hard work to be done by those who care about human flourishing in the way that I understand it, if we are to have a credible voice.

What’s the point of studying theology?

Knowledge for its own sake is valuable; ideas matter. Ideas about God perhaps most of all. They have extrinsic value, as I’ll briefly mention, but I’m convinced that they also have intrinsic value and it’s best not to confuse these. One of the books I’m reading at the moment is Colin Gunton’s “The promise of trinitarian theology”. It’s a very interesting summary of the history and application of trinitarian ideas, as well as an argument about how we ought to think of the Trinity. But sometimes I think it strays into focussing on the extrinsic value of particular theories – for instance that the Trinity helps us to think about the relationship between unity and pluralism, particularly within human societies and political frameworks. These are very valuable things and a fascinating consequence of a careful theologising, but just knowing about the nature of God is I think beneficial; it is no more ‘true’ for also saying something about human society. There’s a bunch of questions here that I haven’t got my head around, but part of my worry (that Gunton also echoes I think) is that ‘is’ rarely implies ‘ought’ – it is not a straightforward thing to derive how we ought to be from any empirical state of affairs, unless we already know that that state is normative.

That said, knowledge should lead to action; faith without deeds is dead! Knowledge about and reflection on who God is will properly lead to action based on His character; in and out of Christian community.

Is P(R/N&E) low? Can we add something to N&E to save R?

from Wikipedia

If you believe that naturalism is correct and you intend to apportion your beliefs to the evidence, then this question is particularly relevant for you.

In slightly clearer English, it is this: is the probability (P) that we have reliable cognitive faculties (R), given (/) background beliefs of naturalism (N) and evolution (E), actually (and counter-intuitively!) low? Alternatively stated, does the conjunction of belief in ‘naturalism’ and ‘evolution’[1], with all that this conjunction entails, serve as a defeater for our belief that our cognitive faculties such as memory and perception are reliable? The claim is not that our cognitive faculties are in fact unreliable, but that if naturalism and evolution are true, it is not rational to believe that these faculties are reliable, for we are without independent reason to think they are. If naturalism is true but undercuts the assumed reliability of our cognitive faculties, we are not justified in trusting our cognitive faculties when they deliver a conclusion of naturalism (or anything else!) [This whole discussion is going with the standard view of knowledge as justified true belief – the mere fact that a belief is true is not considered sufficient for it being ‘knowledge’, or a reasonable belief. I’m not an epistemologist, so I’m not aware of the details of the disputes around this, but as far as I know, noone claims that mere true belief is a sufficient criterion for knowledge.] This is the heart of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) and I’m real sorry Al if I butcher it in what follows 😦

 I’m trying to put together a review of Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies – Science, Religion and Naturalism” (OUP, 2011), which covers Plantinga’s argument on this point.  Here’s an interesting critical review of the book (scroll down a bit to read it). For the most part the article strikes me as a fairly typical exercise in angry hand-waving by a philosophically uninformed sceptic. But, he asks at least one good question.

Translated into the clear logical form which (incidentally) the reviewer rather strangely dismisses as “quasi-mathematical formulae”, I would pose his question like this: sure, P(R/N&E) considered by itself may be low, but P(R/ N&E&X), where ‘X‘ is the success of science, is much higher! 

This is very interesting and is one example of an attempted ‘defeater deflector’ which is in the realm of what Plantinga calls the “conditionalization problem”; the question gets quite technical when we consider what would count as a legitimate deflector of the defeater – for instance, one which had R built in to it (where X = R or entails R) would just be question-begging. More substantially, as Plantinga says (bearing in mind that ‘S’ is the subject of the beliefs concerned, i.e. the ‘believer’), “no proposition P that is evidentially dependent upon R for S – that is, such that S believes P only on the evidential basis of R – is a defeater-deflector for R.

As an aside, the sceptical reviewer Callahan implies that Plantinga believes that cognitive faculties are reliable based on the science of cognition. I doubt that Plantinga reasons in this way – I expect he would instead say that the science of cognition itself relies upon our cognitive faculties (is evidentially dependent upon R) and as such our faith in our cognitive faculties is more fundamental than that; their accuracy is directly perceived and hence assumed, in the absence of defeaters. Further, Plantinga’s argument is not that naturalism contradicts science (though if science is indeed an independent source of warrant for our cognitive faculties, one could say that what we would expect on naturalism is not what science shows us, so naturalism is to some extent disconfirmed by science) but rather that belief in naturalism undercuts itself (and in so doing, also incidentally defeats science and all other beliefs!)

The complex question which Callahan offers, which, cutting through the various misconceptions, seems legitimate to me is, first: does the success of science show that scientific beliefs are true (or more likely to be true than in the absence of such evidence)? It is plausible that continued progress in the scientific project does make scientific beliefs more plausible in some way (I am a scientific realist and a major argument for realism is the success of scientific predictions). But, if this is the case, the second question, broadly, is: to what extent does this rescue the reliability of our cognitive properties tout court? This is unclear. Perhaps the success of science only increases the likelihood of scientific claims being true if we first grant, i.e. have background beliefs of, the reliability of our cognitive faculties. But perhaps more can be conceded; maybe it is the case that naturalism is true and also scientific beliefs (and a consequent limited subset of our cognitive faculties) receive some warrant due to the success of science – but that our non-scientific beliefs (such as a belief in naturalism) are not warranted. In such a case, belief in naturalism would not be rational, even if it were true; we couldn’t rationally know that it were true.

Perhaps someone can help me clarify that last question; I think there are more distinctions within it to be made. Philosophy is all about making lots of distinctions; but not too many! Anyway, I think that the fact that science is successful is itself indirect evidence for theism, in that it fits better in an ordered than an unordered universe. In general I’m inclined to take the EAAN in a more restricted sense, as applying to non-empirical beliefs (rather than all beliefs due to our cognitive faculties), as Plantinga says, “metaphysical beliefs”, which aren’t too relevant to survival and reproduction, well; “it is only the occasional member of the Young Atheist’s Club whose reproductive prospects are enhanced by holding the belief that naturalism is true.” (p. 349, Where the Conflict Really Lies)

Even if EAAN is not an entirely successful defeater for naturalism, due to some kind of independent warrant for our cognitive faculties followed by some argument from, e.g. our perceptions, to naturalism, I think it does help to shift the burden somewhat – it is one of a collection of arguments clustered around the reliability of the scientific project itself that show that naturalism is not clearly the natural home of rigorous theorizing about and systematizing of the world as we apprehend it.


[1] In case you’re wondering, I personally accept evolution, in terms of common descent, (at least for the most part – I’m still working out the full relationship between teleology and the history of the biosphere) but I don’t accept naturalism, construed as the denial of the existence of God or anything like God.

‘design überhaupt’

From an interesting interview with Bill Dembski, of intelligent design fame/infamy:

” The reason we put the adjective “intelligent” in front of the noun “design” is not to stress that the design we find in nature is optimal or good or morally acceptable. Rather, it is to underscore that the design we find in biology and in the universe more generally is actual. Richard Dawkins opens his book The Blind Watchmaker by stating “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

For Darwinian biologists, all such design is merely an appearance. The “intelligent” in “intelligent design” underscores that we’re not just dealing with an appearance of design, but rather with actual design.

So while the question of suboptimal or bad design may be interesting, it is not central to intelligent design as a scientific program, which in the first instance is interested in looking for evidence of design überhaupt. …”