Tyler Wunder's Review of Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief

Here. Originally published in Philo 5:1 (2002), pp. 103-118.

Wes Morriston at Prosblogion

Wes Morriston is discussing and exploring some novel criticisms of the kalam cosmological argument at Prosblogion here (scroll to the bottom) and here.

Review of Schellenberg's The Wisdom to Doubt...

...in the latest issue of Religious Studies (online access is currently free for this issue) here.

Evan Fales vs. Alvin Plantinga on Proper Basicality

Evan Fales and Alvin Plantinga recently had an exchange on issues pertinent to Plantinga's account of warrant in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Fales raised worries for foundationalist theories of knowledge and justification, and then brought these problems to bear on Plantinga's (externalist) foundationalist theory of warrant ("Proper Basicality", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68:2 (March 2004), pp. 373-383). Plantinga recently responded in the same journal ("On "Proper Basicality"", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 75: 3 (Oct. 2007), pp. 612–621). The exchange is a must-read for those exploring and evaluating Plantinga's religious epistemology.

Stephen Law on the EAAN (Again)

As we've noted earlier, Stephen Law is writing a paper criticizing Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Here is his latest draft.

Philosophia Christi: Table of Contents Index

Philosophia Christi doesn't yet have an RSS feed to keep one in the loop about the contents of the latest issue. Until they do, here's a link to the contents of the past and current issues:

Review of Swinburne's Latest Book

...from Notre Dame Phiosophical Reviews:

Richard Swinburne, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press, 2008).

A Few Recent Critiques of Plantinga's Proper Functionalist Epistemology

Although by no means exhaustive, here's a short list of recent articles that offer good critiques of Plantinga's externalist analysis of epistemic warrant:

Dawson, Shawn. "Proper Functionalism: A Better Alternative?" Religious Studies 34 (1998), pp. 119-34.

Botham, Thad. "Plantinga and Favorable Mini-Environments", Synthese 135:3 (2003), pp. 431-41. Here Botham shows that Plantinga's amendments to his analysis of warrant since the publication of his Warrant and Proper Function (e.g., his clause requiring the beliefs to be formed in favorable cognitive mini-environments) are subject to new counter-examples.

Bardon, Adrian. "Reliablism, Proper Function, and Serindipitous Malfunction", Philosophical Investigations 30:1 (2006), pp. 45-64.

-"Two Problems for the Proper Functionalist Analysis of Epistemic Warrant", Southwest Philosophy Review 15 (1999), pp. 97-107.

Wunder, Tyler. "Anti-Naturalism and Proper Function", Religious Studies 44 (2008), pp. 209-224. This one's in on a technicality. It's not devoted to his analysis of warrant (although his doctoral dissertation is). However, Wunder does raise a counter-example to Plantinga's analysis of warrant as a means to making another point. Furthermore, (and again, though he doesn't use the point in quite this way) Wunder's paper brings up a fundamental problem with Plantinga's approach that's also broached in Botham's paper, viz., that Plantinga's analysis of warrant fails to meet standard desiderata of a proper philosophical analysis of a property.[1]

While I'm at it, here are a couple of books that offer shorter critiques of Plantinga's analysis of warrant:

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology (Prentice Hall, 2002). See ch. 5, pp. 99-106. This is probably the best point of entry into critiques of Plantinga's account, as it's a primer on epistemology, and so the critique is presented much less rigorously than the other texts.

Connee, Earl and Richard Feldman. Evidentialism: Essays in Epistemology (Oxford, 2004). See, especially, their discussion under the heading, "Authoritarian Epistemology". There, they argue that his analysis is inadequate, as it suffers from a problem analogous to the Euthyphro Dilemma problem for divine command theories of ethics. See also their stuff on Plantinga's notion of "impulsional evidence".

[1] Though he uses the point about Plantinga's standards a little differently. One of Wunder's points is that Plantinga has two different standards of what constitutes an adequate philosophical analysis of a property -- a very loose one that he applies to his own account of warrant, and a very strict one that he applies to everyone else's account of anything -- and that he argues for his own account by illicitly applying the loose account to his own analysis, and the strict account to everyone else's.

On his loose standard of analysis, one states a set of conditions that hold, at least for the most part, to a set of clear, paradigm cases. These serve as the exemplars for the "core" notion of the analysis. However, the conditions need not all apply to every entity that falls under the proposed analysis. For the account allows for there to be, in addition to the core cases, a surrounding "penumbral belt" of cases that stand in various degrees of similarity to those in the core. And the idea is that since the cases are only analogous to the core cases, it's understandable that some of the conditions stated in the analysis do not apply to at least some of the penumbral cases. Furthermore, beyond the penumbra are a large number of borderline cases that bear an even fainter resemblance to the paradigm cases. These are cases where it's either unclear that the cases fall under the concept analyzed, or there just is no determinate fact of the matter whether they do. And of course, if this is so, then some of the clauses may well fail to apply to these as well. One can imagine that "analyses" of this sort will often be messy, with many long, inelegant clauses embedded within them.

In contrast to his loose standard of analysis is his strict standard. According to the strict account, an adequate analysis must state a short list of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, and these conditions are not restricted to a set of "core" cases; they must apply in each and every possible instance of the property being analyzed (no leeway for a distinction between "core" and analogically extended "penumbral" cases).

On the strict-standards account of an adequate analysis, then, it's sufficient to defeat an analysis of a property if one can think up even a merely epistemically possible scenario in which the analysis fails. Thus, on this account, it's very, very easy to defeat a proposed analysis. This is the standard that Plantinga applies to every one else's philosophical accounts.

By contrast, on the loose-standards account, providing an epistemically possible scenario at which the analysis fails isn't nearly enough to defeat an analysis. Indeed, on this account, it's not necessarily enough to provide a metaphysically possible scenario at which the analysis fails. For the loose-standards account allows that not all the conditions that apply to the core cases apply in the penumbral cases, or in the cases that lie somewhere between the core and the penumbra. On the loose-standards account, then, it's very difficult to defeat an analysis. This is the standard that Plantinga applies to his own account of warrant.

Update: Morriston's Opening Statement From His Dialogue With Craig, Plus Some Post-Dialogue Comments

Over in the comments section of the relevant post at Prosblogion, Morriston has been so kind as to give us some helpful remarks, as well as a link to his opening statement (along with the powerpoint slides --thanks, Wes!):

"About my "debate" with Bill Craig... It was actually billed as a "dialogue," it was a friendly event, and there were no big surprises. Needless to say, we didn't have a meeting of the minds.
In view of the interest expressed by some people in this thread, and in view of the fact that one or two who heard the "dialogue" didn't understand what I was trying to say about an endless series of future praises, I have posted my response to Craig's opening statement here:


There is also a series of powerpoint slides that go with my response. I tried to cover all of Craig's arguments in twenty minutes. It wasn't easy! I have included a link to the powerpoint as well.

In addition to the links to the opening statement and the powerpoint, I have included a few comments on what I take to be the inadequacy of Craig's claim that an endless series of future praises would be a merely "potential infinite."

Whether it's an actual or a potential infinite depends on how those terms are defined. All that matters, I claim, is whether the case as I described it is possible. I think it is. If I'm right about that, then all the paradoxical features of the actual infinite can be reproduced for an endless series of distinct, determinate, successive events.

I further argue that "presentism" (which Craig also appealed to) doesn't help his case."

He also left a later comment confirming Craig's nominalism:

"For what it's worth, he told me that he's a nominalist."

James K. Beilby and James F. Sennett

James K. Beilby is a Christian philosopher at Bethel University (now assistant professor of biblical and theological studies). He is known for his edited collection on Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Cornell, 2002). He has since written and edited a number of other books, one of which is Epistemology as Theology: An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga's Religious Epistemology (Ashgate, 2006)

One interesting thing about Beilby is the fact that although he's a devout, conservative Christian, and a scholar of Plantinga's work, he has argued in print against at least two of Plantinga's projects in philosophy of religion: (i) his account of warranted Christian belief, and (ii) his EAAN.

Re: (i): Beilby did his PhD (2002) at Marquette University. He wrote a massive (400+ page) dissertation on Alvin Plantinga's religious epistemology (An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga's Religious Epistemology: Does it Function Properly?). One of his main conclusions is that Christian beliefs formed as described by Plantinga do not possess warrant.

Re: (ii): In "Alvin Plantinga's Pox on Metaphysical Naturalism" (Philosophia Christi 5:1 (2003)), he argues that a naturalist can rationally resist Plantinga's EAAN if they accept a Lakatosian philosophy of science, and thereby conceive of evolutionary theory as a progressive (as opposed to a degenerative) research program, where the thesis that our beliefs are causally connected to our behavior and are adaptive is one of its auxiliary hypotheses. For since (on Lakatos' phil. of sci.) the epistemic justification of auxiliary hypotheses supervenes on the research program, and since the research program of evolutionary theory is progressive and not degenerative, the auxiliary hypothesis is thereby justified, despite Plantinga's criticisms of various incarnations of this hypothesis in EAAN. Thus, to defeat the auxiliary hypothesis for a Lakatosian who is a naturalist, Plantinga would have to show that the research program of evolutionary theory is degenerative (i.e., it's not enough to poke holes in incarnations of the auxiliary hypothesis, as Plantinga does). Needless to say, Plantinga hasn't met this burden.

Beilby published an article earlier ("Is Evolutionary Naturalism Self-Defeating?", International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 42:2 (1997), pp. 69-78) that defended Plantinga's EAAN against a number of objections. However, in footnote 5 of the Phil. Christi paper, he says that, "While I still hold the points I made in that paper to be generally correct, the conclusion I drew from those points, that Plantinga's argument was for the most part successful, was hasty -- no doubt from the impetuosity of youth" (italics added)! In my experience, this is characteristic of many young Christians in philosophy grad school (including myself for many years): you start off cocky and confident in your faith, now equipped with the sophisticated machinery of formal logic, philosophical analysis, and an understanding of the most sophisticated apologetics. But around halfway though grad school, or in the dissertation writing process, the level of philosophical sophistication, breadth, and maturity that come with many years of grad school overtake the attitude and the confidence about your faith, and you become tentative about your view of the case for Christian theism. For by that time you know first-hand that the naturalistic picture of the world is very intellectually satisfying, and not at all the caricature the apologists told you it was. You also see that the objections of other philosophers to the best philosophical arguments for theism-- and by now your own! -- are actually pretty good. The result is a loss of the confidence in one's Christian convictions. In any case, that has been my own experience, and the experience of a number of the Christian grad students I've known.

This brings me to my final point: James F. Sennett is a philosopher who has a similar trajectory as Beilby's. He started out as a confident Christian and an aspiring apologist. He then went to grad school to do a PhD in Philosophy. Like Beilby, his dissertation focused on Plantinga's religious epistemology, except that he wrote on Plantinga's earlier, internalist account of reformed episetmology, as well as his ontological argument and his replies to the logical and evidential problems of evil (Sennett was in grad school about 8 to 10 years earlier, and thus before Plantinga published his trilogy on warrant). And like Beilby, Sennett concluded that Plantinga's religious epistemology is unsuccessful. Since then, he has written a number of articles defending Christian theism. However, last I heard, he's really struggling with his faith, and his remarks about this mirror my reflections in the paragraph above.

If you're interested in Plantinga's religious epistemology or his EAAN, I recommend ordering a copy of Beilby's dissertation, as well as Sennett's. Like Beilby, Sennett turned his dissertation into a published monograph. Sennett's is entitled, Modality, Probability, and Rationality: A Critical Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga's Philosophy (Peter Lang Pub, Inc, 1992). And, as we've noted before, it would also be a good idea to look at Omar Mirza's dissertation, as well as Tyler Wunder's.

Stephen Law on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Steven Law's working out a reply to Plantinga's EAAN, here. I think he makes a prima facie plausible point about the probability of evolution selecting reliable inferential mechanisms. See also "Barefoot Bum"'s comment, which brings Donald Davidson's stuff on truth and interpretation to bear on the (im)plasibility of Plantinga's argument.

Theism, Non-Theism, and Moral Motivation

I. Setup: The Crude Objection: Moral Facts Require Theism
A crude apologetic argues that an adequate moral theory is impossible apart from theism. But as many theists have pointed out – and as anyone who has taken an introductory course in ethics knows – this view is subject to two serious criticisms: (i) there are a number of plausible ethical theories that make no appeal to God (e.g., utilitarianism, kantianism, and virtue ethics), and (ii) it’s very difficult to give a plausible account of ethics that also requires the truth of theism. Thus, for these sorts of reasons, many Christian philosophers have abandoned this sort of criticism of non-theistic views.

II. The Revised Objection: Non-Theists Lack Sufficient Motivation for the Moral Life
However, some apologists argue that even if non-theists have no special problem in accounting for the existence of morality, they nonetheless have a problem with motivation for adopting and living the moral life. One natural way to spell out this criticism is as follows. Moral motivation must ultimately be grounded in our most basic desires and preferences. But our most basic desires and preferences – at least those relevant to moral motivation – reduce to two: the desire to avoid suffering, and the desire to pursue pleasure/enjoyment. Now this motivational base is sufficiently robust for moral motivation if one is a theist. For then one believes that there is a God who is always watching you – even when no one else is --, and who will reward you for doing what is right and punish you for doing what is wrong, in this life and the afterlife. And if so, then the desire to avoid the suffering that comes from God’s (temporal and eternal) punishment and the desire to pursue God’s temporal (and eternal) rewards are adequate motivators for the moral life.

On the other hand, if one is not a theist, then such a sparse motivational base is inadequate for motivating behavior for an adequate moral life. For such motivational factors are only sufficient when you believe other people -- your family, friends, fellow citizens, and (ultimately) those who enforce the law -- are in a position to discover what you do. But there are too many cases where it's reasonable to think you won't get caught for doing what is wrong or rewarded for doing what is right.

Therefore, given the sparse motivational base that humans come equipped with, non-theistic views of the world cannot provide adequate motivation for a healthy moral life. Only theism, with its belief in a god who is everywhere, and who will punish us for the bad and reward us for the good – including the bad and the good that others do not see -- can provide the requisite resources to motivate one to do the right thing in all the relevant circumstances.

III. Reply: A Thicker Motivational Base
Now it's true that the desire to avoid suffering and to pursue enjoyment are, plausibly, constituents of our motivational base. But there is more in the base than that. For example, we come pre-packaged with the moral emotions of empathy, shame, and guilt. We also come pre-packaged with a disposition to feel revulsion and disgust at certain sorts of moral actions. And all of these things serve as components of the fundamental motivational basis for action in normal human beings as well.

But both the theist and the non-theist can account for these: the theist appeals to God, and the non-theist appeals to the selective pressures of evolution. So, for example, cooperation confers reproductive advantage (groups can defend themselves, gather food, build, etc., better than solitary organisms. Look at ant colonies, lion packs, higher primates, etc., for example), and so "springs" and "triggers" conducive to such behavior are selected. Among these are the moral emotions of empathy, shame, and guilt. And of course a desire for relationships with members of our own species is conducive to cooperation, and will therefore be selected for as well. Furthermore, evolutionary pressures give rise to mechanisms to prevent lethal disease and genetic problems that can lead to human extinction. So, for example, it produces the mechanisms of revulsion and disgust that repel us from actions that threaten species survival, such as incest.

Thus, it appears that the fundamental motivational basis for moral action is much more robust than the theist assumes in the revised objection, and this basis can be accounted for in terms of the selective pressures of evolution, without appeal to God. But if that's right, then the revised objection is undercut. For the elements of the base just sketched look to be sufficient to motivate moral behavior even in contexts of the sort highlighted in the objection, viz., when no one is watching us, and the chances of getting caught for wrongdoing are slim. So, for example, the natural desire for relationships and the natural bonds of empathy prevent us from seriously harming one another in normal conditions, as do the pangs of shame and guilt at the thought of doing so. The inner springs of the moral life therefore seem sufficient for moral behavior without appeal to the external aid of an omniscient observer.

IV. First Criticism: It’s Still Not Enough
Now suppose one concedes that the motivational base within human nature is fairly robust, and that a non-theist can account for such a base in terms of evolutionary factors. Nevertheless, someone might object that such motivational factors in our constitution are still an insufficient basis for moral motivation. Thus, someone might argue that the moral emotions are far too weak, qua motivators, to move us to do the right thing when required. By contrast, the fear of eternal punishment and the desire for eternal rewards are sufficiently strong to motivate us to do the right thing, even when doing so goes against our short-term interests -- and even the long-range interests that shape our lives on this earth. Therefore, only the latter two constituents in our motivational base are sufficient for moral motivation.

Is the criticism above a good one? The first thing to note is that this is an empirical claim: it’s not knowable a priori; furthermore, this empirical claim goes beyond common knowledge. We will therefore need some good evidence for this claim, such as statistics about moral behavior in societies that are predominantly non-theistic in their beliefs. And of course there are reports on violence and crime rates in other countries. But as it turns out, crime rates in predominantly secular countries (e.g., Canada and Western Europe) are actually much lower than they are than in predominantly theistic-believing countries like the Unites States (Here are some comparative statistics on murder rates, for example. See also here and here.). So, it appears that the objection under consideration is not supported by the relevant empirical evidence: the constitutional factors I mentioned appear to be sufficient motivators for ethical behavior.

V. Second Criticism: Why Follow Your Basic Inclinations? Tu Quoque
But someone might say, "Why follow those inclinations?" My answer: that's like asking, "Why not eat a shit sandwich?" For, first, in both cases, we seem to have reached explanatory bedrock with our motivational base: there's no further answer beyond, "because I and other normal humans find it repulsive, or at least uninteresting. That's just the way humans are constituted -- such an action goes against the grain of the basic desires, aims, and interests that come with the human package." And second, in both cases, no further answer seems needed: the answer to the shit sandwich question is satisfactory to everybody; if so, then by analogy, so should the moral motivation question, it seems to me.

Beyond this, of course, there is the issue of parity: Why should the theist be moral? Because if they don't they'll be punished? But then why care if you're punished? Why care about your own welfare? Why should those sorts of considerations motivate you? If you appeal to brute factors of human constitution ("well, we're just constituted to be motivated by such factors, without appeal to anything deeper. God has constituted us to see such factors as a fundamental basis for action"), then the non-theist can do the same. On the other hand, if it's not good enough for the non-theist, why think it's good enough for the theist? We can put the point another way: No matter what view one holds, there's going to be an explanatory stopping-point in terms of the bedrock desires and interests that humans are constituted to take as a fundamental basis and motivation for action.

VI. Conclusion
To sum up: many Christian philosophers today grant that the non-theist can provide plausible ethical theories – including theories that entail that morality is objective in the strongest sense – without appeal to God (e.g., utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics). However, some apologists grant that even if non-theists can account for the existence of morality, only the theist has an adequate basis for motivating the moral life. But we have seen that there is no good reason to think so. This is because (i) we come pre-packaged with a motivational base that’s sufficiently robust to motivate the moral life, (ii) this motivational base can be accounted for without appeal to God, and (iii) there is empirical evidence that this base is sufficient for motivating the moral life without resorting to belief in God. And if these things are so, then argument from moral motivation appears to be undercut.

What's So Good About Moral Freedom?

Wes Morriston's paper, "What's So Good About Moral Freedom?" (The Philosophical Quarterly 50 (July 2000), pp. 344-58) is a powerful critique of Plantinga's free will defense and Swinburne's free will theodicy. Here is the link.

Swans are nature's Porsche drivers

Swans are nature's Porsche drivers

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Free Will Theodicies and Heaven

I'm currently toying with the following argument. I'm not sure if I'm persuaded by it; hence the comment box. ;-)

Suppose there's a heaven. If there's a heaven, then either there's freedom in heaven or there isn't. If there is, then freedom's compatible with the absence of evil. If there isn't, then it's not so bad to eliminate freedom for the sake of preventing evil. Therefore, either freedom's compatible with evil's absence, or it's not so bad to eliminate freedom for the sake of preventing evil. If freedom's compatible with evil's absence, then free will theodicies are undercut. And if it's not so bad to eliminate freedom for the sake of preventing evil, then, again, free will theodicies are undercut. Therefore, either way, free will theodicies are undercut. Therefore, if there's a heaven, then free will theodicies are undercut.

Very roughly, the upshot is that free will theodicies require rejecting traditional versions of the doctrine of heaven.[1]
[1] The present argument is aimed at free will theodicies, not at Plantinga's free will defense.

William Lane Craig and Wes Morriston Debate the Kalam Cosmological Argument Tonight

I typically don't care much for debates of this sort, but this is one I'd really like to see. Morriston has written the most forceful critcisms of the argument. So, if Craig can refrain from rhetoric, showmanship, and debate tricks just this once, perhaps some new light will be shed on the argument. I'm not holding my breath, though. In any case, I trust that this isn't an attempt on Craig's part to make an end-run around having to give a rigorous response to Morriston's criticisms where it counts (viz., in the standard peer-reviewed journals).

If anyone gets or finds an audio or video recording -- or at least a transcript -- of the debate, I'd be grateful to get a link to it.

HT: Wes McMichael

SECOND UPDATE: Well, it's been over two years, and still no sign of a link to the debate on the ol' interwebs. However, I've received word that the debate with Morriston was videotaped. Meanwhile, a video series of the complete debate of the Craig/Carrier debate is already online, and yet it occurred after the debate with Morriston. I trust that Craig will ensure that the debate with the person who has developed the most substantial published and widely anthologized criticisms of the kalam argument see the light of day (the most forceful[1] of which are not, to my knowledge, addressed -- or even cited -- in any of Craig's published work, despite those criticisms being published about a decade ago).

UPDATE: Andrew Moon (Prosblogion) just returned from the debate, and offers his thoughts on it, here.
[1] I have in mind here Morriston's criticisms of Craig's a priori arguments against the possibility and traversability of actual infinites. To his credit, Craig has addressed some of Morriston's other criticisms of the kalam argument (e.g., his criticisms of the causal premise, his inference to a personal cause, and his a posteriori arguments for a finite past). The problem is that there's good reason to think the argument's force ultimately hangs on the soundness of the a priori arguments for a finite past. So it's puzzling that Craig fails to discuss -- or even mention or cite -- Morriston's criticisms of these arguments.

Richard Feldman's New Critique of William James' "The Will to Believe"

Here is a draft of his recent paper “Clifford’s Principle and James’s Options". We noted earlier his recent paper that applies insights from the epistemology of disagreement to religious epistemology (which was drafted for the recent collection, Philosophers Without Gods (ed. Louise Antony)).

Descartes' Casual Argument From the Concept of God

In the Third Meditation of Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, he argues that God must exist as the cause of his concept of God:

"So there remains only the idea of God: is there anything
in that which couldn’t have originated in myself? By the word
‘God’ I understand a substance that is infinite, eternal, un-
changeable, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely
powerful, which created myself and anything else that may
exist. The more carefully I concentrate on these attributes,
the less possible it seems that any of them could have origi-
nated from me alone. So this whole discussion implies that
God necessarily exists."[1]

This is a deceptively simple little argument. The basic idea it that my concept of a perfect being is so rich and expansive in its content - indeed, its representational content is infinite and perfect -- that I cannot come up with it on my own. In fact, no being less than a perfect being could create it, as the cause must be adequate to the effect. Therefore, God must exist in order to cause my idea of God. We can standardize the argument as follows:

1. If I have a concept of a perfect being, (all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good, absolutely independent of everything else, the creator of everything else, etc.), then a perfect being exists as its cause.
2. I have a concept of a perfect being.
3. Therefore, a perfect being exists as its cause. (from 1 and 2, Modus Ponens)

What to make of this argument? Well, it's valid; so if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows of necessity. Therefore, the only way to rationally resist the conclusion is to find an undercutting or rebutting defeater for one or more of the premises. Well, why are we supposed to accept the premises?

Premise 1 says that the presence of the concept of a perfect being entails that God exists as its cause. And as we saw above, the reason is that the concept of God is "too big", so to speak: its representational content (that which represents an unlimited, perfect being) is so great that I'm not up to the task of creating it. Indeed, the same holds true of any being less than an unlimited perfect being. For if some such being caused my concept of a perfect being, the question would arise all over again: how did that being come up with their concept of a perfect being? And since causes must be adequate to their effects, only a perfect being is sufficient to cause a concept of a perfect being.

Premise 2 says that I have a concept of a perfect being. What's the evidence that I have such a concept? Answer: introspection; that is, I introspect on my own thoughts, and find that I have such a concept.

Thus, Descartes' argument is valid, and the evidence for the premises is (perhaps surprisingly) nothing to shake a stick at. However, if you're like me, you feel uneasy about premise 1. The premise is false if, and only if, there is at least one possible case where one has the concept of a perfect being, and yet no such being exists as its cause. Thus, if one can come up with an account or "recipe" of how one might construct one's concept of God without God's help, then one thereby has a defeater for premise 1, and thus a rational basis for resisting the conclusion.

Descartes anticipated that critics would try to come up with such recipes. Indeed, he offers several such recipes, and then argues that each is inadequate. We'll consider the two most important recipes: what I'll call The Building Up Recipe and The Negating Recipe.

The Building Up Recipe can be broken down into two main steps:

Step 1: Conceptualize yourself as a limited, imperfect being.
Step 2: Successively build up your self-concept in your mind until it lacks its limits and imperfections.

According to Descartes, the Building Up Recipe is a failure. For one could never complete step 2. For that would be roughly equivalent to counting to infinity, and you can’t create an actual infinite by successive addition.

What about The Negating Recipe? Like the Building Up Recipe, this strategy can be broken down into two main steps:

Step 1: Conceptualize yourself as a limited, imperfect being.
Step 2: Negate the constituents of your self-concept: => <~limited, ~imperfect being>

But this concept is equivalent to that of an unlimited, perfect being. Thus, this strategy avoids the problem of successively traversing an actually infinite series of "build-ups" of your self-concept by doing it all in one stroke, i.e., merely by the simple act of negating its constituents.

According to Descartes, The Negating Recipe is a failure as well. For your concept of unlimited perfection is prior to your conceptualization of yourself as a limited, imperfect being. For you would never see yourself as limited and imperfect unless you first had a standard of unlimited perfection with which to compare yourself. In effect, then, you already require your concept of God to even get to step 1 of The Negating Recipe(!).

It turns out that it's harder to say what's wrong with Descartes' argument than one might have thought at first glance. If we are to rationally resist premise 1, we need a recipe for constructing our concept of God without God's help. But we've seen that this isn't as trivial as it seems. However, Mackie has made some remarks that suggest a way to modify The Negating Recipe so as to generate our concept of a perfect being. His fundamental point is that in order to realize that you're limited and imperfect, you may well require a higher standard with which you can compare yourself. However, it's not clear why the standard needs to be unlimited and perfect. For it seems that all one needs is a standard that's limited, but at least a bit greater than yourself. Thus, once you get such a standard, you can then run through step 1 of The Negating Recipe, and from there, follow on to step 2 by negating the constituents. And the result is the concept of an unlimited, perfect being.

For my own part, I think there's a way to modify The Building Up Recipe as well. For consider how sets are constructed in set theory. One way is by listing the members to belong to the set. Another is to offer a description of the things to belong to the set. But a third method is via recursive definition. Thus, one can construct an infinite set by taking the number 1, and then prescribing that for any natural number n, the successor of n is in the set. (One would also need a closure clause that nothing else is in the set.) In this way, an infinite can be constructed in just a few strokes, without the need to enumerate each element. Similarly, perhaps one could recursively define God's unlimited attributes.
[1] Descartes, Rene. "Third Meditation", in Meditations on First Philosophy, transl. William Bennett. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfbits/dm2.pdf

What the fuck are you looking at?

What the fuck are you looking at?

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Funny Blog

Fuck You, Penguin is my favorite humor blog of the moment. Expect many posts from it here in the future. You've been warned.

Update on the APA Debate About Sexual Discrimination at Christian Colleges

Keith DeRose, a Christian and a leading epistemologist, is on the side of reason and decency on this issue. See his post at Prosblogion. See also the great comment by Jonathan Kvanvig, another Christian and leading epistemologist (doesn't it figure that theorists of knowledge would be the one's to know better?!).

By contrast, Christian apologists like William Lane Craig (signature #10) and J.P. Moreland (signature #87) are on the other side of this. I'm disappointed in them. Scroll through the signatures to see who else signed the counter-petition -- it's guaranteed to raise eyebrows.

A Quick and Dirty Refutation of Theism

1. God does not exist or everyone has enough to eat.
2. Not everyone has enough to eat.
3. So, God does not exist.


Review of Beilby's Naturalism Defeated?

While we're on the topic of Plantinga's EAAN: John Post (Vanderbilt) reviewed Beilby's collection, Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism ,in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews in 2002. Here's the link.

Another New Article on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism...

...by Omar Mirza in Philosophical Studies 141 (Nov. 2008), pp. 125-146. It's a nice survey of the current state of the debate, along with Mirza's own addition to it. Free online access is here (click the "free preview" button near the top).

Btw: Mirza (St. Cloud State University) did his PhD at Berkeley, and wrote his dissertation on Plantinga's EAAN (dissertation title: Naturalism and Darwin’s Doubt: a Study of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism). While writing it, he spent a year at Notre Dame on a fellowship for the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion, where he discussed the argument with Alvin Plantinga. You might want to order a copy of his dissertation, if you're interested in this topic.

A New Critique of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Wang Yen-Lee develops a critique of Plantinga's EAAN in his article, "Does Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism Work?" The article can be found in the latest issue of Religious Studies.

Parsons Sketches an Interesting New Atheistic Argument

Here. He offers a Bayesian argument against theism based on evidence that we lack a reliable, truth-aimed sensus divinitatis.

Stephen Maitzen

Stephen Maitzen is an atheist philosopher of religion at Acadia University. He has written a bunch of good papers on the problem of evil, the problem of divine hiddenness, and divine command theory. He's defended an intriguing argument for atheism based on religious demographics in Religious Studies 42:2 (2006): 177–191. He recently offered a nice rejoinder to a molinist reply to it in the 4th issue of the 2008 volume of the same journal. His latest article in philosophy of religion is a critique of the Skeptical Theist response to the evidential argument from evil. It's out in the latest issue of The International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. You can find these papers, and many more, here.

More Must-Read Posts and Threads

More discussion of discrimination at Christian colleges at the Leiter Reports, here, and at Dangerous Idea, here.

And don't miss two more great posts (and their links) over at the Leiter Reports: one on Christians in the world of professional philosophy, and one on philosophy and theism.

UPDATE: There's a nice summary piece of the current debate among APA members about discrimination against gay professors at Christian colleges by Jean Kazez at Talking Philosophy, here.

Nova Episode on Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Dover Trial


Icelanders and their Belief in Elves

Roughly half of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves. So strong is their belief, in fact, that it halts construction and road projects, among other things.

NPR covers the story here.

What perhaps heightens the shocking nature of their belief in elves is that Iceland is a very high-tech culture. By 1999, over 82% of the population had access to a computer, and had 1,007 mobile phones per 1,000 residents by 2006. Iceland also has a 100% literacy rate, and produces an enormous number of citizens with PhDs.

Fascinating. I could just imagine a famous Icelandic philosopher arguing that belief in elves is properly basic. Sort of puts the notorious Great Pumpkin Objection to Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in a whole new light. According to Plantinga, properly basic belief in God is triggered in a motley variety of circumstances: looking at the starry heavens triggers the belief, "God made all this"; reading a Bible passage triggers the belief, "God disaproves of what I've done"; an eight-year-old's belief in God is triggered by living in a community of people who talk and act as though Christianity is true; etc.

Similarly, an Icelander's elf belief could be triggered in a variety of circumstances: e.g., while working on a road in a patch of countryside, your tractor breaks unexpectedly. It triggers the belief, "The elves disapprove of what I'm doing"; a young Icelander is raised in a community of people who talk and act as though elves exist, and this triggers their elf belief; walking through the foggy hillside, it triggers the belief, "I'm in elf territory"; an elf-medium (no, really, there are such things. Listen to the NPR link above.) comes over to inspect your backyard and make peace with the elves before you tear out a big rock and replace it with a jacuzzi. The experience triggers the belief, "The elves are now at peace with me", etc.

SECOND UPDATE: This just keeps getting more and more interesting. An Icelander named Sindri gives more details here. Sindri's anecdotes are fascinating, but perhaps the most eye-opening part is the bit about how there are sophisticated elf-believers who regularly debate atheists about it.

UPDATE: Here are the results of a recent poll on belief in elves among Icelanders:

13 percent of participants in the study said it is impossible that elves exist, 19 percent found it unlikely, 37 percent said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely and eight percent definite. Five percent did not have an opinion on the existence of elves...About 1,000 people participated in the questionnaires.

So, to paraphrase a bit, the distribution of degrees of credence among Icelanders wrt elves looks like this:

"Yes, without a doubt, elves exist": 8%
"Yes, elves probably exist": 17%
"Well, I don't know, but their existence is a real possibility": 37%
"Elves? Nah, probably not": 19%
"Without at doubt, elves do not exist": 13%

This is an interesting distribution of credence wrt elves. But we can't settle how many Icelanders believe in elves unless we have a reasonable idea of what level of credence is required for belief.

'Belief' is a slippery term. Clearly certitude counts as belief, and so at least 8% of Icelanders believe in elves. But you can believe things without a feeling of certainty: I believe my cat will come home from his prowl and eat his dinner, but I don't have an unwavering certitude about it. So belief admits of degrees -- it's not all-or-nothing.

What about thinking that something's probable? Does that count as believing it? This seems to be what's going on in my belief about my cat coming home tonight: I think it's very probable that he'll come home, and this counts as believing he'll come home. On this construal, the 17% who think the existence of elves is probable count as believing in elves as well.

Often people speak as though they allow mere mental assent to count as belief. That seems too weak, as there seem to be clear cases where people mentally assent to things that don't affect their behavior at all. So perhaps belief requires the disposition to act in certain ways. This makes sense of ordinary usage of 'believe', as people often speak as though belief requires the disposition to act as though the proposition assented to is true.

But how strong must such dispositions be? If the standards are too high -- say, they require dispositions as strong as our disposition to act as though the ground beneath us is solid (we step on it without hesitation, utterly confident that it'll support our weight), then very few people -- much less than 8%, I imagine -- will count as having religious belief.

So perhaps some will say the "strong, deep dispositions" account of belief sets the bar too high. But then what strength of disposition is required to count as believing something? Affecting one's behavior just a little bit? Well, when you think that something is a live possibility, it can affect your dispositions to act significantly. If you think it a live possibility that a black widow is in the storage shed you're about to open -- or that a burglar is in your house -- that can: set off a chain of deliberation about what you'll do next, raise your anxiety significantly, affect your plans, etc. So it's tough to say where belief begins. It comes in degrees, and ranges from the very faint to the very firm. And degree of belief corresponds to strength of conviction and strength, scope, and depth of disposition to act as though the claim assented to is true.

On this account, then, thinking that something's a live possibility counts as believing it in at least some cases, if only to a minimal degree, depending on how "live" that possibility is to you. If so, then belief entails that a chunk of that 37% of Icelanders who think the existence of elves is a live possibility count as believing in elves. No doubt that belief is fairly weak in many cases. Still, that degree is sufficient to affect their thoughts, feelings, and behavior (e.g., it prevents many Icelanders from doing landscaping, construction, or road development projects, for fear of angering the elves, as reported in the NPR story).

So to return to the issue at hand, we can say that roughly half of Icelanders believe that elves exist, where some have a very low level of belief, some have a very high level of belief, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

More Discussion of the Dennett/Plantinga Exchange

at Talking Philosophy: The Philosopher's Magazine blog, here and here.

The comments in these threads aren't nearly as good as some of the gems in the Prosblogion thread, but Jean Kazez's remarks in the second post I linked to are worth a look. Her main reply to Plantinga's argument (for the compatibility of theism and evolution) is "so what?". Her point is that the compatibility of theism and evolution provides no reason to think God was in the process any more than that the compatibility of "Demon Theory" and disease transmission theory provides reason to think demons are behind diseases; thus, considerations of theoretical parsimony leave the evolution-plus-God theory unmotivated vis-a-vis straight evolutionary theory. This was one of Dennett's main points in his exchange with Plantinga.

My main gripe with Kazez's (and Dennett's) reply to this point is that while it's surely correct, they fail to see what goals Plantinga is trying to achieve with this line of thought. He's not playing offense here by trying to convince non-theists that God is guiding evolution with this particular point.[1] Rather, he's playing defense by arguing that evolution isn't a defeater for Christian theism. He thinks belief in God -- even belief in the Christian God, and indeed belief in much of the Christian story told in the Bible as well -- is properly basic, and thus thinks he needs no positive argument for thinking that God was/is involved in the creative process in the natural world; he thinks it's warranted quite apart from such argument. And given this, he thinks his primary task in defending the reasonableness of his theism is to fend off defeaters, such as the defeater found in standard evolutionary theory. As such, their criticism fails to engage Plantinga's point as he intended it.

But of course this doesn't get to the bottom of it, for I take it that Kazez and Dennett would say that even after we appreciate the aim of Plantinga's point, their reply arises all over again: "So what?" In other words, Dennett, Kazez, and other non-theists aren't really interested in whether theists can rationally resist challenges to their beliefs; they're interested in whether there is a good reason for non-theists to come to think that God was/is working along with natural processes, such as evolution. And their point is that Plantinga hasn't addressed that issue with his point that God and evolution are logically compatible.

Now of course, Plantinga did try to argue for this stronger claim that Dennett and Kazez (and no doubt all of us) are interested in (i.e, that God is behind the natural processes of evolution) with another line of reasoning he raised in the Plantinga/Dennett exchange -- viz., his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) -- but Dennett offered reasons for doubting that argument by offering a brief sketch of an account of why evolutionary processes would give us reliable cognitive faculties. Unfortunately, neither Plantinga nor Dennett brought significantly new reasons relevant to assessing EAAN. For this reason, I found the exchange, although entertaining, somewhat disappointing.

[1] I should say that Plantinga did appeal to the work of Behe at one point to argue that unguided evolution can't be the whole story. Still, that's not crucial to the most basic point of Plantinga's that I'm discussing here -- the one about fending off a potential defeater for Christian theism in evolutionary theory via demonstrating the compatibility of the former and the latter. For a thorough and devastating critique of Behe's biochemical arguments, see Paul Draper's excellent article, "Irreducible Complexity and Darwinian Gradualism: A Reply to Michael J. Behe", Faith and Philosophy 19:1 (2002), pp. 3-21. I explicate the main points of Draper's article here.

Review of Murray's Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, here.

What God Would Have Known...

 ...is the title of J.L. Schellenberg's forthcoming book , which offers a large number of novel arguments against Christian theism. I...