I had the chance to check out and participate in the BlogTV broadcast of the Magic Sandwich Show, named after a food concoctions “invented” to cure just about anything but really to mock an argument against non-belief. The major topic of the show was a look at sophisticated theology, in particular mentioning the famous and respected philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga.
Plantinga has come out with an argument that suggests there is a inconsistency between naturalism/materialism and the theory of evolution. Basically, if evolution made our brains and sense organs (and this is something Plantinga has doubted at least in the past), it may not have made them such that they will give us correct beliefs. Thus naturalism cannot account for our ability to reason and perceive correctly. He then suggests that God/supernaturalism can provide the reason we can trust our cognitive faculties. The Wikipedia page on the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) summarizes it well.
I got to participate a bit on that subject as seen in this bit of the video (jump to time 33:14):
I’ll summarize my point here. One of the major premises of Plantinga’s argument is the idea that our reasoning and sensory faculties are reliable. However, they often do fail us. We know there are many different cognitive biases, and we do tend to see and hear things that aren’t there, even if we aren’t chronic hallucinators or on drugs. We see patterns where none are, and even more-so when we are stressed. There is a lack of correlation between vividness of a memory and its accuracy, and we do mis-remember things. I also gave the example of the Stroop effect (or test) where we misread color words when the color is different than the word itself. Some of this stuff about our non-so-great minds and senses are discussed in books such as Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain and V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. These points also seem to be made by William Ramsey is his essay about EAAN.
So we know that our faculties are not completely reliable. And more interestingly, the sorts of issues our brains have can be explained by our evolutionary history. For example, making false-positives with patterns had an evolutionary advantage as opposed to the opposite error: mistake that there is a tiger and run, no harm done; mistake that there isn’t a tiger, and you’re dead. Thus we have a selective pressure to make us more likely to see what isn’t there. But according to Plantinga, God ensures the proper functioning of our minds.
That leads to two possibilities: the supernatural hypothesis has this evidence against it, or a faulty mind is consistent with the supernatural. The first one obviously isn’t good for the case against naturalism, and it means that in fact the argument is for naturalism. So perhaps the God hypothesis can be compatible with faulty thinking faculties. However, this is made initially unlikely because we expected otherwise (Plantinga certainly did). But let’s just be favorable and say supernaturalism is 50/50 on whether we would have reliable cognitive faculties. Nonetheless, on naturalism with evolution we expect to have some limitations in the reliability of our ability to perceive and reason, so the probability here is greater than 50%, and closer to 100% (if not exactly 100%). That means on either of the possibilities, the probability of naturalism goes up and supernaturalism down (using a Bayesian inference method).
So that means Plantinga’s argument goes against his beliefs. That he uses the argument for his position is the definition of delusional: held with conviction, not significantly changing with counter-evidence (even after years of philosophers showing him errors), and implausible (i.e. the reliability of our faculties; supernatural beings and powers).
And considering how Plantinga is considered (rightly) as one of the best in philosophy of religion yet his arguments have such scientific flaws and similar to bad street preachers (as pointed out by the hosts of the Magic Sandwich Show), it really should indicate how bad the arguments for the supernatural are, at least using armchair philosophy. It’s why I’d rather talk about evidence.
The other topic that unfortunately I didn’t get to delve into enough was that theology has a huge amount of intellectual capital to use for its cause. Astrology and other pseudo-science and history doesn’t have anywhere near the resources of intellectuals to defend them. Astrology used to be that way with support from scientists and church figures, but not so anymore, and their arguments are thus very bad. Religion, on the other hand, has an industry of defending the faith or finding new interpretations. So I am impugning both liberal and conservative religious folk with this; both camps have a lot of power to either defend their dogma with endless apologetics, and liberals have a significant “phase space” of what to focus on in their beliefs or holy books to come up with some more rational position without having to admit their belief or book is no more worthy of being called sacred or inspired than any other of the same type. Again, astrology and astrologers don’t have the same luxury of ways to interpret their practices or defend them that stand up to much critical scrutiny; very few have a science or philosophy background in this day and age.
Then again, being a philosopher doesn’t mean you won’t get the science wrong and think there are no transitional fossils or that irreducible complexity is evidence against evolution.