Monthly Archives: February 2009

Plantinga and Dennett (again)

Yesterday I posted a link to a “live blog” covering the debate between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett at the Central APA last weekend. There’s also an mp3 of the debate available, so you can listen to it first hand. Plantinga’s talk explores whether science and religion are incompatible.  The answer he gives is: yes and no.

You can embrace both evolution and theism without a problem: they’re compatible, he says.  But naturalism (which include the belief that there’s no god) is a quasi-religion.  You can’t embrace both evolution and naturalism.  So yes, science and religion are incompatible–that is, science and atheist quasi-religion.

Much to irk an atheist here. There’s the idea that naturalism/atheism is a quasi-religion, and even worse, the idea that if you accept evolution, you cannot be a naturalist/atheist.  This is a surprise!

Here’s what I really want to bring up for discussion.  Should we really take the time to wrestle with ideas like this?  Is the God business really worth such serious consideration?

Take the first half of Plantinga’s argument–the part where he says God and evolution are compatible. What he suggests is that God could have  “created man in his image” by initiating exactly the kinds of processes described by the theory of evolution: random mutation, natural selection, and all that.  The supreme being was just evidently very, very patient.  He was willing to let millions of years go by without even seeing the first primate  Then he was willing let more millions of years go by as hominids came on the scene. Then he let the hominids wander around struggling with the ice age, until humans finally evolved.  That was his way of “creating man in his image.”

Here’s my gut reaction:  that’s preposterous. To see an all-good, all-powerful being as the mastermind of the whole sweep of evolutionary history is not impossible, but just not plausible.  The God-directed theory of evolution seems no more worth taking seriously than the Devil-directed theory of disease transmission.  Is it really incumbent on me to patiently examine the pros and cons of the God-plus-evolution view?

Moving on to the even more controversial part of Plantinga’s talk, the claim that evolution and naturalism/atheism are incompatible.  Not only can you believe in theism, if you believe in evolution, but you must. One argument he makes involves taking seriously the arguments Michael Behe makes about cells being too complex to be naturalistically explained. If biologists don’t take Behe seriously, I’m not sure why I should take him seriously.  So moving right along…

The rest of Plantinga’s argument is a very complicated thing to the effect that if we evolved without any divine planning, we would have wound up with brains that don’t reliably give us true beliefs.  Unguided evolution yields adaptive brain states, but not necessarily true brain states.  So if you believe in unguided evolution, you have to think your belief in unguided evolution is quite possibly false.  If you’re committed to the truth of evolution, then, you won’t go for unguidedness. You’ll believe in a God running the show and making sure you wind up with largely true beliefs.

Frankly, I might have some of that wrong.  I listened to the mp3 and didn’t have the handout Plantinga kept referring to.  I’m not a Plantinga expert.  So I’m happy to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable.

But if that’s the gist of it…well, I’m underwhelmed.  Yes, unguided evolution produces organisms with adaptive brain states, not necessarily true brain states.  So if you think you evolved, you shouldn’t trust your every thought. But what do we do, once we realize we could always be wrong?  We check our evidence, look into our reasons, work hard to find the truth.  You don’t mistrust all your beliefs.  So why must we mistrust a belief in unguided evolution, in particular?  (I have no idea…)

I haven’t listened to Dennett’s half of the debate yet, so stay tuned.  I have a feeling he wasn’t quite the story-telling buffoon the anonymous live-blogger says he was.

Addendum:  At the same website you can read a post about a petition that’s circulating in defense of colleges that prohibit gay “acts.”  I was disappointed to discover Alvin Plantinga signed his name to that petition. I see that as yet another reason to wonder whether Christian apologists ought to be taken seriously. They do have their agendas, and their agendas are not benign.  But more on that issue latter–no space here to do it justice.

A Conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo

The Philosophers' Magazine This is a brief flag up post.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this on here before, but if you’re interested in the debate about the ‘clash of civilisations‘ then you might want to check out a conversation I had with the Iranian dissident, Ramin Jahanbegloo, which was originally published in Issue 41 of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

His view is that there is a moral imperative to foster dialogue and interconnections between human beings and cultures. My view is that this is both difficult to achieve and sometimes undesirable. We kind of duke it out, focusing mainly on Islam.

I’ve put this up on my newly designed web site, which you should visit, and add to your blog rolls, RSS readers, etc., not least because I don’t have any readers! (I’m not giving up posting here, but I’m also quite interested in political stuff, which doesn’t really fit with the philosophical focus of Talking Philosophy.)

Plantinga vs. Dennett

Since God’s getting a lot of attention on the previous thread, some might like to read this blow-by-blow of a debate at the Central APA meeting in Chicago last week. Alvin Plantinga gave a paper arguing that Christianity is compatible with evolution, and Daniel Dennett responded.

The anonymous writer doesn’t try to be non-partisan (he’s a Plantingan), but gives an entertaining account of the goings-on.  The drama of the lap-top battery certainly had me on the edge of my seat.  (Damn those things!)  Anyhow, enjoy.

Questions of Truth

My review in the FT of Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale went through several drafts. The paper found the first two versions had too much of my own views on the subject; was not sufficiently even-handed; didn’t describe the actual contents enough; and was also a bit technical in places. Apart from that, they were perfect!

So I thought I’d share here some of the bits that got away, which I have reassembled into a hopefully coherent whole. (Read the published review to get a better sense of the book as a whole.)

I argued that the authors followed the time-honoured strategy to identify the spaces which science leaves behind and get their God of the gaps to plug them.

This works most effectively with “anthropic fine-tuning”, covered in one of three lengthy appendices, the others being on evolution and the relationship between mind and brain. The laws of physics contain six key numbers, and life could not have evolved anywhere in the universe if they were just slightly different. Currently, the most popular scientific explanation of this “fine-tuning” is that there are an infinite number of universes, and so the variables were bound to be right in one of them. In comparison, the alternative hypothesis that some divine being fixed them deliberately looks simpler and more plausible.

Many find this argument persuasive, including some very good physicists. The problem is that such divine gap-filling just isn’t science. To argue that God typed in the right numbers to allow life to evolve doesn’t even begin to solve the problem, since the mechanism by which this is supposed to have happened is utterly mysterious and can never be known scientifically. The God hypothesis may not contradict science, but the science can never lead you to it.

A truly scientific approach accepts gaps in our knowledge and keeps looking for testable answers. Beale, however, dismisses such intellectual humility, saying “there is a long tradition in atheist philosophy … of saying ‘There is no answer to this question’ when what you mean is ‘There is an answer to this question, but I don’t like it.’” It would be more accurate to say “There is an answer to this question, but it’s not scientific.” Ironically, it is the religious, who criticise “materialists” for lacking a proper sense of mystery, who seem least able to actually live with a real one when they find it.

Questions of Truth vividly illustrates how, if you are sufficiently committed to a belief, it is always possible to interpret other facts to fit in with it. It all depends on which of your beliefs you take to be non-negotiable. “The materialist takes as basic fact the existence of matter,” they say, somewhat caricaturing the atheist position. “The theist takes as basic fact the existence of a divine creator,” they add, accurately describing their own. From this starting point, it is clear there is nothing which could persuade the theist otherwise.

Polkinghorne and Beale’s exercise in apologetics shows how naïve it is to think that reason can lead all rational people inexorably to the same conclusion. Reason is not dispassionate, it is motivated by our prior commitments, and few are as strong as those of Bible believing Christians.

This does not mean that we should become entirely sceptical of reason and truth, however, simply that we must not overestimate the power of the former to illuminate the latter. Even when the truth is staring us right in the eyes, it often does so from the back of a crowd, the front row of which is filled with more seductive faces.

Extended Mind

Here’s David Chalmers talking about Jerry Fodor talking about David Chalmers talking about Andy Clark’s new book Supersizing the Mind, which develops at book length an idea in a 1998 article by Chalmers and Clark about “extended mind.”  Except, that can’t be all the book does, because it has a juicy looking table of contents.  (Note to self:  have a look.)

I take it this is the basic idea of “extended mind”.  Your mind is not constituted just by the brain in your head, but also by pieces of paper, cellphones, computers, and other items outside your head.  Otto knows how to get to X, let us say (or has a belief about it–I’m going to use the word “knowledge” because it’s more natural and colloquial).  Inga does too, because she’s committed the map and address to memory. Otto’s just got the information in a notebook or iphone or on his computer, but that’s enough.  These external things make a diffference to a person’s mental state.

It’s intriguing how very small changes in the way this is stated make the difference between the view being obvious and the view being insane.  The obvious version notes that people depend massively on maps, iphones, blackboards, and the like.  Lose all your “peripherals” and you’ve got problems.

Chalmers goes in for something a little more insane in the foreword to Clark’s book.  He says the notebook is “part” of Otto’s mind.  That makes it sound like you’d be giving him a lobotomy if you threw out his notebook. Not surprisingly, Fodor is incensed. (And Fodor is at his most amusing when incensed. I especially enjoyed the bits about the vacuum cleaner.)

But then Chalmers backs off, at his blog.  The “part” talk is inessential, he says. He finds a happy medium between the obvious and the insane by talking about what mental states “supervene” on.  They supervene on the external detritus as well as internal brain stuff.  Otto knows what Inga knows because the external notebook is available to him.  But if someone makes off with Otto’s notebook, that would be mind-altering.  The external change (even if Otto were unaware of it) would make for a change in his mental state. He would no longer know what he used to know.

The obvious version of the extended mind thesis isn’t uninteresting, just because it’s obvious. If you throw a whole bunch of obvious points together, they can add up to something pretty interesting.  We depend on notebooks, computers, gadgets, calendars. We also depend on other people.  (I use my children like sticky notes all the time—“please remind me that I should do X,” I will say.)  There are experts we know we can turn to, so we don’t waste time reading up on everything.  We’ve got libraries and bookstore.  The dependency is radical, if you think about it.

Ah, but that’s not as exciting as saying that the very mental states that people are in can be changed remotely, without their even knowing it, just by burning books, turning off computers, hiding calendars, etc.  The concept of supersized mind makes mind seem collective, spread out, social, intersubjective.  All the breaking down of barriers and divisions almost makes you want to chant that all is one.  I’m lovin’ it…almost.

What if we got used to saying that Otto and Inga know the same thing, and that Otto’s mind is changed when his notebook is stolen?  Wouldn’t we want to break out of that framework and try to capture other truths about the situation?  Inga can perform well on a closed-book test about the location of X.  Otto can’t.  There’s a real difference there–surely a difference between their minds.  Otto remains the same (in some sense) despite the notebook-theft, the same with respect to his mind.

It seems wrong to say the mind is extended and leave it at that.  There’s a sense in which the mind is supersized and a sense in which it isn’t.  Snooze. It’s more fun to argue when there’s a single truth that’s being fought over. In this instance, I have a hard time thinking there is.

Last Chance To See

We are not much good at thinking through the moral demands of climate change — the demands placed on us as individual people.  Some of it is difficult because of the scale of the problem and our teeny place in it all.  Sometimes we are hampered by our slightly stupid, nearsighted, tribal morality, which is fine for thinking through shoplifting but not much good for global problems.  There is an odd kind of doublethink at work too, a weird mental balancing act, which kicks in and enables us to say, in the same sentence, that climate change is a real problem but we need another runway at Heathrow.

Here is an excellent example of this sort of thing:  Five Places to Go Before Global Warming Messes Them Up.  By all means, fly to the Great Barrier Reef before airplane emissions bleach all the coral.  Once the icecaps melt we’ll be able to get at more oil too.

There’s something spooky about this, some sort of denial at work, a kind of psychological defence mechanism.  There’s a need to avoid an uncomfortable conclusion:  our comfy lives have to change.  I get the feeling that it’s at work in all of us.  Something is in the way of acting in accord with an obvious conclusion.

Take the thought that a changing climate results in human suffering.   If you are the sort of person who wants to avoid human suffering, consistency demands that you live a green life.  But almost no one lives a green life.  What gives?

Neanderthal Ethics

Here’s something straight out of the land of philosophical thought experiments.  Scientists in Germany have now mapped 65% of the Neanderthal genome, and could bring one of these hulking fellas to life. Neanderthals are a humanoid species that split off from homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago.  For some reason there was little interbreeding between the two species, despite very strong genetic similarity.  One of the most interesting findings is that Neanderthals had some of the genes critical for language.

Dr. George Church, at Harvard, says Neanderthals could be brought back with existing technology, at a price of about $30 million. The trouble, says Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford, is that you wouldn’t know whether to put Neanderthals in a zoo or at Harvard.

Klein’s question flies in the face of a very sensible sounding view called “moral individualism,” put forth by the always clear and insightful ethicist James Rachels (sadly now deceased).  You ought to put Neanderthals wherever they belong, based on their own individual characteristics, he would say.  If they were smart, you’d have to let them into Harvard.  What would it matter what species they belonged to?

These scientists really seem to set great store by species. The “recipe” for creating a Neanderthal using modern techniques allows you to start with a human cell, and tinker madly (see article for what “tinker madly” means), or start with a chimpanzee cell.  The article says–

To avoid ethical problems, this genome would be inserted not into a human cell but into a chimpanzee cell.The chimp cell would be reprogrammed to embryonic state and used to generate, in a chimpanzee’s womb, a mutant chimp embryo that was a Neanderthal in many or most of its features.

How does this avoid ethical problems?  The idea seems to be that the resulting creature would be a mutant chimp, not a mutant human, so it would be much easier to justify poking, prodding, keeping it in a lab, etc.

If Rachels were alive to discuss the case, he’d find this the height of nonsense.  How could anything be relevant to the way an individual is treated but the character of the individual itself?  The special deference we feel toward anything that happens to be classified human is groundless, and not innocently so either.  The flip side of the deference for humans is dismissal (relative or absolute–to make Mary Midgley’s helpful distinction) of all that is not human.

If you tinkered with human cells to create Neanderthals, would you thereby be placed in a position of having stronger obligations to them than if you tinkered with chimpanzee cells?  Or put it this way: say one research team starts with human cells and creates Neanderthals, and another starts with chimpanzee cells.  Do we owe anything more to the human-based Neanderthals?

I think Rachels view is sensible–as I said–but this isn’t really a simple matter.  Your thoughts?

Gender & The Economy

As the economy continues to spiral down, the percentage of workers who are women continues to rise. Unfortunately, this is not due to an increase in the hiring of women. Rather, it is due to the fact that the majority of jobs being lost are held by men. As such, as the number of employed men drops, the percentage of the work force composed of women will increase.

Somewhat ironically, the jobs that are being lost have often tended to be jobs that pay relatively well. Meanwhile, certain lower paying jobs remain. This helps explain the gender shift: men generally have the better paying jobs and women tend to have the lower paying jobs. Further, the jobs that are being lost have tended to be in fields that are male dominated (finance, manufacturing, etc.).

While the majority of people losing their jobs have been men, this has obviously not been a good time for women. Women are not moving into better jobs-they are mainly just keeping the same jobs. Further, in most families the main income provider is still the man. Thus, the reduction in male employment is hurting women indirectly.

Interestingly, I have heard some arguments to the effect that this change can be advantageous to women by shifting the balance of power in the family. After all, power goes with income and if the woman becomes the main provider, then her power will increase. However, this shift in power obviously comes at a cost: while some women might benefit from this shift, the family as a whole will be worse off financially. Also, as noted above, this situation is not a case in which women are making gains in the workplace. They are, rather, not losing as badly. At least for now.

One point of concern is the impact that this shift will have on the family. On one hand, families sometimes grow closer and stronger in times of crisis and stress. On the other hand, families sometimes shatter under such stress. Given that one major factor in marital problems is money, it is not unreasonable to worry that the gender shift could lead to an increase in divorces.

Historically, gender shifts in employment have occurred in times of crisis (mostly wars) and have lead to lasting effects. For example, the entry of women into the workforce during WWII (to replace the males who were off in the war) changed how women and work were viewed. While the 1950s saw a return to more “traditional” roles, the impact of the shift remained. The same will probably be true of the latest gender shift. It will remain to see what sort of impact it will have.

Killer Robots (no, really)

If you didn’t have enough to worry about, it turns out that various governments are rushing to build armies of autonomous military killbots.  (New Scientist:  ‘Robot Arms Race Underway’).  There are more than 4,000 American robots in the field — most are in the Middle East, looking for bombs but also dropping them via remote human control.  When you read about military robots and what they do, you get the feeling that most are designed just to scout around.  But there is always the mention of the possibility of payloads, of being ‘weaponized’ with machine guns, grenade launchers and the like.  (The unsettling Big Dog can carry a 340 lbs payload — freak yourself out with this video.)

Some people are already worried about what to do with fully automated robots with guns — how do we build the Geneva Convention into one?  The answers from one side are suitably butch (Machines save lives, are constantly alert and know no fear) and from another you hear all sorts of panic-stricken Terminator talk (if we don’t keep human hands on the trigger, they’ll take over!).

All very manly and a little boring.  But in the New Scientist you hear the heroic claim that robots might well be more ethical than people.  They won’t act on grudges they harbour against the enemy; maybe a subroutine will calmly help a robot refuse an unjust command.  What gets in the way of this, immediately, is the fact that human beings, the ones plugging in the ethics, aren’t much good at thinking through moral conduct in war.  Garbage in, garbage out.  What gets in the way too is the question of whether or not a robot of this sort can be ethical in the first place.  Don’t you have to be responsible to be moral?  Maybe you have to be capable of doing something bad before we praise you for doing something good.  Those thoughts can get you going on what we mean by ‘ethical’, particularly if you start wondering how responsible we are for our actions…how capable of doing otherwise we are when we do good.

Porn Star as Senator?

One piece of light news is that porn star Stormy Daniels is being urged to run for a senate seat. If she runs, she will be up against another person who (allegedly) was involved in the sex industry as well. This is, of course, Republican David Vitter. He is perhaps best known for having his phone number appear in records of the escort service run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey (better known as the “D.C. Madam”). In 2007 Vitter admitted to having “a very serious sin” in his past. Naturally, he claims that his wife forgave him. Despite this sin, he has managed to keep his position and it seems likely that he will continue to serve in the senate. Unless, of course, Stormy can beat him.

Naturally, there are some concerns about having a porn star running for the senate. Some might say that it is degrading to the high office of senator. However, I think that past scandals have sufficiently degraded the office to the point that a porn star would fit right in.

There is also the concern that the porn star candidacy idea is a joke or a poorly conceived slap at Vitter for his past sins. Politics, some might say, should be serious business and not tainted by such things.

This does, of course, have some merit. It would be preferable to have political contests run with grace, dignity and moral nobility. But, obviously enough, that sort of contest is the exception rather than the rule.

It might be argued that a porn star is morally flawed and hence not suitable for public office. The idea of having high moral standards for office is certainly appealing and I would certainly support the following of the true moral standards-once they get worked out. However, working as a porn star does not seem to out Stormy on a lower moral footing than most politicians. After all, simply review the usual folks who fill political offices-good luck finding the morally pure (or somewhat pure).

One obvious advantage of having a porn star run for office is that her sexual history is well known. In fact, there is no doubt an extensive video record of those activities. As such, there would be little to worry about in terms of some surprise sex scandal. At least with a porn star, you know were they stand. Or lay down. Or whatever position they happen to take.