Naturalism, Evolutionary Biology and Theism


In yet another excellent interview at 3AM: Magazine, Richard Marshall talks with Elliott Sober (Wisconsin). There is a lot of interesting material in this interview, including Sober’s takes on the criticisms of evolutionary theory by Jerry Fodor (Rutgers) and Thomas Nagel (NYU).

On Nagel, he says:

Nagel thinks that “remarkable facts” can’t have low probabilities, given the initial state of the universe. He thinks that the existence of life, the existence of mind, and the existence of consciousness (call this triplet LM&C) are all remarkable. He further thinks that contemporary evolutionary theory says that LM&C had very low probabilities of occurring, so the theory must be false or seriously incomplete. Nagel calls for the construction of a new, teleological science, one that shows that LM&C were in the cards from the universe’s first moment. According to this sought-for theory, earlier events happen because they will help LM&C to appear later. The teleology that Nagel wants isn’t theistic, and it isn’t causal; he doesn’t think that later events cause earlier ones.

The main flaw in Nagel’s criticism of evolutionary theory is his demand that remarkable facts must have high probabilities, given the initial state of the universe. I think that the existence of Beethoven is remarkable, but I do not bristle at the suggestion that this event had a low probability given the initial state of the universe. Another problem with Nagel’s position is that it isn’t clear what probabilities current science assigns to the existence of LM&C, given the state of the universe at the time of the Big Bang.

The start of the interview contains an interesting discussion of naturalism and its implications regarding the relationship between evolutionary biology and theism. Sober says:

“Methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” are terms that often surface in the continuing battle between evolutionary biology and creationism/intelligent design. The methodological thesis says that scientific theories shouldn’t postulate supernatural entities; the metaphysical thesis says that no such entities exist. In this debate, God is the supernatural entity at issue; the question isn’t whether science gets to talk about mathematical entities if Platonism is correct. Biologists often maintain that evolutionary theory abides by the 1st ism without embracing the 2nd. I agree with this interpretation despite what creationists and some atheists have maintained. I disagree with those who argue that evolutionary biology and the existence of God are incompatible.

This is not to deny that there are versions of theism that do conflict with evolutionary biology. Young Earth Creationism is an example; it claims that God created life on earth within the past 10,000 to 50,000 years. But other types of theism are different. Deism, for example, is compatible with evolutionary theory. Deism claims that God creates the universe and the laws of nature and then is hands-off, with everything that subsequently happens in nature being due to natural processes. Deism is logically compatible with evolutionary theory for the simple reason that the theory says nothing about the origin of the universe or of the laws of nature. More controversially, I also think that some “interventionist theisms” are compatible with evolutionary theory. (By “intervention,” I don’t mean that God violates laws of nature; I mean that God affects what happens in nature in ways that are additional to the ones that deism recognizes.) Evolutionary theory, properly understood, does not conflict with the idea that God occasionally intervenes in nature—for example, by once or twice causing a beneficial mutation to occur. Biologists have not detected any such interventions despite the data and theory they have assembled about mutation. However, I think it is a mistake to expect biological experiments to be able to detect such one-off acts of divine intervention, especially if those acts occurred in the distant past. Science isn’t in that line of work.

This point becomes more obvious if you consider the statement “guided mutations that are scientifically undetectable have occurred.” Many scientists will scoff at this statement, and I do too. However, the reason for scoffing is not that there is scientific evidence that such events never occur. Rather, the reason for scoffing is that there is absolutely no evidence that such events have happened. True, if you embrace the philosophical doctrine that whatever happens in nature is scientifically detectable, you will conclude that the statement in quotation marks is false. But now it is a philosophy (one that resembles the verificationism of the logical positivists), not a scientific theory, that is doing the talking.

I don’t endorse deism or interventionist theism. My point is just that evolutionary biology is logically compatible with the former and with some versions of the latter. I have bothered to make this point in print because I want to take the heat off of evolutionary biology. The more evolutionary theory gets called an atheistic theory, the greater the risk that it will lose its place in public school biology courses in the United States. If the theory is thought of in this way, one should not be surprised if a judge at some point decides that teaching evolutionary theory violates the Constitutional principle of neutrality with respect to religion. Creationists have long held that evolutionary theory is atheistic; defenders of the theory do the theory no favor when they agree.

The whole interview is here.

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Epikoureios
Epikoureios
5 years ago

Thanks for this excellent interview.

On the issue of compatibility, Sober is right to wag his finger firmly at the postulation of superfluous entities, but I think could have brought in a little more from his From a Biological Point of View about what our picture of the world suggests. In short, the weight on theists seems to be heavier than a reader of this interview might conclude. Yes, some forms of theism are not logically incompatible with evolutionary theory, but acceptance of logical possibility is a low-hanging fruit compared to acceptance that an entity actually exists. In practice, logical compatibility amounts to mere coherence with our best scientific picture of the world, not to justification for accepting the independent claim that the entity exists. It’s worth asking, for example, to what extent the deism Sober refers to has any genuine content. I’m presently holding a cup of tea. If I claim that (a) a non-physical entity exists that performs the function of holding the tea in; or (b) a non-physical entity exists but has absolutely no properties that could be distinguished from natural processes even in principle, it doesn’t seem that anything at hand offers good reasons to justify these claims. In both cases, we’re faced with the same redundancy, and are no closer to having grounds for accepting the non-physical thing’s existence. Likewise, if someone claims that a Supreme Being’s existence impinges on the world, but does so through means totally indistinguishable from processes that evince no purposeful movement, how *could* we be justified in accepting its existence? The harsh challenge isn’t from Ockham’s razor alone, but also from the epistemic grounds required to say *anything* meaningful about an entity whose level of activity is totally inferred from scientific observation. If a Supreme Being intervened just once to bring about the mutation that allowed Homo sapiens to come into being as self-aware hominids, the scent of anthropocentrism seems hard to miss. Why Homo sapiens, but none of the other hominids whose evolutionary development clearly shows a continuity in architecture with the human brain?

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/species.html

This objection is hardly new or revolutionary, but does seem to follow from the scientific findings Sober and I accept. The theist’s freedom to shoehorn *some* conception of a deity into a scientific view of the world without fear of logical incompatibility adds about as much to the substantive content of our world picture as the postulation of undetectable gravity fairies or psychic powers that only work when no one else is observing.Report

JR
JR
5 years ago

He’s basically reiterating what Plantinga has been saying for years: whether or not evolution was guided is a metaphysical issue.

He also says “This is not to deny that there are versions of theism that do conflict with evolutionary biology. Young Earth Creationism is an example; it claims that God created life on earth within the past 10,000 to 50,000 years.”

Interestingly, Hud Hudson has recently shown this to be false – at least in the sense that the conflict is scientific.Report

Epikoureios
Epikoureios
Reply to  JR
5 years ago

Plantinga’s point raises the very problem I laid out in my post, and underscores why I wished that Sober had said a little more about it. If the question of whether or not evolution was guided depends on purely speculative argumentation, in what sense could we have justification for the existence of a proposed entity allegedly responsible for it? By the theist’s admission, we would be describing an entity that impinges on the world by guiding evolution in some way. But if that entity impinges through processes totally indistinguishable from known natural processes for which no evidence whatever of a purpose is forthcoming (and existing evidence suggests the contrary), what greater cash value does this purely speculative claim have than, say, postulating a definition of the “spirit” of a cup as “that which keeps the contents of the cup inside”? How would it ever be possible to bootstrap the entity’s existence via the postulation of a manifestly redundant form of guidance? And if one tried, how does the postulation of a non-physical guide of evolution–the process that has resulted in the extinction of over 99% (or more than 5 *billion* species) of all life that has ever existed–avoid giving the impression of a catastrophically wasteful, inept, and pitiless (or else rather weak) deity? Such a deity might exist, but certainly isn’t a theological view that most theists would endorse, and seems doubly bizarre alongside the claim that this deity has intentionally guided evolution in some meaningful way.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Epikoureios
5 years ago

I’m not even sure what it would mean to God to intervene or “guide” things in a way that doesn’t violate laws of nature. There would seem to be some counterfactuals as issue here: something like ‘If God had not intervened to produce mutation M, then M would not have occurred’. That looks like it entails that the initial conditions and the laws of nature would have produced a different result. If ‘intervened’ or ‘guided’ means something else, it’s not clear what that is.

I suppose one could take the view that the resulting of mutation M is overdetermined (as you suggest), though an omniscient being would know this, one would think – making “intervention” unnecessary. Or, one might take the view that the resulting of some such mutations is a probabilistic event, such that M might have occurred, even if God didn’t intervene (But God didn’t want to take any chances!). Figuring out what violates probabilistic laws is beyond my mental grade. (Unlikely outcomes not seeming to rise to the level of a violation).

And even still, the epistemic issues raised by Epi still hold.Report

JR
JR
Reply to  ajkreider
5 years ago

Right, as Plantinga concedes, arguments for ID – which is what an argument for guided evolution (at least if it is a scientific one) would amount to – are not convincing. But it does not follow that we are warranted in believing that evolution was unguided – what could possibly warrant that belief? Perhaps a successful argument for atheism would provide justification, but, so far as I can see, such an argument is not forthcoming. Moreover, Plantinga wouldn’t say that (at least for him) belief that evolution was guided is like a scientific hypothesis. Rather, he would say that it follows from properly basic beliefs that he holds. Hence the issues you two bring up are not really relevant for him (and most theists) – how good of an explanation guided evolution amounts to is not relevant (and it is silly to predicate one’s beliefs on inference to the best explanation anyhow). More specifically, regarding the second comment: I don’t think Plantinga thinks there are laws of nature (I recall reading that he found van Fraassen’s arguments to be powerful – though, I’m not certain on this), so the issue you bring up isn’t much a worry (at least for him). (Another route would be to note that God could have created the universe with initial conditions such that the relevant mutations would come about.)Report

Epikoureios
Epikoureios
Reply to  JR
5 years ago

“Right, as Plantinga concedes, arguments for ID – which is what an argument for guided evolution (at least if it is a scientific one) would amount to – are not convincing.”

And it’s a scientific case I’d want. For a claim as considerable as the guidance of evolution by a disembodied mind that rules the cosmos, I’m only too happy to demand more than speculative argument from fallible hominid brains, especially if that disembodied mind somehow impinges on the physical world. If there are absolutely no ways to distinguish its action, the epistemic hurdle of justifying how one could even have grounds to postulate it, let alone have grounds to believe it, becomes seemingly insuperable.

“But it does not follow that we are warranted in believing that evolution was unguided – what could possibly warrant that belief?”

Such an assertion would be an unnecessary leap, and isn’t what I (or Sober) hold. There is an excellent reason we don’t compile encyclopedias with lists of claims that haven’t been proven false: (1) giving any claim factual status just because it hasn’t been proven false is an argument from ignorance; and (2) many claims aren’t worthy of being taken seriously until we have reason to consider them. (Do we tend to wring our hands in trying to think of ways to find the wizard who lives on Mars?) Since the burden of proof for guided evolution rests with anyone claiming it, all one must do is acknowledge that we have no positive justification to believe that evolution *was* guided. Our best scientific evidence shows the apparently random appearance of mutations that, through constraints from the surrounding environment and sexual selection within the population, will over time shape the dynamics of that population. Obviously I’m oversimplifying, but the takeaway message remains: if someone wishes to put forward the claim that the billions of years of apparently random mutations and extinction for most of Earth’s species had a divine purpose involving only one evolved primate, the court of appeal for justifying that claim will be within science itself. Smuggling it in as a metaphysical axiom or carefully arranged conformity of the claim with naturalistic processes doesn’t inspire confidence.

“Perhaps a successful argument for atheism would provide justification, but, so far as I can see, such an argument is not forthcoming.”

The logical problem here is identical to the one above. Imagine a murder trial in which a man is charged of shooting an innocent person in the head. As a matter of fact, the defendant is either guilty of murder or innocent. However, we can only address one prong of that dilemma at a time. To minimize wrongful convictions, we adopt the null hypothesis of innocence rather than guilt, and on that basis have our prong: “Does the evidence give convincing reason to believe that the defendant is GUILTY?” Since the null hypothesis can’t be proven, but only disproven, the null hypothesis of innocence does *not* mean that a verdict of not guilty is identical to innocence. Whether a jury member believes that the defendant is innocent or just that the evidence is insufficient to render a ‘guilty’ vote, the ultimate vote is identical– ‘not guilty’ (as opposed to ‘innocent’)–and tailored to the prong under consideration.

Compare with the question of a deity’s existence. As a matter of fact, God X either exists, or God X does not exist (where God X has specific attributes a, b, c, d, …). However, we can only address one prong of the dilemma at a time. To minimize accepting the existence of just any entity without good reason, we adopt the null hypothesis of not existing rather than existing, and on that basis have our prong: “Does the evidence give convincing reason to believe that the proposed entity EXISTS?” (In courtroom terminology, “Does the evidence give convincing reason to believe that God X is GUILTY of existing?”) Since the null hypothesis can’t be proven, but only disproven, the null hypothesis of non-existence does *not* mean that a lack of reason to *accept* an entity’s existence is equivalent to denial of its existence. As with our jury member, whether a person actually believes that a deity doesn’t exist (i.e., believes that the deity is innocent of existing) or simply believes that the evidence is insufficient to accept its existence (i.e., believes that the deity is not guilty of existing), the latter is the only position required to be an atheist. The claim that God X exists is rejected, and that rejection in no way requires the assertion of its opposition. (That one believes that God X is not guilty of existing says nothing about whether one believes that God X is innocent of existing.)

In sum, since the burden of proof is on the claimant for an entity’s existence, and that burden has not been adequately shouldered by the theist, her interlocutor has no grounds to affirm that entity’s existence.

“Moreover, Plantinga wouldn’t say that (at least for him) belief that evolution was guided is like a scientific hypothesis. Rather, he would say that it follows from properly basic beliefs that he holds.”

Yes, and I reject some of what he includes by fiat as deserving of the status of a properly basic belief.

“Hence the issues you two bring up are not really relevant for him (and most theists) – how good of an explanation guided evolution amounts to is not relevant (and it is silly to predicate one’s beliefs on inference to the best explanation anyhow).”

Setting aside the latter bald assertion, whether or not most theists consider these issues relevant is, well, irrelevant. Their *reasons* for considering it irrelevant are more important. If the main reason (as it often seems to be) is that it violates an implicit ground rule that nothing could ever show God X not to exist, or that God X’s removal from any distinguishable confirmation guards it from scrutiny, that’s pretty flimsy. It isn’t just that a theistic explanation is inferior–that’s just where the problem start. The real thorn in its side is that, in the absence of reasons either for God X’s existence or a way to distinguish a postulated entity’s effects from natural processes even in principle–it brings nothing to bear at all.

“More specifically, regarding the second comment: I don’t think Plantinga thinks there are laws of nature (I recall reading that he found van Fraassen’s arguments to be powerful – though, I’m not certain on this), so the issue you bring up isn’t much a worry (at least for him).”

I’ll leave this one to ajkreider if s/he wishes to respond, as I don’t use the phrase “laws of nature.” Suffice it to say for my part that I had something far simpler in mind–namely, that the theist lacks any positive evidence for her claim that a specific deity exists.

“(Another route would be to note that God could have created the universe with initial conditions such that the relevant mutations would come about.)”

But now we’re back to square one. Concocting some logical possibility under which God X, Y, or Z *could* have created the universe with certain initial capacities and conditions tells us nothing, because the theist still has all of her work still ahead of her. (Philanthropic, undetectable gravity fairies could just as easily be said to impart some specific content to gravity in order to sustain the possibility for human life—but how could we ever be justified in postulating it?) How does she know or even have just cause to suspect that? How could she have justification to believe it?Report

JR
JR
Reply to  Epikoureios
5 years ago

That was quite the comment. I won’t be addressing it all here. I wholeheartedly concede that there is not a strong argument to be made for ID and that there is not a strong argument to be made for ~ID (this is true of most philosophical theses). I’m not here to offer a scientific case for ID or divine intervention in any way. However, I will reiterate that in the absence of positive evidence for ID and ~ID, we are warranted only in agnosticism (at least when treating them as scientific hypotheses). I agree that in the absence of a good argument for ID, S may refrain from belief in ID. But that’s it.

It’s fine that you reject Plantinga’s claim that belief in God is (or can be) properly basic. What matters is that you give good reason to think that it isn’t/can’t be. So far as I see, there are not good objections to it. But then the theist is perfectly warranted in believing evolution to be guided in some sense. For, if God is responsible for the existence of the universe (which she no doubt believes), then he will have played a role in evolution somehow (e.g. in setting the initial conditions of the universe). This, of course, does not mean that the atheist should accept that evolution was guided. The point is that the theist is perfectly rational in thinking it to be so. This simply follows from externalist (and even some internalist) epistemology.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

I wonder why anyone would think that the existence of LM&C is remarkable. How can this be remarkable if the universe is deterministic? I also wonder also why Nagel assumes that consciousness did not appear until human beings evolved. Lots of assumptions and no evidence and no theory to make it all worthwhile. Evolutionary theory looks lost and empty without consciousness but does not seem to need metaphysical assumptions about God.

It seems to me that the apparent existence of matter looks a lot more remarkable than that of consciousness and mind. .Report

Epikoureios
Epikoureios
5 years ago

JR:

“I’m not here to offer a scientific case for ID or divine intervention in any way.”

That’s completely fine, but again, do be aware that a scientific case would be required to show that, say, a mutation had a cause outside of evolution’s scope, which amounts to a weaker form of ID. Our current scientific understanding of the world suggests random mutations and an almost incalculably vast destruction of life over several billion years before one hominid species outlasted the other nineteen (or thereabouts). If God X’s action in tinkering with hominid genetic codes is claimed to be indistinguishable from those apparently impersonal processes, whether by giving a “push” that would be undetectable to science or through cosmic conditions implanted (also undetectably) at the beginning of the universe, we have no footing at all to accept the claim. Starting from the premise that the claim is true is a doomed project, since one’s *conviction* of the incorrigibility of her beliefs tells us nothing about its actual incorrigibility. (Witness the striking decline of religious belief in the U.S. over the last decade. Certainly some non-trivial subset of former believers were at one time convinced that their belief was self-evident and incorrigible. Defeaters have shown them not to be so.)

“However, I will reiterate that in the absence of positive evidence for ID and ~ID, we are warranted only in agnosticism (at least when treating them as scientific hypotheses).”

(1.) My own atheism follows the letter of the word’s etymology: a + theos, “without god.” To return to my courtroom analogy, whether one believes that God X is actually innocent of existing or just not guilty, only the latter is required to meet the minimal definition of atheism. I have no reason to accept the claim that God X exists, and my lack of acceptance is not agnosticism–a term that concerns what we can *know*, which won’t add much to evidential probabilism (which concerns what we have good reason to believe).

(2.) That depends on the nature of the deity proposed. One often hears that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but depending on what attributes and types of action the deity is claimed to have, an absence of evidence *can* count against its existence. For example, if a theist claims as part of God X’s nature that it routinely heals its followers of major ailments, we should find (at minimum) a higher rate of healing among devout believers in God X. If we don’t, the lack of evidence for more healing among believers does count against the proposed entity, since its definition includes a consistent willingness to heal its followers. The theist may then, of course, backtrack the claim or change the attributes of God X, but things start to get dicey here. Rather than a God of the Gaps, which places God X conveniently at our points of current ignorance, we often arrive at a God of the Continuity, which places God X indistinguishably and redundantly in our scientific picture of the world. (Many forms of theistic evolution are guilty of this.) Without actual evidence, the theist is in the awkward position of appearing to work backward from the premise that God X, Y, or Z must exist.

(3.) As I explained at some length in my previous post, the strictly logical inability to prove that an entity doesn’t exist is totally empty in practice. In almost every other domain, people tend to recognize this at once. (If I meticulously defined a wizard on Mars to skirt the possibility of any scientific scrutiny, would anyone be likely to treat that as significant? Probably not, because (a) there’s still no evidence for the wizard’s existence, and that is enough to meet the minimum definition of an a-wizard-on-Mars-ist; and (b) it would be hard to escape the impression that I am intentionally sculpting my definition to sustain belief.) In the first place, the rejection of a claim is not the assertion of its opposite. If Sally claimed that she was abducted by aliens, I would reject it until and unless further evidence appeared. My acknowledgment that I couldn’t, strictly speaking, know with absolute certainty that Sally wasn’t abducted doesn’t mean that I have any reason to take seriously the claim that she was until additional evidence can be provided.

“I agree that in the absence of a good argument for ID, S may refrain from belief in ID. But that’s it.”

The lack of acceptance of a claim is a rejection of it as currently unfounded. When someone proposes to me that gravity fairies exist and has no evidence to support the claim, I reject it, and that rejection is enough to make me an a-gravity-fairy-ist (“without gravity fairies”). I can, of course, go further by declaring the position that gravity fairies do not exist, but I need not do so to be an a-gravity-fairy-ist. My lack of acceptance of the proposition that they exist is the only required foundation.

“It’s fine that you reject Plantinga’s claim that belief in God is (or can be) properly basic. What matters is that you give good reason to think that it isn’t/can’t be. So far as I see, there are not good objections to it.”

Setting aside its absurd ease of securing rational beliefs (including diametrically opposed beliefs from distinct communities), Jeremy Koons more or less captures a number of my own objections:

http://faculty.georgetown.edu/koonsj/papers/Plantinga.pdf

“But then the theist is perfectly warranted in believing evolution to be guided in some sense. For, if God is responsible for the existence of the universe (which she no doubt believes), then he will have played a role in evolution somehow (e.g. in setting the initial conditions of the universe).”

Alas, along comes the Hindu, who will say the same thing about her beliefs, which on many points are diametrically opposed to those of the Christian. If there is no way to adjudicate between this competing claims of divine guidance, and both of them, despite containing diametrically opposed propositions, can possess equal coherence with our scientific understanding of the world, there seem to be no grounds to hold either of them.

“The point is that the theist is perfectly rational in thinking it to be so. This simply follows from externalist (and even some internalist) epistemology.”

That it coheres with another belief doesn’t necessarily make it rational, especially when that belief is subject to potential defeaters. Plantinga will want to say that a properly basic belief won’t be, but for reasons Koons offers above, this puts him in an epistemic quagmire.Report

JR
JR
Reply to  Epikoureios
5 years ago

Again, that is quite a long comment, so I will only be replying to a few points. I agree that if you are not convinced by arguments for theism, then you should not affirm theism. Thus, you are an atheist in the sense that you do not think theism is true. But you would also not be a person who affirms that theism is false (a naturalist, or strong atheist), for there is no reason to believe that. So you can withhold belief from both positive propositions, and hence you can maintain your weak (as opposed to strong) atheism.

I’m not going to use this space to critique that paper, but suffice it to say that if you think it shows Plantinga’s epistemology, or, more generally, reformed epistemology, to be false, then you’re being naive.

The point in showing that Christian belief (or theism) is compatible (not contradictory) with evolutionary theory is just to show that evolutionary theory does not defeat Christianity, so that’s why people focus on showing logical possibility. Further, if it is possible that they are compatible, and the theist in question affirms both theism and evolution, then she is warranted in believing it is guided. That is the main point. (It is not about convincing those who are not Christians or theists or whatever.)

Also, in regards to religious diversity, I see no reason to think that provides a defeater for specific forms of theism or for reformed epistemology. The plurality of beliefs is a problem for *all* forms of externalism (and for many forms of internalism): does the fact that there are solipsists undermine my belief in other minds? Clearly not. I think the Christian need not be bothered by religious pluralism – or not seriously bothered, at least.

Also, you say that without scientific evidence to adjudicate between Hinduism and another form of theism, that we should remain agnostic about them. But the fact is that the Hindu has every reason to affirm her Hinduism: it seems to her that it is so – perhaps even after she examines arguments for other forms of theism (and atheism), and finds them wanting. She is perfectly warranted in thinking other religious believers are not her epistemic peers – she may hold that she is in a better epistemic position than non-Hindus. Same for Christians, Jews, etc. (This is similar to how an asolipsist can hold that she is in a better epistemic position than the solipsist.)Report

Epikoureios
Epikoureios
Reply to  JR
5 years ago

Last post. (I’d continue, but writing and grading call.)

“I agree that if you are not convinced by arguments for theism, then you should not affirm theism. Thus, you are an atheist in the sense that you do not think theism is true. But you would also not be a person who affirms that theism is false (a naturalist, or strong atheist), for there is no reason to believe that.”

I would in fact consider myself a naturalist, though I arrive at that naturalism through the same means as my atheism: lack of evidence for significant suspensions of the common course of nature.

“I’m not going to use this space to critique that paper, but suffice it to say that if you think it shows Plantinga’s epistemology, or, more generally, reformed epistemology, to be false, then you’re being naive.”

Why make the effort to assert naïveté if you have no intention of going beyond a bald assertion? I’m not trying to bait you into discussing the paper, but it seems a topic better passed over in silence rather than addressed with a flat declaration that I’m wrong for viewing criticisms of Plantinga as generally accurate. To be perfectly forthright about my view, I think that Plantinga is transparently intent on shoehorning his specific conception of God into the structure of knowledge and the world. Evidential inference doesn’t allow him to do this, so he attempts to sidestep it completely by placing theistic belief at the ground level without need of justification, thus defining a space in which his religious beliefs are immune to scrutiny, criticism, or the requirement for evidence. I rebuke this wholeheartedly as a dishonest and unphilosophical strategy that in some formulations is scarcely different from special pleading.

“The point in showing that Christian belief (or theism) is compatible (not contradictory) with evolutionary theory is just to show that evolutionary theory does not defeat Christianity, so that’s why people focus on showing logical possibility.”

Yes, but that’s the problem. Evolutionary theory doesn’t defeat theism by being logically incompatible with highly specific forms of it, but rather by exacting that compatibility at the price of circumscribing God’s action into redundancy and bald assertions. As I’ve said, either God X impinges on the natural world or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t impinge in any way, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever be justified in holding that it exists, let alone why that would amount to anything meaningful. If it does impinge, but does so through means either completely indistinguishable from natural processes or conveniently behind the veil of unique historical events, the theist isn’t licensed to retain a fundamental assumption that God X exists, and no amount of declaring it so will make that assumption rational. A God who answers his followers’ prayers at a rate identical to (and in some controlled studies lower than) chance is hardly distinct from a God that doesn’t answer any or a God that doesn’t exist at all.

“Further, if it is possible that they are compatible, and the theist in question affirms both theism and evolution, then she is warranted in believing it is guided. That is the main point. (It is not about convincing those who are not Christians or theists or whatever.)”

As strange as it is to imagine a God whose purposeful action takes the form of most life on Earth (including the hominid ancestors of and co-inhabitants with Homo sapiens) going extinct, I must again demur. To beat the decomposing horse, I’ve already explained why logical possibility is next to meaningless, and doesn’t get us any closer to warranted belief in guided evolution. Trillions upon trillions of claims are logically possible. If one cares principally about which among those we have good reasons to *accept*, the lack of supporting evidence for a claim is all that’s required to reject it until and unless evidence is forthcoming. (As before, that rejection is not the assertion of the claim’s opposite.) Failing or refusing to subject one’s own theistic beliefs to critical analysis doesn’t make mere logical compatibility amount to well-grounded conclusions. The only difference between atheism and a-wizard-on-Mars-ism is that the latter isn’t a term one finds routinely used, not because it’s actually any different, but simply because large numbers of people aren’t running about asserting the existence of a wizard on Mars. If there were, I would adopt and endorse the term.

“Also, in regards to religious diversity, I see no reason to think that provides a defeater for specific forms of theism or for reformed epistemology.”

My point was that if several mutually incompatible conceptions of deities can be harmonized equally well (via careful massaging) with the same natural processes, there isn’t a good reason to accept any of them.

“Also, you say that without scientific evidence to adjudicate between Hinduism and another form of theism, that we should remain agnostic about them.”

No, I say that we should be negative atheists about them. There’s little difference between Vishnu and a wizard on Mars if both have the same level of supporting evidence, leaving one with no good reason to take either claim seriously.

“But the fact is that the Hindu has every reason to affirm her Hinduism: it seems to her that it is so – perhaps even after she examines arguments for other forms of theism (and atheism), and finds them wanting.”

The fact that some people refuse to proportion their belief to the evidence, and can persist in a belief without regard for evidence against it or the complete lack of evidence for it, is an unfortunate but familiar fact. It does not, however, amount to having “every reason” to affirm a claim. A believer in homeopathic medicine may well continue to believe in its efficacy even after being shown mountains of peer-reviewed evidence attesting to its absurdity. A believer in undetectable gravity fairies may well continue to believe in their fundamental role in the universe even when evidence can be furnished to support their existence. Etc. ad infinitum.

“She is perfectly warranted in thinking other religious believers are not her epistemic peers – she may hold that she is in a better epistemic position than non-Hindus. Same for Christians, Jews, etc.”

And she will be mistaken until and unless she can marshal evidence to support that conviction. Simply having it is no more to the point than having the conviction that the strong nuclear force is the product of an evil creator-god who wants to bind human consciousness to matter.Report

JR
JR
Reply to  Epikoureios
5 years ago

I think we are using evidence in two different senses, because I think a theist has at least as much evidence for her belief in God as the asolipsist does for her belief in other minds. In other words, she has plenty of non-propositional evidence, and she proportions her belief accordingly.

“I would in fact consider myself a naturalist, though I arrive at that naturalism through the same means as my atheism: lack of evidence for significant suspensions of the common course of nature.”

And that is dubious grounds for belief. To use your example about a wizard on Mars: we have no reason to affirm that there isn’t one. If someone genuinely has no belief about the wizard, then she is not warranted in concluding that there is or is not one. However, if one already holds her belief that there is no wizard, then I have no objection to her holding the belief. What I’m saying pertains to ideal agnostics. If you approached theism without belief in whether or not it were true, and then decided based on the evidence that you believe naturalism to be true, that would be unwarranted for if it were based on lack of evidence.Report