Coyne Gets Philosophical …

While I haven’t written any discussions of Jerry Coyne for quite some time now, mostly because the things he’s been talking about haven’t been interesting to me, this week he’s managed to provide me with two posts to comment on. If he keeps this up, it will be like old times on this blog.

This time, he has decided to point out dumb philosophical errors that he says Alvin Plantinga makes. Considering that at one point I argued that he and his commenters didn’t know philosophy, and considering that his comments on free will have often made what I’d consider basic philosophical mistakes, this attempt should definitely be … interesting.

The existence and work of Plantinga is the best argument I know against teaching the philosophy of religion. Here we have a distinguished scholar of religion, one recognized for his work on philosophy alone, at least judging by the fact that he was a regional president of the American Philosophical Association. Yet Plantinga’s work on religion, though couched in academic-y prose, modular logic, and symbolic logic, is thin, tendentious, and easily refuted by anyone with two neurons to rub together.

Considering that I’ve been unimpressed with both Coyne’s and Dennett’s attempts to refute Plantinga and haven’t seen easy refutations — although I think doubts can and have been raised against Plantinga’s work — this is an example where the overuse of rhetoric can get you in trouble … because if Coyne’s attempts either before or in this post don’t work, what does that say about his neural state?

Anyway, the main argument is based on a criticism of the arguments of Philip Kitcher that Plantinga has made. Kitcher’s main argument — or, at least, the main one that Plantinga addresses — is the typical “Argument from Religious Diversity”, that Loftus also heavily relies on. Plantinga’s first reply — actually his second, since it is his refutation of the second point of variance by culture and not to the first point of a wide variety of overall views — is that Kitcher himself would hold radically different views and philosophies if he was born in a different culture, including his skeptical beliefs about religion. But just as the fact that in a different culture he would believe differently doesn’t mean that Kitcher should accept from that fact alone that his beliefs are almost certainly false. But this is what Kitcher expects religious people to accept: that merely because they would have different beliefs if they had been born and raised in a different culture doesn’t mean that they should think that their beliefs are almost certainly false … at least, not just from that fact.

Coyne’s first “obvious” purported philosophical error from Plantinga is this:

Now you don’t have to be a sophisticated thinker to see the problem with Plantinga’s “rebuttal”. Kitcher is not making a claim about reality, but raising doubts toward other people’s claims about reality. Yes, if Kitcher had been raised in Saudi Arabia, he’d likely be a Muslim and not an atheist (there’s strong artificial selection against nonbelievers on the peninsula). But there’s no parity between holding a belief because you were brainwashed by the locals, and doubting beliefs because you’re rational.

There are a number of issues here. The most obvious one is that last sentence, because it stacks the deck and assumes his conclusion: Coyne can only say that the two sets of beliefs can’t be compared because one is rational and the other is, well, not. Coyne could make a stronger case by saying that Kitcher didn’t develop his skeptical beliefs about religion that way; he formed them against cultural expectations, not due to them. This, however, wouldn’t cover all of his beliefs, which would lead to the same sort of issues. The same problem arises with the distinction between simply doubting a belief and having an actual belief … especially if Kitcher, like Loftus, really does think that religious beliefs ought to be considered almost certainly false. If you think that the claim that God exists is almost certainly false, then you really ought to believe that God does not exist, a positive and actual belief, not merely an expression of skeptical doubts. Thus, as one of the commenters pointed out, Kitcher does make a claim about reality. Even if he didn’t, to raise skeptical doubts means that Kitcher has to be relying on some kind of claim that he wants others to think true in order to make that claim, the claim that to be rational we have to consider the religious claims almost certainly false. If he wants anyone to think it true, it means that he must think it true. That means that he must believe it. And finally, none of Coyne’s arguments really demonstrate that we indeed ought to consider our religious beliefs almost certainly false because there are other cultures that believe differently, because even if his distinction between raising doubts and believing really worked, it would be trivially easy to find beliefs that did and still do have cultural variances and again conclude that those cultural variances don’t, in and of themselves, give reason to accept that beliefs that do vary are almost certainly false. So while Plantinga’s argument is not, to my mind conclusive — as it is an argument that of the sort that doesn’t refute the argument so much as force a conclusion that the opponent doesn’t want to accept — it isn’t making any basic philosophical errors … and Coyne’s first paragraph attempting to point out errors makes a number.

On to the second paragraph:

The important thing, though, is that it’s more than the diversity of conflicting arguments that shows one’s faith to be false. It’s the point that John Loftus made with his Outsider Test for Faith: the diversity of faiths, and the fact that one’s religion is almost always the dominant religion in one’s birthplace, means that one should be suspicious of the criteria used to uphold one’s faith. If you think your faith is right and other faiths are wrong, Loftus argues, then you should apply to your own beliefs the same scrutiny you apply to other peoples’. When you do that, you must perforce see that the evidence for the veracity of your beliefs is as nonexistent as is the evidence for the many religions you reject. In other words, you must reject all faith until some evidence accrues that points to one religion as being more truthful than the others. And that—not simply the diversity of faiths and their dependence on geography—is why one should reject all religions. This is the argument Kitcher is making.

Ah, an appeal to Loftus. I’ve already talked about how Loftus’ view of how we treat religions like ours doesn’t, in fact, reflect how we actually treat other religions. We do not, generally, reject them because we subject them to a scrutiny that we won’t subject our own beliefs to, but instead because we already believe something that is incompatible with them. Whether this is rational or not is an open and complicated question, but it means that there is no reason for people to necessarily reject faith outright, or reject their faith until there is “evidence” for one over another. That’s an epistemological claim, requiring a set and strong idea of rationality, knowledge, belief, and the differences and similarities between them.

Essentially, Coyne here rejects Kitcher’s argument outright, insisting that it is all about evidence and that the religions do not have sufficient evidence to pass that marker. But it adds nothing to the argument to point out that there are other religions, and that if you grew up somewhere else you’d believe in a different religion. At best, that says that you got the belief from your culture and not from examining the evidence … but then as already pointed out all that means is that you don’t reject other religions on the basis of examining the evidence either, because you don’t examine evidence to reject a belief that conflicts with something you strongly believe. So what Coyne wants to argue here, really, is the old claim that there is insufficient belief to justify a belief in any particular religion. If there was, then it wouldn’t matter how many other religions there were or how many people believed in them; the justification itself would carry you through. This counter has been a staple of Plantinga’s rebuttals to the argument from religious diversity, and it works: if we have sufficient evidence, then competing religions are irrelevant as I would still be justified based on the evidence, and if we don’t then again it doesn’t matter if there are competing religions because we remain unjustified without considering them.

At best, this sort of analysis reduces the argument from religious diversity to not an argument, but instead a rhetorical trick or, perhaps, a thought experiment. If you consider that you’d be just as certain of a contradictory belief in another time and place, you have to ask what it is that makes you so certain now. For many theists, that will be faith. But no theist need accept that faith is an invalid methodology for accepting strong or even strong religious beliefs, and Plantinga tends to accept that you can hold as a basic belief things that he doesn’t accept. His argument defends his holding his own religious beliefs as basic; he does not argue against other people holding their religious beliefs as basic when he argues against the problem of religious diversity. So as a thought experiment, it might lead people to conclude that they have insufficient evidence for their own religious beliefs and that faith is invalid … but it doesn’t prove it.

The problem is that a lot of the philosophy limned above does not make empirical claims about reality. Existentialism, for instance, is a worldview, not a claim about what is real. Likewise for many ethical systems, like utilitarianism or Rawls’s ideal contractarianism. You can’t say that they can be dismissed simply because some conflict with others, for evidence cannot be brought to bear on the issues. And those philosophical positions that do make such claims (i.e., naturalism), should be subject to evidential scrutiny; and if they fail, they should either be shelved or considered unverified.

This is a rather bizarre counter-argument, because what it implies is that philosophical beliefs like the right ethical code or correct worldview don’t, in fact, have to be true because they can’t be proven empirically. First, many would disagree about that. Second, many would argue that the belief in God can’t be proven empirically because it also doesn’t make those sorts of strong claims — or, at least, not ones that we can justify that way — and so we could accept it just as well as we accept those. Third, these beliefs have a major impact on our actions and behaviours, and how we live our lives. To imply that it doesn’t matter if they are true is to essentially concede that we can live our lives based on ideas that we don’t know to be true. Since this would clearly conflict with any sort of rationalist stance, we need these beliefs to be justified as well, just as much if not more than strict scientific claims, even if we have to demonstrate it differently.

But the big issue here is that this is a response to Kitcher’s first point, that the diversity of religious beliefs means that we should consider them almost certainly false. The Utilitarian need not think that their ethical view is almost certainly false just because there are a number of deontological and Virtue theories that radically differ from it, or even because there are a number of differing Utilitarian views. If their view is justified, then they can believe it no matter how many other views are out there or even accepted, and if it isn’t it doesn’t become even less justified because there are other candidates.

In short, we want and need these philosophical beliefs to be true, which means we need to justify them, and the variety of philosophical beliefs is no justification for considering any of those to be almost certainly false. That’s the point that Plantinga is making … and it does stand. We need something more than Kitcher’s main arguments to conclude that.

He moves on to go after the sensus divinitatis again:

It seems. . . it seems. . . it seems. It seems, therefore it is. Is that rational? I don’t think so. For one’s desire to believe in God, which comes from brainwashing by others when one is young, doesn’t count as evidence. Those religious feelings aren’t independent, as Plantinga seems to think, of one’s desires.

Except, that’s not really what it is. Plantinga is clear in the review that he doesn’t think that the sensus divinitatis should be used as evidence that God exists:

But here, I think, he is seriously misconstruing Calvin and those who follow him. It isn’t that those who think there is a sensus divinitatis appeal to this sensus as evidence for their belief in God. It isn’t as if such people, if asked why they believe in God, if asked for evidence for their belief, will say, “Well, there is this sensus divinitatis, and it tells me that there is such a person.” Not at all. It is rather that the supporters of the sensus find themselves with belief in God; they note that the same or something similar holds for much of the rest of humanity; so they conclude that there is a faculty or process that produces this belief. Of course they think this belief on their part and the parts of these others is true; and since they do think this belief is true, they call this process a “sensus”, thus analogizing it to sense perception.

In short, people just come to believe it, just as they come to believe that there is an external world from their sense perceptions. No amount of skeptical challenge — and there is actually quite a bit — can dislodge this belief and our sense that that belief is justified. Hume rather famously formed all sorts of skeptical doubts and then discovered that when he went out into the world and acted in it he could not maintain those doubts. Bertrand Russell also noted that while the justifications for the accuracy of our sense data were not only not there but that we had good reasons — scientific reasons — to think them inaccurate we still had to assume they were to get any sort of reasoning and knowledge off the ground. In general, if a belief springs to our minds fully-formed and persists, then we might be able to be justified in thinking that it is true without evidence demonstrating it false, or it leading to a contradiction … and for sense data, perhaps even then. So if one raises doubts against the theist’s belief in God and yet, despite those doubts, they still feel that it must be true, then perhaps that it like sense data … a basic belief that we cannot justify but that we can’t doubt.

The issue here is that a basic belief and a belief formed from one’s culture will appear the same. All cultural beliefs are formed from cultural exposure — either explicit or implicit — and not from reasoned belief or deliberate learning. So they are just accepted by us. How can we tell that they are not mere cultural beliefs, and are instead properly basic? My view can accept cultural beliefs having some justification, but Plantinga’s basic belief approach can’t … not if he wants to use the comparison to sense data. Even here, though, he can argue that our sense data are impacted by culture as well, since even if our conclusions from sense data haven’t been proven to be influenced by cultural, we know that top-down processing is and that at least part of our sense data is done by top-down processing … meaning that our beliefs from sense data may be culturally impacted as well. Though that’s a pretty shaky argument.

And what, for crying out loud, are the “epistemic rights” that Plantinga touts? The right to believe whatever nonsense you want? Fine, let people so believe. But that doesn’t mean that those beliefs are rational, or should be respected by those of us who feel that strong beliefs should be supported by strong evidence.

If Coyne and others feel that strong beliefs should be supported by strong evidence, should they believe it and still call themselves rational? Is it just a feeling, or can they prove it?

To answer this, we need to answer what it means for a belief to be justified. There are a lot of issues around this view, tying in ideas about knowledge, belief, if you can believe rationally without having to know things, and all sorts of other considerations. Kitcher and Loftus and Coyne don’t seem to consider that, but simply assert it, and so can’t answer those questions.


One Response to “Coyne Gets Philosophical …”

  1. Loftus: Criticizing the Outsider Test (Part 2) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the transmissions of the culture that we are in and has formed the basis of so many of our beliefs? Plantinga is right here. If I trust, in general, the beliefs that I absorbed from my parents, my upbringing, and my […]

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