To The Stone: Please Pull Out of Your Nose-Dive

The Stone is part of The New York Times, an outlet for Philosophy and public discussion of philosophical issues. Generally speaking, I think it’s an excellent idea: philosophy needs more public engagement, and the public needs to engage with more philosophy.

Its most recent article (“Is Atheism Irrational“), however, is pure, unadulterated dross. Under the pretense of being “an interview”, Alvin Plantinga misrepresents the arguments against theism, and engages in nothing more than sophistry and rhetoric. This is, to some degree, par for the course when it comes to Plantinga, who has long backed entirely vapid defenses of theism by engaging in Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). My criticism here is aimed mainly at Gary Gutting, allegedly a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, and an editor of the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He entirely fails to engage with Plantinga’s questions, fails to point out where Plantinga has clearly dodged the question, and fails to underline where Plantinga has inserted doubt as a substitute for an answer. My remarks here will take the form of criticism of Plantinga’s answers, but they are intended as a rebuke to Gutting: this is critical thinking 101 stuff, something Gutting should have been more than capable of, and (given the position of The Stone as a vehicle for public engagement in philosophy) more than willing to do.

Before getting to the actual questions, I’d like to deal with the title: “Is Atheism Non-Rational?” would have been a much less provocative title (granted), but it would also be a lot more accurate (and, obviously, less offensive). ‘Irrational’ is generally taken to be antithetical to reason, whereas ‘non-rational’ implies things that simply don’t involve higher-order thought processes (like what food we prefer, the friends we have, who we date, the careers we find ourselves in). That’s not to say that these things never involve high-order thought processes, it’s more to say that they generally don’t. The rhetorical “Is [blah] irrational?” is to imply that ‘yes, it is irrational’, yet without the courage to overtly state it. On to the gibberish interview.

My guess is that a considerable majority of philosophers, both believers and unbelievers, reject these arguments as unsound.

Right off the bat, Plantinga is misrepresenting the philosophical objections to theism. An argument is sound when the following two conditions hold:

  1. If all the premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion must follow from those premises. In other words, it’s not possible for the premises to be true, and the conclusion false.
  2. All the premises of the argument are actually true.

When Plantinga “guesses” that most philosophers reject these arguments as “unsound”, he’s asserting that philosophers believe either that there is at least one untrue premise in the theistic arguments, and/or the theistic arguments aren’t logically valid. This is an incredibly weak position to hold, and Plantinga is right to assert that this, alone, is insufficient for atheism (the assertion “that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions”). For clarity sake, this is the form of atheism that I am committed to.

The reason that this is insufficient for atheism is that crappy arguments can have true conclusions: that an argument is logically invalid, or that any (or even all) of the premises are false does not mean that the conclusion is false. For example:

  1. The moon is made of green cheese.
  2. I am Superman, the last son of Krypton.
  3. (Conclusion) The sky is blue.

This argument is unsound. Both of the premises are false, and even if they were true, they would not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. Nevertheless, this is insufficient to claim “the sky is not blue”. Plantinga is entirely correct on that score.

Where Plantinga is not correct is that the majority of philosophers do not reject theism on the basis of mere “unsoundness”. This is bullshit. And, as someone who has been involved in Philosophy of Religion longer than I have been alive, Plantinga knows this is bullshit. Philosophers, going back over 2000 years, have rejected theism because it is self-contradictory nonsense.

The Problem of Evil
The Problem of Evil

Moreover, there are no meaningful, non-self-contradictory definitions of god. God is asserted to be a whole bunch of things, while also being asserted to be unknowable. And so on goes the drivel. This is not an issue of mere “unsoundness”, but of complete and utter incoherence (“incoherence” meaning that it’s not logically possible for all of the statements to be true at the same time).

Am I calling Plantinga a liar? No, not as such. Am I claiming that he is misrepresenting the philosophical objections to theism? Absolutely.

No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.

In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism.

Here Plantinga engages in more sophistry: notice that in this argument that “an even number of stars” is the analogous belief to theism. An entirely reasonable, coherent belief that (if we reject) we must argue that ‘the number of stars cannot be known’: Plantinga is exactly correct in this. But notice that we have implicitly accepted that theism is logically coherent in order to follow him along here. This is a dirty, dirty move. And how does Gutting respond? By completely ignoring it.

At this point, it’s important to note that we are talking about two different kinds of atheists, and Gutting is facilitating the equivocation between them:

  1. The first kind follow Plantinga’s definition: they hold that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions. These atheists (especially in Philosophy) tend to be those who, like me, focus on the incoherence of the definitions given for ‘god’, and who would assert that logically incoherent things simply do not exist. (these would be ‘gnostic atheists’)
  2. The second kind hold that the arguments for theism are insufficient. These atheists tend to be those who focus on the empirical support of the claims for religion, and therefore are uncomfortable asserting more than ‘the religious claims are not supported by the evidence’. (these would be ‘agnostic atheists’)

Plantinga has ostensibly been arguing against the first kind, arguing that they should be the second kind. Gutting then responds to Plantinga’s nonsense with “many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism”, referring to the second kind of atheist. These second types would be the kind who are careful to say that they simply can’t accept the arguments that theists put forth, but can’t assert that NO gods exist (as they also lack evidence for that claim). Does Plantinga clarify that Gutting has moved to focus on the second type of atheist? Of course not.

My issue here is primarily with Gutting: not only does he not hold Plantinga accountable for his bullshit answers, but he facilitates Plantinga’s equivocation between different types of atheists in order to support Plantinga’s rhetorical drive, that ‘atheism is irrational’.

Gutting brings up Russell’s Teapot. For those who are unfamiliar with the thought experiment, it is as follows:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.[1]

Russell’s point here is that there is as much evidence in favour of his teapot as there is for any god that you care to imagine. Therefore, if you doubt the existence of Russell’s teapot, you should likewise doubt the existence of that god. Conversely, if you believe in the existence of that god, you should believe in the existence of said teapot. You have the same warrant for believing in either. To believe in one (and disbelieve the other) is to be inconsistent in your claims about believing according to the merits of the evidence.

Plantinga claims:

Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

and then goes on to play games, asserting that we have evidence against teapot-ism. Which is entirely false: what we have is a lack of evidence to believe in Russell’s teapot. Plantinga’s enumeration of the lack of evidence changes not a damn thing, but achieves the rhetorical point of “look at how ridiculous this is”. And notice that Plantinga’s enumeration consists entirely of a lack of physical evidence:

For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on.

Gutting, being the the second man in this two-man circle jerk gently lobs the ball over the plate:

But isn’t there also plenty of evidence against theism — above all, the amount of evil in a world allegedly made by an all-good, all-powerful God?

Does Plantinga enumerate an analogous list of the lack of physical evidence for theism? Of course not. He nods towards the Problem of Evil I mentioned above, and then swiftly moves the goal posts to start talking about the ‘positive arguments’ for theism. And by “talking about”, he simply mentions that they exist. After a bit of cajoling, he finally mentions The Fine-Tuning Argument, which is just completely crap. The short version of this argument is as follows:

  1. It’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really improbable that the universe has the characteristics that it does by chance.
  2. I don’t like the idea of really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really improbable things.
  3. I like the idea of god, and I refuse to acknowledge the logical incoherence of god.
  4. (Conclusion) Therefore god created the universe.

Different theists dress that argument up in different ways, but that’s basically it in a nutshell. And this an argument that Plantinga presents as “popular”. Notice how he doesn’t actually pass an opinion on the quality of the argument, he just talks about it as “popular”. Does Gutting call him on this.

Nope Nope Nope

I’m going to skip over a bunch of Plantinga’s nonsense (really? Denying the existence of god is analogous with denying the existence of the moon? REALLY? Wtf, Plantinga…), down to his comments about materialism. I’m going to conservatively and charitably characterise these comments as “a complete clusterfuck of ‘what the fuck was that?’”

[I’m going to condense his comments into a single continuous argument here]

I can’t give a complete statement of the argument here — for that see Chapter 10 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies.” But, roughly, here’s why. First, if materialism is true, human beings, naturally enough, are material objects. Now what, from this point of view, would a belief be? My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures.

But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.

I’m interested in the fact that beliefs cause (or at least partly cause) actions. For example, my belief that there is a beer in the fridge (together with my desire to have a beer) can cause me to heave myself out of my comfortable armchair and lumber over to the fridge.

But here’s the important point: It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.

If this belief — this structure — had a totally different content (even, say, if it was a belief that there is no beer in the fridge) but had the same neurophysiological properties, it would still have caused that same action of going to the fridge. This means that the content of the belief isn’t a cause of the behavior. As far as causing the behavior goes, the content of the belief doesn’t matter.

So, to sum up, Alvin Plantinga has no clue as to what he’s talking about in these statements. He is deeply and profoundly confused about the difference between the objective physical structure of the brain (and its neurochemistry), and the subjective experience of a thought.

Look, the fact of the matter is that when we see a car, a certain collection of neurons ‘lights up’ in the brain. Conversely, when that collection of neurons lights up, we see a car. There’s a one-to-one correlation here between these things. Certainly, the shape of the car, the speed, the colour, the distance, the other things in the background, all contribute to this being a very complex physiological phenomenon to map, but the correlation is there. So much so that we are starting to develop lie detectors based on MRI readings, and researchers can now predict what dreamers are dreaming from watching their MRI. The physical correlates are real, and are demonstrable.

Moreover, the neurophysiological structure is the content. To argue that the structure and the content ‘are different’, and that two things may have the same structure but different content is incoherent. This would be akin to arguing that something that looks like a car, sounds like a car and drives like a car isn’t actually a car because…. [blah]. Plantinga’s argument here is based entirely in ignorance of how the brain works. I, for one, spent a significant part of my Philosophy undergrad taking Psychology courses purely to avoid this kind of embarrassing error.

Next up, Plantinga (a professor who is renowned for his work in Epistemology) demonstrates a complete failure to understand the difference between Epistemology and Metaphysics. Plantinga asserts that “our belief-producing faculties are not reliable”, and I’ll totally grant him that. I mean, just review what it is that Plantinga apparently believes so far, and we really do have to accept this assertion… Next he says (and hold on to your corn-cob pipe):

If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent.

So let’s just stop right there. This statement, right out, is false. It is simply not the case that “a belief is as likely to be false as to be true”. Sure, if you grant this premise, the rest of the argument holds, but this premise is complete bullshit so you need to put the brakes on. Let’s say that I hold the belief that “the sky is blue”. While it’s true that that belief is either true or false, it’s not a 50/50 chance to be true or false: it’s 100/0. Likewise, my belief that “the moon is made of green cheese” is not “equally likely” to be true as false. There are true facts to be obtained about the world, and probabilities don’t apply. This is a basic failure to understand first year Statistics. To further explain:

Let’s have a group of 100 people, 25 of whom have brown hair. I close my eyes, they run around and mix themselves up, and I point at one of them: there is a 25% chance that I am pointing at a person with brown hair. So we take that person out of the group: there is not a 25% chance that they have brown hair: either they have brown hair or they don’t, and it’s 100%/0 or 0/100%. I don’t recall the particular name for this common error in statistics, so if anyone wants to chime in in the comments: please do.

As for the closing comments of the article… Well, something is certainly shooting itself in the foot, and it’s neither atheism nor evolution.

To Dr. Gutting: this “interview” was a steaming pile of shit. I would expect more from someone of your stature: critical thinking, engagement with the ideas, and (at the least) some mild push-back on the obviously problematic statements made by Plantinga.

To The Stone: I really hope someone there re-edits this piece, or pulls it. I’ve generally enjoyed the pieces you’ve published, but this is just garbage.

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6 responses to “To The Stone: Please Pull Out of Your Nose-Dive”

  1. I remember a discussion from the Evolution is True blog that when a title to an article is a question the answer is (99% of the time?)….*no* An internet search would probably show the origin of this claim. Hmmm….kind of like saying “God did it!” so accepting the *no* answer to the title question would’ve stopped discussion of the question pretty quick! ;^)
    I see there are nearly 1000 comments and they are closed now. Did you get to throw in your 3 cents worth?
    What gets me is that there are a large # of philosophers who are still believers. Any of the attributes assigned to the Abrahamic god(s) is logically incoherent therefore the god(s) cannot possibly exist. If the response is god is unknowable then your not talking about anything and you can’t possibly *know* that a god exists. Like you say, Brian, this is philosophy 101.

  2. One good thing about this New York Times post – it’s one case where you *should* read the comments, at least the “Reader’s Picks” tab of the comment section. Times readers do a good job of making the points the interviewer should have.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Randy: a number of Philosophers believe, but believe in a god that your average believer doesn’t. Moreover, others are like Plantinga (or Kierkegaard) and would completely agree that they have little to no warrant for their belief (but then argue that it’s justified for other non-epistemic reasons).

    Others are not committed to traditional logic, so the incoherency doesn’t bother them, and then others would happily accept that they can’t “know” god in any meaningful way, but assert that “believing in” and “knowing” are two entirely different things.

    I don’t say these things to justify those professors, more to offer an explanation of their position. I know one prof locally who is very much a deist, who (I think) is committed to a more Platonic Ideal version of ‘god’. I haven’t really engaged with him on it because we’re not really ‘friends’ enough for me to do so, and he’s a very non-aggressive guy.

    NoWoo: I agree. 🙂

  4. “My guess is that a considerable majority of philosophers, both believers and unbelievers, reject these arguments as unsound.”

    Starts of with the fallacy of asserting the consequent.

    “No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.”

    Well sure, but the question of odd or even is, in theory, resolvable. Either proposition can be falsified. Not so for existence of gods.

    “In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism.”

    Which is therefore a non sequitur at best; I’d call it sophistry. At this time I shall also point out that they haven’t defined what “atheism” is. They’re playing a rhetorical trick (and logical fallacy) here. The implication is that atheism means “belief there are no gods” rather than “no belief in gods.” The first case is a response to the proposition “a god or gods exist.” The onus probandi however is on the person making the proposition. The trick is that they tacitly assume that such has been shown to be true, which is certainly not the case. If that was the case, then neither agnosticism nor atheism would be rational positions. The second condition, “no belief in gods,” is not a response to a proposition but a simple statement of fact. No prior knowledge of belief in gods is required for one to have no belief in gods. Therefore agnosticism and atheism are both logically sound positions.

    I don’t want to continue wading through that whale dreck so I’ll just stop here.

  5. At this time I shall also point out that they haven’t defined what “atheism” is.

    So I’m in general agreement with you, but he does define atheism (what some (including me) would call ‘strong atheism’): “that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions”.

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