Sunday, September 02, 2012

Michael Egnor Fails Intelligence Test

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Alvin Plantinga's EAAN (evolutionary argument against naturalism) is so mind-bogglingly flawed, that if you meet anyone at a party who claims to believe it has merit, you should immediately find someone more interesting to talk to, because it's really unlikely you're going to have a good conversation.

Any bright high school student can see the flaws in a few minutes. In this way, it functions as a sort of intelligence test for the philosophically inclined. The fact that some philosophers actually took the argument seriously and a few collaborated on a volume entitled Naturalism Defeated? illustrates the sad state of modern philosophy. It's the philosophical equivalent of taking a bogus proof that 2 = 1 and writing an entire book explaining why it is wrong. Yes, you can do it, but why bother?

So guess who accepts it and thinks it is "obviously valid"? Why, that paragon of ignorance and arrogance, Michael Egnor.

It's not surprising, since commenters at his site have tried over and over again to explain to Egnor what the theory of evolution says, but he just can't get it.

30 comments:

Wa said...

Thanks for the post Mr. Shallit. I was appalled at Michael Egnor's assertion that "Modern theoretical science is wholly a product of Christian civilization, and depends utterly on the Christian understanding of creation and God..."

I pointed out in my comment on his blog that Algebra forms the foundation of Calculus, and that without Calculus modern theoretical science is impossible. I'm sure that even he must understand that Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi was most definitely not a Christian.

CDP said...

Egnor blog contains an alleged quotation from Einstein which is completely at odds with what Einstein wrote in his book "Ideas and Opinions." Does anyone know whether the Einstein quote posted by Egnor is a fabrication?

Laurence A. Moran said...

I've just finished reading Plantiga's latest book and I had the same impression you did. If this guy is a highly respected philosopher the what does that say about philosophy?

As for Egnor, well, he's an IDiot, so why are we surprised?

P.S. The word identification security screen on Blogger is atrocious. I can never guess the word on the first, or even the second try. Turn it off. It doesn't serve any useful purpose. It just keeps peoplr from commenting.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear of an argument against evolution, one of the first tests that I make is to see whether the argument works just as well (if not better) as an argument against reproduction (and development).

While I realize that, strictly speaking, the "evolutionary argument against naturalism" is not an argument against evolution, it does seem that my "storkism" test applies.

For if we are, as naturalist scientists claim, the product of natural processes of reproduction, how is knowledge reliable?

TomS

Michael Caton said...

Plantinga's argument is kind of interesting in that he's trying to play in the naturalists' court, which is something that few Christianists are willing (or able) to do, so he's one of the few guys that's actually made me read and think about the argument. But then I posted his argument against naturalism on my own blog as an exercise to spot the errors. That Egnor would run with his arguments is not a big surprise, although it's worth pointing out that neuroscience is probably going to be the next front Christianists attack because it's the next place where science will most directly undermine the credibility of religion. Oddly enough, as a medical student who just completed a neurosurgery rotation, none of the neurosurgeons knew who Egnor was or had much use for creationist positions on human biology.

nwrickert said...

..., since commenters at his site have tried over and over again to explain to Egnor what the theory of evolution says, but he just can't get it.

It is very difficult for somebody to understand evolution, if their religion requires that they not understand it.

To be slightly fair to Egnor and Plantinga, if one is a dualist, and believes that there is a spiritual world that is largely decoupled from the physical world, then I suppose it is not so hard to believe that truth only fits in the spiritual world while evolution works only in the physical world. That's the kind of dualist thinking that seems to be behind the Plantinga argument, as best I can tell.

P.S.: I agree with Larry Moran, that the blogger captcha screen is terrible.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Plantinga's EAAN is quite ridiculous (although you should probably have linked to one or two criticism of it, for any readers not familiar with the argument and how it is flawed), and it is clear that Plantinga does not understand evolution. Which makes for merry irony when Plantinga reviewed 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. He said: "Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he's a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class."

Pseudonym said...

The response from TomS raises an important point about these philosophical discussions which is often lost by non-philosophers.

The purpose of an "argument" like this is usually not to prove a point (though that may not be true in Plantinga's case; I don't know), but rather to generate discussion. A good philosophical argument is not necessarily one that's correct. Some of the best ones are obviously flawed, but it's not obvious why it's flawed.

Ansel's ontological argument is a case in point. It's clearly wrong because it can be applied to entities other than "God". What's not clear is precisely where the flaw or flaws in the argument are.

Indeed, analysing the ontological argument is one of the key activities which led to the understanding that existence is not a predicate, and hence to the development of the existential quantifier.

Now admittedly I haven't looked at EAAN at all, so I might be off base on this. However, if history is any guide, I'd wager that the writeup is incorrect in one key respect: A bright high school student may be able to tell that the argument is flawed, but there are probably few (if any) high school students who can articulate precisely where the flaws are. That is what takes a book full of philosophers.

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos said...

Pseudonym said "The purpose of an "argument" like this is usually not to prove a point (though that may not be true in Plantinga's case; I don't know), but rather to generate discussion."

Absolutely. But this does make me wonder why philosophers believe that someday they will figure out which metaphysic is correct. Especially since, as Babinski said, there is no reason to believe that the words philosophers use have actual referents.

Perhaps they really like being the cheapest department to run at a university and I'm being unnecessarily harsh.

~~ Paul

Anonymous said...

@Pseudonym:
Your analysis may be correct. I think of an example of the Hangman Paradox, which is much debated, but no one believes that there really can be an "unexpected execution".

But, I suspect that there is something about evolution that is a central concern for proponents of this particular paradox. As far as I know, it is always framed with reference to evolution, never to any other "naturalism", such as reproduction (or, just as "problematic": development, metabolism, genetics, perception, ...). If I wanted to pursue the point, I would choose the most paradoxical form of the argument, not one which would be likely to be taken seriously. There are, after all, a considerable number of people who think that there is something wrong with evolutionary biology, and I would try to be careful not to get involved with such an irrelevant issue.

Remember that the Ontological Argument of Anselm was taken seriously as a proof for the existence of God, not merely as an interesting paradox.

TomS

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The purpose of an "argument" like this is usually not to prove a point (though that may not be true in Plantinga's case; I don't know), but rather to generate discussion.

I don't believe this for a moment. The philosophers I've met who have advanced silly arguments like this (for example, Kirk Durston), truly seem to believe their arguments, and believe them passionately.

Anonymous said...

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) is used by some evolution-deniers as an argument against evolution. This is widely known. So I think that a person who is bringing it forward as an interesting abstract paradox, but not as an argument against evolution, should be aware of this (mis)application and take care that it not be so used. My suggestion that it be reframed as a Reproduction Argument Against Naturalism (RAAN) is offered as a reformulation of the argument which is not apt to be so (mis)applied.

And I suggest that the RAAN has another advantage over EAAN, for the EAAN is open to the objection that it uses the fallacies of composition and division. Evolution is something that happens to populations, not individuals; but individuals, not biological populations, have knowledge. Homo sapiens does not know that evolution happens (or that the Stork does not deliver babies); Jan Doe knows things like this. Perhaps there is a response to this problem, but to respond to this pair of fallacies would be (at best) a distraction from the main argument.

One other distraction from the main argument of EAAN (if, that is, it is not an argument for some non-natural alternative to evolution) is that the argument applies with at least as much force against non-naturalism. What alternative non-natural basis for knowledge does it offer? Consider the problem of the obviousness of evolution. Whatever the justification for our knowledge of evolution, if evolution is not true, then there is something faulty in our knowledge. If, for example, our knowledge has its basis in some "Intelligent Designers", then they are obviously being deceptive in designing us in such a way as to accept something so seemingly obvious. Intelligent Designers who mislead us so drastically about evolution are not reliable in producing knowledge. If, on the other hand, we use the RAAN, then we should look to the Stork, and nobody worries about the Stork not being reliable - the Stork does not design us or our knowledge, it only delivers us.

TomS

jon d said...

At the risk of being boring...

Would it be possible to restate (or link to statements of) some of these obvious flaws..? I've been looking through blog posts critiqueing the argument but so far found only misunderstanding or counterarguments that rely on demonstrating how naturalistic understandings of evolution could account for reliable cognitive faculties (which seems to me to be missing the point...)
I guess I could just buy the book!

Diogenes said...

I'm convinced that creationists have total confidence in their philosophical arguments and no real confidence in their fact-claims. When you point out that their "facts" are false, they just change the subject. When you challenge their philosophy, they dig in.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

jon d:

There is a great tool called "wikipedia"; if you were really serious you would have tried that.

Pseudonym said...

The philosophers I've met who have advanced silly arguments like this (for example, Kirk Durston), truly seem to believe their arguments, and believe them passionately.

That may be true in some cases, and is probably true in Plantinga's case. But Graham Priest (for example) has used arguments of this kind for great effect.

Maybe it's because I'm an engineer by trade, but I'm no stranger to people holding and advocating beliefs passionately, only to drop them instantly when you explain to them why their idea can't possibly work. You have to do it this way to keep a fast turnaround time on design. It's part of what makes someone a good engineer.

(Incidentally, I suspect that this is one of the reasons why people with engineering qualifications seem to advocate woo-woo disproportionally higher than those in other professions.)

AL said...

It truly blows my mind to see the elaborate mental gymnastics on display to salvage supernaturalism and theism. To think there are men out there who would sit in their armchairs for hundreds if not thousands of hours working out and rationalizing something like the absurdly embellished and needlessly intricate EAAN.

jon d said...

Apologies I had seen that, and there's a helpful summary of the book there...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eaan#cite_note-Fitelson-7

A convincing argument that shows EAAN is "mind-bogglingly flawed" fails to jump out however. I just don't get how the various attempts to justify cognitive reliability given naturalistic evolution gets us anywhere. Plantinga's response is to concede the relevance of evolution for nuerological faculties but not propositional beliefs, which sounds reasonable, but unnecessarily philosophical given the clear empirical evidence that our cognition is (from the naturalist's perspective) unreliable - at least about more abstract issues of naturalism, supernaturalism and justified belief which are at stake in the debate (hence both supernaturalism and faith in cognitive reliability are presumably adaptive given that >90% of the worlds pop believe in supernatural agents and that they are justified in doing so).

Meanwhile Ruse seems to misconstrue the argument as one against evolution. (I get your point TomS but surely its not too difficult to appreciate that evolution is a premise in the argument)

Anyway, I was once a bright high school student, but that was a long time ago...

Anonymous said...

@jon d: I just don't get how the various attempts to justify cognitive reliability given naturalistic evolution gets us anywhere.

How does "non-naturalism" justify cognitive reliability? (Is this just another one of those cases where an omnipotent creator can do anything? Or is it one of those cases where, as long as we don't specify anything about intelligent designers, we can't rule out that they might have done it? How do we know that they don't lie to us?)

How does naturalistic reproduction justify cognitive reliability?

There are lots of things that any science doesn't justify. Naturalistic evolution doesn't justify the fixed speed of light. Naturalistic chemistry doesn't justify the infield fly rule in baseball.

Is this really an argument against evolution, after all?

TomS

jon d said...

hi tom,

Thanks for this. With regards the second point, I'm sorry, I was a bit sloppy in my writing. I should have said naturalism doesn't justify >the assumption of< cognitive reliability. The claim I was questioning was that naturalistic understandings of evolution provide a sufficient epistemological warrant for assuming the belief content of our cognitive faculties can be trusted, especially given the evidence to the contrary in terms of widespread non-naturalistic beliefs.

>"How does "non-naturalism" justify cognitive reliability?"

By prior belief in a Creator for whom rational creatures are an intentional goal of the creative process. Of course, fallibility is still an issue but a teleology for reason provides a basis for hopefulness that our minds are discovering order in the universe not merely imposing it. John Polkinghorne describes an evolutionary scenario for what this might look like in his article Beyond Darwin (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3283). Simon Conway Morris also explores this idea in relation to his work on evolutionary convergence.

Your suggestion to re-frame the argument in terms of reproduction is interesting, because it prompts one to question what it is about a naturalistic interpretation of evolution that is (allegedly) problematic for rationality rather than say, a naturalistic interpretation of reproduction or, indeed, human development. I guess the difference is that no-one proposes either process as an “ultimate” explanation for how (and why) they ended up as they are.

Regarding conflating populations and individuals, I don’t really see the problem. It is still legitimate for me as a belief holding individual to describe myself as a product of evolution as well as being a product of reproduction.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

By prior belief in a Creator for whom rational creatures are an intentional goal of the creative process.

Oh, come on, you can't be serious.

1. There's no evidence for this creator.
2. Even if you had evidence for a creator, you wouldn't be able to deduce anything with certainty about its motivations; you'd just be guessing. For all you know, your creator is a malicious being who enjoys deluding people.
3. We know people do not make decisions with full rationality, and we know that some kinds of cognitive biases are "built in", so if that is the intentional goal, it obviously has failed. I guess that falsifies your hypothesis about your creator.
4. The Christian god's deceptions are well documented in the bible.

Geez, at least try to put forward an argument with some minuscule chance of being convincing.

Anonymous said...

As far as the possible confusion between statements about individuals and statements about species - I meant to draw attention not to the origins (of course, one can accept that both individuals and species are the product of natural processes - or neither, or one but not the other). What I wanted to draw attention to was knowledge: I think that the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is saying that the product of evolution (that is, a species) has knowledge, while the Reproductive Argument Against Naturalism is saying that individuals have knowledge. And I think that it takes some work to say that Homo sapiens has knowledge about evolution, rather than that Jan Doe has that knowledge. That means that EAAN has more work to do than does RAAN.

(Perhaps one can establish that species have knowledge, but why get knotted up with this irrelevant issue, when the whole thing is easily avoided by arguing RAAN?)

And that is my point: EAAN is more difficult to establish than is RAAN.

If the people arguing EAAN are not trying to undercut evolution, but are just posing an interesting philosophical puzzle, then they would do better by discussing the RAAN. The RAAN has all of the good points of EAAN, but lacks some of the difficult ones. RAAN lacks, for example, the question about whether species (rather than individuals) have knowledge.

Of course, if they are really trying to argue against evolution, then my suggestion is not going to be taken up.

TomS

jon d said...

Prof Shallit, thank you for your reply.
Regarding points 1,2 and 4: I didn't argue for a Creator with such an intention but merely that such a belief would give the believer (of this prior belief) reason to trust her cognitive faculties in the pursuit of truth. I have reasons for why I think such a belief is justified but I was hoping to discuss the eaan argument in particular.(Btw, given the demographics of theistic belief i would certainly describe the chances of theistic arguments being convincing as considerably more than miniscule... Or were you talking about the chance of such arguments convincing you in particular?)

Regarding point 3, I would be reluctant to describe humanity's pursuit of knowledge a failure. Christian theology is frank about the fallibility and finitude of our minds (developed, as it is, from the minds of lower animals, or 'dust' in biblical language) but sees the cosmos as there to be explored and understood by us (we are made to know, it is made to be known). The pursuit of knowledge is just that, a challenging and hard fought pursuit (and half the fun is in the chase) but, nevertheless, a real possibility.

Whatever, I guess you'll concede that 'given god' and an appropriate definition thereof, you can probably 'justify' just about anything. That's all i'm really asking you to grant for for the sake of discussing the question of whether, given naturalism it is possible to sufficiently justify trusting one's brain in its beliefs about the world.

Incidentally, it looks like dennett's friend thomas Nagel is increasingly skeptical of this possibility from his recent review of Plantinga's book (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/sep/27/philosopher-defends-religion/) and his new book, mind and cosmos (http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Philosophy/Science/?ci=9780199919758&view=usa)

jon d said...

Sorry TomS, I don't think I follow...
>I think that the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is saying that the product of evolution (that is, a species) has knowledge<
Individuals are still products of evolution. The cognitive faculties of any given individual by which they generate knowledge (whatever that means) are products of both a reproductive event and a series of evolutionary events.

"If the people arguing EAAN are not trying to undercut evolution, but are just posing an interesting philosophical puzzle..."

They're trying to do neither. It's an attempt to critique naturalism not evolution. Again I commend the polkinghorne article cited above if you're struggling to imagine what this might look like.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

given naturalism it is possible to sufficiently justify trusting one's brain in its beliefs about the world

The whole enterprise, as you describe it, is preposterous. What alternative do we have to trusting our brains?

Another example why I think much of philosophy is a waste of time.

jon d said...

Thanks for your comments.

jon

Anonymous said...

My point is this:

If the EEAN is not an argument against evolution, then it can be reformulated as the RAAN. (Whether it is just a philosophical conundrum, or is an argument against naturalism, whatever, as long as it is not an argument against evolution.)

And in that case, the RAAN is an improvement over the EAAN.

One way that it is an improvement is that RAAN does not get involved with discussions about whether Homo sapiens, as a species, has knowledge, or about the nature of evolution. Why should we go off on such tangents, when they can be easily avoided? (I'm even willing to concede, if I have to, in order to avoid such irrelevant discussions, that RAAN might not be better than EAAN in this respect. It might be only just as good.)

TomS

John said...

@jon d "...naturalism doesn't justify >the assumption of< cognitive reliability."

I may not be quite as up to speed on this as I could be, but where is this assumption made? The scientific method and all forms of logic have checks to ensure reliable thought processes. How is that an assumption of reliability?

Pholisipher said...

"Another example why I think much of philosophy is a waste of time. "

I think the main reason is that you're annoyed that some popular atheistic philosophers are giving "the enemy" a fair shake. I think statements like the following just get under your skin:

"I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot
accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the
deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of
the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those
laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored
this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not
proposed a credible solution. "

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I think statements like the following just get under your skin:

Umm, when you try to justify your claims with amateur psychologizing of motives of someone you don't know at all, you're on shaky ground.

Nagel has already shown he is intellectually shoddy with his review of Meyer's book. Why should his review of Plantinga be any different?

It seems Nagel also fails my intelligence test.