Sunday, August 08, 2010

Whale of a tale

Seasanctuary writes:

Chan mentions Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism" (p21). I consider this argument every bit an embarrassment for Christian apologetics as Dawkins' argument that there "almost certainly" isn't a God because evolution can explain the diversity of species is an embarrassment for atheism. Why? Because Plantinga's argument relies on the notion that accuracy of senses and processing of those senses would not tend to improve survival and reproduction.

1. First off, I want to thank Seasanctuary for having offered a civil response here. I appreciate it.

2. Hm, Seasanctuary hasn't said anything to undermine the EAAN here though. There's no argument against the EAAN itself.

After all, when he writes "Plantinga's argument relies on the notion that accuracy of senses and processing of those senses would not tend to improve survival and reproduction," the context is within naturalism and evolution, not within a Christian theistic framework. In other words, Plantinga's argument only "relies" on this notion insofar as this notion is a more plausible consequence given naturalism and evolution than it is given Christianity.

3. As such, I believe the point of the EAAN is, given naturalism and evolution, our cognitive faculties would be less reliable than given, say, Christianity and evolution. So, yeah, in a sense, sure, Seasanctuary could say it's "an embarrassment," but as far as I understand the EAAN would argue it's more of "an embarrassment" to those who affirm both naturalism and evolution than it would be to those who affirm Christian theism.

4. As an aside, Seasanctuary mentions "the accuracy of senses and processing of those senses." But (as a friend has pointed out elsewhere) this technically wouldn't be part of the cognitive faculties. It'd be better to say the relevant cognitive faculty here would fall under perception i.e. the beliefs produced or held on the basis of the senses.

5. In any case, since I was using the EAAN to respond to Tarico and not arguing for the EAAN myself, I don't necessarily need to defend the EAAN, per se.

On page 22, Chain [sic] points out that science does not give "epistemic certainty." That's correct, and that's why science has been beating religion soundly in matters of earthly knowledge. Science does not claim certainty then get it wrong; science deals in degrees of justification and revisability...and gets better.

1. I don't see how "science has been beating religion soundly in matters of earthly knowledge" follows from the fact that "science does not give 'epistemic certainity'"? Unfortunately, I don't think Seasanctuary connects the dots here.

2. "Science does not claim certainty then get it wrong."

But "science" isn't some monolithic entity which speaks its claims with a singular voice. Science is primarily conducted by scientists. As such, I would think some scientists might not make this claim, while others would. It'd depend on the scientist or group of scientists or scientific organization.

Now, this is just a hunch so I could be wrong, but I think it's more often than not the case that scientists do claim they know an experiment or theory or somesuch is established "fact." Sure, they'll leave a little wiggle room for the possibility that they could be wrong. Perhaps like a militant atheist such as Dawkins would say he can never certifiably prove God's non-existence. They won't publicly claim to have perfect "certainty" that scientific theory or law x is absolutely, irrevocably true. But in practice they act as if it is and often treat others as if they should fall into line as well.

Sometimes it gets so bad that, if other scientists or scholars call into question certain scientific theories, especially the scientific theory du jour, they'll be ridiculed if not worse. Just look at the internecine debates among secular scientists who subscribe to macroevolution. Let alone the debates with non-atheists such as the ID crowd. Or look at the peer review controversy with Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg. What's more, whatever one may think of the movie Expelled, it does testify how some ID proponents were ostracized from their respective science departments for espousing ID. (Here, you might reply that ID is not science. But then I'd think you'd have to deal with Bradley Monton's arguments in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, among others.) Although I know it has its problems, Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions likewise offers several relevant examples.

3. Besides, the bigger issue is what grounds science for Tarico given Tarico's beliefs.

4. But, yeah, scientific conclusions are often quite tentative. In fact, depending on what's meant exactly, I'd cautiously and tentatively agree "science deals in degrees of justification and revisability...and gets better."

5. Of course, I never said science is worse than "religion" in the acquisition of veridical knowledge. Rather, what I said is that science has its limitations. But in my chapter I never explicitly said one was better or worse than the other.

In addition I pointed out how science isn't the only means to acquire veridical knowledge about the world around us or about ourselves. There's reason, logic, philosophical inquiry. There's also mathematics - which, strictly speaking, isn't a science. After all, how do we discover, say, logical or mathematical truths from empiricism?

6. If I may, however, I think Seasanctuary should re-direct his criticism against the contributors to The Christian Delusion who place "science" on a far higher epistemological pedestal than I do.

"[S]cientific theories and laws must maintain throughout all time — past, present, and future" (p22). Otherwise, Chan claims, science would not "properly function at all." This is quite mistaken. Science is descriptive. If "the speed of light is not constant," science can adjust for that. If "gravity operates differently in the Milky Way than in other galaxies," science can adjust for that too.

The main thing to say is that this is in response to Tarico's robust view of atheism and science. That is, my point isn't that science can't readjust itself. I grant it can. Rather, the point I was trying to drive at is that science has its limitations, which runs contrary to Tarico's view of science.

I do agree that science does not do everything we might like it to do, but it is our wonder tool for overcoming cognitive bias by combining our gaze on the world. Scientific epistemology is good, but limited. However, religious epistemology does not automatically gain respect just by pointing the shortcomings of science.

1. Actually, I do think it's enough for me to point out "the shortcomings of science" to deal with Tarico's argument since Tarico takes much stronger stances than perhaps Seasanctuary would here.

2. Along similar lines, Randal Rauser points out:
If I had written this chapter [Tarico's] I would have dropped the sweeping statements about irrationality in favor of a healthy dose of epistemic fallibilism. (This would avoid me defeating myself.) Next, I would have developed at much greater length natural accounts of certain religious phenomena (e.g. the relationship between the stimulation of the amygdala and OBEs). Finally, I would have argued that these natural accounts provide a modest undercutting defeater for religious beliefs.

In fact, I don't think they do. But that would seem to be the best way to argue. As Donald McKay pointed out years ago, such nothing-buttery is always of limited probative force.
It could have even more shortcomings. How does religion correct for cognitive bias? So far as I can tell, it doesn't.

1. This is a different argument, and one which I didn't explicitly mention in my critique of Tarico's chapter, but I do think Christianity better grounds science than atheism, given the metascientific issues. Regrettably, I don't have the time to get into this though.

2. But perhaps Seasanctuary might consider starting here:
Before we can properly review the scientific evidence, we need to review our philosophy of science, and that, in turn, goes back to our underlying epistemology. Does my perception of the world resemble the world?

A dog or cat is a consummate realist. Fido believes that furry face staring back at him in the mirror is the real deal. But I don’t regard canine or feline epistemology as the best available theory of knowledge—unless you’re planning to catch rats or hunt chipmunks.

Like man’s best friend, many people treat the percipient as though he were a camera obscura—with a pair of holes bored into the front-end of the box to admit images, another pair drilled on either side to admit sounds, and so on. On this view, there is no filtering process. The light that passes through the opening and casts a shadow on the backside is a scaled down replica of the image that bounced off the sensible object. So there is a close, family resemblance between the input and readout.

But on a more scientific analysis, the observer or observable world is more like an enigma machine. Light bouncing off the sensible object encodes the secondary properties in the form of electromagnetic information, and when that strikes the eye, the data stream is reencoded as electrochemical information. What reaches consciousness is not a miniature image of the sensible object, but a cryptogram. It bears no more resemblance to the original than a music score is a facsimile of sound. A music score is code language. The relation between notes and tones is conventional.

But even our scientific analysis is more than a little illusory. When we try to break down the various steps involved sensory processing, we are having to describe the input in terms of the readout, as if we could retrace the process. We talk about the tree, and the light from the tree, and the eye, and the optic nerve, and neural pathways and synapses and so on. And this is described as if we were on the outside, seeing the info feed in, when—in fact—our mind is on the receiving end, and the readout is more like a little film projector. Our perception of the external world is an optical illusion, like the silver screen.

That doesn’t mean that the external world is an illusion. But it lies at several removes from immediate awareness. At an ontological level, there is a public world; but at an epistemic level, there is only a private world of my mind and your mind.

At this point, someone might ask, then how do you know that there even is an external world? Maybe it’s just that projector running in your head! And, at a philosophical level, there is no knock down argument against this objection.

But, at a theological level, there is. For the Creator of the world enjoys an intersubjectival knowledge of the world. And by virtue of revelation, we may tap into a God’s-eye view of the world. For propositions, as abstract information, are identical at either end of the transmission process—unless they come out as gibberish (garbage in/garbage out). If you understand what you read, then it was not garbled in transmission. It still must be encoded in a sensible medium, but the readout is the same as the input. Otherwise, it would be unintelligible.

At the level of basic epistemology, science can never disprove the Bible because divine revelation is our only clear window onto the world. Otherwise, we perceive the world through the stained-glass solipsism of our inescapable subjectivity.
He could then read works by Christian epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and John Frame. But other Tbloggers could give far better thoughts and recommendations here than I can (e.g. Steve Hays, Paul Manata).

To be fair, it sounds like Chan is taking a defensive stance. Even if Christianity does operate psychologically like false religious beliefs, it could still be the case that Christianity is actually true. But then, I think Tarico is largely trying to give an explanation for Christian psychology to readers who are already convinced it is false. These stances don't directly conflict. They DO conflict when TCD is touted as the book that proves Christianity wrong, so Chan's defensive response is entirely appropriate in that context.

1. As far as the neuropsychology is concerned, I'd agree with Plantinga: "To show that there are natural processes that produce religious belief does nothing, so far, to discredit it; perhaps God designed us in such a way that it is by virtue of those processes that we come to have knowledge of him."

2. I don't know whether Tarico is solely targeting "readers who are already convinced [Christianity] is false." Personally, I don't think so. After all, she's agreed to publish her chapter in a book which as you also note is frequently "touted as the book that proves Christianity wrong."

3. In fact, I think that's one of the book's main problems: "...TCD is touted as the book that proves Christianity wrong." The authors themselves as well as others who offer blurbs for the book frequently promote it as the be-all, end-all response to Christianity. They overestimate their arguments.

4. At any rate, thanks again, Seasanctuary, for a civil response.

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