Thursday, March 01, 2007
Alvin Plantinga Admits There’s No Political Bias in Academia
In his review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, a volume I don’t think has been discussed here but has attracted attention (and criticism for being theologically unsophisticated) from some quarters, Plantinga writes “Here it’s not easy to take them seriously; religion-bashing in the current Western academy is about as dangerous as endorsing the party’s candidate at a Republican rally.“
Unless I’m mistaken, he means that it’s as easy to bash religion as it is to endorse a Republican candidate. I don’t think, from the tone of the rest of his piece, that he means that there are negative consequences for this so-called bashing, so therefore he admits that, as well all know, endorsing a Republican candidate is widely done in the humanities at least and the source of no fuss.
I found this review from the dispensable (yes, “dispensable,” as it’s universally described as “indispensable” and I’m a contrarian) Political Theory Daily.
UPDATE: Some more from Plantinga.
This paragraph is from his SEP article “Religion and Science"
Next, note many thinkers going back at least to Nietzsche (Nietzsche 2003) and possibly William Whewell (Curtis 1986) have pointed to a potentially worrisome implication of evolutionary theory. The worry can be put as follows. According to orthodox Darwinism, the process of evolution is driven mainly by two mechanisms: random genetic mutation and natural selection. The former is the chief source of genetic variability; by virtue of the latter, a mutation resulting in a heritable, fitness-enhancing trait is likely to spread through that population and be preserved as part of the genome. It is fitness-enhancing behavior and traits that get rewarded by natural selection; what get penalized are maladaptive traits and behaviors. In crafting our cognitive faculties, natural selection will favor cognitive faculties and processes that result in adaptive behavior; it cares not a whit about true belief (as such) or about cognitive faculties that reliably give rise to true belief.
I believe the passage from Nietzsche he means is the fragment entitled “Against Darwinism”:
---the utility of an organ does not explain its origin, on the contrary!
---for the longest time while a quality is developing, it does preserve or prove useful to the individual, least of all in the struggle with external circumstances and enemies
---what, after all, is “useful?” One must ask, “Useful in regard to what?” E.g., something useful for maintaining the individual over time might be unfavorable to its strength and magnificence; what preserves the individual might simultaneously hold it fast and bring its evolution to a standstill. On the other hand, a deficiency, a degeneration, may be of the highest use, inasmuch as it has a stimulatory effect on other organs. Likewise, a state of distress may be a condition of existence, in that it makes the individual smaller to the point where it coheres and doesn’t squander itself.
The rest of the fragment seems to point at a vitalist criticism of natural selection, which doesn’t concern me as much. I believe that it’s a psychological truism that healthy human belief tends towards the self-deceiving; happier people think they’re better-liked, more attractive, and more talented than other people would judge them to be. Nietzsche clearly anticipated the “less they know, the less they know it” effect, and his criticism of Darwinism seems based on psychological insight and aesthetics, both categories difficult to extrapolate from the theory itself.
I know that Plantinga’s argument against naturalism has attracted several philosophical rebuttals, many of them attempting to outdo one another in their deployment of Bayesian algebra. I also know that this type of thought experiment is used in several of the counterarguments; but doesn’t Plantinga’s argument for theism work as well for a deceiver deity, a demiurge familiar to us from various contemporary neo-Gnosticisms?
I talked about Gosse’s Omphalos in class yesterday, so perhaps the idea’s fresh in my mind.
Breaking the Spell is not by Richard Dawkins and is not the focus of the review you linked. The Valve has had discussions related to Dawkins’ actual book, which were initiated by Adam Roberts some time ago.
Thank you, Josh. I seem to have gotten those confused.
I think the author meant that it is as easy to bash religion in the academy as it is to endorse a Replican at a Republican rally, and by implication, that it is as difficult to bash religion at a Republican rally as it is to endorse a Republican politician in the academy.
The error likely occurs when you remove the constraints placed on the apposition as originally formulated, and implicitly conclude that religion-bashing = Republican-endorsing in all contexts, which isn’t what was actually claimed.
It’s not an uncommon mistake, and I think I saw another post recently decrying the confabulation of “totalizing” theories in philsophy with “totalitarian” practices in politics. I couldn’t say whether your conclusion is true or false, but you seem to arrive at it in an awkward manner. Surely context matters.
Until just now, Herr, it never occurred to me that Plantinga could have meant something other than I described. Thank you for your close attention to context.
CH33rs, m8. w00t.
Jonathan, I wonder if you actually agree with Herr Ziffer? I don’t think it’s just a matter of context, it’s also a matter of text: His interpretation makes grammatical sense of Plantinga’s sentence, which your interpretation does not.
Also, your title and your post seem to indicate surprise: if Plantinga did say that there was no political bias in academia, would that be surprising to you? I’m wondering what assumptions you make about Plantinga’s politics, and where you derive them from. . . .
Alan, did you happen to see the excerpt from a letter by Hugh Trevor-Roper re C. S. Lewis reprinted recently in Harper’s?
As for your question, I’m wondering about what assumptions you’re making about my assumptions and the derivation of those assumptions as you make them, those assumptions with their tediously insidious ellipses and claws that do not catch. Let’s instead talk of the more interesting matter of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism and if it also may justify the deceiver-god, demiurge, demon of many vats scenario.
Alan, did you happen to see the excerpt from a letter by Hugh Trevor-Roper re C. S. Lewis reprinted recently in Harper’s?
I did indeed, and found it delightful. (See how easy it is to answer a simple question?) If there’s a second edition of my Lewis biography it will definitely find a place there.
As for your question, I’m wondering about what assumptions you’re making about my assumptions and the derivation of those assumptions as you make them, those assumptions with their tediously insidious ellipses and claws that do not catch.
My chief assumption was that the title of your post and its substance were indicative of your actual interests. My apologies.
Let’s instead talk of the more interesting matter of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism and if it also may justify the deceiver-god, demiurge, demon of many vats scenario.
Sure, we can do that. But in your post you asked not about his argument against naturalism but about his argument for theism. Was that another clever red herring? In case it wasn’t, I would just note that Plantinga is not known for making an argument for theism, but rather for making an argument that a person can be warranted in holding certain kinds of beliefs, including theistic ones. The distinction is (to Plantinga anyway) significant. Nor, for that matter, does he (strictly speaking) make an argument against naturalism; rather, he argues that naturalism itself does not provide solid warrant for believing in naturalism. Philosophers seem to like these kind of distinctions; not being one myself, I tremble to hear them.
Alan, I have added additional material to the post above which you may not have seen. Or perhaps you have and were overwhelmed by the kairotic opportunity for cod-folksy didacticism. I have no opinion on the matter.
Moving along, it’s unfortunate that Plantinga did not include the context noted by Evan Fales’s “Plantinga’s Case against Naturalistic Epistemology” in Philosophy of Science (1996) for the Darwin quote. As Fales makes clear (436-7 n6), Darwin was describing theoretical intuitions, not cognitive reliability in the sense of reasoning from evidence.
What I don’t understand about the simplicity attribute for theism is that it’s as plausible that the world is designed to conceal as reveal. The mad demiurge is as simple and plausible as any sky-god transmogrified into the ether or quantum foam or the unthought stuff of eternal revelation.
I look forward to reading the Fodor piece mentioned in Plantinga’s biography, because I think there would have to be interesting points of comparison between the “mysteries/problems” approach, which I associate, perhaps wrongly, with Fodor and Chomsky, and the relative simplicity/complexity of theism.
I think Plantinga’s formulation of his conclusion is something like: Belief in naturalism is self-defeating. (Naturalism is the view that your cognitive faculties are the products of evolution by natural selection). That is, on the assumption that naturalism is true, it’s (supposedly) unlikely that you’d turn out to have reliable cognitive faculties, and so it’s unlikely that you’d come to hold true beliefs about things like whether your faculties evolved by natural selection. I think the upshot is supposed to be that you can’t rationally believe that naturalism is true.
Just to motivate somewhat the distinction that you said makes you “tremble”: If you are convinced that p on the basis of your evidence, you might be persuaded to give up your belief that p (1) by learning new evidence against p, or (2) by learning evidence that you initially had evaluated your other evidence incorrectly (i.e., evidence that you are biased or prone to mistakes). Plantinga isn’t trying to persuade you to give up a belief in naturalism by giving you evidence that naturalism is false. Rather, he’s trying to show you that, as a believer of naturalism, you already take yourself to have compelling evidence that you are unlikely to evaluate your other evidence correctly.
For comparison, suppose that you’re a detective who, through a complex line of reasoning, comes to a theory of the crime. You then realize that, under your theory, the suspect had the motive and opportunity to slip a reason-impairing drug in your coffee. In a certain sense, this isn’t evidence that your theory is false. Rather, it’s evidence that the other stuff you previously took to be evidence in favor of your theory might not really support your theory after all. (An added complication is that, if you then give up your theory, then you’ll no longer have any reason to doubt your initial line of reasoning.)
I’m having a hard time seeing your point. Wouldn’t Plantinga’s argument, if it works as an argument against belief in naturalism, even more straightforwardly apply to belief in an evil demon? Maybe I’ve misunderstood you, but it sounded like you were saying just the opposite. The upshot of Plantinga’s argument is supposed to be that only a believer in a benevolent God will be able reflectively to judge herself likely to believe the truth.
Alan, I have added additional material to the post above which you may not have seen. Or perhaps you have and were overwhelmed by the kairotic opportunity for cod-folksy didacticism.
Well, your comment about Plantinga’s supposed argument for theism, to which I have referred, comes at the end of the section marked UPDATE, so there’s prima facie evidence that I did see that section. I don’t think I ever saw the un-updated post.
What I don’t understand about the simplicity attribute for theism is that it’s as plausible that world is designed to conceal as reveal. The mad demiurge is as simple and plausible as any sky-god transmogrified into the ether or quantum foam or the unthought stuff of eternal revelation.
Perhaps if you read Plantinga your understanding of these matters would increase. (I’ll give you a hint, though: Plantinga doesn’t believe that all beliefs that we call “religious” are equally warranted, nor does he associate warranted belief in a god with a single divine “attribute.” I can’t go too far beyond those affirmations, however, since I’m a long, long, LONG way from having read all three volumes of the epic, swashbuckling Warrant Trilogy.) But reading Jerry Fodor would probably be helpful to you as well, especially since he’s a wonderful writer, and his example might discourage you from producing more phrases like “kairotic opportunity for cod-folksy didacticism”. . . .
(Don’t fret over the ellipses, Jonathan: they’re just my tediously insidious way of blowing a kiss.)
But doesn’t the circularity of that conclusion curl up around said belief in subtle serpentine ways? Wouldn’t the deceiver make that the clearest (only) path to justification?
David, I think your general points are right, though I’m skeptical about the drugged-coffee analogy. Need to think about that.
But as for this: it’s (supposedly) unlikely that you’d turn out to have reliable cognitive faculties. I think (let me affirm my amateurishness in these matters once more) Plantinga would say that according to this particular (Darwinian) form of naturalism, your cognitive faculties would indeed be reliable, but only in the sense that they would be reliably adaptive, not in the sense that they would be conducive to true knowledge.
It’s more likely than not that I’ve read more Fodor than you, Alan, as you might be more careful about exemplifying his writing if you had more exposure to Aunty and the cats (though pique of Caliban at seeing his face...)
It’s more likely than not that I’ve read more Fodor than you. I wouldn’t at all be surprised, Jonathan. But if so, then I might have to reconsider my theory about the beneficial effects of encountering his style.
But isn’t the key question here whether you’re read Plantinga? Maybe—and I know you’ll thank me for throwing you this read meat—you’ve can be said to have read Plantinga in the same way that Trevor-Roper can be said to have read Lewis?
In any case—now see what you’ve done? I’ve had to get up off my fat ass and go to my bookshelves—it looks like the section on “Defeaters” in the third volume on Warrant, a section until five minutes ago unviolated by my eyes, would go a long way towards answering your question about the relative plausibility of mad demiurges, sky-gods, etc. Now, never say I haven’t done anything for you.
Also Chapter 10, “Objections,” where he considers—and I know he does this elsewhere too, but I can’t remember where—whether there is any difference between believing in the Christian God and believing in the Great Pumpkin. (Sad how pop-culture references ultimately become embarrassing, isn’t it?)
Two quick points of clarification. First, by ‘reliable’, I meant reliable at yielding true beliefs. Second, I don’t mean to say that it’s obvious what you ought to believe in the detective example. I’m just saying that, roughly speaking, Plantinga claims that belief in naturalism is belief in a theory under which you are likely to have false beliefs about that very theory--pretty much like in the detective case. And he claims that it cannot be rational to believe such a theory. For my part, I’m not convinced by Plantinga’s argument for either claim, although I think the second claim has some initial plausibility.
I never knew that so many literary scholars were so flat-footedly literal.
It seems completely reasonable to me to assume that Plantinga is a Republican. I have not read him at any length because his philosophical project strikes me as ridiculous, but yeah—obviously a Republican, or at least one of those people with a persecution complex about “being a Christian in the academy.”
I’m curious, Adam—really, seriously—why you think it “reasonable to assume that Plantinga is a Republican.” Certainly there is nothing in his published work that would link him with Republican politics, unless you think that belief in God is so strongly associated with Republicanism that theists are to be presumed Republican until proven otherwise. Likewise, it’s hard for me to see how someone whose books have been published almost exclusively by major university presses could have a “persecution complex about ‘being a Christian in the academy.’”
I think you (and perhaps Jonathan too, if I’ve read his original post rightly) are overlooking the profound socializing power of the academy. Few politically and theologically conservative people are able to get through graduate school without being forced to a serious reconsideration of their views, and their political stances especially tend to undergo pretty thorough reshaping. You can see this effect clearly in the faculty of Christian colleges, many (most?) of whom were raised in politically conservative Christian homes. Thus, last year, over a third of the Calvin College faculty—Calvin was where Plantinga went to college and then taught for many years—signed a letter protesting the choice of President Bush as commencement speaker. (And many others who would never have voted for him declined to sign the letter.) Even at Wheaton College, where I teach, a bastion of conservatism if there ever was one, only about a third of the faculty identify themselves as Republicans. we may think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but few people get through PhD programs, especially in the humanities and especially at elite universities, without having their politics liberalized in significant ways. The people who holler the loudest about “bias in the academy” tend to be people, like David Horowitz, who are not themselves academics. Though there are of course exceptions to this rule.