Origins Discussions – What Would be the First Question You’d Ask?

Given that you are a ______________________ (your particular informative specialty, background &/or theological/worldview approach to the topic), what would be the first question(s) you’d like to ask to start a discussion on the topic of the origins of life and the origins of human beings if you could ask:

1) A person who is confused about why people use their precious free time to join websites & forums (such as this one), chat sites, groups, on-line meetings rooms, and listserves, who attend conferences, workshops, presentations and talks delivered about origins & processes of natural & human history, including monumental & meaningful topics involving science, philosophy & theology/worldview discourse.

2) An atheist or agnostic who thinks evolutionary biology, the ‘Evolutionary Epic’ (as in E.O. Wilson, D.S. Wilson, Connie Barlow, et al.) &/or evolutionism as an ideology that buttresses their personal worldview, makes it very difficult if not impossible to believe in the Creator-God attested to in Abrahamic monotheistic scriptures and institutions.

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Scientific Metaphysics & Its Consequences

In a recent comment, Fifthmonarchyman engaged with my accusation that his remarks on what brains can’t do is based on his ignorance of neuroscience. He responded by saying

it’s not about neuroscience it’s about ontology.

Brains don’t comprehend because they are not minds. I would think that someone so enamored with philosophy would have a handle on different categories of existence.

It is precisely as a philosopher that I want to express my complete rejection of the assumptions implicit in this remark.

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The Possibility of Error

Since the discussion about the possibility of error is much-discussed at Uncommon Descent, I thought it might be interesting to see how Josiah Royce develops his argument concerning “the possibility of error” in his The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885).  (I’m using The Philosophy of Josiah Royce, which I found recently in a used-book store. I assume that no one here is too concerned about quotations or citations, but those are available on request.)

Royce’s question here is, “how is error possible?” — and by ‘how’ he means, “what are the logical conditions for the possibility of error?”   An error, he points out, is our recognition of the failure of a judgment to agree with its object.  How is possible for us recognize that our judgments have failed to agree with their purported objects?   The puzzle goes as follows: on the one hand, if the object is entirely within our cognitive grasp, our assertion about it would fully correspond to the object — in which case, there would be no error.  On the other hand, if the object were entirely beyond our cognitive grasp, we would be unable to recognize the lack of correspondence between the judgment and the object — in which case the error would be unrecognizable.  So our ability to recognize errors as errors requires that we have “partial knowledge” of the object.  So what is partial knowledge, and how is it possible?

[It will not surprise anyone here who knows how I think to learn that, from my point of view, the above is more-or-less sound, whereas the next bit utterly goes off the rails.]

What is required, Royce thinks, is that both the judgment and the object are contained within some larger, more inclusive thought that can compare them against them against one another and notice the correspondence (or lack thereof) between them.  And since there are infinitely many errors, the inclusive thought must be all-inclusive — it must contain all possible judgments and their objects.  And that in turn must be the Absolute Knowledge and Absolute Mind of God.  (Didn’t see that one coming, eh?)

TL;DR version: there are errors, therefore God.





Plantinga’s EAAN: Criticism and Discussion

Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism has attracted a great deal of serious critical discussion (e.g. Naturalism Defeated?) and has had a substantial impact on ‘popular’ appraisals of naturalism.  (For example, William Lane Craig frequently uses it, and it also appears in the dismissal of naturalism in The Experience of God.)  Many philosophers have pointed out various problems with the EAAN, and in my judgment the EAAN is not only flawed but fatally flawed.  Nevertheless, it’s a really interesting argument and it could be worth exploring a bit.  I’ll present the argument here and then we can get into it in comments if you’d like — though I won’t be offended if you’d rather spend your time doing other things!

The EAAN has gone through various iterations, but here’s the latest version, from Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011).  Intuitively, we regard our cognitive capacities — sense-perception, introspection, memory, reasoning — as reliable, where “reliable” means “capable of giving us true beliefs most of the time” (subject to the usual caveats).  Call this claim R (for ‘reliable’).   But how probable is R?

Suppose that one accepts evolution (E) but also affirms naturalism, defined here as the belief that there is no God or anything like God (N).  What is the probability of R, given N & E?    One might think it’s quite high.  But Plantinga thinks that, however high the probability of R, nevertheless the probability of R given N&E is low or inscrutable.  Why’s that?

Now, here’s the key move (and in my estimation, the fatal flaw): beliefs are invisible to selection.  Why?  Because selection only works on behavior.  If an unreliable cognitive capacity is causally linked to adaptive behavior, then the unreliable capacity will be selected for (i.e. not selected against).  Even a radically unreliable capacity — that one never or almost never yields true beliefs — can be selected for.  Selection only “cares” about adaptive behaviors, not about true beliefs.  (More precisely, we have no reason to believe that the semantic content is not epiphenomenal.)

So, Plantinga thinks, given N&E, the probability of R is very low. But, if the probability of R is low, given N&E, then that should ‘infect’ the likelihood of all of the beliefs produced by those capacities — including N&E themselves.  So, given N&E, we should it think it extremely unlikely that N&E is true.  And so the initial assumption of N&E defeats itself.  (Here I’m being much too quick with the argument, but we can get into the details in the comments if you’d like.)

Anyway, it’s a really cool little argument, and it’s not immediately clear what’s wrong with it — and I thought it might be worth discussing, given how influential it is.



Lewontin and “the A Priori”

At Thoughts in a Haystack, Pieret notes that Citizens For Objective Public Education, Inc. (COPE) has brought a lawsuit in Kansas to block the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards. (The whole complaint is here (PDF).)   The complaint alleges that teaching evolutionary theory amounts to state endorsement of atheism, and hence is unconstitutional.

In making their case, COPE quotes this well-known passage from Lewontin’s review of Sagan’s A Demon-Haunted World:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”


Firstly, this passage is taken out of context; read in context, it is fairly clear that Lewontin is attributing this dogmatism to Sagan, and not endorsing it himself.

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On the Idea of “Scientism”

Defenders of evolutionary theory are sometimes accused of “scientism”, and this much-used (and much-abused) term has also arisen in the republic of letters due to Steven Pinker’s recent “Science is Not the Enemy of the Humanities” in The New Republic, which drew interesting responses from Leon Wieseltier, Ross Douthat, and Dan Dennett.    Here I want to examine a bit more carefully the idea of “scientism” by way of a criticism of Wieseltier’s “Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture”: A Defense of the Humanities”.  There he complains that

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic question.

Wieseltier isn’t a philosopher but a professional pundit who sprinkles his prose with philosophemes to appeal to the class-prejudices of his intended audience. So it would take some work just to locate his rant on a more well-traveled map.

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The Limits of Evolutionism: ‘Things That Don’t Evolve’

Just like the ideology of ‘naturalism’ claims that *everything* is ‘natural,’ the ideology of ‘evolutionism’ says that *everything* ‘evolves.’ As you have seen recently, I am questioning the ideology of evolutionism openly and directly here at TSZ.

As such, I have a simple challenge for people here:

What are examples of things that don’t ‘evolve?’

It’s a very basic and straightforward question. But it’s one that shows itself to be very difficult for people who are or consider themselves evolutionists to answer due to the ideological exaggeration of evolutionary theory (biological, cosmological, cultural or otherwise) into the belief that everything evolves, i.e. into ‘evolutionism.’ Those who are not ‘evolutionists’ (whether theists or atheists) usually find it easier to answer and thus to circumscribe the meaning of ‘evolution.’

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“Naturalism” and “Rationality”

At Uncommon Descent — though not only there! — one often come across the view that naturalism is inconsistent with rationality: if one accepts naturalism, then one ought not regard one’s own rational capacities as reliable.   Some version of this view is ascribed to Darwin himself, and we can call it “Darwin’s Doubt” or simply “the Doubt.”   Should we endorse the Doubt?  Or are there reasons for doubting the Doubt?

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