‘Memetics is a Dumb Explanation’ says Dennettian ‘naturalist’

The resident professional ‘philosopher’ of TSZ recently wrote this:

“’memes!’ is a dumb explanation.”

Yes, I agree! (Although that person doesn’t seem to know the difference between ‘memes’ and ‘memetics.’ – e.g. I don’t mind ‘memes’ used for popular shared internet links, but that’s not ‘memetics.’)

Well, given the weekend’s significance for a billion+, let’s ‘crucify’ memetics then. Why is ‘memetics’ a dumb explanation? And there’s no need to hold back with merely ‘dumb’. If one is an ideological ‘naturalist’, isn’t one forced into something like ‘memetics’ because they share the same materialist, naturalist, agnostic/atheist worldview as (chuckling at his own supposed lack of self-identity!) Daniel Dennett? Isn’t the built-in materialism of ‘memetics’ what made it so attractive to certain people and for the same reason obviously not attractive or believable to most others?

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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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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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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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Naturalizing Teleology and Intentionality? (Must Nature Be “Disenchanted”?)

Over the past year or so, two very interesting books in the philosophy of nature have attracted attention outside of the ultra-rarefied world of academic discourse: Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  Both of these works have been extensively discussed in popular magazines, radio shows, blogs, and esp. at Uncommon Descent.  Here, I want to briefly describe what I see going on here and open up the topic for critical discussion.

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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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Why Methodological Naturalism is a Questionable Philosophy of Science

Elizabeth started another thread (http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/?p=256) stating that methodological naturalism (MN) “underlies the methodology that we call science.” Later she spoke of “methodological naturalism, as in the working assumption that scientists make about the world in order to predict things.” Then she quoted Wikipedia, which states: “all scientific endeavors—all hypotheses and events—are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events,” adding that this is “more or less the definition I have been assuming.” In other words, science studies ‘nature-only’ because it is naturalistic – it sees nothing other than nature that *could* be studied. Elizabeth sticks with this definition when she says “Science occupies the domain of natural explanations.”

Still later, Elizabeth admitted she is ‘not wild about’ MN (or what I suggested as more accurate of her statements: science applies ‘methodological probabilism’) and also that “‘methodological naturalism’ is a poor term.” Thus, her concession: “now that I realise that the term [MN] appears to denote different things to different people, I will avoid it.” So, the main argument in the OP was deserted.

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