Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Jerry Coyne has moved on to Alvin Plantinga.

His post really picks up a theme from one of his earlier ones: philosophy v science. Here are some additional links that provide further examples of the futility of pure philosophy(and of course theology) – a debate between philosopher Stephen Law and Alvin Plantinga:

1) Stephen Law’s post tackling Plantinga

2) Plantinga’s paper.

3) Stephen Law’s response.

This whole debate goes to the heart of why philosophy alone (i.e. without linking it to empirical observation) is closer to theism than it is to science.

I referenced Jerry Coyne’s earlier post in this one of mine.

As another example, try my take on Stephen Law v Peter Atkins, here.

Part of the problem seems to be that some philosophers, and maybe all theologians, give primacy to the mind as a tool for acquiring knowledge, rather than a tool for analysing information gained empirically, or for suggesting further trains of empirical enquiry. They mistake what they think for what is. They think that epistemology determines ontology, rather than the other way round.

This gap in the understanding of what science is and what mere mortal humans can expect to achieve with their brains is underscored in the comment by Michael on Jerry Coyne’s post.

He attack’s Coyne’s “proof — or, rather, strong empirical evidence” – But this merely clears up the misconception that equates scientific proof (strong evidence) for logical proof (deduction, logic, maths).

In this context (i.e. the criticism of philosophy and theology) the point is that philosophers and theologians think they have logical proofs, because they form valid arguments. But their arguments can always be worked back to unsubstantiated premises, presuppositions, so they never actually achieve sound arguments. But a common tendency seems to be that philosophers and theologians are content with the premises or presuppositions that they find to be ‘obvious’ – and is being so content they mistake their valid arguments for sound arguments. I find it disturbing how many philosophers rely on the ‘obvious’, since that seems to defeat one of the supposed merits of philosophy: challenging the obvious.

I suspect that philosophers and theologians also mistake what scientists call proof, i.e. strong evidence, as a claim to logical deductive proof. They then attack science as having no ultimate logical proof. But that’s the point! None of us do. All our knowledge is empirically acquired, inductively argued and contingent. Scientists know this. Theologians and some philosophers seem to think otherwise.

What we have discovered is that both our reasoning and our empirical observations are inherently flawed. We can’t rely on deductive proof the way theologians and some philosophers like to. We are only biological organisms after all – though we do tend to get ideas above our station, that we have ‘other ways of knowing’ (sensus divinitatis?). But we have no other ways of knowing. And in this respect we have to make do with the flawed tools we have – which is precisely what ‘science’ does: pretty normal human empiricism and critical thinking, along with some constructed methodology to make it as reliable as it can be made, in our hands, and brains. In our very human, very biological, very evolved hands and brains.

For philosophers and theologians to have any chance of convincing science proponents to any other way of knowing they should not only give us good reason to accept their take on how the universe works, but they need to do it in such a substantial way that it refutes all of known physics, chemistry, biology, evolution – which is a pretty big ask. Instead, they resort to the supposed logic of characters like Plantinga, with his fantastic grasp of the application of conditional probabilities to the speculatively metaphysical. Pure bollocks.

3 thoughts on “Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science

  1. Philosophy is primary to all other epistemological methods. It is an unavoidable truism, and a feather in the cap of the theologian and the rational theist. There would be no reliable empirical “science” at all if there were not first a *Philosophy of Science* on which to predicate empirically based epistemology. Empiricism is itself a valuable tool, but it is far from the only tool in the box.

    Plantiga correctly points out this when he asks the question: How do we know the past is real? All rational individuals agree that the past is real, but that cannot be demonstrated empirically.

    1. Hi DS, Welcome.

      Epistemology is the philosophy of how we know stuff. But to be sure that philosophy is correct in what it says, what it KNOWS, about how we know stuff, we first have to know that philosophy not only IS right, but that it CAN be right. Otherwise what philosophy says on epistemology is nothing but hot air. Philosophy is stuck in that it requires an epistemology before it can lay claim to one.

      Philosophy has spent millennia debating epistemology, and has wasted so long on Justified True Beliefs and other ideas, because philosophy, as a discipline, did not have access to science early on, and later, as the useful science became available, philosophy has tended to ignore it.

      Philosophically the choice between solipsism and materialism is epistemologically indeterminate. We cannot know which is the true ontology, in any purist sense that philosophers like.

      Instead we are left with deciding which is most useful, and here materialism wins hands down. That you commented on my blog not only shows how successful material science is at creating computers and the internet, it also shows that you are buying into this material world too. I don’t suppose, for example, that you sat on some cushion, closed your eyes, and magically, solipsistically, brought into your mind what was written on my imaginary solipsistical blog artefact of your mind, or that you spiritually wished that the your words appear in my comments and then they did. I take it you did actually use your own material eyes and brain to read the blog, and your eyes, brain, fingers to type a response. Your comments are the evidence that your brain, at least in part, knows full well that we live in a material physical world. You may additionally think you have some magical mind sat on top of that, but if you do I think so, you are mistaken.

      Plantinga is the poorer of many poor philosophers, because he makes schoolboy error of thinking a valid argument is a sound one, just because he also happens to think his premises are true when he has no reason to think they are.

      “All rational individuals agree that the past is real, but that cannot be demonstrated empirically.”

      And it cannot be proved logically, philosophically. Your statement is quite pointless. It doesn’t matter that we might agree on it. Our agreement only reflects our common perspective on reality, how we happen to see it.

      But more than that, we can’t actually agree on which representation of the past is real. There is no evidence or reason to support the belief that the resurrection occurred. It has no greater status than myth.

      But more still: there is nothing to refute the possibility that the past, God, Plantinga, you, me, are not mere false impressions in some solipsist mind. Every time you think a moment is passing you by, you are really only in that very instant, and the moment that just went is yet one more false impression; as it that last moment, and that one, and that one, … all false memories of a past that didn’t happen. This all sounds unreasonable of course, but that doesn’t make it any less reasonable than stories of a God.

      The only productive world view, the only one that has been ever more productive in revealing ever more about the universe is the material world view exposed by the empirical sciences. Of course all that too could be a fiction, since we cannot refute solipsism, and all our material experiences and the science that explains them could also be false impressions.

      But who cares? Only the theists, who WANT SO MUCH that there should be a god, that they are prepared to contort reason out of all shape, to dismiss the material reality that is slapping them in the face with every moment of their lives.

      Every time a theists makes a silly unsupported claim (and Plantinga makes quite a few of them) they expose how ridiculous their grasp on logic is.

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