Monday, November 14, 2011

Archaeology of the EAAN

Alvin Plantinga has spent much of the last two decades arguing that naturalism is self-defeating. He calls his argument the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism or EAAN, and the reason it's evolutionary is because Plantinga applies it specifically to evolution. If naturalism is true, our belief-forming capacities are not aimed at the production of mostly true beliefs; rather, they are aimed at survival since that is what evolution would select for. But then any particular belief is not produced by cognitive faculties aimed at producing true beliefs -- including belief in evolution itself. Therefore, either evolution is true or naturalism is true; not both. Since naturalists generally consider evolution to be their primary argument (mistakenly, I would argue for further reasons), the EAAN takes their strongest weapon and uses it against them.

Plantinga's first widely-read presentation of this argument is chapter 12 (pp. 216-37) of Warrant and Proper Function (henceforth WPF), published in 1993, entitled "Is Naturalism Irrational?" (chapter 11 is relevant too). But I came across a handful of references to an earlier essay published in 1991 in Logos simply titled "An Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism." I suspected this article was probably just an earlier version of the final chapter of WPF but I'm one of those people who likes to track these obscure references down. Unfortunately, there are a few journals named Logos and none of those I had access to were the right one. So I finally resorted to drastic measures: I requested the article via inter-library loan.

The journal, it turns out, is the now-defunct Logos: Philosophic Issues in Christian Perspective, volume 12 (1991), with Plantinga's article taking up pages 27-49. As I suspected it's very similar to chapter 12 of WPF, although not identical; the chapter is an updated version of the essay. Regardless, now I had both.

Yet then I encountered another reference. William Alston begins his essay "Plantinga, Naturalism, and Defeat" (page 176 in James Beilby, ed., Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism [Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2002]) by saying that Plantinga published the EAAN in two places at the same time, one of those places being WPF. The second reference was not to Logos, however: it was to Faith in Theory and Practice: Essays on Justifying Religious Belief, edited by Elizabeth S. Radcliffe and Carol J. White (Chicago: Open Court, 1993). My suspicion, however, was that the latter article was not the updated chapter but merely a republication of the original Logos essay. Fortunately, I did have access to this book in one of the faculty libraries, so I went and copied the article -- pp. 35-65 and titled "An Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism" -- and compared it to the earlier article. Sure enough, the Radcliffe-White article is identical to the Logos article (although it has an abstract not present in the latter) and thus is similar but not identical to the final chapter of WPF.

So if you're a pedantic researcher like me and want to track down these earlier references even though there are no significant differences between them and the version presented in WPF (which is available online here), you can just get the Radcliffe-White book, since it's much more accessible. You're welcome.


Ron said...

Thanks for posting this. I listened to a recording of a lecture given by Plantinga on the EAAN and have been meaning to read on it.

Michael Caton said...

Hi Jim, thanks for posting. I'd heard of Plantinga before and still haven't read his arguments directly so my comment here is really a response to your analysis. This is interesting to me, because evolution opponents usually don't engage with the theory as much as Plantinga seems to be, and in fact evolutionist-naturalists don't think about this point enough; i.e., that if we're descendants of animals that not long ago were running around the African steps hooting incoherently at each other, and they weren't perfect logic-proof evaluators or communicators, why do we think we are? The coyotes behind my house seem to be able to understand truth and even communicate it to some degree but both abilities are limited and distorted in them, so even if we're better than them at it or our skills apply more broadly, we're still not anywhere near perfect at it. (Weak example, difficulty of Bayesian vs frequentist reasoning for untrained minds; strong example, if something like cognitive closure obtains.)

But there are two clear counterarguments to Plantinga's assertion that either evolution or naturalism can be true: 1) a strong epistemological one, and 2) a more sedate one just because the limitations he points out are not absolute.

First, as stated, no, we shouldn't expect evolution to have produced perfect proof-evaluating machines. But whether we can know something is true, and whether that thing IS true, are of course two different things. That is, even if, as Plantinga claims, evolution would produce an agent helpless to evaluate truth claims, that means that we couldn't tell if evolution produced us, but it doesn't mean that evolution definitely did NOT produce us.

Second, saying evolution will produce epistemologically imperfect agents is much different from saying that ALL attempts to evaluate truth claims by agents so produced are necessarily false. We don't know everything, and we have false beliefs sometimes, but we get by. Unless we're all solipsists, we seem to sometimes in a practical way be able to get to and evaluate and communicate truth.

By the way, based on how the collection of topics you post are an odd conjunction of all the things I also enjoy reading and discussing, I continue to believe we were separated at birth! Regards, Mike

Jim S. said...

Hi Michael. Plantinga's argument, if it's successful (a big if) does not merely show that it is possible that our cognitive faculties be unreliable on a given occasion, but that it is probable that they are unreliable. So it's not just that our faculties are imperfect, it's that we have a positive reason not to trust them.

I should probably just e-mail you to give you a clearer picture of Plantinga's argument. It's very similar to Karl Popper's argument against determinism, J. R. Lucas's Gödelian argument against physical determinism, Norman Malcolm's argument against mechanism, and others.

One thing I'll point out here that Plantinga is not challenging evolution (nor am I). What he's challenging is naturalism. One could say he's challenging evolution naturalistically conceived, but that does not call any biological or paleontological claim into question. The argument alleges that evolution is not sufficient to account for creatures which have mostly true beliefs, that is evolution is not the whole story. It's an interpretation of evolution he's challenging, not evolution itself.

Hiero5ant said...

@Micheal it is a mistake to think that Plantinga "engages with the theory". He can't be bothered to actually look at how actual brains actually work, nor to understand how natural selection works, and as a consequence his armchair speculations about what kinds of minds evolution might plausibly produce are literally worse than useless. In some formulations, he actually talks as though each individual belief has its own individual gene!

He claims that it is at least as likely that someone who beat Gary Kasparov at chess thought they were baking a pecan pie as it is that they were thinking about how to beat someone in chess. He projects his creationism onto the scientific theories he doesn't understand, so he thinks evolution is the kind of process in which functional, complex organs are held to fortuitously poof into existence.

He doesn't (as far as I've seen) ever define "reliable" in a precise enough way so readers can see that he question-beggingly relies on a broken correspondence theory of truth.

He doesn't explain the leap from "a God would want us to come to know him" to "a God would give us domain-general induction organs which would give us accurate tiger footrace beliefs". He can't be bothered to explain by what mechanism these God-inspired accurate beliefs are enforced, so he never addresses the fact that evolution also explains not only why our faculties are generally reliable, but why we see the specific pattern of cognitive biases etc. that we would expect from the process of natural selection which he doesn't understand.

I would like to see more apologists come right out and say "I still think our side has the better arguments, but this one's just a dog that needs to be taken behind the shed and put to rest".

Matko said...

Jim, what do you think of the criticism of the EAAN? Did one give you pause?

Hiero5ant said...

To pile on, while most of the 6 or 7 points I raised above have to do purely with showing he doesn't "engage with the theory" in empirical terms (I should also have pointed out he ignores the functional role of public symbol systems in information transmission and error correction), there are at least a few broadly philosophical errors which invalidate the whole enterprise.

If it is false that Plantinga's beliefs are generally reliable, then the probability that EAAN is cogent argument is low or inscrutable, and the error would be almost in-principle undetectable; yet he thinks he can simply haul himself up to Truth by his bootstraps.

I do not claim that naturalism (or its negation) is coherent as a broad metaphysical claim but if supernaturalism means anything it means that the nomic properties of our experience - properties which DEFINE and CONSTITUTE the possibility of "reliable knowledge" - can be suspended at any time. In Biblical cosmology, the world is overflowing with malicious spirits with the means, motive, and opportunity to deceive us at any time. But even Yahweh, whose "ways are not our ways", by acting miraculously makes horsefeathers of the idea that our universe is knowable even given a perfectly accurate belief-generating machine. Not even the belief that water is wet can be counted on when at any time, for reasons infinitely unknowable and unpredictable, Yahweh can make it temporarily not wet so his son can make some sort of pun on the name "Peter".

EAAN is a house on fire if that house were a train wreck on a sinking ship. It's not salvageable.