Summa Contra Plantinga

I recently reread Alvin Plantinga’s paper Against Materialism and needless to say I am less than impressed. Plantinga presents two “arguments” against materialism each of which is utterly ridiculous.

The first is what he calls the replacement argument (sic). It is possible, Plantinga tells us, that one could have one’s body replaced while one continues to exist; therefore one is not one’s body. Of course the obvious problem with this argument is that it at best shows that I am not identical to a particular body but it does not show that minds are not physical for it does not show that the mind exists with out any body whatsoever. To show that Plantinga needs to appeal to disembodiment and he doesn’t.

It is also clearly possible that one could have one’s immaterial substance replaced and continue to exist; thus one is not an immaterial substance. This is because there is nothing contradictory in supposing that materialism is true and what this shows, as I have argued at length before, is that these a priori arguments are of no use to us at this point.

Now Plantinga, to his credit, realizes that these kinds of intuitions are ultimately question begging so his second argument appeals to an alleged impossibility, which turns out to be none other than the problem of intentionality. The argument turns on our ability to ‘just see’ that it is impossible that a physical thing can think. Just as the the number 7 can not weigh 5 pounds neither can a brain think. Never mind computers and naturalized theories of content, those couldn’t be belief contents. Oh, I see…wait, I don’t.

But of course the real problem here is that it is even more mysterious how an immaterial substance could think. Plantinga spends some time in the paper responding to Van Inwagen’s argument along these lines. Plantinga focuses on Van Inwagen’s claim that we can’t imagine an immaterial substance. The response should be obvious: we can’t imagine lots of stuff (like what a number looks like) but that doesn’t show that they are impossible. Van Inwagen’s second swipe at immaterial substances is that we cannot see how an underlying reality that is immaterial can give rise to thinking any more than we can see how an underlying physical reality can. Plantinga’s response to this is to claim that the soul is a simple and has thinking as an essential attribute in much the same way as an electron is said to be simple and have its charge essentially.

But all of this seems to me to miss the fundamental point that Van Inwagen wants to make. The very concept of an immaterial substance is unintelligible. Attempts to make them intelligible render them into ordinary physical substances at the next level up, so to speak. And it is of course out of the question to simply say that an immaterial substance is perfectly intelligible since they are just minds (as Plantinga seems to do). It is obvious that there is thinking but it is not at all obvious that an immaterial substance could think. What would that even mean?  The upshot then is that substance dualism is not a viable theory.

6 thoughts on “Summa Contra Plantinga

  1. I don’t think this is a fair reconstruction of Platinga’s second argument. The problem of intentionality does not require that brains can’t compute or exhibit input/output patterns. Rather, it simply notes that a full neurophysiological description contains no “aboutness”. Read any physical (causally closed) description of neural activity and you will “just see” that there are no intentional properties in the description (just as you can “just see” that this comment contains no colour-adjectives or 37-letter words).

    Dismissing this one as an appeal to unfounded intuition is not going to work.

  2. Hi Nicholas, thanks for the comment!

    I agree that i was being snarky but i still think that is the gist of the argument.

    You say,

    read any physical (causally closed) description of neural activity and you will “just see” that there are no intentional properties in the description (just as you can “just see” that this comment contains no colour-adjectives or 37-letter words).

    I agree that there are no such terms in the description of neural activity but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t entailed by them…dismissing this via appeal to unfounded intuition is not going to work either…

  3. Dear Dr. Brown,

    You shed some interesting insight regarding Plantinga’s ideas! Although, I am a bit curious about a few of your remarks.

    You say,

    Of course the obvious problem with this argument is that it at best shows that I am not identical to a particular body but it does not show that minds are not physical for it does not show that the mind exists with out any body whatsoever.

    Surely to show that minds are non-physical one needn’t hold that they must exist without any body whatsoever. For example, some forms of emergent substance dualism (see Hasker 1999) hold that a mind can be itself non-physical and still be dependent upon a body for its existence.

    Actually, if one concedes that Plantinga’s argument is successful in showing that a person is not identical to a particular body, then perhaps we can simply repeat this thought experiment indefinitely to show that a person is not identical to any body. It would seem to be an awkward form of materialism which held that persons are not identical to their bodies.

    You also claim,

    It is also clearly possible that one could have one’s immaterial substance replaced and continue to exist; thus one is not an immaterial substance.

    I think there is significant disparity between Plantinga’s argument and your supposedly possible scenario. In particular, I question whether it is intelligible to say that one could have one’s immaterial substance replaced and continue to exist if one just is an immaterial substance as Plantinga maintains. On the other hand, his argument seems to capture the relevant apparent possibility with vivid imagery.

    In regards to Plantinga’s second argument, you complain:

    Never mind computers and naturalized theories of content, those couldn’t be belief contents. Oh, I see…wait, I don’t.

    But Plantinga addresses this in his paper when he states

    If the sentence or the computer disk really did have content, then I guess the assemblage of neurons could too. But the fact is neither does…neither has original content; each has, at most, derived content. (17)

    Perhaps you could engage with his arguments on this matter?

    Lastly, you side with van Inwagen in claiming that

    it is even more mysterious how an immaterial substance could think.

    But, as Plantinga notes, the crucial point is that

    [w]hat inclines us to reject the idea of a physical thing’s thinking is not just the fact that we can’t form a mental image of a physical thing’s thinking. […] It’s rather that on reflection one can see that a physical thing just can’t do that sort of thing. […] But (and here is the important point) the same clearly doesn’t go for an immaterial thing’s thinking; we certainly can’t see that no immaterial thing can think. (Plantinga 2007, 114, 115, 116).

    Kind Regards,
    Chris

    • I question whether it is intelligible to say that one could have one’s immaterial substance replaced and continue to exist if one just is an immaterial substance as Plantinga maintains.

      I want to try and clarify my point about the intelligibility of the idea of one’s immaterial substance being replaced while one continues to exist. The soul is traditionally conceived of as a simple substance, that is, a substance without parts. Is it really possible to replace a particular thing which has no parts (one could not replace it a piece at a time) and still have it be the same thing? This actually seems impossible.

      Thanks,
      Chris

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