Self-Selecting for Rationality

I just read this interview with Plantinga conducted by Gary Gutting for the Stone and I had a couple of thoughts I wanted to jot down.

First, while it was nice to see Plantinga pushing the argument for agnosticism against the atheist, it is disappointing that he doesn’t seem to see that the very same reasoning should push the theist towards agnosticism as well.

Second, it was interesting to see Plantinga’s informal take on his argument that evolution plus physicalism is self-undermining. I caught myself wondering if we can accept Plantinga’s conclusion in a way that would not be so disturbing to the atheist physicalist. His claim, roughly, is that there is no evolutionary reason to expect that we would end up with rational creatures like ours with beliefs that are produced by reliable mechanisms and which are mostly true. False beliefs get you around the world just fine. Suppose that we agree that *natural selection* wouldn’t do the trick. Is that all there is?

Plantinga assumes the only alternative is *artificial selection* done by a Deity (why not via a simulated world?). But that doesn’t seem to me to be the only option. Another possibility is that we have been exerting selective pressures on ourselves, most likely via culture and civilization. In fact it turns out there may be some evidence for this claim.

I for one find it very plausible that evolution would produce a creature like Plantinga describes and that this creature might in turn then selectively cultivate certain traits resulting in the semi-rational creature that we know and love today. In fact I would go so far as to say that we are still in the process of self-selecting. Viewed this way the abstract idea or concept of God can be seen as a sort of ideal limit or goal towards which the self-section might aim. Of course one need not invoke God for this; an ‘ideal reasoner’ in general will suffice.

I am not saying this is the only way to answer Plantinga, and I am not entirely convinced that natural selection couldn’t do the trick, but even so I think this is an interesting idea. I wonder if anyone has explored this issue before?

The Argument from Photosynthesis

Though I very much enjoy the taste of food I have always thought that the actual act of eating is very primitive and mildly repulsive. Described abstractly eating involves the mastication of organic substances which are then broken down in digestive acids to produce sugars that are then used to fuel metabolic activity. The mastication process involves mechanically breaking down the organic substances and mixing them with saliva and in the process the organic substance is rubbed over the taste buds in our tongues and released gasses interact with the olfactory receptors via the nasal passages.

Now compare this process with the process of photosynthesis. In photosynthesis light energy is converted to sugar with oxygen as a waste product. This process is more elegant and much cleaner than eating (eating/digestion has excrement as its waste product versus oxygen for photosynthesis). However, the naturally evolved photosynthesis we find here on Earth is not very efficient (it captures somewhere in the area of 3-6% of the energy available in sunlight) and as a result we do not find vertebrates that use photosynthesis, though there is recent evidence that salamanders have photosynthetic cells and we might have an invertebrate or two that uses it.

So is it possible that humans might be able to someday use photosynthesis? Some have recently argued that we have a moral obligation to get rid of meat eating animals and replace them with herbivores. But herbivores are carnivores as well in the strict sense. While I don’t think that eating plants is as morally problematic as eating animals I still think it would be nice to free ourselves from eating all together. At least I would like to be able to do so for myself. So might I ever be able to? As it stands it looks like it would be difficult to do because extant photosynthetic processes are relatively inefficient and so even if we did successfully integrate photosynthetic cells over the entire area of our skin we would need to be exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation to meet our energy demands. Still it is certainly possible to improve photosynthesis and in fact scientists are working on it now and so while it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon it certainly seems possible that there could be photosynthetic humans at some point in the future. We might not be able to quit eating all together, we might still do it for pleasurable experiences of taste etc or we might have to eat some limited amount to supplement the energy from photosynthetic process, but still it is not physically impossible that this could happen and it does seem morally and aesthetically preferable to what we have now.

Aside from this bioethical issue I think this raises issues for those who think that there is evidence for design in the human body and it also puts new light on the problem of evil. Certainly if it is conceivable that we could produce a photosynthetic animal, human or not, then it must be possible for God to have created such a creature. But if so then why aren’t we photosynthetic? I mean God could have made it so that we run on solar energy, and even had the pleasurable taste and ‘mouthfeel’ experiences that makes eating enjoyable (perhaps different wavelengths and/or frequencies of light would produce different gustatory experiences). Doing this 1.) seems like a much better design. It is simpler and more elegant than eating is and 2.) seems much more humane. The sheer amount of suffering produced by eating meat over the course of evolution is nearly unimaginable. It seems to me that this argument from photosynthesis is as decisive as one can get in this area and I wonder why it has not received more attention…or maybe it has and I just haven’t found it yet?

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

Outline of the Case for Agnosticism

Via Leiter’s blog I found out about this Slate article on Agnosticism. I guess I agree with Leiter and a lot of the commenters that the piece is overly polemical and doesn’t address the arguments of either side. Being a card carrying agnostic myself I thought I might chime in.

I found myself in general agreement with the rhetorical position of the piece. People often associate agnosticism with either intellectual laziness (we haven’t thought about the issue long enough to have a view) or a certain kind of intellectual cowardice (we don’t have the guts to say what we really believe; i.e. we are secretly atheists/theists and are just too cowardly to admit it). Both of the charges are misguided. Agnosticism is simply the honest recognition that we do not have decisive reasons for thinking that there is, or isn’t, an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect being. I don’t, however, think the case for agnosticism consists in simple demanding that someone explain why there is something as opposed to nothing, though that is part of the case.

In short the situation seems to me to be this: There is equally compelling evidence on both sides of the issue. Given that we like evidentialsim in some form and that we agree that it is an illegitimate move to count belief in God as properly basic (if we do we must count any belief as properly basic in some noetic structure) it really seems to me that a rational disinterested person should conclude that there is an equal chance that there is a God and that there isn’t.  Since there are pretty compelling cases to be made on both sides people tend to find their antecedent beliefs easy to justify and so we get fervent believers on both sides when really we should all just admit that this is an unresolved question. You may have placed your bet on one side or the other but that is all there is to it; a bet.

The A Priori Case

  • The Ontological Argument: This much maligned and misunderstood argument has been the subject of countless attacks, defenses and reformulations. I am convinced that the “existence isn’t a predicate” attack doesn’t work. The basic reason that all versions of this argument are inconclusive is just that our intuitions about the totality of the space of possible worlds is extremely unreliable. We may be able to coherently talk about particular possible worlds –though this is hard in itself– but when we try to conceive of the entire space of possible worlds, as we must if we are to conceive of a necessary being existing in some possible world, we loose our grip on what is going on. This is, of course, the very same problem that the parody ontological arguments face. Just as we cannot trust our intuitions about what objects necessarily exist so too we cannot trust our intuitions about which don’t.
  • The Logical Problem of Evil: I sometimes hear people say that Plantinga’s response to the logical problem of evil involving trans-world depravity has successfully answered the logical problem. But the obvious problem with this argument is that it assumes that God has no control over whether the creaturely essences he instantiates have the contingent property of trans-world depravity. This just seems wildly implausible to me. The possible world where all creaturely essences have morally significant free will and always freely choose to do what is right is conceivable and we can further conceive that these creaturely essences have trans-world sainthood which is the contingent property of always freely choosing to do the right thing.
  • The Logical Problem of Omniscience: Perhaps less discussed is the logical problem of omniscience. The problem here is that God’s foreknowledge is logically incompatible with His own free will. This is distinct from the traditional problem of free will and omniscience in that the claim is that there is a formal contradiction entailed by the set of claims that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect. Here again we see the same problem as we did with the other a priori arguments: the opposition has different a priori intuitions and we do not have any way to adjudicate between them.

The a priori cases are therefore inconclusive.

    The A Posteriori Cases

    • The Cosmological Argument: The family of arguments here all suffer from well known problems. I won’t here rehearse them but it is clear to me that there is a stalemate here resulting from a clash of intuitions about infinite chains, what counts as an explanation, and the epistemological status of the principle of sufficient reason.
    • The Teleological Argument: Again there is well known and entrenched positions on both side of this issue. For myself I find the fine-tuning argument the most compelling and specifically in its evidential form. That is, fine-tuning gives us some evidence for God but it is defeasible. Of course it is possible, though highly unlikely, that this all happened by accident so the fine-tuning argument cannot prove that God exists but it does provide (defeasible) evidence for the existence of God as long as one accepts the claim that some fact F counts as evidence for a claim C just when F is more likely to have occurred given C. People who like the fine-tuning argument thus spend a lot of time justifying this principle. I find it fairly persuasive as an independent principle and so find fine-tuning to be persuasive empirical evidence for the existence of a God, though it is defeasible.
    • The Evidential Problem of Evil: Unlike the logical problem of evil this is the problem of whether or not the existence of the actual amount of evil in the world is evidence for the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect being. Using the same kind of reasoning that we did in the fine-tuning case we seem to be led to thinking that the existence of evil is string evidence for the non-existence of God. Even if one accepts that God must allow some evil in the world the shear quantity of evil in the actual world (whereby evil is just the suffering in the world considered over the history of sentient creation) is much more likely to exist in a world where there is no God. All of the standard reasons that God may have for allowing evil do not license the amount of evil we actually find.
    • The Argument from Religious Experience: It seems to me that we should count experience as a justifier solely to the extent that the experience is repeatable and public to the extent that it can be had by different people at different times. If one accepts this then it would only be legitimate to appeal to religious experience if it were a wide-spread and acknowledge phenomenon. For instance, if we all saw God descend from the sky and smite the devil then it would be ok to say we believe in God because of a religious experience. This *may* have been the case in the past if we take the various holy texts at face value. My hunch is that it was not the case then either but we can leave that aside. More problematic is the moral argument against private religious experience. What compelling moral reason can we give which would justify God’s hiddenness from us? If we take religion at face value God used to be present but now He is missing. Why? if one denies that God was ever present in the way various religious texts say then we still have to wonder why that is the case. Why would a morally perfect being leave us alone?

    Thus we again end up with a tie. We have two hopelessly stalemated arguments and two compelling lines of evidence pointing in opposite directions.

      The Logical Problem of Omniscience

      The problem of omniscience is usually formulated about whether human being’s having free will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge of our actions. The basic problem is that God know what we will do before we do it which means that it must be true that we perform this action before we actually perform it (knowledge is factive). But if it is already true then how could I do otherwise? If I do in fact have freedom and do otherwise then it seems that I have the power to cause one of God’s beliefs to be false; but that is impossible. God is essentially omniscient and so only has true beliefs. Plantinga famously responded that we can solve this problem by thinking about possible world semantics. Let us suppose that in the actual world I freely choose to drink a Lemon iced tea instead of a peach iced tea on Friday December 11th 2009 at 1145 a.m. Let’s call this T2. Given God’s omniscience then we must suppose that He knew that would perform this action even before my birth. Let’s just pick a date, say October 31st 2008, and call this T1. Then God knows at T1 that I will choose lemon tea at T2. Now the reason Plantinga sees no problem here is because there is a possible world where I freely chose to have the peach tea (call it W2)  and in that possible world God knows that I will choose peach tea at T2. So the basic idea is that had I chosen differently God would have a different belief and so we could say that the true belief that God does hold in the actual world would be false in W2 but that doesn’t mean that God has a false belief in the actual world. So, I am free (i.e. there is a possible world where I do otherwise and so it is not necessary that I have lemon tea) and God is still omniscient. Pike’s response to this argument is basically to complain about Plantinga’s analysis of freedom. The question is not whether or not there is some possible world or other where I do otherwise and God knows that I do otherwise. The question is whether or not given the actual world as it is, is there a possible world with exactly the same history as the actual world in which I do otherwise? If there is then God has a false belief in that world because in that world God believes at T1 that I will have lemon tea at T2 but we have just said that in this world I have peach tea at T2. On the other hand if there is no such possible world then it was not really in my power to do otherwise after all. To appreciate the point that Pike is making here we can point out that even the determinist can admit that there is a possible world where I “chose” to have peach tea at T2. It is, of course, not in the subset of possible worlds that have the same history as our world (or our universe for that matter) but surely we can conceive of different subsets with different histories (e.g. possible worlds where the initial force of the big bang is different or in which there is an extra molecule, ungrounded in Kripke’s sense, that effects the outcome of the universe’s history) and so there merely being some other possible world where I have peach tea instead of lemon tea at T2 cannot be what we mean when we say that I am free. We must mean that there is a possible world that is near enough in the space of possible worlds to the actual world such that I could bring it about. And as we have seen it is not obvious that this is possible since in all the possible worlds that are near enough God knows that I will have lemon tea. I find this response very convincing (and I now think that my earlier attempts at this were groping in this direction)

      So much then for the traditional problem of omniscience. However, it occurred to me recently that there is, besides this traditional problem, a further problem which we might call ‘the logical problem of omniscience’ on analogy with the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of omniscience suggests that there is a contradiction in the claim that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect and has free will. This is a more pressing problem because it threatens to show that belief in an omniscient God with free will is itself an irrational belief. The contradiction arises because included in God’s foreknowledge is knowledge of what His own choices and actions will be. So if God chooses to destroy  Sodom at noon on Wednesday 1400 B.C (*Note: This is a made up arbitrary date!*) then it must have been the case the He knew that He would so choose and so knew that He would destroy Sodom at that time on that date. But if God knew this at T0 (say before he created Adam) then how could He have chosen differently in 1400 B.C.? But then either God is not omniscient or he does not have free will neither of which is acceptable.

      Transworld Saints

      I have been thinking about Plantinga’s free will defense lately for my philosophy of religion course. As is well known central to Plantinga’s argument is teh concept of transworld depravity. A creaturly essence (a person) suffers from transworld depravity just in case there is no possible world in which this creature exists, has morally significant free will and fails to go wrong with respect to at least on morally significant action. Plantinga then suggests that it is possible that we are all transworld depraved. In that case there is no possible world in which there is no evil since any world that God creates will be one where we all go wrong with respect to at least one morally significant action.

      But is it really possible for there to be a world where every creature is tranbsworld depraved? Plantinga doean’t really argue for this, he just says that it is possible. But isn’t it just as possible for there to be transworld saints? A transworld saint is a creaturly essence that never goes wrong with respect to a morally significant action in any possible world. For any possible world w the transworld saint always freely chooses to do what is right for all morally significant choices. It is possible that we are all transworld saints. This, I believe, is a nice way to capture Mackie’s claim that God could have made us so that we are free and yet never choose to do evil. There is a possible world where every creature is a transworld saint.

      Clearly both worlds can’t really be possible since that would mean that in every world at least one person goes wrong with respect to a morally significant action and no creatures go wrong with respect to any morally significant actions. Is there any reason to think that the Mackie world (one where all creatures are transworld saints) is any less conceivable than the Plantinga world (where all are transworld depraved)?

      You’ve Been Served

      Some of you may remember last year I found out about this gem where a Nebraska legislator named Ernie Chambers jokingly tried to file an injunction against God…well apparently the court has thrown out the lawsuit because God lacks an address at which He can be served. I think that Chamber’s response it entirely correct;

      “The court itself acknowledges the existence of God,” Chambers said Wednesday. “A consequence of that acknowledgment is a recognition of God’s omniscience.” Therefore, Chambers said, “Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.”

      Oh, I hope he appeals!!

      The Terminator and Philosophy: Call for Abstracts

      The Terminator and Philosophy

      Edited by Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker

      The Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture Series

      Please circulate and post widely.

      Apologies for Cross-posting.

      To propose ideas for future volumes in the Blackwell series please contact the Series Editor, William Irwin, at

      Abstracts and subsequent essays should be philosophically substantial but accessible, written to engage the intelligent lay reader. Contributors of accepted essays will receive an honorarium.

      Possible themes and topics might include, but are not limited to, the following:

      “Can We Really Change the Future?” or “Killing Sarah Connor”: Cyberdyne Systems, time travel and the grandfather paradox; Skynet and John Connor: philosophy of technology and creating our own enemies; “Sentience, Sapience, and Self-Awareness”: issues in philosophy of mind; Neural Net to Supercomputer to ‘Software in Cyberspace’: Skynet and multiple realization;“Is Skynet Justified in Defending Itself?” the ethics of war and artificial intelligence; “Irrefutable Delusions”: Sarah Connor, Delusional Beliefs, and Standards of Evidence in T2;“Stop Miles Bennett Dyson”: Sarah Connor’s transformation into a killer (is violence contagious?) or Sarah Connor’s transformation from ‘80’s ditz to Feminist Icon; “Judgment Day is Unavoidable” or “No Fate but what we Make”: eternalist vs. presentist perspectives on the original versus modified timelines; “John Connor is the Most Important Person in the World”: causality and the meaning of life; “To Preserve and Protect”: the contrastive values of human versus artificial life; “What is a Terminator?”: The Ontology of Fictional Objects; “I Have Data Which Could be Interpreted as Pain”: machines, consciousness, and simulated perception; The T-1000: adaptable machines and emergence; How Did They Build Skynet?: “truthmakers” and knowledge with no source; Andy and the Turk: killing the innocent to save the innocent or Are scientists responsible for their inventions?; “Terminatrix”: the T3 gynoid , feminism, and trangressive cyborgs; “Should we Stop the Future?”: Conservatism and the “Terminator Argument” in bioethics; “The Closest Thing to a Father I Have”: John Connor & the Terminator; “Desire is Irrelevant, I am a MACHINE”: Who is Responsible for the Terminator’s Actions? Or freewill vs determinism; “Assume the Shape of Anything it Touches”: The Metaphysics of Transformation in T2 & T3; The Govinator: Fantasy and reality in politics; Does the Future Exist now?: The nature of spacetime and reality; Embodied Artificial Intelligence: Is AI actually possible, and if so, how close are we to creating it?; Monstrous Technology: From Frankenstein to the Terminator.

      Submission Guidelines:

      1. Submission deadline for abstracts (100-500 words) and CV(s): September 8, 2008.

      2. Submission deadline for drafts of accepted papers: November 3, 2008.

      Kindly submit by e-mail (with or without Word attachment) to: Richard Brown at

      A Short Argument that Utilitarians Ought Not to Promote Atheism

      It has been commonplace in the history of moral theory to argue that having an obligation and being motivated to fulfill that obligation come apart. I have argued that this was the conception that Hobbes and Locke had. Each of the philosophers thought that we could have obligations (even in the state of nature) but that we needed, in addition to the obligation itself, some other motivating reason to fulfil the obligation.  This can be seen as partly what a Kantian moral theory denies, in that they claim that the having of the obligation (or the recognition that one has it) is the only (legitimate) motivation to fulfil the obligation. So, if one has an anti-Kantian view of this sort one will have to appeal to some strong authority as an enforcer of the moral rules. Hobbes himself says that if there were a God then he would be the one to punish and reward those who break or follow the rules, but in his absence we need a strong Earthly authority.

      It seems to me, though I admit that this is ultimately an empirical question, that belief in the existence of God and his willingness to punish and reward people who ignore or follow the dictates of morality is a strong motivator to obey said rules. It also seems to me that if people did not have a belief in God they would be more disposed to breaking the rules of morality when they were confident that they would not be caught by Earthly authorities (I mean, God is always watching, but the city of New York has its lapses). This is of course the problem of Hobbes’ intelligent Knave. Even if one is a Kantian about motivation (like I am), doesn’t one have to admit that fear of consequences has more motivational pull that does the recognition of obligation? Certainly not in all cases, but I mean generally among mankind.

      Now, the utilitarian believes that the action (rule, preference, whatever) that promotes the greatest amount of happiness is the right action (rule, whatever) but our motivation for performance doesn’t matter. So, on utilitarian views one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still count as performing a moral action (though I sometimes think a Kantian has to say this as well). So, a world populated solely by atheists would be one that was less morally good than a world populated (mostly) by people who feared an all-powerful God. This is because, no matter how good the Earthly government’s enforcement of the moral rules is, it will not be 100% and so will not provide as much motivation to avoid immoral acts as belief that there is an all-powerful being who is always watching and judging you would. Given this it turns out that the utilitarian is obligated not only to avoid promoting belief in atheism, but also to promoting theism of a very strict sort.  

       Well, that wasn’t as short as I thought 🙂