Sunday, July 03, 2016

Nagel on Plantinga: Materialistic Naturalism Has Not Proposed a Credible Solution for Trusting Our Rational Faculties

New York Review of Books has an essay on Alvin Plantinga's theism by atheist Thomas Nagel. ("A Philosopher Defends Religion") Now that... is very cool! (If you are a philosopher and haven't read Nagel's "What Is it Like to be a Bat?" what is your problem?)

Since I've read Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, here we go with some Nagel-bullets.

  • Atheists, writes Nagel, tend to believe that science is on their side. Not so, claims Plantinga.
  • Plantinga's "overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.”"
  • By "naturalism" Plantinga means "the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God."
  • Nagel appreciates Plantinga as a theist who is "the real thing." It is refreshing to see such a sophisticated and lucid account by someone who holds to Christian theism.
  • Plantinga's three claims in "Conflict" are: 1) "the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality;" 2) "the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating; and 3) "we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God."
  • Plantinga is concerned with the epistemological matter of: How can we know if one of our beliefs is true? Here is where the idea of "warrant" and "properly basic beliefs" enters the discussion.
  • Nagel explains "properly basic belief." He writes: "The basic belief-forming capacities include perception, memory, rational intuition (about logic and arithmetic), induction, and some more specialized faculties, such as the ability to detect the mental states of others... Beliefs that are formed in the basic way are not infallible: they may have to be given up in the face of contrary evidence. But they do not have to be supported by other evidence in order to be warranted—otherwise knowledge could never get started. And the general reliability of each of these unmediated types of belief-formation cannot be shown by appealing to any of the others:
    [Quoting Plantinga] 'Rational intuition enables us to know the truths of mathematics and logic, but it can’t tell us whether or not perception is reliable. Nor can we show by rational intuition and perception that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and memory that rational intuition is.'" 
  •  Warranted beliefs "must result from the proper functioning of a faculty that is in fact generally reliable. We cannot prove without circularity that the faculties of perception, memory, or reason are generally reliable, but if they are, then the true beliefs we form when they are functioning properly constitute knowledge unless they are put in doubt by counterevidence." For example, to prove that the faculties of perception (seeing, et. al.) are reliable one would have to rely on the veridicality of the faculties of perception. Which is circular.
  • "Faith" is similar in some ways, and different on other ways. Faith is not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith, on Christian theism, is a gift from God. "God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)"
  • Faith is "a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief."
  • Plantinga believes that "the theistic conception explains beautifully why science is possible: the fit between the natural order and our minds is produced intentionally by God. Nagel writes: Plantinga "is also right to maintain that naturalism has a much harder time accounting for that fit. Once the question is raised, atheists have to consider whether their view of how we got here makes it at all probable that our cognitive faculties should enable us to discover the laws of nature."
  • Plantinga "argues that on the naturalist view of evolution, interpreted materialistically, there would be no reason to think that our beliefs have any relation to the truth. On that view beliefs are states of the brain, and natural selection favors brain mechanisms solely on the basis of their contribution, via behavior, to survival and reproduction. The content of our beliefs, and hence their truth or falsehood, is irrelevant to their survival value. “Natural selection is interested, not in truth, but in appropriate behavior.”"
  • Though an atheist, Nagel thinks Plantinga's reasoning is "powerful." Nagel writes: "Christians, says Plantinga, can “take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.” Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?"
Nagel concludes with these words:

"I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives."