Is it irrational to think Plantinga is rational?

February 17, 2014

I’m hardly the first to respond to the Plantinga interview.

A few caveats: interviews are a terrible basis to judge a thinker or line of argument. The compression alone means that things are going to look enthymeic at best esp if you are unfamiliar with the work or hostile to the conclusions. Both if these are true for me wrt Plantinga, so my title is perhaps unfair.

OTOH, he put it out there and the title there is equi-offensive/silly so why not?!

I want to address two parts, one in a general way and one in specific detail.

To the first, I think any sort of supernatural being is necessary to fill explanatory gaps has to deal with the fact that every supernatural explanation to date has failed miserably. Our successful predictions and manipulations of the world have come entirely from naturalistic science. And it’s not even close. Given the failures to date, there should be a strong presumption against supernatural explanations going forward.

And note that if it doesn’t give us predictions or manipulations, then we really have to ask whether it is a explanation at all.

Until some reason for thinking this time is different is forthcoming, I think fine tuning arguments should be regarded as nonsense.

Second, let’s look at the cognitive suicide argument. (It actually relates to the above argument.)

AP: Evolution will have resulted in our having beliefs that are adaptive; that is, beliefs that cause adaptive actions. But as we’ve seen, if materialism is true, the belief does not cause the adaptive action by way of its content: It causes that action by way of its neurophysiological properties. Hence it doesn’t matter what the content of the belief is, and it doesn’t matter whether that content is true or false. All that’s required is that the belief have the right neurophysiological properties. If it’s also true, that’s fine; but if false, that’s equally fine.

There are two immediate oddities: 1) why worry about true content rather than content at all and 2) why are true and false content equally fine?

The first point suggests that the argument proves too much, or, at least, one might wonder why we are focusing on true content when content itself is threatened.

The second point, I think is based on our belief content being closed under negation (in principle) and bivalence. If P is false then not P is true and, in some sense, the fact that I got a belief that P instead of that not P was a coin flip. Or maybe given bivalence, half of all possible beliefs are false (since half of all propositions are false) and since selection doesn’t select for truth (indeed, it seems that selection is wildly indifferent to truth) we are in no better position with respect to our beliefs than a uniform sampling of content. (Probably within size limits…although, why even that? If content is unmoored from its material instantiation then why can’t we have actually infinite content! I hope it’s clear from such considerations how bonkers this line is!)

But now we’re just into brute skepticism aren’t we? If naturalism and evolution require the idea that content is completely unmoored from our evolution and material basis, then why assume we aren’t zombies (ok, we perceive that we aren’t….but <i>how do we know?!?!?</i>) or generally quite wrong?

Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.

Again, why does it produce an equal likelihood? If I select sentences for an arbitrary non-truth tracking property, how likely am I to end up with roughly half of the sentences being true (even given an underlying distribution of half true/half false)? Well, consider the property of “sounding like it was something written by Shakespeare”. My guess is that Shakespeare wrote a lot more affirmative sentences than denying sentences so I doubt we’re going to get an equal number of negated and un-negated sentences. So, I don’t see that we’re going to end up with sets that are half P and half not P. Indeed, given that a big chunk of folks he wrote about are fictional, it seems regardless, I’m going to end up with false sentences. (It’s really a big deal, as Pigliucci emphasises, that the example specifies independent beliefs and defines reliability as “being true”.)

GG: So your claim is that if materialism is true, evolution doesn’t lead to most of our beliefs being true.

AP: Right. In fact, given materialism and evolution, it follows that our belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

Ok, I keep screwing this up (e.g., on FaceBook). It’s true that if getting true beliefs is like getting heads by flipping a fair coin, that the probability of getting 67 out of 100 (or even 67 or more out of 100) is very low. Of course, the probability of us getting very few beliefs being true (say, 33 or less) is also wildly improbable. But, so exactly what? Let us even grant the skepticism, i.e., that for any given belief (knowing nothing else about it!) it’s as likely to be true as false. This doesn’t tell us anything about whether we are, indeed, in that situation. In fact, there’s plenty of reason to think that we are in that situation! (Consider John Ioannidis’ famous paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False“.)

But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.

Given that we know lots of our faculties and belief forming processes are wildly unreliable, why is believing that a fall into total skepticism? The not entirely hidden premise is that our belief forming processes are reliable in this way (i.e., generate far more truths than falsities). But is that true? Can it not be true without total skepticism? Well, I don’t feel like a total skeptic, and I’m pretty convinced by Ioannidis. Of course, a key features of Ioannidis is having a more sophisticated analysis of belief such that beliefs are not all of a piece. Within naturalistic science, evolution and materialism have tremendous weight of evidence. Essentially, all the evidence points that way at every level. And we can distinguish between people who are essentially indifferent to evidence and those who are not. Astrologers do a crappy job of making concrete predictions. Creationists have produced no scientific discoveries. Etc. etc. Theologians have made predictions about the world (and the sort of explanation we will find) and have been wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Why would this metaconsideration make us feel otherwise? Isn’t more likely, ex ante, to be wrong, yet again?

(This needs tightening. Grr.)

(Update: PZ Myers has, I think, a similar set of considerations. Unsurprisingly, he’s not as charitable to Plantinga’s argument. But the core bit is similar: Our brains and senses are unreliable! That’s why we put so much effort into knowing! This doesn’t defeat Plantinga’s argument in detail, but one does have to wonder why we need to do that.)

Thinking critically about critical reasoning

February 10, 2014

After observing a comment exchange with a classic (to my eye) misuse of an ad hominem accusation, I was moved to ask whether there were critical reasoning classes that looked at more than good vs. fallacious arguments and took a more dialectical or even broader view. This got turned into a NewAPPS post by Ed Kazarian. There are some interested suggestions for books in the comments, and I hope to follow up on them. There is a ton of work and books on things like cognitive blindnesses, discussion, etc. but I don’t know if there’s a good text/hand book on, well, roughly, being a good (in a general sense) cognitively driven social being. Let me try an example. What’s wrong with:

If the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious.
The moon is made of cheese.
Therefore it is delicious.

If I think to my very old critical reasoning days, the diagnosis would be that this is valid but unsound with the second premise being definitely false and the first being dubious (but it might be hard to articulate exactly what’s dubious about it). But let’s compare it to:

We all agree, I’m sure, that if the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious
As everyone knows, the moon is made of cheese.
Therefore it is delicious.

This version is somehow worse, though the logic is probably the same. It depends a bit on the reading of “We all agree, I’m sure” and the “As everyone knows”. It might be false that we all agree, that I’m sure we do, and that everyone knows without the core argument being either unsound or invalid. None of these decorations alter the logical force or truth status of the moon/cheese argument. Yet, the second could be much worse, or, at least, irritating to me. The decorations are designed to incline us against questioning the premises. This could be good if it would be a waste of time to investigate them, or a big problem if they are in contention. They could be a problem just by triggering a lot of discussion about the truth (or appropriateness) of the decorations and thus potentially derailing the discussion.

After observing a comment exchange with a classic (to my eye) misuse of an ad hominem accusation, I was moved to ask whether there were critical reasoning classes that looked at more than good vs. fallacious arguments and took a more dialectical or even broader view. This got turned into a NewAPPS post by Ed Kazarian. There are some interested suggestions for books in the comments, and I hope to follow up on them. There is a ton of work and books on things like cognitive blindnesses, discussion, etc. but I don’t know if there’s a good text/hand book on, well, roughly, being a good (in a general sense) cognitively driven social being. Let me try an example. What’s wrong with:

If the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious.

The moon is made of cheese.

Therefore it is delicious.

If I think to my very old critical reasoning days, the diagnosis would be that this is valid but unsound with the second premise being definitely false and the first being dubious (but it might be hard to articulate exactly what’s dubious about it). But let’s compare it to:

We all agree, I’m sure, that if the moon is made of cheese,

As everyone knows, the moon is made of cheese.

Therefore it is delicious.


Look you fatuous idiot, if the moon is made of cheese, then its delicious.
Even a monster asshole like you knows that the moon is made of cheese.
Therefore it is delicious. I also hate you and all your works.

Of course, this does not instantiate the ad hominem fallacy. Indeed, there is no attempt at refutation. There is a lot of insult and denigration in this presentation, however. The first (“Look you fatuous idiot” speaks against the intellect of the interlocutor; the second speaks against their character; and the third just expresses what we might have figured out from the first two, i.e., that the speaker has a wee touch of animosity toward the listener.
But from what I recall of a standard critical reasoning perspective, the main thing you can say about this is that it’s a bit obscure and perhaps inciting. But these things might have a dialectical or community oriented focus. They may even, perhaps, be appropriate (it at least partially depends on 1) whether it is and taken as ironic and even friendly or 2) whether the hearer “deserves” it or 3) whether the overall effect is positive).
There are clearly some dialectical considerations in standard critical reasoning disucssions. Burden of proof is a dialectical notion. But consider this (glib) presentation of the related “fallacy“:

The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim, and is not upon anyone else to disprove. The inability, or disinclination, to disprove a claim does not render that claim valid, nor give it any credence whatsoever. However it is important to note that we can never be certain of anything, and so we must assign value to any claim based on the available evidence, and to dismiss something on the basis that it hasn’t been proven beyond all doubt is also fallacious reasoning.

This does not take into account anything about the relative positions of the discussants, the prima facie nature of the claims, or the ways that demands might be unfair, or otherwise problematic (except to point out that demand for conclusiveness is another fallacy).

In fact, we often do earn a presumptive credibility for unsupported claims and can lose the benefit of presumptive credibility for unsupported doubts. We can get or lose these credibilities unjustly or ineffectively (e.g., many problematic uses of authority involve giving too much presumptive credibility).
I feel that a lot of the philosophising I’ve encountered (and promulgated!) is not very sensitive to important aspects of individual and joint cognition over the mid to long haul. (Lots of people have observed this, cf. for example, loads of feminist critiques, among others.)

This makes me sad. When I was a brash young philosopher major, I said to people that I liked philosophy because it was the best way to learn how to think. This is so obviously bonkers, I’m rather ashamed to have thought it. This attitude doesn’t seem that uncommon.

Sabbatical reports

January 7, 2014

I’m going to start the series fresh, probably on Friday. I want to make a more sustainable and interesting format.

2013 in review

January 6, 2014

Well, WordPress wanted to post something silly an annoying. But I highjacked it!

Not that I’m planning on writing much in this post!

So, some highlights:

  1. The three musketeers (Chiara, Samantha, and Rafael (dang! Raf spiffed up his page!) all successfully (with minor corrections) defended their theses and both Chiara and Samantha graduated per se. They all started together in 2009 and were co-supervised by Uli and me. This makes 5 new PhDs in toto for the UB team. Not bad! I do hope to write up summaries of their reseach in due course (yeah, ha).
  2. I got a sabbatical! This is what I’m doing right now. I can now claim to have resided in Swarthmore. I have not yet written a letter to the Swarthmorean.
  3. I got shingles! I am not doing that right now and, I hope, never again.
  4. The Publications were not wretched, though I still must up the journal endgame. I did a lot of empirical work and laid the groundwork for more.
  5. We got ORE on track. This was enabled by our empirical work. Big kudos to Samantha and Rafael.
  6. The WoDOOM and OWLED trains keep a rolling. Oy! I’ve some stuff to do!

These are all professional highlights. I’m not sure what personal highlights I have. It was sorta a meh year in that respect. Oh, well, except for the 30th anniversary of meeting Zoe and the 10th anniversary of marrying her for insurance purposes!

I do want a fire shooting unicorn.

Sabbatical update later today!

Sabbatical Report: Week 12 & 13

December 10, 2013

I’m back in Manchester for the week: Rafael’s viva and Samantha‘s graduation are this Friday (the second Friday the 13th of the year; the first being my birthday).

I went to my first AIMA Annual Symposium. It was interesting enough. Bigger and richer than most conference I’ve been to. I wasn’t hugely impressed by the scientific quality, but it’s hard to say from first exposure. I may have learned enough to make my next attempt at submission successful, but we’ll see.

I clearly haven’t solved my “How to achieve my sabbatical goals” problem. The blogging is just one example.

OTOH, we’re inching to a new contract between Manchester and Siemens. We’re also making some progress on the work itself. These are good things. Hopefully, I can achieve a reasonable balance between that and my other sabbatical goals in the coming months

Sabbatical Report: Week 10 & 11

November 19, 2013

So tired!

That’s my summery.

I’ve been (or am in) two new conferences for me NERFA (which I was the spouse of the attendee) and AMIA.

I’m sad that my only blog posts are sabbatical reports and they themselves are erratic and not very interesting. I shall aim to do better!

Two out of three papers were accepted for SWAT4LS: One on using SPARQL to represent Clinical Assessment Scales and one on measuring coordination in terminologies. (Earlier drafts were rejected from AIMA…I do feel the irony.)

My current paper writing is…not going well. I’m way way way behind! Sigh.

As Boxer said, “I will work harder!”

Sabbatical Report: Week 9

November 5, 2013

Lots and lots happening. Unfortunately, I can’t talk much about it. Hopefully things will settle down after this week, but I’m not counting on it!

Movember has started and my stache is pathetic. So are my donations. Must start advertising.

Nanowrimo has also started. I’ve like 400 words :)

Paper writing is dismal as is paper reading! What’s going on!!!!

Is anything going as planned? Yes! Exercise is not bad. According to my fitbit, I walked 45.92 miles last week and hit my targets (the base level provided) every day! It’s not all the forms I mean to do, but it’s a great starting point.

Sabbatical Report: Week 7 & 8

October 29, 2013

Oops. I let Week 7′s report slide and now we’re a day after the week 8 report is due.

Sorry! More illness gyrations and the whirlwind of exciting possibilities which need lots of nurturance has gotten in the way. I have read a couple of non-fiction books (brief reviews coming). My paper writing is far behind as is my paper reading. Haven’t programmed for a while. But I think it’s fair to say that grant proposals are on track if in a weird way :)

As I go into the last week of shingles meds (last dribblets of prednisone) I seem to be having more vertigo (completely knocked out on Thurs night, Fri, Sat). At least, it’s sub-spinning level, but I have had two falls, one on concrete. Not fun!

Thanks to a very kind person, Tahir Kahn, I did not feel compelled to drag myself to San Francisco to give my paper at CIKM. Given the low level crap I’ve been feeling, I’m just as glad.

I seem to have just enough energy and focus and clear head time to barely stay above water. Grr!

Ada Lovelace Day: Birte Glimm

October 16, 2013

Ada Lovelace day snuck up on me again this year. Last year, I missed it altogether (it really was crisesy with the courses and other things! really!) and it’s pretty late now. But I’m determined not to get one in. And this year at least my pick is easy because I’ve thought about it for a while: Birte Glimm.

Birte Glimm

Birte graduated from the University of Manchester in 2008 and was (jointly) awarded best School Thesis for her dissertation entitled: Querying Description Logic Knowledge BasesThis is one of those serious, scary, fairly hard (for me) complexity theoretic theses. If you just look at her DBLP page, you’ll see the breath and depth of her thinking, which perpetually humbles me. She handled the SPARQL working group with aplomb (not easy!) and got the whole Entailment Regime stuff to spec (which I certainly failed to do). Plus, she hacks reasoners like HermiT.

So, hard math, brilliant outreach, excellent programmer, and amazing person. I think it’s fair to say that she has gotten much more than her fair share of shit professionally and personally, and handled it with grace and determination while still doing absolutely stellar work. My only criticism is that she sometimes needs me to remind her to say “No” more often and value her own stuff over the wants of others. Fortunately, as she’s quick to demonstrate on some of my insaner requests, she can get back to “No” pretty quickly.

Since I have to catch up on my paper reading plans, I’ll try to blog some of her papers over the next week to make this all rather more technical. This is not only fun, but on my list since I need a bunch of her stuff for various research purposes.

Sabbatical Report: Week 6

October 16, 2013

“Good” start: Missing the Monday post!

Good reason: I’ve got a case of the shingles which developed over the past week culminating with a fairly raging case on Friday and a trip to the ER (after going to a Minute Clinic). There is head involvement (most of the blisters are on the left side of my scalp) with a secondary infection on my left ear. The head involvement put(s?) me at risk for sight and (more probably) hearing damage. ENT visit for tomorrow.

This killed my travel for this week (to visit Stanford) and perhaps for ISWC (which is next week). And it’s left me moving slow and trying to take it easy. While a sabbatical is not a vacation (it really isn’t! I’ve already pulled an all-nighter last week and that was with the (unknown to me) shingles!), the flexibility of the sabbatical has made this one of my all time better convalescences. Right now, in a normal term, I’d have COMP60411 running right now, which means at least a half day of lecture to prep and give, tons of coursework to design (and grade), plus 3-4 3rd year project students, plus plus plus. Obviously, my awesome colleagues (esp. Uli) would step in, but I find it really hard to 1) not worry about it and 2) not pitch in as soon as possible which is usually way too soon. (I had a mild 1.5 hour telecon today and I was beat after it.) Plus, the weather has been great and Swarthmore (and this house) are super duper lovely and comfortable. I’ve been sitting outside on the college lawn reading about medical reasoning and snoozing as my energy goes.

Last week, when I was thinking these were all “normal stuff to live with” and doing crazy things like commuting 2 hrs by train, my misery index was far far higher.

Two things prevented my from seeing medical attention sooner: 1) confusing about the symptoms (including completely failed googling) and 2) the stupid US health care system.

Toward 1: I had skin pain and sensitivity on my left arm since at least Monday (and was feeling crappy Sat and Sun). But it was hot and me and heat and my arthritis all don’t get along at all. Skin sensitivity is my standard state and skin pain is not uncommon (e.g., one of my major systems during my first arthritic flare and recurs with colds and flu). Zoe had a cold; Mom had a cold; maybe I had one. The pain got more intense and started spreading, but maybe that was just what happened. Maybe my arthritis was flaring up? Who knows! I googled for skin pain and really got a whole lot of nothing.

The second symptom were blisters. But the blisters were on my scalp. I was feeling random head skin pain (which was weird) but I’d been having that for a while too. It’s not like I could see the blisters. I thought I was having some annoying scalp acne. When it clearly went way beyond that, I thought I might be developing psoriasis. (I have psoriatic arthritis, but unlike my father and esp. my poor brother, I’ve never before developed the plaques, but there’s a first time!)

This was freaking me out. Active psoriasis plaques can be a huge fucking annoying deal and set off round after round of treatment attempts for the rest of your life. I really didn’t that, and I really didn’t want that here, in the US, on (university supplied) travel insurance with a new rheumatologist. If it were just all these things, I could probably ride it out for the next 9 months. WHICH INSANE THINKING!

On Friday, things clearly were progressing fast and weird. Zoe looked at the blisters and they didn’t match so we decided to seek treatment which didn’t mean “calling up doctors”. It meant “figuring out our insurance”. Which is pure evil. The CVS Minute Clinic would give us an appointment quick and had bounded prices, so we went. The nurse practitioner looked at me and said, “It’s probably shingles. Go to the ER. Today.” (Though she tried to avoid that because of my uncertain insurance status and apologised for sending me to appropriate treatment. She was a star. She code our visit as a “partial visit” since she was referring us to help cut our cost. She really rocked.

Toward 2: All the US system of insurance does is drive up cost, introduce unnecessary stress on patients and their families, impede and distort care decisions from EVERYONE in the system, cut people off from care, and bankrupt people. I seriously contemplated flying back to England because I knew my cost would be bounded by my ticket price.

In the NHS, I would have called NHS direct or dropped into a clinic or made a GP appointment or gone to the UK equivalent of the ER and never would I have thought about a bill. I would have aimed for the minimal intervention because who the hell wants to go to an ER. But a whole level of stress and fear about the whole experience simply would not exist. The disease was scary enough without the idea that I might impoverish my family!

Now, I have the many graces of a good job, actually pretty decent insurance, a loving and capable spouse and a super flexible job not to mention access to a car, computer, mobile phone, lovely housing, disease course is improving etc. etc. etc. etc. That is, I have it pretty damn sweet and this extra nonsense was STILL awful. I am just gutted to think about people with more severe conditions and no insurance, difficult transport, shaky job, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. What a HELL!

And what do we, as a country, get for this. One of the most expensive health care system in the world, i.e., the least bang for our medical buck.

Screw. That.

Obamacare isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we had. It gets us closer to universal coverage (and those states resisting Medicaid expansion and John Roberts of the Supreme Court should face trial for crimes against humanity for what they’ve done).

The Republican terrorist tantrum to defund Obamacare i.e., screw sick people or we BLOW UP THE WORLD and btw we’ll screw people before then to show we mean business? It’s just evil.

You, my friends and relatives who supported any Republican in recent memory are complicit in the systematic infliction of suffering on your fellow citizens while damaging your own future. I find it literally disgusting and maddening. Figure this out please. Now. Show some fucking patriotism and solidarity and plain common sense.

On the plus side of all this, I did have an interesting chat with the NP at the Minute Clinic about their electronic heath care record system and identified a key complaint that our collaboration is meant to address, so I’ve started designing experiments around it. My Siemens pals have already been in talks with them, but it was cool to get a ground level view. Maybe I can have her come in for a few tests and experiments!


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