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January 25, 2005

Hiking the World

Last Friday, The Sweetness and I, in a moment of calculated whim familiar only to bean-counters and white-coaters, decided to venture out into the frigid cold and buy a GPS receiver. My reasons were manifold, the most obvious being that pilots, as a rule, think GPS is the best thing since pre-cleaved loaves, or at least ILS. Her reason? She wanted to go geocaching.

Geocaching, I am convinced, is a sport only a techie could devise. Basically, the idea is that someone puts some stuff in a container, secures it in the ground, and reports its coordinates on the website. Then the race is on to be the first to find it. While in principle the game could be played by judicious use of topographical maps, astrolabes, or Loran C, in practice GPS is the tool of choice for discovering the cache. Then, sign your name to the logbook, take an item, leave an item, and remove the ticks from your exposed skin. Additional facets to the sport include multi-cache routes, puzzles where one must divine the coordinates, "travelbugs" which are supposed to move among the various caches, and withering arguments among proponents of WGS84 vs NAD27 geodetic datums.

Okay, maybe I made that last one up. Anyway, we went looking for the cache nearest my house (probably only 300 ft away), but the snow kept it well hidden. So then we went searching for a cache in Long Lake Provincial Park. We emerged tired but victorious from the park a few hours later, newly enlightened on 2 important points:

1. Just because you can point to where it is doesn't mean it's easy to get to, and

2. Frozen lakes make great shortcuts.

Posted by The Greatness at 02:50 PM | Comments (2)

January 20, 2005

The Inaugural Blog Entry

What was that groan I heard? The 20th you say?

Didn't watch four more years become a grim reality. How could I, when I was in the midst of a Canadian blizzard and the power went out? The workday was as unproductive as... well, a computational chemist in front of a computer with no power. The only tangible mark I made on the day was create a ruckus with my buds over at the team blog. Sigh. I'm gonna take my leave of this electronic beast and drive to The Sweetness's house for supper.

Posted by The Greatness at 04:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2005

Those Tricky Stickers

You know the ones I'm talking about:

Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living beings. This material should be studied with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

As a scientist I'm supposed to tow the party line on such things, holding these two sentences in about as much esteem as Leo X held the 95 Theses. But as a lover of freedom, I find myself quite unable to condemn them. In fact I could even see how one might call the lowly "evolution sticker" an essential political document for our time.

Let me explain.

I should start in a prosecutorial mode. First, the content of the sticker contains several grievous errors of the strictly scientific kind. Evolution is a theory and a fact, and it is most certainly not aimed at the origin of "living beings."
(Darwin's book, after all, was called The Origin of Species, not The Origin of Life.) Second, the sticker makes use of a common use of "theory" meaning "conjecture" as opposed to "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena". This definition, while valid outside the science classroom, could confuse students into thinking that what they're being taught is vain speculation. Third, the specificity of this warning to only evolution and not, say, botany or microbiology, has the effect of undermining it -- by way of an exhortation for careful and critical consideration. (Crafty creationists!) Simply put, students are going to be told falsehoods about the state of our knowledge so that their parents might be mollified and their favorite origin story vouchsafed.

Now for the response, which is chiefly a political defense rather than a scientific one:

"The fact of evolution" is on extremely solid ground. (It's actually in the ground.) But "the theory of evolution" is a patchwork of schemas including natural selection, sex, genetic drift, etc. which are still being hashed out, though nobody but the Discovery Institute thinks it's an impossible mission. If scientists are going to complain about students getting confused, they, too, should admit they were absent when the English teacher went over the principles of clear writing. Who thought it was a good idea to use the same term to denote both the data and the hypothesis? Did they grow up in a shadow world where Sherlock Holmes found a half-used cigar, a print in the mud, and a dog that didn't bark, and called them all "Moriarty"?

Speaking of which, what is meant by "evolution" anyway? Darwin's theory and subsequent improvements, yes, but beyond that, what should be taught? If it's abiogenesis as "the origin of life," then people should be critical, because there's not a bit of evidence for it except the trivial evidence: we're all here. Also, what shall we teach on the issue of teleology? Does evolution necessarily result in more complexity? Several generations of evolutionists (including co-discover A. R. Wallace, Teilhard de Chardin, and Dobzhansky) say yes, and they all agreed there was a very powerful reason (omnipotent, really) for that. But Dawkins, Dennett, and the other contemporary popularizers require "directionless" to be part of a truthful (read: orthodox) education in evolution -- and they drive the political discussion.

Let's be realistic here. Most of kids aren't paying attention anyway, because they're high school students. Those that listen are still statistically unlikely to become biologists, and the knowledge will do them little good in their careers. And only a miniscule number of them are going to be evolutionary biologists. But all of them will have some preconceived / received notion of how we got here. It's disingenuous to make evolution out as "theory", but it has to be equally disingenuous to pretend that 1) science has it all figured out, 2) religion is wrong, and 3) questions that come out of a critical discussion of these matters don't have a place in the science classroom.

Parents are the recipients of the fallout from this kind of "education," and they are almost univerally unprepared to give meaningful answers. They're just adults trying to give their children a good start in life, which, in the opinion of many, requires a moral training of some kind. Sure, they may be operating under all sorts of prejudices and misunderstandings about evolutionary theory and science in general. But they still have the vote, and I'm not about to tell citizens to shut up and take it, for they have the right to decide whether, and how, these things should be taught.

What did I mean about the sticker being an essential political document? That the variegated texture of truth doesn't fit very well in a centralized knowledge base, mandated by the public trust. Universal public education has the effect of making the law the arbiter of truth. Say you believe X, and I believe ~X. There is much evidence for X, many believe, and so you and they convince the government to begin teaching X for the sake of the public good. Does this make X more true? No. X's truth is not dependent on who believes it. If X is innocuous, then it makes little difference if I retain the right to demur. Say I even believe ~X for bad reasons. Are my reasons made worse by putting the force of the law behind X? No. Yet in the public sphere, it does. What if X were not innocuous, but rather something environmentally damaging, or crypto-fascist, or demogoguery?

What we decide about truth has consequences.

Posted by The Greatness at 03:43 PM | Comments (0)

Creation/Evolution Must-Reads and Misses

#include "old-thegreatness-dot-com-stuff.h"

while()
{
check_em_out(books);
}

Must-reads

The blind watchmaker: why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design
Richard Dawkins

Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life

Daniel Dennett

Both of this books -- one by a zoologist, the other by a philosopher of consciousness -- make a sweeping, unflinching (even bigoted) case for evolution and go on to examine what they believe to be necessary consequences: God does not exist, there is no afterlife, free will is an illusion as we are essentially just robots, etc. A goodly portion of both books is devoted to trashing Stephen Jay Gould's lukewarm semi-adaptationist position on Darwinism, and I don't blame them one bit for that. Dawkins, unsurprisingly, spends more time discussing the biological evidence, while Dennett is more concerned with demolishing teleology and promoting the so-called "strong AI" that he believes is indistinguishable from our own "consciousness." These two books should be read for their convincing physical cases for evolution, but make no mistake, they aim to make the analogous metaphysical cases for atheism.

Dawkins and Dennett believe that evolution entails atheism, and that those who disagree probably haven't thought about it very carefully. In fact, much like the logical positivists of days long past, they hold that the notion of God is nonsensical and deserves no intellectual standing whatsoever. They have discovered the answer to everything, it seems. Abiogenesis? Well, not proven technically, but Dawkins says any alternative is a "feeble argument" because it doesn't explain anything (whether something conforms with the facts apparently matters little). Fine-tuning arguments about the universe? Simply silly, says Dennett: we merely need to postulate a Darwinian multiverse generator and explain those away. Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, why not? (Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations explores this topic and seriously considers this possibility that something has no ontological advantage over nothing. In which case, he mused, the default position in an existence proof could just as easily be pro rather than con. Whence Dennett's opposition to theism? But I digress.) Both men, purveyors of what Nozick called "coercive philosophy," can be counted on to denigrate and question the motives of anyone who would use "pseudoscience" against their impeccable position. Attached is the OED's definition so you can judge for yourself whether that's the pot calling the kettle black: a pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on the scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have.

Also worth reading by Dawkins: Climbing mount improbable

and by Dennett: The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul (co-written with Hofstadter of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame)

The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark

Carl Sagan

Part memoir, part debunker's manual, Sagan's The Demon-haunted World is a treasure. He earnestly proclaims science and reason as the hope for mankind, unmasking the delusions of the world with a mixture of clarity and kindness not often seen in the skeptical literature (e.g. he is always careful to identify his misguided creationist quarry as being of the "literal" variety, and he respects religion even though he thinks it jumps to unwarranted conclusions). Like Michael Shermer in Why People Believe Weird Things, Sagan is inclined to think that good science is done by imaginative, yet disciplined, people; and (he thinks) disciplined people don't believe anything until it's proven. To that end, he includes what he calls a "Baloney Detection Kit" with a list of fallacies and questionable tactics employed by cranks. Sagan wrote a beautiful book that I've read and re-read, each time enjoying it anew. But... (you could have guessed)

I have two minor beefs with Sagan's book. The first has to do with his all-or-nothing view of belief. It's been my experience that I tend to hold beliefs of varying confidence. I am extremely confident, for example, that 2 + 2 = 4, but less so regarding the Schrödinger equation, though I believe it also. Do I believe in Hawking's theories of black hole formation? The theory fits the evidence, I'm told, so I'd put it in the "plausible" category. And so on. My second complaint involves his list of "fallacies" on pp. 212-215, many of which are not broadly logical fallacies at all. In fact, some of them betray a political bias, especially "inconsistency" and "short term vs. long term." He obviously disbelieves in mutually-assured destruction and believes in the necessity of space exploration, but were his reasons for belief based on unimpeachable reason in those cases?

The case for the Creator: a journalist investigates scientific evidence that points toward God

Lee Strobel

Strobel has a background as a hard-hitting, "just-the-facts" reporter, and as an atheist. He has, however, left much of that incredulity behind since becoming a Christian. This book's format largely mirrors his previous books The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ, presenting its cumulative case by way of interviews pieced together with personal narratives. There are no hostile witnesses in this book, which is disappointing; Strobel gives his former opinions as the other side, but this device tends to generate straw men rather than solid objections. Nevertheless, he asks at least one tough question per interview. The material in this book gives a decent overview of the in-vogue cosmological, astronomical, and biological (Intelligent Design) arguments for Christian theism -- it's "Reason for the Hope Within-lite." Its hidden curriculum can be contrasted with Pennock's book, listed below.

Intelligent design creationism and its critics: philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives

Robert Pennock, editor

Rather than attempt to read Behe, Dempski, and Johnson -- to say nothing of the Discovery Institute's burgeoning library of follow-ups -- I recommend this comprehensive, albeit biased, collection. It includes the core arguments for the evolution-as-atheism of Johnson, the irreducible complexity of Behe, and the abstruse "complex specified information" argument of Dempski, as well as Plantinga's peripheral contributions to the area. Rebuttals by well-known evolution proponents follow each article, differing in quality and viewpoint. Curiously, ID proponents don't get a chance to give short remarks on the rebuttals, unlike what is customary in this type of collection. The real reason to check out this volume is to see firsthand the catcalling and stereotypes that each side sometimes employs. In one instance, Johnson writes a three-page note attempting to demonstrate Darwinism as incoherent by (dubiously) linking it to "a form of dualism." Dawkins responds with a paragraph of rebuttal and another page of vitriol against the eeevil lawyer Johnson and how he's been educated beyond his ability to form rational thought. I'm not exaggerating; that's practically a quote.

By the way, I wouldn't bother with Pennock's shorter treatise, Tower of Babel. His best arguments are contained in the larger volume (he at least thinks that he's being fair); and while his discussion on the similarities between Intelligent Design theorists and Raelians is amusing, his analogical argument against ID by way of "evolutionary linguistics" and a literal Babel story is too confused to be of much use.

The Genesis flood: the Biblical record and its scientific implications

John Whitcomb and Henry Morris

Actually, I'm not recommending that you read this book, but take a look at least. It's important to the debate largely due to its grand-daddy status as the bedrock of "creation-science." Using the Scriptures as their ultimate guide, Whitcomb and Morris shoehorned every century-old idea they could into making the facts of geology fit the Genesis story. This is young-earth creationism at its most beguiling, generated by men whose devotion to a literal reading of the Bible trumped science, no matter what the evidence. For their part, I'm sure they felt this philosophical commitment was necessary. But the political odium that belonged to them has been accrued to all other Christian scientists. I suspect that every time a militant Darwinian picks up a book questioning evolution, they read that book as though they're reading this one.

Avoidables

Anything written by
Stephen Jay Gould

Well, maybe not anything. Gould may very well have been the most prolix scientist in history. His passionate, wide-ranging, and fantastically urbane essays, liberally festooned with truly sophisticated adjectives and obscure Latin sayings, left readers in awe of his wordsmithery. To that end, I submit that his baseball book, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, is likely a good read; his real strength in natural history emphasized the history, as Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle ably demonstrated. But Gould's coruscating writing style largely got in the way of his scientific message. I wrestled in vain with his behemoth, 1,433-page The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, hoping to glean a thorough understanding of evolution in among the desultory ramblings on architecture, Baupläne, creationism, and many other things that I am loathe to further name abecedarially. Gould apparently believed that penning a simple declarative sentence would be the death of him. In fact, on many occasions in the book he seemed to be apologizing in advance for writing one! If there were such a thing as a Gould drinking game, "-- I can't think of another way to say this --" would be a social opportunity. (As it happens, he died shortly after publication, so maybe he had good reason to think thus.) On a more substantive note, many of his critics feel that Gould was unduly self-congratulatory, expertly weaving a slanted view of evolution which feels mystical and vaguely Marxist.

Incidentally, since Gould freely proclaimed his Marxism, his works stand particularly vulnerable to such charges. He held to the belief that some scientific research, such as sociobiology, should be resisted merely on the basis of its consequences to man's equality, regardless of its possible truth. His much-celebrated polemic The Mismeasure of Man, conveniently reprinted with new material contra The Bell Curve, illogically tried to crush all notions that there might be any utility in intelligence testing or that intelligence might be measurably different between populations. I don't happen to believe that Herrnstein and Murray had anything approaching proof, but they were not simply trumpeting pseudoscience. They were maligned in every public forum, largely by people who made no attempt to understand their work, simply because they had some evidence that intelligence was hereditary. Admittedly, it is a dangerous idea. Maybe Dennett would like to try his hand at this one.

Can a Darwinian be a Christian?: the relationship between science and religion

Michael Ruse

Ruse, it must be charitably said, seems like a nice guy. His books are thoroughly anti-polemical and he evenhandedly plumbs the social consequences of evolution in Mystery of Mysteries and From Monad to Man, pointing out everyone's biases along the way. Like Dawkins, Dennett, William Provine, and (strangely enough) ID bigwig Phillip Johnson, Ruse believes that if evolution is true, then naturalism is true. But unlike Dawkins, who is an evangelical atheologian, Ruse doesn't think that Darwinism necessarily gets in the way of Christianity. To be sure, one must be willing to accept an old earth and a continuous creation. And maybe that affects the status of Adam and Eve somewhat, but the spiritual message of the Fall and subsequent salvation history can be understood in an organism-agnostic context, even extending the grandeur of God's mercy to multiple galaxies. But his thoroughgoing naturalism damns Christians with faint praise. What, precisely, is left of Christianity after we deny all miracles, even the resurrection? Ruse's tenuous position doesn't feel much more comforting than Gould's non-overlapping magisteria, where religion reigns over everything... that isn't in the universe. I believe science and religion can be harmonized, but any paradigm that gives God no right to enter the world He created is a non-starter.


Posted by The Greatness at 04:07 AM | Comments (0)

Why I am Not an Angry Libertarian

Another reprint. If you didn't see it the first time, well, a certain NBC jingle comes to mind...

When I was an elementary-school child, keeping myself company during recess while the other kids played, I formulated three specific propositions concerning my peers:


  1. They didn't like me.
  2. They did like each other.
  3. They were all really dumb and unworthy of my time.

(Sadly, proposition 1 was probably true at that age but has since been proven false, at least as strongly stated. Proposition 2 is generally true if you believe in humanity. And proposition 3 is demonstrably false, but some days I can't help but wonder...)


Naturally, my parents were a little concerned about my antisocial behavior and sought to involve me in all sorts of group activities. Because I love them -- and because the courts do not typically emancipate ten-year-olds -- I went along with it, but I still didn't like talking to children my own age. I felt like some kind of alien until I got to middle school, where I met some people who were like me. Suddenly I wasn't alone anymore; I was part of a band of "differently socialized" brothers (and one sister) that formed my core group of friends through high school and beyond. In college I found lots of people like me, and I continue to be surrounded by such people in my workplace. I was glad for it, of course, but I puzzled as to the reason. Why didn't I feel understood until I got to college?


Prof. David Keirsey's highly-recommended books Please Understand Me answered my question, and the knowledge proved to be a revelation. His study of personality types and their fundamental interactions put a much-needed theoretical framework into my thinking about other people. More than that, it explained why I needed a theoretical framework, while others didn't. I'll share my general notion of temperament theory in way-too-short order at this time (or you can take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, learn a lot more, and then skip to my political conceit):


  1. People have different personalities, perhaps even from birth.
  2. They cannot not be those personalities, for to act against one's own nature is harmful.
  3. The personalities can be divided into major branches called temperaments:

    • Guardians (denoted SJ; 40% of population)
    • Artisans (SP; 40%)
    • Idealists (NF; 15%)
    • Rationals (NT; 5%)

  4. Each of these temperaments can be subdivided into role variants based on extrovert/introvert preference (E/I; 75%/25%) and what I prefer to think of as organized/disorganized preference (J/P; 50%/50%), for a total of sixteen personality types (not important to this discussion, but you can always count on The Greatness to be unnecessarily thorough).


I am an INTJ (1%). So is Keirsey, I've heard. So it makes sense that I like the way his book explains things. Other people might not be so enthusiastic. Even other NTs, for that matter: those who have accepted a slightly different set of core propositions might call this stuff "pseudoscience." (More on that some other time, perhaps.) To them I say, "MBTI has been studied and deemed useful for over half a century, it's internally consistent, it has predictive value, and it's no less falsifiable than anything Stephen Jay Gould ever did with dinosaur bones. It may be soft science, but it's still science." To everybody else, well... all the SPs have likely stopped reading by now, if they ever started. The SJs saw the title and are waiting for me to start bashing Libertarians (and maybe Republicans). And a lot of NFs are genuinely interested in this stuff already, having seen it in their psychology classes. The lucky few members of my opposite complement ENFP (3%) don't need to read the book, because they were born with this knowledge and apply it fairly well.


So what does temperament have to do with politics? Consider the libertarian philosophy, which stands for laissez faire capitalism, personal responsibility, and individual freedom. Libertarians truly believe that people will cooperate if they live under a government based on reason. It's not so much that they believe in the goodness of people in any ethical sense, but they do believe in the competence of people to make their own life decisions. Of course, the government in America (or Canada, or any other country for that matter) doesn't look like anything Ayn Rand ever suggested: it's corrupt, inefficient, and often ridiculous. Partisan Libertarians hate this insanity and will argue to anyone who will listen that things will work better if we have privatized roads, schools, and post offices. And I agree with them, with one significant caveat. I, for one, would enjoy living in John Galt's utopia. But I'm an NT. So are most libertarians.


The Libertarian Party has a minor role in American politics, due in part to the unfair laws enacted by the two major parties to keep them, and other third parties, out of the political process. But mostly it's because there aren't that many of us. To the other 95%, libertarianism sounds like that "They Saved Lisa's Brain" episode of the Simpsons, where the local Mensa society takes over the town government and passes laws that everybody else didn't like. I still think the LP should fight for change, but appealing to reason won't win elections in a democracy. Fortunately, I'm not the only one who thinks so; check out Dagny Sharon's tactic brief (ya think her parents were Objectivists?). Here are my own thoughts on how we might win some more votes for libertarian policies using the resolving power of temperament:



As much as we rationals think it's stupid, we may always have an "imperfect" government, and we need to be okay with that. We must accept the notion that a large majority of our citizenry, endowed with the same natural rights as us, is not interested in self-reliance and will continue to vote for paternalism, knee-jerk solutions to complex problems, and maudlin wars on social ills -- unless we convince them otherwise, in their own words. No other victory is logically possible.

Posted by The Greatness at 03:45 AM | Comments (1)

Plantinga's Epistemology

Since Raul recently wrote an excellent piece touching on how important it is to know why you know -- and since I'm trying to insert old TG.com stories into the new archive -- what follows is a reprint of my retrospective on noted philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga. (More current stuff on the subject can be had at Certain Doubts, which is possibly the most abstruse blog in existence.)


Recently I wrote someone a check for $500. I believed it would clear because my bank account had over $500 in it. I said to myself, "I know this check will clear." And it did actually clear. However, I discovered two things after the check cleared: 1) I mistakenly wrote the check from the wrong account, which did not, at the time of writing, have $500 in it; and 2) unbeknownst to me, my tax refund was directly deposited in that account the day before the check cleared, bringing its balance above $500. So even though I had good reason to believe something would happen and it did, I didn't know it was going to. (By the way, this is an excellent reason why a greedy application of Ockham's Razor isn't advisable. The most parsimonious explanation for the check clearing would not have been the truth.) This sort of accidental problem of knowledge is called a Gettier problem, after Edmund Gettier, who wrote a hugely influential paper simply titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" Now many, many people have written responses to that paper, because before Gettier it was generally believed that knowledge equaled justified true belief (though Wittgenstein had touched on it previously, albeit unceremoniously). Quite of few of them would fix my Gettier problem by saying that my justification was not really justification at all. But if my justification was not sufficient, how much more careful should I have been? Do I have to be able to justify everything I know? And what do I mean, exactly, when I say I'm "justified" in believing something?


In Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga explored the nature of what he calls "warrant," that stuff which transmutes true belief into knowledge. He argued that the JTB paradigm, by philosophical standards a relative newcomer born of the Enlightenment, is inherently normative; to be justified is merely to do one's epistemic duty, and to do otherwise is to invite ridicule for being irrational. Moreover, he showed that the noetic system that held to JTB, classical foundationalism, was itself irrational by its own standard. How was this accomplished? Well, classical foundationalism places an epistemic burden on every rational animal: if you say you know something, you had better have a good reason; and for every reason, you had better have a good reason for that, too; and so on, until you reach an unimpeachable epistemic core of beliefs which, being "properly basic," simply could not be false. So, in principle, for every proposition you accept, you should be able to explain how it was derived from such obviously true statements as

2 + 2 = 4

or

All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.

But, Plantinga asked, what about the proposition

For every proposition you accept, you should be able to explain how it was derived from such obviously true statements as '2 + 2 = 4' or 'all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal,'

which one must accept if classical foundationalism is the correct way to view knowledge? Is it properly basic? Surely not. Nor does it proceed from properly basic statements, however indirectly. Thus, he concluded, there is something wrong with classical foundationalism at its core.


Plantinga has become famous in philosophical circles for such petard-hoisting feats of logic. In his early work, The Nature of Necessity, he tackled the esoteric field of modality with humor and aplomb ("Could Socrates have been an alligator?" asks one section on the potentialities of possible worlds), building up principles to be used in the ontological argument (God must exist in all possible worlds) and the problem of evil. Plantinga further elaborated these positions (among others) in God, Freedom, and Evil and God and Other Minds, and restated them in his third volume on warrant, Warranted Christian Belief. The last makes an impressive case for the rationality of theism in general and for Calvin's instigation of the Holy Spirit, the sensus divinitatus, as the external motivator of such belief. He maintains that through this mechanism, one can know that God exists in way that is properly basic. But since evidence is not required for theistic belief, neither can one expect to bludgeon an unbeliever into belief using evidence, however impressive. This theory of knowledge, known as "reformed epistemology," has played an essential role in the development of so-called "negative apologetics" that defend faith against charges of incoherence and irrationality. At the same time, it has refocused efforts on positive apologetics that approach evangelism with an understanding of how one changes their beliefs. (For a sampling of such work, I recommend the essay collection Reason for the Hope Within.)


I hold Alvin Plantinga in very high esteem, but I can't say agree with everything he's ever said. I'll close with some remarks on his recent work.


Plantinga has lately focused on two items: the problems of naturalism within science; and the consequent need for a replacement, "Augustinian" science that respects "what we know as Christians." In this, he is at least peripherally allied with the Intelligent Design movement. As a Christian who is also a scientist, I can identify with his feeling that there ought to be some way of connecting the two, though I'm not sure it will be widely regarded as "science." But I'm more concerned about his naturalism argument. Frankly, his probabilistic attack on naturalism through "Darwin's Doubt" seems itself rather dubious. The argument put forward by Plantinga, dating in part back to Darwin, states that one's own beliefs cannot be trusted if evolution is true, since evolution has no intrinsic interest in producing organisms that produce consistently true beliefs. He believes that the likelihood is low that evolution produced such a mechanism, therefore the only way we can believe what our own minds are telling us is to embrace theism, which provides an explanation for our rationality. Naturalists argue that, in fact, the likelihood is high; so the argument as formulated amounts, I fear, to yet another God-of-the-gaps position that erodes people's confidence in theism.


A probabilistic attack appears even less promising given that, in previous work, Plantinga set out to prove (!) that Christianity cannot be defended based on its probability and must be accepted as properly basic through sensus divinitatus -- which was installed within us by "God or evolution or both," as he is fond of saying. This anti-evidentialist position is supremely important for Plantinga's entire system of philosophy. So why would he do violence to it, in the face of tremendous consensus on evolution, by asserting that if evolution is true, then no such belief-producing mechanism is possible? Perhaps the opportunity to do some more petard-hoisting was simply irresistible, especially when considering the sanctimony of his naturalist opponents. The trouble is that evolution is true, even if naturalism isn't. There was no need for Plantinga to step into this mess, absent his logician's skepticism. There are already theistic evolutionary paradigms in which a sensus divinitatus could be said to develop because it gave certain creatures an advantage (see for example Teilhard or Dobzhansky). He might even say that the evolution was not directed toward particular body plans but that this aspect of the process was, as they say, "ineluctable" and resulted in creatures that could both 1) rule their environment and 2) know God in a basic way. It was this creature that God created in His image, and in our world, that creature is man. In one of Plantinga's possible worlds, maybe all of us, even Christ, was an alligator...

Posted by The Greatness at 03:11 AM | Comments (0)

The Greatness Blogs

Well, I've fought it long enough... the old "web magazine" format of TheGreatness.com was an idea best left to someone with a few more readers and a lot more time. So I am going to start blogging. I have moved the material I intend to keep from the old site onto the sidebar. Other stuff I will reprint in redacted form. If you want to see the originals, well, you can, provided you remember the individual URLs. (Think Wayback Machine.)

Posted by The Greatness at 02:21 AM | Comments (0)