You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals

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The song of the title of this post is a catchy and highly amusing piece that suggests that if we’re just mammals we should have sex. It’s sort of a low brow version of Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress. Instead of Time’s wingéd chariot, we should do what mammals do on the Discovery Channel. Except, humans don’t. They do something special. Think about it. We aren’t dogs, monkeys, dolphins or bowerbirds, we’re humans. We are a species (which, as I keep reminding folk, is the noun of “special”).

So when Phillip Johnson, the father of the modern intelligent design movement, attacks Christopher Hitchens for calling “great men” “mammals”, and points out:

While Hitchens never refers to the authorities on his side as “mammals,” reserving that category for those whom he wishes to belittle, it will not escape the reader that if “great men” are only mammals, then so are scientists, including the esteemed Charles Darwin and the not-quite-so-esteemed Richard Dawkins, and so, of course, is Hitchens himself. Which raises the question: Why should we take seriously any speculation by a mere mammal, or even the consensus of mammal opinion, about the origin of its species, no matter how much evidence the mammals imagine themselves to have gathered?

… we might be inclined to agree. If we’re just mammals, then we shouldn’t pay attention to Hitchens or Dawkins or Darwin, right?

I call this Darwin’s Monkey Mind Puzzle. Darwin wrote near the end of his life:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? [Letter to William Graham, 1881]

It is recently the argument presented by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga against evolutionary theory - it’s self defeating. If evolution is true, then we have no warrant for thinking that evolution is true, ergo Augustine is right. Or something. I would like to discuss this a little, reprising some arguments Paul Griffiths and I have presented in a forthcoming paper. On my blog.

58 Comments

So our mammal minds dream up gods and devils and we’re supposed to believe in those because our minds can’t fully figure out evolution because we’re made from evolutionary processes.

Didn’t Bryan deny he was a mammal at the Scopes Trial? Neither Bryan or Johnson have hair or suckle their young.

I thought Johnson looked like a Pelycosaur.

It is recently the argument presented by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga against evolutionary theory - it’s self defeating. If evolution is true, then we have no warrant for thinking that evolution is true.

Alvin Plantinga just made a total fool of himself again.

If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know that xianity it the One True Religion?

If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know evolution is real?

If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know anything is true or real?

Implicit in Plantinga’s gibberish is the assertion without proof that evolved brains are unreliable. Well they may not be perfect but we are the dominant species on the planet. We have huge telescopes in orbit and robots on Mars and around Saturn. We live in a Hi Tech civilization that would be magic to the ancients. Our brains are good enough to accomplish all that we have accomplished so far.

All Plantinga has done with his god given brain is play silly word games that a middle schooler could see through.

The short answer is that nothing that exists in this universe, including thinking mammals, violates any laws or rules of the universe without eventually going extinct.

Corollary: In a sufficiently robust society in which fools are protected from the consequences of their stupid thoughts and behaviors and allowed to reproduce, a sufficient number of them can multiply to the point of bringing down that society.

While PT is celebrating anniversaries, this reminds me of another big one. It will soon be 10 years since the DI’s dog-and-pony show before Congress. The high point was Nancy Pearcey’s “you and be baby ain’t nothing but mammals,” to which a spokesman from the American Physical Society remarked “so much for the pretense that the debate is over the science.”

This argument is not relevant to evolution.

It is really about reproduction.

If we individuals come about by naturalistic processes, how can we trust our knowledge?

It is not about the origin of species (or populations), for knowledge does not belong to the species, but to the individual.

I have to admit, Plantinga’s “argument” is one of the main reasons why I find it difficult to take philosophy seriously.

I mean, if one were to state such a silly and obviously bogus argument in a scientific venue, the result would be that you would get laughed at and ignored, because the argument is so clearly without merit - for the reasons you describe.

But if a philosopher like Plantinga states it, he gets a whole book of responses directed at him, and many people still think he is doing good work.

Something is clearly wrong there.

raven said: If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know that …

If our brain is designed, how do we know?

If our knowledge is merely what our designers want us to believe, are we supposed to trust that? If the designers are so devious as to make us believe that we are evolved, rather than designed, how are we going to trust them about other things?

There can be no question that Homo sapiens is a mammal. The creationists prefer to think that we were purposefully designed to be that way. If we are supposed to show deference to the intentions of the designers, then we ought to behave like mammals. While, if our being mammals is merely a result of natural processes, then we cannot infer anything about what we ought to do.

IMHO, Quine had the pithiest answer to Plantinga’s argument:

Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic, but praiseworthy, tendency to die before reproducing their kind

Jeffrey Shallit said:

I have to admit, Plantinga’s “argument” is one of the main reasons why I find it difficult to take philosophy seriously.

Both Johnson and Platinga seem to have a problem with the concept of a category. Its not a thing, its just a way for us humans to make sense of the world. Humans do not suddenly change their nature by being put in the category “mammal,” and scientific information does not suddenly become less useful to society by being put in the category “not 100% reliable.”

Jeffrey Shallit said:

I have to admit, Plantinga’s “argument” is one of the main reasons why I find it difficult to take philosophy seriously.

I mean, if one were to state such a silly and obviously bogus argument in a scientific venue, the result would be that you would get laughed at and ignored, because the argument is so clearly without merit - for the reasons you describe.

But if a philosopher like Plantinga states it, he gets a whole book of responses directed at him, and many people still think he is doing good work.

Something is clearly wrong there.

This is indeed one of the things a goodly number of philosophers think also. Craig’s Kalaam argument strikes me as one of the most banal things I have ever read or heard, but remember that philosophy is not a single unitary profession like mathematics :-) - most of those who react to Plantinga and Craig are themselves “Christian philosophers” also. Those I work with treat those arguments with great disdain.

Paul and I are discussing “evolutionary debunking arguments” which we think work for moral realism and religion, but do not work for cognitive and scientific cases.

Evolution is not self defeating. This argument is self defeating. Indeed, Johnson has made a very good case for not trusting human intuition, instinct, or experience. And that is exactly what we do in science. We do not trust those things.

In science we use the scientific method. We construct hypotheses, we make predictions, we perform repeatable experiments we draw conclusions. This method transcends our human limitations (at least to some degree). This method produces reliable and consistent results that can be used to improve the human condition. This method works. It isn’t perfect and it is still performed by humans. But humans have accomplished some remarkable things, especially considering the fact that we are really mammals that really did evolve.

If anyone tries to tell you that you should not trust human reason, tell them that you will start with the person who told you that.

While OT, Plantiga is an interesting character. I like his attempt to resolve the problem of evil, which he basically does by redefining evil out of existence.

It’s a silly argument.

We demonstrate the utility and efficacy of the mind on a daily basis when we act on information we have stored in our brains and our capacity to reason about that information.

Obviously, we can and do arrive at reliable knowledge.

Besides, the kind of foundationalist arguments people like Johnson want to advance don’t really work at all, and run up against even more insurmountable problems.

How could revelation be considered any kind of reliable knowledge?

In addition, people like Johnson must believe the mind is “fallen” and “indaquate” to comrehend God’s purpose.

raven said:

It is recently the argument presented by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga against evolutionary theory - it’s self defeating. If evolution is true, then we have no warrant for thinking that evolution is true.

Alvin Plantinga just made a total fool of himself again.

If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know that xianity it the One True Religion?

If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know evolution is real?

If our evolved brain is unreliable, how do we know anything is true or real?

Implicit in Plantinga’s gibberish is the assertion without proof that evolved brains are unreliable. Well they may not be perfect but we are the dominant species on the planet. We have huge telescopes in orbit and robots on Mars and around Saturn. We live in a Hi Tech civilization that would be magic to the ancients. Our brains are good enough to accomplish all that we have accomplished so far.

All Plantinga has done with his god given brain is play silly word games that a middle schooler could see through.

Actually Plantinga’s argument is a little more subtle and deceptive than that. What Plantinga is trying to do is reinforce the old TAG argument by saying essentially, “well, clearly if our minds are just mammalian leftovers from an undirected evolutionary process, then they can’t be trusted to actually provide any valid insight into anything. Yet we know that our brains DO provide valid insight into a number of things, thus they can’t be products of an undirected process and thus TAG is reinforced once again! Rejoice oh yea faithful!” Nevermind that TAG has been shown to work in supporting any god, even a non-god, but this is simply question begging at its finest. Plantinga et al never provide any solid reason to accept that a leftover evolved mammalian brain can provide no valid and trustworthy insights and conclusions - they just accept it as true. Further they then generalize all mammalian brains as one thing - as though there is no difference among the cognative abilities of a whole slew of mammals out there. Of course when this is pointed out - such as when debaters against such folk protest the difference between…say…dolphins and sea otters or chimpanzees and voles - they merely tish tish such, insisting that clearly we can’t possibly assess the relative difference in brain power of such “lower animals” since we can’t rely on our brains to reliable recognize such differences. And around and around they go.

Implicit in Plantinga’s gibberish is the assertion without proof that evolved brains are unreliable. Well they may not be perfect but we are the dominant species on the planet. We have huge telescopes in orbit and robots on Mars and around Saturn. We live in a Hi Tech civilization that would be magic to the ancients. Our brains are good enough to accomplish all that we have accomplished so far.

Naw, we only think we have dominance of the planet, civilizations, etc. You see, our brains are designed to think we have evolved. We were really created 20 minutes ago with implanted memories.

Karen S. said: Naw, we only think we have dominance of the planet, civilizations, etc. You see, our brains are designed to think we have evolved. We were really created 20 minutes ago with implanted memories.

Of course, implanted memories are consistent with “intelligent design” or “creation” or “non-naturalism”. Which means that “non-naturalism” is just as vulnerable to the charge of being “self-defeating”.

How can anyone take this argument seriously?

How does this man keep his job at a real, albeit Catholic, university? As raven said, a middle-schooler can argue circles around this joker, yet he gets to teach adults how to ‘reason’?

I doubt that I’ve ever heard of Notre Dame outside the context of football; is a degree as a philosophizing Irishman worth anything at all?

Robin said: Plantinga et al never provide any solid reason to accept that a leftover evolved mammalian brain can provide no valid and trustworthy insights and conclusions - they just accept it as true.

Which makes his argument a good example of garbage in, garbage out.

This brings up an interesting but somewhat OT question. Science (albeit imperfectly) solves the GIGO problem by demanding scientific inputs be reproducible, testable, etc… How does Philosophy, as a discipline, deal with the GIGO problem?

You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals

Is that sort of like “you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”?

It’s just another example of the bastardized “post-modernism” argument for creationism, which is rare in publications (or was until now), but common in conversation and the internet.

“I can’t know that anything is perfectly true, therefore everything is arbitrary, therefore I ‘choose to believe’ that Jesus created the world in ‘six literal days’ and Adam rode on dinosaurs, and what I ‘choose to believe’ is just as ‘true’ as anything else”. I stand by this as a fair paraphrase, with blunt language to drive home the point.

At one level, we can see from this how far contemporary American conservative movement “Biblical literalist” Christianity is from ANY traditional form of Christianity.

On another level, the argument is transparently false, because it is always trivial to note that the arguer behaves exactly as if he or she fully accepts the assumptions and logical methods that underly modern science. They never leave work at 5 PM by jumping out the twentieth story window and expecting to fly home, or anything of the sort. They simply accept all the benefits of logical scientific thought, but selectively deny a few aspects of scientific reality for political reasons.

Note that what makes this whole argument wrong is that it is an argument about objective physical reality. Subjective judgments and choices ultimately may be arbitrary. But the statements “I get into a commercial jet plane and understand that it will usually fly” and “anything could be true so I ‘choose to believe’ that the moon is made of green cheese and inhabited by people with antennae on their heads” are logically contradictory. We know that jet planes usually fly for the same reasons that we know that the moon isn’t made of green cheese.

eric said:

Robin said: Plantinga et al never provide any solid reason to accept that a leftover evolved mammalian brain can provide no valid and trustworthy insights and conclusions - they just accept it as true.

Which makes his argument a good example of garbage in, garbage out.

This brings up an interesting but somewhat OT question. Science (albeit imperfectly) solves the GIGO problem by demanding scientific inputs be reproducible, testable, etc… How does Philosophy, as a discipline, deal with the GIGO problem?

I don’t think philosophy in general has such a mechanism. It is not a tool for discerning the same type of understanding about the world. It depends somewhat on the branch of philosophy, but by and large philosophy is a tool for evaluating the soundness of a given conceptual perspective, not provide an explanation for how some phenomenon works. Philosophy provides a foundation or perhaps a guideline for thinking about certain conditions by establishing rules that govern the limits of how those conditions can behave. For a simple example, the rule A /= -A as a philosophical premise establishes the foundation for how we can deal with objects that are and are not alike. GIGO, then, in some ways becomes irrelevant to philosophy; either the philosophical argument or perspective is useful in other areas of thought and learning or it isn’t.

I certainly think Plantinga’s philosophies are worthless, but such doesn’t mean that philosophy in general is.

To address what is perhaps a minor point, Johnson is simply wrong in his assertion that Hitchens uses “mammal” as a selective insult. Hitchens refers to both himself and mankind collectively as mammals in his book. (I would cite pages, but don’t have it handy right now. Nevertheless, I have read it recently.) If anything is selective here, it is Johnson’s reading of Hitchens’s text.

As for Plantinga, what he is arguing is essentially just a convoluted version of Paley; our brains are reliable, and therefore could not have been produced by evolution (pretty much what Robin wrote above). However, he would argue, and I agree, that claiming that evolution produced a brain that can build telescopes, and therefore can make smart brains, is straight question-begging. You don’t get to assume the premise that you are trying to demonstrate.

He also spends his time trying to rehabilitate the widely-ridiculed ontological argument for God’s existence, which in the hands of any trained philosopher rapidly turns into a joke about leprechauns or ice cream or [insert whatever you are trying to prove] that is probably only funny in our own circles.

How does this man keep his job at a real, albeit Catholic, university? As raven said, a middle-schooler can argue circles around this joker, yet he gets to teach adults how to ‘reason’?

If he’s really, really bad enough it just might start students thinking for themselves. (How do I really know there’s a tree in front of me? How can I trust my evolved eyes and brain in this matter? Well, I could just keep walking and see if I hit something hard…)

I’m not really bad; I’m just designed that way.

However, he would argue, and I agree, that claiming that evolution produced a brain that can build telescopes, and therefore can make smart brains, is straight question-begging. You don’t get to assume the premise that you are trying to demonstrate.

Unlike Plantinga who assumes an evolved brain would be unreliable. Without the slightest bit of evidence.

That our brain evolved is not proven by stating it in a trivial word game. We have several hundred years worth of data on this point.

In science, you don’t get to throw out whatever data you feel like even if it is almost all of it. And pretend that the objective world doesn’t exist. And practice magic, that is, whatever one says or believes about reality makes it true. That is the domain of rather flimsy thought that dares to call itself philosophy.

Philosophical arguments against scientific conclusions are the worst kind of trash. The absolutist idea that uncertainty means one can’t possibly be right, and therefore one must be entirely wrong, is simply nonsense.

I may not be right, but I am a lot righter than those twits.

Philosophical arguments that lead to real contradictions are useful, and may indicate the need for further study. “Gotcha” arguments like this are obvious shit, however elegantly excreted and piled.

Most religions are, philosophically, supported ONLY by “gotchas.” But, then, they are simply the flimsiest faux-intellectual cover for the real business of religion: business.

Why should we take seriously any speculation by a mere mammal, or even the consensus of mammal opinion, about the origin of its species, no matter how much evidence the mammals imagine themselves to have gathered?

Johnson’s question is particularly curious because, insofar as we can access the opinions of other mammals, we take them seriously all the time. We employ guard dogs to decide whether strangers or enemies are approaching, scent hounds to decide which way a prey animal or fugitive went, seeing-eye dogs to decide whether it’s the right time to cross the street. Similarly, in the wild, monkeys and squirrels often detect predators and give alarm calls, which both humans and other species can treat as statements of the accurate opinion “something dangerous approaches.”

(And note in these cases that we’re not just treating the animals as “mindless” surveillance devices; we have no direct access to their senses. Rather, we rely on them to do quite a bit of complex sensory integration and cognitive processing and, essentially, make a judgment call on the question that interests us.)

Of course none of these creatures can tell us in words what their exact opinions are, and I have no idea what Johnson thinks the inner mental life of a dog or a monkey is like. But most of humanity has always seemed perfectly happy to believe that some other animals can have opinions, and that these opinions are often correct within those animals’ “areas of expertise.” Why would the animal-ness of humans be an intuitive stumbling block here?

I would say mammalian brains definitely are unreliable… to an extent. Notice how quickly people “see” things that aren’t really there, like patterns in clouds or personal slights in others’ harmless off-hand remarks. People suffer from serious cognitive malfunctions all the time, some of them as diseases. Our brains are definitely imperfect and not totally reliable.

But by the same token mammalian brains can definitely be reliable… to an extent. Regardless of what ignorant sops like Plantinga and Johnson think being a mammal entails, we can use our brains to manipulate the natural world around us in demonstrably accurate ways. It was a mammal that set foot on the Earth’s moon in a ship designed, flown, and inhabited by mammals. It seems our particular sort of mammal brains work best when there’s lots of them together solving the same problem with standards of testing and reliability. That’s pretty much the doorway to science, a mammalian institution.

Besides the obvious flaw in the “an evolved mind isn’t reliable!” schtick, it should be apparent to anybody that our minds aren’t totally reliable anyway, and that there’s apparently no metric of “reliability” even being invoked. In fact, what we observed happening is exactly what we’d expect of an evolutionary process, since we do have imperfect and less-than-completely-reliable (but good enough) minds, minds whose aspects can readily be found in other creatures to various degrees. I have no illusions that a sufficiently smart race of parrots couldn’t do the same thing we can if given the same advantages of evolutionary pressures and time. Science as developed as our mammal science is only unique because we got there first.

“I used to think that the human mind is the greatest thing in all of nature. Then I remembered what was telling me that…” - Emo Philips

Notice that Johnson first accuses Hitchens of “wish[ing] to belittle”, then he uses the word ‘mere’. Classic hypocrisy.

Which raises the question: Why should we take seriously any speculation by a mere mammal, or even the consensus of mammal opinion, about the origin of its species, no matter how much evidence the mammals imagine themselves to have gathered?

Oh I don’t know. You could say that about anything. For some reason you’re picking on “the origin of its species” as an example though. :D Mammals have evidence for all kinds of stuff. :D Try jumping out of a roof or something and let us mammals know if we’re right or not. :D

Jeremy S. said:

To address what is perhaps a minor point, Johnson is simply wrong in his assertion that Hitchens uses “mammal” as a selective insult. Hitchens refers to both himself and mankind collectively as mammals in his book. (I would cite pages, but don’t have it handy right now. Nevertheless, I have read it recently.) If anything is selective here, it is Johnson’s reading of Hitchens’s text.

That’s not a minor point at all. It’s some good mammal evidence that at least one mammal named Johnson likes to see only what he wants to see. It’s also more evidence for another mammal’s (386sx) theory that kooks don’t like using google at all to fact-check or unconfirm some of their kook biases.

eric said:

Robin said: Plantinga et al never provide any solid reason to accept that a leftover evolved mammalian brain can provide no valid and trustworthy insights and conclusions - they just accept it as true.

Which makes his argument a good example of garbage in, garbage out.

This brings up an interesting but somewhat OT question. Science (albeit imperfectly) solves the GIGO problem by demanding scientific inputs be reproducible, testable, etc… How does Philosophy, as a discipline, deal with the GIGO problem?

You throw away any erasers, retract nothing, and leave everything lying around for the employment of future generations of philosophers.

It doesn’t need to converge on truth; it just has to sound erudite.

It seems that each of us is guilty at times of speaking beyond our knowledge-base and thus leaving our erudite-sounding tidbits around for future generations to misuse.

When we speak in generalized abstractions, we stray from time and space and speak about things we do no know – like any theist.

On the other hand, when our conversations are bounded by time and space, e.g., how to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time, this use of words works quite well and future generations will benefit by remembering them. Indeed such “time and space talk” takes us to the moon.

People relate to one another, cooperate with one another and communicate with one another to accomplish complicated time-space tasks in time and space.

However, living in a world of belief systems which are often untethered to the time and space of it all, we “slip” into speaking about generalized notions of things or about abstract concepts without reference to time or space; and when we do so, we speak the language of a theist with the only difference being a difference of subject, not of substance.

The song of the title of this post is a catchy and highly amusing piece that suggests that if we’re just mammals we should have sex.

Gosh John, haven’t heard that one for ages and ages. Still, not as good as the Goodies’ funky gibbon:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXq8rELhUkw

Yes, I’m that old !

Hi everyone,

I’m a student in the philosophy Ph.D. program at Notre Dame; I work on public discourse about science and how and why science becomes politicized. I’m also a liberal atheist-agnostic, and I took a required class (epistemology) from Al Plantinga a few years ago. Following a link back from John Wilkins’ blog (which I read regularly) I wanted to clear up some misperceptions about Plantinga and Notre Dame that I see in this thread.

First, Plantinga. In that epistemology class, we spent two or three class meetings talking about his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. The point of the argument was never to show that evolutionary theory, as such, is self-defeating or inconsistent or to otherwise cast doubt on humans’ cognitive abilities. Rather, the point is to show that evolutionary theory is self-defeating if it’s taken as a *complete* story about how humans came to have their cognitive abilities. Plantinga’s target is the view that this story doesn’t require any sort of reference to a supernatural intelligence. It’s an argument for supernaturalism and against naturalism, not against evolutionary theory in itself, nor against the simple observation that humans are mammals. You can actually think of it as a positive argument for the moderate, Asa Gray view: a supernatural God somehow guided the natural process of evolution.

The argument falls apart, but in the details, not the broad strokes – like many nonscientists, Plantinga’s never really understood evolutionary theory that well, and he simply asserts (in the form of a rhetorical question, IIRC) that true belief can’t have much in the way of fitness, or won’t be selected for, or similar.

It’s also not a post-modern argument of any sort. Plantinga’s a fairly conservative – politically and theologically – Christian and a robust realist in (almost) every philosophical sense.

Second, Notre Dame. While affiliated with the Catholic Church, there’s no religious or other creed-based test for faculty. Indeed, only about half the faculty are theists – that’s quite high for Anglophone philosophers these days, it’s still less than I think many other commenters would expect – and those are roughly evenly split between Protestant and Catholic Christians. Hardly anyone, grad student or faculty, thinks that Plantinga’s argument is remotely successful, especially among the philosophers of science. Also, we’re considered among the top 20 philosophy departments in the US. The rating system is, to put it mildly, dubious and controversial, and you might consider such ratings entirely meaningless if you have absolutely no respect for philosophy, but among philosophers it’s considered a good department – but *not* because people take Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument seriously.

I found the standard of debate at Notre Dame when I was there for a conference generally good. Plantinga’s argument is, I think, not terribly deep or interesting (he does a little dance off after red herrings) and it involves a serious amount of special pleading. Basically it boils down to Berkeley’s argument - the reason we have confidence in our beliefs is because God matches the contents of our beliefs to the world. The evolutionary aspect is just badly done, despite the notation. It resolves to: if [epistemological] naturalism is true we’d still need supernaturalism because naturalism is unreliable; hence naturalism is false. It’s what Putnam rightly derided as “noetic rays”. I find little of worth - the only interesting question is, for me, how evolution can be truth tracking, and we have our argument for that (which will be in the proceedings of that conference at Notre Dame).

I have two automatic tests for any argument involving evolution.

The first is to check whether the argument is at least as relevant to reproduction as it is to evolution. (Or genetics, metabolism, growth, development, or anything to do with the individual rather than the population. Evolution being about changes in populations. In other words, checking for the fallacies of composition and division.)

The second is to check whether the argument is just as sound when all reference to evolution is removed. (Particularly, that is, what “alternative” to evolution is being promoted.)

The “self-defeating” argument seems to me to fail these tests.

1. Is knowledge a property of the species Homo sapiens? I think, rather, that it is a property of individual humans, one at a time. The “self-defeating” argument therefore would more properly be an argument about how a naturalistic account of the origins of the individual is self-defeating when it comes to make an account of an individual’s knowledge. It might conceivably have something to it if it were formulated as “a naturalistic explanation of reproduction is defeats naturalism”. Or, perhaps, maybe, something about knowledge being dependent upon sense perception. Why always is it formulated with respect to evolution, rather than reproduction or sense perception? I suggest that it is less relevant to evolution than it is to reproduction (supposing that it is relevant to anything biological).

2. Suppose that the argument shows that naturalism is false. What, then, is the alternative? If the human body is “intelligently designed” or created, or some other “non-naturalistic” origin, does that give any warrant for the reliability of knowledge? We all know that the advocates of ID can accommodate “design mistakes”, for, they say, design is no guarantee of “good design”. Likewise, if our knowledge is a product of design, that is no guarantee of its being “true knowledge”. How does “non-naturalism” account for the possibility of knowledge?

The argument may bring up some puzzles about the possibility of knowledge, but it seems to me that evolution is a red herring in this argument.

Couldn’t you at least reference the high class, Cole Porter version of this argument?

From “Let’s Misbehave”

They say that spring means just one thing to little love birds - we’re not above birds! Let’s misbehave!

They say that bears have love affairs and even camels - we’re merely mammals! Let’s misbehave!

I always go for the cheap shots.

I once mailed a professor of history of ideas at the University of Oslo, about what I found rather stupid words about the theory of evolution in a book of his. His response was that the ToE may be good science but bad philosophy. WTF?

There’s a history of analytic philosophy in particular shying away from evolutionary ideas. Wittgenstein, for example, wrote in the Tractatus that

“Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” Tractatus 4.1122

In part this is due to the reaction of the late nineteenth century idealists to Herbert Spencer’s liberal empiricism and a priorism. You can get a good coverage of this from

Cunningham, Suzanne. 1996. Philosophy and the Darwinian legacy. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

As a result, very few analytic philosophers were inclined to make much of evolution. Exceptions being: Quine, Popper (late in his career), Sellars and a few others. In the 1980s, however, there was a resurgence, and evolution became respectable again. However, a subdiscipline of analytic philosophy known as philosophy of language (of which Jerry Fodor is a leading exponent) continued to regard evolution as somehow either irrelevant or too messy to contribute to philosophy, leading to some rather absurd claims by a few, like your Oslo professor.

In my view evolution has yet to receive the treatment it should. Peter Godfrey-Smith at Harvard, Paul Griffiths at Sydney, and a few others are starting to undertake the metaphysical and conceptual work it requires, and in the end it may be that most of the resources will come from elsewhere, such as decision theory, vagueness, and philosophy of mathematics, although I suspect that evolution will circumscribe those contributions rather severely.

Ian H Spedding FCD said:

IMHO, Quine had the pithiest answer to Plantinga’s argument:

Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic, but praiseworthy, tendency to die before reproducing their kind

I tend to phrase that as “Critters whose cognitive apparatus gives them unreliable representations of (relevant aspects of) their world tend to end up as lunch for critters whose apparatus gives them more reliable representations. We call that ‘natural selection.’”

John Wilkins said:

As a result, very few analytic philosophers were inclined to make much of evolution. Exceptions being: Quine, Popper (late in his career), Sellars and a few others. In the 1980s, however, there was a resurgence, and evolution became respectable again. However, a subdiscipline of analytic philosophy known as philosophy of language (of which Jerry Fodor is a leading exponent) continued to regard evolution as somehow either irrelevant or too messy to contribute to philosophy, leading to some rather absurd claims by a few, like your Oslo professor.

In my view evolution has yet to receive the treatment it should. Peter Godfrey-Smith at Harvard, Paul Griffiths at Sydney, and a few others are starting to undertake the metaphysical and conceptual work it requires, and in the end it may be that most of the resources will come from elsewhere, such as decision theory, vagueness, and philosophy of mathematics, although I suspect that evolution will circumscribe those contributions rather severely.

Two points:

1. The evolutionary aspects of Popper seem to pull against his insistence on theories/hypotheses being the kind of entity we deem to be either falsified or not falsified-with no real possibility of any intermediate position:

2. The American Pragmatists addressed evolution from the start.

Yes, the pragmatists were inspired by evolution, particularly Peirce, but that tradition had few adherents in analytic philosophy, at least until Quine. Rescher’s A Useful Inheritance revived it to an extent.

I didn’t mean to imply Popper was good at it. In my view his “evolutionism” was more Spencer than Darwin, his later recantations notwithstanding. I think I blogged on this on the Thumb once.

What reasons does he have for believing that a naturally derived mind could not be reliable?

If this is his argument:

I: The logic of a naturally derived mind is not reliable

II: Our minds are reliable

Therefore: Our minds are not naturally derived.

Shouldn’t he have to prove first his initial premise? Shouldn’t he have to show that evolution could not produce a reliable mind?

misha said: Shouldn’t he [Plantinga] have to show that evolution could not produce a reliable mind?

Which brings up yet another problem with Plantinga’s argument - this one theologial rather than philosophical. Plantinga’s argument hinges on the theological assumption that God could produce a reliable mind directly, but not indirectly via evolution. Most christian theologians would probably reject that notion out of hand.

misha said:

What reasons does he have for believing that a naturally derived mind could not be reliable?

What reasons does he have for believing that a mind which is not naturally derived could be reliable?

Mike Elzinga said:

The short answer is that nothing that exists in this universe, including thinking mammals, violates any laws or rules of the universe without eventually going extinct.

Corollary: In a sufficiently robust society in which fools are protected from the consequences of their stupid thoughts and behaviors and allowed to reproduce, a sufficient number of them can multiply to the point of bringing down that society.

I submit that this explains the rise of Tea-Baggers…

Mike Elzinga said: It doesn’t need to converge on truth; it just has to sound erudite.

Congratulations - you just defined pseudoscience.

Why do so many scientists want to be philosophers? Such a “crossover” obscures (with philosophy) an otherwise useful pursuit (science).

Sojourner said:

Why do so many scientists want to be philosophers? Such a “crossover” obscures (with philosophy) an otherwise useful pursuit (science).

You can’t avoid it. Philosophy is something humans have to do if they think. But you can do it well or badly, which is why we need philosophers around and why we can’t just line them up against the wall…

Sojourner said:

Why do so many scientists want to be philosophers? Such a “crossover” obscures (with philosophy) an otherwise useful pursuit (science).

My general impression from inside research for many years is that many physicists are highly skeptical of most of the modern trends in philosophy.

However, many of those physicists, especially those working at the frontiers, are faced with epistemological and ontological questions in the design of detectors and experimental techniques that hope to find new particles, elucidate delicate mechanisms underlying phenomena, and distinguishing among alternative theoretical models.

I think the skepticism about philosophers has to do with the general impression that philosophies seem to get established by argumentative processes that are highly reminiscent of the arguments among sectarians.

Scientists, I think physicists in particular, are quite aware that their own forms of epistemology and ontology are going to be checked against Nature. They are less certain that this is what philosophers do.

TomS Wrote:

I have two automatic tests for any argument involving evolution.

The first is to check whether the argument is at least as relevant to reproduction as it is to evolution. (Or genetics, metabolism, growth, development, or anything to do with the individual rather than the population. Evolution being about changes in populations. In other words, checking for the fallacies of composition and division.)

The second is to check whether the argument is just as sound when all reference to evolution is removed. (Particularly, that is, what “alternative” to evolution is being promoted.).

In retrospect, FL flunked your first test when he admitted few years ago that conception is a design actuation event (as in designer intervention). I’m sure he’d try to backpedal if he sees how that undermines Behe’s careful plan to not specify where or when interventions occur. The only way to keep all “kinds” of evolution-denier under the big tent is to let each audience infer what they are comfortable with.

FL and Behe might also object that they both think the designer’s (& Creator’s) “hand is always there” but that’s a moot point because so do nearly half of all “evolutionists.” The question is what happens instead of this “Darwinism” caricature, and exactly where and when. Some YECs and OECs still bravely (or foolishly) attempt an answer, but the more astute activists know that it can’t be done.

Which takes us to your second test. If they need to base their arguments on the failure of another explanation (rather than the correct way, which is to support it on its own merits), they don’t even need evolution (or their “Darwinism” caricature) to compare it. All they need to do is pick one of the other anti-evolution positions. YEC can “support” itself on the “failure” of OEC, and vice versa. And all “kinds” of Biblical literalists can simply refute Behe’s “virtual evolution.”

But as you know, that will never happen because whether it’s called “scientific” creationism or ID, it never was, and never will be, anything but a scam to mislead others, and sometimes oneself.

If our minds were designed by a Master Craftsthing, why are they so unreliable?

Ray Ingles said:

If our minds were designed by a Master Craftsthing, why are they so unreliable?

Said craftsthing was going to do the job itself, but it was cheaper to have the parts manufactured in an overseas sweatshop with lousy quality control.

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This page contains a single entry by John S. Wilkins published on April 8, 2010 8:28 PM.

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