Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 8)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Five - Continued

Historical Biblical Criticism

In case anyone still thinks this book is about theism and science, the remainder of Chapter Five is about the clash between (1) assuming the Christian Bible was authored by God, and (2) examining the Bible to see how it fares apart from that assumption. Plantinga gives no notice of the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, or the Jewish scriptures considered apart from Christian creeds.

And remember: this chapter is supposed to be about real-but-superficial conflicts between religion (or at least Plantinga's religion) and science. Just as he couldn't make up his mind whether evolutionary psychology is at odds with Christian belief, we'll see that his analysis of historical Biblical criticism is also needlessly inconsistent.

Traditional Biblical Commentary

The traditional (i.e. religious) approach to reading the Bible is to start from the assumption that God is the principal author of the whole thing. No book can ever contradict another. Each book is an authoritative lens through which to interpret the other books. "Commentary" to the exclusion of "criticism" is key, as Plantinga illustrates by comparing Biblical and Kantian studies:
"In Kant scholarship, for example, one tries to figure out what Kant means in a given passage [....] Having accomplished this task (at least to one’s own satisfaction), one quite properly goes on to ask whether Kant’s views are true or plausible, or whether he has made a good case for them. This last step is not appropriate in traditional Biblical commentary. Once you have established, as you think, what God is teaching in a given passage, what he is proposing for our belief, that settles the matter. You do not go on to ask whether it is true, or plausible, or whether a good case for it has been made."1
Plantinga then describes two "critical" approaches to the Bible.

Troeltschian Historical Biblical Criticism — On the assumption that there aren't really any miracles and God didn't really inspire the Bible, what can be salvaged, historically, from the Bible?

Duhemian Historical Biblical Criticism — Without assuming Christian beliefs are true (or false!), what can historians from a variety of religious backgrounds agree is historical in the Bible?

I expected Plantinga to endorse Duhemian HBC as a worthwhile project in the scientific spirit of doing what can be done with public evidence interpreted across differing worldviews. He could have used the same pattern from earlier in this book:

Genuine Science (Duhemian HBC) + Philosophical Naturalism -> Alleged Science (Troeltschian HBC)

Instead, he expresses disappointment at how "monumentally minimal" the results of Duhemian HBC are, compared to Christian belief. Historical Biblical Criticism as a whole gives "negative results" from a Christian perspective. "[T]here are no miracles; there is no resurrection, and certainly nothing to suggest that Jesus was the incarnate second person of the Trinity or even that he was son of God in any unique sense."2

Why count a failure to affirm Christianity as a negative rather than a neutral result? If his goal in the first half of this book is to emphasize compatibility, he's making the job needlessly hard on himself. Nor is it great advertising to play up unquestioning "commentary" as the only appropriate way to approach his holy book.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 154 
2. ibid. p. 160

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 7)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Five
"My overall claim in this book: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism."
That was the first sentence of this book's Preface. Why bring it up now? Because the first four chapters covered the unmentioned "alleged conflict" part of the book. Evolution and the idea of scientific laws don't even qualify as "superficial conflict" by Plantinga's count.
"Of course there is conflict between the widely accepted idea that natural selection, or evolution more generally, is unguided; but that claim, though widely accepted, is no part of current science. It is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on; an assumption that in no way enjoys the authority of science."1
Chapter Five covers ideas which Plantinga believes are genuinely part of current science and genuinely (though superficially) in conflict with theism.

Evolutionary Psychology

While it might be okay to explain the tiger's stripes in terms of natural selection, it's problematic to extend "Darwinian" explanations to human psychology. In particular, to explain religion and morality as the products of natural selection. 

One paper by Herbert Simon really pushes Plantinga's buttons by hypothesizing that a predisposition toward altruism (doing good without expectation of personal benefit) may result from natural selection favoring individuals with a moderate amount of "docility," i.e. the tendency to just accept what society teaches. On average, Simon claims, uncritically accepting the teachings of society helps individuals pass on their genes.
"In this scheme of things, altruism is a relative matter, for only a subset of the altruist's behaviors reduce fitness. Moreover, the altruist is rewarded, in advance, by the 'gift' of docility; altruism is simply a by-product of docility. Docile persons are more than compensated for their altruism by the knowledge and skills they acquire, and moreover not all proper behaviors are sacrificial."2
Why couldn't a self-interested individual just accept the parts of societal wisdom which are personally beneficial and reject the parts which aren't? Simon's answer is that it's often difficult (or impossible) for an individual to figure out which is which:
"Belief in large numbers of facts and propositions that we have not had the opportunity or ability to evaluate independently is basic to the human condition, a simple corollary of the boundedness of human rationality in the face of a complex world."3
Plantinga finds it thoroughly insulting to suggest that the altruistic behavior of "a Mother Teresa or a Thomas Aquinas" comes from their inability to sort out the costs and benefits of social suggestibility and notice they're on the losing side of the gene passing game. Frankly, I think Plantinga is confused about the nature of Simon's paper...and possibly about the language of genetic "fitness" in general. Yes, scientists use value terms to describe genes as tending to encourage or discourage reproduction in a given context. This is meant as a convenient way of talking, not as a social-Darwinist style commentary on human ethics. Of course there's a special danger of making this mistake when a paper discusses human ethics (whatever their contents might be) as arising from what we might call "gene values."

A few pages later, Plantinga writes on a somewhat different topic:
"[God] could have brought it about that our cognitive faculties evolve by natural selection, and evolve in such a way that it is natural for us to form beliefs about the supernatural in general and God himself in particular. Finding a 'natural' origin for religion in no way discredits it."4
Why not apply this thinking to ethics? Plantinga could allow for the possibility that altruistic tendencies have evolutionary roots, and still give God the credit. He could draw the same distinction he did in earlier chapters between natural selection and naturalistic selection, where the latter carries the additional burden of philosophical naturalism. Even if Simon himself were antagonistic to theism, I see no reason why Plantinga couldn't separate the man from the field as he does with Richard Dawkins and evolutionary theory in general.

Evolutionary Origins of Religious Belief

Pretty much the same issue as above, except religion is viewed as the byproduct of naturally selected traits. This time, he does draw a distinction between natural origins and naturalistic philosophy. More surprisingly, he goes back to the idea of evolved ethics and now claims it isn't a problem! Then, he writes of both evolved ethics and evolved religious beliefs:
"These theories, therefore, do conflict with religion, but in a merely superficial way. They conflict with religion in the way in which a theory that results from conjoining Newtonian physics with atheism does: that theory conflicts with religion, all right, but it certainly doesn’t constitute a serious religion-science conflict."5
Argh! His cases of no-real-conflict and real-but-superficial-conflict turn out to be equivalent.
Genuine Science + Philosophical Naturalism -> Alleged Science
In the first four chapters, he concluded "no real conflict" because he pointed to Genuine Science before the philosophical add-on. In this chapter, he's using the same structure but pointing at Alleged Science to conclude "superficial conflict." I can't interpret this charitably because he explicitly mentioned Newtonian physics on the first page of the chapter, then wrote: "There are other areas of science, however, where the appearance of conflict is matched by reality."6 Evolutionary psychology was first on the list that followed.

I hope a second-edition editor encourages him to make up his mind and consolidate these sections under one characterization.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 129
2. Simon, H.A. (1990, December 21). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science 250, p. 1667. [pdf]
3. ibid. p. 1666
4. Plantinga (2011). p. 140 
5. ibid. p. 143
6. ibid. p. 130

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 6)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Three

"No Miracles" Zone

Shifting away from the discussion of evolution, Plantinga next addresses claims that modern people can't go around thinking it's possible for a supernatural God to act in the natural world (how quaint!). I wasn't satisfied with Plantinga's example, so I went and found this gem from Michael Martin:
"Consider science. It presupposes the uniformity of nature: that natural laws govern the world and that there are no violations of such laws. However, Christianity presupposes that there are miracles in which natural laws are violated. Since to make sense of science one must assume that there are no miracles, one must further assume that Christianity is false. To put this in a different way: Miracles by definition are violations of laws of nature that can only be explained by God's intervention. Yet science assumes that insofar as an event as an explanation at all, it has a scientific explanation--one that does not presuppose God. Thus, doing, science assumes that the Christian world view is false."1
Put another way, there's something wrong with a person who helps herself to scientific explanations and still wants to appeal to miracles at times. Notice how this goes beyond the more typical claim that scientific explanations must be natural explanations; you can't commit adultery by entertaining supernatural explanations on the side and expect science to let you back in the house.

Plantinga responds by characterizing scientific laws as descriptions of "how things go when the universe is causally closed, subject to no outside causal influence. They don’t purport to tell us how things always go; they tell us, instead, how things go when no agency outside the universe acts in it."2 We can imagine a little footnote anytime a scientifically discovered regularity is mentioned:
 * Valid when God isn't messing with nature.
I'm not quite happy with this philosophy of science, but I have to admit it's a pretty standard way of handling the problem.

Everything... All the Time

On Plantinga's view of classical theism, God does a lot more than occasionally intervene. God continually and actively sustains the natural world.
"[A]part from that sustaining, supporting activity, the world would simply fail to exist. Some, including Thomas Aquinas, go even further: every causal transaction that takes place is such that God performs a special act of concurring with it; without that divine concurrence, no causal transaction could take place." 3
This changes the footnote for scientific discoveries from "valid when God isn't messing with nature" to "valid when God is messing with nature in his more usual ways." Continual divine activity is what makes the natural world function at all.

Whatever the metaphysical situation may be, I view scientific laws as descriptions of how things go, as revealed by scientific method. Laws don't mention God's sustaining power or God's special interventions because these are "pluralities" scientists have not needed in order to describe the phenomena open to public view. If you want to believe God is behind Newton's law of gravitation, that's fine with me. But let's not put a metaphysical footnote on it.

Chapter Four

Masters of the Universe

Before the twentieth century, it was common to picture the universe as a whole behaving like it does at roughly human scales and human speeds. If, like Laplace's demon, you could know the current state of the clockwork universe, then — in theory — you could calculate future events perfectly. Or you could calculate backwards to reveal all the details of the past. Relativity and quantum physics made things more complicated, or at any rate more interesting.

For people of certain philosophical temperaments, the problem of divine action in the world remains a concern. Plantinga points out the Divine Action Project as a recent example.
"It would be fair to say, I think, that the main problem for the project is to find an account of divine action in the world—action beyond creation and conservation—that doesn’t involve God’s intervening in the world."4
Plantinga himself has no issue with the idea of God sometimes taking special action that disrupts the usual operation of the world, but he offers "a way around this problem" for those who do consider it a problem. On the Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber view of quantum physics, wave function collapses can happen spontaneously. As far as nature is concerned, something is going to happen...but what exactly will happen is left open. Plantinga offers a divine collapse-causation (DCC) model where God is deciding how things turn out when wave functions collapse.
"Furthermore, if, as one assumes, the macroscopic physical world supervenes on the microscopic, God could thus control what happens at the macroscopic level by causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes. In this way God can exercise providential guidance over cosmic history; he might in this way guide the course of evolutionary history by causing the right mutations to arise at the right time and preserving the forms of life that lead to the results he intends. In this way he might also guide human history. He could do this without in any way 'violating' the created natures of the things he has created."5
He goes on to suggest at least some of the Bible's miracles could be chalked up to extremely unlikely outcomes of quantum physics. Even more exciting: maybe human beings possess this same special ability as part of our "image of God"! Our non-physical minds might be communicating our free choices to our brains. "Here we see a pleasing unity of divine and human free action, as well as a more specific suggestion as to what mechanism these actions actually involve."6

Before Christians get too carried away by this theological breakthrough, Plantinga has some words of caution:
"The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind; if the most satisfactory Christian (or theistic) theology endorses the idea that the universe did indeed have a beginning, the believer has a perfect right to accept that thought. Something similar goes for the Christian believer and special divine action.
But where Christian or theistic belief and current science can fit nicely together, as with DCC, so much the better; and if one of the current versions of QM fits better with such belief than the others, that’s a perfectly proper reason to accept that version."7
Isn't accepting DCC a case of being significantly more flighty than keeping up with mainstream science? This seems like picking through oddball versions of periphery scientific suggestions for a way to make peace with a fairly obscure theology of not-intervening-when-intervening.

1. From Michael Martin's paper "The Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God" which sparked a lively debate with John M. Frame. This paper is a kind of parody, so I'm not sure Martin would assert the same ideas in another context.
2. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 79
3. ibid. p. 67
4. ibid. p. 97 
5. ibid. p. 116
6. ibid. p. 120 
7. ibid. p. 121

Monday, February 20, 2012

On "The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics"

"Believers can argue that morality requires God all they want, but until they can provide some legitimate reasoning or evidence for it, they do not deserve the benefit of a doubt. Who's to say that a universe without God could have no morality? We aren't 100% sure that this one has a god, and yet many of us seem to have no difficulty in making moral decisions. Being good without God is not a problem."1
While I agree with Taylor Carr that better reasoning or evidence is needed to make divine command ethics a convincing position for those of us who don't subscribe to it already, I think he goes one step too far when he raises what is known as the epistemological objection (i.e. the knowledge-based objection). Essentially:

How could morality require God, if knowing right from wrong doesn't require knowing God?

The not-entirely-absent moral sense of atheists is supposed to demonstrate God's irrelevance to morality. But does this objection work? My short answer is: no, because it's possible for our moral sense to rely on God somehow, without us realizing it.

Knowing vs. Knowing How One Knows

In case my short answer didn't totally satisfy you, let's take a look at Glenn People's recent paper "The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics." Or, if you're more of an auditory learner, I can recommend his podcast episode on the topic.

First, let's see how he characterizes the basic epistemological objection.
"The underlying argument is as follows, where Q is the act of knowing moral facts and C is anything.
  1. If C is the cause of our ability to Q, then person p cannot Q unless he believes in C.
  2. p does Q, and does not believe in C.
  3. Therefore C is not the cause of our ability to Q."2
As an example, take Aristotle's views on the heart and the brain:
"Moreover, the motions of pain and pleasure, and generally of all sensation, plainly have their source in the heart, and find in it their ultimate termination. This, indeed, reason would lead us to expect. For the source must, whenever possible, be one; and, of all places, the best suited for a source is the centre."

"The brain, then, tempers the heat and seething of the heart."3
So...if [electrical activity in the brain] is the cause of our ability to [think and feel], then [Aristotle] cannot [think and feel] unless he believes in [electrical activity in the brain]. Yet Aristotle could think and feel even though he didn't believe his brain contained any such activity. (1) is false. It stays false when filled in this way:
  1. If [God] is the cause of our ability to [know right from wrong], then [Richard Dawkins] cannot [know right from wrong] unless he believes in [God].
  2. [Richard Dawkins] does [know right from wrong], and does not believe in [God].
  3. Therefore [God] is not the cause of our ability to [know right from wrong].
Since (1) is false, (3) is an invalid conclusion to draw from (2).

31 Flavors

What counts as a "command" in divine command ethics? There isn't a consensus here. At one extreme, divine commands might be aspects of God's unexpressed private will. At the other extreme, a divine command might be a literally voiced, undoubtedly divine imperative given directly to the individuals expected to follow it. Let's label these extremes secret and explicit respectively.

If divine commands were secret, the epistemological objection would be quite strong since there would be absolutely no reason for our moral sense to bear a relationship with God's will. If divine commands were explicit, we'd all know it! Philosophers who actually subscribe to divine command ethics are at various points in between. They hold that God expresses his will somehow, but not as spoken commands to each person.

Here's a moderate form of divine command ethics:
"Consider for example the possibility that God conveys the “sign” to people regarding some act (let’s pick murder) via a proper function of the human conscience. Nobody needs to know what conscience is, how we got one, or that God uses it to ensure that we have some true beliefs in order for them to know, via conscience, that murder is wrong (assuming, of course, that there were a conscience with proper functions)."4
So God does express his will, not as a verbal command, but in the design of our consciences. Whether we believe in God or not, we have an innate sense of moral outrage when we witness certain kinds of killing.

I don't think this is how the world actually works, but it's not easily disproven.

Oh, Academics!

Up to this point, I haven't actually addressed the core of Peoples' paper. He's writing in response to a paper by Wes Morriston called "The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-Believers" who is himself writing in response to a book and some papers of Robert Merrihew Adams.

Adams is well known for developing a form (or two or three) of divine command ethics intended to steer a respectable path between the extremes of secret and explicit.

Morriston seizes on the most explicit-leaning aspect of Adams' work, and applies an epistemological objection to it.

Peoples responds to Morriston's paper by (1) pointing out that Morriston's objection is so narrowly aimed that it doesn't threaten divine command ethics in general, and (2) accusing Morriston of misconstruing Adams' position anyway.

I have no interest in taking sides on the interpretation of Adams' divine command ethics. It's a minor battle which isn't going to sway the campaign. But then...that does appear to be Peoples' main point.

1. Carr, T. (2009, July 24). Being good without God. GodlessHaven. Retrieved February 19, 2011, from
2. Peoples, G. (2011). The epistemological objection to divine command ethics. Philosophia Christi 13(2). La Mirada, CA:Biola University. p. 389
3. Aristotle, On the parts of animals. Heart quote from Book III. Brain quote from Book II. Peoples used a different example, so blame any defects on me.
4. Peoples, G. (2011).

Friday, February 17, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 5)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Two - Continued

Draper's Evidential Argument

Dawkins and Dennett are meant to represent the position that evolutionary theory has ruled out theism, or at least traditional Abrahamic theism, or at least Plantinga's interpretation of God creating humankind in his image. Paul Draper will now represent the position that evolution at least constitutes significant evidence against theism.

Without getting into Draper's supporting arguments,1 the basic idea is that we would be relatively less likely to discover that our origins are evolutionary in a world created by God than we would in a fully natural world. The discovery that our origins actually are evolutionary, therefore, constitutes some evidence that we live in a fully natural world. You may recognize this as a form of inference to the best explanation.

Suppose Draper is correct and the fact of evolution counts in favor of naturalism. Plantinga counters by saying that other facts weigh in favor of theism, e.g. that there are intelligent beings on Earth with a moral sense who worship God. Such beings would be relatively more likely to exist if there is a God who wanted them to exist, than in any scenario without a similar guarantee. At this point, I would argue that the facts of moral and religious diversity would be odd in a world with one God who wants a unity of morals and which Plantinga might play the Calvinism card. And so it goes.

Remember Plantinga's theology about theism being necessarily true? He also complains about Draper assuming theism is a contingent matter. (I really need to write a post on this topic sometime.)

Science Education
"A solid majority of Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 90 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion. After all, those experts are, well, experts. But then it is also not surprising that many Americans are reluctant to have evolution taught to their children in the public schools, the schools they themselves pay taxes to support. [...] The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools."2
I pretty much agree with Plantinga's point that equating evolution and naturalism is a foolish move if you want evolution taught in public schools. To use the weather analogy, meteorology might be controversial in middle school classrooms if Richard Dawkins were out there claiming the hydrological cycle reveals the truth of atheism.

At the same time, Plantinga is badly mistaken about the primary source of "the association of evolution with naturalism." He acts like American Christians are being duped into thinking there's a conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs. Nope. They came up with that idea on their own. Naturalists like Dawkins are reacting, not instigating. For many American Christians, taking Genesis as history is an essential doctrine, despite Plantinga's quick dismissal earlier in the book.

Come to think of it, this book bothers me the same way Intelligent Design books and articles usually do. There's no outright affirmation of the basic scientific discoveries that divide Old Earth Creationists from Young Earth Creationists. It's all about leaving things open for Christians, even when it's the equivalent of leaving open geocentrism. Plantinga is like a politician trying to please a broad base while hoping his scientifically literate constituency and his anti-science constituency don't notice he's refusing to stand with either of them.

Natural Evil

Setting the Genesis issue aside, what about the argument that evolution doesn't fit the picture of a good God who cares for the well-being of his creatures? As Darwin wrote:
"I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice."3
Plantinga gives a possible reason why God may allow so much suffering that can't be blamed on humankind.
"God wanted to create a really good world; among all the possible worlds, he wanted to choose one of very great goodness. [...] Among good-making properties for worlds, however, there is one of special, transcendent importance, and it is a property that according to Christians characterizes our world. For according to the Christian story, God, the almighty first being of the universe and the creator of everything else, was willing to undergo enormous suffering in order to redeem creatures who had turned their backs on him. [...] The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was subjected to ridicule, rejection, and finally the cruel and humiliating death of the cross. [...] All this to enable human beings to be reconciled to God, and to achieve eternal life. This overwhelming display of love and mercy is not merely the greatest story ever told; it is the greatest story that could be told. No other great-making property of a world can match this one.

If so, however, perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement. But any world that contains atonement will contain sin and evil and consequent suffering and pain. Furthermore, if the remedy is to be proportionate to the sickness, such a world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain. Still further, it may very well contain sin and suffering, not just on the part of human beings but perhaps also on the part of other creatures as well. Indeed, some of these other creatures might be vastly more powerful than human beings, and some of them—Satan and his minions, for example—may have been permitted to play a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain."4
What I'm hearing is that huge numbers of sentient beings suffered over millions of years to provide a fitting background for God to suffer briefly. Answers like this are why I recommend people read apologetics books rather than Dawkins, Dennett, et al. if they want to risk their faith.

1. See for a more detailed analysis.
2. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 53
3. Darwin, C. (1860/1911). Charles Darwin to Asa Gray. In F. Darwin (Ed.), The life and letters of Charles Darwin (vol 2). New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company. p. 105
4. Plantinga (2011). p. 58

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lingo: WEMI

Work, Expression, Manifestation, Item (WEMI) is a conceptual model used in library science. To make it easier to understand, let's start by talking about applying the WEMI model to books.

Suppose you have a paperback copy of The Hobbit. I have an identical-looking copy. Are we holding the same book? There are a couple of ways to answer this:
  1. No. I could shred my book and your book would be unaffected.
  2. Yes. We could swap copies and both of us would still have the same book.
Obviously, I'm using different definitions of "book" in (1) and (2). Both usages are common in English. Under the WEMI model, we would say that you and I hold distinct items. I could shred my item without affecting your item, but when we swap, we're swapping items. So the word "book" in (1) means book-as-an-item, but "book" in (2) means something else.

Now suppose you have the same paperback copy of The Hobbit, but I have an older hardcover copy (with more tasteful cover art). Besides the fact that we're swapping items, is (2) still valid? Do we still end up with the same book-not-as-item that we started with?

You're probably thinking "yes." We don't tend to think of different editions as different "books." Still, it's worth making the distinction. You can't order just The Hobbit from; you must choose a paperback edition, a mass market paperback edition, a hardcover edition, an audio CD edition, or a Kindle edition. These are different ways of wrapping up and presenting — of manifesting — the same essential content, i.e. the text of The Hobbit.

Let's take this one final step. This time you and your book club friends have spent the last month reading The Hobbit in a variety of editions: paperback, e-book, audio CD, etc. No problem! You all read or heard the same text, so you can have a great discussion about the text. Then I show up and say I watched a film version, or played a video game, or attended the ballet. What did I do that's so different from the variety of ways the rest of you experienced The Hobbit? I watched (or played) a different expression of The Hobbit. It's not just that the wrapping was different; someone created new content.

Still, Tolkien's text and the upcoming film adaptation of The Hobbit are highly related. They will share characters, theme, plot, and many of the same lines. They can be considered different expressions of the same work, broadly speaking.

What's the point of the WEMI model? Searching and browsing tools which make these kind of distinctions can help users find what they need more efficiently. Interests may vary anywhere from a cultural studies student writing a paper on the different expressions of The a collector interested in a specific, physical volume.

For some people, these four levels are not fine-grained enough, or just don't fit with the shape of their interests. For example, does a Japanese translation of The Hobbit count as a different manifestation, or a whole new expression? How much can two expressions differ and still be covered by one broad work? These concerns don't mean WEMI is wrong; it just means WEMI isn't right for every purpose. But what conceptual model is? Even models of unquestionably objective features of the world, like subway maps, can legitimately bow to both facts and long as we understand what's going on and why.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 4)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Two

Which came first, the mind or the material?

Richard Dawkins may not be a card carrying member of the philosophers guild, but Daniel Dennett sure is.1 In his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues that our natural — rather than intelligently designed — origin has profound implications for our lives outside of biology class. He compares the Darwinian Revolution to the Copernican Revolution, since both drastically changed our views about our place in the world.

One of the largest shifts, as Dennett tells it, was believing that a mind (God) brought the physical world into believing that the physical world brought minds into existence.

I admit this is a harder sell than the natural design of the human eye. At least with an eye, we all agree that having the parts in the right places will result in a functioning organ. There is much less confidence — even among atheists — that having the parts in the right places for a functioning brain will result in a functioning mind. (In fact, this is the reason I call myself a naturalist, but hesitate to identify as a physicalist; I'm not convinced that consciousness has been explained by the physical sciences.)

Clash of the Extremists

It's easy to paint Dawkins or Dennett as zealots for naturalism who go beyond what science strictly requires of modern educated people. Here are some options I see for theists:
  • God brought the kind of physical world into existence which was capable of producing human-like beings by natural processes. Since it did, it's still correct to give God the ultimate credit.
  • Our world could have produced human-like beings by natural processes, but didn't happen to do so. God tweaked the natural world to set things going in our direction.
  • Our world could not have produced human-like beings by natural processes.
  • No possible world — in the broadly logical sense — could have produced human-like beings by natural processes.
The first two options are, I would argue, easily compatible with modern science. The third is typical of Intelligent Design arguments. Plantinga himself holds the fourth and most extreme position, as he lets on here:
"So neither Dennett nor contemporary evolutionary theory shows that possibly, all of the features of our world, including mind, have been produced by unguided natural selection. But assume (contrary to fact, as I see it) that this is in fact possible in the broadly logical sense. If so, is it also biologically possible?"2
In a previous post, I explained that Augustine was reluctant to accept the standard interpretation of the days of creation because he held to a theology which made it hard for him to imagine God working on something over time. Plantinga's position also comes from a theological stance that God is the same in all possible worlds. This makes it hard to imagine that features of our world with close ties to God's intentions could differ in other logically possible worlds.

You keep using that word...

Plantinga does try to address the question as if naturalistic evolution were logically possible, but still questions whether it is possible given the way our physical world works:
"For, of course, it is perfectly possible both that life has come to be by way of guided natural selection, and that it could not have come to be by way of unguided natural selection. It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our living world without that guidance."3
Q: Do you know what we call "guided natural selection"?
A: Artificial selection.

Rationalism and Empiricism

Let's talk about Plantinga's other signature area: the rationality of theistic belief. Through much of the twentieth century, certain philosophers brushed off theism as an idea unfit for even bothering to consider whether it is true or false; theism is irrational either way. Plantinga wrote a series of books which essentially argued — and argued successfully, I think — that if (a certain kind of) theism is true, then theism is not irrational.

What puts people off is that Plantinga can maintain his brand of Christian belief in a way that is almost in principle immune to contrary evidence and needs no positive evidence or arguments!
"But suppose Swinburne’s arguments are indeed unsuccessful, and add that the same goes for all the other theistic arguments—for example, the moral argument as developed by George Mavrodes and Robert Adams, and the cosmological argument as developed by William Lane Craig, and all the rest. Does it follow that one who believes in God is irrational, unjustified, going contrary to reason, or in some other way deserving of reprimand or abuse or disapprobation? No. After all, one of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past, and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.
Are things different with belief in God? If so, why?"4
Until philosophers can defeat his theism on these terms, Plantinga is content to reject natural human origins because it doesn't fit the internally consistent story he believes about the world. Whatever the substantive fruits of science may be, the spirit of scientific inquiry is to look and see what is true about the world. This attitude of empiricism is very different from free-floating rationalism. Granted, we do need some minimal philosophy before empiricism can get to work, but theism — let alone a niche kind of theism — is not required.

Note: The Kindle Edition does not use traditional page numbers. I'm using "k. 93" to indicate Kindle location 93. This book is 6,220 locations long.

1. Plantinga and Dennett have beards. Dawkins does not.
2. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 701. 
3. ibid. k. 712.
4. ibid. k. 754.

Friday, February 10, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 3)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter One - Continued

Dawkins' Subtitle

Famous science writer (and infamous atheist) Richard Dawkins gave his book The Blind Watchmaker a provocative subtitle: "Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design." Plantinga points out — rightly — that the naturalistic evolution of living beings would not imply a naturalistic universe overall. It's a bad subtitle, except for marketing purposes.

(As an aside, I was frustrated with The God Delusion for much the same reason. Dawkins treats biological evolution as a fatal blow to theism, or at least he comes off that way.)

Plantinga is much more concerned with the implication that "the evidence of evolution" reveals a lack of design in human beings. If biological evolution only happened to produce God-like creatures (us), then the all-important theological claim that God intentionally created us in his image is false. But does evolutionary science really show that humanity arose by happenstance?

Notice how low the bar is set. Dawkins must prove there is no room for a divine hand in human development, or Plantinga succeeds.

...and I think he does succeed. After all, the bar for Dawkins is set very high:
"Nor does [Dawkins] try to show either that there is no such person as God, or that, if there is, it is not possible that he should have somehow set up and directed the whole process. And why should he? After all, he’s a biologist and not a philosopher."1
Plantinga further points out that Dawkins hasn't shown how the mental can arise from unthinking material. (How lazy!)

After all, he's a philosopher and not a biologist

Not content with an easy defensive victory, Plantinga decides to attack Dawkins on his home turf.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Atheists can't appeal to God to explain the diversity of life, but they can appeal to natural evolution! This — and not the strength of the evidence — is why atheists are so passionate about claiming life evolved naturally. Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, has challenged Darwinist orthodoxy and has yet to be adequately answered. Atheistic scientists like Dawkins are only going by their feelings and guesswork that natural evolution can explain it all. Plantinga writes:
"There is no attempt at the sort of serious calculation that would surely be required for a genuine answer. No doubt such a calculation and hence an answer to those questions is at present far beyond our knowledge and powers; no doubt it would be unreasonable to require such a calculation; still, the fact remains we don’t have a serious answer."2
Silly scientists, only addressing Behe's specific challenges and not proving him wrong in principle!

I used to believe evolution was motivated by atheism, but only because I was kept in ignorance by my family, my church, and my private school. This isn't good advertising for the harmony of science and (certain kinds of) religion! Now I read Plantinga's claim that biologists aren't doing the serious work to give serious answers to objections and it just blows my mind.

Biologists are the ones doing real work. No wonder they sometimes get testy; they have to put up with lazy, ill-informed, or irrelevant criticisms from a society that demands biologists admit God might guide genomes, but doesn't demand that meteorologists admit God might guide cold fronts. Can the weather man prove cloud formation is entirely made plausible by natural processes alone? Maybe if we had school boards demanding recognition of "Divine Wrath Stormology" we would have the equivalent of Dawkins making naturalistic claims and the equivalent of Plantinga writing:
"For the nontheist, undirected [weather] is the only game in town, and [the exchange of heat energy] seems to be the most plausible mechanism to drive that process. Here is this stunningly intricate [atmosphere] with its enormous diversity and apparent design; from the perspective of naturalism or nontheism, the only way it could have happened is by way of [an] unguided [hydrological cycle]; hence it must have happened that way; hence there must be such a[n Aristotelian] series for each current [rain storm]. The theist, on the other hand, has a little more freedom here: maybe there is such a series and maybe there isn’t; God has created the [meteorological] world and could have done it in any number of different ways; there doesn’t have to be any such series. In this way the theist is freer to follow the evidence where it leads."3 (substitutions for the sake of parody)
Assembling a Modern Eye, One Cell at a Time

Maybe you think I'm being too harsh on Plantinga's science. Please watch this short clip of Dawkins explaining how eyes could plausibly have evolved in a gradual manner:

Dawkins - Eye Evolution

Make sense? Starting from light sensitive cells on the skin, small changes would have been progressively more helpful. We see other animals with eyes all along this range, so it's not even much of a hypothetical. Yet somehow Plantinga picked eye evolution as a good place to question the plausibility of natural selection:
"We can see this as follows: consider a particular human eye—one of Dawkins’s, for example; assign a number to each cell contained in that eye (as with certain kinds of build-it-yourself toy kits); let the first member of the series be a creature that has cell number 1, the second be one that contains cells number 2 and number 1; the third contain cell number 3 plus cells number 1 and 2, and so on. This won’t quite work; for this eye to function, there will also have to be an appropriate brain or part of a brain to which it is connected by an optic nerve. But you get the idea: clearly there is such a series. Of course that by itself doesn’t show much; if it’s to be relevant, the length of the series will have to be constrained by the time available, and each step in the series will have to be such that it can arise by way of genetic mutation from a previous step. Furthermore (and crucially), each mutation will have to be fitness-conferring (or at least not unduly costly in terms of fitness), so that it’s not too improbable that they be preserved by natural selection."4
Did you catch what he did there? Plantinga thinks eye evolution is about starting with one cell present in a modern eye and progressively adding single cells in their modern places. This is like enumerating each building in, say Chicago, then thinking Chicago started with one of those modern buildings and progressively added every other modern building on the list until filling out the whole thing. That's not how Chicago came to be the way it is and it's not how biologists think living systems came to be the way they are. The "toy kit" view leaves out all the intermediate history of what worked at the time and what shaped what came after, but isn't a subset of what we have now.

I wouldn't fault a person for initially misunderstanding evolution as a straightforward cell-by-cell buildup toward current lifeforms. But I do expect more from a published book that's largely about evolution.

Note: The Kindle Edition does not use traditional page numbers. I'm using "k. 93" to indicate Kindle location 93. This book is 6,220 locations long.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 393.

2. ibid. k. 465.
3. ibid. k. 485.
4. ibid. k. 441.   

Monday, February 6, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 2)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter One

Is there a conflict between science and theism? It's useful to draw a distinction between (1) science as a method and (2) science as the body of knowledge we've gained through this method. Plantinga begins with the alleged conflict between biological evolution (a major result of scientific method) and certain kinds of theistic belief.
"I’ll be concerned in particular with Christian belief and science; most of the alleged conflicts, however, have to do with theism, belief that there is such a person as God, rather than with doctrines that separate specifically Christian belief from other theistic religions such as Islam and Judaism. Most of what I say, therefore, will apply to other theistic religions as well as to Christianity."1
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are popular forms of theism, but what applies to them does not necessarily apply to other theistic religions.

Reasoning from the doctrine that humans — and not other species — were created in the image of God, Plantinga declares it essential to Christian faith that God specially "guided, directed, orchestrated, or shaped"2 the biological origin of humankind. This further narrows the scope of the theism under examination, since not all Christians draw the line at this point. A few do not require the special creation of humans.3 Many others draw the line at a more-or-less historical understanding of Genesis.4

So Long, Young Earth Creationists!
"Many Christian evangelicals or fundamentalists accept a literal interpretation of the creation account in the first two chapters of Genesis (as well as the genealogies in the next few chapters); they are inclined therefore to think the earth and indeed the universe vastly younger than the billions of years of age attributed to them by current science. [...] Of course Christian belief just as such doesn’t include the thought that the universe is young; and in fact as far back as Augustine (354–430) serious Christians have doubted that the scriptural days of creation correspond to 24-hour periods of time."5
Sorry, all the Christians I knew growing up, Plantinga doesn't intend to defend your faith as compatible with science. Plantinga defines Christian belief as what's included in a list of nine creeds.6 Genesis isn't affirmed as history in those creeds, so you're on your own. (I didn't check the creeds to see if they include his interpretation of "God created man in his own image" from the same creation stories.)

What about Augustine? Plantinga gives the impression that "serious Christians" from Augustine onward have left room for an old earth, but Augustine's main deviation from Young Earth Creationism was in thinking creation was instantaneous! If anything, he was a Young-er Earth Creationist (by a few days). He came to this idea because of a popular theology in his day that made it hard to picture God working on something over time, and because he struggled to make sense of how the days could be separated by an evening and morning on a global scale (since it's always evening and morning somewhere on Earth).7

The seven days themselves are a red herring if humankind started about six thousand years ago, were almost wiped out in a flood, then started to grow again before having their languages divided. Personally, I don't see any point between Adam and Jesus where the Bible signals a change from myth to history. Jesus' genealogy in Luke 3 implies a historical interpretation throughout; other New Testament references support or are consistent with Genesis-as-history. If Plantinga wants the Abrahamic religions to represent theism as a whole, then he needs to do a much better job of removing recent creation from the discussion.

Oh well, there's still a lot of material here about science being compatible with God intervening in the development of humankind. Let's see how Plantinga plans to ease that particular tension for the subset of theists troubled by the notion of unguided evolution for humans, but not otherwise troubled by modern evolutionary theory.

Defining Evolution

Plantinga lists four theses of "evolution strictly so called" plus a fifth thesis he calls "Darwinism" and a sixth thesis he calls the "naturalistic origins thesis." He argues that the doctrine of God creating humankind in his image is clearly consistent with the first four theses, less obviously consistent with Darwinism, but absolutely not consistent with the naturalistic origins thesis.

Evolution Proper

1. Ancient Earth thesis. The Earth is billions of years old.
2. Progress thesis. Life started out simple and has progressed to complex forms. Humans are the culmination of this process.
3. Descent with modification thesis. Biodiversity comes about from changes in offspring.
4. Common ancestry thesis. Life on Earth originated once, so we're all related.


5. A natural mechanism is responsible for descent with modification. Natural selection and other natural processes are included here.

Naturalistic Origins

6. Life evolved without divine intervention.

This would be better if Plantinga left out everything but (3) and (5).8 Evolution concerns inheritable changes across generations. Darwin proposed natural selection as a major mechanism of these changes. His contemporary, Mendel, discovered genetic inheritance. In the late 1920's, Wright pointed out genetic drift as another mechanism of evolution. It wasn't until the early 1940's that several researchers were able to identify DNA as the physical carrier of genetic information. These are the elements of evolutionary theory. So you see, it's primarily about a process that's going on right now. Like gravitational theory, we can apply this knowledge to understand what happened in the distant past, but those findings are secondary.

Is the Earth billions of years old? Yes, but we know that without any reliance on biological science. Did complex forms of life arise from simpler forms of life? It sure looks like it from the fossil record. Do we share ancestry with other life on Earth? Both the fossil record and genetic analysis suggest so. Is evolution a natural process? It appears to be.

Plantinga is happy to accept (1) through (5), saying that "God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time; he could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on; and in this way he could have seen to it that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends."9 In essence, it could look to the world that natural gene variation and natural selection explain evolution...but God was behind the scenes manipulating these processes to produce the human species.

I like to compare this to the view that rain is a natural process, but God can tweak the natural world just enough to send rain for the crops of praying farmers. Since scientists can't rule out this possibility, it would be a philosophical addition to meteorology to say that rain falls without divine intervention.

I don't have a problem with this, so long as people understand how modest such claims really are. It usually turns into a foot-in-the-door tactic, however, where God becomes possibly involved and suddenly it can't rain without a miracle. That will be the pattern of this book.

Note: The Kindle Edition does not use traditional page numbers. I'm using "k. 93" to indicate Kindle location 93. This book is 6,220 locations long.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 202.
2. ibid. k. 264.
3. Howard J. Van Till, for example.
4. See
5. Plantinga (2011). k. 294.
6. ibid. k. 266.
7. Discussed at length in Augustine's book The Literal Meaning of Genesis.
8. See
9. Plantinga (2011). k. 319.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 1)

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism is Alvin Plantinga's popular-level challenge to the idea that science and religion are in conflict. At least, that's the defensive portion of the book. He goes on to argue that the real conflict is between science and an irreligious worldview.

I'm concerned that people eager for this conclusion will cite Plantinga as an intellectual authority without understanding which parts of his overall argument are strong vs. which parts are weak, overly specialized, or overly generalized. My plan is to cover select portions of his book, supporting or criticizing Plantinga as appropriate.

For new readers of this blog, let me say up front that I'm a naturalist, i.e. I believe the natural world is all there is. On the other hand, I don't think everyone who disagrees is making an intellectual blunder. I'm especially sympathetic with Deists, but also with other Theists who are drawing the best conclusion they can from their own experiences. Mistaken conclusions don't necessarily imply bad methods.

Series Index

1. Series Index; Preface
2. Chapter One — Evolution and the Image of God
3. Chapter One — Dawkins
4. Chapter Two — Dennett; Necessity; Rationalism
5. Chapter Two — Draper; Science Education; Natural Evil
6. Chapter Three & Chapter Four — Divine Action
7. Chapter Five — Evolved Ethics and Religion
8. Chapter Five — Historical Biblical Criticism
9. Chapter Six — Defeaters
10. Chapter Seven & Chapter Eight — Fine Tuning; Design
11. Chapter Nine — Deep Concord
12. Chapter Ten — Deep Conflict

Other Plantinga Posts

On "Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience"

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Pt. 1)
The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Pt. 2)


Worldview Terminology

Plantinga's use of terminology is a bit quirky. From the first page:
"I take naturalism to be the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God. Naturalism is stronger than atheism: you can be an atheist without rising to the full heights (sinking to the lowest depths?) of naturalism; but you can’t be a naturalist without being an atheist."1
Atheism is the most straightforward term for the thought that there is no such person as God. Why didn't he say that instead? I suspect he is using naturalism as a practical synonym for what is sometimes called explicit (or strong) atheism, as opposed to implicit (or weak) atheism.2 In other words, a committed naturalist holds a positive belief which rules out a God who exists beyond nature, but not everyone lacking a belief in God has given the issue much thought.

Readers can usually substitute 'atheism' for 'naturalism' in Plantinga's books and papers. This has the bonus of keeping things simpler for readers aware of the controversies surrounding the word 'naturalism.'

A Drop of Poison

Suppose I start this series by putting Plantinga in a list of famous contemporary apologists, then characterizing these apologists as immature, out of their element, and not nearly as respectable as old-school apologists like Augustine or Chesterton. I could color your entire perception of Plantinga's ideas and motivations in a way that puts him at a disadvantage.

This is a rhetorical technique called poisoning the well. I'm bringing this up only because Plantinga puts a drop or two into atheism's well. Nothing outrageous; maybe just enough to give the water a bitter tang.
"Why [Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens] choose this route is not wholly clear. One possibility, of course, is that their atheism is adolescent rebellion carried on by other means. Another (consistent with the first) is that they know of no good reasons or arguments for their views, and hence resort to schoolyard tactics. In terms of intellectual competence, the new atheists are certainly inferior to the “old atheists”—Bertrand Russell and John Mackie come to mind. They are also inferior to many other contemporary but less strident atheists—Thomas Nagel, Michael Tooley, and William Rowe, for example. We may perhaps hope that the new atheists are but a temporary blemish on the face of serious conversation in this crucial area."3
I have no objection to Plantinga addressing less developed but popular atheistic arguments. I just wish he would hold off on negative characterizations until after discussing the arguments.

Yes, I realize it might be hypocritical of me to bring this up. I thought about waiting for the last post in the series, but decided it's something readers should notice then look past to give both Plantinga and his opponents a fair hearing.

The Greatness and Limitations of Science

Why is it so important for worldviews to be compatible with science? Plantinga calls science "the most striking and impressive intellectual phenomenon of the last half millennium," since it is a "cooperative venture" among many brilliant people which progressively builds on previous questions.
"If there were serious conflicts between religion and current science, that would be very significant; initially, at least, it would cast doubt on those religious beliefs inconsistent with current science."4
I couldn't help but notice that these virtues of science are on par with theology in its heyday. Theology also had a lot of smart people coming up with ideas, then more ideas building on earlier ideas. Outside claims were resisted if they seemed out of line with established theology. So I don't think Plantinga has captured the reasons why science is such a big deal across worldviews, while orthodox theologies are not.

Is science like a religion, but less so? I get this impression from passages like:
"Some treat science as if it were a sort of infallible oracle, like a divine revelation—or if not infallible (since it seems so regularly to change its mind), at any rate such that when it comes to fixing belief, science is the court of last appeal. But this can’t be right. First, science doesn’t address some of the topics where we most need enlightenment: religion, politics, and morals, for example. […] Second, science contradicts itself, both over time and at the same time. Two of the most important and overarching contemporary scientific theories are general relativity and quantum mechanics. Both are highly confirmed and enormously impressive; unfortunately, they can’t both be correct."5
Maybe I'm overreacting, but it seems like Plantinga is highlighting the limitations of science without highlighting its strengths (besides current popularity). Scientific inquiry does not give infallible answers sufficient for all time; it gives answers at varying levels of confidence based on the evidence currently available to many people across different cultures and worldviews.

It's also odd for Plantinga to say that science doesn't address religion in a book devoted to what science tells us about religion. Does science have any bearing on politics or morality? That will depend on some preliminary moral and political philosophy. I think both topics are a combination of ends and means; and science has a lot to say about means.

Note: The Kindle Edition does not use traditional page numbers. I'm using "k. 93" to indicate Kindle location 93. This book is 6,220 locations long.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 93.
3. Plantinga (2011). k. 114.
4. ibid. k. 136.
5. ibid. k. 128.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Lingo: Sex, Gender, and Orientation

What is the difference between 'sex' and 'gender'? And how is 'sexual orientation' distinct from both of these concepts?

Short Version

Sex is a person's biological category, usually — but not always — straightforwardly male or female based on genes, hormones, and anatomic structures.

Gender is the socially constructed side of masculinity or femininity. For example, long hair might be considered a female trait in one culture, but not in another.

Orientation describes a person as being attracted to the same sex, the opposite sex, both sexes equally, or as being at any point along this range.

Another World

In a world we don't live in, every person's genes, hormones, and anatomic structures would line up as clearly male or clearly female. Every biological male would conform to a universal view of masculinity; every biological female would conform to a universal view of femininity. Finally, every biological female would be attracted exclusively to biological males, while every biological male would be attracted exclusively to biological females.

Real life is more complicated.


The first use of 'sex' recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a fourteenth century Wycliffe Bible in which Noah was asked to collect "male sex and female" for the ark. Dividing up members of a species according to reproductive function was its primary usage until the early twentieth century when it became the word of choice for physical intimacy (and 1912 marks the earliest recorded use of 'sexy' to describe a person).

For a variety of reasons, a human may not clearly fall into the typical male or female biological categories. 20/20 produced a helpful introduction to intersexuality, as it's called.


'Gender' has its deepest roots in the general notion of kind or category. It is related to the words 'genus' and 'genre.' Grammatical gender, e.g. "la mesa" (the table) or "el caldero" (the pot) was the main specific application of the term. Obviously, grammatical gender is not tightly integrated with biological sex, unless you know something about tables and pots that I don't!

With the rise of 'sex' as the term for physical intimacy, 'gender' became a popular replacement when speakers wanted to talk about (biological) sex without calling to mind sex-the-activity. (As the joke goes: "Sex? Yes, please!") It's still common for these words to be used as pure synonyms.

However, there is a growing trend of treating 'sex' and 'gender' as distinct attributes, a trend which started among United States psychology professionals in the 1940s. Here is a contemporary definition from the American Psychological Association:
"Sex is assigned at birth, refers to one’s biological status as either male or female, and is associated primarily with physical attributes such as chromosomes, hormone prevalence, and external and internal anatomy. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women. These influence the ways that people act, interact, and feel about themselves. While aspects of biological sex are similar across different cultures, aspects of gender may differ."1
Whether we use the word 'gender' or some other term to refer to cultural masculinity/femininity as opposed to biological masculinity/femininity, this is a very important distinction. We need some way to talk about it.

Since gender is a cultural category, a person may not feel they belong to the gender their society assigns to their sex. But this is not much different from a New York resident failing to identify as a Yankees fan.


'Sexual orientation' is another twentieth-century term. To quote the American Psychological Association again:
"Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. […] Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex[....]
Sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behavior)."2
Most people are right-handed; most people are predominantly attracted to the opposite sex.

Some aren't.

The Recognition of Culture

What happened in the twentieth century to prompt these changes in the way we talk about sex, gender, and orientation? That's a topic for whole books, but I'll hazard a guess: it was the growing recognition of human culture as distinct from the findings of natural science.

In other words, pink is not really a girl color. That's just an advertising campaign.

1. From
2. From

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Monthly Picks

On the first day of each month, I will be posting about new papers I've found interesting in Philosophy or Library & Information Science. I'll try to make sure at least one is accessible to everyone.

But not this month!

Nothing in the PhilPapers feed grabbed my attention. Library Science abstracts were scant this month; don't know if I should blame the publishing schedule or the announce-it-online schedule.

I'm thinking of blogging through Plantinga's new book. Any interest? In other news, I now have access to the Oxford English Dictionary. Brace yourselves.