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

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