Second Guessing Richard Carrier, Part II

In my previous article, I talked about Carrier’s strange objection to Plantinga’s tiger and how he seemingly attacked an argument without telling his readers what that argument was in the first place. He never cited anything from Plantinga in that section of his article, and failed to quote him at all.

In this article, I will try to clarify the argument from Plantinga which Carrier references. In light of Plantinga’s argument clarified, we will evaluate additional claims made by Carrier in hopes of showing his followers that he’s not only sloppy, but also unreliable as a source of philosophical education.

Plantinga’s Argument Rightly Stated

We have said what Plantinga’s argument is attempting to do, that is, demonstrate the irrationality of belief in natural selection and show the inconsistency between it and its own schema, naturalism. But what is his argument? Rather than give you the manuscript in detail, I will draw out the highlights from his Veritas presentation. The argument flows as thus:

  • The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalistic evolution, is low. (Conditional probability) If evolution and naturalism were true together, then our cognitive faculties would probably not be reliable.
  • If a person sees that the first premise is true, and believes that naturalism and evolution are true, then that person has encountered a defeater for the belief that his or her faculties are indeed reliable. If there is a defeater here, there is also a defeater for any belief formed on the basis of a person’s cognitive faculties, which are all beliefs. This renders naturalism and evolution, taken together, self-defeating and thus irrational.

    (A defeater is a reason to relinquish a particular belief. In simple terms, a defeater is a belief a person comes to have which makes a previous belief irrational. If I believe A but come to believe B, and B falsifies A, then A is no longer rationally acceptable, and ought to be relinquished.)

In defense of the first premise, Plantinga goes on to discuss the makeup of belief if naturalism were taken as true. Beliefs, according to naturalism, would have two distinct properties. The first would be the parts of the event of coming to a belief. These are called neurophysiological properties. An example would be the rate of fire of neurons, whether or not there is neurological re-uptake, etc. These variables, and other similar variables, are figured into the first property of neurophysiological beliefs. The second property is belief content. A proposition, for example, would serve as content.

The trouble, here, is the prospect of what exactly causes a particular action to take place. According to naturalism, says Plantinga, an action would take place on the basis of the neurophysiological property alone, not at all with respects to belief content. This would mean that naturalism, taken with natural selection, is not aimed at the discovery of truth, but at neurophysiological behavioral modification which may or may not increase the chances of survival or prolonged life. Propositions are then 50/50 true or false. There is no real reason to suggest a person should be able to apprehend truth, consciously, given naturalism and natural selection.

Carrier’s Characterization of Plantinga’s Argument

Now that we have covered the very basic roots of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), we can more thoroughly evaluate whether or not Carrier is really off his rocker. Dr. Carrier ends his discussion about Plantinga’s tiger like this, “So as an argument, Plantinga’s tiger is fantastically stupid.” But remember, Carrier never really told us what Plantinga’s tiger was all about in any meaningful sense. He never included direct quotes, citations, etc. Either this means Carrier is being disingenuous, or he’s extremely sloppy. I tend to think it may be a mixture of both. No matter his dishonesty or sloppiness, let’s see if Carrier has a point.

He goes on from the tiger situation to four characteristics of the EAAN. I am going to respond to each one without quoting them at length. If you want to read them in their entirety, you can click here.

His first point against EAAN is that Plantinga supposedly ignores the distinction between “biology and technology of reason.” He then says, “The former is what our brain does; the latter is all the tools we developed to improve on what the brain does, such as mathematics, logic, and science. Those things have to be installed culturally. Because they aren’t in us biologically. They were not selected by evolution. They were selected by the rudimentary human intelligence that evolution gave us.”

I want to point out two red flags. First, did Carrier really just imply that evolution is internalistic notwithstanding environmental factors? I know this is a whole different argument, but this is just absurd. The task of the secular evolutionary anthropologist is to study the relationship between natural selection and human development (cf. ‘A theory of human life history evolution: Diet, intelligence, and longevity’). Second, is Carrier suggesting the laws of logic are human conventions? If so, this has been answered in many places. One example is Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein.

Second, Plantinga is not confusing biology with technology whatsoever. As you can see above, Plantinga is evaluating the probability of reliable cognitive faculties. Cognitive faculties are not tools invented by humans in order to make life better. They are psycho-neurological capacities which enable a person to form beliefs based on various types of experiences. Thus, for the naturalistic evolutionist, cognitive faculties would not be human conventions, but evolutionary developments.

Carrier continues to miss the point.

In his second point he says, “Plantinga conflates different kinds of faculties. My eyesight and visual processing is one faculty (e.g. my ability to see you and gauge your distance and size).” No, Dr. Carrier, that is a subset of the faculty of sense perception. He goes on, “my ability to process diverse information and thereby conclude that you cannot hide inside a lunch box is another faculty altogether.” That would be man’s faculties of reason. Plantinga makes distinctions between all of these in Warranted Christian Belief and Warrant and Proper Function. In fact, he specifically breaks down different ways of coming to particular beliefs depending on certain faculties to the exclusion of others (i.e. memory beliefs, sense perception beliefs; cf. the brain lesion or rock climber illustrations in Warranted Christian Belief). Carrier goes on, “Plantinga makes no distinction, and thus is incapable of ever having a scientifically credible account of our cognitive faculties.” Really? Ok, even if Plantinga fails to draw a distinction (which he demonstrably doesn’t do), then it wouldn’t follow that he’s necessarily incapable. If anything, statements like this ought to cause Carrier’s followers to question his credibility. Unfortunately, he keeps going, “Which is why he has never published a single paper on the evolution of cognition in any science journal dedicated to actually scientifically studying the evolution of cognition.”

Really, Carrier? Did you ask him? Did you ever think that, perhaps he’s never tried? I mean, he’s a distinguished philosopher in the eyes of Ivy League academia (Notre Dame). Do you really think that a person can’t speak on anything unless they’ve published an article in a specific type of journal? What if I said all writings on Jesus are trash unless they are published in an orthodox Christian theological journal? Is the fact that they haven’t been published in a specific journal reason enough to write all of them off? Not in the least.

Try again, Carrier.

His third claim is odd, namely because Carrier has done PhD work. This point is pretty off-base for even entry level philosophy students. He accuses Plantinga of leaning “his entire argument on a single bifurcation fallacy.” Remember, from above, when Plantinga gave a 50/50 chance for the apprehension of truth if naturalism and natural selection were true? That seems to be what Carrier is referring to here. However, the bifurcation fallacy, or fallacy of a false dilemma, only applies to bifurcations that are false in that there are more than just two options. But Carrier has never demonstrated the falsehood of Plantinga’s bifurcation, or shown there to be another option.

Moreover, Plantinga is discussing probabilities, not actual choice (a dilemma implies a choice). Plantinga is not saying that a person has to believe it’s either 50% A or 50% B. Rather, he’s arguing that there is a low probability of true beliefs if naturalistic evolution were true, and illustrates this as a 50/50 split. In other words, there’s no reason one should believe naturalism to be true given natural selection because if natural selection were true, there would be no way of warranting belief concerning whether or not any belief, P, is true. He’s merely stating this as a probabilistic catch 22.

There is no fallacy of false dilemma here.

Carrier’s fourth and last reason is not a surprise. He says, “Plantinga also conflates different kinds of knowledge.” Well, ok, but he never once shows why he thinks this is true. He just claims it and runs through different scenarios where a person apprehends knowledge in different ways. He never once shows why, or how, Plantinga is conflating various types of knowledge.

Conclusion

There is more to Carrier’s article, if you care to read it. From where we leave off, Carrier pulls a classic by quoting himself at length (he does this a lot). The beginning of the article is largely about Tim Keller and why Carrier didn’t like his book Reasons for God.

Overall, when a little light is thrown on Plantinga’s actual argumentation, it can be seen that Carrier, a supposed PhD in Ancient History, is badly misrepresenting an argument, not truly interacting with Plantinga’s subject matter. This is not only bad scholarly etiquette, but it also shows Carrier’s inability to respond to his opponents. It appears as if Carrier has a difficult time either in reading comprehension or worse, the virtue of honesty.

My hope in responding to Carrier is that his followers are enabled to think critically about the content he pumps out so liberally. His writing, in my experience, is generally bad. There is little to no credibility in what he says, not because his writing is terrible, but because he just doesn’t really tell the truth. He may as well start talking about UFOs and tin-foil hats; it would be just as well. Perhaps he would even reach another demographic!