November 20, 2012

Philosophy: Plantinga vs Nagel (with some about probability)

        1. Plantinga vs Nagel
        2. Beyond mere faith in Indian philosophy
        3. The many senses and shortcomings of probability and statistics
        4. Summing up: It's about research programs, intellectuals!
     About ME/CFS


This Nederlog
is about two modern academic philosophers, religion, probability and belief. The reader should note that, although most of my text is about philosophy and religion, the issues I am really concerned with are probability and belief. However, properly discussed especially probability is a difficult subject, so all that I do is mention some difficulties and some books.

1. Plantinga vs Nagel

Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel are two living academic philosophers. Recently, the latter - aged 75 - published a book
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
which was discussed by the former - aged 80 - with considerable glee in Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong.

The reason for professor Plantnga's glee is that professor Nagel is an atheist while professor Plantinga is a Christian. Here is professor Plantinga summing it up -

His new book will probably call forth similar denunciations: except for atheism, Nagel rejects nearly every contention of materialist naturalism. Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. As Nagel points out, this is extremely improbable, at least given current evidence: no one has suggested any reasonably plausible process whereby this could have happened. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”

The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is the idea that, once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well. These processes, moreover, are unguided: neither God nor any other being has directed or orchestrated them. Nagel seems a bit less doubtful of this plank than of the first; but still he thinks it incredible that the fantastic diversity of life, including we human beings, should have come to be in this way: “the more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.” Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low, and he believes that nothing like sufficient evidence to overturn this verdict has been produced.

So far Nagel seems to me to be right on target. The probability, with respect to our current evidence, that life has somehow come to be from non-life just by the working of the laws of physics and chemistry is vanishingly small. And given the existence of a primitive life form, the probability that all the current variety of life should have come to be by unguided evolution, while perhaps not quite as small, is nevertheless minuscule. These two conceptions of materialist naturalism are very likely false.

As it happens, I have read books and papers by both gentlemen, that I found quite good, as a matter of fact, but I have not read Nagel's latest, nor Plantinga's more theological writings. It seems to me both are mistaken, at least if professor Plantinga's summary of professor Nagel is adequate, as I will briefly explain in a moment.

But let me first illustrate what wild leap of faith professor Plantinga recommends:

Now you might think someone with Nagel’s views would be sympathetic to theism, the belief that there is such a person as the God of the Abrahamic religions. Materialist naturalism, says Nagel, cannot account for the appearance of life, or the variety we find in the living world, or consciousness, or cognition, or mind—but theism has no problem accounting for any of these. As for life, God himself is living, and in one way or another has created the biological life to be found on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere as well). As for the diversity of life: God has brought that about, whether through a guided process of evolution or in some other way. As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious. And what about the existence of creatures with cognition and reason, creatures who, like us, are capable of scientific investigation of our world? Well, according to theism, God has created us human beings in his image; part of being in the image of God (Aquinas thought it the most important part) is being able to know something about ourselves and our world and God himself, just as God does. Hence theism implies that the world is indeed intelligible to us, even if not quite intelligible in Nagel’s glorified sense. Indeed, modern empirical science was nurtured in the womb of Christian theism, which implies that there is a certain match or fit between the world and our cognitive faculties.
To me that sounds like totally groundless wishful thinking: Why not rather convert to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or God knows what else if one has such doubts about naturalism or scientific realism, as Nagel has, by Plantinga's summary? Or why not turn skeptic rather than commit wild leaps of faith? Or remain agnostic, and admit there is a lot to be learned and little that is definitely known?

Indeed: why believe anything in the way of the last quoted paragraph of pure word magic?! The term "God" does not explain anything of the kind, in any useful rational sense of "explains", except by wildly begging the question, by word magic and by mere assertion. A statement like professor Plantinga's "
As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious" is not even an explanation - it is a pseudo-explanation, a statement of faith.

Also, it is much worse than an analogous statement natural realists might make: "
As for consciousness, again naturalism has no problem: according to naturalism the fundamental and basic reality is nature, that generated conscious life." This also would be a pseudo-explanation, because it does not provide a clear and adequate definition of consciousness, and wholly fails to tell how nature brought this about, but then the existence of nature, and the existence of other conscious beings, is far less problematic, indeed for all religions, than is the existence of God, or at least the existence of all the differemt gods of all religions but one's own.

2. Beyond mere faith in Indian philosophy

But then the "explanation" professor Plantinga - who did write at least one interesting good book, namely "The Nature of Necessity" - has to offer, I must fear of anything whatsoever, seems to be this: "God made it - trust me (I studied philosophy)!".

Now professor Plantinga, of course, is free to believe what he pleases, and is also free to commit wild leaps of faith, and he is also free to stick to the religion of his parents, as I think he does - but the above paragraph is not logical argument: It is mere assertion of
faith, that also wholly avoids even mentioning the very many religions that do not belong to the "Abrahamic religions" - and while I am at it, let me note that, speaking for myself, I find the religious philosophies summarized by Dasgupta in his volumes "A History of Indian Philosophy" at least as subtle as anything I have read from the "Abrahamic religions". Try it if you don't believe me, and then also check out vol. 2 of the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies edited by Karl H. Potter, entitled "Indian Metaphysics and Epistemology: The tradition of Ny„ya-Vaiśeșika up to Gageśa" (*)

But that is merely by the way. My guess is that my main difference with both Plantinga and Nagel is that I hold that they have no rational basis for many judgments of probability they make: I think they - certainly professor Plantinga, possibly professor Nagel - seem to confuse what they believe is (in)credible with what is (im)probable, in some sense of "probable".

At least professor Plantinga suggests that he has some numerical basis, some mathematical foundation for the many judgements of "probability" that he makes, in such phrases as "
this is extremely improbable", "the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low", "The probability, with respect to our current evidence (..) is vanishingly small" and "These two conceptions of materialist naturalism are very likely false."

I do not believe this is so, at all. What I do believe is that professor Plantinga's own degree of belief in the theses he calls "improbable" is very small - but then a degree of belief in something, in whatever of many possible senses of "degree of belief", is not at all necessarily the same as a numerical probability, in whatever of many possible senses of "probability", and indeed is also not a merely qualitative statement of probability.

3. The many senses and shortcomings of probability and statistics

In fact, while the elementary mathematics of probability may be regarded as somewhat settled and fairly clear - and here I am in fact bypassing the fact that even so there are many different mathematical foundations of quite a few different senses of "probability" - and
while the elementary mathematics of probability will deductively lead from given numerical values by some sound mathematical argument to other numerical values, as in "if you have a red card from a normal deck, the probability is 1 in 13 it is an ace", the major difficulty of almost any such mathematical exercise it to find good grounds for the numerical probabilities one starts with.

In the case of cards, one can appeal to the number of possibilities, and in the case of life insurance, one can appeal to the records of births and deaths, but in many other cases - such as: how many possible universes are there, starting with a bang, without a bang, or not starting at all, or: how many possible courses of life does one have, starting from where one is - there just is no good idea about how many possibilities there are, or what plausible proportions for them would be: How many alternative possible rational explanations for the arisal of life are there? How do these relate, in any plausible sense of "probability" to such evidence as one has? How to attribute probabilities to that evidence?

None of these are easy questions to answer even in fairly elementary, fairly contrived cases - as one may realize oneself as soon as one starts betting on throws with dice or games with cards: What if one of the players has loaded the dice or manipulated the deck? How to assign probabilities to these eventualities?

There just are - in the more interesting cases, such as professor Plantinga writes about - no clear rational answers. And then I have not even mentioned the fact that the diverse mathematical theories of probability tend to come with serious mathematical and foundational difficulties apart from the serious difficulties associated with assigning numerical probabilities, to almost any statement of fact that is not artfully contrived and qualfied, as in "if this is deck of cards is not tampered with, and if it is shuffled properly and honestly, and if the dealer is not a crook, and if God does not exist or takes no hand in the outcome, for some reason only He knows, then ..." etc. For each of these conjuncts is relevant to the outcome, and each is difficult to appraise and assign itself a probability to.

But I will not enter into these and other difficulties. Instead, I will give you a brief list of books about probability, ranked from mathematically easy to difficult, all good, for various reasons, and all worth reading if you are in any way seriously interested in the subject.

I start with a book that requires least, mathematically speaking
Roy Weatherford
Philosophical Foundations of Probability Theory
1st publ 1982
It is an able discussion of the classical, the a priori, the relative frequency and the subjectivist theories of probability - for these all exist, and all are different explanations of what probability is, even if the diverse explanations agree on the mathematics.
Ernest W. Adams
A Primer of Probability Logic
1st publ 1996
This is an able and interesting presentation of Adams' own view of the relation between probability and logic. It does contain mathematics and logic, but explains most of it quite well.
Arthur W. Burks
Chance, Cause, Reason:
An Inquiry Into the Nature of Scientific Evidence
1st publ 1978

This is by a mathematician, physicist and philosopher, and has the merit of going quite deep into the issues, in a quite clear way, at considerable length also. Burks also was involved in the design of the first electronic computers, and assisted John von Neumann (probably (!) the greatest mathematical genius of the 20th C). This requires some knowledge of mathematics or mathematical logic.
Brian Skyrms
Choice and Chance:
An introduction to inductive logic
1st publ 1999

This is - mostly - in the subjectivist school of probability, and is concerned with choice, chance, probability, learning from experience and the problem of induction. It is all quite clearly presented, and mathematically not demanding ("an undergraduate text"). I have the first edition; there are later ones I haven't seen. Skyrms is a logician, and if you liked "Choice and Chance", you'll probably like his "Causal Necessity".
Terrence L. Fine
Theories of Probability:
An Examination of Foundations
1st publ 1973

This is by an electrical engineer, who searched for clarity in the foundations of probability, and presents and discusses axiomatic qualitative and quantitative proabilility, relative frequency, computational complexity and randomness, classical probability, logical probability and subjective probability.

Mathematically speaking this is the most demanding of the books mentioned here, but in various ways it also is the most interesting, because it delves the deepest, and takes the least for granted, and is a wide ranging survey of theories and doctrines.

Here is most of Fine's final paragraph, after 250 pages of thorough mathematical exposition that one may fairly consider to be beyond all of the APA's present members (**), and indeed also beyond almost all social scientists, who often seem to believe or at least pretend that their cook book statistics makes their papers or arguments scientifically sound and credible:
"Judging from the present confused status of probability theory, the time is at hand for those concerned about the characterization of chance and uncertainty and the design of inference and decision-making systems to reconsider their long-standing dependence on the traditional statistical and probabilistic methodology. Hitherto, most of the efforts of revaluation have focused on the development of statistics without due regard to the inadequacies of the concept of probability that underlies statistics. (..) Clearly, much remains to be understood about random phenomena before technology and science can be soundly and rapidly advanced. It is not only the "laws" of today that may be in error but also our whole conception of the formation and meanings of those laws." (Op.cit. p. 250)
As you may have noticed, this is the oldest of the texts I've listed, but its conclusion seems to me still correct, and certainly was based on a thorough study of very many foundational texts of probability theory.

4. Summing up: It's about research programs, intellectuals!

To return briefly to the debate between Plantinga and Nagel:

Not having read Nagel's book, I do not know to what extent I agree with him. Having read Plantinga's essay about it, I do know I totally disagree with him.

Science - which is what Nagel's book is about - is about explanations for puzzling (apparent) facts. These explanations take the form of theories, that always go beyond the known facts, because that is the only way they can be tested and be useful to explain anything new. These scientific theories all may be false, though in the real sciences, such as physics, at least since Galileo and Newton, later theories often are corrections of parts rather than refutations of all: Newton's physics was not overthrown by Einstein, but partially corrected and better explained. And the reason for this is that real science happens within research programs: Sets of general epistemological and ontological assumptions and specific experimental methodologies and mathematical techniques that are at the basis of - for example - physics or parts of physics.

And my answer to professor Plantinga is that the research program(s) of real science are far more sensible, rationally speaking, and also far more useful and productive, in terms of new discoveries, new inventions and new technologies, than the effective "research program" of theology, that consists of faith, word magic and wishful thinking, as illustrated above.

There is no real problem in failing or partial or incomplete theories nor in the lack of rational explanations for many things we would like to know: the only real problems are with ignorance masqueraded as pseudoscience and with dishonesty about the extent of our knowledge and ignorance.



(*) Lacking health and money, this is the only volume of that Encyclopedia I read. I did order it from India, in the 1990ies, mostly because my greatest intellectual interests in life are human reasoning and logic, and this is mainly about logic. And since this is a footnote anyway, let me add that I have read much nonsense about Scholastic and about Indian philosophy: I am not religious at all, and never was, but some of the subtlest minds I read - Ockham, Buridan, Dharmakirti, Udayana - were logically interested religious men.

(**) My reason to mention the APA - that is: the American Psychiatric Association - is that I have found reasons to delve into the foundations of their DSM-5, and have found them to be fraudulent, as also applies to their use of statistics. Also, if you are not fairly good at set theory and know some calculus, professor Fine's text, excellent as it is, is not for you.

As to the APA and the DSM-5: There will be soon a list of videos in Nederlog with knowledgeable - learned, able, informed - people who have come to the same conclusion, sometimes for the same sorts of reasons as I did, often for different sorts of reasons, and in the last case namely because their relation to psychiatry is different from mine.

In any case, here is - to whet your appetite - one of them:
This is quite clear and sensible, and it should frighten people who want real medical science and not fraudulent psychiatric pill ushers abusing science, and replacing it by pseudoscience, to satisfy their own greed, as also shown and explained here:
and as explained in my

About ME/CFS (that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komarof

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)