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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Myers on Plantinga - and the concept of hatred

Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has a good post on Alvin Plantinga's recent article in Christianity Today, in which Plantinga summarises his well-known argument (not especially original to him) about the alleged incoherence of naturalism. The argument is supposed to show that if naturalism - by which he means the philosophical position that there is no God or anything similar - is true we have no reason to trust our capacity to discover truth about the world. We cannot take such a philosophical position, Plantinga argues, while also maintaining that human beings evolved from earlier forms of life.

This is supposedly because evolution could not give us a reliable capacity to discover truth; it could only give us sufficiently useful behaviours to survive and reproduce. If we trust our capacity to discover truth, so Plantinga tells us, we are committed to believing in a God who can guarantee that our reasoning capacities are essentially reliable.

It's an interesting argument, and there is much to be said about it. In the end, though, it's nonsense. First, it assumes a false dichotomy: either we have a highly reliable (even Godlike) capacity to discover the truth or we have no such capacity. Why not assume that we have a limited capacity to discover truths about the world, and that, thanks mainly to language, we have a cultural capacity to improve on this over historical time (and with great effort)? And why assume that some general-purpose capacity to perceive the world around us accurately, and to model it via processes that conform with basic kinds of reasoning (induction, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, the fundamentals of first-order logic), would not be good for survival and reproduction? Our brains may use heuristics that are misleading outside the contexts in which we evolved, but any organism will do better if, for example, it uses induction when it models its environment. If a small predator makes the mistake of attacking a large predator, gets mauled in the process, and barely escapes with its life, it will be in big trouble if its brain models reality by the equivalent of an argument that it's "due" for success next time. There is an indefinitely vast range of circumstances in which it's better for any organism to model the local environment on the basis of ordinary cogent ways of reasoning.

Myers emphasises the limited part. Our capacity to discover the truth about the world is not Godlike, but very constrained. It takes great effort to get robust findings about how the world works, once we step out of the most everyday observational level.

That's correct, of course, and I should add that what we actually find when we gradually build up knowledge of the past, the very small, and the very distant, for example, may end up being highly counterintuitive. Indeed, over-active agent-recognition heuristics that would have evolutionary advantages might partly explain the popularity and persistence of beliefs about supernatural intelligences.

The human brain is far from being a perfect truth detector. It's so imperfect that it looks far more like the product of evolution than like the design of a benevolent god. But I'll leave readers to have a look at Myers' rebuttal for themselves, since there's another aspect of Plantinga's article that I want to draw attention to.

Plantinga observes: As everyone knows, there has been a recent spate of books attacking Christian belief and religion in general. Some of these books are little more than screeds, long on vituperation but short on reasoning, long on name-calling but short on competence, long on righteous indignation but short on good sense; for the most part they are driven by hatred rather than logic. 

Now, it's true that there's a great deal of righteous indignation in such books as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, and Michel Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto. There's nothing wrong with that, because righteous indignation has its place. The question in any particular instance is whether or not the indignation is justified. If what is being criticised is sufficiently harmful, then why not? Whether or not it's justified, Plantinga's own article contains a certain amount of righteous indignation. That's all fine, but I do object when Plantinga writes that such books are driven by "hatred".

This use of words such "hate" and "hatred" cheapens them; it takes us to the point where almost any denunciation of ideas and organisations can be described as some kind of hate speech, even though nobody is urging that the ideas and organisations be suppressed or that the individuals adhering to the ideas, or belonging to the organisation be harmed. It's only a step away from characterising your opponents as motivated by hatred to calling for their speech to be banned and branding them as enemies of the social order. These easy accusations of hatred are irresponsible, at best, and we ought to call bullshit on them whenever they appear.

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("the ICCPR") contains a provision requiring that "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law." This requires, among other things, that signatory nations to the convention criminalise speech that can be classified as "religious hatred" but does no more than incite "hostility" to a religion or to its practitioners. Potentially, it's a very dangerous provision. If interpreted too loosely, it could have far-reaching consequences for freedom of speech. Any denunciation of an organisation or a body of ideas is likely to incite at least some hostility. Accordingly, the only thing that prevents the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, or Onfray from being caught by laws based faithfully on Article 20 of the ICCPR is that their critiques of religion do not amount to "advocacy of ... religious hatred".

Of course, they don't; in historical context, the phrase has a different meaning. It doesn't refer to legitimate criticisms of organisations and belief systems. However, there is a tendency in recent times for religious apologists to blur the distinction between harsh criticism of religious doctrines and organisations, on one hand, and some kind of expression of hatred, on the other. Plantinga is merely the latest of many to adopt this meretricious tactic.

I'm not sufficiently paranoid to think that Plantinga is angling to get the speech of his opponents banned. For one thing, he would never succeed in the US, where any such ban would clearly breach the First Amendment. Nonetheless, if it became accepted outside the US that works such as those of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Onfray constituted a form of hate speech, a point would soon be reached where they would be classified as illegal under Article 20 and national laws that are based on it. 

While that sounds like an extreme outcome, it's not such a large step from the current situation where Geert Wilders is already being prosecuted under hate speech laws in the Netherlands, partly over the content of his short film, Fitna. If Fitna is classified as socially-unacceptable hate speech, the line will have shifted, and a fierce critique of religion such as Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto will no longer appear obviously safe from criminal prosecution in such countries as the Netherlands. Wilders has already been excluded from entry to the UK to speak about Islam, though he has never attempted to incite his audiences to violence. 

Tiresome though it may be, we need to point out each time this accusation of hatred is made that the word "hatred" is being misused and debased. Of course, Plantinga and his comrades are too blind to religion's flaws to understand that harsh opponents of religion are not motivated by hatred at all, but more likely by such emotions as compassion for the many people whose lives are blighted by religious dogma. Compassion for those who are harmed may well provoke "righteous indignation", or even hostility and anger, but it is not an anger that settles into hatred. No one has to hate Pope Benedict, for example, to be hostile to many of his beliefs and statements.

Plantinga and others who use the language of "hatred" misunderstand the psychological basis for criticism of religion, perhaps because they can't see religion's harms. Perhaps they don't understand what, apart from something like hatred, could motivate strong criticism of something as benign, as they see it, as religion. I'm not going to be so mean spirited as to claim that they are projecting their own nastier emotions onto others, because I don't know that for a fact. But perhaps Professor Plantinga ought to think about it; maybe he should have a good look in the mirror, before he smears the motivations of others.

Whatever their own motivation may be, it's lamentable when Christian apologists such as Plantinga stoop to claiming that opponents must be motivated by hatred in their hearts.


Peter Hollo said...

Very well put, Russell. Thanks!

Richard Wein said...

Russell, you may like to note that Plantinga's article is not very "recent". It's dated "7/01/2008", and I remember discussing it elsewhere a few months ago.

I realise that your item was primarily about Plantinga's accusation of "hatred", not the content of his argument. But I'd like to mention a couple of things about the argument anyway. Unfortunately, Myers misconstrues the argument, and you seem to go along with this misconstrual. You both take Plantinga's references to the "reliability" of human cognitive faculties to mean utter or extremely high reliability (you use the word "Godlike"). But when Plantinga claims that our cognitive faculties are reliable he only means that they can "be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false". In any case, for the purpose of his argument it would be sufficient to take it to mean that they produce beliefs which have a better than chance probability of being true.

Myers gets distracted into concentrating his criticism on this misconstrued notion of reliability and on Plantinga's pointless probability calculation, and so fails to address the actual error in Plantinga's argument. That error is his assumption that the adaptiveness of our behaviour is independent of our beliefs, a very strange assumption that he never attempts to justify, making his argument--as presented in this article--absurd. (Elsewhere he has made a more sophisticated argument, arguing that his general conclusion is valid unless it can be demonstrated that the adaptiveness of our behaviour _is_ dependent on our beliefs, i.e. shifting the burden of proof. That argument still doesn't hold up to scrutiny, but at least it is not so patently absurd as the argument he makes here.)

Luke Vogel said...

Russell Blackford Wrote:

---"There is an indefinitely vast range of circumstances in which it's better for any organism to model the local environment on the basis of ordinary cogent ways of reasoning."---

I'm not sure I'm understanding the argument here in its complete form. Even though I tend to agree with your argument as I'm understanding it, that sentence spells trouble for me.

Debates on "hatred" can often be interesting. I remember my first full blown introduction into the deep implications of the debate when I was researching a "white supremacy" group and a paper written by it's leader called, Of Hatred. The issue is far more complex and interesting than many realize I think. Saying someone is coming from a position of hatred toward a subject that is evidently reflected in the work, is not always easy to discern, and can be certainly a reasonable charge.

One can easily slip into a defensive position that becomes untenable if argued from the idea that the claim is groundless to begin with simply because of the word. It is true the word is thrown around to essentially label and there is no real argument to be had, it is just a tool that often reflects a superficial and reactionary position (I'm not discounting by ignoring other uses that are common and easily understood such as; I hate Mosquito bites).

Here are the definitions of "hate" from dictionary.com


–verb (used with object)
1. to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest: to hate the enemy; to hate bigotry.

2. to be unwilling; dislike: I hate to do it.

–verb (used without object)
3. to feel intense dislike, or extreme aversion or hostility.

4. intense dislike; extreme aversion or hostility.

5. the object of extreme aversion
or hostility.

From Merriam:
1 a: intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury b: extreme dislike or antipathy : loathing

Now, are you really sure it's not reasonable to claim that Dawkins' book is driven by hatred? Not even in part? Where is the bullshit here, I certainly could agree that Plantinga is may be applying a superficial aspect, but that doesn't appear to be your argument.

You Wrote:

---"accusation of hatred is made that the word "hatred" is being misused and debased. Of course, Plantinga and his comrades are too blind to religion's flaws to understand that harsh opponents of religion are not motivated by hatred at all, but more likely by such emotions as compassion for the many people whose lives are blighted by religious dogma."---

This may well be true, but it still is not an argument that Dawkins may be indeed (it appears obvious to me) to be driven by a certain level of hatred for religion. To say it all comes down to compassion appears like bullshit to me. Compassion is certainly a motivator for Richard, and his compassion shows in many regards through his work, but the argument from compassion does not mean hatred isn't there.

Luke Vogel said...

I want to add to my last comment, to possibly deflect in part an argument which may be forth coming.

That would be that Dawkins has referred to himself as a "cultural Christian." This could, though I doubt it would be used this way, be an example of not fully understanding the implications of hate. Saying someone is coming form the position of hatred, does not necessarily mean that every aspect of what is hated, is actually hated. This is easy to understand, and certainly applies to religion. I could have a general hate of religion and actually respect, even admire certain aspects.

I think an important thing to keep in mind, which I learned from those "white supremacist", is that someone saying the word "hate" is usually not what you find. It would be unwise in argument to make a general claim such as "I hate religion." It is highly unlikely that many people say that, you most likely won't find a quote where Dawkins throws around the word "hate." However, again, this does not say someone is not at least in part motivated by a certain level of hatred toward the subject matter, in this case, religion. I would argue, that to say otherwise, that Dawkins is not motivated in part by a certain level of hatred is absolute bullshit.

Luke Vogel said...

In fairness, let me explain a point I made.

I said: ---"To say it all comes down to compassion appears like bullshit to me."---

It needs to be recognized that Russell said, "such emotions as...." However, the point is how Russell is framing the debate to make it appear to put a solely positive spin on the motivations and emotions. Again, as I have tried to show, one doesn't necessarily say the other doesn't exist in parts and together (a compassion and hatred) make up a fuller picture of motivations, emotions toward, etc.

pebird@pacbell.net said...

We cannot dismiss these types of attack as intellectually spurious - hence having no weight. It has considerable political weight.

Those with interests in suppressing science as science (different from science as technology - but that's another discussion) have at their core the elimination of *true* criticism from public discussion. In other words, the investigation to the core of an issue must not be allowed.

The confusion they are trying to sow is to equate criticism of religious doctrine and practice with suppressing individual independent thought. It's a powerful political tactic and I don't think we have a very effective response thought through.

Article 20 shows the extent to which this can be taken, Russell shows just what the potential implications are, and its very scary.

I maintain that trying to criticize religion on some kind of "factual" basis will lead exactly to these kind of conflicts. You can fight Creationism, but not by asserting the superior value of Evolution. As Russell's post shows, we don't fully understand the psychology of religious thinking - if anything, we dismiss their psychology as immature, childish Santa Claus beliefs, etc. Is it any wonder this is seen as hatred?

There is something more powerful than logic and reason going on. Hitting believers harder with reason just strengthens their resolve. I don't know what the answer is - but doing the same thing and getting the same results and expecting something different is not going to work. We need a new paradigm.

Luke Vogel said...


---"if anything, we dismiss their psychology as immature, childish Santa Claus beliefs, etc. Is it any wonder this is seen as hatred?"---

Your post is of an interesting perspective, but the debate even extends into scientific views and how religion is framed in that context. I'm in a bit of a hurry, but here is a quick example, very public, and published in Richard's, The Devil's Chaplain.

---"To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to organized religion."---

He's talking about his "meme" theory obviously.

pebird@pacbell.net said...


This is excellent. I posted somewhere (either this blog or another) on the concept of fetish - an attempt to materialize something subjective. Religions do this all the time - totems, relics, etc. You know what I mean: "The Bible IS the Word of God", that kind of thing.

I argue that this is a foundational method by which the members of a faith (who are interested in universal human existence issues of finitude and their relationship to infinity) are manipulated by the leadership of a given religion. If you can define the fetish - you can control the thinking. This is a political action (an act of social power), which is why I see all organized religions as basically primitive (not in a perjorative sense) political social structures. They had their time and I am sure provided value way back whenever.

Anyway, we can see that science is not immune to this fetish process. Dawkins takes thought/ideas and materializes them into memes. It has value as a thinking tool, a thought experiment, but it cannot be taken literally. Sometimes I think Dawkins actually believes his rhetoric - and there are others who take the meme "idea" seriously. Perhaps someday there will be equivalent of the Bern particle accelerator built to search for the physical "meme" substances. I suggest the first meme particle found to be called "Jesus!".

His criticism of religion as "mind viruses" if thought of as an illustration, could be used to jump to the fetish-based criticism. But meme in a literal sense is itself a fetish, so I believe his line of argument quickly loses steam.

Russell Blackford said...

RichardW:"That error is his assumption that the adaptiveness of our behaviour is independent of our beliefs, a very strange assumption that he never attempts to justify, making his argument--as presented in this article--absurd."

Nicely put, and I agree. But my further point is that the adaptiveness of our behaviour is not independent of how we are "wired" (as it were) to form beliefs. Even if Plantinga wants to shift the burden to ask why anyone would think that ... well, a creature that is wired to form false beliefs in a wide range of situations isn't going to last long. E.g., if its logic circuits produce the equivalent of the following reasoning, "I didn't do very well last time I attacked a larger predator, so I'm due to do well next time," it won't fare very well in the survival and reproduction stakes.

Where I agree with PZ is that our wiring may be imperfect in all sorts of ways (but perhaps ways that produced relatively safe beliefs in our evolutionary environment). We seem to have various cognitive biases, inbuilt heuristics, whatever. But, I add, evolution can explain this, at least in a general way, whereas Plantinga's account can't, as far as I can see. I conclude that evolution is, in fact, the best explanation of our somewhat, but not perfectly, reliable processes of belief formation. In particular, it's a better explanation than theism.

Luke Vogel said...


I was hoping you may clarify this part I quoted from your post:

----"There is an indefinitely vast range of circumstances in which it's better for any organism to model the local environment on the basis of ordinary cogent ways of reasoning."----

Before I get to my concern with that sentence, let me offer a couple things you may enjoy.

You said:

----"Indeed, over-active agent-recognition heuristics that would have evolutionary advantages might partly explain the popularity and persistence of beliefs about supernatural intelligences."----

You perhaps saw a good break down of Shermer's idea that appears may take in your thought above.

His Scientific American essay:

"Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World"


----"The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns
in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.
But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms."----

Also, this is from Shermer's, SkepticBlog today:

"Darwinian Psychology Goes Mainstream"


I think you may find both links above interesting and may help you find other avenues of research for a more fuller understanding of this issue. They are good for a couple reasons, the first one is brief and direct and encompasses current research, the second does also plus a good introduction into the broader field of current evolutionary psychology research.

Back to the sentence I quoted by you that begins this comment.Simply put, what are the other organisms "reasoning"? How are "they" reasoning?