I’m in the process of writing the next podcast episode on Alvin Plantinga and his arguments around the idea of belief in God as a properly basic belief. In it, I’m clearly on Plantinga’s side, and I think his work in that area represents a crucial contribution to philosophy of religion (and to epistemology).
I thought, therefore, that I should balance that with the following rather less friendly assessment. I’ve mentioned before that I think that Plantinga’s defence of mind-body dualism is his major weakness (maybe his ontological argument for the existence of God is is second major weakness). Here he is briefly defending mind-body dualism in a talk with Robert Kuhn:
Argument: “It seems to me to be perfectly conceivable that I should exist when my body doesn’t.”
Now, it’s clear to me what Plantinga is getting at, and it’s equally clear that Kuhn has trouble understanding it. Most of Plantinga’s critics at Youtube who watched this clip have the same problem that Kuhn does. Kuhn is getting tangled up in the idea that if something is “possible” then everything in discussion is relegated to a possible world, so we don’t even know if the possibility exists in this world. One of the commentors at Youtube who – ironically – felt that he was competent to assess the philosophical quality of the argument rejected it, saying: “Worst goddamn philosopher ever. Because I can imagine it it’s? true…? .” This is (obviously) wrong, and Plantinga’s argument is a lot better than that. Plantinga’s argument is as follows:
- If I am identical with B (my body), then absolutely every true statement about me will be true of my body as well (since they are the same thing)
- “This thing can possibly exist without B” is a statement that’s true of me, but it’s clearly not true of B
- Therefore I am not identical with B (my body)
It’s not the worst argument in the world, granted, but an argument needs more than that going for it in order to be a good one.
The thought experiment derived from the story Metamorphosis has a couple of problems. For one, beetles don’t have eight legs, they have six. But that’s not the elementary error that matters here – it’s a different elementary problem. Is it really conceivable that I might exist when my body doesn’t? Plantinga’s language reveals a degree of question begging when he says that someone in the story woke up and found himself “in the body of a beetle.” In? It sounds like that description just supposed that we exist independent of a body and can be “in” any number of different bodies. If this is what he really means, then of course only a dualist could find this example even remotely plausible. A physicalist will just look at this thought experiment, if this is what Plantinga means, and say “no, this example is no good. That’s just impossible.”
Of course, the word “metamorphosis” does not at all suggest what Plantinga suggests here. Metamorphosis involves physical change, so what we have here is not Plantinga existing when his body does not. Instead, Plantinga’s form has changed from an upright two legged type form to a black, shiny six legged form. It’s deceptively easy to imagine this scenario just because it’s easy to imagine yourself looking like a beetle. This ease of thought distracts us from the rather significant metaphysical question that we are overlooking, namely that of whether it’s possible to exist apart from our body.
Perhaps an example from the classic horror movie The Wolf Man will suffice to make the point. In the movie, Larry Talbot is the wolf man. He has the curse of the werewolf, and in the full moon he transforms into the terrifying beast that feeds on human flesh. But nobody would take a transformation like this as evidence that Larry Talbot isn’t even a physical being! For Larry, B still exists. It just happens to be a lot hairier than usual.
For Plantinga’s thought experiment to work, therefore, it has to be construed as a case where 1) B is destroyed, 2) there is no causal relationship between B and the beetle body, and 3) There is no truthful sense in which B is the beetle body. But given these constraints, what will the physicalist make of Plantinga’s claim that this scenario is perfectly conceivable? The physicalist will be well with her rights reply, “no, it isn’t conceivable at all.” Verbalising a scenario is not at all the same of really conceiving of it in all of its details. All that Plantinga is really conceiving of, the physicalist will say, is waking up and looking like a beetle.