The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Tag: Alvin Plantinga

On the evolution of moral beliefs


I’m a moral realist. That means that I think there really are some moral facts. It is wrong to do some things, and it is right to do some things, and this isn’t just a vent of emotion or an expression of my will, it’s really true. Stephen Law is also a moral realist, but if I’m reading him rightly in his debate with William Lane Craig on the existence of God or in his more recent discussion with me on the Unbelievable radio show where I discussed the moral argument for theism, he’d sooner give up moral realism than accept theism.

An argument I sketched in that discussion was that the best way to explain moral facts is by reference to God. Although he does currently believe in moral facts, he noted that they may not be there after all, so maybe there’s no reason to invoke God as an explanation. After all, he said, we can come up with an evolutionary explanation of why we would believe in moral facts whether they really existed or not. Law wants to be careful here. At the time I raised the concern that this may just be a case of the genetic fallacy, offering an explanation of where a belief came from as though this showed or suggested that the belief is false. But this isn’t what Law means to say, he replied. The point is not that the existence of an evolutionary account of why moral beliefs exist shows that those beliefs are false. That would indeed be the genetic fallacy at work. No, the point is that whether those beliefs are true or false, there exists the same evolutionary account for why we hold them – and that account is unaffected by their truth or falsehood. There is thus no particular reason to think that the evolutionary processes that brought them into being is likely to produce true-belief forming processes.

While this line of argument does not purport to show that the moral beliefs we hold aren’t true, it’s meant to cast doubt on the probability that the process that gave rise to these beliefs (or at least the process that gave rise to the relevant belief forming processes) is likely to result in either true beliefs or reliable belief forming faculties. It’s best to think in terms of the latter, if only because it’s downright bizarre to think that evolution forms beliefs. It plainly doesn’t, but it does form mechanisms or processes that creatures use to form beliefs.

So what should we make of this? Can we give an evolutionary account of why we would believe in moral facts, an account that is blind to the actual existence of those facts? Secondly, if we could give an account like this, would it undermine the probability that the processes that form those beliefs are reliable? I will give two answers: Yes, it is trivially true that we can give an account like this, and no, the fact that we can do so should not undermine our confidence in the belief form process that forms moral beliefs. In doing so I will be drawing on an argument by Alvin Plantinga, namely the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.” While I am inclined to think that argument is unsound, many of the insights that it draws attention to are true nonetheless.

The Great Pumpkin Objection


In the last podcast episode on Plantinga and properly basic beliefs, I briefly discussed the “Great Pumpkin Objection.” As it’s a subject worthy of a blog post of its own, and given that I know some people prefer things in writing, I thought I’d add a blog entry focused on that objection.

Alvin Plantinga has hammered out and defended the notion that if God (the Christian God that he believes in) really exists, then a Christian’s belief in God can be construed as properly basic. A properly basic belief is one that is rationally held and yet not derived from other beliefs that one holds (this is another way of saying that it is not justified by what is often called evidence). We hold many such beliefs, for example, the belief that the universe was not created just five minutes ago, any beliefs based on memory, belief that other minds exist, the belief that we are experiencing a certain colour, and so on. Set aside, for now, the fact that a lot of Christians think that they can produce decent evidence for the existence of God. Plantinga argued – successfully in my view – that even if that’s true, theism can be construed as properly basic and hence suitably justified even without such evidence. God created us in such a way that when we function properly we believe in him. The normal epistemic response to creation is to believe things like “God created this,” or more fundamentally, “God is real.” For more details, check out the podcast episode.

One bandwagon that anti-theists have jumped on is to claim that if theists can claim that their belief in God is basic, then just anybody at all can do this in regard to their belief in just anything. Here’s one popular version of that objection: In the comic strip Peanuts, the character Linus believes that there exists a Great Pumpkin who rises from the pumpkin patch every Halloween and rewards good children with presents. If Christians get to think that belief in God can be properly basic, then why couldn’t a person (like Linus) think that belief in the Great Pumpkin is properly basic, and so claim the right to believe it even though he cannot produce evidence for the belief’s truth?

Episode 036: Alvin Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs


Here’s episode 36, in honour of the recent retirement of Alvin Plantinga as the John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. It’s sort of a “nuts and bolts” podcast episode on Alvin Plantinga, introducing the listener to his account of belief in God as a properly basic belief – a belief justifiably held, but not held on the basis of evidence or argument.




Dualism: Plantinga’s soft spot


As I’m in the middle of a podcast series on the nature of the mind or soul and its relation to the body or brain (or both), my interests in general have been hovering around the issue, so here’s a blog post to add to the mix.

Alvin Plantinga is one of my favourite philosophers, but when he gets it wrong, he gets it surprisingly wrong. In general I think his work is the kind of thing that many aspiring Christian scholars (myself included) should aspire to produce. One particular skill that he has is to create helpful (and sometimes highly amusing) thought experiments to make the point. But every now and then I find myself thinking “wait, what?” I’ve concluded that like many great scholars, Plantinga is brilliant in general, but he has the odd soft spot in the head, noticeable by their contrast with the rest of his head. The ontological argument is one soft spot. Another is an argument that he uses for Cartesian dualism.

Episode 013: Plantinga and Presuppositional Apologetics part 2


Here’s Episode 13, which is part 2 of my coverage of Plantinga and presuppositional apologetics.

In this episode I present Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. I then close by summing up the similarity between Plantinga and Van Til and co., and respond to one objection that is common to them both.

Also, for the first time ever – we have mail! I reply to it at the end of this episode.

Episode 012: Plantinga and Presuppositional Apologetics


Here’s Episode 12: “Plantinga and Presuppositional Apologetics.” I’ve decided to give Plantinga two episodes, as it ended up filling up a big chunk of time. This is part 1, which looks at Plantinga’s argument for theism from Warrant.



What “The Little Prince” can teach some philosophers (and some normal people too)


My favourite children’s book right now is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I’m currently reading it to my son. He’s old enough to read it himself (he recently turned 10 – how the years have flown by!), but I’m making the most of reading to him while he still lets me – long may those years last!

Sometimes Children’s books (like the chronicles of Narnia, or this one) have a way of presenting profound philosophical points in such a perfect way. I doubt that all such points are self-explanatory to their young audience, which is yet more reason to think that children’s stories like this one are best when read to children as well as by them, because a really good story benefits the reader as much as the listener.

Anyway, to the point: Part IV of The Little Prince, the narrator, the man who met the Little Prince, introduces us to the fact that the Prince is from Asteroid B-612. But the narrator assures us that he’s just telling us this as a matter of fact, and not for the sake of “the grown-ups and their ways.” For you see,

Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never say to you, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers and sisters does has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

If you were to say to the grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,” they would not be able to get any idea of the house at all. You would have to say to them, “I saw a house that cost £4,000.” Then they would exclaim: “Oh, what a pretty house that is!”

Just so, you might say to them: “The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, then that is proof that he exists.” And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: “The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612,” then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their questions.

They are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.

But certainly, for us who understand life, figures are a matter of indifference. I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have liked to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a friend…”

To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.

For I do not want any one to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories. Six years have passed since my friend went away from me, with his sheep. If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure that I shall not forget him. To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend. And if I forget him, I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures.

As someone with some familiarity with – and great appreciation for – the writings of Alvin Plantinga, and just as someone who thinks that we can know that God exists without being able to convince anyone, this stood out to me immediately as really profound.

Christians believe (or at least I hope I’m not the only one who believes this) that in some really important way, we know God, and that God, to some extent, has made himself known to us. Take a philosophically unsophisticated person to whom God has personally made Himself known as loving and forgiving, and so forth. Given that God really has done so, what kind of objection is it to say to such a person, “but how can this have happened when we don’t even have any hard evidence that God exists?” In these circumstances, that God is loving and forgiving (and so forth) is evidence that he exists, because you can’t be loving and forgiving – or anything else – unless you exist.

Of course, if someone forbids the possibility that the narrator ever knew the little prince, or that God could ever have actually made himself known, this will just sound false. All the more reason to think that (a very strong form of) evidentialism leaves something to be desired.

Plantinga at the Sci Phi Show


Jason at the Sci Phi Show is hosting an interview he conducted recently with Alvin Plantinga. When asked how he managed that, his reply was simple: He emailed Dr Plantinga with the request, and Plantinga said yes. Who’da thought?

The interview is on the subject of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.

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