Plantinga Reviews Sam Harris's Book

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Plantinga Reviews Sam Harris's Book

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2quicksiva
Redigerat: jan 13, 2013, 5:52pm

Harris argues that everything has a cause, and there is no ultimate cause. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), on the other hand, argued that everything has a cause except God, who is the ultimate cause. Both end up denying the possibility of human free will.

3MartyBrandon
jan 14, 2013, 6:42am

>1 barney67: Free Will is a great topic and Harris' book has certainly reawakened some of the controversies, but why choose a review by Platinga as an inroad for discussion? Many noted scholars specializing in this area have given opinions about these ideas.

4nathanielcampbell
Redigerat: jan 14, 2013, 12:13pm

>3 MartyBrandon:: "Many noted scholars specializing in this area have given opinions about these ideas."

Are you saying that Platinga is not among them? (It would be an odd sense of the state of the field if Alvin Plantiga were counted as neither a noted scholar nor a specialist on the philosophy of free will.)

5nathanielcampbell
Redigerat: jan 14, 2013, 12:13pm

I haven't read Harris' book, but if Plantiga is correct that Harris' fundamental definition of "free will" is the "maximal" position that absolute knowledge, choice, and control over every single factor of existence, then Harris' conception of free will is, in fact, very different from what I, as a theologian at least, mean by "free will". Indeed, the Christian tradition is full of thinkers who posit quite freely (if you'll pardon the pun) that the human actor is encumbered by all kinds of conditions and constraints, from the quotidian (I don't choose to be hungry, and thus when I choose to eat, I am reacting to a physical sensation that I did not per se freely choose) to the grave (the encumberance of disordered desire, i.e. sin, upon the human will).

In other words, if Harris seeks to debunk "free will" by offering an easily-debunkable straw-man version of it, then I'm not sure why I would bother to read the book.

6PedrBran
Redigerat: jan 14, 2013, 4:48pm

I just read the review, thanks for the post, but not the book. I am sympathetic to his goals as a fellow atheist although I still consider him a Christian atheistic because he still upholds Western Christian values and has yet to think through what actually being an atheist means...perhaps when he figures it out he'll write a book on atheistic atheism.

His other book _The Moral Landscape_ was clueless and completely unconvincing. Patricia Churchland said essentially the same thing in her interview in TPM.

Since Plantinga is a Reformed Christian ( he's part of the presuppositionalist New Reformed Epistemology group ), I am surprised that he wants to defend free-will since it is basically of no import in his belief system. Calvin, as he points out, believed in predestination, so a person cannot 'jump' from the set of non-elect into the set of elect, ie, all those who would be saved. So in that sense free-will is irrelevant other than providing a reason to excuse God for condemning those to hell who belong to the non-elect. Perhaps he finds it essential in his defense of moral responsibility. Edwards, as he points out, believed we did not have free-will, all actions are determined, and yet had no qualms about believing people would be sent to hell to suffer in all eternity without ever having a chance to choose otherwise...in fact, they were created for just this purpose.

Other Christian traditions, I would think, would find free-will absolutely essential to their beliefs. In the end, I don't think this is a philosophical question ( Its fun to debte...I'd be the last to deny that). We either do or don't have free-will. What we've learned so far has narrowed the range over which we may be thought to have free-will.

As a naturalist, my inclination is to think we do not. This position entails that we cannot therefore be held morally responsible for our actions. A good discussion of this can be found in Against Moral Responsibility.

If human choice is the brain's solution to a constrained optimization problem, this still leaves room for 'types' of 'free-will' since we all know that many of these problems have multiple-solutions...if that is so, then this may leave a space open for some semblance of free-will. This would all have to be explained in natural terms without recourse to spirits, ghosts in machines, demons, etc, however. Just food for thought.

7jburlinson
jan 14, 2013, 8:48pm

> 6. This position entails that we cannot therefore be held morally responsible for our actions.

I don't see how that follows. Wouldn't we, in actuality, be determined to hold each other and ourselves morally responsible for our actions? We do, after all, make such moral determinations. So it would follow that we're determined to do so, wouldn't it? Not only can we be held morally responsible, we must be held morally responsible. If we weren't, we wouldn't be doing it all the time.

8MartyBrandon
jan 14, 2013, 8:56pm

>4 nathanielcampbell: Yes, with respect, I am saying that Platinga is very much on the fringe. My comment is not intended as a troll, but motivated at the missed opportunity to discuss a pet interest. Enjoy your discussion. However, once you are finished with Platinga, you might have a look at Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, or Christof Koch to name a few.

9PedrBran
Redigerat: jan 15, 2013, 7:55am

>7 jburlinson: I think you are looking at determination in a predestination sense. Actions are not determined in that sense.

I find that some of the misunderstandings are based on a neglect to consider learning, recursion and feedback when looking at behavior and instead looking at it as a linear Laplacian determinism.

The gist of the argument is that since you could not have chosen otherwise, it would be unfair to hold someone morally responsible for their actions. The idea then is that one would favor reformative justice over punitive justice. It is a fairness issue. I agree that one would hold someone responsible for the action per se. At least this is the argument made in the book I mentioned.

10nathanielcampbell
Redigerat: jan 15, 2013, 10:09am

>8 MartyBrandon:: "My comment is not intended as a troll, but motivated at the missed opportunity to discuss a pet interest. Enjoy your discussion. However, once you are finished with Platinga, you might have a look at Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, or Christof Koch to name a few."

I see. I apologize if my own comments in (4) came off as snarky -- it was unintentional if they were. I very much hope that you will continue to contribute valuable insights from those other authors you mention, so that I might learn from you.

Sadly, while I find these discussions fascinating, I don't much have the time to pursue them as even a "pet interest", except insofar as I study their older, historical aspects -- my specialty as an academic is medieval theology and religious practice, so I rarely have the time to range freely into twentieth-century approaches. (As it is, I should probably kick myself off LT and get back to preparing to teach Marcus Aurelius' Meditations tomorrow -- talk about determination and fate!)

Even as a grad student at Notre Dame, the closest I ever got to Plantinga was a seminar on Julian of Norwich taught by Denys Turner, where we explored a variety of perspectives on divine providence (including the "free-will defense") in trying to get a handle on just where Julian was headed.

(And I suppose I might have come within one more degree of separation if you count the seminars I took with John Van Engen, as he and the Plantiga brothers were all together at Calvin back in the day. Come to think of it, Notre Dame has developed quite the habit of poaching faculty from their Reformed Brethern up north -- first Van Engen and Plantinga, and then John Schneider a few years ago after he had the audacity to question young earth creationism.)

11jburlinson
jan 15, 2013, 12:11pm

> 9. The gist of the argument is that since you could not have chosen otherwise, it would be unfair to hold someone morally responsible for their actions.

But what if one of their actions is to hold someone else morally responsible? Isn't it unfair to label as unfair an action that a person took when they could not have chosen otherwise?

The idea then is that one would favor reformative justice over punitive justice.

Would the successful application of reformative justice lead to a person who made better choices (but isn't that an impossibility?) ? Presumably, reformative justice would "re-form" the person into something that is no longer determined to perform objectionable behaviors. Would that mean that the person has now been re-programmed, through learning, recursion, feedback etc., Clockwork Orange-style?

12PedrBran
jan 15, 2013, 12:24pm

>11 jburlinson: But what if one of their actions is to hold someone else morally responsible? Isn't it unfair to label as unfair an action that a person took when they could not have chosen otherwise?

It would be a matter of social policy just as it currently is.

Would the successful application of reformative justice lead to a person who made better choices (but isn't that an impossibility?) ? Presumably, reformative justice would "re-form" the person into something that is no longer determined to perform objectionable behaviors. Would that mean that the person has now been re-programmed, through learning, recursion, feedback etc., Clockwork Orange-style?

Or removed from regular socierty as is done now by incarceration. This would not be for punitive reasons, but practical reasons.

The clockwork orange style was crude. But perhaps genetic engineering, drugs, and/or other treatments could reform people.

This is not some scary soviet style nightmare scenario where citizens who want to leave the country are incarcerated because only insane people would want to leave a worker's paradise. As a practical matter, we already have to deal with social misfits. That will continue. The goal should not to punish, but to restore the person. Societies around the world, as they slough off archaic attitudes based on more primitive evolved responses ( like striking back, revenge, etc ), are moving in this direction.

For people who are beyond restoration or reformation, the decision as a society would be whether to eliminate the person, or incarcerate them for life. Now that decision is based on the severity of the crime and not the reformability of the person.

13PedrBran
jan 15, 2013, 12:32pm

Just one more point.

Suppose a man is paid to kill your family ( the Iceman to use a real life example ). Many people's response would be the desire for justice which means revenge.

During the trial, you come to find out that the killer was brutally abused as a child and this resulted in his evential murderous behavior. However, medical technology has reached the point ( assuming ) that with simple genetic and drug therapy , the killer would be turned into the equivalent of the Dali Lama.

Would it be more ethical to put the killer to death or to restore him to a peaceful member of society?

14southernbooklady
jan 15, 2013, 2:30pm

>13 PedrBran: Would it be more ethical to put the killer to death or to restore him to a peaceful member of society?

Such a scenario assumes that -- please forgive the Star Trek reference -- the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

An interesting imaginative construction of such a society can be found in Samuel Delany's novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The main character is a man who has been "fixed" in just the kind of manner you propose in your scenario.

In Delany's scenario, however, the fix eliminates his capacity for self-determination, and his role in society is relegated to one of slavery.

15jburlinson
jan 15, 2013, 2:55pm

> 12. For people who are beyond restoration or reformation...

I'm having a little trouble following your train of thought here. You start with an argument whose gist is that people "could not have chosen otherwise", so it would be unfair (wrong?) to punish them.

Somehow, although we cannot choose to be other than we are, many of us can be "reformed" or "restored" (to what, I wonder?).

However, those who are "beyond" restoration or reformation are to be eliminated or incarcerated for life. It would seem, however, that such individuals are the paradigmatic examples of people who "could not have chosen otherwise," due to organic dysfunction or something equally intractable. In other words, the people who are the most illustrative of our lack of free will are the ones who should definitely get the shaft.

Presumably, this should not be viewed as punishment; but if it isn't, what is it? If you are on the receiving end of elimination, you would experience that as punishment, I would think.

16quicksiva
jan 15, 2013, 2:55pm

In Journey to the West:The main character, Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) starts life as a real hell raiser. He was tricked into putting on a magical headband, which could never be removed. The band would tighten and cause unbearable pain to the monkey's head whenever he thought of doing wrong. This novel was written in 16th Century China. Sun Wukung went on to become one of the greatest heroes in Chinese literature.

17jburlinson
jan 15, 2013, 3:02pm

> 13. medical technology has reached the point ( assuming ) that with simple genetic and drug therapy , the killer would be turned into the equivalent of the Dali Lama. Would it be more ethical to put the killer to death or to restore him to a peaceful member of society?

The most ethical thing would be to take the killer and everyone else in the world, including myself, and put us all through genetic and drug therapy so we could all become the equivalent of the Dali Lama.

Why would I want to privilege a hired assassin for such a wonderful outcome? Wouldn't I at least want that kind of beatitude for myself? And then, being the equivalent of the Dali Lama, I would want it for everyone else, including the killer.

18PedrBran
jan 15, 2013, 3:05pm

>15 jburlinson:

You seem to be thinking in Laplacean terms. Why do you discount the role of learning and brain plasticity?

The speed limit on the road I travel used to be 55. We all drove 55. The speed limit is now 60...its a new environment and a new situation. Under your thinking, I should still be driving 55. However, even an autonomous vehicle would increase its speed to 60 just as I have.

19PedrBran
jan 15, 2013, 3:07pm

>17 jburlinson: I agree which is why I modify my brain with exercise and recreational drugs. Some think it should be done through belief, prayer, chanting, meditation or whatever...whatever gets you off.

20PedrBran
jan 15, 2013, 3:09pm

I am not sure what your objections are to my point. We already do all the things I mentioned. My point is that punishment for the sake of punishment would be unethical if we don't have free-will since it would be unfair. It doesn't change current practice which is incarceration, etc. It just changes the goal of incarceration...and for that matter make it more human.

21quicksiva
jan 15, 2013, 4:33pm

What is the goal of incarceration? To judge by the results, it’s recidivism.

22AsYouKnow_Bob
Redigerat: jan 16, 2013, 11:17pm

#4 >Are you saying that Pla{n}tinga is not among them?

Yeeeaaah, I guess I'll have to take a piece of that.

The last time his name came up on LT (spring of 2010), Plantinga was being lauded for his cunning disproof of evolution. (Well, maybe his cunning disproof of naturalism - - in any event, he was trying to show that "naturalism" and "evolution" are somehow incompatible. I'm far from alone in thinking that he utterly failed in that effort.)

Now, I have a bit of background in the philosophy of science; and, at the time, I'd never even heard of the guy. I looked into him, and found he was a theologian at ND - and a creationist.

That (mostly the latter bit, although the first part does not actually help his reputation as a philosopher, either) disqualifies him from consideration as a serious thinker.

A creationist?!? That's a disgrace to his university, to the APA; hell, he's a disgrace to the academy.

That his argument against naturalism was shoddily reasoned
doesn't help establish him as a thinker worth reading, either.

(Really - it was middle-school-level stuff that would have been
demolished at the lunch table at my high school.)

That he's also published on questions of 'free will", well - so what?

I think anything we learn about free will is at least a million times more likely to come from a neurology department than from a theology department.

P.S. In his review, Plantinga offhandedly mentions ...Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), on the other hand, perhaps the greatest thinker America has produced....

Which is utterly wrong:Edwards?? Edwards??!? In the Valhalla of American thinkers, Edwards wouldn't be fit to sharpen Gibbs' pencils.

And the crescendo of Plantinga's critique of Harris:

First, if God is the real cause of everything, then he is also the real cause of sin; he is the real cause of every sinful action. But Christians have for the most part strenuously avoided the conclusion that God is the author of sin. God permits sin, certainly; but does he cause it? Does he cause the wickedness and the atrocities that our sad world displays? Does God cause genocide in Africa? Did he cause the Holocaust? Does he cause all the less conspicuous but nonetheless appalling sins committed by humankind? That seems impossible to square with God's perfect goodness.


This is not actually a logical refutation, or even an argument: Plantinga is just saying that Harris' determinism can't be true because it contradicts what he conceives to be the nature of his postulated god. Plantinga's a terrible thinker.