Monday, January 16, 2012

Epistemological Behaviorism and Plantinga

A while back I posted an argument against Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). At the time, I didn't do a whole lot of research about other arguments against EAAN, but I looked aroung a bit and didn't see anybody making the sort of argument that I was making. I let the topic go until just recently, when my interest in the subject was aroused by a discussion over at Russell Blackford's blog on a new book by Plantinga and Dennett. From what I can tell, the book is an extended version of a recorded debate between the two philosophers which took place a couple years ago. I haven't read the book, nor have I listened to more than the first fifteen minutes of the debate, so I won't speak about either directly. Still, EAAN is not new, and I don't think its formulation has changed significantly over the years.


As I said, my interest was aroused. I've contributed a few lengthy posts over at Russell's blog, and I also did a little more research. It didn't take long to find this 1993 essay by J. Wesley Robbins, which is very similar to my own argument against Plantinga. Curiously, I haven't been able to find any evidence of a response to Robbins by Plantinga or any of his defenders.

The similarities between my and Robbins' arguments might not be obvious to some readers. My argument focuses on epistemological behaviorism, the idea that the understanding of beliefs and knowledge is grounded in, and ultimately reducible to, an understanding of behavior. I do not claim that beliefs are themselves behaviors, nor do I suppose that they are neurological states or functions. Rather, following Ryle, I take beliefs to be understandable in dispositional terms, though in an indefinitely heterogeneous way. In other words, there isn't a simple, one-to-one relationship between belief and behavior. Furthermore, when we attribute beliefs, we are not making statements about specific entities which may or may not exist. We are rather giving ourselves license to make a broad and indefinite set of explanatory-cum-predictive statements about how people are likely to act. Though our understanding of beliefs cannot be reduced to a finite description of behaviors, it is entirely a matter of behavior and nothing else.

Robbins does not draw specific attention to Ryle or behaviorism, but instead frames the issue in terms of 'generically pragmatic' views of the mind. Still, epistemological behaviorism seems to be largely, if not entirely, what Robbins is talking about.

I took the term 'epistemological behaviorism' from Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It's a term he uses to describe pragmatic approaches to epistemology such as we find in the later Wittgenstein, Ryle, Quine, Sellars, Davidson, and Rorty himself. Robbins' point is that EAAN doesn't make sense from such views, and that it appeals only to 'generically Cartesian' views of the mind, which eliminate the fundamental connection between our understanding of mental contents and our understanding of behavior.

My argument against Plantinga might be a little stronger than Robbins', because I may be a bit harder on the sort of epistemological view Plantinga is advocating. While Robbins does raise questions about Cartesianism, he does not attack it fully. According to my argument, however, we simply cannot imagine a person who acts just as we do but who has nothing but false beliefs. If we divorce beliefs from the behaviors they are used to predict, we end up with nonsense.

It might be hard for people to accept that our understanding of beliefs is just a matter of behavior, and nothing else. We seem to have some direct access, some internal awareness of beliefs, which does not require behavioral evidence. Don't we understand our beliefs without observing how we act?

How do we know that we believe something? Perhaps we voice a statement of belief in our heads. Perhaps we feel strongly about something, and associate that feeling of trust with a particular proposition. But how is my belief understood? That is, what do I understand when I interpret myself as believing that it might rain? I suppose that my understanding is just the same as when I interpret somebody else as believing that it might rain. My knowledge of my own believing is a matter of how I predict I will act in an indefinite set of situations, and nothing more. The fact remains that, however our beliefs arise and however private our access is to our own beliefs, we understand beliefs in terms of observable behaviors.

Before I end this post I want to comment on the other of the two main theses Plantinga puts to Dennett. This is the thesis that theism is compatible with evolutionary theory. From what Russell says, both he and Dennett accept this thesis. They claim that, if you are willing to twist and bend your concepts enough, you can make just about anything compatible with evolutionary theory. But, then, so what? It doesn't mean there's any evidence in favor of your view.

As I understand Plantinga, however, he does not think belief in God is the sort of belief that requires evidence. He says it is properly basic. I have a very big problem with this claim, though I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that, without a strong criteria for properly basic belief, and without a coherent definition of 'God', Plantinga's argument about properly basic belief looks like nothing more than an attempt to deflect rational criticism. The point, however, is that I don't think Russell and Dennett's response to Plantinga is strong enough--assuming I have understood them correctly.

In my view, there's a basic incoherence at the root of theistic claims which makes it literally impossible for them to be compatible with any legitimate explanatory framework. So we are giving away too much if we accept the claim that theism is compatible with evolutionary theory.

One might object that surely it is conceivable that some great intelligent being has secretly worked behind the scenes, causing just the right mutations to occur in just the right times, fine-tuning each and every environmental factor to guarantee that evolution would, over the millenia, produce human beings. I agree, for the sake of argument, that it is conceivable. What I don't agree with is that this has anything to do with theism.

What is not conceivable is that this supposed being is supernatural. I just don't see a coherent notion of "supernatural" on the table. Perhaps this is just a personal problem. Maybe my cognitive or intellectual abilities are too limited to grasp the concept. But it seems to me that people who advocate belief in the supernatural rarely suppose that any coherent definition is on offer. And when they do attempt to offer one, they either appeal to other inexplicable notions or to some inexpressible sort of experience. So I don't think it's just me. I think the discourse of theism is an elaborate sleight of hand, nothing more.