Where the Conflict Really Lies

9780199812097_custom-c96a4e01f4f5fdd8283f6cf84c1289baddd1d4e5-s6-c30Alvin Plantinga is one of the most prominent figures in a group of philosophers who work on what one could call religious epistemology. Plantinga has decided to take on the “new atheists” in his latest book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford, 2011) and while I applaud that project, I’m not optimistic that he is going to succeed in the manner he hopes he will.

Plantinga writes in the preface that “according to Christian belief, God has created us in his image, which includes our being able, like God himself, to have knowledge of ourselves and our world.”

Really? Our knowledge is like God’s? So God is constantly having to discard flawed theories concerning the nature of physical reality in favor of what appear to be better theories? So the discrete bits of God’s “knowledge” are as incompatible as general relativity and quantum mechanics? That’s a disturbing thought. I like to think God is always right, not that he is constantly getting things wrong and having hence to revise and improve his theories.

Plantinga contends that knowledge of physical reality is possible only if one assumes that there’s some kind of pre-established harmony between the way our minds work and the way the world is. That’s actually a very reasonable claim. He’s right in that without some assumption of that sort, we’re stuck in the Kantian realm of the way the world is for us, rather than the way it is in itself. Humanity has been deeply uncomfortable with this insight ever since Kant (or more correctly, the Pyrrhonists) first expressed it. The view that knowledge liberates us from the confines of our subjectivity seems an almost ineradicable intuition, a fact about the way the mind works. And yet, it is not merely difficult to defend; many would argue that it’s demonstrably false.

It’s not that science is a free for all, or that reality is however and whatever we think it is. To say that we cannot escape the confines of our subjectivity, even when we are at our most “objective” (as is the case, hopefully, when we are doing empirical science), is merely to say that the world is always going to look to us the way it does, not because of the kinds of individuals we are in particular, but because of the kinds of creatures we are in general. Kant, as I indicated above, didn’t actually discover this fundamental truth about what you could call our epistemological predicament. This insight goes at least all the way back to the ancient skeptics.

Plantinga is correct in his observation that atheists who claim to base their views in science lack support for their belief in the veridical nature of scientific “knowledge.” He’s incorrect, however, in his claim that believers stand on firmer ground.

Plantinga asserts that God “created us and our world in such a way that there is a match between our cognitive powers and the world. To use the medieval phrase, there is an adaequatio intellectus ad rem (an adequation of the intellect to reality).”

“Medieval” is the operative word here. Plantinga seems stuck in some medieval world view. He appears to have forgotten that science “progresses.” That is, he appears to have forgotten that we are constantly getting things wrong. The history of science makes it glaringly obvious that the purported fit of which Plantinga speaks between our cognitive powers and the world is far from a good one.

The views Plantinga expresses in Where the Conflict Really Lies are not new. He’s been engaging in elaborate machinations for years in an attempt to defend his position concerning the “match between our cognitive powers and the world.” One of the most intractable problems in the history of epistemological theorizing is known as “the Gettier problem.” Edmund Gettier published a little two-page paper entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge” back in 1963 that has been the bane of epistemologists ever since. Basically, what Gettier showed is that it is possible to have a justified belief that is true by accident, or a belief where the justification is not related to the truth in the way we intuitively believe it ought to be.

The second of Gettier’s two counter examples to the view that knowledge is simply justified true belief concerns a man, Jones, that another man, Smith, has reason to believe owns a Ford. Why does Smith believe this? “Smith’s evidence,” writes Gettier, “might be that Jones has at all times in the past within Smith’s memory owned a car, and always a Ford, and that Jones has just offered Smith a ride while driving a Ford.”

“Let us imagine, now,” continues Gettier,

that Smith has another friend, Brown, of whose whereabouts he is totally ignorant. Smith selects three place names quite at random and constructs the following three propositions:

  1. Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Boston.
  2. Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona.
  3. Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Brest-Litovsk.

Each of these propositions is entailed by (f) [the belief that Jones owns a Ford]. Imagine that Smith realizes the entailment of each of these propositions he has constructed by (f), and proceeds to accept (g), (h), and (i) on the basis of (f). Smith has correctly inferred (g), (h), and (i) from a proposition for which he has strong evidence. Smith is therefore completely justified in believing each of these three propositions, Smith, of course, has no idea where Brown is.

But imagine now that two further conditions hold. First Jones does not own a Ford, but is at present driving a rented car. And secondly, by the sheerest coincidence, and entirely unknown to Smith, the place mentioned in proposition (h) happens really to be the place where Brown is. If these two conditions hold, then Smith does not know that (h) is true, even though (i) (h) is true, (ii) Smith does believe that (h) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (h) is true.

It’s kind of a contrived example, but it makes a good point. A justified belief can be true by accident. When it is, that is, when the justification does not relate to the truth of the belief in the way we think it ought to, we’re inclined to think that the belief in question does not amount to knowledge, even though it satisfies what have long been taken to be conditions necessary and sufficient for knowledge.

Everyone has been trying to better Gettier and this has generated some very interesting work in epistemology. No one seems able to do it, however, without abandoning some intuition we feel is basic to knowledge. You can get around the Gettier problem, for example, if you just add a proviso onto your account of justification that requires that it relate to the conditions in the world that are responsible for the belief being true. The only problem with such an account of justification is that we are never in a position to determine whether this is the case. It is possible, on such a view, to have knowledge; you just can’t know when you know something. The problem is that we’re inclined to believe that you can’t know something without also knowing that you know it.

So the project to better Gettier continues…

Plantinga believes he’s done it though. He gives a detailed account of how his theory of what he calls “warrant” (which is Plantinga’s version of “justification”) avoids the Gettier problem in his book Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993). Look closely, however, at what Plantinga says about how “warrant” avoids the Gettier problem. The basic idea, says Plantinga, is simple enough:

[A] true belief is formed in these cases all right, but not as a result of the proper function of all the cognitive modules governed by the relevant parts of the design plan [i.e., God’s plan]. The faculties involved are functioning properly, but there is still no warrant; and the reason has to do with the local cognitive environment in which the belief is formed. Consider the first example, the original Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona example. Our design plan leads us to believe what we are told by others; there is what Thomas Reid calls “the Principle of Credulity,” a belief-forming process whereby for the most part, we believe what our fellows tell us … [C]redulity is part of our design plan. But it does not work well when our fellows lie to us or deceive us … as in the case of Smith, who lies about the Ford” (33-34).

What, you ask? Who said anything about lying? Gettier doesn’t say anything about lying. Jones never says he owns a Ford. Smith’s evidence, again, is “that Jones has at all times in the past within Smith’s memory owned a car, and always a Ford, and that Jones has just offered Smith a ride while driving a Ford.”

You can’t avoid the Gettier problem by pointing out that God designed us generally to believe what other people say because no one lies in either of Gettier’s examples. It would appear that Plantinga hasn’t even read Gettier because the example in question is Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, not Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, and it is the second of Gettier’s two examples (or counter examples) not the first.

If God had a design plan for the operation of the human intellect, I’m inclined to believe that part of that plan was that we should actually read the works on which we argue we’ve improved. Something went wrong with that plan somewhere!

(An earlier version of this post appeared in the Sept. 27-29 Weekend Edition of Counterpunch).



The Life of the Mind

I wonder sometimes what it means to “live in the present.” This issue came up recently in my epistemology class when we were discussing Robert Audi’s book Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Routledge, 2010). Audi mentions briefly the possibility of knowledge of the future. I know for example, he says, “that I am going to continue thinking about knowledge for a long time.” Does he know that though, I asked my students? I could say the same thing about myself, based on my past and what I know of my character and intellectual predilections. But do I know it? I’ve been told that I live too much in my head, too much in the world of ideas, that I deny too much of my humanity, that I have developed a lopsided life by placing too much emphasis on thought. I’m not sure whether the people who make such charges are correct, I continued, because I enjoy living, so to speak, in my thoughts. I do not see it as a problem in the way some people do. But perhaps, I continued, perhaps one day I’ll change my mind and chuck my life as a professional philosopher, my life of thought, and go off and do art or something and live completely in the present.

But then one of my students asked whether I wasn’t already living in the present, meaning, I take it, to suggest that intellectual pleasures were as much a part of the present as sensual or emotional ones. That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never considered that perspective, steeped as I was in the philosophical tradition going back to Plato that sees thought as a kind of flight from concrete reality.

Socrates famously describes philosophy in The Phaedo as preparation for death. The body, he points out, and its needs are a constant distraction, an irritation to the philosopher who would prefer to be rid of them. The senses deceive, and attending to physical needs takes time away from contemplation of the eternal, unchanging truth. Kierkegaard talks about thought as a kind of withdrawal from concrete reality into the realm of abstraction. Concrete reality, after all, is a plethora of particulars, whereas thought, he asserts, deals always with universals.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this perspective. Yet there is also a sense in which reflection is ineluctably part of the present. This, I take it, is what lies behind the debate concerning whether it is actually possible to live as the Pyrrhonist skeptics advocate one should. That is, the debate concerns whether it is possible to live without beliefs, which is the same thing, really, as asking whether it is possible to live without reflecting on experience. Maybe that is possible for animals. It does not appear possible, however, for human beings. We cannot help but reflect on our experience and how we reflect on our experience is an important constituent of that experience. The skeptics were right about that. Thinking, for example, that an experience is bad, while it may not actually make the experience bad, will more than likely make it worse than if one could refrain from such reflections.

There is another side to that coin though. Human beings are thinking creatures. They like thinking. Audi talks about that as well. Yes, knowledge has practical value. But that isn’t the only reason we pursue it. We pursue it, Audi points out, because it is intrinsically valuable. We like knowing things; we like understanding things.  Knowledge and understanding are necessary for a fully satisfying human life, even for the least intellectual among us. That is part of the purpose of education. This point is, I believe, what is missing in Louis Menand’s recent piece about higher education in The New Yorker, “Live and Learn” (June 6, 2011). Menand lists there two different theories of the purpose of higher education. The first is an intellectually elitist one in which the purpose is to sort out the best and the brightest so that they may be funneled into occupations that will further what can be broadly viewed as the progress of society. The second is a democratic one in which the purpose is to solidify social bonds by “producing a society of like-minded grownups.” Neither theory says anything about the potential of a higher education to enhance the quality of a person’s life. Yet this, I would argue, is not only one of the purposes of education recognized by the Enlightenment, but the single most important purpose. Who cares how “advanced” or how “democratic” a society is if the people who make it up are unhappy?

Human beings are thinking creatures. They have an inherent need to reflect on their experiences, to make some kind of sense of them. They can live in the moment, as people say, for only so long without wanting something more lasting, more substantial, something that will connect all the disparate temporal pieces of their lives together into some sort of meaningful whole, something that will give an overarching meaning not merely to an individual life, but to a larger whole of which an individual life is only a part. And, of course, there are better and worse ways of doing this. We don’t want any old overarching account of the meaning of life. We want a coherent one. We want one that makes sense of our experience. We want one that will survive the tests of new experiences; one that will withstand scrutiny and the production of such an account requires a great deal of reflection, rigorous analysis, and even imagination. We may never actually finish the project of producing such an account, but the activity of its production, no matter how large or how small a portion of our waking life it consumes (and it will consume greater or lesser amounts of people’s lives depending on how reflective they are by nature), is crucial to a satisfying human life.

When I was a child and would sometimes complain to my mother that I was bored, she would respond derisively that I must not have much imagination. I don’t remember whether she elaborated on that, but whether she stated it explicitly, or whether I simply inferred it, I was given to understand that imagination was a very desirable thing and that people whose complaints of boredom betrayed that they had less than the ideal quantity of it were to be pitied as pathetic creatures hardly elevated above brutes. Nowadays parents will spare no expense in their efforts to provide their children with stimulating toys. My parents, in contrast, maintained that a child with a respectable degree of imagination could amuse itself with almost anything and, in fact, my sisters and I were very adept at inventing imaginary worlds. I created whole villages of tall grasses with populations of tiny broken sticks in the vacant lot at the end of our street. Knives and spoons and forks were men and women and youths and plates small skating rinks where my ménages à trois played out their sometimes ill-fated scenarios. I could make everything around me grander and more interesting in my imagination than it was in real life, even while I maintained a keen interest in empirical reality.

The problem with empirical, or perhaps it would be more correct to say concrete reality, as I learned very early, is not actually so much that it is tedious as that it is independent of the will. Not only does it very often not behave as we would wish; it also sometimes seems positively malevolent. Things often do not turn out as we hope, so we are forced continually to dig new channels into which to redirect our desires. This work, over time, can be exhausting. How much easier it is, in a way, simply to withdraw one’s hopes from concrete reality and into the realm of thought.

Thought never disappoints. The more faithful you are to it, the more faithful it is to you. The more time you devote to it, the more it rewards you. It is unfailing that way. Thought is not like the capricious lover, happy one day, impossible to please the next. Thought is patient and always responsive to the one who attends to it. It always waits for you and always receives you warmly on your return. And it is full of friends: Plato and Aristotle, Epictetus and Kant, all wait there like Aspasia, ready to engage, to challenge, to stimulate. Nothing brings me more joy than these timeless companions, these companions who stretch back through the centuries, through the millennia, connecting me with the larger whole of humanity. We understand one another, we look at life in the same way–as food for thought.

Some people say I am irresponsible when I encourage my students to consider doing graduate work in philosophy. There are no jobs now for philosophers. There are no jobs now for anyone though. The unemployed philosopher at least has the consolation of philosophy, of thought; what consolation is there for the unemployed accountant or public relations executive? Jobs come and jobs go, and so do relationships. Another of my students lamented recently that his relationship might keep him out of graduate school because of the reluctance of his partner to relocate. I stared at him uncomprehendingly as he attempted to explain this. I left everything and everyone behind, several times, in my pursuit of my profession–and I would do it again.

People say relationships are the most important thing in life. It’s not that I disagree with this, it’s just that I think relationships cannot be pursued directly. They are things, I believe, that happen during the course of the pursuit of one’s vocation. Just as growth happens without one aiming for it to, relationships happen. Sometimes they are wonderful and sometimes they are torturous; always they make life richer and more meaningful. They can and should be cultivated, once they’ve sprouted, but there is only so much one can do for them and the single most important thing one can do for them, as even the most learned in the psychotherapeutic professions will tell you, is to be happy yourself. You cannot have a positive relationship if you are not a happy person. A relationship cannot make you happy if you are not already happy. Though it can greatly enhance or increase the happiness you bring to it, you’ve got to have a foundation of happiness with which to start. It is a “necessary” condition, even if it is not in itself “sufficient” for ensuring a positive relationship.

It seems only natural to assume that if you cannot get your happiness from a relationship, then you must get it from your work. That, after all, is how you will spend most of your time, even if you are so fortunate as to have a mutually supportive, stimulating and fulfilling relationship, you are still going to be at work more than you are at leisure, so if your work is not itself stimulating and fulfilling you will be forced to try to wring most of your happiness from your relationship. This will likely put more of a burden on it than even the best relationship would be able to bear in the long run.

So pursue the life of the mind, I tell my students, because it is inherently rewarding. If you cultivate thought conscientiously, you will never tire of returning to that garden. The pleasures of thought are an important part, I believe, of the pleasures of the present and the life of the mind is an important part of any fully human life. It has sustained me through many hard times and many failed relationships and it will continue to sustain me, I have no doubt, through more hard times. Nothing but brain damage can take it from me and if that happens it seems likely that it would be a loss I would be unable to mourn.

In the meantime: Nolite purturbare circulos meos.*

* “Do not disturb my circles!” These are the purported last words of the Greek mathematician Archimedes who, it is said, sat calmly engrossed in mathematical reflections when he was killed by a Roman soldier as Rome was taking Corinth.