Postmodernism, a Failure of Nerve?

‘Postmodernists nearly all reject classical foundationalism; in this they concur with most Christian thinkers and most contemporary philosophers. Momentously enough, however, many postmodernists apparently believe that the demise of classical foundationalism implies something far more startling: that there is no such thing as truth at all, no way things really are. Why make that leap, when as a matter of logic it clearly doesn’t follow? For various reasons, no doubt. Prominent among those reasons is a sort of Promethean desire not to live in a world we have not ourselves constituted or structured. With the early Heidegger, a postmodern may refuse to feel at home in any world he hasn’t himself created.

 Now some of this may be a bit hard to take seriously (it may seem less Promethean defiance than foolish posturing); so here is another possible reason. As I pointed out, classical foundationalism arose out of uncertainty, conflict, and clamorous (and rancorous) disagreement; it emerged at a time when everyone did what was right (epistemically speaking) in his own eyes. Now life without sure and secure foundations is frightening and unnerving; hence Descartes’s fateful effort to find a sure and solid footing for the beliefs with which he found himself. (Hence also Kant’s similar effort to find an irrefragable foundation for science.)

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper, however, recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”

There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony, or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida. So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Warranted Christian Belief)

Reading Notes 2/15/2015: The Metaphysics of Modality and Philosophy of Mind

My reading the last few days has generally been drawn from ‘The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality‘, and ‘Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary Readings‘. A few notes on the former and latter:

– Regarding modality, I generally took it for granted that modalities are, as it were, ‘built-in’ to reality. An interesting thesis I read, however, by Nicholas Rescher, is that possibilities of the modal variety are mind-dependent. That is, what Rescher calls ‘hard core’ possibilities – possibilities that are totally unactualized – exist only in the mind conceptually. This took me for a bit of a loop, because how good modality be mind-dependent? Surely possibility has to be a real feature of the real world. But then I thought a bit harder – perhaps by distinguishing possibility from contingency, the former having to do logical necessity and the latter having to do with metaphysical non-necessity. Keeping that distinction in mind, modal idealism isn’t so farfetched sounding. Modal possibility can exist firmly within the mind while metaphysical contingency can exist firmly within the real order of things. If, however, one were to take Plantinga’s line of actualism, in which possible worlds are constructed out of states of affairs, then modal idealism wouldn’t have as much appeal. An interesting line in Rescher’s argument is geared towards denying any kind of Platonic ‘space’ for possibilities to exist in outside the natural order – so if one took a slightly Platonic line, then modal idealism would indeed be rather senseless.

– Regarding philosophy of mind, I guess it never occurred to me that functionalism, if true, functions (haw haw) as an argument against reductive physicalism, which is a little funny because, as is well known, functionalism is a materialist theory of mind – this seems to be fairly well known in the literature, though, and I’ll chalk this one up as my own lack of thinking it through. Multiple realization (or realize-ability) also seems to pose a threat to more reductive flavours of physicalism, but I’m not quite sure I have a good enough grasp on MR to really come to any conclusions.

– The most interesting thing I’ve read in the PoM volume is a Kripke-flavoured argument by Joseph Levine regarding qualia – in a nutshell (because the argument is fairly long), he argues that there is an ‘explanatory gap’ in a statement like (1) Pain is c-fibers firing that there isn’t in a statement like (2) heat is molecules in motion – (2) can be functionalized while (1) cannot. From this, he argues that the truth or falsity of (1) is inaccessible epistemically. Levine accepts that qualia are real (or at least accepts that the intuition we have that qualia are real is something we should follow), and since he doesn’t want to take the eliminativist line, he’s left with a bit of a head-scratcher. I’m going to go into more detail about the argument at a later time, so for now, this is all you get.

‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma’ – Initial Thoughts

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, by Kevin Diller, is a fantastic book. That’s the first thing that should be said about it.The second thing that should be said is that it is, given the subject-matter, remarkably clear. The third thing that should be said about it is that it is a genuinely interesting book.

The overall goal is to synthesize Barth and Plantinga into one unified epistemic response to modern epistemic challenges, eg warrant, justification, basically the things Plantinga is famous for. The dilemma here is reconciling a ‘high view’ of theological knowledge – we can know things about God, know God exists – with a low view of human capacity for such knowledge – taking into account the ‘noetic effects of sin’ and drawing the conclusion that warrant does not come from us, from below, but from above, from God. Basically, it’s theo-foundationalism – God is the foundation for theological knowledge, as per both Barth and Plantinga. God makes Himself known, we do not arrive at God via reason.

Overall, this book is just a fantastic work of scholarship. Close attention is payed to primary texts (both in Plantinga and Barth) and the ideas of both men are discussed in a very clear way – I’d actually say this is about as accessible as you could make the thought of Barth and Plantinga without dumbing it down any. Warrant, revelation, justification, natural theology – all stuff you read Barth and Plantinga for, basically – is layed out, discussed and synthesized.

I’ll have lots more to say on this work and the arguments within it later – but for now, I’d definitely say this is a must-read for anyone interested in Barth, Plantinga, philosophy of religion, epistemology, and philosophy in general from a Christian perspective.

Plantinga on Harris on Free Will

This is well worth reading:

‘Sam Harris claims that free will is an illusion. What we ordinarily believe in this neighborhood, he says, is completely mistaken: “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise”; “we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true.” Doesn’t that imply that we human beings are not responsible for what we do? Harris is willing to bite the bullet: “we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility.” Indeed, he thinks that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion: what he means by this is that when we introspect very carefully we find that we don’t really believe what we think we believe about free will.’


On Modeling Divine Action

In ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, Alvin Plantinga draws up a model for divine action using quantum mechanics. It’s one of the most creative projects in the world of philosophy/theology/philosophy of science world, in my opinion, and I think it merits some serious attention. Some of my questions are: is such a project necessary? Is it genuinely useful? Is it relevant? Does it make sense? Is this trying to assign God a place in the world? Other questions will surface, I’m sure (for the sake of brevity, I’m going to avoid going into huge detail regarding the background information of the topic of quantum mechanics – high-quality  information on this topic is readily available online).

Plantinga’s thesis is made in the context of a discussion on divine action in general – the thesis is basically trying to solve some of the problems posed by thinkers on the topic of divine action. Some folks (Plantinga cites the ‘Divine Action Project’, whose most prominent member is John Polkinghorne) have a problem with typical accounts of such action and have raised important objections – this thesis is an answer to those objections.

Briefly, the objections amount to this: if God acts specially in the world, His actions would be a violations of the laws of nature – God’s acting in a special way entails a suspension of the natural order, which, so the story goes, then entails that the regularity of nature, which allows for inquiry into nature, can’t be counted on. If God makes and upholds the laws of nature, He can’t also go against them or break them. This is a broad stroke, and there are different opinions and distinctions to be made, but the majority of Plantinga’s thesis deals with ‘hands-off theology’ objections. The goal, then, is to answer these objections.

After an account of classical science and contemporary physics, Plantinga goes in-depth with quantum mechanics, setting his sights on various collapse-interpetations. After spending some time expounding the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber collapse interpretation, Plantinga goes on to apply it to divine action. One reason Plantinga picks up on this interpretation is that it avoids some of the uncertainty of, say, the Copenhagen interpretation:

‘The Copenhagen interpretation is a collapse interpretation; but there are other collapse approaches. For example, there are spontaneous collapse theories, including in particular the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber (GRW) approach. On these collapse approaches, collapses are not restricted to measurements; they occur spontaneously, and at a regular rate.’ (p. 115)

‘On this approach we could think of the nature of a system as dictating that collapses occur at the regular rate they in fact display. What is presently of significance, however, is that on these approaches there is no cause for a given collapse to go to the particular value (the particular position, for example) or eigenstate to which it in fact goes. That is, there is no physical cause; there is nothing in the previous physical state of the world that causes a given collapse to go to the particular eigenstate to which it does go. But of course this state of affairs might very well have a nonphysical cause. It’s wholly in accord with these theories that, for any collapse and the resulting eigenstate, it is God who causes that state to result. Perhaps, then, all collapse-outcomes (as we might call them) are caused by God. If so, then between collapses, a system evolves according to the Schrodinger equation; but when a collapse occurs, it is divine agency that causes the specific collapse-outcome that ensues.’ (p. 116)

Pretty interesting stuff. My first thought on reading this was ‘is this just god of the gaps?’ I don’t think so. A god-of-the-gaps account would be something along the lines of ‘we don’t know how it works, therefore, god’, whereas Plantinga’s model is an answer, a scientifically grounded answer, to various objections raised against divine action.

‘How can we say that God intervenes in our scientific world?’

‘Well, here’s an account of how, given the scientific data available, we can model divine action such that the objections you raise are answered.’

So, to conclude this first post examining Plantina’s DCC theory: I would say that such a project is genuinely useful and is definitely not a god-of-the-gaps argument.

Thoughts on ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’

Alvin Plantinga has really fired on all cylinders with this book – do yourself a favor and read it. This is cutting edge philosophy – Plantingas arguments and ideas (especially his use of quantum mechanics as a model for understanding how God intervenes in the world) are among the most creative and thought-provoking out there. Between this book and Torrance’s ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ I’ve had my hands full, but hopefully some reviews or commentary on both will be forthcoming.

‎’On this view of God’s special action – call it “divine collapse-causation” (DCC)- God is *always* acting specially, that is, always acting in ways that go go beyond creation and conservation, thus obviating the problem alleged to lie in his sometimes treating the world in hands-off fashion but other times in a hands-on way.

Furthermore, if, as one assumes, the macroscopic physical world supervenes on the microscopic, God could thus control what happens at the macroscopic level by causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes. In this way God can exercise providential guidance over cosmic history…in this way He might also guide human history. He could do this without in any way “violating” the created nature of the things he has created. For on this suggestion, it is in the nature of physical systems to evolve between collapses according to the Schrodinger equation; it is also in their nature to undergo periodic collapses; but it is not part of their nature to collapse to any particular eigenstate.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, p. 116-117)

Some Thoughts on Properly Basic Beliefs

The central thrust of properly basic beliefs ( a theory of knowledge developed by in part by Alvin Plantinga, referred to has PBB from here on out) is that there are certain things (God, other minds, the past) that do not require evidence to be rationally believed in. They can be believed in the properly basic way – to believe otherwise would seem to indicate some cognitive dissonance. This seems to be the case – to not believe that the past happened because of a lack of convincing argument would indeed seem to be odd.

Is this self-defeating, however? If I claim that I don’t need evidence to believe in, say, God, because I can believe in things like other minds, the past, etc, that’s giving evidence that I don’t need evidence.

Or, perhaps, this is a more helpful way of thinking of it: PBB says that evidentialism is wrong – but surely it says this on the basis of evidence. This seems to me to be a bit self-defeating. Can one say on the basis of evidence that evidentialism is wrong? If it’s not self-defeating, it certainly seems suspicious.

But perhaps PBB says something true: it says that on the basis of evidence, evidentialism is wrong – evidentialism cannot justify all our beliefs in a non-circular way. It is evidently true that evidentialism is wrong. If something is self-evidently wrong, then one is not unjustified to call it wrong on the basis of its self-evidence.

So on the basis of evidentialisms self-evident falsity, PBB can claim that evidentialism is indeed false without that claim being a case of self-defeat. It is not self-defeating for PBB to claim that evidentialism is false on account of its self-evident falsity.