Thursday, December 27, 2012

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year.

Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns out that if such conceptual links exist, then (rather surprisingly!) natural selection will favour true belief even if belief content is epiphenomenal. So Plantinga is mistaken: even if belief content has no causal impact on behaviour, natural selection can still select for true belief. The EAAN is therefore refuted. To resurrect the EAAN, Plantinga would need to show that there are no conceptual links of the sort I envisage between content and behaviour, links of a sort that, as I say, do seem to exist.

Stephen Law

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is currently one of the most widely discussed arguments targeting philosophical naturalism (see, for example, Beilby 2002).  Plantinga aims to show that naturalism, in combination with evolutionary theory, is, as he puts it, ‘incoherent or self-defeating’. His argument turns crucially on the claim that, in the absence of any God-like being to guide the process, natural selection is unlikely to favour true belief. This, Plantinga supposes, is because natural selection selects only for adaptive behaviour. It is irrelevant, from the point of view of unguided evolution, whether the beliefs that happen to cause that adaptive behaviour are true.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Students - make a 1 min film and win £9K

Just receievd this as an author of a OUP Very Short Introduction book (Humanism).

Dear All

As a Very Short Introductions author, I am writing to let you know of a large UK VSI competition in partnership with the Guardian newspaper.

As part of a wider campaign to promote the series to students, this ‘Very Short Film’ competition carries an eye-catching £9,000 first prize, which will pay the winning student’s tuition fees for a year. Students will be asked to produce a one-minute film about a subject close to their hearts. From 1st October through to Christmas, the Guardian will be showcasing the competition and video entries on its recently launched Guardian Students site. The closing date is 31st December, with a live final in March 2013 to be held in London.

More information can be found here:

As many of you are lecturers, teachers, and professors in your fields, we felt it would be a good idea to inform as many of our VSI authors as possible so we can spread the word. This is a brilliant opportunity to promote the series, and the publicity surrounding the competition will be a great platform for the books. If you would like to support this exciting campaign, please do get in touch for further information. We can send you a link to add to your email signature and we also have some leaflets and posters available.

Kind regards


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bertrand Russell: Names and descriptions

(From my book The Great Philosophers)

Our focus is on Russell’s theory of descriptions, and his view on how ordinary proper names function. Russell considered his theory of descriptions to be one of his most important contributions to philosophy.

A puzzle about existence

Let’s begin by sketching out an ancient and infernal puzzle: how do proper names – such as John, Paris or Jupiter – function? What role do they play in those sentences within which they appear? An obvious suggestion would be that they refer. Take the sentence:

John is tall.

We use ‘John’ to refer to a particular individual. We then assert something about this individual – namely, he is tall. The claim is true if the individual to whom we refer is tall, and false if he isn’t. Another apparent use of a referring expression is:

The tallest building is in Kuala Lumpur.

Here, it’s tempting to suppose we use the description ‘the tallest building’ to refer to a particular building. We then claim that the building in question is in Kuala Lumpur. Our claim is true if, and only if, the building referred to is in Kuala Lumpur.

This is a natural way of understanding how both names and descriptions function, but it famously generates the baffling puzzle of empty reference, with which philosophers continue to grapple: If names and descriptions are referring expressions, how can we succeed in using them to say something true, when they do not in fact succeed in referring to anything?