My blog at FreethoughtBlogs.com is now live. It’s the third version of this blog to date. Go check it out.
Okay, very exciting news: my blog is going to be moving over to Freethought Blogs very soon. How soon? As soon as I can get a 728×120 banner to use for that version of the site. Who wants to make one for me? (The blog will still be called The Uncredible Hallq.)
When I first got Plantinga’s latest book, I was a little unsure of what to say about the version of evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) he presents there. I’ve long been irked by Plantinga’s apparent lack of curiosity about what scientists who work on the evolution of the mind would say about his argument. On the other hand, in the latest version of the EAAN, the half-baked thought experiments are gone, and instead we get a goofy claim about what “materialism” entails:
Suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological--Hallquist] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause. It is by virtue of those properties that the belief causes neural impulses to travel down the relevant efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, causing them to contract, and thus causing behavior. It isn’t by virtue of the content of this belief; the content of the belief is irrelevant to the causal power of the belief with respect to behavior (p. 336).
Plantinga argues that therefore, if materialism is true, then there’s no reason for evolution to produce reliable belief-forming mechanisms, and therefore it’s unlikely that evolution would produce reliable belief-forming mechanisms. This strikes me as utterly bizarre. As far as I can tell, it makes no more sense than saying that if materialism were true, it is by virtue of the arrangement of subatomic particles that our digestive system digests food, and therefore whether or not those particles are arranged into a stomach, intestines, etc. is irrelevant with respect to digestion, and therefore evolution is unlikely to produce those organs.
My guess is that that is what most non-eliminative materialists would say in response to Plantinga. In fact, hardcore non-reductive materialists like Hilary Putnam would say that the higher level explanation is crucial, and the lower level explanations aren’t even really explanations. Plantinga shows no curiosity about any of this; there’s not the slightest mention of how materialist philosophers might respond to his central claim. And that looks like a bigger problem than ignoring evolutionary biologists.
But… I recently (more recently than I read Plantinga’s book) re-read Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works, which talks about the cognitive revolution in psychology, which happened decades ago, and which in the mind of many psychologists has demystified things like beliefs and their relationship to the brain.
Because of this, I don’t think there’s any reason to see the relationship between the brain and beliefs as any less a scientific issue than the relationship between atoms and macroscopic objects. And it means that by ignoring what materialists might say about his argument, Plantinga isn’t just ignoring other philosophers, he’s also ignoring scientists. As I explained in my previous post, that really shouldn’t be acceptable anymore.
One thing Greta Christina did in criticizing DJ Grothe was refer back to a previous post she had written, Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny. When I saw this post, I thought it was pretty obviously problematic, for reasons that don’t require any preamble to explain, so I want to talk about that now. Here’s the core of the post:
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it trivializes misogyny.
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it conveys the message that whatever men want to talk about is more important than misogyny.
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject to something that’s about them, it conveys the message that men are the ones who really matter, and that any harm done to men is always more important than misogyny.
And when the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it comes across as excusing misogyny. It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “Yes, of course, misogyny is terrible.” When you follow that with a “Yes, but…”, it comes across as an excuse. In many cases, it is an excuse. And it contributes to a culture that makes excuses for misogyny.
Whether this is right or not depends on what kinds of situations Greta is talking about. Situation 1 is where someone says, “this is an example of horrid misogyny” full stop, and someone else changes the subject. In that situation, the second person definitely seems like they’re trivializing misogyny. But then there’s situation 2, where someone says “this is an example of horrid misogyny, and also X” and someone takes exception to the “and also X.” It’s hard to see how a rule against taking exception to the “and also X”s in situation 2 could be justified.
For one thing, if such a rule ever truly came to be accepted in a particular community, it would invite abuse. People could cite instances of misogyny to push any crazy agenda and then invoke the rule to block criticism. But even without active abuse of the rule, there’s still the possibility of cases where the “and also X” is problematic in important ways, and it doesn’t necessarily trivialize misogyny to discuss that.
Now, Greta’s initial “yes, but” post was made in a context that made what she said sound pretty plausible. A 15 year old girl had made a short post on Reddit’s atheism community (known as r/atheism) with a picture of herself holding up a copy of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World with a message saying, basically, “look what my mom got me for Christmas!” The post got a lot of nice comments, but it also got quite a few nasty, sexual, harassing comments. Obviously that was horrible.
But even then, the “yes buts” weren’t directed only at people saying “that’s horrible.” Rebecca Waston’s post on the incident was titled, “Reddit Makes Me Hate Atheists,” and ended with “Fuck you, r/atheism.” It’s not surprising to see pushback against this, especially from r/atheism users who didn’t contribute to the horribleness.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to say in Rebecca’s defense here (such as “it should be obvious from context that she didn’t mean all atheists,” “r/atheism really is especially bad,” that r/atheism’s moderators need to delete those kind of comments, etc.) The point is that it’s not reasonable to expect people to refrain from pushback as a matter of general principle, and the defensibility of Rebecca’s post doesn’t make “no yes buts” a good general principle.
The dustup with DJ is a pretty good example of why “no yes buts” is a problematic general principle. For starters, Greta doesn’t seem to be sticking to a strict “no yes buts” position. Instead, she says:
My problem is that — when weighing on the one hand, “Greta did something that in my opinion was unfair by quoting someone out of context,” and on the other hand, “Ryan publicly stated that he wanted to ‘slap the bitch’ and ‘kick her readers in the cunt’” — you seem to think that the former is of greater concern than the latter. You have certainly devoted significantly more space to discussing it. In the discussion on Stephanie’s blog, you devoted one sentence to saying that “there is never any defense for real or pretend threats of violence”… and 2,371 words discussing other matters, including 602 words (by a conservative count) justifying Ryan’s behavior, defending it, explaining the context for it, expressed a wish that people have sympathy for it, defending your own reaction to it, and blaming me for having instigated it.
Those priorities are, in my opinion, exactly backwards. If you’d spent one sentence saying, “Yes, I think Greta’s behavior was unfair,” and then spent the rest of your comments on the topic saying that obviously the important issue here was threats of violence, specifically gender-based, sexualized threats of violence against a female writer and her readers… we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Though it’s a little unclear, this makes it sound like her position is that it’s okay to say “yes but” as long as you don’t dedicate too many sentences to the “but.” The underlying idea is that how much attention you devote to different issues reflects how important you think those different issues are. However, while importance is one factor people use to decide how much attention to pay to different things, it’s only one of many. This makes the whole idea of criticizing someone based on how many sentences they devoted to different points a little strange.
For one thing: when you agree, all you have to say is “I agree.” You can elaborate, but it isn’t always necessary, and it would be a waste of time to rehash absolutely everything the person you’re agreeing with said. But when you say “I think you’re being unfair,” it’s natural for people to expect a somewhat detailed explanation of why you think they’re being unfair. In fact, I think if anything DJ could be faulted for not explaining himself enough.
Furthermore, part of DJ “defending his own reaction” here was DJ responding to some not very nice comments about himself, in particular “DJ Grothe has a problem, an ongoing problem with a pattern, and that problem is him” (from Stephanie Zvan). Had DJ followed Greta’s suggestion in the second paragraph quoted above, he wouldn’t have been able to respond, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to not defend themselves against such remarks. (Maybe Greta didn’t mean to suggest that, and she was just giving one example of one thing DJ could have done instead, but if so, it’s not a very helpful example.)
But maybe Greta didn’t mean to say that “we wouldn’t be having this conversation” if only DJ had distributed his sentences differently. She certainly does make other criticisms of DJ, and I’ll talk about them in later posts.
Part 1, what DJ said
Part of the problem with the DJ/Greta dustup is that it was spawned by something that happened on Greta’s Facebook page. Facebook does not make it easy to permalink to old threads, so basically nobody has the context for this unless you’re both (1) friends with Greta on Facebook (2) patient enough to scroll through all the stuff on her page to find something that happened more than a month ago. So I’ve decided to go ahead and make screen caps of the thing. Not whole threads, but I’ve tried to get everything relevant and then some (especially in the case of the second thread).
You can discuss this now or ignore it; I’ll be giving my own commentary later.