Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Steven Carr on EAAN

Steven Carr gave a tongue-in-cheek response to a post of mine regarding Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism:
Evolution could have designed us to move our limbs away from dangerous situations without pain being involved. We could have evolved the belief that fire was nice and warming and move our hands out of a fire because of a belief that that was the best way to get them warm.
There is no reason to think that evolution would give the true belief that pain is unpleasant, when we could have evolved to have all the benefits of pain-avoidance behaviour without experiencing pain. After all, a belief that pain is unpleasant is not something that is selected for.
The underlying claim seems to amount to this: humans wouldn't have evolved pain-avoidance behaviors without the feeling of pain or the belief that pain is unpleasant.

No doubt, feeling a pain confers many evolutionary advantages to an organism, and we needn't dispute that.  The EAAN is concerned with beliefs, and more importantly how the content of beliefs relate to relevant behaviors.  Given this fact, it should be obvious that only the second part of Carr's claim is even remotely relevant to the EAAN.  Now how might a "belief that pain is unpleasant" help produce adaptive behaviors?  Well that's easy: if the belief that pain is unpleasant causes one to pull his hand away from the fire, then we can easily fill in the story and conclude that this belief has indeed been selected for by evolution.  The man who believes this will remain ambidextrous and thus more likely to survive.

But ... and this is a big old but ... it can't simply be granted that beliefs (whatever beliefs are) are related to behaviors in the way we have just assumed.  In Plantinga's article, he cites four prominent views on the belief-behavior relationship, and shows how the probability of reliable cognitive faculties is low on each of them (conjoined with naturalism and contemporary evolutionary theory).  In response to the common sense view which Steven Carr assumed in his comment, Plantinga has this to say:

For any given adaptive action, there will be many belief-desire combinations that could produce that action; and very many of those belief-desire combinations will be such that the belief involved is false.
Carr's own example illustrates this well: "We could have evolved the belief that fire was nice and warming and move our hands out of a fire because of a belief that that was the best way to get them warm."

And we can of course imagine just this scene: we have the desire to enjoy the nice, warming fire with an accompanying belief that pulling our hands away from the fire is the best way to do so. Evolution would inadvertently favor this belief by selecting for fire-avoidance behavior. Here is the kicker: evolution would select for a great number of false beliefs so long as they result in the same fire-avoidance behavior.  This is Plantinga's reason for assigning a lower probability.

So I'm not sure why Carr has such an incredulous tone.  Given the set of belief-desire combinations of which any member could produce the same adaptive behavior, Carr needs to come up with a reason to think this set is smaller than Plantinga has argued. 1  Right now it looks like he's just kicking up dust.

1 - Of course, many philosophers are engaged with this argument.  One fine example being Steven Law.


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