Plantinga Pwns, Part II: God and Other Minds II

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In my last post, we ended with Plantinga's rather disappointing conclusion that the arguments for the existence of God are not compelling.  In the quest to determine whether belief in God is rational, he moves on to some of the arguments against the existence of God.  It should come as no surprise that the main argument discussed is the Problem of Evil. Arguments of Natural Atheology

For most atheologians of the time, the force of the problem of evil is that it shows a logical inconsistency in the core tenants of theism.  They take the following five propositions as being essential to theism:

a. God exists
b. God is omnipotent (all-powerful)
c. God is omniscient (all-knowing)
d. God is wholly good
e. Evil exists

Here we already run into a snag.  These five propositions do not entail a formal contradiction.  This may not be readily apparent to you, and it almost certainly isn't to an atheist with whom you might be debating.  Nonetheless, the point remains.  H. J. McCloskey apparently did not realize this; however, J. L. Mackie - one of the most brilliant atheist philosophers of the 20th century - did .  He realized that in order to arrive at a formal contradiction, at least one other proposition must be added.

Plantinga makes it clear, however, that this can't be just any proposition.  It must be either 1) an essential part of theism, 2) a necessarily true proposition, or 3) a logical consequence of the propositions a-e.  So, what additional proposition can be added to create a contradiction?  I will give one example of the several candidates Plantinga considers.  After analyzing the work of Mackie and finding weaknesses, Plantinga adjusts Mackie's argument to arrive at a proposition that may fit the bill:

f. An omnipotent, omniscient person is wholly good only if he eliminates every evil which is such that for every good that entails it, there is a greater good that does not entail it.

In other words, an omnipotent, omniscient person is wholly good only if he always rejects an evil (even if good comes along with it) as long as there is some greater good that can come about with no evil at all.  Unfortunately, this too does not entail a contradiction with a-e.  If it did, a-d along with f would lead to a denial of e.  What they instead entail is not that no evil exists, but that if a given evil comes with some good, that evil would also come along with some greater good.  Plantinga goes on to search for other possibilities, but with no success.

From there, Plantinga discusses the Free Will Defense, for which he is famous.  I will skip over this since it will be the topic of future posts in this series.  There are several other atheological arguments Plantinga considers.  To keep this post from becoming ridiculously long, I will not go over them, as we have not yet gotten to the heart of the book.  Suffice to say that they do not succeed.

We have found that the arguments for the existence of God are not successful, and that the arguments against the existence of God are - if anything - even less successful.   So how do we determine whether or not belief in the existence of God is rational?  Here we come to the heart of the the book.  The title practically gives away Plantinga's central idea.  That is, an analogy can be drawn between belief in God and belief in the existence of other minds.

Other Minds

The failure of arguments for and against the existence of God throws into sharp relief some difficult questions that must be answered.
What is evidence?  What relation holds between a person and a proposition when the person has evidence for the propositions?  Must a rational person have evidence or reasons for all of his beliefs?  Presumably not.  But then what properties must a belief have for a person to be justified in accepting it without evidence?  Is a person justified in believing a proposition only if it can be inferred inductively or deductively from (roughly) incorrigible sensory beliefs?  Or propositions that are obvious to common sense and accepted by everyone?1
 Plantinga continues,
These are obviously some of the most difficult and persistent problems of epistemology.  A direct assault on them would be bold indeed, not to say foolhardy.  What I propose is to examine the problem before us by exploring its connections with an analogous problem - the so-called problem of other minds.2

Despite the apparent obviousness of the existence of other minds, drawing up a theory that can prove the existence of other minds is quite difficult.  That may seem like a pointless venture.  Of course there are other minds!  But consider the fact that you can observe your own thoughts, your own sensations from the sense of your body, your own emotions, and no one else can (presumably), and neither can your observe other peoples'.  How do you know the other bodies around you actually have minds?  How do you know it is not an illusion created by your own mind?  How do you know they are not robots, or controlled by demons?  How can you actually prove other minds exist, without direct access to their mental states?  That remains a problem.  To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own. It is one of the hallowed, if nowadays unfashionable, problems in philosophy. Various solutions to the problem are on offer. It is noteworthy that so many are on offer. Even more noteworthy is that none of the solutions on offer can plausibly lay claim to enjoying majority support.3
Plantinga takes the analogical position as being the most reasonable of the several theories of other minds.  It is the traditional position, but has come under heavy criticism, with other positions being proposed as well.  The idea behind the analogical position is that when I, say, burn myself, I draw my hand quickly back and wince.  And when other people burn their hand, they do the same.  I therefore draw an analogy that other people have similar mental states to mine - they have minds of their own.

After stating the position, Plantinga considers three objections, and finds them inconclusive.  He then moves on to consider alternatives to the analogical position, starting with the criteriological position.  The criteriological position maintains that, to use the words of Wittgenstein, "inward processes stand in need of outward criteria."  However, Plantinga is unable to find criteria that do not run into some form of trouble.  Finally, he considers an objection to the analogical position, which is also its own position, which he calls "the attitudinal objection."

The idea of the "attitudinal" position is that I do not believe that Jones is a person, but that I regard him as a person or am of the attitude that he is a person.  Sydney Shoemaker argues that if we did believe Jones is a person, we would ask what the grounds of that belief are.  But of course we don't ask, so we don't actually believe it to be true but have the attitude that it is.  Shoemaker criticizes some of the propositions inherent in the analogical position in order to show that the attitudinal position is more likely.  Unfortunately, Plantinga finds these arguments to be inconclusive.

Here's the twist.  Plantinga then draws a parallel between the analogical position and the teleological argument (discussed in the previous post), and argues that the analogical position suffers from the same malady!  Namely, the propositions inherent in the analogical position are no more probable than their denial.  Even if some of them are more probable than not, the conjunction of all of them seems unlikely to be true.  Because of this, we are left with no successful argument for the existence of other minds.  An existence seemingly as obvious as the nose on your face!  But surely, all of us agree (well, except for solipsists) that believing that other minds exist is perfectly reasonable. (Speaking of solipsists, Alvin gives two HILARIOUS anecdotes about solipsists in this clip)

While Plantinga leaves open the possibility that belief in the existence of God may need reasons why the epistemological questions do not need to be answered, as opposed to belief in other minds which apparently does not need such reasons, it is nonetheless not very clear what those reasons would be.  Plantinga concludes the book with this: "Hence my tentative conclusion: if my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God.  But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter."4

And that's it.  If the arguments for and against the existence of God are inconclusive, we must find another way to determine whether or not belief in the existence of God is rational.  Because there is no conclusive argument for the existence of other minds all the while we are seemingly justified in believing in other minds, we can draw an analogy between the existence of God and the existence of other minds, and so answer the question with the affirmative.  Belief in the existence of God is rational.  If you know Plantinga's work, you may see some foreshadowing in this - specifically, his idea of properly basic belief, which will be discussed in a future post (we're just getting rolling!).

It may come as somewhat of a surprise that Plantinga uses almost the entire book to critique the arguments for and against the existence of God and critique the various solutions to the problem of other minds.  This, I think, must have been deliberate on his part.  His point was to show that we are not on very certain ground, and in the case of other minds we are nonetheless justified in believing they exist despite the fact we cannot prove they exist.  And so it is with the existence of God.  If Plantinga had jumped to the punchline and only made the book, say, 30 pages long, then it really wouldn't have the force that it does when everything is taken into consideration.

If you would like some pretty intense reading in philosophy, then God and Other Minds is for you.  If you are not sure, then it is probably best to do some other philosophical reading before tackling it.  It is fairly intense, though worthwhile.  One of the things which is difficult to relate through the blog is the care with which he considers arguments, the exacting analysis, and the force of his own arguments.


1. Plantinga, p. 187-188
2. Ibid., p. 188
4. Plantinga, 271
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