Autism and Deformed Epistemology

Those who are autistic (like me) tend to have a harder time believing that God exists than the general population.

As I was thinking about this interesting fact, I recalled what Alvin Plantinga (yes, him again) has said in his writings about people who don’t believe that God exists. In his writings on Deformed Epistemology [1], Plantinga has said that people who don’t believe in God have cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning.

Putting aside how distasteful that is to autistic individuals and others, Plantinga has failed to explain why God would even create people that have a hard time believing that God exists because of the way their brain is wired (i.e. this is another problem of divine hiddenness) [2]. Likewise, Plantinga fails to notice the possibility that the people who are getting it wrong are the people who tend to believe in supernatural agents. It’s no secret that humans have a tendency to look for agency when there is none, and this is called the Hyperactive Agency Detective Device.

Consequently, I find it kind of ironic that Plantinga unintentionally slams those with disabilities, yet (for all he knows) his brain has “hyperactively” sought belief in supernatural agents.

[1] Plantinga actually refers to Deformed Epistemology as “Reformed Epistemology“.
[2] Plantinga seems like he would be an amazing person to hang out and chat with! (sarcasm)

11 thoughts on “Autism and Deformed Epistemology

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      I’ve read some Hart. I find his work on aesthetics to be fascinating. I haven’t read much else from Hart. I’ve read a lot more of Feser and Swinburne. I don’t find that Feser’s method of trying to demonstrably prove God’s existence to be plausible, and I don’t find Swinburne’s conception of “God” to be plausible.

  1. I have yet to see a helpful contribution by Dr. Plantinga. Much nonsense of course. You rightly point out one of the problems with his “people who don’t believe in God have cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning” claim. Another is: we are supposed to find god cognitively? Another is: an all-powerful god can offer himself to anybody of any mental capability, so why would mental capabilities have anything to do with belief in a god?

    I encourage to ask everyone at every opportunity: is this how an all-powerful god behave? Would such a god admit that people with “cognitive difficulties” cannot perceive him? Would such a god have Dr. Plantinga on staff? Why does an all-knowing and all-powerful god need helpers of any kind?

    1. “Why does an all-knowing and all-powerful god need helpers of any kind?”

      If he wanted to make robots with no free will none of this would be necessary. Perhaps nothing in “necessary.”

      1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

        It doesn’t follow that we are robots without libertarian free will (at least that’s far from obvious). Clearly, it’s possible for an omnipotent being to give us free will of the compatibilist variety without the existence of suffering.

      2. Whether or not we should be ignorant of suffering is a a different issue that is usually addressed with the problem of evil. Here I believe Steve Ruis was talking about whether people should be helping God help others understand God. I was just saying making us like robots would be one way he wouldn’t need others.

  2. Dr. Plantinga has been around for a long time. Anyone who writes a lot is going to put out a certain amount of rubbish. A comment about malfunctioning cognitive faculties seems to fall into that category (I say “seems” because I haven’t seen the quote in its original context).

    That said, what I’ve seen of his work tries seriously to reconcile Christian doctrine with modern philosophy. As a Jew, I have no horse in that race, but Plantinga makes the same kinds of moves as other philosophers who start within a particular religious tradition — such as Maimonides and Saadia in my own religious tradition. Plantinga wants to argue cogently but still reach conclusions that are pre-determined by his faith. It’s not an easy task.

    The main problem with belief in a transcendent God is that He by definition exceeds human comprehension. When we talk about Him, we in a sense have no idea of what we are talking about. Plantinga wrestles with that problem and solves it to his own satisfaction: He says if we can say “We can’t think about God,” then we are thinking about God, so the proposition refutes itself. Logicians, of course, object that we’re talking only about whether or not we can give a meaning to the word “God,” so there’s no self-refutation involved. Neither argument can be proven sufficiently to convince the other party, so it comes down to what one wishes to believe.

    It seems to me that there are two ways to believe in God. The first is to place beliefs about God in a network of mutually supporting beliefs that connect to each other. That amounts to a system of symbols that are only partly interpreted, like abstract algebra. But the point is that even if we cannot give a verbal definition of the word “God,” beliefs involving God acquire meaning by their relations with each other. For example, if we believe that God is one, then we also believe (by implication) that God exists, and that God is not two or three.

    The second way of believing in God is intuitive and ineffable: in a manner we cannot explain, we sense that *something* ultimately good exists, and we call that “God.” We then give it the attributes described by the religious tradition of our family or society.

    As I understand autism, autistic people are prodigious systematizers who occupy the far-right tail of the bell curve for male mental functioning. They can probably believe in God by the first way but not the second. Whether or not they think it’s worth the trouble is a different question.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      I just don’t understand the second way whatsoever. It sounds somewhat Kantian and/or Hickian (John Hick). I also don’t see why we would attribute “it” (or her) as good instead of indifferent/evil. It’s also not clear how a Jew or Christian would give this Ultimate the attributes of all-good and all-powerful.

      Also I don’t know how you know God is a Being instead of an abstract object. After all, your believing is just ‘immediate and ineffable’

      1. It’s possible that you don’t understand the second way because there’s simply *nothing to understand*. It’s a different way of knowing. Though it didn’t occur to me yesterday, it might be something like Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance.

        I’m sure that you know all of this, but for any readers of your blog who might not: When you know something by description, you place it in a network of concepts and propositions, such as “Scott is the author of Waverley.” When you know something by acquaintance, you experience it directly, such as the color yellow. We have discursive knowledge about the world by connecting our experiences (known by acquaintance) with words, thereby hooking them into our network of concepts and propositions (known by description).

        One interesting parallel is that you can’t give a discursive proof of something known by acquaintance, only of its verbal token in your network of concepts and propositions. For example, the only way to prove the existence of the color yellow is to point to a yellow thing. If a person can see the color yellow, no discursive proof is necessary; if a person cannot, no discursive proof is possible. The same applies to the second way of “knowing” the existence of God. However, once you have associated your experiences with verbal tokens in your conceptual network, you can discursively prove things about the tokens.

        As for God being a Being rather than an abstract object, that’s why I used the word “something.” We don’t know in a descriptive way what it is that we are sensing. It might be a reality beyond our comprehension; it might be our own thoughts and emotions that we reify into an external object; or it might be a combination of both, such that we cannot distinguish between them. We then take the something and, using whatever stories we have available from our culture, describe the indescribable in ways that are morally, socially, and psychologically helpful to us.

  3. “Putting aside how distasteful that is to autistic individuals and others, Plantinga has failed to explain why God would even create people that have a hard time believing that God exists because of the way their brain is wired…”

    I was not aware that Plantinga said the problem was with how atheists’ brains were wired.

    People fall into all sorts of faulty thinking I don’t think plantinga thinks it is because God wired our brain that way. To be sure you can argue that God would have wired our brains to be more perfect but that is really a different argument.

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