Can Your Evolved Brain Be Trusted to Bring You to the Actual Truth of Matters?

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his most recent book, writes the following:

Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole.

Put more directly, Nagel (following the Reformed Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga) asserts that if you’re an atheist who believes in evolution, you have no good reason to think your brain, having evolved from ape-like ancestors, could ever really reach such a lofty and accurate theoretical conclusion as evolution itself (at least not with any confidence). Natural selection has shaped your brain to purposes of survival, not correct beliefs. If these two things sometimes intersect, it has as much to do with luck as with design.

Is this “don’t trust the conclusions of your natural selection produced ape brain” argument a good one against belief in evolution and science?

Philosopher Eric Schliesser thinks not, and provides a pretty good common sense argument against it:

A large [p]art of this [the scientific enterprise’s] achievement is the actual unlearning — or generating the capacity for temporary disabling — lots of our avarage [sic] Darwinian programming. 

In other words, college and science laboriously train people in habits of critical thinking and scientific method, practices that go against the grain of our “Darwinian programming.” Therefore, the scientific consensus around an issue like evolution can reasonably be trusted. One needn’t be driven to radical epistemic skepticism because you’re an atheist.

I side with Schliesser here. I like Nagel in general, but his siding with Plantinga on this is pretty lame. Back in 2009, biologist PZ Myers skewered the argument Plantinga (and now Nagel) makes this way:

Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. We demand repeated and repeatable confirmation before we accept a conclusion, because our minds are not reliable. We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent. We need to supplement brains with evidence, which is the piece Plantinga is missing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Can Your Evolved Brain Be Trusted to Bring You to the Actual Truth of Matters?

  1. Alan says:

    As PZ explains: It’s not the thinking but the testing that reveals truth in the natural world. Unfortunately for PZ, atheism as also been heavily tested (by real-world evolution) to be non-viable.

  2. Staffan says:

    Scientists don’t mess with their financers. Even a big shot like Jerome Kagan admitted that he chose not to publish findings suggesting a high heritability of personality back in the 1970s for political reasons. Or Stephen Jay Gould denied the heritability of intelligence right up until the 1980s when it became completely impossible, at which point he concluded that the issue was irrelevant. They are only good at doing their stuff when the results are completely without social and probably also existential significance.

  3. “Unfortunately for PZ, atheism as also been heavily tested (by real-world evolution) to be non-viable.”
    Citation needed.

  4. Thank you for a well thought piece.

    I think I am with Nagel and Plantinga. Eric Schliesser’s “common sense argument” namely ” A large [p]art of this [the scientific enterprise’s] achievement is the actual unlearning – or generating the capacity for temporary disabling — lots of our avarage [sic] Darwinian programming.” misses what Plantinga is getting at.

    Nagel and Plantinga could simply reply that Schliesser assumes that we can trust our minds to do science and to unlearn lots of our avarage Darwinain programming. It is that assumption that Nagel and Plantinga finds no justification on purely materialistic worldview.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    Your blog follower and reader,
    Prayson

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Prayson,

      You make a fair point. The substance of Plantinga and Nagel’s point is an epistemic one: you can’t bootstrap yourself to confidence in your intellectual moves because the foundation is in ape ancestry, not a divine mind.

      But the reason I side with Myers on this is that, in this instance, common sense should win (in my view): there is enough evidence that science works to give us confidence that its discoveries are sound.

      Also, a divine mind in the universe doesn’t guarantee your powers of reason (in the image of God) because the divine mind could be deliberately blinding or tricking you (or allowing the devil to do so).

      The best we can do to get at the truths of the universe, therefore, is to keep applying science, critical thinking, and evidence to the questions we bring to it. Nothing else seems to reliably get us anywhere.

      Also, I’d appeal to convergent evolution. Whether God exists or not, evolution seems to converge on intelligence across species boundaries. Just because we came from apes doesn’t mean that there aren’t real intelligence peaks in evolutionary hyperspace that get us at the truth of matters that other species can’t also climb (such as dolphins).

      –Santi

      • Thank you Santi. I treasure you response shows a beautiful mind at work.

        Remember Nagel, as an atheist, does not accept divine mind. We should not let Plantinga secondary step be second and not primary. Nagel shares with Plantinga on the primary.

        I find Myers’ appeal to common sense, if you presented correctly, also missing the force of Plantinga’s case, sense we are to assume that we can trust our mind to know common sense. It does not matter that there is enough evidence that science works to give us confidence that its discoveries are sound, because we assume that our mind can be trusted to know how science works.

        Example Plantinga quoted the great Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid: “If a man’s honesty were called into question, it would be ridiculous to refer to the man’s own word, whether he be honest or not. The same absurdity there is in attempting to prove, by any kind of reasoning, probable or demonstrative, that our reason is not fallacious, since the very point in question is, whether reasoning may be trusted.”

        If we call our mind into question, then appealing to common science on how science works is as Reid put it ridiculous because it assume that we can trust our mind, taking us to the point which Nagel and Plantinga are contending for.

        Let me know your thoughts.

        Your blog reader,
        Prayson

  5. Peter Smith says:

    Santi, this is a very interesting post. I am afraid Schliesser and Meyers don’t appreciate the self-contradictory nature of their argument.
    They say we have evolved these unreliable brains as the result of Darwinian evolution but, lo and behold, we have risen above the unreliable programming. But how?

    We have bootstrapped ourselves to rise above our baser reasoning so that we can find truth, they claim. But how was that possible? Have our brains changed? There is no evidence for this. Go back 2500 years and read the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. They evidence such brilliant and cogent reasoning that they remain persuasive today. So where is the progress in our brains? As Whitehead said, all philosophy is a footnote to Plato(and Aristotle).

    Our ability to reason cogently and access the truth has been there for at least 2,500 years. It seems the ability has always been there and is not something recently discovered by the likes of Myers. I have been reading Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum and he is every bit the equal of today’s philosopher’s, who I really doubt will be remembered for 2000 years and Myers certainly won’t be.

    Therefore Nagle’s point stands. Our brain is highly developed for complex, abstract reasoning and it is very difficult to see how this was an evolutionary adaptation to the needs of a hunter/gatherer. The ability of our brain so far exceeds these needs that it is incomprehensible. It is also true that our brain is subject to conflicting needs, which we may call our baser needs, more concerned with immediate survival and higher needs that see beauty, truth, love, pattern, purpose and logic in the world. Our brain is a complex balance between baser needs and higher needs which play out according to the circumstances. Today we have circumstances more favourable to the expression of our higher needs; that is all that has changed, not our brain.

    Is this “don’t trust the conclusions of your natural selection produced ape brain” argument a good one against belief in evolution and science?

    No, it is not an argument against evolution and science. It is an argument for the insufficiency of present day evolutionary explanations. Science remains the best tool available to explore the issue and evolution remains true. Nagle is issuing a call to look outside the boundaries reductionist materialism, or scientism. Science, for ideological reasons, has adopted a narrow mindset intended to confirm its metaphysical prejudices. Some categories of truth will remain outside the reach of such preconceptual science. The nature of consciousness and abstract thought may require explanations that are outside of evolution and science should be prepared to look for different explanations, not to be constrained by the orthodoxy of evolution.

    We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent.

    Here we see Myers giving way to the baser aspects of his brain and betraying all his claims of higher thought. The guy has no sense of shame.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Peter,

      I understand the points you are making, but it’s also possible that, with or without God’s existence, the evolutionary pressure to make our brains was social. In other words, we have big brains because we have to think in competition with other big brains in our tribes. And if our brains are analogy generators (as Douglas Hofstadter’s most recent book proposes), it’s not hard to imagine our brains becoming ever more adept at conceptualizing, reading situations, detecting signals in noise.

      I’m not saying God doesn’t exist or that our powers don’t seem excessive and absurdly beyond what a primate would need on a Savannah, but it may be that God used simple human social dynamics to drive the development of a brain that processes analogy.

      The power to say in ever more nuanced and extended ways, “this is that,” may be at the core of our unusual powers, and that might be what was selected for. “This behavior is that,” “this animal is that,” “this track is that,” “this sound is that” etc. etc.

      I go back to the thought that God may create things via simple principles that build up surprising things.

      I think of Darwin’s famous phrase, “From so simple a beginning …”

      But as for consciousness itself, I don’t have any plausible explanation. It is dumbfounding. Why are we conscious and not zombies if zombies will do (from the vantage of evolution)?

      Analogy generating in social situations might account in large part for the big brain, but not the conscious brain.

      –Santi

      • Peter Smith says:

        I go back to the thought that God may create things via simple principles that build up surprising things.

        I completely agree with that and the reason I believe that is the existence of the laws of nature. If God exists then obviously God created the laws of nature as the tool to run the Universe. In that case all development takes place according to the laws of nature and everything within the Universe is explainable by the laws of nature. To use a crude analogy, the laws of nature are the spanner in the hand of the divine Mechanic. We only see the action of the spanner and can never see the hand on the spanner.

        It follows from my belief that by doing science we are discovering how God created and operates our Universe. Or, to put it in a way that will anger our naturalist, atheist friends, science is a sub-discipline within theology :)

        consciousness itself … is dumbfounding
        Indeed, and even more dumbfounding is the source of the laws of nature and their prescriptive power.

        The laws of nature are a subject that our naturalist friends gloss over with an embarrassed smile. Lets not go there, they just are, is the common thinking(Sean Carroll). Or, the laws of nature are just observed regularities, which must be the most question begging reply I have seen. Another question begging reply is that the laws of nature are merely our way of modelling the operation of the Universe.

        Together with consciousness they constitute the most profound mysteries known. To my way of thinking, the laws of nature are the strongest evidence for the existence of God and this evidence trumps all atheist arguments.

        The mysteries of the laws of nature are two fold:
        1) where do they come from?
        2) what gives them there prescriptive power? Why should all particles inerrantly obey these mathematical formulae?

        our powers … seem excessive and absurdly beyond what a primate would need on a Savannah

        A possible explanation is that once a certain level of language and intelligence is achieved a threshold is passed where it becomes a positive feedback loop that rapidly amplifies intelligence far beyond immediate needs.

        Related to that is the question ‘why only us?’ Since intelligence is the supreme adaptive strategy it would seem this is the ultimate destination of Darwinian evolution. I surmise that we were the first and ruthlessly eliminated our intelligent, but not quite so advanced competitive species. This is the probable fate of the Neanderthals. In the cruel world of Darwinism it makes a lot of sense to eliminate your most dangerous competitors. In fact I would say it is inevitable. In my region of the world we ruthlessly eliminated the San Bushmen.

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