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.