Reason and Evolution

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 13, 2009 in Alvin Plantinga,Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) In my previous post, we examined the nature of reason. Carrier gave two reasons to trust the machine of reason: (1) because it works, and (2) because natural selection ensures it. Today, we’ll look at that second claim about reason and evolution.

Here’s Carrier:

…a brain cannot just be a passive mop, implicitly believing everything it receives. If a brain’s ability to reason does not produce results (“belief” or “unbelief”) whose degree of [certainty] corresponds more and more to the real probability of something being so, the brain’s ability to survive will diminish substantially. That it can still get lucky is irrelevant. A brain full of false information (or worse, false confidence in false information) will far more often do the wrong thing than otherwise, and will far less often solve a novel problem. And doing the wrong thing is often deadly, almost always a waste of precious time and resources, and routinely painful or otherwise damaging to one’s interests, whereas having less of this error is always an advantage over one’s peers, as is having more right answers to new problems.

Thus, evolution selected for more and more reliable reasoning systems in advanced brains.

Next, Carrier takes up a form of Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. In Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga posits a scenario in which a human “likes the idea of being eaten” but always runs from tigers because he believes tigers will not eat him. This would confer a survival advantage, even though it is based on a false belief. So false beliefs are compatible with survival, says Plantinga. Carrier disagrees:

But that’s not how it works. First of all, this poor human would fail to act to rescue his family members attacked by tigers, and would fail to fight back if actually caught by one himself… this is a huge disadvantage to a species’ survival.

[Furthermore,] it is extraordinarily improbable that a man would develop the ability to run away only from all those things that will eat him and yet, at the very same time, still evolve a useless ability to want to get eaten…

Finally, survival demands adaptability and innovation: a man who had options besides running when facing a tiger (like hiding, climbing, attacking, trapping, or scaring it away) will always have a survival advantage over Plantinga’s poor fellow… No matter what scenario Plantinga envisions, it will… be too improbable to credit.

Carrier discusses a great deal more here, and I recommend you buy the book and read it. Next, we’ll discuss The Nature of Emotion.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Yair October 13, 2009 at 6:44 am

Note that all of the justification is already within a logical reality – it “works” because it fits the One Reality. Consider a simple worm, able to tell light and dark and move and that’s all; it only senses that it is light or that it is dark, not that it is (dark or light); it only decides to initiate *this* neural pattern in response, not (*this* pattern and also *this* contradicting pattern). The reason Reason works is that it encodes features of reality that permeate our environment.

Now consider quantum mechanics. In QM, a cat *can* be both alive and dead at the same time. The classical world, where the law of contradiction applies, is true for macroscopic objects like neural networks and humans.

Obviously, we cannot escape our own reason. But it seems to me that QM is a way for a creature with logic to describe a reality that does not obey the rules of logic. Parmenides would have said it is the doxa, that is available to humans but is not the true One reality.

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Reginald Selkirk October 13, 2009 at 8:05 am

There are other responses to Plantinga as well.

Such as that most everyone does believe false things. Can you name a single person you know who has never ever reasoned improperly? The amount of superstition in the world does not appear consistent with the notion that our reasoning ability is God-given and perfect. Just consider the topic of religion: Plantinga believes that most people in the world are wrong about religion, because they don’t agree with him.

Such as that Plantinga assumes that because because selection is indirect (operating on beliefs instead of directly on genes) that it is nonexistent.

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drj October 13, 2009 at 8:16 am

The more I see of Carrier’s book, the more I want to buy it… I’m sure I will eventually.

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Kevin October 13, 2009 at 9:31 am

I see the threat of circularity here. We conclude that natural selection is true using reason, and we know reason is reliable because natural selection ensures it. If memory serves, this is the thrust of Victor Reppert’s Argument from Reason, which is included in the new Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Any chance you’ll blog about that soon? I’d love to hear your thoughts, as this seems a serious argument against naturalism.

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Kevin October 13, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Correction: This is not the same as Reppert’s argument, but it’s in the same ballpark.

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Reginald Selkirk October 13, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Kevin: I see the threat of circularity here. We conclude that natural selection is true using reason, and we know reason is reliable because natural selection ensures it.

This oversimplification leaves out all of the actual and substantial evidence in support of natural selection.

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Paul October 13, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Kevin -

To make a distinction – at least in my mind.

“We conclude that natural selection is true using reason, and we know reason is reliable because natural selection ensures it”

Natural selection is true (or false) irrespective of our ability to conclude/reason it. You probably don’t disagree with this.

So, let us assume for sake of discussion that “the machine of reason” (1) works. It is reproducible, verifiable, testable, etc. So can natural selection account for it. More specifically would natural selection “select” reliability over its opposite (unreliable)? That is what Richard Carrier attempts to do.

I suppose one could refute that “the machine of reason” works but, at least for now, I don’t think that is in question.

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Kevin October 13, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Paul and Reg,

All that evidence, reproducibility, etc. means nothing without a coherent epistemology that puts it together into knowledge claims. How that is done involves reason in various guises. So, I think my original (ill-worded) objection stands. I think a discussion of my points would be more productive after covering the Reppert argument I mentioned.

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(O_O) October 13, 2009 at 2:48 pm

“Such as that most everyone does believe false things. Can you name a single person you know who has never ever reasoned improperly? The amount of superstition in the world does not appear consistent with the notion that our reasoning ability is God-given and perfect. Just consider the topic of religion: Plantinga believes that most people in the world are wrong about religion, because they don’t agree with him.”

You’re almost making Plantinga’s point for him right here. False beliefs can confer survival advantage just as well as true beliefs on naturalism + evolution. I know I have heard many theories about how religion may have conferred a survival advantage in early humans’ evolutionary history (something like Richard Dawkin’s espouses). But, yet, religion is supposed to be false.

Btw, Plantinga never said that our reasoning ability is perfect nor does he give his readers any reason to think so.

And how does Carrier’s theory about the evolution of reason hold about beliefs that have nothing to do with conferring survival advantage?

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Lee A. P. October 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

We hold both false and true beliefs and both can sometimes permit a survival advantage but through science we have learned to test our beliefs and find out which of them holds up to scrutiny. Religions have not held up to scrutiny.

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ayer October 13, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Lee A.P. “We hold both false and true beliefs and both can sometimes permit a survival advantage but through science we have learned to test our beliefs and find out which of them holds up to scrutiny. Religions have not held up to scrutiny.”

“Science” conducted by nonreliable cognitive faculties geared toward survival, not truth (the kind of faculties that produce a “false” belief in religion due to its survival value) cannot be a reliable “test” of our beliefs. You are back to circular reasoning and the infinite regress.

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drj October 13, 2009 at 5:16 pm

You’re almost making Plantinga’s point for him right here. False beliefs can confer survival advantage just as well as true beliefs on naturalism + evolution. I know I have heard many theories about how religion may have conferred a survival advantage in early humans’ evolutionary history (something like Richard Dawkin’s espouses). But, yet, religion is supposed to be false.

Just because a false belief provides SOME utility, doesn’t mean it would provide the same amount of utility as a more accurate belief. I believe that was the point Carrier was trying to make.

One can probably think of belief existing on a continuum of utility… the more accurate the belief, the farther along on the utility continuum it resides. This may not hold true in all cases, but I suspect it true for most…. or at the very least, one should expect that there are very few less accurate beliefs for any phenomena that would provide more utility than a more accurate belief.

The continuum model would explain how and why many false beliefs stick around for a while – because its hard to arrive at accurate beliefs in many cases.. many false beliefs simply provide enough utility to have a long lifespan in our shared beliefs… (ie. religion).

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drj October 13, 2009 at 5:51 pm

I also want to add that while utility might correlate with accuracy.. I don’t think theres any reason to believe the ease of attaining a belief has such a uniform relationship with its utility or accuracy. I think that relationship will be all over the map.

I think that relationship gives us insight into what false beliefs tend to stick around..

Nobody believes that, in order to get eaten by a tiger, one must run away from it. Its hard to see how that false belief would ever arise. On the other hand, its basically self-evident that ones proximity to an object will determine whether one can personally interact with it. This accurate belief is easier to attain than that false belief.

On the other hand, its extremely difficult to know how the universe was created or how life began. There are many false explanations which are easily available, and do provide some utility. I would surmise that explaining these phenomena scientifically, will have much more utility than the corresponding mythical explanations. Explaining these phenomena more accurately with science, is very very difficult compared to the ease of attaining the other more inaccurate explanations.

How persistent an inaccurate belief has the potential to be, might be related to the utility and the ease with which it can be “discovered”, relative to the level difficulty in attaining a more accurate belief.

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Victor Reppert October 13, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I have a reply to Carrier in Baggett, Habermas, and Walls ed., C.S. Lewis As A Philosopher (IVP, 2007).

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lukeprog October 13, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Reppert,

Thanks for letting me know. For the interested, you can read most of the relevant pages by using Amazon’s ‘search inside a book feature’ for that book and searching for “carrier”.

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Sabio Lantz October 14, 2009 at 1:49 am

I agree with the “Adaptive False Belief” crowd.
Self-deception is huge advantage for persuasion — which has huge social advantage.
A naturalistic system that does not take this into account is grossly lacking.
We are not just organism reacting against inanimate or unthinking objects, we are social organism. Naturalism does not naturally lead to truth and reason.

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mikespeir October 14, 2009 at 5:12 am

Back when I was a programmer I sometimes ran into a problem everyone in the business can identify with. If I were devising a complicated algorithm for, say, a piece of financial software, I would conceive of what it would take to derive the desired results from a set of data and put it into code. Then I would test it to see if it worked as I expected. I would plug in some values and–behold!–out would pop just what I was looking for. I would do it again and, again, success. I might run it fifteen times with different inputs and every time I would get what I expected.

Then, on the sixteenth time it would fail. I would scratch my head and repeat the calculation. Again it would fail. It didn’t make any sense! I’d try the old programmer’s dodge: “It’s just a glitch.” Of course, it wasn’t just a glitch. I knew that before I thought of it. What it was, I knew even before I had torn into the code again, was that there was something fundamentally wrong with my algorithm. It might turn out the desired result time after time. But the many successes didn’t tell the tale. The tale was told by the rare, odd error: my logic was all wrong. And usually just patching it didn’t work. I had to redo it from the ground up, because it was wrong from the ground up.

It seems to me that worldviews–including religions–can be like this. Like the faulty code, they may seem to “work,” i.e., get us through life successfully. But if they’re not founded on what’s really real, that “working” is illusory. It just so happens that the erroneous “code” works often enough to fool us into thinking it will always work. But it’s just coincidence that it ever works at all.

For instance, ducking under shelter during a thunderstorm so Zeus won’t be able to zap you will keep you alive most of the time. But that doesn’t mean there’s really a Zeus. So while a worldview based upon the existence of Zeus might get one through situations like this, it’s nevertheless fundamentally wrong. The answer isn’t to devise intricate and rococo theologies to make belief in Zeus seem less absurd. The answer is to clear the table and start over.

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Reginald Selkirk October 14, 2009 at 6:08 am

You’re almost making Plantinga’s point for him right here. False beliefs can confer survival advantage just as well as true beliefs on naturalism + evolution. I know I have heard many theories about how religion may have conferred a survival advantage in early humans’ evolutionary history (something like Richard Dawkin’s espouses). But, yet, religion is supposed to be false.

Btw, Plantinga never said that our reasoning ability is perfect nor does he give his readers any reason to think so.

Plantinga does not claim that our reasoning ability is perfect, but he claims that it is better than can be explained by naturalism. And if our reasoning ability is God-given, then the fact that it is not perfect is a poor comment on the “Designer.”

False beliefs are sometimes adequate, but I don’t think you could say they are just as good as true beliefs. One reason is that selective conditions change, and a thus a false belief which serves in one set of conditions is less likely to work in a different set of conditions than a true belief.

I have also “heard many theories about how religion may have conferred a survival advantage in early humans’ evolutionary history.” (Actually, being a scientist, I would say “hypotheses” rather than theories.) That is what makes me write them off as “just-so stories.” There is no convergence to one explanation. There are a number of possible ways the prevalence of religious belief could be consistent with the truth of evolution. Religion could have adaptive value, or it could be linked with some other trait which has adaptive value, or it could be a parasitic entity which persists at the expense of its hosts.

But, yet, religion is supposed to be false.” Which religion? While religious belief is indeed widespread, different religious beliefs are held in different cultures. This is a serious detraction from the possibility that true religious belief has an evolutionary advantage.

Moreover, while religious belief is near-universal in all cultures, it is not universal in all individuals. If one is going to ride the bandwagon of panadaptationism (which I don’t), one must explain why nonbelievers are also found in all cultures.

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Reginald Selkirk October 14, 2009 at 6:14 am

You’re almost making Plantinga’s point for him right here. False beliefs can confer survival advantage just as well as true beliefs on naturalism + evolution.

One more point on this issue: Not all beliefs bear equally on survival. If someone holds a belief about whether or not a tiger will eat them, that will likely have a large impact on heir survival ability. A belief about whether unbaptised babies spend time in limbo after they die is much less likely to have a large impact on survival value.

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ayer October 14, 2009 at 6:30 am

“One more point on this issue: Not all beliefs bear equally on survival. If someone holds a belief about whether or not a tiger will eat them, that will likely have a large impact on heir survival ability. A belief about whether unbaptised babies spend time in limbo after they die is much less likely to have a large impact on survival value.”

But if belief in God was adaptive as a comforting delusion so that humans can face the cold, cruel world, then survival may depend upon it, since the alternative (at least for those nonatheists who need such a “crutch”) would be paralyzing despair and depression.

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Reginald Selkirk October 14, 2009 at 7:02 am

But if belief in God was adaptive…

Which god or gods?

since the alternative (at least for those nonatheists who need such a “crutch”) would be paralyzing despair and depression.

Sweden. Japan. It does not take much imagination to consider a world in which god-belief is not prevalent, several such societies already exist.

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drj October 14, 2009 at 7:06 am

But if belief in God was adaptive as a comforting delusion so that humans can face the cold, cruel world, then survival may depend upon it, since the alternative (at least for those nonatheists who need such a “crutch”) would be paralyzing despair and depression.

Just the opposite is true in many circumstances. See suicide bombers and plane hi-jackers. In some instances, belief in a deity and a belief in a better after-life results in a person being willing or even anxious to sacrifice this life, because they are certain there will be another.

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Reginald Selkirk October 14, 2009 at 7:09 am

But if belief in God was adaptive as a comforting delusion…

And of course, this concerns “belief in belief,” not the actual existence or nonexistence of God.

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ayer October 14, 2009 at 7:35 am

Selkirk: “Sweden. Japan. It does not take much imagination to consider a world in which god-belief is not prevalent, several such societies already exist.”

That’s not a problem for theism, which embraces free will, but for naturalism, since it is the evolutionary biologists who proclaim that (“false”) religious belief provides a clear survival advantage. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/brunel/A934283:

“Religious faith is a phenomenon derived from biological processes that occur in the brain. Developmental networks of genes control every aspect of the brain’s anatomy, including the areas of the brain that are responsible for deep and powerful religious and spiritual experiences. All genes are, or were, under the influence of evolution; therefore, the ability to have such experiences is an evolved trait. This trait, which spawned the religions, spirituality and supernatural beliefs of all human cultures all over the world, confers a definite survival advantage. Study after study confirms that people who consider themselves religious have, amongst other things, a far greater recovery rate from major surgery, and longer life spans. This would have been especially beneficial to early (perhaps pre-civilisation) man, whose struggle for survival and lack of medicine would mean that any possessor of such abilities would be at an advantage. Natural selection preserved this trait and it spread throughout the population.”

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drj October 14, 2009 at 7:55 am

That’s not a problem for theism, which embraces free will, but for naturalism, since it is the evolutionary biologists who proclaim that (”false”) religious belief provides a clear survival advantage. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/brunel/A934283:

This is why I look forward to the future work of Sam Harris in the field of neuroscience. He seems to be one of the few who is actually searching for, in a scientific manner, the answers to WHY religious belief confers some of the advantages that it does, at the level of the brain. We certainly have evidence of some loose correlations between religious belief and some survival advantages.. but no one has really tried to examine what the relationship is between the detailed content of those beliefs, our biology, and those survival advantages.

There is perhaps a set of facts or beliefs that are MORE accurate explanations for things that confer more advantage that religious belief, and come with less catastrophic baggage – and that seems to be what Sam is ultimately searching for. I give him props for getting off the armchair of epistemic theorizing, and has aspired to take epistemology to the lab.

If these explanations exist, they are surely more elusive and difficult to discover, than comparatively easy to acquire religious beliefs… which would explain why religious belief still exists, despite being less optimal for survival and well-being.

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Reginald Selkirk October 14, 2009 at 8:10 am

That’s not a problem for theism, which embraces free will, but for naturalism, since it is the evolutionary biologists who proclaim that (”false”) religious belief provides a clear survival advantage.

Not all evolutionary biologists do that. I thought this was covered several comments ago.

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Reginald Selkirk October 14, 2009 at 8:14 am

We certainly have evidence of some loose correlations between religious belief and some survival advantages.

I believe you are overstating the case. As mentioned previously, dozens of hypotheses for the evolution of religion have been proposed. It is only the prevalence of some form of religious belief across a wide variety of cultures that stands out, no specific correlation between religious belief in general or any specific religious belief and any particular survival advantage has ever been established.

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drj October 14, 2009 at 8:25 am

I believe you are overstating the case. As mentioned previously, dozens of hypotheses for the evolution of religion have been proposed. It is only the prevalence of some form of religious belief across a wide variety of cultures that stands out, no specific correlation between religious belief in general or any specific religious belief and any particular survival advantage has ever been established

Probably… I wanted to type more, but my fingers get lazy.

You are right… what the cause/effect relationships are for any of those possible correlations remain strictly in the realm of hypothesis at this point.

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Beelzebub October 15, 2009 at 2:23 am

One issue you have to consider is that evolution is an emergent phenomenon, which is just an abstruse way of saying you must consider all the foregoing steps before considering our contemporary scenarios. The demented human who runs from tigers because he want to be eaten is biologically linked to the bacterium that “wants” to be eaten and “thinks” amoeba won’t eat it. But wait a minute, “want” and “think” are not applicable to a bacterium. A bacterium that fails to avoid an amoeba will be eaten, period. This is the predecessor to what comes after. Not to become too absurd here, but perhaps we see now the nascent start of morality, when the purely automatic reflex to flagellate one’s self to safety translates to the desire for self-preservation — ending, it seems, in the perplexing flagellation before the Lord.

Why then, do ancestors of the bacterium tend to correlate the dangers of tigers correctly to an appropriate emotional state? I suspect there is a system of simultaneous equations that explain it. But if a perverse solution presents itself, I’d be open to consider it.

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Beelzebub October 15, 2009 at 2:47 am

One more thing regarding Platinga’s objection: The arbitrary assignation of emotional state to motivation requires that we sever the connection between emotion and motivated response. What’s to prevent us from equating the emotion “wants to be eaten” to “fears being eaten”? Emotion is simply thought with concomitant physiological response. Picture, in a mirror universe, a family that runs from tigers because they “want” to be eaten and “thinks” tigers won’t eat them. How is that any different than our own, except in a trivial way?

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zarkoff45 May 12, 2011 at 8:36 am

I have an argument against Plantinga’s argument on my YouTube channel:
http://youtu.be/eU-wpNOyuas

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