Evolution and the “Convictions of a Monkey’s Mind”

By Tim Stratton

In my last article I made the case that evolution cannot account for human rationality unless it could explain genuine free will. In the Freethinking Argument Against Naturalism, I argued that free will cannot be explained if naturalism is true. It follows that naturalistic evolution cannot account for the ability humans possess to rationally affirm knowledge claims.

My Freethinking Argument stands strong on its own, but Alvin Plantinga has made a separate case supporting my argument. He argues that if evolution is true, then naturalism is probably false. To be clear, Plantinga is not making a case against evolution; rather, he argues that naturalism and evolution are most likely incompatible. This argument is called the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism(EAAN).[1]

I will not offer the EAAN in its entirely (Plantinga summarizes it here), but one of the key ideas behind this argument is that evolution is not guaranteed to select for truth. Natural selection is a cause of evolution. Organisms that are best able to survive and reproduce are selected for, however true beliefs do not necessarily increase the likelihood of survival. If it could be demonstrated that (at least sometimes) false beliefs can enhance survivability, then we have good reason to believe that naturalistic evolution cannot guarantee that our thoughts correspond with reality. Darwin himself seemed to have lost sleep over this idea:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has always been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy… Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?[2]

Darwin may have realized the problem of combining naturalism with evolutionary theory; that is to say, if evolution is a non-teleological and a non-rational process, it challenges our confidence that we can form true beliefs that lead to rational conclusions. Naturalistic evolution (as opposed to some form of theistic evolution) presupposes that our cognitive faculties developed as they did because it had some survival value or reproductive advantage. The theory of evolution affirms that natural selection does not select for beliefs unless they benefit the chances of survival and/or reproduction. Beliefs only have to lead to a survival advantage even if they are completely false.

The biologist and atheist, Lewis Wolpert, confirmed Plantinga’s case, albeit inadvertently, in a debate with William Lane Craig. In his first speech, he affirmed that although he believes theism is false, he acknowledges there are evolutionary advantages and survival benefits to those holding theistic beliefs.[3] It follows from this admission that evolution selects for survival, not for true beliefs (since he assumes theism is false). Consequently, why should Wolpert trust his evolved belief that theism is false? He is reasoning in circles.

Mormonism is a good example of false beliefs contributing to survival and reproductive benefits. After all, Mormonism teaches morality and human flourishing as well as having as many children as possible to populate future planets that they will rule.[4] Those holding the belief that Mormonism is true also believe they have a moral responsibility to reproduce.

Consider the other side of the coin: a belief in atheism could actually hinder human survival (even if atheism were true — which it is not). If one believes atheistic naturalism is true, then one ought to logically reach the conclusion that life is objectively meaningless.[5] There would be no foundation for objective meaning, value, or purpose in life if God and soul do not exist. What’s the point of surviving? Moreover, there would be no objective grounding for moral values and duties.[6] If nothing really matters, then human flourishing and survival do not really matter either. Therefore, atheistic beliefs do not logically lead to survival benefits.

Many atheists want to reject the idea that evolution does not select for true beliefs but then they turn around and affirm Plantinga’s key premise when objecting to the Moral Argument for God’s existence. They will exclaim that objective moral values and duties do not really exist, but humans have evolved to hold this false belief to survive and flourish.

There are two major problems here. First, if the atheist agrees with Plantinga — that evolution is aimed at survival and not truth — then how does he knowhis beliefs about anything are true, including his evolved belief that God does not exist? Second, it does not logically follow from this that God does not exist or that objective moral values and duties do not exist. After all, God could have intelligently designed the initial conditions of the big bang to guarantee that our comprehension of objective moral values and duties would be realized via evolution. I am not arguing that this is how God “wrote the law on our hearts” (Romans 2:15), but simply stating that this would not be a problem for an omniscient and omnipotent God.

In conclusion, let me be clear: my Freethinking Argument Against Naturalism stands on its own two feet, even if Plantinga’s argument fails. With that said, if the EAAN passes (and I think it does), it adds strength to the Freethinking Argument as it reaches similar conclusions for different reasons. As Plantinga has noted, “[Evolution] doesn’t give a hoot about whether your beliefs are true or false!”[7] If this is true, then we cannot know our beliefs are true. All we are left with is question-begging assumptions that our evolved and causally determined beliefs correspond with reality. Therefore, naturalistic evolution fails to explain free will, rationality, and knowledge.

The FreeThinking Theist,

Tim Stratton

 

For more articles like: Evolution and the “Convictions of a Monkey’s Mind” visit Tim’s site at FreeThinkingMinistries.com


NOTES

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011

[2] Charles Darwin to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005)

[3] Wolpert, Lewis, in debate with William Lane Craig, http://youtu.be/kzhczra3o4o

[4] “We will become gods and have jurisdiction over worlds, and these worlds will be peopled by our own offspring.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 2:48, quoted in Achieving a Celestial Marriage Student Manual, 1976, p.132)

[5] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Page 72

[6] William Lane Craig, “On Guard,” (David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO 2008) Pg. 127

[7] Alvin Plantinga discussing the EAAN on “Closer to the Truth” http://youtu.be/xpw9UsdbvW8

 

8 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “If nothing really matters, then human flourishing and survival do not really matter either.”

    It matters to me, and it matters to most humans – ironically (considering you citing Plantinga) thanks to evolution. We’ve evolved to care about our own species’ survival and flourishing. Natural selection has spent millions of years selecting for the members of our species who want to survive and who care about the survival of the species.

    There are lots of great critiques of Plantinga’s argument out there. Suffice it to say, his argument rests on a very naive and simplistic understanding of evolution and a failure to take game theory into account. He brings up arguments such as a caveman who only runs away from predators because he thinks they’re playing chase with him! Plantinga also doesn’t seem to understand how the scientific method works – it is designed to overcome bias and false notions. If he wants to argue that our belief that the scientific method works could simply be a ‘useful delusion’ then he’s basically arguing that every observable aspect of reality could be a delusion. For example, he’s saying that me thinking I’m using a computer right now could be a delusion, or that when I talked to my mother yesterday about a Skype conversation we’d had the week before, we were both having a shared delusion.

    Thus he is ultimately simply saying we have no defeater of hard solipsism.

    “The theory of evolution affirms that natural selection does not select for beliefs unless they benefit the chances of survival and/or reproduction”

    It’s reductive to say that ‘beliefs are selected’. Rather, evolution more selects for cognitive abilities and the ability to build models that correspond to reality. A brain that can successfully model individual situations is far more efficient than one that holds a bunch of rigid beliefs. Insects may have a set of algorithms that they respond to – avoid other insects that smell like this, move towards things that smell like that – but the larger brains you find in mammals such as ourselves simply don’t work like that.

    Reply
    • Timothy Stratton says:

      Hi Andy, it’s good to hear from you again.

      I said, “If one believes atheistic naturalism is true, then one ought to logically reach the conclusion that life is objectively meaningless.[5] There would be no foundation for objective meaning, value, or purpose in life if God and soul do not exist. What’s the point of surviving? Moreover, there would be no objective grounding for moral values and duties.[6] If nothing really matters, then human flourishing and survival do not really matter either. Therefore, atheistic beliefs do not logically lead to survival benefits.”

      You said, “It matters to me, and it matters to most humans.”

      You miss the point, Andy. If you read the above paragraph I am discussing *objective* reality and not your subjective opinions or the majority vote. That is specifically why I italicized the word, “really.” According to atheistic naturalism, your life (and mine too) are objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless. As the great rock band of philosophers known as “Kansas” sang, “All we are is dust in the wind!”

      Speaking of that song, their specific line sums up your atheistic worldview perfectly: “All we doooo… crumbles to the ground though we refuse to seeee!”

      Compare and contrast that with their other song, “Carry On My Wayward Son.” In that song they sing, “Now your life’s no longer emptyyyy… surely HEAVEN waits for youuuu!!!”

      You said, “There are lots of great critiques of Plantinga’s argument out there.”

      And there are great refutations against those “critiques,” Andy.

      You said, “Suffice it to say, his argument rests on a very naive and simplistic understanding of evolution…”

      Well, I had the evolutionary biologist at the University of Nebraska check my work to make sure I had a correct understanding of evolutionary theory. I was given a stamp of approval by a PhD evolutionary biologist from a secular university stating that I am representing this accurately. By the way, I have no problem with evolution, my argument is that *naturalistic* evolution cannot account for rationality or knowledge.

      You also refer to arguments that Plantinga has made that were not a part of my argument. I think some of his many thought experiments are better than others and I also have come up with some of my own. Those were the ones I used in my article and those are the ones that should be dealt with.

      You said, “Plantinga also doesn’t seem to understand how the scientific method works…”

      Surely you don’t really think that, Andy? Of course Dr. Plantinga understands the scientific method. He has written an entire book on science: “Where the Conflict Really Lies.” I think the misunderstanding here is on your part. You make this clear in your next comment:

      “If he wants to argue that our belief that the scientific method works could simply be a ‘useful delusion’ then he’s basically arguing that every observable aspect of reality could be a delusion.”

      Plantinga does not argue that you cannot hold any true beliefs, Andy; rather, he argues that sometimes false beliefs hold survival benefit. Since evolution selects for survival (and not true beliefs), then you have a defeater against your beliefs – some beliefs are worse off than others!

      Moreover, think about the beliefs you hold which the scientific method is impotent to shed light upon:

      – atheism is true
      – naturalism is true
      – science is the only way to know
      – science is the study of all reality

      These thoughts (to name a few) by definition cannot be scientifically tested or discovered. Thus, why should you *assume* that evolution or nature has produced true beliefs in your head and false beliefs in my head regarding these topics? All a naturalist is left with is question-begging assumptions – a logical fallacy – and any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all.

      I’ve got to run and will be away for a few days. Have a great weekend, Andy. Feel free to take the last word.

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        “your life (and mine too) are objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless”

        And yet, as I said, it has meaning to me, and to my friends and family. I’m guessing it has meaning to you too. It doesn’t matter to me if you class this meaning to be ‘objective’ or not. If my life has meaning to me, then it’s objectively true that my life has meaning.

        “Well, I had the evolutionary biologist at the University of Nebraska check my work to make sure I had a correct understanding of evolutionary theory”

        That’s great Tim. But my point stands that Plantinga’s theory rests on a misunderstanding of evolution by natural selection.

        “Since evolution selects for survival (and not true beliefs)”

        Evolution doesn’t select for beliefs at all. You and Plantinga seem to believe evolution can ‘select’ for humans with false beliefs. It doesn’t.

        “Thus, why should you *assume* that evolution or nature has produced true beliefs in your head”

        I assume nothing, Tim – we test our beliefs. It’s a straw man to think that the contention is that we ‘evolved to have true beliefs’. Our brains have evolved to model reality not contain beliefs. You and Plantinga need to argue that we cannot even test our beliefs. And we can test our beliefs that we evolved through natural selection using the scientific method. So either Plantinga thinks the scientific method is an effective route to knowledge or he doesn’t.

        Finally, that evolution leads to brains subject to bias is not in contention. No-one claims our brains are entirely logical all the time. In fact, ironically, the various biases our brains are subject to are better explained by natural selection than by our creation by a God.

        “And there are great refutations against those “critiques,” Andy.”

        Lets here them, Tim!

        “Feel free to take the last word.”

        I’m still waiting for you to back up your claim about my opinions in the last thread. After accusing me of misrepresenting you – when later you had to effectively admit I’d actually summed up your view accurately, you made a claim about my own views that I then asked you to back up. Been a couple of months now, Tim. If you can’t back it up, you should apologise for lying about my views, or I’ll have to assume you don’t value honesty.

        Reply
      • Terry Lewis says:

        “As the great rock band of philosophers known as “Kansas” sang, “All we are is dust in the wind!””

        Ravi would be proud!

        Reply
  2. Andy Ryan says:

    If you want a shorter critique:

    Plantinga doesn’t argue that evolution by natural selection could NOT have given us rational brains, but rather that it would make it impossible for us to know if it did. As even William Lane Craig concedes, it’s an argument that would apply to any doubt about one’s cognitive faculties: “It just states that if one thinks, for WHATVER reason, that one’s cognitive faculties are unreliable, then one can’t have confidence in anything he believes”.

    Several problems here:
    • This is no less of a problem if you believe you could have been created by a God who can make you believe anything. Any evidence you think you have that the God is a trustworthy one could equally be a deception.
    • We know that our brains ARE open to bias and false beliefs – and this applies whether one thinks these problems are due to natural selection or not. Therefore it’s problem for everyone, not just those who accept the scientific paradigm.
    • Worse for the doubting theists, these biases actually support natural selection AND a deceiving God MORE than a trustworthy God. In other words, either of the first two options better explain what we know about the brain that the ‘trustworthy God’ hypothesis.
    • Plantinga’s argument fails anyway because the scientific acceptance of evolution by natural selection is based on the application of the scientific method, not beliefs or instincts (i.e. by ideas that could have been adopted simply because they aided survival) so Plantinga’s argument only works if he argues that natural selection has made us completely unable to interpret any evidence at all provided by the scientific method. In effect he’d therefore need to argue that we’ve collectively imagined all the scientific advances of the past hundred years or so.

    Tim: “Moreover, think about the beliefs you hold which the scientific method is impotent to shed light upon… Moreover, think about the beliefs you hold which the scientific method is impotent to shed light upon: …science is the only way to know”

    Tim, please do not make claims about what I believe that you cannot back up with direct quotes. Where do I claim that science is the only way to know?

    Reply
  3. toby says:

    Evolution doesn’t select for beliefs at all. You and Plantinga seem to believe evolution can ‘select’ for humans with false beliefs. It doesn’t.
    I can see how false beliefs can be passed down through generations that have no advantage or disadvantage. Things like throwing salt over a shoulder if you spill some and that if you don’t you’ll get hit with bad luck. It may be a waste of time, but it doesn’t help or hurt. Maybe wastes a little salt.

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      Fair enough – perhaps I’ll withdraw that particular sentence then. I guess these would come under the bracket of what Richard Dawkins called memes. Though I’d add that we haven’t evolved to have that belief. Rather we’ve evolved brains that are subject to superstition, creating the right environment for such beliefs to persist.

      You can argue that that makes no difference to Plantinga’s point, but either way, it’s still the case that our acceptance of natural selection as a driver of evolution isn’t a meme, a passed on belief – it’s the result of application of the scientific method.

      And again, pointing out examples of false beliefs and biases that human brains are subject to actually backs up the idea that our brains evolved by natural selection, which doesn’t help Tim or Plantinga.

      Reply
      • toby says:

        True. The beliefs are cultural and the thing that they emerge from is a genetic predisposition that allows a psychology that harbors superstition.

        Reply

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