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Darwin’s Blind Spot

Charles Darwin 2

It is a well-known fact that Charles Darwin, the author of that famous, and at the same time infamous, book entitled On the Origin of Species, used to be all over the religious map during his lifetime (1809-1882). Darwin’s personal beliefs remain ambiguous. I think what expresses his ambiguity best is what he wrote in a letter to J.D. Hooker (1861): “My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details.”

Did Darwin ever become an atheist? Again, the evidence is rather ambivalent. Even if he did become an atheist, such may have happened after he developed his theory, but not necessarily because of his theory; in his own words, it was the devastating loss of his ten-year-old daughter Annie that made him an agnostic. However, being an agnostic or even an atheist would not really affect the validity of his evolutionary theory.

Where Did Darwin Go Astray?

 
It is not my intention in this article to analyze Darwin’s shortcomings in either biology or theology, but I do think there is a strong flaw in his philosophy, which may have been the ultimate cause that steered him in the wrong direction in terms of both his biology and his theology.

My starting point is one of the statements he makes in his autobiography. When he expresses his doubts about the claims theism makes, he says that the theory of natural selection makes him wonder whether “the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, [can] be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions.” And again in a letter to W. Graham in 1881, “Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

I would say Darwin does make a great point here: If the human mind is the mere product of natural selection, we cannot trust any of the conclusions it draws. Curiously enough, though, Darwin applies this insight only to any theological conclusions one might make but not to his own biological conclusions. He doesn’t seem to realize that when he discards theistic claims, he should also discard his own evolutionary claims, because he strongly believes that both are the mere product of natural selection.

It seems very obvious to me that even Darwin’s own theory of natural selection has run into trouble here, by cutting off our reason for reasoning, because once I take natural selection to be the only power shaping me and my mind—in the same way it shapes my DNA—I would have reason to doubt what my rational capacities are really worth. And evolutionary theory happens to be fully dependent on these very capacities—which fact gives it a rather shaky basis.

Somehow, as far as I know, Darwin never fully realized how serious this complication is.  I call that Darwin’s “blind spot.” Darwin was not able, or perhaps not willing, to think outside the Darwinian box, so he missed out on the vast meta-physical territory located outside his physical box. Does this mean that his theory is in serious trouble? It is not, if we take his theory for what it is worth, but it is, if we stretch its scope beyond what it is supposed to cover. Let me explain.

Is Darwinism in trouble?

 
What Darwin did—and what made his evolutionary theory so revolutionary—is that he approached all aspects of life as natural phenomena, which are to be explained by natural causes and physical laws, embodied in objectively testable theories. He was right: If science does not go to its limits, it would be a failure. Thus, modern biology was born. I consider this a great part of Darwin’s legacy, but again, it may not be the end of the story.

Darwin’s theory would be in real trouble, though, if we lose sight of the fact that all scientific theories only achieve local successes that cannot claim any universal validity.  Yet, Darwin gave his biological claims much more power than they actually had; he tried to give them universal validity. He claimed that his biological theory explained not only biological phenomena, but also all other phenomena outside the biological realm—such as sociology, psychology, and even religion. Darwin himself may not have explicitly done so, but his “disciple,” the philosopher Herbert Spencer, definitely did.

I think it’s needless to say that, in all such cases, the boundaries of the underlying theory are being grossly overstepped. Whenever this happens, we end up with an “ism,” an ideology similar to atomism, physicism, evolutionism, materialism, scientism, and so on. All “isms” tend to go overboard; they love to simplify the vast complexity of reality into a simple model; they replace reality with one of its specific maps.

Darwin Himself Is “More” Than a Product of Evolution

 
When he came up with the theory of natural selection, Darwin somehow didn’t realize that he was “more” than one of the products of natural selection. The philosopher Peter Kreeft, for instance, places this philosophical truth in the right context when he says that a projector must be “more” than the images it projects in the same way as a copy machine must be “more” than the copies it makes—or put in more general terms, the knowing subject must be “more” than the known object.

In a similar vein, when Darwin discovered the law of natural selection, he must have been “more” than the theory he discovered. If he were not, he would run into a serious problem of circularity. Even if the theory of natural selection in itself is not the product of natural selection, it still is a product of the human mind (Darwin’s, to be precise).

So I think we should come to an important conclusion: Even when they study the human brain as an object of science, scientists also need the human mind as the subject of science—for without the human mind, with its intellect and rationality, there would be no science at all. One would need a mind before one can study the brain! We have definitely entered meta-physical territory here—unfortunately located on Darwin’s “blind spot.”

Darwin could have cleared the confusion he had created for himself if he could just acknowledge that the human mind is not a product of natural selection. The human brain (including its intelligence) may be a product of natural selection, but that doesn’t mean the human mind (including its intellect) is too. As a matter of fact, the theory of natural selection must assume the human mind, but it can neither create it nor explain it. The brain cannot study itself; we do need a mind to study the brain. So the mind must have another origin than the brain. I would even go further and claim that the mind must be something made in God’s image, a take-off of the Creator’s mind.

Whereas it was Darwin’s conclusion that we cannot trust anything we know about God, I would rather argue the opposite—that we cannot trust anything we know at all if there were no God.
 
 
(Image credit: The Guardian)

Gerard M. Verschuuren

Written by

Gerard M. Verschuuren is a human geneticist who also earned a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He studied and worked at universities in Europe and the United States. His latest books include God and Evolution?: Science Meets Faith (Pauline Books, 2012), What Makes You Tick: A New Paradigm for Neuroscience (Solas Press, 2012), Darwin’s Philosophical Legacy: The Good and the Not-So-Good (Lexington Books, 2012), Of All That Is, Seen and Unseen (Queenship Publishing, 2012), and his upcoming book The Destiny of the Universe: In Pursuit of the Great Unknown (Paragon House, 2014). He can be contacted at Where-Do-We-Come-From.com.

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  • Andre Boillot

    Hmm.

    Questioning whether man's evolved mind "[can] be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions [re: theism].”

    vs.

    "If the human mind is the mere product of natural selection, we cannot trust any of the conclusions it draws."

    Now I'm not sure I can trust the author's ability to summarize Darwin.

    • Geena Safire

      Oh noes, Andre! Verschuuren believes, as the Catholic Church teaches, that our human reason was granted to us by God who, outside the normal process of evolution, ensouled two humans about 250,000 years ago. These two, apparently, are the ancestors of every human today. (Although genetic bioinformatics, Verschurren's field, has shown at least the latter idea to be wrong.)

      Therefore, because of God, Verschuuren can trust his conclusions because his reason is "real" rather than "having developed through evolution."

      I'm guessing, though, that I should start doubting my kidneys and my metatarsals now, and anything my hands make. Because evolution.

    • "Now I'm not sure I can trust the author's ability to summarize Darwin."

      You're only proving Gerard's point. We only have two options: to trust that our cognitive faculties can ascertain truth, or that everything we think is suspect. The former doesn't square with Darwinism, or it's philosophical spin-offs like materialistic determinism. The latter would reduce every truth claim to meaningless speculation (including the very claim that this is true.) Since none of us here (I think) accept the latter option, and assuming I'm not missing a third way, the former must be true.

      • Andre Boillot

        Actually, I'm criticizing Verschuuren for twisting Darwin's question of whether our brains can be trusted on the grand claims of theism, to saying that our brains can't be trusted on anything at all. I thought the highlighting of the relevant language would have made that clear.

        While your points have nothing to do with whether or not Verschuuren is accurately representing Darwin, I would still argue that we're not limited to the binary choice you're presenting.

        I don't see how acknowledging aspects of how our brains may have evolved - aspects which may hinder our ability to grasp certain realities - necessarily means that we cannot trust any of our intuitions. For example, every time I try to comprehend some of the higher-level concepts regarding the reality of time, I'm overwhelmed. However, my inability to fully square some of these concepts with my experience of time doesn't mean I can't trust myself to do other, simpler tasks. It's 4:38pm Central Standard Time, where I am, for example.

        EDIT: a link - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time

        • Raphael

          Gerard didn't twist anything of Darwin. A longer quote from Darwin shows that he was doubtful that evolution enabled man to have any trustworthy beliefs ("convictions of man's mind") due to man having evolved from lower animals such as monkeys:

          But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the 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?

          • Andre Boillot

            Raphael,

            Not sure how appealing to content not in the article helps show that the article as constructed wasn't misleading when it comes to Darwin's views.

          • Raphael

            How is the article misleading?

          • Andre Boillot

            Raphael,

            Here's the relevant bit:

            My starting point is one of the statements he makes in his autobiography. When he expresses his doubts about the claims theism makes, he says that the theory of natural selection makes him wonder whether “the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, [can] be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions [re: theism].” And again in a letter to W. Graham in 1881, “Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

            I would say Darwin does make a great point here: If the human mind is the mere product of natural selection, we cannot trust any of the conclusions it draws. Curiously enough, though, Darwin applies this insight only to any theological conclusions one might make but not to his own biological conclusions. He doesn’t seem to realize that when he discards theistic claims, he should also discard his own evolutionary claims, because he strongly believes that both are the mere product of natural selection.

            It appears that Darwin is only questioning our ability to draw grand conclusions. Why then does the author say that Darwin believes we can't trust any conclusions? Not only that, but his very next sentence seems to contradict this claim. While the author is right to point out that the theory of evolution might itself be such a grand conclusion, I don't see how the article supports the claim that Darwin believed none of our conclusions were trustworthy. I hope this helps.

          • Raphael

            Thank you for the explanation, Andre. What do you make of the quote from Darwin to W. Graham:

            Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

          • Andre Boillot

            Raphael,

            I'm not sure what I would make of this -- even after reading the longer quote, I'm not sure what the context was or what Darwin's conclusions were with regards to this.

            More importantly, I'm not really arguing about the implications of this quote, rather the way in which the author seemed to stretch the conclusions beyond what the quote would entail.

      • Paul Boillot

        "...to trust that our cognitive faculties can ascertain truth...doesn't square with Darwinism, or it's philosophical spin-offs like materialistic determinism."

        You and the author have made this claim without experimental evidence, plain observation facts, or logical argument. I would decline to accept your claim simply because you have given us no reason to think that it is true.

        I also decline to accept your claim because it is false.

      • Brandon, Andre is completely correct. I don't see how you can look at the two statements Andre has presented without concluding that they are completely different.

        Now, *your* position may be that Darwinism means our cognitive faculties cannot ascertain truth, but that's *your* position, not necessarily Darwin's. Andre is right to say the author's ability to summarize Darwin is suspect.

        Meanwhile, your two options ignore a third possibility: that our cognitive faculties are adequate to ascertain truths about things that affect our ability to survive and pass on our genes, but may be less capable of handling concepts that involve infinity and eternity.

      • Danny Getchell

        Brandon, this false dichotomy shows up here again and again. To say that we can ascertain the truth or falsity of a given assertion does not mean we can ascertain the truth or falsity of all assertions.

        I am certain of a (relatively few) number of things, I operate as if a great number of things are effectively true based upon observed evidence, and I am totally without knowledge of trillions of things.

    • How it comes? As I see it, the conclusions is irrelevant because "the mind of man, [···] [has] been developed from a
      mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal" then the problem here isn't the conclusion nor its size but the mind. So any conclusion, including those who comes from Theism and (yes!) Atheism (why atheism conclusion should be trusted if theism's one cannot be?), may not be trustworthy if Darwin is right about his belief about the human mind.

      Maybe the authors is summarizing right Darwin, and you missed something (from the author... or Darwin). But anyway, an explanation on how to summarize Darwin correctly is well received.

      P.S.: I think that objective truths are more necessary and used among humans beings than practical truths (then why we are here talking after all?), and I don't think that the author is interest on undermine the truth from practical truths.

      • Andre Boillot

        [I'll start worrying about Google taking over the world after they fix Google Translate.]

        Shackra,

        I'd love to respond, but I just don't understand most of what you're saying.

        • Damn... I'm not using Google Translate, really! My grammar is REALLY bad, sorry!

          What I basically note is: The problem is the mind, not the conclusion and its size. If Darwin is right, any other conclusion about any other topic/field/belief besides Theism must be suspected as well, because those conclusions flows from the mind. So, maybe you didn't understand or didn't get Dr. Gerard M. Verschuuren's point or "summary", which seems correct to me.

  • Geena Safire

    I appreciate that Verschuuren's article is well written, and it might be of historic interest. But it says nothing of relevance to the field of biology today.

    Charles Darwin [was] the author of that famous, and at the same time infamous, book entitled On the Origin of Species .

    It is just erroneous when Christians refer back to Darwin as if his "On the Origin of Species" is equivalent to a biologist Bible, as if Darwin were some kind of Messiah that scientists worship, giving thanks for every word that emerged from his oh-so-wise mouth or pen as dogma that still guides and rules all our work at the lab bench. It is nothing like that.

    Darwin had a great idea, supported by extensive research in his day. But the book was published over 150 years ago! It can be considered as a bacterial life form compared to, one could say, the vertebrate life form that is today's biological, evolutionary, and genetic science. Therefore, it is irrelevant and misleading when a Christian apologist today points to Darwin's bacterial era of evolutionary science and makes claims along the lines of "Evolutionary theory has problems because look at its bacterial form from 150 years ago." One can only validly evaluate evolutionary science based on evolutionary science today!

    Evolutionary science has left Darwin behind and genetic science has left Gregor Mendel (a Catholic friar, by the way) and his peas behind, whose research was contemporary to Darwin's. Was Mendel's 'bacterial era' genetic science in any way suspect because he was a faithful Catholic clergyman or because he was upset that his research grant proposal was turned down which limited his studies? No.

    Darwin’s personal beliefs remain ambiguous. ... I do think there is a
    strong flaw in [Darwin's] philosophy, which may have been the ultimate cause that steered him in the wrong direction in terms of both his biology and his theology.

    Whatever Darwin was scientifically right about remains part of biological science. Whatever Darwin was scientifically wrong about has been left behind by biological science. Whatever Darwin thought about religion or the tragic death of his daughter and whatever his spiritual beliefs or his philosophical positions at however many points during his life were have exactly zero bearing on the scientific validity or invalidity of any of his ideas today. This is also true of Mendel.

    We appreciate the contributions of the intellectual giants of history. But we do not worship them and we are not today guided by either their findings nor their lifestyles.

    • kuroisekai

      It was infamous because it was controversial at the time. At the time people were still pretty creationist. Evolution was not really considered as a serious option back then (emphasis on "really").

      I do agree that the article is a bit... shall we say, pointless? I'm pretty sure there's an underlying (profound) philosophical argument to be made... But it was unfortunately lost.

      • Methodological Naturalist

        Hello kuroisekai,

        There is a sneaky rhetorical device called "poisoning the well." Geena Safire exposed this earlier when she said:

        Actually, Darwin did not do this. Is the author unaware of this? No, wait, Verschuuren corrects himself in the very next sentence!

        That brings me to your closing comment. You state that you think there is an underlying (profound) philosophical argument to be made in this article. What I think you've done there is create a new fallacy that I'll call "sweetening the well."

        Why did you do that?

        • kuroisekai

          Like I said, I was lost. I did not mean to sweeten the well in any way. It just seems to me that there is an argument to be made from this article - something teleological. But I can't get my finger on what it is. That's what I meant.

    • "It is just erroneous when Christians refer back to Darwin as if his "On the Origin of Species" is equivalent to a biologist Bible, as if Darwin were some kind of Messiah that scientists worship, giving thanks for every word that emerged from his oh-so-wise mouth or pen as dogma that still guides and rules all our work at the lab bench."

      Is that a fair representation of what Gerard wrote, Geena? Did he say anything like that?

      • Geena Safire

        Hi Brandon, it's nice to see you back!

        Did he say anything like that?

        Yes, Brandon. That was the core of his entire article: Darwin had a blind spot about the brain, therefore neuroscience is wrong because we can't trust the brain without God.

        The second part of that hypothesis has been soundly trounced by others here, My point with my comment above is that even if the second part were true, it would not have any relationship to the first part; there is no connection between Darwin's anything and today's biology.

        Maybe my imagination isn't hitting on all cylinders today, but I can't imagine any valid reason why Verschuuren would evaluate Darwin's biology, much less Darwin's theology or philosophy as having anything to do with biology, evolutionary science, genetics or neuroscience today.

        One reason I could imagine is that he's using Darwin's journals is as a straw-man while he's really intending to criticize today's neuroscience by proxy. The other possibility I came up with is that perhaps Verschurren is actually under the misapprehension that Darwin's thoughts are relevant to today's biology and neuroscience.

        Neuroscience today is actually the underlying target of Verschuuren's article, but the neuron wasn't even discovered until about 40 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Does Verschuuren mention any contemporary neuroscientists or neuroscience theories or research? Or neurons? No. Just Darwin's ponderings about the human and ape minds while still in the stone age of neuroscience.

        Verschuuren: It is not my intention in this article to analyze Darwin’s shortcomings in either biology or theology, but I do think there is a strong flaw in his philosophy, which may have been the ultimate cause that steered him in the wrong direction in terms of both his biology and his theology.

        Who cares? How are Darwin's musings relevant at all, whether in the right or "wrong" direction, to today's biology or neuroscience?

        [Darwin] doesn’t seem to realize that when he discards theistic claims, he should also discard his own evolutionary claims, because he strongly believes that both are the mere product of natural selection.

        Who cares? How are Darwin's includings or discardings relevant to anything today? It's like looking at a 150 year old oak tree and saying we should be concerned about how sturdy it is because its source acorn may have been olive drab instead of bright green. The proper way to evaluate a 150 year old oak tree is to evaluate the oak tree, not the acorn.

        [A]s far as I know, Darwin never fully realized how serious this complication is.

        What does it matter what Darwin thought or didn't think about it? We cannot change Darwin's mind today.

        Why doesn't Verschuuren consider how concerned today's neuroscientists are about the seriousness of this complication?

        Perhaps because, to my knowledge, nobody in neuroscience today "realizes" its seriousness, nor even recognizes Verschuuren's idea as a complication.

  • Geena Safire

    If the human mind is the mere product of natural selection, we cannot trust any of the conclusions it draws.

    ORLY? R U Sirius? What a very strange idea.

    Natural selection is not 'mere' by any stretch of the imagination. It is a hugely powerful process, which works by operating on what is "true" about reproductive success in a given environment, regardless of the feelings or opinions of any individual animal that may prefer to reproduce or not to die. We can trust natural selection, because if it did not operate based on truth, we -- and life itself -- could not exist.

    Further, humans have brains and nervous systems that work (a) to receive signals from outside and inside of us, (b) to make correct interpretations of the data, (c) to adjust our homeostasis, (d) to prioritize responses (run from tiger before eating berries), and (e) to motivate us by interest, desire, reward, and punishment to act in ways that are beneficial for us and, (f) as social creatures, are beneficial to our attached others and our social group. Nervous systems have been doing this since our ancestors had about 1,000 total cells, except the social part for only about 350 million years.

    If our brains did not correctly interpret its input or did not correctly prioritize or motivate us, we would not have survived. (Pandas are an example of a species that has lost its motivation to reproduce.) We can trust our brains and their conclusions, based on results.

    Given human success at being able to live in all environments on earth and to make and use tools of amazing complexity, we can even more trust our brains.

    On what basis does the author make this claim?

    • hillclimber

      Geena, with respect, it doesn't seem that natural selection is so exacting in its discernment of truth. Large populations of humans whose brains support belief in theism have survived for a long time, and continue to survive. I don't know if the same can be said of large populations of humans whose brains support an atheistic worldview, but I would stipulate to that possibility. One of these worldviews does not correspond to reality, yet here we all are, surviving just fine.

      • David Nickol

        Geena, with respect, it doesn't seem that natural selection is so exacting in its discernment of truth.

        I am sure Geena will answer this better than I can, but let me give it a stab. I think the truth Geena is talking about is "practical truth." There is a relatively new book called Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World written by Leslie Valiant. I haven't read the book, but what I am guessing she means is that evolution doesn't necessarily go for "true" solutions to problems. It goes for practical solutions. One consequence optical illusions that we can't see differently even when we know they are illusions. For example, take a look at the gray square optical illusion. Check out the proof and the explanation given in links below the artwork.

        The second important point is that no known religion today developed along with human beings as they were evolving. It's generally agreed that humans were "anatomically modern" by about 50,000 years ago. There have been no significant evolutionary changes in the body and brain since then, but the world's oldest religion (Hinduism) is only a few thousand years old. What that means is that natural selection could not possibly have had time to select for any particular religious belief system, even if evolution could select for belief systems as specific as religion (which seems highly unlikely to me).

        It seems possible to me that the capacity to have a religious belief system might be adaptive, but it might be adaptive because the capacity might enable human beings to do other things than have religious beliefs. So the capacity for religious belief may be a product of evolution, but the content of any particular belief system today could not have been shaped by evolution.

        • Geena Safire

          This! Thanks, David. Not much to add but this bit on religion and human evolution.

          The following is from my comment to Joe Heschmeyer during our discussion about his article/debate piece on Why God is is the Ground of Objective Morality.

          Religion, is widely viewed, in the cognitive science of religion, as a spandrel, an evolutionary byproduct. But it may have "subsequently [been] co-opted for adaptive purposes."

          Some people mistakenly think that each result of evolutionary change is only a byproduct -- said as a kind of snide synonym for random chance, ignoring the driving force of adaptive selection. That is not the correct use of that word, however, in the context of evolutionary biology.

          A little background on evolutionary byproducts might be
          helpful to start. In evolutionary biology, a spandrel is a phenotypic characteristic (a gene expressed in a species) that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection.

          A spandrel might occur because a gene that was selected for lies very close to the spandrel gene on DNA and so the latter 'came along for the ride.' A spandrel might also occur because the expressed gene causes several effects*, not all of which are adaptively selected. That is, a gene might have one effect in brain cells and another effect in intestinal cells. The intestinal effect might be very positive while the brain effect might be modestly negative. There are some other ways a spandrel can occur.

          Another important aspect of a spandrel is that it may have originally been present as a byproduct but, later during evolution, that feature might gain a selective value. (This is one type of exaptive adaptation.)

          • hillclimber

            OK, I get the idea of spandrels, but in that case you are acknowledging that natural selection is no guarantee that we have been inclined toward truth.

          • hillclimber

            In case that wasn't clear: if capacity for religious belief may potentially be explained in terms of spandrels, it must also be the case that capacity for rational thought may be potentially explained in terms of spandrels. (I happen to doubt both of these scenarios, but my point here is that they are equally plausible.)

          • Geena Safire

            My sense is that rational thought is a naturally selected extension of ape brain development and not a spandrel. It is not like, at one evolutionary step, poof, humans had reason. It evolved as our brain capacity increased, especially our prefrontal cortex. Of course, there were many steps in that process and some of them may have started out as spandrels which then became useful, and so naturally selected for – exaptive adaptation.

          • hillclimber

            I share your "sense" that our capacity for rational thought developed that way. It is likewise my "sense" that the capacity for religious orientation developed in essentially the same way (though I suspect this development was less uniquely associated with growth in the prefontal cortex, since religious experience seems to engage so much more than just my cognitive faculties). In any case, let's acknowledge that these "senses" that you and I have are just intuitions. These "senses" may betray our personal biases, or they may represent a legitimate connection to the truth. I don't believe there are any data to suggest that spandrel theories are less plausible for the development of reason than they are for the development of religious sensibility.

          • hillclimber

            If I may double down on my previous comment: the survival advantage associated with theistic religious sensibility is perhaps even more obvious than the survival advantage conferred by our ability reason. The defining element of theistic religion is hope, or belief in "the promise". It is the same hope that says, even with complete lack of data, "maybe if I climb over that hill into the next valley, I will find some morsel of food or fuel." It is the same hope that says to an injured animal: "Yes, you are hemorrhaging from your torn limb, but still ... keep trying, keep drawing breath. You will get to a better place eventually." Natural selection proves (or perhaps "strongly suggests" rather than "proves", since spandrels are always possible) that these "fantasies", even when they contradict reason and empiricism, are the most fundamentally correct responses to reality.

          • Geena Safire

            If I understand you right, you are correct, hillclimber, if you are talking about some ultimate or greater Truth, but not about practical truth..

            We are inclined, at every point in evolution, to correctly interpret our environment and respond appropriately. As David said, this is a practical kind of truth – but it is relevant for most of our tasks even today. We are pattern-seeking creatures and creatures driven to understand meaning and significance of things in their environment. Our brains are very good at this task or we could not have survived.

            However, evolution is not goal-directed. But one could posit that "Truth" is a combination of pattern and meaning and significance, applying these skills perhaps more broadly or abstractly.

        • hillclimber

          Hi David,

          I agree with you 100% with regard to natural selection tending toward practical truth. I am a great lover of practical truth, and it has served me well in life. On the other hand, I am also plagued by questions and desires that relate to more fundamental truth, the type of truth that is usually discussed on these pages. I believe that I am also capable of accessing these more fundamental truths, even though I have relatively little reason to believe that natural selection would have equipped me with this capability. I suspect that you have a similar belief in this capacity, otherwise you would be spending your time on practical web-sites about home repair, finance, and cooking.

          I understand that most our evolution preceded the development of our religious sensibilities, but it could still be that we have evolved in a way that inclines us toward particular religions (apologies if I have misread the point that you are making there). In any event, as you say, the capacity for religious belief may confer a survival advantage. Whether that survival advantage derives directly from religious belief or indirectly from the sequelae of religious belief seems to me to be beside the point. In either case, if we appeal solely to the logic of "what survives is that which is inclined toward truth", it would follow that capacity for religious belief is a form of inclination toward truth.

  • Vasco Gama

    I think that the obsession from a variety of religious people against Darwin and Darwinism is clearly unjustified. Darwin proposed a mechanism to account for the dynamical changes of biology, and its basic concepts have been proven correct (even if there are problems and if there are questions unanswered). Besides everybody knows that science is extremely reductionist and can’t respond to our questions about value, meaning and purpose (and insisting on the same issue over and over again makes little sense, even if they pretend to cover the theological insights of Darwin).

    • kuroisekai

      Well, to be fair, I didn't sense any religious vitriol against Darwinism in this article. More like Darwin's flawed philosophy (correct me if I read the article wrongly).

      • Vasco Gama

        Is it Darwin's philosophy relevant, in the sense that he had any signifficant contribution to philosophy (or does Darwinism refer to philosophy at all)?

        • kuroisekai

          I think the article takes stabs at Darwin's philosophy not because it's relevant (my opinion is on the negative) but because Darwin's fans have used it to rile up against metaphysical thought. At least, that's the teleological end I can see from this article - and a stretch, I admit at that.

          • Vasco Gama

            I see your point. But I have to say that I admire Darwin's scientific proposals and consider them to be quite relevant to our understanding of the world we live in (and I see or no in little point in being overcritical and over demanding about Darwinism).

        • Doug Shaver

          When I was getting my philosophy degree, as best I recall, the only regular class where Darwin's name was even mentioned was a philosophy of religion class, when we discussed Plantinga's EEAN.

          I say "regular class," because I took an independent study course on logical positivism just before graduating. The logical positivists did use some ideas from evolution in their work, but they didn't treat it as philosophy. To them, it was just a scientific fact.

  • Geena Safire

    [Darwin] claimed that his biological theory explained not only biological phenomena, but also all other phenomena outside the biological realm—such as sociology, psychology, and even religion.

    Actually, Darwin did not do this. Is the author unaware of this? No, wait, Verschuuren corrects himself in the very next sentence!

    Darwin himself may not have explicitly done so, but his “disciple,” the philosopher Herbert Spencer, definitely did.

    If the sentence is factually false, which it is, the author should not have included it in the article. Its inclusion is deceptive. This is an egregious error for an author.

    Further, Darwin did not found a religion, so Spencer was not a "disciple." Darwin had some ideas. Spencer liked some of them and added some of his own ideas to his thinking and writing. That does not mean in any way that Darwin was responsible for Spencer's extensions.

    • Danny Getchell

      Indeed, if there is a more egregious example on this site of strawmannery than the author's almost-Darwin-on-a-stick, I've yet to see it.

  • kuroisekai

    "All “isms” tend to go overboard; they love to simplify the vast complexity of reality into a simple model; they replace reality with one of its specific maps."

    We're in trouble, then. Catholicism is an ism.

  • David Nickol

    The brain cannot study itself; we do need a mind to study the brain. So the mind must have another origin than the brain.

    I am at the very beginning of Steven Pinker's book How the Mind Works, and he says something that makes sense to me: The mind is not the brain; it is what the brain does.

    In a sense, there is no such thing as the mind or the brain, just as there is no such thing as the tree or the star. There are only minds, brains, trees, and stars. No tree or star will ever be fully understood, right down to the level of the matter and energy that make it up. But that does not mean we cannot know a great deal about stars or trees.

    I am not sure it makes sense to say the brain cannot study itself. It is not brains that study, but minds. It does seem to me quite true that an individual human being can never fully understand his or her own mind or brain, since every little bit of understanding gained alters the mind, and that alteration must then be understood, which in turn alters the mind more, and that alteration must be understood, and so on. It would be like an artist trying to draw a circle around everything he drew. The last circle he drew would be something he drew, and that would require another circle around it, which would require another circle around that. But of course it will never be the goal of science to fully understand one mind or one brain, nor will any individual scientist try to fully understand his or her own mind and brain.

    I may not be able to fully understand my own mind, or brain, but that does not mean I can't know anything about them. I can't write a full description of my life, since a complete autobiography would have to contain a complete account of me writing my own autobiography, and the more I wrote about writing my autobiography, the more I would have to write in my autobiography, and then I'd have to write about that. But that doesn't mean I can't write an autobiography. And of course most autobiographies don't contain any accounts of the the subject writing his or her autobiography. We wouldn't expect them to.

    • David Nickol

      Let me just add that in many respects, I don't even thing there is such a "thing" as "the mind" or even "the brain" or "the human body." Those are abstractions. You can't fully understand an abstraction. However, you can understand a tremendous amount, say, "the human body." We understand a great deal about hearts, eyes, ears, noses, blood, the liver, and so on. But we can never fully understand any one of those because they are abstractions, nor can we understand "the human body," because there is no such thing as the human body.

    • Geena Safire

      The brain cannot study itself; we do need a mind to study the brain. So the mind must have another origin than the brain.

      That's like claiming that because a surgeon cannot perform open-heart surgery on herself, that humans therefore cannot perform surgery. Baseless assertion. The brain is the only thing we have to study anything, including brains.

      Another good book on the 'mind is what the brain does' topic is a very recent one by Patricia Churchland, the pioneer of neurophilosophy, called 'Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain.'

      From the book description: "What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative—drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences—trailblazing neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life. Offering lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity, she reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions: What shapes our personalities? How do we account for near-death experiences? How do we make decisions? And why do we feel empathy for others? ... Accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of superstition. It allows us to take ourselves seriously as a product of evolved mechanisms, past experiences, and social influences. And it gives us hope that we can fix some grievous conditions, and when we cannot, we can at least understand them with compassion."

    • Catholicism seems to be grounded in Platonic ideas about reality. Recently watched the Yale intro to New Testament, which I highly recommend. It talks about how entrenched Platonism was in 1st century Greek culture. Really worth a watch. These ideas of mind and morality as real things really resonate in that world view, but it is all made up.

      • I think it's fair to say that Catholic metaphysics share common antecedents with Hellenistic philosophy, but to say that Catholicism is grounded in Platonic ideas about reality says too much, if I understand correctly what you mean. The Platonic theory of ideals isn't accepted as valid by Catholic philosophers any more than non-Catholic philosophers. Catholic metaphysics since Aquinas have been grounded in what's been called Modified Realism, which recognizes that there are universal concepts that are separate from things, but that faithfully represent the things in the sense that they become identifiable and intelligible. There's a good summary at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11090c.htm

        The concepts/things distinction is perhaps analogous to the mind/brain distinction, even though we experience our minds in an immediate way, where we experience things only through our senses. When I see a tree-shaped object, I don't proceed through series of conscious premises, experimental activities, and conscious deductions before I recognize a tree. I could deny that it was a tree until I had done all those things, and I could treat my wife, friends, lunch, and car keys with the same skepticism, but I would be a rather ridiculous person. Somehow, the reductionist philosophy of consciousness seems like the same kind of reasoning, but without owning the consequences: you adopt the view that the mind is only electrons and chemicals, but you keep on acting like a human person and insisting that everyone else do likewise. And I strongly support you in that regard, too!

        That is off the point, I think. Ultimately, we can trace conscious activity to physiological activity in the brain, but this does not compel us to be philosophical materialists. We can say we don't need a theory of spiritual realities to explain consciousness, in the way that we seem to need a theory of dark energy to explain certain cosmological observations. Perfectly true, in my view. But we need a theory of spiritual realities to explain ourselves.

        Peace

        • I was with you till your last sentence. "Explaining ourselves" is a pretty vast subject. What do you say needs explaining? What do you mean by spiritual realities, can we distinguish these from fictions and imaginations, and so on.

          • "Explaining ourselves" is where we depart from the rigorous language of science. So I might not be able to express this in rigorous, objective terms. But here goes. Working at the lab bench or the operating table engages certain functions of the brain that are good and necessary. Each person experiences these functions in pretty much the same way, and describes them in pretty much the same terms: first I did this, then this, and I learned this. Building trust with another, raising children, making a difficult choice in life, these engage other functions that different people both experience and describe in vastly different ways. Yet they are not merely fictions or purely subjective, if one means something pejorative (and one usually does). Preferring marinara to meat sauce is subjective and trivial. Preferring one spouse to another is subjective and important. Choosing to betray one's country or die a patriot is subjective and important. So the fact that a choice or experience or decision is subjective doesn't really tell us anything useful, unless we are trying to develop a scientific theory. And most of the time, most people, even scientists, aren't.

            To dismiss these matters is to do something inhuman; that's the word that keeps coming back to me. If we start to see ourselves as machines -- beautifully complex, mysterious machines, to be sure, but ultimately just machines -- then we lose, or at least begin to lose, something critically important, something that makes us human. Spiritual realities begin to become real when we take that one more step, beyond the objectively verifiable, and into the really mysterious reality of ourselves.

            I told you it would be messy! But real life is messy.

            Peace

          • Yes some choices are subjective some objective, some important, depending on context. No one is dismissing these as inhuman. I do not think we lose anything by describing ourselves as machines. You do, what is lost? When I ask you to describe spiritual realities you describe human realities.

            It seems to me that these spiritual realities are not verifiable or detectable in any way. The fact of a subjective preference for meat sauce is objectively verifiable. Are you just alluding to this kind of thing?

  • I do not see Darwin stating here that "If the human mind is the mere product of natural selection, we cannot trust any of the conclusions it draws.", nor do I see how this follows.

    The reason Darwin's theory has survived is that it is a model that explains the diversity of biological life. It has been confirmed thousands of times.

    It is not a theory trying to establish meta-physical anything and it is unfair to criticize it in this regard. He is right this theory that shows how heredity works and why some life forms look similar and others different, does not explain whether monism or dualism is correct and account for the reliability of reason.

  • The author's real criticism is not with Darwin's science but with his personal musings on meta-physics. He is alleging mind-brain dualism, which I reject.

    Mind and brain are two ways of conceiving of one physical thing: the brain. We can conceive of more than two: brain, mind, soul, id, ego, superego, intuitions, emotions, thoughts, tumours, cells, electrical activity and so on.

    I also see not connection to anything like a god in any of this.

  • Geena Safire

    In a comment at Verschuuren's previous SN article, "Morality is Not a Biological Issue," two months ago, I noted that the link in his bio to his web site was broken. The link is still broken.

  • Let me try to boil down the issue of natural selection and "trusting out conclusions" like this:

    Natural selection will (for example) reward the ability to look at an animal and determine whether it is predator or prey. And the ability to figure out how to turn predators into prey. And how to communicate that knowledge to our offspring. That opens the door to developing quite complex reasoning, validated continually by natural selection, and based on what we can actually observe.

    When it comes to "grand ideas," though, there's nothing in our experience that requires us to understand extreme concepts like eternity and infinity, things that we never directly observe, and never have to work into our survival strategies.

    And that's probably why we have so much trouble thinking about them coherently, why Darwin doubted our ability to draw grand conclusions about theism (the infinite and eternal), and why he did trust our ability to reason about things we can observe and measure.

    • hillclimber

      I basically agree with you Rob. If I may rephrase your conclusion, you are saying that there are certain fundamental questions that interest us that cannot be probed by reason alone. Is that a mischaracterization?

      • Not quite, hillclimber. I think we're too young a species to put limits on what can and cannot be probed by reason. I would say that natural selection has more directly selected an ability to reason on some topics more than on others. Or, to put it another way, our ability to reason on certain topics has be more validated by natural selection than our ability on other topics.

        • hillclimber

          I am on board with that Rob. Natural selection may indeed contribute to the winnowing away of certain world views. It would be fun to wager you on which ones those will be, but I guess neither of us will be around to collect on that one.

  • James Hartic

    I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can
    see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind,
    in the details.”
    Did Darwin ever become an atheist?

    I think his observations answer the question....at least as far as the Christian concept of god is concerned. All evidence on the surface, would point to him being an agnostic. Integrity should be something that would prevent believers from reading too much between the lines in the effort to promote a theistic, or Christian agenda.

  • Paul Boillot

    "I would say Darwin does make a great point here: If the human mind is the mere product of natural selection, we cannot trust any of the conclusions it draws."

    This is not a good point. This is a bad point. Why would being the product of natural selection mean we couldn't trust conclusions? That's a bald assertion. The author (and Darwin?) provides no logical thread to follow from that premise to that result. Why would one be obligated to doubt logic because one's neural hardware were designed by biological pressures and time? It's a very simple non-sequitur.

    Even if that WERE a logically valid argument, it would be meaningless.

    If being the product of natural selection results in untrustworthy logic, and if we are the product of natural selection, then we would never be able to know anything for sure, not even those two premises or the logical structure that allows them to lead us to a conclusion. We can go back to blissfully ignorant steak-eating in the matrix. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7BuQFUhsRM)

    If we discover through logic that we can't trust any of our thoughts or conclusions because of natural selection--then we can't trust the logic which got us to the notion that our conclusions are untrustworthy. It's a logical Catch 22.

  • Paul Boillot

    "all scientific theories only achieve local successes that cannot claim any universal validity"

    How on earth does Verschuuren arrive at this conclusion?

    " a projector must be “more” than the images it projects"

    This just doesn't make sense; a projector and the projected image are simply different things. Apples - organes. If you wanted to talk about the image being projected and the projected image in terms of information content, scaling problems, resolution etc...there's some interesting information theory things which might be said, but a projector is not more or less than the image it projects...it's a projector.

    In the end, the whole article is a case-study of poor reasoning through begging the question. The author wants to make the argument that Darwin had a logical flaw in his philosophy, and that from that 'blind spot' arose problems with 'his biology'. (I assume he means biological theories, and not physiological problems, like cancer)
    But Verschuuren's analysis of this 'flaw' extends only to a hand-waving attempt at an analogy with Xerox machines. There is no argument being made. It's pure a pure assertion: Natural selection can't cause minds because copiers and circularity.

    Why are copiers relevant? In what way is circularity a problem?

    In his conclusion he restates his premise:

    As a matter of fact, the theory of natural selection must assume the human mind, but it can neither create it nor explain it. The brain cannot study itself; we do need a mind to study the brain. So the mind must have another origin than the brain. I would even go further and claim that the mind must be something made in God’s image, a take-off of the Creator’s mind.

    But we've been given no reason to trust the author's conclusion/premise, as he hasn't seen fit to write out his argument for us.

    (We won't even mention the logical problems with the assertion that "the knowing subject must be “more” than the known object." When I was a believer, I knew God. Today, I know Jeopardy, and I know New York City and....)

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      "all scientific theories only achieve local successes that cannot claim any universal validity"

      Well, I wouldn't say that scientific theories are only local, but the principle that they don't have universal validity is generally the case within the philosophy of science. In fact, there's a ridiculously easy way to distinguish science from pseudoscience: Does it admit that there are cases where it could be wrong? If the study doesn't define the scope of the claim, and admit the possibility of error, then it's probably not actually science.

      • Paul Boillot

        I'm sorry, CB, but you're not really helping me understand the original claim.

        You would NOT say that scientific theories are only local...but you agree that they don't have universal validity. What middle ground are you finding between non-local and universal?

        Additionally, theories make testable predictions. Sometimes they make predictions beyond what is currently measurable.

        When/if those predictions become measurable, and the measurements disagree with the theory, the theory is modified.

        All theories are subject to future modification, that doesn't mean that they don't claim universal validity.

        Gravitation, for example, is theorized to be universal. If we ever discover problems with gravitation, or areas of the universe where gravity doesn't work, the theory will have to be modified, but that doesn't mean that the validity breaks down once we get beyond radio telescope range.

        Is it possible that the speed of light is different in different places? Is it possible that complexities of spacetime geometry could alter the velocity of propagation? I'm not an expert, but I believe so.

        But admitting that all theory is subject to revision and refinement doesn't mean that we don't expect the whole universe to yield the same results.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          "What middle ground are you finding between non-local and universal?"

          Generalizable across a class of observed phenomena. Generalizing beyond those observations must be labeled as speculative and theoretical, otherwise you're not really doing science. Applying that generalization outside of that class often leads to bad theory as well.

          This is different from, for example, geometry where if you can prove the properties of one case you can generalize to an infinite set of cases. Science can't do that, it can only say that the possibility of the generalization being wrong becomes smaller and smaller with more observed cases.

          • Paul Boillot

            "Generalizing beyond those observations must be labeled as speculative and theoretical, otherwise you're not really doing science"

            Did you just advance the argument that scientific theories must be theoretical?

            You accept the (provable?) universality of math, yet science and math are inextricably linked, you didn't address my questions about gravity or the speed of light, and now we're learning that for scientific theories not to be bad theory and for us to "do science" we have to make sure that our theories are properly theoretical.

            I'm sorry, but once again I'm going to have to admit that you're not clearing up the author's point at all.

  • Christian Stillings

    I agree with those who've said that this isn't a great piece of writing - Verschuuren contradicts himself, and it's generally sloppy to boot. The unreliability of thought-validity given metaphysical naturalism is a fascinating thesis, though, and I think others have argued it much better. May I solicit opinions on the following blog post?

    http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-single-best-argument-against.html

    Brandon: if you catch this, I think you should ask Joe to submit this as a Strange Notions main-page post - it's the best argument I've found for the rationality of theism, and it's easily the tightest comprehensive presentation I've read yet.

  • Gerard Verschuuren

    In my article I tried to signal the following philosophical paradox: Natural selection is the product of rationality—according to a hypothesis generated by Charles Darwin’s rationality—and at the same time, rationality is supposedly the product of natural selection. Put differently, if Darwin’s thoughts were the mere product of natural selection, so would be his science, and as a consequence, none of his thoughts—or ours, for that matter—could then be trusted.

    Some might strongly object to what I am stating here. They would argue the following: Natural selection favors those who make correct interpretations, so those who believe what is true have a better chance of surviving; if natural selection did not operate based on truth, we could not exist. Therefore, we can trust our beliefs, for they went through the rigorous test of natural selection.

    I do not think such objections are valid. First of all, natural selection does not operate on “truth” but on “reality,” on what the world is like. Truth, on the other hand, is a propositional concept—that is, we claim certain statements or propositions to be true or false. Truth claims are immaterial assessments and regard the immaterial world of facts, not the material world of things and events; facts are our interpretations of things and events. A fact is not an event but the description of an event, not a thought but the object of a thought, and not a statement but the content of a statement. Facts are supposed to be detached from time and space; they are true regardless of who you are and when and where you live; they appear to be objective, absolute, and universal—even though we may not know them yet.

    My second reason for thinking the above objections are not valid is the following. There is no evidence that truth claims—and all factual statements claim to be true—are determined by genes. I cannot see how Newton’s discovery of gravity, Mendel’s discovery of genes, and Darwin’s discovery of natural selection could have been catapulted by their genes, nor did the genes change of those who gradually accepted these discoveries. If the genes of people who accept certain truths are no different from those who do not accept them, then natural selection has nothing to select. So I must come to the conclusion that beliefs are not anchored in the genes—that’s why our beliefs can change.

    • Ben Posin

      Mr. Verschuuren:

      Thanks for taking part directly in the discussion. A few thoughts:

      There's no circularity problem (natural selection being both the product and result of rationality) because natural selection is not the product of rationality; Darwin's writings and beliefs and marshaling of evidence might well be called a product of rationality, but the phenomenon he's describing, the actual physical fact of evolution and natural selection, is not.

      I am a little thrown off by your description of human rationality as "the mere product of natural selection." (emphasis added). The word "mere" could be seen as an attempt to color your description of rationality or evolution without actually resorting to arguments or explanation as to why evolution is insufficient to explain the rationality we see in the real world. And you know that coherent counter arguments exist, because you proceed to state one yourself!

      I have to say I don't understand where you're going with your distinction between "reality" and "truth," though note that you do seem to accept that evolution might give us thinking mechanisms sufficient to understand "reality." To the extent that there is such a thing as "truth" distinct from "reality," you have not explained why those same mechanisms cannot be turned towards "truth" as well. Not that I buy into your truth v. reality distinction, as described by you.

      Your "second reason" (that there is no evidence that "truth claims [...] are determined by genes") is really just a matter of ignorance on your part concerning how people think evolution works. No one (accept for you, apparently) is claiming that if humanity's rational capabilities are a product of evolution, we should see changes in the gene pool immediately pior to or following a new scientific discovery. There is more than one comment in this thread addressing that point. It's taken me quite a while to even get a grip on your argument; the closest I can come to is that you might think some discoveries are so amazing that they can't be the product of the same rationality everyone else has, and so must have been God given? That if they were a product of the potential in our gene pool, they must be the result of some noticeable and meaningful mutation, which we would then see passed on? Though you seem to go a bit further, and suggest that not just the discoverers have different genes, but anyone who accepts their ideas must have them too.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      That's expanding Natural Selection in directions where it weakly applies. Natural Selection explains changes in gene frequencies over the span of multiple generations. It does not fully explain phenomena that are not strictly the function of gene frequencies (which you note truth and falsehood are not). In short, it's no more a general theory of epistemology than heliocentrism.

      Of course, biologists do not say that we should trust the theory of evolution on the phenomena of gene frequencies on the basis individual human reason alone. Neither should you trust heliocentrism on individual human reason alone. Instead, you should trust the consistency of a generalization tested over a hundred years by thousands of people over many more individual observations. And even then, cultural bias should leave at least a little room for skepticism.

    • Geena Safire

      Thank you for participating in the discussion regarding your article.

      Natural selection is the product of rationality—according to a hypothesis generated by Charles Darwin’s rationality

      As I have noted in other comments to this article, it doesn't make any difference, today, what Darwin's ideas about natural selection were. The idea of natural or adaptive selection have, may I say, evolved over the last 150 years in biology.

      Unless you are merely interested in history -- and I don't think you are -- then, if I may be honest, it seems either silly or disingenuous for you to argue today with ideas that are 150 years old, especially about our brains, since that was 40 years before neurons were discovered.. I respectfully suggest that you argue about natural selection and evolution today with today's theory of evolution by adaptive selection and with the evolutionary biologists of today. Argue about brains today with the neuroscience and neuroscientists of today. Argue about brains and philosophy with the neurophilosophy of today and today's neurophilosophers.

      Darwin was wicked smart, but his acorn of natural selection is today a mighty oak. Why are you standing in front of the oak but still arguing with the long-gone acorn?

      [N]atural selection does not operate on “truth” but on
      “reality,” on what the world is like. Truth, on the other hand, is a
      propositional concept.

      For philosophers, these concepts seem so very different -- especially for those philosophers who are quite fond of the ancient Greeks (especially the dualists like Plato) and the Christian ancient fathers and Aquinas.

      But, for our brains, they are not different. There are many things in the physical world for which the brain has propositional views, as well as abstract ideas. The brain is mainly concerned with being right -- making correct assessments and responding correctly, and making corrections if wrong. The concept of 'truth' is just another object to evaluate and categorize, like 'kittens.' They are, of course, in different categories, but they are equally in categories.

      The folk philosophy that has posited how our brain 'must' operate has little to do with how neuroscience is telling us our brains actually operate.

      beliefs are not anchored in the genes

      The way to make a brain is anchored in the genes, as are many instinctual responses. (For example, monkeys and humans are instinctually fearful of snake-shaped objects, the fusiform gyrus of infants is instinctually attracted to faces from birth, and a few smells instinctually trigger disgust but all other disgust reactions to scents are learned.)

      The brain that our genes build is a learning machine, an input-evaluation machine, a memory-building and -access machine, and a response-driving machine. It has developed to reward learning and motivate learning, since learning leads to success.

      Specific 'beliefs' or propositional attitudes are developed over time, but the ability to believe, to disbelieve, to not-have-a-position, and to change beliefs are functions of the brain.

      I cannot see how Newton’s discovery of gravity, Mendel’s discovery of genes, and Darwin’s discovery of natural selection could have been catapulted by their genes.

      That's because it wasn't catapulted by their genes (except to the extent that IQ is somewhat hereditary). It was catapulted by their society, culture, education, and knowledge base. Wallace discovered natural selection only shortly after Darwin did, and several others' thoughts were headed in that direction. The knowledge base and the culture were ripe for that discovery.

      If the genes of people who accept certain truths are no different from those who do not accept them, then natural selection has nothing to select.

      That statement is correct, but not in the way you think. The genes don't care about what is abstractly true. They care about what is successful; that is, with respect to nervous systems/brains, correct detection, correct interpretation, correct response -- with 'correct' meaning that which contributes to survival and reproductive success.

      beliefs are not anchored in the genes—that’s why our beliefs can change.

      Our genes build our brains. Human brains, like those of all mammals, include a large learning component. Part of this learning component is to learn new things, and part of it is to discard incorrect things or replace them with more correct things. Our learning ability wouldn't be a very useful skill if it was unable to purge unsuccessful ideas. That's why our beliefs can change.

    • Paul Boillot

      If you're going to participate in the debate your work has caused, it might be helpful to engage with the objections other people have made rather than the objections you conjure up for yourself to knock down again in a reply which just restates your original premise.

  • Verschuuren's article reminds me a lot of Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN), which is a more concise and direct statement of the problem.

    Plantinga writes that given N (naturalism, or the belief in a purely materialistic evolutionary process) and E (the belief that human beings have evolved in conformity with current evolutionary theory), the conditional probability of R (the proposition that our faculties are reliable), or P(R|N&E), is extremely low.

    Lest we think that only Christians find this line of thinking seductive, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees with the EAAN in his book "Mind & Cosmos":

    I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them. 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...the evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position.

    • David Nickol

      . . . . the evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position.

      Well, this is not a surprising conclusion, is it? If a Creator created the universe and in it created conscious, intelligent creatures in his own "image and likeness," then those creatures would certainly—if it was the will of the Creator—have a much higher probability of comprehending the rest of creation than beings who evolved by natural selection working on random mutations. Of course, if this Creator so chose, he could also have "darkened the intellect" of such creatures so that it was difficult or impossible for them to gain significant insight into the workings of the universe. But sure, if there is a Creator who created human beings with the capacity to understand the rest of creation, then human beings are presumably in the best possible position to understand the rest of the universe and even themselves. If the Creator had so chosen, human beings could have been created with a built-in understanding of the universe that would have made science and any other pursuits of knowledge completely unnecessary.

      It seems to me that the "authority of reason" in one isolated individual is extremely weak. That is why it took anatomically modern humans 50,000 years to arrive at where we are today. It took something like the scientific method to enable human beings collectively to begin understanding the universe.

      • David Nickol

        Another thought. Exactly how do human beings measure themselves and conclude that they are "too good" to have evolved and must have been created? If there is no Creator, and human beings just evolved in the way that materialists believe, then there are no created intelligent beings to compare evolved human beings to. There is nothing to look at and say, "Those created beings are so superior to evolved beings that we must be created beings." If there are only evolved human beings, then created intelligent beings are inventions of our imaginations. I have read only a bit of Nagel and nothing of Plantinga , but aren't they doing with the mind what "creation scientists" do with the body? Aren't they in effect saying that there is some characteristic of the mind that is "irreducibly complex" and that can't be accounted for by evolution? It seems to me the study of the brain, the mind, and consciousness is in its infancy and that it is far too soon to conclude that there is something about consciousness and the mind that cannot be explained without resorting to some new principle of nature (Nagel) or God.

        • Christian Stillings

          Epistemologically, I don't think there's any way for an individual to verify the validity of its conscious experience - what evidence could be mustered? The point (which is well-illustrated in the link I posted in my own comment on this post) is that if one's thoughts are valid, one can't reasonably accept naturalism as an explanation. If that's in principle so - and I don't think the argument has any holes - then we must accept that the faculty of Reason isn't a part of nature. This is logically necessary and true regardless of what scientists may find. The cry that any proposal of supernatural action in the world constitutes "creation science" - you haven't done so here, but some do so instinctively - is silly and has no place in serious conversation.

          • David Nickol

            Epistemologically, I don't think there's any way for an individual to verify the validity of its conscious experience - what evidence could be mustered?

            What evidence can be mustered that logical reasoning yields true results? None, it seems to me. So even if it were somehow possible to apply logic and reason to test the validity of one's conscious experience, there would be no guarantee that logic and reason would yield true results.

            The point (which is well-illustrated in the link I posted in my own comment on this post) is that if one's thoughts are valid, one can't reasonably accept naturalism as an explanation.

            I have read the article you linked to, and it would be a major undertaking to do a detailed critique of it. (Plus, I would by far not be the best equipped person to do it.) But it seems to me an unwarranted assumption that the "physical state of desiring and apple" and the "mental state of desiring an apple" are two different and unconnected things. (I am a little distressed and hope that Chalmers does not believe physical states of the brain cannot be the cause of—or even identical to—mental states, because I both his big books on consciousness and was planning on reading them!) That would seem to commit Chalmers to a belief that mental states cannot arise from physical states in the brain, and that mental states of the brain cannot be processed by the brain as "data." I do not see in principle why this should be the case. It seems to be based on an assumption that the mind must not be the product of the brain. The fact that we don't (fully) know how the brain produces the mind is not evidence, in my opinion, that it doesn't. As someone who has experienced general anesthesia, I would have to ask how a chemical could completely shut down my mind if my mind is not dependent on the physical. How is it that drugs that work on the body also work on the mind if the body and the mind are two different "substances"?

      • Hey David - I don't think I disagree with any of that, but you've raised a separate question (and a lot of "ifs") that doesn't really speak to the EAAN directly.

        • Susan

          I don't think I disagree with any of that, but you've raised a separate question (and a lot of "ifs") that doesn't really speak to the EAAN directly.

          David's comment directly addresses the suggestion in the article that mind is more than what the brain does.

          Every point he's raised is important and deserves a response. Each is absolutely relevant to the subject.

          It is not a separate question at all.

          • MichaelNewsham

            Yes.I don't see what the difference between "the physical state of desiring an apple" and the " mental state of desiring an apple" could be. Surely the physical state of desiring is a mental state, in that only in the brain does this exist, though triggered by the sensations of hunger from the stomach.

            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

            Right. That's why we constantly have to check them against reality, using ever stronger tools of science and mathematics which themselves have been checked i.e. sending a probe to the moon using Newtonian physics and heliocentric astronomy rather than Aristotlean physics and Ptolemaian astronomy,or the even more ancient, more commonsense idea that the world is flat and the moon rises up on one side and goes down on the other.

            The mechanisms of belief formation that we evolved in the everyday struggle for survival include the idea that events such as diseases or disasters are caused by purposeful agencies who must be propitiated,as we do members of our group; it has been a long, hard,and still ongoing struggle to show this is incorrect regarding the nonhuman world.

    • Geena Safire

      The EAAN is just silly. Nervous systems, even ones in nematodes (ringworms), protect the animal by receiving input from inside and outside the organism, coordinating and evaluating the input, and triggering the appropriate response -- using hormones or neurotransmitters. The complete, entire, and sole purpose of the nervous system is to correctly interpret and respond to the environment. Species with a nervous system that is not good at this will not survive.

      I agree with Plantinga -- and most neuroscientists -- that our brain did not evolve to understand quantum mechanics or multiple dimensions. But they did evolve to develop appropriate, successful beliefs.

      However, the main story with mammals was that, because the mother's brain had been changed to include care for offspring as for self, the young could be born with a less developed body and brain that could learn and adapt to the environment instead of being born with all knowledge/instinct built in but with less ability to learn and adapt. These brains had to include memory and the ability (and desire) to figure things out and relate them to other knowledge -- e.g., this berry is in the category of 'good things to eat' but only when it is red. If these brains could not develop reliable patterns or did not have sufficiently reliable memory or make appropriate, fast determinations about the salience of items in one's environment, that species would not survive.

      Social animals, in particular, had to develop additional ways of thinking -- or perhaps extensions of existing ways -- including 'theory of mind.' 'Theory of mind' is the ability to 'read' another group member and correctly interpret what that one is likely thinking or feeling (and the desire to figure this out). Without this ability, reliable and successful, social groups could not exist.

      Also, certain sets of feelings were necessary: feeling emotionally bad for breaking the social rules and feeling good about being with attached others (as just two examples of many), which were extensions of the brain's punishment (feeling bad) for making mistakes when alone and the brain's reward (feeling good) for being in a safe place or being well fed. If these brain did not reliably generate the appropriate motivation, reward, or punishment for the circumstances, that species would not survive.

      Social environments are the most complex and difficult challenges a social animal faces. Compared with that, hunting and doing calculus are easy.

      The whole purpose for primitive nervous systems of 300 neurons and complex brains of 85,000,000,000 neurons is to make correct interpretations of the environment and generate correct (successful) behavior.

      For social mammals, the 'environment' includes every place the individual travels and every type of condition and every water source and every kind of food or prey animal and every enemy and dangerous situation and every member of one's group and their personality. Humans have the greatest amount of available memory, the greatest ability and drive to learn, and the best pattern-detection and salience-detection abilities, plus error detection and correction.

      All of these include the ability and the motivation to evaluate the correctness or wrongness of each perception and decision for each circumstance, even when very complex.

      The individuals with the best brains for making correct evaluations and responses, and for correcting erroneous evaluations or responses, are the most likely to be successful.

      Brains are all about being right, and about correcting when wrong, to the best of each species' ability, in every circumstance.

      Why would anybody think that we can't trust our brains because they evolved?

  • Letem Dangle

    Good read