Evolution, Mind, and Truth

The common fad among philosophers nowadays is to apply evolutionary science to things to which it does not apply.  Sure, evolution may give a useful description of the world, but it cannot explain everything about man’s his nature and behaviors.  Many might find this offensive, just like many scientists probably found the denial of Laplace’s Demon to be offensive at the turn of the 20th century.  But as we later found out, even Newtonian physics has its limits.

I will here argue that evolutionary science cannot account for at least one fact about man:  man’s search for truth.  To see why, let us briefly examine what evolutionary theory states.

Evolutionary theory states that the species that are able to adapt to threats survive.  Through genetic mutations of some sort, certain species are better able to pass on their seed.  As far as science is concerned, evolution is a blind process:  there is no Big Hand acting as a primary cause upon things guided certain species to survive.   Certain traits are passed on only insofar as they give a species a means of surviving. 

Hence, everything we see in nature is “directed” towards survival, no matter how much it may not seem so at first.  It is not as if creatures actively acknowledge that every feature about them is merely for survival purposes, but that they survived due to those traits.  For example, if sex were not pleasurable, animals would engage in it less.  Those which do not find sex pleasurable will not pass on their genes, and so their genes will exit the gene pool while those who enjoy sex will continue to pass on their genes.  Hence, all design, all purposes, and all activities that seem like they defy explanation are really complex ways of passing on DNA that developed over billions of years. 

Take an example.  Let’s say a mouse is being stalked by a cat.  Common sense says that the mouse escapes the cat if he is able to sense him coming.  When he senses the cat, he realizes that he is in danger, and he runs away.  The Darwinist, on the other hand, says that we shouldn’t ask why the mouse runs from his enemy, but only that he actually does run from his enemy.  

But here’s the catch:  if every trait that we have is only apparently for a reason other than survival (with survival being the real reason for all of our activities), then the scientific enterprise is a farce.  It is one thing to say that the pursuit of truth just so happens to have survival value, and so when we pursue the truth as a goal we also survive.  But this is not an account that can be derived from evolutionary theory.  Our science and pursuit of truth must be treated in a parallel way to the mouse to maintain intellectual consistency:  it does not matter why we *think* we are doing science.  What doing science *really* is is a means for survival.  Thus, when we propose our latest, niftiest theories, what other reason can we give for proposing the theory other than that it will help us pass on our DNA?

But why should we give our apparent pursuits of truth the benefit of the doubt?  Why don’t we just acknowledge like all other things that it is fundamentally (and not secondarily) a means of survival?  In reality, we are only apparently seeking the truth (but actually seeking to pass on our DNA).  Everything about the pursuit of knowledge is suspect:  our desire to seek truth is merely helpful towards survival, our engaging in searching for truth is a means for survival, our arguing is merely a means of survival.  And when we reject a theory, we do it because we were “programmed” to do so in order to survive.  Our dispositions to find certain things about the world self-evident?  A product of evolution.  We have to be able to believe that evolution is consistent with the fact that we follow logical rules and procedures not merely because we were programmed to do so.  Anything less makes it unreasonable to follow our rational capacities.

“But this is absurd” some may say, “you can’t tell me that I am not actually pursuing truth.  I know exactly what I am doing!”  I know you do.  But that’s the point:  if the only genes that are passed on are those which allow the animal to pass on his genes, then the “science” gene was passed on because of its survival value.  But how, then, did this added feature of pursuing truth “for its own sake” come in?  Since science is a mere biological phenomenon of an organism facilitating interaction with its environment, then, just like every other biological phenomenon, it must be just another effective method of survival.  The consistent thing for the Darwinist to say is that our pursuit of science is no exception to the general rule.

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7 Comments on “Evolution, Mind, and Truth”


  1. Paul:

    Your last paragraph cuts off prematurely. Please fix that.

    Though I’m sympathetic to what you’re trying to do, I don’t believe it quite goes through. A dogmatically materialist evolutionist could just as well say that the pursuit of truth for its own sake can become maladaptive precisely when one assumes we have access to truth beyond what is necessary for evolutionary success. Thus, a thirst for truth that is quite adaptive within a limited sphere becomes maladaptive when taken beyond that sphere.

    Best,
    Mike


  2. hmm…I wonder what happened to the end of that paragraph?

    As I was writing my argument I thought I saw problems with it in another place, but first things first: I’m not quite sure what your objection is meant to undermine. Could you flesh out the argument a bit?

    My objection is this: my argument makes the same mistake some ethical egoists make when they argue that all humans act only out of self love. For instance, Mother Theresa supposedly doesn’t help people for altruistic reasons, but because she derives pleasure from a job well done. However, the egoist’s mistake is confusing the object of desire with the pleasure gained from obtaining the object of desire. Helping others only because it makes you feel good is different from feeling good because you help others. In one, pleasure is the object of desire; in the other, it is not.

    The same problem seems to exist in my argument. Nature doesn’t produce creatures with the goal in mind that the ones best fitted to the environment survive: rather, animals survive because they are well adapted. It seems possible that nature could randomly generate creatures that love truth, but because those who love truth can produce nifty techology derived from their knowledge they happen to survive. The love of truth is not merely a tool for survival (and hence loving truth is subordinated to survival in some way), but rather survival is a biproduct of the love of truth. Therefore, the materialist still has an escape route.

  3. StMichael Says:

    I wonder if this can be tied into CS Lewis’ argument against naturalism, which Plantinga goes quite a bit further with. This discussion is directly about accounting for a search for truth, but I think one could make a case that “truth” as such seems impossible within an purely evolutionary framework. Contemporary theories of “memes” seem to me to be the logical consequences of this – and they throw any sort of knowledge of “truth” through a hoop.


  4. StMichael,

    I actually didn’t know about Plantinga’s argument until a day or two after I wrote this post. His extended argument is not posted online, but only summaries of it. His seems to be an epistemological argument, saying that naturalists have no reason to trust their reasoning faculties. Or so I gather from what I’ve read.

    I didn’t know CS Lewis had an argument against naturalism. In which book did he make this argument?

  5. Robert Says:

    Hi Paul,

    I haven’t been reading for a while– it’s good to see that you’ve had time for posting.

    C.S. Lewis makes arguments against naturalism in “Miracles.” I’m not sure if this is the argument Plantinga is drawing from– having not read Plantinga– but he certainly offers arguments against naturalism. His chief reason is that reason itself would be undercut if naturalism were true. He makes some points about how inferences are valid because of the relation of ideas, one to the other, what he calls ground and consequent.

    An excerpt:

    “We can say, ‘Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday.’ We can also say, ‘Grandfather must be ill today because he hasn’t got up yet (and we know he is an invariably early riser when he is well).’ In the first sentence because indicates the relation of Cause and Effect: The eating made him ill. In the second, it indicates the relation of what logicians call Ground and Consequent. The old man’s late rising is not [23] the cause of his disorder but the reason why we believe him to be disordered. There is a similar difference between ‘He cried out because it hurt him’ (Cause and Effect) and ‘It must have hurt him because he cried out’ (Ground and Consequent). We are especially familiar with the Ground and Consequent because in mathematical reasoning: ‘A = C because, as we have already proved, they are both equal to B.'”

    He notes that if naturalism is true then inferences are the results of cause and effect, and not what he calls ground and consequent.

    He concludes:

    “On the other hand, every event in Nature must be connected with previous events in the Cause and Effect relation. But our acts of thinking are events. Therefore the true answer to ‘Why do you think this?’ must begin with the Cause-Effect because.

    Unless our conclusion is the logical consequent from a ground it will be worthless and could be true only by a fluke. [24] Unless it is the effect of a cause, it cannot occur at all. It looks therefore, as if, in order for a train of thought to have any value, these two systems of connection must apply simultaneously to the same series of mental acts.”

    I found this chapter posted online here:

    http://www.philosophy.uncc.edu/mleldrid/Intro/csl3.html

  6. phamilton Says:

    Robert, thanks for the link. I like the way the author starts out his argument. He mentions at the beginning of the article that naturalism is committed to the idea that all of nature is explicable in principle. By reminding them of their commitment early, they can’t back out later. It’s something for me to remember in future engagements.

    I only skimmed through the article, so I’ll have to go back and give it a better reading after the festivities of Holy Week and the tyranny of comprehensive exams are behind me.

  7. Mike L Says:

    Paul:

    Elizabeth Anscombe didn’t think Lewis’ argument a very good one. As Bertrand Russell observed: “Some of us are determined to be right; others are determined to be wrong.”

    Lewis was impressed enough to revise Miracles accordingly, but I think the same sort of objection holds.

    Best,
    Mike


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