Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part VII of VIII)

23 Mar

7) The very act of constructing a theory to explain man’s existence belies an inherent theism within man which evolution is hard-pressed to justify.

I will use famous atheist Richard Dawkin’s words against him: he calls people who are concerned to say that evolution is true “pedants” – a pedant is someone who is overly concerned with formalism and precision….  Evidently, he has a different idea of the value of truth – and speaking truth – than I do (see the whole interesting piece here).  I think seeking the truth is very important.  But perhaps Dawkin’s comments should not be surprising, since the only “purpose” or “function” of evolution (it can’t really be said to have these things, being impersonal and purposeless and unguided as it is) in his view is for us to be able to survive and pass on our genetic material (he says this is why we are here today).  In other words, to be or not to be: will our genes be selected by the mindless natural process of evolution?  That is the question.  What we ultimately need, evidently – what ultimately drives us (whether unconsciously or consciously) – is not really related to knowing any deeper truth about reality at all (“Truth”), but rather effective know-how and strategies (as we deal practically with tools and socially and politically with people) for gene-propagating machines.  In short, pure pragmatism (we do what works).  In other words, given the ultimately unguided and purposeless essence of the natural processes, this would seem to mean that there is nothing intrinsic about things like beauty, justice, love and meaning – but rather that these things are largely decided upon by us with those whom we choose to associate and align ourselves with.  There would be no truth greater than this.  I suppose we would would call this “Truth”

But of course, this also means that our sensory and rational powers must be explained as being “creations” of a mindless, purposeless, and unguided process. According to modern evolutionary theory, living beings are “selected” if they survive to pass on their genes (with some luck – not all the “strong” survive their circumstances in this harsh world), not their ability to know the Truth which will set them free!  In this framework, why should we assume that any living being should be capable of producing complicated theories and models that are accurate representations of reality that have no obvious immediate survival value?  We weren’t intentionally designed to do this by Anybody, after all – Dawkins tells us that we must see apparent design in the biological things around us for what it really is – an illusion – at least insofar as using the world “design” implies an actual mind, or intelligence in the process (analogizing the “design” of biological entities to things like Mt. Rushmore or an arrowhead, or appealing to the assumptions of NASA’s SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] program is only a rhetorical trick of creationists).

Here’s a thought experiment to flesh this out a bit: If we were produced because of the survival of our genes and exist for the survival of our genes, why should we expect our powers of sense and reason to be useful when it comes to anything higher than this – like beginning to understand what the real truth about reality is (“Truth”), for instance?  Giving the nod to “common sense realism” we might still be able to agree with most any other human being that knowing some basic facts or “truths” (little t) on the ground might have some obvious, immediate survival value, for instance, when we both immediately respond to the sight of the hungry tiger and run away.  But why would our evolved (and evolving) reason and sense “equipment” be useful for anything more complicated and abstract than this – and if it seems to be, why should we trust it? Why, for instance, would paleontologists who postulate that a bone with fresh dino blood and vessels is 65 million years old based on their understanding of radiometric dating methods, the geological column, taxonomy, and sequences of “index” fossils be more readily favored and selected by the evolutionary process over the practical geologists who learn to efficiently mine and refine iron, making weapons of war? (let’s assume these geologists aren’t barbarians and also have great social skills, which no doubt, are as valuable if not more valuable than tool making).  Is there any way to definitively prove that we, in our scientific explanations, are capable of producing complicated theories and models that even begin to be accurate representations of reality – precisely since many of these explanations do not have any obvious, immediate survival value?  It is not clear to me that it would be possible to prove this.  Perhaps the following is an answer?: Evolution “knew we were coming”, and blessed us with these powers of discernment that would seem to go beyond its humble “purposes” of (strivings for) mere survival – and on top of this, even predestined some lucky ones (perhaps some like Stephen Hawking) with the potential powers of mind to really uncover the truth about reality? (which could have *some* survival value, right?)  But now, given the supposedly humble premises of the evolutionary explanation, are we are not only getting into wishful thinking but also attributing the qualities of Mind to this process, and so it would seem, getting Personal!?

In this case then, taken to its logical conclusion from its premises, evolution does not seem to be so incompatible with religion after all.

Taking things further: at the very least, the immediate survival value of these things (i.e. the theories and models and/or the ability to make them) is not obvious to many of us, much less so to a mindless and impersonal process like evolution.  But here is another explanation: it is, in a sense, obvious in a counter-intuitive way.  For example, perhaps one may argue that it is obvious that persons who come up with complicated and abstract scientific explanations with no obvious, immediate survival value have begin to be selected by the evolutionary process – because it is clear to at least some human beings that these explanations may often have potential usefulness (as intelligent humans have begin to be able to control their own evolution, and have begin to have a hand in the selection process) and hence these persons are selected by other intelligent human beings (who have not only good basic survival skills, but are entrepreneurs when it comes to finding new ones)!  But then we are left with this: we are not necessarily talking about the truth about reality (“Truth”), or even about the probability of this or that scientific explanation being an accurate representation of some aspect of reality or reality as a whole, but rather the idea that certain combinations of our genes and social realities (including individual efforts) help us learn to create not only simple tools that work with simple facts that can clearly help us survive (because they are readily understood and people can readily have confidence in them, and hence desire them) but also complicated theories and models (or “mental maps”) that work to explain networks of facts that *may*, in some way, help us survive.  In other words, everything is about effective know-how and strategies for survival, not knowing the truth about reality.  Although our complicated and abstract scientific explanations might seem to have something to do with the truth about reality, there is no plausible or compelling reason that they, ultimately, need to have anything to do with getting closer to the Truth “out there”.  In this case, given that we have evolved to survive and pass on our genes, we are left with the interesting point that the importance of the reality within us – our internal powers that navigate us in the world – seems to trump the reality outside of us (the “Truth”).  Whatever gets the job done is the key.  Hence, as Dawkins says, only pedants are concerned with “the truth of evolution”.

In this case then, taken to its logical conclusion from its premises, evolution does not seem to be so incompatible with that most ancient form of pragmatism: magic.

In sum:  Why should it matter whether our reason and senses can accurately map reality or not?  What is ultimately important is that they exist to help us survive – and if this means they will “deceive” “us” (what are “we” anyway?) from time to time, perhaps that is for the best.  And in the end, if it is true that we exist to pass on our genes, I wonder what would really be so objectionable about those who succeed in this game calling themselves “gods”… gods who will eat, drink, and be merry until they die (until that can be conquered!).  Just like some of the gods of the ancient world emerged from the eternal elements of the water and earth, so to, may we… Evolutionary thinking undercuts the value of the powerful concept of truth.  Ironically, it would seem to only be a theistic view of the creation (which includes God’s endowing us with reliable powers of sense and reason, or our “epistemic equipment”) that would give us reason for having confidence in our theories or models as “maps” that help us get closer to the Truth “out there”.

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology), part II, part III, part IV, part V, and part VI.

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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized


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