Mitch Stokes on The Unreliability of Evolutionary Cognitive Faculties

Evolution doesn’t necessarily sift for cognitive mechanisms that produce true beliefs. At least not directly. The philosopher of science Ronald Giere puts it this way: For early humans . . . [their] problems were the very specific ones of doing the right things enough of the time. Thus, human physical and cognitive abilities evolved together to promote appropriate actions, not to promote the discovery of anything like general truths about the world. In fact, these two goals are often in conflict. For example, given that one has to act quickly and thus on the basis of only partial information, it is usually better for long-run survival to overestimate the presence of predators and take evasive action even when it is not really necessary. 11 We’re of course familiar with this sort of neurotic behavior in animals. (It’s why we never get a chance to pet wild bunnies.) But Giere goes on to the real question: “How did creatures with the evolved physical and cognitive capabilities of contemporary humans come to create the vast body of scientific knowledge that now exists, including evolutionary theory itself?”

All evolution cares about is survival, getting the organism in the right places at the right times so that it can reproduce. And of course, organisms don’t need beliefs to do that. Viruses and antibodies war with one another without so much as second (or first) thought. And each has its share of victories; each is remarkably successful at identifying threats, locating sources of fuel, and otherwise navigating through a world bent on killing them. They perform fantastic feats of staying alive without any beliefs at all, much less true ones. And this is probably so for even more complex organisms. In fact, it isn’t clear at what point organisms begin having beliefs. Do dogs? Maybe. Cats? Surely not. Cockroaches? Unlikely. Yet all have a talent for survival. Even Darwin had some misgivings about the reliability of human beliefs. He wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Given unguided evolution, “Darwin’s Doubt” is a reasonable one. Even given unguided or blind evolution, it’s difficult to say how probable it is that creatures—even creatures like us—would ever develop true beliefs. In other words, given the blindness of evolution, and that its ultimate “goal” is merely the survival of the organism (or simply the propagation of its genetic code), a good case can be made that atheists find themselves in a situation very similar to Hume’s. The Nobel Laureate and physicist Eugene Wigner echoed this sentiment: “Certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.” That is, atheists have a reason to doubt whether evolution would result in cognitive faculties that produce mostly true beliefs. And if so, then they have reason to withhold judgment on the reliability of their cognitive faculties. Like before, as in the case of Humean agnostics, this ignorance would, if atheists are consistent, spread to all of their other beliefs, including atheism and evolution.

That is, because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it. This will be an unwelcome surprise for atheists. To make things worse, this news comes after the heady intellectual satisfaction that Dawkins claims evolution provided for thoughtful unbelievers. The very story that promised to save atheists from Hume’s agnostic predicament has the same depressing ending.” — Mitch Stokes, A Shot of Faith (To The Head): Be A Confident Believer In An Age of Cranky Atheists, 43-45