Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Argument from the Reliability of our Rational Faculties, or Should We Attack Water Balloons? (With a postscript from a commentator)

This is a redated post. 

IV. Argument from the Reliability of our Rational Faculties
If naturalism is true, it is often argued that natural selection would support the emergence of rational as opposed to irrational belief-forming mechanisms. But it is not at all clear to me that the most reliable belief-forming mechanisms are the most advantageous from an evolutionary point of view.
First of all I argued that simpler procedures often have more selective advantage over more complex cognitive ones. Carrier ridicules the example that I use, which is

If the chief enemy of a creature is a foot-long snake, perhaps some inner programming to attack everything a foot long would be more effective than the more complicated ability to distinguish mammals from amphibians.

Carrier thinks that this commits me to the idea that this creature will attack everything a foot long, including rocks, which is clearly not what I meant. Most universal statements presuppose a universe of discourse; thus if you were to go into a store having a clearance sale in which I find a sign that says “Clearance Sale: Everything Must Be Sold” and proceed to ask the price of the salesgirl, you would get slapped upside the head and rightly so.

But of course very often nature uses short-cut mechanisms to provide for the survival of creatures. In my home state of Arizona we have lots of rattlesnakes, and they are designed in such a way as to track warmth. Very often a warm object will be an enemy, but it need not be one. If you put a hot water balloon outside a rattlesnake’s hole it will attack the water balloon. So I might say “Perhaps nature could give a creature a tendency to attack anything above a certain number of degrees in the environment, and that would be more effective from the point of view of survival than the ability to discriminate between animate and inanimate objects,” and it seems to me that if I said that Carrier could produce all of his arguments ridiculing that claim and saying that of course being able to figure out whether something is alive or not is better from the point of view of survival than just hitting something above a certain number of degrees. Carrier also says

It will always be a more efficient use of resources (energy, time, risk, and tools) to avoid attacking all non-threats and to attack all actual threats—including entirely new and unanticipated threats. And the only means an organism can maximize efficiency in this respect is to optimize its ability to categorize and discriminate objects and events. There is literally no other way.

But if this were the case wouldn’t Mother Nature have hit upon rational creatures a whole lot sooner, instead of using a wide range of other kinds of mechanisms to promote survival? I pointed out in my book that the reason in humans requires the development of large brains which, while providing the advantage of enhanced knowledge capacities, have the disadvantage of making the creature more vulnerable, requiring longer periods of immaturity, etc. The emergence of reason involves trade-offs from an evolutionary standpoint, though of course it can be very well seen why a naturalist might say that trade-off is worth it. If we consider such natural occurrences as the dance of the bees, we find sophisticated ways of discovering where nectar is (and where it is not), without anything like conscious reasoning being involved. It seems just false to say that there is, and can be, no substitute for reason.

Darwin once raised doubts about his own capacities to understand the world accurately on the assumption of evolution by natural selection. The possibility that false beliefs can promote reproductive fitness seems impossible to deny. I don’t know if any scientific studies have been done on this, but I remember high school, and I distinctly had the impression that the guys who held egregiously inflated views of their own attractiveness to the opposite sex tended to have more successful dating lives than those of us who assess our attractiveness more realistically.

Douglas Henry, in the 2003 edition of Philosophia Christi, provides an excellent example of how systematically false beliefs can benefit survival, in his essay “Correspondence Theories, Natural-Selective Truth, and Unsurmounted Skepticism.” He considers the attempt by Ruth Millikan to provide an evolutionary foundation for realism and the correspondence theory of truth. He maintains that the fact that humans tend to respond positively to placebos suggests that false beliefs can, and often do, have survival value. The placebo effect is well-documented in medical literature, showing that if someone receives some medication that they think will benefit their health, then that will benefit their health even though it is nothing more than a sugar pill. On the other hand trading the false belief “This is the latest cancer medicine” for the true belief “This is just a sugar pill” will result in the loss of the positive health effects of believing that a person is receiving beneficial medicine.

If false beliefs about matters that are of immediate concern can be false yet helpful, is it also possible natural selection could, in various ways, incline us toward a whole range of false beliefs? Could our beliefs be systematically false and still adaptive? I see no reason to think they could not.

The Arguments from Reason are far from finished products, either as a result of Lewis’s efforts or as the result of my own or other people who defend them. Far more than I have been able to do already will be required to make a persuasive case to most people that reason is a phenomenon that fits far better into a supernaturalist world-view than into a naturalistic world view. A good deal more needs to be done by defenders of the arguments from reason, especially in addressing naturalistic philosophers like Dennett, Millikan, and Dretske who had attempted to tackle the problem of how reason can exist in a naturalistic universe. There is a long struggle ahead to try to show first that the central elements of reason to which I have alluded are ineliminable, secondly, to show that reductive analyses of these elements of reason are unsuccessful, and third to show that an alternative world-view, such a theism, provides a better way of understanding these phenomena. However, I firmly believe, and continue to believe, that the more we study attempts to naturalize reason the more plausible it will seem that “Something’s rotten in Denmark, ” and that a fundamentally mentalistic world-view, like theism, can clean up the stench.

Postscript: The following comments, by an anonymous commentator some four years later, strike me as very interesting: 

A few comments to some of Ahabs points:

In fact humans do not tend to respond positively to placebos. 70% or more of those taking them will not get better.

If 30% of those taking sugar pills will get better, then humans often respond positively to placebos. That's quite astonishing and fits well with other reasearch in psychology about the influence of positive thought about the future.

Actually, if one found out that they were taking a placebo they would want the real medicine and consequently increase their chances of survival.

I agree with this, but the point is that the placebo effect promoted survival in the past, not that it does now. Many traits don't serve survival well now but did so in the past (adrenaline in a stress situation).

But now you've jumped from an individual belief to a system of beliefs.

I agree that this is the best objection to the "systematic error" argument. I guess this could be turned into a good argument, but nobody has done this so far.

Natural selection does not select for individual beliefs. It selects for the mechanism which is capable of forming beliefs. A person whose brain is able to arrive at enough true beliefs to increase its chances of surviving the hazards of this dangerous world is, all else being equal, going to have a greater likelihood of passing on her genes than a person whose brain is less adept at good belief formation.

This is the typical answer to any argument from reason. I think the problem with this answer is that it requires and presupposes a huge metaphysical framework that is highly controversal and becomes less and less plausible. It requires the "naive" view of mental causation, the idea that the content of our thoughts directly influence behavior. David Chalmers has made a great case against the kind of mental causation required for this view.

Usually it also presupposes that evolution delivers an explanation for our phenomenological mental life. But this is highly implausible and disputed by many in the philosophy of mind. My zombie twin would have the same advante in natural selection that I have.

I can't make a cogent case against this objection in a comment here because it presupposes so much. But overall it seems to me that the premise of the objection is highly disputed and that contemporary philosophy of mind actually moves away from it. This makes the objection useless.

The reason why this objection is so common seems clear to me. It is very simple and fits very well with ordinary common sense convictions about the mental. This makes it attractive to anyone who is not familiar with the metaphysical problems it causes.

9 comments:

Ahab said...

Victor wrote:
He maintains that the fact that humans tend to respond positively to placebos suggests that false beliefs can, and often do, have survival value.


In fact humans do not tend to respond positively to placebos. 70% or more of those taking them will not get better.

The placebo effect is well-documented in medical literature, showing that if someone receives some medication that they think will benefit their health, then that will benefit their health even though it is nothing more than a sugar pill.

It is true that the placebo effect is well-documented, but only in the sense that there has been a fair amount of discussion regarding what the placebo effect is and if it really does work. There are some good reasons for supposing it is a myth or at least highly overrated.

On the other hand trading the false belief “This is the latest cancer medicine” for the true belief “This is just a sugar pill” will result in the loss of the positive health effects of believing that a person is receiving beneficial medicine.

Actually, if one found out that they were taking a placebo they would want the real medicine and consequently increase their chances of survival. They wouldn't continue to take the the sugar pill.
One would assume there'd be a survival benefit to being able to recognize and correct false beliefs. And we see that capability in humans.


If false beliefs about matters that are of immediate concern can be false yet helpful, is it also possible natural selection could, in various ways, incline us toward a whole range of false beliefs?


Even if one grants that the placebo effect is real, why do you think a 70% failure rate is beneficial to survival? Those taking the real cancer medication which only has, say a failure rate of 40%, are obviously going to benefit more than those taking the placebo.

Could our beliefs be systematically false and still adaptive? I see no reason to think they could not.

But now you've jumped from an individual belief to a system of beliefs.
Natural selection does not select for individual beliefs. It selects for the mechanism which is capable of forming beliefs. A person whose brain is able to arrive at enough true beliefs to increase its chances of surviving the hazards of this dangerous world is, all else being equal, going to have a greater likelihood of passing on her genes than a person whose brain is less adept at good belief formation.
Natural selection doesn't require a belief-generating machine that works perfectly and only produces true beliefs. It just needs to produce enough accurate beliefs to increase its chances of survival. So one would predict unnder evolution that we would be capable of holding false beliefs as well as true ones. And that is just what we find. Some people's brains work better than others.

Far more than I have been able to do already will be required to make a persuasive case to most people that reason is a phenomenon that fits far better into a supernaturalist world-view than into a naturalistic world view.

What is it under the supernaturalistic view, in which this mental stuff is basic, that causes people to have different beliefs? Why should one persons mental stuff act differently than someone else's mental stuff? Or why is one person smarter than another? And why can't this mental stuff that people have ever come to an agreement about metphysical truths? You'd think, from a supernaturalistic perspective, that this mental stuff should be very well suited for understanding the metaphysical realm. Quite the opposite seems to be the case. In fact, the 'flawed' mental abilities that we see exhibited by humans fits much better into the naturalistic view than the supernaturalistic one.

However, I firmly believe, and continue to believe, that the more we study attempts to naturalize reason the more plausible it will seem that “Something’s rotten in Denmark, ” and that a fundamentally mentalistic world-view, like theism, can clean up the stench.

I'm much more positive in my outlook. I rather hope that the supernaturalistic stench is finally going to be cleaned up a little. It's been polluting our mental and moral landscape for far too long.

By the way, here's wishing you a safe and rewarding journey to Oxbridge.

Ahab said...

Victor wrote:
Carrier also says
"It will always be a more efficient use of resources (energy, time, risk, and tools) to avoid attacking all non-threats and to attack all actual threats-including entirely new and unanticipated threats. And the only means an organism can maximize efficiency in this respect is to optimize its ability to categorize and discriminate objects and events. There is literally no other way. "

But if this were the case wouldn’t Mother Nature have hit upon rational creatures a whole lot sooner, instead of using a wide range of other kinds of mechanisms to promote survival?



Interstingly I think you've hit upon one argument against ID. It is after all quite understandable why it took Mother Nature so darn long (in human terms) to come up with a creature like man who was capable of belief-formation. Mother Nature does not consciously guide evolutionary developemet. It is, in very rough terms, simply chance working with natural selection weeding out the weaker variations. And considering how extremely complex the human brain is, it is quite understandable why it took unintelligent evolution to chance upon it.
But why didn't these imagined intelligent designers come up with this much sooner? Why didn't they simply design (create) humans right near the beginning of life? Why wait around for millions of years during which time millions of other species came into being and went extinct?

Clayton said...

You wrote:

If naturalism is true, it is often argued that natural selection would support the emergence of rational as opposed to irrational belief-forming mechanisms. But it is not at all clear to me that the most reliable belief-forming mechanisms are the most advantageous from an evolutionary point of view.

Perhaps. But isn't the issue really going to be whether they are advantageous given our surroundings, other features of our design, etc.? If so, then this isn't really so much of a problem for the defender of E&N as some such as Plantinga suggest. The odds that something with other aspects of our design in situations that are like ours could survive without reliable belief forming processes might be exceedingly high even if other conditional probabilities will be lower depending on what is omitted from the antecedent. This seems like a very elementary point about evolution and probability but if Plantinga and crew have addressed it, I must have completely missed it.

Ahab said...

Clyton wrote:
The odds that something with other aspects of our design in situations that are like ours could survive without reliable belief forming processes might be exceedingly high even if other conditional probabilities will be lower depending on what is omitted from the antecedent. This seems like a very elementary point about evolution and probability


Clayton, could you elaborate on this a little more? I've had zilch training in probablility theory and have to admit to not being able to understand what you are syaing here.
Thanks for any help on this.

Clayton said...

Ahab,

That was pretty brief so lemme expand (although expand briefly as my exposure to probability and statistics is also pretty brief).

In some discussions (I believe Plantinga's, but I don't have a text at hand), it is said that the probability that we would have reliable faculties given evolutionary theory and naturalism is either low or inscrutible. The argument for this is that selection pressures don't favor such faculties.

I think this overlooks something important--selection pressures operate on populations where organisms have various traits already. So while selection pressures might not favor certain things across the board (except perhaps things that confer survival value), selection pressure might favor reliability for certain creatures with certain features under specified conditions. We might argue that the probability of organism having reliable faculties (R) is low given evolution (E) and naturalism (N) but as we fill in further details of that organism, their continued survival may in fact show the conditional probability of R and this extra information on E and N is quite high.

So while we might be able to conceive of creatures who can survive without reliable ways of informing themselves about their surroundings, that is very very different from imagining how we might fluorish given our equipment, needs, and surroundings without reliable faculties.

Ahab said...

Thanks much, Clayton. That makes a whole lot more sense to me.
I completely agree that a creature like us humans would not have been able to survive long without a pretty reliable set of faculties.

Anonymous said...

A few comments to some of Ahabs points:

In fact humans do not tend to respond positively to placebos. 70% or more of those taking them will not get better.

If 30% of those taking sugar pills will get better, then humans often respond positively to placebos. That's quite astonishing and fits well with other reasearch in psychology about the influence of positive thought about the future.

Actually, if one found out that they were taking a placebo they would want the real medicine and consequently increase their chances of survival.

I agree with this, but the point is that the placebo effect promoted survival in the past, not that it does now. Many traits don't serve survival well now but did so in the past (adrenaline in a stress situation).

But now you've jumped from an individual belief to a system of beliefs.

I agree that this is the best objection to the "systematic error" argument. I guess this could be turned into a good argument, but nobody has done this so far.

Natural selection does not select for individual beliefs. It selects for the mechanism which is capable of forming beliefs. A person whose brain is able to arrive at enough true beliefs to increase its chances of surviving the hazards of this dangerous world is, all else being equal, going to have a greater likelihood of passing on her genes than a person whose brain is less adept at good belief formation.

This is the typical answer to any argument from reason. I think the problem with this answer is that it requires and presupposes a huge metaphysical framework that is highly controversal and becomes less and less plausible. It requires the "naive" view of mental causation, the idea that the content of our thoughts directly influence behavior. David Chalmers has made a great case against the kind of mental causation required for this view.

Usually it also presupposes that evolution delivers an explanation for our phenomenological mental life. But this is highly implausible and disputed by many in the philosophy of mind. My zombie twin would have the same advante in natural selection that I have.

I can't make a cogent case against this objection in a comment here because it presupposes so much. But overall it seems to me that the premise of the objection is highly disputed and that contemporary philosophy of mind actually moves away from it. This makes the objection useless.

The reason why this objection is so common seems clear to me. It is very simple and fits very well with ordinary common sense convictions about the mental. This makes it attractive to anyone who is not familiar with the metaphysical problems it causes.

Leonhard said...

I guess Anon is Victor Reppert?

Victor Reppert said...

No. He said some things I liked, however.