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: