Monday, March 07, 2011

Does Evolution select false beliefs?

Though I can't cite a specific example, I have heard atheists and evolutionists suggest that religion is a product of evolution.  That is, somewhere in the past, men invented religion as a source of comfort in "having something to believe in."  As I understand it, the evolutionist would contend that such a view could produce survival value.  A number of reasons might be implemented to support this.  Perhaps religious persons had less stress and depression than non-religious, since they had characteristics such as hope, peace, and joy; traits that could possibly lead to older age.  Furthermore, since such beliefs would flourish throughout different cultures, the following generations would likely hold to these beliefs.

One thing that makes this interesting is that those subsequent generations sincerely hold to these beliefs without believing they are false.  But let's say for the sake of argument that all these religious beliefs are false.  The conclusion; because of survival value, evolution selects false beliefs over true ones.  Some might argue that such beliefs are not a product of evolution, but of human invention.  But this is not necessarily so.  Why could it have not been the case that a neuro-chemical reaction in the brain produced a sudden need for a "higher power" without the recipient's knowledge of such an event?  Perhaps the recipient interprets this chemical reaction as a calling from a god?

Again, the outcome remains the same: evolution produces false beliefs and passes them down to subsequent generations by means of natural selection.

Here is the problem; if evolution produces false beliefs that the recipients are convinced of and likewise interprets as truth, then on what basis can anyone trust the reliability of their reasoning faculties?  Even the belief of evolution could, in turn, be a false belief.  That is, if evolution is true, no one could know it given that evolution can and does produce false belief.

You could say this is very similar to Plantinga's EVOLUTIONARY ARGUMENT AGAINST NATURALISM, but with a slight modification.  The point is to show a significant defeater within the evolutionist's own epistemology.  That is, evolution is self-defeating in that one cannot know it, even if it is true.

I've never attempted this and will gladly accept any criticisms which may contribute to modification or abandonment of the argument.


Paul Baird said...

"That is, somewhere in the past, men invented religion as a source of comfort in "having something to believe in." "

"The chimps did not panic or flee, and some made ritualistic displays that suggest they understand fire and do not fear it, and they may even be able to control it."

The Apologetic Front said...

So the chimps made rituals that resulted in survival from fires. Great. This provides even more reasons for believing that evolution would select for false beliefs.

Ryan said...

Okay - so let me make sure I am understanding your argument correctly. Basically, you are saying that:

A. The belief in religion could have produced survival value in an evolutionary sense.

B. Assuming evolution is true, evolution can produce, in the human brain false beliefs, assuming religion is then untrue.

C. As evolution is a belief, it runs the risk of being untrue itself as A & B have shown that false beliefs can be the result of evolution.

Making these assertions is quite an extrapolation of evolutionary psychology. We first cannot really say, with any degree of certainty that religion is the result of evolution. Evolutionary psychology is, in essence, massive speculation. Religion could hypothetically be the result of some other belief or system that is more adept at producing human survival. For example, lets say that having a dominance hierarchy for whatever reason assists in human survival. Maybe it helps a sense of civility in a culture and prevents a culture from warring against itself. What is potentially the best way to maintain a dominance hierarchy? Perhaps in humans, it's religion. Therefore religion may have been established in cultures to keep power. I could produce a multitude of other examples of how religion could be a secondary, as opposed to primary result of evolution. Though perhaps that would not fully negate your argument. So I just wanted to establish that to show that the world of speculation in evolutionary psychology, is at best a murky one.

Onto my 2nd argument. Lets accept that religion does in fact assist in human survival, or at least has in the past. Therefore, that evolution may directly result in false beliefs.

This, my friend, is the beauty of science. We huamns, are subject to many false beliefs. It was long believed that the sun rotated around the earth. Thinking that the earth moves around the sun is a very counter-intuitive idea. This was able to be proved by astronomy and mathematics.

The problem here is that you're mixing beliefs with a system. Science is a system to produce answers using many different sources, rather than a simple belief, such as one in a higher power which can be an assertion without proof. Science is a nuanced approach to verify and attempt to falsify "beliefs".

When Darwin proposed evolution, it wasn't immediately accepted within the scientific world. It took many years of research and many attempts to falsify evolution which has not yet happened. Rather these attempts have resulted in more and more proof of evolution, through the fossil records, and most damningly with genetics.

This is why the scientific method is an extremely precise and accurate way to verify beliefs, as opposed to beliefs just being posed in the first place.

All that being said, I may be an atheist but God and evolution are not mutually exclusive. There could very well be a deistic being who put forth evolution and thought it would be nifty if it produced a belief in a higher power. No need for this being to be Yahweh. The reason evolution is opposed by Christians and Muslims is that both Yahweh and Allah ARE mutually exclusive with evolution assuming a literal interpretation of those texts, whereas other religions don't have such an issue with evolution.

The Apologetic Front said...

Ryan, thank you for your thoughtful comment. If you don't believe that religion arose as a means of survival (whether primary or secondary), then this argument may not be applicable to you. But as long as its argued that religion is even possibly related to survival value, then it should be likewise conceded that evolution possibly selects false beliefs.

Though I haven't investigated the argument fully, I think Plantinga's argument seems to present a significant defeater in the evolutionist's epistemology. What I presented in this blog was a more focused aspect of his argument.

Paul Baird said...

No Mike, it's about how faith and religion begins. In this instance chimpanzees.

An evolutionary response based on survival would just see the chimpanzee fleeing fire to avoid injury and death.

The ritualistic behaviour offers no immediate or even short term or medium term benefit to survival. It may not even progress to control of fire but it has the roots of a faith based on fire.

Platinga could do with some research into animal pyschology.

The Apologetic Front said...

Paul, I must admit that i'm not quite as interested in animal psychology as it relates to this issue since its human epistemology that i'm more concerned with.

The difficulty in bringing up animal psychology is that you have no idea what is going on in their "reasoning" process. It could be that the chimps are thinking something completely irrational which leads them to avoid fires. But that assumes there is any "rationality" at all in their minds.

But whatever the case, if you don't believe that religion has any evolutionary foundation in survival and is purely volitional (rather than responsive, if that makes sense), then the argument presented in this blog is not against you.

I was arguing against those who have made the bold claim that religion exists because of evolutionary selection for survival. I haven't developed this yet, but it could be argued that if evolution is true, then anything that is passed down through subsequent generations must have some type of survival advantage. Religion and other "false beliefs" would have to be included. But that's just me thinking out loud and may not be a good argument.

Paul Baird said...

Hi Mike, the reason that I'm putting forward this is example is that for Platinga EAAN to work religion and faith must be evolutionary factors.

However, the problem is timescales.

Evolution takes place over a long timeframe.

The development of faith and religion is, I would argue, far more recent and not significant as an evolutionary factor (if at all).

The ritualistic behaviour of the chimpanzee towards the fire offers nothing in evolutionary terms whereas the rational avoidance of fire based on experience does.

That's my point.

I would place the psychological development of faith and religion on the same level as the psychological development of art (as in drawing) or music.

I'd like to see Plantinga comment on music and art in evolutionary terms too.

I'd suggest that the development of faith (and religion), as well as art and music, all happen so recently as to be evolutionarily insignificant.

I'd compare the timescale of a human growing up as that of the evolutionary timescale from one interim species to another, and the blinking of an eye this very instant as the timescale for the development of faith, art and music.

That all said, I can see what Platinga is trying to do, and why his efforts are so popular.

He's taking two of the most potent opposing philosophies to the Christian faith and trying to get them to cancel each other out.

It's a brave effort, but ultimately, it fails.