Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Balfour and the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

A redated post.


This post is a repost of one I did a few months back on the Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. Follow the link back and you can read the 38-comment debate it sparked.

Balfour and the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism
The Argument from Reason did not originate with Lewis. Something like it can be traced all the way back to Plato, and Augustine had an argument that said that our knowledge of eternal and necessary truths. Descartes maintained that the higher rational processes of human beings could not be accounted for in materialistic terms, and while Kant denied that these considerations did not provide adequate proof of the immortality of the soul, he did think they were sufficient to rule out any materialist account of the mind. However, naturalism or materialism as a force in Western thought did not become really viable until the 1859, when Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. The earliest post-Darwinian presentation of the Argument from Reason that I am familiar with, and one that bears a lot of similarities to Lewis’s argument, is found in Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s The Foundations of Belief. Lewis never mentions The Foundations of Belief in his writings, but he does say in one place that Balfour’s subsequent book Theism and Humanism is “a book too little read.” According to Balfour the following claims follow from the “naturalistic creed.”1) My beliefs, in so far as they are the result of reasoning at all, are founded on premises produced in the last resort by the ‘collision of atoms.”2) Atoms, having no prejudices in favour of the truth, are as likely to turn out wrong premises as right ones; nay, more likely, inasmuch as truth is single and error manifold. 3) My premises, therefore, in the first place, and my conclusions in the second, are certainly untrustworthy, and probably false. Their falsity, moreover, is a kind which cannot be remedied; since any attempt to correct it must start from premises not suffering under the same defect. But no such premises exist. 4) Therefore, my opinion about the original causes which produced my premises, as it is an inference from them, partakes of their weakness; so that I cannot either securely doubt my own certainties or be certain about my own doubts. Balfour then considers a “Darwinian rebuttal, which claims that natural selection acting as a “kind of cosmic Inquisition, will repress any lapses from the standard of naturalistic orthodoxy. The point was made years later by Antony Flew as follows: [A]ll other things being equal and in the long run and with many dramatic exceptions, true beliefs about our environment tend to have some survival value. So it looks as if evolutionary biology and human history could provide some reasons for saying that it need no be a mere coincidence if a significant proportion of men’s beliefs about their environment are in face true. Simply because if that were not so they could not have survived long in that environment. As an analysis of the meaning of ‘truth’ the pragmatist idea that a true belief is one which is somehow advantageous to have will not do at all. Yet there is at least some contingent and non-coincidental connection between true beliefs, on the one hand, and the advantage, if it be an advantage, of survival, on the other.However, Balfour offers this reply to the evolutionary argument: But what an utterly inadequate basis for speculation we have here! We are to suppose that powers which were evolved in primitive man and his animal progenitors in order that they might kill with success and marry in security, are on that account fitted to explore the secrets of the universe. We are to suppose, that the fundamental beliefs on which these powers of reasoning are to be exercised reflect with sufficient precision remote aspects of reality, though they were produced in the main by physiological processes which date from a stage of development when the only curiosities which had to be satisfied were those of fear and those of hunger. Interestingly, Balfour’s argument here finds surprising support from Darwin himself. In a letter to William Graham Down, Darwin wrote: the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the 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? As can be seen Balfour’s presentation of the argument, and his consideration of counter-arguments, anticipated much of the debate on this issue that is still going on a century after his book was written.

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5 Comments:

At 6/30/2009 02:16:00 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Advocates for the EAAN don't fully understand evolution.

Suppose we're looking at some fixed environment. We'll see a myriad of different species, each adapted to their environmental niche. Under naturalist assumptions, how did they adapt?

Well, with the environment holding relatively static, the usual rules of mutation and natural selection prefer species that are adapted to feeding and breeding in said environment.

This is about as far as most theists get in understanding evolution. One static environment.

However, we know there have been many environments over the history (and geography) of the earth. When environments were devastated and reshaped by catastrophe, they remained relatively barren until, after millions of years, new species evolved to live in them.

This ancient process of adaptation finds the truth about how best to feed and breed in a particular environment. The point made by anti-naturalists is that the truth about feeding and breeding is not truth in general. Any mental mechanisms we may possess that evolved in this way are mechanisms that seek the best way to feed and breed, not the closest approximation to the truth.

However, I find it staggering that EAAN advocates lack the imagination to see under what conditions proper rationality would be a survival benefit.

Suppose my tribe lives in a valley where the green fruit is safe and tasty. According to the EAAN folk, I will have evolved to think that green fruit is preferable. That is, that my beliefs are the direct result of genetic evolution. If you present me with green fruit, my genes cause me to believe that it is safe to eat.

Why, then, should humans have any advantage over monkeys in this valley? The monkeys have evolved similar mental rules, can easily get to the fruit, and they practically do so 24 hours a day. That's when they're not getting it on. The advantage of genetic belief forming mechanisms is that they're hyper-optimized for the environment in which they evolved. How can we humans compete with optimized monkeys? Well, if all we have are genetically evolved beliefs, we can't. That's why there are still monkeys!

Then, one day, a fire tears through the valley. We relocate to the next valley where the safe fruits are yellow and not green. But, unlike the monkeys, we don't die out. Why not?

Because our belief forming mechanisms are general and not primarily genetic. The weakness of genetic belief forming mechanisms is that they take many generations to respond to new environments. As long as the environment is static genetics is great. But if you don't stick around in a single environment, there's a massive advantage to being able to determine the rules of new environments on the fly. That's where rationality comes in. It's like supercharged evolution in that it finds the rules of an environment (or a social hierarchy) within a generation. You can't fake this ability with genetic evolutionary belief forming mechanisms.

Does this mean our belief forming mechanisms are equally good in any domain? No. Some false beliefs will promote survival as long as it's the belief that promotes survival rather than what the belief is about. If I believe that I will be rewarded in the afterlife for defending my village to the bitter end, my tribe may survive better whether the belief is true or false. On the other hand, beliefs about observable, verifiable facts are more likely to be reliable.

Can we make progress in philosophy? Sure. Science and symbolic logic are methods for extending our reliable rationality to new domains. They cause use to apply the same rules whether we're contemplating fruit safety, mathematics or linguistics.

 
At 6/30/2009 02:30:00 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

One other thing.

Assume Socrates is a man.
Assume all men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.


How about...

Assume Socrates is a man.
Assume all men are mortal.
Assume Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.


Is this last syllogism any weaker or less probable than the first? No. It's free to re-assume assumptions in an argument.

What's my point? The reliability of our rational faculties is implicitly assumed in every argument, i.e.,

Assume rational faculties are reliable.(implicit)
Assume Socrates is a man.
Assume all men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.


Naturalism includes this first implicit assumption, as does any rational philosophy.

If naturalism is vulnerable to the EAAN, then theism is vulnerable to a comparable argument against theism:

God may not have made our faculties rational.
Therefore, any belief in God has no warrant.


More specifically,

Not every possible theistic scenario ends up with humans having reliable rational faculties.
Theism doesn't have a an automatic assumption that we possess reliable rationality.
Therefore, any belief in God has no rational warrant.


What's wrong with this? The problem is that our rationality is ALWAYS assumed implicitly at the front of any argument.

Assume rational faculties are reliable.(implicit)
Not every possible theistic scenario ends up with humans having reliable rational faculties.
Theism doesn't have a an automatic assumption that we possess reliable rationality.
Therefore, any belief in God has no rational warrant.


...and this is invalid. Same applies to the EAAN. For the EAAN to work, it has to prove that evolution contradicts the implicit assumption. In that, it utterly fails.

 
At 7/07/2009 04:36:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

All the EAAN does is ask a simple question: Given what naturalists must believe about evolution (it is undirected, it is purposeless, the only thing it reliably produces is survival alone, etc), and given that this is what the naturalist must credit as being the source of their rational faculties, is there a problem for the naturalist?

And the answer, again and again, is: Yes, actually. A big problem. It's not that the EAAN proponent argues that there's no way for trustworthy rational faculties to ever be spat out of the evolutionary process totally by luck. Plantinga himself never, to my knowledge, argues this is impossible - he puts the chances at low to inscrutable. But low to inscrutable is enough to cast doubt on one's rational faculties, and hence the defeat comes in.

Now, one CAN argue that Plantinga has it wrong: Evolution is a process ordered towards making the production of trustworthy rational faculties likely - maybe very likely. Hell, why quibble over likely? Let's call it inevitable and certain! Wonderful. That happens to be a kind of evolution that Michael Denton, Michael Behe, William Dembski and likely many others can agree to as well - because at that point, we've modified our view of evolution to an extreme, and teleology has come pouring in. Of course, one can believe the whole universe is rife with real teleology and still not be a theist - but, unless the "naturalist" label has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, naturalism will be sacrificed in this process.

The success of the EAAN is tremendous. And it's a shame that so many detractors seem to think that the EAAN is somehow an attack on evolution - it isn't, and never has been. Teleologists, theistic evolutionists, and otherwise have a ready answer for Plantinga's problem. Naturalists don't, once fideism and warping the argument is set aside.

 
At 8/08/2009 03:30:00 AM , Blogger Vince said...

This ancient process of adaptation finds the truth about how best to feed and breed in a particular environment.
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At 8/10/2009 05:13:00 AM , Blogger Vince said...

Its a great columns,
Thanks for the posting...


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