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Why We’re Not Evolved for Truth

In ‘On the Origin of Species,’ published in 1859, Darwin argued that all living organisms – previously considered a powerful example of God’s creative power – only appeared to be designed. Darwin proposed that the concrete material mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation could explain the adaptation of organisms to their environment without us having to invoke an actual directing intelligence. The common atheistic view is that the ultimate dictator of human development is purely the evolutionary principle ‘survival of the fittest’. If the origin of all biological organisms could be explained naturalistically, as Darwin argued, then explanations invoking a creative intelligence would be unnecessary.

In response to Darwin’s catalysation, gradually atheism started to supplant theism, replacing science’s theistic origins with a new philosophical grounding – materialism. On the heels of Darwinian Theory, theism itself was under severe attack, and an atheistic mindset was now a “scientifically supported” reality.

Or so it seemed. As we have previously argued, advances since Darwin have now clarified the limited scope and capabilities of the evolutionary process, and the necessity for invoking an intelligent agent in explaining the origin of biological complexity. But to those who cling to a purely materialistic account, there is also another issue materialistic evolutionists will need to wrestle with – the threat materialism poses to truth.

Disclaimer: this essay is not intended to disprove evolutionary processes, but merely to clarify those who, in a dogmatic manner, assume purely materialistic evolutionary mechanisms can fully account for the human mind, the ability to reason, and even all our senses.

Here goes…

Evolved for utility, not truth

Your eyes will save your life. With their guidance, you will not fall down stairs, leap before a speeding car or grab the tail of a deadly snake. But why are our eyes, and all of our senses, reliable guides? Most of us have a hunch: they tell the truth. The real world, we assume, consists of cars and stars and other objects in space and time. Our senses are a window on this objective reality. Now, sure, on occasions our senses are wrong – magicians and cinematographers can cook up illusions that fool us. But normally our senses report the truths we need to navigate safely through life.

Why do our senses exist to reveal the truth? Again, we have a hunch: evolution. 

Those of our ancestors who saw reality more accurately had an advantage over those who saw it less accurately, especially in the four Fs: critical activities such as feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating. As a result, they were more likely to pass on their genes, which coded for more accurate perceptions. We are the offspring of those who, in each generation, saw objective reality more accurately. Our hunch is that truer perceptions are fitter perceptions. Evolution weeds out untrue perceptions. That is why our perceptions are windows to objective reality.

And yet, it is also the theorem of evolution by natural selection that wallops our hunches. Now you may be thinking: how can our senses be useful – how can they keep us alive if they don’t tell us the truth about objective reality?

Think about it like this – suppose you are attaching a file to an email, and the icon for the file is blue, square and in the centre of your desktop. Does this mean that the file itself is blue, square, and in the centre of your computer? Of course not. The file has no colour. The shape and position of the icon are not the true shape and position of the file. In fact, the language of shape, position, and colour cannot describe computer files. The purpose of a desktop interface is not to show you the “truth” of the computer – where “truth,” in this metaphor, refers to circuits, and voltages, the desktop merely presents you with single graphics that can help you perform useful tasks such as creating emails.

Now, thinking about evolution, perhaps it similarly endows us with senses that hide the truth and display the simple icons that we need to survive long enough to raise offspring. Space, as you perceive it when you look around, is just your 3D desktop. Food, animals and other physical objects are icons on your 3D desktop. These icons are useful, in part, because they hide the complex truth about objective reality. Your senses have evolved to give you what you need. You may want the truth, but you don’t need the truth, just as you don’t need to know about the flow of electrons in your computer to send an email. You need the interactive metaphors of simple icons that show you how to act, whether you’re trying to send an email or to stay alive. So, perhaps perception is not a window on objective reality, perhaps it is just an ‘interface’ that hides objective reality behind a veil of helpful icons.

Now you may ask – “if that speeding vehicle is just an icon of your interface, why don’t you leap in front of it? After you die, then we’ll have proof that a car is not just an icon. It’s real and it really can kill.” I wouldn’t leap in front of a speeding car for the same reason I wouldn’t carelessly drag my blue icon to the trashcan. Not because I take the icon literally – the file is not blue. But I do take it seriously: if I drag the icon to the trashcan, I may lose my work. The point is that evolution has shaped our senses to keep us alive. We have to take them seriously. But perhaps it is a mistake of logic to assume that if we must take our senses seriously then we are required to take them literally. In the evolutionary way of thinking, you may take your perceptions seriously, but you would not be justified to take them literally.

In the eye of the beholder

To help argue this point, think about the subject of ‘beauty’. I have heard it said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I think that’s true. But perhaps the same applies to objects; objects are in the eyes of the beholder and inform us about fitness, not about objective reality. To help us understand, let’s warm up our intuitions by exploring the perception of beauty in the animal kingdom.

Male jewel beetles, Julodimorpha bakewelli, have a thing for beautiful females. The males fly about searching for females, which are shiny, dimpled, and brown. Now there have been issues in Western Australia with guys littering the outback with empty beer bottles, known as “stubbies.” As it happened, some of the stubbies were shiny, dimpled and just the right shade of brown to catch the eyes of male beetles. Forsaking real females, the male beetles swooned over stubbies and awkwardly tried to mate despite glassy rebuffs. Adding injury to insult, a species of ants learned to wait near stubbies, wait for the befuddled and priapistic beetles, and then devour them, genitalia first. Pretty savage. The beetles came surprisingly close to extinction and Australia had to change its beer bottles to save them.

Now we might laugh at how silly the beetles are, but you would have thought that the male beetles, having mated with females for thousands of years, would know their females? Apparently not. Even when a male crawls all over his stubby – enjoying full embodied contact – he perceives it as his ideal “sheila”.

Now you may ask, “why would a beetle fall for a bottle?” Is it due to poor perception, or perhaps to his tiny brain? Well, actually mammals with their bigger brains still make the same mistake. Moose in Alaska and Montana have been caught mating with metal statues of moose, and even bison. We can laugh, but are we much better? A lot of men and women turn to virtual sex (porn) over actual sex. Some men even buy sex dolls and robots to mate with… Our bigger brains guarantee no inerrant attraction to real humans.

What, then, is beauty? If our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection alone, then beauty resides in the eyes of the beholder. But is it just beauty, or do physical objects and spacetime itself also reside in the eyes of the beholder? Our senses inform us for fitness – not about truth or objective reality.

The fact is, seeing the truth and seeing for fitness are two distinct strategies of perception, not one strategy seen in different lights. The two strategies compete. One may dominate and the other go extinct. Therefore, natural selection favours perceptions tuned to fitness, not necessarily truth. Steven Pinker sums it up like this – “We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness.”

If our perceptions of space, time, and objects were shaped entirely by natural selection, then our perceptions are built entirely on what let us live long enough to raise offspring. Perception is not about truth, it’s about having kids. As a direct consequence of the evolutionary mechanism, winning genes do not code for perceiving truth, perhaps they just code instead for an interface that hides the truth about objective reality and provides us with icons – physical objects with colours, textures, shapes, motions and smells – that allow us to manipulate that unseen reality in just the ways we need to survive and reproduce. Physical objects in spacetime are simply icons on our desktops.

To ask whether my perception of the sun is actually true – whether I see the true colour, shape, and position of the sun that exists even when no one looks – is like asking whether the paintbrush icon in my graphics app reveals the true colour, shape and position of a paintbrush inside my computer. Our perceptions of the sun and other objects were not shaped to reveal objective reality, but to disclose the one thing that matters in evolution – fitness payoffs. Physical objects are displays of crucial information about payoffs that govern our survival. They are data structures that we create and destroy. We cannot properly describe the inner workings of a computer in the language of desktops and pixels; similarly, we cannot describe objective reality in the language of spacetime and physical objects. So, while I must take my senses seriously. Must I therefore take them literally? No. Logic neither requires nor justifies this move.

Shared experience

Now you may ask, “what about the fact that we can all have shared experience and perception of the same objects?” If I put a ball on a table, everyone in the room will agree that there is an actual ball. The obvious explanation is that there is a real ball which everyone sees. But that might not be the case. There is another way to explain our consensus: we all construct our icons in similar ways. As members of one species, we share interfaces (which may vary from person to person). Whatever reality might be, when we interact with it we all construct similar icons, because we all have similar needs and similar methods for acquiring fitness payoffs.

In this way of thinking, our perceptions do not portray true properties of objective reality, any more than the magnifying-glass icon in my photo-editing app portrays the true shape and location of a real magnifying glass inside my computer. When I click on the icon my photo enlarges. If I ponder why it enlarges, I may conclude that the icon is the cause. But I could be wrong. The reason my perceptions don’t show me the truth is that evolution has steadfastly directed my perception to the cloud of fitness payoffs.

So, perhaps objects are not pre-existing entities that force themselves upon our senses, perhaps they are merely solutions to the problems of reaping more payoffs than the competition, from the multitude of payoffs on offer. But if icons don’t describe reality, are they real? What is real? Now to be clear, there is an objective reality. We all interact with it, whatever that might be, and each of us, in consequence, creates our own similar ‘icons’ to deal with it. Our experience and perceptions of the world around us, however, are all about fitness, not about the actual state of the world. Therefore, assuming a materialistic account of human origin and evolution, we must conclude that while we may generally trust our perceptions to keep us alive, our perceptions are not trustworthy with regards to revealing the truth, or reality as it really is.

The problem for materialistic evolutionism

Are you beginning to see why Darwin’s idea can be so dangerous?

A materialistic worldview threatens the very basis of rationality – the basis that our cognitive faculties and perceptions can discern what is true. If the origin and evolution of humanity is entirely a result of materialistic evolutionary processes, then we did not evolve our ability to reason in order to pursue truth. We evolved it as a tool to pass on our genes. As a result, our reasoning is plagued with foibles, many of which we are not aware of.

In this materialistic view, our perceptions and cognitive faculties for reasoning have evolved only in ways conducive or beneficial to survival, not necessarily truth. In confessing your reasoning has not evolved for truth but survival, you may have reason to think that your thoughts help you survive but how can you trust what your mind tells you to be true? Survival and truth are not the same thing. In fact, true beliefs often are not advantageous for survival.

The atheist and political philosopher John Gray recognises the difficulty that according to a materialistic view of Darwin’s theory it is impossible to know the truth, since “the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.” Natural selection doesn’t care if our beliefs are true; all they care about is that we survive. To believe in materialistic evolution as the full account of human existence and to think that your beliefs are true is like stepping on a scale and thinking it will tell you the time. Scales tell weight, not time. Evolution aims at survival, not necessarily truth.

But this means that if materialistic evolution fully accounts for human existence, you would not be able to justify that. The implication discredits the premise, which leaves the materialist in a loophole.

Atheism vs Reason

Atheism (or hard-atheism if you prefer) asserts that God does not exist – this is a truth claim. But materialism (perhaps the most common atheistic worldview) also asserts that our reasoning faculties are not designed for truth. If our cognition is just designed for survival, then how can you search for truth when that dimension is not an evolved part of human reasoning? What basis do you have?

This worried Charles Darwin. He went on to say, “with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower species, are of any value or at all trustworthy.” C.S. Lewis affirmed this when he mused, “Suppose there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the pointless atoms inside my skull react for chemical or physical reasons, that this gives me, as an irrational by-product, the sensation I call thought. But if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? But if I can’t trust my own thinking, how can I trust the arguments leading to any worldview?” In other words, if our mind came to exist by natural, mindless unguided processes in an ultimately pointless universe, then why do we trust it? Would you trust a computer if it was the end product of mindless unguided processes via random forces? Better yet, could you even be confident in its computations (and so call it a computer) if it wasn’t created by a rational mind?

Therefore, you may, if you like, give up all claims to the truth. You may say simply “our way of thinking is useful”- without adding “and therefore true.” It enables us to build a bridge and keep ourselves alive and that is good enough. The old, high pretensions of reason must be given up.

So, this is your dilemma – by upholding purely atheistic (materialistic) assumptions about human origins and existence, you give up the right to reason (defined as the ability to discern objective reality). Do not be deceived – atheism and reason are in conflict.

To clarify, this essay is not to say that evolutionary processes are irrelevant in explaining the sustainability of life, as clearly evolutionary mechanisms explain how life changes to its environment, but that fully relying on materialistic evolutionary processes to explain the origin of the human mind threatens the very basis to justify intellect. 

This essay makes reference to literature by Donald D. Hoffman

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