Why We’re Not Evolved for Truth

Why We’re Not Evolved for Truth

19 minutes reading time

In his seminal work, ‘On the Origin of Species,’ published in 1859, Charles Darwin introduced a radical paradigm shift. He suggested that living organisms, which had been hailed as remarkable embodiments of God’s creative prowess, merely projected an illusion of intentional design. Darwin proposed that the tangible, materialistic mechanism of natural selection, acting on random variations, could account for the adaptation of organisms to their environment, eliminating the necessity for an orchestrating intelligence. A prevalent atheistic stance thus surfaced, asserting that human evolution is governed solely by the evolutionary axiom of ‘survival of the fittest.’ If, as Darwin argued, the genesis of all biological organisms could be elucidated through naturalistic processes, the need for explanations rooted in a creative intelligence would be rendered superfluous.

This paradigm shift, catalysed by Darwin, gradually spurred a transition from theism to atheism. Science’s theistic origins began to recede, giving way to a philosophical foundation steeped in materialism. The advent of Darwinian Theory placed theism under significant scrutiny, positioning atheism as a perspective upheld by scientific evidence. Or so it appeared.

Firstly, the scientific landscape has significantly transformed in the years following Darwin’s pioneering work, unravelling profound complexities in our understanding of life. Principal among these discoveries is the unravelling of the informational content harboured within DNA, a discovery that has dramatically enhanced our understanding of life’s blueprint.

The DNA molecule is no mere assortment of chemical constituents. It is a sophisticated information storage system, intricately encoding instructions for the assembly and functioning of living organisms, from the simplest bacteria to complex beings like humans. With its unique double-helix structure and its four-letter genetic code, DNA carries detailed instructions – a sort of life’s operating manual – guiding cell growth, differentiation, and function. Queries have been raised whether the theory of biological evolution, even when complemented by modern genetics, sufficiently accounts for the extraordinary information content in life. For some, the very existence of DNA as an information storage mechanism suggests a higher level of order and design that appears to challenge the premise of pure chance and randomness espoused by pure Darwinian evolution. Further complexity is introduced by the burgeoning field of epigenetics, which explores modifications in gene expression not attributable to changes in the underlying DNA sequence. This fresh perspective suggests that mechanisms beyond genetic mutation might be influential in the process of evolution.

These revelations, among many others, have rekindled scholarly discussions, probing the capacity of biological evolution alone to account for life’s elaborate design. Biology, as it turns out, is exponentially more complex than what Darwin originally envisaged. Biology is a study of information, code, and instructions – entities that eclipse anything we have managed to create. As our understanding of biology broadens, so too does the depth of our dialogues. We are exploring the limits of natural selection, considering the potential influence of non-genetic factors, and entertaining the possibility of an intricately designed order.

This growing scepticism is mirrored by an increase in scholarly publications by esteemed academic publishing houses globally. As our grasp of biology expands, our doubts concurrently intensify. The reach of evolutionary mechanisms seems to be constrained. Consequently, empirical evidence prompts us towards the understanding that a thorough explanation for life’s complexity likely surpasses the confines of mere natural selection and random mutations; there is way more to the narrative.

Secondly, the presumed incompatibility between biological evolution and the existence of a Creator is far from unequivocal. However, naturalists, who are often atheists, adhere to the notion that the natural world is a self-referential, closed system without divine intervention. They assume the universe solely operates on self-referential natural laws and material mechanisms, creating a clear pathway from atheism to a preference for or promotion of biological evolution as the exclusive explanation of life. In contrast, theism does not mandate one singular view, whereas naturalism presumes a particular conclusion.

I am fully aware that many readers may wish to contest these propositions. Still, this essay aims to address a less contentious but equally pressing problem inherent in the logic of relying exclusively on biological evolution to explain the human mind — the conundrum materialism presents to the pursuit of truth.

Let me clarify: the intent of this essay is not to invalidate evolutionary processes. Instead, it challenges those who dogmatically claim that materialistic evolutionary mechanisms can independently account for the origin of the human mind, the capacity for reason, and even the genesis of our senses.

Evolved for utility, not truth

In his thought-provoking book ‘The Case Against Reality – How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes’, atheist Donald D. Hoffman explores the reasons we should not take our cognitive faculties and senses literally. He suggests the following:

Our eyes are instrumental in preserving our lives. Guided by our vision, we avoid falling downstairs, leaping in front of speeding cars, or seizing a venomous snake’s tail. But why are our senses reliable? We intuitively believe they reveal the truth. We assume the real world consists of objects in space and time, and our senses serve as windows into this objective reality. While magicians and filmmakers may conjure illusions, our senses generally offer us the truth needed for navigating life safely.

Ancestral survival, pivoting on essential activities such as feeding, fighting, fleeing, and procreating, favoured those with a more precise perception of reality. Consequently, their genes, coding for heightened accuracy, were more likely to endure. We are the heirs of these predecessors, who viewed the world with an increasingly accurate lens, generation after generation.

This is where the plot thickens. Evolution, while encouraging accuracy, paradoxically seems to dismantle our intuitive beliefs. Now you may be wondering: how can our senses be useful – how can they keep us alive if they don’t tell us the truth about objective reality?

Hoffman asks us to think about it this way: when attaching a file to an email, the file’s icon might be blue, square, and positioned in the centre of your desktop. Yet, this does not imply that the file itself is blue, square, or at the centre of your computer. The file has no colour. The shape and position of the icon are not the true shape and position of the file. 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. A desktop interface serves to simplify complex information, allowing us to perform tasks like sending emails.

Likewise, evolution may provide us with senses that conceal the truth, presenting us with icons essential for survival and reproduction. The space we perceive around us is our 3D desktop, and objects like food and animals are icons on this desktop. These icons simplify objective reality, and our senses have evolved to supply what we 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. 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 believe the icon represents the literal truth, but because I understand its importance. Evolution has sculpted our senses to keep us alive – it’s imperative that we take them seriously. However, conflating taking our senses seriously with interpreting them literally could be a fatal misstep. In the evolutionary way of thinking, you may take your perceptions seriously, but would you be justified to take them literally? I’m not convinced.

In the eye of the beholder

Let’s consider the enigmatic concept of ‘beauty’. Often it’s said that beauty is a construct of the observer – it exists in the eye of the beholder. What if this axiom extends beyond the aesthetic realm? Could it be that objects, too, are perceived through the lenses of the beholder, communicating not the nature of objective reality but the state of fitness instead? This concept can be illustrated through the prism of beauty perception in the animal kingdom.

Consider the male jewel beetles of the species Julodimorpha bakewelli, for whom the allure of the female counterparts is undeniably potent. These males are captivated by the glossy, dimpled, and particular shade of brown that characterises their females. However, in Western Australia, an unexpected issue has surfaced. The landscape, littered with discarded beer bottles, colloquially known as “stubbies,” inadvertently began a crisis. These forsaken containers, with their shiny, dimpled exterior and their enticingly correct shade of brown, bore an uncanny resemblance to the female jewel beetles.

The deceived male beetles, beguiled by the counterfeit allure of these ‘stubbies’, began neglecting the genuine females, attempting futilely to mate with these glass facsimiles. As if this miscalculation wasn’t damaging enough, a predatory species of ants took advantage of the situation. These ants learned to lie in wait near these seductive stubbies, ready to seize upon the misled and vulnerable beetles and begin their deadly feast, notably starting with the genitalia. This brutal turn of events brought the beetles perilously close to extinction, necessitating an unprecedented intervention. Australia was compelled to alter the design of its beer bottles to ensure the survival of these beleaguered beetles.

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The spectacle of beetles enraptured by beer bottles might provoke amusement. One could argue that these male beetles, having engaged in mating rituals with females for millennia, ought to be capable of distinguishing their mates from mere detritus. Yet, curiously, even when physically interacting with the deceptive stubby – intimately traversing its surface – the beetle remains blissfully oblivious, viewing it as an idyllic partner.

A query may arise: how does a beetle find itself ensnared in this comical predicament? Is it attributable to flawed perception, or maybe its minuscule brain? Intriguingly, similar behaviour can be seen in larger-brained mammals. Moose from Alaska and Montana, for instance, have been witnessed attempting to mate with metal statues of their own species. We may chuckle, but can we claim any superior judgement? Increasing numbers are opting for virtual sexual experiences over physical intimacy. Some men even invest in life-like dolls and robots as sexual partners. It seems our larger brains don’t necessarily bestow an infallible affinity for real human interaction.

What, then, is beauty? If our sensory systems have evolved purely under the direction of natural selection, beauty indeed becomes subjective, residing in the eyes of the observer. But might this subjectivity extend beyond aesthetics? Could it be that physical objects and even the fabric of spacetime itself are likewise beholden to the observer’s perception? It appears that our senses serve primarily to inform us about fitness – not to provide a window into an objective truth or reality.

It is essential to grasp that perceiving truth and perceiving fitness represent two distinct perceptual strategies, rather than being facets of a singular strategy. This may sound paradoxical, but within a system governed exclusively by natural selection and mutation, these two strategies often end up in competition. One strategy may prevail while the other dwindles into oblivion. Natural selection tends to favour perceptions that are calibrated to fitness regardless of truth, and so the notion that accurate beliefs invariably offer survival benefits is far from guaranteed.

Computational experiments using evolutionary game theory demonstrate that organisms acting in accordance with the true causal structure of their environment will be out-competed and driven to extinction by organisms acting in accordance with arbitrarily imposed species-specific fitness functions. For example, Justin T Mark, Brian B Marion and Donald D Hoffman (2010) utilised evolutionary game simulations and found that veridical perceptions (those that accurately represent the world) are generally less fit than perceptions tuned to survival needs. Yet this outcome harbors an inherent paradox: we can only trust this demonstration if we are not the very organisms manipulated by non-veridical fitness functions. If we were, we would have no grounds to believe that the conclusions we draw from our carefully designed experiments reflect any objective reality. Devoid of cognitive faculties oriented towards truth, all human knowledge – including scientific understanding – would be little more than a survival mechanism fueled by fitness, with its connection to reality remaining forever elusive.

Steven Pinker succinctly encapsulates this idea when he says, “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.” In essence, our cognitive faculties were shaped more by the urgent needs of survival rather than an aspiration for absolute veracity.

If we are to consider that our perception of space, time, and objects are entirely moulded by the process of natural selection, then it stands to reason that our senses are fundamentally shaped by what has allowed us to survive long enough to reproduce. Perception, then, isn’t about the pursuit of truth but rather about the continuity of lineage. The triumphant genes of evolution don’t encode for an infallible perception of reality; they seem to instead design an ‘interface’ that conceals the intrinsic nature of objective reality, providing us with utilitarian symbols – the tangible physical objects laden with colour, texture, shape, motion and aroma – that empower us to manipulate that unseen reality, facilitating our survival and procreation. Our comprehension of the physical world in terms of space-time objects is akin to the digital icons on our computer desktops.

In this light, questioning the veracity of my perception of the sun – its true colour, shape, or position – that allegedly persists even when unobserved, is as nonsensical as probing if the paintbrush icon in a graphics application discloses the true colour, shape, and position of a physical paintbrush nestled within the electronic realm of my computer. Our perceptions of the sun and other objects are not primed to unravel the fabric of objective reality, but to delineate the crux of evolution – the fitness payoffs. Physical objects represent critical data structures about these payoffs that we conjure and dismantle as required. Just as we can’t fittingly describe the inner complexities of a computer using the language of desktop icons and pixels, we can’t describe objective reality using the vernacular of space-time and physical objects. Hence, while I am compelled to take my senses seriously, does that necessitate that I interpret them literally? Not at all. There is no logical decree that requires or validates such a leap.

Shared experience

You may reasonably pose the question, “What about our shared perception and experience of objects?” Take, for instance, placing a ball on a table. Every observer in the room would acknowledge the presence of the ball. The simplest explanation would be that a tangible ball exists, which everyone sees. However, such a deduction might not necessarily hold true. There’s an alternate interpretation: we are all architecting our symbolic representations in remarkably similar ways. As members of the same species, we share similar interfaces (though individual variations may exist). Irrespective of what reality might intrinsically be, our interactions result in the construction of comparable symbols or ‘icons’, owing to our similar evolutionary requirements and consistent methods for optimising fitness payoffs.

Applying this logic, our perceptions do not reveal the absolute properties of objective reality any more than the magnifying-glass icon in my photo-editing application portrays the true shape and location of a tangible magnifying glass within the digital confines of my computer. The application of the icon causes my image to enlarge, leading me to believe the icon is the cause. However, such an assumption might be a misinterpretation. The reason my perceptions do not disclose the truth is due to evolution steering my senses towards the nebula of fitness payoffs.

So, perhaps objects are not pre-existing entities that impose themselves upon our senses; instead, they might simply be constructs, or solutions devised to maximise our fitness payoffs, derived from the myriad possibilities on offer. But if these icons do not accurately depict reality, can we still deem them real? What is the threshold for reality? Let me clarify, I do believe that an objective reality exists. We all engage with it, whatever it might entail, and in turn, each of us fabricates our own set of similar ‘icons’ to grapple with it. However, our experiences and perceptions are invariably tethered to the notion of fitness, rather than the true state of the world. If we accept a naturalistic account of human origin and evolution, we should conclude that while our senses might be reliable survival tools, they cannot be trusted as infallible conduits to truth or to reveal reality in its authentic form.

The hidden truth

Darwin’s theory of natural selection undeniably carries implications that can be unsettling when viewed from a philosophical perspective. Under naturalism, our perceptive abilities and cognitive faculties are perceived to have evolved purely in the service of survival and reproduction; they are not, necessarily, finely-tuned instruments for discerning truth. While we have every reason to believe that our thoughts aid our survival, how can we trust their validity?

If humanity’s origin and evolution are attributed entirely to naturalistic evolutionary processes, then we did not develop our reasoning faculties for the pursuit of truth or to accurately depict reality. Instead, we evolved them as tools for survival and reproduction. Consequently, human reasoning is not infallible; it is often marked by biases and other limitations of which we are frequently unaware.

Now, it is important to delve deeper into this argument, beyond the recognition of our cognitive and perceptive fallibility. Many of my atheistic colleagues posit that the purpose of scientific inquiry is to compensate for these inherent limitations in our cognitive faculties. While I agree wholeheartedly, I believe this viewpoint underestimates the depth of the problem.

Here’s the heart of the matter: all would agree that the human mind is frequently prone to cognitive biases, emotional interference, memory confabulations, perceptual limitations, and other shortcomings that hamper our ability to interpret reality as it truly is. To circumvent these inherent flaws, we employ the scientific method and depend on peer review. Singular minds cannot reliably discern truth; it is only through rigorous verification and repeated failed falsification that we can identify what is most likely true.

Nonetheless, it would be a misinterpretation to see science as a transparent magnifying glass that provides an unadulterated perspective of reality “as it truly is.” Rather, science is a human-constructed cultural institution. While its framework is indeed grounded in the rigorous methodologies of experimentation and observation, at its core, science is a mental process. It is us, as cognitively enabled humans, who conduct scientific experiments, observe phenomena, and document results. Thus, regarding science as a definitive tool for truth-seeking could potentially be misleading if our minds are inherently limited in accurately interpreting reality.

To elaborate, imagine a scenario where your cognitive framework is designed to perceive and interpret the world solely through the domain of mathematics. If confronted with a symphony, you could attempt to deconstruct it into a series of frequencies, amplitudes, and durations. You could map the harmonics, discern patterns, and perhaps even predict future notes. However, this methodical breakdown would fail to capture the emotional resonance, the aesthetic pleasure, and the intangible essence that gives the music its profound impact. Much like attempting to capture a sunset’s beauty using only a spectrometer, the soul of the experience would be lost amidst numerical data.

In much the same way, if our minds are not inherently equipped to comprehend reality accurately but are tuned specifically to perceive and interpret the world through the lens of evolutionary fitness, then employing science as a tool for capturing a more accurate picture of the world may be fundamentally flawed. The finest data can be fundamentally misinterpreted or go unrecognised without the appropriate cognitive framework to process it correctly.

To offer another metaphor, consider the mind as the hardware and science as the software. If the hardware—our cognitive framework—is faulty or inaccurately programmed, even the most advanced and meticulously crafted software will falter, producing potentially unreliable or distorted results. Analogously, if our cognitive capacities are not primed to accurately apprehend objective reality, our epistemological tools—science and philosophy—despite their precision and sophistication, may yield misrepresentations or incomplete understandings of reality.

This brings us to a critical realisation: an ontological problem—pertaining to the nature of reality—cannot be adequately addressed solely through epistemological means. Epistemology—the study of knowledge and justified belief—hinges upon our ontological assumptions about the nature of reality, not vice versa. Any meaningful exploration of reality must address these foundational ontological assumptions.

However, we must be cautious about where this line of reasoning might falter. If we surrender entirely to scepticism regarding our cognitive abilities, we risk falling into a quagmire of solipsism or radical subjectivity, dismissing all external reality as unknowable—a position that is neither practical nor constructive. 

Here, theistic perspectives offer a potential antidote to the paralysing grip of solipsism. Theists and atheists might find common ground on the inherent fallibility of human reasoning, but they diverge significantly when it comes to the foundational presuppositions about our capacity for truth and knowledge. For naturalists or materialists, a solid footing for assuming the mind’s potential for true comprehension of the world often remains elusive. Conversely, theists can justify this assumption based on their belief that both the universe and the human mind are the deliberate creations of a rational entity. This entity is believed to have crafted the universe with the intent of intelligibility and fashioned the human mind to be capable of deciphering this intelligibility.

This theistic conviction—that a rational mind purposefully designed the universe—has given rise to the philosophical principles of contingency and intelligibility. These principles foster a compelling impetus to study nature with confidence in yielding understanding.

Conversely, an atheistic worldview, which ostensibly operates on the premise that ‘nothingness’ (however defined) accounts for everything, offers no substantial foundation to justify the notion that nature can be fully understood. If the axiom of intelligibility is ungrounded, this worldview could arguably be detrimental to the very practice of science, as it undermines the confidence in our ability to ever comprehend reality accurately.

Atheist philosopher John Gray recognises this quandary, acknowledging that according to naturalistic perspectives, the pursuit of truth is secondary to evolutionary success. Natural selection is indifferent to the veracity of our beliefs; its sole concern is survival. This implies that if naturalistic evolution fully accounts for human existence, then we lack the means to justify our beliefs’ truth. To believe in naturalistic evolution as the full account of human existence and simultaneously to believe in the veracity of one’s beliefs 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. This means that if naturalistic evolution fully accounts for human existence, you would not be able to justify that. This paradox traps the naturalist or materialist in a feedback loop, undermining the premise of naturalism.

In summary, Darwin’s theory of natural selection invites us to question the reliability of our cognitive faculties and perceptive abilities, particularly when viewed from a naturalistic perspective. This leads to further inquiries about the role of science as a compensatory tool for our cognitive shortcomings and the limitations of our reasoning. It becomes essential to critically examine the inherent biases and limitations of our minds, the epistemological implications of these limitations, and the ontological assumptions underpinning our understanding of the universe. Theistic and atheistic perspectives differ in their capacity to justify these assumptions, leading to potentially contrasting implications for science and our understanding of reality.

The atheist’s dilemma

I hope I am not misunderstood, it is essential to note that I am not negating the vital role of evolutionary processes in sustaining life. Indeed, evolutionary mechanisms elucidate how life adapts to its environment. However, a sole reliance on materialistic evolutionary processes to explain the intricacies of the human mind risks destabilising the foundation for justifying intellect. The fundamental question I am posing is this: If our cognitive capabilities evolved primarily for survival, what basis do we have for pursuing truth when this aspect is not an intrinsic part of our evolved reasoning?

It would be futile to invoke ‘science’ as a counter-argument in this context since science, as a rational construct, is still human-dependent. If the reliability of the mind for understanding the world is called into question, it undermines the credibility of science, which is a mind-dependent discipline. The theistic worldview endorses the idea that rationality, when appropriately engaged, can be trusted, thereby providing the solid foundation that allows science to flourish. This was a point of concern for Charles Darwin, a renowned atheist, who famously mused, “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.”

This quandary was further echoed by C.S. Lewis, who stated:

“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 essence, if our minds are the products of mindless, unguided processes in a fundamentally meaningless universe, why should we place trust in our cognitive abilities? Would you place faith in a computer that was the end product of mindless, unguided processes? Could you even trust its computations if it wasn’t created by a rational mind? If you prefer, you can forfeit all claims to truth, asserting merely that “our way of thinking is useful”—without affirming “and therefore true.” It enables us to construct bridges and ensure survival, which might be considered sufficient. However, in this scenario, the lofty claims of reason must be abandoned.

Herein lies the conundrum — by steadfastly clinging to atheistic assumptions about human origins and existence, you may inadvertently relinquish the right to reason, defined here as the ability to discern objective reality. This act effectively dismantles the foundation of science and any other rational discipline. Do not be misled — naturalism, and by extension atheism, poses a significant threat to the basis for rationality.

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