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Can evolution produce rational minds?

Answering some critics of the argument from reason

Published: 24 September 2016 (GMT+10)

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If a rational God is not responsible for human minds, and instead they were cobbled together by unguided evolutionary processes, we should not expect them to be trustworthy. Since our minds are generally trustworthy, though, the evolutionary worldview must not be correct. This is one form of the ‘argument from reason’, covered in Monkey minds: How evolution undercuts reason and science.

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J.B., from the U.S., tried the argument on some skeptics, but needed some help responding to their counterarguments. He wrote:

Hi Mr Halley,
I used Argument from Reason with people and there were a couple objections that came up that I was wondering if you could take a look at.
1. They said that even though some of our thoughts/reasoning might be unreliable, evolution (and natural selection) would tend to produce beliefs that were accurate over time, since natural selection has been “working” on it for a long time.
2. Didn’t quite understand what they meant by this, but they also said that using the scientific method overcomes any difficulty in interpreting data (or information), therefore any false beliefs/thoughts that we had would be nullified.

3. The other one I couldn’t answer well was that they said just because we can’t prove that our thoughts are reliable doesn’t mean they aren’t, and that it’s no different than saying that we as Christians trusting God.

Any help in answering those would be appreciated. I love this argument and wish I was better at communicating it.

In Christ,

J.B.

Keaton Halley of CMI–US replied:

Hi J.B.,

Thanks for writing in. Please see my responses interspersed.

Hi Mr Halley,

I used Argument from Reason with people and there were a couple objections that came up that I was wondering if you could take a look at.

1. They said that even though some of our thoughts/reasoning might be unreliable, evolution (and natural selection) would tend to produce beliefs that were accurate over time, since natural selection has been “working” on it for a long time.

Presumably, you’ve read my article, Monkey minds: How evolution undercuts reason and science. I encourage you to re-read that, because this first objection is already answered there. As I pointed out, natural selection is not concerned with truth, but behavior. Adaptive behavior can occur without requiring or even encouraging creatures to have reliable minds. Indeed, it can occur without minds at all. So, it doesn’t matter how long you give the process, natural selection will not generate rational minds from scratch.

2. Didn’t quite understand what they meant by this, but they also said that using the scientific method overcomes any difficulty in interpreting data (or information), therefore any false beliefs/thoughts that we had would be nullified.

Your critics haven’t really grasped the argument. The problem is not that an evolutionary scenario would leave us with “difficulty in interpreting data”. The challenge is more fundamental. If the evolutionary account were correct, we would not even be able to do science because we could have no confidence in our ability to reason properly. In order to do science, we must first be able to think rationally. We couldn’t use the scientific method to begin with unless we already possessed the capability of reason.

It’s key to understand what I said in the article—this part of the argument is not asking about how things do work in the actual world. Instead, it’s asking about how things would work in an evolutionary world. But, here, your critics are helping themselves to the actual world in which human beings can do science. That’s an illegitimate move. They need to show how evolution endows us with the capacity to think logically in the first place. What they’ve offered merely smuggles rationality in the back door and therefore begs the question.

3. The other one I couldn’t answer well was that they said just because we can’t prove that our thoughts are reliable doesn’t mean they aren’t, and that it’s no different than saying that we as Christians trusting God.

Again, they’ve misunderstood the argument. We’re not claiming that our thoughts are unreliable. Nor are we claiming that it’s unproven whether we reason reliably. On the contrary, our argument insists that we do reason reliably. It can be outlined thus:

  1. If human beings were solely the product of a blind evolutionary process, our minds would not be generally reliable.
  2. Our minds are generally reliable.
  3. Therefore, human beings are not solely the product of a blind evolutionary process.
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It’s the first premise that the critics need to address. Note, again, the first premise is not about the way the world is. It’s about what follows from the atheist’s claims about our origin and composition. In Monkey minds, I offered several reasons why an atheistic, evolutionary world would fail to produce rational creatures, and defended them against objections.

Interestingly, your critics admit that they are “trusting”, but they are confused about where their trust is placed. They think that they can avoid the conclusion above by simply trusting that our minds are reliable. That’s incorrect. That claim actually agrees with the argument because it affirms the second premise! Rather, what the critics have to trust, despite every indication to the contrary, is that natural processes can produce reliable minds—a repudiation of the first premise.

That kind of wishful thinking is quite different from the Christian’s faith in God, so there’s no stalemate here. The Bible does not ask us to have blind faith, or faith that is contrary to the evidence. Rather, we trust God because He has shown Himself to be trustworthy. Notice how Jesus asked people to believe on the basis of the miracles he performed (John 10:38; 14:11), or how the Apostle Peter appealed to his readers with eyewitness testimony (2 Peter 1:16). The Bible says that God has made Himself known to all, but people “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18–23). Even when Jesus, "the light of the world” (John 8:12), appeared, he was rejected not because people lacked evidence, but because “people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19).

Therefore, Christians have good grounds for trusting in God. But atheists cling to naturalism even when the evidence points strongly in another direction.

Any help in answering those would be appreciated. I love this argument and wish I was better at communicating it.

In Christ,

J.B.

Kudos for trying this out on some skeptics. Hopefully, this has helped you to refine your thinking even further.

In Christ,

Keaton Halley

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