How evolution undercuts reason and science
Published: 5 May 2016 (GMT+10)
Atheists routinely style themselves as champions of reason and science, and they view evolutionary theory as a triumph of both. Indeed, they believe that evolution helps them to explain features of the world that would otherwise be inexplicable. As Richard Dawkins put it, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”1 Ironically, however, evolution cannot possibly bear this burden, because if evolution were true it would undermine our confidence in human rationality. While Christianity has the resources to account for reason, the atheistic paradigm self-destructs. The contrast can be seen by comparing what each worldview says about the origin and composition of human beings.
Human beings are equipped with the ability to learn and reason. We can grasp logical laws and relationships, sense our surroundings, remember the past, and reflect on ourselves through introspection. How did these abilities originate?
The Bible insists that God created our minds and bodies for a purpose. He made us in His image so that, among other things, we could think like Him. Although the Fall affected even our mental lives, it did not obliterate our capacity for reason altogether. So Christianity accounts for the fact that our reasoning powers are generally, though not perfectly, reliable.
On the other hand, if atheism were correct, humans would be the byproducts of blind forces which had no intention to produce rational creatures. From evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett’s perspective, “the human mind is something of a bag of tricks, cobbled together over the eons by the foresightless process of evolution by natural selection.”2 But if our minds were not designed, why would we trust them? In a happenstance evolutionary world we would not expect our minds to guide us to truth. As C.S. Lewis recognized,
“… the [evolutionary] Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational … how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution?”3,4
Interestingly, many evolutionists acknowledge that evolution would predispose us to hold false beliefs. Yet they only seem to trade on this insight when it is convenient for them, when they are trying to dismiss ideas that they don’t like, such as Christianity. For example, Darwin himself, when he experienced a lingering conviction that a Designer was necessary to explain the world, brushed aside his own thoughts in this way:
“With me 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?”5
But Darwin was inconsistent to selectively doubt his reasoning powers only when they led him to God. If evolution really proves that human reasoning is thoroughly unreliable, then evolutionists ought to doubt every belief at which they arrive through reason, including all scientific knowledge, and even evolution itself.
Natural selection to the rescue?
Not so fast, some evolutionists argue. Natural selection solves the problem, as follows. Minds that are reliable—that is, those that tend to picture the world accurately and provide their owners with true beliefs—would have a survival advantage over those that are not. For example, if a monkey living in the African savanna recognized that lions are dangerous and therefore kept his distance, he would be more likely to pass on his genes than another monkey who happened to believe that lions are perfectly harmless, cuddly kittens. Thus, the monkey population would be automatically driven toward right thinking over time as natural selection favored those with more reliable minds.
However, this response is insufficient. The above scenario assumes that the monkeys already have a great deal of true beliefs and rational thinking in place. If that were the case, then introducing a wildly false belief, like mistaking lions for kittens, could certainly be disadvantageous. But that is focusing on the wrong question. We are not asking about how things do work in a world that already has reliable minds, we are asking about how things would work if the entire evolutionary history were true. We are asking whether a predominantly rational and reliable mind would ever arise in the first place in an evolutionary world. There’s no reason it would.
To see this, it may help to think of humbler creatures than monkeys. Bacteria, for example, flourish presumably without any beliefs at all. This shows that behavior is what matters most for survival, and beneficial behavior can occur without having a reliable mind that produces true beliefs. Indeed, it is not beliefs alone, but the combination of beliefs, desires, and other factors working together that produce behavior. So if we move up the chain of complexity to the simplest organism that has a capacity to hold beliefs—assume it’s a housefly for the sake of the argument—why think that natural selection would nudge such a creature toward having predominantly true beliefs? So long as the fly steers clear of spider webs, it wouldn’t matter if it mistook them for trampolines.
Many leading evolutionists themselves recognize that natural selection isn’t aimed at truth, admitting that “our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth”6 and that “an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. … Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error.”7 In fact, the problem is worse. If our minds evolved, false beliefs would tend to predominate because, as Christian philosopher Angus Menuge points out, “for any given topic, it can be shown that there are vastly more systems of false beliefs than systems of true beliefs that produce the same behavior.”8 Even atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel admits that without “an independent basis for confidence in reason, the evolutionary hypothesis is threatening rather than reassuring.”9
Besides undermining our trust in reason, atheistic evolution would also make reasoning itself impossible because of what it claims about our composition. In the biblical worldview, humans are composed of a material and an immaterial part—body and soul.10 As many Christian philosophers have argued, our souls are necessary for us to exist as unified selves, enduring selves, and agents with free will—each of which, in turn, is essential to our ability to reason. But if evolution were true, we would be composed of matter alone. As atheist philosopher Paul Churchland put it, “If [the standard evolutionary story] is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.”11
The problem, though, is that reason cannot be grounded in material things, due to several obstacles. First, our material bodies and brains are constantly changing and being replaced with new bits of matter, so in an evolutionary world it’s hard to see why the same person would be present throughout an act of reasoning, enduring all the way from premises to conclusion.12 Second, our brains would consist of diverse parts having distinct thoughts—so what would unite them together to create one conscious individual? As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker maintains, on materialism “the unified self is a fiction … it is only an illusion that there’s a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything.”13 Third, all of our actions would simply be the result of our atoms obeying the laws of physics, determined by prior physical states, with no place for a genuine agent to deliberate, have goals, or draw inferences. Atheists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow admit that, on their view, “it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws.”14 Of course, if this were true, then Hawking and Mlodinow couldn’t help but write that. They might as well say, “my atoms made me do it,” because they wouldn’t be reasoning, just reacting. If naturalistic evolution were true, then all human actions would be mere automatic and passive happenings, with no person actually in control. Unfortunately, this is self-refuting, as J.B.S. Haldane noted years ago:
“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”15
Faith in naturalism
In response to this problem, evolutionists often simply assume that mind can emerge from matter once it reaches a certain level of complexity. They admit that they have no current explanation for how intelligence arises but, in a vain attempt to turn the tables, they accuse creationists of giving up on a naturalistic solution too quickly, and they insist that someday the answer will be discovered. As in other battlefronts in the creation/evolution controversy, evolutionists offer promissory notes in place of evidence.
However, creationists are not merely saying that we haven’t yet found a natural explanation; we are saying that if the fundamental bedrock of reality consists entirely of non-rational stuff, then reason would not be possible, in principle. One Christian apologist put it well:
“To learn how non-rational processes give rise to rational thought is like learning how a three-dimensional object can be created by arranging lines on a two-dimensional surface. We need not draw lines all day long in every geometric pattern imaginable to realize that the task is impossible.”16
Because we know that we do, in fact, reason in a generally reliable way, the evolutionary worldview must not be correct. Evolution lacks the resources that enable us to trust in our own rational faculties, but Christianity succeeds where evolution fails. According to the Bible, we are more than just matter, more than just spinoffs of a blind, evolutionary process. We have immaterial souls which play an essential role in our capacity for reason. And we were created by a God of reason, in His very image and likeness. God gave us the minds of men, not monkeys, and that is why reason and science are possible.
References and notes
- Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, NY, p. 6, 1986. Return to text.
- Dennett, D., Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York, NY, p. 107, 2006. Return to text.
- Lewis, C.S., Christian Reflections, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 89, 1967. Return to text.
- Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe objected to Lewis’ use of the term “irrational” in his early formulations of this argument, since physical events would not violate reason, and she recommended that these be described instead as “non-rational”. In Lewis’ defense, Victor Reppert points out that he earlier distinguished between two types of irrationality—violations of logic one the one hand and the absence of logic on the other. Even so, Lewis accommodated Anscombe by revising his most thorough presentation of the argument in his second edition of Miracles, there avoiding the term “irrational” altogether. See Reppert, V., The Argument from Reason, in William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK, p. 353–354, 2012. Return to text.
- Darwin, C., letter to W. Graham, 3 July 1881, in Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, William Clowes and Sons, London, UK, vol. 1, p. 316, 1887, darwin-online.org.uk. Return to text.
- Pinker, S., How the Mind Works, New York, NY, W.W. Norton and Company, p. 305, 1997. Return to text.
- Gray, J., Straw Dogs, Granta Books, London, UK, p. 26, 2002. Return to text.
- Menuge, A., Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, p. 153, 2004. Return to text.
- Nagel, T., The Last Word, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, p. 135, 1997. Emphasis in original. Return to text.
- For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter whether the spirit is a synonym for, or something distinct from, the soul. Return to text.
- Churchland, P., Matter and Consciousness, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 21, 1984. Note, even if an evolutionist affirmed the existence of nonphysical mental properties like beliefs but still rejected mental substances, it would not help because beliefs would be epiphenomenal—without causal power—and they themselves would be determined by physical brain states. Return to text.
- Moreland, J.P. and Craig, W.L., Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, p. 239, 242, 2003. Return to text.
- Pinker, S., Is Science Killing the Soul?, transcript of a dialogue with Richard Dawkins at Westminster Central Hall in London, UK, 10 February 1999, edge.org/conversation/is-science-killing-the-soul. Return to text.
- Hawking, S. and Mlodinow, L., The Grand Design, Random House, New York, NY, p. 32, 2010. Return to text.
- Haldane, J.B.S., Possible Worlds, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, p. 209, 2009 (originally published 1927). Return to text.
- Barefoot, D., A Response to Nicholas Tattersall’s “A Critique of Miracles by C. S. Lewis”, infidels.org/kiosk/article/a-response-to-nicholas-tattersalls-quota-critique-of-imiraclesi-by-c-s-lewisquot-89.html. Return to text.