The other day one of my readers, David Evans, expressed skepticism toward Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument from naturalism. Plantinga’s argument is a type of argument from reason. This family of arguments aims to show that conceptions of human reason which do not assume that human cognitive faculties are created by a competent and benevolent agent lead to a general skepticism about the deliverances of reason. Plantinga’s form of the argument makes the claim that if we conjointly accept an evolutionary account of human origins with naturalism then the likelihood that our cognitive faculties are truth-conducive (as opposed to merely adaptive) is low or inscrutable. And that conclusion undermines our justification for accepting the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, including one’s belief in evolution and naturalism.
Unpersuaded by Plantinga
David Evans observes: “I stopped taking Plantinga seriously when I read his argument that evolution is not likely to lead to true beliefs.” The reason is because David doesn’t accept Plantinga’s claim that the likelihood of true beliefs emerging as more adaptive (and thus being selected for in evolution) is low or inscrutable.
Why isn’t David persuaded? Let’s take a look at Plantinga argument. To defend the claim Plantinga appeals to the fanciful example of “Paul the Prehistoric Hominid.” David introduces the Paul thought experiment as follows:
“His [Plantinga’s] example is Paul, who has evolved to run away from tigers when he sees them. This could arise from true beliefs – that tigers eat people, that the way to avoid this is to run away, and that being eaten is painful – but also from false beliefs”.
David then quotes Plantinga:
“Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. … Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. … Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.” (Plantinga, Warrant And Proper Function).
David’s rebuttal to Plantinga’s wacky thought experiment is that “clearly Plantinga’s alternatives are ludicrous”. He then goes on to explain:
“If Paul wants to be eaten, there will be no urgency in his desire to escape the current tiger. Why not wait and see if it eats him? If it doesn’t, he has lost nothing. He certainly won’t put as much effort into it as a man in fear of his life.
“If Paul thinks the best way to pet something cuddly is to run away from it, how does he ever get close to his mate and children? And how does he continue to think tigers are friendly after seeing what they do to other people?
“More generally, false beliefs may lead to life-saving behaviour by accident. But in the great majority of cases they don’t, which is why evolution in general selects for true beliefs.”
Defending Plantinga’s Argument
As I see it, the problem here lies not with Plantinga’s argument. Rather, it lies with his excessively fanciful thought experiment. And this is a perennial problem in philosophy where overly cute illustrations are purchased at the cost of obscuring the central issues and thereby alienating the intended audience. So while I believe Plantinga’s argument is sound, I also recognize that examples that are truer to life would be much more effective at defending Plantinga’s claim.
With that in mind, I’ll offer three examples where decidedly non-exotic false beliefs could very plausibly yield adaptive behavior. (The second and third in particular can readily be generalized to cover a broad array of beliefs.) From there we will get a better sense of how the likelihood of true beliefs being in the long run more adaptive (and thus selected for via undirected evolutionary processes) is low or at least inscrutable.
Example 1: Walking in the Dark Alley. Al is late for a job interview and so he decides to take a shortcut through a dark alley. As he goes Al believes that the alley contains no potential muggers and this leads to him having a bold swagger in his step. Unbeknownst to Al, there is a mugger hiding behind the dumpster who is intending to mug Al. However, the mugger decides not to mug Al because of the bold swagger in his step. As a result Al is unimpeded, arrives on time for the interview and gets the job. His false belief led to adaptive behavior.
Example 2: Speaking in public. Susie is a terrible public speaker. Since Susie has to deliver a presentation in her graduate school seminar she goes to a hypnotist to hypnotize her as a means to increase her speaking skills. While the hypnotist’s treatment is ineffectual, Susie’s belief that it is effective serves as a placebo to give her greater confidence in public speaking. As a result, she speaks with more confidence and does a better job than she would have done had she recognized that the hypnotist’s treatment was ineffectual.
Example 3: God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life. It used to be popular to say that religion generally and belief in God specifically reflect a form of psychosis which undermines the flourishing of the self. But these days an increasing number of psychologists are recognizing that belief in God can faciliate psychological well being. For example, at times of distress it can grant relative peace and optimism. If there is no God then these beliefs would be false but are nonetheless clearly adaptive.
Such cases can be multiplied endlessly. And each one would be selected for despite the fact that it dilutes our ability to grasp the truth unless there is something greater than adaptiveness (i.e. truth-directedness) which was formative in the development of our cognitive faculties.