Saturday, October 07, 2006

Reason, Morality and Evolution

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

While not part of this dialog, Ernie posted to his blog links to various points in a discussion in which he participated on the FoRK mailing list. I read through the various posts and wanted to comment briefly on something that I think is relevant to where Ernie appears to be heading in this dialog.

In this post, Ernie is discussing whether emotion and reason can be "absolutized" or whether they are contingent on something else. He writes:

The problem, as I see it, is that the human brain (and thus mind) is *also* a product of evolutionary forces. In particular, we are notoriously over-efficient pattern matchers who can easily see structure where none exists. If feelings are intrinsically unreliable due to evolution, are not thoughts then equally so?

To me, the really interesting question is then: what are evolutionary processes contingent on?

If the answer is really just 'pure chance', then I fail to see why absolutizing intelligence is any more valid than absolutizing emotion; correspondence with reality is just a random coincidence, and extrapolation is just a bad (or lucky) habit.

I want to stop there for a moment, even though Ernie continues on; I will get to his continuation later.

The first paragraph I quoted is an important point with which I agree, and is one of the reasons I consider a skeptical mental stance to be important. It is a means of protection against our tendency to make unwarranted inferences (pattern matches).

The third paragraph, though, is misleading. Ernie is setting up a transition to an alternative to pure chance, and he may very well be aware of what I am about to say, but for those others reading I want to clarify something. Evolution is often mischaracterized by evolution deniers as operating on pure chance. Pure chance, we hear, could never have produced the complexity that we see in life. We never find watches lying on the ground, assembled by pure chance. We never observe tornados ripping through junkyards and assemblying a 747 by pure chance. These are two common examples that have been given by creationists since William Paley in the early 1800's, and probably even longer. But these examples are not analogous to the process of evolution. Evolution does not operate by pure chance on inanimate objects, but on replicating lifeforms under selective pressure. Watches do not reproduce; there is no mechanism whereby changes in watches can accumulate to produce more complicated watches, not without the intervention of human designers and manufacturers. Living, replicating organisms, on the other hand, do reproduce and they do compete with each other for resources. And their reproduction does not result in identical offspring, especially not for organisms that reproduce sexually. Under these circumstances, it is a near mathematical uncertainty that changes over time will occur, and these changes will include an increase in complexity so long as the survival benefits of the complexity outweight the costs.

The pattern matching that Ernie mentioned is a survival mechanism. Being able to predict the outcomes of our actions, the actions of others and of other events in the natural world is beneficial. It is also costly. The metabolic load caused by our big brains is substantial, and the necessity of our heads full of brains passing through the birth canal also limits the size of our brains. It is not surprising, then, that our ability to understand the world is limited and subject to errors. But it is also misleading to say that the process by which we arrived at this state was pure chance.

Now, as I said, Ernie was leading up to a different point. He used those couple of paragraphs to frame his introduction of General Systems Theory, from which he takes "one finding: that both inorganic (e.g., atomic) and organic (e.g., living) systems are governed by the same general laws regarding interaction, evolution, and positive and negative feedback." This appears to be heading in the direction that he alluded to a few posts back in our dialog when he said:

This third option (iii) is aesthetically the most attractive, but it is an enormously strong statement. It basically asserts that the multitude of biological, psychological, and evolutionary forces responsible for humanity are fundamentally compatible with the scientific, philosophical, and intellectual investigation of the ultimate nature of reality -- even when there appears to be strong evidence for conflict!

I hope Ernie will elaborate on this, because I find nothing particularly surprising or noteworthy in the idea that inorganic and organic processes are governed by the same general laws. The differentiation between organic and inorganic is useful in many contexts, but in the end both are describing physical entities of various kinds. As far as the alignment between the three legs of the trilemma (which was the (iii) statement the above quote referenced), the more I think about this, the less I am impressed by its significance. I've already stated that belief in truth (one leg of the trilemma) is instrumental for good, and the article I mentioned at Ebon Musings made a decent case for the alignment between personal happiness and happiness of others based on the example of the Prisoner's Dilemma. This same alignment can be approached from a different direction: the neurological and evolutionary bases for empathy, whereby the happiness of one man affects the happiness of those around him. (See, for example, this recent post at Dangerous Intersection discussing morality in humans and its precursors in other primates.) While I still question the strength with which Ernie made his assertion, that there should be some significant alignment between my happiness and the happiness of others and that belief in truth furthers both of these is less significant than Ernie might have us believe.

1 comment:

Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
I see we had some overlapping posts, but I think we're at least talking about the same thing. I think the crux of question is the difference between "strong correlation" and "aboslute agreement" between self and other's happiness, as well as between "selective pressure" and "ontological reliability."