On the EAAN

by Neil Rickert

The EAAN, or Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, is an argument by Plantinga.  The Wikipedia entry provides a reasonable summary.

In a recent post at the Uncommon Descent blog, Barry Arrington gives an argument based on the EAAN.  This will mostly be a response to Arrington.

What is the EAAN?

Here’s a short quote from the Wikipedia article.

The EAAN argues that the combined belief in both evolutionary theory and naturalism is epistemically self-defeating. The reason for this is that if both evolution and naturalism are true, then the probability of having reliable cognitive faculties are low.

Personally, I’m inclined to see the EAAN as a reductio ad absurdum of a traditional account of epistemology.  Traditionally, it is said that knowledge is justified true belief.  I’ve disagreed with that in the past, and I continue to disagree.

That Wikipedia quote talks of both evolution and naturalism as being true.  I have never subscribed to naturalism (nor to materialism), because I don’t know what it would mean to say that naturalism is true.  And evolution, as used in that quote, refers to the theory of evolution.  I tend to think of scientific theories as neither true nor false.  Rather, I see a theory as a set of pragmatic conventions that provide a guide to how we should talk about the world.  As such a framework, the theory sets standards, in this case for biology and related fields.  Those standards give as ways of coming up with factual (true) statements about reality.  But whether or not we see the theory as true does not seem important.

Arrington’s appendix

In his UD post, Barry Arrington provides a list of quotes that he takes to support his view and to support the EAAN argument.  I’ll start my response by commenting on those quotes.

“[Our] brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.” Steven Pinker

I can agree that brains were shaped for fitness.  I’m not sure what Pinker might have meant with his comment on adaptivity of truth.  He could be talking of adaptation as used in the theory of evolution, in which case I doubt that truth plays any role at all.  Or he could be talk about adaptation in the sense in which human behavior is adaptive to circumstance, and there I would agree with Pinker’s assessment.

“According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.” Donald Hoffman

That’s just an empty tautology.  It doesn’t actually say anything of importance.  I doubt the meaningfulness of Hoffman’s expression “sees reality as it is.”

We are anything but a mechanism set up to perceive the truth for its own sake. Rather, we have evolved a nervous system that acts in the interest of our gonads, and one attuned to the demands of reproductive competition. If fools are more prolific than wise men, then to that degree folly will be favored by selection. And if ignorance aids in obtaining a mate, then men and women will tend to be ignorant. Michael Ghiselin

Interestingly, Arrington does not use quote marks there, but he uses them in all other items in his appendix.  I’m not sure of the significance.  The next quote, by Stephen Stich, says about the same.  So I’ll comment on the two of them together.

“[N]atural selection does not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive success” Stephen Stich

Both of the above quotes, and some of what Plantinga says, all seem to make dubious assumptions about truth.  They seem to assume that “truth” is some sort of external standard which we can use, where “external” implies that it is from outside human culture.  That view of truth seems widespread, but I cannot find any basis for it.

When I look at how we actually use “true” in our speech, I see that it is messy.  Sometimes we use “true” just to express our approval or agreement with a statement.  And this can be vague, with no actual way of ascertaining truth.  At other times we use “true” in a more precise way where we do have a means of ascertaining truth.  In that more precise usage, we ascertain truth in accordance with accepted standards.  But those are human devised standards.  These suggest that truth is really a human construct, used as part of our system of language communication.  And, in that case, there’s no basis for assuming that truth is external to human culture.

If I’m right about that, then genes would have no relation to truth because they have no relation to language.  Yes, our genes provide us with a language drive.  But they do not provide us with a specific language.  So we should not expect any specifications of truth to be in our genes.

“Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.” Patricia Churchland

I pretty much agree with Churchland.  When she says “truth, whatever it is” she is perhaps raising similar questions about truth to those I have just raised.

And, finally,

“We are jumped-up apes, and our brains were only designed to understand the mundane details of how to survive in the stone-age African savannah.” Richard Dawkins

I’m inclined to question Dawkins’ use of “designed”, but I otherwise agree.

Barry Arrington apparently thinks that those appendix statements are a fatal problem for evolution.  But I don’t believe that they are.

The CS Lewis argument

Arrington quotes CS Lewis, as saying:

If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too.

I don’t have any problem with that.

The Lewis quote continues with:

If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms.

That’s absurd, and does not follow from the first part of the quote.

If, by accident, I spill some water, it does not follow that the subsequent action of the water will just be an accidental by-product of movement of atoms.  In fact, we would expect the water to flow down hill (if there is a slope).  Similarly, even if humans result from an accident, it does not follow that thoughts are accidently motions of atoms.  If they were, we wouldn’t call them thoughts.  Rather, they result from learned behavior within a language speaking culture, so those thoughts are constrained in ways that accidental by-products of movement of atoms would not be constrained.

Arrington goes on to add:

Evolutionary materialists have a severe epistemological dilemma: If their propositions about the universe are true, there would be no way for us to know they are true.

And there we have that same dubious assumption about truth.

Arrington is a theist.  He probably assumes that truth comes from God.  But that does not help at all.  If truth comes from God, then we have no way of knowing what is true unless we have a channel where God communicates this truth.  But we have no such channel.  We have people claiming to speak for God, but they often disagree with one another.  So a theistic account of truth is no help.

If, however, truth is a human construct, a part of language and of the standards that we develop to communicate about the world, then our knowledge (or know-how) of language provides us with a way of assessing truth.

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4 Comments to “On the EAAN”

  1. Richard Carrier gives a thorough refutation of “Plantinga’s Tiger” at:

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12914

    and a reply to a Plantinga defender at:

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13180

    My response to Plantinga – face palm! Logical fallacies, lack of any evidence whatsoever supporting his argument in the cognitive sciences, and much more…His argument has no leg to stand on as is the case with all Christian apologetics. More psudoscience and pseudophilosophy from Plantinga, though I can’t say I’m surprised.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “I can agree that brains were shaped for fitness. I’m not sure what Pinker might have meant with his comment on adaptivity of truth. He could be talking of adaptation as used in the theory of evolution, in which case I doubt that truth plays any role at all. Or he could be talk about adaptation in the sense in which human behavior is adaptive to circumstance, and there I would agree with Pinker’s assessment.”

    I think the Fitness vs. Truth distinction is laid out well in Donald Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception which I wrote about a bit ago (https://lagevondissen.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/conscious-realism-the-interface-theory-of-perception/).

    As for Pinker’s comments, I think what he meant was that brains were shaped for fitness which includes cognitive biases like hyperactive agency detection — which are not shaped for truth per se. On the other hand, with Bayesian brains like ours that are good at recognizing causal patterns to successfully accomplish goals (what I call knowledge), they are also shaped in part for truth, that is, for recognizing (in principle) scientifically verifiable causal patterns as well. Hyperactive agency detection makes one think that there is a tiger in the bushes when it is only the wind, and this is therefore not truth (assuming there is no tiger), but if our brains are capable of learning things through a Bayesian protocol as well, what we would call “objective facts”, then they can track “truth” as well. I think that’s what he meant, which I agree with. Even though Hoffman’s theory may be correct, that still wouldn’t negate the distinction between evolutionarily engrained cognitive heuristics (like hyperactive agency detection) and a more Bayesian form of cognition such as that we employ during use of the scientific method and scientific experimentation.

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    • “Sometimes truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.” (Steve Pinker)

      To add to my previous reply, what Pinker is likely driving at is that truth can be adaptive — such as when we use science to accomplish goals and overcome enormous environmental selection pressures that would otherwise kill us, but sometimes it is not adaptive — such as knowing so much information about some field of view that you are perceiving, that your brain becomes overwhelmed with useless information, and then you decrease the chances of accomplishing useful goals.

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