Did We Evolve To Argue?

August 30, 2011

File this one under ‘Stuff I Wanted to Blog About This Summer but Didn’t Find the Time’.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times last June titled, Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth which describes a theory by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, researchers in the cognitive sciences. The theory basically states that human reason evolved to “help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us”, not necessarily to discover the truth or accuracy of a belief. I find the idea fascinating because it underlines one of the fundamental flaws of the belief that human cognitive mechanisms are solely the product of evolutionary processes   – namely if our ability to think was the product of evolution alone, then there is no reason to believe that our beliefs are particularly rational. This has been articulated thoroughly by Alvin Plantinga, but here the authors take it in a different direction:

Other scholars have previously argued that reasoning and irrationality are both products of evolution. But they usually assume that the purpose of reasoning is to help an individual arrive at the truth, and that irrationality is a kink in that process, a sort of mental myopia. Gary F. Marcus, for example, a psychology professor at New York University and the author of “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind,” says distortions in reasoning are unintended side effects of blind evolution. They are a result of the way that the brain, a Rube Goldberg mental contraption, processes memory. People are more likely to remember items they are familiar with, like their own beliefs, rather than those of others.

What is revolutionary about argumentative theory is that it presumes that since reason has a different purpose — to win over an opposing group — flawed reasoning is an adaptation in itself, useful for bolstering debating skills.

Mr. Mercier, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, contends that attempts to rid people of biases have failed because reasoning does exactly what it is supposed to do: help win an argument.

“People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well,” he said, “as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that.”

This theory, like others based on the assumption that human cognition evolved naturally is as likely as any other speculation about the development of human reason. If it’s true, it means atheists are as presumptive in their ideas as Christians, and as likely to cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence to the contrary. This renders the notion that they have come to their beliefs in a more ‘rational’ manner moot, as in reality they simply were convinced by a skilled debater, and are simply now following their propensity to defend their beliefs. The idea that there is truth or reality to be discerned is moot – we are all mere products of our cognitive development. There is no basis for an atheist to argue that he or she can rise above this.

Indeed the only confident and consistent way to argue for the ability to discern truth is if one believes one has been given cognitive equipment to do so; this could only be the case if a designer of human minds actually exists.

Of course if atheists are correct, then what is true about this matter is an argument we can never have.


Teacher’s Unions Are Damaging American Education

August 30, 2011

As coverage of this recent protest of governor Scott Walker at a successful private school in Wisconsin clearly demonstrates:

What the left-wing teachers unions are against here is obvious – choice, opportunity, and the welfare of students.

What they are for seems to be their own interests, which don’t include a good education for American children.


August 29, 2011

The main problem with claiming the behavior of certain animals is evidence for the natural development of human morality is that those behaviors are only considered moral and immoral by humans, not the animals themselves. An ape or dolphin or dog may in fact exhibit something like altruism or tenderness – but neither apes nor dolphins nor dogs distinguish between those acts and acts which we would consider immoral, like killing over food, or forced copulation, or theft. To an animal they are just behaviors, the way such animals act in certain circumstances. Human morality however is a set of rules which specifically distinguishes between behaviors – and we are the only organisms which identify and articulate those sorts of rules. There is nothing occurring in the animal kingdom that would indicate this occurs as a matter of natural development of species.

The Demise of Christianity has Been Greatly Exaggerated

August 26, 2011

There is a good op-ed from the Wall Street Journal about the inaccurate polling done concerning the fading of religious belief in America. Personally, I am somewhat skeptical of polls-as-science because the data is often skewed by the questions asked, and the by the social propriety of answering questions a certain way whatever the actual beliefs of the pollee.

Atheists often rely on such data to ‘prove’ they are growing in numbers. I don’t fault them for this given they represent an extreme minority in the world and consistently represent only about 4% of the US populace; I am sure they are desperate to grasp at any inkling that their numbers are growing.

The authors however point out the national polls show no big falloff, and the national press often misses this fact:

Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.

In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as conservative as their parents.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, as a conservative evangelical Christian, I believe that the number of people who call themselves Christians don’t necessarily reflect sincere or understanding belief in Christ, so I am rather indifferent to raw numbers or labels. Nonetheless the fact is nothing like strong atheism seems to be spreading in the US, and given the demographics of truly secular societies (the fact they are aging, low-reproductive populations) it is unlikely atheism will predominate anytime in the future.

Friday Fun-ness

August 26, 2011

Just a reminder why the announcement by Steve Jobs that he was stepping down as CEO of Apple was such big news – much bigger news than the similar retirement of Bill Gates in 2000; he changed everything about computing.

Penn Jillette Gets It Right

August 24, 2011

In a recent opinion piece, Penn Jillette, entertainer, writer and atheist, explains the his basis for not only being an atheist, but a libertarian as well:

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist — I don’t know. If I don’t know, I don’t believe. I don’t know exactly how we got here, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we’ll get more, but I’m not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I’m not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I’ll wait for real evidence and then I’ll believe.

Though I share none of his metaphysical views, I find Penn’s approach quite refreshing.  In making this statement, Jillette is exhibiting a characteristic called epistemic humility; that is the acknowledgement that one doesn’t and will never have ultimate knowledge about the nature of reality. He ties this characteristic to libertarianism, but I would offer that it is actually integral to conservative thinking, at least of the modern American variety. It has also been instumental in directing various people towards a Christian worldview. I’ll consider conservative thought first.

In his argument for libertarianism, Penn explains how the government is insufficient to provide for the multitude of disparate needs of the our society:

And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in theUnited States and I have no idea what the government should do.

In many ways this is a reflection of one of the ideas of conservative economist FA Hayek concerning the inability of governments to plan economies, and that it was the task of economics to, “demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” He continued, ” To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.

That is, we can never have sufficient knowledge to ‘plan’ an economy – and the best and most creative societies are always the result of individuals acting in accordance with their own knowledge and experience.

Such thinking is also reflected in one of the tenets of the conservative thinker and writer Russell Kirk, who observed the benefit of an, “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;”

This is one of the reasons conservatives tend to oppose large, centralized bureaucratic systems of any sort – they fail to take into account individual human experiences and capabilities, and so invariably become dictatorial and antithetical to human freedom. So there is much that is shared between conservative thought and the intellectual motivation Penn describes here.

Though Penn finds in this thinking some foundation for his atheism (and I laud him for his thoughtful approach to the subject) I would offer that New Atheism is actually antithetical to epistemic humility. Though they occasionally point out the willingness of scientists to say ‘I don’t know’ (all the while deriding Christians for their reliance on ‘mystery’) , New Atheists by and large place great faith in the ability of material science to provide ultimate explanations for the existence of the universe, life, human nature and thought, as well as being foundational to morality and social systems.

At the heart of New Atheism is scientism, the ideological notion that the totality of reality and human experience can be described by science. It is a reductionist view which, rather than freeing human intellectually, binds them to current consensus of the scientific community. It neither appreciates the variety and mystery of human existence, nor how civilization has advanced by unprovable axioms.

Rather than leading to atheism, acknowledging the limits of human knowledge leads one to wisdom, which begins with understanding the limits of one’s own understanding and abilities. Indeed, this is where belief in God began for many Christian thinkers, among them scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. As he put it in his masterpiece Pensées:

“What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!

Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.”

For Pascal, knowing God began with realizing one’s own intellectual limitations. This comports with the Scriptural notion that the knowledge of God is predicated by understanding of the limitations of human knowledge:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.Proverbs 3:5-6

As I have mentioned previously,  my Christian faith began with skepticism; that is a growing awareness of the inability of materialism or naturalism alone to address critical aspects of the human experience and our understanding of reality. It also sprung from my own realization that no person or group of persons possessed in and of themselves the knowledge or the capability to successfully overcome inherent human shortcomings and the impact those shortcomings had on our ability to live well. I was in a word humbled by this.

It appears Penn Jillette has begun to discover the benefits of such humility as well – and that is a hopeful sign.


August 23, 2011

If the secular left were as concerned about a politician’s basic math skills as they are his or her views on evolution and global warming, our government might not currently be facing this massive budget busting debt.