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.