Evolution and Epistemology

Evolution and Epistemology May 17, 2010

If our minds take to be true only what evolution has conditioned us to think is true for the sake of fitness for survival, does this mean that our beliefs cannot be genuinely true but only some sort of useful ways of thinking that do not necessarily track how the world actually is?  And if our beliefs are merely useful ways of thinking and not truth conducive, then is our belief in evolution itself therefore not actually true either?  Does belief in evolution in this way undermine itself?  John Wilkins mostly shares my view of why these supposed inferences from the evolutionary conditions under which our truth gathering mechanisms evolved are erroneous.  Countering Plantinga’s formulation of the objection, Wilkins writes:

So to the main point: if evolutionary theory is true, then are we blocked from thinking that it is true? Clearly not. If it is true then there is no contradiction with our beliefs being formed on the basis of evolutionary processes also being true. It is not a contradiction that if we evolved to believe that we should flee from tigers that we are veridically seeing tigers. But that is not Plantinga’s argument. He wants to say that we have no warrant for accepting there are tigers, because evolution does not track truth, but fitness.

It is true that, all else being equal*, evolution tracks fitness. Does this mean it doesn’t track truth? Sometime yes, when the fitter belief is untrue. Consider theDunning-Kruger effect – the inability to appropriately measure our own competence can often lead to greater success. But that doesn’t imply that evolution never tracks truth. When fitness correlates with true beliefs, then it certainly can do this. We have a slogan:

Organisms track truth optimally if they obtain as much relevant truth as they can afford, and tolerate no more error that is needed to obtain it.

Any organism that was fitter with consistently false beliefs would be something of a philosophical miracle, akin to a P-Zombie or a Swampman. When true beliefs are causally relevant to fitness, then we might expect organisms, including those endowed with monkey minds, to be able to track truth. Species that have nervous systems respond to environmental cues that are highly relevant to their fitness: von Uexküll called this the Umwelt. The world of primate common sense is our Umwelt.

He then goes on to explain how we move from common sense knowledge to the sorts of scientific knowledge of which evolution is an instance.

Eric Steinhart puts the same basic argument in terms of Nietzsche’s views in his succinctly excellent summation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, On Nietzsche (United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2000, pg. 36):

The evolutionary theory of truth says that all knowledge is no more than a system of propositions consistent with those articles of faith without which human animals are not able to survive.  Therefore, if we assume it is true, and if we apply it to itself, it then tells us that the evolutionary theory of truth is at most a system of propositions consistent with those articles of faith without which human animals are not able to survive—and that does not refute itself.

Of course, if it is true that the only perspectives that evolve are the ones that facilitate for their own evolution, this very account of the evolution of perspectives applies to itself, and it tells us that it is true because (and only because) it facilitates its own evolution.  And since it is a theory that has evolved, it has justified itself.  Applied to itself, it is self-justifying.  Now we are cycling in another Nietzschean circle.  We are staring into another Nietzschean mirror that reflects only itself reflecting itself reflecting itself…But the circle is not vicious, and the mirroring is not vacuous.  The mirror is self-affirming.

And to put the point in my own words, as I explicated Nietzsche’s view in my dissertation (On Deriving and Defending an Axiology of the Will to Power), pgs. 173-174:

Nietzsche’s post-absolutist, perspectivist theory of truth is that the truth is whatever is most consistent with those categories of judgment and perception in which we must think in order to live at all.  It is because adherence to these ways of thinking is a fundamental condition of our lives themselves that we are justified in thinking according to them.  These categories were selected as the categories of our minds precisely because of our fitness for us in appropriating the world for survival.  Therefore, it is no contradiction to realize that this theory itself arises from within a perspective and pattern of thought that relates to what was conducive to our survival.  The theory itself requires precisely that.

We can only think within the sort of perspective on the world that we have evolved and so it is unintelligible to posit the existence non-perspectival things-in-themselves beyond our perspectives.  Our perspectives evolve within the world, as a part of the world by which the world knows itself from a certain kind of evolutionarily conditioned perspective which sustains our kinds of lives within the world.  Insofar as from within the limits of our perspective we can recognize the possibilities of other perspectives, we can say, consistently within the terms of our perspective that it is in some respects a partial view of reality and not an exhaustive picture.  But nonetheless our perspectives are about reality.  To an absolutist who requires a complete representation of reality that captures all of it or fails to have any truth, our perspectives are worth calling “false”.  It is when Nietzsche slips into this perspective that he dismisses our evolutionarily conditioned, limited, and “artistically” constructed view of the world an “error” and a “falsehood”.  But despite this partialness, limitation, and degree of constructedness, it is still a viewpoint that corresponds with verisimilitude to the reality which generates it.  To the extent that our engagement of reality with our constructions successfully keeps us alive and advances our goals, it is successfully enough corresponding to the world that to call it entirely false would be a practical absurdity.  The degree of truth a belief has is the degree to which it effectively employs the categories, concepts and perceptive faculties through which we live to describe it in ways that will predict how the world will be for us.

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