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Travel Diary 11: Notre Dame

This conference is turning out to be interesting, in a kind of weird way. I am very much the agnostic in the Catholic lion’s den, but so far the lions haven’t so much as looked my way hungrily. I did have an interesting discussion tonight with Simon Conway Morris, and Paul Griffiths’ and my talk (his really; I just coasted along as ghost author) went over very well indeed, in which we (he) argued that the evolutionary debunking argument that works for religion and morality fails for cases in which evolution tracks fitness by tracking truth (i.e., in cases where our Umwelt is ecological).

I give my solo talk on evolutionary naturalism of religion tomorrow.

One other cool event was that Ken Miller showed a number of theist and atheist advocates of evolution on a slide (let them all talk, he said), and one of them was PZ Miscible. I nearly stood up and shouted “I know him!”.


  1. … we (he) argued that the evolutionary debunking argument that works for religion and morality fails for cases in which evolution tracks fitness by tracking truth ….

    Could you translate this into English for those of us who don’t speak philosophy?

    Is it possible to give a two sentence summary of your (and Paul’s) position?

  2. dave souza dave souza

    Indeed, a longer explanation would be welcome. Does this go in self-defeating circles?

  3. Not really. For Larry: the simple version first…

    Evolutionary explanations of belief X undercut reasons for thinking that X is true.

    This is usually about moral realism (if morality evolved, we have less reason to think moral values are objective).

    If religion evolved, then we have less reason to think the claims of religion are objectively true (since we can explain them another way).

    But, science evolved, says the critic. Ergo you, by your own lights, have less reason to think science is true.

    Not true, we say. Science is fitter than nonscience (or, if you want to restrict this to cognitive powers, our knowledge gathering capacities are fitter than those they displaced) just because they track fitness by tracking truth.

    So because science is about knowledge of the external world, the fitter capacities for getting scientific knowledge survived and reproduced because they are more true than what they displaced.

    Ergo, the argument that Plantinga makes that if evolution is true we have no reason to think it is, is false. But the defence won’t work for religion or morals.

    In other words, it defeats the self-defeating argument.

  4. If you are still in touch with Simon, could you ask him if he will release a statement on his role in “Darwin’s Dilema”? Like James Valentine has done. (and tell him I said hi)

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      I’ll grab him after this session. He’s giving a keynote speech this evening.

  5. bob koepp bob koepp

    John – Do you think science does track truth? I seem to recall that on several occasions you’ve suggested otherwise.

  6. John Wilkins John Wilkins

    In a sense of truth that would suit government needs, yes. It is at best an argument that a kind of structural realism is warrantable under selective processes, not an argument that full scientific realism is correct or required. The sense of “truth” here is not a correspondence theory, but rather a statement that organisms can be expected to negotiate their world successfully. Science is a process that is built on top of our shared primate senses and capacities (the world of common sense is the primate Umwelt, as Paul and I say), and so both that Umwelt and later the theories of science must be true in the pragmatic sense of not causing failure of action. Increasingly, as science engages actively in more and more fine grained interactions with the world, one has warrant for believing in the entities that one needs to conceive of to do this.

  7. bob koepp bob koepp

    In other words, you don’t think science tracks truth. Instead, it minimizes failure of action. I don’t see how increasing “fine grainedness” of actions is going to bridge the gap, and I don’t think one can have it both ways.

    • Of course the very concept of Umwelt argues against a correspondence theory of truth.

      I’m curious to see the full-length argument, but until such time, I wonder about the following:

      1) “Fine-grained” sciences that adapt to critique, but are still wrong, e.g. the epicycles of Ptolemeic astronomy

      2) Areas where “the truth” is patently unfit, such as the proliferation of atomic weapons technology

      3) The naturalistic fallacy implied by establishing science’s value as a fitness enhancer (How do we determine what is instrumental, and separate means from ends? Or, put another way, since science is a social activity, how do we keep it from reducing to social Darwinism?)

      Also (and this goes back to my oldest quarrel with you on these matters), the argument assumes science to be metaphysically neutral, which sociologists of science having been debunking for 50 years.

      • John Wilkins John Wilkins

        Chris, if you did not exist, I would have to invent you.

        1. This is structural realism, not a correspondence theory; Ptolemy was fine until a certain time, and it did uncover, among other things, orbits (just the wrong orbits).

        2. Argument from consequences. This is not about fitness of the people who do the inventing now; it’s about the fitness of the technology and associated theories.

        3. This is not a moral argument. Moral realism is debunked by evolution. We are considering only epistemic questions.

        And no, it doesn’t. But thanks for asking (and exactly how do sociologists find this out? Scientifically?).

      • John,

        I’m glad that my existence saves us both a lot of exertion.

        I recognize you weren’t appealing to correspondence theory. I just meant, good thing, since there’s no room for it here.

        There’s a lot in the admission that the Ptolemeans uncovered “orbits, just the wrong orbits.” It raises the question of how much truth is good enough, and how deep our commitment to it (some would write “faith in it”) should be. “Fine-grained” was your criterion, not “fine-grained until someone questions the premises of the scientific description.” (We could also use the example of present-day particle physics, for which there are a number of competing paradigmatic explanations).

        About nuclear weaponry, it would be hard to separate the fitness of the ideas from those who spread them, since both would perish. The logic is the same: is it not possible for truth to be inherently “unfit”? Even from the POV of memetics, “here’s how you build a doomsday device” would seem to be problematic.

        Or we could invoke “grey goo.” Your own crucible was “failure of action.” Is not the destruction of the cosmos based on accurate science not a failure of action?

        Finally, considering only epistemic questions, in the absence of moral ones, would seem to be a kind of confirmation bias, since science already pretends to a moral neutrality, whereas religion does not. This is a problem Plantinga asked for when he framed the question as an epistemic one, which is too bad for him, but I think if we are going to evaluate forms of cognition based on their fitness, there is plenty of room for moral reasoning, since we are conscious agents who can anticipate the consequences of our actions.

      • John Wilkins John Wilkins

        I’m glad that my existence saves us both a lot of exertion.

        Oh, I agree. I am very bad at inventing careful critics of my own views.

        Of course, “fine-grained” is a longue durée kind of property, and in the long run we are all wrong. And when a theory is equiprobable with other candidates on the board (not, mark you, those not on the board, as there are an infinite number of those) one has to reserve judgement about the structure of any one of them being true in the government sense. [But the shared structure of the best of them is not at issue…]

        We accept that truth can be unfit – it is the core of our argument. We do not, however, think that one species’ Umwelt can be persistently and perniciously unfit. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why, as this margin is too small to contain the proof.

        I am not a moral nihilist; I am just not a moral realist. I suspect this is also true of Paul, but I haven’t asked him. While I do tend to brush past those earnest young folk who push petitions upon one on the way to the caf with the exclamation, “Sorry, I am a moral vacuum!”, I am more than happy to see moral rules as a rough summary of what has worked in the past.

        Science has no morals, or, to put it another way, it has Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Marxist, Maoist, Confucian and animist morals. And a healthy dash of atheist and agnostic morals… depends on who is doing the science, really.

  8. bob koepp bob koepp

    John – Just playing the gadfly, here. How do you propose to reconcile the idea of something being “true in the pragmatic sense of not causing failure of action” with your acceptance that “truth can be unfit?” That’s meant as a serious question. Here’s a less serious one… Isn’t the government sense of truth equivalent to “baldfaced lies of convenience?”

  9. John,

    Those are reasonable statements, but I think they amount to a level of epistemic uncertainty a lot of scientists would be unhappy with. Kind of a Pyrrhic victory, in other words.

    In general I think you place too much emphasis on a binary science/non-science option. What has science really “displaced?” The vast majority of our species alive today are significantly superstitious. Why should this too not be part of a fitness profile?

    Let me try again to say why the moral question matters. Moral concerns are part of the Umwelt. Don’t shit where you eat, for example. Moral rules can “track truth” despite deep epistemological inaccuracies. (We might say “that mountain is sacred to so and so,” and thus not dump toxic waste there, and thus not pollute an important aquifer). In contrast, scientific curiosity–especially when coupled with commerce–can kill the cat in innumerable ways, in spite of its epistemic faithfulness.

    In short I think you are isolating science as a special social practice because of a pre-existing notion that it tracks truth, not because it can be shown to actually have a differential effect on fitness compared to other social practices.

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