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Building a Milvian Bridge

Milvbruck.jpgPaul Griffiths is presenting our paper on evolutionary skepticism and religion at the University of Wollongong tomorrow, if you happen to be in the neighbourhood:

Paul Griffiths (USyd) will be presenting at the University of Wollongong Philosophy Research Seminar series on Tuesday, May 11th.  All are welcome to attend.

Title: “When do evolutionary explanations of belief debunk belief?”, co-authored with John Wilkins (Bond)

When and where: May 11th, 5:30pm in room 19.1003

Abstract: Ever since Darwin people have worried about the sceptical implications of evolution. If our minds are products of evolution like those of other animals, why suppose that the beliefs they produce are true, rather than merely useful? In this paper we apply this argument to beliefs in three different domains: morality, religion, and commonsense/science. We identify replies to evolutionary scepticism that work in some domains but not in others. The simplest reply to evolutionary scepticism is that the truth of beliefs in a certain domain is, in fact, connected to evolutionary success. So evolution can be expected to design systems that produce true beliefs in that domain. We call a connection between truth and evolutionary success a ‘Milvian bridge’, after the tradition which ascribes the triumph of Christianity at the battle of the Milvian bridge to the truth of Christianity. We argue that a Milvian bridge can be constructed for commonsense beliefs, and extended to scientific beliefs, but not to moral and religious beliefs. An alternative reply to evolutionary scepticism, which as been used to defend moral beliefs, is to argue that their truth does not depend on their tracking some external state of affairs. We ask if this reply could be used to defend religious beliefs.

For more information on this and other upcoming events in Philosophy at UOW, check out phil-gong.blogspot.com

The Milvian Bridge is where Constantine fought Maxentius for the emperorship of Rome. His success there, fighting under the sign of Christ (?) was for centuries used as an argument for the truth of Christianity. A “Milvian Bridge” is any argument that reasons from the success of a belief to its truth.

8 Comments

  1. TomS TomS

    Does the fact that our minds are the result of reproduction and development call into question the reliability of our knowledge?

    Does the fact that our perceptions are the result of biochemical reactions call into question the reliability of our senses?

    Evolution deals with changes in populations, not individuals. Knowledge is an activity of individuals, not populations. Reproduction, development, and metabolism are activities of individuals. Why, then, is evolution more problematic for knowledge?

    On the other hand, if our minds are designed, how does that give any basis for the reliability of what our minds do? Particularly if “intelligent design” is no guarantee of “good design” (as in the reproductive system). Couldn’t it just be that our minds think the thoughts that our designers want us to think, or that they aren’t better at designing minds than they are at designing genito-urinary systems?

  2. Alex Alex

    “Why, then, is evolution more problematic for knowledge?”

    Because the structures and processes that cause individuals to acquire beliefs were produced by evolution, a process acting on populations.

    • TomS TomS

      Are you suggesting that anything which produces the structures and processes that cause individuals to acquire beliefs is problematic for knowledge?

  3. bob koepp bob koepp

    “The simplest reply to evolutionary scepticism is that the truth of beliefs in a certain domain is, in fact, connected to evolutionary success. So evolution can be expected to design systems that produce true beliefs in that domain.”
    There’s a nasty non sequitur here. One needs the premise that systems producing true beliefs are among the variants on which NS operates. That’s a large assumption.

  4. Humanbeasts have developed the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    If the theory of evolution by natural selection is correct then humanbeasts are capable of developing true beliefs via the endowments of the process of evolution by natural selection (however obliquely those endowments actually enable the developments of our beliefs).

    If the theory of evolution by natural selection is not correct then there is no issue.

    If the theory of evolution is broadly correct, it automatically buys us a minimum of reliability.

    I wish I could read your paper. Are there any explicit replies to Alvin Plantinga in there? He is seriously annoying.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I added a link to the PhilPapers draft of the paper.

  5. bob koepp bob koepp

    John – I’ve had a chance now to look at your and Paul Griffith’s paper, and I still think your argument rests on a dodgy, implicit premise. I’m happy to accept that true beliefs will tend to promote success; but that’s not enough to underwrite an expectation that evolution will “design systems that produce true beliefs.” That our beliefs haven’t killed us yet isn’t very good evidence that they are true.

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