Evolutionary naturalists, as a rule, do not seem to notice the logical inconsistency between their Darwinian accounts of value, truth and meaning on the one hand and their minds’ actual performance on the other. They instinctively glorify the value of truth, especially scientific truth, as something to which the mind must bend. But their ultimately evolutionary explanations should lead them to doubt their minds’ capacity to put them in touch with truth, as both Darwin and Rorty rightly point out. Assuming that their minds are a product of evolution, after all, there is nothing in the Darwinian recipe alone that would justify their trust that these same minds can reliably lead them to the truth rather than a state of deception. And if they took Darwinian naturalism as ultimate explanation they would have every reason to doubt that they have the capacity to know truth at all.
Even the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who was not a strict adaptationist, could not overcome the naturalistic inconsistency. For Gould, no less than for Flanagan, Dennett, E. O. Wilson and Dawkins, the ultimate explanation of every living phenomenon, including our capacity for truth, is evolution. Life’s diversity and versatility is based on three general features of nature: accidents (undirected events), the law of selection (along with the laws of physics and chemistry) and lots of time. Gould gives more explanatory weight to contingency (especially accidents of natural history) than Dawkins and Dennett do, but the ultimate explanation of organic phenomena, including the brain, is still a combination of blind chance, impersonal necessity and deep time. As far as the present inquiry into the deepest ground of intelligence is concerned, it matters little what proportion is given to each ingredient. The point is that Gould’s evolutionary naturalism views the ultimate explanation of mind — and this would have to include its tendency to value truth — as itself mindless and valueless.
Before Darwin, Gould says, we easily fell into the trap of thinking that nature was inherently valuable and that values and meanings had a reality independent of us. But after Darwin,
we finally become free to detach our search for ethical truth and spiritual meaning from our scientific quest to understand the facts and mechanisms of nature. Darwin liberated us from asking too much of nature, thus leaving us free to comprehend whatever fearful fascination may reside out there, in full confidence that our quest for decency and meaning cannot be threatened thereby, and can emerge only from our own moral consciousness.
[Stephen J. Gould, "Introduction," in Carl Zimmer, Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea from Darwin to DNA (London: Arrow Books, 2003), pp. xvi-xvii (emphasis added).]
According to naturalism, there is nothing beyond nature that could conceivably give any value to the world. So it is left to our own human creativity to give value to things. But does this mean that it is also entirely up to us to decide that truth is a value? According to Gould, values and meaning have no objective status, either in nature or God. The ultimate ground of value is not nature, evolution or God but our own “moral consciousness.” And since there are no values “out there” in the real world, their existence can only be the result of human creativity solidified by cultural consensus.
To be consistent, Gould would also have to claim that the value that naturalists accord to truth is dictated not by nature or God, since nature is valueless and God (probably) does not exist. And yet Gould’s own life and work give evidence of a mind that in fact takes truth to be an intrinsic good. In his actual cognitional performance, both truth and his valuing of truth are irreducible to evolutionary or human creations. The unconditional value Gould finds in pursuing truth cannot be fully explained naturalistically or culturally without rendering that pursuit groundless.
Product of modernity that he was, Gould would probably respond that the naturalist’s sense of human inventiveness allows us to recapture some of the self-esteem that our ancestors gave away to the gods. We can now take back what humans had forfeited during all those millennia when they naively assumed, in keeping with religions, that nature is intrinsically purposeful and that truth, value and purpose are not our own inventions. For Gould, the modern impression of a teleological void is an opportunity to fill the cosmos with our own values and meanings.[Gould, Ever since Darwin, p. 12.]
Once again, however, if we were fully convinced that the value we attach to truthfulness were no more than our own, apparently groundless, creation, then devotion to truth could no longer function as the source of meaning for our lives. Truth would be subordinate to the discretion of our own inventiveness rather than a torch that guides our minds more deeply into the marrow of the real. If evolutionary naturalists took their own doctrines seriously this would only have a corrosive effect on the trust they place instinctively in their own minds’ imperatives to be open, intelligent and critical. As a way of driving home this point, I shall ask you, the reader, to suppose once again that you subscribe to the tenets of evolutionary naturalism. Then I shall ask you whether the facts associated with the actual performance of your own mind are logically compatible with this naturalistic view of reality.
If you are an evolutionary naturalist, you will most probably account for living phenomena, including your own mind, ultimately in terms of the mindless Darwinian recipe for life. As an evolutionary naturalist you will also agree that the ultimate explanation of your various organs — your nose, mouth, eyes, ears and everything else functionally adaptive about you — is Darwinian natural selection. [Gary Cziko, Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), p. 121.] And, to be completely consistent, you will be compelled to admit that your critical intelligence, which to the pure Darwinian is not a blank slate but has been molded to think the way it does by natural selection, can be explained ultimately also in terms of Darwin’s recipe.[ Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).]
If you follow Gould, you may appeal too to the role of accidents in natural history, and not solely to selective adaptation, in explaining why you have a mind and why it works the way it does. But if you follow ultra-adaptationists such as Dawkins, then the ultimate explanation of your mind and all its features is the (mindless) natural selection of adaptive populations of related genes. In either case, whether by Darwinian adaptation or by sheer accident (or a combination of the two), the ultimate explanation of your capacity to think is itself a set of mindless and unintelligent factors. But if this is right, then on what basis can you trust your critical intelligence, the outcome of an unintelligent process, to lead you to right understanding and knowledge of the truth at this instant? Darwin himself, as we have seen earlier, raised this troublingly subversive question, but he did not follow it up carefully.
Evolution produced intelligence, declares Owen Flanagan, but evolution does not require intelligence to produce intelligence. “Evolution demonstrates how intelligence arose from totally insensate origins.[ Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, p. 11 (emphasis added).] But how then do you and Flanagan justify the confidence you now place in your mental functioning, especially if the ultimate ground of your intelligence is not only unintelligent but even insensate. If not by magic, then how did your dazzling intellectual prowess and the trust you place in it ever pop into this universe from a state of unutterable cosmic dumbness? It would appear, to me at least, that something momentous in the way of explanation has been left out here. A simplistic appeal to deep time and gradualism alone cannot bridge this explanatory gap since the passage of time itself does nothing to cure the fundamental blindness of the process.
If either aimless evolutionary selection or sheer contingency is the deepest possible explanation of your own mental endowment, then why should I pay any attention to you? How do I know — if I follow your own premises — that your mind is not just taking part in one more adaptive (and possibly fictitious) exercise rather than leading you and me to the truth? In company with Dawkins, Gould, Flanagan and others, you are telling me that a mindless evolutionary process along with physical and chemical laws) is the ultimate explanation of your mind and its properties.
Darwinism, you say, is true. I can agree with you scientifically speaking, but what I need to find out is how your mind’s capacity for truth-telling slipped into the fundamentally unintelligent Darwinian universe that you started with. Although evolutionary explanation is essential, any attempt to answer this question in Darwinian terms alone will be circular and magical. In order to justify the assumption that your own mind is of such stature as to be able to understand and know truth, you will need to look for a kind of explanation that evolutionary science, at least by itself, cannot provide.
If you resort only to the idea of adaptation this will not work, since mindless adaptations, as you know well, can be illusory and deceptive. Perhaps then you will tell me that your highly prized human capacity for truth-telling is an incidental, unplanned byproduct of evolution. Perhaps it is something like what Stephen Jay Gould calls a “spandrel.” That is, perhaps your cognitional talent is analogous to the arched surfaces (spandrels) that appear incidentally around the tops of columns whose main function is to hold up the roofs of cathedrals like San Marco in Venice. Such features are not the main architectural objective, but instead they simply appear, unintended in themselves, as the basilica is being erected.
The spandrels, though unintended as such, may be taken as opportunities for great artists to cover them with frescoes or mosaics. And it may be the spandrels and the works of art, rather than the columns, that attract our focal interest as we enter the building. [J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: a Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, vol. 205, no. 1161 1979, 581-98.] Perhaps, in a similar way, your mind’s capacity for truth-telling is a spandrel that just happened to show up as a contingent side-effect of the adaptive (and otherwise often deceptive and deluded)) human brain.
Or, again, perhaps your critical intelligence is essentially the consequence of cultural conditioning that has little to do with natural selection. In any case, whether you interpret your capacity for truth-telling as a Darwinian adaptation, a spandrel, an accident of nature, or the consequence of enculturation, you will still have failed to justify the trust you are now placing — at this very moment — in your own intellectual activity. Both naturalistic and culturally relativistic explanations of mind provide too shallow a soil to ground the inevitable confidence that underlies your actual cognitional performance. Consequently, if up to this point you have professed official allegiance to evolutionary naturalism, you must now roam outside the circle of that creed in order to find a more solid reason for why your mind can be trusted to know and communicate the truth.
If you are a Darwinian naturalist you will be given to making claims such as this one by biologist David Sloan Wilson: “Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.”[ David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)]
I wonder, however, if Wilson is aware of how thoroughly his subordination of rationality to evolutionary adaptation logically undermines not only his claim but also the confidence with which his own mind makes such a claim. Assuming that the statement just quoted is one that comes from Wilson’s own brain, and assuming also that his brain is the outcome of an adaptive evolutionary process, on what grounds can Wilson justify his assumption that readers should take his claim to be rational and true rather than simply an attempt to adapt? If a proposition contrary to Wilson’s assertion had been the one to survive adaptively, then would it not have to be judged rational and true according to Wilson’s proposal? If so, truth would have no stable meaning whatsoever, and pursuit of it could scarcely function to give purpose to one’s life.
Are Darwinian selection, sheer contingency and the vicissitudes of enculturation, therefore, the best we can come up with by way of an ultimate account of intelligence? In particular, can evolutionary science, in any of its expressions, be the ultimate explanation of the spontaneous trust that all of us place in our rational faculties? Or is not Darwinism at best just one of several levels of explanation needed to understand critical intelligence? If the critical (truth-telling) aspect of our cognitional life could be explained ultimately in Darwinian terms, on what grounds can we trust it? We do not have to deny that physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology are all essential layers in the explanation of mind. But in order to account fully for the mind’s natural longing for truth we have to move beyond naturalistic explanation.
Purpose As Anticipation Of Truth
Is it time then to call on theology? By no means, answers Richard Dawkins. Theology only complicates matters, doing nothing really to explain intelligence. After all, theology begins by assuming that there was already a creative intelligence operative in the scheme of things, namely, God. But, Dawkins insists, it is precisely creative intelligence that needs to be explained, not just taken for granted. And to the scientific mind any explanation of intelligence has to be in terms of what is unintelligent. Otherwise it is not an explanation. To explain anything scientifically means to simplify it. Before Darwin, Dawkins says, we had no simple and elegant explanation for intelligence, but now we do. “Darwinian evolution provides an explanation, the only workable explanation so far suggested, for the existence of intelligence. Creative intelligence comes into the world late, as the derived product of a long process of gradual change .. . After Darwin we at last have a universe in which creative intelligence is explained as emerging after millions of years of evolution.“[ Richard Dawkins, "The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science," Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Harvard University November 20, 2003). Cited on the Science and Theology website: http://www.stnews.org/ archives/ 2004_february/ web x richard.html]
What I want to know, however, is how the evolutionary naturalist’s own critical intelligence emerged with such pristine purity from utterly insensate origins. Dawkins’ habitual appeal to gradualism here is no explanation. No matter how much time was available for intelligence to be cobbled together gradually (with the help of blind random variation and aimless natural selection, the question remains as to how naturalists’ own minds acquired just those qualities that allow them to assume that they are in an especially advantageous position to contact what is.
No matter how long it takes to bring intelligence into being out of absolute unintelligence, logically speaking this is still pulling a rabbit out of a hat. By appealing to time’s fathomless depth — as though time itself were causal — Dawkins has not avoided magic either. His assumption is that an enormous amount of time is explanatory, whereas a lesser amount is not. [Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996), pp. 3-37] But then where is the cut-off point? How many millions or billions of years of gradual change does it take before time ceases being a framework and becomes an efficient cause? And, again, how is magic to be avoided?
There is no denying, I must hasten to add, that evolutionary biology and the appeal to deep time can contribute much to an explanation of the origin and nature of the human mind. It is just that it cannot fully explain why the mind can know truth or why we should value truth-telling. I have no difficulty in accepting evolutionary accounts of mind, and I am willing to have the sciences push these as far as they can take us. However, I am questioning whether evolutionary accounts are enough to account ultimately for the trust that you, Gould, Flanagan, D. Wilson and Dawkins spontaneously place in your own minds to lead you (and me) to the truth.
Darwinians, as I have already pointed out, even suspect that deception is one of life’s most adaptive characteristics [See Rue, By the Grace of Guile, pp. 82-127, for a convenient summary.] So if adaptive evolution, or accidents of nature, or social conditioning — or any other random or blindly material happenings underlying life — constitute the ultimate explanation of your own mental functioning, then why are you not suspicious right now that you may be deceiving me and yourself by claiming that naturalism is true?
What strikes me here especially is the degree of disconnection between the evolutionary naturalist’s picture of nature’s inherent unintelligence on the one hand, and, on the other, the especially prized scientific mind that has emerged from this foggy background already equipped with an amazing aptitude to understand and know the truth about things, including the truth of Darwinism. Something really big is missing from the evolutionary naturalist’s account. The degree of separateness — between the primordial dumbness of nature as depicted by naturalism, and the trustworthiness of critical intelligence as it is functioning now — is so severe that the very dualism of mind and universe that naturalism is supposed to have conquered has reasserted itself.
Evolutionary naturalism — as distinct from evolutionary science — must be rejected, therefore, because its method and claims are logically inconsistent with the trust that underlies the naturalist’s own critical intelligence and the sense of purpose that comes with the pursuit of truth. On the other hand, a worldview in which truth is known by anticipation can explain this trust and sense of purpose, and it can do so without in any way contradicting the results of evolutionary science. It is because intelligent subjects can be grasped by truth that the surrender to this noblest of values – one that beckons the mind through the sacramental mediation of the natural and cultural worlds — can function to give our lives a purpose. Truth lights up everything and gives meaning to our lives not because it is created but because it is anticipated. And anticipation, in turn, entails a worldview in which the present state of nature is not only the sunset of the past, but the sunrise of an indeterminate future.