28
Apr

Can Evolution Explain Abstract Thought?

evolution1My last post, on the existence of innate desires, argued that God was the best explanation for why such desires exist. A skeptic disagreed, claiming:

 Yes, we have innate desires. So do bacteria. Strangely enough, our innate desires seem to mostly be connected to surviving and reproducing, exactly what evolution would lead us to expect. Sure, we humans also have more complex desires, but these can be seen as extensions of our basic desires and elaborations upon them, even if we don’t understand them perfectly.

Now, of course, this skeptic does not speak for all skeptics. But the general response is one I’ve seen repeatedly in discussing these types of issues with committed non-believers. The response is worth examining for two reasons: to see where the flaw in the analysis lies, but more importantly, to see just how implausible an atheistic worldview is.

Even without an advanced biology degree, it is apparent that bacteria do not have “desires,” as desires are mental conceptions. They involve thoughts and ideas.  They require imagination; the ability to picture an outcome and the steps necessary to achieve it.  They involve an assessment of whether the object of the desire is worth the trouble involved in attaining it. At most, bacteria may respond to chemical changes in their environment, in a manner which allows them to continue living. They may move along a nutrient gradient, in response to some internal programming that seeks to perpetuate life, but they are not engaging in thinking. Moreover, evolution operates only on biological systems. Before evolution can begin to provide an explanation as to why certain desires may be passed on, one must in the first place explain the existence of the source of desires – the brain that generates or grounds in some fashion the mind. Bacteria don’t have a brain; consequently, evolution cannot be an explanation for the mystery we seek to untangle.

The skeptic may respond that some desires don’t require abstract thought imagination. The desire for food or drink, for instance.  True, many lower animals have basic desires, which they experience as instincts, but none of these animals can conceptualize in the way human beings do. A dog remains satisfied with whatever may be in his vicinity that is edible. He does not conjure up better ways to mix or prepare food to satisfy his palate.  Moreover, no lower animals ever form ideas of duty, honor or sacrifice. They may live and hunt in pacts, but these actions remain mere instincts. Consider how a human being differs: yes, he too may have the instinct to run from danger, but he also has the capacity to sacrifice himself for the love of another, or to respond to concepts of honor and duty in charging into, rather than away from, danger.  And, most interestingly of all, he has a third aspect of his mind that appears to be separate and apart from the two competing forces, a part of the mind or self that is arbitrating and deciding which urge to follow. The one who runs gets labeled a coward, perhaps, while the one who stays is a hero. These labels further reflect that abstract thought is qualitatively different than what lower animals do. These are differences in kind, not simply in degree. Yes, the chef and the dog both desire to eat, but only the chef is operating in the world of conceptions, imagination and ideas. The dog may run to save his master, but he is not weighing and balancing which approach is nobler.

Finally, evolution has another startling mystery, if the skeptic’s view is correct. Assuming that human thought is only the last step in a progression, does it not seem odd that human beings would be the only living creatures to possess the capacity for abstract thought? After all, human beings are much more recent in appearance than monkeys or apes, or any of our four-legged friends. All of these life forms have brains, and these brains have been “evolving” for much longer than ours. These brains are very similar in many respects to ours, considering their size, location, function etc. Yet, none of these other creatures have ever held an abstract thought. Shouldn’t there be the occasional monkey or tiger whose brain just happened to evolve the ability to imagine or speak? Shouldn’t the natural world be full of all kinds of intermediate forms, beings whose ability for abstract thought ranges from minimally to largely present? These lower forms had so much more time than us, after all, and yet all humans have something by nature that all non humans don’t possess. Not an easy fact to make sense of, if all evolution needs is long periods of time to work its magic.

The flaw in the analysis, then, is to make explanatory use a mechanism that operates only on fully developed things – here, the human brain and its innate desires – and explain them as extrapolations of other more primitive things. Evolution, in this approach, becomes a “just so” story, “explaining” everything that presently exists without actually explaining anything at all.

The fact that biological evolution cannot explain the “evolution” of thought is one of the things that should make the skeptic, well, doubt his skepticism.

Posted by Al Serrato

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10 Comments

  1. zilch says:

    Another well-written post, al. But again, I beg to disagree.

    First off, you complain about my adducing “desires” to bacteria, saying that desires are mental states. Fine, that’s simply a matter of definition, then. Just tell me exactly where you draw the line between following a nutrient gradient upstream and thinking “I want food”. You admit that, say, dogs have desires. What about lizards? Fish? Jellyfish?

    You then say that “desires” are mental states, and say:

    “Bacteria don’t have a brain; consequently, evolution cannot be an explanation for the mystery we seek to untangle.”

    I must admit, I don’t understand the reasoning here. Substitute “feet” or “more than one cell” for “a brain” and maybe you’ll see the problem. You are simply claiming flat out that evolution does not happen. Evidence, please.

    Then you make a list of concept that lower animals supposedly don’t have, that humans do have. For instance:

    “Consider how a human being differs: yes, he too may have the instinct to run from danger, but he also has the capacity to sacrifice himself for the love of another, or to respond to concepts of honor and duty in charging into, rather than away from, danger.”

    Surely, al, you’ve heard stories of dogs sacrificing their lives for their owners, so I think you are mistaken here. But yes, humans certainly can conceptualize more complex ideas than any other animal- for instance, the idea of communicating on the internet. That’s not an issue. But then you claim:

    “And, most interestingly of all, he has a third aspect of his mind that appears to be separate and apart from the two competing forces, a part of the mind or self that is arbitrating and deciding which urge to follow. The one who runs gets labeled a coward, perhaps, while the one who stays is a hero. These labels further reflect that abstract thought is qualitatively different than what lower animals do. These are differences in kind, not simply in degree.”

    How are these differences in kind, not simply in degree? Admittedly, the difference in degree is huge: our grasp of conceptual thought enables us to do things that lower animals cannot even dream about. But the fact that, say, chimps can learn vocabularies of hundreds of sign language words and put them together in sentences shows at least a crude ability to conceptualize, which we humans have taken much further.

    You say:

    “Finally, evolution has another startling mystery, if the skeptic’s view is correct. Assuming that human thought is only the last step in a progression, does it not seem odd that human beings would be the only living creatures to possess the capacity for abstract thought? After all, human beings are much more recent in appearance than monkeys or apes, or any of our four-legged friends. All of these life forms have brains, and these brains have been “evolving” for much longer than ours.”

    No startling mystery here. Human beings have been evolving for exactly as long as all other life forms on the planet, that is, around three billion years. Is it also a mystery that bacteria haven’t evolved feet yet? Vertebrates are brainier than invertebrates; mammals are brainier than fish; primates are the brainiest mammals; and humans are the brainiest primates. We’re at the pinnacle of a very long trend in one lineage of life that specialized in becoming brainier. No mystery.

    I’m not saying that evolution has all the answers, or that I understand or can explain our ability to think abstractly. But neither can you.

    cheers from warm Vienna, zilch

    • tumeyn says:

      Zilch, you write: “We’re at the pinnacle of a very long trend in one lineage of life that specialized in becoming brainier.”

      Why do you imagine that we are the pinnacle? Isn’t it possible that bacteria are actually at the “pinnacle” since they have survived billions of years without any significant evolution? Their body features have allowed them to flourish at deep sea thermal vents and frozen in antarctic ice. From an evolutionary perspective, we are not the pinnacle of evolution at all. We, like most complex life, are like a stone precariously balanced on the edge of a knife ready to fall off as soon as the world is tweaked a bit. From the perspective of evolution you are far less valuable than bacteria!

      It’s fine if you want to believe this. But I just don’t understand where human dignity and equality come from when you have this mindset. Or perhaps you don’t believe in human dignity and equality?

      • zilch says:

        tumeyn- I know I sometimes express myself in a rather condensed way, and it’s perhaps not always clear. When I said that we (humans) are at the pinnacle of a very long trend in one lineage of life, I didn’t mean that our brainy pinnacle was the only pinnacle. There are many other ways of earning a living and occupying your own pinnacle in life. The bacteria certainly occupy the pinnacle of the number of ways to get energy from the environment, and they are very successful at it. Indeed, I have no doubt they will long outlive us humans.

        And “from the perspective of evolution” is a curious notion: evolution is not a being and thus has no perspective at all.

        Human dignity and equality, like bacteria and human beings, are also evolved entities, although their evolution has taken place not only in the biosphere but also the ideosphere: in our culture and reasoning minds.

  2. tumeyn says:

    Zilch, secondly, you are mistaking instincts for free-will. We all have instincts that pull us in many directions. But there is something sitting “above” the instincts that helps us choose between them. Lewis puts it this way: (from “Mere Christianity”)
    “Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”

    I agree with Lewis. Our lives are like a piano. We have lots of different options. The question you seem oblivious to is: Who is playing the music? As a Christian, I believe we have been imparted with free will. *I* am playing the piano. There is a non-physical self who chooses which keys to play. The notes I play have consequences. From your perspective, from what I gather, you think that the keys are played either at random or are pre-determined by the environment you are in. I think that deep down we all know this to be false. We all know that we do, in fact, have free-will. Otherwise we wouldn’t even both debating about issues like this. The question everyone should ask, therefore, is: Does free-will fit better into a theistic or atheistic framework? I’ve made my determination. What’s yours?

    • zilch says:

      While I can’t say exactly what making choices is, it’s obviously not just random. As far as being pre-determined, I don’t know, and I don’t really care, because in any case I’m not privy to the determination. But as I’ve said before, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, then my “choices” are set in stone before the world begins: they are absolutely pre-determined by God.

      Since I don’t and can’t know what my decisions will be, they are free as far as I’m concerned, and I can make them freely, just as I can freely run and breathe. I don’t see any problem here for my worldview.

      cheers from warm Vienna, zilch

      • Jordan says:

        Quickly zilch,
        The problem I see here is the same problem I see in all aspects of the atheistic worldview. Whether the discussion is free will, morals, the origin of the universe, etc. you choose in stead of saying, “Does God make sense?” to say “Don’t know. Don’t care.” This is precisely what Jim was talking about when he quoted Psalm 53:1. Verse 2 says what God is looking for on your behalf (and yes, God has given you the -choice-). As I know that you read the Bible from time to time, I ask you to read Romans 1:18-23, 28-32, 2:1-4, 14-16, 3:10-11, 18-24, 5:6-8, 6:23, 10:9-14, 17-18. God has been calling to you though His preachers for some time now. Will you listen? 2 Cor. chapters 5 and 6 say, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were calling through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For God made the sinless Christ to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. And working with Christ, we also urge you not to hear of the grace of God in vain. Behold, now is the day of salvation. We have spoken openly to you with our hearts opened wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections.”

        • Jim says:

          Zilch,

          Here’s the real choice that you have, and I encourage you to allow yourself to care about this one:

          Who’s going to bear your sin? You, or Jesus Christ?

          Here’s why I hope you choose to allow Jesus Christ to bear your sin – I would love to have an eternity with you to spend learning that you’re really not zilch at all, but someone worth dying for.

        • zilch says:

          Thanks for your concern, Jordan. Sure, I’ll reread Romans. But you are paraphrasing me rather too freely when you quote me saying “Don’t know. Don’t care.” to all questions about free will, origins, morals, etc. I’d love to know such answers as there are about all these things. But where answers are not forthcoming, I’d rather concentrate on what I do know that what I can’t know.

          And about the question “does God make sense?”- sure, God makes sense if you’re looking for a higher authority to obey, if you can’t be nice otherwise. But God, or at least the Biblical God, doesn’t always make sense if you look closely at the real world, and for better or worse, that’s what I choose to do.

          cheers from warm Vienna, zilch

          • Jordan says:

            Thanks zilch,
            and I apologize for over simplifying your statements. Here’s more or less what I meant:
            All of us, myself included, run the risk of diminishing evidence contrary to our view. When faced with such evidence, we may say in our minds, “Sure the evidence looks like it’s pointing that way, but I already know that to be false and so I’ll just assume that there’s some as of yet undiscovered answer that matches -my- view, and until I find it, the argument is of no importance to me.” Even tho I’d say most everyone is guilty of this at one time or another, this is not good science or reasoning. The Bible speaks of those that are “willingly ignorant,” and whether or not you see the Bible as true presently, we can all agree and should commit to, not having such a mindset.
            Here’s quick rehash (although very abbreviated) of when I find an atheist is most prone to diminish arguments:
            1. Origins. What is the first cause? Avoiding the position of “we don’t know yet,” the most logical position is that there must have been a first cause, and that this first cause must have been eternal.
            2. Morals. If morality is more than just opinion, and there are things that are unchangingly/universally right or wrong, then they must have a source, and a source unchanging which would provide universal rules.
            3. For free will to exist, an entity must be able to go against what is natural. If our brains/mind function only in the natural realm, they are bound to all the same rules of the natural realm and thus cannot escape the laws of nature (physics, chemistry, etc.). The sum of the causes of a decision is nothing more than the sum of events bound to these rules and as we cannot will these rules to change, we have no free will unless something outside the natural is at play.

            These things must be examined without bias, as if they only point to the possibility of God (and I feel they lead ultimately to much more), than Jim’s questions he asks, the passages I ask you read, etc. are of unparalleled importance and apathy to their truth value in any form must be discarded. For me, I must see these issues as important on your behalf, and thus while I could be doing other things, I (and Jim obviously as well) care about you zilch and will do all I can to help you see why I believe as I do.

  3. zilch says:

    Thanks for your concern for me, Jordan. But I don’t think I’ve ignored or diminished these arguments you present: on the contrary, I’ve thought a great deal about them. Here they are one at a time, along with my also abbreviated answers:

    “1. Origins. What is the first cause? Avoiding the position of “we don’t know yet,” the most logical position is that there must have been a first cause, and that this first cause must have been eternal.”

    I don’t avoid the position of “we don’t know yet”, if it seems to me that we don’t know yet- that’s the most logical position to me. And I’m not sanguine about our logic being able to deal with questions about eternity or first causes. Our logic demonstrably does badly in realms outside of the medium long, medium large, and medium complex life we live: for instance, in the realms of quantum physics, where a particle can be in two places at the same time, or can be created out of nothing. That’s not logical either, yet it seems to be the case. Thus, I don’t want to jump to conclusions simply based on my “logic”.

    “2. Morals. If morality is more than just opinion, and there are things that are unchangingly/universally right or wrong, then they must have a source, and a source unchanging which would provide universal rules.”

    Is slavery unchangingly right or wrong? As I’ve said, I don’t believe in unchanging/universal right and wrong, although I do believe in broad areas of agreement, based on our genetic nature, our cultural nature, and our reason. There’s enough agreement, even in secular societies which do not appeal to any God-given absolute morality, to build societies which demonstrably work as well as religious ones.

    “3. For free will to exist, an entity must be able to go against what is natural. If our brains/mind function only in the natural realm, they are bound to all the same rules of the natural realm and thus cannot escape the laws of nature (physics, chemistry, etc.). The sum of the causes of a decision is nothing more than the sum of events bound to these rules and as we cannot will these rules to change, we have no free will unless something outside the natural is at play.”

    I disagree. As I’ve said, choosing, or exercising free will, is something we do, rather as breathing and eating are something we do. Do we need to go against nature to breathe or eat? And even if the Universe is deterministic (and not, say, subject to chaotic or quantum mechanical uncertainty that makes it indeterministic), that doesn’t make my decision making any less free than my eating or breathing is free: I don’t have access to the knowledge (nor does anyone else) of what the sum of events bound to rules will be, so my will is still free, as far as I’m concerned.

    As I’ve also said here, it’s rather you theists who believe in an omniscient omnipotent God who should doubt the existence of free will- and of course many Calvinists do bite this particular bullet and say we have no free will. God wrote our script and knows what we will do, so any freedom we may feel is an illusion. If God does not exist and the Universe is deterministic, then although my decisions are just as set in stone from the beginning as with God, there’s a difference: the Universe is not a being that created me, there is no knowledge stored anywhere of my decisions, and there is no divine will who wanted them to be the way they are.

    cheers from springy Vienna, zilch

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