Saturday, February 24, 2007

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

"The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increated prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass--a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck." (Richard Rorty, "Untruth and Consequences," The New Republic, July 31, 1995, pp. 32-36.)

Rorty's pronouncements do not always inspire maximum confidence, but here he seems to be on to something (although like [Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea he fails to see the real danger here). He says that two ideas are unDarwinian: that we have a mind oriented towards the Truth and a conscience that puts us in touch with right and wrong. Now Dennett does try to deal with the second from the Darwinian perspective (although what he really tries to explain is not how there could actually be such a thing as right and wrong, good and bad, from that perspective, but how it is that we think there is such a thing.)

But the other part of Rorty's suggestion is where the real intellectual danger in Darwin's dangerous idea lies (at any rate if Rorty's "Truth" is just ordinary everyday truth). Why so? Here I can only hint at the argument. Darwin's dangerous idea is really two ideas put together: philosophical naturalism together with the claim that our cognitive faculties have originated by way of natural selection working on some form of genetic variation. According to this idea, then, the purpose or function of those faculties (if they have one) is to enable or promote survival, or survival and reproduction, more exactly, the maximization of fitness (the probability of survival and reproduction). Furthermore, the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable (i.e., furnish us with a preponderance of true beliefs) on Darwin's dangerous idea is either low or inscrutable (i.e., impossible to estimate). But either gives the devotee of evolutionary naturalism a defeater for the proposition that his cognitive faculties are reliable, a reason for doubting, giving up, rejecting that natural belief. If so, then it also gives him a reason for doubting any beliefs produced by those faculties. This includes, of course, the beliefs involved in science itself. Evolutionary naturalism, therefore, provides one who accepts it with a defeater for scientific beliefs, a reason for doubting that science does in fact get us to the truth, or close to the truth. Darwin himself may perhaps have glimpsed this sinister presence coiled like a worm in the very heart of evolutionary naturalism: "With me," says Darwin, "the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.