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Recent Work on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments of Cognition and Morality...

In the philosophy of science, one of the most important contemporary debates is due to the recent historical push behind the design hypothesis (Intelligent Design theory). It's about whether evolutionary adaptation and development could possibly account for cognition and the truth of beliefs, and for morality and the truth of moral beliefs.

The two classes of debunking argument are closely related, but distinct. Traditionally, naturalistic evolutionary theorists have denied that there is any justification in evolutionary theory for the truth of the content of actual religious and moral beliefs. Theologians have frequently asserted that since moral beliefs exist, and since they think some of them are true, then evolution is not an adequate explanation of the existence of our society, our world, or our minds and their operation.

Evolutionary Debunking of Cognition (Plantinga's EAAN)

A well known argument against evolutionary foundations for cognition and reliable belief formation comes from Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga has argued (his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism) that evolutionary theories of the development of brains and cognition cannot be right, because according to evolutionary theory the human brain cannot evolve to be appropriately truth tracking: to capture the truth of the environment and thus the world.

The premise of Plantinga's argument is that according to evolutionary theory, the brain and mind (theories of how the two are related are another - but related - issue) and our belief formation processes should have evolved to be optimal at truth tracking: that is, they should be very good at capturing external facts and information such that survival outcomes are optimised. Otherwise we would not have adapted and survived as evolutionary theories requires. However, says Plantinga, Natural selection has no way to favor true non-adaptive beliefs over false but adaptive beliefs. That is - we can have adaptive beliefs that are false: beliefs that help us survive and beat the competition, but are simply not truth tracking. In other words the beliefs are not accurate - they are wrong or false. A brute pragmatic (there are many kinds of pragmatism - this would be the Jamesian variety) example by analogy might be that a person that believes that they are being helped to succeed by the Great Galactic Marsh Monster, and that the Great Marsh Monster needs to see them make an effort to feel justified in giving them success. Such a person may (perhaps) try harder when others will give up. There is not really any Galactic Marsh Monster that exists apart from the fiction in their head, but their belief that there is keeps them alive and kicking. It's a kind of delusion for success and survival.

As a consequence of this unreliability of our beliefs at an evolutionary level, says Plantinga, we should conclude that:

Conclusion: We cannot be sure that our actual beliefs ABOUT EVOLUTION, or science, are themselves reliable

Evolutionary theory undoes the basis for its own reliability, by undoing in principle the reliability of beliefs about it, claims Plantinga.

In other words - Plantinga attacks the evolutionary-optimisation of cognition premise (which he ascribes to naturalistic philosophers), arguing that the brain and mind are not terribly good at truth-tracking at all, since evolution as defined by evolutionists allows that not only are true beliefs sometimes ineffectual for adaptability and survival/prospering, but in fact false beliefs are sometimes the ones that do the adaptability job (this is what makes evolutionary processes off track). Moreover, evolutionary theory does not assign nor ascribe to evolution and its processes - and therefore the corresponding theory about evolution itself - any way of even knowing the difference.

Paul Griffiths and John S. Wilkins were the first prominent philosophers of science to debunk this (Plantinga's) debunking argument. Note that Plantinga is not trying to debunk religious beliefs and moral beliefs using evolutionary theory, but the opposite. Plantinga's attack is also called a Platonic table-turning argument. He uses evolutionary theory to debunk evolutionary theory on its own terms. Griffiths and Wilkins use Guy Kahane's statement of Plantinga's table-turning debunking argument:

Causal premise. S’s belief that p is explained by X

Epistemic premise. X is an off-track process

Therefore S’s belief that p is unjustified

An ‘off-track’ process is one that does not track truth: it produces beliefs in a manner that is not sensitive to whether those beliefs are true. 'Off track process' means that truth is not captured by the process.

The 'p' in this case is "evolutionary theory is true".

Griffiths and Wilkins point out that, although it is not straightforward to see it, the causal premise that Plantinga attacks in his debunking is, in fact, something of a strawman. First, however, there is a non-sequitur to be dealt with.

Reliabilist Epistemology

The non-sequitur (this means that, despite appearances, one thing does not follow from another) is as follows. It does not follow from the conclusion of the debunking argument that evolution theory is not correct. Only that we would have a hard time knowing it. It is an epistemological question: it is about what we could possibly know. So it therefore does not follow form the EAAN that some kind of god-designer is the right explanation for the existence and apparent reliability of our belief-forming cognition.

Plantinga assumes a-priori (on reasonable evidence) that our knowledge tends to be reliable often enough that there must be a reason for this reliability. This is called reliabilist epistemology. This reliable kind of knowledge is what Griffiths and Wilkins ascribe to commonsense (and by extension scientific) beliefs.

A well known alternative to Plantinga's god-based variety of realiabilism is the process reliabilism of Alvin Goldman, which says that there is a reliable process of the development of epistemic content or knowledge from the acquisition of information - no god required.

Strawman and The Milvian Bridge Argument

In fact, argue Griffiths and Wilkins, evolutionary theory does not require that cognition evolve to be truth tracking in the accurate way that is implied by Plantinga's argument. It does not have to ensure truth tracking in religious and moral beliefs. But it does in fact ensure truth tracking in certain common sense and survival beliefs, AND in scientific beliefs.

Wilkins and Griffiths deploy an analogy between the truth of evolutionary and scientific beliefs, and the ascription of the Emperor Constantine's victory in battle at the Milvian Bridge. Constantine's victory was said to be because his religous beliefs were true. Griffiths and Wilkins point out that evolutionary theory does not support this assertion for religious beliefs, but that the parallel assertion for commonsense and scientific beliefs is correct and supportable. The information of the former is not the same as the information of the latter.

"We will present the most straightforward reply to evolutionary debunking arguments. This is to flatly deny the epistemic premise in Kahane’s schema. Evolution is not an off-track process with respect to truth in some cognitive domain. Evolution will favour organisms that form true beliefs in that domain. In Section three we show that the standard argument that evolution does not track truth rests on a misunderstanding of natural selection, and we define the sense in which evolution does, indeed, track truth. We conclude that with this definition of truth-tracking there is a plausible ‘Milvian bridge’ defence of commonsense beliefs. In Section four we examine just how far such a defence will take us and suggest that the Milvian bridge can be extended to beliefs derived from the sciences." (Griffiths and Wilkins)

Thus Plantinga's premise is a straw man premise. Griffiths and Wilkins explain that many evolutionary theories explain the origination of religious belief, but none of them assert the corresponding truth of the content of those beliefs. The evolutionary explanation covers why humans believe religious things, but there is no entailment from this to the truth-tracking status of the content of the specific religious beliefs themselves. To assert that there is constitutes a confusion and an equivocation (based upon a category error).

All that is claimed by evolutionary theory, say Griffiths and Wilkins, is that commonsense beliefs that guide every day survival actions are truth tracking. The belief that if one agrees to believe what one's peers in a community believe, that one might derive a benefit economically or otherwise: this is a commonsense belief, and is truth tracking.

In other words, the belief:

B1: "Given the way people behave because of religious beliefs, it helps or is to my advantage - most of the time - if I believe and behave like a religious person (or at least appear to) in a community where most people are religious, especially when the beliefs of the religion in question make it dangerous to dissent or be excluded."

is a common sense truth tracking belief based upon good tracking of environmental information and which is probably adaptive in evolutionary terms, while:

B2: "The Great Galactic Marshmonster does not like me to eat seafood on a Sunday afternoon"

is not a commonsense truth-tracking belief, nor even necessarily adaptive (one might miss a meal that would otherwise save one - for no real/true reason). It is not truth tracking even if it is one of the religious beliefs that must be embraced according to B1. The truth of B2 does not in any way follow from the adaptive truth tracking status of B1.

Moreover, taking the Milvian bridge analogy in a different direction: proponents of specific religious beliefs rarely find it sensible themselves to assert that the numbers of offspring their followers have is a determiner of the truth of their beliefs. (Griffiths and Wilkins,, 2)

The Containment Problem

The astute reader may have noticed an additional problem. If Plantinga is right about the inability of evolution to deliver up a cognition that enables a reliable identification of truth tracking mechanisms that are adaptive, but evolutionary theory is in fact the right story of the development of human cognition: then we could not rely on any of our beliefs about anything being truth tracking.

In other words, a consequence of his conclusion is that we cannot regard our beliefs about evolution to be reliable, but then neither - if evolution is true - can we rely upon our beliefs about anything else to be reliable.

Now, this is good as far as Plantinga is concerned, because he does not believe evolutionary theory is true, and applies the outcome/conclusion as a reason to reject the truth of evolutionary theory. He is a theist who embraces a design argument (some kind of god being is responsible for our minds and cognition).

But as Griffiths and Wilkins have shown, the unreliability of beliefs and knowledge about evolutionary theory simply does not follow from any of this. Evolution is just kind of choosy about which beliefs are truth tracking, and they are when it counts. Some beliefs are still adaptive (either indirectly, incidentally, or ) even though they are based upon fiction, delusion, error, or pseudo information. It does not follow that all beliefs are not truth tracking and adaptive because of it.

Evolutionary Debunking of Morals

Evolutionary debunking theories of morals and moral cognition follow a similar line of reasoning to that for evolutionary debunking of truth tracking religious beliefs.

Evolutionary debunking theories of morals are called such because originally, arguments mounted by naturalist and evolutionist philosophers like Hume (naturalist and pre-evolutionary theory) make the case that there can be no basis for morals, or the truth of religious beliefs, in a natural universe with no supernatural agents where all life is governed by unguided natural evolutionary processes. Likewise, proponents of evolutionary naturalism have asserted that there is no foundation for objectively true morals in evolutionary theory.

Recent work by Machery and Mallon suggests that there is a normative basis underpinned by evolution for the formation of moral systems, but that the same processes cannot deliver up or result in true moral concepts or contents (there is no support for the truth of moral concepts themselves).

In other words, according to the normative approach, the containment problem arises again: none of our moral beliefs acquired on the basis of this normative mechanism have a necessary basis in truth. Therefore EDAs against moral cognition cannot be true.

Tyler Millhouse, Lance S. Bush, David Moss have responded with a parallel argument to the Milvian bridge argument.

"A debunking argument which relied on the fact that normative cognition in general evolved seems like it would debunk all areas of normative belief, including the epistemic norms upon which the argument relies. For the sake of argument, we accept their [Machery and Mallon's] claim that specifically moral cognition did not evolve. However, we reject their contention that this critically undermines EDAs of morality."

Associated moral beliefs are not truth tracking. The normative process is off-track for actual moral content, but not for the existence of moral behaviour/effort and systems. In other words, there is a normative basis arguably available for the belief "One should behave morally and have a moral system" and for the existence of moral systems. However, there is no such basis for establishing the truth of the content of different moral beliefs in those systems.

EDAs against the truth of the content of moral beliefs do not in fact undo themselves, as Plantinga claimed evolutionary theory does with beliefs about evolutionary theory. They just undo the idea that there is any objective basis for the truth of specific moral belief contents.

As with the Milvian Bridge argument of Griffiths and Wilkins for truth tracking adaptive beliefs - only the normative basis for moral behaviour and systems has evolved, but there is no basis for the truth of the content of any objective moral truths to be found by the same approach.

In other words, evolution explains why humans develop moral systems, but does not justify in any way a belief like "That is wrong because The Great Galactic Marsh Monster says so".

Conclusion: What's Going on With Rebuttals of Evolutionary Debunking of Truth Tracking Beliefs and Moral Cognition?

The overall theme to be taken from all of this is that attacks on EDAs are generally based upon strawman premises and/or the failure to distinguish between different kinds of beliefs and belief contents.

According to evolutionary theory, evolution does deliver truth tracking cognition at the right level. Certain kinds of beliefs are adaptive and based upon processes that are not off track but are instead appropriately truth tracking and capture enough of the right kind of information. Some mechanisms of cognition (brain processes) have evolved to economically and reasonably accurately capture enough information from the environment to be called truth tracking (after all the brain uses a lot of energy, and this must be conserved), allowing for a process reliabilist epistemology regarding beliefs and cognition themselves.

In other words, EDAs succeed in undoing any objective basis for the truth of the content of morals and religious beliefs (like Galactic Marsh Monsters saying things are bad) but do not in fact bring themselves undone in the process. Why? Because adaptive beliefs are generally truth tracking information capture. Evolutionary development of cognition is not all off-track process at all. But the truth and information tracking it does result in does not provide any justification for the truth of the content of religious beliefs - even if those beliefs end up accidentally or incidentally adaptive (promote survival).

Reference Sources

Boudry, M., & Vlerick, M. (2014). Natural Selection Does Care about Truth. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 28(1), 65–77.

Goldman, A., & Beddor, B. (2016). Reliabilist Epistemology. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from

Millhouse, T., Bush, L. S., & Moss, D. (2016). The Containment Problem and the Evolutionary Debunking of Morality. In T. K.

Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality (pp. 113–135). Cham: Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from

Shackelford, T. K., Hansen, R. D., & service), S. (Online. (2016). The Evolution of Morality (1st 2015.;1st 2015; ed.). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Wilkins, J. S., & Griffiths, P. E. (2012). Evolutionary debunking arguments in three domains: Fact, value, and religion.


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