Can I trust my brain?

According to some apologists, the mind can only work if it is designed or permitted to work by a God. The mind can only access ‘logic’ and reason because such things are authored and exist in some sort of platonic realm. If the world were different to this ― i.e. if it were strictly natural ― the mind would be evolved for survival and would have no access to logic, because logic only functions if authored.

I think this argument is a complete nonsense. Before I argue that, we must be careful to not misrepresent the positions: this is not the argument that naturalists’ brains don’t work or that naturalists can’t be logical. This is merely the argument that naturalism cannot account for why their minds work as well as they do.

Again, I think this is nonsense. I’m going to argue this with reference to Occam’s razor as well as taking the proper scientific approach to this: exploring which model (theism or naturalism) best fits the data.

Occam’s razor

Simply under Occam’s razor, it makes no sense to presuppose a rational God. The apologetic, as presented, asserts: a perfectly logical and rational entity; platonically extant logic, a means by which the logical entity can grant minds access to that logic. That is a lot of entities taken on brute assertion.

Instead, simply asserting that the mind is rational is better in several instances. First of all, although it may start as a brute assertion, it becomes a self-cleansing proposition; if empirical inputs constantly undermined rational ones, we could identify that there are problems and that the mind falls short of being entirely rational. My rationality can be moderated by experience and correlated with others.

To be clear, I understand that the apologetic offered in this post purports to explain why the mind is reliable. But, simply being one level deeper (i.e. an explanation) doesn’t mean it supersedes the initial explanation. There are two reasons for this: without evidence, this “explanation” is nothing more than conjecture, speculation and wishful thinking; the apologetic is offered as ‘if my theistic explanation of rationality isn’t true, then rationality isn’t true’, which is to say that it claims to be the only possible explanation of rational thought.

Put simply, the apologetic offered is more convoluted than the alternative, on a lesser evidential basis, but also proclaims exclusivity.

Which model fits the data?

You have to break that assumption of exclusivity to truly assess the models being offered: theism and naturalism.

What would you expect if a perfectly logical being wrote logic and reason and also designed your mind? By comparison, what would you expect if the mind developed over time by a natural, chaotic and clumsy process that utilises that diversity to select ‘more suitable’ minds? Keep those expectations at the front of your mind while we explore, briefly (and far from completely) the imperfect mind.

The human mind burps up cognitive errors all the time. Selection biases make us evaluate as ‘more rational’ things that we agree with, and ‘gambler’s biases’ make us mis-assess risk. If you’ve got to this blog, it’s probably because you engage in conversations where you experience other people’s cognitive biases all the time.

In general, are cognitive biases and errors better explained by evolution or design (which is to say: naturalism or theism)? Evolution actually offers a very good explanation to this: the evolutionary cost to increasing the rationality of the mind (in calories spent, in increased complexity and precision) must exceed the evolutionary costs. We could reorder society in such a way that the dimmest people carry a social cost so great that it impedes their ability to reproduce, and that would change the dynamic. But, as reality actually looks, the cost of being dim is very low or, by some evaluations, the evolutionary cost is actually in increased intelligence (as they tend to have fewer children).

Evolution explains the data of cognitive errors. And such an explanation can probably be expressed in terms of mathematical Game Theory (although such a task is well beyond me). By contrast, theism does not offer an explanation, it offers an excuse. Allow me to expand on the distinction (as I’m using it).

Abrahamic theism calls on the Fall to “explain” every imperfection. But it gives no account of scale. The Fall may offer a reason for less-than-perfect reason, but it makes no gains of explaining why we are more intelligent than a sea cucumber. The scale of the imperfection, even in principle, cannot be accounted for. An excuse gives a sense of direction, maybe, but an explanation accounts for scale as well.

There’s a more interesting data point: another cognitive error called apophenia. Put simply, being overzealous is spotting patterns; seeing patterns where there are none (like seeing faces in the stars). Instead of being a dulling from the idea of being rational, like other cognitive errors, this is an over-sharpening of a sense. We are too good at seeing patterns, to the point of getting false positives.

Again, evolution gives an explanation of this: the cost of a false positive (e.g. seeing a face where there isn’t one) is small, in this case a couple of dozen calories running away; the cost of a false negative (e.g. not seeing a face when there is one) could be extremely high, in this case death. It is this game theory analysis that explains why evolution would develop such an error.

Under theism, there is no explanation. The above reasoning explains why not for Abrahamic theism, so I want to explain this time using John Zande’s theism with the evil God ‘The Owner of All Infernal Names’. This God set up a universe to run itself ― self-complicating and evolving ― for the purposes of increasing pain and suffering. Such a God makes a better excuse for cognitive errors (and the problem of suffering) but still fails to make it as an ‘explanation’, and the reason is the same: it offers no account of scale. Why do we not see terrifying faces everywhere? Why, instead, is it only mildly frightening in some circumstances? Again, evolution offers an explanation that permits itself to account for scale (even if only in principle), whereas the malevolent God does not.

Science and the imperfect brain

There does seem to be a problem here. Not accepting theism as able to account for the data, and accepting naturalism for accounting for the data much better, does seem to leave us with a brain not equipped to understand the universe. And yet, is that not exactly what we’re using it for? In a word, no.

The evolutionary cost of a brain capable of understanding the universe by sheer brute force of thought alone far exceeds its biological reward (even if we believe it to have moral reward). However, the force of thought required to be responsive to experience is a lot lower. The mind-investment in scientific tools is within the reach of what evolution has afforded us. That is to say, our niche of understanding and complex thought has allowed us to develop and criticise philosophies and institutions dedicated to understanding.

We still live in Dawkins’ “Middle world”, with a brain equipped to have deep understanding of middling lengths of time and size. And, as that is not at all representative of the universe we live in, that is probably another type of cognitive error. However, we have structures of understanding applied to vastly big and vanishingly small times and sizes, and building those structures was within our reach.


The apologetic offered assumes an exclusivity that would preclude it from honest enquiry, while also violating Occam’s Razor by multiplying entities without resting on evidence. Once you violate the assumption of exclusivity, you can compare the apologetic as an explanatory model against another model (in this case, evolution). In doing that, the apologetic fails wildly to account for the imperfections of the human mind i.e. the data.


7 thoughts on “Can I trust my brain?”

  1. My my Allallt! I had to read this three times to make sure I comprehended what my faulty brain could probably/possibly grasp! 😉 But alas, I not only enjoyed reading and rereading times three, but found myself in complete agreement with your conclusion! Thank you kind Sir for framing these cerebral exercises and topic in a different style! It will prove quite functional for my “conservative” Lone Star state compatriots that almost 98% of the time, as strangers no less, ask me “What church do you attend?” most everywhere I go! Yee-HAW!!!
    fires his two six-shooter pistols in the air

    P.S. I have more I’d like to comment about, particularly in support of the latest neurological, psychological, and therefore neuropsychological findings, BUT I’ll need to go dig up those tidbits a little later. Time constraints right now, you know. 😉

  2. As I mentioned in my above comment Allallt, I wanted to offer my personal support to your conclusion here about the human brain. This is my humble offering:

    Our human brains (some more than others) are quite prone to various degrees of ambiguity, superstition, memory-errors, and deception. Some examples of the four:

    1. — Ambiguity: The 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” or in 1692 the Witch Trials of Salem, Massachusetts. This phenomenon is also known as The Halo Effect.

    2. — Superstition: The 1976 Viking 1 orbiter photo-image of what was clearly a giant face, with 2 eyes, a nose, and a mouth all measuring about 1-mile in width; alien civilization! This human extrapolation of pattern and meaning is called pareidolia.

    3. — Errant Memory: Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has shown just how “fluid” our memory truly is and that conceptualization is the norm, errancy is prevalent… along with varying degrees of egocentricity. An excellent 17-min video on this point:

    4. — Deception: Magic tricks are one of the most common examples of deception, however, there are equally as deceptive methods that have LITERALLY changed the course of human history! Operation Bodyguard leading up to the 1944 D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy, France. In sports, deception plays are everywhere! Then there are the more devastating deceptions like Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 when Christian cult leader Jim Jones lead over 900 men, women, and children to commit mass suicide/murder.

    The human brain functions on only 12.6 watts average per day. Therefore, it MUST conserve and function efficiently to survive! Therefore, it prioritizes. For millions of years our brains have slowly learned what is critical to survive, what is needed to increase survival-rate, what is unnecessary but nice, and what is utterly useless. And it does this prioritizing FAST, real fast! It has to; 12.6 watts runs out quick, or in other words, cognitive fatigue, let alone physical exhaustion, leads to collapse. Hence, the haste of prioritizing increases errancy. And many humans are quite impatient in “gathering all the data“, right Allallt? 😉

    1. Typing “pareidolia” into Google Image Search sure was a bit of fun.

      Thanks for your contribution. Although, the only number I can find for the wattage of the human (awake) brain in 20 watts. Still not a lot of energy, though — and that’s a vital detail to remember when assessing the evolutionary pressures on the brain. A 1,000,000 watt brain might be really useful, but where was caveman meant to find a calories source for that? He wasn’t. And the caveman with a 20 watt brain didn’t have to and so had energy left over reproduce.

      Still, 20 watts. Literally not enough energy to say “the lights are on”.

      1. Haha! I bet you chased rabbits down all sorts of rabbit-holes with “pareidolia” didn’t you? 😛

        All great points Allallt, whether 12.6 or 20 watts, I know this much… too many expend precious wattage on mimicking storytelling rather than on critical-thinking skills and collecting as vast a data pool as is possible. And should I get into fear of the unknown? 😮

  3. Such a God makes a better excuse for cognitive errors (and the problem of suffering) but still fails to make it as an ‘explanation’, and the reason is the same: it offers no account of scale.

    Filthy heathen!

    The Problem of Good (ie., there is no “good”) resolves the problem of scale. Good is necessary to birth greater evil, so we must always see an expansion in that experience, as opposed to sopme ready-made hell. To go even further, TOOAIN is either 1) deliberately blind to the un-unravelling of Creation (suspending his omniscience so as to amplify his pleasure through the element of surprise) or 2) is fundamentally blind to the unravelling of a Creation he initiated to explore those things he cannot experience (namely suffering and death) and therefore beyond his sight.

    In other words:

    Unable to die, incapable of even experiencing the thrill of the fear of approaching annihilation, is it not inevitable that an uncreated aseitic being—God—would come to focus His impossible powers to contrive artificial environments inside which profoundly ignorant avatars could be grown to probe and explore this extraordinary curiosity; evolving surrogates through whom He, the Creator, could taste the fear He alone could never experience, feel the suffering He alone could never know, and meet every pedigree of oblivion denied to Him by dying vicariously?

    Is this no more unreasonable than a man walking to the top of a hill, or crossing an ocean, just to see what was on the other side?

    Other than that, superb post. This is going into my Special Folder for when matters of mind-naturalism arise.

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