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.
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.