Are humans truth-seeking organisms?

There is an argument you get both from theists (such as Alvin Plantinga) and atheists (I have seen this recently in the writings of Scott Adams), to the effect that if something like standard evolutionary theory (SET) is true, then humans aren’t capable of detecting truth.

Plantinga uses it as a reductio ad absurdem of SET itself. If SET is true, then there’s no reason to think that humans are good at figuring out theories that are true, because our cognitive architecture has been selected for reproduction, not truth. SET dissolves its own epistemic basis.

Adams uses it as a lens for understanding human society. SET says humans are as-if-designed to reproduce, not find the truth. Therefore, we should expect that humans will be persuaded not by good reasons related to the truth, but by things that make us feel good, improve our status, help us to reproduce, and so on.

(The difference being that Plantinga therefore rejects SET, Adams accepts it.)

How to respond to this line of thinking? Start with something fairly basic to animals, movement. In order for a human to navigate a complex terrain (say, a forest floor), it requires a relevantly accurate representation (i.e., ‘true belief’) of that terrain. We have a model (an ‘image’) of the floor, and we use that to navigate across it. If our cognitive ‘machinery’ weren’t so composed, we wouldn’t be able to navigate.

Since navigation is crucial for survival (we have to move from place to place to find food and so on), it is easy to see a link from survival -> accurate representations.

Similarly, look at kinds of reasoning used on a day-to-day basis. During the course of a day, there are various problems we solve using basic investigative ‘tools’ or techniques. For example, I heard a noise, where did it come from? There are nuts up there, how do I get up there? How do I capture this lady bug so I can put it outside?

What is important here is that, often in an everyday case, we care about the truth. That is because achieving some outcome is directly tied to us accurately understanding a situation (or how to solve a problem).

These everyday kinds of reasoning are actually the basis of science, which isn’t an esoteric specimen, but rather the application of everyday methods of problem solving to more-or-less novel subjects that wouldn’t typically be in our everyday purview.

The problem of science comes from a lack of a connection between truth and ‘intrinsic’ motivation towards truth (i.e., typically in an everyday sense, we care about truth because we want to solve a problem that depends on us getting it right). Put simply, scientific problem solving can easily be corrupted by extrinsic factors (status, money, and so on). It’s not that humans are incapable of truth-seeking and finding, and when doing so we seem to get significant progress (which can be seen by the technological accomplishments of, in particular, the last several hundred years).

So, Plantinga is wrong in that he doesn’t recognize the link between everyday reasoning, visualization, and so on – techniques which have a strong link to our survival – and scientific theories, such as SET. Adams is wrong in that he doesn’t recognize that, when motivated to actually get things right, humans can at least significantly increase their chances of doing so in at least certain domains (as witnessed by both everyday problem solving and technological breakthroughs related to science).

4 thoughts on “Are humans truth-seeking organisms?

  1. fschmidt

    This isn’t going to appeal to Christians, but at least you may find it interesting. The Hebrew concept of truth is reliability, something that meets long term expectations. For example, a true friend and a true statement both represent the same concept of “true” in the Hebrew sense. The friend is a true friend if he meets your expectations of a friend. And a statement is a true statement if it continues to meet your expectations of describing whatever it is describing, in your experience. This is in clear contrast to the standard correspondence theory of truth. In the Hebrew concept, there is no external truth independent of a mind to correspond to. And so from an evolutionary point of view, truth is simply a tool that evolved with the brain for dealing with evolutionary needs. And this means that there is no conflict.

    But honestly, this is deep philosophy that probably won’t make sense in a short post. Read the book if you really want to understand.

  2. admin Post author

    “And a statement is a true statement if it continues to meet your expectations of describing whatever it is describing, in your experience. This is in clear contrast to the standard correspondence theory of truth.”

    Yes, but isn’t there a further question of why a statement continues to meet expectations? This sounds a bit like certain pragmatist theories of truth.

    I think that truth comes about because of a certain kind of correspondence between internal models, mediated by action, and external conditions. Therefore, there isn’t an external truth all by itself (although we can speak that way as a shortcut), but it still requires a kind of correspondence for there to be truth (so there is an external reality which can mapped to an internal reality, i.e., representation).


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