Pop-atheists have a problem with mental content.
Mind! (Ha) I don’t mean to say that they have a problem with their particular mental content (which is, coincidentally, wrong-headed), rather that they have a problem with mental content in general. They don’t like it.
Here’s the puzzle: although I know that red light is a particular wavelength of light that hits my eye, bounces on to the optic nerve, then sparks up various neurons in my brain or whatever, I can’t work out from the knowing of that red light what the experience (what we call ‘qualia‘) of seeing that red light is just from the data about the wavelength. Similarly, I can’t look at a brain scan and, using that data alone, know what it’s like to experience that brain state. There’s a gap between the material interaction of the world and the subjective experience of the world.
And this spooks pop-atheists.
Pop-atheists really want to say that mental states are identical to brain states, but there’s no evidence for it. And there’s good evidence against it.
There’s also philosophical problems with it, for example when we engage in mental content which is not coextensive with some physical content (abstracts and universals, for example). I can think of the number two without thinking of any specific instance of two things, for example.
But pop-atheists are having a red hot go of trying to tame the world of mental content. One way they’ve tried to do this is through a concept called ‘evolutionary psychology’ which tries to explain behaviour (a related group of ideas to mental content). According to evolutionary psychologists and people who sit up all night editing Wikipedia articles, evolutionary psychology argues that behaviour is a result of psychological mechanisms and that these psychological mechanisms are the result of natural selection.
There’s a lengthy history discussing whether or not behaviour is a result of psychological mechanisms. For the purposes of being charitable, let’s say that it’s entirely non-contentious that your behaviour is a direct result from your mental content. The second half should interest us more: the psychological processes that go on inside your head are the result of natural selection.
Over in the quagmire of stupid known as FreeThoughtBlogs, one blog manages to semi-regularly escape the echo chamber of pop-atheism: Jen McCreight’s BlagHag. In a recent post, she noted the theory’s unfalsifiability:
My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”
I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.
My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!
But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology. [Source: McCreight, ‘Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution‘, BlagHag]
I have more than a few examples of people on websites making all kinds of outrageous claims — the worst of which was used as a way of arguing that rape really wasn’t as big a deal as everybody intuitively believes it is — but we don’t crack open an issue by looking at it’s most stupid claims. That would be like pointing to the most extreme religious fundamentalists as a reason to dismiss theology, and we will not be having Dawkins-like arguments here in this blog.
In ‘Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology‘, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides set out five basic principles to the evolutionary psychology argument:
C-1: Each organ in the body evolved to serve a function: The intestines digest, the heart pumps blood, and the liver detoxifies poisons. The brain’s evolved function is to extract information from the environment and use that information to generate behavior and regulate physiology. Hence, the brain is not just like a computer. It is a computer—that is, a physical system that was designed to process information (Advance 1). Its programs were designed not by an engineer, but by natural selection, a causal process that retains and discards design features based on how well they solved adaptive problems in past environments (Advance 4).
The fact that the brain processes information is not an accidental side effect of some metabolic process. The brain was designed by natural selection to be a computer. Therefore, if you want to describe its operation in a way that captures its evolved function, you need to think of it as composed of programs that process information. The question then becomes: What programs are to be found in the human brain? What are the reliably developing, species-typical programs that, taken together, comprise the human mind?
C-2: Individual behavior is generated by this evolved computer, in response to information that it extracts from the internal and external environment (including the social environment, Advance 1). To understand an individual’s behavior, therefore, you need to know both the information that the person registered and the structure of the programs that generated his or her behavior.
C-3: The programs that comprise the human brain were sculpted over evolutionary time by the ancestral environments and selection pressures experienced by the hunter-gatherers from whom we are descended (Advances 2 and 4). Each evolved program exists because it produced behavior that promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors better than alternative programs that arose during human evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychologists emphasize hunter-gatherer life because the evolutionary process is slow—it takes thousands of generations to build a program of any complexity. The industrial revolution—even the agricultural revolution—is too brief a period to have selected for complex new cognitive programs.
C-4: Although the behavior our evolved programs generate would, on average, have been adaptive (reproduction promoting) in ancestral environments, there is no guarantee that it will be so now. Modern environments differ importantly from ancestral ones, particularly when it comes to social behavior. We no longer live in small, face-to-face societies, in seminomadic bands of 20 to 100 people, many of whom were close relatives. Yet, our cognitive programs were designed for that social world.
C-5: Perhaps most importantly, natural selection will ensure that the brain is composed of many different programs, many (or all) of which will be specialized for solving their own corresponding adaptive problems. That is, the evolutionary process will not produce a predominantly general-purpose, equipotential, domain-general architecture (Advance 3). [Source]
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on evolutionary psychology breaks this down a bit further:
1. The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment.
2. Individual human behavior is generated by this evolved computer in response to information it extracts from the environment. Understanding behavior requires articulating the cognitive programs that generate the behavior.
3. The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because they produced behavior in our ancestors that enabled them to survive and reproduce.
4. The cognitive programs of the human brain may not be adaptive now; they were adaptive in ancestral environments.
5. Natural selection ensures that the brain is composed of many different special purpose programs and not a domain general architecture.
6. Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena” [Source]
But it’s based on a bigger claim:
Consequently, systems of complex, antientropic functional organization (adaptations) in organisms require explanation wherever they are found; their correct explanation (barring supernatural events or artificial intervention) always involves a specific history of selection in ancestral environments; and so the prediction, discovery, mapping, and understanding of the functional architecture of organisms can be greatly facilitated by analyzing the recurrent structure of a species’ ancestral world, in conjunction with the selection pressures that operated ancestrally. [Source]
There is a gap between ‘supernatural events or artificial intervention’ and ‘specific history of selection in ancestral environments’. Tooby and Cosmides jump from one extreme to the other because they’ve already decided that they’re not going to entertain the ‘blank slate’ theory of brains (where humans are born tabula rasa and their neural systems are conditioned and trained to work in a particular way as they grow up). It is curious that evolutionary psychologists accuse critics of arguing strawmen when the evolutionary psychologists do it themselves…
Combining the two ideas, we become increasingly uneasy about what’s being argued. Organs evolve to perform functions? Brains are like computers (certainly not like today’s computers which process symbols)? Brains retain and discard processes based on how well they functioned in the past? And all of this is based on some specific history of selection in ancestral environments?
When you have to ignore a comprehensive body of literature proving that brains are not just like computers (as we understand them), you know you’re not off to a good start.
But, perhaps most importantly, there’s this: ‘The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations.‘ There’s no evidence for this and yet we have a lot of evidence suggesting that we adapt our behaviour based on lifespan events. I react with fear, for example, due to a certain stimulus (I have phobias). We think this was the result of a particular event in my childhood. But that would mean that the ‘cognitive program’ wasn’t an adaptation, but a development I didn’t inherit. Like an ape reaching five years old and then adapting straight into being a human.
The response from the evolutionary psychologists: ‘No, no. We’re not talking about specific behaviour based on specific stimuli. It’s your reaction of fear that’s adaptive.’ Yet my brother’s behaviour (the expression of the cognitive program) in response to fear is very different to my own. It would be like a hen giving birth to a goat and a turtle.
Perhaps he just inherited a different adaptation of the cognitive program for a response to fear (just as he has hazel eyes and I have blue)…
And so it goes. More than just specific examples being unfalsifiable, as Creight claims, the actual project of evolutionary psychology is unfalsifiable because the goalposts keep shifting. Not only do we lack any evidence that behaviour is the result of ‘cognitive programs’, we have no idea how such cognitive programs could be adaptive. I might respond to fear in one way, all of my kids might respond to fear in a completely different way, all of their kids might respond to fear in an entirely different way again, there’s no selection pressure keeping the system regular.
So why are there so many self diagnosed ‘evolutionary psychologists’? I suspect it’s because some of them have heard of Stephen Pinker’s book How the Mind Works and — like newborn chicklets that attach to whatever they first see as their mother — were extremely impressionable. They were programmed that way.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect is the way that the pseudo-science is coopted for particularly foul political positions.
But perhaps the most baffling aspect is the way people who’ve read about evolutionary psychology in pop-science books respond to criticism. Like many aspects of the pop-atheist corpus, you can’t challenge evolutionary psychology without a bunch of com.sci dudebros flaming you with incoherent babble about why guys like sex more than women or something (I — with absolutely no evidence to back me up — suspect that they’re trying to normalise their sex lives: they want it but no woman wants to sleep with them). You don’t get heated flamewars about, say, string theory. What is it about evolutionary psychology that makes people go completely batshit insane? What specific history of selection in ancestral environments created this cognitive program?
A shiny penny to the reader who comes up with the funniest (and, therefore, most correct) theory.