Thursday, July 1, 2004

Damn dirty apes!

Sneakiest primates have biggest brains

( news service, Hazel Muir, 10:57 30 June 04, Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2780))

Monkeys and apes who are good at deceiving their peers also have the biggest brains relative to their body size. The finding backs the "Machiavellian intelligence" theory, which suggests the benefits of complex social skills fuelled the evolution of large primate brains. . . .

God gave us big brains to worship him in creative ways. The Fall has retained those multifarious capacities, but has, in Luther’s phraseology, turned them in ourselves (curvatus in se) against our Creator and fellow creatures. These primate studies are intriguing from a behavioral perspective, but I’ve never been able to get very worked up about their “startling implications” for biblical anthropology and cosmology. For a more thorough discussion of these ideas, I highly recommend you read Dr. Dennis Bonnette's book, Origin of the Human Species (Sapientia Press).

That is consistent with the idea that natural selection favoured larger brains for sophisticated social interactions, among them tactical deception. . . .

I smell a neuroscientific fallacy. The key is not to have large brain, but to have enhanced neural portions which modulate advantageous behavior. I could have a massive brain that only distinguishes between reds and greens. What good is my big, dichromatic cranial fuel-suck then? (Well, I would enjoy The Red Green Show a lot more, if that were possible.) I think these researchers are underemphasizing the importance of language in such social maneuvering. I’m suspicious that the enlarged neo-cortex of these crafty apes has enough going for it, cognitively speaking, to give apes what they need upstairs to be truly Machiavellian.

However, it is still not clear whether primates are ever aware of being deceptive. They may have no concept of dishonesty, knowing simply from experience that these behaviours get the result they want.

That last line is a golden qualifier and a point well worth remembering in discussions of cognition science and, more generally, epistemology. Just because a monkey does what is right in a situation doesn’t mean that monkey knows what is right. Behavioral felicity is not, in other words, equivalent to epistemic legitimacy. This is the core of Alvin Plantinga’s already famous “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (in the first of his “Warrant” trilogy). Plantinga argues that since naturalism presupposes our rationality is derived from every evolutionary adjustment before us, rather than from a rational, divine creator, we can only assess our rationality in terms of the dynamics of evolution by natural selection (ENS). So far so good.

But now imagine a prehistoric caveman (rather, I suppose, than a postmodern one) named Marv. One day Marv sees a tiger. Understandably enough, Marv’s super-animal brain recognizes the tiger is a threat and Marv sprints for cover. Then again, if he’s feeling plucky, he might face off with the lion. What Marv does, however, is not the point. The crucial point is why we claim he does what he does. From our perspective, we give Marv the benefit of the doubt and just assume he knows the tiger is a tiger, that a tiger is a threat, and that running away or killing it is the best course of action.

But, asks Plantinga, how do we know Marv knows all this about lions and tigers and bears? What epistemic right, so to speak, do we have to bestow such clear-headed rationality on Marv? What if, in actual pre-historical fact, Marv had a wacky, worthless irrational mind driven by all sorts of perception-fritzing impulses (a “rationality cum desire” scenario as Plantinga sometimes calls it)? What if Marv’s brain interpreted a tiger as a friendly kitty? Or as a pretty lady on the make? Or as a rolling stone? Or what if he simply didn’t register tiger-data at all? What if, to use a technical term, Marv’s “noetic input” (i.e., perceptual input) were utterly unreliable as a guide to the perceived world?

In short, what if Marv had no real capacity to interpret his surroundings rationally and accurately but he nevertheless outlived the tiger? If Marv survived all those close encounters with tigers, though he never knew what risk he was truly in, he would pass on the genes for his deficient rational abilities. And, as long as his ancestors survived in a similarly benighted fashion, right down to our day, then there would be countless descendants of Marv with the same irrational minds. The upshot is that even the most behaviorally successful outcomes of ENS have no bearing on the noetic integrity of the mind that orchestrates that behavior. The mere fact that Marv escapes from a tiger, and thus does what we, in magnanimous retrospect, deem to be a truly rational move, does not entail that Marv accurately perceived the tiger, let alone any other thing about the world. Further, it’s perfectly conceivable that there were thousands and thousands of cases just like Marv’s – irrational survivors who passed on completely worthless noetic capacities – and that each and every one of us alive today is but the irrational, noetically scrambled, epistemologically aimless offspring of Marv & Co.

What then? Well, assuming we have all inherited such faulty cognitive capacities, we have no basis for saying we accurately perceive the surrounding world. Since Marv, as a mere product of ENS, had no assurance his noetic input was accurate, then neither do we, as mere products of ENS, have any such noetic assurances. If the chief criterion for interpreting the present world is simply that ENS has gotten us this far – and thus, “surely,” would not tolerate such irrational cognition – if that’s all it takes to size up our minds, then ENS leaves us completely in the dark. If it’s possibly the case that we are merely the “lucky” descendants of people who had no sound rational access to the world, then we are cast into the same evolutionary blind spot as Marv. We may try to assure ourselves we accurately perceive the world, since, after all, we successfully avoid moving cars and dangerous people all the time, but our self-assurances are worthless. Like Marv, we may be totally misperceiving the world without ever going wrong in it.

Our blind (but oh so lucky) noetic input leaves the defender of blind ENS relying on a unreliable noetic input about the natural world, which he uses to arrive at his conclusions about the soundness of the theory of ENS. The dynamics of ENS undercut the very basis we have for trusting our noetic input in defending the dynamics of ENS. As Plantinga says, this puts the pro-evolutionist in a diachronous, if not synchronous, loop, in which every affirmation of our evolution by sheerly naturalistic means simultaneously undermines our basis for trusting the noetic evidence behind our affirmations. Plantinga is willing to grant this loop may not actually be started by the claims in favor of ENS (synchronicity), but both epistemic occurrences – affirming ENS and losing our grounds to do so – occur in parallel (diachronicity).

In conclusion, ENS, according to Plantinga, gives us, at worst, a non-existent or, at best, only highly inscrutable basis for affirming the reliability of our noetic input, and thus of the realibility of the theory of ENS.

So, do those apes know they’re being dishonest? Don’t ask them. A better question is whether we know they’re being dishonest, and how we know that.

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