Some time ago I received “a few questions from an amateur philosopher” about my article “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God: The Theological Foundations of Modern Science.” With his permission, I’m reproducing them here with some brief answers.
1) I agree that it seems unlikely for natural selection to actively select for higher order thinking, but isn’t it possible that the same logical reasoning that natural selection would select for to allow for higher probabilities of survival also provides the faculties that allow the higher order thinking, i.e. that the first being “truth-oriented” by necessity simply provided a general “truth” oriented system of thinking that we use in all our conscious thought? Are those things really so different? Relatedly, it seems strange to assume that natural selection only selects for physical traits – why wouldn’t it also select for cognitive advantages?
I’ll start with the last question. The reason that evolutionary processes would only select for physical traits is that, given naturalism and the causal closure of the physical world, only physical traits can causally influence behavior. Mental events would be epiphenomena at best: caused by underlying physical (brain) events, but not making any causal contribution to those events. There would be no “top down” causation from the mental to the physical. Thus, cognition (understood as mental processes, not merely brain processes) would be ‘invisible’ to natural selection and to evolutionary forces in general. I actually explained this at some length in the article (see the three paragraphs in section II beginning “In the first place…”).
But suppose that natural selection could select for cognitive advantages and thus for lower-order thinking. Isn’t higher-order thinking just a natural extension of lower-order thinking? I don’t think so. For example, our ability to do integral calculus isn’t merely an extension of our ability to count. It requires a grasp of concepts that go beyond simple addition and subtraction. Likewise, our ability to use language to express complex abstract ideas goes far beyond our ability to ‘name’ (i.e., attach labels to) the physical objects we experience with our senses. There’s simply no good reason to think that undirected evolutionary processes, driven by sheer biological efficiency, would select for these higher-order cognitive capabilities over time. (Remember that on the standard Darwinian gradualist view, it’s not enough for the “final product” to be advantageous; every incremental step of the development must be advantageous enough to become fixed in the population.)