This is the final of four installments in a blog series by Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. The full series is titled “Reason is a Type of Evolution (Universal Darwinism).” Dr. Barkley will speak and lead a discussion for RRNA on January 30th, 6:30 p.m., at the Libbie Mill Library. This series is not obligatory reading in order to attend, but it frames and supplements Dr. Barkley’s appearance.
Parts I-III of this serial blog on the nature of Reason have argued that Reason (and Science) are very similar in their procedures to evolution by natural selection. That the steps of biological evolution that are understood to operate at the genetic level of information can be applied usefully to understanding the ways in which other forms of knowledge can evolve is known as Universal Darwinism. Viewing Reason as an instance of a universal process of the evolution of knowledge about the natural world can give us a better idea of what is meant by Reasoning (critical thinking) and its more systematic equivalent – Science. We can also see why Reason/Science are in direct contrast to Faith — knowledge derived from authority and accepted on despite all evidence to the contrary, as in religion or other forms of dogma. In both Reasoning and Faith, statements about the natural world are proposed (knowledge claims are made). But that is where the similarity between them ends because they differ fundamentally in so many important ways as described below:
• Reason (and so Science) requires that the knowledge claim (information) be logical (noncontradictory). It must also be coherent (internally consistent as well as understandable as such to others). And it must be tested against the environment both through current testing (experimental trials) as well as against the evidence already accumulated from prior relevant testing (the evidence base).
o Faith does not require these key elements. It is why articles accepted on Faith can be illogical (contradictory), incoherent (gibberish or nonsense), inconsistent with reality, often incapable of being easily understood by outsiders to the Faith, and not open to and even being hostile to criticism.
• Like natural selection, Reason/Science engages in criticism of the proposed knowledge claim to see if it can withstand such criticism (it tests the knowledge claim and evaluates the results as they pertain to that knowledge claim).
o Faith does not engage in any such testing of its information for its conformity to the natural world. It does not engage in criticizing its knowledge claim. There is no natural (environmental) selection that is taking place. After all, Faith is defined as acceptance of a belief despite all evidence to the contrary (the same definition as a delusion in psychology). If there is any criticism involved in Faith, it is done by the authorities in reference to prior or existing dogma or scripture, not by testing it against the natural world.
• Like genetic evolution, Reason/Science discards information that does not conform to the evidence or environmental testing (the information fails to survive). It retains only information that can survive such forms of criticism. Hence the knowledge claims developed through Reason evolve to become more accurate representations of the natural world and hence more useful at predicting it and adapting to it. Those claims are being naturally selected for such conformity (more accurately, their nonconformity).
o Faith does not selectively discard its information based on criticism (testing and evidence) and so the conformity of its knowledge to the natural world does not evolve (improve in truth, accuracy, utility, predictive accuracy, or veracity). It remains stagnant until some subsequent authority revises the dogma, which worshippers are supposed to accept “on faith.”
• Similar to genetic evolution, this makes knowledge acquired by Reason/Science tentative or provisional, dynamic and ever improving in its accuracy and utility. It is constantly testing and revising and so refining knowledge about the natural world.
o Knowledge acquired by Faith is, in contrast, unchanging or static, dogmatic or unquestioned, progressively stale, and incapable of accurately representing the natural world. Thus it is of little utility in dealing with much of that natural world, and grows increasingly irrelevant at doing so as Reason advances its more accurate form of knowledge acquisition and refinement.
• Just as in genetic evolution, errors (mutations) in reasoning or the mistakes in our hypotheses may lead to novel pieces of new information, some of which are useful. Reason/Science treasures the mistakes or errors that may exist in its knowledge claims, because it can explore them further, and use them creatively to make new knowledge propositions. Those can be tested against the natural world and prior evidence to see if they are even more accurate than the prior propositions. Hence Reason is a highly creative enterprise that learns from its mistakes and develops progressively more accurate representations of the world that serve to progressively improve human welfare, quality of life, and survival.
o Faith, by contrast, shows no concern for its errors or mistakes (it is infallible or perfect as originally proposed); indeed it makes none. And so it does not use them to craft more accurate representations or knowledge claims about the natural world, and thus cannot benefit from its mistake-making. Therefore, Faith makes no similar progressive improvements to human welfare, quality of life, or survival. It remains a stagnant body of dogma. For this reason, Faith-based social groups or even entire cultures remain stunted, as if preserved in amber, and do not progressively improve the human quality of life, human welfare, and rates of survival as does Reason/Science.
• Reason and Science involve a massive activity of creative destruction, just as does biological evolution, in which earlier knowledge claims are discarded (die or cease to get replicated) in favor of progressively more accurate renditions of the natural world. In this sense, like genetic evolution, it can be seen as incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Just as most species that ever lived are extinct, most knowledge claims about the world are also extinct (no longer in use) than are currently accepted (provisionally) as useful knowledge about the natural world.
o Faith/Religion and its associated dogma do not purge themselves of useless information in this way. So they retain many knowledge claims that, when contrasted with the available evidence (usually outside of the religious dogma), they no longer serve to accurately represent the material world, if they ever did so.
• Similar to genetic evolution, the change in knowledge brought about by Reason and Science occurs in gradual changes to the knowledge base, not wholesale leaps. Gradual does not mean slow change, but change in small steps. Those small changes can occur rapidly but they are small because, just as in genetic evolution, large changes to the existing knowledge base are almost always fatal to survival and replication (the accuracy of the information that is modeling the environment).
o Faith/Religion and its associated knowledge base change little over time.
• Similar to genetic evolution, Reason and Science are callously indifferent to the survival of the unit housing the information, in this case your mind, and especially your personal beliefs about the meaning of your life or of all life for that matter. All that matters in Reason is that the information derived from Reason and Science yield information that is simply good at getting itself replicated into the next generation of ideas (and getting us replicated at the genetic level along with it). That is usually because Reason often yields progressively more adapted (accurate) knowledge about the natural world. The more accurate information thus gets itself retained and that lets it get used again in later experiments or trials in trying to better understand that world. Reason and Science let the chips of knowledge fall where they may, taking no prisoners, and playing no favorites, regardless of their personal impact on someone and their belief’s about the meaning of life.
o Faith and the religions associated with it are hardly indifferent to personal belief. Indeed, they seek to be the explanatory basis of your personal beliefs about the meaning of your life and all human life for that matter.
• Just as in biological evolution, expanding and exposing ourselves to new environments with our inquiries based on Reason/Science can serve to create new knowledge, new categories or forms of knowledge and even new branches of knowledge that did not previously exist. Just as changes in the environment of a subset of a biological species can result in the eventual emergence of a new species from the original one, changing the environments in which we are curious and make inquiries based on Reason/Science can serve to create new “species” or forms and branches of knowledge not previously known. For a moment, just study the types and categories of knowledge we now possess based on Reason against historically earlier periods and you can see a veritable bush or tree like process of ever more branches forming from original more general ones just as we see in the tree or bush of life forms at the biological level.
o Faith/Religion do not encourage and even may act to stifle such curiosity about new environments that lead to new fields of inquiry and knowledge about the natural world. Like a stunted bush or sapling, Faith does not lead to a dynamic growth in knowledge about the world or in new fields of knowledge as does Reason. Faith in fact is frequently hostile to curiosity about the world and the new knowledge it yields as it may serve to undermine its authoritarian or faith-based knowledge claims.
• Like genetic evolution using sexual intercourse and reproduction, Reason and Science benefit from the exchange of one’s information with others and vice versa through social intercourse (via conversation, debate, publication, etc.) either directly, as in conversation and pedagogy, or indirectly as in listening to recorded lectures or reading the material written by others. Through such informational exchanges, novel ideas can develop more rapidly (more recombinations of existing information can come into existence) and create the opportunity for more beneficial discoveries and inventions.
o Faith and Religion do not encourage the exchange of ideas with others, especially those who disagree with one’s faith-based beliefs. Nonbelievers are infidels and exchange with them is discouraged if not banned outright and even punished. Thus, like inbreeding with close relatives of similar genetic identities at the genetic level, information at higher levels such as intellectual knowledge has no chance under Faith/Religion of evolving novel and useful ideas from exchanging information with others. Instead, it likely involves a reiteration of what is already known (dogma) when interacting with others and thus a stagnation of personal knowledge, development, and discovery. It may even lead to the occurrence and retaining of detrimental mutations to their knowledge that can reduce the overall fitness and adaptability of their knowledge base.
• Reason and Science do not accept the existence of the supernatural (and thus are called Naturalism). That is because knowledge claims about the supernatural and how it may intersect and interact in the natural world cannot be tested especially against the natural world. That is to say, the claims about the supernatural are not testable or falsifiable – that is the essence of scientific knowledge as Karl Popper explained.
o The knowledge claims about the supernatural provided by Faith and Religion are illogical (contradictory), often incoherent to outsiders, unempirical (devoid of evidence from the natural world), based solely on authority (received wisdom) or revelation (subjective experiences), lacking in operational (testable) definitions, capable of explaining away disconfirming evidence, and thus do not progressively adapt their knowledge to the natural world.
• As a consequence, Reason (and Science) and Faith (and Religion) are conceptual opposites that cannot be logically reconciled (they are contradictory ways of knowing). This is so even if it is possible for both to exist within the same compartmentalized human mind as that often occurs even in many educated but religious people. They employ alternating and contradictory belief systems depending on the context. The fact that people can operate psychologically in both realms of knowledge does not make those realms any more logically compatible but speaks only to the potential for irrationality in the human mind.
By understanding Reason (and Science) to be forms of Universal Darwinism, one can see that it is replication of information with environmental testing (natural selection by criticism) and selective retention. In doing so, the nature of Reason can be made clearer and also improved in its use and efficiency at discovering new knowledge about the natural world. And it can show in numerous ways how Reason contrasts markedly with the practice of Faith, its opposite form of understanding the natural world. This shows why in the history of humanity and especially modernity, Faith (and Religion) have had to retreat in their explanations of the natural world into the nonexistent supernatural one as Reason and Science have advanced useful human knowledge about that natural world. Faith/Religion have had to content themselves with statements about the supernatural world and about the implications of that supernatural world for a personal meaning of life. Faith simply cannot compete with Reason in developing progressively more accurate knowledge about and utility in dealing with the natural world.
Dr. Barkley is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Center and the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, Richmond, VA.