Should Libertarians Trust the Monkey Mind?

“With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has always been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy,” wrote Charles Darwin. “Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

I was reminded of Darwin’s moment of doubt after reading Dr. Shermer’s thoroughly engaging new book, The Believing Brain. Shermer makes the convincing case that in many situations we should indeed be skeptical of the convictions of our “believing brain.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t follow his own argument to its surprising, though logical, conclusion.

I had picked up the book after reading an advance copy of Shermer’s essay “Liberty and Science” and finding, to my dismay, that after agreeing to write a response essay that I could not find enough to disagree with. Although Shermer is a skeptic and a libertarian while I am a Christian and a conservative, we share an appreciation of the Realistic Vision of human nature and an agreement that it should influence our political philosophy. While I disagree with his contention that it is “best represented by the libertarian political philosophy” that is a rather minor quibble with his levelheaded essay.

Fortunately, the book expands on his argument and provides fodder for a reasonable dispute: While I believe that the brain and the mind were created through some form of theistically guided evolutionary process, Shermer believes that the mind doesn’t exist at all and that the brain was created quite unintentionally. The problem with his view, in my opinion, is that if evolution is a non-teleological process, then it undercuts our ability to trust that we can form true beliefs and convictions. Considering that his book is full of examples of how we have not formed true beliefs, I’m surprised that Shermer does not see how this follows from his own initial premises.

Where he goes astray is in smuggling teleology into a closed materialistic system. For example, Shermer says that the brain is a “belief engine” that finds patterns and infuses those patterns with meaning. He calls this process patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process involved is what he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

The concept of agenticity is marginally plausible (though not compatible with his belief in monism) but patternicity, as he defines the term, seems confused. “Meaningfulness” is not a property of physical matter, and thus cannot be discovered in nature. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the brain can infuse patterns with meaning (how the laws of nature acting on neurons produce meaning is a mystery we can set aside for now). Since meaning is not a property to be discovered, to say that something is “meaningless” is merely to claim that a particular brain has failed to infuse that pattern of data with meaning.

How would it be possible to determine such meaning? In order to find meaningful patterns and form trustworthy convictions, we have to possess properly functioning noetic equipment (i.e., a brain, spinal cord, sensory apparatus, etc.) that is able to recognize reality.

But can a strictly materialistic, non-teleological, evolutionary process produce such reliable equipment? The philosopher Alvin Plantinga, one of the greatest thinkers of the modern era, contends that it cannot. Although Plantinga’s claims are too complex and tightly argued to be adequately summarized, the basic outline of his case shows his conclusion is all but incontrovertible.

Plantinga claims not that evolution is untrue, but that the truth of evolution is incompatible with the truth of naturalism. “As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go,” he argues. “Hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life.”

What does imply that life is not directed, he adds, is not evolutionary theory itself, but the theory of unguided evolution: the idea that “neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing, or orchestrating the course of evolution.” For our purposes, we’ll call this view “evolutionary naturalism.”

Evolutionary naturalism assumes that our noetic equipment developed as it did because it had some survival value or reproductive advantage. Unguided evolution does not select for belief (or meaningful patterns) except insofar as belief improves the chances of survival. The truth of a belief is irrelevant, as long as it produces an evolutionary advantage.

Our noetic equipment could have developed at least four different kinds of beliefs that are compatible with evolutionary naturalism, none of which necessarily imply that we have trustworthy cognitive faculties.

Consider Zed, a prehistoric caveman. Zed is the first to cross the line over to Homo sapiens (his parents are very proud) and is the first to develop functioning noetic equipment that is the equivalent of modern humans. His equipment could produce four types of beliefs.

Option #1: Beliefs that are effects but not causes of behavior, whose truthfulness is irrelevant since they have no place in the causal chain leading to behavior. These beliefs are sort of the garnish on the plate of behavior; they are there, but they have no purpose. For example, Zed may feel pain when he is bitten by a sabertooth and yet have a physiological reaction that is correlated, but not caused, by his pain sensation. Zed’s beliefs would be invisible to evolution and therefore can play no role in survival. (This view, called epiphenomenalism, is surprisingly popular among biologists. Since Shermer does not believe in the existence of the mind, I’m not sure why he doesn’t subscribe to it also.)

Option #2: Beliefs that are caused by and cause behaviors but whose truthfulness does not affect the behavior. For instance, Zed has discovered both language and singing. He notices that singing “UGGA BOO UGGAGA BOO” at the top of his lungs scares off birds and small animals. He believes that the words “UGGA BOO” have a magical effect on the animals that causes them to run away in fear. The words, of course, have no effect on the animals. It’s Zed’s horrendous voice that is scaring them away. (This view, called semantic epiphenomenalism, is surprisingly popular among philosophers of mind. This is similar to what Dr. Shermer classifies in his book as superstition.)

Option #3: Beliefs that are caused by and cause behaviors but don’t help Zed survive. For example, he could develop a belief that letting a sabertooth bite his brain will make the animal happy. Such a belief would lead him constantly to put his head in the mouths of the great cats until he was able to find the true effect of the brain-biting.

Option #4: Beliefs that are caused by and cause behaviors and have an evolutionary advantage. Zed develops a belief that letting a sabertooth bite his brain will make the animal happy—which leads him to stay far, far away from brain-eating animals.

Option #4 is the best example of useful patternicity. But what are the chances that that this evolutionary advantage results from the belief being true? According to Plantinga, we have no reason to believe that it is necessary for a belief to be true in order to be advantageous.

Zed needs to act in certain ways to survive. For example, he needs to avoid the sabertooth tiger taking a bite out of his big brain. We’ll call this “Tiger Avoidance Behavior.” Now Tiger Avoidance Behavior could be produced by Zed’s desire not to get eaten plus the presumably true belief that Tiger Avoidance Behavior will increase his chances of not having his brain eaten.

The problem is that Tiger Avoidance Behavior could also be produced by false beliefs. Perhaps Zed likes the idea of being eaten and wants to run toward the tiger, but he always confuses running toward with running away from tigers. His false belief actually aids, rather than hinders, his survival. Therefore, a belief could have a survival advantage and yet be false.

The point of all this is that Zed’s noetic equipment does not need to produce true beliefs for him to survive. This is true for all four types of belief that unguided evolution can produce. Since this holds true for even the most basic survival behavior, it is especially true for abstract ideas (e.g., evolutionary naturalism, libertarianism). Whether it is right or wrong is purely accidental. Although it is possible that any particular belief can be true, it is not, from an evolutionary perspective, necessary that any beliefs be true.

If, as evolutionary naturalism claims, our noetic equipment might have developed in different ways, then a belief in evolutionary naturalism itself could be any of the four types of belief listed above. What is the likelihood that evolutionary naturalism has produced in us cognitive equipment that is able to reliably form true beliefs and know that they are true? Extremely low. Even then, we could never truly know that we knew the truth, because we would know our belief might merely be the most advantageous to us.

Shermer claims that science begins with the null hypothesis, that a hypothesis under investigation is not true, or null, until proven otherwise. As he says, “If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.” In this case we could say that anyone who thinks a non-teleological process causes the production of reliable noetic equipment has the burden of proof to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis. Since it is impossible to produce such experimental data (without begging the question that we have reliable noetic equipment to judge the results), we can say that believing in non-teleological evolution should undercut our confidence in being able to find or create any meaningful patterns or other true beliefs.

To accept the naturalistic evolutionary explanation for the development of our noetic equipment we have to be skeptical about that equipment’s reliability. All we would really know is that it works for evolutionary purposes, not for the purposes of discerning truth from falsehood. Evolutionary naturalism, it turns out, is a self-defeating proposition: If we believe the theory is true, then we have no reason to believe that the theory—or any theory at all—is true.


Plantinga, Alvin. 1994. Naturalism Defeated.….

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Shermer discusses scientific findings about belief formation. Beliefs, including political beliefs, are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, not rational calculations. One cluster of those intuitions presumes that human nature is malleable; these usually produce a liberal politics. Another group of intuitions presumes that human nature is static; these tend to produce conservatism. But Shermer argues that humans really fall somewhere in between — malleable, within some important limits. He argues that this set of findings should produce a libertarian politics.

Response Essays

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests that the partial mutability of human traits is an auxiliary reason at best for Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. Take that fact away, and Shermer’s politics probably wouldn’t go with it. Yudkowsky says that his own small-l libertarian tendencies come from the long history of government incompetence, indifference, and outright malevolence. These, and not brain science, are the best reasons for libertarians to believe what they do.

    Moreover, we make a logical error when we infer shares of causality from shares of observed variance; the relationship between nature and nurture is cooperative, not zero-sum. One thing, however, is clear: Human genetic variance is tiny, as indeed it must be for human beings all to constitute a single species. Environmental manipulation can only achieve so much in part because of this universal human inheritance.

  • Joe Carter invokes an argument by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If purely naturalistic evolution created the human brain, then we should expect our brains to be tuned for survival, not for truth detection. Michael Shermer appears to agree, at least so far. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to consider the theory of purely naturalistic evolution, or for that matter any other set of propositions, to be true. Under this rubric, truths are at best possible; they can never be necessary. Indeed, the monkey mind can never know that it knows the truth.

  • Ronald Bailey argues that the freedom envisioned by classical liberals is congruent with science and democracy, and that the progress of all three together has enriched much of the world in the last two centuries. The enemies of this libertarian project hearken back to tendencies from mankind’s evolutionary history; for much of that history, experiment of any type could often be fatal, and therefore we find within us what may well be an evolved resistance to experiment. This resistance manifests politically as either conservatism, or a yearning for a purer, more primitive time, when noble savages walked the earth. It is a vice found on both left and right, Bailey argues, and one for which the antidote is libertarianism.