Christophe de Rauglaudre (KCL) - 2018-19 Students

An evolutionary argument against scientific realism

Scientific realism claims that our most successful scientific theories are true or approximately true. Evolutionary theory figures among such theories, and is often believed to have worrying epistemic implications for various domains of knowledge, not least moral knowledge (e.g. Street 2006). The thought is that, given the evolutionary origins of our cognitive faculties, we have (defeasible) reason to distrust such faculties with regards to the domains in question, and therefore to withhold the relevant beliefs.

It has occasionally been contended – by, for instance, Plantinga (2011) and more recently Severini and Sterpetti (2017) – that our claim to scientific knowledge is itself under threat from the evolutionary considerations raised above. That is, it is suggested that evidence to the effect that our cognitive apparatus is a product of Darwinian evolution constitutes a reason to believe that said apparatus is unreliable with respect to the domain of science. In effect, the theory entails that the human mind evolved to help our prehistoric ancestors survive and reproduce. While dispositions to form accurate beliefs about the immediate objects of their experience, e.g. trees, predators and other human beings, would certainly have helped them to achieve this, it looks as though knowledge of the kind we call ‘scientific’, e.g. of the structure of the atom or of the mechanisms involved in protein translation, would have been of no use to them at all. To put it colloquially, it seems that the evolutionary process ‘did not care’ whether we would be able to acquire scientific knowledge or not.

I believe that this epistemic problem can serve as the basis for an argument against scientific realism. More precisely, this argument would hold that evolutionary theory gives us (defeasible) reason to disbelieve that our cognitive faculties have the ability to reliably correctly assess the merits of candidate scientific theories, i.e. the extent to which the theories under scrutiny are likely to be true. Disposing of this ability would indeed apparently have conferred no evolutionary advantage to our prehistoric ancestors. Unless there are countervailing reasons to believe that our best theories are nonetheless true or approximately true, then, it seems to follow that we ought to withhold belief in the truth (or approximate truth) of our theories. I wish to construct such an argument, and critically assess whether such countervailing reasons are available to the scientific realist.

Back to the top