Does Evolution Give Us True Beliefs?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If our minds developed solely due to the process of Darwinian evolution, then how can we trust that our minds give us true beliefs about the world?  This is a nasty problem for atheistic naturalists, because if they cannot argue convincingly that evolution gave us minds that generate true beliefs, then they cannot argue that atheistic naturalism is true.

Evolution is only concerned with survival, so the evolutionist must somehow convince us that most of our beliefs about the world are true because they help us survive.  But there are many examples we can give where that connection breaks down.

Philosopher Louis Pojman, in his book What Can We Know? ,  relates the research of John Garcia and his rats.  Garcia and his co-workers “performed experiments on rats in which the rats were fed distinctively flavored water or food and then given high doses of radiation, inducing sickness.  After a single exposure to radiation, the rats developed a strong aversion to their aforementioned distinctively flavored water or food.  Even if the radiation is given as long as twelve hours after eating the food or water, the aversion pattern follows.”

In this example, the rats believe the food and water make them sick, but they are wrong.  It seems that this aversion pattern is the result of natural selection to aid in survival.  Evolution has caused the rat to have untrue beliefs in order to survive.  Pojman notes that humans follow this same pattern when we become sick after eating a particular food, and then are often repulsed by that food for the rest of our lives, even though the food had nothing to do with us getting sick.

Pojman also explains that:

False beliefs may positively procure survival.  Inducing beliefs that great spirits are protecting members of the tribe may enable these members to surmount dangerous obstacles that would otherwise destroy them.  Consider two tribes, the Optimists and the Accuratists, who go to war.  They are relevantly similar in every way except that the Optimists believe that if they die in battle (especially sacrificing themselves for their mates), they will be rewarded with an afterlife of unparalleled sensuous bliss, whereas the Accuratists, tailoring the strength of their beliefs to the strength of the available evidence, believe that in all likelihood this life is all they have, that death is the final cessation of consciousness.  The Optimists are more likely to win; the Accuratists more likely to flee or submit to an inferior settlement.

As long as our beliefs enable us to reproduce more successfully, they may have nothing to do with truth.  Pojman quotes Pat Churchland, “Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.  The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. . . . Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”

Darwin himself had fears about evolution giving us true beliefs:

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

Perhaps the belief that atheistic naturalism is true is nothing more than a genetic mutation which survives in a small number of advanced primates.  If you’re an atheistic naturalist, you may never know.

  • Todd

    I’m not sure where you’re going with this one. Are you wondering about the nature of reality? the basis of truth? evolutionary psychology? an ‘atheist’ gene? You have a lot of concepts in your post that are a bit disparate and don’t logically draw to your conclusion.

    I’ll perhaps comment on your first question: “If our minds developed solely due to the process of Darwinian evolution, then how can we trust that our minds give us true beliefs about the world?”

    This seems like a question about the nature of reality. In short, we live in a world where we must observe the framework around us and accept it as truth. I doubt you get up in the morning and wonder if the floor is truly under your bed before you walk to the bathroom. Evolution did not create the nature of reality, it is simply the theory that explains how the framework of our world evolved over time and has yet to be proven any more false than the belief in your bedroom floor. If there is an alternate reality that atheists (and presumably all non-Christians aren’t aware of, it could simply be put to rest with a little proof. But as for evolution, it will not be disbelieved until disproved.

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  • Bill Pratt

    This post is posing a serious philosophical question to atheists who believe in evolution. How did the process of evolution give our human minds true beliefs about the world? If evolution is survival targeted and not truth targeted, then it may be that many of our beliefs about the real world are simply false, but useful to our survival. If that is the case, then we don’t really know reality – our minds are tricking us.

    Why is this a problem? Because atheistic evolutionists believe that their view of reality is true! They believe that there really is no God, that matter and energy are all that really exists, that all life came from mindless material processes. But if our minds are misleading us because evolution has given us false beliefs about reality, then the atheist can never know whether atheism is really true.

  • Todd

    First, I don’t think all atheists would agree on the nature of reality. Personally, I like the model-dependent realism that was described by Hawkings in his latest book “The Grand Design” and is well accepted by science.

    For a quick in-context definition:
    “[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth.”

    In your examples where rats incorrectly observed food as their problem of radiation poisoning and humans have similar reactions to foods, those explanations of events created their reality. Of course, we constantly test our observations. When we test the model and prove that is was in fact radiation or perhaps the flu instead of food that caused the sickness, the model changes to fit the observed reality. Just as we once thought the earth was flat or that it was the center of the universe, the changing explanation of those events through our observations of that model changed to our current model with the earth rotating around the sun.

    Model-dependent realism also solves the problem of our evolutionary brain tricking us into believing a false reality. If there is a reality where god exists, we could call that model the ‘real’ one, and the current one the ‘false’ one, but since there is no way for us to observe god, we cannot attribute him to our current model of reality.

    You may extend that concept to say that the Christian model includes god while the atheist model does not. But when we need to make predictions about the reality of such things as creationism, or miracles, or an afterlife, the Christian model does not stand up to scrutiny with over 2 centuries to provide observable evidence of god. I would propose that Christians should change their model of reality to fit whats is observable.

    But, if my current model of the world without a god is wrong, I’m willing to change once there is observable evidence to the contrary. How could one proceed otherwise?

  • Bill Pratt

    It seems that this concept of reality has serious problems. It looks like it means that we can never know reality for what it really is; we can only know it as modeled in our brain (a la Kant). If this is true, then one model can never be shown to be more accurate about reality than another model, since we can never really “see” reality as it really is. We are trapped inside our models with no possible escape. Do you agree with my comments or have I misunderstood?

  • Todd


    To say that “we can never know reality for what it really is” would not be consistent with model-dependent realism because it only subscribes to the a reality that is observable. If someone asserted there was another reality (b) that is the real reality as opposed to (a), which happens all the time, observable evidence would have to be provided to alter model (a) to be consistent with model (b). Until the proof is given, model (b) is not accepted.

    For example. when two models disagree, we test each model through what is observable. So if you were to say that in your model, god is real, you would first have to had observed a god. If another model is inconsistent with yours, you would bear the burden of proof of god to have your model of reality accepted by others. If you could not provide the evidence, then others would have to accept that there is more than one reality, or more likely it would be dismissed until proof was presented. You could of course simply choose to live with your model of reality where god exists, but to do so would be intellectually dishonest or worse in the case that others accept your model without question, unethical.

    This is similar to Kant’s assertion that things cannot exist outside of our experience, but differs on his opinion that metaphysical ideas such as god can be accepted a priori if one simply believes in their existence. Model-dependent realism would assert that in order to be real, belief alone is not sufficient without observation.

  • Bill Pratt

    If your model represents real reality, then you are absolutely trapped by the conundrum laid out in the blog post. How can you ever know that the beliefs you hold, as an evolved primate, are true? What process has given you true beliefs?

  • Todd


    Perhaps I am not explaining my position clearly. There is no such thing as ‘real reality’. There is just reality. As such, there is no conundrum in the blog post, we know what we see to be reality because we observe it. The evidence you present for evolution as somehow tricking our mind to alter reality, is simply not viable unless you have some proof of an alternate reality. I would invite you to provide that evidence.

    If the synopsis of model-dependent realism doesn’t click with you, I’d invite you to read “The Grand Design” where Hawking lays it out in greater detail.

  • Todd, I think you are missing the point. He’s asking you how you know that, on evolution, your beliefs are true. Responding they are true because of observation begs the question!

  • Todd

    Maybe I’m missing the point, or perhaps I should have harangued truth into the equation, which I see as a different concept than reality. If I say that reality is based on observation. Evolution, or at least the process of evolution, does not have an effect on reality. When we were first developing sight and only had dim visions of light and dark, the observed reality was what was seen. Evolution is simply the process of how we have evolved. At some point consciousness entered the equation, but that too was a physical manifestation, and still is, in my opinion because there is no reason to believe it continues after physical death. But I am not responding that there is an alternate reality. There is simply reality, which we must base on observation. We may be wrong about our observations, but that does not change reality.

  • Right, ontology is different than epistemology. But why think your epistemology is reliable, given naturalism? The probability of you holding true beliefs given naturalism is low or inscrutable. True beliefs aren’t necessary for survival–there are plenty of instances in which it is possible (and even more beneficial) to believe that which is not true for survival! However, this means you have a defeater for all of your beliefs, even the belief that naturalism is true. Here is a brief illustration, not original to me. Suppose you buy a book, and suppose on the first page the author claims, 50% of what is on this page is false. If you have no other relevant information, and you believe this statement, then you have no way of knowing which ones are true! You, in effect, have a defeater for every belief from that page, even though 50% of those beliefs would be true! So it is with naturalism.

  • Bill Pratt

    But how do you know that your observations are giving you true information about the world, about reality? It seems that you are just assuming that they do, but that is the very question that the blog post is raising.

    You said, “Evolution is simply the process of how we have evolved. At some point consciousness entered the equation, but that too was a physical manifestation, and still is, in my opinion because there is no reason to believe it continues after physical death.”

    When consciousness entered the equation, what process guaranteed that this consciousness would give us true beliefs about the world around us?

  • Bill Pratt

    That’s a great illustration. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  • Thanks Bill. This is kind of random, but I noticed you attended (or attend) SES; the place I’m considering applying to for the PhD in philosophy of religion! I’ve never met or interacted with any students from SES, so it’s very welcoming to see this blog!

  • Andrew Ryan

    The proposition that we are all just brains in jars being subject to false stimuli, a la The Matrix, is an unfalsifiable one, whether you are theist or atheist. Solipsism is the result of positing that reality as it appears to us is an illusion. Positing a God does not avoid this problem.

    But that all aside,
    Simply put, a species with seriously skewed interpretations of reality would die out.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “As long as our beliefs enable us to reproduce more successfully, they may have nothing to do with truth.”

    Problem for Plantinga’s argument – and this is his argument – is that it puts our ability to gather knowledge on the level of intuition or guesses. We are not rats. Yes we can make false connections, but we can also develop good models of reality through the scientific method. The results this method gives us have nothing to do with beliefs. They do indeed often contradict our previously held beliefs, subject to bias as beliefs can be.

  • Dennis

    The question is faulty:”Does evolution give us true beliefs”

    Only Christians have a problem with evolution, for in their bible one of the fundamentals is that God created every life form, in exactly the form as it is now.

    So you picture evolution as an attack on your belief, on your fundamentals, but it isn’t. It’s just a scientific model that works exceptionally well on all the stuff we observe in life, therefore we consider it to be ‘truth’ until proven otherwise (don’t get your hopes up though, by now there’s such an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the theory, the scientific world will never go back to medieval superstition, they will only advance the theory further or find an even better theory).

    So science does not offer ‘true beliefs’, ever.
    But since the evolution theory is backed by such on overwhelming amount of falsifiable evidence, it has become impossible to turn a blind eye.

    I hope you do ‘get’ this:
    The bible was wrong in the part that said that God created all the different species in a day, you will have to look at your holy book with a more open mind if you still want to keep believing in your God, for the evolution theory is as much ‘theory’ as the gravity ‘theory’.
    We are 100% sure that it is happening in our reality.
    Think about it logically: it makes sense, why would God make lifeforms that cannot change in a changing world, but place them in a changing world? All life would die out sooner or later, even your God can’t be that stupid can he?
    Life needs to be able to change, and that is what evolution is: change.

  • Bill Pratt

    If you don’t believe in a supreme being of some sort, then you must believe that greater than 95% of the people alive have “seriously skewed interpretations of reality.” Why haven’t we died out?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, you’re confusing two things.

    God beliefs are unfalsifiable, not subject to the scientific method. Arguing that it’s possible to hold false beliefs about deities is not the same as arguing that it’s impossible to believe the evidence of our senses.

    There are 30,000 varieties of Christianity, which is itself outnumbered by the believers of other faiths. So you must also believe the majority have skewed views if reality.

    At any rate, by skewed I do not mean ‘wrong about deities’. I mean ‘unable to differentiate one tiger from two’. I mean ‘unable to tell the difference between the scientific method working and not working’. Example:

    I Skype my mother. Either this is a demonstration of science working, or I am hallucinating talking to my mother in a different State. The latter would be a skewed view of reality. My mother’s Anglican faith is not.

  • Bill Pratt

    If you want to narrow your claim to recognizing two tigers vs. one, then you have a stronger case. I am only saying that, as an atheist, you must hold the position that the vast majority of mankind is hopelessly deluded about the existence of God, a delusion that is derived from their sense perceptions of the world. This clearly should cause the atheist pause when claiming that they are not themselves deluded by their senses.

  • Andrew Ryan

    And you similarly must view all the other religious adherents to be deluded. So regardless of your worldview, you must accept that the majority are wrong about religion, as there is no majority religious sect. But science is based on repeatability, evidence, peer review – not tradition or faith. So it is no challenge to an atheist worldview that many people are wrong about religion. And you’ve not shown why it should be.

  • Bill Pratt

    The challenge to atheism is that evolution has caused the majority of all humans to be completely wrong about basic reality. Since evolution is the cornerstone of your metaphysics and your epistemology, that seems like a serious problem to me.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Basic reality? Basic reality is my next meal, science, maths, human suffering. Not untestable ideas about eschatology. So no, still no problem for atheists here, their worldview, or evolution. I’d see it more of a problem for a worldview that includes an all powerful, all knowing God, who can’t get a basic message across to more than a small percentage of humanity. Such a being would KNOW what was needed to convince more people. And yet Christianity alone has 30,000 sects – the majority of which are apparently missing the bigger picture. Anything else?

  • Andrew Ryan

    “If you want to narrow your claim to recognizing two tigers vs. one, then you have a stronger case.”

    What claim is this supposedly narrowing FROM? From recognizing two tigers vs one, to interpreting data in a scientific experiment, to being fairly confidence that when I Skype my Mom that it is not a hallucination, and accepting that the scientific method is a reliable way of correctly getting a measure of reality. None of this has anything to do with religious beliefs.

    You’ve got a false dichotomy. It is possible for both the following to be true:
    1) We have evolved in such a way that it is possible for us to make testable, repeatable experiments to gain knowledge about the world, including gaining an understanding about that the very evolution process that brought us to this state; and
    2) Humans don’t know absolutely everything and are not correct about everything.

  • Andrew, how true!
    Carneades’s argument is that Platinga’s the argument from reason as do all teleological arguments, beside other fallacies, begs the question of divine intent for finding the truth when evolution only gave us the means by which to do so.We have to try to obtain truth.So, by trial and error we learn to trust- and mistrust our faculties We use intersubjectivity to ascertain the truth. We use instruments as our faculties do err and need supplementation otherwise.
    So, we naturalists and everyone then can trust to an extent our minds. Why, Darwin and we could trust many monkeys’ minds!
    Platinga ranks in philosphical analysis with A. Rand, in albeit symbolic and high-minded language, both ranking with Sylvia Brown[e] in woo! Richard Carrier, noted historian- philosopher,removes the cloak of superciliousness and obscurantism from that argument.
    Carneades’s argument is what I call this,because he points out that that is what Chrysippus begs the question in his design argument.
    Theism, per the argument from physical mind, has that refragable problem of disembodied mind.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “you must hold the position that the vast majority of mankind is hopelessly deluded about the existence of God, a delusion that is derived from their sense perceptions of the world.”

    I don’t hold that people’s belief in God is down to a failure of their senses. I don’t think that improving people’s sight, hearing, smell etc would reduce their faith in any way.

    Further, I don’t think that the methods scientists used to establish evolution as the most likely cause of the diversity of life on earth are the same methods that people use to bolster their faith in a deity. If they were the same methods, than yes that would be a problem. But they’re not.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I didn’t say that belief in God meant one had a ‘seriously skewed interpretation of reality’. In fact I don’t think that religious belief even particularly qualifies as an ‘interpretation of reality’. You and I interpret reality in pretty much the same way – we just disagree on the existence of a deity.

    My assertion that “a species with seriously skewed interpretations of reality would die out” referred to the arguments of philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, who argues that us understanding that we should run from lions because they pose a threat to us, would give us no evolutionary advantage over us simply running from lions because we thought we were in a playful race with them.

    The latter scenario WOULD count as having a ‘seriously skewed interpretation of reality’.

  • Vaclav Chmelir

    Its a superstition and lack of knowledge to say “medieval superstition”.
    Not all Christians are fundamentals

  • Vaclav Chmelir

    Carrier is not “noted historian- philosopher”.