Ashamed of Their Ancestry

A while back, I was reading the idthefuture site, where I was referred to an article at an apologetics site on materialism. Joe Carter, in the article, "The Mystical Monkey Mind: Four Common Errors of Naturalistic Epistemology," presented a quote from Darwin which I saw pop up again the other day:
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. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
It appears, at first glance, a serious problem: if our minds are "just" monkey brains, why do we trust them? But, as is attributed to Solomon as being said, "The first to present his case seems right, until another comes along to examine him." (Prov 18:17, NIV) Let us examine the argument posed by Joe, Paul Manata, and others.

First, should Darwin's opinion on the matter, without presenting any particular argument for support, hold any weight? Not really. After all, this seems quite self-refuting -- if the man who pieced together the case that we descended from great apes then concluded our minds untrustworthy for that reason, then his "case" is obviously imperiled. In fact, we might make a simple conclusion from this statement: it is self-refuting. Just like making the statement, "I always lie," there is no way to escape the circular destruction of this logic. If your mind's convictions are not trustworthy, how do you even convince yourself of, or trust in, the validity of that conviction?

Also, this argument to reject the soundness of the human mind may be a variant of the genetic fallacy -- based on a categorical rejection of an argument or idea simply based on where it originated, rather than on sound reasoning. What intrinsic feature of monkeys, (apes, actually) or any other higher mammal makes their minds innately untrustworthy? In fact, we can take this a step further, given that Darwin's conclusion about the origins of man are correct, and claim that this actually substantiates the trustworthiness of our minds!

Consider, for a moment, that this argument is rooted in a rejection of the conclusion that men are descendants of apes, but additionally, an inferred premise that men are just that, rather than that and with some sort of God-imbued soul or spirit. The reason we infer this is that those who hold to souls and spirits and such nearly universally consider those intangiable, immaterial aspects of man as somehow giving his mind credibility. Of course, supporting this premise, or opposing it, is not germane at the moment. So, let us cast the question aside of whether or not man has a soul or spirit, and whether those aid in the function and trustworthiness of man's mind, or would detract from it.

What we do know from observing nature is that animals are not "stupid". Animals find clever ways of procuring food and resources. I have seen apes use sticks to poke down into rotten logs and pull out bugs, a simple tool with a necessary function -- eating. The pack behavior displayed by wolves in encircling a weakened or small animal away from the herd requires precise and coordinated movements. Tracking a scent requires a well-developed olfactory function of the brain, as well as a catalogue of "memory scents" which correlate the present smell to one of the categories "food, water, etc." I doubt sincerely that those promoting Darwin's quote above would disagree that animals are quite adept at surviving.

What can we say from that fact alone? Given that animals have an amazing variety of talents at survival, and that the diversity of nature has produced a cooperative evolution (in response to other creatures which evolve), is a kernel of truth present? Yes. We can conclude that animals are capable of learning, and learning requires a degree of understanding that the natural world is, itself, trustworthy. Without the degree of lawlike behavior nature provides, learning some new behavior would be required every second -- no "tools or tricks" would work more than once. But, animals prove to us that nature, though "red in tooth and claw", is not flippant, and the universe is not a giant cartoon with ever-changing properties.

Admittedly, many animals lack the cognitive awareness to recognize the nature of change that they must respond to, and we can call it "just instinct". Great apes are not in this category. The sophistication of the social structure and communication between apes is rather extraordinary. Most people are aware that apes have been taught sign language, even if of limited vocabulary and with toddler-like awkwardness in this form of speech.

Furthermore, when what would become modern man last shared a common ancestor with what is now the chimpanzee, approximately 6 Mya, the one characteristic feature of hominids as they progressed was their tool-making and socialization. Hominids learned not only a few "tricks and tools", they learned many. Their minds were capable of recognizing patterns in nature, and the dependability of natural laws gave them a firm foundation from which their learned and passed-down behaviors and tool-making abilities proved highly successful in the long term. Should they have not had the ability to trust in tried-and-proven methods for procuring food and shelter, we either wouldn't be here to consider it, or at the least, you wouldn't be reading these words on a pixelated screen.

I would argue that there are good reasons to trust ape minds -- they have survived the perils of nature for millions of years, and along the way, learned that they could trust the natural world around them to provide constancy. Those minds that were the brightest, that developed innovative methods for catching fish or making spears, were most likely to exist in a social structure in which this knowledge could be shared and propogate throughout their progeny.

Admittedly, understanding the natural world, as we can conclude that our ancestors (and other animals) did (and still do), is not to be equivocated as all "convictions of the mind." So let's say for a moment that we agree with Darwin that we cannot outright trust our convictions. So what? What we know we can do, because this is how we arrived where we are, is to test our convictions via actions and experiment, keep those things that provide us with a tangiable benefit, and relegate to the bin of skepticism those things that are forever beyond our proving. When the only concern on our hominid ancestors' minds was survival, it is quite unlikely that they had the time to sit around and ask, "what is the nature of consciousness?" or "what is the nature of the cosmos?" Since they were so successful in employing their minds in the pursuit of survival, we can trust our minds in at least that sense -- at providing us with a sound means of furthering our species.

Now that we stand on the shoulders of their accomplishments, the success they proved in surviving has given us a novel ability -- to sit around and use these minds to ask questions which do not, arguably, impinge directly upon our survival. In so doing, we develop certain convictions about the universe, and our place in it. If Darwin's quote can be taken at face value, all it really tells us is that these convictions of the mind are not as dependable as the laws of nature which provided these minds.

Darwin pointed out, and rightly so, that we are but a part of nature. Being a part of some system X, or outside of some black box Y, carries with it limitations in objectively observing X, or being able to get inside of and know Y. Because human beings are part of the natural universe, and are products of that universe, they will always be limited in their perspective on certain features of the universe. That warrants skepticism. It does not, however, warrant throwing out those things we have learned from nature, secrets that we have wrested away from the blind, mute, and uncaring universe. Why should we abandon trust in the regularity and uniformity of nature, when it has brought us this far? Why should we relegate the method of testing and applying knowledge tentatively, until it proves itself (via the scientific method, or in pragmatic real life experience) enough for us to "trust" it, to the trash can? That method is what led to tools, and to skyscrapers. Its success is as apparent as our own existence, and with tangiable results that "trust" alone has never given us.

Why trust a monkey mind? If we want to survive, we must trust our minds. If we do not want to be self-refuting, we must trust our minds. That said, need we trust its convictions as if they are representative of the permanance and inviolate laws of nature? Of course not. Don't trust it absolutely. Test its convictions against the sounding board of Nature. Even when it provides tangiable and practical results, there is no need to consider its convictions immutable. That is the heart of skepticism, and it seems we have from the evolution-deniers not an argument to reject the best conclusions based on the evidence we can make, but instead an argument to reject any position except epistemological skepticism. And that's fine with me.

I would flip the table on our special creationist friends and ask, if instead of the uniformity of nature, and the laws of physics, our minds were the products of some divine fiat or "poof" mechanism, why should we trust that? While we can know our universe to at least a limited extent, and recognize that its symmetry, its uniformity, and its material properties give rise to minds which are at least semi-quantifiable and semi-understandable, we know nothing of "spirit" and "soul". We know nothing of what those substances are, how they contribute to mind, and what properties they would confer to mind.

It seems that our anti-evolutionists are ashamed of their ancestry, that our friends feel probably unlike the other animals, and not nearly so mundane, but elevated in stature above nature. That is a conviction I couldn't trust, whether with a "spirit" or "soul" or just my material mind. I know myself too well to deny the claws on the ends of my fingers, the sparse fur that covers my body, the instinctive dilation of my pupils and adrenaline rush at the sign of danger. I know myself too well to deny that I am still an animal. An animal that trusts its mind and instincts, but not absolutely. I am not ashamed of it, and would ask them why they are...