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Why Human Reason Didn’t “Evolve”


The indispensable neuroscientist Michael Egnor, writing at Mind Matters, applies some needed intellectual rigor in disciplining atheist philosopher Justin E.H. Smith. In a new book, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, Professor Smith “argues that reason is inferior to the non-rational behavior of animals.” Egnor: “Think of the irony: a professor of philosophy, who is paid only to reason, uses reason to argue against reason. Welcome to the bowels of atheist metaphysics.”

According to Smith, writing at Aeon, “Philosophers and cognitive scientists today generally comprehend the domain of reason as a certain power of making inferences, confined to the thoughts and actions of human beings alone.” Well, not exactly. Reason, as Dr. Egnor reminds him, is nothing  more or less than the ability to think abstractly, as opposed to thinking about physical objects. 

A Clever Dog

An example of the latter would be thinking about how to get out of your doggie play pen. Our family is currently testing out a puppy (long story) who has surprised me repeatedly when I wasn’t looking by somehow escaping from a closed play pen. It took me a while to figure out how he was doing it, since the pen is about twice his height. Even then I had to catch him in the act. Clever dog! But he wasn’t engaging in the activity of reasoning by, let’s say, contemplating the idea of freedom. Egnor:

Only man thinks abstractly; that is the ability to reason. No animal, no matter how clever, can think abstractly or reason. Animals can be very clever but their cleverness is always about concrete things — about the bone they are playing with, or about the stranger they are barking at. They don’t think about “play” or “threat” as abstract concepts.

Tough to Explain

Smith says, “Like echolocation in bats or photosynthesis in plants, reason is an evolved power.” But if reason is unique to humans, and exists nowhere else in life, did it indeed “evolve” from lower animals? That’s a tough question. In fact, Egnor explains why it didn’t, at least not by any purely material mechanism like the Darwinian one:

Reason is a power characteristic of man, to be sure, but it is not “an evolved power.” It didn’t “evolve.” The ability to reason didn’t evolve because it’s not a material power of the mind. Reason is an immaterial power of the mind — it is abstracted from particular things, and cannot logically be produced by a material thing.

A purely material process can’t “evolve” a spiritual power. Egnor is, as I said, indispensable. Read the read as Mind Matters.

Photo credit: Juan Rumimpunu via Unsplash.