Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? - Justin Barrett

Justin Barrett - Psychology and Sociology

Justin Barrett

Justin L. Barrett is Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He previously held a post as senior researcher of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University.

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Justin
Barrett

Prof. of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Justin, the mind-body problem has been a perennial friend of mine since my young days. I did a doctorate in neuroscience trying to understand that. And I talked to philosophers who talk about the intrinsic aspects of the mind that science can never explain, and neuroscientists would say that it's just an emergent property. You've studied the cognitive science of religion and trying to understand that. What can we learn about evolutionary psychology that can help us to discern what the mind is, and is indeed the mind simply the product of our biological systems?

Justin Barrett:

When I think of evolutionary psychology's contribution to this, I think that I'm not very optimistic, frankly, that evolutionary psychology has a lot to say about where minds come from, frankly. Of course, some of my colleagues will say, wait a minute, no, no. We can say something there. We can talk about the sorts of selection pressures that might have made it advantageous for some kind of an animal to have a mind, mental state, consciousness, self-awareness. That maybe these kinds of properties then opened up a certain amount of behavioral flexibility to solve a wide-range of problems. But that strikes me as just well, hand-waving, in a sense. It must have gone this way.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Because we have the result. We know or presume it has to be purely physical, if that's your orientation.

Justin Barrett:

If that's your orientation, you presume that, and so it must have gone that way. You wouldn't say, well it was just this lucky happenstance that just sort of poof, there was a mind. And you might want to emphasize that it's sort of an incremental process of some sort, and so you might have some kind of protomind. So, there are some themes from evolutionary perspectives that might be helpful, but I don't know if they answer, really directly, give us a whole lot of traction on where did minds come from.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Now you are very astute and have pioneered the field of the cognitive science of religion, which can show how religion has developed even if there were no God, because they're very naturalistic ways. Why is it any different from mind in the individual sense, from religion? You've already shown it in religion. What's the difference between mind and religion?

Justin Barrett:

Well, I think the difference here is that what we've done in cognitive science of religion is without, as you say, without appealing to the existence, or nonexistence, of gods of any sort. We give a naturalistic account for why people have a tendency to believe that, gods, for instance, exist. So we could do something comparable with giving explanation for why people believe that minds exist,

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, that's different.

Justin Barrett:

But that's different than, say, where did minds come from? Cognitive science of religion doesn't explain God. And it sure doesn't seem to me that the cognitive science of, I guess, psychology then would explain mind, where do minds come from, if we want to believe that minds even exist.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But it's the same process, though. You're looking at evolution, you're looking at adaptation, selectivity, you're looking at the result, the result being there is religion. You're assuming the truth of evolution and you are looking for ways that religion can develop as it were selected by evolution or cognitive science. So that process can be exactly the same when you're looking at mind, because you have a biological system, a brain that's developing, and you have a process of evolution and selection. What is the different methodologies that makes you so, so positive on the one, religion, and so negative on the other, mind?

Justin Barrett:

Well, because I take it that when we're asking about where did minds come from, we're really talking about, well, at least envisioning a particular kind of entity, a real something, not a cultural level kind of phenomenon. And it strikes me that's the difference. Now, I don't want to sound completely grumpy about evolutionary psychology's contributions here. I think what evolutionary psychology can contribute is perspectives on why does the mind seem to have the character that it does? So we might not be able to say a whole lot about why minds, beyond sort of a hand-waving exercise or a just so story, but we can use a similar strategy that we do in reasoning about other kinds of animals, explaining their behaviors. They have to solve particular kinds of problems in their evolutionary environment, given their kind of biology and capacities. Well, likewise with our ancestors who would have had to solve similar kinds of problems. Maybe, then, what evolutionary psychology can contribute is understanding how the mind sort of differentially solves those problems and gives us a fresh perspective on just what are the right questions. What kinds of problems were our ancestors likely trying to solve and how has that contributed to the kinds of minds we have now? So, at least that kind of a research strategy has led some people in evolutionary psychology to decide, well, it doesn't make sense to think of the mind as an undifferentiated general processor. It's not a tabula rasa or a sponge, it just sort of soaks up everything out there. We don't see that in other animal species. They seem to have little routines, or instincts for different kinds of problems that they need to solve. Well, we might expect that would be the case with humans, too. We need to solve problems like how to select what foods to eat and which ones to avoid. And given that we've got sort of a wide range of distribution of environments, we need to be very flexible with our eating pattern. But with that flexibility leads to a high risk of poisoning yourself. So you need to very rapidly learn what things are safe and what aren't and what's disgusting and what isn't and so forth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

These are features of the mind. They don't deal with the fundamental aspect, and so I think that's what you're saying the difference is, whereas when you're dealing with the cognitive science of religion you're dealing on the broad cultural levels, you're dealing with features of the mind, you're dealing with aspects of how it's shaped, but you're saying nothing whatsoever about the fundamental nature of consciousness or why we're subjective agents or anything like that.

Justin Barrett:

Yeah, I'm afraid that's right. I'm much less optimistic that evolutionary psychology has anything interesting to say beyond sort of general platitudes in terms of well, we've got it, it must have been good for us somehow, to have mind. And so there it is. I'm just afraid that this isn't the right level of looking for answers to this very important question.