evolved senses as an argument for ontological naturalism

Here’s a thought I had recently (although I’m sure other, more erudite brains have already considered it long ago):

Doesn’t the fact that we only have a small number of physical senses, which consistently detect only that which is empirically real (e.g., vision, hearing, touch, etc.), suggest the non-existence–or perhaps at least the non-interference–of anything supernatural?

Here’s my argument, reduced to a kind of syllogism:

P1. We are evolved creatures.
P2. Our physical senses evolved in order for us to be able to respond appropriately (however that is defined) to external stimuli.
P3. We appear to lack any apparatus that can consistently and unambiguously detect anything beyond what exists in our known, physical world.

C: Therefore, even if something supernatural* does exist, there is no evolutionary evidence that it has ever regularly engaged us in the course of our evolution.

*Here I make exceptions for those things that are metaphysical (ideas, dreams, desires, etc.) and those human traits that are epigenetic (culture, personality, etc.), but which are still arguably physically natural, being supervenient upon physical processes and causal circumtances. My definition of “supernatural” is largely that of a materialist, with this one nuance.

Put as simply as possible, my argument is this:

Because we didn’t evolve any way to respond to the supernatural, most likely the supernatural doesn’t really exist, or at least doesn’t concern itself with us very often.

Anyone want to argue against this?

I’m sure someone will offer the objection that “we DO have a way to respond to the supernatural: our sense of wonder, spirituality,” or whatever. But let me preemptively respond that this “sense” is ambiguous and ill-defined, at best, and the objects of its perception can be many, many different things. Further, its existence can be adequately explained at least in theory by psychology.

Yeah, me. :cool:

Because we didn’t evolve any way to respond to the ultrasonic/hyperonic noises made by both predator (lion) and prey (bat, elephants) species, most likely such ultrasonic noises don’t really exist, or at least doesn’t concern us very often.

Because we didn’t evolve any way to respond to the EM spectrum outside the visible, including such useful abilities as being able to see our predators and prey in the dark, most likely such hyperspectral radiation doesn’t really exist, or at least doesn’t concern us very often.

Because we didn’t evolve any way to respond to odours at concentrations less than parts per million, including the ability to track prey or detect poisons, most likely such dilute odours don’t really exist, or at least doesn’t concern us very often.

But none of those conclusions is true. We know that hyperspectral radiation and ultrasonic noise and dilute odours exist. Furthermore we know that numerous other species can indeed detect them, so it is demonstrably possible to evolve such detection mechanisms. Yet despite the existence of the phenomena, the obvious value of being able to detect such phenomena and the evolution of other species to be able to detect such phenomena, we can not detect them.

Therefore the fact that we only have a small number of physical senses, which consistently detect only only a tiny fraction of what is empirically real, is not in any way suggestive of the non-existence, much less the non-interference, of anything beyond those senses. Or to put it another way, there is an entire universe out that affects us both directly and continuously that we were completely oblivious to.

Your entire argument is built upon a false premise, the premise that every species must evolve an ability to detect every stimulus that concerns them regularly. That premise is demonstrably false. Ergo your argument can be dismissed as it is based upon a faulty premise.


Cyningablod, you are confused about the nature of evolution. Evolution is not teleological; it has no aim, no ultimate goal, no author, and no design.


No no no no no.

No no no.



Someone always chimes in with this in evolution threads, and the vast majority of the time, the OP in question showed no sign of suffering from the misunderstanding you just described, Skald.

This OP is one of that vast majority.

Science fiction author Larry Niven’s stories frequently feature evolution themes, psionic themes, or both. He himself pointed out the contradiction between the two by saying "“Psi and/or magical powers, if real, are nearly useless” on the grounds that if they were both utilitarian and inheritable, they’d be subject to the same selection as ordinary evolution and we’d observe them as a mundane fact of life.

But see Blake’s post for an explanation of the fallacy in this reasoning.

Once again, this seems to contradict reality. Pit vipers can “see” in the IR portion of the spectrum. This is an incredibly useful ability for a nocturnal or subterranean animal, *incredibly *useful. By no stretch of the imagination is it “nearly useless”. Yet they are, to the best of my knowledge, the only organisms on the entire planet in the entire 4 billion year history of life that is capable of doing this.

That example alone, and there are literally dozens of other, proves that a trait can be both incredibly useful and never evolve. Now you might say “well, it did evolve”, but the fact is that it only evolved in one very small lineage, despite being incredibly and widely useful. It could easily never have evolved at all. Of course I could name hundreds of other conceivable traits that would be amazingly useful, but that have never evolved, but they… never evolved.

Basically Niven is making the same mistake as the OP. They are both assuming that if a trait is useful something will *inevitably * evolve that trait. Nothing could be further from the truth. How useful a trait is has almost no bearing on whether an organism evolves it. Organisms have evolved traits that are truly marginally useful, like patches of bare skin, while failing to evolve IR or X-ray vision or the ability to fly.

In short, it is possible for magic powers to be both heritable and very useful and yet never observed as a mundane fact of life because the starting point simply never existed.

I think Skald has a point. Evolution will only select in favour of traits that already exist among the population and are already at a useful level. The evidence Cyningablod cites could also be because - at the level of variance within the human species - our ability to sense the supernatural doesn’t help. If there was some sort of invisible man-eating monster that can instantly kill a man from 50 metres away, the ability to detect it from 49 metres away is just as useless as a failure to detect it at all.

But supposedly people already have that starting point, according to the claims of such powers. Niven’s argument is pointing out that if some creatures had psi/magic powers, and they were useful, they’d spread and become universal in that species. The example of pit vipers actually supports Niven’s argument; they all have IR capability.

I had a long response to this, written in terza rima for the hell of it, but Grumman encapsulated my thoughts far more pithily and skillfully than the poem. :slight_smile:

The OP argued that since we don’t sense the supernatural, and since if the supernatural existed we would be able to sense it, it follows that the supernatural doesn’t exist.

Grumman’s objection is that it might well simply not be useful to sense the supernatural.

Your own objection to the OP is that the OP has ascribed either an aim, a goal, an author, or a design to evolution.

I do not see any relation between your objection and Grumman’s. (Nor between your objection and the OP’s argument.)

So: Bring forth the poetry!

Once again, the logic is flawed.

For starters at some point in time there must have been only a tiny number of vipers with IR ability, and that ability gradually spread. It is perfectly possible that humans in nay story are at the stage where only a handful of individuals have the trait. Indeed it is almost demanded that we are at that stage in such stories. Nothing in evolutionary theory demands that all individuals must magically and instantly develop trait simultaneously. In fact with a human generation time of 20 and a population in the billions years it would take tens of thousands of years for a useful trait to become universal, even in an environment with no competing selective pressure. At times during that tens of thousands of years we are going to go from the rare and gifted Jedi to the scenario in “The Nothing” where non-psionics are the freaks.

Secondly any trait isn’t all or none. Do all humans have the same height? The same skin colour? The same intelligence? the same sexual preference? Even within populations those traits vary tremendously, and they always have and they always will. Assuming that psionic ability must inevitably “become universal” in a species is as flawed as assuming that all humans must be the same height, colour, intelligence and all are heterosexual. It’s nonsense.

Maybe magical humans have other traits that are maladaptive. Maybe they are prone to eplilepsy, or physically weak, or gay, or very strong and psychotic. Any human population will then benefit from having a small number of magicians thrown up in any generation, but the ratio can never get too high or the population will decrease and the gene diminish. In these cases magical ability would be very much like homosexuality. More common in some lineages, but essentially turning up randomly and in low frequencies in all populations.

The idea that an ability must become universal in any population is flawed to the extreme and betrays a fairly comprehensive lack of knowledge of how evolution actually works.

I question this assertion. Our senses mislead us all the time, in small ways such as optical illusions and phantom limbs, and in big ways like schizophrenia.

False positives may not hurt you (i.e. if you think you hear a tiger and you leave the area, at worst you’ll have wasted some time and energy if the tiger wasn’t real) while false negatives can kill you (i.e. you think there’s no tiger, until one jumps out and eats you).

Belief in the supernatural represents a false positive. It persists because there isn’t a high enough evolutionary cost to it.

Or, as a believer would say, disbelief represents a false negative; i.e., Pascal’s wager.

Yeah, but they only (or at least with 99% certainty) believe that because their parents believed it.

Besides, we don’t have a lot of clear evidence of God-pouncing. Just old stories and bad stuff attributed to the displeasure of God.