Adaptive Truth


Bashir: Were any of the stories that you told me true?

Garak: My dear doctor, they were all true.

Bashir: Even the lies?

Garak: _Especially_ the lies.

Star Trek: DS9 S2:22

I love this exchange between Bashir and Garak because it really illuminates the various nuances of what we mean by truth.

And when it comes to examining the Bible and other sacred texts, this is of utmost importance.

Now there are many forms of truth.

  • There is absolute truth, which is a fact that is absolutely true and is dependent on nothing else but the fact that it is true. Such as 2 + 2 = 4.
  • There is objective truth, which is something that is observed time and time again to be true and can be proven to be true.
  • There is subjective truth which is based on a person’s perspective, feelings, or opinions.
  • There is mythical or archetypal truth which is the meaning or significance of a story to a group of people.

And there are many more varieties or shades of truth. But I want to talk about adaptive truth.

In short, adaptive truth comes from an understanding that in the process of evolution by natural selection there often accumulates adaptations that are not perfect but enable an organism to be successful in its environment — i.e. to survive and reproduce.

Sometimes, such adaptations still persist even after the environment has changed and they are no longer useful.

In light of this, adaptive truth, is any belief that helps you be more succaessful in your environment, regardless of the actual absolute validity of that truth claim.

A common example given is the belief in the afterlife. 50,000 years ago the tribe that had hunters who didn’t fear death because they believed in a glorious afterlife had an advantage over the tribe that didn’t believe in an afterlife, as they may have taken fewer risks and so the tribe with the belief outcompeted and outbred the other tribe.

But let’s take it even closer to our modern day. Noted evolutionary biologist, Robert Sapolsky, has said that studies have shown that highly religious people have far fewer instances of depression than non-religious people.

When drilling down on the results to find out why, it appears that religion when pursued aggressively, produces more of the neurotransmitters that make one happy and that tends to ward off depression.

No, religion isn’t a cure-all, but I think you get the point. Regardless of the objective or absolute truth of any religion, those who believe in it have an adaptive truth that has real benefits.

Of course, to be fair, there are downsides to certain religious beliefs. Beliefs that induce shame, guilt, and fear regarding basic human drives such as sexuality and possessions can have detrimental effects on a person’s health. So that would be maladaptive truth.

Personally, I find this idea of adaptive truth very useful. Because it means I don’t have to have an answer to the biggest questions in life, many of which are downright impossible to answer or prove (i.e Does God exist?).

Instead, I can look at my beliefs and ask, does this belief help me to live a better life? Does it help me to be more successful and happy? Does it connect me to a community and fulfill a social need?

And if it doesn’t, I have the tools of philosophy and logic at my disposal to critically examine that aspect of belief that is maladaptive and examine if it is true or not. And if it is not, I can get rid of it.

But if it is adaptive, if it is helpful to me and not harmful to anyone else, honestly, I don’t feel the need to deconstruct it.

I’ve deconstructed all my Christian beliefs to the point of atheism and slowly reconstructed them back to a point of agnostic panentheism. And I’m happy where I’m at right now.

Are my views 100% logical and backed by evidence and higher order logic? Of course not. Because so many of the big beliefs that matter can’t be tested or ruled out.

So to me, I find focusing on adaptive truth as a way to move from the theism vs atheism debate and focus on things that truly matter.

Indeed, I think most atheists don’t care what people of faith believe as long as people of faith don’t discriminate and legislate against people due to their faith.

In short, pluralism is here to stay. In the West today we are moving ever forward into a post-Christian era. Not that Christianity will disappear, but that Christianity’s influence is on the decline.

For Christianity to have a voice today, we need to get over the philosophical hangups of the past and be good neighbors to those around us. After all 1 Timothy 4:10 says:

For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

God is the Savior of ALL people. Got that?

So that means that we need to figure out how to love all of God’s children and I think focusing on adaptive truth is more important than focusing on absolute truth.

In closing, I’ve really enjoyed coming to a rest in not needing certainty to believe something. I think it is pure hubris to think we can be certain about incorporeal things.

We can guess, Intuit, divine, ruminate, and ponder the mysteries of the universe. But at some point, we have to live as human beings in a very down to earth reality.

I am often guilty of living in the realm of ideas and being so taken with this cerebral realm, that I forget to be mindful of what life really is about.

It is a luxury that our ancestors could not afford, and one that should be used, but focused on real life so we can enjoy it to the fullest extent possible.