Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Is God an accident?

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale, writing in the latest Atlantic Monthly.

Of course, the title is provocative. It really is an interesting article, however. And a bit sympathetic to religion, and critical of some of the scientific understandings that try to explain religion -- the opiate of the masses (sorry Marx!) or from the social function that religion fulfilles (sorry Emile Durkheim. He's not mentioned in the article, but he was a champion of this view in the early 20th century.) Of course, in the end, we now know what caused this religious sensibility to emerge -- this interaction between these two "computers" as it were, in the human brain.
Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human.


At this point the religion-as-accident theory says nothing about supernatural beliefs. Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand—and, when they get older, to manipulate—physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.

Oh dear me. How foolish of us. Most of us, as Bloom explains later, are hard wired to be creationists. I guess Bloom (and others of his persuasion) has simply triumphed the cold hand of natural selection, and broken free of the shackles of thought that is bound to simple genetic predetermination?

At least he is magnanimous enough to concede that he himself is not going to perpetuate this liberation in his offspring. In an online interview on the subscribers-only Atlantic Unbound portion of the site (Wired for Creationism?), he says:

And then in some very interesting sub-societies, like my house, the parents don't believe in any of these things. I don't bully my kids into my way of thinking, but when we talk about it, they know my view. And they're free to make up their own minds. Actually if they're like most people, they'll probably end up a lot more religious than I am.

Sarcasm aside, the heart of the article, the unproven, asserted, assumption in this worldview lies here:

This notion of an immaterial soul potentially separable from the body clashes starkly with the scientific view. For psychologists and neuroscientists, the brain is the source of mental life; our consciousness, emotions, and will are the products of neural processes. As the claim is sometimes put, The mind is what the brain does. I don't want to overstate the consensus here; there is no accepted theory as to precisely how this happens, and some scholars are skeptical that we will ever develop such a theory. But no scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it.
(Emphasis in original). The mind is what the brain does. That is not a conclusion. That's an assumption, a claim as he puts it. One assumes the mind is what the brain does, because one has no other way of empirically getting at the mind. How do we know that "our consciousness, emotions, and will" are indeed the products of neural processes? Not just the physical reflections of the same? We don't (I'm no neuroscientist, but I wonder if we can ever know this, empirically). This is not a scientific conclusion, but a philosophical position: an empiricist, materialist one.

Anyway, there's some great gems in the article, such as this one:

An article by Steven Waldman in the online magazine Slate provides some perspective on the divide:

"As you may already know, one of America's two political parties is extremely religious. Sixty-one percent of this party's voters say they pray daily or more often. An astounding 92 percent of them believe in life after death. And there's a hard-core subgroup in this party of super-religious Christian zealots. Very conservative on gay marriage, half of the members of this subgroup believe Bush uses too little religious rhetoric, and 51 percent of them believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophecy about the second coming of Jesus."The group that Waldman is talking about is Democrats; the hard-core subgroup is African-American Democrats.

Heh. :-)

And finally, this:

Religious authorities and scholars are often motivated to explore and reach out to science, as when the pope embraced evolution and the Dalai Lama became involved with neuroscience. They do this in part to make their world view more palatable to others, and in part because they are legitimately concerned about any clash with scientific findings. No honest person wants to be in the position of defending a view that makes manifestly false claims, so religious authorities and scholars often make serious efforts toward reconciliation—for instance, trying to interpret the Bible in a way that is consistent with what we know about the age of the earth.

If people got their religious ideas from ecclesiastical authorities, these efforts might lead religion away from the supernatural. Scientific views would spread through religious communities. Supernatural beliefs would gradually disappear as the theologically correct version of a religion gradually became consistent with the secular world view. As Stephen Jay Gould hoped, religion would stop stepping on science's toes.

But this scenario assumes the wrong account of where supernatural ideas come from. Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.
::Sigh:: What was it that St. Paul wrote? About the truth of God being revealed to all human beings? (Romans 1).

Dan Kennelly at the American Interest blog has some decent criticisms of the article. As does The Daily Eudemon.


discipleassisi said...

thanks for that.

Troy Swain said...

Actually, it's more than a claim, it's THE accepted theory. Even in philosophical circles, practically no one takes the Cartesian split seriously. In scientific circles, there is no counter theory. From what I've read and heard from my neuro-science friend, the mind body split is as quaint as a belief in phlogiston or the ether.

As Bloom put it, "There is just too much evidence against [Cartesian dualism]."

Note that he says that there is too much evidence against it. That's more than a claim, that's presenting the accepted scientific view, which is based in the results of decades of experiments.

Gashwin said...

Hmm Troy --- ok, I am not really a philosopher, and am most certainly not a neuro-scientist. However, if one believes in a non-material soul (and also a mind), this is obviously something that cannot be disproved (or proved) by the scientific method.

My point was this: scientifically speaking, it would seem, the brain is the seat of the mind. Anything the mind does (thinking, for instance) happens in the brain. But does it therefore follow that the mind is the brain? Scientifically, of course, that's all one can see -- the physical activity, as it were, in the neurons and so on. But does that prove that the mind *is* the brain?

If one agrees that only that which can be empirically verified/falsified (i.e. that can be ascertained by the scientific method) is "real" then such a question is nonsense. But only if one accepts that this is the only measure of reality, and not just that subect of reality one calls "nature."

I feel like I'm out of my league here ... anyone else care to join in? :)

Gashwin said...

Subset, not subect!

Al Rodbell said...

Here was my reaction to the artilce in the form of a letter to Atlantic

To the editor

Re: Is God an Accident (article and letters)

In this country, the perennial battles between church and state show no signs of subsiding. The central geo-political conflicts of our time are shaping up not between secular ideologies, but rather forces defined by, or associated with, religions. This makes it all the more important to identify the most fruitful paradigms to better understand this subject.

Atlantic, given its audience and prestige, influences what perspectives, what disciplines, and what analyses will become most accepted in exploring this subject. This warrants a deeper consideration of the unstated assumptions and conclusions of Paul Blooms article.

Bloom overstates his case on the ubiquity of religion, giving an impression that because it is rooted in biology, it is normal. Normal, is very different than being the norm-- a differentiation that is lost in Bloom’s approach. He starts by reporting “Just about everyone in this counrty-96% in one poll-believes in God.” He then says that scientists are less religious, “but not by a huge amount.” Not a huge amount? 40% for scientists, his words, on the same measure of belief in God. He avoids more fine grained correlations between education and religious belief, such as the highest levels of achievement, Nobel Prize winners, where a mere five percent believe in God.

He writes of the attempt of religious authorities to “explore and reach out to science, as when the Pope “embraced evolution.” He concludes that it is not the religious institutions that are resisting rationality, it is the inborn needs of individuals that reject their ecclesiastical authorities efforts to “lead religion away from the supernatural.”

The Pope never “embraced” evolution, he accepted it, reluctantly, and not as a force of nature, but as a tool of God. Dr. Bloom’s statement on the ubiquity of religious beliefs, “nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things…..” ignores the third of the world that had been communist, where these beliefs were not integrated into society and thus are much less common.

These are not random errors. He overstates the immutability of biological drives, while minimizing the importance of religious establishments in promoting and benefiting from this need. And this is where his approach has implications that are beyond merely the academic. He presents religion as an inexorable need, a hunger that must be fed, rather than one option among others that flow from the developmental predilections that he describes.

The most serious criticism of his article is that it is not an accurate description of the world. Those who relied on this article for an overview of this subject would not expect that there are many people living full and happy lives while completely rejecting religion. This is far less likely when true biological needs. such as food, sex and companionship, are absent.

We have a President who is an ardent evangelical Christian, legislators who storm out of their chambers to shout, “under God” on the steps of Congress, and a Supreme Court that is on its way to tacitly following strictures not written on parchment but in stone. This is no time for an avatar of enlightenment to endorse a picture of the biological inevitability of belief in God, especially when it just isn’t so.

Al Rodbell