Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why do we believe - Darwin’s God

Credit: New York Times

The New York Times Sunday Magazine of 3/4/07 contains an interesting article by Robin Marantz Henig on why:
...there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science...The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists.
Byproduct Theorists:
Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood’s being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.

Something similar explains aspects of brain evolution, too, say the byproduct theorists...Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind (or folk psychology). [See Atran, “In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion,” 2002.]

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker...The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped...
The Adaptationists:
Trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. “Organisms are a product of natural selection,” he wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society,” which came out in 2002...Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.”

Dawkins once called Wilson’s defense of group selection “sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity.” Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it “mind blind” for essentially ignoring the role of the brain’s mental machinery. The adaptationists “cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief,” Atran wrote. “They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be.”

What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the “God of the gaps” view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

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