Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bloom in The Atlantic

The December issue of The Atlantic has a lengthy article called “Is God an Accident.” Its author is Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale. The article is only available online to subscribers, so I will have to make do with transcribing some representative quotations.

Bloom begins by describing the inadequacies of some older attempts to explain religion. In particular he considers Marx's idea that religion is an opiate that makes it easier to deal with the unpleasantness of daily life, and the idea that religion promotes social cohesiveness which in turn is favored by natural selection. He then describes his main premise:

Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view - that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by acident.

This is not a value judgment. Many of the good things in life are, from an evolutionary perspective, accidents. People sometimes give money, time, and even blood to help unknown strangers in faraway countries whom they will never see. From the perspective of one's genes this is disastrous - the suicidal squandering of resources for no benefit. But its origin is not magical; long-distance altruism is most likely a by-product of other, more adaptive traits, such as empathy and abstract reasoning. Similarly, there is no reproductive advantage to the pleasure we get from paintings or movies. It just so happens that our eyes and brains, which evolved to react to three-dimensional objects in the real world, can respond to two-dimensional projections on a canvas or a screen.

Supernatural beliefs might be explained in a similar way. This is the religion-as-accident theory that emerges from my work, and the work of cognitive scientists such as Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Deborah Keleman. One version of this theory begins with the notion that a dstinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can.

Is this distinction something that is learned, or is it something that is hard-wired into the brain? Bloom presents evidence that this distinction between the physical and the psychological is actually an inherent part of human nature. For example, he describes various experiments that were performed with babies and children to justify his conclusion.

By itself, the fact that this distinction is hard-wired into the brain does not explain religious beliefs. It is when these natural predilections go wrong that we get religion:

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 exits. This makes us animists and creationists.

As I said, the article is quite long, so let me just add two more excerpts:

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 deos. 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.

Still, it feels right, even to those who have never had religious training, and even to young children. This became particularly clear to me one night when I was arguing with my six-year-old son, Max. I was telling him that he had to go to bed, and he said “You can make me go to bed, but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!” This piqued my interest, so I began to ask him questions about what the brain does and does not do. His answers showed an intresting split. He insisted that the brain was involved in perception - in seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling - and he was adamant that it was responsible for thinking. But, he said, the brain was not essential for dreaming, for feeling sad, or for loving his brother. “That's what I do,” Max said, “though my brain might help me out.” (Empahsis in original).


But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer - a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

The whole aritcle is fascinating and convincing, and I recommend picking up a copy. Bloom is persuasive that the physical/psychological split is hard-wired into our brains, and that this distinction gives us a natural predilection for religious and supernatural beliefs.

What is left unclear is where this split came from in the first place. Did natural selection for some reason prefer creatures for whom this split was part of their neural hard-wiring? Or is this split itself an accidental by-product of evolution? The second explanation seems more likely, but it raises the obvious question: by-product of what?

Our brains can do a great many things that plainly were not the result of natural selection. For example, with proper training we can solve partial differential equations, but this ability surely did not give certain of our Australopithecine ancestors a survival advantage over their less mathematically inclined brethren. So of all the manifold things our brains can do, which were the ones specifically selected for? A fascinating question, but not one I'm optimistic about answering in a compelling way.


At 7:57 PM, Anonymous Ritchie Annand said...

I've had an informal conjecture for some time that some aspects of religion arise from us treating things as human that are not human due to a simple generalisation of our 'society' programming. Things like begging and pleading someone higher up the hierarchy for favours, and getting angry at other people who hurt us, or our loved ones, or who steal from us, have some natural extensions into dealing with nature and many of its beyond-our-control features.

I haven't read Hamer's The God Gene or similar books, but I suspect it will make its way onto my reading list this year.

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

Surely the interesting thing isn't the split itself, but the fact that we can't help imposing pschology on physics - in other words ascribing agency to non-agents (at least metaphorically but often literally). It's not hard to see how this tendency (in combination with other aspects of human consciousness) could lead to or be conducive to religion. The interesting question is why we do this even when we know rocks etc. don't have minds.

At 5:17 AM, Blogger smalltk said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:02 PM, Blogger blogcar said...

I haven't read Hamer's The God Gene or similar books, but I suspect it will make its way onto my reading list this year.
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At 12:57 PM, Blogger blogcar said...

Ok, I've had my coffee. What that you were saying?
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