Monday, March 05, 2007

the tragedy of human cognition

…nice phrase from an interesting article on the New York Times website about scientists studying how all humans might have evolved with a predisposition to believe in supernatural beings. To clumsily sum up the 11-page article, our brains are so good at imagining reasons and causes and sympathies for things that happen in daily life, which helps on a survival level, that we automatically tend to deduce that an unseen God or gods is hiding behind the scenes on the larger scale. Another factor seems to be that being in a religious group might have provided powerful advantages throughout history, because fanatics cooperate better than non-fanatics (as we’re seeing in Iraq). Here are some good passages from the article:

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead…. So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently.

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. “We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.”

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.

A particularly interesting paragraph for me was one towards the end about how it probably takes more courage and mental discipline to be an atheist than a believer:

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.

Amen to that.

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