Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why Do We Believe In God?

"Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid." ~ Satoshi Kanazawa (Psychology Today)

Recently, I stumbled upon an article on the Psychology Today website, called Why Do We Believe In God. It is a year-old entry in a blog entitled The Scientific Fundamentalist and can be read by following these links: Part 1 and Part 2.

The author, Satoshi Kanazawa’s argument rests on Error Management Theory, which basically states that the human mind has evolved to make decisions, even when faced with uncertainty and too little information. Simply put, the human mind will choose between two possible errors by deciding on the one with the fewest negative consequences.

The example used is a man who strikes up a conversation with an attractive woman he has just met. Apparently, men are wired to interpret this kind of interaction in their favor. That is, even in the absence of any real evidence, men assume they are going to score. Why? Because, if they are right they get to have sex. If they are wrong, at worst they experience rejection. If, on the other hand, men assumed that they weren’t going to score, being right might mean they protect their egos, but being wrong means that they miss an opportunity for sex, and therefore for potentially passing on their genes. And we all know, of course, that the sole purpose of human life is to pass on our genes, as if the whole of existence were some kind of genetic thrift shop.

Error Management Theory says that given these two possible errors, human beings—in this case, men—will make the least costly error. In the example given, getting rejected is less costly than missing a chance for doing the horizontal gene swap. Kanazawa then goes on to apply this theory to the belief in God. He states that religious people tend to commit the “error” of attributing intention to certain forces of nature and interprets his observation this way:

The cost of a false-positive error is that you become paranoid. You are always looking around and behind your back for predators and enemies that don’t exist. The cost of a false-negative error is that you are dead, being killed by a predator or an enemy when you least expect them. Obviously, it’s better to be paranoid than dead, so evolution should have designed a mind that overinfers personal, animate, and intentional forces even when none exist.

The author takes the example of a bush on fire and suggests that you could understand this to be the cause of an impersonal force—lightning—or you could interpret this (erroneously, of course) as the cause of a personal force, that is, God. It is as if Kanazawa has never heard of the concept of metaphor, not to mention that he misreads the Old Testament story. The bush is not simply a bush on fire, the significant detail is that despite the fire, the bush did not burn up.

Finally, he offers his conclusion:

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid.

So, belief in God (and, really, any kind of religious belief is implied in this article), serves no real purpose because it “is not adaptive.” Ultimately, it is a kind of outgrowth of paranoia, which is adaptive because it protects us from potential natural “predators and enemies.”

I really don’t know where to start with this stuff.

First of all, apparently, “scientific fundamentalists” tend to read religious statements in as literal a fashion as do religious fundamentalists. Given their preference for the concrete, they fail to see that the image of a burning bush refers to something that cannot be formulated in words and concepts. That something is given metaphorical dress, allowing some aspect of the experience to which it points to be communicated. And even if the story of Moses encountering an angel of the Lord in a fire in a bush were understood in a literal way, surely one has to consider all the details described in the encounter. You can’t just say it was a bush on fire and ignore the part of the report that explains that the unusual thing was that the bush was not consumed by the fire. Science would never (or should never) allow some facts to be admitted for consideration while other facts are willfully ignored. Unless of course, it is dealing with religious statements, it would seem.

Then there is Error Management Theory itself. I don’t really know much about this theory, so all I can really comment on is the use to which it is put by Kanazawa. He declares, “One of the great features of Error Management Theory is that it can explain a wide variety of phenomena. It is a truly general theory.” Kanazawa starts with the assumption that religious belief is an error and then uses this general theory to show why humans make this error. The problem is that you can do this with anything. You could, for instance, say that humans are prone to making the error that science accurately describes the nature of reality and then go ahead and use Error Management Theory to describe how we continue to believe in the scientific error. All you’ve done is what Kanazawa has done, which is find a way to explain your personal biases. This theory doesn’t prove that belief in God is an error, it has to start with that premise in order to have anything to say at all.

Let me be clear, I do not in any way believe that the scientific method is erroneous. Clearly, human beings have derived immeasurable benefit from the increase in knowledge about how the world works that science has given us. I think the use of science to explain things that are outside of its capacity to explain, such as religious belief and experience, is definitely erroneous. And, I think Kanazawa’s argument is not only erroneous, but totally useless.

Science and religion point to different aspects of experience and they do not have to have an antagonistic relationship. Science wants to understand the causal relations between things in the physical world. Religion seeks an encounter with the mystery of life. Science adds to our collective knowledge and gives us concepts and language to communicate that knowledge to each other. “Religion,” says Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “begins with the sense of the ineffable, with the awareness of a reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.”

I do not know why human beings, including myself, believe in God. All I can do here is to assent to another statement by Rabbi Heschel:

“To assert that the most sensitive minds of all ages were victims of an illusion; that religion, poetry, art, philosophy were the outcome of a self-deception is too sophisticated to be reasonable. Bringing discredit on the genius of man, such an assertion would, of course, disqualify our own minds for making any assertion.”

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