Wednesday, February 01, 2006

From Whence Cometh My Salvation

From Whence Cometh My Salvation?

I. Introduction

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume the veracity of the secular viewpoint of the world, at least as a hypothesis. Please feel free to rebut it. It seems that some of those who approach the precipice of heresy drawback because the world become a dark, scary place. This post is just an attempt to flesh out the details of the secular world.

If one were to assume the view that the world is the product of natural processes- human culture and religion and included, the question begs itself- where the heck did religion come from. Indeed, the idea seems so alien to natural existence that it’s presence alone is used by some to claim that religion itself must be divine. This position is clearly not tenable, at least not to an Orthodox Jew, as other religions predate Judaism, even by the text of the Bible. Abraham is widely considered the first Jew who entered into a relationship with God after destroying his fathers idols.

Nonetheless, the question is intriguing. In a previous issue of the Atlantic (December 2005), Paul Bloom explores this question in an article entitled “Is God An Accident?” The title is a bit misleading—the article explores the possibility that God is the product of man and his cognitive functions. The article is behind a subscription wall, so I quote it extensively. The quotes are not integral to the post, so feel free to skim them.

II. What is Religion?

Bloom first addresses religion as a simple set of ethical imperatives. Many Orthoprax continue acting in the manner of their tradition simply because they believe that the moral code embodied in the religion is irreplaceable. But religion is more than that. Its innovation lies in the spiritual realm it created- Heaven, Hell, Good, Evil, God, Satan, etc. A moral code can exist very easily without these things. Legal systems do not require faith in the return of a dead Judge.

Says Bloom:
When I was a teenager my rabbi believed at the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was the Messiah, and that the world was soon to end. He believed that the earth was a few thousand years old, and that the fossil record was a consequence of the Great Flood. He could describe the afterlife, and was able to answer adolescent questions about the fate of Hitler's soul.

My rabbi was no crackpot; he was an intelligent and amiable man, a teacher and a scholar. But he held views that struck me as strange, even disturbing. Like many secular people, I am comfortable with religion as a source of spirituality and transcendence, tolerance and love, charity and good works. Who can object to the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. or the Dalai Lama--at least as long as that faith grounds moral positions one already accepts? I am uncomfortable, however, with religion when it makes claims about the natural world, let alone a world beyond nature. It is easy for those of us who reject supernatural beliefs to agree with Stephen Jay Gould that the best way to accord dignity and respect to both science and religion is to recognize that they apply to "non-overlapping magisteria": science gets the realm of facts, religion the realm of values.

For better or worse, though, religion is much more than a set of ethical principles or a vague sense of transcendence. The anthropologist Edward Tylor got it right in 1871, when he noted that the "minimum definition of religion" is a belief in spiritual beings, in the supernatural. My rabbi's specific claims were a minority view in the culture in which I was raised, but those sorts of views--about the creation of the universe, the end of the world, the fates of souls--define religion as billions of people understand and practice it.

Another explanation for religion is that is serves to assuage the angst of living. Personally, I think Judaism does an extremely poor job of that. Jewish concepts that explain What It Is All About raise more problems than they solve. Mainly, the idea of Heaven is something entirely removed from anything that I can relate to. Yet many of my very religious friends regularly invoke the Afterlife. “Don’t do that or you will burn.” “That guy is totally going to burn.” It is difficult to take someone seriously after hearing a phrase like that.

Our experience on this world is the product of sensation through our physical organs. The idea that we will be able to bring this senses with us after we cross over is more than slightly ridiculous. Indeed, I often find that Judaism invokes anthropocentric ideas—the mind, sensation, punishment, reward—that are clearly human and therefore mundane, and then imports them into the realm of Divinity. For example, we hear of God’s mind, God’s emotion, God’s reward and God’s punishment. It is at the very least unsettling to hear that God is one of us after all. Is it that much of a leap to suggest that he is a product of us?

The language gap between the spiritual, which should be ineffable, and the mundane begs for a separate post, and frankly I’m not sure if I have the scholarship for it. It’s one of those things that causes me to chase my tail in the wee hours of the morning.

In either case, Bloom says:

One traditional approach to the origin of religious belief begins with the observation that it is difficult to be a person. There is evil all around; everyone we love will die; and soon we ourselves will die--either slowly and probably unpleasantly or quickly and probably unpleasantly. For all but a pampered and lucky few life really is nasty, brutish, and short. And if our lives have some greater meaning, it is hardly obvious.

So perhaps, as Marx suggested, we have adopted religion as an opiate, to soothe the pain of existence. As the philosopher Susanne K. Langer has put it, man "cannot deal with Chaos"; supernatural beliefs solve the problem of this chaos by providing meaning. We are not mere things; we are lovingly crafted by God, and serve his purposes. Religion tells us that this is a just world, in which the good will be rewarded and the evil punished. Most of all, it addresses our fear of death. Freud summed it all up by describing a "three-fold task" for religious beliefs: "they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them."

Religions can sometimes do all these things, and it would be unrealistic to deny that this partly explains their existence. Indeed, sometimes theologians use the foregoing arguments to make a case for why we should believe: if one wishes for purpose, meaning, and eternal life, there is nowhere to go but toward God.

One problem with this view is that, as the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker reminds us, we don't typically get solace from propositions that we don't already believe to be true. Hungry people don't cheer themselves up by believing that they just had a large meal. Heaven is a reassuring notion only insofar as people believe such a place exists; it is this belief that an adequate theory of religion has to explain in the first place.

Pinker, by the way, is a must read.

Many argue that religion exists to fulfill some unmet need of mankind. Whether it is to provide for a system of morality, a meaning to life, or a system of governance. The central point of Bloom’s article and this post is that religion can exist not to due to a demand for it, but rather due to the physical structure of man.

Human conduct will eventually be explained through a detailed analysis of the brain and its cognitive centers. If you accept this as true, then it follows that all human culture, included, has some basis in the brain. Now theologians and people who should know better argue that religion exists to fulfill this mission. What they don’t realize is that this severely undermine the supernatural or divine basis for religion.

Assuming arguendo that religion is the product of this unmet need (that is the need to create a system outside of the individual brain) for morality, there is no longer any need to believe all that stuff about God and there is no basis to select among religions other than the extent to which they satisfy this unmet need. The implications are obvious- if religion is a primitive creation by primitive man, modern man through study and experimentation can certainly do better. Ancient medicine is far worse than modern medicine, and only a fool would argue that because ancient medicine managed to produce some positive health value it should be kept.

These folks are clearly attempting to justify an ancient system that insulates and separate its members. This insulation, achieved by socialization, makes the act of separation repulsive to its members. Any alternative to separation would be preferable to trashing the old ways. Get over yourselves. One could speculate that this desire to keep the system at all costs is what drives the evolution of religion.

Which leads into Bloom’s next point:

The major alternative theory is social: religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. Sometimes this argument is presented in cultural terms, and sometimes it is seen from an evolutionary perspective: survival of the fittest working at the level not of the gene or the individual but of the social group. In either case the claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not.

In this conception religion is a fraternity, and the analogy runs deep. Just as fraternities used to paddle freshmen on the rear end to instill loyalty and commitment, religions have painful initiation rites--for example, snipping off part of the penis. Also, certain puzzling features of many religions, such as dietary restrictions and distinctive dress, make perfect sense once they are viewed as tools to ensure group solidarity.

III. Religion As “Accident”

Having dispensed with the usual social utility justifications for religion, we come to Bloom’s central point: Religion is a byproduct of the brain. Our brains were wired, by evolutionary advantage, to act in a certain manner. Religion can be an artifact of that structure rather than something extrinsic to it.

To give a poor illustration of this, consider music. Humans, for the most part enjoy music. But what is it? I am well out of my area of expertise, but we can go about answering that question by looking at what we enjoy music. For most non-Bjork fans, tonality is important. Without going into too much detail, tonality is a defined mathematical relationship among notes (which themselves are numerically defined). Tones are arranged into scales which express the relationship among the notes. One does not need perfect pitch to appreciate the relationship among the notes. In fact, when you are listening to music, the first several notes basically define the scale being used. Once the scale has been defined, there is a limited number of notes that can follow the previous note and you mind anticipates this. Should a note not in the scale, we are surprised that our expectation has not been met and the music sounds “wrong.” This idea of anticipation and expectations can be applied to rhythm as well.

The point of all this is that music is somehow the by product of how humans think. We look for, or predict, relationships and are disturbed when an expected relationship is violated. The prediction model of cognition is one of some note and one that Bloom uses. My point, however, is not to lay out a blueprint of the mind, but to show that aspects of human culture are not designed to meet some sort of demand, but because once created, they conform with how our brain works, and are therefore pleasant.

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

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 Kelemen. One version of this theory begins with the notion that a distinction 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.

Where does the distinction between the physical and the psychological come from? Is it something we learn through experience, or is it somehow pre-wired into our brains? One way to find out is to study babies. It is notoriously difficult to know what babies are thinking, given that they can't speak and have little control over their bodies. (They are harder to test than rats or pigeons, because they cannot run mazes or peck levers.) But recently investigators have used the technique of showing them different events and recording how long they look at them, exploiting the fact that babies, like the rest of us, tend to look longer at something they find unusual or bizarre.

* * *

Newborns prefer to look at faces over anything else, and the sounds they most like to hear are human voices--preferably their mothers'. They quickly come to recognize different emotions, such as anger, fear, and happiness, and respond appropriately to them. Before they are a year old they can determine the target of an adult's gaze, and can learn by attending to the emotions of others; if a baby is crawling toward an area that might be dangerous and an adult makes a horrified or disgusted face, the baby usually knows enough to stay away.

A skeptic might argue that these social capacities can be explained as a set of primitive responses, but there is some evidence that they reflect a deeper understanding. For instance, when twelve-month-olds see one object chasing another, they seem to understand that it really is chasing, with the goal of catching; they expect the chaser to continue its pursuit along the most direct path, and are surprised when it does otherwise. 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.

Humans, equipped by evolutionary processes are able to appreciate physical and emotional realities. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the advantage of understanding that it’s a bad idea to drop a rock on your own head, or to continue taunting a displeased person holding a club. Further, these two systems are separated from each other. Autism, for example, occurs when the cognitive system responsible for recognizing emotion in others is damaged.

Now that we have recognized the existence of these two disparate systems, the emotional and the physical, Bloom examines the possibilities of interaction between the two:

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity--a mind or soul--are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

This duality is immediately apparent in our imaginative life. Because we see people as separate from their bodies, we easily understand situations in which people's bodies are radically changed while their personhood stays intact. Kafka envisioned a man transformed into a gigantic insect; Homer described the plight of men transformed into pigs; in Shrek2 an ogre is transformed into a human being, and a donkey into a steed; in Star Trek a scheming villain forcibly occupies Captain Kirk's body so as to take command of the Enterprise; in The Tale of the Body Thief, Anne Rice tells of a vampire and a human being who agree to trade bodies for a day; and in 13 Going on 30 a teenager wakes up as thirty-year-old Jennifer Garner. We don't think of these events as real, of course, but they are fully understandable; it makes intuitive sense to us that people can be separated from their bodies, and similar transformations show up in religions around the world.

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.

Still, it feels right, even to those who have never had religious training, and even to young children.

* * *

If bodies and souls are thought of as separate, there can be bodies without souls. A corpse is seen as a body that used to have a soul. Most things--chairs, cups, trees--never had souls; they never had will or consciousness. At least some nonhuman animals are seen in the same way, as what Descartes described as "beast-machines," or complex automata. Some artificial creatures, such as industrial robots, Haitian zombies, and Jewish golems, are also seen as soulless beings, lacking free will or moral feeling.
* * *

Then there are souls without bodies. Most people I know believe in a God who created the universe, performs miracles, and listens to prayers. He is omnipotent and omniscient, possessing infinite kindness, justice, and mercy. But he does not in any literal sense have a body. Some people also believe in lesser noncorporeal beings that can temporarily take physical form or occupy human beings or animals: examples include angels, ghosts, poltergeists, succubi, dybbuks, and the demons that Jesus so frequently expelled from people's bodies.

This belief system opens the possibility that we ourselves can survive the death of our bodies. Most people believe that when the body is destroyed, the soul lives on. It might ascend to heaven, descend to hell, go off into some sort of parallel world, or occupy some other body, human or animal. Indeed, the belief that the world teems with ancestor spirits--the souls of people who have been liberated from their bodies through death--is common across cultures. We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder--some would say impossible--to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us.

* * *

This is just half the story. Our dualism makes it possible for us to think of supernatural entities and events; it is why such things make sense. But there is another factor that makes the perception of them compelling, often irresistible. We have what the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has called a hypertrophy of social cognition. We see purpose, intention, design, even when it is not there.

* * *

Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged--it looks orderly to them, too orderly. After 9/11 people claimed to see Satan in the billowing smoke from the World Trade Center. Before that some people were stirred by the Nun Bun, a baked good that bore an eerie resemblance to Mother Teresa. In November of 2004 someone posted on eBay a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that looked remarkably like the Virgin Mary; it sold for $28,000. (In response pranksters posted a grilled cheese sandwich bearing images of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley.) There are those who listen to the static from radios and other electronic devices and hear messages from dead people--a phenomenon presented with great seriousness in the Michael Keaton movie White Noise. Older readers who lived their formative years before CDs and MPEGs might remember listening intently for the significant and sometimes scatological messages that were said to come from records played backward.

* * *

Darwin changed everything. His great insight was that one could explain complex and adaptive design without positing a divine designer. Natural selection can be simulated on a computer; in fact, genetic algorithms, which mimic natural selection, are used to solve otherwise intractable computational problems. And we can see natural selection at work in case studies across the world, from the evolution of beak size in Galapagos finches to the arms race we engage in with many viruses, which have an unfortunate capacity to respond adaptively to vaccines.

Richard Dawkins may well be right when he describes the theory of natural selection as one of our species' finest accomplishments; it is an intellectually satisfying and empirically supported account of our own existence. But almost nobody believes it. One poll found that more than a third of college undergraduates believe that the Garden of Eden was where the first human beings appeared. And even among those who claim to endorse Darwinian evolution, many distort it in one way or another, often seeing it as a mysterious internal force driving species toward perfection. (Dawkins writes that it appears almost as if "the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.") And if you are tempted to see this as a red state--blue state issue, think again: although it's true that more Bush voters than Kerry voters are creationists, just about half of Kerry voters believe that God created human beings in their present form, and most of the rest believe that although we evolved from less-advanced life forms, God guided the process. Most Kerry voters want evolution to be taught either alongside creationism or not at all.

What's the problem with Darwin? His theory of evolution does clash with the religious beliefs that some people already hold. For Jews and Christians, God willed the world into being in six days, calling different things into existence. Other religions posit more physical processes on the part of the creator or creators, such as vomiting, procreation, masturbation, or the molding of clay. Not much room here for random variation and differential reproductive success.

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.

At the end of the day, you are confronted with two theories of human existence. One posits the existence of things outside of our realm of experience, and one that utilizes that we understand (scientifically, not intuitively, about our own selves). The former has no support in reality but its own terms- it has no grounding in the physical or the appreciable. Proponents of the former often use the cutesy trick of asking the question “Don’t you think that it is possible that something exists outside of our realm of sensation, have you ever seen a radio wave?” That is a great question and an important initial question.

The far more important question is whether proponents of religion are willing to chuck information we DO possess about our physical reality for the pipedream of a reality outside of our own.