Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is religion natural? Is science unnatural?

You and I, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, even the late Christopher Hitchens, are all religious. So you should all stop complaining about religion and trying to change people’s religious beliefs. It’s just not possible to eradicate religion, so we might as well accept whatever crazy stuff they want to believe.

Bob McCauley [Update: McCauley is this guy who blogs here.) argues that science is a fragile flower in need of precisely the right conditions in order to survive, but religion is a durable and universal part of human experience. Thus, science is no threat to religion; religion will continue whether science conflicts with it or not, and if there really is a conflict between science and religion, science will be the inevitable loser. More than that, every single person is religious; religion is part of everyone’s character whether they like it or not. Perhaps in some instances it might seem that science undermines a particular religion to some degree in some sufficiently advanced country, but in the long run, religion will survive, indeed thrive, in one form or another while science will undoubtedly disappear into the mists of time.

McCauley reasons that science involves a counterintuitive set of processes and products. The content, or product, of scientific theories is counterintuitive. Quantum physics, cosmology, microbiology, biology all involve exotic entities (from the perspective of ordinary experience) acting in complex and unexpected ways. [I’ll see if I can find a video of this. Just ask people where the mass of a tree comes from. Even people who ‘understand’ photosynthesis are unlikely to answer, “From the carbon dioxide I the air.” It is intuitively difficult to conceive of air as providing the enormous mass of a tree.] Religion involves no such counterintuitive entities: the content of religion is magical people who control events by mystical means but who are essentially like us in psychology. In other words, the key concept of religion is the agent-cause, the person or intelligent agent as a cause of events that otherwise are not explained (and, hell, really many of them that are explained in non-agent terms). You might think that religions appeal to mysterious invisible, intangible, sky-beings who operate in untestable ways with minds that are infinitely powerful, infinitely complex, and thus incomprehensible to mortals, but this is not the case. All these trappings of contemporary religion are not really religious at all but belong to theology, a highly intellectualized explanatory endeavor more akin to science or abstract fields such as mathematics or logic, than to religion. Theology, of course, could disappear, and this would have no bearing on religion whatsoever. In short, the product of the scientific method, the content of science, is counterintuitive and hard to grasp, and so cannot be considered an enduring part of human belief.

Religion, on the other hand, is simply the tendency to believe in anthropomorphic causes for events. I got the job; there must be an agent behind my good luck, a being who worked behind the scenes to get me the job. Mary got cancer; there must be someone acting to give her cancer. That’s religion, and that’s really (almost) all that religion is.

However, the product is not the main part of McCauley’s argument. The main issue for him is the process of science, not its content. “The scientific method” is not an easy or intuitive process for people to grasp and follow. (Let’s assume there is a single, albeit complex, method of science.) Ordinary people, and even trained scientists, have difficulty following the strictures of the scientific method: blind, or double-blind, experiments, mathematical models for inferring correlations, clear distinctions between correlation and causation, etc. These and other aspects of science are difficult to grasp and follow, and even trained scientists are prone to abandon them in ordinary life.

Science further requires a complex set of social relations and institutions such as publication and peer review. Religion, on the other hand, depends only on processes that are quite ‘natural’, even innate—if you believe in innateness. Religion has two main essential features: explaining events in terms of agents (intelligent beings) as causes (noted above) and treating certain items, areas, or events, as “sacred” or ”contaminated” (or treating ourselves as contaminants of the sacred). McCauley equates religion with this subset of largely erroneous reasoning tendencies and processes. Since people inevitably reason poorly in these ways, religion can never disappear.

Similarly, as it turns out, my toddler (and possibly my dog) is religious since he is prone to the same errors. Taking this poor reasoning as partly constitutive of religion does not mean that this is all there is to religion. It might be that these two features are universal to all religions, but there is more required for something to count as religion. Alas, McCauley does not offer any further definienda for religion. This failure conveniently leaves him lots of leeway to argue that religion must be natural since he considers only attributes that are shown to be ‘natural’ (what McCauley calls “maturationally natural”) by cognitive psychology.

I hope it’s obvious at this point what’s wrong with this reasoning. He’s defined science narrowly, to include only the highly sophisticated social institution of science as it is practiced in the modern world, but he’s defined religion very generally so that virtually any supernatural thinking qualifies as religion. Obviously if science were defined equally generally, as, for example, a systematic method of learning about the world by means of observation and experiment, then it would be impossible to find anyone who did not have some cognitive capacity for it and tendency to use it. My toddler certainly experiments with the world and tries to understand it, often inferring unobservable mechanisms. And there are lots of experiments in developmental psychology that show children using such inference patterns. Certainly not everyone would do science well, but it’s also obvious that not everyone does religion well either. (Hey, look at the Scientologists!) Similarly, there is a narrow definition of religion that requires it to have the kind of sophisticated social apparatus that we find in contemporary Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These types of religion clearly include counterintuitive doctrines and concepts far removed from common experience. The Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation and the triune God are highly counterintuitive. Even the processes of religion in the contemporary world can be unnatural. Do we need priests in cassocks to interpret the will of God for us? Why must these priests be sexually abstinent men? So, contemporary organized religion is just as unnatural and contingent as contemporary science (unless misogyny is intrinsic to religion); and simple science is just as unavoidable and intrinsic to human nature as is simple religion. My toddler has the same supernaturalist tendencies as religious believers, but my toddler also experiments with complex machines to try to discover their inner workings.

McCauley’s argument is an equivocation. The only thing that makes it appear plausible is the reliance on different standards or scopes for the two concepts. Religion and science are both contingent and unnatural when viewed one way (narrowly, if you will), and they are both necessary and natural when viewed another way (broadly, generally, or simply).

So, if this was obvious to me, wasn’t it also obvious to McCauley?

Ironically, McCauley identified confirmation bias as an error people commit that makes them poor scientists. He noted that people are often quite good at finding rationalizations that allow them to maintain failed theories even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence. Perhaps McCauley might do well to diagnose himself.

McCauley attempts to avoid my objection by labeling the sophisticated and unnatural activity that appears to relate to religion theology. So, there is little unnatural about religion since religion is defined as that activity that psychologists have discovered to be natural, and any unnatural aspect of religion (as we would ordinarily understand the term) is theology. Obviously, then theology could disappear without religion disappearing. Theology appears to be a set of doctrines, beliefs, rules of inference involving religion, but it does not appear to involve the practices of religion (such as the priesthood or gender discrimination). I suppose McCauley could add some other term for narrowly defined practices of a particular religion, and argue that these practices are not essential to religion either. Should we dispute McCauley’s rather arbitrary distinction between the theology (and theological processes involving, say, confession or the priesthood)? It’s probably not worth it; McCauley can define his terms in whatever way he wants as long as we can explain them in ordinary terms that anyone can understand. So, here’s how to state McCauley’s claims in those ordinary terms:

There are supernaturalist tendencies in human reasoning that tend to persist even when people are aware that this reasoning is fallacious. Similarly, humans have difficulty in applying good scientific reasoning; instead, they often rely on or apply poor scientific reasoning. Of course, humans are capable of good scientific reasoning on their own, but they are more effective if they have complex social institutions that allow for critique and debate.

Given these facts, it is also entirely possible that people can reason well enough together that they will not be taken in by supernaturalist reasoning. McCauley doesn’t exactly emphasize the last point, but it’s implicit in his discussion of science since science succeeds despite our tendency towards error.

Take that, Dawkins! Religion 1, Science 0.

My friend who brought in McCauley for the lecture explains that Dawkins and Dennett think that the demise of religion is inevitable and that McCauley is merely providing a dose of realism. I cannot speak for Dawkins/Dennett, or the rest of the Four Horsemen of the Theopocalypse. So, this claim may be true or it may not. Still, I have two questions. (1) What do we do about religion if some important aspect of it is difficult to eradicate from human psychology? And (2) are societies in which religion has a strong grip more successful (in the sense that they are more likely to survive, spread their belief systems) than those that are less religious? Will the religious or non-religious societies compete more effectively?

To the first question: If we believe, as McCauley does, that religion is essentially irrational, then we ought to do everything possible to limit its power and influence, to educate people sufficiently so that they cease to be religious, and implement social policies that will make it more likely that religions will slowly fade away. Clearly these things can be done, and they would not require mistreatment of the religious or religions. We need only cease to give religion special treatment in order for it to lose at least some of its power. The most effective thing to do would be to stop giving special support for religion. For example, religions are given a prominent role in all sorts of social circumstances that their actual contribution to society does not merit. We could stop giving invocations at public events as a way of reducing religion’s influence. We could stop giving religions special treatment in funding for their activities. For example, drop all the federal government’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ and make social spending based on evidence, not faith. We could work harder to educate our children in science and limit the role of religion in schools. We can improve our social support for the poor and disadvantaged in order to limit the need for social services religions provide. We could make it easier for people to live without religion. We do not need just to imagine doing these things either because most European nations already do them, and those nations fare better on basically any measure of social welfare or happiness than America does.

To the second question: I do not know whether religious or non-religious societies will thrive in a kind of evolutionary free-for-all, but I know that public policies based on religion and religious thinking cause tremendous problems for our society. America is, I think, dropping from the ranks of the developed world. And it’s fairly clear that the benighted policies of our conservative leaders, supported by their religious followers, have led to this trend. The authoritarian-follower personality of the conservative movement in America, dominated by religious believers, has enabled the looting of the government by the wealthy and the gradual decay of our infrastructure and our important social institutions (such as public education). Societies that are free of religion do better in promoting the welfare of their citizens and fit better in a community of nations. I do not know if this means they will continue to exist longer or spread their values more effectively than will more religious nations (such as America or Saudi Arabia), but it is devoutly to be hoped that they will, and it seems a worthwhile goal to work towards achieving that end.

There are successful nations with majority atheist populations. There are organizations of scientists who inculcate good reasoning into scientists at young ages, and they are capable of leaving behind most of their errors and superstition. There are millions of atheists worldwide. All of these people may be prone to errors of reasoning, but these millions appear to have avoided or corrected this reasoning in adherence to ‘the’ scientific method and/or in rejecting religion. So, the relative naturalness of superstition is not sufficient evidence that superstition cannot be overcome or replaced with more careful reasoning.

McCauley reasons that religion is, at bottom, a kind of fallacious or erroneous reasoning, so he cannot reasonably object to the attempts by the new atheists to limit, even eradicate, its influence. Perhaps it will be harder to do this than some think, but if you really think that religion is basically superstition and cognitive error, then you really cannot accept religion with equanimity. If superstition can be fought at all, which it clearly can be, then our goal, whether it is easy or difficult, should be to fight it. I can only hope that McCauley’s overall purpose is to warn atheists away from false optimism, but, if so, that was not the tenor of his talk. I cannot help feeling that McCauley's argument is really a counsel to despair, that we should accept that people cannot change this aspect of their psychology. To me, even if he is correct about these kinds of cognitive errors being universal, if religion really is rooted in fallacious reasoning, then this fact should provide more motivation to oppose it.

No comments:

Post a Comment