Thursday, March 29, 2012

God, Preinstalled

A recent book review in the Daily Beast reminded me of the one about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic existentialist (lies awake wondering whether Dog exists). The book, Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (Justin Barrett), argues that humans are "hardwired" to believe in some version of divinity. Barrett takes issue with recent proponents of atheism such as Richard Dawkins, who maintains that religious belief is a matter of education, acculturation and indoctrination.

Children, explains the reviewer, "arrive in the world with a strong, cognitively driven propensity for religious belief 'preinstalled'." Leaving aside for now the curious and controversial notions of hardwiring and preinstallation, the idea has some merit - it goes a ways towards explaining the near universality and dogged persistence of religious belief, something Dawkins has never satisfactorily fit into his own views. If it's just a cultural habit, why is it so persistent? 

Barrett's argument is encapsulated in this story: One day, Anna, the 5-year-old daughter of two "proudly secular, well-educated urban Danes," asked if God had created the world. Her father carefully explained, "The world wasn’t created. It has always been here. A long, long time ago there was this big bang and suddenly everything just appeared." "God must have been surprised," she said.

In modern dress, Barrett's views revive the old doctrine of innate ideas, the notion that there's a universal furniture of the mind that gives humans a common conceptual framework - ideas of mathematics and logic, for example. State it in terms of modern cognitive science and it doesn't seem so farfetched. In fact, Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) anticipated this explanation of religious belief. 

Kant thought of human cognition as an architectural capacity - the mind constructs the messy data of the senses into ordered perceptions that make sense to us and that in fact constitute the sensible world we experience from moment to moment. And one principal "category" or pattern we impose on sense data is that of cause and effect. If things suddenly appeared and disappeared, or happened without any discernible antecedents, we wouldn't have any experience because we'd lack the rules by which to order the data. We impose basic patterns on the welter of fleeting perceptions. Whether or not there really are such connections in the fabric of the universe, we require them, so we supply them. If we hear a voice in the dark speak intelligibly, we naturally assume another person present.

And so on, but not ad infinitum. Rationality makes us look for causes, and causes of those causes, but it also makes us shy from the rabbit hole of infinite causal regress. There must, we insist at some point, have been a first cause, the uncaused cause, the prime mover. The idea of God, Kant says, is "the resting place of reason" - to escape the rabbit hole we make the cognitive leap, unfounded in experience, that there must be a god, otherwise how could all of This have come about? Because we have this fundamental way of organizing our experience in causal sequences, we come to have the idea of God as the cause of causes. Ironically, it's the impetus to engage in scientific inquiry that is also one impetus to religious belief.

If that's all that it means for a way of thinking to be "hardwired," then it has some precedent and is a plausible way to interpret the notion. But I'm not sure just how systemic the idea of a god is in our thinking about the world. Certain fundamental notions, like "physical object" or "cause and effect" or "same and different" seem necessary to our way of perceiving a world of material objects in the way we all seem to do. But religious notions aren't like that - we don't all have them, or have them all of the time, like we all have the idea of a physical object all of the time - that's what we all see when we see the world around us. It needn't be that way, but it is. Whereas God comes and goes in our convictions and whether the conviction is there or not doesn't really affect our sensible experience of the world. The universe looks the same to the elect and the infidel alike.

I happen to think that belief in a god doesn't somehow make the physical world a richer, more mystical experience - quite the contrary, it diminishes the real complexity inherent in the material universe. But whether believing in God somehow enriches our sense of awe and wonder is really a matter for psychologists and seems to have little to do with brain circuits.

1 comment:

  1. Religion has been interfering with science even before there were scientific methods. Aristotle rejected Democritus's theory of atoms because he couldn't accept the notion that humans were composed of soulless, inanimate objects. Thomas Aquinas argued for the existence of God saying, " is clear that inanimate bodies reach their end not by chance by by intention. There is, therefore, an intelligent personal being by whom everything in nature is ordered to its end" At that time the focus was on why nature behaves as it does rather than on how it behaves. Why examine too finely when god provides the answers.