Tuesday, February 9, 2016

So what if science explains religion?

In recent years, the scientists and polemicists known as the New Atheists have been telling a certain type of evolutionary story. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, when our ancestors were struggling for survival on the African savanna, it was good to see ghosts. What was that rustle in the grass? What was that passing shadow? If your instinct was to detect agency, even in lifeless features of the natural world, you did well for yourself. Sure, you made some silly mistakes, sometimes fleeing from what turned out to be a gust of wind. But you didn’t overlook any genuine threats, and in the end you survived.

The result is a human population hard-wired to detect agency. ... And grown-ups everywhere ascribe purposefulness to the world at large, understanding the workings of the universe in terms of divine agency — another silly mistake! ...

These narratives, in which prehistoric habits of survival become today’s intellectual liabilities, are supposed to undermine religion by scientifically demonstrating the irrationality at its core. But for the psychologist and religion professor (and Episcopal priest) James W. Jones, the author of CAN SCIENCE EXPLAIN RELIGION?: The Cognitive Science Debate (Oxford University, $24.95), they do no such thing.

Suppose, Jones suggests, that someone were to advance a similar argument against the field of biology. Back in the Paleolithic days, the story would go, it was advantageous to differentiate living from nonliving things, to assume that things had causes, to see patterns in nature. But today, far removed from the wilds of East Africa, these cognitive tendencies, detectable in children, drive our biological beliefs. As the “misfiring” of faculties developed for another purpose, these beliefs should be discredited, or at least strongly distrusted.

If presented with this argument, Jones imagines, we would surely make several objections: that the origin of a belief entails nothing about its truth or falsity (if you learn that the earth is round from your drunk uncle, that doesn’t mean it’s not); that biology is not a handful of simple beliefs that a child can possess but rather a complex social practice; and that even if we do have a natural inclination for certain beliefs, they can still be subject to rational scrutiny and confirmed or refuted.
--James Ryerson, NYT, on explanations that don't refute