Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Things Left Unsaid

J. Anderson Thomson is a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Clare Aukofer is a medical writer. They are the authors of "Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith."
The basic thesis is that God is not revealed to man as if he was real, rather man makes God. Religion is a man-made construct. God is made in our image according to what we want or psychological need or construct not man made in the image of God. An argument like this is at least as old as Ludwig Feuerbach. This one is spruced up a bit with evolutionary and psychological data--"empirical evidence" or at least that is what the authors point to since very little direct evidence is discussed in a short op-ed.

The first part of the essay seeks to argue that there are natural explanations for religious beliefs and a general religious consciousness:
In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA." They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including "imaging" studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to "no heaven … no hell … and no religion too."
Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.

So the basic argument is that religion can be explained through evolutionary process. Faith has evolved and it served a purpose to help our ancestors. But of course, religion is bad or at least unnecessary. While the author do not say it, they assume that religion is "untrue." After all man makes God, not the other way around.

Religion is a sort of coping mechanism for those with parent issues--the weak who need to envision someone strong just to handle life:
Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.
So religion handed down by natural selection is bad. We do not need religion, especially not for morality. We've explained it away. And let's grant for the sake of argument that this is right.

However, then the authors continue:
Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection.
Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes that "it is often beneficial for humans to work together … which means it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals." In groundbreaking research, he and his team found that infants in their first year of life demonstrate aspects of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, even fair and unfair. When shown a puppet climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the helpful puppet. They were able to make an evaluative social judgment, in a sense a moral response.

But what is the criterion for judging this "adaptive strategy" good when we've been told that the other adaptive strategy is bad? If evolutionary processes were bad to produce religious beliefs how do we know that such co-dependancy and mutual help is "good." In fact, why could they not be equally bad?

If you argue: well the benefits of helping one another are obviously good. Are they? Nietzsche argued in his book The AntiChrist, that pity and aid was despicable and agains the law of natural selection. If evolutionary process gave us religion, and according to this essay, we now know that it is bad--maybe we just aren't enlightened enough to realize that evolution duped us with another coping mechanism: helping people for an alleged mutual benefit.

Even more, we are told when religion leads to war it is bad:
"Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce "out-group" hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our "groupish" tendencies."
Of course, religious wars are wrong. But given the authors arguments, how do we not know that they psychological feelings produced are not just an outworking of our need to survive in an animal world. Perhaps evolution has given us a psychological coping mechanism and justification for what is plainly seen through the animal kingdom: survival of the fittest. If one religious party destroys another maybe it is good not for religious reasons but for pragmatic reasons: the fittest have dominated.

The main point of the essay is to show neurological explanations on naturalistic and materialistic ground for the presences of religious beliefs.
Beyond psychological adaptations and mechanisms, scientists have discovered neurological explanations for what many interpret as evidence of divine existence. Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger, who developed what he calls a "god helmet" that blocks sight and sound but stimulates the brain's temporal lobe, notes that many of his helmeted research subjects reported feeling the presence of "another." Depending on their personal and cultural history, they then interpreted the sensed presence as either a supernatural or religious figure. It is conceivable that St. Paul's dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.
The better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion. Some of them, like the attachment system, push us toward a belief in gods and make departing from it extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible.

First there is a logical fallacy here. Explaining the psychological and neurological underpinnings of religion does necessarily verify or falsify said beliefs. In an evolutionary view my eye has evolved to interpret red as red, unless of am color blind. But whether or not I can see color does not falsify or verify that red is red and there is a unique color to it. "Redness" is determined from outside the interpreter.

Strictly speaking determining psychological and neurological underpinnings does not verify or falsify religions or the existence of God. It seems that this is an all to common fallacy that the new atheists continually repeat. Scientists made be good in their field but they show little understanding of philosophical and the kind of arguments necessary for philosophical justification. There is more in reason required than just empirical evidence--a fact that seems to blind the new atheist for all their lauding of reason and pronouncements that they are the 'brights.' This is the thing left unsaid: determining "the psychological and neurological underpinnings" does not prove a thing true or untrue.

If for the sake of argument, belief in God is untrue--there could still be reasonable psychological benefits to encourage people to hold on to man made beliefs. Finding psychological explanations does not necessarily argue that such things are not beneficial even if the mislead. Of course the authors think they are mislead--but they are appealing to abandoning them on the grounds that they are untrue. We are not told why we should abandon something. For example, love is a construct that has psychological underpinnings. Maybe love is untrue because it is based on a chemical process (something you'd have to argue). Assume for a minute love is untrue. There would still be good reasons to use love and enjoy it: it makes a person feel good. 

The best evidence is from their own essay: we are given underpinnings for religion and it is bad. We are given underpinnings for love, altruism and mutual aid and we are told it is good. According to the essay religion is a man made construct--but then so is every other human emotion that drives us to do good. What are we left to use? The authors tell us: "We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind's greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason." 

Ah yes, reason. They are honest that it too is an adaptation. How do we know it is a good one? More things left unsaid.

If you are going to argue for something you cannot assume it to be true in order to prove it true through "empirical evidence." Maybe we are expecting too much of a short essay but in order to convince thinking people is it too much to ask that it not leave so many loose ends?

Only for the extreme Gnostic, who casts off the physical, or for the materialist, who denies the supernatural and unseen spiritual, does discovering "psychological and neurological underpinnings" constitute "proof" of the nonexistence of God or the falsity of religious belief.

Christian believe however that God uses secondary causes and means. While there are issues with the essay and the reliance on strictly "empirical evidence," nothing in this essay even comes close to confronting or attacking religious beliefs of the Christian kind--despite what the authors may think.

In the end, the authors have puffed up their own worldview showing that they are largely trapped in their own sort of fundamentalism with little ability to hear or counter the arguments of those who might disagree with them. For its lauding of reason, there is some basic lacking of justification, logic and substance in the essay. Maybe that is better left unsaid lest we discover the emperor has no clothes. 

1 comment:

Jason B. Hood said...

Tim, this is fantastic analysis.

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...