Monday, December 12, 2005

InG we T -Causal Problems

In Gods We Trust
Introduction 1-5 - Causal Problems

A fair amount of time is devoted to psychological ideas and tests of agency. While the complicated writing style gets a bit tedious, especially for those who may have seen much more clear and concise explanations of the same, eventually the discussion hits upon some interesting points.

Unobservable or longer-term productions, such as the complex spatiotemporal patterns of stars, geography, seasons, plants, animals, societies, and people themselves, have no intuitively natural causal interpretation. Human cognitive architecture does not appear to have been selected to spontaneously appreciate such long-term causal histories, in the sense that such an appreciation would represent a solution to a problem of some functional relevance to hominid existence. Agency detection is deployed as the default program for processing and interpreting such information, but in an "extended mode" much as layfolk, philosophers, psychologists, and even many biologists readily (over)extend the concept of a class or lawful "natural kind" to species and other groupings of similar but genetically distinct individuals.


As usual, there are some interesting applications in the deciphering of the quote and the section in which it lies. God gets created as people try to find meaning for events that out last mental analytical programming. Our tendency to explain actions in terms of a directing force goes awry as we apply it in abstract realms. In one sense, God becomes an entity that explains abstract goals.

While I think this type of thinking is indeed a natural inclination for people I am glad that the restoration is based on very pragmatic foundations. As I have mentioned before, this type of abstraction, while supposedly honoring God, may be akin to a type of paganism that removes any of the actual realities of divinity.

I think some of the recent comments about Joseph Smith's foibles fit in here. Just how human can we allow prophets, or even Jesus to really be? It seems like we prefer abstract perfection over reality.

9 comments:

jeff g said...

I actually found this chapter to be quite well written in comparison with Boyer. But then again that might simply be because I had already been acquainted with a lot of the material from Boyer making Atran easier to read.

In the quote, I think you meant "natural kind" instead of "king." Such a typo can give quite a different reading altogether. I don't think that such phenomena lead us to create "God" but instead merely to posit what turn out to be "supernatural" agents. To call these agents the "God" of ethical monotheism is anachronistic and makes the claim look absurd.

Applying this reasoning to the gods of folk religion is not such a stretch at all. One thinks of the greek gods who were quite limited and often feuding. The ancient pantheon of gods of the earliest Old Testament also comes to mind. It was only with the relatively recent influence of Platonic thought that such things as a monotheistic god, a fall as well as a fully dualistic soul/body is brought into Hebrew thought.

His mention of our overextension of classes and "natural kinds" made me immediately think of the Christian reading of Genesis where each "kind" multiplies after itself.

chris g said...

Thanks for catching that typo, and of course for all the comments. My mind is going to be reeling for a while to catch up.

Like you, I do think Atran does himself a diservice lumping all supernatural beings together. Obviously this is just my bias. However there does seem to be a difference in the plausibility of some of these entities, so I think gradations are in order.

Like you mentioned in the evolution of Christian thought, I think Christianity is still subject to his critique. If religious belief is based on the same evidence as more obscure supernatural entities, it is no more valid. Sure there is the off chance that the supernatural belief you stumble across is actually correct, but it is doubtful. I tend to believe much of the value of religion lies in building upon personal experiences and personal truths. However most people see religion as more of an exercise in morality, at least in the sense that there are absolute morals that God reveals.

While it is certainly possible, I tend to doubt this. It seems as if many moral issues can go one way or another depending on context, intent, and end results. Polygamy, war, murder, WofW, etc are examples. Certainly some things are less influenced by these modifiers than others. Ultimately though, it seems like attempts to establish communal religous based morals isn't fundamentally different from equivalent societal attempts. The difference seems to be the buy in, and of course the crowd.

jeff g said...

"Like you mentioned in the evolution of Christian thought, I think Christianity is still subject to his critique. If religious belief is based on the same evidence as more obscure supernatural entities, it is no more valid."

Very well put. We just need to remember that when we apply these ideas to Christianity, we must do so rather indirectly. We would probably have to discuss the original Hebraic origins combined with the drastic effects which the following brought for it:

influx of hellenic thought,
the introduction of written tradition (presummably through Moses),
the popularization of literacy.

We are so used to "religion" meaning a bunch of people would read and study their scriptures. This didn't really happen until a couple hundred years ago. Before that, the community, though anchored by a literate priest who could both facilitate and regulate communal memory and doctrine, was mostly orally transmitted through stories and the like. But even that is relatively recent (the past 3,000 years) in comparison with how long religion has been evolving from pre-historic times.

All the talk of counter-intuitive agents really only has much baring in that particular, and almost forgotten to us, context.

chris g said...

All the talk of counter-intuitive agents really only has much baring in that particular, and almost forgotten to us, context.

While it certainly is more applicable to oral traditions, I wonder if it still isn't applicable today. Certain readings feel better than others, and so get more popularized. This causes a shift in the way we look at other passages and the revision continues. I think this was the big fear of protestantism. There wouldn't be some well instructed and divinely influenced priests to stop this slippery evolution.

Now I don't think this trend was stopped by the Catholic church. Our misplaced worship of absolute perfection seems to have created as many problems as our tendency towards minimally counter-intuitive ideas.

jeff g said...

A well needed corrective. I only meant that his reasoning could only be applied "directly" to that foriegn context, or in other words without the strict qualification which we would need to be able to apply it in our modern context.

chris g said...

I must be missing something here Jeffrey. Are you saying that sub-concious trends we have for specific beliefs have to be weighted when determining the validity of Christian experience?

We just need to remember that when we apply these ideas to Christianity, we must do so rather indirectly. We would probably have to discuss the original Hebraic origins combined with the drastic effects which the following brought for it: - Jeff

I think environmental factors certainly influence decisions, but in terms of personal revelatory experience, I would say their relevance is mainly in getting us to pose a question and in determining how we feel it should be applied. For some people, the actual experience seems quite set apart, almost digital in nature.

Thus, for me, some types of spiritual experiences are unique in the way they direct me in ways that I would consider plausible, but not eminently logical. - the old slighly counter-intuitive idea :)

chris g said...

sorry for the cross post with my last comment

jeff g said...

I think I see where we are missing each other. I consider Atran to be generally treating religion not necessarily as something which we may or may not experience in our own lives for which he attempts to provide a scientific explanation. Instead, I see him as addressing the question of what causes religion to be what it is the globe over. Not why a person is religion, but why people in general are religious.

Thus I view his accounts of human nature as being vital to understanding the origins and evolutionary histories of religious traditions primarily in a non-literate tradition. Once writing comes on the scene things would change drastically and the part of our human ability to remember and transmit religious tradition would not be as central a question.

Now these things will still play a major part in understand how we still experience, remember and record our religious experiences, but the mere ability to record these experiences will change things quite a bit.

Now that I think of it though, Atran hasn't really given us any reason to suspect that I should be reading him so narrowly. Instead, I have carried this over from my reading of Boyer. I have been reading the book as if it were more anthropological than you have I bet.

chris g said...

Yeah, I think that is my take on it. I figure ingrained evolutionary tendencies don't change much despite the rise of literacy and such. If it does, chances are it is not an evolved trait in the tradition sense. Instead it would be more of a socially evolved one, perhaps in the meme sense. The time period is just too quick, at least in evolutionary terms.

So for the most part I see Atran as addressing the question why we have established religious heuristics. Of course I could just be projecting my views that many new social movements have quite a few religious characteristics.

Like you mentioned, I think his arguements, while generally applicable, don't necessarily answer the question of personal testimony. As he explains it, we certainly are predisposed for religious belief, however we are also predisposed for sight. Dispositions don't mean the things they tend to are automatically incorrect.

BTW Thans for all the comments. They certainly are making me think through some of my ideas. The Boyer book sounds like my next purchase. Thanks for bringing it up.