Tuesday, December 06, 2005

InG we T - Introduction

In Gods we trust
1.1 - Introduction

The introduction to In Gods we trust is jam packed. By itself it is quite an enticing thought starter. The subheading should give one a good taste of its content.
-why is religion an evolutionary dilemma
-why are religions and cultures not entities or things
-what is an evolutionary landscape
-why are Mickey Mouse and Marx different from God

One of the big questions I initially had revolved around the premise that "religions are not adaptations and have no evolutionary function as such." If this is the position taken I hope to see some discussion about the clustering of evolutionary traits. Not being up on the proper bio lingo, I had better explain what I mean.

When an adaptive trait is manifest, often other changes are clustered with it. For example developing webbed feet could mean one is more prone to certain skin conditions. All changes that occur with a mutation may not be adaptations. Some are merely carried along with the rearranging of genes or gene expression. Thus religious tendencies don't have to be adaptive, they only have to be associated with other adaptive traits. A few months ago I was pondering the question as to whether the strength of certain components of our religious tendencies would have been necessary to allow government formation and other important social functions.

I guess we'll see if this point gets followed. From the introduction, I suspect that this question may be too difficult to discern, and thus be useless for academic work (sociology excepted of course :).


chris g said...

I think the comments over at spinozist mormon follow along the train of thought of this book. Religion, specifically supernatural religion, is a natural human tendency. When people say they reject traditional religion, chances are they will recreate many of its characteristics in the instituitions they found. Initially they may not be overtly manifest, but as they become more established, the parallels become more obvious.

I would note that perhaps this is one of the reasons why many people today are so for individualism and against institutions. They may feel this is a way to escape from expressing inherit, natural religious tendencies, at least on a group scale level.

David Clark said...

Not being up on the proper bio lingo, I had better explain what I mean. When an adaptive trait is manifest, often other changes are clustered with it.

I believe the term you are looking for is "spandrel". Gould introduced the term to to describe traits that are not adaptations, but are a product of evolution. In a sense spandrels are just along for the ride. Is the author asserteting that religion is a spandrel?

chris g said...

Thanks. He actually doesn't assert that, at least not directly. To be honest, I was rather surprised. Throughout the book he is quite good at giving counter evidence, or alternative takes on things. Instead, like most evolutionary? explanations of religion he takes the stand that it arises from missaplication of higher thinking skills.

I think this misses some possibly significant correlations on the adaptive benefit of thinking styles that may indirectly result in religous type thought. For example, what degree of government organization is possible without an associated rise in religious type tendencies? What degree of altruism is possible without a rise in religious type tendencies? To what degree can we have a lie detector heuristic without inevitable associations to a big brother type entity?

The Big Brother concept is given lots of space. Altruism is given a brief account. Goverment associations isn't mentioned at all. This is unfortunate because I wonder how much of a help supernatural tendencies would have given primitive man in goverment formation.

Reading through the story of Enoch this week, I am also surprised how easy it is to see his story as an imposistion of government organzation based on the uniting tendencies of religion. His military sucesses certainly could be tied into the benefits of government styled organization. It seems like he was a rather sweeping force to be reckoned with - perhaps due to major jump in a primitive arms race.

jeff g said...

I actually thought that the first comment was a better treatment of the topic than the post was.

One thing which I think some readers will need to understand is that "religion" as defined in contexts such as these is very different from "church". The religion which we might be naturally inclined toward is not a systematic theology of any kind. This is one thing which (as far as I can tell thus far) Boyer treats far better than does Atran.

Boyer views positions such as "religions are not adaptations and have no evolutionary function as such" are simply addressing the wrong questions altogether. They are statements which are so wrong, to use Pinker's phrase, that they aren't even wrong.

While naturally, I do expect Atran to clarify what, exactly, he means by "religion" later on, his not having done so early on could lead to some serious confusions.

chris g said...

Good point Jeff. I think Clark mentioned a related idea over at his blog concerning distinctions between religion and church. It seems like Atran takes supernaturalism as the defining chracteristic in religion. The section on quasi-propositional beliefs (I don't have the book here) seems to be the main section where a separation between supernaturalism (his definition of religion) and how we rationalize it (church?) takes place. Through out various chapter, it does seem like he talks about these two different aspects without ever clearly delinieating them.

Perhaps that is why I find some chapters more intriguing than others. The chapters that deal with explaining the motives behind supernaturalism are much less interesting to me than the results of how we rationalize and systematize those thoughts.

Does Boyer make a distinction between supernatural tendencies and the method of rationalizing them? From your line, it seems like you don't care about trying to explain why religion has arisen. Would I be correct then in assuming that you think discussions should be framed around observable consequences of religious belief, ignoring cause altogether?

jeff g said...

Boyer, in my opinion, tends to be far less antagonistic toward religious thinking. Toward the beginning of his book he acknowledges that most of his material won't be the most faith promoting stuff in the world, but other than that his treatment is fairly neutral.

Atran, I noticed, tried to make it sound like his approach would also be just as neutral, but having now read the first 4 chapters I don't think that he accomplishes that at all. His chapters 3 and 4 are pretty brutal assaults on religious belief in general.

The difference, in part, stems from the angles at which the authors approach the subject. Atran, I have noticed, goes into far more depth regarding cognitive mechanisms and the the like, whereas Boyer's book is geared more toward the anthropology of religion. While both authors discuss pretty much the exact same topics as each other, the difference in emphasis is rather salient.

What Boyer does is point out that belief is far less of an active process than we might tend to think. He says that most people “have assumed that there are some bits of information represented in the mind, which people then believe or reject.” Such, however, is not the case according to modern cognitive science. “What is contained in the explicit thought (I believe so and so) - what we usually call a ‘belief’ - is very often an attempt to justify or explain the intuitions we have as a result of implicit processes in the (subconscious) mental basement. It is an interpretation or (or a report on) these intuitions.”

Thus he concludes: “So what does it mean to say that someone ‘has’ a belief? Superficially, it means that they can assent to a particular interpretation of how their minds work… All inferences delivered by specific (subconscious cognitive) systems are compatible with an explicit interpretation… but none of these systmes actually handled the general, explicit question (’Is this belief true?’). (The belief) is a statment that people would agree with although it has not been treated in that general format anywhere in their minds.”

No, I don't think that causes should be ignored at all. I simply think that merely looking at effect with a brief glance at the stimulating causes will not go far enough. This is why the cognitive science is so important for I think that only it can offer a reason for why religious belief is not simply moral/political thought.

chris g said...

What Boyer does is point out that belief is far less of an active process than we might tend to think. He says that most people “have assumed that there are some bits of information represented in the mind, which people then believe or reject.” Such, however, is not the case according to modern cognitive science.

That's a very interesting idea. I tend to agree that many beliefs are based on numerous non-overt decisions. This seems to tie back to the comments about memes. Now I'll have to see if I can keep all the threads straight, but it seems like a broad base of non-overt decisions can function as a substrate for meme replication. Well, of course this assumes environmental conditions can substantially influence the path that non-overt decisions go.

Now in your last comment you mention that religous thought seems different than moral/politcal thought, which I would guess would be different than scientific thought. Would you say there are 3 major approaches belief gets based on:
1. scientific - group repeatable, as context independent as possible
2. moral/political - group repeatable, but context dependent
3. religious - individually repeatable, context dependent

If this is indeed a reasonable take, and I am not sure on that, it seems like we have a few, presumably natural heuristics, that weight overt/non-overt beliefs creating multiple paradigms of thought. One (1) is what everyone should accept, another (2) is what groups should compromise on accepting, and the other (3) is an ideal we are trying to see contextualized or tested.

Personally I think our personal paradigms are much more fluid than this. Like you mention, in most cases we don't choose our beliefs, we lean in a certain direction. While complicated, the lean certainly gets influenced by natural heuristics. We certainly seem to have one to deal with counterintuitive beliefs - religion. Why certainly seems like an interesting, but ultimately unanswerable question.

jeff g said...

"This seems to tie back to the comments about memes."

This is exactly what E. O. Wilson said when he (in what was in my opinion a stunning reversal) endorsed a "mems-eye-view" of culture in his book Consilience. He said:

"Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the neural pathways and regularities in cognitive development by which the individual mind assembles itself. The mind grows from birth to death by absorbing parts of the existing culture available to it, with selections guided through epigenetic rules inherited by the individual brain...
"The fundamental biasing influence of the epigenetic rules, being genetic and ineradicable, stays constant...
"The nature of the genetic leash and the role of culture can now be better understood, as follows. Certain cultural norms also survive and reproduce better than competing norms, causing culture to evolve in a track parallel to and usually much faster than genetic evolution. The quicker the pace of cultural evolution, the looser the connection between genes and culture, although the connection is never broken."

I personally think that memetics is useful, as I said earlier, as a model from transmittion of ideas and information. I think that Sperber's inferential templates help inform our ideas concerning replication and variation of these "memes." I further think that the epigenetic rules as found in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science provide both information as to the mechanisms of Sperberian templates as well as the emotional and cognitive selective pressures which form the traditions over the course of many generations of transmission.

I'm not at all comfortable in dividing human thought into those 3 categories. The religion which these books deal with are quite indistinguishable from political/moral and scientific thought. They were all pretty much the same thing.

This is why I think that the moral/political ideologies are intrinsically different from religion, in that they are anachronistic in this context. Moral/political thought as we know it is basically religion as Atran and Boyer use the word with religion as we use the word taken out of it. The supernatural and the political/moral were one and the same until very recently this is why these books only speak relatively indirectly as to "religion" and "morals/politics" as we now know them.

Thus, as to the repeatability and contextuality of each of these three thought processes, I'm not really prepared to offer much of an opinion. The more Atran speaks of religion as we now know it as opposed to the pre-historic thing which he is supposed to be addressing, the less reliable and rigorous I have seen his comments be. Of course I think that your categories tend in the right direction, I don't know how far I would be willing to go with such a strict separation.

I anxiously await the release of Daniel Dennett's new book in 2006 which will deal with religion entitled "Breaking the Spell." In typical Dennett fashion its supposed to be really long and should be a good read.