The new atheism-5: The scientific approach to philosophical questions

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.

To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:

1. The Principle of Variation: At any stage in the history of a species, there will be variation among the members of the species: different organisms belonging to the species will have different properties.

In other words, children are never identical with their parents. Within each species there is considerable diversity in properties and in support of this position Darwin took great pains to point out how hard it was to distinguish between different varieties within the same species, and between species.

2. The Principle of the Struggle for Existence: At any stage in the history of a species, more organisms are born than can survive to reproduce.

If there is an abundance of food and other resources, the population of any species would multiply exponentially. The fact that it doesn’t is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and their populations reaching more or less stable values.

3. The Principle of Variation in Fitness: At any stage in the history of a species, some of the variation among members of the species is variation with respect to properties that affect the ability to survive and reproduce; some organisms have characteristics that better dispose them to survive and reproduce.

The members of a species that are more likely to survive and pass on their properties to the next generation are those that have properties that give them some survival advantage in the environment in which they find themselves. It is important to note that only some of the properties need to be advantageous for the organism to have preferential survival. Other properties may also flourish not because they have a similar advantage but because they are somehow linked to the advantageous properties and are thus carried along. Thus some properties may simply be byproducts of selection for other properties.

4. The Strong Principle of Inheritance: Heritability is the norm; most properties of an organism are inherited by its descendents.

Most properties that we have (five fingers, four limbs, heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.

From these four principles, we infer the crucial fifth:

5. The Principle of Natural Selection: Typically, the history of a species will show the modification of that species in the direction of those characteristics which better dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce; properties which dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce are likely to become more prevalent in successive generations of the species.

So natural selection will favor those organisms that, by chance mutation in their genes, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance.

This is the powerful theory that Darwin and Wallace proposed and which forms the basis of all modern biology. Note that it does not deal with how life originated in the first place and Darwin was frank about this limitation and offered just the broadest and mildest speculation about that big question. There is no question that when dealing with the issue of life itself, the problem of how life evolved and diversified has received better answers than the question of how life first originated.

Pretty much the same situation applies to religious beliefs (and the evolution of language also, but that is a topic for another day). Once religious ideas came into being, it is not hard to see how they could have continued and produced the present diversity using the above principles.

It is obvious that when it comes to religion, the strong principle of inheritance applies. The best predictor of what a person’s religious beliefs are is the religious belief of the parents. Most children believe the same religious ideas as their parents except for slight variations. Most young children have very little idea that other religions even exist and don’t even think of their own beliefs as ‘beliefs’ because they have been taught them as facts and believe them because their parents told them. (Interestingly, it is found that the eldest child is likely to be more faithful in adhering to the parents’ beliefs than subsequent children.)

Applying the theory of natural selection to religious beliefs, the theory goes in the direction of religion being propagated as an accidental byproduct of selection for something else. It has been argued that in terms of natural selection, there is a definite survival advantage to favor a genetic predisposition for children to believe parents and other authority figures than to disbelieve them, and that thus this quality will be preferentially selected. In other words, natural selection does not select for religious beliefs per se, but religious beliefs are propagated as a byproduct of selection for trusting one’s parents.

To see how believing what one’s parents tell you is beneficial, we know that unlike many animals, young children are not at all capable of surviving in the wild on their own. They need parents to protect them. A child who listens to her parents (don’t touch the fire, don’t walk over the edge of the cliff, etc.) is more likely to survive than a child who ignores the authorities around her. Thus it is not hard to see how natural selection would prefer to select for a propensity to believe authority figures and that thus human children have evolved to have a predisposition to believe them.

But as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion (p. 176) the catch is that the child is not able to discriminate between useful and useless bits of advice. “The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”

So while there is a survival value to the child inheriting a genetic predisposition to believe what her parents tell her, a byproduct of this is that the child inherits the religious beliefs of the parents as well, with slight variations. So once religious ideas gain currency in the early days of human evolution, they start propagating and diversifying like any other organism in the tree of life and become distinct entities that share a common root. Over time, just as individual biological variations became separated and formed into distinct species, so do religious beliefs. After some time, with the process often assisted by some charismatic religious leader, these religious variations became codified to become the distinct religious doctrines we see around us.

Another suggestion is that religious ideas, once they come into being, are ‘memes’ (ideas) that are analogous to genes but act like the mental counterparts of viruses, in that they act to propagate themselves and not for the benefit of the organism they inhabit. Dawkins describes the possible existence of ‘memeplexes’, a collection of memes that form the environment of ideas in which other memes have to compete for survival. He suggests that existing memeplexes might favor the survival of the following memes (p. 199):

• You will survive your own death
• If you die, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins)
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families)
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal’s Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief. . .
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don’t even try to understand one of these, for the attempt to understand might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfillment in calling it a mystery.
• Beautiful music, art, and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas.

I am not too familiar with the whole meme framework but I mention it here for the benefit of those who may know more about it.

I think that, just as in the case of life, there is a plausible biological explanation for how religious ideas propagate and diversify once they come into existence. The more difficult challenges are explaining what caused religious ideas to come into being in the first place, and similarly, what are the biological origins of morality.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Amazing pool shots

I have played pool only a few times in my life, enough to give me an appreciation of how skilful this player is. It is said that skill at pool is a sign of a mispent youth. By that rule, this pool player must have completely wasted his life.

AmazingWatch today’s top amazing videos here

The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists

Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don’t, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.

That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: “If we pray for anything that is impossible — for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ — it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability.”

Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god’s presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.

One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.

But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god’s presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.

But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn’t just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the ‘pieces’ in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.

This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.

It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.

But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.

This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition

I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.

I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.

I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.

The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying

(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”
[Read more…]

The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says “[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.”
[Read more…]

The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular ‘science’.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular ‘science’ does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, “Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.”)

I hate to assign the label ‘science’ to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey’s terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular ‘science’ and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular ‘science’, which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular ‘science’ and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is ‘evil’, the product of a ‘bad’ supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular ‘science’. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular ‘science’ because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular ‘science’ and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at)case.edu if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group’s advisor and have accepted.

The CFA’s mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:
-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.