Thursday, December 04, 2008

A predisposition to believe?

In a recent article, Justin Barret argues that the reason belief in gods is so prevalent in human societies is that we have certain innate predispositions that tend to lead to a belief in supernatural agents.

This brought a critical response from philosopher A.C. Grayling, which unfortunately seemed to amount to little more than the ad hominem strategy of attacking Barret's faith position and funding, rather than the arguments themselves.

However, as Barrett subsequently points out, his arguments are not new and they don't come from Christians or Templeton Foundation funded researchers.

Barret cites Pascal Boyer's 2001 book 'Religion Explained' as one source and this reminded me that Grayling has never really understood the nuances of Boyer's position. In Grayling's collection of essays 'The Reason of Things', he mentions Boyer's arguments directly and criticises them, for failing to account for the following:

"Why, for example, have traditionally conceived deities had human characteristics of will, intention, memory and emotion, instead of being like (say) waterfalls, carrots or birds?"

Clearly Grayling either has not read or has not understood the chapters of 'Religion Explained' which deal with this precise point about what kind of entity turns out to be a suitable candidate for the role of deity.


Sam said...

It's funny. I've heard people on the theist side argue that since belief in gods is natural, then there must be gods. And I've heard people in on the atheist side argue that since belief in gods is natural, then there must not be any. Personally, I don't think the naturalness of it tells us anything about the reality because it can be explained either way.

Psiomniac said...

Yes I agree with you there. The situation is similar to the speculation that certain areas of the brain can be stimulated artificially to give a sense of the transcendent. Again, the significance of this can be argued either way.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

I'm trying to think of a way to comment on ACG's position without posting an exercise in Barnet-biffing. I think you pretty much have it wrapped up - I'll take it.

I'm very uneasy about these big-hair - drat! - big name philosophers and their potted polemic. I'm with Schopenhauer on the issue of the professorial - they suffer the alarming risk of tipping over into the professional as here, their balance lost. There is a difference between epistemology and lexicography.

There's a shedload of ACG's lexicography over at his website. I've chucked it into the Links section over at Abbreviated Virtue and covered it with heavy chains.

Paul said...

Just a few observations here if you don't mind.

The fact that humans are incorrigibly religious is consistent with truth in religion (of some kind). However, if man is simply a material being evolved to suit his material environment, religious affections are an incongruity to be explained away. The fact that atheism can devise some psychological explanation makes it no less odd that we should suffer from this racial psychosis.

The fact that "traditionally conceived deities" have certain human characteristics seem no strike against the possible existence of such deities. For one thing, carrots and waterfalls make lousy gods. To be a god capable of creating universes and beings, you'd expect certain necessary characteristics, like will and intention, which humans also have. Second, if there is a god who created beings like us, to whom he/she/it wished to relate (this being the premise of many religions), then it only makes sense that we creatures would share certain things in common with that god.

On last thing. If the common anthropomorphism of deities somehow makes the whole project or religion less credible, then it would seem the opposite should be true. The gods of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Norse, etc. were indeed very humanlike, down to the petty flaws and physical traits. The Judeo/Christian God, on the other hand, is regularly characterized as being above/beyond man/nature in many ways (that is what "Holy" means), and it is commonly accepted theology that any physical human attributes used to describe Him are consciously used anthropomorphisms.

Psiomniac said...

Your comments are always welcome.

I agree with you that the truth of religion is independent of our predispositions to believe or to have religious experiences. But the flip-side of this is that such predispositions, if they exist, are also entirely compatible with materialism. From that standpoint, it isn't at all odd that we might be predisposed to believe things that aren't true.

I agree to an extent that the fact that our notions of god include anthropomorphisms are not powerful arguments against the existence of god. But I think Hume successfully argued that we cannot validly deduce characteristics of things that create universes, and that includes predicates like having will or intention.

Andrew Louis said...

On a side,
I couldn't help but notice Sye TenB (canukfish) passed through here... You know I only read about 8 blogs, and I've seen that guy show up in 4 of them and now you.


Psiomniac said...


Yes he was here a while ago and I mentioned it on Stephen Law's blog when he turned up there. His approach had not altered at all despite the intervening months.

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

On Celestial Carrots and Wondrous Waterfalls and their creations, it may well be the case that there is only one basic template for people, as Simon Conway Morris argues. If this is so then nothing may be inferred about God from His works.

I'm convinced by SCM's deep ontogeny. I can see how it may be used to reconcile pragmatic materialism and personal religious belief.

Psiomniac said...

I'm not too familiar with SCM's argument on this point. Could you expand on that a little?

Fun With Formal Ideas. said...

SCM's deep ontogeny? It's deep, and laid out in his book Life's Solution - Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, a wonderful book with over 100 pages of notes and three seperate indices. At p.329 of the 2003 hardback, and not before, he gives his own argument for supposing that the facts of evolution he has given and analysed are congruent with a Creation:


(i) It's underlying simplicity, relying on a handful of building blocks.

(ii) The existence of an immense universe of possibilities, but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work.

(iii) The sensitivity of the process and the product, whereby nearly all alternatives are disasterously malaadaptive.

(iv) The inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the re-arrangement and cooperation of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se.

(v) The exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence.

(vi) The inevitability of the emergence of sentience, and the likelihood that among animals it is far more prevalent than we are willing to admit.


This list comes at the end of a book packed with tight argument, and I cannot do justice to it in this message. I'm aware that it sounds on the face of it like an argument from implausibility but it is far from simple when your eyes roll over the facts.

It's an argument for a rational God who doesn't change his mind. Whether anyone wishes to consider a God behind these facts is irrelevant to the beauty of the book's evolutionary arguments. SCM has something here, even if it's not God.

Psiomniac said...

If this is so then nothing may be inferred about God from His works.
With the exception of existence perhaps. But then again we are all taught to recite 'existence is not a predicate' aren't we?

I think Hume argues the same point. It does sound interesting that SCM book.