Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Science and Religion revisited: a case for a universal spiritual grammar?

I have earlier commented on how Science and Religions may be alternate frames via which we try to make sense of our lives and the world and how autistic thinking may be more related to scientific leanings; while a schizophrenic thinking style more prone to religiosity/ spirituality. I have also commented recently how one may view mind as composed of Agency and Experience; while a brain as composed of no agency/ experience; thus again bifurcating our concepts about self along religious/ scientific lines. One may add to this too much causal reasoning about the world as opposed to belief in randomness; and extend this to the earlier observations on Autistic and Schizophrenic thinking styles:

To recap:

  • Autistic/ scientific thinking style attributes too less of agency or intentionally (to even fellow human beings), while a schizophrenic/spiritual thinking style attributes too much agency (to even non-living things).
  • Autistic thinking is more correlation-is-not-causation type and makes sense of the world via statistical inferences and reasoning (I am not using probabilistic reasoning by purpose as there is difference between a probabilistic reasoning based on understanding of events involved (say the fact that a die has six faces and it is equally probable that it lends on either face ) versus a reasoning based on just number crunching on past data set (say given the outcomes of a number of such die throws statistically calculating the chances of the next throw value)); while the schizophrenic thinking style is more jumping to conclusions and more of causal (cause-and-effect) type of reasoning.
  • Autistic thinking is more of attributing no-experience-of-feelings-beliefs etc to fellow humans mind blindness), while a schizophrenic style is marked by a felling that one can intuit thoughts, feelings of others and a converse belief that one;s thoughts, feeling are being broadcast etc that is belief in too much of experience by self as well as others. The theory of mind or mirror neurons may go on overdrive in a psychotic episode.
  • Autistic thinking being more realistic/ literal; while schizophrenic thinking being more symbolic/ metaphorical. one could summarize this as too much meaning on one hand (there is meaning to life etc), while a nihilistic attitude on the other hand (evolution has no meaning and neither is evolution progress).
I read a recent NYT article by Robin Marantz Henig, that seems to nicely summarize the major arguments on why religion evolved and whether it is a spandrel or an adaptation. I would now like to quote from that article on one theory of how religion evolved as a spandrel:

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

These map very well to our Autistic/ scientific vs schizophrenic/religious/ artistic dichotomy. It is interesting to note that evolution itself decreed that we have capacities for agent detection, causal reasoning (though in a scientific sense we should have statistical or probabilistic Bayesian reasoning) and theory of mind capacities. Schizophrenic are the evolutionary cost for having these capacities. Later in the article it is also mentioned that making sense of death and life may be one region religion evolved. But first the importance of each of these abilities:

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. “We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.” The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus’s thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.

A third cognitive trick is a kind of social intuition known as theory of mind. It’s an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word “theory” suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to “rapidly and economically” distinguish good guys from bad guys.


This is an interesting line of argument and later in the article one also find mention of group selection and co-operation being important for evolution of religiosity.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

This bodes for a more fuller post detailing and chalking the universal religious/ spiritual grammar, similar to the exercise I did for Universal moral grammar. Wait a little for that post!! For now on to the religion is an anti-dote to death anxiety argument:(which covers out fourth difference between Autistic and schizophrenic centered on meaning (or lack of it)):

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion’s role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

Now for the adaptionist arguments:

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves.


There is ample research that religious people are happier and live longer that atheists, so religion still has evolutionary advantages. It makes sense a being religious and believing in omnipotent god can contribute towards longevity in multiple ways: abstaining from alcohol/ tobacco and reducing death-anxiety being a few that come to mind.

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

This brings us to controversial group selection part and some recent research ahs suggested that group selction after all does work.

The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs,” Wilson wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral.” It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, “a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.” For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have “highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems” than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that “what seems to be an adversarial relationship” between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that “keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.”


Symbolic systems having group selection advantages fits with our symbolic/ realistic dichotomy. On this note I'll like to end our discussion and ask readers do they see a need for religion/ spirituality now, or do they still prefer the realistic, scientific method as the only true method, even at the cost of robbing us of meaning.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You should reference the article by Robin Marantz Henig, "Darwin's God", in the 3/4/07 issue of the New York Times Magazine to give readers of your blog the chance to appreciate the entire article.

Sandy G said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks a lot for pointing this out. I realize that I had inadvertently forgotten to link to the original article. I have updated the post with the required link. Thanks for reading and bringing this to my notice.