Sunday, March 11, 2007

"What Hath Got Wrot?"*

The New York Times Magazine boldly goes where Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet have gone before, with this cover article, "Darwin's God." In somewhat the tradition of Dawkins, it follows an anthropologist's search for the reason we "believe" ("belief" being, as ever, a poorly defined term that focusses solely on the question of God's existence. That is a position fraught with all manner of philosophical problems, but since philosophy is for academicians and scientists deal with "concrete situations," then we can be assured we are on solid ground in accepting this very narrow issue as the only valid one. Right?) Indeed, this is how the questions are posited:

In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?
There's a nice jump, there, from question 1 (are we "hard-wired" to "believe"? Well, first let's examine the metaphor "hard-wired"? Are our brains merely computers? Is there an area of human existence not amenable to the exertion of will? Are we, in fact, merely machines? If so, why isn't Mr. Arten a believer? There is more than a whiff of Social Darwinism in his entire premise. And what does this term "believe" mean?), to question 2: "And if we are ("IF"? Why bother with "if"? Haven't you read Dawkins and Dennett, the latter who has solved the riddle of the Sphinx and explained consciousness to us? Something even David Hume and Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger, to name three, couldn't do?), then we can move on to the scientific questions of "how" and "why". Nice work, if you can get it.

Not surprisingly, then, this approach raises a few questions.

First question: is evolution "driven" by "survival"? Or is that Social Darwinism? "Survival of the fittest," we all say, is a tenet of Darwin's "theory of evolution." Without ever having read the book, we are all quite sure that Darwin posited "survival of the fittest" as a thesis explaining evolution in The Origin of Species. Or perhaps in The Descent of Man. Or was it The Voyage of the Beagle?* The idea isn't found in any of those, of course. It's found in the work of Herbert Spencer (and yes, I am being intellctually lazy in linking to Wikipedia. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). Not that Darwin rejected the idea:

He gave full credit to Spencer, writing "I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient." At this time the word "fittest" would have primarily meant "most suitable" or "most appropriate" rather than "in the best physical shape".
There is a jump there, which we might call a "category mistake," and while the distinctions were blurred in Darwin's Victorian England, even for the "great" Darwin, they are not blurred now. There is quite a difference between explaining a process like natural selection, which works on species (i.e., biology) and differences between human societies (i.e., sociology). This is where the term "evolution" becomes syonoymous with "progress" (which always means "improvement"). Species may adapt to their changing environment, but societies do not progress toward greater and greater improvement, leaving "lesser" societies behind (any more than humans are "superior" to cockroaches. One is a much more likely to survive what humans are doing to the planet than the other. Jared Diamond is right; societal "success" is due to circumstance, not "evolutionary pressures.") By now Darwin's theory is no longer his alone, and few biologists accept the idea that evolution is en explanation of "progress," that it shows how "man" stands atop a ladder of some Great Chain of Being, stretching from amoebas to white European males. Still, we prefer to reduce evolutionary theory to one of natural conditions setting up a state of nature "nasty, brutish, and short" in which nothing which tends toward survival of the species is allowed entry. We then easily transfer that notion to human societies and, quelle surprise!, find ours is in the "superior" position on this hierarchy. So "belief in God" (which is not to be confused with "faith," please) is considered a "non-survival" trait, and so useless (although it exists in almost every society and human grouping on the planet. Although even that should be modified to "an acceptance of metaphysics." That, however, opens a completely different can of worms, which this article seems wholly unaware of. Nevertheless....). Why, then, does "belief" persist?

Maybe because the definition is so narrow as to be useless? We'll get to that in a moment (and the answer seems to be "Yes.") First, let's identify the value of "survival." Evolution is concerned with the survival of species, not individuals. If we are going to look at traits in the species which would seem to lead to doom, not life "into the ages" (the Greek phrase in the New Testament usually translated as "eternal life"), we should consider intelligence in human beings. Surely, we would say, that is what has made humans prosper and "survive." But from a biological point of view, or even a geological one, we are johnny come-latelies in the ecosystem, and while we have spread rapidly to every ecosystem on the planet, thanks to our "intelligence," we seem to be accelerating the pace at which we are destroying every species on earth we can, and destroying ourselves, too. Again, thanks to our "intelligence." Unless you consider the industrialized form of death we now call war, nuclear waste and weapons, and global warming (not to mention pollution, which chugs on almost unabated; see, e.g., Nigeria), then human intelligence is a dubious survival trait, indeed. "Survival" works only so long as the species is alive, after all. On what time scale do we measure the success of a "survival trait"? Human life? Geologic time? By any measure, as a species the dinosaurs were more successful than we've been; and the cockroach rules the world.

So what, really, does "belief" have to do with it? If belief is an irrational conclusion drawn on the basis of dubious evidence poorly investigated, then the whole concept of "survival" as the driving force of evolution seems a very dubious belief, indeed. Perhaps it's more accurate to say evolution explains the mechanism of change in species, and the extinction of species and appearance of new species, rather than "success." Because, after all, "success" only counts when you've ended the game, or reached a plateau after which no further change in status is, or can be, expected. Individuals "succeed," but species? On what scale? By what measure? Only against other species, or others in the species; and that returns us to the reprehensible traits of Social Darwinism, and the worst abuses of Darwin's theory, such as attempts to measure "intelligence," whether by skull capacity or with "IQ" tests. (Stephen Jay Gould, one would have thought, had laid that all to rest by now. But heresies in all fields of human thought abound. Hmmmm...wonder what the evolutionary explanation for poor reasoning is?) Does any credible biologist today still maintain that homo sapiens stands at the top of some supposed chain of being? If so, I can only imagine such a person is a Creationist, or at least a proponent of Intelligent Design.

Then, as Rick would point out, there is the obvious question of just how "objective" science as a field of knowledge is. Does it truly stand apart from the universe itself and know "truth"? How is that possible? Over 100 years ago Soren Kierkegaard critiqued the reasoning of Hegel by positing a man so objective in his thought, so separated from his own existence by his "system" of reasoning, that he awoke one morning to find he had died! So is it possible to objectively view the faith claims of another culture (such claims are always cultural, never individual) without presuming to put oneself in a position beyond the reach of such claims? And is such a position possible? If it is, how can "belief" be "hardwired" into us? Surely no amount of will can overcome something that is part of our "wiring."

What's truly intriguing here is that "belief" is defined, via a poor understanding of science (since "belief" itself is both a philsophical and theological term with no real "scientific" definition possible. There is, after all, nothing either fundamentally philosophical or theological about quarks, say, or viruses), by a reductio ad absurdum:
...religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.
I've read of simiar theories about love and attraction, which is usually reduced to the biological need to reproduce. It's always seemed to me if that were the only reason I married, I'd have left my wife by now, despite the fact I am hardly an "alpha male" who could ever be in the market for a "trophy wife." It seems to me if biology is paramount, I'd simply make the move in hopes of increasing the "spread" of my "seed." (And notice how such ideas are still stuck in Darwin's conviction that males are "superior" to females. Plus ce la change, plus ce la meme chose.) But I haven't, so apparently "free will" is still a factor at play here. Which brings us back to Social Darwinism, again. Is belief something innate but which "superior" persons in "superior" cultures overcome by efforts of reason or intelligence? Are such persons merely lacking in "inferior cultures?" How else explain Mr. Arten's lifelong lack of "belief"? Shouldn't be he hard-wired for it? Did he overcome it by his superior will, a product of his "superior" culture? Is an "alpha male" with a trophy wife superior to me, a monogamous male in a 30 year old marriage to his high school sweetheart? Who gets to decide how this scale is determined, arranged, and who fits on it? Is "free will" a function only available to the "advanced," or the "evolved" cultures and/or individuals?

"Free will," of course, brings us back to philosophy and theology, where science doesn't purport to play. So once again, it's a matter of which paradigm you use, I guess. Funny how hard it is to get a simple answer, even in a reductio universe. There may be many arguments about monogamy, but biology is not a very sound basis for them. Perhaps if more scientists understood the concept of "abstraction" and "metaphysics."

So science (which involves an entire philosophy of its own, not just a stand on "truth" [which is, after all, a metaphysical concept; another problem, for the many "scientific thinkers" who eschew metaphysics]) is going to discver "truth" simply by examination of the "evidence." And the "evidence," according to this article, is based on this quite uncontrolled (there is no comparison group) and poorly understood "experiment":

His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?
Now that's a tightly controlled experiment, indeed. What, after all, are "negative thoughts about religion"? I'm quite sure I have some of those. Hmm, perhaps this doesn't reflect a belief in God, just a frightening willingness to accept what an authority figure says? Weren't there some experiments involving authority figures and pain dealt out to strangers? Why, yes, there were:

Milgram puts out a newspaper advertisement offering male Americans around the vicinity of Yale University to participate in a psychology experiment about memory and learning. Upon arriving at Yale, the participant is introduced to a tall, sharp and stern looking experimenter (Milgram) wearing a white lab coat. The participant is also introduced to a friendly co-participant, who is actually a confederate (a person pretending to be a participant, like a rigged audience for a magician). Milgram explains that the experiment investigates punishment in learning, and that one will be the "teacher", and one will be the "learner." Rigged lots are drawn to determine roles, and it is decided that the true participant will be the "teacher."

The confederate is strapped to a chair, and his arm is dotted with electrodes. Milgram instructs the teacher to read out word pairs from a list, such as "clear" goes with "air", or "dictionary" goes with "red". Afterwards, when the teacher says a word, the learner must regurgitate the other word that goes with the teacher's word. If the learner recalls the correct word, we move to the next word pair. Otherwise, he is given a voltage shock. These shocks increase in amplitude as more mistakes are made. However, Milgram says that "no permanent tissue damage will occur" (gee how reassuring). Shocks start at 15 volts, and grow in 15 volt increments.

The shock generator is rather amusing. It has 30 switches, each labeled with a voltage ranging from 15 through 450 volts, and a verbal rating, ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe shock". The final two switches are labeled "XXX".
Milgram's conclusions about his experiments are also illuminating:

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."
To be fair, Atran is not pitting "the subjects' strongest moral imperatives" against authority. But he is trading on his classroom authority in order to conduct his "experiment." It's just as logical to conclude that his result arises from the psychology of teacher and student in Western culture as it does from some innate evolutionary principle. Is this a question of obedience, or of belief? Note that one is definable and verifiably by observation, whereas the latter is undefined (or, at best, poorly defined) and verifiable only by interpretation. Perhaps it's an issue of value, one again effected by the issue of authority. And even without those critiques, Occam's Razor says the former explanation (a question of authority) is to be preferred over the latter (a matter of unsound "belief"), simply because it is the simpler explanation.

These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.

Of course, what I really love is what's becoming the newest meme of religion v. science (with neither of those terms being well defined, either; I'm such a lawyer about these things!), the one begun by Dawkins and Harris especially: "Religion started it!"

Religion made incursions into the traditional domain of science with attempts to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom and to choke off human embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds. Scientists responded with counterincursions. Experts from the hard sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists in the study of religion, making God an object of scientific inquiry.
To be fair, at least Henig doesn't mention, in the timeline between James and the 1990's, the "Scopes Monkey Trial," a conflict mostly misinterpreted by people who get their history from movies, not from history books. (Huston Smith points out the errors of interpretation of that trial, and how many of them stem from "Inherit the Wind," Why Religion Matters, New York: HarperSanFrancisco 2001, pp. 103-112). But still this is largely "blame the victim" rhetoric. Everything would have been fine if "religion" (i.e., fundamentalists with no more understanding of science than some scientist have of religion) hadn't declared war on knowledge (which is what the word "science" means, after all; but it is not, note, the philosophical concept of science today). We didn't start this fight, scientists now seem to say, but we'll finish it.

Oh boy.

Perhaps the confusion stems, as ever, from the nature and definition of "belief."

Atran saw such questions as a puzzle when applied to religion. So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn’t this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking “what is materially false to be true” and “what is materially true to be false.”
William James is usually accused of giving us the famous aphorism that "faith is believing what isn't true." Except, of course, he didn't.

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
It might be easier at this point simply to drop James' entire essay in and walk away. Some of his answers to these questions are remarkably akin to those of Johannes Climacus in the Philosophical Fragments. Certainly William James has a better, and more scientific (intentional irony) grasp of his subject than Mr. Arten does. And it is this failure of grasp which really interests me.

This, for examples, is the nutshell version of how Arten comes to his conclusion that the human brain is "hard-wired" to believe in things "that you know ain't true:"

Maybe cognitive effort was precisely the point. Maybe it took less mental work than Atran realized to hold belief in God in one’s mind. Maybe, in fact, belief was the default position for the human mind, something that took no cognitive effort at all.
Belief, you see, is just a matter of lazy thinking! Wow! Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo and Duns Scotus and Maimonides and Plato, to name but four, banished at one blow! They couldn't help it! They were lazy thinkers!

Where do they find these people?

I'm sure it goes on and on in that vein. To be honest, at this point, I quit reading. So call this "critique" lazy and dishonest, if you like; I truly don't care. I have no illusions that I will become the anti-Dawkins and wipe such foolishness from the public discourse. If studying church history teaches you anything, it is that bad ideas (some of which the church labels "heresy," some of which it embraces like a motherless child seeking a parental figure) are forever, and are never banished, cannot be destroyed. I do not suffer fools gladly (for which I do frequent penance), but I also don't think I'm responsible for ridding the world of them. Besides, as soon as I attempt to vanquish the Dennetts and Harrises of this age, they will claim victimhood status and insist the fundamentalists and ID'ers not only started it, but are the REAL danger.

And I just don't have time for that nonsense.

*Walt Kelly

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