10 July 2007

Hardwired for faith

Matt Ridley's fascinating book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature explores the reasons that sexual reproduction evolved (why don't we just have baby clones?), the differences between male and female minds and the sex games they play, monogamy and polygamy through human history and why and how we fall in love.  It's full of insights, but I think its most interesting argument is that human intelligence primarily evolved to understand and outwit not other species, nor nature itself, but other humans, specifically rivals for potential mates (and often the potential mates themselves).

So it's no surprise that, when searching for patterns and explanations, our brains tend to look for conscious, humanlike entities.  Even when trying to explain natural phenomena, it's easy to assume subconsciously that intelligent agents are at work.  Ancient humans fell into that trap, inventing gods, astrology, palm-reading and so forth, and today's children often do until they learn more about the modern view of the world.

I think that's the main reason theistic beliefs are so seductive.  It's natural for us to see the world as if there's an overall intelligence behind it all, even though, from a scientific point of view, it doesn't really add up.  Explaining the structure of the universe by hypothesizing a powerful creator just introduces more to explain:  What created the creator?  If you assume that the creator always existed, it'd be simpler just to assume that the universe itself always existed.  Theistic beliefs violate Ockham's razor, but most of us find them hard to resist anyway.

Unfortunately, the religions that have survived to the present day are the ones that prescribe passing their beliefs on to children while their brains are still soft, teaching them to be loyal believers, to feel fear and guilt and then to pass the same beliefs on to the next generation.  Any rigid belief system that didn't do something similar would quickly die out and be replaced by better religious memes.  A scientific philosophy, on the other hand, rejects crystalline thinking in favor of keeping an open mind and a healthy skepticism.  I can't help quoting Richard Feynman again:

"I think it is more interesting to live not knowing answers than to have answers that might be wrong.  I have approximate answers, possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely certain of anything, and there's some things I know nothing about at all—like whether it means anything to ask, 'Why are we here?'  I might think about it for a little while, but if I can't figure it out then I'll go on to something else.  I'm not afraid of being lost in a mysterious universe with no purpose, which is the way it is, possibly.  It doesn't frighten me."

I also recommend the following essays by Richard Dawkins, some of which were incorporated into his book The God Delusion, which I just finished reading: Viruses of the Mind, The Emptiness of Theology, Snake Oil and Holy Water, What Use Is Religion? and Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.

On a distantly related note, one of this year's Cubs' outfielders has the delightfully quasi-oxymoronic name Ángel Pagán.


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