Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Default Setting? (Part One)

This is a reader participation post, please weigh in. I've been thinking about the following question for the last few weeks. And now I want to hear what my readers think. So ...


The default human setting:
is it theist or atheist?

... or does any such default setting exist?

Regular contributors here are about half atheist, and half theist. But that may or may not dictate your answer. Offer an opinion only, or support your answer from psychology, history, evolutionary science, sociology, logic or experience.

45 comments:

Makarios said...

If you had a third box titled "Other" please specifiy, I would have said:

I think we intuitively know that God exists. We're born in rebellion to the idea of being accountable to our Creator. That idea presents in various ways, once of which is atheism.

Psiloiordinary said...

Cracking question Cliff!

You all simply MUST drop everything and go read "Blank Slate" by Steve Pinker.

That is your question after all, when you drill down into it i.e.

Are humans born with a "blank slate" mind that is filled up with experience (environment) or are we born with certain qualities built in (genetics).

The US constitution says blank slate doesn't it so I guess you must either go for that Cliff or come live over here with me ;-)

- - -

BTW I find the huge number of logical fallacy arguments about this to be fascinating.

Let's see;

Zero = zero therefore it must be environment i.e. we are all born atheists (?) BECAUSE I want everyone to be equal ??

etc etc

- - -

Anyway what do I think?

Neither and both.

I think it highly likely that we have some inherited tendency to seeing purpose and intention in the world around us - this is such a powerful and simple survival tool. NB this doesn't just explain God though - it can explain much more - leprechauns are a personal favourite but all kinds of supernatural doo dahs probably come from the same thing.

I also think there will be a large part played by inheritance outside of the genome - if your parents are religious they will very rarely give you a choice in the matter after all. I mean Meme inheritance.

So as is usual with questions like this the answer is a bit more complicated than the choices you gave us.

- - -

BTW I think that the "religion meme" has served it's purpose now and large parts of the world are moving beyond it into a secular and rational alternative and are so setting new standards in terms of peaceful, happy, long lived and enlightened societies.

Regards,

Psi

Psiloiordinary said...

PS

How about default setting = curious

This naturally leads to superstition until the invention of the scientific method . . . next stop the stars (if we don't destroy ourselves first)

Makarios said...

How rational is it to believe something - not - for its truth value but for it's survival value?

Isaac Gouy said...

... or does any such default setting exist?

No to that specific question.

But more generally - "We are inclined from the start to think that there are unseen patterns, forces and essences inhabiting the world".

SuperSense: Why We Believe The Unbelievable provides interesting and varied examples.

Cliff Martin said...

I just saw this article from yesterday's New York Times. It deals with an evolutionary theory of religion.

VanceH- said...

I think the default has been theist, because there have been things (e.g., rainbows) that were easiest to explain as being manifestations of God(s). For a long time there was no other reasonable interpretation.

I think we are in a transition period where it is has become easier to accept the scientific position (e.g., age of earth, origins of life) than the proposition that God did it. When the cultural traditions die out (which takes a long time), I think the new default will be atheist.

Tom said...

I've heard it mentioned that because many religions believe monotheism, then that is not only a proof of a single God, but also that there is a human tendency to believe. Both conclusions are flawed. In the first case, given any belief in supernatural forces it is quite natural to assume that there is one head honcho. It's sort of like superheros -- you get to the point where there has to be one super-superhero that does not have a weak spot and he dominates all the others.

Like Psi said, there is something in us that looks for patterns and meaning when perhaps there isn't anything there at all so there is an innate sense to be superstitious. If we are superstitious, then it is also easy to eventually ascribe all of it to a single deity.

This looks like a segue into a discussion of original sin. If there is a propensity to believe and we don't, then we've sinned. If there isn't a propensity and we don't believe, then we haven't really sinned, have we? In which case, there also seems to be an issue with judging souls. If there is not equal bias to believe or not, then can there be a fair assessment come Judgement Day?

Rich G. said...

VanceH:

I think you are falling for the same false choice that many modern Christians make: That there must be an exclusive choice between the religious and the scientific. Strictly there should not be a conflict; science describes the behavior of the physical world, religion the spiritual. Many throughout history haven't seen it as an either-or, but as a both-and.

Psi:

I know many think an atheist world will be a happier, more peaceful place, but is there any evidence that this would actually happen? Are there any examples from history?

Rich G.

VanceH- said...

Hi Rich G., I agree that framing things as having to be spiritual or scientific is a false choice. However Cliff's question regarded defaults, which I view to be more along the lines of cultural norms, traditions, and "common knowledge" rather than conscious choices.

-- Vance

RBH said...

Barrett's Hyperactive Agency Detection (pdf) hypothesis seems to suggest a cognitive apparatus that favors theism but does not necessarily default to theism. If we are 'wired' to (over-)perceive agency and intention in the world, including the non-human world, then we are predisposed to accept the notion of supernatural agents hidden just behind the 'visible' world. In this sense, theism is parasitic on a general cognitive capacity that has had adaptive value in the evolutionary history of our species/genus.

So in my view (very briefly!) we don't default to theism as such, but rather we are 'wired' by evolution in such a way that theism is enabled as a side effect or by-product.

And Makarios asked

How rational is it to believe something - not - for its truth value but for it's survival value?

Simple. It keeps lineages alive long enough to acquire the cognitive capacities necessary to ponder questions of truth.

RBH said...

For more from Barrett on the cognitive science of religion see this short review article and this longer review.

Isaac Gouy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
backoffscience said...

The fact of the matter is that human beings have developed the ability to live their lives as part of huge communal narratives. There are religious narratives and non-religious ones, but they're all really the same thing. The only thing we are not is separate from a narrative, and the sooner we make the most of our own story rather than worrying about someone elses, the better.

Isaac Gouy said...

Ever watched a feather flutter to the ground?

Ever seen a stone fall?

Why wouldn't you think light-as-a-feather stuff just does fall slower than dropped-like-a-stone stuff ?

Even when you know intellectually that lighter doesn't fall slower than heavy, how do you get that image of the feather fluttering to the ground out of your head?

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi makarios,

You said this;

"How rational is it to believe something - not - for its truth value but for it's survival value?"

I didn't say that.

Would you like to address what I did say?

If not then you might as well tell me what I am going to say next I suppose ;-)

Psi

Makarios said...

Psiloiordinary: "Would you like to address what I did say?"

Not particulary. What makes you think I was addressing you? I was referring to the atheist belief that religion (superstition) evolved as a method for survival.

For obvious reasons, those who believed in religion cooperated more, and on and on and their survival rate was better than for those who rejected religion.

What helped them survive? A belief. Was it a belief in something that was true? Not according to atheists. Does that matter re: survival? Apparently not.

Psiloiordinary said...

Charming.

I thought you were addressing my point as your comment came straight after it and covered the same ground and appeared to represent it in a distorted way.

Neither I, nor anyone else has suggested that folks believed in superstition because it was rational.

Forgive me for thinking we were all trying to have a polite dialog.

Psi

(puts this in his file of "militant theists"

:-)

Isaac Gouy said...

Cliff > yesterday's New York Times .. an evolutionary theory of religion

Not a theory as such, more a speculative hypothesis à la Dawkins - and I don't see what would be new about this as "a new perspective on religion"?

To me the article was a poor promo for Nicholas Wade's book - instead I'd suggest Rodney Stark's "Discovering God: the origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief" (even though I don't agree with all his conclusions).


I stumbled over this 1977 article while Googling "Discovering God" -

"Brain evolution and the biology of belief"

Cliff Martin said...

Isaac,

Thank you for the links. I included the link to the NYT article primarily because of timeliness ... it was posted the day before I opened this discussion. I offered it mainly for people who may need a brief introduction to current thinking re. the evolutionary development of religion. And yes, "theory" was the wrong word; it is an hypothesis, and perhaps not the best nor most representative at that.

Rich G. said...

Hmmm...

All this discussion about generic "religion". It is apparent that mankind has a universal record of religious forms, and it is plain that ONLY mankind has exhibited this tendency.

But the discussion sounds like talking about generic "language" or generic "eating". The real question to me is not whether any or all "religion" performed an evolutionary developmental function. Nor is it "is religion true" as if "eating" will nourish me. The problem comes when we get to the specifics of "is this, or that, or any religion true?". As communication requires a specific language, and nourishment requires that I choose what I put in my mouth, the real struggles are in the specifics, not the generics.

Rich G.

Isaac Gouy said...

Rich G. > As communication requires a specific language...

That seems overly specific - communication requires the same language (or just a similar enough language).


Rich G. > ...nourishment requires...

You don't need to get your vitamin C from oranges (whatever the California and Florida growers say).

You could even get the vitamin C you need from eating raw meat.

Rich G. said...

Isaac:

You are right... But my point was more general - One cannot communicate with another if both use "language" as an overall generic, there must be a choosing of specific language between the two. Gaining nutrition requires actual food, not just the generic "eating".

"Believing in religion" seems similar - one cannot simply do that. We must choose WHAT to believe. Otherwise all that is being said is "I believe in believing."

Rich G.

Isaac Gouy said...

Rich G. > "Believing in religion" seems similar - one cannot simply do that.

Where did you see something about "Believing in religion" ?


Rich G. > discussion about generic "religion"

It seems like discussion about religion in general rather than about a generic "religion" ?

Is that what you're objecting to - discussion of religion in general rather than discussion of a specific religion?

Rich G. said...

Isaac:

Makarios said...

"For obvious reasons, those who believed in religion cooperated more...


Psiloiordinary said...

"Neither I, nor anyone else has suggested that folks believed in superstition because it was rational."

Just two examples from this thread.

Rich G.

Cliff Martin said...

Rich,

While I agree with you about the meaninglessness of "believing in religion", this post and thread really are not intended to be religion specific, nor is it about comparative religion. I'm just asking people whether they think humans are hard-wired to believe there is a God. One way that we might measure that would be with historical observations about religion. Of course, one could object that such observations bear no weight upon the question at hand. Another could argue that they do.

Rich G. said...

Isaac:

To answer your question:

Is that what you're objecting to - discussion of religion in general rather than discussion of a specific religion?

The discussion has sounded to me like "religion" is something you either have or have not, like clothes. It would be difficult to discuss clothing in an exclusively theoretical context - you would have to go into the specifics. That is unless you were discussing the merits of nakedness vs. clothing (ANY clothing regardless of whether a bathing suit or ski parka)

Superstitions are similar - you cannot believe or disbelieve superstition in general, you can only do that with specific superstitions. A discussion about superstition in general will get you nowhere, until you get into whether this or that superstition had some value.

You can trace the evolution of religious expressions, and discuss whether there is (or was) some value there, but even then, until you get into specifics, you cannot come to any meaningful conclusions.

You could say you believe in "Life" because the cosmos developed it. But as long as "Life" remains a theoretical concept divorced from any and all specific living examples, what do you have?

So, I don't mind a generic discussion about the value of religion - but it will have to keep in mind that there is *no* generic religion, but there are a myriad of specific religions held by real people to various (and debatable) advantages.

Rich G. said...

Cliff:

You are right. I was composing the last answer to Isaac while you were posting yours.

I wasn't intending to get deep into the comparative. Just to remind people that that is hanging out there.

Rich G.

Isaac Gouy said...

Cliff > just asking people whether they think humans are hard-wired to believe there is a God

I expect you've experienced a child asking a chain of Why? Why? Why?

You might say we are hard-wired to think everything has a cause, which will inevitably lead to our friend McCabe -

“I say that God would provide the answer to that question (Why is there anything instead of nothing?) because, since we do not know what God is, we do not have an answer to our question.”

Are you looking for something more than the expectation that everything has a cause?

Psiloiordinary said...

Wolpert's "Six impossible things" includes a nice discussion of the various lines of evidence that it is indeed the tendency to see cause and effect combined with an expectation of agency that is the seed of superstition.

Rich G. said...

I think that we can even frame the question points to something unique to mankind.

The ancient writer penned "He has set eternity in their heart..." in recognition of that something in mankind that can even ponder whether or not there is anything out there.

Isaac Gouy said...

Rich G. > I think that we can even frame the question points to something unique to mankind.

How do you know Octopuses don't contemplate causality?

There are all kinds of unique things about all kinds of organisms, and... ?

Isaac Gouy said...

Psiloiordinary > Wolpert's "Six impossible things"

If you haven't already seen it -

Soul searching: human nature and supernatural belief [In the US titled - "Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation"], Nicholas Humphrey.

Worth reading just for the story of the Cheshire folk who put to trial, convicted and sentenced to drowning a saint's statue.

Cheshire born, Cheshire bred; strong in'th arm, weak in'th head :-)

Rich G. said...

Isaac:

"How do you know Octopuses don't contemplate causality?"

Where is the Evidence?

"There are all kinds of unique things about all kinds of organisms, and... ?"

But none as unique as mankind, who has developed forms of expression and communication that are nowhere else to be seen in creation, even in embryonic forms. Something as simple as an instruction sheet gives evidence of concepts unmatched in other living creatures. Where else can you see conceptual ideas communicated in symbolic representations through manufactures means between individuals that are out of sight and sound (and time) of each other? Who else has left records - intentionally - for future generations? Who else deliberately searches for ultimate causes? I think these are evidence of that something.

Rich G.

Isaac Gouy said...

"How do you know Octopuses don't contemplate causality?"

Rich G. > Where is the Evidence?

Exactly!

You've claimed - "that we can even frame the question points to something unique to mankind" - but where is your evidence that this is something unique to mankind?

Seems like a "don't know".


Rich G. > none as unique as

Isn't that like thinking someone can be more pregnant or less pregnant?

Cliff Martin said...

Busy week for me, work-wise, but I hope to get to and read some of the links that Psi and Isaac have offered. I am genuinely interested in this discussion, as I believe that all good theology must begin with Natural Theology, and this question is central to the starting point of theology.

While I will read the links, I do not understand why the human tendency to assume cause and effect (which doubtless has led to many superstitions) is in itself somehow suspect. Is not all of science based upon the assumption of cause and effect?

Psiloiordinary said...

I don't think any of "us" has meant to say it is suspect Cliff.

Just that we make mistakes.

God, leprechauns etc being a very big one IMHO. (touch wood)

Regards,

Psi

Isaac Gouy said...

Cliff > the human tendency to assume cause and effect ... is in itself somehow suspect

It isn't suspect in and of itself.

But we know that we can pose questions that do not have a satisfying answer - "The village barber cuts everyone's hair except people who cut their own hair. Does the barber cut his own hair?"

Likewise it may be that, in the limit, the chain of causality why-questions do not have a satisfying answer, just No reason.


"I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me."

Isaac Gouy said...

Rich G. after exhaustive examination of Latin texts and a complete failure to find our 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 you might mistakenly conclude that somehow imperial Rome flourished without arithmetic.

Because (cursory) examination of other organisms does not show signs of our methods...

Cliff Martin said...

Psi and Isaac,

I accept your answers, however I think if you review your own comments you might see how I arrived at the conclusion that the presumption of cause and effect leads to errors.

Isaac wrote, “You might say we are hard-wired to think everything has a cause, which will inevitably lead to ... [nonsense McCabe quote].

Psi wrote, “the tendency to see cause and effect combined with an expectation of agency that is the seed of superstition.”


But I would contend that the presumption of cause and effect is the basis for most scientific advancements (and I'm sure you agree); and further, that it is beyond reasonable to look at the created order and at least suspect the possibility of causation. Granted, the misappropriation of the principle has given rise to limitless superstition. But do such superstitions preclude a rational search for ultimate cause? Not for me.

As Rich pointed out, the O.T. speaks of “eternity” being set upon the heart of man, and in the same breath declares that God’s activities are not completely fathomable. And while I realize that everyone’s experience will be shaped by their presuppositions, I have certainly found that a quest for something, someone “eternal” has been upon my heart (and mind!) all my life. But I cannot go back and re-enter life sans the Christian presuppositions I learned at my mother’s knee. And I appreciate the Feynman quote, and can only take him at his word.

Rich G. said...

Isaac:

"Rich G. after exhaustive examination of Latin texts and a complete failure to find our 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 you might mistakenly conclude that somehow imperial Rome flourished without arithmetic."

But I *would* conclude that they HAD symbolic communication for others beyond their immediate sensory range, even if I couldn't understand the language used.

"Because (cursory) examination of other organisms does not show signs of our methods..."

What does a cursory examination of mankind's accomplishments show? I'd wager the differences far outnumber, in kind as well as number, those of all the rest of life combined. Except possibly the conversion of CO2 + CH4 -> O2 + C2H4 by early bacteria.

Rich G.

Isaac Gouy said...

Rich G. > I'd wager the differences far outnumber...

As far as I can tell you simply don't have information about other organisms.

Isaac Gouy said...

Cliff > [nonsense McCabe quote]

Please do demonstrate in what way it is nonsense.

While you ponder that - "But you still have the question: Why does the universe bother to exist? If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question."


Cliff > the created order and at least suspect the possibility of causation

By definition "the created order" is caused - it is so because you say it is so, that is all.

By definition God is not caused - it is so because you say it is so, that is all.

"Because" sometimes silences small children for a while.

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

Yes cause and effect is at the heart of science.

But science simply gives us more chance to spot we are being fooled by nature.

No one has been trying to say that logic or cause and effect are in error - just that human are.

Cheers,

Psi

Rich G. said...

Isaac:

"As far as I can tell you simply don't have information about other organisms."

But I can see.

As Yogi Berra once said: "You can observe a lot by just watching."