Thursday, February 16, 2006

Naturally human   posted by Razib @ 2/16/2006 11:10:00 PM

Many of the posts over the past few years have been influenced by my dabbling in cognitive science. My interest in this field is three fold:
  1. I believe that modeling human cognition at its most basic level is a necessary precondition for genuine explanation and prediction in the human sciences.

  2. Cognitive science has helped me to understand a phenomenon whose basal foundations are somewhat alien to my intuitions, religion, and specifically, the belief in the existence of supernatural agents.

  3. Cognitive science also allows me to understand further a human institution which I am particularly attached to, the culture of science. I believe that an understanding of the natural biases and weakenesses of the human mind are necessary to avoid the trap of skepticism which Post Modernism has already foisted upon much of the humanities.

Of course, cognitive science is new, and there really aren't hard and fast truths one can derive from it. Nevertheless, the key is to start somewhere, and move beyond the expectations generated by our innate intuitions. Much of "scholarship" in areas like interational relations, to my mind, lacks the fundamental grounding in the dynamics of the human mind, and resides on a higher level of cultural organization where one can only vaguely discern the basic elements beneath.

Many of the concepts I allude to on this blog assume a basic familiarity with cognitive science and its paradigms. When it comes to science & religion I have some very specific opinions. Rather than reiterating what I've stated many times, I point readers to this chapter of Explanation and Cognition, The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of Science, by Robert N. McCauley.

Update: Matoko points us to this article in The Economist which offers a summation of some of the ideas in Dan Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is getting a lot of air time, for example, you can listen to him being interviewed here. But, I hope long time GNXP readers will check out Religion Explained or In Gods We Trust by Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran respectively. You can find a detailed precis of Atran's ideas here, while Boyer has written a popular press article for The Skeptical Inquirer.

For 80-90% of humans "explaining" religion as a natural phenomenon makes as much sense as an exposition on the evilness of breathing. In other words, for most humans religion is not fundamentally a natural phenomenon, rather, it is the "ground of being" or an expression of transcendence, it is orthogonal to the banal and mundane aspects of our world which are easily conceivable as the sum of their parts. By its nature as an entity within the mind which shapes how the mind perceives the world it is insulated from decomposition and reduction, perhaps explaining the tendency of many to treat the behavior of religious fanatics as if they are inscrutable and inspired by a divine spark or madness (depending on your perspective). Nevertheless, this perception of religion is not the opinion of most GNXP readers (if past surveys are to be believed), so it is left to us to examine this feature of the human phenotype objectively. Contrary to the title of Dennett's book "the spell" will never be broken for most humans. Rather, those of us who have never been bewitched need to stop behaving as if the human mind is magic and realize it is not such a sufficiently advanced technology which eludes our comprehension.

Update II:
One thing I want to add, as I have noted before, some of the researchers studying religion as a natural phenomenon are themselves believers in God and a particular religion. The general response of these individuals to the seemliness of their studying the nature of belief is that they examine the proximate features of the human mind which enable the flourishing of theism, a belief which they hold to be foundationally true. Nevertheless, if you read the Amazon reviews of Dennett's book above you will see that some readers were offended by very nature of the project, though I suspect the author's atheism is considerably more aggressive than earlier workers in this area.

Update III: This profile of the book in The Boston Globe is very good. Hopefully Dennett's work will introduce the curious to more serious researchers in this field.