This post got started in a meaningful way in 2005. That's when Sam Harris's book The End of Faith challenged me to re-consider questions that I hadn't worried about for nearly twenty years -- since Darwin, speaking through the witty little sermons of Stephen Jay Gould, had taught me a new way of thinking about the world.
What I learned from Harris was that, although it had been a great relief in my thirties to lay asideÂ my religious preoccupations, I could no longer afford the luxury of ignoring religion and its adherents. That kind of ignorance was a sort of intellectual cowardice. And worse, religious ignorance was dangerous to everyone.
So in the past five years I've read (of course!)Â a hundred or moreÂ books, moving from religion to philosophy to brain science and evolutionary theory (some of those books "belonged" to more than one discipline). I've taken a few courses, and talked to lots of people with different viewpoints -- all in the service of making sense of religion. And, oh yeah. The oddest result of reading Harris's book was, I ended up a Buddhist.
AÂ second point of origin, in creative tension with the first, is a comment by Ron on an earlier discussion. According to Ron and others, Buddhism isn't really a religion, but a philosophy. That led me to ask myself: What the heck is philosophy? (That is, what does it DO that lets it outcompete other kinds of thought we might engage in?)
Sometimes considering two questions is a lot more productive than considering only one of them! I'd like to offer some answers to these questions (and to a related question, what is science?) and let you guys kick holes in my ideas. Cause that's the way I roll, lol.
The way I see it, science, philosophy and religion are adaptations to a common set of problems. These problems can be stated this way: the brain is an amazing, powerful and well-adapted thinking machine. But it's not a unitary thinking machine. We are a lot like the astronaut who, while waiting for launch, muses uneasily that he is about to trust his life to a machine made of thousands of parts, each supplied by the lowest bidder. In evolutionary terms, that's what our brain is -- a thinking machine made of many sub-machines, each the cheapest way available to solve a survival problem.
This reality is masked by the way consciousness works, of course. For the most part, we experience our thinking as unified. We experience our "self" as unified... and in control.
Not long after finishing The End of Faith, I read Pascal Boyer's book Religion Explained. Boyer, as it happens, explains at least as much about the brain as about religion, and I particularly like his metaphor for brain function. The brain, he writes, is like an English country manor, in which activity is divided into "upstairs" and "downstairs" realms. Upstairs is the view from inside our ego tunnel, butÂ outside the tunnel is where most ofÂ the brain's action takes place. Downstairs is the domain of specialists (the neural equivalent, Boyer writes, of "house steward, housekeeper, groom of the chambers, butler, valet, lady's maid, chef, footman, underbutler, young ladies' maid, housemaid, stillroom maid, scullery maid, kitchen maid, laundry maid, dairymaid, coachman, groom, postilion, candleman, oddman, steward's room man and servants' hall boy, to name but a few.") With that kind of activity going on below conscious awareness, it begins to look less as if our consciousness is running the show... particularly because (unlike the lord of the manor) we cannot fire our neural servants!
(Well... we could opt for a lobotomy I suppose... lol.)
Inevitably, there's a certain amount of conflict "belowstairs", and much of it is handled there, by still more specialists that keep disagreements from intruding on life "abovestairs". But sometimes, conflicts get kicked upstairs, and we become aware of them. These cognizable conflicts, I believe, are the impetus for many kinds of memetic adaptations -- among them, the threefold cord of science, philosophy and religion.
Let's start with science. Science exists to resolve mental and social conflicts that arise from our observation of the world around us. What sort of conflicts? Well,Â our observationÂ are demonstrably subject to errors of perception, as demonstrated by the existence of optical illusions, auditory illusions, and quite possibly such robust sensory effects as out-of-body experiences.Â Our observationsÂ are also subject to errors having to do with attention: we may fail to observe what does not come to our attention, and we may inadvertently inject attentional objects into observations. Memory also creates problems. The other day I heard a memory scientist explain that whenever we access a memory, we destroy it. It must be recreated each time we think of it, which means that, the more important a memory is to us, the more likely that it becomes subject to copying error.
Observing the world around us is, of course, vital for our survival.Â For that reason, every human society has developed science, which is the filtering of observation through many individuals, thus reducingÂ idiosyncratic errors. It used to be commonplace to think of societies without complex technology as being "pre-scientific", but that's not the case. When scientists visit isolated tribes they generally find that these people have very precise and accurate knowledge of the local plants, animals, weather and other salientÂ aspects of the world around them. In some ways, modern people may have less understanding of the natural world, since technology buffersÂ us from some of its threats. (We may, however, have a more well-developed awareness of social science, since we must cope with more people, and more psychological diversity, than people living in small, isolated groups.)
On to philosophy. If science sets out to systematize observation, philosophy sets out to systematize the way we use reason. It has been known since antiquity that reason often gives rise to paradox -- that is, (in the words of the immortal wikipedians): true statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition". Until recently, philosophy seems not to have seriously entertained the notion that paradoxes arise, not because of improper reasoning,Â but because human reason is itself -- as the product of many generations of evolutionary compromise -- imperfect.
(As it happens, the first book of philosophy I read on purpose, without having it assigned, was Hofstadter's GÃ¶del, Escher, Bach. The second was The Mind's I, which set out to consider the nature of human consciousness and was my first exposure to Daniel Dennett, though I didn't realize it until the frenzy of reading Sam Harris inspired made me reacquainted with Dennett.) These books both pioneered the idea that human reason, as a product of evolution, might not be up to the task of systematizing all our understanding in a perfectly coherent way.
Finally, then, let me attempt to redefine religion. If science exists to correct errors in observation, and philosophy to correct errors of reasoning, religion serves to reduce emotionalÂ pains that arise when different specialist routines "downstairs" in our brains come into conflict. While the primary tool of science is observation and of philosophy is reason (and words), the primary tool of religion is narrative. Religion puts our painful emotional conflicts into a new context, one in which they can be resolved, or at least reduced.
Let me illustrate by giving some examples of typical religious issues.
Temptation: Take a look at the last few (depending how you count) of the Ten Commandments. Don't kill or commit adultery. Don't steal. In fact -- and here is the crux --do NOTÂ even covet your neighbor's ass. (Or in modern terms, his zero-turn-radius mower with rollover protection and blades that can chip concrete blocks.)
Although I've chosen a Biblical illustration,Â the problem of how toÂ make temptation less agonizing, particularlyÂ when no one is watching, really is a universal concern in religions. The conflict is between our desire to take what we want and our prosocial urge to abide by group norms.
And there is a near-universal solution. Almost all religions reduce the emotional conflict by insisting that your transgression WILL be noticed, because there is / are spirit(s) watching. Maybe it's the Spirit of God (as in the Abrahamic religions). Or maybe it's nosy ancestors. Or orishas, demons, witches, old ones, or heck, a jolly old elf. Just knowing that you can't get away with giving in to temptation reduces the emotional conflict, though it doesn't guarantee that everyone will make the "right" choice! (If religion makes that conflict easier to live with, and keeps people from being frozen between conflicting emotions, that's a sufficient reason for it to exist. The fact that individuals choose differently in the same situation is probably a good thing in survival terms.)
Injustice: What happens if you give in to temptation, and you're not caught, and those nosy ancestors also don't choose to get involved. At least not yet. Or you suspect your neighbor has been up to no good? Or worse, you KNOW that someone -- perhaps someone powerful -- is getting away with murder, or rapine, or confiscatory taxation? Here our strong programming to punish cheaters is coming into painful conflict with our desire for self-preservation.
Again, there is a pretty common religious narrative to deal with this problem. Sure, religion assures us. You MIGHT get away with something now, but justice is certain. Again, the form that justice takes may vary. The Abrahamic faiths have mostly settled on reward and punishment after death, while the dharma religions see justice visited through the impartial workings of karma.
Calamity: We, alone among earth creatures (as far as we know), have the ability to imagine what the future will be like. In fact, we pretty much cannot avoid imagining the future. And that becomes a problem when the future doesn't work out as we planned. The greater the variance between our expectations and reality, the more painful it is to abandon our expectations.
The common religious solution to this problem is to create a narrative in which the unexpected event makes sense. There is a divine plan. OR this event is the working out of karma. OR the ancestors have finally gotten around to punishing me for what I did two years ago. The narrative itself varies, but the important point is that the unexpected can be reconciled with the facts on the ground.
I hope that we can discuss these and other religious problems in the comments. It is almost time to turn things over to you. But I couldn't resist making one final point.
Sam Harris frequently taxes religion with what he considers two unforgivable sins. The first is that the religious narratives are not literally true. And the second is that religion (and, in fact, pretty much anything Harris detests) is "irrational." I think that in both cases, Harris has missed the essential point.
Religious narratives, unlike scientific ones (such as theories), are not intended to beÂ unambiguous statements of external reality. And neither religion nor science are perfectly constrained by reason.Â Science, for example, stands by observations that do not make sense, so long as the observations can be replicated. And religion stands by narratives that do not make sense, so long as the narrative is useful to people in emotional conflict.
However, religion and philosophy both become dangerous when people insist that they represent such a degree of truth that adherents are free to disregard conflicting observations from the outside world. As soon as someone says "Religion or reason prove X, so I will believe it no matter how much outside evidence exists to the contrary" -- that person is in danger of becoming unhinged.
The reason is simple. Evolution does not -- and probably cannot -- design anything to work in isolation. Our brains absolutely require contact with the outside world, both social and natural, in order to function properly.
OK, time for questions / comments. I'm hoping you'll all do your best to knock my ideas askew!
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