Monday, March 05, 2007

On Religious Beliefs as Either Adaptations or Non-Adaptive Byproducts

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine has an interesting article on how evolutionary theorists are trying to explain the origin of religious beliefs, to include belief in God. To inquire as to the evolutionary origins of God-belief is not to engage in Dawkins-type theorizing against the existence of God. The discussion happens on a micro-evolutionary level. It goes like this.

Religious beliefs are either "adaptations" or "byproducts." If the belief on God is an adaptation, this means it once had survival value. If it’s a byproduct of an adaptation that had survival value, then belief in God is a “nonadaptive consequence.” Whatever approach evolutionists might take, “God” seems to be hard-wired into persons. Belief in God is our “default setting.”

I think it is important to note that all beliefs/opinions/theories/behaviors can be analyzed this way. There are no human ideas/behaviors/beliefs that cannot be so analyzed because they fall outside the explanatory grasp of evolutionary theory. Thus, evolutionary theory can itself be analyzed this way. Is the belief in evolutionary theory an adaptation or a non-adaptive consequence? (For more on this see Alvin Plantinga's "An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.")

In itself any evolutionary explanation cannot answer the question “Does God exist?” Should one claim that to show that the evolution of a belief affects the cognitive value of that belief then one would commit, logically, the genetic fallacy. The nytimes essay understands this clearly. Which means that one could accept such evolutionary reasoning and be a Christian theist at the same time.

In this regard Justin Barrett, Senior Director University of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind, is cited. Barrett “is an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being.”” Barrett says, “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people.” He then asks, “Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”

I agree with Barrett when he reasons that having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them. Barrett writes, “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”

If “God” is the human default setting, what shall we make of atheists? Scott Atran is an anthropologist, and atheist, at the University of Michigan. “Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism [R] higher than the values of spiritualism [S]. “

But why does Atran hold the values of R higher than the values of S? Evolutionary theory must have an answer to this. But that answer cannot be “because the values of R are true.” “Why” R is “higher” than “S” is an entirely different question that cannot be answered by showing that, e.g., Atran does hold R higher than S.

Barrett’s suggestion that God exists and has hard-wired belief in Him into persons makes as much logical sense as does any other alternative. For the Christian theist it makes sense of the belief that, as persons, God created us “in his image.”

I think that Plantinga’s work on warranted belief, and Victor Reppert’s argument that human reason is only explicable on theism, can be helpful in a discussion like this. Belief in God, as our "default setting," is a Plantingian "properly basic belief." And the valuing of R, following Reppert, is a reason to believe that the proposition "God exists" is true because philosophical naturalism is self-refuting because it is inconsistent with the valuing of R.