Sunday, February 13, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part VI

This is the sixth, and final, part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

In the third installment I addressed a potential a priori objection to natural explanations for the persistence of religion in the form of the existence of atheists. I noted that polymorphistic features in biological organisms are permitted although they do require additional layers of explanation. I then proceeded to introduce the conjecture that religion may have adaptive value even if we don't posit that it is an adaptation whose function is to directly perceive some other sort of reality. I called this the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis and provided a few potential adaptive scenarios.

In the forth installment I introduced two new conjectures. The first conjecture was that religion may be a "spandrel", which is a non-adaptive biological feature that is the result of other adaptive features. The second conjecture, and the first one to more outside the realm of biology, was that religion may be have functional value for societies and that, as a consequence of this, those societies that successfully promote religious belief in their populations would be more stable than those societies that failed to do so. I called this the Social Preservation Hypothesis.

In the fifth installment I discussed the general theory of memetics, which states that ideas are replicators that evolve via the same processes of natural selection that biological organisms are subject to. I then introduced the hypothesis that religion can be best understood as competing meme-complexes which have adapted themselves to human being and which have evolved to overcome potential threats from counter-memes (e.g., the secular philosophies of The Enlightenment). This idea may be called The Memetic Hypothesis

At last we are ready to bring our hypotheses back together, all in one place, so that we may give them final consideration:
  • The Strong Adaptive Hypothesis: Religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of a "spiritual reality".

  • The Weak Adaptive Hypothesis: Religious beliefs persist because they provide some function which directly promotes reproductive fitness among those who embrace religious beliefs.

  • The Spandrel Hypothesis: Religious beliefs persist because they are the indirect result of some other biological feature or features which directly promote reproductive fitness among those who have said features; however, the capacity for religion and predisposition towards religion is not, itself, reproductively advantageous.

  • The Social Preservation Hypothesis: Religion positively enhances the stability of those societies that embrace it. Consequently, those societies that fail to instill religious beliefs in a majority of their populations will have a tendency to collapse leaving behind only those societies which do instill such beliefs.

  • The Memetic Hypothesis: Religion persists because religious ideas are memes. Once religious memes arise in the human population, selective pressures will favor those religious memes and meme-complexes that are better at propagating themselves against rival ideas and other cognitive obstacles.
Some may have noticed that there is one prominent hypothesis that I have not put into consideration. This hypothesis might be called, simply, The Theistic Hypothesis. The Theistic Hypothesis is that religion persists for the simple reason that it is the will of the Divine that it persists.

The central problem with The Theistic Hypothesis, for the purpose of this essay, is that such a hypothesis is good at accounting for the persistence of a particular religion but not for religion as a whole. We might, for instance, assume that Judaism has survived its thousands of years of existence because the Jews are the chosen people of the god of the Israelites. Such a hypothesis may well suffice for this particular instance, but presuming that YHWH exists and favors the Jews does nothing to explain the existence and persistence of Buddhism, or any of the other myriads of religions that do and have existed throughout human history. The Theistic Hypothesis is, in other words, not strong enough to answer the question that I am posing.

It is possible to strengthen the theistic hypothesis by adding an additional hypothesis. One might, for instance, posit an Infernal Hypothesis. The Infernal Hypothesis might be that the one true religion persists because of divine favor while all the false religions of the world persist because some powerful, malevolent agency (e.g., Satan) has duped the other members of the human race into false beliefs. A less sinister alternative to The Infernal Hypothesis might be The Faulty Receiver Hypothesis. In this hypothesis, the divine is trying to communicate to us true beliefs but, for whatever reason, most people (remember, all religions are in the minority) manage to misinterpret the message, leading to the flourishing of false beliefs.

And so forth.

I will not be including The Theistic Hypothesis, with or without supplementation, for two reasons. The first is that whenever a hypothesis requires additional hypotheses in order to account for a phenomenon, the general rule of thumb is to consider it to be less favored than hypotheses that don't require ad hoc supplementation. Many people believe that the Copernican model of a heliocentric universe supplanted the Ptolemaic model of an Earth centered universe on the weight of evidence. By the point that Copernicanism supplanted Ptolemaicism, however, there was no conclusive evidence that Copernicus was right and Ptolemy was wrong. The reason that the Ptolemaic model fell out of favor is that it required the addition of too many epicycles.

You see, the motion of the planets across the sky isn't entire simple. Some planets will occasionally appear to actually be going backwards, or retrograde, in their movements, tracing out little loops in the sky. In the Copernican model, this is just an illusion caused by the fact that the Earth, too, is moving. In a geocentric model, however, those little loops are more of a challenge. Now, the ancients weren't stupid (a common error that we moderns often make). They recognized the problem and tried to account for it. The geocentric solution was to imagine that the planets were, in fact, doing just what they appeared to be doing… tracing out loops. They were imagined to have orbits within orbits (this was all incorporated into the notion that the planets were embedded within giant crystalline spheres, but let's not get distracted). Those sub-orbits were called epicycles.

As hypotheses went, supposing that a given planet had an orbit (a cycle) and a sub-orbit (an epicycle) isn't so outlandish — in the real solar-system, that's a very near description of how planetary moons move in respect to the sun. Unfortunately, it wasn't sufficient to propose a single epicycle for a given planet. The observed motions kept deviating from the predictions. This required more and more epicycles to be introduced. Even this wasn't enough to favor the Copernican model for the simple reason that the Copernican model also deviated from observation. This was because the Copernican model was wrong in supposing that planets traced perfectly circular orbits around the sun. However, once Kepler came along and described the correct motions via his Three Laws of Planetary Motion (you've got to love a theory with such a plain description), the modified Copernican model worked just fine. Meanwhile, the Ptolemaic model kept having to suppose more and more epicycles. As such, the Copernican hypothesis became favored on the basis of parsimony.

Parsimony is a ten dollar word used by epistemologists (a fifty dollary word meaning people who study knowledge) that means that there is an economy of explanation (huh? – bear with me). You may have heard of Occam's Razor which states that one should not necessarily multiply entities when seeking an explanation. Occam's Razor is an epistemological rule of thumb. What the rule is essentially saying (and let me warn you that the Razor is very easy to misunderstand) is that when two explanations can both account for a given phenomenon, it's generally a better idea to favor the one that requires you to make the least number of assumptions. It's not an iron-clad rule of nature but, in practice, it's a pretty good tool for clearing away philosophical deadwood.

The Theistic Hypothesis, when applied to the question of the persistence of religion, isn't able to stand on its own. It needs additional hypotheses – philosophical epicycles. The other hypotheses we've been considering don't. As such, the Theistic Hypothesis lacks parsimony.

The other reason I'm not including it is more basic. The Theistic Explanation is not evidential. It's central premise — there exists a god that desires some religion to persist — and it's supporting premises — most of us are being confounded by a malevolent agent or that we are misinterpreting the word of this god — rely upon a foundation of faith. It may seem ironic that I'm counting faith as a strike against it when the topic of consideration is, after all, about the persistence of a phenomenon that is deeply associated with Faith (with a big F). Although it may seem ironic, my goal isn't to evaluate the reality of anyone's particular beliefs. I am examining something that is indisputably real. Real people in the real world are, in fact, really religious. Even though I, in my personal life, explicitly believe that there are no gods (yes, I'm that sort of atheist… but we'll save that essay for another day) I can still consider the phenomenon and practice of religion because religion is more than it's individual manifestations. It's part of the human zeitgeist and has been for a very long time… hence the reason I'd like to understand it.

If The Theistic Hypothesis and it epicyclic supports work for you, then good for you. Since it is a faith-based hypothesis, I know that there's nothing I could do to make you even consider that it might be wrong, so there's no point in trying. I hope you enjoyed the essay and I sincerely hope that you will come back for future essays on different topics. If, however, you are willing to consider the alternatives, please read on.

So we now come to the point where I tell you which of our five hypotheses I'm advocating. I'm sorry to report that I have a confession. The truth of the matter is that my goal has not been to advocate any these hypotheses.

My real goal has been to, first of all, convince you that there is a question that is worth considering. We atheists are the worst when it comes to this. By and large, we don't like religion. I'm not the pure exception to the rule. I don't think as badly of religion as a lot of my co-areligionists, but I'll freely admit that there's a lot about religion that I honestly don't like (and which I'm not going to go into… this time). This tendency to think badly of religion all too often turns into a disdain for those who are religious. Again and again, I hear my fellow atheists say that religion is infantile and that the only reason it doesn't go away is that people are so damned gullible. I've said as much myself on too many occasions. The problem is that it's an easy assertion that I don't believe holds much water. Whatever reason there is for religion being persistent and ubiquitous, I do not think that we are justified in simply trying to wave it away in this fashion.

The other thing I've hoped to accomplish has been to demonstrate that there are multiple possibilities. Too many people who have considered this question have latched on to one particular explanation and have decided that the other possibilities don't even need consideration. This is just as bad, just as narrow-minded, and just as unjustified as dismissing religion as nothing more than Santa Claus for adults. It is precisely because the topic is worth considering that it's worth considering properly. That means that we can't just leap to the first conclusion that crosses our mind and it means that we can't settle on an answer unless we have strong and compelling reasons to believe that it is the right answer. Whether you favor memes, an ndiscovered sense, or some hypothesis that I haven't considered, the burden is on the hypothesis and its proponents (and that includes you!) to demonstrate that it is the best way to account for the phenomenon. Hypotheses are never justified on the basis that they "sound right".

Now that I've laid my cards on the table, I'm going to have to admit that it would be pretty crappy for me not to offer my personal speculations. I'm willing to do so but I want to be clear that I am not saying that my own inclinations and hunches are, in any respect, to be treated as definitive or authoritative. Indeed, I want to take a moment to say that the list I've provided isn't, itself, intended to be either inclusive or mutually exclusive. By that, I mean that it is entirely plausible that the real explanation will turn out to be another hypothesis altogether or that the real solution may incorporate several of the hypotheses that I've laid out (with or without additional hypotheses). The reason I've laid out these particular five is that a) I've encountered them or their variants frequently enough to convince me that they are being given due consideration by serious investigators and b) because I think that any of them are sufficiently plausible that they could, in principle, be right. Never the less, I hope that you will only think of them as a sample of the alternatives and as a catalyst for your own speculations. Don't limit yourself to my considerations.

Okay, enough caveats already. Let my speculations begin. I'll start by giving my personal impressions of each hypothesis:

What I like about The Strong Adaptive Hypothesis is that it is both simple and direct. There isn't a whiff of epicycle here nor is there anything inherently outlandish is supposing that, if humans are perceiving something, there's something to be perceived. The old aphorism about smoke and the presence of fire isn't entirely reliable but it's not a bad rule of thumb. The fact that it does make a specific claim, however, means that it's assuming a very specific burden: advocates of the SAH are going to need to demonstrate that we have an organ that perceives a religious reality.

This isn't far different from the challenge that Noam Chomsky had when he was advancing his hypothesis that humans have a language organ. At the time, the main competing hypothesis was that humans learned language by a process called operant conditioning. Frankly, if I had lived back then, I would have probably thought that Chomsky didn't have a chance. History would have proved me wrong. Chomsky did a brilliant job of demolishing the operant conditioning hypothesis and of supporting his contention that humans do, in fact, have an innate grammar.

If there is something to the SAH, I think that Chomsky's methodology could provide a clue or two on how to go about proving the case. If.

Personally, I'm doubtful. The basic unreliability of religious experience makes me think that the hypothesis has some serious hurdles to overcome. Even supposing that we have an underdeveloped organ doesn't really, in my opinion, answer the question of the immense variation in religious beliefs (which is especially clear if we include historical beliefs, which we must). Here's why.

I'm nearsighted — very nearsighted. Without corrective lenses, I would be effectively blind. The big E on a standard eye chart is a blur, for me. In spite of the abysmal quality of my vision, though, my descriptions of what I see are consistent with the descriptions that another similarly impaired person would provide. Granted, those descriptions are going to be along the lines of "there's a large, vertically thin red blur next to a squat green blur", but the content of the descriptions will be largely isomorphic – we'd be describing blurs, but we'd be describing the same kinds of blurs.

I don't see that being the case with religious beliefs. Even people who share religious traditions can have wildly different visions of their religions. That's why stamping out heresy is such a major activity for established religions. It's too easy for people to "see" different things when it comes to religions. If the SAH is going to work, it will be necessary for it to account for that fact. I haven't seen any propositions that do so that don't, ultimately, end up introducing epicycles into the hypothesis.

There was a time, not to long ago, when I would have been similarly doubtful of the robustness of The Weak Adaptive hypothesis. Once again, it's a hypothesis where the burden is upon its proponents to demonstrate that there is something positively adaptive about religion. That's a tall order since some of the most spectacular manifestations of religion are clearly maladaptive. Forget about suicide bombing, for a moment, and consider celibacy. From an evolutionary perspective, celibacy is as good as suicide. If you don't pass your genes on to the next generation, you're nothing more than a genetic graveyard.

Given the obvious maladaptivity of religion, it was hard for me to think of an adaptive benefit that could offset its reproductive deficit. To be sure, there were any number of propositions. Most of them struck me as being just-so stories, like the idea that religion makes you do better in battle and, thus, helps you find mates. It's a good story but it doesn't have much of an empirical basis.

The recent research into religion and stress has made me a bit less confident. Stress is a real phenomenon that has been well documented to have a serious impact on both the mental and physical health of those it effects. Anything that serves to reduce stress would have a tremendous amount of reproductive worth. Perhaps enough to overcome a few deficits.

I am not yet convinced that this is sufficient to account for the persistence of religion. The reason I'm hedging is that religion is not the only way to reduce stress. You can reduce it with breathing and stretching exercises (e.g., yoga), by embracing positive affirmations, by engaging in acts of creative visualization, by indulging in certain form of recreational pharmacology, and so on. Given that there are so many avenues to stress reduction, it seems odd that natural selection would favor an avenue that comes with a reproductive deficit.

What I suspect to be the case is that humans have evolved neurological systems that help us to manage stress and that there are multiple ways for those systems to be engaged. Religion is one such method but not necessarily a built in one. More on this later.

Spandrels are, flat out, a cool idea. The Spandrel Hypothesis neatly avoids the problem of finding a direct reproductive advantage to religion while also sparing us the difficulty of justifying religion's social value. If the hypothesis is correct, religion is just a biological artifact: an artifact that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes banal, but an artifact all the same. It persists because it is part of us but not an essential element of our being. There's nothing wrong about being religious but there's also nothing wrong about not being religious. Can I get a kum ba yah?

The big problem I have with spandrels is that no one has ever done a satisfactory job of demonstrating their existence, nor do I just mean that in the context of an account for religion. No one has found an unambiguous example of a spandrel is any biological feature. If you look through the literature, the best candidates are things like bipedalism in lizards— forget about complex behaviors! Until spandrels are set on a firmer foundation, I'm just not comfortable backing that particular horse.

The Social Preservation Hypothesis kind of scares me. It's an awfully short distance from concluding that religion is good for societies to concluding that atheism is bad for societies. That leads directly to the views that atheists are bad for society. We all know what happens next. If you don't, do yourself a favor and go see Hotel Rwanda. That said, the worth of a hypothesis can not be tied to its potential social impact. Even if I could demonstrate that the SPH would lead directly to me and my fellows being led into a gas chamber, it would be wrong to say that this invalidates the hypothesis.

Fortunately for me, I think that the proposition has other issues not least being the fact that the last two hundred years have provided some very compelling demonstrations that secular nations can do at least as well, if not better, than theocratic nations. The Enlightenment didn't survive the 18th century but the Enlightenment principle that government should be disentangled from religion has been a cornerstone of modern democracy in the Western world (as well as quite a few spots in the Eastern world, thank you very much). While it is true that most secular democracies have largely religious populations, it must be remembered that the SPH includes the proposition that religion is preserved by top-down social forces. Religion is good for society, therefore society promotes religion (if it wants to remain viable, at least). In secular democracies, religion doesn't get state support, so one of the pillars of the SPH ends up being weakened.

Of course, the SPH can, itself, be preserved by broadening our definition of society. I think that we can all agree that a society is more than its government (only pausing to note, with some smugness, that, this, too, is an Enlightenment conviction). Perhaps, in countries such as the United States, society as a whole does the job of promoting religion and, therefore, social stability with or without its government's assistance.

Maybe so; however, if the SPH were true, wouldn't we expect to find that societies that works with their governments to promote religion (i.e., theocracies) were more stable than societies that did not receive official assistance? Would we also not expect to find that secular societies would, over time, become less religious since there was less support for religion from official institutions – an speculation belied by the resent rise of fundamentalism in the United States?

The SPH isn't dead (otherwise I wouldn't have included it), but I think that it clearly needs work and I have a strong suspicion that the only way to make it work is to take a trip into epicycle land.

Then there is The Memetic Hypothesis.

My own personal perspective is that memetics has a lot of potential. It is, however, important to note that memetics is not yet a science. In fact, it's important to shout it.


The reason that I need to shout it is that a lot of memetic enthusiasts treat it as being something that is absolutely established as fact. The "meme" meme has proved to be very successful at convincing people that it's a valid idea. Among other things, it has quite a bit of intuitive appeal. So did the geocentric model of the solar system.

I won't go so far as to say that memes are pseudoscience. Dawkins actually did do a very good job, in The Selfish Gene, of defending the logical existence of replicators. If the replicator hypothesis works for genes, and I think it does, there's no clear reason to reject its application to the idea of ideas, which is to say memes. The problem isn't that memes are inherently implausible – quite the contrary – the problem is that there hasn't been much progress is formalizing the study of memes. Until that happens, it ain't a science.

Because it isn't a science and because it hasn't been studied methodically (or, more importantly, methodologically) it's all too easy for people to come up with overblown speculations about memes and the role they play in human culture.

Since this section of the essay is all about my own opinions, I'll come right out and say that I am a meme guy. I would be very surprised if memetics wasn't a science a hundred years from now. I certainly believe that memes offer us the best possible hope of accounting for elements of human nature that other theories haven't been able to (or able to do well). That said, there's a lot of crap that floats to the surface when people start trying to explain things in terms of memes.

I believe that the biggest sin that's perpetuated by the memetics crowd is that memes are used to account for every last bit of human behavior and culture. Some very respectable and intelligent people have, essentially, claimed that everything that makes a person a person is their store of memes. We are, in other words, nothing but big meme buckets.

I don't buy it. I think that humans have innate characteristics that can not be accounted for by a pure theory of memes. I think that those innate characteristics include the presence of a number of features that act as memetic filters and biasing agents. I think that any theory that requires us to be treated as passive meme repositories will almost certainly be incomplete.

That said, I think that meme-theory does offer us a lot of explanatory power when it comes to explaining the persistence of religion, but I think that it needs a little help.

Let's go back to the supposition that we have evolved stress reduction mechanisms. From a meme's-eye view of the world, anything that can help you get past the critical filters that might otherwise cause an individual to reject you is something that can be used as a lever. Of course, I'm speaking metaphorically. Meme's don't actually have desires or goals. This is just a short way of saying that given a selective environment, those memes better adapted to overcoming reproductive obstacles will prosper. It's Evolutionary Theory 101.

Supposing that humans do have an evolved system that supports stress reduction, any memes that did a good job of stimulating that system would have an advantage when it came to bonding with other human beings. Now once those memes start spreading through the environment, things get interesting.

Biologists have a term to describe two or more organisms evolving in tandem. The word is coevolution. You often find cases of coevolution when organisms have a hospiïtic relationship with one another (see part V). Bees and flowers are excellent examples of this. Bees have, obviously, evolved to be efficient collectors of pollen. Flowers, however, benefit from bees carrying pollen so they, in turn, have evolved to make it easier for bees to pollinate them. The two types of being, from entirely different kingdoms, have, unconsciously, shaped one another. Similar examples abound.

Let us suppose that some religious memes had the effect of helping humans reduce stress and that some of these memes had the necessary features that allowed them to get past at least some people's selective memetic filters. Any humans that bonded with those memes would have a reproductive advantage over those that didn't (at least in this one domain). Let us further suppose that there existed genetic variations in the human population such that some people would have an easier time being "infected" by such memes. Since those people would tend to be better at spreading their genes (not memes!) than their fellows, the genetic "susceptibility" to religion would tend to spread. In other words, religious memes would get better at spreading themselves and humans would get better at receiving them.

Its important to remember that both the memes and the genes in this scenario are still "selfish". Any religious memes that could spread themselves without offering benefits to their hosts ("kill anyone that doesn't believe in Grall!") would do so, and any genes that were amenable to non-religious stress reduction (e.g., via yoga) would too.

One consequence of this is that, in addition to coevolution between religious memes and people, there would also be arms races between adverse memes and people with a genetic resistance to them. In some environments it might be better to be religiously receptive while, in others, it might be better to be religiously resistant ("I'm not going to kill my cows in order to revive the dead, thank you very much!"). Remember when I talked about polymorphism and how polymorphisms needed to be explained. Well, here was have a way to account not only for the existence and persistence of religion but also for the existence and persistence of atheism. We've come full circle!

Do I believe that this is the reality of the matter? Well… maybe. Then again, maybe not. This is, of course, just one possible account. Honestly, it's a stab in the dark and I would not be at all disappointed (although I would be a bit surprised) if the truth had absolutely nothing to do with memes and genes. Like I said, my goal isn't to convince you that my own pet theory is the right one. I'm hoping that I've stimulated your own thoughts on the subject.

I also hope you've enjoyed this little exploration. I think that the subject of religion is an exciting one and one that absolutely does deserve to be explored. Right now, there are a lot of very intelligent and creative individuals doing just that and I hope that my own efforts to hack my way through the underbrush haven't done an injustice to their labors. I would like to thank you for sticking with me through this. I know that the path has been more than a bit dense and I wouldn't be surprised if I haven't lost more than a few of your in the encroaching verbiage. I appreciate your own persistence in reading this essay.

Next week, I'll have something a bit lighter for you to snack on. Take care.

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