Friday, May 1, 2009

You've Been HADD

Religion is one of the halmarks of our species. For all of recorded history, religious behavior has been a part of the human condition, regardless of geography or culture. Children, without prompting, are apt to conjure up spirit worlds all their own, bearing out Voltaire's famous prediction that even if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Which is plenty of examination into the nuts and bolts of religion for many of the religious among us, thank you very much. The explanation for this apparent hard-wiring is perfectly obvious to them: we are programmed by The Almighty Creator for a relationship with Heavenly Father.

So it's all very well and good to co-opt the language of science where it can be seen to edify supernatural claims. It's another thing when researchers go digging around in the biological underpinnings of religious experience with the aim to bring it down to earth.

But that's just what cognitive scientists are trying to do. Whether pinning orders of belief to particular brain states or identifying universal, systemic traits of religion and the cognitive devices to which they minister, experimentalists in the fields of neuroscience and behavioral study shed light on where religion may have come from, and why it persists.

One reason is that each of us comes equipped with what is called a hyperactive agency detection device (HADD). Anywhere in our environment that there is the first sign of causality, agency is presumed out of hand. That rustle in the bushes could be a predator, or the wind. False positives are a small price to pay for being able to quickly anticipate intentions that may pose a threat. So we let our imaginations run wild. Better safe than sorry.

A similar note of caution has been sounded by secular oppenents of religious research that is empirically based.  What if people
need religion, they warn, in order to be good, or to find any purpose in living at all?  Gallup polls have shown that countries where respondents claimed higher religious devotion tended to exhibit lower suicide rates, according to World Health Organization estimates.  Robbing the faithful of their illusions could rend the very fabric of society.  Better safe than sorry.

I happen to think the what if question is worth asking.  It's no use plunging forward blindly into a post-religious epoch.  Like it or not, a natural theory of religion is upon us and it's perfectly prudent to work out the implications of that as best we can.  If indeed religion initially flourished as a sort of moral bootstrapping trick, and vast numbers of people would cease being "good" without it, then that would be information worth having.

But it wouldn't be cause for despair.  There will still be a need for individuals to measure the moral character and fidelity of their fellows. Solutions have a way of presenting themselves just as they become necessary. As the belief in a judging God continues to decline in our post-industrial, information-based society, perhaps it is no coincidence that the technology driving social networking pushes people into realms of increasing, self-imposed cross-accountability.  Are you going to rob that bank, knowing that it could be all over Facebook tomorrow?

Better safe than sorry.


  1. Here's a fun wrench in the machine...

  2. Your blog doesn't like blockquotes, and the error page seemingly caused Firefox to die an ignominious death, so my first attempt got et.

    What if people need religion, they warn, in order to be good, or to find any purpose in living at all? I'd contend this isn't the case, and that religion came with sentience to explain and codify behaviours (and in some cases OCD compulsions) that predated it. Look at piranhas - they don't devour one another, even while stripping the flesh from everything in their paths. And they don't even have a Piranha Jesus to show them the one true path of not-eating-thine-neighbor!

  3. RE: blockquotes, I realized that on another blogspot comment thread. The only way to do it is like this.

    "Put quotation marks outside of the italics tags"

    Jason, my hunch is also that the role of religion in shaping or even effectively regulating morality is either non-existent or tremendously overblown. However, I'm not sure the science is totally in on this. The point I was trying to make was that whatever the case may be,the future looks inhospitable to those who take Bronze Age mythology seriously, to the point that they are willing to make very large bets on it. I do think this has profound implications that have nothing to do with the degree, if any, to which morality is or ever has been contingent upon the credibility of religious beliefs in a given population. As you seemed to put it with your piranha example, the free-floating rationale of survival through cooperation ought to ensure that SOMETHING provides whatever moral bulwark we may need.

    Chris, the WSJ article is an example of, IMO, pretty bad science reporting. It reminds me of New Scientist magazine printing the cover headline "Darwin Was Wrong", providing catnip for those desperate to hear such a verdict from respectable scientific sources, with an accompanying article that says nothing of the sort. Here, we have a rather cynical appeal to just about the same demographic that counterintuitive glimpses at quantum behavior hold out the hope that there is room for spiritual metaphysics after all. Then you read the article through and find that no argument is presenting in support of this conclusion.

  4. So, are you going to go on the record against the "God" Particle and what apparently is the rising tide of quantam theory. Come, now William I know that you are not dogmatic. No evidence is given to support the reporting,

    In 1990, the English physicist Lucien Hardy devised a thought experiment. The common view was that when a particle met its antiparticle, the pair destroyed each other in an explosion. But Mr. Hardy noted that in some cases when the particles' interaction wasn't observed, they wouldn't annihilate each other. The paradox: Because the interaction had to remain unseen, it couldn't be confirmed.

    In a striking achievement, scientists from Osaka University have resolved the paradox. They used extremely weak measurements -- the equivalent of a sidelong glance, as it were -- that didn't disturb the photons' state. By doing the experiment multiple times and pooling those weak measurements, they got enough good data to show that the particles didn't annihilate. The conclusion: When the particles weren't observed, they behaved differently.

    In a paper published in the New Journal of Physics in March, the Japanese team acknowledged that their result was "preposterous." Yet, they noted, it "gives us new insights into the spooky nature of quantum mechanics." A team from the University of Toronto published similar results in January.

    A good point is made here, but I am of an economical mind.

  5. I'll be the first to concede that the hard science being done in the article you linked is arresting. It's eye-catching. I want to find out more. It's just that the article doesn't provide the first scratch of evidence for some hidden spiritual dimension. That's just the writer's hook to pull in readers who are desperate for science to tell them that dualism is real.

    Quantum computing and all that is a real thing worth writing about. Saying that religious apologists will find a way to exploit this (perhaps temporary) gap in our understanding is like saying that fish will get wet.