Friday, December 25, 2009

50 Blogs on disbelief - Evolutionary Biology

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 277 Michael P. Rose and John P. Phelan "Gods Insides"

I found another essay that speaks to evolution, written by two evolutionary biologists, Phelan is from UCLA and Rose from Irvine. So far, essays have only said a sentence or two about it and moved on, these two really dig in. They begin by taking seriously the fact that some spiritual life exists in all major cultures. But they do this not to examine why they should accept the beliefs but as a foundation for disbelief. They do not accept that something so universal can be explained by culture alone.

When looking at religion from an evolutionary perspective, there are no antecedents in the animals. Even mating for life can be found there. Phelan and Rose point to our “staggering potential for novel behavior”. Some may argue with their choice of words, but they say, “we have evolved free will.” I don’t think they are claiming a Cartesian brand of free will, or making other claims against determinism, merely noting our unique ability to learn, break out of fixed patterns and our extensive use of tools.

In fact, they say we are “the product of our evolution, not its director”, then ask, “With our remarkable capacity to invent novel behaviors, what stops us from going awry?” Sometimes of course, we do, evolutionary theory predicts such failures. They present 3 basic solutions:

1) Maybe our free will is only a perception.
2) We calculate consequence and choose accordingly
3) We make strategic decisions about consequences unconsciously. Consciously we believe we are guided by an innate understanding of “the right thing to do.”

The third option is the one they are using to develop their theory. They put god(s) in the brain, with evolved functions that nudge us toward Darwinian fitness. They call it the “god function” and say it is neither trivial nor dysfunctional. In this bicameral structure,

“our conscious minds are like the pilot on the bridge of a ship. But the pilot is not in command. The pilot takes orders from the captain. We are not in fact free to choose the meaning of our lives.”

They are careful to explain this is not another “person” inside our brains. They make no claims on having a complete analysis of this function. For now they are just arguing that it exists. They follow with a discussion of abnormal functioning such as couch-potatoes and social psychopaths. They also discuss the religious hallucinations and delusions sometimes associated with these altered states. These breakdowns of the divide between the two normal brain functions may help to explain just what they are and how they work.

Finally, they look at the role of religion, again noting how it seems to be an important part of the organization of human beings. They note also that it is not required of everyone, just as not everyone chooses to reproduce. They say,

“If our hypothesis is correct, and we do have a god function embodied primarily in our frontal lobes, then practices that modulate, ameliorate, or otherwise enhance this function – this is, religious practices – should exist.”

They also note that religion generates a wide range of behaviors, not all of them working to properly act as intercessor between these two functions of the brain. They conclude with this rather humorous analogy,

“It might be supposed that the argument sketched here leads us to the view that organized and ad hoc religious practices should be exposed as some type of fraud. But we have no such view. Instead, we see religious experience as about as valid or useful as erotica. It too concerns and stimulates an important function, one that is part of the behavioral substratum underlying evolutionary appropriate human conduct. Like erotica, religion may become extreme or dysfunctional in some cases. Also like erotica, there is some variation in religious practice, not all of it worthy of either condemnation or praise.

Religious experience is not divine in origin. Instead, it is an evolved part of the human way of life, one that is abrogated or dismissed only at some peril. Gods are real, and important. But they are neither transcendental nor all-powerful, and their origins are decidedly material. These gods no more deserve our worship or awe than our livers do, though the liver really is a pretty impressive organ.”


No comments:

Post a Comment