In your dissertation on philosophical implications of recent accounts of the causal origins of religious belief what were your findings?
I hope you’re well. Thanks for your question. So let me try my best to summarise my dissertation. For a long time critics of religious belief have sought to offer causal explanations of why people in general tend to be religious. For example, Hume hypothesised that humans have a tendency to see personal agency everywhere (faces in the clouds, etc) in an attempt to make the world feel safer and more familiar. Freud claimed that we have a powerful desire for a parent figure who can protect us from the terrors of the world, which leads us to project an everlasting father. More recently, cognitive psychologists have suggested that humans have various psychological traits that lead us to postulate personal agency as the cause of things that are otherwise hard to explain. Some philosophers have tried to argue that these sorts of explanation of how religious belief arises show that religious belief is irrational. There are at least a couple of ways to challenge this kind of argument. One way is to challenge the proposed explanation of how religious belief arises. This wasn’t the route I pursued in my dissertation, as that would be properly speaking a scientific question which I’m not particularly qualified to deal with as a philosopher. The other way is to challenge the claim that, supposing that one of these explanations of how religious belief arises is correct, that it follows that religious belief is irrational. In a nutshell, what I argued is that in fact if Christian theism is true then we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find that human beings have a general disposition to “read” the world in terms of purpose and personal agency and hence to be open to encountering God. This is exactly we do find–every culture that we know of has been religious, and there’s increasing evidence that atheists are actually having to effortfully suppress their natural tendencies to attribute purpose and agency to the world. So all in all, the existence of a nearly universal human tendency towards religious belief is just what we should expect to find if God exists. Of course, and here I’m going beyond what I said in the dissertation, we might also expect that God would reveal himself in a historically concrete way and not merely through the glories of nature, and in the person of Jesus Christ we find someone whom even many secularists agree was the greatest moral teacher and exemplar of all time, and someone who (according to some fancy computer algorithm that a pair of secular sociologists recently devised) remains the most influential person in human history by a long shot–in short, someone who has all the hallmarks of being that concrete historical revelation of God.
Thank you for a great answer. You did a fabulous job of summarizing your dissertation. Now, I am very curious about this statement you made and am wondering what is the evidence?
“and there’s increasing evidence that atheists are actually having to effortfully suppress their natural tendencies to attribute purpose and agency to the world.”
So, Max, are you saying that Daniel Dennett, with this absurd position of denying the reality of conscious experience, would hold to the view that if you consciously think something, it is only because your brain is functioning with the physical attributes (neurons, dendrites, axis etc.) that are producing thought? In other words, does that position require that one believes their is no thought without the brain producing the thought physically? Am I getting this backwards? It is such a fascinating topic, and has so much to wrestle with in order to understand the different philosophical views.
The evidence consists in some studies that have been done which seem to suggest that humans are predisposed to favour teleological explanations of phenomena (i.e. explanations which appeal to personal agency, purposes, etc) and that this comes out most clearly under pressured conditions. This is a paper which presents some of these findings:
Deborah Kelemen, Evelyn Rosset, “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults”, Cognition 111 (2009) 138–143.
Here’s the abstract:
“Research has found that children possess a broad bias in favor of teleological – or purpose- based – explanations of natural phenomena. The current two experiments explored whether adults implicitly possess a similar bias. In Study 1, undergraduates judged a series of statements as ''good” (i.e., correct) or ''bad" (i.e., incorrect) explanations for why different phenomena occur. Judgments occurred in one of three conditions: fast speeded, moderately speeded, or unspeeded. Participants in speeded conditions judged significantly more scientifically unwarranted teleological explanations as correct (e.g., ''the sun radiates heat because warmth nurtures life"), but were not more error-prone on control items (e.g., unwarranted physical explanations such as '‘hills form because floodwater freezes"). Study 2 extended these findings by examining the relationship between different aspects of adults’ ''promiscuous teleology" and other variables such as scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, and inhibitory control. Implications of these findings for scientific literacy are discussed."
Dennett’s position is much more radical than the claim that conscious experience is always undergirded by physical events in the brain. I take it that human conscious experience is indeed (normally at least) accompanied by brain activity, which is not to say that conscious experience = brain activity. But Dennett’s position literally is that there isn’t any such thing as conscious experience. There is just brain activity; no subjective sensations whatsoever, according to Dennett. It’s hard to fathom how someone could truly believe such a thing, I know. This position is known as eliminativism. To be clear, though, not all atheists by any means hold to this extreme view; rather, a fair number of atheist philosophers accept that conscious experience is a real and irreducible phenomenon which is not identical to physical events in the brain. A few examples would be David Chalmers, Tim Crane, Thomas Nagel.