Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Hard-wired" for faith?

Long ago, St. Augustine said of God, "You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you." Later, Pascal argued:
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. [Pensees]
Now science seems to affirm that there is a "natural inclination" to believe in God, although the researchers hardly attribute it to His actual existence. From New Scientist, "Born believers: How your brain creates God":
.... It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. ....

"There's now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired," says Bloom.

Much of that evidence comes from experiments carried out on children, who are seen as revealing a "default state" of the mind that persists, albeit in modified form, into adulthood. "Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life," says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford. ....

Based on these and other experiments, Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods' minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people. .... [more]

To which Tom Gilson responds:
The New Scientist article proposes two cognitive features of humans as sources of our religiosity: the way we mentally treat living things as opposed to non-living things, and an “overdeveloped sense of cause and effect.” There’s no need to doubt these are true of humans, from childhood on. There’s also no need to doubt that they contribute to beliefs in that imaginary world. But is there a need to assume that the explanation for religion is entirely natural and evolutionary? ....
Referring to the common human desire for an afterlife, C.S, Lewis made an argument that could be just as well applied to "a natural inclination for religious belief":
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. .... [Mere Christianity]
Evolutionary theories about why people are naturally inclined to believe don't exactly exhaust the possibilities.

Born believers: How your brain creates God - science-in-society - 04 February 2009 - New Scientist, “Born believers: How your brain creates God — New Scientist” - Thinking Christian

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