Sunday, November 27, 2005

Accidental God, Part Two

I recently wrote about Paul Bloom’s article, "Is God an Accident?", which appears in the current Atlantic. I criticized Professor Bloom’s argument, primarily because he only considered secular theories of why we believe in God, to which his theory is an equally secular alternative.

Prof. Bloom generously replied to my post. I thank him for the opportunity for dialogue. He wrote:

Thanks for the notice. I appreciate the attention, but I have to say I'm confused about your objections.

You say that my whole theory rests on a metaphor. Actually it's based on empirical evidence, mostly on work from babies and young children suggesting that certain belief systems emerge as part of human nature, not cultural invention. (The metaphor you quote was written to add clarity; you could remove it from the article and it would make no difference at all.) Obviously, there is a lot to disagree with in my article, and it's fair to argue that the studies I discuss are flawed, or that the data should be interpreted some other way. But your metaphor point is just puzzling.

Then you say that I focus only on "secular" explanations of the origin of religion. Actually, what I do in my paper is focus on the major views proposed by sociologists, psychologists, theologians, etc. If there is a different (non-secular?) account that explains the relevant phenomena in an insightful and parsimonious way, I would love to hear about it. I've spoken to a lot of theologians about these issues, and nobody but you has mentioned the existence of such a missing theory.

I did not mean to say that Bloom’s whole theory rests on a metaphor (I will let the reader be the judge of whether I did say that). Metaphors are very helpful in science. It is almost impossible to explain or develop a scientific theory of why something works as it does without building on a scaffolding of metaphor and analogy. All metaphors have limits, though. The metaphor of the human mind as like a computer – or in the case of Bloom’s theory, like two computers – is useful for imagining how the accidental ideas of God that he envisions could have arisen. But imaging our minds as like computers also suggests that they are “hardwired” for a certain kind of understanding. If, instead, we imagined our minds as, say, portals between our consciousness and deeper things – the unconscious, to take an alternative scientific theory, or the soul, to take an alternative theological theory – then our metaphor would suggest different kind of explanations of the very same empirical phenomena. None of these metaphors prove the theories that they lead to. But they do constrain the direction that our theorizing takes.

The point about metaphors, though, is a minor one. More important, I think, is that Bloom considers only secular explanations of why we believe in God, and offers his theory as an alternative to them.

Most people and societies believe in God. Prof. Bloom considers two explanations – Marx’s contention that belief in God comforts the oppressed, and Durkheim’s notion that a shared belief in God binds a social group together. It is not surprising that sociologists and psychologists accept these theories. Theologians of my acquaintance, though, believe that people believe in God because God is real, God is not an accident. Theological theories of why we believe in God might turn on the personal experience of many generations and cultures of prayer, or mystical union, or providence. Theological (God-based) theories can explain why the universe exists, or the meaning of human life, or even the purpose of suffering, explanations which most cultures have found more intellectually adequate than materialist theories. Even sociologists have been impressed with the fact that most of the great civilizations of the world have been moved by belief in God and God’s providence.

Prof. Bloom starts, as I said in the original post, from a presumption that God does not exist, and therefore that the erroneous belief in God needs to be explained. Religious theories of God, on the other hand, start from a presumption that God does exist, or at least that God might exist, and attempts to account for the same empirical evidence that Prof. Bloom does, but without the limitations that he imposes on his search from the outset.

Prof. Bloom observes children understanding the concept of helping from an early age. He believes that this shows that the idea of helping, and other social processes, are not simply learned through social experience. I agree with this conclusion. He concludes that they must have something like a social-process computer, along with their physical-process computer. The accidental idea of God arises when we confuse our understanding of social and physical things. We imagine a being which helps like a social being, but exists like a physical being. Presto, “God.” Yet is it any less parsimonious to believe that God created us with an understanding of helping, just as God created us with an understanding of physical existence through time? This is the theory of conscience, which has long been widely held based on both its theoretical utility and its apparent match with experience.

Now, is this great land of ours anyone is free to conclude that God is an accident and that the billions of believers in the world are simply wrong. But it seems peculiar to assume that before one can understand why people believe in God, you must assume that there is no God for them to believe in. I am not sure which theologians Prof. Bloom has been talking to at Yale, but I don’t think they could have been my old Divinity School teachers. I hope there will be some broader theological dialogue in New Haven about these interesting findings, which can be explained in both secular and theological ways.


Dell Gines said...

Good post and good argument.

bls said...

I don't see where Bloom argues that there is no God. He was making an argument to explain the persistence of belief in God.

Two different things. I don't think he expressed an opinion one way or the other.

Gruntled said...

He asks "Is God an Accident?" and answers in the affirmative. That seems to me to be taking a position.

bls said...

Isn't that just the headline of the article? I think the magazine's editors normally write those, usually for dramatic effect.

In any case, he's speaking from the point of view of science and human evolution. So it's not really "God" that's an accident, but "belief in God." What he says is, quote, "the universal themes of religion are not learned. They are accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."

The themes are accidents. He can't say anything about the existence of God, because we can't know anything about the existence of God via science.

Gruntled said...

David Goldenberg sent this helpful email:

Hey Beau,

Over at Gelf Magazine, we asked specifically asked Bloom what he thought of the above question.

The question of where religious beliefs come from is logically separate from the question of whether such beliefs are true,” Bloom says. “So someone could entirely believe in my theory of why people believe in God, for instance, and at the same time fully believe that God is real.”


David Goldenberg

Ok, I see how Bloom's theory doesn't entail atheism. Still, isn't it paradoxical to suggest that one would believe that God is real, but believe that belief in God -- including one's own belief in God -- is an accident, a cognitive error? Wouldn't Occam's Razor suggest that IF God is real and IF we believe in God, THEN we believe in God because God is real, because we have real experiences of a real God?

bls said...

Well, I'm still waiting for Occam's Razor to explain Quantum Physics.


Anonymous said...

Bloom's theory seems to imply that atheists and believer might be genetically different or tend to be. I don't know if anyone has studied the possibility that atheists tend to have a cluster of related traits distinct from believers.

There is a similar situation with the mind and autism. It is not possible to create an experiment that confirms or rejects the existence of other minds or mental content, so "mind" gets eliminated from scientific theories. If you take the position that a thing does not exists if is it not in the collection of things that science posits to explain experimental results, then minds do not exists. But a human being that has no tendancy to imagine other minds or mental content is profoundly disabled. The condition is called mindblindness and there are books available on it at amazon.

Gruntled said...

That is a good point about autism. I don't think, though, that Bloom gets as far as positing a genetic basis for the "two computers," or whatever we are to imagine them to actually be. I think he was speaking of human mind(s) generically. Still, if he is going to root these minds in the brain, then genetically based differences in brain functioning should lead to systematic differences in theology.

Why don't you hit up the NSF for a grant for that one? :)