Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spandrels and Gods

Paul at Café Philos asks if belief in god is a spandrel.

I say yes. I think it's an example of the human tendency to find agency in the observable world: if a comet comes crashing through the roof of your settlement, you will tend to ask the same questions and make the same assumptions as if a spear comes through the roof of your settlement -- you'll wonder who threw it and why. If you lack the proclivity that forms these assumptions and questions, you won't last long in a world in which there really are people who throw spears and rocks. The tendency to find agency confers a Darwinian advantage.

We have a deeply ingrained mental habit to associate causation with a person -- or something else that's close enough, an animal with an agenda. In fact, it takes some discipline to suppress this tendency and to understand, for example, that atoms, televisions, the tides, the weather, the moon, microbes, brush fires, and Windows-based PCs do what they do without there being a "little person" causing it and willing it. The idea of wholly deterministic entities wars with our most basic intuitions about cause and effect.

The god beyond and behind the stars that caused everything -- the one who throws the comets and the lightning bolts, the one who mercifully calls off the microbes or wrathfully redirects the brush fires -- is a construction of and the ultimate example of this mental habit.

I don't even think this mental habit is unique to humans. How long would a typical predator last without a basic working understanding that other predators are on the prowl? And how well would prey do if they didn't have a tendency to pay special attention to the strivings and schemings of predators, as when a bush shakes in a peculiar way? Predators and prey have rudimentary forms of this tendency to locate agency in the world; the ones we consider intelligent, like orcas and seals, have relatively ornate spandrels, whereas the ones that have just a few effective tricks, like wolf spiders and crickets, possess less ornate spandrels. We humans decorate and embellish our spandrels to the point that they become superhuman agencies.

This is not to say that the tendency to locate agency is the only naturalistic explanation for belief in gods, but I think it's a significant one. This explanation does not, incidentally, imply that gods don't exist. They may actually exist and our belief in them may still be spandrels.


Domestically Challenged said...

Perfectly stated, Dale!

Mike said...

I think that as we get older we become more aware of our actions and the consequences they have towards others. Growing is a continuous process. We like to rationalize our actions because it gives us comfort that we made the right decision. This can be both good and bad. We need to make decisions based on logic and not emotion. As much as possible.