Are We Genetically Predisposed to Believe in God?

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September 25, 2013 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul

Today's video features Jeffrey Schloss. You can read more about what we believe here.

 

This entry was originally posted on February 13, 2010.

In the previous installment of our video “Conversations”, Dr. Jeff Schloss, Senior Scholar at BioLogos and a professor at Westmont College discusses two reasons for evangelical opposition to evolution: the theory’s challenges to biblical historicity and to the belief in a creator. In this segment, Schloss addresses what he sees as the third major area of difficulty, and that is the question of whether or not human beings are predisposed toward belief in a higher power.

He observes that this has to do with human nature, and not just the origins of human beings. People take certain moral beliefs or the human capacity to have religious belief, for example, as tokens of the transcendent. Schloss notes that these are areas of inquiry that evolutionary theory didn’t touch for the first 150 years or so, but in the last few decades it has become a topic for research.

Schloss points out that while this question of evolutionary predisposition toward religious belief may be challenging, Christians need not see it as threatening. In fact, this is actually a Pauline notion that is explored in Romans 1, where Paul claims that it is in mankind’s nature to “know God”: “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20, TNIV).

 

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.


As Senior Scholar of BioLogos, Dr. Jeff Schloss provides writing, speaking, and scholarly research on topics that are central to the values and mission of BioLogos and represent BioLogos in dialogues with other Christian organizations. He holds a joint appointment at BioLogos and at Westmont College. Schloss holds the T. B. Walker Chair of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and directs Westmont’s Center for Faith, Ethics, and the Life Sciences. Schloss, whose Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology is from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, often speaks to pubic, church-related, and secular academic audiences on the intersection of evolutionary science and theology. Among his many academic publications are The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion


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Sabio Lantz - #82684

September 25th 2013

Humans have brains built to hallucinate, cooperate, share, fear and tell stories.  Gods, ghosts and spooks are one such consequence.  Morality is another. 

Materialism and reductionism are both fantastic principles which allow us to see a rich, deep, wondrous world.  “They should not be threatening at all.”

So I agree that we are genetically predisposed to create these stories but not doomed to.  We are also genetically predisposed to use violence as a persuasion tool, but not doomed to.


Merv - #82685

September 25th 2013

Materialism and reductionism also take their place in the list of things we are apparently predisposed (whether wisely or not) to believe in.  Our hard-wiring continues to shine through.


Sabio Lantz - #82687

September 25th 2013

Agreed!


Lou Jost - #82688

September 25th 2013

No, materialism and reductionism take some thought. Animism and magical thinking seem to be easier for many people.


Sabio Lantz - #82691

September 25th 2013

Agree here too.  They come natural—as abilities of the human mind, AND they take discipline to culture and refine.


Merv - #82692

September 25th 2013

Any religion involves effort over generations if it is going to become refined.  Materialism is no exception in this regard.  Perhaps it will catch up with some of the more enduring ancient religions in this respect.  But it has a long way to go and its prospects don’t seem great from what it has shown the world thus far.

In fact, I think its only hope for not self-destructing is to continue its usual course of piggy-backing onto the established religions as (one) reactionary enclave for those who are rightly critical of all the many messes made by organized religions.  [...sometimes followed by an extraordinarily naive delusion that religions haven’t done anything good.]    If mainline non-materialist religions were ever to disappear, materialism as a religion would (I think) dry up with them. 


Lou Jost - #82693

September 25th 2013

Merv, that is an odd thing to think. Materialism has been around longer than Christianity (think Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius). It pulls its own weight, it is not a reaction to the foibles of religion. It is the simplest and best-supported worldview. It will continue to be the worldview of choice for productive scientists unless, some day, someone uncovers some empirical reason to believe otherwise. Religious folk have been trying hard to do this for thousands of years, but their counter-arguments to materialism (eg the old argument from design, or their more recent arguments about the Cambrian explosion, or arguments from ethics) are weak, and most have been falsified. There is no chance that materialism will disappear if mainline religions do.


Merv - #82697

September 26th 2013

Hi, Lou.  I’m differentiating between what I would describe as a “crass” kind of materialism and a more formalized system of thought such as might have its seeds in those such as Epicurus.   While such Greeks were certainly around before Christ, they probably couldn’t have boasted the following then that atheists have today.  (Was Epicurus even an atheist?)  The former kind is what seems to be more universal and what the Bible spends much words warning the devout away from (...you cannot serve both God and mammon…)   and the associated greed is what many so easily slip back into despite their professed religious affiliation.  It is no accident that both forms of materialism share the same name.  But I would maintain that the latter (formalized) kind has only come into its own as it has tried (unsuccessfully) to demonstrate scientific support for certain beliefs regarding the existence of God.  [i.e. unsuccessful in producing  any of the claimed scientific support—- not unsuccessful at attracting a large following of eager and credulous devotees].   So I would agree that yes, we have always had the crass materialistic tendencies, but the underlying philosophies that fuel such fires in recent centuries would have no fuel but for that given it almost single-handedly by westernized Christianity.


Lou Jost - #82699

September 26th 2013

Yes, you seem to be talking about materialism as an ethical system that values material wealth above all else, while I am talking about a worldview which makes no judgement about any particular set of ethics, except to say that ethics has to be derived rather than received from or determined by a non-material being/god.

The scientific worldview would be materialist (in my sense) even if religions had never existed. Do you honestly think that atheism is a reaction against the bad consequences of some religions? This is a common misconception among religious people. Very few atheists are atheists for that reason. Most atheists I know (including myself) are atheists mainly because there is no convincing evidence for the existence of a personal god, and much evidence against it. Yes, we often complain about the abuses of religion, but we would be atheists even if all religions were as peaceful and harmless as the Quakers or the Jains. We don’t want to believe in sky fairies without evidence, even if they are benign.

However, we might be less vocal about atheism if religious people were all as nice, as peaceful, and as respectful of other beliefs as the Quakers are.


Merv - #82702

September 26th 2013

Do you honestly think that atheism is a reaction against the bad consequences of some religions?

Not entirely.  I think that rebellion and a desire to follow intellectual fads that wish to set our own present [western] culture up as the highest existing authority play fairly significant roles as well.  But yes—the so-called “new atheism” seems to me to be little more than an anti-derivative to Christianity.

Most atheists I know (including myself) are atheists mainly because there is no convincing evidence for the existence of a personal god, and much evidence against it.

But there is no evidence [of any remotely scientific sort] against the existence of a personal God.

However, we might be less vocal about atheism if religious people were all as nice, as peaceful, and as respectful of other beliefs as the Quakers are.

They seem as a whole to be a wise and tolerant bunch, don’t they?  We all have a lot to learn from them.


Lou Jost - #82703

September 26th 2013

There is plenty of evidence against a personal god who cares and intervenes. I should have specified that. I admit there is no evidence against a god who never intervenes.


Merv - #82710

September 27th 2013

I should have specified that. I admit there is no evidence against a god who never intervenes.

The tone of your paragraph changes with the presence of the period after “...specified that . “  I’ll assume you intended that period to be there.

We could discuss what your evidence is, but I suspect we’ll be rehashing things from former exchanges involving a laundry list of complaints about evils in the world up to and including mortality itself.  To which comes the question asking just where you get your standard of perfection from which to judge anything (without having to borrow one from other religions).   And so forth.  


Lou Jost - #82713

September 27th 2013

I’ll ask you, then. If you believe in a caring, intervening god, what does he care enough about to move him to intervene?  Mass murder, genocide, plagues, parasites, new diseases, mass extinctions? Apparently not. Lost keys? Maybe.


GJDS - #82715

September 27th 2013

I find this curious - if we say God commands us to obey His law and do no evil, to the atheist He is a tyrant who imposes His will on us helpless humans. If on the other hand, He teaches us to avoid evil and chose to do good, He is not intervening, and is a helpless, uncaring being who is not worthy of worship and obedience. How about the clear thinking of anti-theists, what? And here I am still asking how you can make so much comment concerning a being that you believe does not exist! How deep is non-belief?


Merv - #82718

September 27th 2013

Mass murder, genocide, plagues, parasites, new diseases, mass extinctions? Apparently not. Lost keys? Maybe

Before any of us ultimately face our mortality, our lives seem to be full of cares both big and small.  Our own Lord taught us about the importance of the one lost sheep, the one lost coin, the one sparrow sold for mere pennies.  So yes, God cares about life’s details big and small all the way to its physical end.  That end will come for both you and me whether by war, cancer, auto accident, or something.  I’m glad my God cares about us enough to not let our mounting physical decrepitude continue forever.

GJDS continues raising good questions.


Lou Jost - #82719

September 27th 2013

“God cares about life’s details big and small” History disproves that your god cares about the big things. The best you can say is that he cares about trivial things like lost keys. But I think you’ll find, if you are careful with the probabilities, that he doesn’t care about those trivial things either, and you were just fooling yourself.

GJDS continues to raise the same questions every time I comment on BioLogos. I’ve answered multiple times. Why is it so hard  for him to understand that an atheist might be concerned about the relation between science and religion, and might want to comment in forum devoted specifically to that question?  At the moment, religion is the main force keeping the public from understanding evolution. GJDS is a prime example.


GJDS - #82720

September 27th 2013

So many comments, and so little communication. Lou continues with these strange comments, “at the moment, religion is the main force keeping the public from understanding evolution”. Lou’s obsession with this clouds his thinking - look at the history of science and try to understand why your outlook is so wrong. The relationship between science and religion is understood when we consider the history of science. On this topic, the myths that are spun by atheists should make you stop and think Lou - and again, for the nth time, I ask, why would you be so concerned with God when you say you do not believe He exists? I may comment on belief in this way; the Bible states that even demons may believe God exists, but that does them little good. I am not obsesses with other prople’s beleifs in God. So I ask, why are you?


Lou Jost - #82723

September 28th 2013

I’ve told you multiple times why I am concerned by other people’‘s beliefs in god. I also told you again in my comment  above. It is because of a certan kind of religion that you and a large percentage of other people deny the reality of evolution and fight to keep it out of schools or to lie about it.

Then there is a host of other public policy pressures that these religious people apply in an attempt to make all of us obey their mythological beliefs. In a democracy, their opinions affect me. So of course I should argue about them.


Lou Jost - #82728

September 28th 2013

This week, two Christian groups filed lawsuits to stop Kansas’ public school science standards from taking effect. The lawsuits are mostly focussed on the teaching of evolution. Delusional Christians in the US are doing stuff like this to attack science every single day.


Lou Jost - #82730

September 28th 2013

Correction, the two groups are involved in the same lawsuit, not two lawsuits.


Chip - #82686

September 25th 2013

Humans have brains built to hallucinate, cooperate, share, fear and tell stories. Gods, ghosts and spooks are one such consequence. Morality is another. 

Yes.  And acceptance of materialism and reductionism as fantastic is a third. 


Chip - #82695

September 26th 2013

No, materialism and reductionism take some thought. Animism and magical thinking seem to be easier for many people.

Indeed.  But such is by no means limited to the animist.  On his own terms, the reductionist engages in “magical thinking” when he believes that the chemical reactions burped forth from his brain are somehow important, meaningful or even noble, since they “take some thought,” which presumably is free from the magic that sullies other lesser people’s chemical reactions…


Lou Jost - #82698

September 26th 2013

Chip, my point is that people who don’t know about natural explanations are very quick to see agency and intention in natural phenomena. I think our evolutionary past probably has pushed us to see things this way. A tendency to believe in a god is also probably a consequence of this.


Chip - #82700

September 26th 2013

For some reason, my browser won’t let me reply in line…

Chip, my point is that people who don’t know about natural explanations are very quick to see agency and intention in natural phenomena. I think our evolutionary past probably has pushed us to see things this way. A tendency to believe in a god is also probably a consequence of this.

1. And mine was that if materialism reduces thought to the base chemistry that triggered it, you have little/no basis to criticize the animist, or to believe that your own chemical reactions are in any way better than anyone else’s. Such a view doesn’t “take some thought;” it simply dances to the tune of the chemistry in its head—because on reductionism’s own terms, that’s fundamentally all your thoughts are. And in that sense, you and the animist are exactly the same. 

2. And the people who never see agency and intention? Our evolutionary past doubtless (and conveniently) explains that too. But such isn’t (derisively) described as “magical thinking,” but rather as science (sic) in spite of the fact that none of the speculations floating around out there about how religious attitudes are ostensibly explained through an evolutionary grid (they strenghtened aboriginal social ties; they made compelling explanations for the observations of a primitive mind; they facilitated societal heirarchies which promoted the survival of the tribe… and on and on) are testable.


Lou Jost - #82704

September 26th 2013

1. So a computer output that correctly predicts an event is no different from random junk output? Just because a thought has a physical representation does not make it meaningless.

2. What people never see agency or intent? Scientists have to constantly fight with themselves to keep from personifying things. Indeed their writing often slips into personification, agency, and intent even when they don’t mean to. We see this alot in discussion about natural selection and evolution, for example.

Evolutionary explanations for certain attitudes or behaviors are indeed hard to test, but I don’t think they are impossible to test.


Chip - #82701

September 26th 2013

Do you honestly think that atheism is a reaction against the bad consequences of some religions?

Not entirely. But that’s unquestionably what made folks like Dawkins and Hitchens household names. 


Sabio Lantz - #82705

September 26th 2013

Arghhh, I so want to unsubscribe to this thread but when I click on the link in my email the site won’t open and there is no way to do it here, it seems.

BioLogos’ comment scheme is a pain.

Any ideas?


Lou Jost - #82706

September 26th 2013

I have the opposite problem. The comment system ignores my repeated requests to subscribe, and I never get notifications even though I checked the “Subscribe” box. Maybe that is what you should do—try to subscribe again!


Sabio Lantz - #82724

September 28th 2013

Arghhhh, I can’t believe I am still subscribed.  I wrote to BioLogos and no reply.

For a Divine site, it lacks good design.  :-)

So this time I will uncheck the “Subscribe to this comment thread” box below and see if this works.

Help!  I want out of this comment thread == arggggghhhh


Sabio Lantz - #82726

September 28th 2013

Actually, I think I figured out how.

I went to my profile—there you can unsubscribe to a comment thread.

Like other things on this site: you have to visit 2-4 pages before you can perform a simple function—unlike other blogs.  The creator of this blog should have prayed more for divine guidance.


Lou Jost - #82727

September 28th 2013

Yes, it is terrible. After you submit a comment, the page refreshes and doesn’t return to your comment. This is hugely annoying, especially when the comments run to multiple pages, You really have to hunt to find the conversation again. And when you log in, you lose the page you were on and get taken to a page that has nothing to do with it. Then there are the timing errors—if you take a long time to write your comment, you get an error message when you submit it (something like “You took too much time to write this”) thus destroying your carefully thought-out comment! For the millions of dollars this site receives from Templeton, one would have expected better.

But the worst is that the site deliberately destroys all comments after six months.


Chip - #82717

September 27th 2013

1. So a computer output that correctly predicts an event is no different from random junk output? Just because a thought has a physical representation does not make it meaningless.

 Which event are you referring to, what prediction was made, and how are you measuring its correctness?  Analogies to computers and the output they generate make sense only in the context of goals, requirements, development/programming and testing to measure the extent to which the output synchs up with the specifications.  But given evolutionary assumptions, no human brain has any of those things.  So, I guess I don’t understand how this is relevant. 

2. What people never see agency or intent? Scientists have to constantly fight with themselves to keep from personifying things. Indeed their writing often slips into personification, agency, and intent even when they don’t mean to. We see this alot in discussion about natural selection and evolution, for example.

That’s interesting.  Where do you see agency and intent?  And given the the universality of the experience,why is it so completely unreasonable to ascribe agency to an agent?  (If it walks like a duck…)  The alternative— to summarily dismiss what even you grant is universally experienced, because you “know” it has roots in a distant and untestable evolutionary past —is far less straightforward.    


Lou Jost - #82722

September 28th 2013

1. If the computer that made good predictions about external events was better able to survive and reproduce, and if its prediction-mechanisms were partly heritable, it would be analogous to the evolutionary case for humans and other animals. The human brain has exactly the same requirements.

2. We don’t really see agency and intent when we look closely. But our language steers us towards sentences like “Giraffes evolved long necks so they could reach higher leaves”. This is shorthand for what random, undirected, goal-less variation and differential reproduction will lead to in certain kinds of environments with high levels of  competition by shorter animals. (I am ust using this as an example- the jury is still out on exactly why long necks evolved.) You keep saying evolutionary hypotheses are untestable but they are not. Both the actual path and the reasons for that path are, in principle, recoverable from the fossil record and genetic analysis. I agree that it will often be very hard to do.


Lou Jost - #82729

September 28th 2013

I should add that in order to test an evolutionary hypothesis, we’ll often need to reconstruct past ecosystems. We are getting really good at this, as we learn how to detect, date, identify, and analyze ancient pollen and other remains. For example in the Andean ecosystems where I work, we have detailed info about the composition of the flora over the last 3.5 million years, including many dramatic changes.


Rick Mayo - #82737

September 30th 2013

As a theologian, I notice akmost immediately the sparse biblical applications that could answer this question. We are predisposed to believe. The bible states that “He has given to every man a measure of faith.” The capacity to believe in God is part of our incredible nature. When Adam became a “living soul”, the dynamic and full spectrum of human comprehension was realized. At the fall—- this comprehnsion was shattered. The interaction with the Holy Ghost, as poured out upon all flesh in Acts 2, is God furnishing humanity with divine comprehension. This, infused with man’s measure of faith, begins a restoring of the spiritually comprehensive abilities.

As an observation, I have noticed that there is a resurgence of intellectualism in these types of discussions. Intellectualism and its nephew: philosphy, have always been at odds with the “simplicity of Christ”. Why make some things that are plainly revealed in scripture appear complicated? 


Eddie - #82740

September 30th 2013

Hello, Rick.

I don’t know that we have interacted before.

I don’t know what “intellectualism” is, but it sounds as if it is supposed to be something unsavory, perhaps something like what you see in snooty book or opera or film reviews in New York newspapers or magazines.  I therefore will not defend “intellectualism.” But in any case, philosophy, properly understood, is not “intellectualism” in that sense.  Philosophy, for those of us who are actually trained in it, is the question for wisdom through the employment of human reason—and reason, I think you will grant, is a God-given faculty and therefore not to be sneered at.

The difficulty in ID/TE/creationist/atheisti debates is not that there is too much philosophy, but that there is too little.  And what little there is, is usually badly confused with either scientism or heretical theology.  

Throughout the history of Western Christianity philosophy at its best was generally seen as an ally of faith, not an enemy of it.  Platonism was a stalwart ally of Christian faith up to Scholastic times; then Aristotle was seen as the great man for putting Christian faith in rational and orderly terms; then, after the Renaissance, Plato again.  Most of the great Christian writers—Origen, Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas—were influenced strongly by Plato, Aristotle, or a combination.  In more modern times we have of course C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and many others who have profitably expressed Christianity in philosophical terms.  

Of course, one doesn’t need philosophy to have simple faith.  But in the arena of ideas, where Christian claims compete with non-Christian claims, “simple faith” has to articulate itself in some way, or it won’t be taken seriously.  So if one is happy to be a bus driver or nurse or bank clerk with an unarticulated, simple faith, no harm is done.  But if one enters the public debate over ideas, one will embarrass the faith by arguing badly.  And philosophy can help one not to argue badly.

BioLogos is an arena of ideas.  It claims to be able to integrate biology—Bios—with theology—Logos.  In order to do that, one has to understand the theoretical claims of the biology and the theoretical claims of theology.  So the discussions here must be “intellectual” in some sense.  Mere invocation of religious feeling doesn’t clarify anything, doesn’t prove anything, doesn’t refute anything.

The philosophical defects of the BioLogos position are evident.  When fundamental philosophical questions are asked by readers here—about God’s action in the evolutionary process, about the sense in which nature is “free,” about how randomness is compatible with providence, etc.—the vast majority of TEs here, whether management, columnist, or commenter, simply duck the questions.  They apparently feel very uncomfortable articulating their faith-science position in rational, orderly terms—which ultimately must be philosophical terms.  They prefer to simply affirm the compatibility of faith and science, and then “do” the faith and science separately.  Thus, we have columns by biologists which don’t touch theological questions with a ten-foot pole, and columns by pastors etc. which dwell on the personal aspects of faith in a Creator, but don’t even try to explain how God acts in the evolutionary process.  And indeed, without an articulated conception of “God” “Creation” “Providence” “Sovereignty” and other such terms, there is no way biologists or pastors could hope to say anything about the theology-biology interface.  So philosophy is utterly necessary in these discussions, but lacking.

As for “the simplicity of Christ,” I’m all in favor of it, but the problem you have is that the “simplicity” isn’t much in evidence in the Athanasian Creed, or even the Nicene Creed, let alone the hairsplitting debates surrounding these formulations in the early Church.  Calvin’s understanding of predestination is not “simple,” and it is not a “simple” matter to sort out the debate between Luther and Erasmus.  For that matter, a number of statements in the Gospel of John about the nature of Christ are anything but “simple,” and a good number of the statements of Paul have, due to their very ambiguity and their highly speculative nature, led to two thousand years of rancorous technical theological debate.  The moment you assert that a Palestinian Jew is the Logos or Word of God and that he took earthly form, remaining fully God while yet being fully man, and that his death is a sacrifice that covers the sinfulness of all mankind, you have given up “simplicity” and committed yourself to an “intellectual” articulation of what such statements mean.  The religion of Jesus might well have been “simple” but the religion about Jesus is anything but.

What BioLogos needs is more philosophy, and more theology—both Biblical and systematic—not less.  The ultimate question is whether evolution is harmonizable with Christian teaching, and unless one states what Christian teaching is—unless one state’s one’s theology—one can’t even begin to answer that question.  And as soon as one state’s one’s theology, one will be asked to defend it—and that will require philosophy, because the key terms of theology—providence, creation, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, nature, etc.—can’t be made sense of without the language of philosophy, and also because theologians and natural scientists have such different languages that they need the “translation” ability of the philosopher in order to be able to talk to each other.


Eddie - #82780

October 3rd 2013

Rick:

For a self-proclaimed “theologian,” you certainly show an unusual lack of interest in theological discussion.  I wrote you a considered and thoughtful reply three days ago, and I haven’t heard back from you since.  Are you intending to reply, or are you simply going to abandon the discussion, leaving your comments undefended?


Chip - #82738

September 30th 2013

If the computer that made good predictions about external events was better able to survive and reproduce, and if its prediction-mechanisms were partly heritable, it would be analogous to the evolutionary case for humans and other animals. The human brain has exactly the same requirements.

Lou, if better able to survive is measured by sheer numbers, religious views would seem to be (ironically) preferred by NS. Be that as it may, in the context of your argument, “good predictions” were to naturalism/reductionism as “random junk output” was to animism—and by extention all other relgious views and the “magical thinking” they manifest. But what you’ve described above is standard-issue evolutionary dogma that applies to any brain articulating any view, so I’m not sure how it supports your position.

What people never see agency or intent?

We don’t really see agency and intent…

Hmmm. Might want to clarify that.

You keep saying evolutionary hypotheses are untestable…

I said no such thing. In this PP, you’re shifting the focus of the argument from behavior and attitudes in human beings (specifically religious attitudes) to the physiology of giraffe necks. So you introduce an irrelevant example and then qualify it with “the jury is still out on exactly why long necks evolved,”  and still you wonder why people harbor skepticism?    

I should add that in order to test an evolutionary hypothesis, we’ll often need to reconstruct past ecosystems. We are getting really good at this, as we learn how to detect, date, identify, and analyze ancient pollen and other remains. For example in the Andean ecosystems where I work, we have detailed info about the composition of the flora over the last 3.5 million years, including many dramatic changes.

C’mon Lou. While dating ancient pollen may be quite interesting, and at the risk of beating the horse that is at least severely wounded by this point, it has no bearing whatsoever on the topic under discussion. Pointing to pollen in the context of our discussion only clarifies that you don’t have any data that’s relevant, and while such doesn’t confirm my view that evolutionary speculations about how religious attitudes ostensibly evolved are untestable, it certainly supports them.


Lou Jost - #82745

September 30th 2013

You claim you never said that evolutionary hypotheses are untestable, but in the preceding comment you said “The alternative— to summarily dismiss what even you grant is universally experienced, because you “know” it has roots in a distant and untestable evolutionary past —is far less straightforward.” My examples were not irrelevant but were aimed at this claim that the evolutionary past is untestable. If you didn’t really mean that, I am glad to hear it.

I’ll also take this opportunity to say that you misunderstood my objection to attribution of agency. I don’t dismiss it because it has roots in evolutionary past. Such things could be true and indeed lots of things that mattered do have agents behind them. I dismiss it only for cases in which we now have evidence for non-intentional agentless explanations.

You quoted me as saying

“What people never see agency or intent?

We don’t really see agency and intent…

We often think in terms of agents, it is very easy to slip into this. But in evolutionary questions, when we look carefully we see that we are mistaken and there really is no agent.

 


Chip - #82739

September 30th 2013

For a Divine site, it lacks good design.

Ah, a common misconception.  While BL has a webmaster—who is thanked for the site’s existence—he doesn’t actually do anything.  That would be “tinkering,” which is expressly not allowed. 


Lou Jost - #82743

September 30th 2013

My favorite comment of this whole thread…


Chip - #82747

October 1st 2013

Lou,

One “thread of the thread” involved “Evolutionary explanations for certain attitudes or behaviors [which you granted] are indeed hard to test, but I don’t think they are impossible to test.” (my emphasis is in bold)). 

While I’ll accept at least part of the responsibility for the meandering nature of the conversation, evolutionary explanations for attitudes is what I’m claiming is untestable, unfalsifiable and therefore, unscientific.  You—at least on some level—recognized this, but then went on to trot out giraffe physiology and the history of pollen as support for the assertion.  I stand by the claim that these are irrelevant and do not come anywhere near meeting the challenge. 

It is unfortunate that Dr Schloss can’t be troubled to weigh in, given that this is ostensibly his area of expertise. 

Oh, and I am gratified that you enjoyed my snarky little webmaster comment. 


Lou Jost - #82748

October 1st 2013

“Hard to test” is not the same as “impossible to test”. Testing hypotheses about the evolution of attitudes is harder than testing hypotheses about physical traits that leave fossil records, but it is not in principle impossible. And such hypotheses are definitely falsifiable, and hence scientific. Consider the hypothesis that humans find open spaces and long vistas pleasing because we are adapted to this habitat by evolution—-on this view, our preference is a sort of leftover “habitat preference” similar to what keeps many other birds and mammals in particular habitats. This could be falsified at once by showing that most of our recent evolutionary history was in deep forests (and we could find this out by using the pollen analysis you disparage).

We could imagine doing additional tests of this hypothesis by looking at preferences of adopted city-dwelling children of forest pygmies (whose current habitat preference is for forest) vs adopted city-dwelling children of savannah tribes. I can imagine other tests. So I don’t see there is anything inherently unscientific about such hypotheses. Yes, there will be lots of alternative hypotheses and fuzzy tests, so it won’t be easy, but it is not impossible in principle.


Chip - #82749

October 1st 2013

Yes, there will be lots of alternative hypotheses and fuzzy tests…

Indeed there will.  One socio-evolutionist could argue that the deep forest experience fostered a latent claustrophobia, causing the target organism to seek out an alternative environment in which glorious vistas were available.  “Early man thought vistas were beautiful,” said socio-evolutionist A. 

The next could posit that the deep forest experience provided cover and feelings of comfort to the target organism, causing him to remain where he was because he felt safe.  “Early man thought vistas were dangerous,” said socio-evolutionist B. 

What are we left with? You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to, and while both just-so stories may be entertaining, neither is falsifiable. 


Lou Jost - #82752

October 1st 2013

I just explained how you could distinguish those hypotheses, and how you could falsify them….

Let me put it another way. We could try to detect genetic causes for these feelings, and correlate them with the known evolutionary history of different groups. If pygmies, whose recent ancestors preferred forest, have a genetic predisposition to like dense forests more than plains, and other groups whose recent ancestors evolved in savannahs have a genetic predisposition to like plains and shun forest, this would be evidence in favor of the hypothesis. If the reverse turned out to be true, this would falsify the hypothesis.  Probably someone more clever than I can figure out  more interesting ways to test it. I repeat, there is nothing in principle preventing us from testing these kinds of claims, except perhaps our own lack of cleverness.

Of course, evolutionary theory predicts that such preferences will evolve if an organism has physical traits that are adapted to specific habitats. This is confirmed at every level. Cave bugs flee from light, most bees and butterflies fly toward the light. The species of butterflies that don’t fly towards the light are invariably those that are specialized to live in the forest understory. There is nothing odd or special about the evolution of preferences and behaviors as opposed to physical traits.


Chip - #82759

October 2nd 2013

Couch it in academic-speak (which I am well familiar with) all you want, and it still comes down to How the Man-Child got his Attitudes…


Lou Jost - #82767

October 2nd 2013

Keep sticking your head in the sand, then.


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