This post first appeared in The Guardian.
As an evolutionary biologist I am fascinated by the emergence of that suite of cognitive abilities that make us so distinctive from other living species.
There are, however, risks in making up evolutionary "just-so" stories to explain the origins of complex human beliefs, such as religious ones.
For we have virtually no firm knowledge of the details of religious beliefs prior to the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago. Some general (and plausible) inferences can be made based on burial customs, cave paintings, and the like, going back a few tens of thousands of years, but before that the discussion becomes increasingly speculative.
Writing here this week, the psychologist Jesse Bering makes up a wonderful just-so story about "selfish behaviours" being "punished by supernatural agents" thereby promoting "prosocial reputations". Well, who knows, there just isn't any evidence either way. One significant problem with such stories is that they tend towards group selectionism, a biologically problematic notion. Another problem is the ethnocentric slant of Bering's thesis. Evolutionary arguments for the origin of religion always struggle because, as many historians have pointed out, the ideation of "religion" is an invention of the European Enlightenment.
Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism only began to be "religions" when Europeans started to force these categories upon them. As Wilfred Smith comments in The Meaning and End of Religion, the question of whether Confucianism is religion is a question that the west has never been able to answer and the Chinese never able to ask.
If evolutionary arguments fail to convince through lack of data and fuzzy notions of "religion", then fortunately the field of cognitive psychology does much better – relatively speaking. The theorising in this new field is, by common consent, well ahead of the data, but nevertheless has a solid core of significant empirical results. Early developmental human drives and behaviours may be broadly categorised into those essential for survival ("instincts"), such as face recognition, hunger, thirst and suckling – and those for which there appears to be a strong cognitive preference. In this latter category one might include evidence that very young babies can count, acquire a basic knowledge of physics, develop a theory of mind and, following language acquisition, readily accumulate non-reflective beliefs.
Some beliefs are acquired using a presumed "agency detecting device", a mental tool that infers whether an object is an agent or the consequence of agency. Young children, at least in the western context, appear to be natural theists, readily providing explanations dependent on omnipotent god-agency, beginning to distinguish between parental minds/knowledge and god-minds/knowledge by the age of five.
For the sake of argument, let's cut to the chase and say that we accept the whole current cognitive psychology "package". Are we then justified in saying that the innate cognitive tendencies to believe certain things ipso facto rules out their actual existence or validity? It is difficult to know why this should be the case and Bering's stance seems to me unnecessarily Machiavellian on this point ("why the human mind is so easily seduced" … "Theory of mind became the warped lens through which we perceived the natural world" etc). In fact sometimes he sounds like a downright crypto-solipsist.
Take maths, for example. I know of no academic mathematicians who are not either explicit or implicit neo-platonists. They all believe there are mathematical truths that exist "out there" that are waiting to be found. E = mc2would still remain the case even if humans went extinct. As Eugene Wigner, the physics Nobel Laureate, once remarked: "The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift that we neither understand nor deserve."
Yes, babies display basic numeracy, but this is a long way from quantum mechanics, which is hard work to grasp and counter-intuitive, but both appear to be grounded in an external reality "outside the head".
The innate cognitive ability to count compared with quantum mechanics is as the innate childhood bias to theism is to adult theology. There is a big difference between non-reflective and reflective beliefs. The reflective ability to grapple with quantum mechanics does not thereby nullify the baby's non-reflective ability to count, any more than does an adult's reflective belief in God nullify childhood theism. And evolutionary biology will be of little help in "explaining" human beliefs in either quantum mechanics or the finer points of theology.
Evolution may have delivered tendencies to believe certain things and to disbelieve others. But that in itself does not tell us whether those beliefs are true or not. What evolution has delivered is some big frontal lobes that are essential for rational cogitation; all adult beliefs have to be justified by rational argument. Bering finds the ontological question "rather dull".
Personally I find people who fail to ask ontological questions extremely dull. Thankfully there is life beyond the inside of our heads.