Buggy Software

If there is one common argument for religion that has little merit, it is the appeal to the near-universal human predilection for religion. When almost everybody believes something, this can have only two explanations: either the truth of that something is so overwhelmingly obvious as to be undeniable by all but the perverse; or else we are so built and wired as necessarily to believe it, even though it is false. Are God, the afterlife, the soul and so forth in fact so obvious as to be undeniable? That question cannot be answered with reference to the number of people who believe in these things, because that creates a circularity: this would be to say that it is true because people believe it, and that they believe it because is true. The second alternative, that we are wired to believe it, therefore deserves at least some consideration.

The emperor Frederick II was said, although only by his enemies, to have ordered infants raised in silence and isolation to see what language – Hebrew, Arabic, Greek or Latin? – they would speak. He thus went beyond Chomsky in thinking that one particular language was hardwired into all of us. His experimental subjects, alas, all died of marasmus. It would be a more humane, though still impossible, experiment to raise children in a complete religious vacuum and see whether they came to believe in any supreme being, even though they were never instructed in its existence; and if so, what kind of supreme being. If they did not find such belief under these conditions, then religion has to be culturally transmitted; if they did, then it must be hardwired. Neither outcome, however, proves that such a supreme being actually exists.

Scientists in Zürich claim to have found the site of the “belief organ”, in the cerebellum. We also know that electromagnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes of the brain can cause experiences of numinous beings, interpreted according to one’s prior cultural expectations. Such physiological mechanisms for ‘perceiving’ the presence of supernatural beings do not strictly speaking prove the non-existence of these beings, but the ease with which the effect can be created is at least suggestive.

Believers might respond au Microsoft: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”. It is, indeed, possible that the brain is wired to perceive the presence of supernatural beings because these do actually exist, in the same way as it is wired to see the world by means of visible light. However, this theory requires us to accept either that the supernatural being invariably appears when the switch of the electromagnetic apparatus is thrown, which would mean that the lab technician is a sorcerer; or else, given that the sensation is unreliable and open to wild differences of interpretation, that the organ concerned is very easy to deceive.

Religion may simply be a design fault; the product Homo sapiens sapiens was shipped with a bug. Let us download the patch.

We already know of several such design faults afflicting us all, both bodily (the appendix) and mental (the taste for refined sugar). It is easier to spot physical faults than the bugs in our software, since we can compare our bodies with those of animals but have no alternative and superior operating systems to study. If Linux and Mac did not exist, Windows computers might argue that viruses were good because everyone got them, and thus that security holes were “sacred”. But this is only a simile, unless we posit, with the Gnostics, that the universe was created by a wicked Demiurge in some cosmic Redmond.

Assuming that Homo sapiens was not thus incompetently created, but evolved by itself, how did such a “feature” arise? We know that there are specialised processing areas in the brain for paying attention to animal movements; tests show that even modern humans detect the motion of a small grey elephant in the bush more readily than the motion of a large red minivan. Other such modules have been charted; for example, we have one for the detection of fairness. There may well be another sub-program for belief in God. No such module could evolve unless it was of some survival value to the individual (and/or his tribe, provided that selection works at group level, which is highly controversial). But it must be noted that the survival value of a belief in God and the actual existence of God are two entirely separate propositions. If a belief in an imaginary friend, or imaginary judge, has survival value, then it will propagate until it is part of everyone’s mental architecture; and if believing that the moon was made of green cheese had survival value, the same thing would happen. Religion might thus be viewed as the result of a runaway feedback loop that began with useful group cohesion but ended up with something less beneficial. For evolutionary theory knows of no mechanism that can counteract natural or sexual selection and say, “Hey, guys, this isn’t really a good idea”; there is no road map and no reversing. The “Stockholm Syndrome” is when hostages begin to identify with their captors. It is said that this is an adaptive reaction to being wholly in someone else’s power, a biologically determined sucking-up. Such a mechanism would also explain both the cult of the leader, the child’s love of its parents, and of course religion. We kiss the hands of our abusers, because grovelling is a survival factor.

Human religiosity might also be an accidental consequence of other genetic coding, in the same way as sickle-cell anaemia is the price that Africans pay for resistance to malaria. It may, for example, be simply what happens when animal brains are richly endowed in order to deal with cause and effect, but without any concomitant device to prevent causality being read into random events. 

Posted on March 29, 2009 at 08:47 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Design Fault

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on March 29, 2009 at 15:10

    Curious about the Frederick the Great anecdote.

    There’s a charming story at the beginning of Herodotus’ Egyptian narrative which traces the same arc. In Herodotus’ version an Egyptian king named Semeticos devised a test of whether it was true that Egyptian was the ur-tongue as was widely believed by his people.

    He instructed a shepherd to isolate two newborns together and never speak to them. For nourishment they suckled a goat. At the end of the trial period both children implored the shepherd for “bekos”, the Phrygian word for “bread”. How they knew what bread was is a question that is not raised. The king concluded that knowledge of Phrygian was hardwired into humans. Herodotus doesn’t relate what became of the children.

    As a highly educated man Frederick would certainly have read Herodotus. Odd that he would repeat this particular experiment. Perhaps he too wondered about the fate of the test subjects.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on March 29, 2009 at 17:16

    Not “the Great”, the Hohenstaufen of Sicily, the Stupor Mundi. Didn’t know the Herodotus story, so thank you for that! Repeat experiments are the core of the scientific method, what.

  3. Written by Urban Djin
    on March 29, 2009 at 19:01

    “Stupor Mundi”, what a great name for a rock band.

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