It’s been a long time since I’ve posted! I think I don’t really have much more to say about religion and belief that I haven’t already said. So this post is more like my conclusion about why people believe what they do, the grand conclusion of all of my reading of scholarly literature related to religion and cognitive science over the past eight years.
The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.
Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.
I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.
Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.
This quote points towards the heart of what I think leads people to believe what they do.
People sort of waffle between thinking of the universe as operating in a mechanistic or empirical way and operating in a “social” or “moral” way. We restrict, at least ideally, mechanistic thinking to relationships between inanimate objects. A rock on some remote coastline crumbles into the sea due to water/air erosion. A simple (ish) math formula can probably be used to predict when that particular piece of rock will erode and crumble.
On the other hand, for interactions between agents, we think in a “moral” way. That is, when we think in the moral way, we think in moral “shoulds” and “oughts” instead of the mechanical “shoulds” and “oughts”. In the quote above, racism “should” be responsible for a host of other social ills because, well, racism is bad. It’s a horns effect applied to a concept.
Most importantly, people intuit that this “moral” way supercedes the mechanistic way in both value and precedence. The moral way is both more important and it’s the ultimate cause. The moral way is the fundamental rule of the universe. Instead of the universe running on the laws of physics, “moral” thinking intuits that the universe runs on the laws of proper social protocols. If something of great import either has happened or has to happen, then the rules behind social interactions owns the day. Due to this tendency, we as humans tend to ascribe moral causality behind things and events that are in actuality mechanistic. Your car didn’t start this morning? What did you do (to your car?) or what moral failing did you enact to deserve this!? And so on.
The more relevant case of this, since this is an early Christianity blog as well, is the sacrifice of Jesus. This makes absolutely no sense in a mechanistic way (i.e., biology; laws of physics). But it makes sense in a social way: Concepts of sin, blood sacrifice, redemption, and so on are social concepts. You feel bad or guilty, or are overwhelmed with empathy and a sense of indebtedness. And our brains give precedence to these social and moral aspects of “causality” since those are the fundamental building blocks of the universe… intuitively.
This follows our cognitive architecture of System 1 and System 2 thinking. In my parlance, the Intuitionists and the Rationalists.
Moreover, people seem to balk at reference overlap. At least, in one direction anyway. Imagine someone saying that the reason for the rock eroding and crumbling into the coastline was because we didn’t sit and talk to the coastline enough. This is the basics behind concepts like animism. When we hear people talk like this, we sort of shrug our shoulders and go on with our lives. Animism makes sort of intuitive sense; especially if we didn’t know any better.
But the other direction, if someone were to apply mechanical thinking to human relationships, this is where the real fireworks happens. It’s not allowed! You can’t do that! Notice that people have the same reactions if you try to apply mechanical thinking to religious concepts. You can’t do that! Non-Overlapping Magisteria! Because religion is premised on the idea that the fundamental reality of the universe is social. The supernatural? Psi? Deepak Chopra-like universal consciousness? Life after death? Even free will? All based on the idea that the fundamental rule of the universe is social.
Why do we think like this? I think it’s because our brains evolved intelligence in a social environment, where socialization was the main determinant for who lived and who died. Having too much gain on social rules, in that environment, probably didn’t hurt. However, when all you know is your tribe and trying to model other minds, applying mechanical thinking is probably detrimental.
The problem being that a lot of our experiences of the world involve intentional agents interacting with unintentional inanimate objects and vice versa. We yell at inanimate objects when they do us wrong, and we assume we must have committed some social faux pas if bad things happen to us. This undergirds intuitive concepts like the just world fallacy.
It just so happens that mechanical vs social modes of thinking not only inhibit each other (i.e., thinking in a mechanical way makes you less empathetic and thinking in a social way makes you less “technical” so to say) but seem to be represented in the genders: There’s the “extreme” male brain and the “extreme” female brain:
It turns out that, when it comes to brains, being a super-male may not be such a good deal. According to Baron-Cohen, Autism-Spectrum-Disorders (ASD), which are far more common in males than in females, may reflect the expression of an extreme male brain, one that has extremely high systemizing skills and extremely low empathizing ones. Individuals with ASD often have excellent abilities for analyzing, organizing, and remembering technical information but poor abilities for communication, expressing emotions, and understanding the emotional and communicative expressions of others. Baron-Cohen has suggested that this extreme male brain may be the result of exposure to too much testosterone in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Until recently, it was unclear what an extreme female brain may look like, but a recent study conducted at the State University of New York in Albany and published in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology has offered some hints about it. The authors of this study, Jennifer Bremser and Gordon Gallup Jr., have shown that too much concern about what other people think and feel is associated with fear of negative evaluations, which may be expressed through apprehension and distress over negative evaluations by others, the avoidance of evaluative social situations, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.
With this information, can you guess which gender is more religious?
But let me get this out of the way: No, the universe doesn’t ultimately run on social rules. No, the universe is not at its base ontologically mental; as a matter of fact, I can say with a high degree of Bayesian confidence that no ontologically mental entities exist, since that breaks all sorts of laws of thermodynamics.
Maybe I’m not the first to point this out, and maybe this is specious thinking, but it seems to me that, just as how ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, our developmental psychology (probably) recapitulates our evolutionary psychology.