Theology and cognitive science

In the next academic year, I will be a research follow at the University of Oxford on a project that examines the implications of cognitive science of religion for theology (see here for a summary of the project).

Masaccio's trinity

The Holy Trinity by Masaccio, 1425

Traditionally, cognitive scientists have argued for a large cognitive divide between folk religion and theology. Folk religious beliefs are considered to be cognitively natural, whereas theology is chock-full of concepts that are difficult to represent. Pascal Boyer has termed the tendency of laypeople to distort official theological doctrines to reflect more intuitive modes of reasoning ''the tragedy of the theologian''.

 

 

In the same vein, Justin Barrett says that people explicitly claim to accept official theology (theological correctness), but when faced with tasks that probe their tacit assumptions on the nature and behavior of religious agents, they tend to revert to more intuitive assumptions. In a set of ingenious experiments, Barrett and Keil could show that Christians, for example, avowedly take God to be both omniscient and omnipresent, but when having to recall stories about God, they mistakenly recall the stories in a way that indicates their belief that God has cognitive limitations shared by normal agents (e.g., not being able to attend to two events on two different places at the same time).

 

 

Although I agree that theological thought is more cognitively challenging than folk religion, I think that nevertheless cognitive psychology might be informative to understand the intuitions that underlie arguments in natural theology (I have argued this point in this paper). One thing that has recently intrigued me is the cognitive basis of our understanding of difficult theological concepts, such as the holy Trinity. In this paper, Dan Sperber regards this concept (rightly, I think) as one to which we have no intuitive epistemic access: the belief is highly counterintuitive, and thus can only be held reflectively. My puzzle is this: if the holy Trinity is such an arcane, reflective concept, why did it stir such strong feelings? What can explain the propagation of our current, Athanasian concept of Trinity, and the disappearance of other concepts, such as the Arian one?

Intriguingly, the current concept of Trinity is perhaps the least intuitive of a range of concepts that was developed in early Christianity. For instance, some early heretics held that Christ was not really human, but God who took on a human appearance. Others held that Christ was the Son of God, but that He was not entirely divine – this is now a heretical position in Christianity, but it is widely believed, for example, by Mormons. Both of the aforementioned ideas strike me as more intuitive than the official doctrine, which states that Christ is entirely God and entirely human at the same time. Why did the most counterintuitive version win out? According to epidemiological models of cultural transmission, concepts that are hard to represent are less likely to be culturally sustained. Yet it seems in the case of (what later came to be regarded as) heresies, a good rule of thumb is: the less intuitive, the better. Indeed, the old received wisdom that heresies were sidetracks to a continuous, orthodox position seems untenable: in his thorough study of early heresies, historians like Michael Edwards argued that the current Christian orthodox position arose through a dialectic process of ideologically opposing groups in the 2nd-4rth centuries AD.

A related question is: Why did early christians care so much about heretic views that to modern eyes seem like mere technicalities? Take the dispute between proponents of Arianism and Athanasius' creed: one may wonder why it was such a big deal whether Christ and God the father were of the same substance (Athanasius) or of similar substance (Arius). John Teehan (2010) has attempted to provide an evolutionary-grounded explanation for why we care so much for what seems remote theological hair splitting. He regards the conflict arising from the substance of God and Christ in terms of ingroup/outrgroup dynamics. In the absence of clear external social group markings, early Christians used theological doctrine to mark ingroup/outgroup boundaries. According to Teehan, this explains why debates were so passionate and so violent. This seems plausible enough to me, but what still needs to be explained is the content of these beliefs. Could models of cultural evolution explain why sometimes very counterintuitive (and not just minimally counterintuitive) ideas are successful?

References

On theological correctness

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained. The evolutionary origins of religious thought. Vintage.

On the Trinity

Edwards, M. (2009). Catholicity and heresy in the early church. Ashgate.

Teehan, J. (2010). In the name of God. The evolutionary origins of religious ethics and violence. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

work by Helen de Cruz on this topic

De Cruz, H., & De Smedt, J. (2010). Paley’s iPod: The cognitive basis of the design argument within natural theology. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 45, 665–684. (link)

De Smedt, J., & De Cruz, H. (forthcoming). The cognitive appeal of the cosmological argument. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

Other

Sperber, D. (1997). Intuitive and reflective beliefs. Mind & Language, 12,67–83. (link)

 

8 Comments

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 25 May 2011 (10:48)

    Thank you Helen, great post. I think there is a good answer to your first question: What kept the most appealing concept relating Jesus and God from winning over, during the history of early christianity? First, what makes us think that the most intuitive concept should have won? The epidemiological model. It says that some concepts are more likely to be preserved and transmitted because they tap into more or less invariant cognitive structures that most humans share with most others. That is a ceteris paribus statistical prediction, not a law. Which means the epidemiological model will work only when certain statistical conditions are respected. For instance, a reasonable number of people must be involved in a cultural choice for our predictions to work. Why ? Because the preference for intuitive concepts is only a statistical tendency. In a small number of people, this tendency may be overwhelmed by various kinds of noise. Now, back to the Trinity. Who imposed it? A handful of bishops with political leverage, manoeuvering in the lobbies of the great Council of Nicaea untill they secured the Emperor’s approval. Institutional inertia (to make a long story very, very short, with apologies to historians) did the rest. In other words, the cultural success of this concept rested on the shoulders of a handful of intellectuals ruling over a flock of believers who had no say in the matter (renewed apologies to historians). Should epidemiological predictions apply here? Not if they are submitted to the usual constraints of statistical predictions. I think this limit of our theories is both important and interesting in its own right: When highly centralised institutions rule, most epidemiological bets are off. (If you want to know more, here is a paper where this idea is explained more fully) http://sites.google.com/site/sitedoliviermorin/presentation/publications/Morin_v6.pdf?attredirects=0

  • Benson Saler
    Benson Saler 25 May 2011 (16:57)

    Dan Sperber, Helen De Cruz, and others call our attention to the counterintuitive nature of the Doctrine of the Trinity, and they are right to do so. I have a couple of comments to make respecting Helen’s blog and Olivier Morin’s comments. A fuller presentation of my point of view can be found in my paper, “The Ethnographer as Pontifex” (in Paula G. Rubel and Abraham Rosman, eds., Translating Culture: Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology, 2003: 197-212, reprinted in Saler, Understanding Religion: Selected Essays, 2009:31-48). First, one can make much sense out of what the theologians were doing by viewing their tracts and arguments as efforts at problem solving. The Council of Nicaea was called principally to settle the question of whether the Son was co-eternal with the Father or whether, like a creature, he had come into existence at some time. Proffered answers touched on such issues as whether the Son was begotten or made, the clearly counterintuitive notion of “eternal begetting,” arguments about the meanings of “same substance” and “similar substance,” and so on.Much at Nicaea was left unclear and contested, and later theologians, in their efforts at problem solving, helped advance what crystalized as a majority consensus. In doing so, they tended to raise new issues or to put a new spin on old issues. In any case, before we invoke the heavy machinery of the cognitive sciences, we ought to have a good historical sense of what was going on. The theologians who developed the Doctrine of the Trinity were for the most part constrained by two considerations. First, they didn’t want to contradict scripture in anything like an obvious way. Second, they were concerned with the possibilities of what they conceived to be human salvation, and many tended to avoid endorsing doctrines that appeared to subvert or compromise those possibilities. Not all did so (nor did some of the later theologians), but many did. Olivier Morin affirms a position that is not only of significance for our understanding of the historical development of the Doctrine of the Trinity, but also for our larger understandings of how at least some of us might go about studying religion. He writes: “Now, back to the Trinity. Who imposed it? A handful of bishops with political leverage, manoeuvering in the lobbies of the great Council of Nicaea untill they secured the Emperor’s approval. Institutional inertia (to make a long story very, very short, with apologies to historians) did the rest. In other words, the cultural success of this concept rested on the shoulders of a handful of intellectuals ruling over a flock of believers who had no say in the matter (renewed apologies to historians).” I think that Olivier is wrong. Take, for instance, this report of Constantinople in the second half of the fourth century C.E furnished by Gregory of Nyssa (one of the Cappadocian Fathers who supported the development of Athanasian theology): “Every place in the city is full of them: the alleys, the cross-roads, the squares. Garment sellers, money changers,food vendors — they are all at it. If you ask for change, they philosophize for you about generate and ingenerate natures. If you inquire about the price of bread, the answer is that the Father is greater and the Son inferior. If you speak about whether the bath is ready, they express the opinion that the Son was made out of nothing.” In point of fact, while theologians of the early centuries did theologize and engage in some political manueuvering, many were also sensitive to their constituencies. And often enough laypersons were strong supporters of some doctrines and strongly opposed to others. A twenty-first century non-militatnt atheist such as myself has genuine difficulty in coming to terms with the fierce public cathexis sometimes evinced by laypersons in the case of decidedly counterintuitive ideas. It is easier to deal with guild members. But unless we allow that the laity may sometimes be theologically fierce as well as theologically incorrect, we are likely to miss much of interest.

  • Nicolas Baumard 25 May 2011 (23:05)

    Thanks Helen for bringing about the question of theology. As the word ‘theology’ implicitly indicates, there is a difference between religion and theology. I would suggest that the difference lies in the fact that religion is about supernatural beings while theology is about religion in itself. In other words, theology is a kind of secondary activities. It deals with the accuracy and the consistency of religious beliefs (Dan Sperber would say that it is a reflective activity, being not about the world, but about representations of the world). This distinction allows explaining why people can have in the same time very weird (and theological) and very intuitive (and religious) beliefs. Theological beliefs are not very intuitive in themselves and they are not meant to be. As Benson Saler suggests, they only exist to solve some problems raised by religious beliefs (‘If Jesus was the Son of God, then did he exists on his own?’). Again, they are secondary concepts. Thus, their existence is not in contradiction with the existence of more intuitive concepts. They exist because more intuitive beliefs already exist. Now that does not mean that theological concepts should always be successful. And in most cultures, people do not develop theological concepts. But, as Pascal pointed out in Explaining religion, in the context of a competition between religious specialists, it is an advantage to be able to back one’s belief by theological arguments. I guess that in the Greek ancient world, in which many people knew some bits of philosophy, the doctrine of Trinity was quite helpful to convince others that there was no contradiction between Jesus being the son of God and existing on its own.

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 3 June 2011 (12:47)

    Thank you Mr. Saler for nuancing my (avowedly sketchy) argument. Still, I do not see any contradiction between the elements you bring and the general point I was making. I pointed out that the Trinity doctrine was elaborated by a ridiculous minority of Christians and that most believers were mere followers. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that common denizens of Constantinople enjoyed theological discussions. What Gregory did not say is whether the majority supported his opinion, and whether it would have made a difference if they didn’t. But suppose, for the sake of the argument, that common inhabitants of Constantinople, Rome or Alexandria did have a say in the decisions of the Council. These ‘crowds’ would still be a tiny minority compared to the billions of Christian who have embraced and will embrace the trinitarian dogma for historically contingent reasons. Apart from this, I fully agree with the general spirit of your comment: in cases like this one, historical detail matters more than cognitive mechanisms. [quote]”In any case, before we invoke the heavy machinery of the cognitive sciences, we ought to have a good historical sense of what was going on.” [/quote] Absolutely!

  • Paulo Sousa 6 June 2011 (04:52)

    Nice discussion. I disagree with the way Olivier frames the discussion, though. Helen said: Could models of cultural evolution explain why sometimes very counterintuitive (and not just minimally counterintuitive) ideas are successful? Oliver said: … what makes us think that the most intuitive concept should have won? The epidemiological model. It says that some concepts are more likely to be preserved and transmitted because they tap into more or less invariant cognitive structures that most humans share with most others. I think this limit of our theories is both important and interesting in its own right: When highly centralised institutions rule, most epidemiological bets are off. Contrary to what Olivier seems to suggest, it is misleading to exclude institutional factors from epidemiological explanations, at least in the sense that epidemiological models are properly understood. It is better to say that an epidemiological explanation of the spread of highly counter-intuitive ideas would normally include institutional factors as part of the explanation while an epidemiological explanation of the spread of minimally counter-intuitive ideas does not have to include such factors.

  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 6 June 2011 (11:57)

    Thank you, Paolo, for bringing up this point. I agree with Benson that it is not always advisable to invoke the heavy machinery of the cognitive sciences, but I think that in the case of the Trinity concept, there is a possibility to integrate both cognitive and institutional factors in a plausible epidemiological framework. As Nicholas pointed out, theological arguments may enjoy an advantage or disadvantage on so much in terms of how intuitive they are, but in more reflective terms like internal consistency, coherence with the scripture etc. I was also intrigued by Teehan’s idea that early Christians, for lack of clear signs of group membership, placed high stakes on particular theological doctrines. If Teehan is correct, then religious ideas that are highly counterintuitive may have an advantage precisely *because* they are demanding: correctly representing such views could then be an honest sign of commitment.

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 6 June 2011 (11:58)

    Paulo, you are right to say that, in principle, a complete epidemiological explanation of culture [i]should[/i] include predictions regarding institutional mechanisms. My question is: do we have anything strong and specific to say about institutions? Or are we simply passing the buck to historians, sociologists and social psychologists on these matters? [url=http://www.cognitionandculture.net/Pascal-s-blog/what-is-an-institution-that-people-may-participate-in-it.html]I agree with Pascal[/url] that epidemiological models are not yet in possession of a good theory of institutions. One consequence is that our most specific and interesting predictions do not work so well when institutions enter the picture. The Trinity is a case in point. Of course, we can avoid this problem by assuming that epidemiology includes a complete theory of institutional life, that we obtain simply by passing the buck to other disciplines. We simply have to grant big exceptions to our usual theories (starting with the universal attractiveness of MCI concepts), and then defer to other disciplines. That is one way of solving the problem. But I think we can do better than that. How do we start? Well first, let’s ask ourselves why and how institutional factors mess up with the cultural-cognitive mechanisms we are used to. I have suggested that the reason for the mess is at root, a simple statistical phenomenon. This suggests some empirical ways of tackling the problem.

  • Ilkka Pyysiäinen 1 July 2011 (10:27)

    Dear all, The epidemiologial model of cultural transmission was developed primarily to account for features of oral transmission. Many things changed when literacy was adopted for use. Thereby maximally counterintuitive ideas became introduced. These, in trun, were tied to issues of power exercized by theologial coalitions. Nyanced differences in radically counerintuitive ideas became markers of belonging to this or that tradition. Naturally, also theological thinking can be cognitively analyzed but models developed for analyzing oral transmission then need to be supplemented by new kinds of arguments. Here also cognitive and sociological arguments must meet.