Is the spell broken? Reflections on evolutionary debunking and religious beliefs

At the Notre Dame conference Darwin in the 21st century, Paul Griffiths gave an interesting talk on evolutionary debunking arguments for religion. Evolutionary debunking arguments basically say that religious beliefs are unjustified because they are a byproduct of evolved cognitive predispositions. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon summarizes this position very aptly: If religion is natural, i.e. if religious beliefs can be explained as a byproduct of everyday cognitive capacities, we need not invoke supernatural entities to explain these beliefs.
Guy Kahane (in his forthcoming paper 'Evolutionary debunking arguments' in Noûs – draft available here) argues that evolutionary debunking arguments come in the following general form: Causal premise: belief is the result of evolved psychological predispositions Epistemic premise: There is no connection between the truth value of our evolved beliefs and their fitness functions (natural selection is not a truth-tracking process). Conclusion: Therefore, religious beliefs are unjustified. Take as an example the tendency of people to think themselves on average smarter, kinder, more attractive, more sophisticated, etc. than others.

This belief is not properly causally connected to these people actually having such desirable traits, but rather arises from an adaptive bias to value oneself more than others, which very sensible in evolutionary terms but for obvious reasons cannot be true for everyone.
Turning to religious beliefs, there is an emerging consensus that agency detection plays a role in the formation of our religious beliefs. Humans have evolved cognitive tools to detect agency, or attribute agency as the cause of certain events (e.g., sounds, motions) It makes good evolutionary sense for the agency detection device to err on the side of safety, as false positives (detecting agency where there is none) are less costly than false negatives (failing to detect agency, e.g. of a predator). This is why a sudden noise in the night gets easily interpreted as a burglar, or why a boulder in a forest can be mistaken for a bear. According to Guthrie (1993,Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, religion is the result of an overactivity of this evolved capacity to detect agency. Agency detection is not the only evolved cognitive tool that gives rise to religious beliefs, to name but one other candidate, the evolved human capacity to attribute purpose and design to some objects (what Deborah Kelemen terms 'intuitive theism').
To simplify matters, let's assume that agency detection is indeed responsible for a substantial part of religious beliefs that humans entertain. Putting this line of reasoning in the evolutionary debunking argument as formulated above, we get the following: Religious beliefs are the result of a hyperactive agency detecting device (HADD). There is no connection between the truth value of the HADD and its fitness function since it is adaptive for HADD to yield many false positives Therefore, religious beliefs are unjustified. Theists like Michael Murray have responded to this that the evolutionary debunking would be effective only if the context in which our evolved cognitive capacities give rise to incorrect beliefs would be known. After all, our agency detection is usually on the right track: if I observe a dog running towards me at great speed, a bird flying in the sky, the sound of a cyclist trying to overtake me, I successfully detected agency. In the case of religious agency, it is not clear on what basis we are saying that the agency detection was false. On what grounds do we say that people with religious experience are off-track, except on the basis that the experiences are religious?
A more disturbing problem with evolutionary debunking arguments is that they seem to lead to a radical form of skepticism about evaluative beliefs in general. Take scientific concepts, which are clearly products of the evolved minds of human beings (scientists). Cognitive scientists such as Peter Carruthers argue that evolved forms of deductive reasoning and inductive inference underlie our capacity for scientific reasoning, and that such capacities have been shaped by our hunter-gatherer past (e.g., tracking prey requires hypothesis-testing similar to that of scientists). Might we not be tempted to regard scientific beliefs as unjustified? Of course one might respond by saying that scientific concepts have been honed by cumulative cultural evolution, but similarly, most religious ideas are honed by a long cultural evolution.
If evolutionary debunking arguments are successful for religion, I do not see how they would be any different for any form of belief (take also common sense beliefs, such as that I have hands, or that other people have minds). Theists often take the fact that scientific beliefs can be debunked in the same way as religious beliefs as evidence that debunking arguments simply don't work. However, if they do work, they lead to skepticism about any kind of belief.
A possible way to salvage common sense or science against this more global debunking argument (as Kahane calls it), would be to argue against premise 2 – the idea is then that natural selection usually is a truth-tracking process. Griffiths thinks that we can successfully challenge premise 2 for scientific and common sense beliefs, but not for religious beliefs. However, K.J. Clark and Justin Barrett (in their forthcoming paper 'Reformed Epistemology and the Cognitive Science of Religion' to appear in Faith and Philosophy), inspired by the common-sense philosopher Thomas Reid, argue that there is no reason why religious beliefs should be particularly suspect: beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties are innocent until proven guilty, not vice versa.
Consequently, God-beliefs should not be treated as suspect unless we have good additional reasons to believe them to be suspect (e.g., the problem of evil). In any case, it seems that either evolutionary debunking arguments would undermine the credibility of all beliefs formed through an interaction of human mind and brain, or that they do not challenge any of our beliefs.


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    Pascal Boyer 18 November 2009 (17:34)

    This whole discussion seems hopelessly confused. 1. Naturalists – and people engaged in the cognitive science of religion are naturalists, otherwise they’re not doing science – are not especially interested in ‘debunking’ supernatural or religious claims. These claims are extraordinary and therefore would require extraordinary evidence, which is simply not there. People can of course decide to suspend their naturalistic assumptions when they engage in religious behaviour. Indeed, religious folks in general do just that – which is why there is nothing here to discuss or debunk. 2. The claim that ‘our intuitive assumptions are innocent [i.e. presumably accurate] until proven guilty’ is equally confused. Intuitive assumptions, e.g. that cats are innately different from dogs and trees from grass, may well (provisionally) be taken as probably veridical [i][/i]but only to the extent that they do not force a major revision of what we already know[i][/i] (mostly through science, or simple experience) to be the case. That is why, when Fang informants tell me that heavy rains are good for cocoa plantations, I take that as possibly valid until further examined. But when they tell me that one of their organs flies out of the body in the night to participate in cannibalistic banquets, I take it as false until evidence is provided. 3. That is why “evolutionary debunking” is irrelevant here. Some of our intuitive beliefs are shown by experience to be true, many are shown to be “sort of OK although ontologically misguided” (see the tree/grass example above), and some are shown to be hopelessly false. This is a matter of confirmation and refutation in the light of evidence. Whether we a particular belief because of natural selection or for any other reason, is irrelevant to whether it is valid or not. I would also add, but that’s another point, that the discussion of theism vs naturalism strike me as culturally claustrophobic. Theism is only one of the thousands of possible ways of building supernatural beliefs. It has no special privilege. One major result of the cognitive science of religion is precisely the idea that combinations of intuitive + attention-demanding counter-intuitive representations give rise to a whole variety of possible supernatural imaginations. Next time you discuss naturalism, evolution and the epistemic status of extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence, please take the flying organs as your primary example. You will see that many intuitions about what is plausible and sensible will turn out differently.

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    Olivier Morin 18 November 2009 (20:57)

    I have read Kahane’s paper and failed to find one example of the argument he describes, applied to religion and grounded in modern evolutionary theory. Nietzsche does not count – not a Darwinian, and Josh Greene debunking our moral intuitions does not count either. Theism, of course, has many debunkers today among evolutionists, and many evolutionists have a story to tell concerning the nature and evolution of religious beliefs. But, as far as I know, they hardly ever use their story as their main or sole argument to debunk religion (i.e. the Christian theology of their religious interlocutors). Their arguments are many and sundry. When they do use their evolutionary story of religion in the context of a discussion with monotheists, it is just as an answer to the often-raised question : if it were not for its obvious truth, why did theism appear and become so popular ? In a nutshell, I think ‘evolutionary debunking of religion’ is the perfect strawman. There is a converse argument though. Let’s call it evolutionary extolling : one uses a story concerning the evolution of religion – cultural group selection for example, to sing the praises of Christian Monotheism. I think I can find examples of this one ; it does not take long to see that it is as fallacious as the other.

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    Karen Lofstrom 19 November 2009 (02:17)

    Is Buddhism a religion? Elite Buddhism (as opposed to popular Buddhism) works just fine without God/gods. Are belief and truth-value the essence of religion? For some people; for others, religion is a practice of self-transformation and/or self-annihilation, and the whole apparatus of theology is a mere means to an end, not the END. I’m a Western Zen Buddhist. When I read atheistic attacks on “religion” I cannot but feel that the attackers are assaulting the Abrahamic religions and that they have nothing useful to say about other sorts of religion, or to me. Note that I’m using the term “religion” in a common-sense, person on the street way. If I had to strictly define it, I’d break down in confusion, easy meat for any passing analytic philosopher 🙁

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    Helen De Cruz 19 November 2009 (10:40)

    I agree with the commenters that the theism/naturalism discussion is a bit culturally claustrophobic, and that indeed such arguments could be applied to any kind of religious belief. But then, I do not set the agenda for these discussions, which are usually by theists and atheists (i.e., people belonging overwhelmingly to a christian, or perhaps jewish or muslim background). Cognitive scientists of religion are not concerned with debunking claims of the supernatural, but their results are frequently cited by people such as Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins as evidence against theism. And the simple fact remains that these authors are not that much concerned with non-abrahamic religions, even not major ones like Buddhism. The point that Griffiths made in his talk is that Kahane’s general argument for morality (indeed, all his examples include evaluative moral judgments) could be used as a way to formalize previously informal debunking arguments against religious beliefs. If Griffiths is right that this evolutionary debunking argument is general enough, we could apply it to any religious phenomenon, including the Fang flying organs belief.

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    Dan Sperber 20 November 2009 (12:47)

    The Dorze among whom I did my fieldwork believe that there are [i]shosh [/i]and [i]tsalae [/i]in their environment. In the absence of any further information, this gives an initial plausibility to the existence of both [i]shosh [/i]and [i]tsalae[/i]. Let’s assume that a good cognitive and cultural explanation of Dorze beliefs in [i]shosh [/i]gives a role to the perception of actual [i]shosh [/i](and traces of [i]shosh[/i]): [i]shosh[/i]-perceptions contribute to causing [i]shosh[/i]-beliefs. Let’s assume that, on the other hand, actual [i]tsalae [/i](or traces of [i]tsalae[/i]) are never perceived, and that we nevertheless have a good cognitive and cultural explanation of [i]tsalae[/i]-beliefs in which [i]tsalae [/i]don’t play any causal role. What happens then to the initial plausibility based on the presence of Dorze beliefs that there are [i]shosh [/i]and [i]tsalae [/i]in their environment? Regarding [i]shosh[/i], this plausibility is preserved and indeed much heightened. Regarding [i]tsalae[/i], this initial plausibility is lost. Similarly, if a good cognitive and cultural explanation of religious beliefs gives no causal role to beings (Gods, spirit, and so forth) some of these beliefs are about, then the widespread presence of these beliefs does not add to the plausibility that these beings actually exist. This of course leaves open to religious believers other directions in which to look for justifications of their beliefs, but that particular direction of justification is indeed debunked. This debunking is limited in scope, but effective. Similar undermining may be found for beliefs in non-religious phenomena – e.g. luck, phlogiston – but most human mundane beliefs are partly explained by the causal effects in which the very items they are about participate. Evolutionary considerations here are indeed relevant, but through their contribution to good cognitive and cultural explanations. Otherwise, they could be seen as supporting cognition in general – the function of cognition, after all, is to inform organisms about their environment – and hence also religious cognition, but this would be far too coarse-grained: this is the initial plausibility you get in the absence of any other information and any investigation of the case at hand. By the way, [i]shosh [/i]are snakes and [i]tsalae[/i] are goblin-like creatures.