The Zeus Problem

Forthcoming in the Journal of Cognition and Culture and available here, an article by Will M. Gervais and Joseph Henrich, "The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods" that deserves being read and discussed.

Abstract: In a recent article, Barrett (2008) argued that a collection of five representational content features can explain both why people believe in God and why people do not believe in Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse. In this model—and within the cognitive science of religion as a whole—it is argued that representational content biases are central to belief. In the present paper, we challenge the notion that representational content biases can explain the epidemiology of belief. Instead, we propose that representational content biases might explain why some concepts become widespread, but that context biases in cultural transmission are necessary to explain why people come to believe in some counterintuitive agents rather than others. Many supernatural agents, including those worshipped by other cultural groups, meet Barret’s criteria. Nevertheless, people do not come to believe in the gods of their neighbors. This raises a new challenge for the cognitive science of religion: the Zeus Problem. Zeus contains all of the features of successful gods, and was once a target for widespread belief, worship, and commitment. But Zeus is no longer a target for widespread belief and commitment, despite having the requisite content to fulfill Barret’s criteria. We analyze Santa Claus, God, and Zeus with both content and context biases, finding that context—not content—explains belief. We argue that a successful cognitive science of religious belief needs to move beyond simplistic notions of cultural evolution that only include representational content biases.




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  • Ilkka Pyysiäinen 9 August 2010 (02:02)

    First, my apologies for the length of this comment. But Gervais and Henrich raise important questions about Barrett’s argument, according to which a representational content bias alone can explain why people believe in God but not in Santa Claus. Barrett lists five content-related features that make people believe in God; also Santa Claus has some of them but not all. Therefore people do not believe in Santa Claus (well, aren’t children people …). Gervais and Henrich point out that people do not believe in the gods of other religions either, although many or most of them have all five content-related features that create faith. I would now like to play with the idea that it occurs to somebody to try to defend the Justinian idea by evoking Chomsky and the distinction between competence and performance. Chomsky has defended his theory and its predictions using this distinction. He has argued, for example, that people process the truncated passive “The car was stolen by the boys” faster than the apparently simpler sentence “The boys stole the car.” When it then turned out that the exact opposite was true, Chomsky replied that this was only true at the level of performance, not at the level of competence. I do not even try to explain here what this might mean. Yet, in a similar vein, people have an “innate” competence to believe in gods because the representational content of god concepts is such that it triggers belief without much effort. In the case of other gods, competence does not become manifest as performance. Yet it might still be true that belief in gods can be explained by a representational content bias. Why people do not believe in every possible god is a different question. One cannot for example believe in a god one knows nothing about. Yet the competence is there. Thus, we might say that people have virtual or implicit belief in other gods, much as in the case of the question “Do you believe that 666+1 is 667?” You probably had never even thought about this calculus but once asked immediately say that you believe. So, can we explain belief in a god by referring to representational content and panhuman competence alone? Gervais and Henrich‘s first counterargument is that people do not believe in alien gods although they have the needed five features; second, when kids grow up they cease to believe in Santa Claus although the content of the concept of Santa remains the same. As I see it, it [i]might[/i] be possible to explain belief in God by the representational content, although content alone cannot explain why people do not believe in other gods even when they know about them. But note these are two different questions and an answer to the question of other gods is not necessarily an answer to the question about belief in one’s “own” god. Second, my hunch is that Justin may discard Santa too easily. Kids do believe in him. The fact that they later on lose their belief need not be crucial, as many people have lost their belief in God, too. I think the best way to move on now is to clarify the concept of belief. Gervais and Henrich criticize Barrett and colleagues for not distinguishing between recall and belief. They may be right at least partly but, on the other hand, their concept of belief is rather thin. To exaggerate a bit, they seem to think that people first decide that God exists and then make inferences on its basis. Or, they at least equate belief and people keeping explicitly in mind the sentence “God exists.” However, as I have put it elsewhere (Pyysiainen 2003, 110): “Deciding the truth value of a religious belief thus is not a distinct operation carried out by one specific mechanism. We do not decide whether a given belief is true before we start to employ it as a premise in reasoning. All that takes place is that given mental mechanisms send bits of information to other mental mechanisms, treating them as facts. These implicit processes produce in us various kinds of intuitions about how things are in the world. Explicit beliefs, such as “a god exists,” are attempts at justifying or even explaining to ourselves these intuitions (see Boyer 2001, 298–306).” So, belief might be reduced to use: people make inferences and predictions on the basis of religious concepts without necessarily being aware that they have beliefs or practice religion. “He believes in God” is only a handy way of summarizing what is going on, but the person in question may never come to think of it, much as most people never think that they have the belief that external reality exists. Or, if a person does, it usually happens in a confrontation with representatives of other religions or with nonreligious people. This clearly suggests that content bias can and should be combined with prestige bias, conformist bias, and punishing behaviors. At the same time the notion of belief should be stripped of its metaphysical connotations. The phenomena of recall and cultural spread are, after all, not that far away from belief. References Oberlander, Jon, & Peter Dayan. (1996). Altered states and virtual beliefs. In Connectionism, concepts, and folk psychology, edited by Andy Clark & Peter Millikan. Oxford University Press. Pyysiainen Ilkka. (2003). True fiction: Philosophy and psychology of religious belief. Philosophical Psychology 16(1), 109–25. Sinha, Chris. (2001) In search of the laws of form. Review of N. Chomsky “The Architecture of Language” and B. Lakshmi Bai “Sounds and Words in Early language Development: A Bilingual Account.” Biblio: A Review of Books. Vol. 1V Nos. 11&12, pp36-37. New Delhi.

  • Jason Slone 21 September 2010 (18:09)

    When I was an undergraduate student, I joined a college fraternity—in part for the friendships and fun, but also for…hmmm…how should I say this…ummm….the “reproductive benefits” of membership in a prestigious group. Part of the process of joining included, of course, having to go through the infamous “hazing” rituals. These rituals included making public professions of commitment to concepts that were obviously contrived and ridiculous (“O grand and glorious seventhian, I humbly beseech and implore thee…”; there are many more…but I’ll spare you). Was the ridiculousness of the contents of the songs and rituals the VERY point? Was the point of the hazing not just to socialize me into the traditions and norms of the group (as a cultural anthropologist would likely say) but also to weed out the free riders by asking us pledges to show that we were truly committed to the group by being willing to engage in ridiculous acts…and to do so publicly (in front of girls, no less!!!). Was this the power of the hazing rituals? Did these “credibility enhancing displays” function as “commitment detection devices”? And if so, could this be the same function(s) that theology and ritual play in religion? Could it be that religions are prestigious social clubs that people want to join for the material and social (and reproductive [think “church camp”]) benefits, and to control for free riders the religious organizations force pledges and members to make public, ridiculous, on-going costly and useless commitments to counter-factual worlds? If so, then the contents of religious belief are just noise (though these concepts are better off if they adhere to the conceptual constraints Boyer identified). And maybe therein lies their power…everyone knows they are fake but folks are so attracted to the benefits of group membership that they are willing to pretend they believe–or, more likely, convince themselves (self-deception) that they believe. So in the end, like I did toward my fraternity “creeds”, I didn’t really believe…but I believed I believed. And that’s a pretty good trick that lots of successful organizations have stumbled upon–not just fraternities, but universities themselves (Go Buckeyes!), snobby book clubs (aka postmodernism), military boot camps, and so forth. I think Gervais and Henrich have made an important point about conformity.