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