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Stuck in the Cave

It’s fairly common these days to see religious belief presented as a kind of primitive holdover from our superstitious past.  So in that sense, yesterday’s article from the National Post‘s religion blog, “Holy Post” was nothing new.  What was interesting was the angle Prof. Hank Davis has apparently taken in his book called Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in the Modern World.  The objects of Davis’s criticism—what he sees as prime examples of “caveman logic”—are the purposive phrases we use in everyday life.  “It was a sign,” “thank God,” even “good luck”—we use these phrases seemingly instinctively (in fact, Christians seem to have a whole separate arsenal of them: “it was a ‘God thing’,” “it’s all part of God’s plan,” etc.).  But do they make any contact with what is objectively true?  For Davis, the answer is obviously “no.”

Now on one level, religious people have every bit as much of an interest in critically evaluating the kinds of throwaway phrases Davis is debunking as our irreligious friends.  When phrases like the ones Davis lampoons are tossed around thoughtlessly (as they often are), it really does represent a failure to think critically, not just about the events of the world but about the character of God, the nature of faith and the shape of the Christian story.

But for Prof. Davis, it’s not enough to simply recommend a bit more discernment and caution in our use of purposive language writ large.  What we must understand is that our very need/desire to see some kind of meaning behind the events of world and our individual lives is an example of caveman logic.  Looking for a meaning behind something in our lives is on par with believing that the gods are spending their fury hurling thunderbolts during a storm.  Both are nothing more than primitive, magical responses to a world without any kind of cosmic pattern or meaning.

What we need to realize, the author says, is that there is no purpose or reason behind the events of our ordinary lives.  We know that random things happen all the time—both good and bad.  All smart, rational people know that life on this planet is just the more or less haphazard result of a whole bunch of molecules bumping into each other with no pattern or reason or meaning or “luck” behind it all.  Davis offers this rather bleak assessment of our predicament:

“I would be more optimistic about our species’ chances for survival if pseudoscience, organized religion, and a host of other delusions were voluntarily taken off the table,” says Prof. Davis, an atheist.  We need to see our defective Stone Age minds for what they are if we ever hope to drag ourselves, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

Davis’s last sentence is telling.  Our defective Stone Age minds? Defective according to whom?  According to what standard?  The word “defective” implies that there is some “proper” functioning of our minds but where would we look to find that?  According to the presuppositions of naturalism, the only thing that might fit the category of a “properly” functioning organ is its efficiency in promoting plain old survival.  And if our caveman brains with their bizarre need to see patterns and meaning in events were successful enough to lead to our arrival at this point in the game, well… well, what?  I guess our brains have served their purpose well.  The organ is doing its job.

It seems that Prof. Davis, like the religious neanderthals he decries, has a (mostly unstated) “pattern” or “purpose” in mind too, namely, truth.  Or “arriving” appropriately in the twenty-first century.  Or something like that.  The fact that his purpose is implicit (or just plain confused) does not change the fact that it is carrying a good deal of the freight in his argument.  Much as Davis would like to present himself and those who share his level of enlightenment and liberation from the primitive crudities of religious belief as the exemplars of post-caveman thinking, it looks very much like he’s stuck in the cave with the rest of us.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    The professor does seem to have a strong prejudice against religion. His work does not sound academic. He sounds more like a Saturday night wrestler than a professor.

    He does not sound like he has studied religion in a university. He sounds too coarse to be a credible academic.

    He sounds insistent that indifference is the rule of the universe. Most of humanity, including enlightened humanity, has seen at least some indifference in the ways of the universe, but also has seen a kind of benevolent order, even at the height of the enlightenment era. He apparently sees only the indifference and wants to fight with those who also see benevolent order (e.g., meaning.)

    The professor sounds like a fool. Unfortunately tenure sometimes leads to foolishness.

    July 1, 2009
    • Having studied social anthropology in a university setting I would have to say that Davis DOES sound like he has studied religion in a university. Only thing is, he isn’t very subtle about his views, but beyond that, such views are fairly common in universities, especially francophone universities I know more about…

      July 3, 2009
  2. jc #

    “Davis’s last sentence is telling. Our defective Stone Age minds? Defective according to whom? According to what standard?”

    I would think that the standard is if these statements correspond to reality. I am sure the a lot of the time these statements are thrown around the result is rather innocuous. On the other hand the continued and persistent use of this logic, resulting in evading reality, could be harmful. I notice a lot of time such statements are uttered it is to evade some responsibility or a refusal to face reality.

    “And if our caveman brains with their bizarre need to see patterns and meaning in events were successful enough to lead to our arrival at this point in the game, well… well, what? I guess our brains have served their purpose well. The organ is doing its job.”

    Has our method of thinking really got us here? Maybe its this aspect of thinking that has held us back. The statement ‘we have got to this point and therefore our method of thinking is optimal’ is not logical.

    July 4, 2009
    • I would think that the standard is if these statements correspond to reality.

      Why should we assume or expect that our brains would conform to reality on naturalistic presuppositions?

      Has our method of thinking really got us here? Maybe its this aspect of thinking that has held us back. The statement ‘we have got to this point and therefore our method of thinking is optimal’ is not logical.

      Well the article implies that thinking in terms of meaning and patterns was evolutionarily useful. So in that sense, it has “got us here.” It’s a fairly common assertion in this type of critique of religious belief. I certainly would not (and did not) say that this means that it is “optimal.” But it doesn’t have to optimal, only useful in propagating our genes according to Davis’s presuppositions. Once we start thinking in terms of optimality (which Davis seems to do), then the question “optimal for what?” seems like a perfectly legitimate one.

      July 4, 2009
  3. jc #

    “Why should we assume or expect that our brains would conform to reality on naturalistic presuppositions? ”

    I am sorry I don’t understand what you are getting at here. I will try and answer anyhow… I didn’t mean to act as a defender of evolutionary psychology if that is the angle you are pursuing here. I was just suggesting a standard at which to judge the truth of the statements Davis was attacking. I share his disdain for such statements but I don’t think I share his view of evolutionary psychology.

    It does say in the article “To him[Davis], such phrases reflect a “caveman logic” that helped our ancestors survive the Pleistocene Age, but which is keeping our species from realizing its true potential.” I don’t understand how this is so. I understand how pattern recognition and believing there is a reason why certain things happen is useful but why would magical explanations and a belief in the supernatural be useful at one time? It’s just a brief statement so I can not be sure if it accurately reflects his beliefs. Believing that the gods caused earthquakes is neither optimal or useful. I guess he believes that an unfortunate side effect of our “causal detectors” is that we make up supernatural explanations for why things happen. So in the end I guess you are right that it is not illogical to ask the question you asked.

    July 4, 2009
    • I think you’re right to point out that, at least in the article, it’s not really clear how or why Davis thinks that pattern recognition is on par with coming up with magical explanations for phenomena. I can only hope he is more clear in his book than the reviewer made him out to be.

      My main concern is the goal-oriented language. As an atheist, Davis can’t really claim, I don’t think, that nature has any kind of a “goal” that it is striving towards other than survival. I’m simply saying that claiming our brains are “designed” or “ought to” correspond with reality, realize our potential or anything other than getting our genes passed down skips an important step in the reasoning process. I want to know where the conceptions of the standards and goals of efficiency against which our brains are being evaluated is being smuggled in from. I don’t even think “correspondence with reality” will do from a consistently naturalistic perspective. If it’s adaptive to believe in lies, than that is the kind of behaviour that will be rewarded.

      July 5, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I think you have successfully shown the inconsistency in the professor’s argument.

    Ignoring the professor, I want to add something to the subject of goal-oriented language.

    Darwin, and other naturalists before and after him, have used two metaphors to describe evolution. Both personify evolution as Nature. In one metaphor, survival of the fittest, nature is said to be indifferent. In the other, nature is said to select for the good of each being. Both metaphors can be interpreted as implying a teleology. And yet, I don’t think Darwin really meant that nature was teleological. Both metaphors were used to contrast natural selection with human selection, in which we are not indifferent and we select for our own good, rather than for the good of each being.

    I think all science can ultimately say is that genetic changes taken together with the struggle for life are sufficient to explain the origin of species. Science, at least for now, does not explain how the first specie came about.

    Similarly, I can say that I met my wife because we happened (as the result of a long series of decisions and actions having nothing to do with meeting each other) to be in a particular place at a particular time. I can also say (something like the caveman said) that it seems so extraordinary that we met that I have imagined our meeting was arranged in heaven. So, in a sense, I can explain our meeting in either teleological or non-teleological terms, in theological, or non-theological terms. It seems like we can do the same thing for the origin of the species, perhaps even the origin of life (someday.)

    I think it is still fair in science to say, metaphorically, as Darwin did, that Nature (evolution) selects for the good of each being that she tends. By the word “good” I think what Darwin meant was “life.” And I think that the Christian claim is ultimately that behind life and evolution are God. What the caveman saw, and what enlightened humanity still sees, is that life confronts us with order, not chaos, and the order appears to favor life.

    July 5, 2009
    • I think it is fine for someone to “say, metaphorically, that Nature (evolution) selects for the good of each being she tends.” As long as they are clear that they are speaking metaphorically. In my experience, this is rarely made clear. We almost never get any indication when we are moving from the language of science to the language of worldview assumptions. So often in this type of critique of religion it is simply assumed that a bare bones empirical approach to the world can grant us the language of teleology. It can’t. That has to come from somewhere else, as you say. But this often goes unacknowledged.

      And the further question I would ask is what accounts for our need/desire to speak of Nature thus? Why are we dissatisfied with the non-teleological language that is appropriate to the domain of empirical science? Why do we need to capitalize the word “Nature” or personify it with personal pronouns? I obviously think that all of these thing are highly suggestive.

      And I think that the Christian claim is ultimately that behind life and evolution are God. What the caveman saw, and what enlightened humanity still sees, is that life confronts us with order, not chaos, and the order appears to favor life.

      Well said.

      July 6, 2009

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