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.