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If Functional… Well, What?

I’ve been reading books/articles related to science, faith, and philosophy over the last few weeks as I finished off an article on the (increasingly not so) new atheism for Direction Journal.  One article I came across this week was Jesse Bering’s “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Brain” over at Slate.  The article is not terribly original or new in the approach it takes—the basic idea is that our evolved psychological capacity to imaginatively reconstruct the mental states of others is thought to lead to the conclusion that our idea of God is just the biggest and most elaborate version of this process—but I think it provides an opportunity to identify a common error in discussions around this topic: the idea that if this or that feature of human thought and behaviour can be shown to have been evolutionarily useful at some point in human development, it is therefore explained without remainder by its function.  I believe it was Holmes Rolston III who called this the “if functional, false” fallacy.

I have come across few passages that poke at this fallacy as helpfully (and characteristically amusingly) as this one from David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions (context: Hart is specifically discussing Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell and its “explanation” of religion as a wholly natural phenomenon):

[E]ven if there were far more substance to Dennett’s project than there is, and even if by sheer chance his story of religion’s evolution were correct in every detail, it would still be a trivial project at the end of the day.  For, whether one finds Dennett’s story convincing or not—whether, that is, one thinks he has quite succeeded in perfectly bridging the gulf between the amoeba and the St. Matthew Passion—not only does that story pose no challenge to faith, it is in fact perfectly compatible with what most developed faiths already teach regarding religion.

Of course religion is a natural phenomenon.  Who would be so foolish as to deny that?  It is ubiquitous in human culture, obviously forms an essential element in the evolution of society, and has itself clearly evolved.  Perhaps Dennett believes there are millions of sincere souls out there deeply committed to the proposition that religion, in the abstract, is a supernatural reality, but there are not.  After all, it does not logically follow that simply because religion is natural it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward ultimate reality (as, according to Christian tradition, all natural things are)….

As for Dennett’s amazing discovery that the “natural desire for God” is in fact a desire for God that is natural, it amounts to a revolution not of thought, only of syntax.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Indeed! I almost laughed out loud when I read that. I should finish Hart’s book; I think I put it down for a while because I found it a bit dense.

    February 2, 2011
    • Another way to demonstrate the silliness of these arguments is to ask, given that the capacity to do evolutionary psychology is also a product of “natural” evolution, should we consider it completely unreliable on that basis?

      For some reason there doesn’t seem to be as many studies on the evolutionary basis for evolutionary psychology…

      February 2, 2011
      • For some reason, indeed… :).

        One wonders what would survive the explanatory scalpel if everything that was the product of natural causes and adaptive utility was ruled out as a potential vehicle for truth…

        February 2, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        Michael that is an excellent point!
        It is also important to note all the debate surrounding evolutionary psychology, or just plain psychology for that matter.

        February 3, 2011
  2. I really appreciate the measured response that can be formulated against the percieved ‘kill shots’ that the aetheist camp launches from time to time. From this side of the fence in University these assualts based on neuro-biological/evolutionary rationale are often reduced as the base assumptions that operate under the surface of other clearly anti-Christian rhetoric. So it is good to hear/see/read how a rational response can be formulated against these arguments.
    At the same time I think that the focus (on the religious side) has tended focus on refuting the arguments without dealing with the realities of the evidence available. By dealing I mean that I have heard/read very little about how some of the more recent findings in neurology shape the theology of the salvation or the doctrinal teachings about the nature of the human soul. It seems like the focus has been on proving the aetheists wrong and then we can conveniently forget that may have exposed an area of understanding that should be dealt with.
    The ancient church took just such a position with people like Gallileo and it wound up biting them in the butt it seems. If the church continual engages in these debates as an issue of ‘is there a God or not?’, we will someday in the near future have to admit that we have totally neglected large swaths of knowledge. Instead of duking it out with the anti-God people on these issues, I would love to read material that gives us tools to deal with things like how SSRI treatments should shape our understanding of moral responsibility or the whole area of spiritual warfare (i ‘loved’ typing those last two words). I’m not saying you are neglecting stuff here but I do sense the same sort of smugness that I often hear out the young fundy Chrisitians here at University who are ‘battling’ the advances of aetheism. I’m not saying that is what you are doing but from my angle of things the refute of these claims is only the beginning of the discussion for people who are serious about faith.

    February 3, 2011
    • I grant that there are many issues worthy of consideration as our understanding of the human brain grows. But in many ways, the stuff that Hart is addressing here has to precede discussions of the more specific stuff. In my experience—both inside and outside university—the “if functional, false” fallacy is a pretty common one. I think that all people, whether “religious” or not, need to be able to recognize when and how scientific observations and explanations begin to drift into the realm of worldview and philosophy. If we can’t (or won’t) try to understand the meta-issues, our treatment of the specifics will suffer, in my view.

      Having said that, I’m always open to pursuing some of these questions. How do you think recent findings in neurology shape our understanding of salvation, the human soul, etc? What effect do you think SSRI treatments ought to have on our conceptions of moral responsibility?

      February 3, 2011
      • Obviously, a more detailed discussion of the implications of neurobiology on doctrine and theology might detract from the emphasis you are trying to reiterate here.
        answering questions like what is the nature of the soul? where is it located? is the soul related to conscienceness or is located in subconsciencous thought or brain processes? in what ways does the connection between the soul and the neurological function of the brain affect ideas like the nature of salvation? is a decision to follow Christ a cognitive function separate from brain function or there a physical manifestation of neurological brain activity which marks the change in identity?
        Not to mention…
        where is the soul? what happens when we die?
        I know this might look like some of the same old dualistic/monistic problems and they are certainly available but I think it actually goes deeper than that.
        when we look for instance at individual culpability for sin that is commonly prescribed by most christian churches there is little accounting for the way in which any neurobiological factors affect these realities. Is the Christian man suffering fom dimentia culpable in the same way for the profanities that he speaks as any other person? What about individuals that suffer from personality disorders or FASD etc etc.? I think that these situations have commonly been relegated to the basement of our attention without considering that they may change the way we treat the broken people in our society but also the fundamental underpinnings of our doctrinal/theological understandings.

        February 3, 2011
      • I agree—the questions you mention here are interesting and important, and may cause a reevaluation or reconfiguration of this or that worldview. I guess what I am saying is that how we answer the big questions affects the options open to us on the more specific ones you mention.

        For example, an understanding of God, human beings, and the world that allows for God to work in and through the various adaptive and functional ways that humans have come to be will make certain answers to your questions plausible. An understanding of God, human beings, and the world that rigidly restricts God the “supernatural” realm and interprets “natural” causes as an explanatory rival to God will make other answers plausible.

        Where we begin from matters a great deal, but we often don’t acknowledge this or spend as much time thinking about it as we should. I guess that’s why I continue to be drawn to themes like this.

        February 3, 2011
  3. Ken #

    Psalm 53 says that those who say there is no God are fools, that they are corrupt and their acts are abominable.

    Would you say that atheism is sin?

    February 3, 2011
    • Sometimes. I think there are many different kinds of atheism and many different reasons for choosing it.

      February 3, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Personally, I think two things about what I’m reading here, while freely acknowledging I’m not entirely sure what the heck this thread is about. 🙂 (Ignorance of a subject matter hasn’t silenced me before, why start now!!)

    1. Until the atheist camp can articulate a plausible theory as to how that initial “something” did manifest itself from nothingness so that existence could come into being, God as the prime mover of creation stands as the best possible explanation. If I’m an atheist, worse than being sinful, my theories are inferior.

    2. Don’t let the atheist define the context. Polemic is not of Christ. For us that is sinful. Supposedly we are a people of love. Love is an anathema to the intellectual. This means we gotta love them fuckers til they get a little stupid. ( there is a St. Paul “foolishness of the cross” arguement that might be helpful) We love because as followers of Christ we have no alternative, not because we think we are smarter or better by doing so.

    February 3, 2011
    • Well, needless to say, I don’t see “the foolishness of the cross” and thinking well (for ourselves and for others) as mutually exclusive. Who knows, when done for the right reasons, thinking hard might even be an act of love… :).

      February 4, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Who knows, when done for the right reasons, thinking hard might even be an act of love…You know, my friend, having read your work for some time now, I am convinced.

        February 5, 2011
      • Thanks Paul.

        February 5, 2011

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