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.