May 30, 2007

Eskeptic on the Evolutionary Basis of Religion

In the most recent edition of eskeptic (, skeptic Paul Gabel gives a detailed account of communist Russia's failed attempt to eradicate religion through persecution. He rightly points out that these tactics have little chance of success. Religious (and to some degree Christian) belief not only survives in Russia but characterizes the majority of the population. This is not atypical among persecuted Christian peoples. As the church father Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." What is interesting and difficult to take seriously is Gabel's preferred explanation for why the communists could not succeed. Here it is in his own words:

My personal theory, which is as plausible and unprovable as any other, is that a
religious sense exists as a consequence of the evolutionary process. Over
millions of years hominids with larger brains were favored due to their improved
ability to interact socially, communicate linguistically, and obtain food. As
computational power expanded, these same brains incidentally acquired the
ability to grasp their loneliness in the larger world and to anticipate their own deaths. Those who could not imagine a purpose for living turned to less purposeful lives and were marginally less likely to survive to reproductive age, or even to be interested in reproduction. As people without purpose were weeded out of the gene pool, increasingly large percentages of the surviving population were capable of turning their powerful minds to thoughts of gods, whose “existence” would itself become the purpose of life. Man became an animal that could no longer “live in a world it is unable to understand.”

What is almost ludicrous about this theory is Gabel's implied claim that religion ought to be eliminated from human society. Religion, Gabel apparently thinks, is a bad thing and we would be better off without it. Though religion is "built-in" to our species by evolution, Gabel points to examples of people who resist certain natural impulses (e.g., priests and nuns who make vows of celibacy) to show that, if we value rationality and humanism, we "can overcome a natural religious tendency."

But if religion is really hardwired into us as a survival mechanism, why would or should we wish it to be eradicated any more than we (including Gabel, I suppose) would want to eradicate our sexual desires? If religion contributes to survival, then why not keep it around? Indeed, if most people still "feel the need" for religion, then it probably, on Gabel's theory, is still performing a survival function at least for those people--and on evolutionary grounds that would be a good thing (insofar as athiests can talk coherently about "good" and "bad").

Perhaps Gabel thinks that religion has outlived its usefulness as a survival mechanism; perhaps he might point to religious oppression in the world (Inquisition, Crusades, etc.) to show that religion is now harmful, not benificial. Now rationality and humanism are better suited to our survival. But, why should we believe that? Why can't we see even religious oppression as part of the survival mechanism inherent in religion per se?--people have an innate impulse to defend their religious convictions when they feel them threatened because in their genes is an unconscious "awareness" that religion is necessary for human survival. (I'm not advocating this view, just arguing that there is no reason why Gabel's own theory shouldn't lead to this conclusion rather than the one he would likely draw.)

Would Gabel claim that there is something inherently immoral about religious oppression? It's hard to see how he could say that on his own principles. Neither can he say that rationality and humanism are somehow morally better ways for us to live. His only argument will have to be a pragmatic one, one that shows that religion doesn't contribute to survival as well as some other mechanism. But, I think he would be hard pressed to prove that.

May 2, 2007

Science and Falsification

In a recent issue of eskeptic (, Robert Ehrlich contributed an interesting piece titled "Science Will Never Explain Everything: That is Why it is So Useful." In the article, Ehrlich wrote:

Science is powerful because it often provides explanations before
observations are made. As Yogi Berra once remarked, “prediction is hard —
especially about the future.” The nature of scientific theories is to make
surprising predictions — the more surprising, the more confident we can be
in the theory should the prediction be fulfilled.

On occasion religious figures also make predictions, most notably about the
end of the world, but I am unfamiliar with any example where the failure of the
world to end on schedule caused a reassessment of the religious leaders in their
fundamental beliefs. Instead, the holy man and the faithful sometimes make some
recalculations, and come up with a new date for the end of the world, or else
give up trying with their faith unshaken — for that is the nature of faith which
requires no evidence to justify it, yet somehow paradoxically it craves
confirming evidence when it can get it.

In this quote, Ehrlich is refers the idea that scientific theories usually have implications which can formulated into predictions about potential empirical observations. The idea, as Ehrlich envisions it, goes something like this: Imagine a scientific theory T. Scientists think hard about T and figure out that if T were actually true, then we ought to be able to see or observe in the world some other phenomenon O. In other words, theory T predicts observation O. So, the scientists go out into the world to look for O. If they find O, then that observation provides some confirming evidence for T. If they don't find O--or, more seriously, if they discover that not-O (i.e., O is false), then theory T is thereby falsified. And the scientist, being the rational creature that he is, will no longer entertain T as a scientific theory.

Because this is how Ehrlich characterizes science, he thinks that science is eminently more rational and useful than religion and religious people. Religious beliefs, he thinks, tend to be unfalsifiable--primarily, it seems, because religious people won't give up their beliefs when they encounter falsifying evidence. This is Ehrlich's point when he talks about the fundamentalist preachers who predict the end of the world. They predict that Armageddon will occur on a certain date, but when the prediction fails to come true, they find some way to go right on believing, simply making adjustments to their theories to cover up the unpleasant failed prediction.

Now I agree with Ehrlich that some Christians (and cultists) may hold on to implausible beliefs in the face of significant falsifying evidence. What I take issue with is his implicit assumption that scientists are immune from this kind of thing. In fact, Ehrlich (at least as far as this article would suggest) holds a pretty naive view of science and how it works. It is true that scientists make predictions from their theories and seek to test them in the way Ehrlich suggests. But, Ehrlich is mistaken in thinking that falsification works in the simple, straightforward way that he describes. Contemporary philosophers of science will tell you that it is virtually impossible to decisively falsify any but the simplest scientific theories. Why? Because--just like those fundamentalist preachers--a scientific theory can be adjusted and modified almost endlessly in minor and major ways to account for, incorporate, or avoid potentially falsifying evidence. And scientists do this kind of thing all the time!

I point this out not to call the rationality of science into question. I believe that it would be a mistake to let a plausible and promising scientific theory be rejected just because an initial prediction of the theory failed to materialize. If a small adjustment in some peripheral details of a theory can be made that leaves the major aspects of the theory intact, but also has the fortuitous consequence that the failed prediction is no longer a prediction of the theory at all (and thus no longer potentially falsifying), then by all means the scientist should make the adjustment and continue their research program. Such a practice is eminently rational. It is only when "anomalies" increase greatly and the adjustments to the theory become more and more ad hoc that scientists should abandon the theory. But, if this is rational for scientists to do, then one cannot automatically object when religious people do similar things. (I would argue that the problem with the Armageddon predictors is just that their adjustments are ad hoc.)

Let me end, however, with this observation. It seems to me that there is one scientific theory that, if we follow Ehrlich's view of science, ought to be discarded immediately. I speak of Darwinian evolution. Darwin's theory of evolution based on natural selection predicts that there ought to be millions and millions of transitional forms in the fossil record. However, to date, not a single undisputed example of a transitional form has been found--despite many decades of careful searching. On Ehrlich's criteria, the theory of evolution has been falsified. Will Erhlich follow his own advice and now repudiate the theory of evolution?