Some evolutionary psychologists have recently been converging on an evolutionary explanation of religious belief that might support Plantinga's insight, because they are uncovering a deep, evolutionary link between believing in other minds and believing in God. But while some of these Darwinian psychologists (such as Justin Barrett) see this as showing that Darwinian science is compatible with the truth of believing in God, others (such as Jesse Bering) see this as exposing belief in God as a fictional construction of the evolved human mind. For those like Barrett, religious belief is an adaptive truth. For those like Bering, religious belief is an adaptive illusion.
In contrast to both Barrett and Bering, some evolutionary theorists (like Richard Dawkins) argue that religious belief is not an evolutionary adaptation at all, but rather a byproduct of our having evolved big brains that are capable of big mistakes.
Barrett lays out his position in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, which I have taken up in a previous post.
Bering has summarized his position in a new book--The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life (2011). Bering has posted a brief excerpt from this book as an essay for Slate.
Bering builds upon the "social brain" hypothesis of Robin Dunbar and others--the idea that the big brains of primates can best be explained as evolutionary adaptations to the social complexity of primate life. The unique complexity of human social life is correlated with the unique complexity of the human mind.
Navigating our way through the intricacies of human social life requires that we have a "theory of mind"--that we be able to read the minds of other individuals as intentional agents whose actions are governed by their beliefs, desires, and goals. This is difficult, because while we have direct, subjective awareness of our own minds, we have no experience of other minds. We must project our own subjective experience onto others and infer that they are intentional agents like us.
Although there continues to be debate as to whether there is any evidence for chimpanzees or other apes having some capacity for a theory of mind, it is clear that human beings are uniquely good at reading the minds of others. There is some evidence that human infants as early as 9-months old begin to understand adults as intentional agents, and they do this in a way that far surpasses what the chimps can do.
This human capacity for mind-reading is probably rooted in the development of the human brain--particularly, the prefrontal cortex--as suggested by some brain imaging studies. Further evidence for this is that autistic people and others who show deficits in their mind-reading abilities are probably suffering from impairment in those parts of the brain necessary for interpreting the subtle cues of intentional agency in others.
Because we have such a powerful neural system for mind-reading, we are easily inclined to see minds everywhere, even in nonliving objects. In the famous experiment conducted by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, the viewers of a film showing geometric figures in motion thought they saw a large triangle "bullying" a "timid" small triangle to steal the affections of a "female" circle.
Similarly, Bering argues, our instinctive theory of mind inclines us to see supernatural minds at work in the universe. Thus, our belief in God's mind is just our overactive theory of mind.
Bering contends that this evolved human instinct for mind reading is responsible for four kinds of illusions--superhuman purpose, superhuman signs, a superhuman afterlife, and superhuman morality.
Our belief in superhuman purpose comes from our projecting mental agency onto the cosmos. We ask about the purpose of life, as if life must be the artificial product of a plan by an intelligent agent with some purpose in mind. Even atheists commonly have some sense of destiny, some vague belief that their life has a purpose.
But if we accept the theory of evolution, Bering insists, then this belief in the purpose of life is a cognitive illusion. We don't have a purpose in life, we simply are. Life has no purpose, it simply is. But our mindlessly evolved theory of mind makes it almost impossible for us to believe that there is no mindful purpose to life.
Our belief in superhuman signs comes from our instinctive inclination to look for hidden messages in natural events as controlled by invisible intelligent agents. It is not enough to know how things happen, because we want to know why they happen. We look for the meaning in things. Consequently, much of religious experience consists in interpreting the supernatural messages in the natural world coming from dead ancestors, spirits, angels, or gods. Even modern scientists continue the tradition of natural theology in considering how the divine order is manifest in nature.
Our belief in a superhuman afterlife comes from our inability to imagine what it would feel like to be dead. We cannot prove to ourselves that we are mortal, because we cannot be conscious of being dead. Thus, as Goethe said, "everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself."
Sigmund Freud explained the belief in an afterlife as wish fulfillment, and therefore as an expression of our fear of death. But Bering argues that this wish-fulfillment theory doesn't account for the illusion. We have lots of wishes that we don't assume to be true. So why is the wish to be immortal so easy to believe? It must be because it matches our instinctive intuitions about the continuity of the mind after death, which we can see in the beliefs of young children.
Our belief in supernatural morality comes from our evolved social psychology of morality. We look for people to blame for our suffering. When we can't blame another person, we look for some invisible intentional agent to give meaning to the suffering.
It's not enough for us to know how bad things happen to good people. We want to know why they happen, which implies that everything is ordered by some cosmic mind with a moral purpose. This natural propensity of the human mind to look for a cosmic moral order is so strong, Bering indicates, that even most atheists (according to some psychological studies) believe that "everything happens for a reason."
Bering's evolutionary explanation for this is that human social cooperation requires that we be intensely sensitive to the opinions of others--we care about what others think of us, and this concern for our reputation gives us the incentive for good behavior. That's why gossip is such a powerful tool for enforcing good conduct and punishing bad conduct. This requires a theory of mind by which we see ourselves through the eyes of others.
If we think others are not looking, we are tempted to cheat. But if we think there are supernatural agents always watching us, then we are less tempted to cheat. Believing in supernatural moral spectators would protect us from doing the things that ruin our reputations, and this would be favored by natural selection.
Of course, Bering recognizes, the doctrinal and ritualistic content of religious belief is set by cultural traditions that vary across history and across societies. But underlying this cultural diversity is a basic cognitive illusion that is universal. Bering writes:
By all accounts, the basic illusion of God (or some other supernatural agent) "willfully" creating us as individuals, "wanting" us to behave in particular ways, "observing" and "knowing" about our otherwise private actions, "communicating" His desires to us in code through natural events, and "intending" to meet us after we die is pretty convincing for most people. (195)
And yet, how does Bering know that this is an adaptive illusion rather than an adaptive truth? He admits that his evolutionary account of religion as rooted in an evolved theory of mind cannot disprove the existence of God. After all, evolutionary psychologists like Justin Barrett defend this evolutionary account, while seeing it as perfectly compatible with believing that God allowed human beings to have this naturally evolved theory of mind so that they could discover Him.
Bering agrees with Barrett that science by itself can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. But still, Bering insists, science can conclude that God's existence is highly improbable. Barrett finds Plantinga's argument plausible: "if my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God." And yet, Bering finds this sort of reasoning silly. Plantinga assumes that believing in the existence of other human minds is comparable to believing in the existence of God's mind. But this is clearly not true. Dealing with other human minds is part of our ordinary human experience. Dealing with God's mind is not.
Bering doesn't realize that this debate has a long philosophical history--from Plato to Cicero to Hume. From Plato's Laws (Book 10) and his Phaedo, we know that Plato understood that the most appealing ground for believing in the divine was to project our experience of mental agency onto the universe, but there are good reasons to doubt the plausibility of such reasoning, as suggested by Cicero--in On the Nature of the Gods--and Hume--in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Although we are innately inclined to see an analogy between human minds and divine minds, it is not clear that the analogy is strong enough to justify religious belief.
Bering doesn't realize that most of what he says about the evolution of religious belief follows the lines of Darwin's reasoning in the DESCENT OF MAN (Penguin Classics, 2004). Darwin saw that "belief in unseen or spiritual agencies" was universal among primitive human beings, and that this probably arose first "when anthing which manifested power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own" (116-117). "The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods. For savages would natually attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves feel" (118).
Only by deeper rational reflection and observation do we realize that all the order we see in the world does not have to be the product of intelligent and intentional design. As Cicero and Hume suggested, human intelligent design is not the only possible source of order that we observe in the world. For example, in the growth of plants from seeds, we see order arising by nature without mental agency. Furthermore, thinkers like Cicero and Hume recognized the possibility of evolutionary order through the selective retention of heritable traits that enhance survival and reproduction, which can create spontaneous orders that are not intelligently designed by any mind or group of minds.
In the philosophic tradition of Plato, Cicero, and Hume, we can see a deeper question at issue here that Bering passes over quickly without much thought. Can we--or should we--free ourselves of the "adaptive illusion of God"?
On the one hand, Bering seems to think we can't do this. He writes:
It is therefore more than a little foolhardy to think that human nature can ever be "cured" of God by scientific reason. As a way of thinking, God is an inherent part of our natural cognitive systems, and ridding ourselves of Him--really, thoroughly, permanently removing Him from our heads--would require a neurosurgeon, not a science teacher. (200)
On the other hand, Bering rejoices that for the first time in human history, we find ourselves "in the full godless light of this shattered illusion." He admits that this might be detrimental to our moral life, if in fact, we need religious belief to support our morality. But then he concludes: "With or without belief, the consequences for acting selfishly are as much a deterrent as they've always been: those who don't play by the rules will--by and large, more often than not--suffer the human consequences" (201-202).
Plato, Cicero, and Hume would agree that moral order can be based on human nature, human custom, and human judgment, without any religious support. But they also suggested that for many, if not most, human beings, religious belief provides a necessary reinforcement for moral conduct. Darwin suggested the same conclusion in his account of the natural moral sense, in which morality can stand on its own natural ground, even without religious sanction, although religious belief can provide powerful reinforcement for our natural morality.
Some of the political founders of modern liberal republicanism understood this. For example, George Washington, in his Farewell Address, observed:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness--these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Notice that Washington intimates that "the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure" can produce good behavior without religious belief. But "reason and experience" should tell us that most human beings need religious belief as a support for their morality.
Washington helped to establish a new government without a governmental establishment of religion, but one which would secure the free exercise of religion. Doesn't this indicate the best political resolution of this debate between reason and revelation?
If the religious belief supporting morality really is rooted in our evolved theory of mind, then we can rely on it to arise by spontaneous order in any civil society with religious liberty. At the same time, those few who live "in the full godless light of this shattered illusion" can be guided by the moral norms rooted in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.
In a free society, people like Jesse Bering and Justin Barrett can live together, being united by their scientific inquiry into human nature, while being free to disagree as to whether the final ground of explanation is to be found in nature or in nature's God.
A few of the many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.