Monthly Archives: March 2013

Do Humans Need Religion To Be Happy?

In a recent piece at The Guardian, Tanya Gold argues that secularists need to acknowledge the fact that religion can be a positive psychological force in people’s life. She says:

I know that religion can save. I know plenty of people who are better, and happier, for a belief in God.

As an atheist, I have absolutely no qualms with this statement. In fact, anyone who has studied the cognitive science of religious belief shouldn’t be surprised in the least that religion is psychically soothing for many people. But the interesting question is why. Scientists who study the neurological and evolutionary foundations of religious belief have reached a consensus that in a very real sense the tendency for religiosity and supernatural thinking is hard-wired in the human brain from birth. We are as Justin Barrett argues “Born Believers”. Given our innate dispositions, is it any shocker that Gold knows “plenty of people” who are happier on the basis of their belief in God? From a strictly evolutionary point of view, this statement has a surprise value equivalent to someone saying “I know plenty of cats who are happy chasing mice”. If it is psychologically natural for people to engage in religious and supernatural modes of thinking, then, ceteris paribus, we should expect that it makes people happy to think in a way that is most natural for them.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that it’s psychologically normal from an evolutionary perspective for parents to treat their step-children differently than their biological children, but it’d be absurd to argue for the maintenance of the psychic status quo if being mean to their step-children provided a dollop of psychic release. I don’t think in the least that the ill treatment of step-children is comparable with religious belief, but the general lesson is that we are not (and should not) be shackled to our evolutionary past simply on the basis that doing what comes natural often makes us feel good. If parents can overcome their genetic programming and lovingly care for adopted children with zero genetic relation without feeling psychic turmoil, then surely it’s possible for people to live nonreligiously without psychic turmoil as well.

The believer might retort that even so, because the majority of humans do in fact receive psychological benefits from their belief atheists are on the losing end of this argumentative strategy. But of course the atheist could simply respond by saying “Give it time!” Just because religion has been a part of our species’ psychological baggage for eons, can anyone be so confident that this will never change? Though the growth of secularism has not been as rapid as was once predicted by our Enlightenment forefathers (who were largely ignorant of our evolutionary past), it would be foolish to nevertheless ignore a slower but steadily increasing trendline towards secularism and humanism, especially in the most well-educated and developed countries. Can anyone confidently assert that human religiosity will be just as strong in 1,000 years as it is today? A million? Given everything we know about natural human dispositions, secularists are undoubtedly playing the long-game when it comes to enacting a momentous sea-change in public opinion towards religion. But as Homer said, “The fates have given mankind a patient soul.”

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Quote of the Day – Dewey on Scientific Progress

When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism. But when we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism. In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost.

~John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 73

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Carl Sagan on the Raw Potential and Perilous Infancy of Humanity

h/t: Reddit

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March 30, 2013 · 6:34 pm

Quote of the Day – Philosophy’s Barren Monopoly

Philosophy which surrenders its somewhat barren monopoly of dealings with Ultimate and Absolute Reality will find a compensation in enlightening the moral forces which move mankind and in contributing to the aspirations of men to attain to a more ordered and intelligent happiness.

~John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 26-27

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Quote of the Day – A Paleontology of Consciousness

What we need is a paleontology of consciousness, in which we can discern stratum by stratum how this metaphored world we call subjective consciousness was built up and under what particular social pressures.

~Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 216

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Book notice – Hasok Chang’s Inventing Temperature

Hasok Chang’s book Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (OUP, 2004) is a brilliant  example of how to do history and philosophy of science in a rigorous but endlessly fascinating fashion. Chang’s discussion of operationalism, coherentism, and epistemic iteration have had a huge impact on my recent thinking in regards to how to evaluate the prospects for current and future scientific approaches to consciousness.

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A Simple Utilitarian Argument for Higher Pleasures

Arch-Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham controversially stated that “quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”. Thus, if someone found immense intrinsic pleasure in counting blades of grass, we couldn’t hold it against them just because we prefer higher intellectual pleasures like reading or other “pursuits of the mind”. I agree wholeheartedly with J.S. Mill that it is impossible to conclusively establish by reason our “first principles” of valuation. I can no more justify why I seek happiness as an end in itself than  can the person who makes it his ultimate value to count all blades of grass.

What then licenses Mill to claim the higher intellectual pleasures are “more valuable” than mere pleasures of sensation? Isn’t this just elitism? Of course an elite intellectual is going to value reading philosophy and science over watching reality tv, but if someone finds more intrinsic pleasure in salivating in front of a TV over a frozen TV-dinner, who is Mill to judge? By what standard do we judge “ultimate ends”? In the end, we are left promoting values from a purely subjective perspective, for we have no choice except to value what we do in fact value and reason on the basis of those values.

But perhaps Mill was onto something. Take Bentham’s push-pin player. What if everyone in society was a devout push-pin player? From birth all anyone wants to do is play push-pin, much like Bobby Fischer’s famous remark that “All I want to do, ever, is just play chess.” This society would be radically different from ours. After all, if everyone played trivial games all day long and never bothered to learn anything, then no one would go to school to be an engineer or doctor. Without engineers and computer scientists our technological infrastructure would crumble until eventually the push-pin players couldn’t rely on the technological conveniences like supermarkets and computers to feed and entertain themselves with minimal effort. They would eventually be forced to begin hunting and gathering food in between push-pin playing, otherwise they would die of sheer starvation. The push-pin players might eventually realize that perhaps it would be good that at least some of them do things other than play push-pin so that they can have enough technology to keep a minimal segment of the population comfortable enough to devote themselves to playing push-pin all day.

The point of this thought experiment applies to all other “lower” pleasures like reality TV watching. If everyone just watched reality TV all day, no one would be able to maintain the TV-production-broadcast technological infrastructure that provides mindless pleasure to millions. Thus, people who value reality TV watching should actually desire that other people value something besides reality TV watching, otherwise there wouldn’t be technologically minded people producing the technological comforts that allow one to live comfortably watching TV and microwave meals without having to work hard to just stay alive.

Thus, the progressive accumulation of cultural and technological knowledge is predicated on the idea that the higher intellectual virtues are more valuable because the epistemic benefits of these higher intellectual virtues allows us to create a leisurely gulf between the hard facts of biological existence and our culturally acquired desires to engage in trivial but pleasurable pursuits like push-pin or television. Like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, one could easily imagine that an ideal social utopia would consist in everyone devoted to the continual pursuit of game-playing. But that game-playing utopia would only exist on the basis of a hidden technological infrastructure that was built and maintained by people who valued something besides trivialities and sensation-seeking.

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