« Artificial DNA -the Future Storehouse of Human Knowledge | Main | "TGIF" Great T-Shirt Award... »

May 17, 2007

Origin of Religion -The Human Brain as "Belief Engine"

Human_brain_as_belief_engine_2Lewis Wolpert believes that mankind's "incorrigible and wholly irrational" religiosity is as human, and as explicable, as the flint axe and the computer. It is a tool for the soul.

Religion and belief in a supernatural being is a natural consequence of how we are wired as human beings: our brains evolved to become "belief engines." And for that reason, we should not accept that our beliefs, particularly our religious beliefs, are correct.

Along with Richard Dawkins, the provocative Wolpert is one of Britain's best known atheists explainers of science. An eminent developmental biologist at University College London, he believes it is "ethically unacceptable and impractical to censor any aspect of trying to understand the nature of our world."

Wolpert penned a book-length meditation on "the evolutionary origins of belief," published as Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Having pondered the subject, Wolpert sees no reason to modify his reductionist, materialist, atheist view of the universe. Deconstructing the belief engine will usefully explain how humans are different from other animals. "I believe that religious beliefs are at least partly genetically determined. How else can you explain the fact that there's no society ever discovered that didn't have some sort of religious belief?"

"What makes us human," Wolpert explains, "is causal beliefs. What makes us different from other animals is that we have a concept of cause and effect in the physical world."

Wolpert believes that what made us human is technology: "It can be summed up in Kenneth Oakley's definition, 50 years ago, that 'man may be distinguished as the tool-making primate'." Once our ancient human ancestors figured out how to manipulate the natural world. Toolmaking made us human. Early hominids understood cause and effect and came to believe in unseen gods and spirits as causes for life's great mysteries, including illness and death.

But how does that get us to God? In an interview last year in the Guardian Wolpert said "It was the mental concept of cause and effect which was critical. Once you had that concept which enabled you to manufacture complex tools, you then wanted to understand other things as well - why we got ill, what happened when we died, why the sun shone or disappeared. Those, too, must have causes. And that's the origin of belief."

Story Link

Guardian Interview

Related Galaxy Posts:

The Biology of Awe

Neurotheology -Is God Hardwired in the Human Brain?

Richard Dawkins, Darwin, & the Big Questions

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/2145844/18538046

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Origin of Religion -The Human Brain as "Belief Engine" :

Comments

Okay, yet another yawper pretending that science disproves the existence of the holy. The fallacies in this line of reasoning are too numerous to mention, but among them: (1) the fact that all cultures have some form of religion might indicate that there is something real out there just as easily as it would indicate something in the brain that causes belief--does this fellow, like Dawkins, imagine that only he and his company are right? (2) Humans are not the only species capable of causal reasoning. We apparently take it much farther than most, but signs of it are evident in many, if not all other species.

Sorry to be so negative about this post, but I am weary of those who describe themselves as scientific dumping on the faith of others. It is true that fundamentalists have put faith in bad odor. But this sort of blithe pseudoscience is itself a species of fundamentalism. Why is it so easy to assert, without significant question, the existence of "religious" structures in the brain whose existence has never been demonstrated?

I have, incidentally, a degree in mathematics, and passionately follow science, especially physics and astronomy. For those who desire a clearer discussion of the issues, I recommend the religion and science thread of the discussion board of the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today website (simply go to bad astronomy), in which there are a few genuine physicists who take this sort of assertion to task.

Settle down Jack. This is a theory of how religion may have evolved along with the human mind. He's not trying to prove anything. Think of it as the evolutionary biology equivalent of string theory.

Admittedly I'm an atheist. However, while his theory seems quite plausible like string theory, there exists no experimental design that can prove or disprove it.

Personally I found the article fascinating. By developing tools humans develop control over their world. Over the generations a better understanding of cause and effect develops and provides not only finer tools but a finer control over the world of the individual and the community. Eventually this ability to associate cause and effect becomes all encompassing.

But, what does a mind wired for cause and effect do when confronted with an effect that seems to have no cause. To primitive man this could be anything from the wind and rain, to the inexplicable death of a fellow tribe member. This is where reality ends and religion begins.

To me it all seems quite reasonable, but again theres no way to prove any of it.

Science is merely the attempt to rationalize; to explain the universe about us. It doesn't disprove the existence of a god or gods, it just increasingly shows how unlikely such a thing might be. It's always the same argument from the religious side, that science can't prove a particular god does not exist. This is not in any shape or form a very good argument for a gods existence, given the wild and varied attributes people give a god. Science merely asks why you believe in such a thing. Believers cannot give scientific reasons for their beliefs.
I am an atheist because no one has given me sufficient reason to believe in a god. That's all. Period. I don't claim to know where everything came from and I find the paradox of our existence a most fascinating thing. But to ascribe it to any one of how many religious views is....well...I find that unreasonable. If someone wishes to believe in the likes of a god and an afterlife, that's fine by me. I think it makes them appear rather weak and needy... but that's just me. Actually no, most atheists probably think believers are weak and needy, and the believer feels that and that's why we see such vitriolic posts. And of course there are the Dawkins's and Sam Harris's who will give you very good reasons to question even the moderates, never mind the fundamentalists. (Harris should probably be familiar to you Jack). At any rate, it was an interesting article.

hmm... as both a scientist and a believer in God, and one who pursues knowledge in both assiduously, and finds both highly interesting, i would attempt to explain something. human beings *are* weak and needy. this is quite apparent. maybe a bit lost on us in modern times, since we have managed to erect systems and structures to mitigate our inherent weakness and need, but weak and needy we are nonetheless, needing things, needing each other, always needing something. it's a common theme of wisdom of all cultures that as you age, you become wiser, and view inherent human shortcomings and limitations more generously, in other words, begin to accept the frailty of humans, despite our paradoxically large apparent potential and power. age, probably because death is the strongest reminder of the weakness of humans, and older people are both closer to death and tend to have seen more of it. the premise of religion is to teach this wisdom, that yes, human beings are weak and needy, and it is better for you to realise this than be in denial of it until way afterwards. maybe you can persist in denial and in an illusion of strength for a while, but it is not a sustainable position. that, i think, is the premise of religion in general. i don't mind atheists who aren't rude and obnoxious, but there are many who, from their writings, clearly have no idea what they're talking about when they presume things about religions in general, or any religion in particular (obviously had not bothered to learn what it's all about!) but use their superficial/deficient understanding to blast the religion and support their arguments. it would probably persuade others who are equally clueless about religion (by that i include mysticism and spiritual aspects as well as the formal part of religion), but the errors and presumption that i easily detect put me off the whole argument. how can you take seriously the argument of somebody who hasn't even bothered to do a proper literature review?

When a purported scientist makes unsupported claims about faith, he is given credit for good thinking. When I point out two fallacies in his assertion, I am told to settle down.

My concern is not with what people believe--my daughter is an atheist, and we get along quite well--but with their behavior and the quality of their thinking.

For me, reverence is better than hubris, and the universe is marvelous.

Again, I recommend that those interested in well-reasoned discussion on the matter search out the site I mentioned.

Kirana
As for weak and needy I can only say speak for yourself. It is my personal view that the human being is a magnificent animal. I am 46 now and can attest to what you posit; that as you age you tend to accept the idiosyncrasies of the world about you. But that's just another strength I have gained: to understand that some things are simply the way they are, and my wringing my hands about these things is not going to accomplish much.
As for an 'afterwards', this concept is religions most evil notion. It permits a person to strap explosives on to himself and do the unthinkable. There may or may not be something of my consciousness that carries on in some form after my body dies, but like religion on a whole, I find the idea patently absurd. My belief that this life here, NOW, is all that I have, makes me appreciate, value, and respect life so much more. As for the last part of your post, I suggest you give Sam Harris a read. He is more than well read.

Does no one else find it a tad ironic for a religious person to complain about unsupported claims?

If you have a valid argument for the existence of X god, let the world know, people are waiting to hear one.

I agree it is a bit overstated, as it's still really a hypothesis right now, but it seems to fit well with the observed world, and could be tested to move it into a solid theory (I doubt this has been done, but I don't know).

Kaell,

This is not an argument, only a viewpoint of mine.
Your comment "Does no one else find it a tad ironic for a religious person to complain about unsupported claims?"
makes me want to reply this:
Many religious people believe in God because when they ask for certain things (that may not be otherwise possible such as true miracles, that tend to happen when it seems impossible and totally unexplainable), they do happen. Of course there will be people out there that will say "Well how come when I pray for a million dollars et cetera, I do not get it?" No one really knows. Maybe because everyone would have a million dollars and it would be worth relatively nothing, same with anything else you could think of.
All I know is that in my life, even though I have a very scientific and mathematical mind, I know that there are too many miracles and completely unexplainable things that have happened for there not to be a God of some kind. And this has obviously happened for a lot of people who have prayed for things (theoretically impossible) that have come true for us. We just don't all go to meetings and make things up, just to mess with the atheists for fun.

"If you have a valid argument for the existence of X god, let the world know, people are waiting to hear one."
See above.

I don't have all the answers, I wish I did. But there is just such a huge gap between the human mind and the other animals of this planet for us just to be the 'more evolved species'. When I walk in and catch my dog or a monkey praying, then I might change my mind. Some of the vast differences between humans and the rest of life on earth are illustrated by the author of this article.
I would rather believe there was a god and be right than be an atheist and find out I was wrong when I died, if that makes sense.
I am not a fanatic of any kind, these are just my opinions. It is hard for someone such as me to believe in god when I have such a scientific and mathematical mind, combined with a relatively high IQ (137). I want to see and feel God because of the way my mind works. I have found that I can in fact feel and see God through his works and his miracles I have experienced, that is good enough for me. I think you have to pray and ask to experience what I am taking about, you only get what you ask for. Thanks for reading.

In regards to my above post. Please insert 'that are' into the parenthesis in the third paragraph so it should read:
"(that are theoretically impossible)".
It makes a lot more sense that way I did not catch it when I proof read it. Sorry it is 1am here and now I am going to sleep.

I sorry but the belief in the supernatural just isn't rational. We have no evidence of it and your foolign yourself if you think there is. I'm a militant Agnostic and don't let that put you off. But I don't know and frankly niether do any of you. God could exist but his role is equivalent with not being there at all. Religion and supernatural is a product of humans. I can't say it any louder and clearer.

*Humans over attribute agency.*

Let this sink in. Think about it.

Good luck to you guys......

Not to be rude or anything, but where's the proof to back this theory up?

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In