Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Belief Instinct

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life
Jesse Bering (2011, W.W. Norton)

There was no way I could resist a book called The Belief Instinct, even on discovering that it was intended to debunk the fallacies about God that make us religious. Jesse Bering’s stance is psychological and evolutionary, rather than philosophical, on the one hand, or neurobiological, on the other, and this is all to the good. I have other sources for MRI images of the parts of the brain that seem related to transcendent experience; for Bering’s purposes, I’m content with the brain as a wet Black Box.
I am a big fan of evolutionary stories, and the ingenious ways modern psychologists try to test them, whether by comparing humans with apes and monkeys, or by practicing elaborate deceptions on small children. As it turns out, evolution has provided us with very robust tools for dealing with the social world. We find it easier than not to imagine that other people reason the same way we do, or that events have causes. If we feel that we are being watched, or that a deceased loved one might be alive but out of town for a long stretch, it’s only natural. It’s but a small step to extending such imaginings to the supernatural realm, with or without a specifically religious apparatus in place.
After demonstrating all this, Bering continues, as a rationalist atheist, to rue it. He says, “We can squint our mind’s eye so that the glare of our subjective biases is reduced, but in general we’ve evolved a powerful set of cognitive illusions preventing us from sustained moments of clarity.” Many people won’t even go that far, because such moments of clarity are so much less satisfying than the comfort of the illusion.
In short, viewing these things as illusions dispels them only in very tough-minded people, (or people with Asperger’s syndrome, which may tell us something in itself.) Bering’s conclusion is that we are the first generation with the psychological insight to see the Man behind the Curtain of our evolutionary heritage, but he doubts we’ll do it, and he admits that it’s an open philosophical question whether we’d be better off for it. (His passing suggestion that today’s social-tracking technology, all those traffic-cams and closed-circuit video systems, could replace our natural sense of an all-seeing, all-judging Almighty, strikes me as distinctly dystopian.)
In the end, I was hoping for more philosophy than this book has room for. Yes, our sense of the presence of God may be an illusion, but what then? Bering’s work stops short of grappling with the experiential reasons people might have for finding his purely logical reflections somewhat beside the point.
The short answer, and one which Bering slightly too humorless to come up with, is the joke at the end of Woody Allen’s "Annie Hall", about the guy who goes to a psychiatrist.and says, 'Doc, uh, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken,' and the doctor says, 'well why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.’

E-mail edition, November 2011