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February 18, 2006

The Causes of Belief

Dennett book.jpgIn a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:

"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."

But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.

One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.

Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.

Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.

(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 18, 2006 11:35 AM


and even the guy's original analogy doesn't help his case because just saying that water is hydrogen and oxygen doesn't explain a great deal about it but as one builds one knowledge about it scientifically one does begin to understand more about waters properties. how the shape of the molecule is important to shape of ice crystals and snowflakes, how the strong van der Waal forces make it liquid at a surprisingly high temperature, make it such a good solvent and (of course) that is part of the explanation for it's wetness.

Posted by: caspar at February 18, 2006 12:50 PM

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