Saturday, November 20, 2010

Making sense of the world

Bee Hossenfelder at Backreaction discusses the reasons people are religious in response to Tim Crane's NY Times piece on the same subject. Essentially, Bee argues that Crane's thesis is "people choose to believe because it’s easier" - then makes a case for another view - of which my one-line summary is "science fails to provide buffers against existential fears, which religion does handsomely".

In the spirit of kumbaya and cosmic harmony, I can see both viewpoints as containing valid explanations for the prevalence of religious thinking - and offer yet another view. You've heard this, or thought this, many times before - that people both accept what they're lead to believe as children and fail to abandon those beliefs due to fear of divine, familial or societal retribution.

First, some money quotes from both pieces:

The human brain looks for explanations, tries to find patterns, and to construct theories. These are skills that have proven very useful to our survival. Inventing gods arguably serves as some sort of explanation. Yet, superstition generally serves that purpose too, and at the end of the road, if you carefully follow up on the explanations, if you construct correct theories, where you inevitably arrive is: science! And over the course of history, that’s the path we've taken: Starting from gods and superstition towards science by continuing to ask and to look for better and more useful explanations.

...while religious belief is widespread, scientific knowledge is not. I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories. Why? One obvious reason is that many lack access to this knowledge. Another reason is that even when they have access, these theories require sophisticated knowledge and abilities, which not everyone is capable of getting.

In both cases, and in the unoriginal argument that I've added, we see the millenia-old vestiges of primitive man trying to make sense of the world, then slowly modifying that understanding over time. The "modification of understanding", however, could be said to lag scientific progress by a nearly unimaginable amount. Ultimately, an atheist could rationalize the believer's stance as being a dead end, as the creation myth put forward in Genesis (for example) flies in the face of the most basic understanding of the universe. Read Genesis 1:1 and try to tell yourself "yes, this clearly matches the evidence - it is the inerrant word of God". It's not ... it's demonstrably not the inerrant word of God.

Not that the true believer (of whatever religion - not just the Abrahamic ones that I allude to above) should abandon their belief based on the inaccuracy of one verse, but over time, consideration of the whole of Genesis leads one to conclude that this was a primitive attempt to explain existence, in order to tie together creation and the preeminence of the deity that is claimed to be responsible in this myth and those that follow.

Surely, someday the book of Genesis and the religions that it spawned will be seen as just one of primitive man's early attempts at explaining the world, and of codifying rules for getting along in society ... and nothing more.

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