Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

I am going to leave aside the more "sciency" stuff listed below, to make some observations on what I see as human nature, especially as it relates to science, religion, evolution, and intelligence. Some of this may seem obvious, some may also seem wrong to some people (that's what the comments box is for!).

Human beings, it seems to me, are "seekers of narrative". This can also be considered as a form of pattern recognition/formation, similar to what many famous optical illusions are based on. When given a series or a set of disparate facts, we seek to connect them. When they are disjoint in space, we seek a spatial pattern (an optical illusion is an example of this), and when disjointed in time, we seek a narrative to tie them together. We also, for better or worse, seek to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and everything around us (well, Dubya doesn't, but that is another story!). One way people have sought to answer these questions is through religion. The invocation of an omnipotent, omniscient being that sees into our hearts and minds, and guides our actions, must have been comforting to a tribe wandering the desert in search of food, risking death by starvation, predation, or tribal competition at every turn. Of course, society has "evolved" much faster than the observed rate of genetic change, so human beings, "designed" for survival in a harsh environment full of threats using tools and cooperative living arrangements, is now faced with a very different set of challenges (in the developed world, at least). If there has been one thing that has persisted, however, it is the power of religious belief. We must ask ourselves why? and will this continue?

One answer to why religion persists is that it is correct (not the answer I prefer, but it is out there). This possibility cannot be excluded, but it can be set aside. As has been mentioned before, there is no way to prove or disprove the accuracy of any religion. It is, in fact, antithetical to the very notion of faith to suggest that it can be proved or disproved. Therefore, while we certainly must allow for the possibility (however remote), we cannot assess it in comparison with other possibilities.

Another possibility, that I find much easier to accept, is that religion is "hard-wired" into us. That is, either we have a genetic predisposition to traits which cause us, tangentially, to be believers, or there is actually a "God gene". This is directly analogous to the Intelligence discussion of past posts, so lets just leave it as an unanswered question, ok? In any event, this explanation satisfies Ockham's Razor in that it does not needlessly multiply entities (i.e. it does not invoke a higher power), nor is it unfalsifiable, as is the answer above.

An interesting aside here is that it is at least possible that the "religious impulse" and the "scientific impulse" are rooted in the same innate human desire to know about the world around us, and explain it. I think this is very interesting, and useful to keep in mind when confronted with the "science is a type of religion" argument. There are undeniable connections in the roots of scientific inquiry with the sources of religious faith, although I think that is where the similarity ends.

One facet of human desire to build narratives is the innate need to find reasons for everything. How many times have you had the thought "what did I do to deserve this?" In many, perhaps most cases, of course, you did nothing to deserve this bad (or good) thing that happened. As Rush once said (the band, not the right wing party hack radio host), "Why does it happen? Because it happens. Roll the Bones." (Ok, not the best source of philosophical arguments, but hey, it fits!). This is no less true in scientific inquiry than any other place, and we need to fight it often. For example, I can't tell you how many times I sat in lab meetings where someone would say "Why does the bacterium want to know (insert thing to know)?" or "Why does Staph. want to cause food poisoning?" Now, most of the time we are well aware of the fact that Staphylococcus aureus doesn't "know" anything, and doesn't "want" anything either, at least not in the conscious sense. Nevertheless, it is hard not to think of it this way.

Unfortunately, the real world gets in the way of blogging (temporarily, I assure you). More on this later, especially on how it relates to Evolution.