Monday, December 28, 2009

Pascal's Wager

12/28/2009—No, I mean Pascal Boyer’s wager, not the other one. Yesterday I read Judith Shulevitz’s review of Nicholas Wade’s new book, The Faith Instinct. (Read review). Wade’s book is one of those tired exercises in evolutionary theory—its subtitle is “How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures”. The problem with this kind of writing is that it is tautological: religion is here, therefore it must convey some evolutionary advantage, so let’s guess what it might be. Since in this kind of scenario no guess can be shown to be wrong, it’s a useless endeavor. According to Shulevitz, Wade’s answer is:
“Rituals take time; sacrifices take money or its equivalent. Individuals willing to lavish time and money on a particular group signal their commitment to it, and a high level of commitment makes each coreligionist less loath to ignore short-term self-interest and to act for the benefit of the whole. What are gods for? They’re the enforcers. Supernatural beings scare away cheaters and freeloaders and cow everyone into loyal, unselfish, dutiful and, when appropriate, warlike behavior.”

OK. Your guess is as good as mine. Of course, if it’s true, it will not work in the future, because we can now see that the enforcers are not really there. Shulevitz points out that Wade treats religion as a minor tool for a nonreligious good, social solidarity, when religion itself is the big issue. Religion must do something in and of itself.

Of more interest is Shulevitz’s description of another position on the role of religion, that of Pascal Boyer, the cognitive anthropologist. Boyer argues that religion “is a byproduct of our overactive brains and their need to attribute meaning and intention to a random world.”

I have yet to read Boyer’s Religion Explained, but I intend to when the University library reopens. On a minor level, I can imagine testing Boyer’s hypothesis: for example, one could show subjects random numbers and ask them if they see a pattern. But on a larger level, how would one show that reality in fact is “random”? Maybe large-brained animals see order and meaning in existence because it is there. Boyer must have an answer for this.

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