Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why Evolution is Scary

Several major blogs are collectively trying to puzzle out why people don't believe in evolution. I'll survey what they have to say and give my own take on this below, which is based on cognitive psychology. Short summary: people have different kinds of worldviews which apply in different types of situations. Applying the mechanical, causal worldview of science to ordinary life leads to confusion and can appear threatening. Reconciling different worldviews is difficult, even for the intellectually sophisticated, so it's no wonder that ordinary citizens have problems with it.

3quarksdaily: People reject chance and uncertainty. I don't buy this one, and neither does PZ Meyers. People love chance and pay money to experience it, and they recognize uncertainty. If you read further in this post it touches on "purposelessness", which I think is closer to the mark.

Majikthise posits "disenchantment", also touches on "purposelessness", and at the end says:
Evolution will continue to be controversial as long as people believe that naturalism threatens meaning. I don't know how proponents of evolution can begin to make people feel more comfortable with the naturalistic worldview.
This is getting closer...people really do feel threatened by the naturalistic view, but there are good reasons for this. See below.

PZ Myers focuses on purposelessness, fear, and emptiness. Quoting Eric Hoffer:
Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.
Which leads to the group psychology of religious crusades, yet another factor.

My own take on this is from a cognitive point of view.

First, it's a mistake to try to explain religion in terms of stupidity, fear, or group identity. No doubt these play a role, but aside from being snobby and dismissive, they don't explain religion specifically. People do lots of things out of stupidity and fear. People do lots of things out of group identity, like cheer for the Red Sox, but that doesn't make the Red Sox a religion.

So, let's start with purposelessness, and let's take the standpoint that people are right, in some sense, to be wary and reject the purposlessness of a naturalistic worldview. Look at it in terms of practical reason.

To make a long story short, let's assume a drastically simplified model of people's mental models, but not completely simplified. People have two different frameworks or stances (in Daniel Dennett's terms) for explaining phenomenon, the mechanical or naturalistic stance, and the intentional or animate stance. You can look at, say, a person as an intentional agent, with desires, feelings, ideas, etc, or you can look on him as a sort of chemical machine, with various mechanisms that work according to the causal laws of physics. In fact, of course, he's both, but the two frames of reference are rather disjoint and stiching them back together is the difficult work of cybernetics, psychology and other somewhat mushy fields of science.

In everyday thought, people can apply these frames of reference as needed and switch between them. If their car breaks, they might curse it out (as if it was an agent) and then proceed to open the hood and repair it (as if it were a machine). Doctors have an elaborate methodology of ministering to a patient's humanity while treating their body as if it was a defective machine.

So what does this have to do with religion and evolution? Science has a professional bias towards mechanical explanations, either eliminating agency altogether or finding ways to reduce it to naturalistic explanations. That's fine, that's what science does. But ordinary people with lives find this disturbing, for good reasons. They know that it's improper or immoral to apply the mechanical stance to people except in special circumstances (this I think is at the root of the Frankenstein mythos: those angry peasants have a point). Real scientists are not (usually) monsters, they have ways to reconcile their humanity with their dedication to the amoral and merciless mechanical viewpoint, but the peasants don't know that.

Religion, on the other hand, has a bias towards intentional explanations, seeing agency everywhere, in people (souls), in nature (animism) and the universe as a whole (God). Science's challenges to the intentionality of the universe are one thing, but evolution and brain sciences threaten the very soul. This scares people, and goes against their moral and practical intuitions.

What I'm trying to get at is that ordinary people, who may be ignorant of science and not inclined to philisipophy, still have a ideas about the consequences of different styles of thought. They know that the mechanistic worldview is in some sense incompatible with their intuitions. What they don't have is the sophistication to try to reconcile these worldviews. Scientists and intellectuals keep working at this problem, but nobody can pretend it's solved.

In short, fear is at the root of people's rejection of evolution, but it's not a groundless fear. People understand, albeit vaguely, the different systems of thought involved and the conflicts between them. They feel that much is at stake, and they are right about that. It's not that surprising if the issues are played out at Kansas school board meetings, in unenlightening ways. This is hard stuff.

Further reading:

There's a whole spate of books that purport to have some psychological or evolutionary explanation of religion. I own a bunch and have even read a couple. The one that clicked most for me, in that it concentrated on ascription of animacy, was Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer.

I addressed some of these issues in my dissertation, which was ostensibly about programming environments but wandered off quite a bit.


goatchowder said...

It's fear, specifically fear of The Unknown. It's also pattern: humans are social creatures and it is powerfully compelling for humans to interpret phenomena in terms of social relations.

Only humans would have looked at the moon and seen a face in it. I doubt a cat ever would have made such a mistake.

It's human nature. Our 30-million-year-old limbic systems are trying to process concepts and technologies that are less than a couple hundred years old, and often much newer than that.

Having some spooky incompetent father figure in charge of everything, at least makes it Known. A chaotic, anarchist universe made up of complex mathematical functions is a profoundly alien model to most humans. And even some who helped generate that model nonetheless refuse to accept that "god plays dice" with it. One of the biggest indignities that social-creature religionists suffer at the hands of evolution and science is that it is "impersonal".

I think what motivates religion is the same thing that motivates conspiracy theories. Conspiracy is secular religion; religion is dogmatic conspiracy. People have a biological urge to believe that some anthropoid or another is In Charge. They'll exhaust themselves running around in mental circles in a desperate attempt to escape the Void left by the absence of that belief.

And, the Red Sox aren't a religion? Maybe not. Now the Cubbies, *there's* a religion (or is "cult" more accurate?). Serious fans of most sports will talk to the television screen, wear "lucky shirts" so that their team will win, engage in Kabbalistic rituals of numerology, etc. Superstitious behaviour abounds amongst sports fans.

All that said, the Christian fundamentalists (and many Catholics too) I have known are scared to death. And not of the unknown, but of FIRE AND HELL DAMNATION (and/or social disapprobation from their fellow worshippers). That specific fear is not natural but conditioned (I intend the full Skinnerian and Pavolvian sense of the word "conditioned" here). So whereas the fear behind many people's religion might be understandable and quite natural existential angst, some models and religions amplify and exploit that fear.

Everyone needs a model. The social groups of ancient times had a soap opera of gods and goddesses running the universe. The more autocratic Avram gave us One God in charge, and the feudal Christians and Muslims have kept that modal alive for way too long. The Enlightenment thinkers at the dawn of the Industrial age gave us mechanisms and systems and Newtonian forces. The physicists of the modern era gave us the strange sci-fi of EPR and time going backwards and EWG.

My personal belief is that We Just Don't Know. I use what works, in the situations in which it works. They're all just models. However, most humans are very uncomfortable with that level of ambiguity, and, unfortunately, some violently so.

Religion's cause may not be ignorance, but so far its antidote seems to be education. The old saying, "the more you know, the more you know you don't know", presents the best path forwards I've yet seen.

mtraven said...

Yeah, it's all about the anthropomorphism.

But if it's about fear, the question remains -- real life is scary enough, why do we invent gods and hellfire to make us even more scared?

Nature can't be placated, but if it's Zeus or Tlazolteotl throwing the lightning bolts maybe we can get him in a better mood with a few sacrifices and groveling.

goatchowder said...

The modern institutions of religion have evolved this method of attracting and retaining followers: by making up these scary (anthropomorphic, of course) monsters and terrorising their congregation with them.

It's a parasitic activity, that mutated from the naturally-occurring fear of the alien concepts of Void, infinity, chaos, etc. I don't think scary gods and demons were "intelligently designed" as much as many preachers independently discovered that they work very well, and eventually found themselves on a treadmill of depending on them for their livelihood.

Religious nightmares won't go away because they continue to work very well-- for the religious demagogues, that is. An entire industry is built on them. As long as it keeps them in power, they won't stop the hellfire and damnation.

AR said...

This article http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/research/story/0,9865,1591084,00.html

offers an interesting snippet, which says that religion may have offered evolutionary advantages to early social groups --
"In his book Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state, says that religiosity emerged as a "useful" genetic trait because it had the effect of making social groups more unified. The communal nature of religion certainly would have given groups of hunter-gatherers a stronger sense of togetherness. This produced a leaner, meaner survival machine, a group that was more likely to be able to defend a waterhole, or kill more antelope, or capture their opponents' daughters. The better the religion was at producing an organised and disciplined group, the more effective they would have been at staying alive, and hence at passing their genes on to the next generation"
As far as the idea of a "God" or a "Devil" go, I agree with goatchowder -- their prime purpose was to function as a glue -- in this case become a shared belief, that can hold such a group together. In the course of times, myths built around these ideas take on a life of their own....

I wonder though, why has evolution been singled out as a target now?