At this point in the many decades that I have been contemplating the question, the non-existence of God or any other gods is quite clear to me. I’m as confident about that conclusion as I am about any philosophical, abstract, or non-observable matter. God’s non-existence seems as sure as oxygen’s existence. Perhaps that is the result of my being too impressed with the power of my own logic. But there are some other powerful indicators that I take as corroboration. In the last 50 years, serious theistically minded philosophers, for the most part, have abandoned evidential or “natural” approaches to the problem. The emergence of alternative characterizations of religious belief like process theology, existential theology, fideism, reformed epistemology, mystical and religious experience accounts, Wittgensteinian accounts, and others all implicitly or explicitly concede the point that attempting to gather evidence or produce arguments that are sufficient to render belief in God reasonable is doomed to fail. It is also clear that neither arguments nor evidence were the source of it in the first place. They never led people to love, tithe, build cathedrals, sacrifice themselves, strap on suicide bombs, go to war, or embrace cults. Religious beliefs do, however. That is to say that whatever is going on in the vast majority of people who are religious, it is not a matter of thoughtful reflection on the evidence. They became religious without that, and the sustain a high level of belief withou it. I also take the widespread consensus among my philosophy of religion students over the years to be significant: in their view, the whole philosophical project of inquiring into the evidence that could provide epistemic justification for the existence of God is perverse and alien. Many of them were 22 or 25 or older before they had ever heard someone even pose the question, “What is the evidence that we have that would make believing in God reasonable?” That strikes them as odd because that never had anything to do with God beliefs that they knew of.
So to sum up, these reasons lead me to think that belief in God for most people is not a matter of accepting a reasonable conclusion based on an evaluation of the evidence: first, there are lots of powerful arguments for thinking that there is no God that I have detailed in scores of blog posts; second, even the theologians and philosophers have abandoned evidential or natural approaches to belief in God; third, the level of devotion (and insanity) that is common among religious believers suggests that something more passional or psychological is going on; and fourth, most people, including believers, seem to think that religious belief is a matter of faith, or personal preference, or disposition, but not reasoning.
That all leaves us facing an incredible question: why then do so many people believe, and believe and act they way they do about God? Our inquiry into possible rational grounds has not produced any results that can reflect the passionate commitment, or the consuming power of religious belief in the human psyche. So we are left with trying to suss out the non-rational causes of belief, the psychological, sociological, neurobiological, and evolutionary forces that have shaped this monster in the human mind. Many of my recents posts have pursued these hypotheses. Here’s an interesting possibility.
The human visual system is constructed to produce a stunning illusion when it is confronted with a rotating mask of a face. As the mask rotates and the back, concave side comes into view, it will appear at first that the inside of the mask curves out away from you. But as it continues to rotate, the inner surface that should be curved away suddenly pops forward so that it looks like the face is bulging out normally towards you. What should be the inside looks like a normal face looking at you. Look at this example: http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/fcs_hollow-face/index.html
The cognitive dissonance of the effect is striking because you know that the inner surface is curving away and that the nose should be in reverse image, but it looks just like a normal convex face. And no matter what cognitive effort you exert, you can’t not see the face sticking out. You are unable to look at the inside of a mask and see it as the inside.
Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Explaining Consciousness, Sweet Dreams) has argued that evolution has equipped the human mind with an intentionality projector, a mind endower, or a self broadcaster. We are highly prone to endow other entities, particularly ones with complex and difficult to predict behavior, with a mind. We don’t just see another organism as an object that moves, we see a self there, a being with a perspective. There is some way that the world appears to it and it has plans, desires, knowledge, and beliefs. Modeling other entities behavior in terms of its possessing intentionalilty has enormous predictive value. If I can think about what the wolf wants, what it knows, what plans it has, and what it will do next then I have a much better chance of thwarting those plans. (That’s good if it wants to eat me.) I don’t recall Dennett putting the point this way, but isn’t this propensity to endow certain kinds of entities with an intentional mind very difficult to supress? Isn’t it very hard to us to not see certain kinds of beings as possessing a mind? It would be very hard, for example, to see another human being who is talking to me and acting normally the way I would see a tree blowing in the wind, or a rock sitting on the path. I can’t help but see you as a self—a center of consciousness that is navigating the same world I inhabit but by a different path and set of experiences.
What if believing in God, feeling God, or experiencing God in the world and in our lives is a forced cognitive illusion that is a product of our wiring the way the rotating mask illusion is? What if we can’t help but believe, or experience God or some near analog?
Many people find this new agey idea quite charming—there’s the same element of the divine in everyone. We should see all different religions and spirituals experiences as manifestations of the same divine inspiration in all of us. All different spiritualities are accessing the same fundamental force or energy. Of course, when the point is put this way, it is celebratory. Religious feelings are a good thing to be encouraged in all, and the common thread to them all is a confirmation that there is something larger and more powerful than all of us.
I am suggesting a darker analysis. The God Illusion (yes, that’s very close to Dawkins’ The God Delusion) is a cognitive error, a throw back, side effect, or kludgey by product of our believing and perceptual systems. We are naturally endowed with propensity to project God out into the world as one of the things we experience, or an answer to our questions, or the cause of some events. We’re like a cavefish that dangles a glowing light in front of its own face, but has no clue that its coming from its own head. Everywhere we go, we keep seeing or feeling God, or arriving at God as the underlying cause or explanation of it all. “Surely God is great, powerful, and omnipresent!” Every time something tragic happens, our thoughts turn to God. And when something great befalls, then God must be praised and thanked. “God is infinitely wise and has a plan for me. And God is unimaginably good too. We should praise him!”
But those feelings and beliefs are illusions. He’s not really there. There is no face pointing out at you, but you just can’t help but think that there is. You can’t not think God is real.
Friday, April 10, 2009