Manufacturing belief

I enjoy reading the thoughts of atheists, the most interesting of whom are gentle British scientists. This does not make me an atheist, of course. But it's fun to read the extreme opposing view to one's own beliefs. The article below has some interesting points to make. If at some point a pre-human brain developed an ability to perceive cause-and-effect relationships better than others in its clan, and this ability conferred an advantage, then natural selection would have selected for this trait. Over time, as this person's offspring developed variations on this ability, presumably, cause-and-effect pre-humans would predominate their less-gifted cousins.

But what happens to a person with a cause and effect brain when faced with a situation (disease, death, bad weather) whose cause is unknown? Will that person experience a cognitive dissonance so severe that he/she will have to invent a cause -- say a godlike, invisible reality -- to calm his brains? Developmental biologist (and atheist) Lewis Wolpert takes on this question in an interview, excerpted here from

What is your theistic reply to this line of reasoning? To call it false? Could a transcendent being work through the natural world to create such a talent? Or would such a being merely exploit it once it developed naturally? In one scenario, God actively "creates" -- by switching on a gene or whatever -- to move evolution in a particular direction. In the other scenario, God is more passive, waiting for changes to happen so that he can communicate with the being thus enabled -- in effect, waiting for the 2-way radio to build itself so he can talk with its owner.

Anyway, food for thought.


Manufacturing belief
The origin of religion is in our heads, explains developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert. First we figured out how to make tools, then created a supernatural being.
By Steve Paulson

May. 15, 2007 In Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," Alice tells the White Queen that she cannot believe in impossible things. But the Queen says Alice simply hasn't had enough practice. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." That human penchant for belief -- or perhaps gullibility -- is what inspired biologist Lewis Wolpert to write a book about the evolutionary origins of belief called "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast."

Wolpert is an eminent developmental biologist at University College London. Like fellow British scientist Richard Dawkins, he's an outspoken atheist with a knack for saying outrageous things. Unlike Dawkins, Wolpert has no desire to abolish religion. In fact, he thinks religious belief can provide great comfort and points to medical studies showing that the faithful tend to suffer less stress and anxiety than nonbelievers. In Wolpert's view, religion has given believers an evolutionary advantage, even though it's based on a grand illusion.

He has a theory for why religion first took root. He thinks human brains evolved to become "belief engines." Once our ancient ancestors understood cause and effect, they figured out how to manipulate the natural world. In essence, toolmaking made us human. Similarly, early hominids felt compelled to find causes for life's great mysteries, including illness and death. They came to believe in unseen gods and spirits.

Wolpert sees human credulity all around him -- not just religious faith but all sorts of modern superstitions. His book targets astrology, psychics, homeopathy and acupuncture. Wolpert has participated in public debates with maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake about telepathy and other paranormal experiences. He dismisses Sheldrake's theory -- that "morphic fields" can transmit thoughts through space and time -- as nonsense.

There's no doubt that Wolpert is a provocateur, but unlike some other prominent atheists, he doesn't come across as a bitter enemy of religion. In conversation, his pronouncements are often punctuated by laughter and mock horror. I spoke with Wolpert by phone about the origins of religion, his doubts about telepathy and acupuncture, and why the debate over religion is so personal for him.

Can you explain the "belief engine" in the human brain?
What makes us different from all other animals is that we have causal beliefs about the physical world. I know that if I throw this glass at the window, it's probably going to break. Children have this understanding at a very early age. Animals, on the other hand, have a very poor understanding of cause and effect in the physical world. My argument is that causal understanding gave rise to toolmaking; that was the evolutionary advantage. It's toolmaking that's really driven human evolution. This is not widely accepted, I'm afraid, but there's no question about it. It's tools that really made us human. They may even have given rise to language.

But there is evidence that some animals have a very primitive form of toolmaking.
There's no question that certain apes are at the edge of causal understanding and they do make some very simple tools. Chimpanzees can break a nut with a stone. They can also take a stick and peel it to get ants out of a tree. But it's still very primitive. Curiously, some crows show remarkable toolmaking, using sticks to get things out of bottles. But on the whole, it's primitive compared to us.

And I suppose the radically new thing our ancestors did was to put two objects together -- for instance, a piece of stone on a wooden handle.
Precisely. You can't do that without having a concept of cause and effect. And once you had that concept, you wanted to understand the causes of other things that mattered in your life, like illness. That's the origin of religion. The most obvious causes were those things caused by humans, so people imagined there was some sort of god with human characteristics. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different gods in different societies.

So once you have an understanding of cause and effect, then ignorance is no longer tolerable? You want to explain everything.
Exactly. You know, we cannot tolerate not knowing the causes of things that affect our lives. If you go to the doctor when you're ill, the one thing you can't stand is the doctor saying he or she has no idea what's wrong with you. And when they do diagnose you, I'm prepared to bet that on your way home, you'll tell yourself a story as to why you got ill.

But which came first: understanding cause and effect or learning to make tools?
They went together, but you cannot make complex tools without a concept of cause and effect. You must remember that no animal has a basket. If they go away from water, they can't take any water with them. They can't carry things. However, we're driven by interacting with our environment and looking for causes that affect our lives.

Are you saying our brains are hard-wired for belief?
Our brains are absolutely hard-wired for causal belief. And I think they're a bit soft-wired for religious and mystical belief. Those people who had religious beliefs did better than those who did not, and they were selected for.

Why did they do better?
They were less anxious. They also had someone to pray to. In general, religious people are somewhat healthier than people who don't have religious beliefs.

Haven't studies shown that religious believers tend to be more optimistic, and that they're less prone to strokes and high blood pressure?
Yes, exactly. Therefore, evolution will select them.

So religion gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, even though in your view it's totally an illusion.
Yes, many people would find it very hard to live without religion. But there is no meaning, I regret to tell you. [Laughs] We don't understand where the universe came from. But to say God made it, well, you want to say, who made God?

To say there's no meaning is a pretty depressing assessment, isn't it?
No, why should there be a meaning? I mean, we want a cause as to why we're here, but I'm afraid there isn't one. I don't find it depressing at all. I think it's remarkable that evolution has brought us into being. We're only here for one purpose, from an evolutionary point of view, and that's to reproduce.

You write that you were once quite a religious child yourself. When did you turn away from religion?
I came from quite a conventional Jewish family -- not Orthodox, but conventional -- in South Africa. I had to say my prayers every night. And I used to pray to God to help me in various things but found it didn't help. So I stopped being religious.

Your son became a fundamentalist Christian after a difficult late adolescence. Is he still an evangelical Christian?
No, he's not. The church he was in broke up. He's still a believer, but he doesn't go to church.

Does his faith bother you?
No. I found that religion was helping him a great deal. It gave him someone to pray to. He became a member of a church where they could discuss their problems. And I think the idea that he would eventually go to heaven gave him a great deal of encouragement.
Has your son read the chapter on religion in your book? It's rather dismissive of religion.
He knows I'm dismissive of it. In fact, I just spoke to him last night on the telephone and asked him, "Did I ever try to dissuade you from being religious?" He said, "No, you never did." I wouldn't agree with him, but I never tried to dissuade him not to be.

Do you find yourself wondering about ultimate meaning? Does that matter in your life?
Never. Ultimate meaning has no meaning in my life. I sound a bit shallow, but I think it's actually quite deep not to be bothered by that sort of thing.

You call David Hume your "hero philosopher." Why do you like him so much?
First of all, I don't like any other philosopher. I think philosophers are terribly clever but have absolutely nothing useful to say whatsoever. I avoid philosophy like mad. But David Hume does say such interesting and important things. He's very good on religion, for example. I like him for that.

Well, he didn't like religion.
No, it's not that he didn't like religion. If you take miracles, for example, there's a lovely quote from David Hume that you shouldn't believe in any miracle unless the evidence is so strong that it would be miraculous not to believe in it.

There are various competing theories about the origins of religion. One is the idea that religion evolved because it helped bind people together in social groups. Essentially, it acted like social glue. Why don't you think that's right?
I don't think it's wrong. There is some evidence that religion does lead to a community with shared views. But you have to ask, Why does religion deal so much with cause and effect? That comes from causal beliefs.

What about Daniel Dennett's idea that religion is a kind of "meme" -- an idea that has infected human cultures and keeps on spreading?
If you could tell me what a meme is, and how useful it is, I'd be very grateful. [Laughs] Please don't misunderstand, I'm a great admirer of Richard Dawkins [who developed the concept of memes]. But what are memes? How do you decide whether something is a meme or not? And what you really want to understand is, how is it passed on and why does it persist? This is never discussed. So for Daniel Dennett -- who's a philosopher, after all -- to get involved with memes, the moment he does that, I just stop reading him.

Virtually all these theories draw on evolutionary psychology. But I wonder if we're losing the flavor of religious experience, the willingness to live in mystery, embrace imagination and intuition.
Sometimes I've thought it must be quite nice to believe in religion. I'm getting quite old. The idea that I might go to heaven -- of course, there's also the possibility, in my case, that I would go to hell -- is quite an attractive one. Unfortunately, I don't believe that for a single second. I mean, the evidence for God is simply nonexistent.

Isn't there more to religion than belief in supernatural beings?
Certainly not.

But many theologians and scholars, such as historian Karen Armstrong, say religion at its root is not really about a set of beliefs. It's more about how to live your life and being compassionate in the world.
Well, many people who are atheists can behave quite well. That doesn't make us religious. No, it doesn't work like that at all.

I grant that. But do you really think religion comes down to belief in the supernatural?
When I talk about religion, I'm talking about belief in the supernatural. In Western society, we're talking about God. I don't believe you can be religious without having some concept of a god.

What about William James? He talked about religion as experience more than belief.
I think "The Varieties of Religious Experience" is one of the best books written about belief. Nothing has really changed since he wrote it a hundred years ago. He did point out that many people become religious because they had a religious experience. And that fits with my idea that we're partly wired to have religious beliefs. If you take the active component of a magic mushroom and give it to a group of people, quite a few of them will have mystical, almost religious, beliefs. It must mean the circuits are there which are turned on by the drug.

So it all comes down to the chemicals that are firing in the brain?
I'm afraid so. Your neural circuits, yes.