“Creationism Feels Right, but That Doesn’t Make it So: Scientific American”

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In spite of efforts by scientists (not all, but many) to show us otherwise, belief in God as creator persists. There must be some reason for that. Jesse Bering, a professor of history and anthropology at Queens University in Belfast, says in a current Scientific American article that belief in creation is a trick our minds play on us. We believe in a creator because we’re genetically prone to see design everywhere, whether it exists or not. So unless we’re really on our guard, it’s hard not to come to a wrong conclusion. The article is titled “Creationism Feels Right, but That Doesn’t Make it So.” He is so confident this explains away all human tendencies to believe in God or any designer, that by the end he says,

But when applied to human origins, Darwin’s mindless machine of natural selection obviates the need for an intelligent designer. Somebody needs to explain this to Rick WarrenStat!

The message is not just for (prominent Protestant pastor) Rick Warren. It’s for me, too. It’s for all believers in God. If Bering is right, our beliefs are built on an entirely wrong foundation. If I’m that thoroughly and obviously deluded, it behooves me to rethink everything. This could be very serious, even fatal for theism.

That shaky foundation for belief looks something like this. Humans are driven biologically to find purpose-related explanations for things we see in the world. Evolution has found it useful to equip us with that motivation. In fact, we experience a strong biologically-based reward when we come up with such an explanation, and that reward comes and reinforces our belief even if the explanation is wrong.

[Alison] Gopnik argues that human beings have evolved an “innate explanatory drive” that motivates us to seek explanations similar to the way we’re motivated to achieve sexual climax. That is to say, for the sheer thrill and phenomenological bliss of it.

Physiologically speaking, says Gopnik, your brain is rigged up to chase these short-lived moments of pleasure: orgasm in the one instance because sex is nature’s feel-good ruse to get your genes out there, and explanation in the other because knowing why things work the way they do enables you to learn and therefore to make more adaptive responses in the future. The thing is, Gopnik points out, your explanation doesn’t actually need to be correct to get that burst of pleasure; you’ve just got to believe you’ve solved the problem.

We do this in the small things, the big, and the very big: the whole of existence. The purpose-based, intentional creation answer is wrong, but it hooks us regardless, with that biologically-based head rush.

My first response to this was to ask myself why they didn’t title the article, “Gopnik’s Explanation Feels Right, But That Doesn’t Make It So.” On first glance her theory seems to undermine all explanation, not just some. She’s saying we can’t trust explanations because they can feel so right, even when they’re wrong. But if that’s her explanation for why we shouldn’t trust explanations, should we trust it? If Gopnik is right, then there’s a very high chance that she’s wrong. It’s a self-defeating theory.

One defense Gopnik might offer is that her theory only applies to certain explanations, those whereby we seek purpose-oriented, teleological functions for artifacts. As Bering goes on to say,

One important point made by researchers working in this area is that teleo-functional reasoning invokes our social cognition because it has us guessing what the person who’d originally conceptualized the object intended it to be used for. “Oh I see,” we’ll say, rotating some mysterious contraption in our hands and finally recognizing some hidden function for one if its doohickeys or thingamajigs, “how clever.” Of course for artifacts, or for that matter anything intentionally manmade, this type of thinking makes sense.

It’s unclear from the article, however, just how Gopnik’s theory can be limited to that. She says there’s a certain potentially deceptive first-person psychological experience attached to such explanations. From my own first-person experience, a good explanation feels the same, whether it’s a teleological one or a solution to a geometry problem, or even a psychological theory. I’m willing to bet you would say the same.

Or maybe Gopnik would say that we can apply careful scientific and logical analysis to an explanation, and work it through until we’re confident that we’re satisfied with it for the right reasons and not the wrong ones. With the right rigorous approach, we can prevent ourselves from falling into the feel-good explanation trap. This may not be as simple as she thinks, though, for the same trap is set on every step of the path. How do we even know what the right rigorous approach is without seeking some explanation for logic and rigor—which will itself have a potentially deceptive feel-good reward attached to it?

Now, Gopnik is certainly correct in saying there are feelings attached to satisfactory decisions, and those feelings are important to our deciding. Probably every psychology student has heard of the brain-damaged man who lost access to feelings in his mind. His cognitive/logical functions were unimpaired, but he couldn’t make a decision. I looked for it on the web, and succeeded in finding a short version here.

Damasio described how his stroke patient, code-named Elliott, would spend up to an hour debating the pros and cons of Wednesday versus Thursday for his next appointment, without getting any closer to a decision.

It would appear we have to agree with Gopnik that there is some gut-sense feeling of satisfaction that confirms our decisions for us. It’s not really news; Damasio’s work has been around for a long time. Should we then conclude that none of our conclusions are credible? I trust you can see how incoherent that conclusion would be, just from the way I wrote that question.*

So where does that leave us with respect to believing in a creator? Apparently our brains are biased toward seeing teleology in nature, whether it exists or not. I can accept that. What should we conclude from it? I think the easiest way to decide that is by seeing just what it is that Bering is trying to argue, which we can do by expressing the problem in syllogism form. His argumentation is not tight, so we need to try this more than one way. The question we’re trying to answer is, how do we get from psychological theory such as Gopnik’s to that urgent message to Rick Warren. At first it appears he is arguing,

A.
(A1) We see teleology (intention, purpose, or design) in nature.
(A2) But we are genetically biased toward seeing teleology, whether it’s real or not.
(A3) Therefore teleology is not real.

As deductive arguments go, that’s a little weak. (How’s that for understatement?) One hopes he knows better than that, even though it really does appear that’s the argument he wants us to follow. But maybe he started from a different point altogether. Could this (B) be what Bering wanted to say?

B.
(B1) There is no real teleology in nature.
(B2) We are biased toward seeing teleology, whether it’s real or not.
(B3) Therefore we see it even though it doesn’t exist.
(B4) Thus our “seeing” teleology where it does not exist is explained.

That’s a little better. It’s not in the form of a syllogism, of course; rather, it’s an outline of an inductively-informed argument. But that’s okay. (B) tells us why we might falsely conclude there is a designer. It depends on its being false that there is a designer, of course. (We’ll return to (B) in a moment.)

Or we might try this somewhat more deductive version (C). It has basically the same form as the anti-design argument Dawkins used in The Blind Watchmaker:

C.
(C1) The world appears to us as if it was designed by a designer.
(C2) There is an alternate explanation for that appearance of design.
(C3) Therefore there is no designer.

But this suffers from the same “colossal distance between premise and conclusion” as Dawkins’s version did. To be charitable, though, it’s possible Bering really meant something closer to (D), which is somewhat related to (C) but different. This one actually works on one level:

D.
(D1) The only reason to think there is a God is as an explanation for apparent design in nature.
(D2) The appearance of design in nature can be explained without reference to God.
(D3) Therefore it is not necessary to think there is a God.

That’s a formally valid argument, i.e., if (D1) and (D2) are true, then (D3) is true. The only problem is that (D1) is certainly false, and (D2) is in dispute. One false premise is enough for us to throw out the argument. And I must add that I was being very charitable by suggesting that Bering had just (D1-3) in mind; for in fact he went on also to imply (“call Rick Warren!”),

(D4) Therefore there is no God.

Between (D3) and (D4) is that same colossal distance again.

Let’s go back to (B) again. (A), (C), and (D) are total logical disasters, so we must set them aside, hoping for Bering’s sake that they were not what he had in mind. If Bering knows (B1) is true, then he can follow the inductively-informed line of reasoning to (B3). Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us why we should think (B1) is true. He seems to be assuming it for purposes of this article. Either that, or he really does think he can lead us there by way of something like Disaster (A), Disaster (C), or Disaster (D).

So is it time for theists to re-think everything? It’s always appropriate to keep our eyes open and our minds alert, but this supposed challenge is no threat at all. Our perception of design in nature could be the product of some deceptive brain quirk caused by evolution, but there’s nothing in Bering’s article to convince us of that. It could also be the result of God wiring us to recognize him through his creation. That phone call to Rick Warren is not so urgent after all.

*If my analysis of Gopnik is correct, then this actually amounts to further support for Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. I can’t take time to develop that thought here, though.

7 Responses

  1. Tom:

    An argument is only as good as its premises and/or its structure (form). Your analysis is great, but permit me to add a few tidbits.

    The material components (analogously speaking) of arguments are the premises, the logical structure of arguments (say, if an argument is structured as a syllogism) is the form, the intent of the one making the argument (supposedly to get to the truth, like what Gopnik tries but fails to do) is the final cause (which is a deeply teleological act—hence undermining claims that there is no design or purpose in nature), and Gopnik herself is the efficient cause employing (from another perspective) the instrumental cause of the argument to try to convince us.

    (A1) We see teleology (intention, purpose, or design) in nature. This is a premise. Is it a true statement? If so, the word “see” is highly problematic if not carefully parsed. We do NOT “see” design in nature the way we “see” (detect) neutrinos. (Which, by the way, is my problem with the reductionist claim of ID that we can “see” design in nature “scientifically.”) We do NOT “see” the scientific method or the rules of chess in nature the way we “see” telescopes or chessmen. We do NOT “see” an injustice perpetrated when a man steals candy from a baby the way we “see” (taste, in this case) the candy itself. (Which is why every sane and critically-thinking individual should ignore anyone who claims stealing candy from a baby is not a moral act nor does moral objectivity exist.)

    (B1) There is no real teleology in nature. This is a premise. Is it a true statement? Based on what? Doesn’t it conflate (per the above) the kind of thing teleology (say, purpose or intent or design) is with the kind of things real beings in nature are? Shouldn’t we first figure out WHAT teleology IS before dismissing its existence? Materialists and scientismists can neither willy-nilly impose this as an axiom, for eventually the same thing happens to truth in the modern empirical sciences: the MES are about as teleological and purpose-driven human acts as one can get, and no moral relativist would seriously claim that it’s morally okay for a scientist to “cook” the results of the data he obtains in order to fit his preconceived notion/outcome—something of which Darwinists are quite guilty about when they go beyond the science itself.

    We “see” teleology and universals and the rules of chess and the scientific method either as human artifacts or as bound in the things we examine with our senses. But just because all knowledge comes through the senses doesn’t mean all knowledge is sensory knowledge. We reason to the existence of design in nature because we are rational beings—it is a nous (an intelligent agent) that “sees” design, etc. It is NOT merely the collections of 10^28 atoms we simply call human beings that “see” design, just like it’s not my eyes that “see”… it is “I” who “see.” Intelligent design is poor science, but at least its fair philosophy. Darwin-ISM is poor science and horrible philosophy.

  2. SteveK says:

    If my analysis of Gopnik is correct, then this actually amounts to further support for Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

    That is the fist thing I thought of when I started reading this post.

  3. Jesse Bering:

    But when applied to human origins, Darwin’s mindless machine of natural selection obviates the need for an intelligent designer. Somebody needs to explain this to Rick Warren—Stat!

    The problem with that opinion is there is nothing for natural selection to operate on until a cell exists. Perhaps Rick Warren could explain that to Jesse Bering.

  4. Joseph A. says:

    Even if a cell is assumed as a given, “Darwin’s mindless machine” doesn’t obviate the need for an intelligent designer. Certainly not as far as the science alone goes. And once philosophy gets into the mix, as Plantinga and others have (powerfully, but in my view only begun to) pointed out, we still end up with a designer as powerful, rational conclusion to draw. Even Nick Matzke seems to recognize that screaming “evolution!” doesn’t solve this problem in favor of an atheist. Even Dennett admitted to Plantinga that evolution is entirely compatible with theism, and he seems spooked at the very prospect of exploring that topic further.

    A lot of these guys forever want to confront YEC. It isn’t working, and won’t work in the future.

  5. I’m willing to bet there is a burst of pleasure for those who reject that there is a God.

  6. I think the author of the paper needs to read up on the current philosophical debate on Warrant. If I remember correctly, the current idea in philosophy is that in-built ideas receive a first-place status, and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to disregard a built-in idea. In fact, most of our ideas about the world (including the existence of other minds) come not from sense experience, but are apparently built-in to the brain. Therefore, whether such notions of design are put in our minds evolutionarily or by divine creation, to properly engage the philosophical, the burden of proof is on the one who says that it isn’t so.

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