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 Warren—Stat!
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,
(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?
(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:
(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:
(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.