The God Delusion

More notes for later pondering. I'm not all that interested in Dawkins going thru all the metaphysical arguments for why God doesn't make sense, since logically watertight philosophy obv isn't what motivates belief. Some years ago I wrote an embarrassing post abt my own history with religion, which criticized Dawkins on this point. Turns out my comments were unfair, he does talk about the origin of religion and morality. And since my interest in Hume and Smith revolves around these areas, I wanna note what he says on the subject.

I've also gotten to understand and like the guy a bit more, although I think the four-page analysis of the hate-mail he receives is still indicative of a certain narcissism. Says the kid with the blog, right? Pots and kettles and whatnot... Notes follow:

Religion consumes resources in activities that do not directly ensure the survival of yr genes, so what in Darwin's name is goin on? Little evidence that it helps with stress-related disease, although the placebo effect might suggest it's a factor. Then again, religion can often cause stress...

Instead, Dawkin's favours the idea that religion is a by-product of other useful psychological predispositions. One such predisposition is for children to unquestionably accept the advice of their elders (one does wonder how much experience Dawkins has with disciplining children...). Thus beliefs are easily transmitted from generation to generation, but this doesn't explain where these superstitions come from.

For this Dawkins goes deeper into evolutionary psychology, refering to the research of Paul Bloom, who argues that children instinctively form dualistic ideas about mind and matter, and that they assign purposes to everything, making them hardwired for belief in souls and a Creator. But how is this useful for survival?

Well, predicting the behaviour of the world around us (e.g. of predators or potential mates) is very useful for survival. Here Dawkins turns to Daniel Dennet: establishing physical laws is time-consuming, so humans cut through the process by assuming there's a design or purpose to the things we encounter (e.g. we don't need to understand physics to identify what a torch or a gun does). A further short-cut (when situations are really time-sensitive), is to assume that such purposes are intended by agents (e.g. this lion wants to eat me). This intentional stance may be where the instinctual dualism comes in, and why we postulate weather gods and so on (tho such imaginings are not esp time-sensitive...).

There are other by-product explanations, and Dawkins lists a bunch of people with them (seems like almost any disposition can 'misfire' and form gods -- this vagueness is rather annoying). One he likes enough to explore is the propensity to fall in love (and so stick with a partner in raising children) redirected towards loving God in a sexy Teresa of Avila way. More interesting is the idea of constructive irrationality: it being advantageous to hold strong convictions and persist with beliefs rather than vacillate and never get shit done. Dawkins mentions self-deception and wishful thinking in relation to this, but doesn't explore either in the kind of detail they deserve.

The main point is that religions are by-products of useful dispositions, consisting of local arbitrary elements, and also elements that appeal to some fundamental psychological uniformity in humans. This is illustrated by a very long discussion of memes. (The whole ideas-genes analogy has always struck me as an incredibly long-winded way to explain something pretty straightforward, so I'm movin on).

On to the Darwinian origins of morality. Natural selection very easily explains hunger, fear and lust, but what about altruism? Genes can code behaviour that encourages the survival of the same genes in other bodies i.e. kin. Also, reciprocity as explored in game theory: the most stable option is to give the benefit of the doubt, repay good deeds and punish bad ones. Reputation for generosity spins off from this, as does conspicuous consumption -- advertising yr superiority by demonstrating yr ability to preserve others).

Life in villages, or as roving bands of baboon-like animals, is ideal for the evolution of such dispositions (xenophobic grouping as well). But these are general rules which misfire, even more so in modern society: our pity instinct directed at strangers unable to reciprocate is one such 'precious' Darwinian mistake.

There are moral universals coded into our natures which we cannot easily justify with reason, a moral sense or grammar, revealed by questionnaires posing moral dilemmas. Kant's injunction to not use rational beings as means to an end (even a useful one) without their consent seems to be one such principle (tho what the evolutionary explanation for it is not explored).

The idea that we need divine reward and punishment to be good is dismissed, but the (more interesting) existentialist challenge: how to determine morality without religious absolutes, is fudged: Dawkins leaves that to the moral philosophers, tho I suspect he sympathizes with consequentialists rather than absolutists or deontologists.

If part of moral behaviour is genetically determined, the rest is all about zeitgeist. Dawkins claims there is a 'somewhat mysterious' broad liberal consensus on ethical principles (basically the equality of races and sexes), which moves in a consistent positive direction. Dawkins admits he's practicing amateur sociology here, but points to the influence of leaders such as Martin Luther King and improved (secular) education as possible drivers of this zeitgeist. Biology and evolution is especially important for Dawkins here because it removes the grounds for prejudice and partiality, which he identifies strongly with religion (but also, according to his theory, with genetically encoded dispositions). As for where the zeitgeist goes next, Dawkins refers to Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and a move to a post-speciesist condition. A nice note to end on.

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