Monday, May 29, 2017

O Canada

I've finished the "Science of Religion" (really CSR: cognitive science of religion) MOOC. I even took the final exam (I got 33 out of 36). It was quite enjoyable, all in all, a nice way to make acquaintance with this burgeoning field.

Perhaps it was fun also because the leads are Canadian, able to look beyond models and problems which take the United States unproblematically as normative and universal. (The University of British Columbia, where Slingerland is based, is the home of the WEIRD critique of US psychology: studies carried out almost entirely on college students tell you nothing about the societies, past and present, that aren't Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic.) Slingerland and Shariff are as unmoved by postmodernist relativists as by militant New Atheists, the former too quick to abandon the possibility of a shared humanity, the latter too quick to think that religion and metaphysically-laden values can be left behind - and both, perhaps, more common on this irony-less side of the US-Canadian border. Our leads find the US's religiosity, anomalous for so wealthy a country, traceable less to the vitality of the American religious marketplace than to the insecurity of a society with a weak welfare state and inconsistent welcome of immigrants and diversity.

Although multiple research projects are introduced, disparate in their their methodologies and their hypotheses, a bigger picture about the nature and history of religion does emerge. It's summarized in the abstract to an article of which the leads were co-authors:

a package of culturally evolved religious beliefs and practices characterized by increasingly potent, moralizing, supernatural agents, credible displays of faith, and other psychologically active elements conducive to social solidarity promoted high fertility rates and large-scale cooperation with co-religionists, often contributing to success in intergroup competition and conflict. In turn, prosocial religious beliefs and practices spread and aggregated as these successful groups expanded, or were copied by less successful groups. This synthesis is grounded in the idea that although religious beliefs and practices originally arose as nonadaptive by-products of innate cognitive functions, particular cultural variants were then selected for their prosocial effects in a long-term, cultural evolutionary process. (

What this means for the future is that religion isn't going to go away. "Promiscuous teleology" and the like will continue to shape human experience, leading even the most hard-nosed naturalists to sense purpose and meaning in events. Science is important but "scientism" - the view that science can answer all questions - is to be avoided. Science explains how, not why, and "radically underdetermines" the values we need to make decisions about how to live. That last point is made with the help of Canadian eminence grise Charles Taylor, though with a cog-sci twist. Here's the explanation of the penultimate question on the final exam:

According to Charles Taylor and Prof. Slingerland, we can’t avoid making strong evaluations. Whether this is due to the “transcendental condition of being human” (as Taylor suggests) or to the innate features of human psychology (as Prof. Slingerland argues), either way we can’t get around holding metaphysical positions on the nature of the universe. Even the most secular ethics, which tries to adhere to fact and reason, is committed to tacit metaphysical positions that can’t be empirically grounded or rationally defended. During the course, we used the example of human dignity, which is not a rational or empirical judgment. Instead it’s a deep intuitive commitment about the nature of the world. In short, holding these positions and feeling deeply committed to them seems to be unavoidable.

It's an irenic project, social science at its friendly best. Everyone is welcome, as long as they're prepared to go beyond inevitably biased "cherry-picking" to seek understanding of what's really happening in human nature and history as a whole. Is there space for believers in the mix? Slingerland and Shariff don't say so. But as psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann (remember her?) says in a TEDx talk included as bonus material to the course: I actually don't think we learn anything about the real nature of God from these observations. I don't think that social science can answer that question. (10:52) 

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