Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is God an accident?

Paul Descelles




A friend of mine sent me an article "Is God an Accident?" from the Atlantic Monthly by Paul Bloom. In this article Bloom argues that while specific religious beliefs are highly variable, the general themes of religion are ingrained in our nature and not learned. Bloom argues that many of us accept a dualism between mind and body even though it is contradicted by science because we have two different systems in our minds, one for understanding the physical world and one that helps us understand social relationships. The latter allows for all sorts of physically inconsistent interactions.


"We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity, mind or soul, —are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them."


This leads first of all to the idea that we have souls, after all it feels like we live in our body but are not really part of it. This further leads to the notion of ghosts and to souls that never have had a body, demons and gods and perhaps God.


Likewise Bloom argues that the problem with Darwin's mechanism of natural selection is that it is not intuitive. We do look designed, we feel we have a purpose and extrapolate that to the natural world:


"Sometimes there really are signs of nonrandom and functional design. We are not being unreasonable when we observe that the eye seems to be crafted for seeing, or that the leaf insect seems colored with the goal of looking very much like a leaf. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding this point: "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Dawkins goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention."


Perhaps as Bloom postulates we are thus evolved from creationists. Bloom is pessimistic that religion and science can ever truly get along. He argues that this is ultimately because:


" Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."


Now I happen to be a religious person and I am more optimistic than Bloom. But where ever these religious impulses and the general themes of religion come from they are an important part of us. Without them our world may seem empty. Here is the way I expressed in my note back to my friend:


"It is a wonderful article regardless of what

truck it fell from. About a year ago there was an article associating the

sense of awe and connectedness that mystics feel with a certain region of

the brain. My own subjective experience may be of interest here. I suffer

from a bipolar disorder and sometimes I go manic and crash at the same time.

When this happens I look around nothing makes any sense. There is no

connection between anything. Everything is just bits of light and color like

pieces of a puzzle jumbled together. There are no patterns. I think this

relates to the commonly understood notion that the brain seeks out patterns

and sees patterns where they do not exist. Perhaps in my case during my

episodes (which are fortunately relatively rare) my brain's pattern detector

stops working. I described the feeling once to my Dr. once as feeling that

God has left me, and I normally have a strong mystical sense of



I disagree with the article that natural selection does not make intuitive

sense. At least to me it is intuitive."


Unfortunately the article is available only to Atlantic Monthly subscribers, but if you Google it you can find plenty of commentary on it.