Wednesday, April 04, 2007

What Came First, Our Brains or God?

A headline in my CNN feed grabbed my attention today: "Are humans hard-wired for faith?" In the piece, they discussed a burgeoning field called "neurotheology" that looks at the link between our brain's architecture and a belief in God. According to the piece, "there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power."

While the article is a bit thin, you can visit this super-thick piece (no, I couldn't come up with anything in between!) at the NY Times: "
Darwin's God." There, they look at two schools of thought regarding our brain's wiring and a belief in God. On one side, there are scientist arguing the "spandrel" theory, which supposes our belief in God is an "unintended byproduct" of survival mechanisms evolved in our species over the millennia. On the other side are scientists that argue a belief in God is a direct product of evolution, a survival mechanism in itself.

Regarding the direct approach, scientists reason that a belief in God, "made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves," according to the Times piece. Further, a belief in God, "made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living."

On the other side, the "spandrel" side, there are a number of adaptations that may converge to create a belief in God. For example, take the adaptation of "agent detection." Through experiments, scientists have show people have a tendency to consider inanimate things are very much alive. How does this help you survive? According to the Times:

"If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead."

Now what does this have to do with a believe in God? "[Agent detection] means our brains are primed for [a believe in the supernatural], ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic." Therefore, it's easier for us to believe God exists when there is no positive reason to.

Spandrel theory or the direct approach? As with most things, I'm sure the answer is somewhere in between.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.