A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion

by Barbara J. King

Professor King gives a very readable account of the evolution of man that includes the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the Hobbit. She makes some points that apologists for religion can use:

I do believe that science can explain something meaningful about the evolution of the religious imagination. The religious impulse is rooted in a deep longing for the emotional meaning-making with other beings that is so fundamental to the prehistory of our species. We crave belongingness, and we seek it with other people, with other animals, and with spirits, gods, and God, on earth and in unearthly realms. (p. 235)

This is a way of saying of that human beings need religion, which is reasonable since the author of mankind is the author of revelation. Our desire to have meaningful lives is a reason to believe God has in all truth communicated Himself to mankind. Ms. King, however, describes herself as an agnostic in the book. This view of reality means she does not believe in the Bible or the Qur’an, and has created a meaningful life for herself all by herself.

The book explains that chimpanzees or apes evolved 6 or 7 million years ago from monkeys which evolved 70 million years before from mammals without grasping hands, three-dimensional vision, and big brains. From the observation of present day chimps and reasoning by way of analogy, King concludes that:

Surely the story of those who seek God, gods, and spirits, of creatures who turn their feelings of empathy into compassionate acts carried out in the name of faith, is the story of conscious beings. And just as our empathy, our meaning-making, our rule-following, and our imagination all have roots in ape abilities, so I believe does our consciousness. (p. 60)

Many people who study the human mind and the evolution of human beings have philosophical and religious axes to grind. Ms. King feels pressure from both the anti-religion (“hardliners”) and pro-religion (“usual suspects”) camps:

But let’s not forget the consciousness hardliners. What a position ape researchers find ourselves in! We are faced not only with the usual suspects, who argue that consciousness (or language or thought or culture) is uniquely human, but also the hardliners, who insist that human consciousness is weak even in humans, for we are so much controlled by our unconscious mind! (p. 60)

Ms. King refers the reader to A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness by Merlin Donald. Professor Donald explains that “hardliners” are scientists like Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained. In a witty gibe, Donald says Dennett’s book explains consciousness away. This is what Donald says about “hardliners” in general:

They share an uncompromising belief in the irrelevance of the conscious mind and the illusory nature of free will. (p. 1 of A Mind So Rare)

Donald’s book lives up to the blurbs on its jacket, one of which was written by Peter Dodwell, author of Brave New Mind: A Thoughtful Inquiry into the Nature and Meaning of Mental Life:

Merlin Donald defends with rigor and élan a view of human cognition that is directly opposed to the position of certain influential cognitive scientists. In contrast to those who advocate the reductionist belief that all mental life can be explained in terms of the operation of the brain, Donald makes a persuasive case, the best I have seen, for consciousness as the central player in the drama of mind.

One might think from the above quotes that Donald is not an extremist like Dennett. However, Donald is irrational in a similar way, as I will try to show. Donald quotes a long passage from a novel by Henry James which describes the thought processes of Olive Chancellor to explain the realities of human consciousness. But then he reveals he a believer in the superstition known as scientism:

This is the point at which the scientific problem of consciousness becomes a great deal more complicated. Faced with this prospect, the reader might be tempted to grab the channel changer and switch to something less convoluted or to become a Mysterianist, like the philosopher Colin McGinn, who has proclaimed at great length that human consciousness is an unsolvable mystery. I am not so tempted. I think that Mysterianists should emulate their predecessors, the ancient Greek and Roman Mystery cults, by pooling their considerable financial resources, building a temple in a beautiful place, and holding secret rituals on the summer soltice. It seems eminently clear that declaring that something is a mystery doesn’t make it go away. The structure of matter was once a mystery. So were energy, and light, and life. These things are no longer mysteries, yet in another sense they remain more mysterious than ever. None of this has any bearing on science. (p. 93 of A Mind So Rare)

The channel Donald wants people to stay tuned to can be called the essentialism channel. Rational people, when contemplating the mystery, indefinability, and immateriality of human consciousness, switch to the existentialism channel. From this TV station we learn a human is a finite being, and God exists because a finite being needs a cause. (Existentialism has a bad name because there are atheistic existentialists who are unwilling to assume or even hope that the universe is intelligible.)

Donald is dead wrong to compare the mystery of consciousness with the former and current mysteries of matter. In the case of matter, there is only one method of inquiry: science. In the case of consciousness, there are two methods of inquiry: science and metaphysics. Donald’s childish faith in science is also expressed at the beginning of his book:

This book proposes a theory of consciousness that stays carefully on the functional level and does not to try to “explain” how awareness could have emerged from a material thing such as a brain. I believe that we might someday understand how this came to be. However, in my opinion, our present intellectual and scientifc resources are not sufficient to give us even the beginnings of such a theory. (p. 9 of A Mind So Rare)

Human beings, especially philosophers, have a drive to know and understand everything. This motivates us to assume the universe is intelligible and to ask the hardest possible questions. Cognitive scientists ask, not the hardest questions, but questions that will get scientific answers. Donald, for example, asks how to explain consciousness. The more difficult question and the philosophical question is: What is consciousness? The scientific question gets the scientific answer: I don’t know. The philosophical question stands unanswered and leads to the commonsensical statement that human beings are embodied spirits.

I don’t think any cognitive scientist would deny that human consciousness, free will, and knowledge are correlatives. We could not exercise our freedom if we did not know what the possible choices were, and most of what we know comes from deciding what is true. Knowledge and free will each give rise to an unanswerable question.

Knowing that an object before us is red means more than that light is entering our eyes and a signal is going to our brain. It means an awareness of the redness. What is it? What is knowledge? A metaphysical answer is that knowledge is the openness of being to the self-manifestation of being.

Free will means we not only have control of our thoughts and what we pay attention to, but our bodies. We can move our hands back and forth as we wish, but if our hands are amputated, we continue to exist. Our hands are something that we have. This gives rise to another what is it question: What is the relationship between ourselves and our bodies?

There are two other questions about the conscious knowledge of human beings, as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals: 1) What are mental beings (past and future, content of dreams, abstractions, mental constructs)? 2) What is self-consciousness?

There is a scientific answer to number two involving mirrors and surreptitiously placed marks on the foreheads of primates. It turns out that monkeys are not self-conscious, but human infants and chimpanzees are. There is also a philosophical answer: self-consciousness means the ability to turn in on oneself and catch oneself, as it were, in the act of existing.

The certitude we all have that we exist was given its most famous expression by René Descartes (cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am). Ms. King does not mention this, but refers to Descartes’s dualism, his other famous idea. Cartesian dualism is not consistent with the metaphysics of the Middle Ages which emphasized the unity of man thereby refuting Greek and Indian dualism.

In contrast to Descartes, Martin Buber (I-Thou, I-It) said our relationship with other beings is the basis of our experience of the world. King quotes from Buber and refers to him no less than three times to explain our need for God. She also is sympathetic to the ideas of John Haught (author of Deeper Than Darwin) who discusses evolution from a religious point of view. It is as if she liked and dated two nice guys (Buber and Haught), rebuffed a psycho (Dennett), and ended up married to a bum (Donald).

I think the best way to explain why a cognitive scientist or evolutionary biologist should understand metaphysics is the following quote from Carl Sagen, a well-known reductionist-materialist:

I, Carl Sagen, am nothing but a collection of atoms bearing the name, “Carl Sagen.”

The key word in this remarkable statement is collection. Had he used the word composition, it would have raised the question of what a composition is, just as saying humans are rational animals raises questions about rationality. However, there is no doubting what a collection is especially when intensified with nothing but.

Many say reductionist-materialists propose a metaphysics that ignores our knowledge of our own existence and the existence of other beings. I think it is fairer to say they reject metaphysics as a method of inquiry and only accept knowledge gained from science. They are not willing to ascribe meaningful content to the proposition that a human being is a being and are not open to the discoveries that can come from this.

At least this is what they say in philosophical discussions. How they live their lives is another matter. Carl Sagen, I'm sure, looked both ways when he crossed a street even though none of the atoms bearing his name were at risk of going out of existence.

Another way to reject metaphysics is to say free will is an illusion. There are philosophers and scientists who say this even though its reality is especially clear when we do something that takes a lot of will power, like going on a diet or writing a book. It is so easy to break the diet and give up the book, there is no question in our minds that we really have free will.

According to a metaphysics text book (The One and the Many by W. Norris Clarke), you can tell a real being from a mental being because a real being acts upon other real beings. A real being is capable of acting because it possesses the transcendental property of being unified. Human beings have a center of action and are unified because they have free will. Thus, we can understand why material-reductionists say free will is an illusion. If humans had free will, they could not be called “collections of atoms.”

King and Donald are not reductionist-materialists, but they don’t understand the finitude of our intellect in light of the infinity of God. Reductionist-materialists are not crazy, they are irrational, like mothers frequently are about their children. Crazy people have no motive for their behavior, but it is easy to understand a mother who thinks her good-for-nothing child is a paragon of virtue. Crazy or irrational, ignorant or narrow-minded, such are the kind of people who have no use for religion.