The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

by Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert reveals two personas in this book. One persona is reasonable and makes thoughtful statements about evolution and beliefs. The other persona is obnoxious and irrational—the proverbial village atheist. This is an example of the bad persona:
I am committed to science and believe it is the best way to understand the world. I am an atheist reductionist materialist. I know of no good evidence for the existence of God. (p. x)

Wolpert knows the evidence of God’s existence and discusses the evidence throughout the book. In an ongoing act of self-deception, Wolpert fails to recognize the evidence and admit that it is there. More than truth, reason, and integrity, Wolpert loves the methodology of science to the point of succumbing to the gratifications of scientism, whatever they are.

In the New York Times on February 19, 2006, Leon Weiseltier called scientism “one of the dominant superstitions of our day.” Wolpert spends a whole chapter on the beliefs of scientists and touches on every possible false belief (e.g., confabulations), but does not even mention this aberration. However, it may be this article Wolpert is thinking of when he says:

It is now asserted by some that science itself is the modern superstition. (p. 159)

Is Wolpert confabulating the word science whenever he sees the word scientism? Science is only one mode of inquiry. Scientism is an excessive and irrational reliance on this branch of knowledge. Another method of inquiry is philosophy, which is what Wolpert is doing when he explains the difference between scientific beliefs and non-scientific beliefs and extols science as “the best way to understand the world.”

The good persona uses the following quote as the epigraph for Chapter 2 and expands on the insight:

This act of mind has never yet been explain’d by any philosopher. (David Hume 1739)
The word belief, while freely and widely used to account, for example, for causes in the previous chapter, is nevertheless not easy to define. Neither philosophers nor scientists have been successful. David Hume, my hero philosopher, said of belief that he regarded it as a great mystery. (p. 23)

Conscious knowledge of simple facts is also a mystery. Consider, for example, knowing that this page is white. It means more than that light is entering the eye and a signal is going to the brain. It means an awareness of the whiteness of the page. What is it? What are ideas and abstractions? What is the relationship between ourselves and our bodies? What is self-consciousness? The mind is indeed a mystery, and man is an indefinability that becomes conscious of its own existence. Plain common sense tells us human beings are embodied spirits and evidence of God’s existence.

Continuing with quotes that show Wolpert at his best:

There is a strong motive for explaining any phenomena that affect us in causal terms, an ingrained need to organize the world cognitively—both the external world and the internal world. (p. 3)

Thomas Aquinas couldn't have said it better. Human beings have a drive to know and understand everything. It is this drive that causes us to think that the universe is intelligible and that everything has a reason, explanation, or cause. The assumption of the intelligibility of the universe has served us well in science, and we are inclined to hope that we can understand our own existence. Science by itself cannot make our own existence intelligible because human beings transcend matter.

The method of inquiry that makes our existence intelligible is metaphysics: the study of being as being. We can partially understand the mystery, indefinability, and spirituality of our intellect and will with the metaphysical insight that we are finite beings and that we were created by an infinite being.

Creation is a form of causality, and the good Wolpert rejects Hume’s empirical understanding of causality:

David Premack, a psychologist, has pointed out that there are two classes of causal beliefs. One, as Hume suggested, is based on one event being linked to another, and can be called weak or “arbitrary”, for there need not be any obvious connection between them, like switching on a light. Animals can learn connections by the pairing of events through this process of associative learning. The other, which is uniquely human, is strong or “natural” causality, and is programmed into our brains so that we have evolved the ability to have a concept of forces acting on objects. (p. 27)

In fact, Wolpert goes beyond this limited understanding of causality as force by endorsing the ideas of Jean Piaget:

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist whose studies on the development of thinking in children have been very influential, held that the development of infants’ understanding of their environment was the result of their active manipulation and exploration of objects, and that they constructed reality through converging lines of sensory and motor information. One source of their understanding of causes came from the infants’ own actions: the actual experience of producing a movement plays a key role. (p. 35)

Wolpert is saying that our understanding of causality is rooted in our experience as infants of free will. Since many a “reductionist materialist” say free will is an illusion, the good Wolpert is taking a different point of view than the bad Wolpert. Another example of his rejection of the limiting assumptions of hardcore materialism is the following quote:

More generally, as David Hume made clear, there is no experience of “self” as something distinct from our body. (p. 32)

If the self was distinct from the body, then there would not be one being—man—but two beings: the body and the self. The unity of man is the insight that caused medieval philosophers to abandoned Greek dualism—the idea that body and soul are two separate substances.

The following quote shows that Wolpert understands the importance of conceptual thinking in the evolution of human beings:

It was Kenneth Oakley in 1949 who wrote “Modern civilization owes its form to machine-tools, driven by mechanical energy; yet these perform in complicated ways and use only the same basic operator the simple equipment in the tool-bag of Stone Age man: percussion, cutting, scraping, piercing, shearing, and moulding.” He also made clear that the men who made tools such as the Acheulian hand axes must have been capable of forming in their minds images of what they were trying to achieve. “Human culture in all its diversity is the outcome of this capacity for conceptual thnking…” This original idea of Oakley is a the core of this book. (p. 71)

Self-consciousness is the ability human beings have to turn in on themselves and catch themselves in the act of their own existence. The following quote brings the concept of self-consciousness into the study of evolution:

It has been suggested that the opposability of the thumb, and the associated wondrous dexterity, completly transformed our ancestors’ relationship with external objects. This relationship could have promoted human consciousness, as the manipulation of objects became a self-conscious activity; once the individual becomes an agent operating on external objects in numerous different ways, causal beliefs are involved. (p. 77)

Now for the bad Wolpert:

Religion is almost always regarded by its believers as a way of obtaining help from supernatural powers, possibly from a god. Miracles can win further adherents, and the Bible has many examples, not least the dividing of the Red Sea to allow Moses and the Jews to cross. However, as David Hume argued, no miracle should be believed in unless the evidence was such that it would be miraculous not to believe in it. (p. 123)

Mr. Wolpert is paraphrasing a direct quote from David Hume that he already shared with his readers on p. 85, so impressed is he with the quote’s relevance and insight. Hume’s argument against religion is puerile because it discusses miracles in general, rather than the particular miracles that are part of our salvation history.

Examples of historically established miracles are the exorcisms and healings of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. His miracles are reported in all four Gospels and the Q document. The Jewish historian Josephus referred to Jesus as “a doer of wonderful works,” and even anti-Christian sources refer to Jesus as a magician. It is irrational to admit Jesus was a Jewish prophet and deny that he performed miracles because at the time Jesus lived miracles were generally believed to happen. The historical Jesus includes what Jesus did and how he was perceived by his contemporaries.

Since Wolpert is not interested in the historical Jesus, his quoting Hume on miracles is gratuitous and ambiguous. Presumably, Wolpert was trying to say that God and Moses did not really part the Red Sea and that God and Jesus did not really cure anybody. This is consistent with his view that God doesn’t really exist. Since the bad Wolpert is a “reductionist materialist,” he does not think human beings really exist either. All that really exists for the confused Wolpert is whatever particle physicists say exists.

Wolpert apparently identifies with Thomas Hobbes (b. 1588), forgetting the different circumstances. Hobbes lashed out at his contemporary critics as follows:

For if a man pretend to me that God hath spoken to him supernaturally and immediately I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce to oblige me to believe it. It is true that, if he be my Sovereign he may oblige me to obedience, so as not by act or word to declare I believe him not; but not to think otherwise than my reason persuades me… For to say that God hath spoken to him…in a dream, is no more than to say he dreamed God spoke to him… (p. 131)

What would God have to do to make Wolpert believe? Wolpert tells us:

Of course, it is possible for God to easily reveal to scientists his current existence: God only has to perform, publicly, one or two miracles, for good evidence to be provided. This evidence could, for example, be quite simple, like turning a lake into good red wine, or providing an instant cure for cancer. Such miracles would almost certainly lead to religious beliefs among the sceptics. (p. 216)

Oliver Sacks, famous for Awakenings, told the following story about a 50-year-old patient that thought he was twenty because of a spinal cord damaged by alcohol abuse. With shame and regret, Sacks said that he handed the man a mirror and asked him if this was a 20-year-old man. His patient was horrified and cried out that he must be crazy. Fortunately, the patient soon forgot what had frightened him and he calmed down.

If a powerful angel changed a lake to red wine, it might neglect to keep the public from becoming frightened and panicky. God would not neglect anything. When God performs miracles and reveals things to mankind, each individual believes exactly what God wants them to believe. Faith is a gift from God. While Christians summon their fellow humans to believe, there is no obligation to believe as Hobbes thought. Nobody is criticizing Wolpert for not believing, and there is no need for him to defend himself.

Miraculous historical events, such as the Easter experience, are just part of the story Christians tell in their summons to nonbelievers. That Jesus was a Jewish prophet is a large part of the story as is the idea that Jesus saved mankind for meaning. There is another reason to believe: When nonbelievers explain why they don’t believe they always give bad reasons.