City of Brass

At his Gene Expression blog, Razib writes about what atheism and autism have in common. Something he said struck me:

humans live in a universe of other actors, agents, which we preoccupy over greatly. Additionally, we can conceive of agents which aren’t present before us. In other words, the plausibility of supernatural narratives derives from our orientation toward populating the universe with social beings and agency.

This seems to be important to me. Avowed Rationalists and atheists will postulate that there is *no* agency beyond Human Will, and thus often perceive themselves to be in fundamental conflict with Believers and deists because of the latter’s insistence that there are other “super” natural agencies beyond the self. An honest Rationalist will acknowledge that there are chemical and genetic agencies which inform our behavior, of course, but ultimately it boils down to whether you think free will truly exists or it doesn’t. Those atheists who don’t believe in free will are just as alien to Rationalists who do as we Believers are, I suspect.

However, genetics, physics and chemistry, even geography, etc are inanimate forces that modulate our agency, but there are also “natural” (as opposed to supernatural) forces that have agency. The psychology of groups and mobs, the network effect, Dunbar’s Number, the stock market, social networks, and more are all layered above our individual selves and act at a level higher than our single minds do, but in the end these are emergent from the action of individual minds as well.

I guess my point is that I am skeptical of a claim that Rationalism manages to cut away false supernatural agencies and looks dispassionately at human interaction. Even Rationalists and atheists will concede the very real agency of these, shall we call them, supersocial? forces, even as they deny the existence of supernatural ones. And yet the argument against supernatural agency has not yet been rigorously applied to supersocial agencies. It would be interesting to see what dynamics emerge if cognitive scientists were to investigate the origins of supersocial beliefs with as much zeal as they do supernatural beliefs.

As an aside, Razib has often written about studies that explore spiritual belief from a cognitive science perspective. What I find curious about most of these studies is how they inevitably relate spiritual belief to non-rational thought, like intuition, or to “wiring” in the brain that predates civilized society, or (as above) non-mainstream cognition like autism. In other words, cognitive science on spiritual belief places Belief firmly within the realm of “primitive” or “abnormal”. I can’t help but wonder if the experimental design of these studies reflects the authors’ own pro-Rationalist biases (few of whom are Believers).

It’s a long-running argument of mine that Reason is a fundamentally flawed process that pretends to access Objective Truth but is in fact just as captivated by error as belief is. I’ve never really had an opportunity to explore these ideas in a dialogue but it would be a lot of fun. A Believer vs a Rationalist, not just a deist vs an atheist (because the latter pair are really emergent properties of the former).

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