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    Years ago I walked down the main street of a town I had lived in for years, and noticed some new apartments above the retail shops. When I got back home I told my girlfriend about my discovery, and she rolled her eyes and explained patiently that they'd always been there. The fact is that...
  • I had never heard of Whole Language Learning before; interesting idea, but it seems it would be much harder to teach than the components words. I notice PBS shows seems to be heavily phonics focused; Word World in particular is a fantastic show for 2-4 year olds who know the alphabet but haven’t quite parsed things like “SH” functioning as its own sound.

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  • The most deplorable one [AKA "Fourth doorman of the apocalypse"] says:

    In reading the preview up at Barnes and Noble it seems that the author claims that all extant humans have the ability to learn to read to the same level.

    That is, he does not need to believe that selection over the last 5,000 years has operated on some humans to produce (better) machinery in the brain for reading.

    I would be surprised if that were the case. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if there has been strong selection for recruitment of old neural networks for new tricks.

    There are groups alive today in the US who have little to no interest in reading despite extensive efforts in teaching them and as I recall when I was a youngster whole-word teaching was in vogue and yet I managed to learn to read and started reading voraciously by the age of 10 and my children did so at an even younger age.

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  • @John Massey
    This is why you should let me proof read your first book. I've had decades of practice proof reading engineering publications, and have proof read two of Martin Rundkvist's books for him. It's a skill I had to teach myself, to look at the form rather than reading for content - if I concentrate on really fully understanding the content, I miss all kinds of errors and omissions that stand out like traffic lights if I proof read for form.

    #2 - Not entirely sure about this. It is well attested by eye specialists that young Australian Aboriginal adults have eye sight that is 6 times as acute as young European adults, and that is not a learned skill, they are born that way. Greg Cochran mentioned to me that Central Asians also have more acute eyesight than Europeans, but not as acute as Australian Aborigines. It suggests that this is a cognitive faculty that has been selected for in certain living environments.

    I don't doubt that tracking needs to be taught, but it suggests that you need to start with acute eyesight to become a good tracker, i.e. it's a skill that most Europeans can't master because their eyesight simply isn't good enough.

    I don’t doubt that tracking needs to be taught, but it suggests that you need to start with acute eyesight to become a good tracker, i.e. it’s a skill that most Europeans can’t master because their eyesight simply isn’t good enough.

    Tracking is not so much about eyesight as attention to, and familiarity with, detail in the particular environment.

    In my travels, I met some folks with phenomenal long distance eyesight, among them two groups come to mind in particular – Bedouins and pastoral Mongols. I suspect you are right about environmental selection for the extremely good eyesight. I think both groups make excellent raw material for long distance shooting for that alone.

    But I’ve also run into plenty of folks without superb long distance eyesight (e.g. Bornean tribesmen) who were phenomenal trackers.

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  • @Helga Vierich
    Razib, this idea of trade-offs sounds intuitively good, but I suspect the truth is not so tidy. If you think this means that a voracious reader trades this literacy for an ability to notice other parts of the environment, and that therefore a cognitive system good at reading is therefore not as suited to following an animal’s trail in the bush, then you might be disappointed to hear that both of these are skills, not attributes. They can be learned. In fact they can both be learned very competently BY THE SAME PERSON. Like putting picture puzzles together or recognizing subtle differences between plant varieties, they derive from the plasticity of the attention system; its aptitude is for learning to spot things.

    There is however, one big trade off - but being literate tends to result in sacrificing muscular balance in the eyes: thankfully we have eye glasses and other technologies for the epidemic of myopia that often results from being in a literate culture.

    Razib, this idea of trade-offs sounds intuitively good, but I suspect the truth is not so tidy. If you think this means that a voracious reader trades this literacy for an ability to notice other parts of the environment, and that therefore a cognitive system good at reading is therefore not as suited to following an animal’s trail in the bush, then you might be disappointed to hear that both of these are skills, not attributes. They can be learned. In fact they can both be learned very competently BY THE SAME PERSON.

    I also found the idea of the trade-off between literacy with environmental/situational awareness unconvincing.

    Police recruits who have the highest scores in tests that evaluate this kind of awareness for detail in the environment also tend to be the more literate ones (with higher educational credentials/IQ).

    More specific to your example, I tend to dabble in bushcraft, and quite a few of the bushcrafting experts under whom I learned and trained also are voracious readers, with encyclopedic naturalist knowledge and skill sets.

    Perhaps Mr. Khan is simply a traditional “bookworm” – someone who is busy reading a lot and is not paying a lot of attention to certain details in his environment that he considers unimportant. With proper interest and training, he may well (or may not) excel in bushcrafting or urban situational awareness or criminal investigative techniques that require extreme attention to minute visual and tactile details.

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  • The most deplorable one [AKA "Fourth doorman of the apocalypse"] says:
    @The most deplorable one
    It would seem that at least among Aboriginal Australians there has been strong selection for larger and perhaps more directed areas of the brain devoted to visual acuity:

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/19508267_A_quantitative_study_of_Australian_aboriginal_and_Caucasian_brains

    The striate cortex seems larger in Aboriginal Australians.

    This might make for less flexibility for them when it comes to different selection pressures.

    Here is a more easily accessed version of that article:

    http://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1261675&blobtype=pdf

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  • The most deplorable one [AKA "Fourth doorman of the apocalypse"] says:

    It would seem that at least among Aboriginal Australians there has been strong selection for larger and perhaps more directed areas of the brain devoted to visual acuity:

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/19508267_A_quantitative_study_of_Australian_aboriginal_and_Caucasian_brains

    The striate cortex seems larger in Aboriginal Australians.

    This might make for less flexibility for them when it comes to different selection pressures.

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    • Replies: @The most deplorable one
    Here is a more easily accessed version of that article:

    http://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1261675&blobtype=pdf
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • This is why you should let me proof read your first book. I’ve had decades of practice proof reading engineering publications, and have proof read two of Martin Rundkvist’s books for him. It’s a skill I had to teach myself, to look at the form rather than reading for content – if I concentrate on really fully understanding the content, I miss all kinds of errors and omissions that stand out like traffic lights if I proof read for form.

    #2 – Not entirely sure about this. It is well attested by eye specialists that young Australian Aboriginal adults have eye sight that is 6 times as acute as young European adults, and that is not a learned skill, they are born that way. Greg Cochran mentioned to me that Central Asians also have more acute eyesight than Europeans, but not as acute as Australian Aborigines. It suggests that this is a cognitive faculty that has been selected for in certain living environments.

    I don’t doubt that tracking needs to be taught, but it suggests that you need to start with acute eyesight to become a good tracker, i.e. it’s a skill that most Europeans can’t master because their eyesight simply isn’t good enough.

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    • Replies: @Twinkie

    I don’t doubt that tracking needs to be taught, but it suggests that you need to start with acute eyesight to become a good tracker, i.e. it’s a skill that most Europeans can’t master because their eyesight simply isn’t good enough.
     
    Tracking is not so much about eyesight as attention to, and familiarity with, detail in the particular environment.

    In my travels, I met some folks with phenomenal long distance eyesight, among them two groups come to mind in particular - Bedouins and pastoral Mongols. I suspect you are right about environmental selection for the extremely good eyesight. I think both groups make excellent raw material for long distance shooting for that alone.

    But I've also run into plenty of folks without superb long distance eyesight (e.g. Bornean tribesmen) who were phenomenal trackers.
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  • Language is a virus from outer space. And hearing your name is better than seeing your face.

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  • Razib, this idea of trade-offs sounds intuitively good, but I suspect the truth is not so tidy. If you think this means that a voracious reader trades this literacy for an ability to notice other parts of the environment, and that therefore a cognitive system good at reading is therefore not as suited to following an animal’s trail in the bush, then you might be disappointed to hear that both of these are skills, not attributes. They can be learned. In fact they can both be learned very competently BY THE SAME PERSON. Like putting picture puzzles together or recognizing subtle differences between plant varieties, they derive from the plasticity of the attention system; its aptitude is for learning to spot things.

    There is however, one big trade off – but being literate tends to result in sacrificing muscular balance in the eyes: thankfully we have eye glasses and other technologies for the epidemic of myopia that often results from being in a literate culture.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Twinkie

    Razib, this idea of trade-offs sounds intuitively good, but I suspect the truth is not so tidy. If you think this means that a voracious reader trades this literacy for an ability to notice other parts of the environment, and that therefore a cognitive system good at reading is therefore not as suited to following an animal’s trail in the bush, then you might be disappointed to hear that both of these are skills, not attributes. They can be learned. In fact they can both be learned very competently BY THE SAME PERSON.
     
    I also found the idea of the trade-off between literacy with environmental/situational awareness unconvincing.

    Police recruits who have the highest scores in tests that evaluate this kind of awareness for detail in the environment also tend to be the more literate ones (with higher educational credentials/IQ).

    More specific to your example, I tend to dabble in bushcraft, and quite a few of the bushcrafting experts under whom I learned and trained also are voracious readers, with encyclopedic naturalist knowledge and skill sets.

    Perhaps Mr. Khan is simply a traditional "bookworm" - someone who is busy reading a lot and is not paying a lot of attention to certain details in his environment that he considers unimportant. With proper interest and training, he may well (or may not) excel in bushcrafting or urban situational awareness or criminal investigative techniques that require extreme attention to minute visual and tactile details.
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • Dehaene argues that letters have evolved (culturally) to tickle our object recognizing machinery. Common letter shapes like L, Y, T, and so on resemble salient parts of visual scenes that our brains are already good at picking out. (They’re not necessarily just what’s easiest to write.)

    There’s a similar argument for be made for speech sounds. Gary Changizi in Harnessed argues that our auditory systems were originally designed to process the sounds produced by solid objects interacting – hits, slides, and rings – and that major categories of phonemes – plosives, fricatives, sonorants – along with rules for combining phonemes, were crafted to tickle our auditory systems’ preexisting biases. (These are not necessarily just the easiest sounds for our vocal tracts to make.) Of course the time scale on speech is much longer than on reading, so it’s likely we’ve actually had a lot of further biological evolution in our speech hearing and producing systems. (Changizi doesn’t really deal with this.)

    http://www.amazon.com/Harnessed-Language-Mimicked-Nature-Transformed/dp/1935618539/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1435767823&sr=1-1&keywords=harnessed

    https://logarithmichistory.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/hits-slides-and-rings/

    Dehaene’s other books, The Number Sense and Explaining Consciousness, are also very good. The latter is one of the best books ever on the science of consciousness.

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  • One of the first things that the author of 2002's Religion Explained had to address is the fact that everyone thinks they have the "explanation" for religion. Unlike quantum physics, or even population genetics, people think they "get" religion, and have a pretty good intuition and understanding of the phenomenon without any scholarly inquiry. Most...
  • @Razib Khan
    this is the right thread for this comment? shouldn't it be the open thread? just curious if you made a mistake.

    that's a mouthful of a sentence :-) please note that anthony has updated some of his views in light of genetics....

    I was going to use the open thread but then I read this:

    “language is the best case scenario for the naturalistic explanation of culture”

    and for me it solidified the idea that language is a really big deal.(biggest?)

    Yet, today it is a code that can be translated by a computer into another code that means the same thing and I am not sure that I think that is true anymore. I’m not sure they are just words that can be separated from the people who use them.

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  • @iffen
    Razib,

    I just finished one of the books on your reading list and I want to share a couple of sentences that explained so much of how and why to me.

    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony

    “Negative evaluations associated with the dying language lead to a descending series of reclassifications by succeeding generations, until no one wants to speak like Grandpa any more. Language shift and the stigmatization of old identities go hand in hand.”

    this is the right thread for this comment? shouldn’t it be the open thread? just curious if you made a mistake.

    that’s a mouthful of a sentence :-) please note that anthony has updated some of his views in light of genetics….

    Read More
    • Replies: @iffen
    I was going to use the open thread but then I read this:

    "language is the best case scenario for the naturalistic explanation of culture"

    and for me it solidified the idea that language is a really big deal.(biggest?)

    Yet, today it is a code that can be translated by a computer into another code that means the same thing and I am not sure that I think that is true anymore. I'm not sure they are just words that can be separated from the people who use them.
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • Also from “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”: “Traditional people and, I think, people of the Paleolithic had very probably some…two concepts which change our vision of the world. They’re the concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means that the categories that we have…man, woman, horse, I don’t know, tree, et cetera… – can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us, or a wall can accept us or refuse us. A shaman, for example, can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit, inside him or her, of supernatural spirits. If you put those two concepts together, you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now.”

    “In north Australia, for example, in the 1970s, an ethnographer was on the field with an aborigine who was his informer, and once they arrived in a rock shelter. And in that rock shelter, there were some beautiful paintings, but they were decaying. And the aborigine started to become sad because he saw the paintings decaying. And in that region, there is a tradition
    of touching up the paintings time after time, so he sat, and he started to touch up the paintings.
    So the ethnographer asked the question that every Western person would have asked: “Why are you painting?” And the man answered, and his answer is very troubling, because he answered, “I am not. I am not painting. That’s the hand, only hand, spirit who is actually
    painting now.”

    Seems that so long ago, we already we so prone to seeing agency in everything. And for looking for cause and effect. Just a thought…

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  • @Razib Khan
    language is the best case scenario for the naturalistic explanation of culture (to the point where some people bracket it outside of culture). i think religion is less clear and distinct. in addition, there's a lot of argument whether the cognitive aspect of religion is adaptive (or just a byproduct), while everyone agrees about language's utility. that being said, i think religion broadly construed is a human universal because it's part of 'evoked culture.' that is, any normal environmental inputs will produce religion in a human society.

    Razib,

    I just finished one of the books on your reading list and I want to share a couple of sentences that explained so much of how and why to me.

    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony

    “Negative evaluations associated with the dying language lead to a descending series of reclassifications by succeeding generations, until no one wants to speak like Grandpa any more. Language shift and the stigmatization of old identities go hand in hand.”

    Read More
    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    this is the right thread for this comment? shouldn't it be the open thread? just curious if you made a mistake.

    that's a mouthful of a sentence :-) please note that anthony has updated some of his views in light of genetics....
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • I wouldn’t say I want religion to be obscure. I’m a closeted atheist and most (if not all) of my family and friends are religious. It likely is a faith in God that animates them to do good and brings them solace in rough times. For that reason I don’t have any desire to proselytize or explain my non-belief. I think it would be hard to do so without seeming insulting to something that they hold dear. Despite their support for a few things I support (no creationism in science class), lots of people commonly represented as representatives of the Atheist movement come across to me as smug elitists, analogous to adults that relish telling toddlers that there is no Santa Claus.

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  • @Razib Khan
    Of course, for scientific purposes, you can stipulate any definition of “religion” you want to use to delineate your domain of study. But the question, “Why do people believe in supernatural agents?” is on a totally different order from “Why did post-Reformation Europe first fight about theology and ritual and then decide those issues should be segregated from politics?”

    yes. i don't find religious studies particularly interesting, because the field as a whole is a little too weepy and emotional for my taste ;-) people from religious studies backgrounds have cried about spirituality in front of me a little too much for my taste.

    Once you are into the First Amendment question, then there is a difficult line-drawing exercise where belief in supernatural beings may not be the most important issue.


    agree with winnifred fallers sullivan in *the impossibility of religious freedom*

    In my defense, I only moaned and gnashed my teeth. I never wept. ;-)

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  • @Drapetomaniac
    "Even a turd has substance ."

    I was wondering why that was posted and mine wasn't.

    1) that commenter has contributed more than brain farts in the past, so some slack. especially since the comments were short and funny in a car-crash sort of way

    2) i recall your comment was long and somewhat rambling, and frankly didn’t contribute much original insight to me. i’m tolerant of the latter issue, as sometimes people just want their opinions expressed, but please be more concise and clear in the future if that’s your aim. the longer your comment the less likely i’m to clear it if it’s inchoate or not nearly as novel as you might think it is.

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  • “Even a turd has substance .”

    I was wondering why that was posted and mine wasn’t.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    1) that commenter has contributed more than brain farts in the past, so some slack. especially since the comments were short and funny in a car-crash sort of way

    2) i recall your comment was long and somewhat rambling, and frankly didn't contribute much original insight to me. i'm tolerant of the latter issue, as sometimes people just want their opinions expressed, but please be more concise and clear in the future if that's your aim. the longer your comment the less likely i'm to clear it if it's inchoate or not nearly as novel as you might think it is.

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  • The gist of this conclusion to me seems to be similar to the one in relation to lactase persistence: cultural and social change set the preconditions for evolutionary change, evolutionary change did not trigger cultural and social change.

    Well, wouldn’t you say that it’s more like the two are intertwined? Gene-culture co-evolution. Rapid social changes aren’t brought about by equally rapid evolutionary changes, but rapid social changes can be the result of a “critical mass” of sorts of slow evolutionary changes being reached. The rise of secularism today is perhaps one good example. The “genetic potential” has been building for generations (or at least has been built, since I’m sure present day selective forces are going in the other the direction), but the confluence of modern events is what set the dominoes in motion.

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  • @jtgw
    I just started reading "Religion explained" and one thing that struck me was the parallels between culture or religion and language. At least in the Chomskyan tradition that I adhere to, language is "an instinct to acquire an art" (in Pinker's words, borrowing from Darwin). Languages are different, but only certain kinds of language are humanly possible. A child exposed to language will acquire it effortlessly within the critical period, but without such exposure she will be unable to do so later. Boyer makes many similar claims about acquisition of religion. I find the theory fundamentally plausible, but note that our theory of religion still has a way to go before it can acquire the precision of current linguistic theory.

    Another parallel between religion and language is that, yes, everybody seems to think he has a valid opinion about what it is, where it comes from and how it's learned. Razib's complaints of people spouting bullshit theories on religion reminds me a lot of fellow linguists complaining about how language issues are discussed in the popular press.

    language is the best case scenario for the naturalistic explanation of culture (to the point where some people bracket it outside of culture). i think religion is less clear and distinct. in addition, there’s a lot of argument whether the cognitive aspect of religion is adaptive (or just a byproduct), while everyone agrees about language’s utility. that being said, i think religion broadly construed is a human universal because it’s part of ‘evoked culture.’ that is, any normal environmental inputs will produce religion in a human society.

    Read More
    • Replies: @iffen
    Razib,

    I just finished one of the books on your reading list and I want to share a couple of sentences that explained so much of how and why to me.

    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony

    “Negative evaluations associated with the dying language lead to a descending series of reclassifications by succeeding generations, until no one wants to speak like Grandpa any more. Language shift and the stigmatization of old identities go hand in hand.”
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • “even if the value-add is in stylistic flourish, rather than substance.”

    I’m sincere if nothing else but I’ve got no formal education so a lot of what you say goes right by me so I don’t get that .

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  • @Razib Khan
    to be fair, some of donut's "comments" are kind of funny. at least he's concise, even if the value-add is in stylistic flourish, rather than substance.

    Even a turd has substance .

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  • @jtgw
    I think this is exactly the kind of armchair theorizing that annoys Razib. I'm a religious man myself and I don't find your notions entirely foreign to my own experience, but you should really try to support it with more than introspection. Do you have evidence that most religious people have the same motivations as you describe here, for instance? Boyer's book suggests not necessarily, e.g. many pre-institutional religions don't seek all-encompassing explanations for life's mysteries, but are more pragmatically tuned to particular events in everyday experience.

    to be fair, some of donut’s “comments” are kind of funny. at least he’s concise, even if the value-add is in stylistic flourish, rather than substance.

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    • Replies: @donut
    Even a turd has substance .
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  • Annoying Razib is only an ancillary benefit . Evidence ? I don’t care for any evidence other than my own personal experience . And it’s not “armchair theorizing” it’s bitter personal experience . And while I wouldn’t wish any spiritual pain on anyone , spiritual pain is ultimately the only way to break the chains that bind us . It drives us to seek an answer .

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  • @donut
    Life in this modern world is barely endurable and unutterably bleak as we have relentlessly drained the wonder out of it . Some where the mystery is still hidden with all it's unknowable glory and immense undiminished power and that is what the spiritual impulse in us yearns for and seeks .

    I think this is exactly the kind of armchair theorizing that annoys Razib. I’m a religious man myself and I don’t find your notions entirely foreign to my own experience, but you should really try to support it with more than introspection. Do you have evidence that most religious people have the same motivations as you describe here, for instance? Boyer’s book suggests not necessarily, e.g. many pre-institutional religions don’t seek all-encompassing explanations for life’s mysteries, but are more pragmatically tuned to particular events in everyday experience.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    to be fair, some of donut's "comments" are kind of funny. at least he's concise, even if the value-add is in stylistic flourish, rather than substance.
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  • But we could try to get our MoJo workin’

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hEYwk0bypY#t=21

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  • We are all as lost as this :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS2nX4fuzqc#t=171

    And yet being lost is where our hope lies .

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  • @donut
    Life in this modern world is barely endurable and unutterably bleak as we have relentlessly drained the wonder out of it . Some where the mystery is still hidden with all it's unknowable glory and immense undiminished power and that is what the spiritual impulse in us yearns for and seeks .

    And BTW there is no god to help us there . We are left alone each one to find it by him self .

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  • Life in this modern world is barely endurable and unutterably bleak as we have relentlessly drained the wonder out of it . Some where the mystery is still hidden with all it’s unknowable glory and immense undiminished power and that is what the spiritual impulse in us yearns for and seeks .

    Read More
    • Replies: @donut
    And BTW there is no god to help us there . We are left alone each one to find it by him self .
    , @jtgw
    I think this is exactly the kind of armchair theorizing that annoys Razib. I'm a religious man myself and I don't find your notions entirely foreign to my own experience, but you should really try to support it with more than introspection. Do you have evidence that most religious people have the same motivations as you describe here, for instance? Boyer's book suggests not necessarily, e.g. many pre-institutional religions don't seek all-encompassing explanations for life's mysteries, but are more pragmatically tuned to particular events in everyday experience.
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • @Razib Khan
    fwiw, i have stated that i don't think political religion is a particularly useful definition for what's going on.

    fwiw, i have stated that i don’t think political religion is a particularly useful definition for what’s going on.

    Yeah, I didn’t mean it personally (that isn’t how I roll — ideas either stand or they don’t independent of the individuals who propose them). It’s just that the “political religion” theory strikes me as another one of those attempts to make fascism/Nazism some beast that arose out of nothing, which gives the lie to the “secular” philosophy it’s supposed to be based on.

    From my investigations into the issue, I suspect religion is hardwired and integral to humanity. I lean toward the Jaynesian hypothesis, and I think it merits more research.

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  • I just started reading “Religion explained” and one thing that struck me was the parallels between culture or religion and language. At least in the Chomskyan tradition that I adhere to, language is “an instinct to acquire an art” (in Pinker’s words, borrowing from Darwin). Languages are different, but only certain kinds of language are humanly possible. A child exposed to language will acquire it effortlessly within the critical period, but without such exposure she will be unable to do so later. Boyer makes many similar claims about acquisition of religion. I find the theory fundamentally plausible, but note that our theory of religion still has a way to go before it can acquire the precision of current linguistic theory.

    Another parallel between religion and language is that, yes, everybody seems to think he has a valid opinion about what it is, where it comes from and how it’s learned. Razib’s complaints of people spouting bullshit theories on religion reminds me a lot of fellow linguists complaining about how language issues are discussed in the popular press.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    language is the best case scenario for the naturalistic explanation of culture (to the point where some people bracket it outside of culture). i think religion is less clear and distinct. in addition, there's a lot of argument whether the cognitive aspect of religion is adaptive (or just a byproduct), while everyone agrees about language's utility. that being said, i think religion broadly construed is a human universal because it's part of 'evoked culture.' that is, any normal environmental inputs will produce religion in a human society.
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • Tribes of hunter-gatherers also have religions so religion pre-dates large multi-ethnic societies. Early states that were religious were not multi-ethnic and it was common for each ethnicity to have its own religion until much later.

    Some have speculated that the turn to agriculture, which is apparently baffling, has its origins in the need to practice religious rites in a stable location.

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  • @TB
    I think it's difficult to understand the phenomenon of religion if one leaves out the usage of mind altering plants, animal poisons and mushrooms throughout the history of mankind and the supernatural experience that can be produced by the central nerve system when these interact with different receptors. All is one is a timeless classic.

    What those mind altering plants, animal poisons and mushrooms produce is not something extraneous to us . It’s there to be found one way or another . Any crisis or trauma forces us in that direction . The very thin veneer of , what ? Sophistication is a delusion . We are still only equipped with the same mental capacities that our neolithic ancestors were and when faced with the unknown and under enough stress will respond the same way . Even Mr. Khan .

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  • TB says:
    @Razib Khan
    you need to be more concise. in any case, i think religion has roots in the paleolithic. it's not new.

    If you accept that a society is bio-cultural algorithm of genes and learned behaviors

    the term 'bio-cultural' is bandied about in a way that often makes no sense or adds no value. it's like saying if you "accept that history is the outcome of newtonian mechanics."

    I think it’s difficult to understand the phenomenon of religion if one leaves out the usage of mind altering plants, animal poisons and mushrooms throughout the history of mankind and the supernatural experience that can be produced by the central nerve system when these interact with different receptors. All is one is a timeless classic.

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    • Replies: @donut
    What those mind altering plants, animal poisons and mushrooms produce is not something extraneous to us . It's there to be found one way or another . Any crisis or trauma forces us in that direction . The very thin veneer of , what ? Sophistication is a delusion . We are still only equipped with the same mental capacities that our neolithic ancestors were and when faced with the unknown and under enough stress will respond the same way . Even Mr. Khan .
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • ” the mass of the rank and file, whose spiritual world is still strongly shaped by the same cognitive parameters one finds in primal “animistic” faiths .”

    Animistic faith is I believe all there is to religion . It’s somewhere deep in our makeup , the mass of the rank and file understand religion better than the elites . Knock wood .

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  • @Razib Khan
    you need to be more concise. in any case, i think religion has roots in the paleolithic. it's not new.

    If you accept that a society is bio-cultural algorithm of genes and learned behaviors

    the term 'bio-cultural' is bandied about in a way that often makes no sense or adds no value. it's like saying if you "accept that history is the outcome of newtonian mechanics."

    Concise – agree.

    It is extremely useful because out here amongst the commoners, the interplay of a culture and its genome with the environment, and thus fitness is not understood. If it can be understood, it is often rejected.

    If we ever hope to have better policy, this relationship needs to be more accessible, implicit in the nomenclature, and widespread.

    If there is a concise way of explaining it, I am all ears, because I am struggling.

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  • @Muse
    So religion just popped up when humans shifted from a hunter gatherer based social organization to a stratified, larger more complex agriculturally based organization?

    Is religion a social artifact from the old Neolithic structures, or a new adaptation?

    If you accept that a society is bio-cultural algorithm of genes and learned behaviors, and it constitutes one of many possible solutions to group survival in a given environment; how does religion as a component of this new social organization promote the fitness of the group? Does it mitigate (as a work around) genetically determined social traits that were a better fit in the old bio-cultural algorithm?

    We lived in small hunter gatherer bands for thousands of years. No doubt we were under selection for genetic traits and learned social behaviors (culture) that helped us survive in those groups.

    I would suggest that religion improved the fitness of societies. It was a method for humans to purposely influence patterns of collective behavior of much larger groups, without wasting as much energy on coercion. It would have been wildly more efficient to replace the external force of the club with internal restraints of guilt in the occident and shame in the peoples of the orient. Moreover, it allowed scalability in human organization. When done right, smaller tribal structures without the direction and coordination of the new religious superstructure with its larger scale would not have had a chance.

    Genetic technology appears to offer a similar opportunity for humans to engineer the genome like we have done with social organization using politics and religion. No wonder eugenics and it's successor genetic engineering are taboo subjects for polite dinner conversation.

    The old bio-social algorithm of the small hunter gatherer organization still exists in practice on a very limited basis, but I believe the genes are still there, although under selection pressure AND drift because our social and technological innovation have so radically changed the environment as experienced by the individual human organism.

    Many of the old traits, and in fact the physical structures still remain. The brain structure retains and has integrated the old hardware (medulla, amygdala etc) with the new hardware (big prefrontal cortex).

    Religion helps the individual live with these cultural and physical dualities, which are both artifacts and components of various bio-social algorithms..

    So tonight, I am going to a church social function to be with my tribe. It is not too large, so I will have the comfort of knowing nearly everyone. I will share my food with them and they will share theirs with me. We will be a community in the most primal of ways, and as the fire dies, and the embers glow, my wife, my children and I will go to our home and our dog.

    I will pray to a god my prefrontal cortex does not believe in, the child in my lower brain will be comforted, the raging fearful terror that lives with him will be calmed, and I will sleep peacefully.

    I have gotten over my overt atheism, not because God has come to me in a dream, but because it serves no constructive purpose. The current industrialized secular culture in the West does not seem to be working out so well in combination with the collective occidental genome. Other peoples seem to be performing better, if population growth is the true measure of fitness, than the West without its God.

    It appears that Islam an Orthodox Judaism understand this. Russia appears to have relearned the lesson to some degree. China and the West, who knows? May the best algorithm win.

    you need to be more concise. in any case, i think religion has roots in the paleolithic. it’s not new.

    If you accept that a society is bio-cultural algorithm of genes and learned behaviors

    the term ‘bio-cultural’ is bandied about in a way that often makes no sense or adds no value. it’s like saying if you “accept that history is the outcome of newtonian mechanics.”

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    • Replies: @muse
    Concise - agree.

    It is extremely useful because out here amongst the commoners, the interplay of a culture and its genome with the environment, and thus fitness is not understood. If it can be understood, it is often rejected.

    If we ever hope to have better policy, this relationship needs to be more accessible, implicit in the nomenclature, and widespread.

    If there is a concise way of explaining it, I am all ears, because I am struggling.
    , @TB
    I think it's difficult to understand the phenomenon of religion if one leaves out the usage of mind altering plants, animal poisons and mushrooms throughout the history of mankind and the supernatural experience that can be produced by the central nerve system when these interact with different receptors. All is one is a timeless classic.
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • So religion just popped up when humans shifted from a hunter gatherer based social organization to a stratified, larger more complex agriculturally based organization?

    Is religion a social artifact from the old Neolithic structures, or a new adaptation?

    If you accept that a society is bio-cultural algorithm of genes and learned behaviors, and it constitutes one of many possible solutions to group survival in a given environment; how does religion as a component of this new social organization promote the fitness of the group? Does it mitigate (as a work around) genetically determined social traits that were a better fit in the old bio-cultural algorithm?

    We lived in small hunter gatherer bands for thousands of years. No doubt we were under selection for genetic traits and learned social behaviors (culture) that helped us survive in those groups.

    I would suggest that religion improved the fitness of societies. It was a method for humans to purposely influence patterns of collective behavior of much larger groups, without wasting as much energy on coercion. It would have been wildly more efficient to replace the external force of the club with internal restraints of guilt in the occident and shame in the peoples of the orient. Moreover, it allowed scalability in human organization. When done right, smaller tribal structures without the direction and coordination of the new religious superstructure with its larger scale would not have had a chance.

    Genetic technology appears to offer a similar opportunity for humans to engineer the genome like we have done with social organization using politics and religion. No wonder eugenics and it’s successor genetic engineering are taboo subjects for polite dinner conversation.

    The old bio-social algorithm of the small hunter gatherer organization still exists in practice on a very limited basis, but I believe the genes are still there, although under selection pressure AND drift because our social and technological innovation have so radically changed the environment as experienced by the individual human organism.

    Many of the old traits, and in fact the physical structures still remain. The brain structure retains and has integrated the old hardware (medulla, amygdala etc) with the new hardware (big prefrontal cortex).

    Religion helps the individual live with these cultural and physical dualities, which are both artifacts and components of various bio-social algorithms..

    So tonight, I am going to a church social function to be with my tribe. It is not too large, so I will have the comfort of knowing nearly everyone. I will share my food with them and they will share theirs with me. We will be a community in the most primal of ways, and as the fire dies, and the embers glow, my wife, my children and I will go to our home and our dog.

    I will pray to a god my prefrontal cortex does not believe in, the child in my lower brain will be comforted, the raging fearful terror that lives with him will be calmed, and I will sleep peacefully.

    I have gotten over my overt atheism, not because God has come to me in a dream, but because it serves no constructive purpose. The current industrialized secular culture in the West does not seem to be working out so well in combination with the collective occidental genome. Other peoples seem to be performing better, if population growth is the true measure of fitness, than the West without its God.

    It appears that Islam an Orthodox Judaism understand this. Russia appears to have relearned the lesson to some degree. China and the West, who knows? May the best algorithm win.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    you need to be more concise. in any case, i think religion has roots in the paleolithic. it's not new.

    If you accept that a society is bio-cultural algorithm of genes and learned behaviors

    the term 'bio-cultural' is bandied about in a way that often makes no sense or adds no value. it's like saying if you "accept that history is the outcome of newtonian mechanics."
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • @Senator Brundlefly
    I'm not a Constitutional scholar and perhaps I'm simply transposing my own libertarian views on the founders (feel free to correct me), but I've never understood why freedom of religion is viewed in legal circles as the ultimate trump card. For me, the First Amendment is not a random laundry list of freedoms. It is a coherent defense of a person's right to live in accordance to a moral system. To live under a moral system, one must be able to speak, write, assemble and (if religious) worship freely. To bring it back to the aforementioned Sullivan article, I think Hobby Lobby should have the right to deny contraceptive coverage for whatever reason they like. It doesn't matter to me whether their opposition to contraceptives was derived from the edicts of a magical sky being or by some non-supernatural belief system. The government has no business forcing people to do something that they believe is morally wrong

    It is probably because of this ideological baggage (and likely ignorance, I'm 23 and thus likely don't have the wide knowledge base that many here would have) that I would be one of the people that would be tempted to lump political ideology in the same category as religion. If the goal of studying religion in an evolutionary context is to understand something general about the human animal, religion and ideology relate to our adaptation(s) of moral systems to organize ourselves in groups. To me the supernatural component seems like more of a separate issue of how we conceptualize the world. The nexus of the two is at religions as you define them: morality enforced by supernatural powers. I mean, doesn’t this quote from the nature article speak to a distinctiveness of the two components?: “The most immediate way to do this is to align yourself with a supreme deity and then make lists of things people can and cannot do, and these become ‘morals’ when applied to our social behaviour.” To illustrate separately:

    "Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others."-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

    "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying."-Revelation 22:14-15

    Both relate to the importance of honesty. For Rand, reality will supposedly punish liars by making them "pawns". In the Bible, liars are not allowed in God's kingdom. Though Rand lacks the requisite "supernatural" part, it seems like a religion to me because in a way it is enforced by punishment. Am I wrong to clump the two because this is an over-generalization? Or is your opposition to the clumping more to do with the fact that “religion” would lose its specificity as an operational definition?

    but I’ve never understood why freedom of religion is viewed in legal circles as the ultimate trump card.

    people place an inordinate emotional valence to religion. for many it notionally trumps all other identities. this doesn’t always happen in practice, but the ‘world religions’ have a whole ideology about why they are the most important aspect of someone’s identity. the legal stance is an acknowledgment of an anthropological fact. many of us atheists wish this weren’t so, that religion would simply become another obscure private hobby. but if it became such a thing it wouldn’t really be religion. in fact, militant anti-religious sentiment is strongest in areas where religion is not a coercive monopoly, but still has a very powerful influence on the public space (e.g., the modern west). in contrast, in areas where religion is more diffuse and privatized, such as east asia, strident anti-religious sentiment isn’t as common. more it’s just apathy or confusion (in east asia powerful public space monopolizing religions have arisen in the past, see buddhism in the early tang and also in 16th century japan, but they were crushed by the state and elites).

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  • I’m not a Constitutional scholar and perhaps I’m simply transposing my own libertarian views on the founders (feel free to correct me), but I’ve never understood why freedom of religion is viewed in legal circles as the ultimate trump card. For me, the First Amendment is not a random laundry list of freedoms. It is a coherent defense of a person’s right to live in accordance to a moral system. To live under a moral system, one must be able to speak, write, assemble and (if religious) worship freely. To bring it back to the aforementioned Sullivan article, I think Hobby Lobby should have the right to deny contraceptive coverage for whatever reason they like. It doesn’t matter to me whether their opposition to contraceptives was derived from the edicts of a magical sky being or by some non-supernatural belief system. The government has no business forcing people to do something that they believe is morally wrong

    It is probably because of this ideological baggage (and likely ignorance, I’m 23 and thus likely don’t have the wide knowledge base that many here would have) that I would be one of the people that would be tempted to lump political ideology in the same category as religion. If the goal of studying religion in an evolutionary context is to understand something general about the human animal, religion and ideology relate to our adaptation(s) of moral systems to organize ourselves in groups. To me the supernatural component seems like more of a separate issue of how we conceptualize the world. The nexus of the two is at religions as you define them: morality enforced by supernatural powers. I mean, doesn’t this quote from the nature article speak to a distinctiveness of the two components?: “The most immediate way to do this is to align yourself with a supreme deity and then make lists of things people can and cannot do, and these become ‘morals’ when applied to our social behaviour.” To illustrate separately:

    “Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.”-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

    “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.”-Revelation 22:14-15

    Both relate to the importance of honesty. For Rand, reality will supposedly punish liars by making them “pawns”. In the Bible, liars are not allowed in God’s kingdom. Though Rand lacks the requisite “supernatural” part, it seems like a religion to me because in a way it is enforced by punishment. Am I wrong to clump the two because this is an over-generalization? Or is your opposition to the clumping more to do with the fact that “religion” would lose its specificity as an operational definition?

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    but I’ve never understood why freedom of religion is viewed in legal circles as the ultimate trump card.

    people place an inordinate emotional valence to religion. for many it notionally trumps all other identities. this doesn't always happen in practice, but the 'world religions' have a whole ideology about why they are the most important aspect of someone's identity. the legal stance is an acknowledgment of an anthropological fact. many of us atheists wish this weren't so, that religion would simply become another obscure private hobby. but if it became such a thing it wouldn't really be religion. in fact, militant anti-religious sentiment is strongest in areas where religion is not a coercive monopoly, but still has a very powerful influence on the public space (e.g., the modern west). in contrast, in areas where religion is more diffuse and privatized, such as east asia, strident anti-religious sentiment isn't as common. more it's just apathy or confusion (in east asia powerful public space monopolizing religions have arisen in the past, see buddhism in the early tang and also in 16th century japan, but they were crushed by the state and elites).

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  • @Robert Ford
    just once i want someone to tell me that they're religious but not spiritual:) it'd be refreshing.

    My childhood was full of those.

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  • @Robert Ford
    just once i want someone to tell me that they're religious but not spiritual:) it'd be refreshing.

    I’d describe myself that way. I like rituals and church hierarchies and canon law, but I think Hobbes was vindicated when he said we are no more than matter in motion.

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  • I’ve noticed that in matters of religion people seldom agree, especially on the Internet. I am sure it must be frustrating to someone like Razib who wants to have a conversation and is trying to understand the whole phenomenon or cluster of phenomena that go under the rubric of religion. Maybe Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances (that was his term wasn’t it?) would come in handy here: there is no single or well-defined set of features which characterize that to which the word religion refers, but rather a shifting intersection of features. I just thought I would throw that out there. No one thing is essential, not even the supernatural.

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  • @April Brown
    Nothing like getting backed into a corner at a party by somebody who wants to talk about how they are "spiritual, but not religious" to completely ruin the evening.

    just once i want someone to tell me that they’re religious but not spiritual:) it’d be refreshing.

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    • Replies: @Pithlord
    I'd describe myself that way. I like rituals and church hierarchies and canon law, but I think Hobbes was vindicated when he said we are no more than matter in motion.
    , @Sandgroper
    My childhood was full of those.
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  • @Razib Khan
    Of course, for scientific purposes, you can stipulate any definition of “religion” you want to use to delineate your domain of study. But the question, “Why do people believe in supernatural agents?” is on a totally different order from “Why did post-Reformation Europe first fight about theology and ritual and then decide those issues should be segregated from politics?”

    yes. i don't find religious studies particularly interesting, because the field as a whole is a little too weepy and emotional for my taste ;-) people from religious studies backgrounds have cried about spirituality in front of me a little too much for my taste.

    Once you are into the First Amendment question, then there is a difficult line-drawing exercise where belief in supernatural beings may not be the most important issue.


    agree with winnifred fallers sullivan in *the impossibility of religious freedom*

    Nothing like getting backed into a corner at a party by somebody who wants to talk about how they are “spiritual, but not religious” to completely ruin the evening.

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    • Replies: @Robert Ford
    just once i want someone to tell me that they're religious but not spiritual:) it'd be refreshing.
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
  • @Pithlord
    My understanding is that the current view in Religious Studies tends to be that the category of "religion" is misleading when applied in a pre-modern context, even from the Axial Age to the late medieval period. Everyone has always had gods and other supernatural entities, and sometimes other people's gods are your people's demons. Christianity developed categories of the faithful, heathens and heretics, while Islam had believers, unbelievers and peoples of the book. But it is really with Locke and then the First Amendment that it becomes important to have a category of religion, because you need to have something you tolerate while keeping separate from the state.

    Of course, for scientific purposes, you can stipulate any definition of "religion" you want to use to delineate your domain of study. But the question, "Why do people believe in supernatural agents?" is on a totally different order from "Why did post-Reformation Europe first fight about theology and ritual and then decide those issues should be segregated from politics?"

    Once you are into the First Amendment question, then there is a difficult line-drawing exercise where belief in supernatural beings may not be the most important issue.

    Of course, for scientific purposes, you can stipulate any definition of “religion” you want to use to delineate your domain of study. But the question, “Why do people believe in supernatural agents?” is on a totally different order from “Why did post-Reformation Europe first fight about theology and ritual and then decide those issues should be segregated from politics?”

    yes. i don’t find religious studies particularly interesting, because the field as a whole is a little too weepy and emotional for my taste ;-) people from religious studies backgrounds have cried about spirituality in front of me a little too much for my taste.

    Once you are into the First Amendment question, then there is a difficult line-drawing exercise where belief in supernatural beings may not be the most important issue.

    agree with winnifred fallers sullivan in *the impossibility of religious freedom*

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    • Replies: @April Brown
    Nothing like getting backed into a corner at a party by somebody who wants to talk about how they are "spiritual, but not religious" to completely ruin the evening.
    , @Spike Gomes
    In my defense, I only moaned and gnashed my teeth. I never wept. ;-)
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  • @GW
    Have you checked out Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism? I'd do that if you haven't already. He makes a convincing case that naturalism is incompatible with the strong rationalism inherent to the physical sciences.

    David Chalmers deals with self-consciousness quite a bit in his work. He basically argues it is the one inexplicable thing about our existence. We can explain human thoughts, behaviors, emotions, etc. on evolutionary principles save this one thing.

    i have read plantinga’s work. or perhaps i should say i expended some of my life on that…

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  • GW says:
    @bob sykes
    A very nice post, but, of course, I want to quibble.

    The mind/body problem remains unsolved and maybe is unsolvable. Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" is a bad joke: the text belies the title. See also Tallis' "Aping Mankind" for a critique of neuroscience. (His is one.)

    Thomas Nagel summarizes the problem in his recent "Mind and Cosmos." Our modern reductionist science does not seem able to deal with the mind problem. Nagel thinks something is missing from our assumptions. Saying religion is hardwired misses Nagel's point and merely deflects attention from the issue.

    As an agnostic, I cannot take seriously the Catholicism of my youth. Yet, retired after 37 years of teaching engineering and science, I am a deep skeptic as well of the whole science establishment and its scientism.

    Have you checked out Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism? I’d do that if you haven’t already. He makes a convincing case that naturalism is incompatible with the strong rationalism inherent to the physical sciences.

    David Chalmers deals with self-consciousness quite a bit in his work. He basically argues it is the one inexplicable thing about our existence. We can explain human thoughts, behaviors, emotions, etc. on evolutionary principles save this one thing.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i have read plantinga's work. or perhaps i should say i expended some of my life on that...
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  • Karen Armstrong argues (I’m not really off to a strong start here, admittedly) that the Buddha created the monastic saṅgha in order to preserve the germ of his native people’s republican ideals in a world that no longer had a place for them in the political sphere. Since this is a pithy and, to modern republicans such as ourselves, comfortable conclusion, I tend to assume that it’s basically false, but she might be on to something in some way/shape/form. It’s well known that (by most accounts) the Buddha’s Šákya kin constituted an oligarchic republic, comparable to the famous republics of the ancient Mediterranean, rather than a monarchy. It’s slightly less well known that the Buddhist scriptures are set against the backdrop of the political-military competition between early centralised monarchies, the prototypes of the later Maurya empire. Furthermore, according to these stories, the Śākyas were massacred in their entirety during the Buddha’s lifetime by one of those monarchical powers and the Śākya state destroyed.

    (Basically OT from here:) The Śākyas as described in Buddhist literature are distinctive in two ways: their republican state and their unusual marriage customs. The latter surfaces in two putative facts: the Śākyas’ legendary origin from brother-sister marriages among a king’s sons and daughters (I recently read a paper about this by Jonathan A. Silk) and their contemporary practice of cross-cousin marriage, which was probably considered illicit in Vedic society. I tend to suppose that the incest legend was an etiological myth to explain the marriage customs. Cross-cousin marriage might point to some kind of historical link to Iran, although Jayarava Attwood has argued that cross-cousin marriage is only mentioned in late Sri Lankan texts and so could simply reflect south Indian marriage norms. On the other hand, Michael Witzel and Attwood have argued for an Iranian origin of the Śākyas on other grounds, which might imply that the similar sound of the words “Śākya” and “Śaka” is not a coincidence.

    This is the Silk paper I mentioned: http://www.academia.edu/534452/Incestuous_Ancestries_The_Family_Origins_of_Gautama_Siddh%C4%81rtha_Abraham_and_Sarah_in_Genesis_20_12_and_The_Status_of_Scripture_in_Buddhism

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  • My understanding is that the current view in Religious Studies tends to be that the category of “religion” is misleading when applied in a pre-modern context, even from the Axial Age to the late medieval period. Everyone has always had gods and other supernatural entities, and sometimes other people’s gods are your people’s demons. Christianity developed categories of the faithful, heathens and heretics, while Islam had believers, unbelievers and peoples of the book. But it is really with Locke and then the First Amendment that it becomes important to have a category of religion, because you need to have something you tolerate while keeping separate from the state.

    Of course, for scientific purposes, you can stipulate any definition of “religion” you want to use to delineate your domain of study. But the question, “Why do people believe in supernatural agents?” is on a totally different order from “Why did post-Reformation Europe first fight about theology and ritual and then decide those issues should be segregated from politics?”

    Once you are into the First Amendment question, then there is a difficult line-drawing exercise where belief in supernatural beings may not be the most important issue.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    Of course, for scientific purposes, you can stipulate any definition of “religion” you want to use to delineate your domain of study. But the question, “Why do people believe in supernatural agents?” is on a totally different order from “Why did post-Reformation Europe first fight about theology and ritual and then decide those issues should be segregated from politics?”

    yes. i don't find religious studies particularly interesting, because the field as a whole is a little too weepy and emotional for my taste ;-) people from religious studies backgrounds have cried about spirituality in front of me a little too much for my taste.

    Once you are into the First Amendment question, then there is a difficult line-drawing exercise where belief in supernatural beings may not be the most important issue.


    agree with winnifred fallers sullivan in *the impossibility of religious freedom*
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  • @Bill P


    i provide links so that readers who are not clear about definitions, as is the POINT OF THIS POST, can be clarified. that is NOT what political religion is. you may have your own definition of what political religion is, but please make sure to use terms that are common to what most people use in the future.
     
    OK, fair enough. You are right: it is a novel theory. Whether it is a novel phenomenon or not is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

    fwiw, i have stated that i don’t think political religion is a particularly useful definition for what’s going on.

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    • Replies: @Bill P

    fwiw, i have stated that i don’t think political religion is a particularly useful definition for what’s going on.
     
    Yeah, I didn't mean it personally (that isn't how I roll -- ideas either stand or they don't independent of the individuals who propose them). It's just that the "political religion" theory strikes me as another one of those attempts to make fascism/Nazism some beast that arose out of nothing, which gives the lie to the "secular" philosophy it's supposed to be based on.

    From my investigations into the issue, I suspect religion is hardwired and integral to humanity. I lean toward the Jaynesian hypothesis, and I think it merits more research.
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  • Immigrant from former USSR [AKA "Florida Resident"] says:

    Razib Khan: “Unlike quantum physics, or even population genetics, people think they “get” religion, and have a pretty good intuition and understanding of the phenomenon without any scholarly inquiry.”
    .
    I can not claim to have any intuition on population genetics, even less on religion;
    and I can witness that scholarly inquiry is required in almost any field of human activity.
    But mostly it helps to be surrounded by scholars from early years on.
    I humbly believe that it is applicable to Mr. Khan himself as well.
    .
    Traditional … .

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  • i provide links so that readers who are not clear about definitions, as is the POINT OF THIS POST, can be clarified. that is NOT what political religion is. you may have your own definition of what political religion is, but please make sure to use terms that are common to what most people use in the future.

    OK, fair enough. You are right: it is a novel theory. Whether it is a novel phenomenon or not is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    fwiw, i have stated that i don't think political religion is a particularly useful definition for what's going on.
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  • @Priss Factor
    "Eh, Nebuchadnezzar, servant of Marduk, would beg to differ."

    Pharaohs too.

    i’m going to start banning people based on this shit. START LOOKING UP THE DEFINITIONS. let’s go back to the first paragraph:

    “This is clear in the comments of this weblog where people start with an assumed definition of religion, and then proceed to enter into a chain of reasoning with their axiomatic definition in mind,”

    tempted to close this thread.

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  • @bob sykes
    A very nice post, but, of course, I want to quibble.

    The mind/body problem remains unsolved and maybe is unsolvable. Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" is a bad joke: the text belies the title. See also Tallis' "Aping Mankind" for a critique of neuroscience. (His is one.)

    Thomas Nagel summarizes the problem in his recent "Mind and Cosmos." Our modern reductionist science does not seem able to deal with the mind problem. Nagel thinks something is missing from our assumptions. Saying religion is hardwired misses Nagel's point and merely deflects attention from the issue.

    As an agnostic, I cannot take seriously the Catholicism of my youth. Yet, retired after 37 years of teaching engineering and science, I am a deep skeptic as well of the whole science establishment and its scientism.

    what does the mind/body problem have to do with this post? stay on topic!

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  • @Bill P

    At the other extreme there are others who wish to include “political religion” more wholeheartedly in the discussion. In my opinion doing so makes it difficult to discuss religious phenomena in a historical context, as political religion is relatively novel and recent.
     
    Eh, Nebuchadnezzar, servant of Marduk, would beg to differ.

    “Eh, Nebuchadnezzar, servant of Marduk, would beg to differ.”

    Pharaohs too.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i'm going to start banning people based on this shit. START LOOKING UP THE DEFINITIONS. let's go back to the first paragraph:

    "This is clear in the comments of this weblog where people start with an assumed definition of religion, and then proceed to enter into a chain of reasoning with their axiomatic definition in mind,"

    tempted to close this thread.
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  • A very nice post, but, of course, I want to quibble.

    The mind/body problem remains unsolved and maybe is unsolvable. Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” is a bad joke: the text belies the title. See also Tallis’ “Aping Mankind” for a critique of neuroscience. (His is one.)

    Thomas Nagel summarizes the problem in his recent “Mind and Cosmos.” Our modern reductionist science does not seem able to deal with the mind problem. Nagel thinks something is missing from our assumptions. Saying religion is hardwired misses Nagel’s point and merely deflects attention from the issue.

    As an agnostic, I cannot take seriously the Catholicism of my youth. Yet, retired after 37 years of teaching engineering and science, I am a deep skeptic as well of the whole science establishment and its scientism.

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    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    what does the mind/body problem have to do with this post? stay on topic!
    , @GW
    Have you checked out Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism? I'd do that if you haven't already. He makes a convincing case that naturalism is incompatible with the strong rationalism inherent to the physical sciences.

    David Chalmers deals with self-consciousness quite a bit in his work. He basically argues it is the one inexplicable thing about our existence. We can explain human thoughts, behaviors, emotions, etc. on evolutionary principles save this one thing.
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  • i provide links so that readers who are not clear about definitions, as is the POINT OF THIS POST, can be clarified. that is NOT what political religion is. you may have your own definition of what political religion is, but please make sure to use terms that are common to what most people use in the future.

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  • At the other extreme there are others who wish to include “political religion” more wholeheartedly in the discussion. In my opinion doing so makes it difficult to discuss religious phenomena in a historical context, as political religion is relatively novel and recent.

    Eh, Nebuchadnezzar, servant of Marduk, would beg to differ.

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    • Replies: @Priss Factor
    "Eh, Nebuchadnezzar, servant of Marduk, would beg to differ."

    Pharaohs too.
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  • 2 of my favorite clues:
    On possible animism/shamanism shown in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”: https://everymagicalday.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/simplified-history-of-faith-practices-part-3-early-religious-ideas-zoolatry-animism-and-shamanism/ “Her lower half is human and upper half is bison.”

    On rule learning and behavior imitation:

    Does our attention to seek cause and effect lead to superstition/religion?

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  • On Twitter and elsewhere (e.g., on this weblog, in real life) I often get into confusing arguments with people when it comes to religion because I approach the topic from a somewhat strange angle. Specifically, it is one which integrates cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, intellectual history and sociology. My interest in this topic was more...
  • […] Government High Fallutin’ Nazis Adjunctivitis (colleges are starting to get what they pay for) Religion Is Important to Understand Arne Duncan just doesn’t get it: How the media and phony reformers hurt your kids 13 ways […]

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  • Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “What my study of religion suggested to me is that the fixation upon religion as a intellectual system totally misses the primary reasons that religion exists, and why it has existed for all of human history and has had adherents across most of humanity.”

    Whose fixation? Is there a preponderance of thought out there that the core basis for religion is to satisfy intellectual fixations?

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  • Sola fide

    there’s plenty of evidence that people say they believe this if well indoctrinated, but they don’t live this way. again, this is why you have to study this issue at more than a superficial level.

    Does that possibility repulse you?

    no.

    Everyone holds some ultimate value and has some worldview that answers the Big Questions.

    no, this is false. this is a bias of well educated/literate/high status people, is the main reason many don’t get the playing out of the religious impulse across history very well.

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  • Interesting. I study this topic from the perspective of: How is the spiritual impulse the same, across time and cultures? As the author points out, there is much in common. I say “spiritual impulse” because “religion” has the connotation of a human organization; i.e. a human attempt to organize spirituality.

    It is also interesting that the author lists possible ‘explanations’ for religion, but leaves out one possibility: There is a God and something inside us yearns to connect. Does that possibility repulse you? That just demonstrates a personal bias. Surely you do not claim that science has proven God does not exist?

    Everyone holds some ultimate value and has some worldview that answers the Big Questions. To whatever extent that is organized, it fulfills the same role as what we think of as religion. Communism, fascism, Freemarket fundamentalism, extreme environmentalism, scientism-all have an ultimate value, prophets, clergy; all will create a new man and ultimately save the world.

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  • Sola fide

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  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=lDgvY5LMSio#t=448

    re: religion/superstition as an adaptive phenotype or a byproduct. i hope this is relevant – this experiment always stuck with me as it implies that our tendency to see cause and effect when there is none my be a (by)product of our ability to copy exactly from one another.

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  • the feeling of a kind of vacuum that some people felt the need to fill.

    this though is more of an ‘axial age’ thing. the quest for meaning, etc. i don’t think that that’s the primary issue with small-scale societies, the ur-societies. meaning already exists for these people in their families, and the basic understanding of the world populated by spirits which they take for granted. IOW, it’s not deep thought that fills the vacuum, the vacuum gets filled naturally by basic intuitions.

    one of the major findings of cog sci of religion is that religious intuitions are often synthetic, in that they recombine different core competencies. this is probably similar to many other complex elaborated features of culture (e.g., song & dance) which are human universals.

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  • “1) modelling mental states in con-specifics is highly adaptive
    2) modelling external stimuli as agents is also highly adaptive”

    yes

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  • “don’t presume all phenotypes are adaptive”

    Yeah. Another of my (very casual) thoughts on this was brains developing the ability to conceive abstractions might at the same time have created the feeling of a kind of vacuum that some people felt the need to fill.

    Another might be that the thing itself was just an accident or side-effect but it created a tool that could be used for adaptive (or not) purposes later.

    I think religiosity is a very big deal and so it would be interesting to see people look at it from an evolutionary point of view rather than just the yah boo stuff.

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  • If necessity is the mother of evolution then that implies religion / religiosity must have been necessary at some point (or points) for some reason (or reasons).

    don’t presume all phenotypes are adaptive. on the molecular level lots of variation is neutral, and it may be so when it comes to many cultural artifacts. or, it can be a mix.

    here’s one simple model, which i lean toward

    1) modelling mental states in con-specifics is highly adaptive
    2) modelling external stimuli as agents is also highly adaptive

    both of these might together simply as a structural condition lead to the outcome that humans often theorize that there are unseen agents which are on the margins of perception. this is basically animism. as long as this tendency is not deleterious there’s no reason for selection to reshape the mental architecture so that the tendency is purged. on the contrary, as you imply above this synthetic trait might itself then have been selected for various evolutionary purposes. e.g., the emergence of totemic supernatural agents which foster group cohesion, and serve as the focus of ritualistic behavior.

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  • “What my study of religion suggested to me is that the fixation upon religion as a intellectual system totally misses the primary reasons that religion exists, and why it has existed for all of human history and has had adherents across most of humanity.”

    If necessity is the mother of evolution then that implies religion / religiosity must have been necessary at some point (or points) for some reason (or reasons).

    One of the possibilities being a method for larger social groups to transfer paternal/parental authority to a group leader.

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  • An arbitrary definition of “supernatural agents” could leave us somehow holding that Buddhism or some forms of Hinduism are not religion

    this is what i’m talking about when i say it helps to actually know religions at a deep level. you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/11/asian-buddhists-are-not-atheists/

    the definitions of buddhism and hinduism which remove supernatural agents exist, especially among elites. but they are very marginal in terms of how the religions are practiced and believed by almost all believers. you can consult world values survey, or some of the literature i cited.

    it’s very difficult to talk about religion because i don’t get a sense you know about the topic in anything more than a superficial sense. though even after you get beyond superificiality it isn’t trivial.

    p.s. laws, like karma, are not agents. it is difficult to talk when you don’t have a command of the basic lexicon.

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  • But, I believe homeopathy relies on supernatural agents. In the wikipedia entry on homeopathy, we see “the spirit-like medicinal powers of the crude substance.” The article also says “The law of susceptibility implies that a negative state of mind can attract hypothetical disease entities called “miasms” to invade the body and produce symptoms of diseases.” Miasms are supernatural agents.

    An arbitrary definition of “supernatural agents” could leave us somehow holding that Buddhism or some forms of Hinduism are not religions, leaving the puzzle of why courses on Oriental religions have habitually included this material. And not only is Scientology turned back into a science, but all flying saucer cults, Aetherians and all, are not religions. And it is entirely doubtful that Melanesian cargo cults count as religion in this case as well.

    Isn’t this suggestive that it’s very difficult to talk about religion in general. And, it can be very misleading about the universality, prompting generalizations that are purely verbal constructions relying only upon a misleading terminology.

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  • it seems to me

    which is the problem. you don’t know much, and i’m not interested in your comments on this topic. you resemble a precocious 12 year old, and you always have. that’s the problem about talking about religion, everyone thinks their assertions and intuitions are totally plausible.

    (yes, i’m going to delete future comments from you on this topic, because it just adds noise)

    now george, tell me what you know.

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  • I see plenty of religion in today’s mainstream American culture. I don’t mean the kind of concern for traditional theology that georgesdelatour is concerned about. Of course very few Christians understand the Trinity – it’s not supposed to make sense. It is a mystery. It’s crazy math on purpose.

    No, the religion I see everywhere is more mundane. Iron Man and Spider Man are – it seems to me – religious figures. Before monotheism the Greeks had many extraordinary supernatural figures – for example Hercules and Zeus. They were superheroes. They had extraordinary powers but also human failings. What makes a religious figure? Someone who operates on a higher plane. A plane that requires special effects in the movie.

    Monotheism is a little different. In pagan polytheism no one expected morality from the gods. Half the fun of the Greek and Roman gods was their bad behavior. Hindu polytheists also had some good, moral supernatural figures and some who are not so nice. But once you get down to only one god, there is a natural tendency to ascribe him with superlatives. Diverse pagan characters acting in many different ways get supplanted by some kind of universal law giver.

    Christianity was created as the ‘religion of peace’ because it was invented by the Roman state to promote submissive behavior among the ruled. Islam was created to promote organization for conquest. Maybe there’s more to them than just that, but not all that much. One was invented by an established empire and the other by those who wished to establish their own new empire.

    I read Dean Hamer’s ‘The God Gene’ a few years ago, It was largely rubbish. He tried to establish the biological underpinnings of monotheism. But humans have long been polytheists. and continue to be so today. Monotheism is a more recent phenomenon – no older than Amarna. Hamer doesn’t explain the rise of some new SNP that codes for the new style of religiosity.

    Polytheism is easy to explain and understand. Every little boy who gets bullied at school dreams of being stronger and braver. When I was a kid we read comic books. Today kids can see movies. In medieval times Saints (a Christian concession to the public’s desire for polytheism) had miraculous powers. The fantasy world of humans has long had heroes and villains. Only now these are depicted explicitly on the big screen or the family room TV. In the distant past they were said to have these powers because of they were a separate race – the gods. Later they were said to have divine grace. But we have a new theory today – they are mutants. LOL.

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  • george,

    let me give you a chance to display your erudition. what *theological* revolution are you talking about in regards to luther that was so consequential?

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  • Religion has existed for all of human history?

    definition: necessity of supernatural agents. so homeopathy would not count.

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  • . It seems to me that the dominant religion a society ends up with has plenty of non-trivial consequences for that society. It’s far more significant than just a different style of folk costume.

    you’re just asserting. there’s plenty of arguments that specific content doesn’t matter, just difference.

    Very few Christians truly understand the concept of the Trinity, or who or what the Holy Ghost is, for instance. But Luther did. He was deeply invested in the theological issues, and he changed European history profoundly as a consequence.

    hard to take you seriously when you ignore the institutional factors which most people put an emphasis on. you live in a different cognitive universe. pretty much i ignore people who make the assertion of theological consequences like this, since it’s so unfounded. also, no one understands the trinity.

    in sum, not interested in your opinion.

    p.s. also, it undermines your credibility when i recall that lutheran theology did not really deviate that much from the catholic (yes, catholics might emphasize con vs. transubstantiation). the real theological radicals in the reformation who took sola scriptura literally were burned.

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  • Religion has existed for all of human history? Siberian shamans; Amerind medicine men; Aesculapian dream temples; mediaeval wise women healers; Filipino psychic surgeons; Christian Scientists; Scientologists; Christian counseling; homeopathy…Well, yes, this limited sampling does seem to cover all of human history. Although the wish to be free from disease can plausibly be claimed to be human nature, I’m not so sure that prescientific medicine (in this instance, “religion,”) is usefully understood in reference to any of the five ways you list.

    Obviously religion as a cognitive phenomenon emerging out of banal human intuitions is the closest. But even there, it is not obvious how the intuitions of the Hippocratic school could be so different. Nor do I see how failure to understand the placebo effect can be dismissed as mere banality, since it is a phenomenon intrinsically difficult to understand.

    Is it possible that part of the problem in analyzing religion is an inadvertent lumping together of things that are not the same?

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  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Dorrien

    This man was my next door neighbor growing up. His books were too dense for me to get into but I’d be very interested in anyone’s opinion on his writing if they’ve read him. I couldn’t tell if it was a liberal slant or more objective than that.

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  • Thanks for the reading list. I attended a lecture by Paul Bloom, the gist of which was that our minds are inherently religion-ready.

    I have to say, I don’t fully understand what you’re asserting. It seems to me that the dominant religion a society ends up with has plenty of non-trivial consequences for that society. It’s far more significant than just a different style of folk costume.

    It’s true that most of the population doesn’t have much intellectual grasp of the theology they’re supposedly ascribing to. Very few Christians truly understand the concept of the Trinity, or who or what the Holy Ghost is, for instance. But Luther did. He was deeply invested in the theological issues, and he changed European history profoundly as a consequence.

    Even the type of atheism and irreligion a society develops depends crucially on which God its articulate, unbelieving vanguard are rejecting. The Dawkins-Dennett-Harris-Hitchens type of headbangin’ atheism probably can’t exist in China: partly because China’s government is officially atheist, but also because Chinese syncretism doesn’t furnish a clear enemy target to attack. Dawkins might be annoyed by all the unscientific nonsense in Chinese medicine. But debunking it at book length seems below his pay grade – more a job for Simon Singh or Ben Goldacre.

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  • One point which I've made on this weblog several times is that on a whole range of issues and behaviors people simply follow the consensus of their self-identified group. This group conformity probably has deep evolutionary origins. It is often much cognitively "cheaper" to simply utilize a heuristic "do what my peers do" than reason...
  • Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I do believe that almost everyone can reinvent anything, there is mostly no limit to that.

    Also I think that brain is using only procedures from a definitive set of genetically given procedures, which are characteristic for all species. So we are freely choosing just from definitive set of possible promotions which is characteristic for us as humans, but complexity raises with different tools, surroundings and than with cultures and so on, which are utilized in those promotions. I have seen a study proving that for insects, but additional research could be interesting.

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  • Back in the 1960′s the rational component in calculus and physics was very different. My teachers generally encouraged an interest in the logical foundations of the calculus going back to Zeno’s paradoxes. Physics teachers, on the other hand, were very much in a “shut up and calculate” mood.

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  • It’s interesting to agree with a lot of Razib’s post while identifying as pretty liberal by most standards.

    Every four years here in the US, I read about how this time, no politician may win the primary process, and the party convention will be brokered. I’ve stopped paying attention to that. The safer bet is that the future will behave like the past. OTOH, ever since 1876 we were warned that the presidency could go to the candidate who lost the popular vote, and it never happened. Until it did happen, in 2000.

    So what about Peak Oil. Many similar predictions have been made in the past and they haven’t come about. Knowing when the overused term of paradigm shift actually occurs is the trick I haven’t quite figured out.

    On a normative level, my liberalism is experimental outcome based – I like seeing that something worked, and then follow up with it. Gay marriage and gay service in the military has worked just fine in some states and other countries, so let’s adopt those policies. Every other developed country in the world has an equal or better health system than the US at much lower cost, so socialized medicine sounds fine to me.

    Maybe liberalism and conservatism exist in tension within us as well as operating on societal levels.

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  • The newest iteration of creationists are beyond that, and now have bizarro arguments drawn from pop-gen…

    Organized crankery also evolves. But it remains intellectually dishonest at its core. In each iteration, as their arguments are punctured, their beliefs remain the same. Which means that the arguments they make have little to do with why they believe as they do.

    Of course, you’re arguing that’s true of most people. But on the science side, we expect the actual practice of reason and application of evidence in the work of those who are immersed in the field and forwarding its development. It doesn’t take too many dips into creationism and evolutionary biology to tell on which side that is the case. Otherwise, there’d be no point in criticizing creationists.

    That does tend to divide the world between those who can tell such things, and those who can’t. Many people haven’t taken a science course since high school, and avoided them then. And wouldn’t know Newtonian mechanics from the ones working at Jiffy Lube. So if they listen to Rush Limbaugh, why shouldn’t they think climate change is all a hoax? And if they listen to their preacher, why shouldn’t they think the earth but 6,000 years old? And even if they catch Limbaugh and their preacher in lies, they might think every advocate for a view spins, and so it’s a matter of which spin they like more.

    Which lends weight to the Burkean argument against radical social change that stems from newly popular political views. The one thing I’d point out is that those called “conservative” in the US today are more radical than Burkean.

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  • @ April Brown,
    LOL, I feel exactly like that. It is impossible to know domain-specific knowledge of all the things we use everyday, let alone the knowledge of abstract disciplines. (Also, having toilet trained a boy, and read a bunch of developmental psychology papers, I would go with ‘Collective wisdom’ of moms – sometimes theory is incomplete and funded research aims differ from what we need). One of my mentor used to define engineering as ‘decision-making under uncertainty’. I think that is a pretty good definition for life too.

    I have to add that for reasonable and “sharp” people there is ‘opportunity cost’ of not inventing other things if time is spent on re-inventing the wheel. When resources are finite, it is a rational decision not to read ‘Origin of species’ and instead spend time repeating ‘Good night moon’, from a non-biologist perspective.

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  • It strikes me that maybe the tendency for members of a group to buy into the ‘groupthink’ may be related to the development of a society with specialists in it. For years the conventional wisdom has been that as food production efficiency scaled upwards, so did population density. And with this increase in ‘excess’ labor came specialization which hypothetically allowed a group of individuals access to greater capabilities. For instance, one skilled metalworker in your village who can make a quality plow can greatly increase food production for everyone. So it makes sense for him to not waste efforts on his own farm and instead increase output for everybody’s farm by making lots of plows. As the areas of specialization become more and more complex and abstracted from food production, the value of specialists is a function of how much the rest of us who aren’t specialists in that field trust what the specialist says.

    You’ve talked in the past about how some deleterious genetic traits may be promulgated in a population because of their proximity to positive ones. Maybe this is a similar situation? Humans have the capability to trust what specialists tell us and incorporate it into our belief system; and yet the down-side of this is that it also means that we have the tendency to buy into groupthink simply because people in positions of respect and authority in our communities support an idea?

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  • I wish I had the bandwidth or intelligence ot understand everything I believe – it actually really bugs me that, for example, I’m one of those people who accepts evolution but hasn’t read the things I should read, nor can I debate the pros of evolution very well. At best I can flummox a creationist who believes that Darwin thought his grandmother was a monkey.

    The problem for me is that every single aspect of my existance is like that. Cooking, well that’s chemistry, which I was terrible at, and I have to take recipes for granted without understanding why ingredients interact. Driving, that’s mechanics, which I also sucked at, and thought I feel like I should understand and be able to work on an internal combustion engine… going to have to blindly believe experts on that too. Coaxing my toddler in the road to toilet training -that’s another area where I’m sort of hoping the collective wisdoms of ‘moms’ is ok, although if I could spend time reading a bunch of developement psychology papers, I might come up with something better. The computer I’m typing on – I can’t even grok the gazillions of assumptions based on somebody else’s wisdom I’m relying on when it comes to IT, even though I used to work in the field.

    And then there’s all the math and physics and stuff with weather, all very cool, which I can’t possibly ever process. Really depressing. I have to rely on Newton and clever people building microchips and those helpful people at Knorr who make prepackaged meals that you just boil for a while. If I didn’t have the capacity to rely on the conclusions of smart people who’s expertise I can’t understand, I’d be completely worthless.

    I suppose when it comes to social/political stuff, the trick is figuring out who’s reasonable.

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  • #17, you’re a bit behind on the fads, aren’t you? evo-devo is SSSOOO 2005. you need to talk up the epigenetic challenge to the central dogma now! in any case, you are pretty much wrong about how evolutionary biology works. from what i know and hear there isn’t a focus on ‘neo-darwinists’ vs. ‘punc equilibrianists’ vs. ‘evo-devo’ types. rather, everyone is just trying to figure stuff out, without a strict adherence to school.

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  • Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I agree that most biologist can do their work and do it very well without ever hearing the the term neo Darwinism much less the constructs that make up this modern synthesis. I also wonder how many know that within the smaller percentage of biologist who actually do specialize in evolutionary theory such as evolutionary development biologist/evo devo. That even within this group, there are many dissenters who are either trying to extend the evolutionary synthesis because they feel it is outdated and lacking explanatory cause, (Ala the Altenberg 16 and other meetings on this topic), or other evo devo’s who for the same reason are issuing a direct challenge to neo Darwinism and want to reformulate evolutionary theory altogether.

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  • Under this hypothesis, a grouping such as liberals who accept evolution, reject evolutionary psychology, because their religious beliefs include articles of faith such as the Blank State. Whereas those who believe in God, will accept empirical observation that match their experiences, even if they tie into evolutionary psychology, but their religious beliefs will incline them to reject propositions clearly identified with the theory of evolution.

    YMMV.

    Here’s my take on the mileage and I don’t believe it differs much from your working hypothesis.

    Acceptance and rejection are not totally dependent upon comprehension and in fact there are likely instances where there is a total disconnect between acceptance and rejection and comprehension.

    If comprehension of the factors in play was the dominant engine leading to adoption of positions then we should expect the following model to be active:

    Facts + analysis ——> conclusion.

    What I suspect is going on is the following:

    Conclusion ——-> Search for facts + analysis which support the conclusion.

    In the first model understanding is developed from a process. In the second model there is limited understanding developed because a conclusion is adopted by some method other than using logic and the understanding that develops is limited by a selective parsing of evidence. A conclusion is assumed and evidence is sought to back it up and so the understanding that develops is shaped by that process.

    So like Razib points out, one needn’t understand Evolution in order to accept it and one needn’t understand EP in order to reject it, and so acceptance and rejection in your paper have little to do with a careful analysis of evidence and process. Acceptance of evolution occurs with a group because it works to advance, as you point out, a religious viewpoint, and rejection of EP occurs because doing so similarly works to advance a viewpoint.

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  • #14, interesting personal story. one issue that i have had with my contemporaries is when they judge people from the past for being racist, sexist, religionist, etc., in very personal terms, as if these people were morally unfit or lacking. i don’t see much gain in being a total dick, but i do try and imply that the people who they are criticizing are people very much like themselves, who were conforming to social norms of their day. being evil is not a moral failing, most people are not. but given the right social contexts evil becomes normative, and people conform. i guess this is what psychologists would call the fundamental attribution error.

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  • Razib,

    Speaking from my own experience, there definitely was a period where I became of social desires for conformity and tried to fit in. I found when I did things which were supposed to make me more popular (get a spike haircut, or grow a tail in the back – god, I’m dating myself), I was just mocked even more incessantly. I decided that if doing what other people wanted didn’t earn me anything but ire, I might as well show my dislike for those same people by doing things I knew they wouldn’t like. In retrospect, I realize a lot of what I did was essentially IRL trolling – of course I didn’t know the term yet though.

    A funny story. My brother and I both independently became vegans at the same time. He folded after two years (I am still a vegan, going on 16 years now). When he stopped, he told me he couldn’t stand being alienated and not being able to eat the same food as everyone else. My response, in total honesty was “But the alienation is the best part!”

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  • I suppose a question to ask then is why any people are nonconformists

    probably differs for a lot of people. for me it is probably a combination of lower than average social awareness and raw egotism. i don’t understand too well the need for validation from the herd, but it’s pretty common. my own experience with the less wrong crowd is very low to no social intelligence does eliminate the worse problems of group conformity. unfortunately it still doesn’t abolish the issue whereby smarter people can trick or convince less intelligent people through the fluency of their argumentation.

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  • So far I’ve been talking about opinions and beliefs that are held by contemporaries. The basic model is that you offload the task of reasoning about issues which you are not familiar with, or do not understand in detail, to the collective with which you identify, and give weight to specialists if they exist within that collective“.

    This appears to be a reasonable perspective and may also help to explain apparent contradictions where they do appear.

    For example, I recently found a copy of a paper in my email inbox, after a disagreement about evolutionary psychology in which I was the proponent for, and the other party dismissed the subject matter, by pointing out that those who did not believe in evolution, were much more likely to accept the tenets of evolutionary psychology, than those who did accept the theory of evolution.

    My supposition is that the intent behind this, was that having been shown evidence that people of faith accept a certain theory, that this should be sufficient cause for me to discard it, and join in “reading off a collective script“.

    Quite frankly, I was completely flummoxed. The paper for your consideration is this one:

    Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology
    2011, 5(2), 1-9. 2011 Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology
    WHO LIKES EVOLUTION? DISSOCIATION OF HUMAN EVOLUTION VERSUS EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY

    Our results revealed a double dissociation, whereby endorsers of human evolution displayed relatively weak support for claims derived from evolutionary psychology, whereas non-endorsers of human evolution displayed relatively strong support for such claims“.

    My current working hypothesis after reading the paper, was informed by statements such as this one from the paper which notes that:

    When they learned that the relevant survey items had been drawn from evolutionary theory, opponents of the theory were much less likely to endorse them“.

    The issue may be attributed to an ideological constraint within a clearly defined boundary, revealing that the individuals have not examined or understood in any great detail what they accept. They have in effect outsourced thinking about these precepts to others.

    Under this hypothesis, a grouping such as liberals who accept evolution, reject evolutionary psychology, because their religious beliefs include articles of faith such as the Blank State. Whereas those who believe in God, will accept empirical observation that match their experiences, even if they tie into evolutionary psychology, but their religious beliefs will incline them to reject propositions clearly identified with the theory of evolution.

    YMMV.

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  • 9 -

    I suppose a question to ask then is why any people are nonconformists?

    Speaking personally, although I have mellowed a bit with age, when I was in my teens and 20s, I was of the attitude that if there was anything by the majority, it must be bad, because, to quote one a great character from a famous webcomic “nothing is any good if other people like it.” Even though I’m older now, much less of an elitist, and can admit there is occasionally a catchy song on the radio, I feel no real desire to belong.

    Presumably in my own case, the sense of self-esteem that elitism brought (confidence which ran primarily through my own opinions of my good taste), outweighed any potential in terms of group dynamics.

    Anyway, it was a lot more fun being a freak in high school and college than merely a nerd in middle school.

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  • #8, when i meant understanding evolution as a *phenomenon*, i am basically meaning that you understand evolution is more than a set of descriptions, along with the standard arguments about common descent, adaptation, and biogeography. those are on the face of persuasive enough, but the newest iteration of creationists are beyond that, and now have bizarro arguments drawn from pop-gen (e.g., objections about haldane’s rule, etc.), so to really face them full on you need someone with the requisite background, and not just an undergrad class + sj gould. to make an analogy, most science people outside of physics have taken newtonian mechanics, etc., in the broadest sketch, but they can’t really speak the language nor are they familiar with modern advances in mechanics. you just assume that the physics course you took is sufficient for the most general understanding you need, and usually it is.

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  • There are powerful cultural reasons for adopting the attitudes and opinions of those around you. Reasons over and above the perfectly functional logic that experts, if we stipulate to their competence, are more likely to steer us right than wrong.

    So long as the issue is not one of life and death, adopting conventional attitudes is a bonding mechanism with great social value. The more you conform to the group the more support you can hope to gain from the group. Conformity also tends to make you more eligible to increase in social status, which often translates directly into greater financial rewards and enhanced lifestyle.

    Furthermore there is more than reinforcement of the positive. There is protection from the negative. If you are socially conventional, and conventional wisdom is eventually proven to be wrong, you can avail yourself of the defense that “everyone thought so, how was I supposed to know?” This takes many forms.

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