A cognitive revolution?:

Cognitive machinery and explanatory ambitions

posted by Barbara Herrnstein Smith

One of the most influential works among recent “cognitive” and/or “evolutionary” studies of religion is a book by French anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer. It is titled, with imposing finality, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer organizes the book around a series of sharp contrasts between, on the one hand, explanations of religion based, like his own, on “findings and models in cognitive psychology, anthropology, linguistics and evolutionary biology” and, on the other hand, what he refers to as “spontaneous, commonsense” ideas and “most accounts of the origins of religion.” Though he gives few explicit examples of the latter, it is evident from his descriptions and incidental references, including an allusion to “bookshelves … overflowing with treatises on religion, histories of religion, religious people’s accounts of their ideas, and so on,” that these include not only works by scholars such as Mircea Eliade, who see religion as immune to naturalistic explanation, but also the classic naturalistic accounts of religion by, among others, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim.

“Spontaneous” and “commonsense” are of course peculiar terms to use to describe accounts that offer, as the latter do, considerable erudition, extensive empirical observation, detailed theoretical analysis, and more or less unconventional conclusions. For Boyer, however, the crucial contrast is between explanations of religion that are genuinely scientific—in a specific sense that I comment on below—and everything else. Accordingly, all the items on those overflowing bookshelves are equivalent to each other and also to anyone’s spontaneous, commonsense ideas about religion. “All,” he declares, “fail to tell us why we have religion and why it is the way it is.”

Boyer’s argument throughout Religion Explained is that, contrary to more familiar views, we should understand religious ideas (e.g., gods, immortality, or moral teachings) and related practices (e.g., prayers or communal rituals) not as more-or-less functional (or dysfunctional) human responses to recurrent human conditions and experiences but, rather, as the effects of the automatic operation of a number of specific, highly specialized, innate and universal mental mechanisms. In the evolutionary-psychology paradigm to which Boyer subscribes, it is assumed or proposed that these mechanisms evolved by natural selection to provide our ancestors with adaptive solutions to an array of fitness-related problems recurrent under stone-age conditions. The mechanisms are also posited as being discrete (“modular”), genetically specified, and somehow (though it is not yet known exactly how) neurophysiologically realized—or, in the computer-derived idiom of that paradigm, as being “coded” in “our” (presumptively universally shared) genes and “hardwired” in “the” (singular, presumptively universally shared) human brain.

Boyer presents a picture of human behavior as largely a matter of the automatic, unconscious workings of evolved mental mechanisms, and he promotes the description of such workings as a properly scientific explanation of religion that trumps all other accounts. Indeed, for Boyer, it is precisely insofar as an explanation of some phenomenon—any phenomenon—is put in terms of what he refers to repeatedly as “underlying causal mechanisms” that it counts as genuinely scientific. In relation to these central features of Religion Explained, two important points should be made.

First, it should be recognized that neither the computational-modular model of the mind nor the idea of innate, automatically triggered mental mechanisms is a foregone conclusion of contemporary cognitive science or of any other science. The computational model has been significantly challenged both by practitioners of cognitive science per se and by researchers and theorists working in a number of related fields, including evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, paleoanthropology, and philosophy of mind. Moreover, a number of important alternative models of cognition have been developed in these and other fields. (See, e.g., Rafael Nuñez and Walter J. Freeman, eds., Reclaiming Cognition: The Primacy of Action, Intention and Emotion; Tim van Gelder and Robert F. Port, eds., Mind as Motion: Explorations in the Dynamics of Cognition; Horst Hendriks-Jansen, Catching Ourselves in the Act: Situated Activity, Interactive Emergence, Evolution, and Human Thought; and Edward Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild.) The alternative models often give considerable attention to a number of features of human cognition slighted in Boyer’s book and in the new cognitive accounts of religion more generally. Among them are the significance, for humans, of ongoing individual experiential learning; the complex social dynamics involved in the transmission of skills and beliefs; the presence among post-Paleolithic humans of such crucial cultural cognitive resources as transgenerational material culture, schools, texts, and duplicated images; and the significant differences among individuals with regard to various aspects of cognition.

Contrary, then, to the assumptions of paradigmatic evolutionary psychology and the claims of current cognitive explanations of religion, it is by no means clear that our interactions with our environments are determined largely by the operation of mental mechanisms hardwired at birth or that various widespread and recurrent features of human behavior and culture, including those associated with religion, are best explained by reference to a universal and virtually uniform species-specific mind. What Boyer presents in Religion Explained as a properly corrective, hard-nosed, comprehensive explanation of religion based on up-to-date, scientifically established knowledge is better described as an array of more or less speculative accounts of selected features of religious belief and practice based on a set of still highly controversial theories developed in fields at some distance from evolutionary biology and empirical neuroscience.

Second, Boyer’s identification of scientific explanation with descriptions of underlying causal mechanisms is questionable both from a theoretical perspective and also in relation to what can be claimed by his own accounts. While the identification reflects standard views formed when the major examples of scientific theories and explanations were drawn from the physical sciences (largely astronomy, physics, and chemistry), current understandings in philosophy of science recognize a variety of explanatory modes and due attention is given to the biological, behavioral, and social sciences. In these areas of science, explanation often takes the form of models of the emergence of complex phenomena from the dynamic interaction of multiple forces and contingent events operating at different levels of organization. With regard to many aspects of religion, the latter types of explanation are likely to be more adequate to the range, complexity, and heterogeneity of the phenomena involved than the unilinear, inside-to-outside, depth-to-surface models sought and produced in evolutionary psychology.

Indeed, on Boyer’s own definitions, his explanations of religion are “scientific” primarily in aspiration. Thus, while he defines scientific theories as those in which “we describe phenomena that can be observed” and “explain them in terms of other phenomena that are also detectable,” in many of his own accounts, as in those of evolutionary psychology more generally, the strictly hypothetical mental “mechanisms,” “systems,” and “devices” in terms of which behavioral and cultural phenomena are explained are not observable at all, and “detectable” often means little more than hopefully posited and strenuously asserted.

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