Cognitive Science, Religion and Theology
By Justin L. Barrett
In 2010, Justin very kindly invited a group of us from various disciplines (the human sciences, philosophy and theology) to discuss chapters of his book, as he wrote them. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for bringing together the group, and for his example as both a Christian and a cognitive scientist. Such integration of faith and vocation is something many of us dream of, but quickly lose sight of when we wake up to our post-graduate programmes. For many of us, the approach we do our studies is focused such that we often forget the wider, yet more fundamental, Christian perspective to things. For this reason, I thoroughly enjoyed our weekly meetings with Justin because it brought about a unity of mental life which I lacked, even craved.
It was refreshing to consider the theological significance of what we have discovered about ourselves in the cognitive sciences. One idea in the book that helped me think about things differently is Justin’s thesis that we can be justified to hold beliefs in God because of current evidence from the cognitive sciences. The argument goes like this – when we were growing up, we developed thinking patterns (natural cognitions) that we did not choose to have. Some of these natural ways of thinking made us more likely to develop beliefs in God that are unique to humans; our natural cognitions can be likened to river channels that gives the least resistance to the flowing waters of our thoughts.
Some of these natural ways of thinking that result in inklings of God include notions that the world has a moral quality to it, a purpose within it, and a mind behind it.
i) A moral quality to it.
We naturally tend to see the world in the currency of ‘good or bad’, ‘right or wrong’, and ‘should or ought’. The content may vary depending on culture, but this way of thinking is found everywhere.
ii) A purpose within it.
When asked to consider the natural world, children often give purposeful descriptions like: ‘rivers exist so that we can go fishing on them, birds are here to look pretty, and rocks are pointy so animals don’t sit on them’.
iii) A mind behind it.
When asked to describe a computer animation of a circle and 2 triangles moving about, people tend to report the movements in terms of the intentions or desires of those shapes, rather than simply report the physical movements on the screen. The natural events in the world are also commonly seen as having agency (i.e., Mother Nature) or having an agency behind (i.e., God).
Together, these natural ways of viewing the world then supports the formation of beliefs in gods, or God, because they incline people to ask ‘who decides right and wrong?’, ‘what is the reason for existence?’, and ‘who is in control of world events?’. In sum, cognitive science can now give an evidence based account of how our beliefs in God come about.
It is important to note that the naturalness of these beliefs do not make them correct (i.e., cognitive science does not prove that a belief in God is true). Cognitive science only documents the repertoire of thinking patterns we humans naturally develop; it does not claim to provide evidence that these beliefs are objectively true. However, although beliefs are not true just because they are natural, they can be justified to have as a starting point just because they are natural. The mentioned examples above demonstrates that people believe in God because their daily thoughts convince them that the world is moral, purposeful and intentional; it is in this sense that theistic beliefs are also warranted starting positions to have. This starting point for belief can very well be rejected, by choice, if demonstrated to be false later in life. However, they are our starting points nonetheless.
To me this is a fresh yet strangely familiar perspective about beliefs. Fresh because I always thought that theistic pre-commitments like these are arbitrary and conditioned more by will and choice rather than environment and biology; it looks like I am wrong. This perspective is also strangely familiar because that is exactly how I came to belief in God; growing up, I started out as a little theist; growing old, I am a slightly more practiced Trinitarian.
Thank you Justin for this exercise and your example!
Matthew Lim is a 3rd year DPhil. He studies the psychology of gambling and is currently investigating how gambling-related cognitive distortions influence learning and decision-making whilst gambling.