One of the feature articles of December’s Atlantic Monthly is a (ball park) 5,000-word essay entitled, “Is God an Accident” by Paul Bloom. Although written respectfully, the article tries to undermine religious faith by pointing to recent studies about babies.
According to Bloom, babies have two computers in their head: one that grapples with the physical world and one that grapples with the social world. The physical computer allows the baby to understand how things work; the social computer allows the baby to interact with others. The social computer develops a little later than the physical one. Although both computers are necessary, they cause a problem: religion.
But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.
The physical computer lets us understand physical things, but the social computer perceives immaterial things, like goals and desires. As a result, we intuitively tend to believe in things like gods, angels, demons, and ghosts.
That’s basically the argument.
After reading it, I felt like G.K. Chesterton. He converted to Christianity under the influence of anti-Christians. He read their books and came to the conclusion that their arguments supported Christianity more than they undermined it.
Bloom’s article does much the same for me. I started the article with a little trepidation, wondering how much grueling mental exercise I’d have to undergo in order to refute the article.
But it wasn’t too bad.
Bloom’s problem is, he starts with the idea that the entire spiritual world–soul, God, afterlife, etc.– doesn’t exist. Then, using recent studies by cognitive scientists, tries to figure out why we believe in such things. He does a nice job. He makes a leap when going from the existence of “two computers” to the way those computers interact to form religious belief, but it’s a believable leap.
But here’s the thing: The existence of that second computer–the social one–is evidence for the soul. Bloom doesn’t try to explain where this second computer comes from. He can’t, because he’s a materialist and he’s trying to explain a spiritual property without reference to the immaterial. At one point, he classifies all religious belief as a type of Cartesian dualism, but that’s a straw man. No one since Locke shredded it has accepted Descartes’ dualism, and the Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding of the relationship of the “two computers” is considerably more developed.
Anyway, the result of Bloom’s efforts is a great assortment of quotes that support the idea that we do, indeed, have a soul. That we are, as I like to say, “hard wired” (by mother nature, the great tree god, or something else) to have immaterial beliefs, that these beliefs might exist for a reason (to wit, because there is an immaterial side to existence).
[I]t makes intuitive sense to us that people can be separated from their bodies, and similar transformations show up in religions around the world.
We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder—some would say impossible—to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us.
[T]he notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.
[W]hen asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone.
Maybe Bloom should’ve just read St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts . . .”. It woulda saved him a lot of time. But I appreciate his efforts. It is, all sarcasm aside, a fine piece of writing.Bookmark it: del.icio.us | Reddit | Slashdot | Digg | Facebook | Technorati | Google | StumbleUpon | Window Live | Tailrank | Furl | Netscape | Yahoo | BlinkList