Monday, November 28, 2005

God is biological

I very much enjoyed this Edge article detailing the vagaries of religious experience (by Daniel Gilbert). It is certainly true that our brains are wired to perceive things in a particular way, and given that method of perception, it is easy to feel the presence of some divinity. Some people may like to believe that religion is irrational, or that people are only religious because their community is, or that people only go to church for the community, but I believe that religious experience is biological and religion is the rational response to those emotions. The emotions themselves are "lies" in that they do not represent reality, but that does not make them any less real nor does it make the natural response to them any less sensible.
Is God nothing more than an attempt to explain order and good fortune by those who do not understand the mathematics of chance, the principles of self-organizing systems, or the psychology of the human mind? When the study I just described was accepted for publication, I recall asking one of my collaborators, who is a deeply religious man, how he felt about having demonstrated that people can misattribute the products of their own minds to powerful external agents. He said, "I feel fine. After all, God doesn't want us to confuse our miracles with his."

That's fair enough. Science rules out the most cartoonish versions of God by debunking specific claims about ancient civilizations in North America or the creation ex nihilo of human life. But it cannot tell us whether there is a force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God. What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins.
Similarly, I think people's inherent disgust towards economics comes from the biology of our minds and how we naturally think about individuals, groups, and motivation.

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