Into the Mental Basement

Thomas Nagel

  • Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion by Barbara Herrnstein Smith
    Yale, 201 pp, £25.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 14034 7

Those who offer scientific explanations of the pervasiveness of religion in human life are usually not religious themselves, and their explanations are not intended to be compatible with the self-understanding of those who are. Even if scientific explanations predict the persistence of religion, they tend to undermine any claim to the truth of religious beliefs. They are essentially explanations of religion from the outside, and are thought to override explanations from inside a religious point of view.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s book defends a contrasting, pluralistic conception, according to which multiple different forms of understanding of religion – as of other human phenomena – are all legitimate, and compatible with one another. This ecumenical conclusion is appealing, but her defence of it depends on premises that, as she recognises, are sharply contested. She does not defend those premises here, having done so in other writings. Still, the book is of interest whether one agrees with her or not. Her application of these larger ideas to the relation between science and religion is in part a case study that can serve as a test of their plausibility.

Smith describes her position succinctly as ‘an ecological-dynamic conception of cognition and a constructive-pragmatist account of the formation and stabilisation of knowledge’. She understands human cognition as the ‘full range of processes and activities through which, as embodied creatures, we, like other organisms, interact more or less effectively with our continuously changing environments, thereby ourselves changing more or less continuously’. About knowledge she says:

What we come to call the truth or validity of some statement – historical report, scientific explanation, cosmological theory and so forth – is best seen not as its objective correspondence to an autonomously determinate external state of affairs but, rather, as our experience of its consonance with a system composed of already accepted ideas, already interpreted and classified observations, and, no less significantly, the embodied perceptual and behavioural dispositions that are thereby engendered and constrained.

All this applies to natural science as well as to religion: ‘Nature – the real, the given, the ultimate referent of what’s-out-there or what-there-is – is a collective construct.’

One of Smith’s complaints is that, when proposing scientific explanations of religious beliefs and practices, scientists typically exempt their own activity from this same kind of constructivist understanding; they think of it instead as a way of arriving at the objective truth. That is what leads them to think that scientific explanation trumps all other forms of understanding – an attitude known as scientism. Smith’s resistance is directed in detail against two anthropologists, Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, whose analyses of religion are based on evolutionary psychology. Their approach, which she calls the ‘new naturalism’, holds that the operation of human minds can be understood largely through the identification of various subsystems or modules that were formed by natural selection in the distant past, and that are now part of our innate genetic heritage.

These modules include, for example, the system for agent-detection and the ontological categories that divide things into types (animal, plant, person, tool and so forth) and automatically attribute to them sets of default properties. While these universal systems are largely responsible for our feelings, beliefs and behaviour, they are not directly available to introspection but must be discovered by empirical research and theoretical inference. Boyer describes this as getting down into the ‘mental basement’. Atran adds to this type of evolutionary explanation of the origins of religion a further, functional explanation of its survival, namely that it meets enduring human emotional and social needs – in facing death or misfortune, and maintaining the moral codes required for social order.

Smith has nothing against naturalistic explanations in general; her objections to the new naturalism are more specific. First, she points out the speculative character of most of evolutionary psychology: clear evidence of what is ‘hardwired’ – let alone of its evolutionary origin – is at present very limited. Second, she says that many of the new naturalists’ explanations in terms of evolved mental modules are just familiar psychological, sociological or anthropological accounts of various aspects of religion ‘served up again in cognitive sauce’. Third, she says that the search for explanations that are universal because they depend on innate mechanisms formed in the distant past leads to the flattening out of differences among religious beliefs and practices, which call for a much richer understanding of the kind that can be found in the interpretations of archaeologists, classicists, historians and culturally sensitive anthropologists.

These responses, and her general resistance to the myopic consequences of scientism, are entirely reasonable. But Smith makes a larger claim that is harder to accept, and that is the distinctive moral of the book. She holds that there is no incompatibility between naturalistic explanations of religion and religious conviction itself; the alleged priority of scientific understanding and its debunking implications are illusions caused by a misunderstanding of science. This is set out most clearly in Smith’s discussion of a very different approach to the relation between science and religion, an approach that she calls the ‘new natural theology’. It is represented by writers like John Polkinghorne and John Haught, who seek to show that the facts revealed by contemporary science leave ‘room’ for a providential deity.

The image of potential competition for ‘ontological space’ between science and religion is one that the new natural theologians share with the new naturalists. The difference is that the naturalists, unlike the theologians, believe that the space is completely occupied by the ontology of the natural sciences – that there is no room for anything else, specifically anything supernatural. Science can explain the beliefs, feelings and practices of religious persons, but by explaining those things in terms of evolutionary biology, which is in turn ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics, science implies that all beliefs in a providential deity, an immortal soul and so forth, are false.

Smith rejects this opposition:

There is always ‘room left’ for alternative ontologies in cognitive-intellectual space, a realm that is neither cramped nor finite but, on the contrary, appears – both historically and for humans individually – exceedingly and perhaps infinitely elastic. The theological/metaphysical-naturalist view is that room is left (or not) for alternative constructions in nature, reality, or the universe. The view I am suggesting here is that all of these, not only the rival ontologies but also the roomy or confined ontic spaces they appear to occupy, are products of our own cognitive-intellectual-imaginative activities.

And to drive the point home, she adds: ‘For many people … accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict than would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practising law.’

In Smith’s understanding, science and religion are two different kinds of activity, not two ways of trying to understand the nature of reality – the reality that exists largely independent of our convictions. She does not believe in reality in that sense. Instead:

The veridicality of any creature’s, including any individual human’s, cognitive processes can be seen not as the accuracy of its perceptions of a presumptively objective reality (‘what’s really there’) but as the relative effectiveness of that creature’s ongoing interactions with its particular environment, given its particular structure and modes of operation. The ‘real’, under such a conception, would be understood as the more or less stable and more or less pragmatically workable cognitive constructs produced by that creature through those more or less effective interactions – which, in the case of humans, would include verbal interactions with other humans and the effects of ongoing and past experiences of the cultural and social environment more generally.

The gulf between Smith’s conception of reality and the theoretical outlook she is criticising is profound. She believes that scientists who think they are investigating objective reality are deluded, and that the same kind of scrutiny that the new naturalists have turned on religion, when applied to science itself, reveals science also to be at bottom a human construction that facilitates our interactions with our environment. This, she says, does not undermine the authority of science. ‘Rather, it offers a tough-minded, hard-nosed explanation of the sources and workings of that authority.’

Anyone must acknowledge that much of our world is a human ‘construction’ in some sense. Language, money, law, custom, games and many other things exist and are as they are because human beings engage in the practices that give those things their life. The question is whether everything is like that. Those who offer scientific explanations of religion usually assume that religion is like that but science is not: science investigates a reality that would exist even if there were no science. The new natural theologians, on the other hand, believe that religion too, or at least some religion, is not merely a human construction, however useful, but at least in part a way of understanding how things really are.

Smith’s constructivist-pragmatic account of knowledge is inconsistent with the self-understanding of most of those to whom she would apply it, so it will not be easy to persuade them that there is no more need for reconciliation between science and religion than between playing the violin and practising law. It is true, as she observes, that almost any individual’s mind contains a great mixture of cognitive and emotional material that is not fully coherent, and we all tolerate this to a certain extent. But the powerful drive towards a consistent overall worldview is based on the widespread conviction that there is a single objective reality within which our multiple subjective perspectives and disparate social creations are situated, and that we have the mental resources to advance our understanding of that reality. That means that fundamental questions, such as whether the natural sciences leave any room for the possibility that our existence has a higher purpose, will not go away.

I cannot in this review undertake a serious evaluation of the constructivist position itself. It is the subject of a large literature; in addition to Smith, its defenders include Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty and Bruno Latour; trenchant critics include John Searle and Paul Boghossian. A basic philosophical question is whether it can be intelligibly applied ‘all the way down’. When the constructivist account refers to effective interaction with the environment, for example, can we avoid understanding ‘the environment’ as something real in a sense more independent than constructivism allows? I don’t think so, and I believe this is just one example of a pervasive problem of incoherence in the view. That is not the end of the argument, but Smith’s attempt to transcend the conflicts in thought about religion depends on her radical account of truth, belief and knowledge, so if that account is as wrong as I think it is, her peacemaking efforts will not succeed.