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Poetry, evolution, and apostles

July 27, 2011

I don’t mind you being poetic – I have after all read “The Pearl”! – and in fact I would like to pursue that subject for while. It was the dismissive sneer of the quote that concerned me, not your freedom to quote it.

You will probably recall that amazing film “Dead Poets Society”, in which one teacher tries to analyse what makes “good” poetry, and attempts to come up with measures of meaning and depth so that the students can find some objective way of comparing poems. I know that you have a great appreciation of poetry – many forms of it – as well as other of the main cultural forms such as music and fine art. The benefits of these art forms to individuals, and to society as a whole, have been well researched and documented, from literature giving group identity to music creating relaxing rhythms in the subject’s metabolism. And yet I know of no way in which a “scientism” approach (my word for what I perceive your philosophy to be) can measure or quantify why one art form produces “benefits” to one individual and not to another, or indeed may actually cause harm to another. Does this lack of rational coherence in any way diminish the value of the art? As far as I can tell, some of my “highest” moments of being touched and moved by art have had little or no rational content, but surely that does not reduce the events’ value to me? For example, listening to Mozart’s 12 variations in C on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” I was in raptures of joy partly because of the exquisite playing, partly because of the clever technical skill of the composer, but largely because of the wonder of the key tune being what I have always known as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. A profound moment with for me physical, mental, emotional and spiritual enrichment, with complex interactions that I contend transcend “scientism”.

I was interested in your ideas about the evolutionary explanation of the human love for “cause and effect” linkages, and I would suggest that you are on very shaky ground there. In fact in my reading around evolutionary theory (some of the books you have recommended I read I have actually consumed) it appears to me that there is much wishful thinking of this kind going on. The creedal statement “this change has happened over time therefore it must have a benefit for the species” becomes the “cause and effect” pair used to project a causal reading onto all natural history. You used the phrase “This was evolutionarily advantageous to us” with absolutely no supporting evidence – it is in fact a creedal statement! Have we found, at last, something that evolutionist “believe”?

You assert that “atheism has no bishops”. I will avoid, for the moment at least, the sidetrack offered by the thought that several bishops are, from perspective, clearly atheists! There may simply not be as yet enough time for the hierarchical structures, such as the ones that I live with, to emerge, but there certainly appear to be people who are seen as either “apostles” or “prophets” of atheism. At the Hay Festival they attract large crowds, and their every cheap attack on organised religion (most especially the Church of England) is greeted with rapturous applause. Their writings attract huge publicity, and they have a lucrative conference and speaking circuit. They may not currently form one cohesive “religion”, but perhaps at this stage they are best seen as prophets of a new cult.

But you also assert that there is no atheism agenda to compel acceptable behaviour from others, no group of people imposing their judgement as being better than others. I disagree! My experience is exactly that. For example, unless I have misunderstood you, you have said to me on more than one occasion that if I wish to understand the emergence of human life on earth really the only people I should pay any attention to are evolutionary biologists. Of course their judgements are well worth noting, but why should they been seen as having “more important” things to say about human life than opinions from anthropologists or astrophysicists – or even theologians? Is there in fact in the atheistic world view an esoteric scale of values, which ranks physical sciences as the “highest” of human pursuits, and relegates other disciplines to a lower” plane?

Your comments welcome!

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 1, 2011 5:51 pm

    Kate wrote: “I think that one of the reasons that religious belief is so common is because we have naturally occurring tendency to ascribe ‘agency’ or ‘personhood’ to inanimate objects and events, and also to view events as linked or causal when they are not. This was evolutionarily advantageous to us”

    Paul wrote: “I was interested in your ideas about the evolutionary explanation of the human love for “cause and effect” linkages, and I would suggest that you are on very shaky ground there. … You used the phrase “This was evolutionarily advantageous to us” with absolutely no supporting evidence – it is in fact a creedal statement!”

    There’s evidence for Kate’s assertion that the ability to understand events in terms of supernatural agents is evolutionarily advantageous to us. When very young children (3 years old) are told that the invisible Princess Alice is in the room with them they will cease looking in a forbidden box in response to random events:

    This is strikingly young for children to possess such a complex view of the world, at this age their understanding of other people’s minds is pretty limited. As children grow older and develop they become more capable of ascribing random events to supernatural powers:

    Work on adults also suggests that this belief in supernatural agents may be adaptive for groups of humans as when God concepts or secular moral institutions are primed it encourages adults to make sacrifices that could benefit the group. Interestingly, the effect of priming God concepts was almost as large in atheists as believers. Further, it suggests that modern civic institutions may rely on the same cognitive systems for a significant proportion of their effect as religions:

    I understand this research was undertaken as the scientists involved predicted that both young children and adults would respond to supernatural agents if religion had evolved. The experiments could have falsified this particular hypothesis if young children did not readily respond to new supernatural agents. Further, the response of atheists to priming of God concepts suggest we’re dealing with a sub-conscious process that is different to the rational explanations for their beliefs given by many atheists and believers alike.

    Taken together this is evidence that religious belief evolved, and the responses to both explicit and implicit triggers of supernatural ideas suggests this could be evolutionarily advantageous to us.

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