Supersense, Sacred Values, and the Evolution of God

supersenseindexI am going to try to chain these two books and a couple of articles together.

Bruce Hood is an experimental psychologist and in Supersense he argues that beliefs in the supernatural are a consequence of reasoning processes about natural properties and events in our world. This includes a mind design for detecting patterns and inferring structures where there may be none. Our naive theories form the basis of our supernatural beliefs, and religion, culture and experience simply work to reinforce what we intuitively hold to be correct. As an example, one of these is the common belief that we can tell when someone is staring at us. Hood says that supernatural thinking is simply the natural consequence of failing to match our intuitions with the true reality of the world.

Hood writes that as young children, we must learn to negotiate a social world of competing interests. We must learn to become members of a tribe that shares sacred values.  We are both individuals and a collective. We see ourselves as part of a group, to be distinguished from other groups. This belief is cemented by our sense that our own group has hidden properties that are essentially different from the invisible properties of other groups. We seek the emotional connections that others provide. We need the totems and sacred objects that bind us together. Hood notes that for many, religion provides these, but for others it can be a personal possession, a grubby blanket, a family heirloom, a famous painting, a beautiful statue, a historic monument, a martyr’s relic, or a return to the place where we were born. Hood concludes: “These sacred values convey a common sense of connectedness that joins us to each other and to our ancestors.”

aimagesI did not read Talking to the Enemy, but those words get the essence of the articles that I read. I am not that familiar with Scott Atran, but Robert Axelrod is one of the better thinkers around. Atran and Axelrod’s sacred values go beyond, but do not exclude Hood’s ideas. They say that sacred values differ from material or instrumental ones by incorporating moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to core values (such as the welfare of their family and country or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice) is, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Such values outweigh other values, particularly economic ones. Devotion to some core values, such as children’s well-being or the good of the community, or even to a sense of fairness, may represent universal responses to long-term evolutionary strategies. Other such values are more specific such as the sacred status of cows in Hindu culture or the sacred status of Jerusalem in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and this last group fit more with Hood’s supersense.

Matters of principle or “sacred honor,” when enforced to a degree far out of proportion to any individual or immediate material payoff, are often seen as defining “who we are.” After the end of the Vietnam War, successive U.S. administrations resisted Hanoi’s efforts at reconciliation until Hanoi accounted for the fate of U.S. soldiers missing in action.  Popular support for the administration’s position, especially among veterans, was a heartfelt concern for “our boys,” regardless of economic consequences.

The “who we are” aspect is often hard for members of different cultures to understand;
however, understanding and acknowledging others’ values may help to avoid or to resolve the hardest of conflicts. Atran and Axelrod provide an example. At the peaceful implementation of the occupation of Japan in 1945, the American government realized that preserving, and even signaling respect for, the emperor might lessen the likelihood that Japanese would fight to the death to save him.

evolutionofgodRobert Wright is an author and philosopher. He carries on with Atran and Axelrod’s “Who we are” with his idea of moral imagination especially from the viewpoint of religion. Wright says that the way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our imagination, our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. The tendency of moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We do not often sympathize with our enemies.

In short, the moral imagination, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games-to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero sum games. Wright sees the moral imagination as one of the main drivers of the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum. The resulting paradox is that we either understand their motivation internally, even intimately – relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently – or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances.  Wright says that “Pure understanding uncolored by judgment is hard to come by.”

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other– toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside. Unfortunately, technology and information have changed so that there is a growing lethality of hatred, and Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all in the same boat, we have a non-zero-sum relationship.  They need to realize it.

When a religious group senses an auspicious non-zero-sum relationship, it is more likely to create tolerant scriptures or to find tolerance in existing scriptures; and when it senses no prospect of a win-win outcome, it is more likely to summon intolerance and belligerence.

Wright says that now that the zone of non-zero-sumness has reached planetary breadth and everybody is in the same boat, either the religions learn how to get along or bad things happen.

Atran, S., Axelrod, R., and Davis, R.(2007) “Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution.” SCIENCE VOL 317, 24 AUGUST 2007, 1039-1040.

Atran, S., Axelrod, R.,(2008) “Reframing Sacred Values.” Negotiation Journal , July 2008, 221-246.

Wright, R., (2009)The Evolution of God. New York:  Little Brown and Co.

Hood, B.,(2009) Supersense Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. New York:
Harper Collins