Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Studying Belief

This is a fascinating article from the Economist, that saves it’s sucker punch for the last paragraph, but raises some interesting problems. And my initial reaction was to laugh (it still is to be honest), but on reflection one has to admit it does raise some serious questions about the assumptions in some branches of the scientific community. I say some, as my own schooling in medical anthropology has taught me, the first thing you have to question is every assumption, and reconstruct your understanding from the most basic level.

So the epistemological problem here is quite an intriguing one – can religious belief be analysed and deconstructed, and the basis for it be found in evolutionary biology? The first question I have to ask is, “why are you asking this question?” – is it a valid question to ask if an area of human behaviour and knowledge that deals in the metaphysical, the ritual and the moral/ethical dimensions can be analysed in terms of reductionist methodologies coming from a totally different epistemological starting point. Or to put it another way, can the questions asked by evolutionary biology answer the questions and the search for spiritual meaning and truth? There would seem to be an assumption by the evolutionary biologists that religion has an evolutionary purpose.

And it is a valid question to ask – after all some sociological and psychological studies have indicated that those with a religious belief, and especially those belonging to a religious community of some sort (from a church to a monastery, mosque, synagogue, temple, ashram, etc, etc.) seem to live longer, and have healthier lives, and often contribute more to society (although almost of all of these findings are open to question and interpretation). However, it begs the question – if religious belief has an evolutionary purpose, does non-belief serve a purpose? Is there an evolutionary purpose to scientific research, atheism, secularism, etc, etc? In other words, physician health thyself – it is the old error of earlier generations of anthropologists that their science was purely about the observation of the other rather than the observation of self – the researcher researches him or herself and questions the values, assumptions and mindsets that underpins his or her own field of study and activity. Medical Anthropology soon turned from studying only the patient to also studying the doctor and the nurse, and then to studying the researcher him or herself.

Because the next problem then arises – if those undertaking this research come from an essentially secular and at least agnostic world view then is there not an anomalous problem that the world view they represent may in itself also be the result of an evolutionary process, or, worse still, an evolutionary dead end (after all, the secular, educated middle classes have far lower birth rates than their religious counterparts, so by Darwinian logic are slowly being bred out of existence). So it seems illogical to ask the one question without also asking the other.

The problem is one of blind spots in epistemology, and the ready assumptions that consequently arise. The early question used in the article, about how people may be programmed to see God observing their every move, misses an understanding of what it is that believers actually believe. It is based on the assumptions of what it is that we believe by those who do not necessarily share our beliefs (and of course, there are many scientists who do have a religious belief – the two domains are far from mutually exclusive).

So the whole enterprise of finding a scientific reason for belief ultimately flawed from several angles. However, that does not mean it will not throw up interesting results – but possibly the most interesting results will be what it tells us about the assumptions and beliefs of the scientists undertaking the research.

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