Robert McCauley The naturalness of religion and the unnaturalness of science

Posted on February 3, 2008


I have added to my blogroll a link to Robert McCauley’s website. McCauley is a philosopher that Joel Mort told me about a while ago. I have been reading a number of his paper and have just finished an article that was published back in 2000 in which McCauley argues that, despite its predilection for supernatural entities, religion comes a lot more naturally to human beings than science. He uses evidence from a range of sciences to make his point and I would generally agree with his basic conclusion. I am somewhat uneasy about a couple of things, however.

My first worry is that to a certain degree whether science and religion look natural or not will depend upon where you set the cut-off in terms of what you will call by either of those labels. Thus, McCauley states that religion has been around since before historical times while science only came into existence in Ancient Greece and in Renaissance Europe. While that way of describing things makes a lot of sense I am somewhat concerned that we might be building the conclusion into our premisses here by, implicitly, saying that today’s science is essentially different from what people were doing with, say, Babylonian calendars while today’s Televangelist congregations are essentially the same as, for example, the funeral rites of our stone age ancestors. The thing is that both the religion and the science, in their modern form, rely upon complex cultural support that is characteristic of science according to McCauley.

Still, it is not upon the cultural aspects that McCauley focusses upon. Which brings me to my second worry – just how different from natural human cognitive practices is science. In general, McCauley is very careful to say that it is a matter of degree so that his thesis seems to be amenable to saying that science and common-sense fit on the same ‘spectrum’. However, in his discussion of heuristics and biases he suggests that science makes it possible to avoid “erroneous forms of reasoning”. This sounds very much like a double process theory of reasoning and, therefore, would be something that I would argue against. Instead, I would argue that he should say something like – “Scientists are constantly developing new heuristics and learning in what circumstances they do not appear to lead into error. Furthermore, science is institutionalised in such a way as to make them more aware of the heuristics they are using as well as making it possible to spot when the wrong heuristic is used – this is, to a large degree, why scientific papers have a long methodology section.” By making it sound as if scientists have access to some radically different set of methods McCauley would definitely be building in the conclusion. As it is, this appears to be something of a slip of the pen given that he does not make any particular use of this suggested distinction.

As I said at the beginning, McCauley makes his argument in a number of ways so that, in the end, I am convinced that religion is more natural. One important point that he raises and which I have not yet brought up, for example, is that the ontology of religion is actually a lot more natural than that of science. Despite how careful he is, I still think he doesn’t quite do justice to both the unnaturalness of science and the fact that it is related to the practical knowledge that Malinowski saw as existing among the Trobriand Islanders.