Abstract for Knowledge, Value, Evolution

Posted on May 31, 2009


In November this year the Czech Academy of Science is organising a conference that seeks to bring together life sciences with philosophy. The list of key-speakers includes a number of familiar faces. Not surprisingly, I am hoping to attend. In fact, I am sending my abstract today. The paper develops and clarifies some of the ideas I presented last year in the “Fixation of superstitious beliefs” paper.

The desirability of religion and the function of non-cognitive beliefs

Beliefs have the capacity to guide human behaviour regardless of their truth. In particular, false beliefs can motivate behaviour that is adaptive. Disconfirmation of the beliefs is a threat to their stability, however. The beliefs can be protected from disconfirmation by having content that minimises potential empirical consequences as well as existing in a context that discourages investigation of them or provides only very limited access to the methods that might be used to investigate them. Due to their disconnection from the truth, the plausibility of such beliefs must be explained in terms of human psychology, primarily in terms of a variety of cognitive by-products (Boyer, Atran). Properly understood, such beliefs may be termed non-cognitive as their truth or falsehood is irrelevant to their function – they only appear to be assertions. The paradigmatic example of such non-cognitive beliefs is provided by religious traditions: Their content appears to refer to unobservable entities, and they are protected by social rules surrounding the treatment of the sacred as well as having often opposed the development of science.

The persistence and potentially adaptive nature of non-cognitive beliefs does not indicate that their effects are such as we might desire. This is the case for two reasons. Firstly, they may only be adaptive for themselves, as suggested by some memeticians (Blackmore, Dawkins). Secondly, even if they are adaptive for believers (Stark) or groups of believers (D. S. Wilson), being adaptive does not necessary equate with furthering actual human well-being. This means that to determine whether religious and other non-cognitive beliefs are desirable we have to investigate their evolutionary function.  The proper theoretical framework to examine this question is gene-culture co-evolution theory (Boyd & Richerson) as it is complex enough to allow for and distinguish between all of the alternatives considered above. Ironically, however, the close investigation necessary to determine the desirability of individual non-cognitive beliefs is anathema to their maintaining their plausibility and, therefore, their functionality.