Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? The first two chapters

Posted on November 5, 2009


This semester I am teaching a course on the cognitive science of religion using Justin Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? as the main text. The audience this semester is a small group of philosophy students from the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University, with the course likely to be repeated by me next semester but for a group of psychology students at Warsaw University. The book is meant to be an introduction to the area of research, but at times it strikes me as being too introductory to be really useful. For example, Barrett has clearly made the decision to avoid most technical language apart from the terms that are central to cog sci of religion, itself. Thus, he talks about mental ‘tools’ when discussing what is commonly referred to in the literature as mental modules – indeed the term module does not seem to make an appearance, a pity given that the massive modularity thesis cog sci of religion relies upon is so controversial. Rejection of technical language may help to avoid jargon overload in students who have no familiarity with psychology but at the cost of making it difficult for them to link what they learn about cog sci of religion to other things they may have already learned or will learn in the future – it removes the discipline from its theoretical context.

Thus far, the students and I have worked through a couple of chapters and to my mixed impressions regarding cog sci of religion I have had to add a mixed opinion regarding the book. In many cases the problems with the Barrett book are the problems with cog sci of religion, but not always.

In his first chapter Barrett sets up the theoretical grounds for cog sci of religion by discussing the notion of belief in general. Central to his discussion is the idea of mental modules (I’ll allow myself the jargon he eschews) and the distinction between reflective and nonreflective beliefs that it underpins. From a philosophical point of view, the discussion of the theory is full of inconsistencies and weak arguments. Thus, the distinction between reflective and nonreflective beliefs seems to be open to many counterexamples which, at the very least, seem to suggest that it is more a spectrum than an either/or distinction that we are dealing with. Clearly, theory is not Barrett’s strong suit, which is not necessarily a fundamental problem when one is a scientist since there is much valuable science done that is conceptually based upon poor theoretical grounds – although the issue becomes more significant when dealing with an introductory text. The problem becomes compounded, however, by Barrett’s seeming unwillingness to also discuss at length the experimental work in cog sci of religion. All he mentions is the general drift of the results without going into the details. Again, this may be due to wishing to write an introductory text, but the effect is that neither the theory nor the empirical results are covered to a satisfactory depth. All that we seem to get is a quick walk-through the basic concepts used by the discipline – not enough to serve as a satisfactory introduction. Clearly, the text has to be supplemented in the course with actual research articles, at the very least. Barrett points to some of this work in the footnotes but does not seem to be focussed on the need to systematically direct the reader to the basic empirical results.

A further worry I have is that I feel Barrett is at times misrepresenting the scientific status quo in a way that suits his approach. Thus, on page three, he essentially claims that cognitivists agree on the massive modularity thesis. From where I stand, this seems to be far from the truth and, indeed, is one of the main sticking points in the evaluation of both cog sci of religion and evolutionary psychology, from which cog sci of religion has inherited its reliance upon this thesis. Of course, I think that most psychologists will agree that there is such a thing as mental modules but the degree to which the mind is modular is an open question so Pinker, to whom Barrett refers, can hardly be claimed to be presenting a settled truth.

Other fundamental worries appear in examining chapter two in which Barrett discusses the idea of minimally counterintuitive concepts (MCICs). In reading Boyer I came to be concerned that minimal counterintuitiveness does not define the right set of entities for a cog sci of religion to be concerned with. Reading Barrett my feelings in this regard have only become stronger. He defines gods as MCI agents that are believed in and belief in whom affects people’s actions. The reference to belief here is meant to deal with the Mickey Mouse problem, i.e. the problem that the concept of Mickey Mouse is an MCIC but, clearly, Mickey Mouse is no god. Even accepting that this is adequate, that does not avoid more fundamental problems. The first is that there are plenty of MCICs of agents who are believed in but are not religious, at least in the context of modern society. I am thinking of some of the examples that Barrett mentions, including beliefs in space aliens or ghosts. The category of the supernatural includes much beside religion and the difference between these elements seems highly significant. Cog sci of religion, as I have noticed and as is very clear in the case of Barrett, wants to have things both ways. On the one hand, it wants to talk about all supernatural beliefs but, on the other hand, it wants to ‘really’ be concerned with religion proper, as the name of the discipline suggests. In Barrett this second tendency is visible in how he tries to define magical beliefs as including MCICs of non-agent things such as magical wands. On this definition faeries would have to be considered as religious beings. While that may possibly be true historically, to claim that this is the case in modern society seems to be ad hoc. Likewise, it would entail that religious relics turn out not to be religious at all but magical.

None of these worries about the scope of MCICs is as significant as a further one. As Barrett allows with his example of the venus flytrap, the world often turns out to run counter to our intuitions. In fact, the disconnect between what the world is like and our intuitions turns out to be ever greater with each scientific discovery. Consider the concepts of beings that are generally like what we think humans are like but are actually more than 99 percent vacuum or, to use another example, that are directly related to the moss that grows on rocks. Both concepts do great violence to our intuitions but also have turned out to be correct, scientific descriptions of people. It would seem, therefore, that I – and every other human being – is actually an MCI agent, even if our everyday concepts of ourselves are not MCI. Clearly, something has gone wrong, given that MCI was supposed to offer a way of defining the way in which gods are different from people.

One would want to say something about scientific concepts being forced upon us by empirical evidence while religious concepts are the effect of the functioning of the peculiarities of human cognitive capabilities – the mental modules mentioned earlier. While this is correct, the view of why certain ideas are accepted that Barrett puts forward closes this route. He claims that, in general, ideas come to be accepted because they ‘fit with’ or activate many of the mental modules. Indeed, he discusses the example of the venus flytrap in this context claiming that we come to believe in their existence because even though the concept is counterintuitive it agrees with a larger number of mental modules than it runs counter to. There is, of course, something to this idea; I would not wish to put forward a theory which presents humans as fully rational beings that only formulate beliefs they have adequate evidence for. Yet, throwing direct empirical evidence into a general grab-bag of agreement with mental modules seems to go too far in the opposite direction. It would certainly imply rejecting the value of science or perhaps the human ability to carry it out.

A final aspect of the problem with minimal counterintuitiveness and how Barrett uses it is that he moves from MCI concepts, through MCI agents to things such as the venus flytrap which happen to run counter to our intuitions. To use a philosopher’s adage, he is confusing the map with the territory. The critical term seems to be ‘MCI agents’, which in Barrett’s hands seems at times to concern MCI concepts of agents and, at times, actual agents who happen not to fit with our intuitions. That the difference is a very significant one can be appreciated when we consider that sliding between the two might lead to an implicit acceptance of the argument that saying that the concept of God exists entails saying that God exists. Descartes tried to run something like this argument many years ago and philosophers have not generally found it to be all that convincing, to say the least. Pointing this out may seem to be nitpicking, except that Barrett is a theist and explicitly claims that work in cog sci of religion is revealing the handiwork of God in our mental make-up – precisely the point that Descartes made and precisely the point that has been thoroughly critiqued by generations of philosophers since.

At the same time as I make these objections I remain very much aware that to a certain degree these are typical philosophical worries about the lack of theoretical rigor. The value of such objections has to always be considered in the light of the fact that, despite all too often lacking such rigor, science has made amazing progress in understanding the world – not something that is as clearly the case with (traditional) philosophy, to put things gently. Thus, even though when Barrett does mention philosophy in the second footnote to chapter one he is talking through his hat, this does not – by a long stretch of the imagination – show that cog sci of religion is meretricious nonsense. If I thought this was the case, I would not teach a course on cog sci of religion nor would I use results from this discipline in my own work. Yet, I do think that cog sci of religion would benefit from taking on board some of these worries and from working on its theoretical basis so that it can better support the empirical side of the inquiry. And it is in the introductory texts that this issue comes to the fore, since it is from these texts that to a significant degree the next generation is likely to learn the basics of the approach.