Loose ends in Brno

Posted on November 10, 2009


Last week I was at a small, two-day conference on the cognitive science of religion in Brno. There were only twenty-something people there, mostly from the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Poland, The only exception were the two key speakers, Armin Geertz and Jesper Sorensen, who were from Aarhus in Denmark. Most of the papers were quite valuable in some way but the biggest plus of the meeting was definitely the discussion. Armin Geertz has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of a very broad range of material and a fine philosophic sensibility and Jesper has very refreshing attitude to bunk – quite reminiscent of Australian academics at their best (I rather enjoyed half-jokingly turning some of his pointed comments against him after his talk). In addition, Jesper has been working on cognitive explanations of magic, i.e. pretty much the same topic as what I have been dealing with. Indeed, he had a book on this topic out with AltaMira in 2006 – I’ve put it to the front of my reading queue. The fact that I had not come across it earlier is, unfortunately, evidence that I am yet to get a proper grasp of the wealth of material that is out there.

I had only heard about the meeting fairly recently and ended up presenting the same paper as in Bristol. There, the questions were mostly coming from philosophers and psychologists, including of course developmental psychologists. In Brno, it was mostly cognitive anthropologists with a thorough knowledge of religion, which made for a different but also very insightful and challenging audience. The main impression that I got from the discussion was that the kind of epistemological issues that I raise do not fit easily with that approach. This means that I have to be very careful how I phrase things. Jesper, for example, wondered whether I was not falling into the ‘propositional attitudes’ view of beliefs. If he is right, it would be more than troubling, but I tend to think it is more a matter of presentation (both in terms of making my views clear to the audience and in terms of making sure no such assumptions sneak into my own thinking through the back door of inappropriate language). The secondary impression I got was that I have managed to get something of a broad understanding of the main issues, even if many details are still missing – many points that Armin raised, for example, were ones that I had been mulling over and had come to much the same conclusions about. Also interesting was the to and fro on the question of the distinction between magic and religion. Jesper thinks there isn’t one, while I do; even having talked to him. What did become somewhat clearer to me is that I should be explaining that I consider superstition to be a result of the way in which the magical and religious are forced apart in our modern societies that value rationality. This may be a fairly obvious point but it helps to clarify what I see as the relationship between the three, a major issue in my book.