Abstract for Tucson and Atlanta talks

Posted on January 6, 2011


As I mentioned earlier, the two talks in Tucson and Atlanta will be to quite different audiences. Having thought about it, though, the material I will be presenting is so new that there is a good chance that most in both audiences will be unfamiliar with it, requiring me to explain things along the way. Still, I do not think that the basic ideas are all that complex. The real trick is to flip the way one thinks. Not that that is easy in itself, of course. So, the abstract may undergo more changes yet before it is finalised.

Epistemic vigilance, reasoning, and religion

Human capacity for cultural learning is highly advantageous but susceptible to misinformation, requiring that epistemic trust be balanced with epistemic vigilance (Sperber et al. 2010). Sometimes this means paying special attention to the source of the information and, sometimes, to the content of the information, itself. Reasoning is vital for maintaining epistemic vigilance towards content of information and requires that truth be an explicit norm (Mercier & Sperber in press). This explains both the strengths and the shortcomings of human reasoning. Thus, for example, confirmation error can be explained in terms of the function of reasoning being to check the claims made by others, not those we make ourselves. Attention to credibility enhancing displays (CREDs), on the other hand, is a mechanism for epistemic vigilance towards the source of information (Henrich 2009). For example, someone who claims a particular kind of mushroom is poisonous is less likely to be believed if they are observed to eat that kind of mushroom. Because they focus on different aspects of a message, reasoning and attention to CREDs can lead to conflicting conclusions.

On the population level, CREDs play an important role in stabilising religious beliefs, making it possible for religions to motivate prosocial behaviour. A believer’s willingness to engage in activity that only makes sense if they believe in their own religious pronouncements makes those pronouncements more plausible, if the believer happens to be an accepted model for cultural learning. This can help to stabilise behaviour that is individually costly but good for the community. However, this function of religions is noncognitive, i.e. not connected to their truth (Wilson 2002). Whether the claims are true is irrelevant to whether belief in them is conducive to prosocial behaviour. This means that for religions to be selected on the basis of their effectiveness (rather than their truth), they must be protected against potential counterevidence (Talmont-Kaminski 2009). Such ‘superempirical’ status is partly determined by the content of such beliefs and partly by their social and methodological context. The common treatment of religious topics and items as sacred and, therefore, in need of special respect is an aspect of the social context that serves to protect religion against destabilisation. While on the whole adaptive, the protection of religious beliefs against potential counterevidence conflicts with the normative stance required by reasoning. The resulting pragmatic contradiction can be moderated by various means, but never eliminated.


Henrich, J. (2009) The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 244–260.

Mercier, H., Sperber, D. (in press) Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Sperber, D. et al. (2010) Epistemic vigilance Mind & Language 25.4: 359–393.

Talmont-Kaminski, K. (2009) The fixation of superstitious beliefs teorema 28.3: 81-95.

Wilson, D.S. (2002) Darwin’s Cathedral U of Chicago.