I Think We Can Make That Seven

Interview on salon.com today with the author of yet another anti-religion tract called Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Lewis Wolpert.

Mr. Wolpert’s thesis is that our mind’s propensity for seeing things in terms of cause and effect is the root of religion.

And once you had that concept [of cause and effect], you wanted to understand the causes of other things that mattered in your life, like illness. That’s the origin of religion. The most obvious causes were those things caused by humans, so people imagined there was some sort of god with human characteristics.

Let me make sure that I’ve got this straight. Because of the way we are, our minds tend to look for simple cause-and-effect relationships that seem to explain certain phenomena in easily understandable ways, even though there’s no real scientific evidence that the cause did in fact lead to the effect.

And so Mr. Wolpert’s mind has perceived that there is a simple cause-and-effect relationship between this characteristic of the human mind and the phenomenon of religion. This seems to him to explain, in an easily understandable way, why religions exist.

Got it.

I am in complete agreement, as it happens, with Mr. Wolpert’s observation about the human mind’s tendency to impose causal order on what it perceives, and that this tendency is a fundamental source of delusion. I’m surprised, though, that he seems to think that this is a new insight and a controversial one. In fact, it’s a fundamental teaching of at least three major religions that I know of: Buddhism, Daoism, and Zen.

More from the interview:

Isn’t there more to religion than belief in supernatural beings?

Certainly not. … When I talk about religion, I’m talking about belief in the supernatural. In Western society, we’re talking about God. I don’t believe you can be religious without having some concept of a god.

Hmm. I would have said that you can’t be truly religious without realizing that any concept of a god that your mind can hold cannot be right. Mr. Wolpert apparently thinks that all real religious belief is by definition superstitious, whereas it seems to me that the superstitious element in religious belief is precisely that part that is not truly religious. Obviously this isn’t an attitude shared by all people who regard themselves as religious, but I don’t see why we should let fundamentalists be the ones to define for us what is and isn’t religion, any more than we should let astrologers dictate for us what is and isn’t science.

Of course, Mr. Wolpert does not have any actual scientific evidence that this mental proclivity of ours is the cause of religious belief. He has no evidence that the cause-and-effect might not go the other way around, so that it was religious belief that led to this mental quirk, or that both of these might be separate effects of some other cause, or that they might be effects of two separate and unrelated causes that have developed together and influenced each other over many thousands of years. No, Mr. Wolpert just perceives the possibility of a connection, and therefore the connection must exist. And if he has to ignore the conspicuous existence of kinds of religious experience that don’t fit his model, no prob.

It seems to me that a lot of people who regard themselves as completely rational have no problem using the theory of evolution in the same way that fundamentalists use the Bible. If I’m a fundamentalist and I perceive a connection between a Bible verse and something in the world around me, lo! I have evidence that the Bible predicted it or is commenting on it. If a verse in Leviticus says in the original Hebrew that it’s unclean for a man to “lie the lying of a woman”, for example, and the use of the verb “lie” reminds me of lying in bed and therefore of sex, and this in turn reminds me that I think it’s unclean and then some for two men to have sex together, then bingo, I have convinced myself that that’s what the Bible must be referring to here and I don’t have to think any more about it. It’s not complex at all, and there’s nothing about it I have to admit that I don’t understand.

And if I am a “rationalist” and I think I perceive a way that some trait or other may have had some indirect benefit that might possibly have increased some group of people’s ability to survive, then bingo, I can write a book about how spiritual belief is merely the result of evolution, and I don’t have to think any more about it. It’s not complex at all, and there’s nothing about it I have to admit that I don’t understand. I have reduced it to a simple equation, and that makes me smarter than all those people who think there’s anything more to it than that.

Mr. Wolpert seems to have a bug up his ass about acupuncture, too.

You have written about alternative medicine and are highly skeptical of various healing practices, including energy healing and even acupuncture, which is now used quite widely in the West.

Yes, I know it’s used. It’s quite tricky because the placebo effect can really confuse these results very significantly. So if you believe the treatment is going to work, you’ve got a much higher chance that it’s going to work. But there’s just no evidence for the idea of energy fields, which acupuncturists use for deciding where to put the needles.

But there are thousands of years of experiential evidence going back to ancient China.

But nothing to do with energy. Energy is a well-defined concept. And I’m terribly sorry, no physiologist has ever detected any of these energy fields.

There’s no evidence to support the popular explanation for the phenomenon, and therefore the phenomenon itself must not exist. How’s that for scientific reasoning?

Here’s the thing: Religion is about seeing things as they are, right here and right now, not as our mind wants them to be, as our mind leads us to perceive them. The separation of the universe into individual things is a trick of the mind, a necessary illusion if we are to figure out how to manipulate the universe to get what we want, but still an illusion. Even that is only one of countless ways of expressing that insight. In various different words, that is what’s at the root of Buddha’s teachings, Jesus’s teachings, Laozi’s teachings. Also at the root of all science, which is why there’s no real conflict at all between genuine science and genuine religion, and even at the root of what Mr. Wolpert is saying, even though I think he has been taken in by the illusion created by his own mind and seems to see his own teachings as being in opposition to all those others, and I don’t think they are at all. Neither religion nor science, if they are genuine, is about believing impossible things; they are both about the difficult and unending struggle to see what you actually see, and not just the comfortable and reassuring patterns that your brain imposes on what you see.

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