Religion and Evolutionary Fitness

July 19th, 2012

 

The practice of religion interrupts the human preoccupation with self-serving activity—which suggests that one function of religion is to keep people from being too obsessed with their personal interests. But why should that obsession, which confers an advantage in evolutionary fitness, be prevented?  Could there be a countervailing advantage in being relieved from the same obsession? Or does this aspect of religion perhaps decrease human evolutionary fitness?  It is a mistake to assume that every characteristic which takes hold in a population increases fitness. Daniel Dennett’s book on the memetics of religion, Breaking the Spell, opens with a counter-example:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? [Dennett, 2006, p 3]

The answer, it turns out, is no benefit—to the ant! Its grass-climbing behaviour is prompted by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that has penetrated its brain. In order to complete its reproductive cycle, the fluke must find its way into the digestive system of a sheep or cow. By commandeering the motor apparatus of its host the ant, the fluke puts itself in the way of being grazed.

Dennett’s book takes as its starting point Richard Dawkins’ observation that the memes of human culture, like genes, are replicating entities whose populations wax or wane according to principles of natural selection.[Dawkins, 1976]  Among the memes that thrive or die are religious ones. The provocative question animating Dennett’s discussion of religion is, “What is the relationship of religious ideas to their human hosts? Do religions benefit their believers, are they neutral, or are they—like the lancet fluke to the ant—deleterious parasites?” Read the rest of this entry »

Religion as an Antidote to the Self

June 15th, 2012

“Why does religion exist?” is a challenging question for both the natural and the social sciences. There is a fact to be explained: a large majority (about 85%) of human beings profess religious beliefs and engage in religious practices. For evolutionary biology, the challenge is to explain why religion caught on so well. Did religions confer a competitive advantage on the members of our species who adopted them? If they once did, do they still confer a competitive advantage? Although a ‘gene for religion’ is unlikely, religious affiliation is heritable: the strongest determinant of an individual’s religion is the religion of his parents. [Dennett, 2006, p 86] Religious observance is costly, requiring the erection of places of worship and maintenance of a priesthood, and could be presumed on that account to reduce the evolutionary fitness of believers as compared to their more worldly competitors. Why, then, have religions flourished? Almost the same question confronts economic theory, which assumes human behaviour is best modelled by Homo economicus, an agent who always chooses what he believes is in his own interests. Why would such agents choose religion, which requires personal sacrifice with no clear payback, or at least without the kind of payback that motivates the same agents in their other transactions such as work for pay and pay for groceries. A parallel question faces psychology. Religions commonly advocate self-denial, which can be presumed to be psychologically repellent. Why are people attracted by institutions and practices which ask them to give up pleasures?

All the world’s major religions try to curb human selfishness. They attempt to break their followers’ obsession with their personal lives, and encourage them to care about something larger than themselves. An aim of religion is to alter human motivation: to guide thought and motivate action in directions that run counter to ‘natural’ inclinations.

I want to examine the hypothesis that religion arose as a response to the emergence of the self as a motivational centre in human psychology. Read the rest of this entry »

Being Protean – Johnston’s Narratives of Survival

May 10th, 2012

This is the second part of a two part review of Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death. Part 1 is here.

Narratives of Personhood

In the third Surviving Death lecture, Johnston asks why the boundaries of the intentional self ‘roughly’ coincide with those of the living human organism, and answers:

It is because we have been brought up inside the narrative of the human being, a narrative which…tells us roughly how long we can expect to last…. This narrative, which forms a frame around our collective life, makes what could otherwise strike us as tendentious identifications of a consciousness or an arena across periods of deep sleep or unconsciousness seem utterly natural. In making such identifications we make them true or at least immune to refutation. [Johnston, 2010, p 247]

The boundary of the person, that circumscribes our self-concern, is a product of culture. To bring the point to life, Johnston imagines three populations in which different boundaries of personhood are accepted: the Hibernators, the Teletransporters, and the Human Beings.

The Hibernators are intelligent, culturally modern human beings with a genetic quirk that keeps them constantly awake for most of the year, but puts them soundly to sleep during the coldest months. Although the Hibernators are well acquainted with the facts that their organisms normally survive the winter slumber, they do not regard the lives to be lived next year as their own. They do not anticipate having the experiences of those who will wake in the spring, and therefore do not fear such of those experiences as are expected to be painful, or look forward with expectant delight to experiences that will be delightful. Despite the fact that next year’s Hibernators will have veridical memory-like experiences of the lives of this year’s Hibernators, they will not regard those remembered lives as their own. A Hibernator does not take personal pride in his predecessor’s achievements, or feel guilty about his transgressions.

The Teletransporters are a technologically advanced human culture who rely on teleportation for transportation over long distances. When planning trips, they unproblematically extend their self-concern to their reconstructed successors. The successors pay their predecessors’ debts, and bask in their glories.

And the third group, we, the Human Beings

…regard Teletransportation as a form of human Xeroxing that has the unfortunate feature of destroying the original. At first, it seems to us that the Teletransporters…are prepared to commit suicide and even kill their own children by putting them into the machine. [Johnston, 2010, p 262]

The Teletransporters know the machine destroys their original bodies. They just don’t care. Read the rest of this entry »

Anatta to Agape – Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death

April 27th, 2012

In a remarkable book, Surviving Death, Mark Johnston reaches several surprising conclusions about persons and personal identity. One of them, as the title implies, is that persons can survive their biological deaths. This claim does not depend on the existence of anything resembling an immaterial, substantial soul; Johnston’s account of post-death survival is entirely naturalistic.

Johnston has packed a lot into five long chapters, originally presented as a Carl G. Hempel lecture series at Princeton. I am impressed by the stamina of the audience, who attended to what must have been a full week of close and often counterintuitive argument and stayed to ask penetrating questions. I doubt I could have followed it all—and so, am grateful to have the lectures in printed (actually e-book) form, for they are rich with insight.

Having read Johnston’s 1997 attack on Parfit’s neo-Lockeanism, “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” I had pegged him as a ‘conservative’ about personal identity. But Surviving Death reveals a theory of personhood as radical as any. Read the rest of this entry »

Parfit’s Retreat: “We Are Not Human Beings”

March 30th, 2012

In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums.  This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause:

Our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R—psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, either with the normal cause or with any cause, provided (b) that there is no different person who is R-related to us as we once were. [Parfit, 1984, p 216]

I call Parfit’s new view a “retreat” because it is a move away from the radical insights about what we are which illuminated Reasons and Persons, to a ‘conservative’ account of persons as physical substances. I find the move puzzling, because I can’t see that Parfit is compelled to make it, and disappointing, because it raises once again the fog of mysteries about persons that looked well on their way to being dispelled.

Parfit’s claim that persons are their cerebrums has as a direct consequence that persons cannot survive information-based teleportation. If  I plan to be teleported to Mars, I should accept that my replica on Mars will not be me, because my replica’s cerebrum is numerically different from my cerebrum. The cerebrum is a body part, which, like any other ordinary material object, ceases to exist when it is destroyed. Its replica on Mars is a different cerebrum—hence, if Parfit is right, a different person.

Parfit has long thought that survival—a person’s continued existence—is different from what matters in survival. His new view on what persons are could perhaps coexist with his earlier position that information-based teleportation preserves everything that matters in survival. But such coexistence, I will argue, is an uneasy truce between fundamentally warring ideas. An alternative account of what persons are—informational entities—is a better fit to Parfit’s intuition (which I endorse) that nothing important need be lost in teleportation of persons.

“Why We Are Not Human Beings” is Parfit’s response to animalism—the view put forward by Eric Olson and others that persons are identical to animals, or biological organisms. (In the animalist literature, “human being” is used as a synonym for “human animal.”) In this review of Parfit’s paper, I raise the following points:

  1. The arguments Parfit brings to bear against animalism rely on an intuition that has equal force against the paper’s conclusion that persons are their cerebrums.
  2. The claim that persons are their brains was strongly rejected in Reasons and Persons for reasons that supported a central argument of that book. If we were identical to our cerebrums, Parfit’s main argument against the Self-Interest Theory would be undercut in the same way that it would be if we were identical to our (whole) brains.
  3. The claim that we are our cerebrums weakens Parfit’s argument in Reasons and Persons that “ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica.” If I am my cerebrum, it is hard to believe that destruction of my cerebrum is not especially bad for me, even if a replica of my cerebrum is manufactured in its stead. Read the rest of this entry »

The Unity of Persons

March 7th, 2012

A joke that comes down to us from Epicharmas of Kos, a 5th century BC comic playwright, is made topical by Greece’s debt crisis:

Months after lending Yiannis five euros, Giorgos catches Yiannis’ sleeve in the agora and asks for his money back. “Ah,” says Yiannis, and stoops to gather a handful of pebbles. He arranges them in a pile. “See this pile of pebbles?” Giorgos nods. “If I add two more,” Yiannis continues, demonstrating this, “is it the same pile?”

“Of course not,” says Giorgos.

“And if I take a pebble away, is it the same pile, or different?”

“Different,” says Giorgos. “So what?”

“Ah. A man is made of small things, is he not?”

“Yes,” Giorgos agrees (being a thoroughgoing physicalist).

“Well, then!” says Yiannis with a Hellenic shrug. “Many days have passed, during which the man to whom you lent those five euros consumed many small things, and excreted others, and, therefore, no longer exists. I’m not responsible for his debts.”

“I get it,” says Giorgos, and punches Yiannis in the face.

Rubbing his bruised cheek, Yiannis complains,“Why did you do that?”

“Me?” says Giorgos. “That wasn’t me.”

The joke works because we know the criterion of personal identity to which both characters appeal is bogus. A person’s identity is not like that of a collection of pebbles. Being responsible for promises and past actions is part of being the same person over time, despite gains and losses of matter, and other changes. But if we, like Yiannis and Giorgos, deny that being the same person consists in the abiding presence of some sort of immaterial substance, it is incumbent on us to give some account of the sameness of persons over time. What is the unifying principle of personhood which makes it true that, for example, Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States is the same person as the Barack Obama who was born at the Kapi’olani Maternity Hospital in Honolulu on Aug. 4th, 1961, and the Barack Obama who directed the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side in 1986—and different from everybody else? Read the rest of this entry »

Mirror Neurons for an “Exquisitely Social Species”

February 16th, 2012

“A unifying neural hypothesis on how individuals understand the actions and emotions of others” was presented to the world in 2004 by neuroscientists Gallese, Keysers and Rizzolatti. Our understanding of other minds, they claimed, is facilitated by “mirror neurons,” so-called because they fire when an individual performs or observes an action, and when she experiences an emotion herself or observes that emotion in someone else. The authors described mirror neurons as a system that enables humans and other social primates to simulate each other’s behaviour and internal states, thereby enabling learning, communication, and prediction of others’ actions.

Humans are an exquisitely social species. Our survival and success depends crucially on our ability to thrive in complex social situations. One of the most striking features of our experience of others is its intuitive nature. This implicit grasp of what other people do or feel will be the focus of our review. We will posit that, in our brain, there are neural mechanisms (mirror mechanisms) that allow us to directly understand the meaning of the actions and emotions of others without any explicit reflective mediation. Conceptual reasoning is not necessary for this understanding. [Gallese et al, 2004, p 396]

The mirror neuron hypothesis sparked a storm of interest among scientists and philosophers concerned with the human mind. It sparked controversy too, with some researchers cautioning that the data vastly underdetermines the interpretation placed on it, and that animal studies have been extrapolated to conclusions about the human species. This caution is justified, but so is the excitement. The bare facts of what has been discovered so far are hard to reconcile with any hypothesis that could be considered boring, and the current pace of discovery suggests that we will soon know much more. If the Gallese/Keysers/Rizzolatti theory is even approximately right, neuroscience is giving birth to an intellectual revolution with the potential to profoundly change both scientific and common-sense understanding of how our minds work. Read the rest of this entry »

The Separateness of Persons

January 16th, 2012

We are born into this world profoundly alone, our strange, unbounded minds trapped in our ordinary, earthwormy bodies—the condition that led Nietzche to refer to us, wonderingly, as “hybrids of plants and of ghosts.” We spend our lives trying to overcome this fundamental separation, but we can never entirely surmount it. Try as we might, we can’t gain direct access to other people’s inner worlds—to their thoughts and feelings, their private histories, their secret desires, their deepest beliefs. Nor can we grant them direct access to our own. [Schulz, 2010, p 252]

The feeling of separateness from other people, so eloquently expressed by Kathryn Schulz in her book, Being Wrong, is rooted in a theory which almost all of us learn at our mother’s knee between the ages of three and six—the theory of other minds.

Human beings are self-conscious creatures. Your brain supports a model of the world, part of which is a model of yourself. When you were around four, your self-model became sophisticated enough to support a secondary, higher-level model—a model of your model of the world, and within that, a model of your model of yourself. You began to draw the subjective-objective distinction. Or to put it more simply, as Kathryn Schulz has, you realized you could be wrong about things. Reality was not always the way you perceived and believed it to be. Read the rest of this entry »

What Does Matter

December 30th, 2011

Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons began, “Many of us want to know what we have most reason to do.” He aimed to establish a foundation for ethics, a project which required addressing the conflicts between morality and self-interest. In asking what the claims of self-interest really are, Parfit came to grips with the question of whether or not there is a rational basis for the special concern that persons feel for themselves. Although Reasons and Persons did not answer that question, Parfit tried to show that the Self-Interest Theory—which claims that each person has the “supremely rational ultimate aim: that his life go, for him, as well as possible”—is false.

Parfit went on to write On What Matters, following an honoured tradition of searching for a kind of Unified Field Theory of ethics—one law, from the correct application of which all moral precepts can be derived. Reasons and Persons famously argued that personal identity is not what matters in survival; and it is surely not coincidental that the phrase “what matters” recurred in the title of Parfit’s new book.  Normative ethics consists of giving reasons for action; and reasons for action matter. Because the survival of persons is very important, what matters in survival can be presumed to be a significant part of what matters.

On What Matters says little about personal identity. Parfit’s primary interest is in discovering reasons for action—a rational basis for decision-making. My primary interest is in gaining a better understanding of human nature—of what we are. Parfit’s work is driven by prescriptive aims, mine by descriptive ones. Parfit and I would probably agree that reasons for action are rooted in values. But where he asks what has value, I ask what people actually value, and—a more interesting question—why they value what they do. Read the rest of this entry »

On Sympathy

December 9th, 2011

In the war of ideas, the philosophy of personal identity is gradually giving way to the science of human motivation. As we come to a fuller understanding of how and why we tick, from neurological, evolutionary, and ethological perspectives, the puzzles of personal identity that have perplexed thinkers since Locke’s day become less puzzling. In this journey from paradox to plain understanding, perhaps the most important single step is to abandon the idea that anticipation of experience is rationally required.

Giving up that idea is like giving up geocentrism—the belief that motion is defined with reference to the unmoving earth. When people started to see the earth as just another moving object, man was displaced from the centre of the universe. Many were unsettled and alarmed by this idea. Those with a vested interest in the status quo actively suppressed the Copernican revolution. But the idea has proven itself. We now find it liberating and empowering, no longer a threat. It has given us a better understanding of the real world, and has helped enable useful technologies.

Giving up the idea that one’s relationship to oneself is privileged—that self-interested action is sanctioned by a special class of prudential reasons which have no application to one’s actions on behalf of other people—boots the self from its central position in the rational arena. When we see how things are, that anticipation of future experience is just something we do—not justified by any special relation between us and our future selves, because the relations we have to our future selves are the same kinds of relations we have to other people—then our strongly-motivating self-concern no longer has the whip hand. We can take charge of our own motivation. Read the rest of this entry »