God on the Brain: Cognitive Science and Natural Theology

Karolina Prochownik on Helen De Cruz and Johan de Smedt’s A Natural History of Natural Theology

Helen De Cruz and John de Smedt, A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion, MIT Press, 2014, 246 pp., $40.00
Helen De Cruz and Johan de Smedt, A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion, MIT Press, 2014, 246 pp., $40.00
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Cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a recent discipline that examines naturally evolved cognitive processes that underlie religious beliefs and practices. It is particularly concerned with ways that intuitive cognitive processes bias and inform religious thinking in a cross-cultural context. Natural theology is preoccupied with formulating arguments in favor of God’s existence and particular divine attributes based on ways humans reason and experience the world. One could think, therefore, that there are no more contradictory studies than these two—the one aiming at a naturalistic explanation of religion, the other trying to formulate arguments in favor of the supernatural on the basis of natural phenomena.

Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt seek to overcome this seeming chasm between such disparate studies in their work, A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion. Indeed, it should not be strange to have these disciplines interact, for if the cognitive science of religion is concerned with studying natural cognitive processes underlying religious thinking and natural theology acquires knowledge of God through reasoning and observation of the world, then it seems that cognitive science can be applied to natural theological thinking, which is underpinned by natural cognitive intuitions. Moreover, if natural theology regards human reason as a means of knowing God, then the examination of how natural theological intuitions causally originate in the mind may have implications for the rationality of natural theology.

So how do we naturalize natural theology? De Cruz and De Smedt propose that natural theological beliefs and arguments, though abstract and intellectually sophisticated, are fueled by intuitions that have their roots in natural cognitive processes. By uncovering and examining these natural intuitions one can explain the enduring appeal of natural theological arguments and why they are cross-culturally recurrent. Taking this naturalistic scientific perspective, A Natural History of Natural Theology relies on three basic assumptions of CSR: (1) religious beliefs and practices are outcomes of ordinary human cognitive processing (there is nothing special about religion in cognitive terms); (2) the evolved structure of the human mind informs and constrains the development of religious beliefs in different cultural traditions; (3) the human mind contains different domain-specific cognitive capacities that impact the cultural transmission of particular religious beliefs. De Cruz and De Smedt use standard CSR tools such as intuitive ontologies—“an evolved set of category-based expectations that emerge early in development and that guide reasoning about physical, psychological, and biological phenomena.” These specialized domains of human knowledge comprise intuitive physics (beliefs about properties and behaviors of inanimate objects), intuitive psychology (expectations about other people’s minds harnessed to explain their behavior), intuitive biology (a package of assumptions concerning features and actions of animals and other biological entities), and intuitive engineering (expectations about artifacts). As the names indicate, these are all intuitive systems that do not require slow and deliberate reflective reasoning but rather rely on fast and automatic information processing. As the general story in CSR goes, these different mental tools appeared in response to various adaptive problems in our ancestral environment and still serve to provide guidance in this rather complex world. But beyond that, they contribute to our understanding of why people in different cultures find some types of religious ideas and behaviors appealing. De Cruz and De Smedt extend this cognitive approach to the scrutiny of the natural foundations of natural theology.

God as Architect, The Frontispiece of Bible Moralisée, mid-13th century France. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
God as Architect, The Frontispiece of Bible Moralisée, mid-13th century France. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Natural History of Natural Theology has many strengths. First of all, in its search for the causal origins of natural theological intuitions it provides an impressive overview of research in cognitive science from disciplines as various as experimental psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, and cultural evolution. Second, it presents a valuable introduction to current discussions in the philosophy of religion, in particular the debate about the implications of the cognitive and evolutionary sciences for the rationality of religious beliefs. By elegantly combining these two perspectives it presents interdisciplinary research at its best. Third, the book makes several important contributions to CSR, particularly with its analytical discussion of concepts such as “intuitiveness,” “naturalness,” and “theological correctness” in the context of religious beliefs and practices, and with its original solution to the preparedness-anthropomorphism debate.

Yet the ambitious task and scope of the book sometimes leads to hasty explanations where more detailed treatment or development would be beneficial. For instance, De Cruz and De Smedt examine the intuitions underpinning people’s reasoning about divine knowledge. In this pursuit, they analyze two competing hypotheses concerning how people represent God’s knowledge that have been put forward in CSR—anthropomorphism and preparedness. The anthropomorphism hypothesis claims that people tend to think intuitively about supernatural agents as if they were human agents. Even if theological traditions promote beliefs in omniscient supernatural agents, people are intuitively prone to assign them limited knowledge. According to this view, divine omniscience is counterintuitive and unnatural. By contrast, the preparedness hypothesis assumes that people find the concept of omniscience intuitively appealing as they are prepared to acquire this concept from a very early age (e.g., children younger than four overattribute knowledge). From this perspective, people naturally tend to think about God as omniscient and in a theologically correct fashion. De Cruz and De Smedt go beyond this dichotomy by proposing an integrated story of their own: two distinct systems of intuitive psychology underlie these two different modes of thinking about divine knowledge. One system processes the information about other agent’s mental states in fast and inflexible way and favors beliefs that God’s knowledge is limited.  The second system is slower and more flexible and underpins thinking of God as omniscient. De Cruz and De Smedt suggest that the second type of reasoning could be favored by an early developing reality bias—a tendency to equate other people’s knowledge with the state of reality. However, this explanation raises questions about the cultural variability of supernatural agents’ omniscience. In a classic study, On the Attributes of Gods, Raffaele Pettazzoni argued that omniscience is not a theological universal but a feature attributed to a particular type of gods—all-seeing luminous sky-gods. Recently in a similar vein, Ara Norenzayan claimed that omniscience co-evolved with other properties of Big Gods—monitoring, morally interested, powerful, interventionist supernatural agents in large-scale societies. The analysis in this book could thus be extended to an examination of how psychological factors interact with cultural circumstances in favoring the cultural transmission of omniscient gods. For instance, it may be that a reality bias contributes to the cultural transmission of beliefs in omniscient supernatural entities provided some cultural background information about these agents is available (e.g., they are imagined as monitoring sky-gods). This could explain why not all but only some supernatural agents tend to be culturally represented as omniscient (e.g., YHWH but not Demeter).

Of particular merit in the book is De Cruz and De Smedt’s acknowledgment of how difficult it is to draw a clear line between intuitive and reflective beliefs in religious thinking. Accordingly, they perceive religious beliefs and practices as an integration of various components including intuitive ontologies, cognitive capacities extended to cultural domains of knowledge (e.g., a capacity to discriminate visual differences is redeployed in reading), and reflective attitudes. Natural theological arguments are not exceptions to this general rule. This claim stands in sharp contrast with a popular view in CSR that situates theology in slow, deliberate and conscious reflective reasoning. Throughout their book De Cruz and De Smedt give many examples of how intuitive, reflective, and culturally specific beliefs interact in the construction of theology itself.

What is important to note is that this integrative approach applies both at the level of explanation of natural theological arguments and the level of their justification. For instance, taking the explanation level first, De Cruz and De Smedt argue that some prior assumptions about the intentions of the designer are required in the argument from design (i.e., the design stance is particularly appealing under the position of theism). In another case, they suggest that Westerners intuitively link the existence of objective moral norms with the existence of God in an argument from morality because they come from cultures where beliefs in moralizing high gods enhanced large-scale cooperation. Finally, the authors suggest, prior belief in God leads theists to find the design argument, the cosmological argument, and the argument from beauty—and the intuitions behind them—compelling. On the other hand, as the authors note, such arguments provide additional reflective reasons to believe in what someone already believes in (e.g., natural theological arguments rarely persuade anyone to become a theist, but rather bring about a deeper understanding of an already established faith). They have the power of making one’s worldview more coherent and overall more justified, at least from the internalist point of view (e.g., contemporary cosmological arguments unify various domains of human knowledge, such as intuitive ontologies, culturally shaped worldviews, and even scientific knowledge).

I find this integrative approach towards religion worthy of further development and application—particularly in the understudied domain of the cognitive science of theological concepts. Allow me to propose some possible lines of extension here.

De Cruz and De Smedt argue that theists and atheists differ in their attitudes towards intuitions of natural theological arguments. When theists accept some particular intuitions as compelling, atheists tend to disclaim them. Pushing this thesis a bit further, I think that sometimes the same intuitions contribute to theistic and atheistic natural theological thinking. Consider arguments and intuitions about moral theology. Roughly speaking, the most frequent atheistic argument states that the existence of evil in the natural and social world is not compatible with the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent deity. Theodicies, on the other hand, are theistic attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with the presence of a God with these same properties.

The first question that cognitive scientists have to answer is why people link (experienced or observed) evil with supernatural agents at all? In Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought Pascal Boyer proposed that people tend to think intuitively about misfortune in terms of a social exchange—they interpret negative events in terms of social interactions with others, including supernatural agents. Another part of the story could lie in specific features of human moral cognition. Recently, some research showed that people have strong immanent justice intuitions (that “what goes around comes around”), and that this evolved sense of fairness matters for the cultural propagation of religious ideas (see, for instance, here or here).

The motive of theodicy—entailing a pious or righteous individual lamenting over misfortune and trying to reconcile it with divine justice—is very old. It appears already in the wisdom literature of ancient Mesopotamia (e.g., in texts such as the Babylonian Theodicy or The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer). The theme later resonates in the biblical book of Job, and is also tackled by modern theological reflection. What I would like to suggest is that the cognitive basis of this cross-culturally recurrent motive could lie jointly in the human tendency to interpret misfortune in terms of social relationships and in intuitions about immanent justice. On the one hand, people tend intuitively to associate negative events with the activity of supernatural agents (e.g., “God punishes for sins by sending adversities”). On the other hand, sometimes it is not possible to associate previous misbehaviors with the adversity intuitively processed as a supernatural agent’s response (e.g., “there was no sin”). In such cases an evolved sense of fairness could “pop up” and produce intuitions that the experienced adversity is not proportionate to committed deeds—the intuitive belief that God did not respond rightly. We hear the voice of this “rebellious” sense of fairness in the lament of Job:

I loathe my life;

I will give free utterance to my complaint;

  I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.

I will say to God, Do not condemn me;

   let me know why you contend against me.

Does it seem good to you to oppress,

   to despise the work of your hands

   and favor the schemes of the wicked

(10:1-3 NRSV)

 The tension experienced at the intuitive level could fuel more reflective theodical reasoning aimed at the reconciliation of theological conceptions with the experience of evil. For instance, in the Babylonian Theodicy this is resolved by pointing out that humans are not able to comprehend what is righteous according to the gods, and hence their accusations against the gods are futile. Similar sets of natural intuitions might constitute a horizon that supports arguments against the existence of God because of evil. In particular, immanent justice intuitions might trigger in response to the experience of undeserved suffering and fuel reasoning  that a good and omnipotent supernatural agent does not exist.

In line with the integrative approach delineated above, these two types of natural theological reasoning require some prior explicit assumptions about the character and existence of supernatural agents. Namely, they presuppose culturally-specific beliefs in morally just and powerful God(s)—beliefs that frequently characterize large-scale civilizations. It does not make sense to blame immoral gods or demons for causing misfortune for the occurrence of unexplained adversity could rather serve as proof of their existence. Finally, a person’s prior beliefs concerning the existence of God likely matter for the inferences she makes in moral theological reasoning. If you are an atheist you may find immanent justice intuitions compelling when considering the problem of evil, but if you are a theist they might drive you in the direction of theodicy.

There is another potential line of development for De Cruz and De Smedt’s work. They deal exclusively with natural theology; the cognitive scientific approach that they propose, however, could be applied to arguments and concepts representative of other domains of theology. I would risk the statement that this could go as far as an area rarely ventured into by cognitive scientists of religion—revealed theology. One of the most frequently discussed dogmas in Christian theology is the Holy Trinity. In CSR, belief in the Holy Trinity is frequently presented as a paradigmatic instance of a reflective belief which requires a validating context to be represented. For instance, in Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Dan Sperber writes: “Reflective beliefs may contain concepts (e.g. ‘quarks,’ ‘Trinity’) that do not belong in the repertoire of any module, and that are therefore available to humans only reflectively, via the beliefs or theories in which they are embedded.” And it is hard to dispute the notion that believing three persons are one is non-intuitive. Even if the ultimate meaning of the dogma is incomprehensible, mysterious, and subject to different interpretations, it seems that at least some of its components may be fueled by natural intuitions. One such component I have in mind is the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Human beings evolved in small groups of hunter-gatherers where recognizing kinship was important for several reasons, such as engaging in altruistic behavior for relatives and avoiding incest. As a consequence of being exposed to these adaptive problems, human psychology evolved as sensitive to signs of biological relatedness. Kinship categories are also universally applied to characterize social relationships in human cultures and constitute rudimentary building blocks of human societies. It is quite likely that human psychological predisposition to thinking in terms of kinship provides the cognitive factor underpinning the representation of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity dogma (the terminology speaks for itself).

Moreover, the classification of social relationships in terms of kinship enables rich inferences based on the knowledge about family relationships that one acquires through one’s lifetime (some of these beliefs are probably intuitive, e.g., “If two persons are close kin they are connected by a special affection” or “Parents show a preference towards their own children”). This natural comprehension of family relationships could be intuitively applied by Christians to their understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Indeed, people tend to appeal to bonds between these holy persons as if they concerned ties between natural family members. Already in the Gospel of John we find some examples: “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (5:20 NRSV); “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands” (3:35 NRSV). The attitude of Jesus towards God, in this gospel, also resembles a typical child-parent affinity: “[…] but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31 NRSV), or “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me” (8:49 NRSV).

What I am suggesting is that at least this part of the doctrine of the Trinity, the part that deals with the relationship between the Father and Son, might be intuitively appealing (although the extent to which the average person’s reasoning about this doctrine is theologically correct is another question). The intuitiveness of this concept could explain, for instance, why people deal with the Father-Son-relationship to a greater extent than the relationships these divine persons have to the Holy Spirit. The latter are probably less natural to represent, although there is no theological justification for giving them less attention.  If I am on the right track here, it may be that the subtle balance between reflective and intuitive beliefs concerning the Trinity plays some part in explaining the cultural success of this doctrine across different Christian faiths (e.g., this mixture of mysterious and intuitive elements may be quite appealing and facilitate its cultural transmission). But for this and other theological concepts and arguments, we will also need to address their natural history.

Karolina Prochownik is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Philosophy of Law and Legal Ethics, Jagiellonian University and Department of Philosophy of Natural Sciences, Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow (Poland). She has recently submitted a PhD thesis in philosophy titled “How Do Moral Religions Work? A Philosophical Inquiry into the Cognitive Science of Religious Prosociality.” Currently, she is a visiting fellow at Ruhr University Bochum, where she teaches “Experimental Philosophy of Morality.” karolina.prochownik@uj.edu.pl