The science of belief

Sceptics increasingly seek to explain faith as a product of nature; Lewis Wolpert thinks it is down to tool-making. But maybe there is a problem with the word "origin"
May 19, 2006
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert
(Faber and Faber, £14.99)

EO Wilson, comparing human and ant societies, observed that all human societies had some form of religion. Like Richard Dawkins, Wilson grew up in a believing society—in his autobiography he describes his conversion, and his overturning of it. As a young woman, I thought I lived in a sceptical, pragmatic society, and was shocked to be told the percentage of believing Christians in the US, and subsequently surprised and curious to meet believing Marxists and believing psychoanalytic patients. When I read Lewis Wolpert's Unnatural Nature of Science, I was largely convinced by it, having come to the conclusion that humans are not mainly interested in reason.

There has recently been a rush of interest among scientists, social scientists, philosophers and journalists in the origins and social structures of belief—and some attempts to provide an evolutionary explanation of the phenomenon as a helpful adaptation. Examples include Robin Dunbar's thoughtful study in the New Scientist of the hypothetical origins of religion, next to Alison Motluk's look at the neuroscience of believing and forgetting. And Daniel Dennett has just published his new study, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

There are many reasons for this. Among the obvious ones are the greatly increased number of Christian believers teaching biology as intelligent design, and the political campaigns and power of Christian fundamentalists in the US. There is also the willingness of Islamic fundamentalists to sacrifice themselves and others in the cause of establishing a religious society. Sceptics feel a need to understand.

Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief takes its title from Lewis Carroll's White Queen. He describes it as a study of the evolutionary origins of belief, and has witty chapters on many of the phenomena evolutionary thinkers have been looking into—studies of the beliefs of children and the thinking processes of animals, studies of the human capacity to be misled, of the willingness to believe in witchcraft, ghosts and "unnatural" coincidences. He has a chapter on our beliefs about health, which looks at alternative therapies and the placebo effect among other things. He has chapters on the forms of moral beliefs and on scientific belief.

His main contention is that structures of belief in the human brain arose as a result of, and along with, complex tool-making. Tool-making can be studied as a process of increasingly complex image-making in the brain. He thinks that the skill of tool-making needed the ability to remember complex operations such as shaping flints and connecting wooden handles to stone cutting edges; that this caused the neurones in the brain to develop structures of thinking about causation over time, past and future; and that these structures are where beliefs began to be constructed. Wolpert contrasts his idea of inventiveness as the source of belief to the current interest in group co-operation as a source of the development of language, beliefs and religious practices that cement group solidarity.

My own theory about the way in which we came to believe in gods and demons and spirits is that it developed with memory—specifically with the puzzling presence in our heads of the absent dead. Freud said all religions originated in ancestor worship. He was a sceptical and rational man who wrote about the immortality of the "germ-cell" or gene. Wolpert, full of baffled curiosity, thinks we must have some inherited "form" in the brain which predisposes us to belief in the paranormal. He quotes JF Schumaker about the "way our minds seem to have been programmed for mystical and paranormal beliefs," and says Schumaker describes us as "autohypnotic creatures," "a believing phenomenon who must believe in order to live at all." "Moreover, for many," Wolpert adds sadly, "science is inaccessible and unsatisfying."

This brings us back to Unnatural Nature of Science. The book argues that the scientific culture of argument, proof and experiment arose only (partly) in ancient Greece and again in Renaissance Europe, and could easily not have come about at all. It is possible to imagine societies of human beings with rich cultural and social lives, and satisfying religious beliefs, who felt no need to develop the ideas of rigorous proof and counterintuitive investigation. It is tiring to remain sceptical and aware of one's inevitable ignorance of most of what exists. I happen to believe along with Wolpert that this is the most truthful and honest way to live. But it is, in a way that this book explores, unnatural.

Many persuasive arguments for the value of religious belief come from studies of the value of group communion and solidarity. Robert Winston, a scientist and a believing Jew, explores in The Story of God the ways in which religions provide a sense of transcendence and beauty, social responsibility and belonging, which he sees as desirable, and essentially human. Wolpert discusses something called "the strong programme of the sociology of science," which claims that scientists are just another human group, with their own group myths and beliefs. I agree with Wolpert that this is most unhelpful—he says "absurd." Indeed, it is sociology, psychology and studies of language that are unsatisfactory in the main, because they are so often expressions of what their creators want or need to think and believe—and there is not the refractory material available for patient and sceptical study.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a problem with the word "origin" or "origins" itself. Guy Deutscher, a linguist, recently wrote a complex and beautiful history of the changing morphology of words and grammars. A TLS reviewer castigated him for saying nothing about the "origin" of language, which Deutscher had said he thought was impossible to determine. "Origin" is an appropriate word for the study of the origin of species, and Darwin's work does indeed take us to the origin of species by a patient accumulation of observable facts about historical changes in organisms. Wolpert discusses scientific belief, and says he thinks he believes in the big bang because with years of work he could probably understand the maths behind the theory. But we also seem to need myths of origins, of one kind or another—because we are creatures with brains that remember cause and effect.