February 19, 2014

The Contextuality of Naturalness: Science and Religion in Language and Life

Dr. Robert McCauley endeavors to provide at least one answer to the profoundly interesting question, “How do science and religion differ?” He delivers an answer through the lens of cognitive science, offering us an interesting and somewhat intuitive dichotomy. That is, the cognitive processes associated with religious thinking and those associated with scientific thinking are for the most part fundamentally different. McCauley describes religious thinking as being a ‘maturationally natural’ cognitive process whereas scientific thinking is more deliberate and less intuitive. It is this kind of difference that often puts these two ways of thinking at odds, as can be seen in historical texts such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough and in contemporary debates between atheists and theists. Adding the informative perspective of cognitive science to the mix is a great step toward reconciling these seemingly incompatible types of thought. But this begs the question, what is the state of the dialectic between these two perspectives after accepting McCauley’s thesis?

The focus and scope of this paper will be to explore two major areas of importance in considering this question: 1) the logistical problems of such an overarching thesis, and 2) the theoretical inconsistencies of the religion-science dichotomy. First, attention needs to be brought to the precarious logic involved in such a dichotomy. To borrow from Wittgenstein, this thesis is involved in a language game. Many of Dr. McCauley’s most crucial premises and inferences rely on inherently ambiguous language. ‘Science’ and ‘religion’, for example, are entirely debatable concepts in and of themselves. And more importantly, Dr. McCauley’s dichotomy of religion and science hinges of the concept of naturalness, which is similarly ambiguous. Indeed, he qualifies his use of the word and narrows its meaning to refer to maturational processes, which are generally more intuitive to our cognition. Measuring by this qualified definition of “natural,” scientific thinking will not fit in this category, but that does not mean that it is not natural. Rather, it just means that science is not natural in the same sense as religion. Of course, I am not supporting a deconstructionist view where all theses are victims of ambiguous language. I am suggesting, however, that we pay close attention to the manipulation of language at play in this theory, since its most crucial concepts are theoretically loaded and can mean such wildly different things according to the context of its use.

Specifically, I find the manipulation of language at work in McCauley’s thesis to create two problems. First, the way the concepts of ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘naturalness’, and ‘maturationally natural’ are redefined and are constrained by reworked parameters creates a large possibility for misunderstanding on the reader’s end. That is, the thesis is hyperbolic in that these concepts are used in a very specific way, and the broader conclusions that readers are likely to pursue, and the polarized conclusion of the thesis expressed in the title are not deducible from the constrained terms of McCauley’s argument.

Second, the hyperbolic nature of McCauley’s argument is fundamentally problematic for his thesis, since it is an all-encompassing proposition. Beyond discussions of whether his argument is valid or not, we run into the typical problems associated with inductive logic, where, even if the premises are true and the inferences are valid, the conclusion may still be false. In this case, we can accept the validity of McCauley’s argument, but then still wonder if religion is natural and science isn’t. Because if the language of the premises is hyperbolic, and the conclusion is an all-encompassing proposition, then we must wonder if we have arrived at the right conclusion, and more to the point, if that conclusion is the logical destination of the constrained and redefined terminology of the argument.

Evidencing the precariousness of the language game, Dr. McCauley gives up an alarming amount of ground by conceding that some science is, in fact, natural, and some religion is unnatural. This concession is a sign of a highly thought-out and nuanced argument, and it makes his position highly defensible by its specified parameters, but it is also an indication of a hyper-rational logic that often misses the human component of things. And, it requires that we invoke a fundamental principle of science by asking if the specified definitions and conclusions of McCauley’s theory might be applied to the broader context of human cognition more generally?

To put that question in a form more directly aimed at the thesis: do we have sufficient evidence to say with conviction that religion is natural and science is not? I think not. I think we can say that religion is more maturationally natural than science, but to go beyond that is a bolder claim than the research can fully support. But that shouldn’t be a shock; to say religion is natural and science is not is to take on a monumental burden of proof. Logically speaking, the statement Religion is more natural than science and the statement Religion is natural and science is not are as dissimilar as night and day. While the language and mood of the book and McCauley’s arguments in his podcast are much more subtle than the title suggests, acknowledging a misuse of language in the thesis might be beneficial in understanding the state of this issue and furthering the research on this topic.

For example, Dr. McCauley in his podcast cites the Copernican Revolution as an example scientific knowledge becoming functional in maturationally natural cognitive pathways. With such a formidable counterexample to his thesis, which can’t be written off as categorically different from other “science,” we must wonder how many other counter examples we can come up with. As a thought experiment, consider philosophy as a science. Philosophy especially represents the careful, deliberate, and systematic thinking that Dr. McCauley associates with scientific thinking. And yet we talk about people adopting and living philosophies. I know that my changing philosophies in life have mirrored my evolving perceptions, understandings, and feelings. But living out philosophy does not involve the careful systematic analysis of how to act out your personal philosophy in each moment; surely it is more natural and automatic than that, aside from thoughtful judgment and decision making. Obviously there is a distinction between lived philosophy and analytical and continental philosophy. My point is that a proponent of a certain analytical philosophy lives out this philosophy in much the same way a scientist lives out science. Not ‘science’ as the category of scientific thinking as Dr. McCauley uses it, but science as bits of fact, varying in their characteristics and the roles they play in the experiences and thought of individuals. That science is more maturationally natural to some people than others, depends on the prominence of science in his or her culture. It makes perfect sense that a scientist will incorporate scientific knowledge into his way of life more so than an unscientific person, because he has more scientific knowledge available to him to effect the way he lives. And, as in the thought experiment, surely the scientific man who lives by scientific knowledge and scientific principles will do so, at least at times, tacitly or automatically, which Dr. McCauley associates with maturational processes.

McCauley does make a distinction between practiced naturalness and maturationally natural cognition. His focus on the uniqueness of maturationally natural cognition is that what is maturationally natural is natural independent of cultural context. But we do not have sufficient reason to rule out that the process of inducting scientific knowledge into maturationally natural cognitive pathways is not only a function of practice but also the cultural availability of scientific bits of fact and principles. The role an individual plays in his or her society will greatly affect what knowledge will play a role in his or her life. This could explain why McCauley has found that religious thinking is maturationally natural in children and science is not. It seems to me that children are consistently exposed to religious thinking, while scientific thinking is slowly acquired and often less appealing as it mostly enforced by school, while religion is seemingly much more available to children through movies, parents, churches, friends, ads, magazines, bibles, etc. These thought experiments urge us to at least wonder if what makes religious thinking more maturationally natural than scientific thinking is the cultural context in which such thinking is framed. Perhaps it is not religious thinking that is natural, but the deeply rooted religious trends in our society and cultures that shape our thinking from our birth to death. In order to rule this out, research needs to be done on whether characteristically non-religious societies demonstrate maturationally natural religiosity in the same capacity as the current research demonstrates in our society.

Another form of counter argument we should consider is this: even if we accept that children evidence the maturational naturalness of religion, can we not argue, as Frazer does in the Golden Bough, that religious thinking is a lesser or faulty form of scientific thinking? For Frazer, religious thinking is a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world. Especially when McCauley uses the term ‘religion’ in the very specific way of referring to the highly instinctual and sub-analytical thinking tied to mechanisms of agency detection, we must ask, is maturationally natural religious thinking just faulty scientific thinking waiting to be remedied by our developing scientific cultures? There are emerging narratives of children who immediately reject notions of supernatural agents and embrace scientific thinking. McCauley rejects such narratives as an example of a deficit in what is normatively natural. But before making such arguments, we must first prove that what he is calling maturationally natural cognition is truly independent of cultural influence, and what’s more, that such cognition is not just a less developed form of scientific thinking, much as a child’s first words are an ill-formed version of language. We do not consider childish babbling the natural state of language. We should not consider a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world as our natural state of thinking. Until these questions are further analysed and such counterexamples are considered, whether Dr. McCauley has drawn a false, or at least overly bipolar, dichotomy between religion and science is up for grabs. Even if all of my criticisms and counterexamples are refuted, I hope that they are at least constructive, as I have great respect for McCauley’s work and only wish to promote a reflective dialectic between science and religion, and between emerging perspectives on the state of this relationship.


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