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Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

In his recent RSP interview, Dr. Robert McCauley provides a brilliant overview of some of the founding philosophical principles that have been a foundation for the study of religion. Dr. McCauley has been known as one of the key founders of the “Cognitive Science of Religion” (CSR) since he co-authored the book “Rethinking Religion” (Lawson & McCauley, 1990); ever since then he has guided the field with a keen understanding of the empirical, philosophical, and socio-cultural literature from which CSR draws.

In the interview, he touches on an aspect of the scientific study of religion that I would like to highlight: explanatory pluralism. I want to use this opportunity to offer a critical review of CSR in light of explanatory pluralism. It is my belief that the failure of CSR to adequately address its inherently interdisciplinary nature has been a detriment to the field and that by addressing these issues it will help the field to grow as well as to help non-CSR specialists understand more of the subtlety of this scientific approach to our subject. I, by no means, think I can settle the issues in the space here, but I would like to use Dr. McCauley’s interview as a springboard from which a discussion can be launched.

Explanatory pluralism

The primary aspect of the interview that I’d like to address is McCauley’s concept of “explanatory pluralism,” which holds that a phenomenon can be explained at different levels of inquiry. The explanatory pluralist maintains that there is no such thing as a final, full, or complete explanation and that each analytical level in science has tools and insights that can be brought to bear on any phenomenon of interest, including religion.

He notes that there are “families” of sciences, and these should probably not be taken as strong demarcations between fields. He also notes that this presumes a hierarchy whereby all events at one level are events of the level beneath it. For example, all events that are chemical events are physical events, but not all physical events are chemical events. McCauley did not explicitly state the “chemical sciences” as a family, but I have added it here since it is hard to imagine a biological event that isn’t chemical but we can imagine chemical events that aren’t biological (e.g. fire or Diet Coke and Mentos).

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Critique

Here, my critique is that this sort of explanatory pluralism is really only useful as a framework for constructing an interdisciplinary research project, aimed at understanding some phenomenon like religion, if there is theoretical continuity between the sciences being employed to explain a phenomenon.

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

First, it is hard to imagine a scenario where one should “skip” a level of his pyramid. Explaining socio-cultural phenomena exclusively at the level of biology misses the fact that any biological effects on culture or religion would be mediated by psychology. The endless debate of Nature vs. Nurture settled that one cannot reduce religion to our genes alone. However, our psychological capacities seem to have evolved, and these capacities do give rise to religion. So it is not to say that biology isn’t important (to the contrary); it is just that solely-biological explanations of religion are hollow when neglecting how it is that socio-cultural phenomena (like religion) are affected by psychology.

Theoretical continuity

Second, the theories being employed must have compatible axiomatic assumptions. If assumptions of one theory, which is used to explain some target phenomenon, violate the assumptions of another theory used to explain the same phenomenon at a different level there is an incongruity.

Think of it this way, if we are adding two numbers, X and Y, to get Z as an answer and there are equal assumptions about X and Y then the answers are clear; example: 6 + 6 = 12. However, if the theory from which we assess X and Y is not equal to the theory from which we assess z (i.e. the theory has asymmetrical assumptions), then the equation is not so simple and it is possible that 6 + 6 ≠ 12. To use a mathematical example, 6 plus 6 equals 12 (6 + 6 = 12) in our number system, which is based on the assumption of having a base of 10. However, in a senary number theory (base-6), the answer to our equation is 20 in base-10.[1] Without going deeper into number theory, suffice to say that this equation is not valid as we are adding variables from one theory in search of an answer in another theory. This creates an issue when we see a target phenomenon “Z” and hope to explain it in terms of lower level properties, when our theories don’t align.

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

This complication is spelled out quite clearly in mathematics, but may be more complex when looking at socio-cognitive systems like religious systems (or political systems, or economic systems). One of the reasons that this is complex is because the interactions at one level may not be directly reducible to the parts that it is built upon at a lower level; colloquially, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Here I would like to address a crucial issue in the study of religion, that of emergence. If something is “emergent” it is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence comes in two forms, strong and weak. Strong emergence is the stance that a phenomenon—observed at one level—cannot be reduced, even in principle, to the laws specified at a lower level. Weak emergence is the stance that a phenomenon is the result of interactions at a lower level, but the target phenomenon is not expected given the interactions at this lower level.

Many people hold that religion is an emergent phenomenon that cannot be reduced. These discussions are complex and a review of this literature is far beyond the scope of this response. However, let us just imagine how an interdisciplinary approach to religion, as an emergent phenomenon, could arise from lower level properties. Now, this assumes that religion is weakly emergent. First, because strong emergence is incompatible with scientific reductionism and is better fit for interpretive paradigms that seek to explain the social at the level of the social (ala Durkheim); I’ll address the idea that religion may be a causal force in just a moment. However, if we move beyond that—even if only for the sake of argument—religion must arise from some lower level properties.

So, to exemplify this, I’m going to use a very elementary analogy. Let’s return back to the “Pyramid of Science” above. If something at the cultural level is emergent in the strong sense, it means that there is no connection to the laws at the lower (i.e. psychological level). It is an unconnected cloud floating above the minds of people.

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

This approach is in many ways black and white. Culture is not directly connected to the rules that are followed by its constituent parts. Most individuals in the scientific study of religion (SSR) reject this claim because if one imagines a world without people we simply would not have culture. Therefore, there is posited to be some connection between “Culture” and the minds of individuals that hold, sustain, and generate that culture. This position is more in line with the weak emergent perspective. This holds that culture is not directly reducible to the lower-level laws of human psychology, but there is some connection. The current scientific explanation for culture and religion is that it is “generated” by the collective minds of all the individuals in a group. This allows for culture to have the shades of grey that result from all the colorful cognitive machinery with which humans are endowed.

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Now, one might ask: “Wait, this is too simple, why is it that different cultural groups behave differently?” Within complexity theory, emergent phenomenon can exert causal forces. Some even believe that no higher-level entity can change without exerting some force on its lower level parts (for a deeper discussion on emergentism see Kim, 1999); that is to say, within a complex systems perspective, culture can shape people, and people generate religion and culture.

What this has to do with religion: Taking the red pill[2]

Now, at this point in the rabbit hole, you may be wondering if I’ve gone off the rails. Well, yes, but only to exemplify an important point concerning how modern cognitive science has surpassed CSR and what religious studies could serve to learn from it.

Above, I outline a constant, complex, feedback systejimim whereby culture emerges from the complex interactions between humans’ mental facilities, and in turn, creates an environment within which these individuals live. This environmental input, indifferentiable from the plants, animals, and water, is an important aspect of the environment and therefore can appear to cause individuals to do things just as the presence of a snake would cause a person to jump. This feedback system is—in principle—not unlike the physical systems that cause guitars to screech when too close to an amp. One (culture) arises from the minds of interacting people, which are, in turn, affected by that culture. Furthermore, we can visualize them with our “culture cloud” like so:

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

Now, in order to understand this complex system, we have to hold the way in which we measure everything steady between the psychological level and the socio-cultural level. We wouldn’t want to use the metric system for one thing and the imperial system for another. Although it may seem like things are stable at first glance, such incongruity will not result in a viable approach to theory building. Furthermore, we need to change the way we approach measuring religion. Saying something is complex is no longer a viable excuse to say we cannot study it empirically. Complex statistics from recursion analysis (Lang, Krátký, Shaver, Jerotijević, & Xygalatas, 2015) to network analysis (Lane, 2015) allow us to discern non-linear patterns in the study of religion. Also, computer models are allowing us to study these relationships as well (see Bainbridge, 2006; Braxton, 2008; McCorkle & Lane, 2012; Shults et al., Submitted; Upal, 2005; Whitehouse, Kahn, Hochberg, & Bryson, 2012; Wildman & Sosis, 2011).

Conclusion

Many of those in the scientific study of religion argue that “culture” or “religion” is a causal force. This has led some in the scientific study of religion to ignore the great scholarship of religious scholars who acknowledge that religion is an academic abstraction invented by western intellectuals (Smith, 2004)—at times even leading those scientists of religion to implicitly treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon. However, by abandoning our linear thinking (and statistics!) we could start to investigate religion as emergent and not simply the additive “sum” of the constituent minds of people. Rather, we can look at it for what it is, the result of iterations of interactions among individuals in complex socio-biological environments (i.e. contexts) that is instantiated in an ever-recursive system between the cognitive and socio-cultural levels of analysis. As I hope it is plain to see, I wholly support Dr. McCauley’s commitment to explanatory pluralism. I only argue that we be more mindful of the theoretical continuity which is necessary to produce valid models[3] of religion.

References

Bainbridge, W. S. (2006). God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of religious Cognition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Braxton, D. M. (2008). Modeling the McCauley-Lawson Theory of Ritual Forms. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University.

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from http://www.zeww.uni-hannover.de/Kim_Making Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-015-0649-1

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.049

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.703454

Shults, F. L., Lane, J. E., Lynch, C., Padilla, J., Mancha, R., Diallo, S., & Wildman, W. J. (n.d.). Modeling Terror Management Theory: A computer simulation of hte impact of mortality salience on religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior.

Smith, J. Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/8/1/6.html

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.691033

Wildman, W. J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Stability of Groups with Costly Beliefs and Practices. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 14(3).

 

[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here: http://www.unitconversion.org/unit_converter/numbers.html

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_pill_and_blue_pill

[3] I mean this in the conceptual and computational sense, including scholars of religion engaged in philosophical, historical, and empirical endeavors.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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.