science commentary

name and address
aug 06, 2009

Why do people believe in God?

W here does the concept of God come from? Why do people believe in God? Unfortunately, in our current dark age, it often seems that the majority of those willing to discuss this issue do so less from scientific curiosity than from political animosity. Some bash religion seemingly for the sole purpose of making childish criticisms of former President Bush. Others reflexively bash atheists or waste their energy arguing about the theory of evolution. In this article, I will try to avoid these political questions and simply speculate, from a scientific point of view, where the concept of a God might have originated.

What puzzles me most about religious people, and Christians in particular, is that so many of them freely admit they have absolutely no idea what God actually is. In fact, I was taught back in Sunday School (and this is reaching far, far back into the historical past) that God is unknowable. But how can one believe in something if you can't know anything about it? By the same token, how can atheists claim not to believe in something if they have no idea what that something is? For this reason, I long ago concluded that questions about the existence of God are as meaningless as questions like "why is a square?"

This is, of course, all the more reason to approach it scientifically, write a grant on it, create a web page, and maybe even get a couple of papers out of this question, which has puzzled mankind for centuries. (I will discuss the burning question of 'why is a square' in my next lecture.)

Conventional explanations

It is easy to rationalize why our ancestors in pre-scientific times might have found it necessary to postulate the existence of a deity. In those days, life was thought of as a mysterious and otherworldly force that suffused the bodies of all living things. Before mankind developed the concept of an autonomous machine, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to explain the difference between a live person and a dead one, other than to say that the live person possessed some supernatural spirit or vital spark that passed out of the body at death. From this premise, it would have been a small step to imagine that there could be millions of such disembodied souls, angels, demons, and deities floating about, beyond our perception, at any given time.

Sistine chapel ceiling If there is no God, how did His picture get on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

It must have come as a profound shock when the chemist Friedrich Wöhler first synthesized an organic molecule, urea, from an inorganic molecule, ammonium cyanate, and proved that it was identical to molecules in the body. This demonstrated that there was no intrinsic difference in composition between living things and inorganic matter. Although the implications didn't completely sink in right away, Wöhler's experiment proved that the concept of a vital force or spark of life was false. Life, it turned out, was a complex and self-sustaining series of ordinary chemical reactions.

Likewise, in the absence of any knowledge about DNA, the Hindus believed that the personality survived death and could be reincarnated. This explained many facts that were otherwise inexplicable, such as why children were so much like their parents. Nowadays, of course, we know that the reason is the physical transmission of genetic material.

Another argument often proposed to explain religion is the political, or utilitarian, argument. This argument says that religious cosmology was invented to buttress morality, as a form of system-justifying ideology. It is a way of controlling people's behavior: if you can convince people they will go to hell if they do x, y, and z, you can, hopefully, stop them from doing, x, y, and z. Frighten them enough, and you can have complete control over society. Variations of this argument are heard today. Christians say they believe that our internal moral compass needs a supernatural authority, a divine magnet so to speak, to define right and wrong; without a god to define good and evil, people would define them arbitrarily in terms of their own personal greed and malice. As we will see below, there may be more to this argument than meets the eye.

The utilitarian argument also works in reverse: if a society is growing, it is said, its members use religion as a way of promoting social cohesion and, perhaps, aggression. If the society becomes decadent, and its members stop caring about developing and expanding their own civilization, and even stop caring about their future, as may be happening today in Western Europe, they lose interest in religion.

Although these arguments are reasonable, I am convinced that these rationalistic arguments are to a large extent superficial because they miss essential elements of religious sentiment. It serves little purpose to imagine that religious experience is based solely on a lack of understanding of the natural world while overlooking its manifestly profound and life-changing nature. A better explanation is required than to simply dismiss it all as snake oil and fantasy.

To fully explain religious belief, we need to consider two additional concepts: (1) Religious sentiment is an integral part of human psychological makeup. (2) In order for humans to be intelligent, the universe must also be intelligent.

1. Religious sentiment is an integral part of human psychological makeup.

Even if every word in every religious book ever written were utterly false, it would have no bearing on whether God exists, to the extent that God is a meaningful concept, or meaningful on our plane of existence.

To understand this, take astrology as an analogy. Suppose we wanted to test whether astrology was valid. Should we take astrological predictions from the newspapers, and record what famous astrologers say, and then check later to see if they were right? No, this would not prove anything. To give astrology a fair test, we would have to assume that every single astrologer who ever lived was 100% incompetent in their ability to cast horoscopes. We would need to test the basic principle of astrology directly: to see if the positions of the planets correlate with some earthly phenomenon.

Likewise with religion. To speculate about it scientifically, we have to assume that everything that every religious person has ever said might be wrong. This is easy to do, because we can observe that no two religious people seem to agree on any particular tenet. So we can feel confident that at least half of them will turn out to be wrong no matter what.

However, religion cannot be properly understood without an understanding of memory and the brain. Our concept of self is not just the way we see the world as adults going to work and interacting with others. Things like our profession and our choice of breakfast cereal are only the outermost layer of our being. Under this are many successively more primitive layers that represent how we saw the world earlier in life, going back to infancy. In one sense, they represent early hypotheses about how the world worked. Because of the way the brain processes memories, these hypotheses are never completely discarded, but built upon and transformed. The base concept still remains, and strongly influences our perceptions.

For example, when I was quite young, I believed that when something was out of sight, it either stopped moving or ceased to exist altogether. It then snapped back into being at its new location when I saw it again. I distinctly remember, as a young kid, reasoning that this viewpoint was not logical because, among other reasons, it would mean the object would have to magically jump to its new location. This act of jumping would create many problems, such as collisions with other objects in its path, and so on. Although I no longer believe that objects freeze when they are out of sight, there is no doubt that this idea still exists somewhere in my brain and subtly influences how I view the world.

There is evidence that all children believe things like this at an early age, and dismiss them as they become more familiar with how objects interact in the real world. There are even earlier beliefs, such as the concept of the giant being who gives us food and, if we supplicate it properly, fulfills all our wishes; and the concept of vast, formless monsters: floating, malevolent shapes and vast, unfathomable dangers. We no longer use these concepts, but the beliefs are still part of our psychological makeup, and they still deeply affect us.

I mention this because it seems to me that most people, deep down, regardless of any outward expressions of disbelief, inwardly believe or "know" that there is a deity. This belief is not a logical one. It is part of everyone's innermost core personality that was formed when we were infants, well before we learned how to talk, and as such is unshakeable. Of course, this does not necessarily tell us whether the belief is valid. Just because we are programmed to believe something does not necessarily make it false. For example, we are also programmed to believe that people of the opposite sex are beautiful. Certainly this has utilitarian value in spite of being, more often than not, objectively untrue. Okay, maybe not a good example. But you get the point.

Likewise, atheists hear the same little voices of warning about the future that religious people do. They jump into foxholes just as fast as religious people (although admittedly, this often miraculously transforms them into Roman Catholics), and in times of unbearable stress, they "pray" just as emotionally and fervently as religious people (although they might not call it praying). This is how we are programmed. Deep down, all people believe if you want something hard enough, you can will it to happen. Indeed, often it works, probably because it's a way of priming your psyche to put all your subconscious and conscious being into making the desired effect happen. A religious person might argue that, indeed, this is how praying to God works.

Given that we are pre-programmed by our experiences as an infant to believe in a deity, it might seem logical that we should conceptualize that deity not as an abstract, impersonal force, but as a super-powerful person, with intentions, plans, speech, and emotions. Such an all-powerful person is one of the first concepts we ever learned. This automatically makes it central to the way we experience the world because all subsequent concepts in our minds are built upon it. No wonder it feels true.

2. In order for humans to be intelligent, the universe must also be intelligent.

Another concept people often miss is this: in order for a person to be intelligent, the universe must be complex. Moreover, it must be complex in an intelligent way. The easiest way to say this is to say the universe must be intelligent. Like a lock in a key, your mind will not function unless there is a universe that corresponds in all respects--logically and psychically--to your mind. A person cannot be more intelligent than the universe, because even though the universe may not be sentient, all intelligence comes from the universe.

This is not to say that the universe had to be created by an intelligent being, or that it is in any way sentient. But our minds are so perfectly adapted to it, and we derive all of our knowledge and understanding from it, that it can very easily appear that way. Indeed, it's not just appearance. The universe literally must be at least as intelligent as the most intelligent person in the universe.

This is not New Age mush. It can be rigorously demonstrated by considering the mind as an information processing system. I am far, far too lazy to do that here. That would be too much like work. But to understand this concept, imagine a computer simulation of the brain. To be realistic, the simulation must be able to form concepts and ideas about the world by itself, without any assistance. For instance, the computer programmer cannot insert any subroutines that would give the model the ability to count objects or even to identify objects. It must be able to figure out how to do this on its own. The ability to do this without assistance is called "self-organizing" ability, and it is a fundamental part of being intelligent.

One of the hardest tasks for the researcher, then, is to design a "universe" that matches the capabilities of the computer model. If the universe is too complex, the model will fail. If it is too simple, the model will also fail, but in a different way. But the point is that all the logical relationships, concepts, and ideas the computer model is able to figure out must already exist in the universe. The same is true for humans. Thus, we can say that, regardless of whether the universe possesses any awareness or intention, it must be spectacularly intelligent.

Magnets in space

What about other aspects of our existence? For example, the amino acids that make up every protein molecule in our body are all left-handed. Even in meteorites of extraterrestrial origin, left-handed amino acids predominate. There must be some physical reason why, but no one knows what it is. There is some factor in the universe that causes left-handed amino acids to outnumber right-handed ones. This raises the question: could there be other faculties in our personality that are predisposed to exist in a certain way because of how the universe is structured?

For example, if we can accept that an intelligent universe is necessary for us to be intelligent, it is a small step to imagine that an ethical universe might somehow also necessary for us to be ethical. We cannot arbitrarily rule out the possibility that, just as with our amino acids, some factor in the universe, yet to be discovered, might act as a "divine magnet" that defines a preference for one code of behavior over another. Perhaps such a factor might lie in the very nature of consciousness itself. If we make the mistake of assuming it cannot exist, we run the risk that some smart astrophysicist might go out one day and discover it.

Nonetheless, if such a factor did exist, who could blame our ancestors for mistaking it for a set of commandments decreed by a higher being?


14 May 2010, 05:42
hi that is very good
Neil B
27 Jun 2010, 18:32
Readers might find this post of mine interesting, about weaknesses of thinking the universe is just here for no reason:

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