Archive for March, 2011

Epistemic vigilance, reasoning, and religion

Human capacity for cultural learning is highly advantageous but
susceptible to misinformation, requiring that epistemic trust be balanced
with epistemic vigilance (Sperber et al. 2010). Sometimes this means
paying special attention to the source of the information and, sometimes,
to the content of the information, itself. Reasoning is vital for
maintaining epistemic vigilance towards content of information and
requires that truth be an explicit norm (Mercier & Sperber in press). This
explains both the strengths and the shortcomings of human reasoning. Thus,
for example, confirmation error can be explained in terms of the function
of reasoning being to check the claims made by others, not those we make
ourselves. Attention to credibility enhancing displays (CREDs), on the
other hand, is a mechanism for epistemic vigilance towards the source of
information (Henrich 2009). For example, someone who claims a particular
kind of mushroom is poisonous is less likely to be believed if they are
observed to eat that kind of mushroom. Because they focus on different
aspects of a message, reasoning and attention to CREDs can lead to
conflicting conclusions.

On the population level, CREDs play an important role in stabilising
religious beliefs, making it possible for religions to motivate prosocial
behaviour. A believer’s willingness to engage in activity that only makes
sense if they believe in their own religious pronouncements makes those
pronouncements more plausible, if the believer happens to be an accepted
model for cultural learning. This can help to stabilise behaviour that is
individually costly but good for the community. However, this function of
religions is noncognitive, i.e. not connected to their truth (Wilson
2002). Whether the claims are true is irrelevant to whether belief in them
is conducive to prosocial behaviour. This means that for religions to be
selected on the basis of their effectiveness (rather than their truth),
they must be protected against potential counterevidence (Talmont-Kaminski
2009). Such ‘superempirical’ status is partly determined by the content of
such beliefs and partly by their social and methodological context. The
common treatment of religious topics and items as sacred and, therefore,
in need of special respect is an aspect of the social context that serves
to protect religion against destabilisation. While on the whole adaptive,
the protection of religious beliefs against potential counterevidence
conflicts with the normative stance required by reasoning. The resulting
pragmatic contradiction can be moderated by various means, but never

Henrich, J. (2009) The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and
religion *Evolution and Human Behavior* 30: 244–260.
Mercier, H., Sperber, D. (in press) Why do humans reason? Arguments for an
argumentative theory *Behavioral and Brain Sciences*.
Sperber, D. et al. (2010) Epistemic vigilance *Mind & Language* 25.4:
Talmont-Kaminski, K. (2009) The fixation of superstitious beliefs
*teorema*28.3: 81-95.
Wilson, D.S. (2002) *Darwin’s Cathedral* U of Chicago.

Contact Info
Konrad can be reached at: konrad@talmont.com
References as well as Konrad’s powerpoint can be accessed via his

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3.4 Sociobiology 3/7/11

The reading for this week was a short passage from Ed Wilson’s “Sociobiology”.

We began the forum with a brief background on Ed Wilson. Wilson studies group behavior at Harvard. His specialty is ant communication. He was the first to attempt to integrate sociology and biology systematically and hoped that sociology could be reduced to biology (which has not happened). “Sociobiology” was his attempt to unite these two fields and is widely accepted as the seminal work in the modern field of social/group evolutionary biology.

We discussed the problems that have made application of these ideas to human behaviors difficult and discussed several related, but different schools of thought and their comparative theories of mind:
Behaviorism: primitive theory of mind (model of learning: stimulus-response)
Ethology: animal behavior, includes a more advanced theory of mind
Evolutionary Psychology: fairly simply theory of mind, made up of modules, each of which evolved in response to a distinct selective pressure
Psychology: Sophisticated theory of mind

We discussed what “theory of mind” meant and decided that it was complex, but included at least some notion of the ability to make choices. We concluded that a major question dividing these disciplines is, “can individuals make choices?” and if not, are individuals just reacting to stimuli? We noted that in evolutionary biology, the occurrences of bet hedging life strategies give the appearance of choice, but are not true choice as we understand in a theory of mind.

We returned to the reading to discuss a Robin Fox quote that asked the question: How much of culture is genetic? How do we use scientific methods to test these ideas? We discussed the example of raising a child in isolation and seeing how much “culture” they would develop without any sociological input. We discussed the example of language. The question became, “If a child were raised on a desert island, would they develop language?” The answers we came up with varied based on our definition of “language.” The two major definitions of language were “the abstract symbolization of ideas” (ie- the voice inside your head) and “communication between individuals.” We specified that we wanted to know more about the communication definition of language. To answer questions like this we can use evolutionary biology as a methodological starting point. To that end we discussed a new question:

“What is the evolutionary advantage(function) of communicative language?”
-facilitate cooperation (especially in large groups)
-byproduct of higher intellect/abstraction (eg-hunting/foraging strategies) (we noted that language processes can often be slower than instinctual reflexes, eg-danger signals)
-facilitate kin/self identification
-sexual selection (language is a costly signal of genetic quality)

We determined that the bottom line on language is this: language is hard-wired, but it takes at least two individuals to develop a language and communicate.

Initiation Ceremonies
We then moved on to another cultural tradition with potentially genetic underpinnings, initiation ceremonies for young men. We began by making a list of initiation ceremonies: spirit quest, graduation, bar mitzvah, communion, pilgrimages, fraternity hazing, etc. Then, we repeated our evolutionary biology methodology to discuss:

What is the function(evolutionary advantage) of initiation ceremonies for young men?
-kin identification
-enhanced commitment to the group
-symbol of sexual maturity (socially adaptive by identifying those who are prepared to reproduce)
-specialization/differentiation (of role within group)
-cognitive clarity
-cut group losses with weak members (if initiation ceremony is restrictive(not all who attempt will complete) those who are unable to complete (unfit group members) will be exiled(physically or socially))

Using Phylogenetics
Next we discussed another evolutionary methodology that can be used to ask cultural questions, phylogenetics. The question we can answer is: “What was the environment (physical and social) like when a cultural/religious trait emerged?” As long as the trait is “polymorphic” among societies, we can use phylogenetics to determine where and when it originated and then make inferences about what the environment was like at the time. We discussed a specific religious trait that might be amenable to this type of analysis, the belief in a high god. Wilson argues that the correlation between pastoral societies and the presence of belief in a high god is grounds for a causal argument: pastoral society causes belief in a high god. He cites some statistics in table 27-3.

We wanted to know what would bring a society to believe in a single high god. We discussed the pastoral example where human shepherds are inclined to think about a shepherd god, but we also discussed the role of natural phenomena and how they might influence a society to believe in multiple gods. To answer this question more systematically we had to differentiate two types of high gods, the creator (who created but has no current power over the world) and the supreme governor (who currently rules the world). We wanted to know more about the evolution of belief in a governor god, so we first came up with a list of various governor gods: LORD, Zeus/Jove, Marduk, Ahura Mazda, Yellow Emperor, Ra, Osiris, and Indra. We then asked the question:

Why would a society benefit from the idea of a governor god?
-facilitates hierarchy (good for efficient group action, eg-war, irrigation/flood control)
-behavioral/ethical clarity (property, sex, homicide, etc)
-privilaged meta-narrative (ONE correct way to view the world, how you get absolute rules)
-decreased anxiety (by way of providence)
-justifies competition with outgroup (and heavily punished defection)

We finally discussed the stages of moral development as summarized by Wilson in Table 27-4.

The idea is that the higher the stage, the “better.” Wilson concluded that this is not necessarily true and that the true progression may not be from “bad to good” but is probably more nuanced. We discussed that this nuance may relate to the changing of moral requirements, as a person grows older. Our alternative hypothesis was that the stages in table 27-4 describe “what it takes to survive and thrive for different age groups.” We discussed briefly that selection acts on different morals for different age groups. We ran out of time before answering the question: Why do the behavioral dispositions of people change as they age?

Post Contributed by J.L.

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Religion as a Subject Matter (Feb. 21 Forum Meeting)

The modern world is experiencing a trend movement towards cafeteria style religious practices. Each person picks and chooses from a figurative buffet of belief structures, customizing their spiritual plates to fit their personal tastes and perspectives. It would seem that a complete buy in to any individual religion could be a thing of the past.
This makes comparative studies of world religions a little difficult. The phylogeny is muddled—how are the groups interrelated? But there are plenty of intellectuals who have put in their two cents on the subject.

The History of Religious Sociology

Comte, Positivism and Sociology
Comte puts religious progression into three stages:
Theological (military) stage:

1st substage: Primary and Final Causes

2nd: Supernatural Agents

3rd: Teleological Animism

4th: Polytheism

final substage: Monotheism

Metaphysical (legal) stage: focus on abstract entities (eg justice)

Postivism (industrial) stage: focus on no teleology, no absolutes, asymptotic progress towards the “truth”

Durkheim and Berger, Functionalism
Functionalists take a scientific method approach to cultural study, relating society to an organism. Religion is its own category, defined as any subjective social construct of reality that is disciplinary, cohesive, vitalizing, and euphoric.

Weber, Symbolic Interactionism
People feel the need to rationalize everything, mastering things through calculation by attaching units. Weber believed people value knowledge, impersonality (or a functional or objective relationship to things), and control. He felt there was a human trend towards these values. We have demythologized which is why religion has become less popular. If there is no metanarrative, then the local narratives fail to matter and people abandon them.

Marx, Dialectical Materialism
“Religion is opiate for the masses.” Religion distracts people from production, and can be used as a control over the proletariat.

For the purposes of this forum, we recognize that we have to bracket out the “absolute truth” to study religion. We can measure various aspects of the cultural effects of religion but we cannot understand the perspective of religious practitioners. We have to accept our scientific bias in that we have to approach the study of religion without the idea of the supernatural. We must proceed with objective, and not subjective methodology. We cannot measure individual experiences.
Which brings us back to our overarching discussion of religious evolution. What varies? What is inherited? And what is selected for in the context of religion? According to our early religious sociologists,

As an exercise, the class tried to diagram inheritance of certain traits from Israelite and Hellenistic cultures to Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Elements coming from Israelite culture appear below.

Post Contributed by L.B.

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