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Give your “Belief Engine” a tune-up

Salon interviews Lewis Wolpert about his new book called “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast“. Wolpert believes that our understanding of cause and effect not only drove our ability to make tools but also contributed to the development of what he terms the “belief engine” in the brain.

I’m going to paraphrase the interview but I don’t think I’m off here when I say that Lewis Wolpert believes that our brains are hard-wired for causal beliefs and more soft-wired for religious or mystical beliefs and that evolution selected those with religious beliefs because believers are less anxious and more optimistic. I’ve seen this argument made before although I can’t find any reference to site here. Anyway, most of the benefits ever given I think would contribute to living longer or better surviving illnesses that quite frankly strike the older generations. Evolution selects through reproduction right? Most older generations are not continuing to have children, it is the younger generations. So what kind of meaningful selection can evolution have when the advantage in this case is one of primarily longevity, not fertility?

Perhaps natural selection should be made here in reference not to the individual but to the society in general. Religion provided more stable societies which indirectly led to a more consistent food supply, social cohesiveness and indirectly reproduction within these particular societies. Of course, members of these societies would carry on and expand on this religion over time so that it would better suit their growing societies. To me this sounds more like an anthropological or sociological argument than one of evolution or natural selection.

I know I have digressed from the point of the interview and ultimately the book itself, which is that our brains have developed to find cause and effect and have therefore invented gods and other invisible agents (I think Steven Pinker’s book Blank Slate talks about invisible agents and our propensity for belief) to explain the unexplainable.

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Filed under: Evolution

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