Monthly Archives: November 2011

Is Evolution Sufficient to Account for the Numinous?

Here the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism discuss reclaiming numinous experiences as natural phenomena:

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, who appears in the video above, argues that in order to understand the origins of religious belief, we must understand something of how our “minds” evolved.  Central to his thesis is the idea that many animals, including humans have a HADD, hyperactive agent dection device.  He writes:

Recent research on animal intelligence has shown that some mammals and birds, and perhaps some other creatures as well, carry these agent-discriminations into more sophisticated territory.  Evidence shows that they not only distinguish between the animate movers from the rest but draw distinctions between the likely sorts of motions to anticipate from the animate ones; will it attack me or flee, will it move left or right, will it back down if I threaten, does it see me yet, does it want to eat me or would it prefer to go after my neighbor.  These cleverer animal minds have discovered the further Good Trick of adopting the intentional stance: they treat some other things in the world as agents . . . (From Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, New York: Viking, 2006)

Dennett contends that early religious belief can be explained in naturalistic terms as a result of our ancestors’ HADD producing false negatives.  He combines this with a theory of memes, i.e. that ideas compete for survival and are passed down in a Darwinian algorithm not too dissimilar from the one by which our selfish genes manage to edge one another out for survival. Agent detection generates ideas about a world filled with intentions, purposes, and designs.  These ideas then compete to form the cultural explanations that both explain nature and foment culture and societal cohesion.   To put it crudely, it is possible that my belief in spirits, souls, demons, and God could be the result of some neanderthal’s overactive imagination combined with a game of religious “telephone” where religious memes are whispered into the ears of succeeding generations of rational apes culminating, at least in my case, in the articulation of the Nicene Creed.

Dennett’s idea is not too dissimilar from that of Freud’s, but without relying on his oh so icky Oedipus complex.  Dennett’s has the advantage of being more scientific, as HADD is something that can be tested while the Oedipus complex is, as far as I can tell, is unfalsifiable.

I think there is something to Dennett’s thesis.  We really do seem to have the ability to sense agency–to feel as though we are being watched.  I’ve experienced it.  The rustle in the bushes can cause a person to be on edge that there is something, or someone, out there.  But what Dennett describes is rather rudimentary.  The phenomenal experience of the supernatural is far more complex, which is why I suspect he falls back on memes to fill in the gaps HADD alone leaves.

On the other hand, consider Rudolf Otto’s analysis of the mysterium tremendum.  This is a religious feeling that seems at least prima facie to buck heads with HADD’s intended evolutionary survival “function”.  Otto describes the mysterium tremendum as evoking feelings of the deepest penetrating dread.  One feels entirely overpowered and reduced to nothing before the numinous.  Along with this feeling of awesome dread, there is a feeling of the “wholly other” wherein one feels as though she is encountering that which is utterly uncanny.  But the most surprising feature of the mysterium tremendum is that it is an attractive rather than repulsive force.  Otto writes:

These two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness, at any rate from the level of the ‘daemonic dread’ onward, is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion.  The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own. . . (Rudolf Otto The idea of the Holy, Trans. J.W. Harvey, New York: Oxford University Press, 1950)

According to Dennett, our brains evolved to feel religious experiences because HADD has survival advantages. Those who detect watchers in the woods were more likely to survive.  Yet Otto’s description of religious experience moves far beyond mere agent detection.  And rather than triggering a fight or flight response in us, the mysterium tremendum evokes the deepest shuddering within our beings–a shuddering that leads to desires of stillness not through escape but through surrender and communion!  We are drawn towards the force that we sense could overpower us at any moment–a force that could utterly destroy us like the proverbial moth to the flame.  Furthermore, since the mysterium tremendum evokes in us a sense of something non-natural, I struggle to see how this experience can be reduced to HADD or memes resulting from or accompanying HADD.  This is not a natural fear.  It does not trigger fight or flight in us.  So why are we susceptible to this sort of religious feeling?  How is it that we have a natural sense for that which is not natural?  What evolutionary story could be given to explain why this sort of feeling has not been selected out?

These questions lead me to suspect that Dennett’s account of the evolutionary roots of religious experience are inadequate on naturalism.  I do remain open to the possibility of an explanation though.