Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The God-shaped void in our brain

Recently in The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer nicely summarized the two theories of how evolution created our brain in a way that push us toward religion (a nice summary apart from his use of the questionable word “adaptionist”). Non-adaptationists focus on traits that have us looking for God in a way where God has no selective benefit for us. Natural selection presumably has given us the perceptual trait we have of paying inordinate attention to odd things and the possibility of hidden things in our sensory images. That would have benefited us in both our roles of predator and prey. But it also sets us up to look for unseen gods to explain things for which we see no explanation in our senses, something non-adaptationists don’t see as an evolutionary benefit for us.

Adaptationists focus on traits that should have given us evolutionary advantages as a group, such as cooperation and selflessness. We all look for power, knowledge, love, and goodness. They help us, even if the specifics of our models for them aren’t entirely true. Somewhere in there evolution has created a God-shaped void, something that may be filled by God or may be filled by much more ordinary things. Until there are actual genes that are known to do this, it is speculative to say evolution is the cause of this God-shaped void.

Jonah rightly points out that both these theories are likely to be correct.

Judging from the comments on The Frontal Cortex, many atheists would rather not concede that there is even this much of a need for God in them. For them God is simply a lie, told by some people trying to have power over others. Yet if everyone has a God-shaped void in them, everyone fills that void with something, God or no God. So it’s up to the genetics revolution to detail the genes behind the relevant neurophysiology and see if it’s actually fair to summarize this as a God-shaped void. In the meantime, though, I suspect it is and as such, the protests of atheists sound to me like the protests of creationists insisting that none of their people came from apes.

Maybe it is best to fill our God-shaped void with empiricism and nothing else. I think that’s true about physics and biology. But when it comes to how we live our lives, I haven’t found empiricism to tell me enough. So I found God and found Him to be very helpful. Is there something else that works better? Show me the data.


Melatinini said...

Fascinating article, and I agree with your interpretation regarding atheists in denial of their evolutionary biology.

Seeing as you are both a neuroscientist and a very spiritual person, I'm interested as to how you regard the relationship between temporal lobe epilepsy (and other disturbance) and religious experience. My knowledge of the topic is very limited (I read Ramachandran's work on it in 'Phantoms in the Brain') and I'm sure that you could shed some light on it (again, if you ever get this comment.) My email address is (blogger wouldn't let me put it as my URL) in case you want to discuss this with me.

mcdonald.patrickk said...

I think that is awesome that you can see that morals come from God. So many people that rely on empiricism try to 'block out' the God factor. If you're going to be a freethinker, you can't be bound by just what you WANT to believe. Of course it'd be great if we had no moral guide to go by -- we could do whatever the heck we want without any consequences, literally! But the fact is that morals are outside of us, and they are immaterial, infinite, and from God. I agree that it is good to rely on empiricism when it comes to physics and biology -- trial and error, formulas, etc. But when it comes to morals, you just can't explain those without some infinite being making them. So thank you for this. It shows a true balance of both opposing trains of thought.