Edited Transcript:

Justin Barrett: My general disposition about the scientific accounts of religion is similar to Paul’s. It seems to me that, of course, there is going to be some kind of explanation. That there is a cognitive explanation, or evolutionary explanation, or neuroscience explanation, does not necessarily say anything one way or the other about whether one should hold these beliefs. That is my general disposition.

But I have a couple of observations. It is often assumed that if you do have a scientific explanation of something, then it must be suspect. Or if an idea comes to you naturally – like the flat earth example – then you should be suspect of it, because now we know you have a natural disposition in that direction. It seems to me that this is just wrong-headed, for at least a couple of reasons. One of those is that, usually when we do philosophy, when we are thinking about things in the Western tradition, when we have an intuition about something or a percept, when we receive some sort of belief automatically by the deliverance of our cognitive faculties having to do with perception or having to do with memory, we trust them. We treat those as true.

So if you ask me “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” – well it sure seems to me that I am entitled to the belief that is formed by my memory system. Until Paul reminds me, “No, no, no, we ate breakfast together and you have got this all wrong.” When some evidence arises the contrary, then I need to step back and go, “Oh. No, Justin, you have got this natural propensity to think you had oatmeal in the morning, but for the twentieth time, you did not. Oh, okay! Sorry Paul!” But if I remember it, at least until that kind of evidence arises, I am perfectly entitled – I am justified in having this sort of belief. That is where I come down on that issue.

Now you are thinking, so how does that apply to religious beliefs or dualism for instance? It seems to me that the person who thought the earth is flat – at least up until we had good evidence to think otherwise – was justified in that belief. They were not being irrational. Even if somebody said, “Look, you think this because you have got natural propensities in these sorts of ways,” or “because this part of your brain was lighting up.” As Paul said, “Yes, well, I always suspected it was this part of the brain at least that was lighting up.” So what? That we have that kind of scientific explanation does not change whether or not one is justified in holding that belief. Rather, I am in the it-is-innocent-until-proven-guilty kind of camp.

So dualists – until they start seeing these impressive findings from neuroscience for instance that might challenge that kind of dualism – it seems to me are okay on epistemic grounds to hold their dualism. Once they start getting good reasons to chuck that idea out, then maybe they are not.

Greg Ganssle: Paul, how would you respond?

Paul Bloom: I am broadly sympathetic to that, but I think it is more of a case by case basis. So suppose you find some propensity is hard-wired in the brain or we are born with it. I am comfortable putting it that way. The question is: why? Our best theory for why things get into the brain and why people are born with things is natural selection and evolution.

In some cases, that could point you to an assumption that the belief is true. For example, I gave the example of the babies knowing that one plus one equals two. In fact, one plus one does equal two. And probably the reason why babies believe that one plus one equals two is because:

a. one plus one does equal two, and
b. it is useful to know this.

Similarly, this is true for other beliefs, like the belief that unsupported objects fall down. Very quickly babies come to know this, and objects do fall down! In some way, in certain cases, our belief does reflect the truth of something, at least within a sort of world that we evolved in or a world that we are exposed to.

This argument works best when you are talking about a biological adaptation, because then there is a fit to the belief and a function of the belief. In other cases, our beliefs do not reflect the truth of something. For things that are sort of accidents, as I would view dualism, the fit is not there – there the belief may be seen more like an illusion, which might be very compelling. But because the illusion does not reflect the system as it was evolved to perform, it gets things wrong. But plainly, some beliefs that come naturally to us are true. Others are false. I think that the way we figure out what is true and false – as sort of reasoning humans – is to use the tools of science, the tools of rational enquiry and see how it falls out. So I am not fine with saying – as a default – that something is true or false simply because we are predisposed to it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Justin Barrett has done extensive research demonstrating that human beings are “born believers,” seemingly programmed with a predisposition toward religious beliefs. Yet Barrett does not believe this predisposition should count as evidence for or against religious beliefs. Why not?
  2. Bloom agrees with Barrett that being psychologically pre-dispositioned toward certain sets of beliefs should not count for or against them, but argues we should only give credence to the pre-dispositioned beliefs that are biological adaptations with fit or function. Could religious beliefs about God or philosophical beliefs like dualism be helpful biological adaptations?
  3. Barrett argues we should only reject our intuitive beliefs if we have strong evidence against them. What sort of evidence have you encountered that supports or challenges your religious beliefs?
  4. Do you think about religious questions with an innocent-until-proven-guilty or a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach?