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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 04 - The Roots of Religion

Dennett begins with some really amusing examples of religious diversity. Personally I can't get enough of cargo cults. Whether you find religions funny "ha ha" or funny "strange" there is a mystery here to solve. Where do religions come from? Building on the introduction and justification for evolutionary explanations in the previous chapter we now start applying these tools and techniques. While the origin of religion will likely always remain shrouded in some mystery, one thing we can be fairly confident of is that like any thing else, religion will be subject to biological constraints and we will need to determine how religion "pays" for itself at any step along its development.

For those that think religion is explained by saying it gives comfort in the face of death, explains the unexplainable or promotes group behavior you should step back and realize that these "explanations" aren't very deep and provoke just as many questions as they supposedly answer. Why should belief in god give comfort in death, etc.

A tentative framework that will be used for understanding the components of religious belief are based on Pascal Boyers idea of brain "gadgets. The gadgets he proposes that are necessary for religion to arise are: agent detector, memory manager, cheater detector, moral intuition generator, sweet tooth for telling/hearing stories, various alarm systems, and the intentional stance. The idea is that the interaction between these components will spontaneously support/create religious beliefs.

The key item for explaining where religion arises from is our HADD (Hyperactive Agent Detection Device). Being able to treat things as the world as an agent or just a thing gives us a way to deal with potential mates, meals, attackers, etc in a reliable way. False positives are less likely to cause our demise than false negatives. Therefore we are slightly biased to seeing an agent based on scant clues. Once we've learned another agent pretty well we can run our agent simulator when ever we want to make a guess what they are thinking or what they would do in a given situation. If they ceased to live we would still be able to simulate them in our minds. And this suggests where the idea of survival of personality after death likely comes from.

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