I have been too busy this weekend to keep this blog up to date, and one of the things that have been keeping me that way is Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained. I really think he’s succeeded. Consciousness may yet elude explanation, but this looks like a really first class explanation of the human propensity to religion.
One thing to note is that though it comes garlanded with praise from Pinker, Dawkins, Nick Humphrey, etc; Boyer actually demolishes every one of their grand explanations for religion, though with tact as well as great precision.
I can’t summarise his theory. It’s too rich, and I still haven’t finished the book. But one aspect it worth noticing. He believes that our minds work by using “templates”, which contain largely innate categories like “ANIMAL”, such that if something is identified as “ANIMAL” we expect it to have a whole set of behaviours — to have purposeful movement, to be a member of a particular species, to be mortal, and so on. And the way that way that Gods are constructed is to take one of these templates, and then change one aspect, so the rest continues to behave in ways we find sensible and “logical”. So a spirit, for example, is a PERSON without a body, but with a PERSON’s interests in other people, social relations, etc etc.
When I read this, my little synapses just went SPROING! The insight had nothing to do with religion. It was the discovery that our brains do object-oriented stuff, subclassing concepts out ones that already exist. All that time I wasted writing python scripts in January turned out not to be wasted after all. You see, there is a God.