Does prayer beget opposable thumbs?

The University of Oxford has apparently taken £2M toward answering “Why do we believe in God?” From the Times article:

They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.

I found this in a discussion about the study in the Galilean Library, which is a wonderful resource for thoughtful, and almost more importantly, civil discussion across the philosophical spectrum. I added a (typically long-winded) point of consideration, summarized by saying that, as much as “God” might just be a label for the collection of “all things we think we don’t know, or which are currently ineffable and beyond our scrutiny,” then any such study, however expensive, really aims to investigate just one in a class of cultural metaphors, models, for things we want to understand.

There are undoubtedly flaws in viewing all our cognitive endeavors as mere mapping sensation to lingual metaphors, as it is certain to be a crude approximation, if a valid approximation at all; but just as in the case of the infinite square well, first-order, crude models work well as insertion points to broader and/or deeper analysis. And lest it be thought that I’m of the same “science != religion” mindset I was just a few short years ago, here’s a hopefully fruitful excerpt.

Of course, science itself probably holds no special claim to some objectivity, some circumnavigation of our use of metaphors as models. Just because scientific models use polynomial notation, and are algebraically derivable, and embed quite a lot of effective structure in the mathematical language they inhabit, doesn’t mean they’re anything more than just intricate metaphors. Niels Bohr developed a pretty model for the atom, but this perfect picture has since been rebutted. It worked, though, and, in many contexts, is a fine picture of atomic structure. Physics students still make use of metaphors in university, e.g. the infinite square well. These are simplified pictures used to motivate a subtle concept, before their complexity is increased on the way to deeper understanding.

The specific question about whether belief in “God” conferred/confers an evolutionary benefit is interesting, and something I’ve pondered for a while. In general, it seems that people with some kind of workable model prosper to a greater degree than those who don’t, independent of the model’s approximation of “truth.” This is related, I think, to results of a study concluding that those able to deceive themselves tended to be happier than those who aren’t, given that (a) models are only ever approximate, and (b) the utility of a model is probably proportionate to how strongly we believe in it’s explanatory power.


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