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God, they say, is in the details. But could God also be in our frontal lobes? Every culture from the dawn of humankind has imagined planes of existence beyond the reach of our senses, spiritual domains that shape our Earthly experiences. Why do beliefs of the fantastic hold such powerful sway over our species? Is there something in our evolutionary history that points to an answer? Does neuroscience hold the key? Straddling the gap between science and religion, Brian Greene is joined by renowned neuroscientists, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists, to explore one of the most profound mysteries of our existence.
This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.
Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, and is recognized for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in his field of superstring theory. His books, The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality, have collectively spent 65 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.Read More
Zoran Josipovic, PhD, is a research associate at NYU Langone Medical Center, and adjunct assistant professor for cognitive and affective neuroscience in the Department of Psychology, New York University. He is the founder and principal science investigator at Nonduality Institute.Read More
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has won numerous prizes for his research, teaching, and books.Read More
BRIAN GREENE: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to see all of you here tonight. The festival has had conversations about science and religion over the years. Perhaps some of you have come to some of those. And oftentimes, there are two sides represented in that conversation and sometimes the two sides, you know, science and religion, sometimes they’re contentious, sometimes they’re harmonious, but tonight we’re doing something differently. We really only have one side here tonight. So the group of people who are going to come out for this discussion, they’re all scientists. They all come from the background of science, but our goal is to see if by walking this one side, this one trajectory of science, we can gain some illumination into the other side. Into the side of religion side of faith.
GREENE: Before I bring out our esteemed group of panelists, I just want to set some context and to do so, I’m going to begin with something which is presumably familiar to many of you. So this is what a beautiful midnight sky brimming with stars looks like in New York City. Now, I also have a little cabin, Upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains and when I’m up there and it’s a nice, dark night sky, I can look up and see something that looks just like this. Maybe not just like this. This is takes a Hubble Space Telescope, you know? But you get the idea and when you see a wondrous sky like this, you can’t help but ask yourself, how does it all work? How did it all come to be? And I have spent part of my professional life trying to advance the scientific understanding of some of these questions, and because I work on the more mathematical end of physics, when I look up, I tend to see order and harmony in a peculiar language. The language of mathematics, a language of symbols. But, many others, when they look up at a sky like this, it brings to mind other things, right? Ideas of soul, of eternity, of divinity, of God.
GREENE: And for some, that kind of talk, it feels kind of loose or vague. For some, it’s even off-putting. But when you look at the data, you see something utterly remarkable, right here in the 21st century, the modern technological age and we have long since cracked the atom, explored the surface of Mars, detected gravitational waves and so much more. There are still many of us who are believers. So if we look at some of the numbers, about say 2.2 billion of us identify as Christians. About 1.7 billion is Muslims. Hindus, Buddhists, that gives us another two billion, plus, if we throw in my little tribe, it’s about 14 million, right? And then if we add in the atheists, this takes us to one and half billion which is just to say there’s a lot of people on this planet who would look to the heavens and think of heaven. So if aliens were able to sweep down toward planet Earth, and let’s say they had some wondrous equipment that allowed them to detect religious belief, to give us a kind of heat map of faith, this is what our planet would look like. You could probably work out the color scheme for yourself. Blue is Protestant, Red is Catholic and so forth. You get the idea. We are a religious planet.
GREENE:Personally, I am not religious in any conventional sense, but I do consider myself spiritual and I certainly do consider myself curious. One thing that I have certainly gotten ever more curious about is why do we believe? Now, the simplest answer is we have religious belief because what religion tells us is true. That raises a whole lot of challenges that we’re all familiar with and perhaps the most relevant for tonight’s discussion is there are over 4000 distinct religions practiced on Earth and if we just take one of them, say we parse Christianity a little more finely, there are over 33,000 distinct denominations. They can’t all be right. So the natural supposition is that at most one of them is right, which would mean that if Sarah here, happy in her own beliefs, she denies therefor the beliefs of all others, like Terrik over here who again, happy in his own faith, denies the validity of all others and that goes true for Pim and for Ofryim and also for Amalyia 00:05:5] and it even holds for, say this guy over here, Richard, who not only denies in the validity of all other beliefs, he denies the validity all beliefs.
GREENE: We may be a believing planet, but most of us deny the validity of most beliefs, which means that even if Sarah holds to her religion because it is true, she still needs to explain why everybody else holds to their own misguided faiths. And that holds true for everybody else. So this takes us to a simple but remarkable conclusion. Normally, the discussion of science and religions, you know, it all comes down to what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s true, what’s false. But here we see that even if a given religion is true, it hardly changes the question at all. We still need to ask why it is that so many of us have a tendency to believe. We have to ask yourself, what is it about the human species that drives us to find order and meaning and, in particular, to find the turn toward the supernatural so utterly natural. 1936, this guy over here, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to a school girl named Phyllis who had asked Einstein about his own religious beliefs.
EINSTEIN: Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifested in the laws of the universe. One that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naïve.
GREENE: Much has been made about Einstein’s use of this phrase, religious feeling, but his later writings made very clear that he was speaking of an abstract spirituality, not a conventional religion.
EINSTEIN: The word of God is, for me, nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses. The bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can, for me, change this.
GREENE: Charles Darwin, the Father of Evolution by natural selection, he allowed for the possibility of God.
DARWIN: I have never denied the existence of God. I think the theory of evolution is fully compatible with faith in God. I think the greatest argument for the existence in God is the impossibility of demonstrating and understanding that the immense universe, sublime above all measure and man, were the result of chance.
GREENE: At the same time, Darwin also noted that a religious belief, a religious sensibility could emerge from the interplay between biological and cultural evolution.
DARWIN: Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief of God on the minds of children, producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains, not yet fully developed that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.
GREENE: The Dalai Lama has his own iconic perspective on these issues.
DALAI LAMA: Both Buddhism and modern science shared a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal unchanging principal such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both the traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. In the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerate a scripture may be.
GREENE: Years ago, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with the Dalai Lama in an event that took place down in Texas and I had an opportunity to ask him a question. The question is asked was, I said, “Look, there are all these books out there that make the case that what we’re doing in modern physics is somehow a recapitulation or a reflection of ideas that ultimately find their origin in eastern religious thought.” So I asked him, “Is this true? Is this your perspective?” And he very forthrightly said, he said, “Look, when it comes to questions of consciousness, that’s where we have something to offer science.” But he said, “When it comes to understanding the fundamental laws and the particles and all that detail about how the world actually works,” he said, “We need to look to science.”
GREENE: So it was a kind of remarkable moment where this great spiritual leader showed this remarkable and broad embrace of science. At the same time there are great scientists who show a similar embrace of religious thought. Here’s Nobel Laureate, William Phillips.
WILLIAM PHILLIPS: The point is that there are plenty of scientists who see no difficulty in being serious about their science and serious about their faith. I know plenty of others, and you’ve see the statistics that support that idea, but nevertheless there is a common misperception in society that this isn’t the case.
GREENE:And here’s Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health.
FRANCIS COLLINS: I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention. Nobody’s as interested in harmony as they are in conflict, I’m afraid.
GREENE: 2015, Pew Research Foundation found that the percent of Americans that agreed with the statement that science and religion are often in conflict, they found that agreement with that was almost 60% and that again is often how the conversation is framed. Science versus religion. That is an important question. It may come up here tonight, but it’s not the focus of what we’re talking about here tonight. And so we’re asking ourselves, can we use science to illuminate religion? Can we gain some understanding of why people have a need to look to a power beyond themselves, beyond the laws of physics? Is that need written into our DNA? The natural selection for that kind of worldview, right? Why in the world does this world have so many brains that want to believe? That’s the question. And to deal with this question, try to gain some insight, we have a great group of thinkers and I’d like to now bring them out to the stage.
GREENE: Our first participant is professor emerita from the College of William and Mary, where she taught anthropology for 28 years, author of numerous books, including Personalities on the Plate, How Animals Grieve, and Evolving God. Please join me in welcoming our first guest … Barbara King on the fly.
GREENE: Our next guest is a research scientist at NYU Langone Medical Center. He’s also professor of cognitive and affective neuroscience at NYU, co-founded the Nonduality Institute where he is the principle science investigator. Please join me in welcoming neuroscience, Zoran Josipovic.
GREENE: Also with us tonight is a university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University with appointments at Harvard Medical School and the Mass General Hospital. In addition to the book, How Emotions Are Made, she has published over 100 scholarly papers. Please join me in welcoming Lisa Barrett.
GREENE: All right, finally. Our guest is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, a two-time Pulitzer prize finalist and author of the bestselling books including, How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct, a pioneer and champion of evolutionary psychology, named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, please welcome Steven Pinker.
GREENE: All right, so we’re going to have a pretty free form discussion here, where we’re going to try to address some of these questions and we’re going to organize the discussion into three parts, roughly speaking. A kind of trinity of parts, befitting for tonight’s discussion. We’re going to talk about some of the history of religious belief. We’re going to talk about the longevity, the fact that this is something that has stuck with us for some time. Then we’re going to focus on the benefit, if at all, for this kind of way of interacting with the world.
GREENE: What I’d like to do before getting started, if you don’t mind, especially since it’s a nice small group here, it’s good to get a sense of where people are coming from in this kind of discussion, so if we could just sort of go one by one, just sort of give us a sense of where you … We’ll do it … If you don’t mind, and you don’t have to, but if you’re willing to share it, just a couple of words on where you come from in the religious spectrum. Steven, you willing to just say a few words?
STEVEN PINKER: You mean our own beliefs personally?
GREENE: If you don’t mind. You don’t have to, but if you’re willing to.
PINKER: Yeah. Well, I don’t believe in the existence of supernatural entities, including God, souls, spirits, genies, devils, and so on. I am a … I belong to the same tribe as you. I’m Jewish and appreciate many of the iconography, the traditions, the community of my own and other cultural groups, but that doesn’t mean you have to sign on to the content, and I don’t.
GREENE: Right. Lisa.
LISA BARRETT: I would say Steve pretty summed it up pretty well for me too. We practice some rituals in our home as sort of, I don’t know, not exactly archeological artifacts, but they are kind of artifacts of the past, you know? If we decide to light candles on Friday night, I’m using candlesticks that my great-grandmother schlepped from Russia and that people have been doing this for over 5000 years, and that’s meaningful. I also think that Judaism is an interesting moral code that is somewhat … emphasizes somewhat more behavior over intent, which is appealing to us in some ways. I would say we’re … colloquially we’re atheists as a … definitely in our house, although we do have trappings of, as I said, of ritual in the way that I described.
GREENE: Yep. Zoran.
ZORAN JOSIPOVIC: I was raised as atheist, but later discovered that really my family believed in scientism. Like, science has an answer to everything. It’s a form of religion, I think for some people. Personally, I have practiced meditation for over 35 years and I’m mostly interested in this mystical unitary states are known to us as the consciousness where people experience both unitary consciousness, either alone or unitary consciousness with experience. I’m interested what it does to a person and what it does to the brain.
GREENE: Right. Barbara.
KING: Growing up in New Jersey, I was raised as a Presbyterian, spent a fair amount of time in church. I know identify also as an atheist. When I travel, I do find myself drawn to churches, to sitting in the stillness of a church and to looking at the art and the architecture. I think that is a beautiful part of our history, but I do that as an atheist. And for my own sense of spirituality, I go to a Springsteen concert.
GREENE: Right. So, you know, there are some curious human behaviors that strike us as unusual, like, I think … I don’t know how much of this is true, but Beethoven is said to have always dunked his head in a bucket of ice water every morning. Ben Franklin is said to have stood naked in front of an open window every morning. Nikola Tesla, you know, a great champion and iconic scientific figure, apparently used to curl his toes a hundred times each night before going to sleep. So you sort of hear those, you raise your eyebrows, it’s kind of curious and so on. But, we don’t feel the need to explain that kind of behavior, but when it comes to a behavior that is pervasive and that lasts for thousands of years, then it feels like it deserves an explanation and that’s really why we’re having this conversation here tonight. So, maybe start with you, Barbara. When I hear the word faith or religion, my mind automatically goes toward one of the major religions that are practiced in the world today. Is that too limited of you?
BARBARA KING: Yeah, I think it’s a very natural view, but speaking anthropologically, if we were to do that heat sensing map of the world, we would see people who not only believe in God, or don’t believe in God, but also many, many people who believe in gods, plural, spirits in the forest, venerate ancestors, or have an enormous range of beliefs. So, I think broadening our view to understand that there’s numbers of ways, not just in the past but now, to believe is a very helpful starting point.
GREENE: Now, you’ve also done work where you’ve gone beyond this species, right?
KING: Absolutely, yes. My work is in animals and there’s a fascinating conversation going on now about whether it is reasonable to suggest that other animals than us, do have a sense of either spirituality or religiosity and there’s very invigorated debate going on. You know, Jane Goodall was the very first person to suggest, as far as I’m aware, that chimpanzees may be spiritual. But this is continued over decades. This is not my view. I am not suggesting that chimpanzees are spiritual or religious. Where I come in is suggesting that their behavior is an evolutionary platform, so that what we see in our closest living relative gives us and understanding of the building blocks of what later became our religiosity.
KING: So, we know that chimpanzees, for example at a waterfall, can show what we might understand as a sense of awe and wonder. We know that chimpanzees can take the perspective of another through theory of mind. We know that they can show empathy, compassion, that they have their own rituals and their own rules. And so I think that we wouldn’t be where we are today without our primate past, which includes, of course, not only living apes, but what we’ll talk about later I imagine, other human ancestors. Early Homo sapiens, Neanderthals. So, just as culture evolved, language evolved and technology evolved, I believe that that human religious imagination evolved.
GREENE: So, Steve, part of what we’re doing here is trying to think about behavior and think about evolution and sort of how they can play off of each other, and I know that the field of evolution in psychology is dedicated to trying to make those kinds of connections precise. Can you just give us a sense of what evolutionary psychology actually does and how it can give insight into these kinds of issues?
PINKER: Well, the brain, like other complex organs, owes its non-random organization to natural selection. That if there are circuits in the brain that accomplish improbable feats, then natural selection is the explanation for how they got wired up the way they are. And we’re going to ask of various psychological features whether they are adaptations. That is, whether they increased the chances of reproduction in our ancestors. For a lot of psychological features that’s pretty straightforward to do. It’s no mystery why we see in stereo, because it’s a … for many reasons, highly adaptive to get a sense of the third dimension. Why we’re repulsed by kinds of substances that are likely to carry disease. Why we find certain partners sexually attractive.
PINKER: For religion, it’s a religious belief. For supernatural belief, it’s not so obvious. I don’t think there’s any accepted theory that religious belief, per se, is an adaptation. Rather, it can be a by-product of other adaptations. In particular, the ability to attribute minds to other people. We can’t literally get inside people’s heads. A mind is invisible, colorless, odorless, tasteless, but we couldn’t survive as social beings unless we assume that other people had minds as we do. We interpret their behavior in terms of their beliefs and desires.
PINKER: From there it may be a short step to attribute minds to entities that aren’t other human beings, such as to trees and rivers and the wind, in which case we call it animism. We attribute minds to inanimate entities, to our own artifacts, in which case we call it idolatry. Or to no hunk of matter in particular, in which we call it … in case we call it spiritualism. Disembodied souls and spirits and father-like entities that don’t have any material existence, but have this thing that we naturally attribute to one another. So it would be an extension. One would then have to explain why the adaptation of attributing minds to others, sometimes called theory of mind, or mentalizing or mind reading, or intuitive psychology, why should be so easy to overextend it to entities that aren’t in fact brains. And there, part of the answer comes from experience, what kind of input do we have in living our lives that makes this belief congenial and a number of anthropologists have pointed out that before the advent of modern neuroscience, the idea that minds can exist independently of brains was not so farfetched. There’s actually some compelling and empirical data. Edward Tyler I think was the originator of this observation, that when we dream for example, it’s apparent that some part of us is up and about, walking around in the world and our body’s in bed the whole time.
PINKER: A natural hypothesis is that our … some locus of experience is not wedded to the body, but can part company from it. Or in death, if someone suddenly collapses, they may look identical to the way they were a few minutes ago, but something seems to have left their body that animated shortly beforehand. And reflections in still water, shadows, seem to capture the essence of a person, including their activity, their expressions, their goal directed actions. And again, divorced from the actual hunk of flesh. If you’re in a trance from lack of sleep, or a fever, or a drug, again, the experience is that your mind can part company from your body.
PINKER: So, if you combine those experiences with our natural habit of attributing minds, it’s not farfetched to think that minds can exist separately from bodies. Now we know better. We know that the brain is the locus of experience, that there are many ways in which the brain can be vulnerable to illusions, dreaming being an obvious case. There’s brain activity when we’re asleep and that’s why we experience things. But, before modern neuroscience, it wasn’t such a crazy belief.
PINKER: One other ingredient is that we depend for our beliefs on other people, on experts.i believe a lot of things that I have no basis for believing in my own experience.
GREENE: Like quantum physics.
PINKER: Yeah, like superstrings. I really believe-
GREENE: You believe in superstrings?
PINKER: I do, because very smart people tell me that they exist and I trust them.
GREENE: I don’t say they exist. They may exist.
PINKER: That they may exist. I give some non-zero probability of that. That opens up a niche for people to market all kinds of beliefs about unobservable entities including gods and messiahs, and devils and so on, and a whole set of questions which I won’t talk about now is, what are the incentives for the purveyors of supernatural beliefs? What’s in it for them to get other people to believe in gods and souls and spirits. There are plenty of reasons, but that’s the other part of the story.
GREENE: Now presume the overactive assigning of agency out to the world is better than an underactive version of it, right? If you’re walking around and there’s a rock and you happen to think that it has a mind, so be it, but if you’re walking around and there’s a snake and you don’t think it has a mind, you don’t think it can attack you, that’s probably not a good thing. So, evolutionary speaking, presumably this overactive assigning of agency has adaptive value.
PINKER: Possibly. It’s not so clear. If it involves making sacrifices that are ultimately irrational, if it involves being manipulated by others, maybe not. But it may just be that the overall benefit of being able to attribute minds outweighs the cost in cases where others can exploit us. In the case of animals, of course, animals actually do have minds so it’s not such a crazy thing. Indeed, a lot of … In some hunter-gatherer peoples, they do attribute enormous amounts of intentionality to the animals they hunt and with good reason, ’cause the animals really are trying to escape them for the same reason that we try to escape from threats. So, that degree of extension is not so farfetched. It’s when it comes to rocks and rivers and mountains and trees and wind, that it becomes more problematic.
GREENE: Right. So, Lisa, what is your view in terms of are we at some level wired for belief, or is that not an important part of the equation?
BARRETT: I think it is actually. When we say … When you ask are we wired for beliefs, I think that that can mean a couple of different things, right? So, in a sense, you could say, well, all brains, actually every brain on this planet, to some extent, is wired to make predictions about what’s going to happen next based on what’s happened in the past. So, brains are not wired to react to things in the world, they’re wired to predict. It’s metabolically efficient to predict. Physiologically, most of the biological systems we have in the body are predictive to some extent.
BARRETT: And so, if you mean … A lot of people talk about predictions where … When I say prediction I mean, our brains for example, change the firing of their own neurons in advance of sensory input arriving to the brain. That’s how you’re understanding the words that I’m speaking to you right now. You’ve had a lifetime of experience of patterns, encoding patterns of what these sounds refer to and the patterns in their temporal contingencies.
BARRETT: All brains work like this and if you believe that a prediction is like a belief, which scientists do write about predictions this way, as if they are beliefs or explanations that are preemptively offered to anticipate and explain incoming sensory inputs, then yes, we are wired. Another way in which we’re wired, you could say, is that-
GREENE: But that’s for belief in things presumably that are demonstrably true.
BARRETT: That’s belief in any case, right? So, the idea that the brain is wired for prediction as opposed to reaction, is a general explanation, it’s a general computational approach to understanding meaning making of any sort. So, that means making meaning of fluctuating changes in light, which you experience as sights, as vision. It’s making meaning of fluctuating changes in air pressure, which you experience as sounds. And it’s also making meaning of changes that happen longer … longer temporal sensory changes which we would think of as an episode or an event.
BARRETT: Little infant brains, you know, newborn brains … A newborn brain is not like a miniature adult brain. It’s not completely … it’s wiring isn’t completely finished and we … So, what infants are doing to some extent, is they’re waiting for a set of wiring instructions from the world. The brain expects certain inputs in order for it to wire itself normally and it wires itself both to the physical circumstances it grows up in, but also to social circumstances it grows up in.
BARRETT: We encourage … So, that’s sort of the normal aspect of brain development that’s related to being wired for belief, but we also wire our children for belief in other ways. We indulge them. In our culture, we indulge them in believing in animacy of their blankets and their little cars and their little toys and some people in this room might believe that their cars have minds, right? So, we do … that’s another way in which brains can become wired for belief in the sense of development actually influences the wiring of the brain.
BARRETT: Then there, we could also talk about feelings as the root of belief. That to some extent feeling is believing. When you believe … When you feel something very strongly, you are more likely to believe it and feeling is at the core of the wiring of our brains, and really you could argue most mammalian brains. Some people would like to make that argument, pull that argument even earlier.
GREENE: I’m going to come back to that in a for Zoran, you’ve spent some time studying the human brain. Do you feel that there’s evidence that we’re … there’s an internal physiological predilection for religious belief?
JOSIPOVIC: Yeah, I wouldn’t so much … Yes. As much as brain is I think organized to be conscious, it’s organized for spiritual experiences and indirectly for beliefs just as Steve and Lisa pointed out. I think something happened to us, to our species, right? We don’t know when, maybe 3000 years ago, 5000 years, maybe longer. Suddenly, we became conscious. We became conscious in very unique way. It’s not just we have experience, or that we have conscious experience, but we know that we are conscious. We have implicit knowing that we are conscious. We have an expression of religiosity going as far as we have records, you know, around 3000 years ago, maybe longer actually, but we don’t have records any more of that, that people were really trying to figure out what is this thing. We’re conscious, what is it? Who is this person who is conscious? What is it that’s conscious inside us. And also, what is this universe? The way it appears when we perceive it with the depth of our consciousness, not just with the surface of our mind, but with the deepest part of ourselves.
JOSIPOVIC: And so that gives rise to some very kind of a deep core sort of explorations in the nature of human mind that we have records of. When we look at the … What I personally feel is sort of the innermost core of the religious practices, pretty much in every religious traditions we find this, this unitary experiences, experiences of consciousness itself. They can be either very deep mental silence in which all mental processes quiet down and then there is either just complete blackness and then within it, there’s just awareness. Consciousness itself. Doesn’t think, doesn’t feel, doesn’t need to do anything, but it’s aware and knows that it’s conscious innately, directly. Doesn’t have to think. Doesn’t have to take itself as an object. Just consciousness itself.
JOSIPOVIC: Then, that deepest part of ourselves, if it wakes up suddenly, and within our experience, then the quality of our experience changes dramatically, from this ordinary experience where I’m over here, I am limited to my body, I’m limited to my surface of my skin, whatever my mind has constructed and learned over the course of my life, who I am, what the world is, how to relate to each other, how I relate to others. So, we have this elaborate self-world model inside our head that filters everything you experience. That takes a break temporarily, however briefly, and suddenly we experience that everything is one reality. One interdependent, but also at the same time, one consciousness that seems to extend, that’s the experience and encompasses everything.
JOSIPOVIC: I think that religiosity tried to capture what this is. When the theistic religion says that God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent in all things. So, in all things. In this experience here that we’re having, right now sitting in this wonderful place, this is the experience of God being transcendent and immanent at the same time. That is one way of saying it, right?
GREENE: I didn’t look at it that way, but that’s very true.
JOSIPOVIC: So, another way to say it is that we have two sides to our consciousness. One side is mind that creates experience. The other side is awareness which is just like a mirror. It simply register what is happening without doing anything to it. The two are different. In this view, they’re separated by the substrate which is kind of like an unconscious film. Matrix. It actually exists in the universe, they say. I don’t. What’s interesting, what happens is when the mind wants to find what consciousness is, it just finds itself. It finds attention, it finds intelligence, and it finds vigilance, but it can’t … If it doesn’t know how, it can’t penetrate through this unconscious substrate. And then it’s basically concludes there is no consciousness. It’s just a mental processes, right?
JOSIPOVIC: From the side of awareness, what the substrate does is awareness can’t recognize itself. It can’t recognize what it is directly so it experiences itself as a subject who is having experience. From that perspective, spirituality and spiritual beliefs are consciousness trying to find itself. It’s trying to figure out what it is.
GREENE: So, Barbara, can you take us back to the earliest evidence that we have for that kind of internal self-reflection that ultimately we think may have been the seeds for religiosity?
KING: The first thing I’d like to start and say is that, yes, it’s certainly true that we attribute intentionality to a lot of animals, but the fact also is that they are intentional. So, we certainly don’t have a corner on the market of intentionality or consciousness or sentience or any of these other things. But if we’re going to talk about the human evolutionary trajectory, we know that our species is about 200,000 years old. Our genus is around 2.4 million years old. So the question becomes when do we start seeing any of these symptoms, if you will. It’s very interesting that there’s a cave in South Africa, Rising Star cave, that is the home of this human, perhaps ancestor, but hominid in any case, called Homo naledi and apparently there were numbers of individuals who were literally dragged by others into a very deep, subterranean chamber in this cave. So, Rising Star is a very famous project in paleo anthropology and one can watch often live feeds of the scientists trying to study these chambers and they have to crawl through these incredibly small passageways. And yet, we know that approximately 250,000 years ago, people were disposing of their dead in very intentional ritual ways, going through a lot of effort and a lot of energy to do this. The problem becomes-
GREENE: Is that controversial or is that why?
KING: Beside the fact that they’re bringing the people to the chamber is not particularly controversial. The next step…
GREENE: But whether it was a ritual burial.
KING: Exactly. The next step is controversial because of course we have this small problem, which is that belief doesn’t fossilize, so we don’t know, and we have people, we have a chamber, and we have our minds and as we’re talking about we’re searching and yearning always to figure this out.
BARRETT: But isn’t it the case though that it’s … the people of … anthropologists have already discovered, let’s say Homo neanderthals skeletons that are … You know, they’ve been buried and posed in a particular way with things around them and so, it’s-
GREENE: Like in Sungir, right?
KING: Right, but we’re going in a kind of order so I’m starting a little earlier than Neanderthals. We have the roots of Neanderthal populations this time, but what’s so fascinating is that the Neanderthal burials don’t come to a hundred thousand years ago or 60,000 years ago in Sungir in Russia, which is a Homo sapiens site just mentioned, is like 27,000. So, my idea is that, again, we have some glimmers and some intriguing hints, 250,000 years ago.
Now, let’s just fast forward, let me leap over many thousands of years, we’ve come to Neanderthals. They are not our ancestors. They are our cousins. We used to say that they lived from 200 something thousand to 40,000 and then they went extinct. We no longer say that because here in the audience there’s tons of Neanderthal genetic material and many populations, except some populations in Africa because we did not have Neanderthals in Africa, we find just as you were saying, Lisa, that there are very intentional burials with all kinds of grave goods. So people didn’t just stick people in the earth. They marked the graves as something special.
KING: To give you one example, there’s a 40,000 year old burial of a toddler in what’s today Spain, with a hearth all around, 60 sets of oryx and bison horns, a rhino skull. This was a place that mattered. In some sense we can think of it as a sacred place. The question is, is there belief in an afterlife? Is there belief in supernatural beings? How would we know? We’re imposing a great deal of our framework onto the past.
KING: Keep going in time, we come to cave art. And, of course, we’re familiar with the cave paintings. These are not only early Homo sapiens, but also in some cases Neanderthals. We do know that now. This is a relatively recent discovery, that we are not the only cave painters, but what’s fascinating for me about this is you have these glorious depictions of animals that these people hunted, but in addition to that, some very mystical and fantastic figures. A bird-headed man in Lascaux cave in France. A human that is part bison. Some other just wild figures. So this is not just people representing the reality they saw before them, but rather there’s an interest in what is not in front of you, what is not just here and now.
KING: We fast forward one more time. We go to Turkey, to this particular, perhaps temple, Gobekli Tepe, is dated to that period on a hill in Turkey. Massive 50 ton blocks that people moved onto a hillside and carved with, again, elaborate, largely animal, images. We think this is a ritual space. Not everyone agrees. This is contentious. But in every single case there is a good argument to be made for the possibility of the human brain uncoupling itself from the here and now, to think about these questions of the supernatural.
KING: And we have hints. We have to go forward in time again before we come to a really institutionalized religious system. But again, the reason that I think the human religious imagination evolved because of all these earlier cues.
GREENE: Right, right.
BARRETT: I think it’s important … I think that Barbara’s bringing up something really important and that is, we’re all talking … We’re sort of fluidly talking back and forth as if spirituality and religiosity are identical forms of meaning making and they’re really not. There are many, many ways to be spiritual. Some involve belief in a supernatural deity with agency, but not all of them do, right? Some of them … sometimes spirituality means just being full of awe and wonder at something larger than you, that transcends itself transcendence, like in connecting with nature for example.
GREENE: As Einstein was saying in his book.
BARRETT: Exactly, and I think … So, one way to think about this is that when we’re talking about the evolution of religious thought or spiritual thought or we’re talking about the biology of spiritual thought, we have to be thinking about the fact that we’re talking about different psychological features here. One has to do with connecting to something in the moment that’s bigger than you and that might transcend you. One element or feature is about explanation, right? Another is about agency. And so those may not have all evolved at the same time, or perhaps they’re not all meaningful for all people, so maybe everyone in this room has had a spiritual experience. They might not call it that, but they’ve had an experience where they’ve connected to something that’s bigger than themselves that leaves them feeling awestruck, but not everyone would take the additional steps of trying to find an explanation in that or trying to find agency in that and so forth.
GREENE: But if we do go and focus on beliefs that do transcend just a sense that there’s a larger reality that you were a part of and goes toward a supernatural belief in things that science typically would not confirm, do you see the potential for an adaptive value, for a progression that would lead to a brain that would have a tendency to do that?
PINKER: It’s hard to give an adaptive explanation for belief in entities that don’t exist. There can be an adapter of explanation for the search for explanations which obviously are not infallible and they can be misled by absence of evidence, by people who have an interest in promulgating certain explanations. I think what you have to direct the question at not the content of beliefs that we associate with particular religions, but just in particular ways of thinking, but ways of interpreting the world, ways in which people influence the beliefs of one another. What are the kinds of things that we can hypothesize and then what does that leave us vulnerable to hypothesizing which, from the perspective of science, we know may be incorrect, but can nonetheless be very seductive to a mind that is apt to think in certain directions.
GREENE: So what’s your view say of those who’ve made the case that the adaptive value is not so much in the actual belief in things that perhaps don’t exist, but it is from the cohesion, the group cohesion that that can yield if there are many people for whom that belief is shared, then all of a sudden you’ve got a stronger group bonding? Does that hold any weight for you at all?
PINKER: There is a folk theory of evolution that adaptations are all for group cohesion because whenever there is some mysterious aspect of human psychology for which it’s not clear what the adaptive value is, people will say, “Well, it fosters group cohesion.” Why do we enjoy music? Group cohesion. Why do we dance? Group cohesion. But there a couple things wrong with that style of explanation. I’m very deeply suspicious of the explanation always says group cohesion. One of them is, group cohesion is not, in fact, what natural selection selects for. It selects for propagation of genes. Sometimes groups, cohesive groups can help the individuals that compose those groups, but if a group is too cohesive, you could be exploited by the group. You could be cannon fodder. You could be a sacrificial victim for the benefit, for the cohesion of the group. But any gene that would allow you to be exploited by the group would be selected out because genes are selected much more quickly than groups.
PINKER: Also, I think it’s too easy to use our own intuition that we like to bond over music, over religion and so on, but that is itself a part of our psychology that needs an explanation. Why would beliefs in invisible entities make a group coherent more? You can’t take that for granted. That’s as much of a puzzle to a psychologist as…
GREENE: But we do see, we do see evidence of that even though we may need to explain it.
PINKER: We do, although … the supernatural beliefs can also divide a group, needless to say. There are wars of religion and precisely because they … The content of those beliefs aren’t derived from shared experience. They’re not things that everyone can just open their eyes and see. They’re things you have to be told. And that means that if you’re told by different shamans or different priests or imams than you can go to war over those beliefs. That’s why I think that group cohesion doesn’t strike me as a satisfying explanation for belief.
GREENE: Lisa, do you have a different view of that?
BARRETT: I have … yes, I think I have a different view or maybe I want to add some information.
GREENE: You can be contentious. You could just like-
BARRETT: Believe me, I have no problem with being contentious, at all. Anyone who knows me, knows this is true. Here’s what I want to say, that I think that there is an immediate advantage potentially, which is there are two that I can think of that relate to the functioning of a nervous system in the following way. First of all, uncertainty is tremendously stressful for a human nervous system. And I don’t mean stress in a euphemistic way. I mean it adds a metabolic burden to a nervous system which if it persists can actually make someone sick and I think religious beliefs can reduce uncertainty. They sometimes explain the unexplainable. Things that we now might explain through science, used to be thought of as magic or as caused by a deity. So, I think in some ways it is not just psychologically comforting, it’s actually physiologically potentially less … it reduces people’s stress. It reduces their, what scientists would call allostatic burden. Very simply, just step back one minute and say, partly our brains evolved not to think and see and feel, but in order to regulate the systems of our body. As our bodies got more complex, brains got bigger. A brain’s main job is to keep the systems of your body alive and well so that you can propagate your genes to the next … let me just finish. I know you’re going to disagree, but …
BARRETT: Your brain is constantly running a budget for the resources in your body and it’s not budgeting money, it’s budgeting glucose and salt and so on and so forth. And so, if you think about your brain running a budget for your body, uncertainty just drains that budget. Drains that budget much faster and makes it really harder for people. There’s also, I think, a social aspect to this too, in the sense that we are social animals, we evolved to be social animals. It’s one of our major adaptive advantages, to be social animals. But what that means is that we regulate each other’s nervous systems. We don’t bear that body budget on our own. We have other people to help us do it. There are other social species, right? So, insects are social, and they regulate each other’s nervous systems through chemicals, through scent. Rats, and some mammals, add touch and they might add hearing and primates add vision. We, as primates, have all of those ways to regulate each other. Plus, we have ideas that we share. And so, there are many ways in which religious belief can actually reduce the metabolic burden on the nervous system.
GREENE: Is there data for that? I mean, is there data that really makes a convincing argument that religious belief does reduce …
BARRETT: There actually is. I’m not advocating this, I’m just saying as a scientist, there is data. There are data to show that people who … I want to say this, you know, I’m not negating any of the challenges or problems that religious belief introduces to a fitness argument. I’m just saying that there is this other side where there are data to show that people who are religious actually are somewhat happier and healthier and have greater well-being. But that’s because, of course, they’re living amongst other people who believe what they believe.
GREENE: Steve, you had a response again. Barbara … yeah.
KING: I just really wanted to make the point that we’re actually operating in a framework of human exceptionalism when we keep asking things like, was social cohesion part of the reason that we were religious, or did being religious drive social cohesion, because, you know … Why are we not asking about orcas, for example. Orcas are exquisitely cohesive and they do things as a group and they regulate each other as individuals and they solve their problems as a group and they manage to do that without God. And chimpanzees manage to do this without God.
KING: So, I think that in addition to the problems that Steven pointed out with social cohesion arguments, that they’re thrown out constantly that we can just look at the natural world and we can see that there are so many different pathways for this. If we only look at our species and we don’t take this comparative approach. We’re not going to get answers to these questions.
GREENE: Yeah. Steve.
PINKER: Lisa, I agree that are religious belief can reduce stress but I don’t think that that can be an explanation as to why it’s adaptive. Because the fact that uncertainty leads to stress is itself an adaptation, namely there … we’re missing some information that’s critical to our well-being and we’re … when we get stressed and nervous that motivates us to seek out that information or to act in a way that keeps us safe even in the state of ignorance. But there can’t be an adaptation to reduce stress by false certainty. That is, by being certain about something, some claim about the world that in fact is not true. Because if I’m really nervous, say because I think there might be a predator, and someone convinces me, no, it’s actually a rabbit appearing in the guise of a predatory cat, that might reduce my stress, but it’s not an adaptation.
KING: Fair enough, fair enough.
GREENE: So Barbara, you gave us some history of where you think this may have begun all the way back in human history. What’s your sense of why it has persisted for so long?
KING: I tend to come back to this issue of community and practice. Because I think if we shift the perspective from looking so much at belief and sacred texts, which we tend to do in today’s world. You know, you put up a slide that talked about the percentage of the pie in terms of Christianity and Islam and that’s one important aspect of this, but I think that for many of the world’s people, there is just something that’s irreplaceable about that sense of community, that sense of ritual practice and that sense of familiarity. And it is … Sure, it’s possible to try to replace that with some other ways to find those same things, but there is something about the connectivity that comes through the transcendence that I think is important. When you bring those two elements together, the community and the transcendence and sharing that emotional meaning making. And one of the things that i like very much about the people who are discussing whether there’s faith in other animals is the idea of breaking the link between making religion always be about text and belief.
KING: So I think that that helps us understand this question a little bit. The idea … I think about what Martin Buber wrote, coming from the tradition of Judaism, when he wrote that all of real life is encounter. There’s something that’s particularly transporting about sharing encounters of transcendence and I really feel it has something to do with the persistence that we see. But clearly, when we talk about the spirituality instinct, that’s a very fraught term because of the secularization that’s happening in the world. If that really were to be considered an instinct, how do we explain the tremendous transformation that we’re undergoing? So people are finding humanism communities, other communities with a different type of transcendent connection.
KING: I think there’s a balance between what continues as very, very strong tradition that carries communities forward together with new ways of imagining some of these very same things that are coming about. The ways that people can experience religion now. I mean, they extend into communities with AI. They extend to virtual realities, virtual churches, virtual connection, virtual mosques, but also the idea that we’re beginning to think just differently about animals and nature. We know Emily Dickinson’s church, right? Well, we also know that one of the beauties of the evolutionary perspective among many others, is not only understanding our own place in the world, but our really deep sharing with other animals. And so, I think there’s the possibility that we are going to continue this shift of finding different ways of sharing transcendence as I feel with nature, with animals.
GREENE:So does that transcendence relate to … I mean, Steven J. Gould, I believe once said that all religions begin with an awareness of death. So, is that transcendence profoundly connected with death or is it somehow independent of it?
KING: I think you’ve hit on an important thing. Part of my last six years of my work has been very profoundly taken up with the question of animal grief and animal mourning. And I’m not suggesting, again, to be very clear that animals have some kind of sacred sense of death, but they have a deep awareness of loss, so that we find over and over again-
GREENE: Can you give an example? I mean, that’s…
KING: Yeah, I can give loads of examples. For example, with elephants we know that the entire community responds if a matriarch dies. There was one particular example in Africa. A particular community of scientists who followed for seven days, a parade of mourners who came to this particular matriarch who had died. Her name was Eleanor. Not only her family, but matriarchs of other families. Some stood vigil over the body, some rocked over the body. Others showed distress. So my definition of animal grief involves some kind of symptom of distress. Social withdrawal, failure to eat, failure to sleep, some vocalizations.
KING: But it’s not only the, what I call the usual suspects, the big brained mammals like chimpanzees, cetaceans and elephants where we see this. My research is showing that we find it in animals as different as collared peccaries in Arizona, chickens, all sorts of domestic animals, the animals that we live with. And again, what I think is so important about this is not necessarily that the animals have the same awareness of death that we have, but that they feel this profound sense of loss. That is emotional meaning making and that’s where they enter into this community of sort of a transcendent experience in an animal sort of way that I think is the foundation for this discussion.
GREENE: So, Steve, let me ask you. Transcendent experience, community, is one powerful way of thinking about what religion provides. On the other side of the discussion, you’ve got people like Dan Dennett. You got people like Pascal Boyer, and various others, whose explanation tends more toward a mechanism. The spreading of ideas. The spreading of memes, you know? An idea jumps from brain to brain, to brain and it naturally tickles certain receptors that we are naturally attuned to and therefore certain ideas have a tendency to stick and spread, among them being the very ideas that constitute religious belief. Is that an approach that you think gives us insight or is that not a useful way of thinking about it?
PINKER: Yeah, because what puzzles us when we try to explain the prevalence of religious belief, is not so much why people mourn the dead, feel a sense of loss, feel it profoundly affects their lives because it does profoundly affect their lives, it ought to. If you didn’t mourn someone when they were dead, when they die how could you have loved them when they were alive? That is, in a sense an easier set of reactions to explain.
PINKER: What puzzles about religion is belief in the Trinity and in hell and in 72 virgins and all of the other contentful beliefs that go well beyond a sense of awe at the immensity of the cosmos or loss in the sense of death. That’s where Pascal Boyer and Dennis Barbour and others going to step in to why we’re vulnerable to such specific beliefs as opposed to emotional reactions to major events that affect us. There, I should actually credit Pascal Boyer for linking the idea that we are mentalizing, we’re apt to attribute minds to others as one of the core explanations for why we are subject to religious beliefs that leads to spiritualist beliefs.
GREENE: Right. So, Lisa, what’s your view on these two sort of poles, the need for community transcendent experience and perhaps something that just speaks to the way in which certain ideas naturally stick inside a brain that evolved to perform certain tasks and survive?
BARRETT: I think that both of those explanations to some extent are phenomena. I’m not really sure if you’re referring to them as explanations or just phenomena, are actually rooted in our sociality as a species, so I think it’s not a metaphor to say that we regulate each other. We do, in very substantial ways and in ways that we’re completely unaware of and part of how we do this is we create meaning that is shared and realities that emerge only by virtue of collective agreement. What I mean by that is … We’re talking here, for example, about grief and that animals, non-human animals feel grief and so on. Non-human animals feel loss, for sure. I think there’s no question that that’s the case, and they suffer. I think there’s no question that’s the case, but research on emotion suggests pretty clearly that there is no inherent emotional meaning in any set of physical signals that occur from your body. What we do is … humans, is we learn to impose meanings on those signals, right? So, a scowling face for example, is not a universal display of anger. People only scowl about 25% of the time when they’re angry and they scowl at many other times when they’re not and there are many cultures around the world, including hunter-gatherers who don’t recognize a scowl as anger, for example.
BARRETT: In many cultures, and it’s an interesting question about why this is the case, but we’ll just hold that aside for a moment, what we do is we impose meaning on a scowling face, we impose meaning on a scowl and by virtue of that meaning that we’ve imposed, the scowl actually literally takes on that meaning and we can easily predict what’s going to happen next. What I mean by this is it sort of works in the same way as money works, right? There’s no inherent … Nothing that’s ever served as currency in human cultures does so by virtue of its physical nature alone. What happens is a group of humans impose a meaning on pieces of paper, or little rocks, or salt, or barley, or big rocks in the ocean that can’t be moved, or mortgages, or any number of things and all of a sudden, those things literally take on value. They can be traded for material goods only because we all agree that they can and when someone moves their agreement, when people withdraw some number, people withdraw their agreement, those things no longer have value.
BARRETT: Well, emotions are kind of built in the same way. Heart rates change, faces move, distress can occur out of loss when you lose someone who helps to regulate your body budget and you lose that person, you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself because sort of you have actually lost someone who’s helped you regulate your nervous system. We impose meaning on those physical events that take on that meaning. I mean the physical events take on those meanings by virtue of the fact that we, as a culture, agree that that’s the case. I think that in my view, this is partly why memes occur, because ideas are contagious in a sense because we often as part of our … one of our superpowers as a species is the ability to create meaning. The ability to create something real where there used to be nothing real, only by virtue of collective agreement. We impose meaning on something physical and then that physical thing takes on a bigger meaning.
BARRETT: To some extent, I think we also do this with what we think of as transcendent experiences. So, when a group of people are all together having a similar experience at being awestruck or wonderstruck at something in nature, there’s an opportunity for creating social reality, for creating a meaning that wasn’t there before, that supersedes just the shared wonder of the moment and so, I don’t see these ends as really different. I see them as kind of emerging out of the same capacities-
GREENE: So, in the remaining time, maybe we can just focus on humans and on religious belief and maybe we could start with you, Barbara.
KING: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
GREENE: There’s been a view that’s been around for a long time that as science progresses, it kind of pushes out the need for religion, in terms of its explanatory capacities and so forth. Now it’s suggested over time that the role of religion would decrease. Do you imagine that that is the pattern that will play out or is that a completely wrong and oblique way of thinking about the role of religion and therefore what its future will be?
KING: Yeah, it’s interesting. I feel two things at the same time. I do think that the increasing tendency towards humanism and secularization is a very welcome thing. I mean, I did say that I am here speaking as an atheist, as a person who is a non-believer. We certainly want to be able to think clearly about science and about the forces that act in this world and we know, all of us know that religion is not always helpful in that particular way.
KING: At the same time, I think it’s really important to think again about the cross-cultural patterns and the number of people in the world who don’t fall into believing in big sky gods, who don’t even, in some cases, have a word for religion. I’m not suggesting that that makes them different in any kind of scale of intelligence, not at all. We know that all human populations have the same capacities. But sometimes, just being religious is just the way life is. It’s so much a part of the era, of the way that you live that it’s not something that is going to change.
KING: I think these are two different ways of looking at it and I’m not sure how to weigh them. I’d be interested to hear what other people would say about that.
GREENE: Why don’t we go right down the line. Zoran, do you have any …
JOSIPOVIC: I think that at its best, it gives us a framework to experience the spirituality, to be able to connection to something that’s larger than ourselves. And so, if it fulfills that role for people, I think then that’s, you know, that it’s its purpose. I hope that as the ages go, the science and spirituality basically flow through each other smoothly. I think that for that, really we just need more research in these topics.
GREENE: Lisa, thoughts on the future?
BARRETT: I think I would stand by my descriptions that I think that there are some advantages to religious belief, but I think there are also some major, major disadvantages, some of which Steve has talked about and I think it … From my perspective it’s probably about time to wonder whether or not the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, frankly. Because there are other meaning making systems that are available to humans to help them make sense of the world, some of which may not have the disadvantages. They may have the advantages of religious belief, but they might not also have the disadvantages. So, I probably lean more in the direction of wondering how it would be possible to test that, to investigate that.
GREENE: Steve, thoughts on that?
PINKER: Several trends in the overall historical archival of disbelief when there’s a lot of religions have become more humanistic. They don’t take their literal beliefs as seriously as they used to. If you’re a real, believing Christian and that if you don’t accept Jesus then you’re going to go to hell, then you really ought to try to convert people at sword point. And you really ought to slay heretics. You’d be doing … It’s like a great public health measure. You’re saving eternity of suffering in hell for billions of people. But most Christians, no matter how seriously they take their belief, don’t try to convert people at sword point anymore. They don’t have inquisitions and they’re not completely consistent and that is a kind of benign hypocrisy among many believers that they fortunately don’t act on the totality of their religious beliefs and that’s been a very beneficial trend. The institutions persist with the all-encompassing nature of the beliefs, we get deluded.
PINKER: Another is that when people switch their religious affiliations, the overwhelming tendency is toward no religion at all, so the world is becoming less religious. There are two reasons why that may seem hard to believe. One of them is that religious people have more babies and so the number or religious people is actually increasing, and projected to increase even as the number of people who switch are switched in the direction of no religion. The other is that religious groups tend to be more politically organized. So, the problem with secularists and humanists, and so called nones, N-O-N-E, not N-U-N, that is people with no religion, is they don’t vote. Evangelicals all vote. I shouldn’t say all. Something like 80% of evangelicals vote, 25% of just the unaffiliated vote. And so there’s a outsized influence of religion in politics because of this organization.
PINKER: Our perception of the growing influence of religion is in, not exactly an illusion, but it is pushed along by the greater fecundity and greater political organization of the religious, even as the overall direction is away from religious belief with secularization, including the United States, which was a … for a long time was an outlier that every other western democracy had become less religious than the United States. The United States is now moving in that direction as well.
GREENE: One final question which is sort of the inverse of the topic that took up some of our time in thinking about animals and their reactions and beliefs. What if we flip it the other way? So, a hundred years from now, or 500 years from now, we get visited by an alien civilization and we show them what we’ve learned in math and physics and they nod their tentacles and they … you know, we’re all sort of good. But then we show them our religious beliefs. Do you think that they’ll look at that and say, “Yeah, yeah, we get it. You know, we’ve got out Jesus too.” Or will they be completely baffled as to what this thing called religion is? Barbara, thoughts on that?
KING: Wild speculation. I have no idea the answer to that question.
GREENE: Fair enough.
KING: If I had to guess, I would guess baffled.
JOSIPOVIC: I think that if you think about how 500 years ago, we didn’t know much about electromagnetism right? And now, we can go all kinds of things with and we can actually entertain ourselves with. Well, think of the aliens come and they understand the function of consciousness in the universe, right? And they can use consciousness that we use for all kinds of things. It’s not any kind of mysterious thing for them. That’s I think where it’s going.
BARRETT: I don’t think they’ll be baffled and I don’t think that they’ll necessarily share … I mean, I’m just … I’m not even speculating, I’m imagining. I think that they will see it as part of the evolutionary trajectory of … Or evolutionary development of a species and maybe something that was a necessary step along the way, but became unnecessary at a certain point.
GREENE: Final thoughts on that one, Steve?
PINKER: I tend to agree there. It may be similar to our attitudes towards the animistic beliefs of people that we’ve come across. We can … or an intelligible but we might consider them obsolete.
GREENE: Do you think that they will have had a similar evolutionary trajectory? I know there … Is this an intrinsic part of the way in which a living system would evolve that can survive that will necessarily ascribe agency in the world and tell stories about what those agents do and the role that they play or is this some peculiar thing that happened to the human species?
PINKER: A great question, a profound one, but I suspect that … I guess the question is, does sociality depend on reciprocal mentalizing, attributing complexity to other creatures? I suspect it does, but a speculation and if so, would there be enough evidence early enough in the history of an intelligent species that it would not be tempted by over-attribution of cognitive organization to entities that may not actually have it.
GREENE: Very good. So, one day we may find the answer to that question, but until that time, please join me in thanking the group here.