Philip began this week describing fascinating recent work in primate studies that shows just how capable other primates are at learning and using language, sometimes even intentionally creating new names with learned languages. What should these studies do for us? Fundamentally, they should case us to think deeply and quarry the qualitative uniqueness of humanity. In other words, many Christians presume that human beings are not simply quantitatively more complex or evolved than their species–able to do more–but rather created with a fundamental quality (or set of qualities) that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. These experiments seem to point away from any large qualitative divide, and more towards the difference being a matter of more complexity. It is a capacity, a complexity, in humans that is perhaps just quantitatively unique—a plentitude of symbolic (linguistic) capacity. As Philip notes, we seem to simply have more of the faculty of choice and linguistic power that other animals don’t have and therefore a greater responsibility. I will say more on this in the react section, but do you see how intimately the nature and role of the ethical is connected differently in this more quantitative way of thinking over and against some more qualitative ways of distinguishing humans from animals?
In a related way, cognitive science has begun to show just how integrated brain development is with individual action and social group dynamics Developmental stages in the human being point to an intimate relationship between environmental forces-social, nutritional, etc. and the development/capacity of the brain. How humans react in certain social context can be shown to be more complex and quantitatively more developed examples of things in other areas of the animal kingdom. Our actions are their actions writ large, or writ complex
The cognitive science of religion story is taking these explorations in cognitive development, explorations of how our cognitive faculties develop evolutionarily given environmental input etc., and applying it to the study of religion. For example, Hyperactive agency detective disorder (HAD) shows how it was evolutionarily beneficial for humans to be very sensitive (over-sensitive) to applying agency to our experiences (recall Tripp’s tiger in the bushes example) of the world. In this context, the human inclination to examine the world around them seeing God all over, should not be surprising in social environments where this is inculcated even more so at early ages. Was that wild weather climatological or God communicating, judging, warning? These are human HAD questions. Perhaps, religion then is a collective agency ‘over-detection’ and development of our at one time evolutionarily beneficial extreme sensitivity sensing agencies, even where it doesn’t exist.
It is important here to make a distinction between this kind of cognitive science of religion study and reductive conclusions that may or may not necessarily be drawn. As I believe the Bennet article for this week mentions, this kind of study connects more closely with sociological and anthropological understandings of the dynamics the religious, but does not necessarily mean there is not reality to the world it describes and its experiences support. This further move is what might be called a neuro-religious reduction, something Daniel Dennett is committed to and evidenced in his debate with Philip that was mentioned. This further claim is not about the scaffolding that makes religious reactions make sense evolutionarily (cognitive science), but a further claim that there is no truth to the religious language in or causal reality in it or the divine it claims to point to.
It’s here that a now familiar tension in the class arises. We seem to be at a stalemate where nothing more can be said beyond brute disagreement as to whether there’s something more real going on in religion. The reductionist wants to wager the claim beyond the science that the experience of the religious is illusory and there is no metaphysical reality there and the spiritual or religious believer disagrees. Is this well told story of neuro-religiosity reason to reject a divine reality connecting with the evolutionarily explained structures in our heads and social networks (imago reductio), or reason to praise said divine and root the very nature our imaging that divine (imago dei) in those complex neural capacities?! What wildly different readings of the evidence right? What can adjudicate such a divide? Do we only have experience? (These are questions I’d love reactions to)
Tripp, following Cobb’s evolutionary story, is a profound YES! to the imago dei reading of the story. John Cobb’s process theology frames the quantitative difference in our capacities as a vocational imago: a vocation based on our being subjects (beings with subjective conscious experience) related to God as subject.The IoG is about creativity, language and stories—it is an invitation to live and right relationships in our ecosystems (recall week 3). Communally expressed ‘depth of living’ (Cobb’s imago) based on our being able to, having the qualitative complexity to relate and right others relationships.
Philip made an interesting comment in response to Tripp’s Cobbified anthropology that it seems to be a integrated, this-worldly, vocational understanding that certain traditional theists can equally subscribe to right? Without the subjectivity in everything and other (at first blush) quirky elements of full-fledged process thought? Id like to hear a but more from Tripp, more Cobb, as to what that system will give us that we can’t get from something like Philip’s use of a more classical model with Pannenberg?