“Why are we humans so prone to believing spooky nonsense” is the title of Stephen Law’s latest piece in Aeon magazine.
Stephen Law attacks the notion of “invisible person-like beings”. Examples of these are gods, fairies, spirits, ghosts and angels. It is unclear to what extent Law’s article is a critique of mainstream religion. In the second paragraph he uses contradictory ideas of divine beings as proof that there can be no such thing as one. He does not use the same argument with respect to his own hypothesis, i.e. that there are other hypotheses people hold and therefore they must be false. After that jab he does not really mention theism but concentrates on gremlins and the like, occasionally dropping hints at possible analogies with God.
The question of invisible person-like creatures does not even come near to providing an argument against God, when God is understood as the ground of Being itself and not as one finite being among many. Seeing God as a very big ghost certainly does not reflect the major religious traditions. Law may be aware of this fact, but nonetheless chooses to leave it as ambiguous in the text.
Though the argument being made is really only about person-like beings, the question on the related discussion page is: “Is it time to jettison all belief in supernatural beings?”
There is quite a lot of smugness involved. Law takes the example of leaving one’s car keys on the table and finding them under the sofa. He then invokes gremlins, showing how this is an easy cop-out. And since primitive people did not have the brilliant naturalistic framework that clever scientists have today, they decided to be lazy (and dumb as shit):
Invisible agents provide quick, convenient explanations for events that might otherwise strike us as deeply mysterious and, in so far as these beings can be appealed or persuaded, belief in them can also create the illusion of control…
(Note: how exactly is this belief either quick or convenient if ritual functions must be fulfilled around it, something both costly and time-consuming?)
Law does not actually come to any substantive conclusion (except for asserting that experience and testimony are not good enough) but does endorse HADD to a certain extent.
Scientists working in the cognitive science of religion have offered other explanations, including the hyperactive agency-detecting device (HADD). This tendency explains why a rustle in the bushes in the dark prompts the instinctive thought: ‘There’s someone there!’ We seem to have evolved to be extremely quick to ascribe agency – the capacity for intention and action – even to inanimate objects. In our ancestral environment, this tendency is not particularly costly in terms of survival and reproduction, but a failure to detect agents that are there can be very costly. Fail to detect a sabre-toothed cat, and it’ll likely take you out of the gene pool. The evolution of a HADD can account for the human tendency to believe in the presence of agents even when none can actually be observed. Hence the human belief in invisible person-like beings, such as spirits or gods.
Here one can wonder to what extent we are projecting our own understanding of agency onto others. The assumption that is implicit in Law’s text is a dichotomy between personal explanations and natural explanations. Following Descartes, this can be found abundantly in the work of Richard Swinburne. The only real conceivable agency for Law is human agency, therefore if what if given is not a natural explanation, it must surely be a surrogate personal explanation that uses semi-persons in the shape of ghosts etc.
But are we justified to assume that early religion developed according to post-Cartesian notions of causality? Was human agency the only real agency and therefore more “humans” were created to fill the gaps? Or was primitive belief in closer contact with many other kinds of non-human-like agency like animals? Since agency and consciousness are attributed to living and non-biological entities in animism, this calls at for a better explanation of why we humans animate the world around us. Saying that water-bodies, mountains and forests have spirits can in any case not be likened to positing a predator in the rustling leaves.
The other assumption deals with the mind and experience of the world. Again this comes as a product of a continuous alienation between the human subject and his environment. Law’s image of experience seems to be the intake of neutral sense experience, almost like a film. One of the premises that are necessary to understand what spirits, angels or miracles might mean is a different “ecological” understanding. The human person does not just experience the world it is situated in, but is in constant dialogue with it. Law seems to place (an actual example from the text) an experience of the spirit of a deceased friend together with seeing a snake in the grass.
Clearly there is a difference between seeing something that is neutral and commonplace, and seeing something which carries existential weight. For a miracle to be a miracle it must be addressed to someone. There is a receiving end. It is not just something that happens and one can see it by chance, or something commonplace in that it happens constantly (for then it would be a scientific matter). It is rather something that speaks to the subject and has a deep meaning in their personal narrative. In the same way, angels are place-markers for the holy dimension of human existence. Experiences that are explained in terms of angels touch the innermost core of man. Angelos means messenger: the idea of dialogue is equally present.