Response to Connor Wood: “Evolved” and “Rational” Aren’t the Same Thing

Nicholas C. DiDonato

On this blog, my esteemed colleague and friend Connor Wood recently wrote a defense of the Templeton Foundation that centered on a defense of the study of “religion” (a word I wished he would have defined). While I agree with 90% of what he argued, the remaining ten percent troubles me. More specifically, I strongly disagree with his statement that, “refusing to engage religion… is an apparently rational decision that betrays a woeful misunderstanding of the delicate, unconscious, and evolutionary processes that endowed us with religious cultures.… Religion was not designed by conscious agents, and rejecting its explicit beliefs scarcely touches its actual nature.”

I have to confess that I’m unaware of any tradition (“religious” or otherwise) not explicitly designed by conscious agents. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism all have rich intellectual traditions with scholars who debated over deep philosophical issues, and the winners of these debates forever onward shaped their tradition. Let me put it more bluntly: the most intelligent people who have ever lived have shaped their traditions.

Zooming in for a moment, holy books require being written. Who does the writing? Intellectuals.* They also require compilation. Who does the compilation? Intellectuals. Holidays need to be marked on the calendar. Who determines which holidays are important, and who masters astronomy in order to build an accurate calendar? Intellectuals. I could continue, but I should add that with the rise of Protestantism there was an innovation in tradition-building: anyone, regardless of education or background, could now modify a tradition. So it would be too much to say that in every case intellectuals have been the engines that drive innovation and change and are the architects of all traditions – but for most of human history, in most of the world, this has been very much the case.

It could be that the above paragraph completely misses Connor’s point. Maybe Connor meant to say that while intellectuals seem to steer the ship, in fact evolutionary factors are the real captains. Yes, intellectuals debate among themselves, but whoever gains the largest following wins, and this is determined not by rationality but by environmental, social, economic, political, and other  factors. If this is what he intends, then I’m afraid he undermines his own defense of what he calls “religion.”

As philosophers of science know, “it works” hardly implies “it’s true.” In other words, just because an argument “works” in its social-political-economic context does not mean it’s a sound, rational, or even valid argument. Traditions, then, become either irrational (and so false) or arational (and so unable to make truth claims or claims about reality). The appeal to evolution is necessarily an appeal to something other than truth or reality (hence even the New Atheist philosopher, Daniel Dennett, can appreciate the cultural value of “religion” while utterly rejecting it).

Of course, Connor may counter that his point is that “religion” is about lived reality and not about intellectual abstractions. If so, I have to side with mainstream philosophy of science once again and argue that there’s no uninterpreted experience. Every experience, whether it’s “religious” (whatever that means) or otherwise, already presupposes an interpretative framework. Philosopher of science Karl Popper makes this point clearly. He asks us to imagine that we encounter a glass of water. How do we know it’s a glass of water and not a bowl or something else? Because we have a theory of what a glass and what water is, and so when we encounter a glass of water, we’re not puzzled at this strange new object. Instead, we recognize the pattern and process the object accordingly.

The problem occurs when we realize just how often we make inferences of this sort, using presupposed definitions and categories, without even realizing it. The great American pragmatist Charles Peirce loved to point out the blind spot in the eye in order to make the point that even the most mundane visual image is in fact an inference–the brain fills in the gap (unless you know how to exploit the blind spot).

Both Popper and Peirce could be supported by 20th-century experiments. For example, the Whorfian hypothesis suggests that different cultures interpret colors differently. Americans, for instance, can distinguish between red and pink, while Russians greatly struggle at this task, and, on the other side, Russians have a similar division between blue and what Americans would consider a shade of blue. The Russians effortlessly make this distinction while the Americans strain to see it. One last experiment: people who grew up in a culture where circular buildings are the norm, when placed in a rectilinear room, fail (for a while) to see the corners. Their mind has been so programmed to interpret indoor rooms as circular that a rectilinear room requires serious adjustment time. Likewise, those who are used to rectilinear room, when placed in a circular room, mentally divide up the room into four corners. The point is simply that even the seemingly most mundane experience is interpreted.

What does any of this have to do with “religion” being a lived reality? Everything! There’s no simple, uninterpreted “lived reality” in which anyone lives, and therefore “religion” can’t be defended in this way. All reality requires interpretation–there is no appeal to a pristine “lived reality.” Every tradition provides its adherents with such an interpretative framework. So claiming that any tradition (again, “religious” or otherwise) can be justified by lived experience while ignoring how that tradition tells us to interpret that experience does not work. The two cannot be separated because there is no uninterpreted experience.

Furthermore, if we want to interpret reality well (that is, truthfully), we’re going to want true interpretations, interpretations that interpret reality as it is (or as close to this as humanly possible) – but this means that our interpretative frameworks have to be true. We can’t expect to have an irrational or arational interpretative framework give us a true depiction of reality. The interpretative tools of every tradition can’t be cast aside in favor of lived experience because the two are interdependent: (ideally) we interpret reality, reality bites back, and then we adjust our interpretative framework and try again. We should be critical of our tradition’s interpretive framework, and if traditions survive and proliferate primarily because of irrational or arational factors, then I’m afraid we’ve lost our grip on reality.


* For most of human history, people were either highly educated, and so could read and write, or not educated at all. As such, people who could write in ancient times are properly called “intellectuals” because they would have been part of the educated class.

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