Welcome to Part 3 of the Freethinker/Grayling interview. Here, we ask him why religion has stuck around so long, if we could ever be free of superstition, why humanism is good for the world, and if free will could really exist in a purely physical world.
PB: Daniel Dennett talks about it in terms of memetics, but why do you think religion has hung around so long?
ACG: It’s partly because humanity is in a very, very early stage in its history. We tend to think that we’re at the end of a long process but we’re not actually, we’re in a very early stage. But religions become institutionalised and get reinforced by society. You only have to look at something like the time, effort and money that has gone into building cathedrals and mosques and the like to see how deeply institutionalised religion really is in society. This is why a child will believe in God, the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas until about the age of ten, then give up the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, but keep the deity. After that time, that’s when society reinforces it in the form of adults who take the idea of a deity very seriously.
But then later something will happen: failure, grief at a parent dying or divorce, their first child born – a “miraculous” experience – and they go back to these beliefs for a time.
Most religious people don’t really think about their beliefs though. They don’t really believe them either. It’s a kind of con-trick they perform on themselves. What they want to do is believe that they believe. They would like it to be true, so they just act as if it were.
PB: It’s a much more optimistic approach than that of, say, Christopher Hitchens, who reckons that the religious impulse just can’t be rid of. But you say there is hope for humanity? We can be rid of all superstitious thought?
Further, we’re very naturally credulous, which is a great evolutionary advantage for very small children who believe everything they’re told. Ghost stories and alien abduction stories, urban myths and conspiracy theories, we Hoover them up with enthusiasm. We love that kind of thing because they’re stories that are easy to understand and which provide alternatives to the dreary truth.
We really have a natural propensity for this, but if we didn’t feed that propensity during childhood, especially with all the gravity and seriousness of grown-up, religious behaviour it might not be so bad. It makes children think, “Well, it’s got to be true because the grown-ups take it so seriously.” If we didn’t do that, it would have a very, very loose grip. If I come to you in adulthood and present you with a story that a three-wheeled car plummeted from the sky, hit the ground and immediately dispersed into its component molecules, or made up some even more incredible and ridiculous story, you would laugh it out of court. But if I told you when you were very young and said, “This is really true and really important, and you’re in serious trouble if you stop believing it or ever turn your back on this” and I frighten you with it, then you’d accept it. It would be a powerful reinforcement.
ACG: Because it’s not premised on the idea that there is an orthodoxy, that there is one right way of doing things, that some humanists know better than others about what the truth is or how to understand “the great founding texts of humanism”. There’s no “Arch-Humanist”, no bishops of humanism. The point about it is that it is nothing more than a premise. The premise is: our ethics must be derived from our best and most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition, that there’s plenty of room for discussion and negotiation, that we must move with the needs of society and be responsive to what happens in history. Of its very nature it’s about discussion, thinking, reflection, argument, being tolerant of other people’s points of view. It’s not about observing an orthodoxy. It’s not about obeying. It’s not about the submission of your will to the deity. It doesn’t tell you that you’re proud, and therefore in danger of hellfire if you think for yourself. It’s a very different mindset, a different way of thinking about everything.
ACG: The free will question is by far the hardest question in metaphysics. All the evidence that is coming out of brain science, neurology and neuro-psychology at the moment tends to push us in the direction of thinking that as a part of the natural world, the brain and what it secretes, that is, consciousness, thought, memory and so on, must be subject to deterministic causal laws. We look as though we’re headed in the determinism direction rather than the free-will direction.
There are several things to think about here. Firstly, we shouldn’t be too simplistic with the problem, to think that what we call the mind is the same as a set of physical events in some structure in the brain, pure and simple.
Secondly, remember that the mind is not just what the brain does. The mind is also the relationship with other minds and with the environment. Meaning is the relationship between something that you know and things out there in the world to which these things refer and of which they can be true and so on. In the same way, your mind, your experience, your consciousness are only really understandable with regards to the relationship between your mind and the physical and social environment through which you move throughout your life. It’s as if the mind were somehow connected with the outside world. The activity of the brain is responding to information from the outside world, information which is both natural, like light and sound, but also social, like the significance of the noises and marks produced by other people. So when we think about â€˜mind’, we’re thinking about something, a full description of which would have to contain more than a description about brain events alone.
PB: So as we currently understand the mind/body free-will problem, would you call yourself a compatibilist?
ACG: I think I’m some kind of compatibilist, yes. My own temptation is to think that there is more to this than it seems. Imagine this: there are two people standing at the side of a field. The first person, a physicist, describes the set of events on the field in terms of bodies of a certain mass, velocity, the principles of mechanics, emissions of radiation and so on. The second person, a sociologist, describes the same set of events as a rugby match. In the vocabulary of the sociologist there will be explanatory concepts of a try, a penalty, a fly-half. There won’t be any such concepts in the language of physics. But in the language of sociology there are no such concepts of velocity and radiation. They don’t have a role there.