Hilbert problems in the study of religion

Hilbert problems in the study of religion October 13, 2015

Connor Wood

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Good science sometimes takes a little hubris. Case in point: one humble group of 19th-century German philosophers thought that there were some questions science could probably never answer, such as what the nature of matter and energy is – but the mathematician David Hilbert (the guy in the hat, at right) vehemently disagreed. Hilbert’s aggressive pursuit of mathematical and scientific solutions to the biggest riddles eventually helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, so you could say that his optimism paid off. That’s probably why the editors of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) are channeling Hilbert’s scientific optimism in their current call for researchers to identify the world’s most important, unanswered empirical questions about the evolution, functions, and future of religion: the “Hilbert problems” of the scientific study of human religiosity.

At the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, David Hilbert did something that made scientific history: he identified ten crucial, unsolved problems in mathematics and spelled them out for his audience. These key problems, he insisted, would help define the next century of mathematics, shaping research agendas and guiding mathematicians’ efforts. (Later, he added 13 more questions in a written publication, making 23 Hilbert problems in all.) As it turned out, his prediction was right – by identifying key problems, Hilbert turned fellow mathematicians’ attention to crucial areas where the most urgent research was needed. The field of mathematics was energized by this bold challenge, and 20th-century mathematical research benefited enormously as a result.

A century later, the scientific study of religion is a growing field with a lot of unanswered questions. It’s also chock-full of different, sometimes competing theories and concepts. Group selection, evolved cognitive biases, “Big Gods,” supernatural punishment, costly ritualized signaling…the list goes on and on. This unruly garden of wild ideas is a good thing, largely – it means people are sincerely tackling some of the most difficult questions about human cognition, motivations, and behavior. But while many individual research programs are making significant headway on their own questions, the field as a whole could also greatly benefit from some unifying, clearly stated, epoch-defining research goals.

To put it another way, identifying these “Hilbert problems” in the study of religion could help gel the field, giving researchers a clear vision of how their own agendas fit into a broader, progressive whole. It could also get attention from researchers in other fields who have insights and theories to offer – and raise awareness among the wider public that there is even such a thing as the scientific study of religion. THEREFORE: 

Editors at RBB are calling for experts and researchers across religious studies and the cognitive, behavioral, and evolutionary sciences to offer their suggestions for what ought to be considered the biggest, most impactful, most pressing empirical questions in the study of religion. In their words, 

Big Questions are most effectively addressed when they command the attention of an entire community of researchers.…Progress in every discipline requires a Bigger Picture.

The upshot? If you’re an expert or student in the study of religion, now’s your chance to shape the field – submit your Hilbert question to RBB and tell the editors what you think the biggest unsolved explanatory problem is. Submissions must be 1000 words or less; make concrete, focused claims; and offer plausible suggestions for empirical testing. What should researchers to be pouring their energy into?

Submissions are due in February, so you’ve got time to think up and write a knock-down entry. Share widely! This could be a game-changer in the study of human religiosity.


* EXTRA NERD INFORMATION WHICH IS HIGHLY NECESSARY: These scientifically humble, neo-Kantian thinkers were led by the physiologist Émile Du Bois-Reymond, who coined the pessimistic phrase ignoramus et ignorabimus – that is, “We don’t know, and we won’t know.” In retort, Hilbert had his tombstone engraved with the catchphrase “Wir müssen wissen – Wir werden wissen” (“We must know! We will know!”). I, personally, am a big fan of Du Bois-Reymond, and consider him my favorite 19th-century German scientist (everyone has one of those, right?). But Hilbert’s rejoinder is pretty awesome.

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