The Presumption of Agency

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A frequent conflict we see between atheists and theists is one wherein the theists see their favorite deity as the obvious, inevitable cause of practically any phenomenon they don't have a ready explanation for, and atheists split their sides laughing about this seemingly childish, random assumption.


I think it's illuminating to look at the origin of theistic preoccupation with supernatural entities.

During most of the prehistoric past in which our brains evolved, humans were social animals whose lives were dominated by hunting and being hunted. Most of what moved was either an animal or another human. If it was an animal, chances are it was either food or dangerous – possibly both. If it was a human, it could be family, a friend, a competitor or an enemy. Whatever the case, it was a being acting on its own motives, and survival demanded that we watch it/him/her carefully. Conversely, when something moved or happened, chances were the cause was an animal or human, and it was important to know just what or who, and to take appropriate action. Everything that happened had a cause, and more often than not that cause was alive and personal, a being acting on its intentions, guided by some degree of intelligence.

Like our chimpanzee cousins, humans have always been curious – eager to find things out about the world; looking for explanations. In early man's world of caves and tigers and mammoths, before Archimedes and Newton and Hawking, when we didn't know a lot of things, it made sense to generalize from familiar events – rustling grass, moving shadows, slaughtered livestock – to more mysterious ones, like thunder, lightning and the motion of the sun, moon and planets. Some things that moved and acted had obvious living, personal causes, and other things that moved and acted had less obvious, perhaps invisible living, personal causes. Richard Dawkins' delightful book The Magic of Reality introduces a creation myth in each chapter, and we learn about the gods who push the sun around, sprinkle the stars into the sky or make it rain. This kind of thinking, a very early predecessor of what we know as science, provided our ancestors with answers to questions that occupied them.

Let's not look down on our cave-dwelling forebears for coming up with wrong answers! They did the best they could with the knowledge they had, and some of their explanations proved amazingly accurate and useful. Rome wasn't built in a day, and all that.

Suddenly, science.

Speaking of Rome: Some of what we now consider modern scientific knowledge is older than many think. As early as 300-something BC, knowledgeable people in Greece and probably elsewhere knew that the Earth is spherical (more or less), and had a reasonable estimate of its size. Early scientists performed experiments to discover the function of kidneys, sensory and motor neurons. For anyone interested, I found a fascinating detailed summary of the science of antiquity in this blog post. But whether "modern science" is to be considered 500 years old or 2500, it's a very recent development in human history.

Science has taught us about the real causes of thunder, lightning and the motion of heavenly bodies. We know where rain comes from and the causes of many diseases. Rainbows are no longer a mystery to us and, only since 150 years ago, we know why there are so many different plants and animals.

This is a sudden, sometimes shocking change in the human world view: we've gone from a world where most events are caused by sentient beings to one where many, perhaps most motion and change is an effect of the impersonal, blindly uncaring forces of nature, mostly physics and chemistry.

This change in human knowledge is a cultural change. It happened far too quickly for evolution to embed this knowledge in our genes, so the knowledge can only be passed on by cultural means. For most of us: science class in school.

Worlds in conflict

Today's situation puts humans into an inner conflict: our biological brains, barely upgraded from caveperson times, thinks in terms of willful personal actors who craft plans to achieve their desires; our modern education realizes that much of the world around us has a natural, often simple explanation.

The way this usually works out is this: if we are called upon to make an intellectual assessment of a situation, then the "modern" scientific view will win out. Humans can talk sensibly and competently about the flow of electricity and even such un-intuitive weirdness as quantum physics.

When a fight-or-flight snap decision is called on, or in a very emotional context, though, science takes a back seat and we delegate executive power to our gut. Well, actually, the more instinctive levels of our brain. And those do what they've always done: presume agency.

Questions of theology aren't usually addressed in a dynamic situation of fighting for one's life; but indirectly there is a fight for life going on: there's a battle between ideas of science and common sense on one side and a promise of eternal life in heaven on the other. Stand aside, intellect! This is clearly a job for our emotional brain. Questions of faith are decided on an emotional basis, and that's how humans manage to believe in gods who rearrange the furniture in the universe.

Be honest with yourself!

If you give thoughtful consideration to how your brain is processing certain ideas, the sensible conclusion –I think– should be that your "animal brain" should not be left in charge of serious thinking. That's Iron Age thinking. There is no gremlin in your electric pencil sharpener, earthquakes are not caused by divine flatulence, and the causes for other events in our world may be complex but are simply very unlikely to be personal.

If you're still uneasy, consider this: if there really is a personal mega-being that's been involved for 13.5 billion years in creating and operating the 300 sextillion suns in the beyond-credible vastness of the known universe, then it's a safe bet that he has bigger concerns than what you do with your penis. Worrying about whether he exists, for one thing.

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changed December 15, 2012