“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It’s the chief occupation of humankind.” H.L. Mencken quoted by Steven Pinker
At the age of eleven, like most kids in the UK, I left primary school and started high school. At that time, religious education was still a strong part of the curriculum in the UK and each week the class attended a compulsory religious lesson.
Being a non-denominational school however, the emphasis of these classes was on teaching religious thought from around the globe and even included debates on atheism.
Realising that the kids in the class were less than enthusiastic with regards to the subject matter, the teachers devised a novel start to the course that centred around a strange little character named “wee hairy”.
This strange little creature, we were informed, was almost human, but not quite. Small, hairy and very shy, he lived under the classroom floor and only revealed himself to people he knew he could trust and who would not harm him.
With no language and no understandable ways of communicating with the human world above him, “wee hairy” was an elusive, mysterious and pretty vulnerable little beast.
To see “wee hairy” was therefore a very special thing, something few people would ever experience.
I remember listening to this tale in the first lesson. In the beginning most of the class was unsure as to what the teachers were getting at. Why, we wondered, were they kicking off our R.E. lesson with some fairytale about an imaginary man that lived under the floors?
We all sat and shook our heads at one another, whispering our confusion and incredulity.
The teachers however, ignored our hushed, confused protests and continued unperturbed with their description of wee hairy. His quirky traits, his heroic acts, his kindness. All his characteristics were lovingly related to us in intricate detail and with utter conviction.
After about half an hour of this onslaught, a strange change of mood started to take over the classroom. We all started to listen and to ponder whether perhaps the teachers were really serious, whether perhaps there really was some strange little man, scurrying about underneath us.
At this point the teachers started to ask us what we thought about wee hairy. Did we like him? Could we describe him? Would we like to meet him? Would he like to meet us?
The discussion of such matters became quite intense and we all entered enthusiastically into these musings.
Slowly, wee hairy began to take shape in our imaginations and in such a way came alive to us, changing from some imagined, silly little creature into a possibility, a reality, an entity.
After the first class, we were all given a homework task. We had to go home and, over the week, create our own little versions of wee hairy.
I remember I set about the task quite seriously and utilised toilet roll tubes, wool and buttons to fabricate a little man that ended up being not too dissimilar to Captain Caveman.
When my parents asked what I was making, I carefully explained to them the whole story of poor wee hairy and how it was he came to live under the floorboards.
Come the next lesson, the classroom was filled with a host of weird and wonderful furry creatures all claiming to be the best likeness of the fabled little man.
What followed of course was a discourse on belief from the teachers.
Why did we think wee hairy looked like this? Did we really believe he existed even though we had never seen him? Even though the likelihood of him existing was very small? Is it possible that belief in God could develop in the same way that we had taken to believing in wee hairy?
I remember it took a long time for the realisation to set in. The class was initially preoccupied with the terrible understanding that wee hairy wasn’t real after all. Our disappointment was crushing.
The fact that we were being asked to consider belief in God in a similarly critical manner was something that only followed much later as the course progressed.
The “chief occupation of mankind” it seems, is something that is with us from an early age. Humankind seems to possess an innate (and persistent) capacity for belief.
The question of course, is where this belief comes from. Why is it that we possess this tendency towards the “palpably not true”?
The teachers at my school were obviously keen to show their pupils that it is possible to conjure up a being in our heads and give a meaning and purpose to its existence.
The fact that Wee Hairy didn’t actually exist, in some ways didn’t detract from the fact that, as an idea, he embodied something for us.
It’s a fascinating idea.
Back in the 11th century, St. Anselm, setting out to prove the existence of God, was one of the first philosphers to dally with this notion of a God that exists as an idea in our minds (and as a result in reality).
Basically St. Anselmâ€™s ontological “proof” runs as follows:
The concept of God resides as an idea in our minds.
God is a possible being, and might exist in reality.
Something that is only a concept in our minds could be greater by actually existing.
Suppose (theoretically) that God only exists in our understanding and not in reality.
If this were true, then it would be possible for God to be greater than he is.
This would mean that God is a being in which a greater is possible.
This is absurd because it would mean that God, a being in which none greater is possible, is a being in which a greater is possible.
Thus it follows that it is false for God to only exist in our understanding.
Hence God exists in reality as well as our understanding.
There are obvious flaws in this argument of course. Immanuel Kant most notably discredited the proof by pointing out that existence isn’t a property that a thing can possess or lack. For Kant, existence was a concept rather than a property, a concept that corresponded to something in the world.
It’s possible, for example, to describe an object in the world very accurately. We can, detail its size, colour, smell, weight etc. If we add existence to this description then, according to Kant, we add nothing to the concept of the object. The concept remains the same whether it exists (is exemplified in the world) or not.
The same holds true for God. A God that exists, is the same as a God that doesn’t exist. The properties of God, the concept of God, i.e. that he is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being, remain the same whether he is exemplified in the world or not.
As esoteric as all of this is seems, scientific research is now beginning to show that such philosophical ideas may not be as academic as they at first appear.
It could be, that God is nothing more than a by-product of our neural wiring. He exists for the simple reason that our brains are hard wired to create him.
We think, therefore he is.
Scientists researching temporal lobe epilepsy, for example, have documented clinical evidence which points to the temporal lobe in the brain as the source of our religious and spiritual experience. Severe sufferers of this condition have even described mystical hallucinations akin to the religious revelations experienced by the likes of St Paul.
Further experiments, in which volunteers brains were subjected to electromagnetic stimulation, found subjects describing a “sensed presence”.
According to Dr Michael Persinger, who conducted the experiments:
“…our data indicate that the sensed presence, the feeling of another entity of something beyond yourself, perhaps bigger than yourself, bigger in space and bigger in time, can be stimulated by simply activating the right hemisphere, particularly the temple lobe.”
Quite why our brains have evolved to develop this capacity to create God is uncertain and the question remains as to what evolutionary or biological advantage could be gained from possessing such a capacity?
Some may argue that the idea of God simply serves as a comfort to people. The idea that God is in control of things, that heaven awaits us after life and that death is not the end, may offer us a level of comfort and optimism that allows us to carry on and find a purpose in life which drives us.
A case could also be made that religion and faith creates strong social and cultural ties between groups which strengthens that culture and helps it to prosper.
Perhaps the moral and ethical guidelines which religions lay down ensure that that society functions more effectively and justly.
As social animals, the capacity to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to see the world from their perspective and understand another’s motivations, is a vital social skill. We need to possess such capabilities if we are to function as a society. Without this capacity, chaos and violence would ensue.
This empathetic quality, may also explain our ability to imagine other beings that are not real, may give life to our gods, ghosts, spirits, invisible friends.
What remains unclear however is just why we would develop a concept of God on which to frame such biologically advantageous behaviour.
Why do we need God in order to create religious beliefs that order our lives in such ways? It is perfectly plausible after all to imagine a society that develops a strong shared identity based on common mores and ethics that have no basis in God, and yet none exist.
The idea of God is as pervasive as it is human.
Steven Pinker has argued that “religious psychology is a by-product of many parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes”.
It is not religion or God per se which provides us with an evolutionary advantage, but rather the various biological behaviour and adaptations that such belief strengthens.
Progress in physics biology and neuroscience will no doubt throw some light on this assumption.
In the meantime, the search for meaning goes on and the basic questions remain.
Why are we here? What is the purpose of all of this?
Existential questions that perhaps may never be explained away by observations of our brains’ electrical impulses or evolutionary advantages.
As humans, meaning is a necessity, is something we require and attribute to observations even where none exists , even when it is “palpably untrue”.
In the 1940s the psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel created a very simple film that consisted of three geometric shapes, a circle, a square and a triangle. The shapes moved around the screen in a way that suggested a storyline and viewers were asked to watch the film and then relate back the “story” to the psychologists.
Instinctively, viewers attributed human motives and characteristics to the geometric shapes and offered up an explanation as to what they had seen.
You can watch the movie here
Meaning and purpose, it seems, are human requirements, as “hard wired” into our systems as is our need to create God.
And it is an impulse which seems to guide all our enquiry be it religious, philosophical or scientific.
“Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning. The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God.” John D Barrow professor of mathematical sciences, Cambridge University
Perhaps this then is the reason our brains have evolved to contain a capacity for God and religious experience? We need such a capacity in order to be capable of determining meaning, of discovering the order and laws that underpin our very universe and existence?
We need this capacity simply in order to make sense of it all.
In the past such meaning would have come from God and religion but as science progresses and physics in particular, divulges more strange truths about our universe, we may find that we can cast aside God and seek meaning in scientific proofs.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps science is leading us towards God just as God has lead us towards science?
Professor Gerry Gilmore of Cambridge University, commenting on the latest discoveries into the properties of dark matter and dark energy, recently explained that:
“Something has fine-tuned the relative amounts of this stuff to make them similar in amount and exactly right to add up to perfection. That can’t be chance, there’s got to be some connection between the two.”
Could it be there’s a cosmic designer out there after all?