Steven Pinker’s HOW THE MIND WORKS, post 5

Several quotes, in addition to those already provided.

From Chapter 3, Pinker makes an essential point about how natural selection works. People aren’t driven by their genes to reproduce or even survive — not consciously; people are driven by their genes to behave in ways that result in reproduction and survival. Pages 207-8:

But what about the Darwinian imperative to survive and reproduce? As far as day-to-day behavior is concerned, there is no such imperative. People watch pornography when they could be seeking a mate, forgo food to buy heroin, sell their blood to buy movie tickets (in India), postpone childbearing to climb the corporate ladder, and eat themselves into an early grave. Human vice is proof that biological adaptation is, speaking literally, a thing of the past. Our minds are adapted to the small foraging bands in which our family spent ninety-nine percent of its existence, not to the topsy-turvy contingencies we have created since the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Before there was photography, it was adaptive to receive visual images of attractive members of the opposite sex, because those images arose from light reflecting off fertile bodies. Before opiates came in syringes, they were synthesized in the brain as natural analgesics. Before there were movies, it was adaptive to witness people’s emotional struggles, because the only struggles you could witness were among people you had to psych out every day. Before there was contraception, children were unpostponable, and status and wealth could be converted into more children and healthier ones. Before there was a sugar bowl, salt shaker, and butter dish on every table, and when lean years were never far away, one could never get too much sweet, salty, and fatty food. People do not divine what is adaptive for them or their genes; their genes give them thoughts and feelings that were adaptive in the environment in which the genes were selected.

See also items from Chapter 7, “Family Values,” quoted here.

Here’s from Chapter 8, “The Meaning of Life,” the final section, page 554, where Pinker introduces the subject of religion.

“The most common of all foibles,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints, fairies, angels, demons, cherubim, djinns, devils, and gods. According to polls, more than a quarter of today’s Americans believe in witches, almost half believe in ghosts, half believe in the devil, half believe that the book of Genesis is literally true, sixty-nine percent believe in angels, eighty-seven percent believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and ninety-six percent believe in a God or universal spirit. How does religion fit into a mind that one might have thought was designed to reject the palpably not true. The common answer — that people take comfort in the thought of a benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, or an afterlife — is unsatisfying, because it only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.

Then follows, as summarized in yesterday’s post, Pinker’s rationale for how religion works, noting, for example,

The Bible contains instructions for genocide, rape, and the destruction of families, and even the Ten Commandments, read in context, prohibit murder, lying, and theft only within the tribe, not against outsiders. Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can be happily reunited in heaven. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

And then some suggestions of how religion functions.

What we call religion in the modern West is an alternative culture of laws and customs that survived alongside those of the nation-state because of accidents of European history. Religions, like other cultures, have produced great art, philosophy, and law, but their customs, like those of other cultures, often serve the interests of those who promulgate them. Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors. As one’s days dwindle, life begins to shift from an interactive prisoner’s dilemma, in which defection can be punished and cooperation rewarded, to a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma, in which enforcement is impossible. If you can convinced your children that your soul will live on and watch over their affairs, they are less emboldened to defect while you are alive. Food taboos keep members of the tribe from becoming intimate with outsiders. Rites of passage demarcate the people who are entitled to the privileges of social categories (fetus or family member, child or adult, single or married) so as to preempt endless haggling over gray areas. Painful initiations weed out anyone who wants the benefits of membership without being committed to paying the costs. Witches are often mothers-in-law and other inconvenient people. Shamans and priests are Wizards of Oz who use special effects, from sleight-of-hand and ventriloquism to sumptuous temples and cathedrals, to convince others that they are privy to forces of power and wonder.

Evidence that humans are not particularly rational — able to think things through.

Page 557:

Believers also avoid working out the strange logical consequences of these piecemeal revisions of ordinary things. They don’t pause to wonder why a God who knows our intentions has to listen to our prayers, or how a God can both see into the future and care about how we choose to act. Compared to the mind-bending ideas of modern science, religious beliefs are notable for their lack of imagination (God is a jealous man; heaven and hell are places; souls are people who have sprouted wings). That is because religious concepts are human concepts with a few emendations that make them wondrous and a longer list of standard traits that make them sensible to our ordinary ways of knowing.

As others have pointed out, no holy book has said anything to suggest the reality of the cosmos beyond the next horizon. And no religion, given the discoveries of modern science, has even bothered to belatedly take them into account.

And the last para of the book, in yesterday’s post.

Pinker is refreshingly plain-spoken about religion (and about many other things), just stating the facts, as it were. I’ve quoted him before, from the (incomplete) posts I did about THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE. See this post for passages about how even the most devout don’t take their religious books literally — and good thing too! And this post for passages about the Civilizing Process and the supposed decadent nature of modern culture.

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