Why have the obvious answers to life’s relentless questions been hard to recognize even by many atheists?
The most serious obstacle to accepting science’s answers to the persistent questions is one erected by Mother Nature herself.
Ironically, the barrier to accepting science results from the very Darwinian evolutionary process that theism rejects. It’s actually worse than ironic because the same Darwinian process that made it hard to understand science made it easy to be seduced by religion!
The obstacle to understanding (and accepting) science is deep, subtle, insidious, purely psychological, and probably hardwired into our genes. The problem doesn’t even look like a problem. It has to do with the way we—educated or uneducated, atheist or theist, agnostic, deist, scientist, in fact all human beings—like our information to be “packaged.”
A lot of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is devoted to showing that the most basic truths about reality that science reveals are never, ever, stories with plots.
Unfortunately, we are all suckers for a good story—a narrative that strings events into a plot with characters driven by motives. If information doesn’t come in story form, we have trouble understanding it, remembering it, and believing it.
Unfortunately for real science (and for science writers!), its real explanations never come in the form of stories. Religion almost always comes in the form of stories. So religion has a huge psychological advantage over science.
Evolutionary anthropology combined with neuroscience shows that the stories we tell one another to explain our own and other people’s actions and to answer the persistent questions are all based on a series of illusions. That should be enough to forestall our innate penchant for stories.
Our ancestors evolved to love stories—narrative plots, with intriguing beginnings, thrill-packed middles and satisfying conclusions. But science reveals that stories are just part of a quick and dirty solution to an evolutionary challenge—predicting other people’s behavior well enough to get cooperation going. Without them we would never have climbed from the bottom of the African savanna food chain to the top, in less than a million years.
Neuroscience, computer science, and cognitive science show that the stories we think convey understanding are all illusions. They show why consciousness tricks us into thinking that narratives actually produce understanding when they do little more than relieve the itch of curiosity. This goes for stories in every day life, in history, biography, literature and the arts.
When it comes to human affairs, the humanities don’t have much to teach us, no matter how entertaining they turn out to be.
Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy and philosophy department chair at Duke University, where he is also a professor in the biology department and in the department of political science. He has held fellowships from the J.S. Guggenheim foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation and the National Humanities Center. Besides The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, featured on Rorotoko, he is the author of 12 books in the philosophy of science, molecular biology and economic theory, including most recently, The Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction and The Philosophy of Social Science. In 1992 he won the Lakatos Award for contributions to the philosophy of science. In 2007 he was the National Phi Beta Kappa Romanell lecturer.