Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Hume and the nature of religion

We were born into a mystery, one that has haunted us since at least as long as we’ve been human. We awakened on this tiny world beneath a blanket of stars, like an abandoned baby left on a doorstep without a note to explain where we came from, who we are, how our universe came to be. And with no idea how to end our cosmic isolation. We’ve had to figure it all out for ourselves.

Best thing we had going for us was our intelligence, especially our gift for pattern recognition, sharpened over eons of evolution. The ones who were good at spotting prey and predator, telling poisonous plants from the nourishing ones, they had a better chance to live and reproduce. They survived and passed on those genes for pattern recognition with its obvious advantages.

Cultures all over the planet looked up at the same stars and found different pictures there. We used this gift for recognizing patterns in nature to read the calendar in the sky. The messages written in the stars told our forefathers and mothers when to camp and when to move on. When the migratory herds and when the rains and the cold would come. And when they would cease for a time.

When they observed the direct connection between the motions of the stars and the seasonal cycles of life on Earth, they concluded, naturally, that what happens up there must be directed at us down here.

At the beginning of “When Knowledge Conquered Fear”, the third episode of the remake of Carl Sagan’s seminal documentary series Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson offers this rationally compelling explanation for why the ancients looked to the stars to guide them through their everyday lives. Our strong ability to recognise patterns in our environments – “sharpened over eons of evolution” by allowing those of our ancestors who possessed it the possibility to more easily evade or defeat environmental threats – made us try to decipher the codes hidden in the world around us; even the ones that were seemingly etched into the heavens above. deGrasse Tyson goes on to say that, “the human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword.”

“We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there– something known as false pattern recognition,” deGrasse Tyson muses. “We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe.” He uses the ancient cultures’ diverse mythological interpretations of comets – which we today understand as a normal element of the solar system – as an illustrative example.

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The producers of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey used animation to help audiences visualise how ancient tribespeople may have developed astrology in the episode Standing Up in the Milky Way.

Implied by this is the possibility that religion, or mythology writ large, has resulted from a kind of collective false pattern recognition. Early mythologies were inspired by the ancients’ interpretations of the supposed symbols in the night skies, and the major religions of the world today have borrowed many traits from these earlier systems of mythology.

Take, for instance, the story of the Egyptian god Osiris. After being murdered by his brother Seth and cut up to pieces which were then scattered across the earth, Osiris was reassembled by his wife Isis who then proceeded to have sex with his zombie-like body. Some argue that the myth derived from the procession of the star Sirius, which after months of being hidden in the skies would reappear on the horizon just as the inundation of the River Nile was due. This cosmic symbol of Osiris’ rebirth would have been a signal to the Egyptians that the new flood was upon them.

If the Sirius-Osiris fertility myth theory were true, it shows that the ancient Egyptians instinctively realised that the seasonal cycles coincided with the procession of the constellations, and came up with a symbolic myth to explain the link. The same myths of a resurrected god-king were shared by ancient mythologies all around the world, and skeptics today argue that the world’s monotheistic religions have borrowed from the same, or similar, stellar god mythologies in their conceptualisation of God.

The idea that religion may have arisen from a type of false pattern recognition is hardly new.

The idea took full shape through David Hume, an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher known for championing empiricism and skepticism, the philosophical foundations of modern scientific enquiry. In two of his works, The Nature of Religion and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume argued that all religion originated from our primitive ancestors, who began personifying the unknown forces behind nature. They offered worship to these gods, Hume thought, in order to placate them and avoid being punished by them.

What they were really doing, according to Hume, was ascribing agency to the effects of natural phenomena. They were ignorant of the uniformity of nature and its rules and regularities, and lacked the technological and scientific means to discover them. They instead personified the effects of these regularities and treated them as being entities in and of themselves. A volcano wasn’t erupting because of underlying natural phenomena, but because some supernatural entity that they couldn’t see was affecting the eruption.

They began to characterise these gods – the entities of the environmental phenomena they were experiencing – by the emotional response they elicited in them. Gods representing natural phenomena that engendered favourable outcomes for humans were “good” or “benevolent”; those which were harmful were “bad” or “wicked”.

Children tend to do the same thing; they may talk of the hammer wanting to hit the head of a nail as if it were its own person, or draw pictures of a sun with a face, smiling down at the earth. In fact, nineteenth century Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget claimed that it was a feature of a particular stage of childhood development, the preoperational stage, that children up to the age of seven would tend to view the world from a very idealistic, fantasy-based and animistic perspective in order to understand it properly. Children, Piaget argued, were too egocentric at this stage of their cognitive development to understand that not everyone, or everything, sees, hears, and feels exactly the same as they do.

What Neil deGrasse Tyson, like David Hume before him, is trying to show is that religious beliefs are possibly the bi-products of a past phase in human intellectual development where we cultivated and sharpened our ability to recognise patterns in our environment in order to overcome environmental stresses. The evolutionary value of doing this rested not in the truth or logic of the explanation of those patterns, but merely in the ability to recognise them and put in place ingrained narratives that habitually reminded us of their importance. Spiritual belief, or at least some spiritual beliefs, could simply be the evolutionary legacy of our predecessors’ false pattern recognitions.

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