The Biological Basis of Belief Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Biological Basis of Belief

2 Conversations

Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief
Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion
On Medieval Heresy | The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control

Man is an animal; he may or may not be more, but an animal he is, a biological entity living in a material world that includes among its most important objects other human beings like himself. To survive and prosper among them, and to leave descendants to do likewise, he must be able to navigate this world and recognise its denizens, to gauge how they will behave, and plan accordingly. This imposes certain logical requirements on his behaviour and the means of directing it.


The mind's first logical requirement is for information about itself and its environment, and its second a 'knowledge' of what is required for the survival of the organism. In this context, information may be taken as 'a difference that makes a difference' in the light of this 'knowledge'. The mind as a whole may be thought of as a map (or more probably lots of maps) of this information and knowledge.

It is important to note that we do not, in general, experience these maps as maps. We experience them as the real thing, especially at the level of perception. Visual representation (sight), for example, is not experienced as the internal generation of a map from information received by the retinae, but as direct perception of objects in the environment, largely because we have no conscious access to the processes that generate the map. If we did we might no longer believe in the veracity of our senses in the automatic way on which our survival depends; we 'know' that there is a real world out there (this may be doubted for philosophical purposes, but the doubt is not real). Our knowledge that other people have minds is built in in the same way.

The Importance of Language

But for humans the situation has an added complexity. They do not live in the present alone, but in the past and future, and in a world where abstract relations are as important as concrete ones. This is possible because in addition to the 'iconic' representations of the senses they have evolved a form of symbolic communication and representation. This is language. With it we can communicate and think about things that are not present to the senses but distant in time and space, and manipulate abstracts and abstract relations. We can also, in addition, comment upon the status of our representations as knowledge, belief, certainty and faith, fact and fantasy.

Belief as Orientation and Explanation

For the purposes of this section we will not be talking about the tentative assignation of a truth value to a proposition ('I believe that Paris is the capital of France, but I'm not sure'), but rather about the wider contexts in which such propositions are set. These are beliefs about the nature, meaning and purpose of life, the universe and everything (if one may use such a phrase); beliefs in god or gods, the laws of physics, the innate goodness (or otherwise) of our fellows, most of which are not provable, but without which none of our decisions would make sense. Where do they come from? Why are some themes almost universal and others rare?

Our beliefs show themselves in our actions, including our acts of speech and thought. These need not always be consistent; a man may say that he believes in a loving and merciful god, yet otherwise behave as if he believes in a vengeful and capricious one, or vice versa. We believe the external world is real, that other people are minded, that smiles are friendly, that one plus one equals two, and many others. Even if we never articulate them, our behaviour demonstrates our belief. Such beliefs have an implicit basis, and the more universal they are, the more likely it is that we were born with them, though many may also be acquired pre-verbally (the ideas that indicate that 'people are fun', or 'people are not to be trusted' may be acquired this way, affecting a person throughout life without ever becoming explicit).

On top of these go all the things we experience or are taught, the latter especially being normally explicit and verbal. All of these are available to be manipulated, combined and rearranged according to often unspoken rules1. The structure that results is, for any given individual, the world in which they live, move and have their being.

Having blurred the lines between belief and science, we go on to examine some religious ideas in more detail, and it makes sense to, from here, ask: Can you use Science as Religion?

1For a discussion of how different styles of rules give rise to different explanatory discourses see Religion, Philosophy and Science

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