NAASR Notes: Robert N. McCauley


by Robert N. McCauley

NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

Philosophical Naturalism and the Cognitive Science of Religion

The most conspicuous confluence so far of the two major programs of research that I have pursued has been my 2011 book, Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. That book offers a comparison of the cognitive foundations of religion and science. It exemplifies my naturalistic orientation in philosophy and my interests in the cognitive sciences as critical resources for studying both religion and science.

Naturalism in philosophy demands that philosophers and humanists, more generally, exhibit a healthy respect for the methods and findings of the empirical sciences, especially when their proposals address the same domains those sciences do. The collective accomplishments of communities of scientific experts over the long run are unsurpassed in producing fruitful accounts for explaining, predicting, controlling, and understanding the world. Those scientific communities foster theoretical competition, discover empirical evidence, and constantly monitor the credibility of that evidence by demanding that theories pass more exacting empirical tests that employ more sophisticated and penetrating experimental techniques and analyses of results. The number of domains where humanists must heed scientific developments has only increased as modern science has progressed. So, at the outset of the twenty-first century, those who pronounce about matters of mind or language (or, I would add, religious or scientific thought and conduct) without regard to the cognitive sciences do so at their peril.

A crucial qualification: although naturalists hold that the sciences will constrain and refine the categories from which we should expect to fashion our most compelling pictures of human mentality and endeavor, we never create those pictures by simply doing more science. The sciences are typically mute about their implicit norms and associated practices. If naturalism is to include a robust rendering of the scientific enterprise itself, then those norms and practices are legitimate targets of humanists’ analysis and criticism. Naturalism is not scientism. Its goal is not to put philosophy or the humanities out of business. History and philosophy, especially, make vital contributions to accounts of what qualifies as religion and science.

It does not follow, however, that the categories and assumptions those disciplines deploy, especially concerning the character of our mental lives, are definitive or even privileged. The cognitive sciences have spawned an extensive collection of investigative techniques and yielded far deeper and richer pictures of human behavior and of the structure and operations of the human mind than available heretofore. Their impact has been transformational in linguistics and economics, and they hold comparable potential for studies of politics, of society and culture generally, and of religion. My long-standing interest in the promise of the cognitive sciences for the study of religion has also been to redress imbalances in that field that favor the idiosyncratic over the recurrent, the idiographic over the systematic, and the interpretive over the explanatory. This is not to dismiss the idiosyncratic, the idiographic, or the interpretive, but only to suggest that they are not the whole story.

I am currently pursuing two book projects, which contribute to this program of research, exploring, in the first, prominent philosophical issues occasioned by a cognitive science of religion (CSR) and, in the second, the potential of theories and findings of CSR to illuminate the relations between culturally widespread forms of religious expression, conduct, and understanding and features of various mental disorders.

The first book, which is near completion, assembles both previously published articles (some written with E. Thomas Lawson) and new papers exploring the implications of CSR for questions of both theory and method in the study of religion. Without exception these papers argue against exclusivist positions in the study of religious thought and behavior. They contend not only that religious studies should include CSR in its tool-kit but that CSR offers valuable resources for handling long standing conundrums in the field, including the tension between the bewildering variability of religious materials and the epistemic aspirations of most of its practitioners. Since all approaches are theoretical, the consistent emphasis in CSR on explicitly formulating specific theories is an unqualified virtue. Moreover, CSR exemplifies explanatory pluralism. It spans multiple analytical levels in science, generating and integrating insights from the biological, psychological, and social sciences — from cognitive neuroscience and comparative and evolutionary psychology at the biological level, to cognitive and cultural anthropology at the socio-cultural level, and everything in between. The resulting pictures promise fruitful integration with related proposals advanced at adjoining analytical levels, both above and below, as well as with evolutionary proposals about brain, mind, and culture. After 25 years CSR has generated a multitude of productive theories and replicated findings, concerning such matters as theological incorrectness, promiscuous teleology, the memorability of minimally counterintuitive representations, presumptions about dead agents’ minds, the cognitive impact of charisma, the consequences of dysphoric and publically performed ritual on social cooperation, and more.

I am writing a second book, Gods in Disorder, with George Graham, which examines and compares the cognitive foundations of religion and of various mental disorders. This project is supported by a grant from The John Templeton Foundation. The book will particularly attend to the presence (and character) or the absence of religious expressions in such disorders. We defend ecumenical naturalism (EN). EN, like CSR, holds that naturalistic accounts of thought and conduct are no less appropriate in the study of culturally widespread forms of religiosity than they are in the study of mental disorders. Many of the predilections of mind that the cognitive by-product theory in CSR stresses, especially the systems concerned with hazard precautions and mentalizing (“theory of mind”), are intimately involved in characterizing the patterns and symptoms associated with prominent mental disorders. In short, EN maintains that these mental disorders and conventional religiosity have some of the same cognitive foundations. Diverse practices, which religions variously incorporate, engage and manipulate these psychological systems in ways that yield thought and conduct that are quite similar to many of the prominent symptoms associated with mental disorders. How the resulting beliefs and behaviors are interpreted (whether they are even deemed problematic) and how they are managed depends considerably on the conceptual resources and the social support their cultural circumstances supply to the individuals involved.

Robert McCauley is a professor of philosophy, psychology, religion, and anthropology who is a pioneer in the cognitive science of religion. In his view, our minds are better suited to religious belief than to scientific inquiry because the explanations that religion provides make intuitive sense to us and engage our natural cognitive systems, while science involves abstract thinking and forms of reflection that require a lot of mental work. He is currently examining the relationship between the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion and science. He writes a blog for Psychology Today entitled Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is NotA Naturalist Examines the Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Religion, Science, and More.

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