The human brain manages to make sense of a chaotic world by picking out patterns from the noise bombarding our senses. We don't see the trillions of photons coming into our eyes as pointillist smears of colors; we see trees and forests. We process all of that incessant sensory input and come up with a familiar scene filled with grasses, animals, lakes and mountains. In addition, we are extraordinarily good at matching cause to effect so that we can quickly learn the behaviors necessary for survival. Burning your hand quickly teaches that fire causes pain. Understanding patterns, combined with correlating cause and effect, will save your life.
Unfortunately, this incredible talent for seeking patterns and linking cause to effect has a dark side, too. Humans see patterns where none really exist and cause where only chance reigns supreme. We cannot seem to turn off our pattern-seeking or cause-effect neurons. Sometimes the results are benign: We identify animal shapes in cloud formations or see a human face in a rock cliff or in an outcropping on the surface of Mars. A baseball player wears the same underwear during a hitting streak, believing that the underwear is the cause of his good fortune. These are silly, if smelly, manifestations of our mental abilities, but with no consequence.
Rain and the Bear
The dark side appears when we attribute cause and effect falsely in a way that has long-term impacts on our behavior and society. Let's look at our sophisticated cave-dwelling ancestors. During one particularly bad drought, our friend (let's call him Charles) draws a picture of a bear on his cave wall, something he has not done before. The next day the skies open up with a welcomed rain. Charles immediately sees cause and effect and now believes that the act of drawing a bear causes rain. He knows that is the case with absolute certainty, because, after all, he drew a bear, and the next day the rains came. What could possibly be clearer?
During the next drought Charles of course takes matters into his own hands and goes up to what is now a sacred cave to draw a bear. Hmmm, no rain the next day. Never does Charles question the causative effect of drawing bears; he knows without question that bear drawing causes water to fall from the sky. With that conviction, but with no rain, the only possible conclusion is that he has somehow drawn the wrong bear, or done so at the wrong time of day, or used the wrong color. Or maybe he did not chant the right words while creating his artwork. Not sure of the problem, he develops an elaborate ritual to cover all the possibilities. In a few days, lo and behold, water comes from above, providing yet more evidence -- in fact, incontrovertible proof -- that his actions cause rain. Charles now has developed a sophisticated ritual of drawing, dancing and chanting as a means of ending a drought.
Hunger and the Hunt
But lack of rain is not Charles's only problem. He needs to eat, and hunting has not gone too well lately. The pangs of hunger are growing stronger. He is desperate for a successful kill, and his family is depending on him. Fortunately, his luck is about to change.
To ward off predators on the first night of a full moon, Charles dresses up in a bear suit to perform the bear dance, a tradition in his clan for many generations. While dancing, Charles cannot help but think how hungry he has become. Much to Charles's relief, the hunting party the next day kills two antelope and a hyena that had been previously wounded by a lion. Clearly, putting on the bear suit the night before not only kept predators at bay, the original purpose of the dance, but was the cause of this huge success following almost a month of bad hunts. Cause and effect could not be more obvious.
Oddly, though, the next hunt is a complete bust in spite of the ceremony performed the previous night. Something is clearly wrong, but at no time does Charles question the value of the pre-hunt dance. That has been proven and must not be jeopardized by doubt. Even the mere thought that the ceremony does not work might anger the invisible powers. Each night subsequent to the next series of failed hunts, small variations are added to the ritual in a hopeful attempt to find just the right mix, making for an ever more elaborate event, with more chanting, dancing, smoke waving and stick pounding. Finally, the newly designed dance number precedes a big kill, cementing forever the idea that a hunt will be successful only if a supremely elaborate ritual is properly performed the night before. You must get the ceremony exactly right; even the slightest variation seems to result in a bad hunt.
Curing Life's Ails
Life in the cave is not easy, and Charles soon has other problems. After one good outing Charles returns to camp to find his current mate, the mother of three of his eight surviving children, violently ill. Many plants and flowers are known to help cure sickness, and he tries them all. None works, and his mate's health continues to decline. He feels helpless, as if some unseen force were striking down his poor companion. Charles then does what comes naturally: He asks this unseen force to help him, to stop torturing his woman. Charles beseeches this mysterious force, he begs, he pleads, every day. Then, miraculously, his partner suddenly improves. Unbeknownst to them, her attack of malaria has run its course. Charles, however, knows that the real explanation for his mate's recovery must be his successful connection and communication with the unseen force that had caused her so much grief. The mysterious force understood his pleas and actually granted him his wish. His partner, smiling by his side, was all the proof he needed that his appeal to the mysterious force on her behalf has resulted in her newfound health.
Such cause and effect is so powerfully obvious that he does not question why the mysterious force would make his woman sick to begin with, only to return her to health upon his request. Charles just knows that he is no longer a helpless pawn to fate; he now has a potent means of manipulating and controlling the events in his life, by requesting the intervention of a mysterious and unseen force. He can cause rain and ensure a good hunt with various rituals and ceremonies by soliciting the help of something vastly more powerful than he. He simply needs to ask.
A New World of Hope, a False Sense of Security...
This revelation opens up for Charles an entirely new world, giving him a tremendous sense of control over the unknown. Yes, the force is mysterious, but he can communicate with it, ask the force for favors. Sometimes, amazingly, the mysterious force will comply with his request. He just needs to figure out a way to please the mysterious force, to understand why his pleas are sometimes ignored, sometimes answered. The force operates in enigmatic ways.
Charles knows there must exist more than one force, because surely the power that saved his wife would be different from the one ensuring a good hunt or providing a needed rain. What if he can find a way to ask each force, properly and consistently, to help him maintain his health, sire more children, bring home plentiful meat and end all droughts? How comforting that would be, how powerful the thought, that he could control his fate simply by talking to these forces. Perhaps, even, a mysterious force, like the others, watches over those who died. Maybe some of those who die become the mysterious forces!
...and the Origin of Religion
Charles now has ceremony, ritual, extravagant superstition and an unyielding belief in the power of inexplicable forces to guide him through life and help him gain control over the unknown. Charles has found... religion.
Given the limited vocabulary of the cave-dwelling ancestors, a monosyllabic word was probably used to describe the powerful and mysterious forces that helped control everybody's fate. Perhaps the word sounded something like "gott," "deus" or "gud."
Religion was born of fear of the unknown, of the drive to control the uncontrollable, of the need to have mastery over one's fate in the face of an uncertain world. The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature's wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer but from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature's plans.
The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept "I don't know," because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don't know. We develop elaborate creation myths, sun gods, rain gods, war gods and gods of the ocean. We believe we can communicate with our gods and influence their behavior, because by doing so, like Charles, we gain some control, impose some order, on the chaotic mysteries of the world. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world. Religion was our first attempt at physics and astronomy.
Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death's certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.
But fear of the unknown, fear of mortality and hopes for controlling and understanding nature's course do not represent the only foundation on which religion stands. Another is social cohesion. We are social animals, gregarious by nature. Cooperation is what makes the human animal -- a weak, slow and vulnerable creature -- a powerful force on Earth. But cooperation becomes more difficult with increasing numbers. Some means of maintaining social order is necessary. Early societies soon learned that rules of behavior imposed in the form of rituals enabled large groups of people to live in close proximity. Rituals create norms against which people can readily judge the behavior of others in diverse social settings. Any deviation from the norm is easily spotted and can be quickly addressed. In this way order can be maintained. Notice that modern-day teenagers express their rugged individualism by dressing identically. Any nonconforming outlier would be easy to spot. Religion offered, and offers still, an obvious means of enforcing societal rules by promising a joyous afterlife for conformers or eternal punishment for those who misbehave. Religion is used as a bribe to induce good manners.
Finally, religion was eventually transformed into an important source of raw political power, divorced from any role more benign. If religion is used as a tool to control individual behavior, someone needs to develop those rules and ensure their enforcement. Who better to act as behavior police than religious elders, shamans or high priests? What better way is there to manipulate and bend people to your will than by making up the rules by which they must live? With that influence over the daily lives of every citizen comes power traditionally reserved for city-states and empires, with all the normal trappings, including armies, treasuries and palaces.
Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one's destiny, a desire for social cohesion and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. We see all of that in the face on Mars.
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Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World
by Jeff Schweitzer and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara
Jeff Schweitzer spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography through his neurobehavioral studies of sharks and rays. He has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Jeff and his wife live in central Texas, moving there after retiring from the White House as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology.
Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate from the University of California. He serves as a marine policy advisor to various national and international bodies, and has recently represented Italy in multilateral environmental negotiations. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of articles and books, he has been striving to increase public awareness of marine conservation. Giuseppe lives with his family in Northern Italy.