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The Belief Instinct, A Response

DAMON LINKER HAS WRITTEN one of the best and most accurate reviews to date regarding my book’s principle thesis, which is that we have a tendency to be seduced psychologically by the feeling that some supernatural agent (God, or whatever ethereal moralistic watchdogs you please) cares about our social behaviors; this is an “adaptive illusion.” It’s important here to realize, and by all accounts Linker does so, that “adaptive” in this sense does not mean “good” or “subjectively beneficial,” but instead it translates only to “functional” in evolutionary terms. In effect, I argue that our species’ uniquely evolved social cognition, especially our theory of mind, which is the capacity to reason about unobservable mental states, was co-opted by natural selection to help address the unprecedented evolutionary problem of human gossip, churning out a morally concerned, reactive mind that isn’t there.

For a political philosopher without a science background, Linker articulates many subtle details in a remarkably clear fashion. But never before have I seen a writer’s emotional bipolarity on such clear display. This is especially the case when he begins reflecting on what he believes to be the inevitably sinister, nihilistic implications of my ideas. (“Bering … clearly implies that we would be better off if we were to follow the lead of our evolutionary cousins and begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public.”) I will leave it to readers to decide whether that is the book’s take-away message.

Make no mistake about it: Linker’s irritation over his perception that I scientifically “dehumanized" our species is precisely what fueled his jaundiced critique of The Belief Instinct. His was not, in any way, a review of my arguments, but a reactionary call-to-arms, an hysterical cry for concerned, well-meaning, Judeo-Christian citizens to put a muzzle on cognitive scientists who, post-Darwin, with each new study, are pulling back the great curtain ever further to reveal—to Linker’s great consternation—only our own minds busily at work. “If Bering is right,” foams Linker, “then human beings, interminably shadowboxing with self-generated delusions, deserve to be considered the laughingstock of the natural world.” Considered by whom, Mr. Linker? That is the whole point, after all. The only one here to laugh at human beings for the folly of succumbing to nature’s greatest ruse is human beings. And the ability to laugh at oneself, and at our absurd condition, is our saving grace.

“What makes Bering’s book so insufferable,” writes Linker, “is his utter indifference to the likely psychological and social consequences of the truths that he understands himself to be revealing.” This is an important point, in fact, because in writing the book, I deliberately sought to avoid making those types of sanctimonious, “beauty can be found in nature,” quasi-spiritualistic suggestions for how to handle an inherently meaningless life that are so often found in my colleague’s books. As a scientist author, rather than a therapist, theologian, or even a philosopher, my job is not to prescribe a comforting psychological worldview to readers, but rather to present as clear a picture of this world as I possibly can. I leave the audience perfectly free at the end to hold fast to their convictions that God deliberately guided our cognitive evolution so that we, of all the billions of species that have ever manifested on this planet, could specially perceive His mind. Personally, I find such natural theological views to be less than convincing, especially in light of what we now know about the evolution of human cognition, but by all means, like Russell’s teapot, it remains forever a philosophical possibility.

“What is the properly human response,” Linker muses about my thesis, “to our inability to exorcise our groundless moral and religious intuitions?” Again, it is not my role, as a scientist, to prescribe for readers a “proper human response” to this dilemma, and even the construct of what is “proper” is grounded in the illusion of some inherent moral truth. I do offer the following suggestion in the book, however: 

We can live for each other—here and now, before it’s too late, sympathetically sharing snapshots from inside our still-conscious heads, all 6.7 billion heads containing just as many hypothetical universes, most of them, unfortunately, spinning feverishly with the illusions we’ve just shattered. But what you choose to do with your brief subjective existence is entirely up to you. If you choose to ignore this precautionary tale of a fleeting life without supernatural consequences, there will be no hell to pay. Only missed opportunities. And then you die. 

At the conclusion of Linker’s review, he laments, “[all] this does not make Bering wrong about who we are. But it does make him wrong about how we should react to the prospect of him being right … The Belief Instinct… makes an uncommonly compelling case for the self-loathing of humanity.” It is unfortunate that Linker sees it this way. Scientific existentialism is the opposite of misanthropy; it is a labor of a love for our species, with its warts and all. We do not, as Linker would have you believe, need to rally against reality to be good.

Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct.

Damon Linker’s original review of The Belief Instinct, can be found here.