Pleasing Theories & Reality

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been getting the uneasy feeling that evolutionary models of what we today call “religion” aren’t really bringing us all that much closer to actually explaining the complexities of the phenomena under consideration. This is not to say that evolutionary approaches aren’t appropriate because they certainly are. It is to say that simply fitting cognitive and historical data relevant to “religion” into an evolutionary framework doesn’t necessarily validate the new models.

In fact, I’m start to suspect that much recent evolutionary theorizing about religion isn’t all that new. Much of what is being argued has been said before (by David Hume, Charles Darwin, Edward Burnett Tylor, James George Frazer, RR Marett, Emile Durkheim, etc.), with the only difference being that what was said before wasn’t dressed up in neo-evolutionary language and fitted in bio-cultural evolutionary models.

It was with this creeping uneasiness in mind that I just read Ashutosh Jogalekar’s provocative post on theories, models, and the future of science. Although he frames his discussion around physics and cosmology, I don’t see human thought and behavior as being any less complex. His ideas, in other words, apply equally well to evolutionary theories of religion:

Maybe someday a comprehensive theory will be found, but given the complexity of what we are trying to achieve (essentially explain the nature of all the matter and energy in the universe) it seems likely that we may always be stuck with models, not actual theories. And this may be the case not just with cosmology but with other sciences. The fact is that the kinds of phenomena that science has been dealing with recently have been multifactorial, complex and emergent. The kind of mechanical, reductionist approaches that worked so well for atomic physics and molecular biology may turn out to be too impoverished for taking these phenomena apart.

[A]s the statistician George Box famously quipped, although some models are useful, all models are in some sense wrong. What Box meant was that models often feature unrealistic assumptions about the details of a system, and yet allow us to reproduce the essential features of reality. They are subject to fudge factors and to the whims of their creators.

Grand explanatory theories have traditionally been supposed to be a key part — probably the key part — of the scientific enterprise. But this is mostly because of historical precedent as well a psychological urge for seeking elegance and unification. The belief that a grand theory is essential for the true development of a discipline has been resoundingly validated in the past but it’s utility may well have plateaued. I am not advocating some “end of science” scenario here – far from it – but as the recent history of string theory and theoretical physics in general demonstrates, even the most mathematically elegant and psychologically pleasing theories may have scant connection to reality. Because of the sheer scale and complexity of what we are trying to currently explain, we may have hit a roadblock in the application of the largely reductionist traditional scientific thinking which has served us so well for half a millennium.

Similar to Jogalekar, I am not suggesting an end of naturalism scenario for evolutionary theorizing about religion. I am suggesting, however, that evolutionary models are oversimplifying things to a considerable degree, and are failing to capture an important part of the messy, lived, experiential, contingent, and constructed realities of religious history.

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9 thoughts on “Pleasing Theories & Reality

  1. Lillian Cannon

    Excellent post. As you might guess based on my comment yesterday regarding Evolutionary Psychology, I thoroughly agree, except I would extend it across most disciplines. The academic obsession with model-building is responsible for the increasing irrelevance of most of academia to “the real world.” I know this is a strong claim, but let me explain.

    Trying to create a model or GUT to explain any phenomenon seems to be the goal of many disciplines. Just the other day I was reading the “Gifted Child Quarterly” journal, and the main article in the issue was about how gifted psychology and education do not have a productive theoretical framework in which academics can publish. ( They bemoaned how rarely their articles were cited in other journals with bigger names and proposed a new model for the discipline. This immediately struck me in a negative way – it seemed that they were more concerned with developing a fruitful theoretical framework than they were with actually helping gifted children. I don’t blame them – after all, publications determine tenure – but they seemed particularly uninterested in the psychosocial factors (like coaching for the “head game”) that affect giftedness, saying that they assumed these were important and someone should study them.

    When I was in law school (yes, I have a lot of interests), the professors were obsessed with a school of thought called “Law and Economics” in which we could model human behavior with mathematics. The low point of my time there was when a prof wrote an equation on the board which was meant to model when people would choose to have unprotected sex. As one astute student said, “But when you’re standing there naked, the costs look tiny and the benefits look HUGE.” Isn’t that the problem with big theories? They sound neat, and can make you famous, but they tend to break down in the particularities of human behavior. Human beings are too granular to fall neatly into two or three or 16 types.

    This focus on big theories and models has unpleasant consequences for academia. Currently, many PhD candidates and would-be academics are upset about how few tenure-track positions are available, how adjunct positions don’t pay a living wage, and how they are unprepared to work outside academia. This conversation has been going on for awhile in anthropology, and though I do feel bad for the new PhDs who thought that if they worked hard, they would get tenure, I also think that part of the problem is that much of the field they are studying is totally unmoored from anything in that would help people in the real world, and that’s why there aren’t more schools lining up to pay them to talk about their pet topics, nor are there businesses who need their skills. They do have a very valid criticism to make of the current reliance on adjuncts (up to 70% of all faculty), but then again, business schools go wanting for qualified professors. Why might that be?

    I do not limit this criticism to anthropology, psychology and the law; I cite these examples because they are the fields I study and so have the most experience with. The same criticism can be laid at the feet of any humanities or social science discipline that does not keep in mind what should be the real purpose of all that we do: moving humanity forward. I would argue that we are better off observing what is and seeing what we can learn about it in order to improve it, than trying to fit what is into a neat theory. If what one is studying cannot be linked in some way to helping our species, and especially if one starts to put more weight on models and theories than with application to lives of actual humans, then one has gone astray. Unfortunately, the culture of academia does not seem to esteem as highly those who study “the applied,” as evidenced by the fact that many of “the applied” disciplines are in separate departments from the “pure” discipline and even have different terminal degrees (e.g., the PsyD degree vs. the PhD degree.)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

  2. Dr. David Tee

    What unbelievers do not get is that creation will not fit into any secular model and origins does not need a model to explain it. It already has one in Genesis 1.

    The creative act was a one-time supernatural event done out of free will by God. You cannot build a secular or human model to fit the reality.

    But because unbelievers reject God and the Bible, they have to waste everyone’s time by trying to fill that void with whatever pleases them.

    Go ahead and argue about model building, it means and accomplishes nothing. Any way you go with that discussion doesn’t change the truth–evolution has never existed, is not responsible for the diversity of life and has no truth in it.

  3. Joe

    “What unbelievers do not get is that creation will not fit into any secular model and origins does not need a model to explain it.”

    Sheesh, this sentence isn’t even grammatically coherent.

    “The creative act was a one-time supernatural event done out of free will by God. You cannot build a secular or human model to fit the reality.”

    Objectively verifiable evidence, please. And no, the ‘testimony of the Holy Spirit’ doesn’t count.

    “Go ahead and argue about model building, it means and accomplishes nothing. Any way you go with that discussion doesn’t change the truth–evolution has never existed, is not responsible for the diversity of life and has no truth in it.”

    See my first and second comments.

  4. Cris Post author

    I have previously told Dr. David Tee to take his literalist Christian arguments elsewhere — they are not welcome on this blog. They will be deleted in the future.

  5. John

    Do you ever read the work of Terrence Deacon? I’d highly recommend he and Tyrone Cashman’s 2009 article “The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion” in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture. As a neuroscientist and an anthropologist (as well as being a part of Stuart Kauffman’s emergence group) he provides a good case for remaining empirical while being skeptical of purely reductionist explanations of religion.

  6. Cris Post author

    I have read most or all of Deacon’s work on the brain, symbolism, and language — truly impressive stuff. I’m pretty sure I read the article you mentioned a year or two ago, and promptly forgot about it or didn’t think it important. It is serendipitous that you mention it, given that I just finished reading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home In the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. As a result, I’ve been mulling over the idea that “religion” is emergent, and will be re-reading the Deacon/Cashman article, which can be found here. Thanks John!

  7. J. A. Le Fevre

    If I might understand the position in this post: Science is good, but …
    Big theories are bad.
    Small theories are bad.
    Theories that agree with the data are bad.
    Leaving us faith?

  8. J. A. Le Fevre

    While I do appreciate your council of caution regarding drawing conclusions from theories in science, the problems I have encountered are not from theories that fit the data, but with manipulated data, and theories drawn from same. As I have tried to point out to you, every review which questions the adaptive quality of religion within human communities relies on anecdotes, severely restricted data sets or ‘cherry-picked’ data. If you are sufficiently careful with the data, you can get good results, if you are careless, you do not. If you evaluate anecdotes, your results are typically valid for the limited cases covered within those anecdotes. The problem with string theory is not its complexity, per se, but that it ‘fits’ bad data equal to the good data – it cannot (yet) discriminate – a good fit would keep the bad data out and the good data in.

  9. Cris Post author

    All I was really suggesting is that our theories, especially meta-theories, are probably incomplete and may be capable of generating only models, and that these models may have little or no connection to the messy complexities of reality. This is especially true when it comes to meta-evolutionary models that purport to explain or account for “religion.”

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