William James, Darwin, and Religion

William James, a 19th-century American philosopher, was searching for a way to accommodate science and religion in one whole. In considering this, he placed an emphasis on the human need for something more than natural sciences were focusing on (especially once the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection seemed to suggest that free will was to give way to scientific determinism). James thought there has to be “room for both science and religion because each satisfied different human needs”*.

While I agree with James’s general idea, I look at science and religion more like approaching the same underlying need from different perspectives. That need is, in my view, comprehension of the world. Natural sciences approach this question from the perspective of describing the efficient material causes of events in nature. If I ask a medical doctor trained in the natural scientific method, why do I have a headache, she will describe the physiological processes in my body that bring this headache about (e.g., too high or too low blood pressure). If my goal was simply to know what sort of medication I should take, then such an explanation is enough.

However, if I start getting regular headaches at regular times of day, I might start wondering about much more than just the efficient material causes. For instance, I may ask myself such questions as, what does this unpleasant pattern mean, what I am doing wrong, what am I lacking in my life, what is my body trying to tell me, etc. It is still the same underlying need to comprehend but now the causes I am searching for go beyond the scope of natural sciences (except, perhaps, psychology, which is a very interesting case among the sciences and has, for many in the secular world, replaced a significant role played by religion in addressing just such meaning-type questions).

If religion is excluded from addressing our comprehension need in favour of exclusivity of science, without extending science to meaningfully address such, almost metaphysical, questions, and without finding a replacement for religion to perform this role, then we are left with an explanatory gap not just on intellectual, but intensely felt and experienced level. 

To link it all to Darwin and the theory of evolution, there is very interesting recent research looking into whether human cognition is social by nature (Gross, E.B. and Medina-DeVilliers, S.E. 2020). The authors call it a social baseline theory. According to this theory, just as various resource-dependent physiological processes in our bodies fluctuate around a baseline to maintain homeostasis (e.g., blood glucose, thermoregulation), so too there is a baseline for resource-dependent cognitive processes.

Authors cite empirical evidence that supports the prediction that social resources are incorporated in the overall economy of action: “For instance, social environments characterized by supportive relationships regulate hypothalamic-pituitary activity, such that higher self-ratings of general health correspond with decreased hypothalamic activity during supportive hand holding in a threat task”**.

If they are right, then this is scientific evidence to support the adaptational advantage of any behaviour that creates or promotes what we may call the sense of supportive community, especially one extending beyond the immediate family. In human history, religion in its broadest sense has the longest track record of creating and fostering such communities, with its traditions, rituals, ceremonies etc. Of course, I do not claim that this role is played exclusively by religion, but it is the most ‘experienced candidate’ for the job. If so, then James might have been on to something in “saying that in a Darwinian universe it was the religious who were best fitted to survive”*.

keep exploring!

*Brooke, J.H. (2014). Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge University Press
**Gross, E.B. and Medina-DeVilliers, S.E. (2020). Cognitive Processes Unfold in a Social Context: A Review and Extension of Social Baseline Theory. Frontiers in Psychology. 11:378. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00378

Image credit: Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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