Cognitive Scientist of Religion
Science & Religion
Konrad Talmont-Kaminski is a philosopher and cognitive scientist who has been trying to understand how it is that science and religion function. Educated in Australia and Canada, he has worked in Poland since 2001. He has published in journals such as The Monist, Frontiers in Psychology and Religion, Brain and Behavior. During his time as a fellow of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Vienna, Austria he began a project on understanding the cognitive basis of supernatural beliefs such as superstitions, magic and religion. As a result of that research, in 2014 he published with Routledge his book - Religion as a Magical Ideology: How the Supernatural Reflects Rationality. In it he connects the view that supernatural beliefs are the byproducts of the normal functioning of our cognitive systems with the position that religions have the function of promoting prosocial behavior. He does this by pointing out that this function of religious beliefs is not connected to their accuracy. From this fundamental point, much that is special about religions as belief systems follows.
Currently, he is looking at the empirical implications of the model he proposed, including work that seeks to connect ritualized behavior with something like a Skinnerian account of superstition as well as seeking to explain patterns in secularization in terms of the shifts which occur when a biological trait loses its function.
Cognition and the Science/Religion Debate
Given the shortcomings of human cognition, it is astounding how science has managed to become organized in such a way as to employ human minds to understand aspects of reality often far from those that we meet on a day to day basis. To understand the relationship between science and religion, it helps to recognize how religion has managed to organize those very same minds to a very different aim. By doing this we will come to see that the differences in the world views presented by science and religion are symptomatic of the far more fundamental differences between those two kinds of social phenomenon.
Cooperation is a fundamental problem for large-scale human societies. Kin selection and mutual altruism which underpin altruistic behavior among other animals are not enough. The solution that human societies appear to have used for thousands of years were religions, whose beliefs and practices helped to motivate the members of those societies to work together. Crucially, the religious claims that helped to motivate this behavior did not have to true. But they had to be believed to be true. There did not have to be any gods who watched us and judged our actions. But we had to believe in them. The solution to this problem shaped both the content of the beliefs as well as the attitudes to them. The content of the beliefs had to be plausible and memorable, and so it had to fit with the idiosyncrasies of the human cognitive system. Yet investigation of the accuracy of the stories had to be difficult. And so we passed on tales of human-like beings of awesome power who liked to hide in places that mere mortals were not to enter. Religion may not tell us about what the world is like, but it tells us a lot about our minds.
People had good reason to believe in these stories. After all, others that they trusted passed them on and acted in ways that only made sense if the stories were true. Science turned this picture around by insisting that in order to justify a claim its content must be investigated. Yet, while it necessarily ran counter to established ways of treating sacred claims, science did not remove the need for belief systems that motivated cooperation. At least not at first and not directly. Only by allowing us to restructure our societies in such a way as to provide existential security has science helped to alleviate the anxiety that has helped to refresh belief in previous times.
The basis for religious thought lies deep in our cognitive system. As does the capacity for scientific reasoning. Which we engage in depends mostly upon our social conditions. Our capacity for either will not vanish. The ‘debate’ between science and religion can never be won by the science side permanently, but only for as long as we manage to maintain functioning societies that do not rely upon the idea that our cooperation is required by supernatural forces.