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Gordon Tubbs

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Argument from Anthropology
« on: June 29, 2016, 08:39:20 am »
Introduction
Where did religion itself come from? If we could turn back the clock and witness the anthropological development of spiritual beliefs and ritual practices, what would we find? The short essay below is common among skeptics and is often employed as a slam-dunk case for the non-cognitivist response to the idea of “God” – in that there is no sufficient reason to think “God” is an explanation for anything.

Short Essay Response (or skip to review point summary)
          One term that is useful to judge initial reasonability is a legal concept called the preponderance of evidence, which states that for any claim to be made, there must be some form of proof that can result in that claim being either true or false. Anyone making a claim, regardless of it being positive or negative, has the burden of proof to rationalize that claim. Essentially, this gets to the heart of epistemology which is the process by which we obtain knowledge. If we want to rationalize “God,” then we need to understand where the idea came from in the first place.
          The evolution of religion can be traced back to animism. Our cave-dwelling ancestors 100,000 years ago thought that everything was “alive” in the sense that trees, rocks, insects, and animals all had some kind of spiritual essence. The Neolithic Revolution that occurred around 10,000 BC signaled the end of hunter-gatherer society and the dawn of agriculture. This transition allowed humans to focus less on rote survival, and more on the communities they were a part of. It is during this period where the transition from Animism to Polytheism also occurred, which really was just a personification of animism. Instead of rivers having a spiritual essence, they took on a characterization. This is where common themes of a “Sun God” can be found across a number of mythologies, especially those of Proto-Indo-European origin. Why did our ancestors do this in the first place?
          One answer to that question is in a concept called agenticity, which can be read about in a 2009 Scientific American article titled “Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control The World” by Michael Shermer. He argues that how humans evolved in the first place was a result of our ability to detect and recognize patterns in our world. Simple causal patterns like a tree moving because of the wind, to the sound of grass breaking because of a creeping predator, all helped our species survive and evolve. This is basically the evolutionary origin of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which says that if something happened, it has an explanation as to why it happened. So, given our evolutionary tendency of pattern making and the PSR itself, it’s very easy to see why our ancestors believed that the Sun and Moon were gods. After all, the Sun and Moon seemingly moved across the sky, and motion is impossible without an agent, therefore, the Sun and Moon must both have an agency of some kind. Because this agency is not visibly human, the result is to characterize it with a non-human trait, which was in this case, divinity.
          It would seem then based on this simple narrative, that all religions and expressions of the divine that we have today are really just highly evolved and more complex versions of the simpler agenticity that took over Neolithic polytheism. Since the Enlightenment, the scientific method has helped us describe reality with more precision in ways religious insights normally held sway over. As a result, we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that if you want to know the truth about reality, then adopting a scientific epistemology is best. We could very well conclude then, that the idea of God has no empirical basis for a preponderance of evidence, and therefore is unreasonable from the start. That’s it. Case closed. Any argument or discussion about God from this point on will be irrational in nature, because we cannot produce positive empirical data to satisfy the burden of proof.

Summary
1. The idea of "God" can be explained through the anthropological development of human belief.
2. Michael Shermer's concept of agenticity suggests that the evolutionary development of pattern recognition and environmental analysis caused our ancestors to believe that agents were behind the invisible and unseen forces at work in our world.
3. All modern day religions are just highly evolved versions of the simpler animism. Agenticity evolved as well, becoming more refined for Polytheism, and refined further for Monotheistic religions.

Discussion Questions
1. What reasons (if any) do we have that would suggest that the narrative above is wrong or misguided?
2. Is it possible for "God" to be the sufficient reason to explain anything at all?
3. What effect (if any) does agenticity have on philosophy, or even science for that matter?
Ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament (PCUSA)
Regent University, Master of Divinity (Chaplain Ministry)
US Navy (Active 2004-2009, Reserves 2012-2018)

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mgmasters

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Re: Argument from Anthropology
« Reply #1 on: July 03, 2016, 08:59:06 am »
The ideas expressed in your essay can be explained from an anthropological perspective.  It is really a social psychological reasoning.  A person could explain my life in these terms and not be inaccurate or even misguided.  Human behavior can be qualified in these terms and have a certain amount of accuracy.  The conclusions drawn (in the summary) are not surprising and carry no significance.  Yes, "Gods" can be explained this way.  Yes, humans look for patterns that lie outside of probability.  Yes, polytheism is waning in some circles.  The conclusions drawn, are well within the study of religion and human psychology.  The only thing that I take issue with is "scientific epistomology"  which is not a conclusion that can be drawn from the essay.   

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Gordon Tubbs

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Re: Argument from Anthropology
« Reply #2 on: July 05, 2016, 08:53:34 am »
Thanks for the interesting response.

This essay is a part of the "triumph of science" narrative that we so often hear. I agree that just because science is more effective at uncovering the invisible forces that shape our world, it presupposes that knowledge obtained through science is definitive in as much as there are no agents behind the invisible forces. This is a pragmatic hypothesis that has some provisional value. However, the Argument From Anthropology assumes that because our ancestors believed the Sun was a god, and science has shown that it's really a G-type main sequence star, science has won, and is therefore true.

I believe this is what you were trying to articulate?
Ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament (PCUSA)
Regent University, Master of Divinity (Chaplain Ministry)
US Navy (Active 2004-2009, Reserves 2012-2018)

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Re: Argument from Anthropology
« Reply #3 on: July 27, 2016, 08:51:00 am »
This article is correct. And I applaud you for writing an essay that challenges your beliefs. That never happens on this forum.

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lucious

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Re: Argument from Anthropology
« Reply #4 on: August 28, 2016, 04:48:25 am »
The idea that science supports a single metanarrative in a one sided parade of victories is just intellectually negligent and not accurately summarizing classical theism's relation to science.

It's more of a complex back and forth--old arguments have fallen away in response to science, new arguments have appeared, existing arguments have received increased support for premises.