Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Our Need for Explanation Backfires

Humans are curious by nature. And this has its advantages: When our ancestors heard a noise in the bushes, those who investigated were generally more likely to survive and reproduce. The problem is that our capacity to ask questions outstrips our ability to answer them. When that happens, we have a bad habit of simply making up answers to quench our thirst for knowledge. And because we're agent-oriented creatures—it was advantageous to interpret the cause of that rustling bush as either predator or prey—those made-up answers tend to involve agents as well.

What's interesting is that we can see the implications of this in religious contexts. For example, the stories in Genesis can function almost like a time capsule, revealing the sort of questions people wondered about a few thousand years ago:
  • How did the world begin?
  • How did the animals get their names?
  • Why do people wear clothing?
  • Why do snakes crawl along the ground and (seemingly) eat dust?
  • Why is childbirth so painful?
  • Why does a colorful arc sometimes appear in the sky?
  • Why do people speak different languages?
The Bible's answer to each of these questions invokes God as a prominent part of the explanation. According to Genesis 1, God created the entire universe in six days. According to Genesis 2:18-20, God tasked Adam with naming the "birds of the air" and "beasts of the field." According to Genesis 3:1-7, humans ate from the tree that God placed in the garden, realized their nakedness, and clothed themselves with animal skins. According to Genesis 3:13-14, God made snakes crawl on their bellies and eat dust as a punishment for deceiving Eve. According to Genesis 3:16, God made childbirth painful for women as a punishment for disobeying him.

Thanks for not drowning us all
a second time, God.
This trend continues with the stories about the Great Flood and the tower of Babel. According to Genesis 9:8-17, God placed the rainbow in the sky following Noah's flood as a promise that he would never flood the whole earth again. According to Genesis 11:1-9, everyone spoke the same tongue until God "confused their languages" (for some reason this supposedly omnipotent being seems to feel threatened by them) to get them to stop building the tower.

It's easy to see where these stories came from. For example, it would have been natural to wonder how that multicolored shape got up in the sky, and there certainly wouldn't have been any way to explain it at the time. Rainbows also have an otherworldly feel about them, especially since they have no definite physical location. How would ancient people interpret this peculiar phenomenon? Someone created a story about how and why it came to be—clearly, a very powerful being must have placed it there—and suddenly they had an answer. This explanation plugged an uncomfortable gap in their knowledge, so it caught on and eventually became universally accepted as truth.

The answers the Bible gives to these questions can be satisfying, but the problem is that every last one of them is wrong. In fact, the entire approach we've seen here—to fill the explanatory void with some completely unfounded agent-centric conclusion—is fundamentally flawed. What we should do when we encounter something we can't explain is say "I don't know," and begin investigating until we can develop a theory based on hard evidence.

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