Flying Monkeys Illustrate the Evolution of Religion (as I win a bike race against an invisible rider)

To get at the possibility of the evolution of spirituality let’s take a diversion into current attempts by evolutionary biologists to explain the evolution of religion. Pascal Boyer speculates that religion arose as part of evolving human cognitive abilities.

First, the mind evolved to the point it was able to imagine possibilities that do not exist in reality. We can consider counterfactuals. We can combine the stuff of thought in new ways that suggests possible worlds that really have no necessary tie to reality. In fact, we can imagine impossible worlds. In our minds we can take the wings of bird and put them on a monkey and imagine a world of flying monkeys.

The second factor Boyer thinks is necessary for the evolution or religion is our awareness of agents. As the Book of Mormon points out there the universe is composed of ‘things to act and things to be cacted upon.‘ Agents act with purpose. Why did that lion stalk that herd of gnus? Because it wants to eat one. Why did the elephant lift its trunk and pull down a large branch from the acacia tree? Because it wanted the sweet and tender leafs on the uppermost parts of the tree. Agents act intentionally. Agents have behavior. We don’t talk about the behavior of rocks, trees, or hammers. But we are most savvy about how other agents act, especially other humans. We know that they are driven by motivations, thoughts, plans, and perceptions similar to ours. We have an ability to intuit what others feel.

The next step, Boyer suggests, is our awareness of possible unseen predators. Our human body evolved in a dangerous world. It was filled with animals that wanted to eat us and still is. This made us careful and wary. When we walked passed a patch of brush that might hide the menacing form of a lion, we could imagine and visualize that there really was a lion there, whether there was or not. We could feel the lion. And so we take the same steps behaviorally as we pass the bushes that we would take if we could actually see a lion. The lion became an invisible agent to which we attributed the intention of making a meal out of us. These types of feelings are with us today and are a common part of our experience.

For example, during the summer while riding my bike, I passed another bike rider. I saw that she sped up slightly as I passed her and I knew I was in a race. I could feel the person behind me. I could feel their intent to re-pass me. This person’s presence was as real to me as anyone in my forward field of vision. I never turned around, I did not want her to know, that I knew we were racing (think about that), so in some strange way the rider behind me became an invisible agent, the predator I could not see but knew was there. I had invented intentions for my ghost-rider (to pass me), and I was acting on these suppositions. The strange thing was that the rider had taken a different fork in the road soon after I passed her (Actually, she could have just stopped, or died, or been captured by spies, or lots of other things, but I’m choosing the most likely scenario given my familiarity of the road and what I know about riders on the road who typically take one of two forks at a certain point). But I felt her presence behind me for miles. Her presence haunted me into a unnecessarily rapid pace. When I finally turned around I was genuinely surprised to find her not on my tail. But during that time as I was racing her, I could ‘feel’ her there. She was a real presence.

Boyer calls this ability to be aware of unseen agents our intuitive psychology system. He sees this as one of the root causes in our ability to believe in what he sees as the biggest unseen agent of all: God. Boyer believes that there are also two other systems which facilitate our belief in God (or Gods). The first of these he calls an exchange system. This system is used in our social interactions with others. We are an economic species and have set up hierarchies in which we exchange goods, are aware of people that have ripped us off or those who have been fair with us. We keep a tally of who has offended and who has helped us. Boyer speculates that this is why gossip is such an important and universal activity for humans all over the world. We need good information on who we can trust and who we can’t if we are going to live in a well-oiled society. The second is our awareness of cause and effect.

So according to Boyer we now have in place all we need for the evolution of religion. We can imagine alternative worlds; we can feel the presence of agents we cannot see; we are wired to interact with others through exchanges, keeping track of cheaters and helpers; we are not comfortable until we understand the reasons behind things and seek explanations based on cause and effect. So out of this set of facilities he sees our religious beliefs and in such things as participatory prayer with an unseen agent with who we want to negotiate action in the world.

Now a couple of points are worth making. This activity of Boyer is what we might call hypothesis generation. One part of an early scientific explanation is first lining up the facts that need explaining and trying to arrange them in a coherent way. So this is not a fully scientific explanation yet. And, indeed, Boyer is controversial even among evolutionary biologists. But his attempt does illustrate one of the ways that science progresses. You can see this sort of activity when Einstein sat on a train imagining he was riding on a lightwave. But Boyer’s work does point to brain processes that might be examined to find genetic and developmental pathways that are used in religious behavior. Which pathways are under possible selective control and hence evolution. This is all part of science. The naive positivist view that science is just hypothesis testing and theory falsification is now considered by philosophers of science passé and not reflective of the complex activity that is science.

So what if Boyer is right? Are such ideas threating to our faith? Next time. (Short answer: Of course not).

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29 Responses to Flying Monkeys Illustrate the Evolution of Religion (as I win a bike race against an invisible rider)

  1. Cap says:

    Of course not.

  2. Cap says:

    I don’t see how almost anything could be threatening to our faith. Because that is what it is, or better said, is involved. Faith. There are things that help explain our beliefs, help us to have a greater understanding, but eventually, we are going to have to exert faith. Faith that God has a plan, that he can create a world, and on it bring about evolution. Faith that the world would follow what we see now, and form slowly. Faith that he is their, riding behind us, even though we are too determined to an end to look back.

  3. ujlapana says:

    Interesting that you would put a vieled reference to Occam’s Razor in this post. With a sufficient naturalistic explanation for spiritual experiences and religious belief, adhering to a literal belief in God is like assuming the second biker was beamed up to the Enterprise. What’s the justification for adding unnecessary complexity?

  4. SteveP says:

    Ujlapana, I think as Cap says it is a matter of faith. Not blind faith mind you, but an experience with God. Not one that brokers an explanation of God, but contact. Since you’ve brought up a Scifi example, I think of the scene from ‘Contact’ when Jodi Foster is transported to another world but in our time and place there is no evidence that it happened except for her own claims of what she experienced subjectively. From the outward observer’s perspective there was no apparent time she was gone, nor did she ever disappear. But to her she spent hours in conversation with the others who had provided the means for her subjective transport. The experience of God is not something that needs explanation, rather it is an experience. To look ahead to these posts the argument will be that our body in all its evolved capacities provides place for the experience. But it is the experience which allows us to know God. Like in ‘Contact’ all the machinery they build allowed contact with the others, but the it was the experience of contact that opened up the knowledge of those others to Jodi Foster.

    Or back to Star Trek, if the second bicker is beamed to the enterprise you are with out warrant that it happened. But if you are the one beamed to the Enterprise, you get to shake Picard’s hand. And therein lies the difference. You get to know him in a way that second hand reports can’t touch.

  5. Allen says:

    Occam’s Razor is useful when forming a hypothesis, but it fails badly when applied to human behavior, because people don’t necessarily act in the most simple way.

    What’s the justification for adding unnecessary complexity? Simple, because that complexity occurred in real life. Yes, one can form explanations of how the Cosmos works, how intelligent life began, etc. without mentioning God, if one assumes that natural laws are consistent. However, such explanations do not prove the non-existence of God. They only prove that the assumption of consistency in natural laws yields a consistent universe. Yes, we add complexity when we say that God used those natural laws to create our Cosmos, but we add that complexity because we believe that that complexity exists in the real world.

  6. SteveP says:

    Allen, Well said.

    I’m an ecologist and ecological systems are among the most complex things known in the universe (multiple players in very interwoven interactions) and if someone asked, “Why add complexity to explaining them” you could only answer, “Because it it there.”

    Is God necessary to the explanation of the universe? He is if I consider my subjective life and experience part of that universe.

  7. Sam says:

    Very interesting! I love this series. And I would especially love if it came to a conclusion before I left on my mission (1/14) 🙂 Seriously though, neat stuff.

  8. ujlapana says:

    You should watch Contact again. There is physical objective (inter-subjective, if you prefer) proof of her journey in the very end. But I get your point.

    The problem is that that experience–the quale of spiritual contact with God–is exactly what is being explained by alternative simpler mechanisms. If Jodi Foster hadn’t had the video footage to back up her claims, and researchers were demonstrating that people could perceive long passages of time when they were not actually transpiring, Jodi’s most reasonable assumption of her experience would be that it didn’t actually happen, regardless of how “real” it felt. That’s where modern research, including fascinating studies of psylocybin (sp?) is taking us with respect to spiritual experiences.

  9. SteveP says:

    I haven’t seen the movie in a while. I’m uniquely qualified to talk about unreal experience. 🙂 . Her most reasonable assumption would be that it didn’t happen, but of course she would have been wrong. In the book, it’s interesting that the experience was shared by a number of others. To me this idea of shared experience begins to get at the idea of subjective truths that are only available individually, but we can compare notes with others. And form a community of belief through shared individual experience. When I went insane, no one believed me because I was the only witness. I could not generate a shared experience in others. I think ‘others’ play a large role in a community of belief. (Acknowledging, of course, differences and uniqueness of our individual experience)

  10. Jeff G says:

    Actually, I think his idea is a little more threatening than I might think at first glance. Of course we can just say that God guided our evolution to make us “religious” and sweep it under the rug.

    Nevertheless, it does seem to present another problem. If he can, or did evolve our religious habits and inclinations, then isn’t it an open possibility that all of the feelings, hunches and other things that we call “the promptings of the spirit” are simply our biology at work and nothing more? How could we ever devise a test which could distinguish the two possibilities without begging the question? And finally, doesn’t the principle of parsimony suggest that, all other things being equal, we should favor the naturalistic of the two hypotheses?

    I see Boyer’s theory as being quite threatening to the faith.

  11. Tatiana says:

    When you add the subjective nonrepeatable and unshareable experiences to the observations allowed by science, you get a messier and more complicated universe to try to explain, but it’s a richer one as well. Subjective experiences teach us that someone is helping, someone is urging us to be better than we are, and touching our spirits with divinity. Once we accept these things as real, then we realize that actually ALL observations are subjective. To be an observer at all in a scientific sense, to be someone to whom things happen, means we are allowing subjectivity to be placed in the center of our science.

  12. SteveP says:

    Anything, History, Science, etc. can be threatening to faith if you if you are looking for evidence of faith through objective means. My assumption here is that you’ve come to your faith propositions through another way e.g., through an encounter with God. One cannot devise an scientific test (I’m taking that as what you meant by test) because there are variables that lie outside empirical observation by others.
    I suppose my faith is not threatened because it’s not come through science. I do want to understand the evolution of the body, because it informs what kind of joint creature I am. I find I’m susceptible to certain kinds of behaviors because of this body. I really am part of this earth. I think that is important. But it’s not the kind of evidence that supports or denies faith. Consciousness really is scientifically intractable. Faith is a an act of and imbedded in consciousness and subjectivity. My faith did not come from my holding onto the ideas man was created from dust on the last day of creation with a fully intact religious capacity in my brain, and it is not threatened that these capacities may have evolved. If you expect to find faith through objective means I think you’ll be disappointed.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but by saying the Naturalistic explanation better, I’m reading an implied, ‘better than supernatural’, but I think that is a false dichotomy, because subjectivity is not anymore supernatural than the natural world: It is a fact of the universe as you are intimately aware. And if you say that a naturalistic explanation is better than a subjective you’ve just floundered because all knowledge, both naturalistic and subjective is known subjectively.

    Now I’m getting obtuse, so I’ll quit because this is my next post topic so I’ll give more details then. But that’s my short answer (well not very short).

  13. SteveP says:

    Tatiana, We were writing at the same time and you just said what I was trying to say, but you said it so much better and so much more clearly. Perfect.

  14. Jeff G says:


    I’m not sure you really understood what I was trying to say.

    “My assumption here is that you’ve come to your faith propositions through another way e.g., through an encounter with God. ”

    My point is that all such apparent encounters, given Boyer’s theory, are simply the products of our biological programming and nothing more. This seems like a huge threat.

    I’m not talking about finding faith by way of science. I’m talking about science finding out how it is that we really have faith, and that this way doesn’t appear to require God at all.

  15. SteveP says:

    No I get it, I’m just saying that science can only find out how our brains give place for faith, but the experience of faith is beyond science. There is something in the conscious experience of God that is clearly present to the subject.

    Let me give an example, we may one day understand everything thing about the brain’s processing of the color red. Everything from neural wave capture in the retina, to the processing of color by the visual cortex. But in all of that, we will never understand how the subject experiences red. That is only available in subjectivity. Understanding the brain’s processing of red, no matter how complete, will never diminish or enhance our experience of the color red when we see it as such.

  16. Jeff G says:

    Well, first of all, as I’ve said in other posts, I don’t find “qualia” arguments at all convincing.

    Second, even if I did, I still have no clue what these qualia have to do with promptings of the spirit and their source. If we learn that we are simply pre-programmed by our evolutionary heritage to have religious experiences and we learn that we are pre-programmed by our evolutionary heritage to think that they these experiences are due to unseen forces and agents, doesn’t this cast a lot of doubt on the authenticity of these experiences?

    To insist that these experiences really are from God in some unseen and mysterious way seems to be like learning how a magic trick is done, but still insisting that there is REAL magic in the trick in some unseen and mysterious way. Yes, you can argue that no amount of studying will ever help us come to understand this real magic or something like that, but so what?

  17. SteveP says:

    Maybe. I cannot deny the risk you present is real. There are many who see the mystery of consciousness as unconvincing as evidence of God, or in particular a certain kind of God (recall Descartes evil demon).

    This then is where I think Faith comes in. The kind of certainty you want: to know you are not just receiving signing false signals. Just isn’t available in any aspect of life or in any kind of knowledge based system. I receive signals that suggest my wife loves me. It could be a sham. She could be just going through the motions and inside feels nothing for me. I can’t really know with certainty. But my experience with her, our relationship, our encounter with each other gives me faith that her signal is real. I’m going hold on to that even without the certainties.

    My encounter with god is similar. It is a relationship, not just a quilia. It’s formed though long term interaction embedded in time. Can it be doubted? Of course. Could I be wrong? I acknowledge that fully.

    You say you don’t find quila arguments convincing. That’s because I’m not making any arguments holding out that as evidence of God. I’m encouraging exploration of the encounter, which can happen only in subjectivity. If you don’t want to look for it there, than that’s fine. I’m just trying to give you reasons to explore that possibility.

    But you are right. I may be wrong. All my experiences may have other sources and explanations. And my wife may not love me. I’m not going to live my life that way though. Faith is a necessary part of the gospel.

  18. Tatiana says:

    SteveP, thanks, I was just thinking the opposite, how you phrase these things so much more clearly than I.

    Jeff G., the fact that we’ve evolved a capacity to encounter God doesn’t mean God isn’t real, any more than the fact that we’ve evolved a capacity to see red means that sunsets aren’t real. In general, our capacities to respond to things are favored by natural selection more often if the things we’re responding to are real.

  19. Jeff G says:


    Boyer’s theory is that we have evolved the tendency to detect agency when none is actually there. This is quite different than our detecting sunsets which aren’t real, a theory which nobody defends.


    The case of the wife is quite different. Suppose that somebody came up with a theory which asserted that all of your detecting feelings of affection from your wife could actually be explain entirely in terms of the diet you happen to have. Now suppose (use your imagination here) that this theory was actually true. Can we really not doubt that our wife loves us in this case?

    The question deals with the source and cause of a perceived relationship. Nobody doubts that you believe that your wife loves you. Nobody doubts that you believe that God exists. What Boyer does is throw serious doubt on the validity of the source of the latter belief.

  20. SteveP says:

    “Boyer’s theory is that we have evolved the tendency to detect agency when none is actually there.”

    That’s not right. Boyers theory is we have a tendency to detect agency. It usually is there, or it wouldn’t be a very useful response to have evolved. Just because we make mistakes, doesn’t mean we always do.

    There is nothing you can’t doubt. Humean skepticism is relentless in it’s torching of any belief on any evidence. But it’s not very useful in navigating the world. The question isn’t what you can doubt. The question is what are warranted beliefs and wither subjective evidence provides any warrant. Of course it’s doubtable. Everything is.

    What you are arguing is that all people everywhere’s encounter with God is false signal because we have brain structures evolved that would detect that signal.

  21. S.Faux says:

    Maybe our intuitions of the unseen have more of an affect on science than we realize. For example, physicists believe in dark matter that floats all over the universe but has never been seen, only inferred. Maybe the unseen homunculus of the brain has a phantom module for detecting the unseen. Whew! This is all starting to blow my phantom-based brain.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. I always enjoy your evolutionary thinking, unseen or not.

  22. Jeff G says:

    “What you are arguing is that all people everywhere’s encounter with God is false signal because we have brain structures evolved that would detect that signal.”

    Not quite right. What I’m arguing is that (if Boyer’s theory is true) we have no reason to think that our religious encounter are anything more than a false signal. Indeed, even this is too strong. I’m arguing that the promptings of the spirit can no longer provide us any reason to think that our promptings of the spirit are anything more than a false signal without begging the question.

    I guess this is a rather modest point, but it seems to have some rather serious consequences for a religion which relies so heavily on such promptings for their beliefs don’t you think?

  23. SteveP says:

    I think we are talking past each other somewhere. I don’t understand why you think they must be false signals. If I were to meet you and we established a relationship based on all the evolutionary apparatus in place for human communication I wouldn’t say that weighed in evidence that our relationship wasn’t real because they evolved or worse they weighed in evidence that the signals you send are false. If I have a relationship with God, why do cognitive apparatuses used for that count as evidence against true signals just because they evolved? I think I’m missing your point.

  24. Jeff G says:

    First of all, I think any comparison between my relationship with an individual whose existence is in question with my relationship with individuals whose existence is not, isn’t going to convince anybody. But I’m not really sure that this point is relevant.

    Again, I’m not arguing that all such promptings must be false signals. This is to put presumption on the wrong side of the debate. Instead, I am simply stating that we have are left without any good reason to believe that these promptings are anything other than false signals.

    Presumption lies with the position which suggests something does not exist. Presumption lies with the position which does require sacrifice. Presumption lies with the more parsimonious theory. That’s all.

    Boyer’s theory doesn’t give us reason to disbelieve in God. It just takes away a reason that we thought we had to believe in God. If you still have other reasons to believe, more power to you. But Mormon have always tended to stress the reason that Boyer’s theory undercuts.

  25. SteveP says:

    At one level I don’t disagree with much of what you said. And if you look at my post on when I was insane I make many of the same arguments. But the problems you point out are ‘laboratory’ problems and ignore much of the complexity of spirituality.

    Any subjective experience is always vulnerable to to the mistakes of the individual. What’s the difference of between a schizophrenic’s vision of someone created by his brain and mine of a person existing in reality? Or what is the difference between the voices in his head and the voices in a prophet’s? This is not a problem of the source of those structures, evolution or special creation, its a problem for all subjective experience. All of your arguments hold whether things are evolved or specially created as far as I can see. So how do we get out of this dilemma? That all religious experience is individual? When I was talking to people that only I could see, the reason no one was convinced I was seeing real people is that others could not see them. We’ve always had this problem with individual claims of spirituality and telling false from true. The evolution of cognitive religious structures neither adds to, or takes away from, the problem.

    Religious experience is complex. It’s more than just receiving a signal and deciding it’s true or false. You can’t reduce this source of knowledge to a hypothesis test. And then declare it’s a failure as a test because it does not decide anything and so by prasimony arguments we assume they’re false. This Popperian kind of science was shown to be not very useful decades ago.

    These experiences must taken in, incorporated into life, tested against lived life, compared to other people’s experiences who share with me their subjective experience (thats why we share testimonies), we compare notes, I live in light of these signals and see their effects in my life, do they work? do they help me navigate in the real world? Do they had a dimension of life available in no other way? I’ve had promptings that are quite likely false signals. I’ve had some I’m quite convinced were real. It took more than a hypotheses test to tell the difference. It took contextualizing them in real, lived life, in a faith community.

    There is a sense of sacredness that to me as an individual are real. You can always apply Hume and doubt them or find them unconvincing because the capability for their experience are rooted in evolved biology. But in my subjective experience of them I find depth and meaning that seem to transcend concerns about their source. And embedded in my life they give me meaning and joy.

  26. CEF says:

    Steve, I agree with Jeff on this one, so please do not take any of this personal. I am not taking issue with you, but I am trying to understand how you see the world.

    What is the difference in the way you explain why it is okay to believe in God, and the way Francis Church explained to Virginia in 1897, why it is okay to believe in Santa Claws?

    I can not see any difference at all. But then, it has been said, that I am blind in one eye and can not see out of the other. 🙂

  27. Historians have an interest take on this theme.

    The period of around 1000B.C.E. to 600 B.C.E. is referred to as the Wisdom Age. Because of our first major books of wisdom come from this time period.

    This includes the proverbs and psalms of the Old Testament, and many first great works of wisdom from the Greeks and Chinese.

  28. Tatiana says:

    Some of the experiments I use to validate the reality of my spiritual experience is that when I follow and believe in it, I live a better life, one that’s fuller and more positive, and one that acts to lift up those around me, rather than dragging them down.

    I’ve heard skeptics say “Oh, it just makes you feel good, so you believe it”, but it’s not like that. It’s not an empty wish-fulfillment fantasy. It actually helps me to be more effective, gives me strength where there was weakness, sows gentleness and love where there was anguish and despair. What I’m saying in religious terms is that I know it’s true by the fruits. In scientific terms there is an internal experiment that consists of comparing my life as lived first without and then with religious faith. I had to proceed by small steps into faith, first by allowing myself to speculate on the possibility of it actually being real, then trying out that hypothesis bit by bit and observing good results, etc.

    The fact that we have evolved brain capacity to receive these signals in no way makes them less likely to be real. In fact, it serves to me as even more evidence that they ARE real, since otherwise, why would our brains have evolved this capacity to receive them? I don’t see it as an alternative explanation to God, I see it as an first theory of how our brains are able to interact with the real and living God.

  29. CoriAnton says:

    Great Post… and I especially liked your comment in 25. The source of the structures really isn’t the issue so much as the inherant subjectivity of the experiences we all have.
    I also really liked the point that natural selection is much more likely to favor development of structures which detect real phenomena than false ones.

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