Cognitive machinery and explanatory ambitions: On Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained

Barbara Herrnstein Smith over at the Immanent Frame:

Boyer presents a picture of human behavior as largely a matter of the automatic, unconscious workings of evolved mental mechanisms, and he promotes the description of such workings as a properly scientific explanation of religion that trumps all other accounts. Indeed, for Boyer, it is precisely insofar as an explanation of some phenomenon—any phenomenon—is put in terms of what he refers to repeatedly as “underlying causal mechanisms” that it counts as genuinely scientific. In relation to these central features of Religion Explained, two important points should be made.

First, it should be recognized that neither the computational-modular model of the mind nor the idea of innate, automatically triggered mental mechanisms is a foregone conclusion of contemporary cognitive science or of any other science. The computational model has been significantly challenged both by practitioners of cognitive science per se and by researchers and theorists working in a number of related fields, including evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, paleoanthropology, and philosophy of mind. Moreover, a number of important alternative models of cognition have been developed in these and other fields…The alternative models often give considerable attention to a number of features of human cognition slighted in Boyer’s book and in the new cognitive accounts of religion more generally. Among them are the significance, for humans, of ongoing individual experiential learning; the complex social dynamics involved in the transmission of skills and beliefs; the presence among post-Paleolithic humans of such crucial cultural cognitive resources as transgenerational material culture, schools, texts, and duplicated images; and the significant differences among individuals with regard to various aspects of cognition.

Contrary, then, to the assumptions of paradigmatic evolutionary psychology and the claims of current cognitive explanations of religion, it is by no means clear that our interactions with our environments are determined largely by the operation of mental mechanisms hardwired at birth or that various widespread and recurrent features of human behavior and culture, including those associated with religion, are best explained by reference to a universal and virtually uniform species-specific mind.