Saturday, October 28, 2006

from Reason Magazine, Ronald Bailey, May 2003 Print Edition

Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? Yes, declares the controversial philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. "Human freedom," he writes in his important new book Freedom Evolves (Viking), "is not an illusion; it is an objective phenomenon, distinct from all other biological conditions and found in only one species, us."

One might think that Dennett's ringing endorsement of the reality of human freedom would make him popular with other intellectuals. It doesn't. On the right, the conservative Weekly Standard denounces him as "a vigorous evangelist for evolutionary psychology." The neoconservative journal The Public Interest has called him "an evolutionary fundamentalist." That view was shared by the late left-wing evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, who disparaged Dennett as a "Darwinian fundamentalist." Gould's scientific collaborator Niles Eldredge concurs, dismissing him as an "ultra-Darwinian." The liberal American Prospect accuses him of "cybernetic totalism."

But Dennett has his admirers too. The New York Times Book Review selected his Consciousness Explained as one of the 10 best books of 1991. The Wall Street Journal raved about 1995's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, and declared that Dennett "does one of the things philosophers are supposed to be good at: clearing up conceptual muddles in the sciences." Zoologist Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue, hails him as the "ebullient, pugnacious and ever pithy sage of Boston."

Born in 1942, Daniel Dennett studied philosophy at Harvard University and Oxford University. His philosophical views can be traced most clearly to the influence of his Oxford teacher, philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle famously attacked Cartesian mind-body dualism, dismissing it as the doctrine of "the ghost in the machine." Dennett is now the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Dennett has spent his intellectual career trying to extend the Enlightenment project of putting philosophy and morality on a scientific and naturalistic basis. In a sense, Dennett is updating David Hume in the light of Darwin's theory of evolution. In doing so, he provides us with fascinating new ways to think about the meaning of choice, the value of morality, and how the evolution of the human brain and its capabilities has made us more free.

Indeed, Dennett argues that human freedom is dramatically expanding. Language and culture, especially when abetted by modern science and technology, enable us to increase the range of our choices. As our understanding of our genes and brains increases, he believes we will increase our freedom rather than limit it. We will be able to prevent and cure more diseases, improve our social institutions, and even enhance human capabilities. He says that we defend freedom, especially political freedom, because among other things it enables people to make better and better choices over time. As important, Dennett maintains that to whatever extent we were ever at the mercy of our genes and biological evolution, we no longer are. Instead our genes are now at the mercy of our brains.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey interviewed Dennett in February.

Reason: Your new book is called Freedom Evolves. Why?

Dennett: Because people have this strange antipathy for evolution and for materialism. They think that if evolution is true, then they're just animals or automatons -- that they won't have freedom and they won't have responsibility, and life will have no meaning. The point of the book is to show that, on the contrary, it's only when you understand life from an evolutionary point of view that you understand what our freedom really is. You realize that it's real. It's different and better than the freedom of other animals, but it's evolved. It's not supernatural.

Reason: A response might be that you're just positing a more complicated form of determinism. A bird may be more "determined" than we are, but we nevertheless are determined.

Dennett: So what? Determinism is not a problem. What you want is freedom, and freedom and determinism are entirely compatible. In fact, we have more freedom if determinism is true than if it isn't.

Reason: Why?

Dennett: Because if determinism is true, then there's less randomness. There's less unpredictability. To have freedom, you need the capacity to make reliable judgments about what's going to happen next, so you can base your action on it.

Imagine that you've got to cross a field and there's lightning about. If it's deterministic, then there's some hope of knowing when the lightning's going to strike. You can get information in advance, and then you can time your run. That's much better than having to rely on a completely random process. If it's random, you're at the mercy of it.

A more telling example is when people worry about genetic determinism, which they completely don't understand. If the effect of our genes on our likely history of disease were chaotic, let alone random, that would mean that there'd be nothing we could do about it. Nothing. It would be like Russian roulette. You would just sit and wait.

But if there are reliable patterns -- if there's a degree of determinism -- then we can take steps to protect ourselves.

Reason: Would a deterministic world mean that, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was going to happen ever since the Big Bang?

Dennett: "Going to happen" is a very misleading phrase. Say somebody throws a baseball at your head and you see it. That baseball was "going to" hit you until you saw it and ducked, and then it didn't hit you, even though it was "going to."

In that sense of "going to," Kennedy's assassination was by no means going to happen. There were no trajectories which guaranteed that it was going to happen independently of what people might have done about it. If he had overslept or if somebody else had done this or that, then it wouldn't have happened the way it did.

People confuse determinism with fatalism. They're two completely different notions.

Reason: Would you unpack that a little bit?

Dennett: Fatalism is the idea that something's going to happen no matter what you do. Determinism is the idea that what you do depends. What happens depends on what you do, what you do depends on what you know, what you know depends on what you're caused to know, and so forth -- but still, what you do matters. There's a big difference between that and fatalism. Fatalism is determinism with you left out.

If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there's lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There's no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There's been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it's all independent of determinism.

Reason: What do you mean when you call human beings "choice machines"?

Dennett: That's actually Gary Drescher's phrase. He's an artificial intelligence theoretician. He distinguishes choice machines from situation-action machines.

Situation-action machines are built with a bunch of rules that say, "If in situation X, do A," "If in situation B, do Z," and so forth. It's as if you had a list that you kept in your wallet and when important decisions came up, you looked at the list. If the conditions for a particular decision were met, you just did it. You don't know why. It's just that the rule says to do it.

A choice machine is different. A choice machine looks at the world and sees options, and it says, "If I did this, what would happen? If I did that, what would happen? If I did this other thing, what would happen?" It builds up an anticipation of what the likely outcome of one action or another would be, and then chooses on the basis of how much that outcome is valued or disvalued.

They're both machines, but one of them is much more free than the other. It's choosing its actions on the basis of its values, and it's choosing its values on the basis of what it knows.

Reason: Where do our values come from in the first place?

Dennett: The Darwinian answer is a really good one. They don't come ex nihilo. They evolve over time. Our responsibility for our values is not absolute and it's not zero. You can't choose who your parents are, you can't choose what culture you belong to, and you can't even choose your kindergarten teacher. But as you mature, you can gradually -- this is the Darwinian part -- incorporate responsibility for your own actions. We try to turn our children into agents that can take responsibility, and then we have to do something that makes parents really anxious: We have to let go. You let go of your children and say, "I've done the best I can. Now you're on your own. I've created this hopefully moral agent and released this person into the world."

When you do that, you are, as a parent, to some degree, relinquishing authority. "You are your own authority now," you in effect say to the child. "I'm not responsible for what you do anymore. You are responsible for what you do." You're making them accountable.

Some human beings never make it, and that's sometimes very obvious. They never grow up, or they're retarded or they're damaged in some way. They have some pathology that makes them unable to take responsibility for themselves. The fact that there are such people is not refutable, just as there are people who do take responsibility.

And then there are the problematic ones, where we just can't tell. Are they fully responsible adults, or are they more like children? I think it's important that we recognize the existence of this problematic, penumbral group, but that doesn't mean that there aren't people who do take responsibility. It means that we've always had this class of people who are problematic.

Reason: How is it that those who do take responsibility differ from those who can't or don't?

Dennett: Don't look at the physical level. It's not as if they have indeterministic physics in their brains whereas the rest of us have deterministic physics.

One of the main points of my book is that if you want to see the distinctions that matter, you have to look at higher levels. The difference between a responsible brain and a nonresponsible one -- not irresponsible, but nonresponsible -- is not a difference in the physics. It is a difference in the organization of that brain. It is a difference in the capacity of that brain to respond to information, to respond to reason, to be able to reflect.

Reflection is a really important feature of human competence. If you're simply unable to notice what you're doing and what the implications of that are, then you're not as responsible as somebody who can.

Reason: The philosopher Patricia Churchill suggests that we learn morality much the same way we learn language. We hear stories, or we watch how people get rewarded or punished, and what we see and hear shapes our characters over time.

Dennett: That's a large part of it. I think that it's a mistake to think that we're born moral or that the process of maturing into a moral adult is like aging. It's not aging; it's learning. There's a lot of acculturation. There's a lot of input from our neighbors, our peers, our friends, the adults that we respect.

There's a lot of luck involved in that. You can get stuck in a terrible home situation or another terrible environment, and your chances of emerging from that as a responsible adult are diminished.

Reason: One of the arguments the social theorist Friedrich Hayek made is that cultures that have better rules tend to spread while cultures that have worse rules don't, and one of the ways you find out whether something is good or bad is, pretty crudely, which cultures are winning over other cultures.

Dennett: This is a claim that I'm cautiously skeptical of. But if you couch it very carefully, I think there is something to it.

Change the topic from moralities to, say, scientific theory. There's no question, contrary to some of the blather you see, that good, coherent, true scientific theories in general tend to win out over second-rate, formless, incoherent theories. We've improved our understanding of the world over the years. The good theories spread. Bad theories don't.

Well, not always. Sometimes they get a foothold, and they're sort of like diseases and they're hard to eradicate, but those are the exceptions. I think it's an uphill battle for falsehoods to get established.

Reason: At the end of Freedom Evolves, you seem to be somewhat optimistic. You say social institutions like democracy and equality are spreading.

Dennett: I think the book is politically optimistic. And it is opposed to a sort of paternalism that I find offensive.

Reason: What sorts of political and economic institutions maximize both freedom and responsibility?

Dennett: People all over the world are pretty smart. Some of them, through no fault of their own, are relatively uninformed. If you inform them, if you remove the disinformation and misinformation they have, they'll make good choices. You can trust democracy. This is all just Civics 101. Give the people the information, and they'll make wise choices.

Not that they'll always make good choices. Not that people can't ever pull the wool over their eyes. Not that they don't have other motives. But in spite of all of this, the capacity to tell truth from falsehood is pretty strong.

Now, if you think my account of human freedom is right, then the way to protect it is to make sure that your society is one in which the benefits of being a member of the society are so tempting and so great that people will take responsibility in order for it to happen.

Reason: Most of human history was not characterized by such societies.

Dennett: Well, that's right. That's why freedom evolved. That's why we're in better shape now than we were before.

Reason: You argue that ideas can evolve in a way analogous to genes in biological evolution. Some ideas survive better than others; they can mutate and recombine into new ideas. Such units of cultural evolution have been called memes. But unlike genes, memes are not discrete units.

Dennett: That's not necessarily true. The boundary conditions are problematic, yes, but so are the conditions for where a gene begins and where it ends. It's not just a straightforward sequence.

There's an area of the law that deals with this set of problems, and that's copyright and patent protection. Patentable ideas don't come in discrete units, yet we can do a pretty good job of treating them like they do. The boundary problems of copyright and patent law are exactly the same boundary problems of meme identification.

We have patent law and copyright law because there are ideas out there that are worth copying. Well, "something worth copying" is what a gene is.

Reason: Genes can be defined in terms of the proteins that they make: This sequence makes only this protein. Can you say that about memes?

Dennett: Genes are all pretty much in one language, DNA and RNA. Cultural production is more varied. There are more different routes to production, but maybe it was like that in the early days of genes too.

In culture we have lots of different alphabets. Potters have the alphabet of how you make a pot. If an expert potter or even a good apprentice watches a master make a pot, that potter can see something that you and I can't. He can parse what he's watching into a sort of alphabet of moves, of features that are more or less invisible to you and me, but if you're a potter you know them. They're recipes, basically, and wherever there are recipes made up out of parts that are copyable, you have a stabilizing influence. When you have a repertoire of moves, you have fidelity in copying.

Plato wrote thousands of years ago. We don't have the original texts, but we have very pure, highly reliable, 99-point-something-percent reliability. How do we know that? Because the alphabet has several different levels. At the word level and even at the idea level, there are places where we've corrected the text of Plato, found the corruption -- which is like a mutation -- and corrected it with proofreading enzymes. The proofreading enzymes in this case are scholars.

By the way, Mother Nature doesn't care whether information gets transmitted by genes or through culture. If it travels just as well in socially transmitted patterns, that's fine.

Reason: Of course, Mother Nature isn't trying to transmit information anyway.

Dennett: Yes, but the point is that information is available for cultural transmission. It's just as visible to natural selection as information that's available for genetic transmission. So natural selection will recognize and favor information transmitted socially just as quickly, in fact more quickly, than genetically transmitted information.

That's one of the main reasons I bring in memes. I want to emphasize the fact that this is not just about the genetic evolution of human morality. Genetic evolution is not the only kind of evolution. In some respects, the dividing line between genetic and cultural evolution is not very important.

Reason: You argue that a self is a metaphor for our bodies and brains as they exist over time, something that provides us an outlook on what is going on in our own brains and in the brains of others. You claim that the self wouldn't exist if it weren't for the evolution of social interactions requiring each human animal to create within itself a subsystem designed for interacting with others. But this idea of a subsystem seems like a sneaky way of having a little homunculus sitting in a Cartesian theater again.

Dennett: For many years I joined in the general battle against a homunculus or one big bunch of them. Then it hit me: Homunculi are fine as long as they're stupid.

The straight Cartesian theory is that you've got a powerful homunculus at the center of the self doing all the work. But if you could break that homunculus down into lesser homunculi that only do part of the job, and break them into even lesser homunculi, and so on, you replace the central smart homunculus with a team of stupid homunculi. Then eventually you can replace it with a machine in place of a self. This view is called homuncular functionalism.

It's not an infinite regress. It bottoms out with the neurons. Yes, you can think of an individual neuron as a little homunculus. It doesn't help much, but you can do it. The point is that you take larger assemblages, cells, tissues, and the like. Then they begin to have individual tasks, larger projects. When you get to a high enough level, you've got homunculi that are really quite agent-like.

The self is the systems control of the whole body over time. If you're doing things over an extended period of time, the self is your way to keep track of them. You have to be able to remember where you were so you can pick up the threads and continue after an interruption. So you have projects. And you have goals and fears and hopes.

Reason: Is language the crucial invention?

Dennett: With language we can formulate things and remember the formulation and remind ourselves of what we screwed up the last time. And we can do it with other people.

Reason: There are a lot of people, from both the left and the right, who want to resist these ideas.

Dennett: Yes, that's right, from both the left and the right. I'm glad you noticed that. I figure I'm hitting the nail on the head.

Reason: The people on the right seem to be afraid that you've disenchanted the world. You've made it meaningless.

Dennett: I've disenchanted it, but I haven't made it meaningless. Meaning doesn't depend on magic.

You know, that's a really fundamental thing. For some people, if it isn't magic, it doesn't mean anything.

Reason: Think tanks like the Ethics and Public Policy Center and thinkers like Leon Kass and Irving Kristol seem very frightened about the moral implications of your project.

Dennett: They're scared to death of this, and I think they're just wrong. They're clinging to a straw that won't float. I don't know whether it's comic or tragic. The idea that they could save what they hold dear by making it magical, by embodying it in this little pearl of soul stuff, that's superstitious thinking of the worst sort.

Reason: How would you comfort them?

Dennett: There, there. There, there. It's not as scary as you think.

Reason: I actually suspect some of them of believing that you are correct. They just don't want ordinary people to think about this stuff. They are afraid that if people believed that God doesn't exist, then they might think that everything's permitted.

Dennett: Yes. They don't want me letting the cat out of the bag. I think that's incredibly paternalistic and arrogant. They underestimate the intelligence of their fellow human beings.

Reason: So you're fairly confident that the world will go on and people will still raise their families and they won't murder each other in their sleep?

Dennett: Absolutely. I think it's time to grow up.

Reason: Why would people resist growing up?

Dennett: There are so many reasons. At its worst, it's that paternalism: "I don't need it, but look at all these childish people around me. They need it. I won't dare walk the streets at night if my fellow man doesn't persist in this delusion."

At its best, it's an understandable conservatism, one that says, "You're proposing a really big shift -- 'a strange inversion of reason,' as one reviewer characterized evolutionary theory in 1867. You're going to upset so many apple carts, and this will be so scary, and we're better off clinging to the old-fashioned way even though we grant you that the arguments you're putting forward are correct."

That's why I called one of my books Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Darwin subverted everything. He replaced the top-down theory with the bottom-up theory, and for many people this is just a very scary change.

Reason: Let me turn your own arguments on you. The memes for the top-down theories seem to have been doing fine for all these centuries.

Dennett: No, they haven't. It's been one defeat after another. There was the Galilean defeat and the Copernican defeat and the Darwinian defeat and the Einsteinian defeat. The domain of the supernatural has been shrinking. The retreat has sometimes been graceful, and sometimes it's the farthest thing from graceful.

In my discipline of philosophy, we have several hundred years of really good, deep, wonderful work in ethics that is completely secular. And it is understood, if not articulated very often, that of course if you want to argue in favor of legislation or a change in attitude about morality, you don't argue it on the basis of what it says in the Bible or the Koran or any old text. You argue on a secular basis. The secular tradition of political affairs and ethics has been growing for several thousand years.

Reason: Albeit at a very slow rate relative to a single human life. The fact of the matter is that people do still argue what the Koran or the Bible says.

Dennett: But it hasn't gone backwards ever. There are setbacks, but the march of secular reason has been doing very well for several thousand years.

Reason: You part company with the left on the question of human nature. The left has traditionally claimed that human nature is completely malleable, a blank slate, on which you can inscribe whatever cultural or political aspirations you want.

Dennett: The blank slate is a preposterous myth, and it's interesting to see how it has been fostered by some on the left as well as some on the right. But the idea that human nature is unadjustable, unexploitable, unbuildable is also baloney.

Reason: So to summarize: Morality evolved to get us past our tendency to short-run selfishness. It's a way of helping us make better decisions in the long run. Is that fair?

Dennett: Yes, that's right. Morality is the cultural artifact for improving the circumstances under which we have to act.

Reason: So human beings are still selfish, but we have developed enlightened selfishness. We can understand the consequences of our actions and control them.

Dennett: There's a Robert Frank quip in the book: It turns out that the way to seem moral is to be moral.

Reason: So morality evolves largely because people get more benefits than not out of it.

Dennett: Yes. Civilization is a good deal.
by Steve Pinker, presented at the annual meeting of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, October 29, 2004

Thank you very much; this is a tremendous honor. I look forward to displaying the Emperor proudly in my office at Harvard. It's a special honor to be here on the occasion that is recognizing the accomplishments of Anne Gaylor and I'd like to express my appreciation for the wonderful work that she has done in this Foundation.

Do we have a “God gene,” or a “God module”? I'm referring to claims that a number of you may have noticed. Just last week, a cover story of Time magazine was called "The God Gene: Does our deity compel us to seek a higher power?" Believe it or not, some scientists say yes. And a number of years earlier, there were claims that the human brain is equipped with a “God module,” a subsystem of the brain shaped by evolution to cause us to have a religious belief. "Brain's God module may affect religious intensity," according to the headline of the Los Angeles Times. In this evening's talk, I want to evaluate those claims.

There certainly is a phenomenon that needs to be explained, namely religious beliefs. According to surveys by ethnographers, religion is a human universal. In all human cultures, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that ritual can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, evils, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods.

All cultures, you might ask? Yes, all cultures. I give you an example of a culture we're well familiar with, that of the contemporary United States. The last time I checked the figures, 25% of Americans believe in witches, 50% in ghosts, 50% in the devil, 50% believe that the Book of Genesis is literally true, 69% believe in angels, 87% believe Jesus was raised from the dead, and 96% believe in a god or a universal spirit. You've got your work cut out for you!

So what's going on? In many regards, the human mind appears to be well-engineered. Not literally well-engineered, but it has the signs or appearance of engineering in the biologist’s sense. That is, we can see, think, move, talk, understand, and attain goals better than any robot or computer. You can't go to Circuit City and buy Rosie the Maid from "The Jetsons" and expect to it to put away the dishes or run simple errands. These feats are too difficult for human-made creations, though they're things that a five-year-old child could do effortlessly. The explanation for signs of engineering in the natural world is Darwin's theory of national selection, the only theory we've come up with so far that can explain the illusion of design in causal terms.

The question is, how can a powerful taste for apparently irrational beliefs evolve? H.L. Mencken said that “the most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It's the chief occupation of humankind.” This poses an enigma to the psychologist.

There is one way in which religious belief could be an adaptation. Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception, because the world really is three-dimensional. We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous. Perhaps there really is a personal, attentive, invisible, miracle-producing, reward-giving, retributive deity, and we have a God module in order to commune with him. As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable, that success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin. I don't know anyone who has done the necessary studies, but I would say there is good reason to believe that these hypotheses have not been confirmed. There's a Yiddish expression: "If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

There have been other, more plausible attempts to explain religion as a biological adaptation. Even though I'm far more sympathetic to Darwinian explanations of mental life than most psychologists, I don't find any of these convincing.

The first is that religion gives comfort. The concepts of a benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, an afterlife, or just deserts, ease the pain of being a human; these comforting thoughts make us feel better. There's an element of truth to this, but it is not a legitimate adaptationist explanation, because it begs the question of why the mind should find comfort in beliefs that are false. Saying that something is so doesn't make it so, and there's no reason why it should be comforting to think it so, when we have reason to believe it is not so. Compare: if you're freezing, being told that you're warm is not terribly soothing. If you're being threatened by a menacing predator, being told that it's just a rabbit is not particularly comforting. In general, we are not that easily deluded. Why should we be in the case of religion? It simply begs the question.

The second hypothesis is that religion brings a community together. Those of you who read the cover story of Time might be familiar with this hypothesis because the geneticist Dean Hamer, whose new book The God Gene inspired the cover story, offered this as his Darwinian explanation of religion. Again I think again there's an element of truth in this. Religion certainly does bring a community together. But again it simply begs the question as to why. Why, if there is a subgoal in evolution to have people stand together to face off common enemies, would a belief in spirits, or a belief that ritual could change the future, be necessary to cement a community together? Why not just emotions like trust and loyalty and friendship and solidarity? There's no a priori reason you would expect a belief in a soul or a ritual would be a solution to the problem of how you get a bunch of organisms to cooperate.

The third spurious explanation is that religion is the source of our higher ethical yearnings. Those of you who read the book Rock of Ages by Steven Jay Gould, who argued that religion and science could co-exist comfortably, are familiar with his argument: since science can't tell us what our moral values should be, that's what religion is for, and each “magisterium” should respect the other. A big problem for this hypothesis is apparent to anyone who has read the Bible, which is a manual for rape and genocide and destruction. God tells the Israelites invading all Midianite villages, “Kill all the men, kill all the kids, kill all the old women. The young women that you find attractive, bring them back to your compound, lock them up, shave their heads, lock them in a room for 30 days till they stop crying their eyes out because you've killed their mom and dad, and then take her as a second or third or fourth or fifth wife." So the Bible, contrary to what a majority of Americans apparently believe, is far from a source of higher moral values. Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, gay-bashers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can happily be united in heaven.

To understand the source of moral values, we don’t have to look to religion. Psychologists have identified universal moral sentiments such as love, compassion, generosity, guilt, shame, and righteous indignation. A belief in spirits and angels need have anything to do with it. And moral philosophers such as Peter Singer (one of tomorrow’s honorees) who scrutinize the concept of morality have shown that it is logically rooted in the interchangeability of one's own interests and others. The world's enduring moral systems capture in some way the notion of the interchangeability of perspectives and interests, the idea that "I am one guy among many": the golden rule; the categorical imperative; Singer's own notion of “the expanding circle,” John Rawls' “veil of ignorance,” and so on. A retributive, human-like deity meting out justice doesn't have a role in our best explanations of the logic of morality.

To answer the “why is Homo sapiens so prone to religious belief?” you first have to distinguish between traits that are adaptations, that is, products of Darwinian natural selection, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, also called spandrels or exaptations. An example: Why is our blood red? Is there some adaptive advantage to having red blood, maybe as camouflage against autumn leaves? Well, that’s unlikely, and we don't need any other adaptive explanation, either. The explanation for why our blood is red is that it is adaptive to have a molecule that can carry oxygen, mainly hemoglobin. Hemoglobin happens to be red when it's oxygenated, so the redness of our blood is a byproduct of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. The color per se was not selected for. Another non-adaptive explanation for a biological trait is genetic drift. Random stuff happens in evolution. Certain traits can become fixed through sheer luck of the draw.

To distinguish an adaptation from a byproduct, first of all you have to establish that the trait is in some sense innate, for example, that it develops reliably across a range of environments and is universal across the species. That helps rule out reading, for example, as a biological adaptation. Kids don't spontaneously read unless they are taught, as opposed to spoken language, which is a plausible adaptation, because it does emerge spontaneously in all normal children in all societies.

The second criterion is the causal effects of the trait would, on average, have improved the survival or reproduction of the bearer of that trait in an ancestral environment -- the one in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history, mainly the foraging or hunter-gatherer lifestyle that predated the relatively recent invention of agriculture and civilization.

Crucially, the advantage must be demonstrable by some independently motivated causal consequences of the putative adaptation. That is, the laws of physics or chemistry or engineering have to be sufficient to establish that the trait would be useful. The usefulness of the trait can't be invented ad hoc; if it is, you have not a legitimate evolutionary explanation but a “just-so story” or fairy tale. The way to tell them apart is to independently motivate the usefulness of the trait. An example: Via projective geometry, one can show that by combining images from two cameras or optical devices, it is possible to calculate the depth of an object from the disparity of the projections. If you write out the specs for what you need in order to compute stereoscopic depth, you find that humans and other primates seem to have exactly those specs in our sense of stereoscopic depth perception. It's exactly what engineers would design if they were building a robot that had to see in depth. That similarity is a good reason to believe that human stereoscopic depth perception is an adaptation.

Likewise for fear of snakes. In all societies people have a wariness of snakes; one sees it even in laboratory-raised monkeys who had never seen a snake. We know from herpetology that snakes were prevalent in Africa during the time of our evolution, and that getting bitten by a snake is not good for you because of the chemistry of snake venom. Crucially, that itself is not a fact of psychology, but it helps to establish that what is a fact of psychology, namely the fear of snakes, is a plausible adaptation.

Our sweet tooth is yet another example. It’s not terribly adaptive now, but biochemistry has established that sugar is packed with calories, and therefore could have prevented starvation in an era which food sources were unpredictable. That makes a sweet tooth a plausible adaptation.

In contrast, it's not clear what the adaptive function of humor is, or of music. I think the explanations of religion that I've reviewed have the same problem, namely not having an independent rationale, given an engineering analysis of why that trait should, in principle, be useful.

The alternative, then, is that just as the redness of blood is a by-product of other adaptations, so may our predisposition to religious belief. A crucial corollary of the theory of evolution is that conflicts of interests among organisms, of different species or of the same species, lead to the biological equivalent of an arms race. An organism evolves more clever or lethal weapons, another organism evolves even more ingenious defenses, and so on, spiraling the process spiral. At any given stage in an arms race, a feature can be adaptive for one organism but not for its adversaries, as long as the first is overcoming the defenses of the second. That's another reason why not everything in biology is adaptive, at least not for every organism. What's adaptive for the lion is not so adaptive for the lamb.

So a way of rephrasing the question “Why is religious belief so pervasive?” is to ask, Who benefits? Another way of putting it is that one must distinguish the possible benefits of religion to the producers of religious belief – the religious establishment of shamans and priests and so on—from the benefits to the consumers of religion -- the parishioners, the flock, the believers. The answer might be different for the two cases. One must distinguish the question "What good is an inculcation of religious belief by priests, shaman, and so on?" from the question "What good is an acceptance of religious belief by believers?"

A number of anthropologists have pointed out the benefits of religion to those causing other people to have religious beliefs. One ubiquitous component of religion is ancestor worship. And ancestor worship must sound pretty good if you're getting on in years and can foresee the day when you're going to become an ancestor. Among the indignities of growing old is that you know that you're not going to be around forever. If you plausibly convince other people that you'll continue to oversee their affairs even when you're dead and gone, that gives them an incentive to treat you nicely up to the last day.

Food taboos are also common in religious belief, and might be explained by the psychology of food preference and dispreference, in particular, disgust. If you withhold a food, especially a food of animal origin, from children during a critical period, they'll grow up grossed out at the thought of eating that food. That's why most of us would not eat dog meat, monkey brains, or maggots, things that are palatable in other societies. There are often ecological reasons why food taboos develop, but there are probably also reasons of control. Since neighboring groups have different favored foods, if you keep your own kids from having a taste for the foods favored by your neighbors, it can keep them inside the coalition, preventing them from defecting to other coalitions, because to break bread with their neighbors they'd have to eat revolting stuff.

Rites of passage are another intelligible feature of religion. Many social decisions have to be made in categorical, yes-or-no, all-or-none fashion. But a lot of our biology is fuzzy and continuous. A child doesn't go to bed one night and wake up an adult the next morning. But we do have to make decisions such as whether they can vote or drive or buy a gun. There's nothing magical about the age of 13 or the age of 18 or any other age. But it's more convenient to arbitrarily anoint a person as an adult on a particular, arbitrarily chosen day, than to haggle over how mature every individual is every time he wants a beer. Religious rites of passage demarcate stages of life, serving the function that we have given over to driver's licenses and other forms of ID. Another fuzzy continuum is whether someone is available as a potential romantic partner or are committed to someone else. Marriage is a useful way of demarcating that continuum with a sharp line.

Costly initiations or sacrifices are also present in almost all the world's religions. A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from hangers-on and parasites and free-riders. One way to test who's genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice. To take an example close to home: To see whether someone is committed to an ethnic group I am familiar with, you can say, "You've just had a baby. Please hand over your son so I can cut some skin off his penis." That's not the kind of thing that anyone would do unless they took their affiliation with the group seriously. And there are far more gruesome examples from the rest of the world.

Yet another explicable feature of religion is signs of expertise in occult knowledge. If you're the one who knows mysterious but important arcane knowledge, then other people will defer to you. Even in non-religious contexts, most societies have some division of labor in expertise, where we accord prestige and perquisites to people who know useful stuff. So a good strategy for providers of religion is to mix some genuine expertise -- and indeed, anthropologists have shown that the tribal shaman or witch doctor really is an expert in herbal medicine and folk remedies – with a certain amount of hocus-pocus, trance-inducing drugs, stage magic, sumptuous robes and cathedrals, and so on, reinforcing the claim that there are worlds of incomprehensible wonder, power, and mystery that are reachable only through one's services.

These practical benefits take some of the mystery over why people like to encourage religious belief in others, without committing oneself to a specific biological adaptation for religion. The inculcation of religious belief would be a byproduct of these other, baser, motives.

What about the other side of these transactions, namely the consumers? Why do they buy it? One reason is that in most cases we should defer to experts. That's in the very nature of expertise. If I have a toothache, I open my mouth and let a guy drill my teeth. If I have a bellyache, I let him cut me open. That involves a certain amount of faith. Of course, in these cases the faith is rational, but that deference could, if manipulated, lead to irrational deference, even if the larger complex of deference can be adaptive on the whole.

There are also emotional predispositions which evolved for various reasons and make us prone to religious belief as a by-product. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict summed up much of prayer when she said, "Religion is universally a technique for success.” Ethnographic surveys suggest that when people try to communicate with God, it's not to share gossip or know-how; it’s to ask him for stuff: recovery from illness, recovery of a child from illness, success in enterprises, success in the battlefield. (And of course, the Red Sox winning the World Series, which almost made me into a believer.) This idea was summed up by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, which defines "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy." This aspect of religious belief is thus a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they've exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.

Those are some of the emotional predispositions that make people fertile ground for religious belief. But there also are cognitive predispositions, ways in which we intellectually analyze the world, which have been very skillfully explored by the anthropologists Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, and Scott Atran. Anyone who is interested in the evolutionary psychology of religion would enjoy Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and Scott Atran called In Gods We Trust. Hamer's The God Gene is also good, but I am more sympathetic to Boyer and Atran.

The starting point is a faculty of human reason that psychologists call intuitive psychology or the “theory of mind module” – “theory” here not referring to a theory of the scientist but rather to the intuitive theory that people unconsciously deploy in making sense of other people's behavior. When I try to figure out what someone is going to do, I don't treat them as just a robot or a wind-up doll responding to physical stimuli in the world. Rather, I impute minds to those people. I can't literally know what someone else is thinking or feeling, but I assume that they're thinking or feeling something, that they have a mind, and I explain their behavior in terms of their beliefs and their desires. That's intuitive psychology. There is evidence that intuitive psychology is a distinct part of our psychological make-up. It seems to be knocked out in a condition called autism: autistic people can be prodigious in mathematics, art, language, and music, but they have a terrible time attributing minds to other people. They really do treat other people as if they were robots and wind-up dolls. There's also a concerted effort underway to see where intuitive psychology is computed in the brain. Parts of it seems to be concentrated in the ventromedial and orbital frontal cortex, the parts of the brain that kind of sit above the eyeballs, as well as the superior temporal sulcus farther back.

Perhaps the ubiquitous belief in spirits, souls, gods, angels, and so on, consists of our intuitive psychology running amok. If you are prone to attributing an invisible entity called “the mind” to other people’s bodies, it's a short step to imagining minds that exist independently of bodies. After all, it's not as if you could reach out and touch someone else's mind; you are always making an inferential leap. It's just one extra inferential step to say that a mind is not invariable housed in a body.

In fact the 19th-century anthropologist Edward Tyler pointed out that in some ways, there is good empirical support for the existence of the soul, or at least there used to be, until the fairly recent advent of neuroscience, which provides an alternative explanation for how minds work. Think about dreams. When you dream, your body is in bed the whole time, but some part of you seems to be up and about in the world. The same thing happens when you're in a trance from a fever, a hallucinogenic drug, sleep deprivation, or food poisoning.

Shadows and reflections are rather mysterious, or were until the development of the physics of light with its explanation of those phenomena. But they appear to have the form and essence of the person but without any of their actual matter.

Death, of course, is the ultimate apparent evidence for the existence of the soul. A person may be walking around and seeing and hearing one minute, and the next minute be an inert and lifeless body, perhaps without any visible change. It would seem that some animating entity that was housed in the body has suddenly escaped from it.

So before the advent of modern physics, biology and especially neuroscience, a plausible explanation of these phenomena is that the soul wanders off when we sleep, lurks in the shadows, looks back at us from a surface of a pond, and leaves the body when we die.

To sum up. The universal propensity toward religious belief is a genuine scientific puzzle. But many adaptationist explanations for religion, such as the one featured in Time last week, don't, I think, meet the criteria for adaptations. There is an alternative explanation, namely that religious psychology is a by-product of many parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes. Among those purposes one has to distinguish the benefits to the producer and the benefits to the consumer. Religion has obvious practical effects for producers. When it comes to the consumers, there are possible emotional adaptations in our desire for health, love and success, possible cognitive adaptations in our intuitive psychology, and many aspects of our experience that seem to provide evidence for souls. Put these together and you get an appeal to a mysterious world of souls to bring about our fondest wishes.
(Chaired by Tim Radford; Introduction by John Brockman)
Retrieved from Edge 53 - April 8, 1999

TIM RADFORD: My name is Tim Radford; I'm the science editor of The Guardian. And I'm here to do a very strange thing, I'm here to introduce two people who obviously need no introduction whatsoever, otherwise you wouldn't be here. There are I gather 2,300 of you, and there are another three or four hundred weeping and gnashing their teeth outside. So you knew why you were coming. You thought you knew what you were going to hear. What you are going to hear is from two great story tellers of modern science. Science is a story, we're story-telling animals, we tell each other stories to explain why we're here, and since we don't know the outcome of our narrative, we conduct these things in the form of a story-so-far. This is what science does for us, but of course we've always done that.

There are three great stories in science. One of them is where the universe came from. One of them is where life came from. And the third is where we came from. Now this last aspect breaks into several different aspects, really. One is: who is this person called a human -- or indeed who is this person called a person? Where did he come from, or she? Why are we here? What are we doing, where are we going? And how did we get here, and why did one particular group of creatures on the plains of Africa suddenly pick up a stone and start playing with it, scratching things, or skinning things, doing things, going places, colonizing the globe. The second question is not about the entity called human, but the identity within that entity. What is this mind for? Why is it so big? Why could it encompass absolutely anything? Why does any mind seem to be able to encompass absolutely everything? It's all we've got, but we're not that conscious of it. We think we're occupying reality, but of course it's only our brain that tells us this. We have people here who can explain this much better than I can.

What's going on? Well, we have reached a curious situation in science in which it's possible for people to propose that science might be able to provide all the answers. Neither of the two guests tonight actually make these claims, but there are scientists who do claim such things. And one of the pieces of machinery that they use is sometimes known as Darwinism, or the theory of evolution, or just the action of natural selection upon random mutation. It doesn't really matter, because we're just going to call it tonight, Darwinism. At least I am. Professor Dawkins will actually have a better explanation if you ask him.

Is it important to us? Yes it is important. Natural selection is the environment. We started altering our environment back at the beginning of the 19th century. We have now comprehensively changed it, so we run the world for our benefit, and every now and then it gets a bit fragile at the edges, we have to start worrying about the ozone layer, or the carbon dioxide crisis -- but we have changed the environment. More alarmingly, we have begun to understand how we could change ourselves; we could take charge of our own genes. We aren't doing it yet. You hear talk about designer babies; there are no such things, but we have reached the stage where we have to ask ourselves whether we want some of our babies. We can now see what kind of baby we might be about to have, and people are suddenly thrust into the position of having to ask themselves, what is a gene, what does it do, and how will it all turn out? So these are very important questions, and they do actually concern us. These questions are not academic.

Nor are they new. There's a wonderful passage in the Book of Job, Chapter 38, I think, in which the poet who composed Job speaks as if God, and asks Job a series of questions which begin, Hath the rain a Father? Who hath begot the drops of dew? out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath engendered it? the waters are hid as with stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Canst thou bind the sweet influence of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? (NOTE BY MICHAEL U: Just out curiosity, how did the author of Job, supposedly writing far before other books of the Bible, known about Greek constellations?) Now that of course is great poetry, and one of the issues that we are discussing here is whether science is killing the soul in the sense of poetry. All I point out to you is that that is a series of questions about the hydrological cycle, you cannot say that it's just poetry, they are also real questions which demand real answers, which people are supplying, scientists among them.

We have with us tonight two extraordinarily gifted writers. One of them is Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and he's the man who more than two decades ago introduced the notion of the selfish gene, upsetting a lot of people, creating a debate that hasn't stopped yet. He followed this up with a series of dazzling books, of which the latest is called Unweaving the Rainbow, which is not just about Darwinism, but about science itself, and about our understanding of the planet we live on. The other is Steven Pinker, who is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And he leapt onto the best-seller list about three years ago with a wonderful book called The Language Instinct, which was just about this remarkable ability that 3-year-olds have to learn any grammar that happens to be lying around, with the implication that either babies are born knowing, in principle, all the languages that have ever been invented, or yet to be invented, -- or that there is a universal grammar and it's already composed in their own brains. If so, what a remarkable thing the brain is. I'll let them talk about that. The subject tonight is "Is Science Killing the Soul?" You will not find this a straight-forward head-to-head debate in which one man says yes and the other says no. It all depends, as Professor Joad used to say, on what you mean by soul. Richard Dawkins.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Thank you very much, Tim. But the word debate does appear up on the notice there. It may turn into more of a dialogue than a debate. I suspect that Steve Pinker and I are perhaps largely of the same mind here, so there's a risk that anybody who's come here expecting a confrontation will go away disappointed by too much agreement. I don't know if this will happen, but if it does, I don't think there's any need to apologize. The adversarial approach to truth isn't necessarily always the best one. On the contrary, when two people disagree strongly, a great deal of time may be wasted. It's been well said that when two opposite points of view are advocated with equal vigor, the truth does not necessarily lie mid-way between them. And in the same way, when two people agree about something, it's just possible that the reason they agree is that they're both right. There's also I suppose the hope that in a dialogue of this sort each speaker may manage to achieve a joint understanding with the other one, better than he would have done on his own.

Is science killing the soul? This is a cunning title, because it cunningly mixes two different meanings of soul. The first and oldest meaning of soul, which I'm going to call Soul One, takes off from one set of definitions. I'm going to quote several related definitions from the Oxford dictionary:

"The principle of life in man or animals -- animate existence."

"The principle of thought and action in man commonly regarded as an entity distinct from the body, the spiritual part of man in contrast to the purely physical."

"The spiritual part of man regarded as surviving after death, and as susceptible of happiness or misery in a future state."

"The disembodied spirit of a deceased person regarded as a separate entity and as invested with some amount of form and personality."

So Soul One refers to a particular theory of life. It's the theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical vital principle. It's the theory according to which a body has to be animated by some anima. Vitalized by a vital force. Energized by some mysterious energy. Spiritualized by some mysterious spirit. Made conscious by some mysterious thing or substance called consciousness. You'll notice that all those definitions of Soul One are circular and non-productive. It's no accident. Julian Huxley once satirically likened vitalism to the theory that a railway engine works by "force-locomotif." I don't always agree with Julian Huxley, but here he hit the nail beautifully. In the sense of Soul One, science has either killed the soul or is in the process of doing so.

But there is a second sense of soul, Soul Two, which takes off from another one of the Oxford dictionary's definitions:

"Intellectual or spiritual power. High development of the mental faculties. Also, in somewhat weakened sense, deep feeling, sensitivity."

In this sense, our question tonight means, Is science killing soulfulness? Is it killing esthetic sensitivity, artistic sensibility, creativity? The answer to this question, Is science killing Soul Two?, is a resounding No. The very opposite is the case. But it is a question worth pursuing, because there have been many people, from genuinely great poets all the way down to Brian Appleyard and Fay Weldon, who've given a strong Yes answer to the question, Is science killing the soul? It's Soul Two that Keats and Lamb meant when they thought that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow when he unwove it.

"Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven;
We know her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things,
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine‹
Unweave a rainbow . . ."

Well, I've written a book which is one long reply to that particular kind of anti-scientific attitude. In the sense of Soul Two, science doesn't kill the soul, it gives the soul constant and exhilarating re-birth.

Turning back to Soul One -- in the first chapter of Steve Pinker's book How the Mind Works he says, "I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder-principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems, each contrived to overcome its own obstacles." In the same paragraph, he moves on to Soul Two when he says, " . . . I believe that the discovery by cognitive science and artificial intelligence of the technical challenges overcome by our mundane mental activity is one of the great revelations of science, an awakening of the imagination comparable to learning that the universe is made up of billions of galaxies or that a drop of pond water teems with microscopic life." Well, awakening of the imagination is a pretty good definition of Soul Two. And in that sense, far from killing the soul, science may prove to be its greatest awakener.

Carl Sagan wrote, shortly before he died,

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths."

Well it's common enough for people to agree that religions have got the facts all wrong, but "Nevertheless," they go on to say, "you have to admit that religions do provide something that people need. We crave a deeper meaning to life, a deeper, more imaginative understanding of the mystery of existence." Well, in the passage I've just quoted, Sagan seems to be criticizing religions not just for getting it wrong, which many people would accept, but for their deficiencies precisely in the sphere in which they are supposed to retain some residual virtue. Religions are not imaginative, not poetic, not soulful. On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous.

Now, there are, of course many unsolved problems, and scientists are the first to admit this. There are aspects of human subjective consciousness that are deeply mysterious. Neither Steve Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness -- what philosophers call qualia. In How the Mind Works Steve elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what's the explanation. Then he's honest enough to say, "Beats the heck out of me." That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don't know. We don't understand it.

There's a cheap debating trick which implies that if, say, science can't explain something, this must mean that some other discipline can. If scientists suspect that all aspects of the mind have a scientific explanation but they can't actually say what that explanation is yet, then of course it's open to you to doubt whether the explanation ever will be forthcoming. That's a perfectly reasonable doubt. But it's not legitimately open to you to substitute a word like soul, or spirit, as if that constituted an explanation. It is not an explanation, it's an evasion. It's just a name for that which we don't understand. The scientist may agree to use the word soul for that which we don't understand, but the scientist adds, "But we're working on it, and one day we hope we shall explain it." The dishonest trick is to use a word like soul or spirit as if it constituted an explanation.

Consciousness is still mysterious. And scientists, I think, all admit it. But we ought to remember that it's not that long ago that life itself was thought to be equally mysterious. I'm going to quote from a book, A Short History of Biology by Charles Singer, a reputable historian of science, published in 1931, where he says, about the gene,

". . . despite interpretations to the contrary, the theory of the gene is not a 'mechanist' theory. The gene is no more comprehensible as a chemical or physical entity than is the cell or, for that matter, the organism itself. . . . If I ask for a living chromosome, that is, for the only effective kind of chromosome, no one can give it to me except in its living surroundings any more than he can give me a living arm or leg. The doctrine of the relativity of functions is as true for the gene as it is for any of the organs of the body. They exist and function only in relation to other organs. Thus the last of the biological theories leaves us where the first started, in the presence of a power called life or psyche which is not only of its own kind but unique in each and all of its exhibitions."

That was 1931. In 1953, Watson and Crick drove a coach and horses through it, blew it out of the water. Genes are isolatable, they can be taken out of bodies, they can be sequenced, they can be put in bottles, they can be written out in a book and stored away in a library, and then at any time in the future they can be simply typed back into a machine and the original gene reconstituted. It could be put back into a living creature where it will work exactly the way it originally did. In the context of the gene, the understanding, the explanation is more or less total. And it was completely unexpected only a few decades ago.

My suspicion, my hunch, my hope, is that the same thing is going to be done for the conscious mind. Probably within the next century. Soul One will finally be killed, and good riddance. But in the process, Soul Two, far from being destroyed, will still be finding new worlds to conquer.

I'm going to end my prepared remarks by saying a little bit about Darwinism, because Darwinism is something which obviously Steve Pinker and I have in common in our approach to science. This, I think, may be the one place where possibly some slight disagreement may emerge. For me, Darwinism is not actually, surprisingly enough, the theory of the selfish gene. It's the theory of the selfish replicator. Darwinism is a much more general idea than the particular version of Darwinism which happens to explain life on this planet. Darwinism in this more general universal sense refers to the differential survival of any kind of self-replicating coded information which has some sort of power or influence over its probability of being replicated. DNA is the main kind of replicating entity that we know on this planet that has that property. When we look at living things on this planet, overwhelmingly the kind of explanation we should be seeking, if we ask what the functional significance is an explanation in terms of the good of the genes. Any adaptation is for the good of the genes which made that adaptation.

STEVEN PINKER: I'm going to discuss an idea that elicits wildly opposite reactions. Some people find it a shocking claim with radical implications for morals and every value that we hold dear. Other people think that it's a claim that was established a hundred years ago, that the excitement is only in how we work out the details, and that it has few if any implications for our values and ethics. That is the idea that the mind is the physiological activity of the brain, in particular the information processing activity of the brain; that the brain, like other organs, is shaped by the genes; and that in turn, the genome was shaped by natural selection and other evolutionary processes. I am among those who think that this should no longer be a shocking claim, and that the excitement is in fleshing out the details, and showing exactly how our perception, decision-making, and emotions can be tied to the activity of the brain.

Three new sciences are now vividly rooting our mental processes in our biology. Cognitive neuroscience, the attempt to relate thought, perception and emotion to the functioning of the brain, has pretty much killed Soul One, in Richard's sense. It should now be clear to any scientifically literate person that we don't have any need for a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle memorably put it. Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone -- the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as Alzheimer's. The person -- the soul, if you want -- gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process.

We know that every form of mental activity -- every emotion, every thought, every percept -- gives off electrical, magnetic, or metabolic signals that can be recorded with increasing precision by Positron Emission Tomography, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Magnetoencephalography, and other techniques. We know that if you take a knife and section the corpus callosum (which joins the two cerebral hemispheres) you have the equivalent of two minds -- perhaps even two souls -- in the same skull. We know that if you look at the brain under a microscope it has a breathtaking degree of complexity -- on the order of a trillion synapses -- that's fully commensurate with the breathtaking complexity of human thought and experience. We know that when the brain dies, the person goes out of existence. I consider it to be a significant empirical discovery that one cannot communicate with the dead, and excellent evidence that Soul One, in Richard's sense, does not exist.

A second science, behavioral genetics, has shown that there is a fascinating degree of specificity in our genome. You've all heard of the remarkable studies of monozygotic twins reared apart, who are remarkably similar in intelligence, personality, and attitudes -- even in their opinion on the death penalty and their tastes in music and clothing. And just in the past year there have been discoveries of genetic markers, and in some case genes and even gene products, associated with mental traits such as intelligence, spatial cognition, control of speech, the desire to seek sensation, and the tendency to be overly anxious.

The third science that's connecting mind to biology is evolutionary psychology, which takes an approach to understanding the mind that has long been fruitful in understanding the organs of the body. We can't make sense of an organ like the eye without considering it to have a function, or a purpose - not in a mystical, teleological sense, but in the sense of an illusion of engineering. That illusion, we now know, is a consequence of Darwin's process of natural selection. Everyone agrees that the eye is a remarkable bit of natural "engineering," and that may now be explained as a product of natural selection rather than as the handiwork of a cosmic eye-designer or as a massive coincidence in tissue formation. But the eye by itself is useless -- unless it's connected to a brain. The eye does not carry out its function by dumping optical information into a yawning chasm. Rather, the eye is hooked up to parts of the brain -- anatomically speaking, the eye is an extension of the brain -- and those parts contain circuits for analyzing the incoming visual material, for recovering the shapes and colors and motions in the world that gave rise to the stimulation of the eye. The perception of a world of colored 3-D objects, in turn, feeds into a system of categorization, allowing us to make sense of our experience, to impute causes to events, and to remember things in terms of their significant categories. And in turn, those categories themselves would be useless unless they were organized in service of certain goals, goals set by our emotions. Beginning with the eye, we have a chain of causation that leads to the study of faculties of mind, or modules, or subsystems, each of which can be seen as an adaptation akin to the adaptations in the organs of the body. Recent research has shown that aspects of the psyche that were previously considered mysterious, quirky, and idiosyncratic -- such as phobias, an eye for beauty, the tendency to fall in love, a passionate desire for revenge in defense of honor -- turn out to have a subtle evolutionary logic when they are analyzed in the way in which we have always analyzed the organs of the body.

I find these developments to be exhilarating; they are a fulfillment of the ancient imperative to know thyself. They also have important practical implications. Alzheimer's Disease, to cite just one example, will be one of the leading causes of human misery in the industrial world over the next several decades, as we live longer and stop dying of other things. Successful treatment of Alzheimer's will not come from prayer or wishful thinking or reasoning about soul one; it will come from treating memory and personality as biochemical phenomena.

Nonetheless, as I mentioned at the outset, not everyone shares this excitement. Sometimes the reaction of people who learn about these new sciences is uneasy ambivalence. The American author Tom Wolfe wrote an article called "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," a mixture of admiration and apprehension over the frontiers of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. A reviewer of my book How the Mind Works, alluding to the rock and roll band, said that I was describing people as Meat Puppets, and several reviewers, to my puzzlement, asked whether, if I were right, life would be worth living. I am puzzled by these reactions, which are never backed up by argument, only by indignation and high dudgeon. But I'll do my best to recover the values and reasoning that lead to them, and to show why I think they are misguided.

One reason I find the reaction strange is that I can't imagine how anything coming out of the laboratory, computer, or theoretician's notebook could possibly subtract from what is the meaning of life, or Richard's sense of Soul two. Why keep on living if our minds are the physiological activity of the brain? Well, for starters there's natural beauty, and works of great art, and ethical ideals, and love, and bringing up children, and enjoying friends, and discovering how the world works -- I could go on. Why should the worth of any of those activities depend on the existence of a ghost in the machine?

Clearly there can be reasons that some people feel threatened by the idea that the mind is the activity of the brain, and here are my guesses about what they are. One is that since natural selection is not a process that is guaranteed to produce niceness, many typical human motives will not necessarily lead to ethically desirable outcomes. Much of the research in evolutionary psychology has shown that many ignoble motives have some basis in natural selection. An example is the desire, most obvious in men, to defend one's honor and reputation, by violence if necessary. Another is the characteristically male motive to seek a variety of sexual partners. It's easy to work out why those motives evolved, and there is by now an enormous body of evidence that they are widespread among humans. But people reject the explanation because of what they think is the subtext. If these motives are part of our nature, if they come from the natural world, well, everyone knows that natural things are good -- natural childbirth, natural yogurt, and so on -- so that would imply that promiscuity and violence aren't so bad after all. And it implies that since they are "in the genes," they are unchangeable, and attempts to improve the human condition are futile.

I think both parts are wrong -- the first part is so obviously wrong that it has been given a name, the naturalist fallacy, the idea that what we find in nature is good. What we find in nature is not necessarily good; as Richard has put it, the universe is not good or bad, it's indifferent. Certainly violence and philandering and all of the other sins are immoral whether their cause is the genes, or the wiring of the brain, or social conditioning, or anything else. It behooves us to find the causes, but the causes don't change the moral coloring of those acts.

Also, the human mind, I argue, is a complex system of many interacting parts. Even if one motive impels people to do immoral acts, other parts of the mind that can subvert its designs. We can think of the long-term consequences, and we can imagine what society would be like if everyone acted on a particular motive. The part of the mind that has those thoughts can disengage the part of the mind that has less noble motives.

I think a second discomfort with the biological approach to the human mind is the worry that it somehow makes our ideals a sham or less real. Life would be a Potemkin Village, where there's only a facade of value and worth, but really biology is showing that there's nothing behind the facade. For example, if we love our children because the genes for loving children are in the bodies of those children and so the genes are benefiting themselves, doesn't that undermine the purity or the value of that love? If our ethical ideals, our sense of justice and fairness, were selected for because it did our ancestors good in the long run, would that imply that there's no such thing as altruism or justice, that deep down we're really selfish?

I think that this reaction is based on a misreading of Richard's metaphor of the selfish gene. It's not because of what Richard actually said in his book The Selfish Gene, which is crystal clear. But here's how it could be misread: the theory says that one can make powerful predictions about the process of natural selection by imagining that the gene has a selfish motive to make copies of itself. Of course no one ever thought that a gene has real motives in the sense that people have motives, but it this is a valuable way to gain insight about the subtleties of natural selection, especially when it comes to social interactions, and it leads to many correct predictions.

Here is the distortion. People think that genes are our deepest hidden self, our essence, so if our genes are selfish, that means that deep down we're selfish. It's an unholy hybrid of Freud's idea of unconscious motivation and the straightforward modern theory of the natural selection of replicators. Now, I think I'm safe to say that it was not intended by Richard, and it doesn't follow from the logic of the theory. The metaphorical motives of the genes are not somehow a more fundamental or honest version of the real motives of the entire person. Indeed, sometimes the most "selfish" thing a gene can do, in this metaphorical sense of selfish, is to build a brain that is not selfish -- not selfish at an unconscious level, not selfish at any level -- even if the genes are themselves metaphorically selfish. When we love our children we aren't at any level of the brain calculating that it will increase our inclusive fitness. The love can be pure and in and of itself in terms of what's actually happening in the brain. The selfishness of genes explains why we have that pure emotion.

The idea that morality itself would be a fiction if our moral reasoning came out of some evolved moral sense is also a non sequitur. The fear comes from the fact that we know that many aspects of human experience are in some sense figments. The qualitative distinction between red, yellow, green, and blue, for example, is not out in the world; it's just the way our brain imposes arbitrary cuts in the continuous spectrum of the wavelength of light. Well, if the qualitative difference between red and green is a figment -- it's just the way we're built, it doesn't have any external reality -- could right and wrong also be a figment? Would the sense of worth that comes from pursuing justice and fairness be a sham, just a way of tickling our pleasure centers and making us feel good because of the flow of chemicals or the wiring diagram of the brain?

Not at all. This supposed devaluation of morality does not follow from the idea that we have an evolved moral sense. Many of our faculties evolved to mesh with real things in the world. We have a complicated system of depth perception and shape recognition that prevents us from bumping into trees and falling off cliffs. The fact that our ability to recognize an object comes from complicated circuitry of the brain does not mean that there aren't real objects out there. Indeed, the brain evolved in order to give us as accurate a representation as possible of what is objectively out in the world.

That may also be true, at least according to some philosophical arguments, for morality. Many philosophers believe that some abstract entities, such as numbers, have an existence independent of minds. That is, many philosophers and mathematicians believe that the number three is not just a figment in the way that the color red is, but that it has a real existence, which mathematicians discover and explore with their mathematical faculties; they don't invent it. Similarly, many moral philosophers argue that right and wrong have an existence, and that our moral sense evolved to mesh with them. Even if you don't believe that, there's an alternative that would make the moral sense just as real -- namely, that our universal moral sense is constituted so that it can't work unless we believe that right and wrong have an external reality. So if you want to stop short of saying that moral truths exist outside us, you can say that we can't reason other than by assuming that they do. In that case, when we get down to having a moral debate, we still appeal to external standards of right and wrong; we aren't reduced to comparing idiosyncratic emotional or subjective reactions.

The final disquiet, I think, that is elicited by the naturalist or biological approach to the mind, is that it robs us of responsibility. If we act only because of ricocheting molecules in the brain, shaped by the genes which in turn were shaped by natural selection -- if it's billiard balls all the way down and all the way back -- then how can we hold someone responsible for his actions, given that there is no "he" that caused them? I agree this is a fascinating puzzle, but I don't think it has anything particular to do with cognitive neuroscience or behavioral genetics or evolutionary psychology. It's a problem that is raised by any attempt to explain behavior, regardless of the nature of the explanation. You all remember the scene in "West Side Story" in which the gang of juvenile delinquents explains to Sergeant Krupke, "We're depraved on account of we're deprived":

"Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, You gotta understand, It's just our bringing up-ke, That gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, Our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, naturally we're punks!"

Sondheim's lyrics send up the psychoanalytic and social-science exculpations of bad behavior that were popular in the 1950s, and the non-biological excuses continue. In the 1970s, Dan White was given a light sentence for murdering the mayor of San Francisco because his mind was addled from too much junk food, the infamous Twinkie Defense. In the 1990s, the lawyer for the Menendez brothers argued her way to an acquittal based on her client's diminished responsibility because of childhood sexual abuse. Any time someone explains behavior, biologically or otherwise, a thoughtless observer can imagine that the explanation absolves the actor of responsibility. According to an old saying, to understand is not to forgive. If a moral system locates responsibility in a ghost in the machine, we need to revise the moral system, because the ghost is being exorcised, but we still need the notion of individual responsibility. Any ethical theory that is challenged by some outcome from the laboratory is a defective, or at least an incomplete, ethical theory.

Yesterday I was on the radio with a professor of divinity who said it was crucial that we retain the idea of a unified self, a part of the brain where it all comes together -- the ethical system of two billion people depends on it, he said. I replied there's considerable evidence that the unified self is a fiction -- that the mind is a congeries of parts operating asynchronously, and that it's only an illusion that there's a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything. He said, "I hope that's not true, because if it is we'll have to change our ethical system." I think this is an unwise way of doing moral reasoning. He might be right; I suspect that he's wrong; but whether he's right or wrong, we don't want the morality of killing and raping and lying and stealing to depend on what comes out of the psychology lab down the hall. We need our ethical system to be more robust than that -- it's always wrong to kill people, and we need an ethical system for which that's axiomatic.

To conclude -- we look with wry amusement at the debates in cosmology of three or four hundred years ago, in which great moral significance was attached to the debate between the geocentric and heliocentric theories. It was considered not to be just an empirical question of science, but a problem of great moral weight whether the earth went around the sun or the sun went around the earth. Now we look back and see that this was all rather silly. Either one theory is true or the other one is true, and people had to find out which is which. Any notion that meaning, purpose, ethics, morals and so on hinge on that contingent fact of cosmology came from unsound reasoning. I suspect that the idea that meaning, purpose, and morals hinge on a Soul one, a ghost in the machine, will have the same fate. The ghost in the machine has been exorcised, and meaning and values are none the worse for it. Thank you very much.

RADFORD: If there is a sense of good which is independent of us, who put it there? If a sense of god is a product of evolution, why do we all have such a consistent idea of a divine experience? When one reads the lives of the saints, one comes across the same phenomenon. We can't all have the same brains, or we don't all have the same brains -- why are all these things -- I know these questions are going to be asked, so I'll get them in now, if you don't mind. Richard? Or who wants to start with that one.

PINKER: As for the first question, who put them there -- it may be like the question, "Who put the number three there?" It would be best to get a real moral philosopher to defend the theory of moral realism, but I'll do my best. Perhaps morality comes from the inherent logic of behavior that has consequences for other agents that have goals. If one of the goals is to increase total well-being, then certain consequences may follow in the same way that the Pythagorean theorem follows from the construction of a triangle. Moral truths may exist in the same sense that mathematical truths exist, as consequences of certain axioms. That's my best rendition of the premises of a theory of moral realism.

As for the second question -- why do so many people and cultures end up with similar views of a deity or spiritual theme? -- these beliefs may come from two mental faculties that may not have evolved specifically for spiritual belief, but may have evolved for other things, and as a byproduct give us particular notions of gods and deities. One of them is what psychologists call a "theory of mind"; by "theory" they don't mean a scientist's theory but a folk theory. We all tacitly subscribe to the "theory" that other people have minds. We don't think of other people as mechanical wind-up dolls. Even though we can't know what someone else is thinking, we do our best to make guesses. We look at their eyes, we read between the lines, we look at their body postures, and we assume that they have minds, even though we can't see them directly. Well, it's a short step from imputing an unverifiable entity called the mind to another body, to imputing a mind that exists independently of a body. Beliefs in souls, spirits, devils, gods, and so on, may be the products of a theory of mind or intuitive psychology that has run amok, and is postulating entities divorced from their physical home.

The other part of the explanation comes from a conclusion that anthropologists have drawn about what you find in common in all the world's religions -- not just the major proselytizing religions, but the animistic beliefs of hunter-gatherer tribes. Ruth Benedict put it succinctly: "The common denominator of religions is that a religion is a recipe for success." She didn't necessarily mean this to apply to the most sophisticated theologies, but in general, what people do in common when they think of deities is to pray to them for recovery from illness, for recovery from an illness of a child, for success in love, for success on the battlefield, for good weather, for the crops coming up, and so on. I don't want to say that sophisticated theology can be reduced to praying for good weather, but if you look at what's common across cultures that's what you find.

RADFORD: Richard?

DAWKINS: I think that there's been a historical trend from animism where every tree and every river and every mountain had a spirit, to polytheistic religions where you have Thor, and Wotan, and Apollo and Zeus and things, then a trend towards monotheism (and finally zerotheism or atheism). Interestingly enough I was looking into the law of charity the other day, and found that one of the things that defines a charity for tax purposes is the furtherance of religion. But in British law it's got to be monotheistic religion. Now, there's a large Hindu population in this country. I imagine they might have something to say about that.

But I was actually wanting to steer the question in another direction. Having worked from polytheism to monotheism, I wanted to use that as an analogy in a quest to try to derive some joint enlightenment by talking to Steve about something -- actually, I want to learn something from Steve. So may I change the subject? You, Steve, talked about the illusion that the mind is a unity. Now, I imagine what lies behind your saying that it's an illusion is that actually there is in the mind a whole lot of entities which are actually pretty distinct. They may be even be pulling in different directions, but I imagine that there's been some Darwinian benefit in the move from poly-minds to mono-mind. There's a book by a South African biologist, Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant. "White ants" are termites. Any social insect colony behaves in some ways like a single entity. It's as though it's got one purpose. Actually, of course, it's thousands of little worker termites, all doing their own little thing. And no one termite has any general concept of the whole picture, so when the termites build these huge great mounds, each individual termite is just following little tiny rules. If you see a bit of dirt of such and such a height, put another bit on top of it. There are rules which, when summed over all of the termites, lead as an emergent property to the growth of the mound as a whole. A final strand in this argument goes back to the genes. The fundamental message of the selfish gene is that genes are separate entities all pulling their own way in their own separate selfish way. But yet we have this gathering together of genes into individual organisms. And that reminds me of the illusion of one mind, when actually there are lots of little mindlets in there, and the illusion of the soul of the white ant in the termite mound, where you have lots of little entities all pulling together to create an illusion of one. Am I right to think that the feeling that I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things, that this is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a kind of society of mind?

PINKER: It's a very interesting question. Yes, there is a sense in which the whole brain has interests in common in the way that say a whole body composed of genes with their own selfish motives has a single agenda. In the case of the genes the fact that their fates all depend on the survival of the body forces them to cooperate. In the case of the different parts of the brain, the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit, presumably in the frontal lobes, that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction. In How the Mind Works I alluded to a scene in the comedy movie All of Me in which Lily Tomlin's soul inhabits the left half of Steve Martin's body and he takes a few steps in one direction under his own control and then lurches in another direction with his pinkie extended while under the control of Lily Tomlin's spirit. That is what would happen if you had nothing but completely autonomous modules of the brain, each with its own goal. Since the body has to be in one place at one time, there might be a circuit that suppresses the conflicting motives. And in cases of neurological disease or brain damage, and even perhaps in psychiatric conditions, we may be seeing a relaxation or an imbalance or a defect in some of the mechanisms that coordinate different parts of the brain. Perhaps in an obsessive-compulsive disorder, motives that we all have, such as checking to make sure that the stove is off and washing our hands, ordinarily might be repressed by some other part of the brain that says "yes, it's good to do that, but not too much; there are other things to do as well." Obsessive-compulsive disorder may come from an imbalance among these different mechanisms.

QUESTION: I just wanted to bring up the very obvious point of biological reductionism which I think is raised by some of the speakers here -- in that while I agree about there being no ghosts in the machine I'm a little bit worried about what it's getting replaced with is seemingly a rather simplistic way of looking at the world as being the outpourings of the human genome project. And in that, I'm worried that I don't hear for example that human behaviors like aggression and so forth are the product of very social processes, shared processes, between groups, between people who are unfamiliar with one another, who have misperceptions of one another and so forth -- the kinds of processes that social psychologists talk a great deal about. What we're being offered instead is a sort of reductio ad absurdum biological form of reductionism. Are we just going from one form of ghost to another? It's not a ghost, but a rather simple way of looking at the world.

PINKER: I don't think any complex behavior can be explained directly in terms of the genes, which is why I emaphasized evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Behavior is produced by the trillion-synapse human brain, which assesses situations, absorbs values from the people that we grow up with, assesses the long-term consequences of actions, tries to impress other people, and many other things. All of the phenomena that we call culture are real and utterly indispensable, but they have to be connected to the emotional and learning mechanisms that our brain makes available. I think any behavior has to be explained at many levels; our inborn emotions and learning mechanisms are one important level, perhaps the most important level, but not the only level.

RADFORD: Can you break the notion of culture down into a reductionist argument?

DAWKINS: Reductionism is one of those words that makes me want to reach for my revolver. It means nothing. Or rather it means a whole lot of different things, but the only thing anybody knows about it is that it's bad, you're supposed to disapprove of it.

QUESTION: What we need is for science, cognitive science in particular, to evolve further, so we begin to grasp the mystery that is subjective experience. Dr. Pinker said that the mind is the activity of the brain, and went on to describe ways in which cognitive neuroscience etc. explained that. But in a way -- I can't help thinking of the analogy of the television set. It would be naive to suppose that the program that you watch is actually produced within the television set, and yet somebody from another planet who didn't know about television might assume that the program was generated within the television set.

DAWKINS: Steve can give a serious answer; I'm going to say something about television sets. My friend Douglas Adams has a wonderful story about television sets. He imagines somebody who believes that there's a little man inside the television set who's juggling the pictures and making it all happen. Well, he's taken on one side, and it's explained to him all about cathode ray tubes and scans and radio waves, and the whole principle about television sets is explained to him, and he nods and he says, yes, yes, I think I've got that, right, I understand that, hmm, very interesting. But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren't there?

PINKER: I want to distinguish what is truly mysterious about consciousness from what is merely an unsolved scientific problem in the process of being solved. Obviously consciousness is not a total mystery, because when you go in for surgery a man puts a mask over your face and gas comes in and he can on demand make you unconscious and bring you back to consciousness. More generally, we are learning more and more every day about the neural basis of consciousness -- what goes on in the brain when you have a conscious experience -- down to itty bitty details: why one thing looks redder or tastes saltier than another, and countless other details of perception, memory, and emotion. The part that remains a mystery is why the purely subjective aspect of experience should exist at all. Some philosophers, such as Dan Dennett, argue that that isn't a scientific problem and may not even be a coherent question -- since, by definition, pure subjective experience has no observable consequences, we're wasting our time talking about it. I think that goes too far, but it is possible that the existence of subjective first-person experience is not explainable by science. When cognitive neuroscience completes the story of how the brain works and predicts every last itch, every last nuance of color and sound in terms of the activity of the brain, one can still wonder why it feels like something to see and touch and taste. My own hunch is that this unsatisfied curiosity may itself be an artifact of how our brains work. It may be a question like "What occurred before the Big Bang?," or "What's outside our finite universe," or "What does a 4-dimensional object look like?" The puzzlement may come from a mismatch between our ways of thinking and knowing and the nature of reality as revealed by our best science. Our brains are organs that think and know in particular ways, and if they cannot come to grips with the discoveries of our best science (such as the discovery that brain activity causes subjective experience), that may just be our problem, a limitation of our own common-sense intuition in fully appreciating the lessons of our science. The science itself may be fully complete.

DAWKINS: It stills feels like a hell of a problem to me.

QUESTION: I want to ask about the problem of free will. It seems to me an implication of what you're both arguing that free will may be an illusion. Have I misunderstood?

PINKER: Again, it depends on what the meaning of "free will" is. I don't mean to sound like President Clinton -- but there's "free will" in the sense of the Soul one, the ghost in the machine, an utterly capricious and unpredictable process, an absence of even statistical predictability, where you just can't tell what someone is going to do. In that sense, as soon as you understand something about human behavior, and as soon as you can predict something about behavior, free will has evaporated. I think that sense of free will doesn't exist. On the other hand, there may be a sense of free will that we need as a construct, or an idealization in our system of moral reasoning, to get the answers to come out right. We may want to distinguish between people who are literally in a fugue state and hallucinating, and people who are compos mentis and who can be held responsible for their actions in the mundane sense that punishment may deter them and others. It may be that free will is the most convenient way of summarizing that difference, in which case it would continue to exist, but in a scientific translation, that is, a brain state within certain normal conditions.

QUESTION: Professor Dawkins, at the start of your talk, you said that the traditional religions were not only false but also failed to provide a deeper meaning than science and in that sense were not more soulful. I agree with that, to the extent that they attempt to provide an explanation, but another thing that the religions do is give comfort to people if they lose people in car accidents or to cancer and so on, and as far as I've experienced it, the scientific view cannot give people this kind of comfort. So in that sense the religions, even if they're false, are more soulful. And I wonder how you would respond to that.

DAWKINS: I think there is a lot in that. I of course was talking about that aspect of religion where the psalmist says the heavens declare the glory of God. Science can do a lot better than that. The questioner is asking about another thing that religion can do, which is consoling people in bereavement and similar situations. On that I would say three things. First, I mainly agree with you. Science is not on the whole going to console you if you lose a loved one. The second thing I would say is that the fact that religion may console you doesn't of course make it true. It's a moot point whether one wishes to be consoled by a falsehood. The third thing I would say is that although science may not be able to console you in the particular case of a bereavement from a car accident, it's not at all clear that science can't console you in other respects. So, for example, when we contemplate our own mortality, when we recognize that we're not here forever and that we're going to go into nothingness when we die, I find great consolation in the feeling that as long as I'm here I'm going to occupy my mind as fully as possible in understanding why I was ever born in the first place. And that seems to me to be consoling in another sense, perhaps a rather grander sense. It is of course somewhat depressing sometimes to feel that one can't go on understanding the universe; it would be nice to be able to be here in 500 years to see what people have discovered by then. But we do have the privilege of living in the 20th and very soon in the 21st century, when not only is more known than in any past century, but hugely more than in any past century. We are amazingly privileged to be living now, to be living in a time when the origin of the cosmos is getting close to being understood, the size of the universe is understood, the nature of life in a very large number of particulars is understood. This is a great privilege; to me it's an enormous consolation, and it's still a consolation even though it's for each one of us individually finite and going to come to an end. So I'm enormously grateful to be alive, and let me take up what Steve was talking about, the question of how you can bear to get up in the mornings. To me it makes it all the more worthwhile to get up in the mornings -- we haven't got that much time, let's get up in the morning and really use our brief time to understand why we're here and what it's all about. That to me is real consolation.

QUESTION: Both of you seem to agree that science has killed off Soul One; I agree with you. Just to play devil's advocate a little bit: it obviously hasn't killed off the belief in Soul One and it's possible that it will never do so -- in the sense that a world in which no one believed in Soul One would not be what you called an ESS, an evolutionarily stable state. In other words, just as a world in which everybody was nice to each other is not an evolutionarily stable state, because cheats prosper -- it may be that a world in which nobody believed in Soul One would be a fantastically fertile breeding ground for cults who did believe in Soul One. If that's the case then you'll never get rid of it.

RADFORD: Who wants to deal with the New Age question?

DAWKINS: Yes. G. K. Chesterton said when people stop believing, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. I presume that's what the questioner has in mind. I am interested in cults. The so-called organized religions are of course just old cults. They started off as cults and they've acquired a respectability that's simply due to the long time that they've been with us. I'm interested in them. I don't know why the questioner thinks it's not an ESS. It's not to me obvious that a world in which nobody believed in Soul One is necessarily ripe for invasion by cults, except insofar as I think one of the main reasons why people do believe the things that they believe is somewhat analogous to viral infection. And the reason for this has a good Darwinian basis. When we are children it is very important that we should learn as quickly as possible certain extremely important things. The language of our society, the social rules of our society, various rules for how to stay alive in a hostile world. So it's very easy for a Darwinian to believe that children will be preprogrammed with a rule that says, Believe what your parents tell you, or believe what your society's elders tell you. And of course a rule like that is not going to be discriminating. It's going to work both for the sensible things -- rules for how not to die of snake bite or falling off of cliffs or how to learn the language of the society. But the self-same rule is also going to be a natural sponge, or a natural soaker-up of New Age nonsense, and nonsense of any other kind. So, a biologically sensible rule -- Believe what you're told when you're young, and when you grow up pass on the same stuff to your own children -- that is a recipe for the long-term survival for the beliefs themselves. Or the rule might be, Believe so-and-so, and spend as much time as possible persuading other people to believe it as well; that's a recipe for epidemics of infectious beliefs. So I think that in that sense I agree with the questioner.

QUESTION: I followed what Richard Dawkins has said over the years and I admire him for his defense of science, but in the end, I think -- as Engel would say it, in a reaction against theology etc., we can come to an explanation it's very one-sided; and I think with Steven Pinker, I'm surprised that he's surprised that people don't accept his theories, because after all we're dealing with consciousness, which is social and historically developed over millions of years of human society, and you can't say in the end that that resides in people's genes. If we take the example if you say about morality -- surely morality is something that's been developed over the years. Why is it that in America we get individuals that go out shooting people -- surely that's a symptom of American society.

RADFORD: You've just raised a huge question, which could keep us happy all night, I'll try to get our two guests to answer it. Why do things go wrong? The question is a serious one. If evolution is for the best, if a religious sense provides us with the stability to go through life, why do things go wrong? There's a whole Robert Bresson film devoted to this one, it's called The Devil Probably; there's a Kurt Vonnegut statement as well. Who wants to take this one on?

DAWKINS: That's not what I gathered the question was. Nobody's ever said evolution is for the best, except insofar as it's for the best of the genes, and that's another matter. I don't think there was a question there at all; I think that was a statement, which we should be grateful for.

PINKER: I think that evolution and genetics and neuroscience are essential parts of an explanation of human behavior, but that doesn't mean that people are sealed in a barrel, oblivious to the standards of behavior set by other people, and unable to make decisions based on them. Quite the contrary -- one of the things our brains are designed to do is learn the contingencies of the social world we find ourselves in. Obviously there is variation among cultures, which is made possible by the fact that people innovate and people learn other people's innovations. Also, the optimal way to behave in a given situation depends on how other people behave and react to one's own behavior, and those contingencies vary from place to place and have to be learned. There are large differences, orders of magnitude, in rates of violent encounters across different countries, although the psychology of the violent encounters is strikingly similar. The rates differ because of differences in the cultures and social values, those values aren't like a gas that seeps out of the earth and that people merely breathe in. They emerge from a bunch of minds interacting in a group, exchanging ideas, assessing one another, making decisions. So culture itself, even though it's part of any explanation of behavior, itself has to be tied to the psychological and ultimately neurological mechanisms that allow cultures to arise to begin with.