Our souls are ever restless until they rest in thee, O Lord – St Augustine
I just finished reading The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life by the evolutionary psychologist, Jesse Bering. He contends that belief in God is an “adaptive illusion.” But such belief serves an important evolutionary function because we humans are “cognitively predisposed” to seek order and purpose. Bering calls this cognition our “theory of mind,” which humans alone have. It’s our instinctual capacity to reflect on our and other people’s behavior and try to make sense of the intention. In our desire to make sense of life, our “theory of mind” ascribes divine agency and thus a larger, eternal meaning to life.
Humans did not start out this way. Bering argues that proto-humans were “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited.” As our “theory of mind” developed, we began to judge ourselves and one another. This capacity led most humans to moderate their behavior because they felt they were being judged by others and by God. In time, those who failed to moderate their behavior suffered reproductive failure. This led to the evolutionary success of those who were predisposed toward moralistic religious belief.
Unfortunately, this is science at its worst. Bering clearly knew where he wanted to end up and then engaged in patently unscientific speculation about our forbearers. Bering never answers the question as to why our forbearers began to condemn “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited” behavior. Wouldn’t they have already needed to “possess” some moral judgment and some desire for self-moderation and self-restraint in order to discern that such behavior was wrong?
This is Bering’s “missing link,” which he completely ignores. I’m not denying the benefits to our collective knowledge that evolutionary psychology has brought us. Scientists continue to help us understand how we humans have evolved physically and psychologically. But this bad science only aids the arguments of evolution deniers. They will throw the baby out with the bath water.
I don’t believe scientists will ever find this particular “missing link,” because like with the theory of the “Big Bang” in astrophysics, something had to exist to bring into existence, well, existence. We, of course, believe it wasn’t just something. We believe God called the universe into existence. Likewise, there is a priori in us a desire for God that God placed in our hearts. In the language of evolutionary biologists, we are hard-wired for God. Augustine was right. There is a God-given restlessness in our souls.
We humans, of course, can spend a lifetime trying to deal with that restlessness in all sorts of unholy ways through the pursuit of possessing material goods, gratifying physical passions, or hankering for the applause of others. Many of us do just that. But those pursuits never truly satisfy. Resting in God is the only true “theory of mind” that in the end makes sense.