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A thought experiment

What kind of religion would arise in the mind of a man who was born yesterday?

Although this sounds like a facetious question, I have in mind something like this: I'm curious about the religious life or set of religious ideas which would arise in the mind of a person who knew nothing of the history of religion in our world, nothing of doctrines and teachings and scriptures of any theology, nothing of the art or architecture or music or poetry that people in religious cultures have produced, nothing of the lives of the founders of the great religions of the world, or the gurus, saints, lamas, seers, prophets, and the like, nor anything of the way these people played out the psychodramas of their minds in the world. He is wholly innocent of such things: therefore let us call him a ‘holy innocent’. If he knows none of those things, we might well ask what he does know. For the sake of this experiment, let us allow him to know only what he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and make with his hands. Let us also allow that he is not a child: he possesses a mature emotional disposition, and a fully developed capacity for reason and intelligence. What would his religion be? Would he have religion at all?

You might think that no such person could ever exist, and so this thought experiment is entirely impractical and silly. But it is a perfectly acceptable philosophical exercise. It bears some superficial resemblance to the "state of nature" thought-experiments used by political writers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; it is also comparable to Rawls' "Original Position". The whole point of imagining such a person is that he symbolises the disposal any and all things which are not strictly relevant to examining the question at hand. Like a good philosopher, he has no presuppositions: nor does he have the weight of history and tradition and habit on his shoulders. Thus his thinking can be clear, honest, and fresh; he can arrive at conclusions about what he sees without inadvertently or unwittingly repeating the unconsciously learned, unexamined prejudices of his age.

Having established all of these counterfactual facts (!) about what our holy innocent does and does not know, let us finally suppose that he has a pair of seven league boots. He’s therefore able to travel to any landscape and climate that the Earth has to offer: he can spend a night beneath a tree in a mist-filled oak grove in Ireland, and the next night at the mouth of a cave in an Arabian desert, and the next night after that in an indigenous healer’s lodge in the Amazon.

This thought experiment is designed to put to the test a certain variation of the so-called ‘Argument by Design’. This argument was invented by the early Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, and counted by him as the fifth of his five ‘Ways to God’. Contemporary American fundamentalist Christians use an argument very much like Aquinas’ argument to counter the claims of evolutionary biology.

Here’s Aquinas’ version of the argument.

1. Things that lack intelligence (i.e. ordinary nonliving things) consistently act the same way so as to obtain the best results.
2. These things act for an end.
3. Such action must be designed, not fortuitous.
4. Whatever lacks intelligence cannot act by design unless it is directed in its action by some being ‘endowed with knowledge and intelligence’. [For ‘design’ is a product of intelligence – that is to say, a ‘plan’ which has to be ‘thought up’.]
5. Therefore there must exist some intelligent being ‘by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God’.

Here’s a better known version of the argument. Suppose you happen to be from a society in which people have very little technology. Then you are walking along the beach and you happen to find a wristwatch lying there. You’ve never seen a wristwatch before. You don’t know where it comes from, what it’s for, and you don’t even know what it’s called. This is an entirely new object to you. But if you are an intelligent person, you would certainly conclude that it is completely unlike all the other rocks and stones lying on the same beach. Its face is regularly divided into 12 regions, it has internal inter-related parts like cogs and wheels and springs to make it run, and so on. You would conclude that someone deliberately designed and built it. The argument supposes that Man, on finding himself in the world, would conclude the same thing about the world. It is so complex, yet so inter-connected and efficiently functioning, that it too must have been designed deliberately that way. The designer, so the argument concludes, is God.

So the Argument by Design usually goes, anyway.

But, really, why would you conclude the Judeo-Christian God, instead of another One True God with another name from another religious tradition? Why would you not conclude that the watch was designed by multiple gods?

Bren's inside voice: Of course the truth about religion is polytheism, for clearly the world was designed by committee. Just look at the platypus!

Outside voice again: If you really did examine the world from the perspective of a ‘holy innocent’, what really would you conclude about the divine? Would your thoughts be led to a transcendental divinity at all?


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 21st, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)
If we're giving the holy innocent a pair of seven league boots, can we also let hir experience hir life in geological time?

Evolution would then be easily observable across species with HI's "natural senses" (ie: non-cyborged with microscopes or a requirement to understand basic genetic theory) and this would discard many of the "designed"-style religions.
Feb. 21st, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite novels
Wonderful novel about 15 years ago on this. "Knowledge of Angels," and I think the author is Jill Paton Walsh.

Holli Emore
Feb. 21st, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
Hate to say it...
I have in mind something like this: I'm curious about the religious life or set of religious ideas which would arise in the mind of a person who knew nothing of the history of religion in our world, nothing of doctrines and teachings and scriptures of any theology, nothing of the art or architecture or music or poetry that people in religious cultures have produced, nothing of the lives of the founders of the great religions of the world, or the gurus, saints, lamas, seers, prophets, and the like, nor anything of the way these people played out the psychodramas of their minds in the world.

I think someone already created that religion:


Like I said--hate to say it! ;)
Feb. 21st, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Hate to say it...

But let's refine the thought experiment then, and assume that our holy innocent has no nefarious self-promotional purposes...
Feb. 22nd, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)
Re: Hate to say it...
Fair enough...

(Indeed, I've always thought that Scientology is just certain forms of Sethian gnosticism put into a sci-fi world, and with most of the interesting stuff taken out, Xenu for Ialdabaoth, etc. But anyway...!?!)
Feb. 22nd, 2010 12:54 am (UTC)
How would your holy innocent differ from the story of the original Buddha, the guy who lived a sheltered life until he met an old man for the first time, and immediately went out in the world to observe and think for himself?

How would your hypothetical guy conclude differently from the Buddha?
Feb. 22nd, 2010 02:20 am (UTC)
Interesting rhetorical question, Horsetraveller.

Why don't you tell me how Bren's holy innocent would be different than the Buddha.
Feb. 22nd, 2010 12:39 pm (UTC)
I think it would be the same.
Feb. 24th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC)
Feb. 24th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
Having read the other comments, I found them very interesting, especially the last 2.

However I don't know why an individual thinking by himself about his own perception of the world, would create a religion.
I see a religion as a collection of myths, stories, and rituals that develop over time in a community, and I can't see how that would be necessary for a single individual.

I would expect a person to have a divine experience firsthand and wonder what that meant about the world. Or not to have a divine experience and just wonder how the world came to be. But not necessarily to conclude a complete mythology.

I think it would depend so much on the individual in the first place, how much he/she needed certainty and someone else planning things.
We see that in this world, where there are many religions and some freedom to choose the one that suits you best.
One person's need for certainty causes him to choose a religion that denies evolution, even though he was not raised with that teaching by his parents.
Another person denies the concept of "God" as raised by his parents and community and finds a religion not based on "God" or chooses no religion at all.

So if each of those people were to be raised with no religious history, and has a divine experience not explained by science, they will likely make different conclusions.
Not because they were innocent, but because their own personality leads them to want different things from their religion.
Feb. 22nd, 2010 06:48 am (UTC)
i don't know. religion seems to me an inherently communal activity and sphere of knowledge. to be properly comprehensive, religion must include spiritual experiences, which must come from a wide range of people. without that wide, communal base of tradition and knowledge, one is left with either a close equivalent to materialism (should one not experience anything like a spiritual event) or else a solipsistic muddle of materialism and paranormal events, much like the New Age or, yes, Scientology.
Feb. 22nd, 2010 08:08 am (UTC)
It's an interesting thought experiment for sure.

I've got a few thoughts that come to mind:

1) Will a religion even arise in a homo sapiens living in the state of nature?

assuming our holy innocent is inquisitive on the nature on the world (why are there nature cycles, what are stars, et cetera) it's likely to assume a quasi-religion will evolve.
An inquisitive creature would ask herself as to the reason behind unexplainable phenomenas, and given no answers would fabricate those in the form of religion.

2) Will religion spread in a community of holy innocents?

Looking at religion through the glasses of memetic theory, it seems that religion (at least initially) has a strong memetic fitness.
Given that a religion would provide all answers to relatively impossible problems - that makes religion very likely to replicate itself from one person to another. So yes, a good religion would undoubtedly spread through a community of holy innocents.

3) What had *our* Generation 0 Religion looked like?

Well, here we don't really have to speculate.
Looking back to the cradle of neolithic civilization (gobekli tepe) we know that early neolithic human religion was probably animalistic and cyclical in nature. The carving in gobekli tepe are clearly of animals common to the area (snakes, fox, crans, humans, et cetera) and the layout is clearly a spiral or at least multi layered.

Other information we have about mesolithic humans is that they probably experienced shamanic voyages (We know that due to the hard-to-reach location and pictorial nature of ancient cave paintings). Also, there's some anecdotal evidence with Venus figurines which in my opinion isn't conclusive about the nature of the religion mesolithic people held.

For more on our very own Gen0 religion, I'd recommend the DVD "How Art Made the World?".

4) What does a perfect Generation 0 religion looks like?

Forgetting for a moment we can look to our own past for a likely answer, let's see what we can learn about Gen0 religions.

We can assume that a Gen0 religion has a 2 characteristics: It has to answer unexplainable questions, and it has to have very simple answers.
If the answers were more complicated than the bare minimum, it would be less likely to be replicated by other holy innocents and eventually replaced with a much simpler religion.

I'd also purpose that a Gen0 religion would probably be Teleological in nature. Even in fully mature human beings, it's a very common tendency to think of our world in terms of "What is this for?" and link those back to us.

I'd expect a Gen0 religion to link those answers back to the self. For example "Why is there a moon?" --> "So we can see at night", and "Why does the sun set?" --> "So we can rest".
Feb. 22nd, 2010 08:08 am (UTC)

5) Complicating the question - A veil of ignorance over modern religions?

Let's ask a variant of the question you asked, let's take everyone in the world and put them behind Rawls' Veil of Ignorance but only as so far as it relates to religion. So everyone in the world have no memory of either religion, religious belief or religious experiences.
Now, What religion would our current society, deprived of all religious knowledge (conscious and unconscious), end up with?

At it's core, I still think that a "Veil of Religious Ignorance" would share a lot of traits with a perfect Gen0 religion.
But, given modern influences of the sciences, art and technology, I'd assume a much different set of questions be asked and a much different set of answers be offered.

One option is that we'll end up with a "God of the Gaps". A deity that only explains what is currently unknown, but can be known in the future. Like "What was the nature of the cause of the first big bang?" or "What natural process lead to the first RNA molecule replicating itself?". A religion like that would eventually find it's speculative answers out-of-date and fall from grace.
So that's one option, but it just seems like a trivial answer to the question.

Another option is that we'll end up with what Carl Sagan refereed to as a religion of "physical laws that govern the universe" or Einstein's God that is a "illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive".

We would almost certainly end up with with jungian archetypes again though. Our very human brain is pre-programmed to be susceptible to imagine powerful individuals. Either we'll set those archetypes up as Gods, or we'll anthropomorphize Einestein's god with archetypical behaviour.
There's a good sized body of scientific work that explains why people are very susceptible to religions. Given that data, it's not unreasonable to assume our perfect innocent will end up in a similar place to where we are today.

-- Justin
Feb. 23rd, 2010 06:17 am (UTC)
Would the argument from design lead me to conclude that there must be a transcendental Christian god? Well maybe, maybe not. I discussed this argument with a bunch of students in my discussion sections last semester. It's hard to get any kind of agreement in philosophy but we all eventually did seem to concur that the argument showed at the least that there is divine order in the universe and at best that there must be some intelligent being(s) who lie at the bottom of the explanation for how the world appears to us. The argument, in my opinion, says nothing about an omniscient, omnipotent god or a hands-off creator god or a group of creator gods or numerous immanent gods and goddesses, etc. There's the further question of whether the argument is actually a good one in itself (I have some doubts about this which would take too long to talk about) --but assuming it is it might have force against other arguments for atheism rather than for the god of a particular religion.

I also think that the argument from design and the holy innocent thought experiment might end up addressing differing but equally important philosophical and religious concerns. I love the thought experiment and will go think about it for a while. I guess I'll say that one of my first thoughts after just reading it the first time was a question about whether we--as enculturated thoughtful people with a history and value system of our own--can be in a position to really evaluate the conditions of the experiment correctly. Is good enough enough here, or will any of us inevitably drag in value-laden concepts? I used to wish that I was one of those a-positional philosophers who was wholly objective and had no stance of my own--but grad school taught me otherwise--grin. Well, even if that's the case and we all certainly have beliefs, it is still valuable to try and abstract away from all that to see what, if anything, remains. So I'm off to do some reflection.

Sunrise Daughter
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )