Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thoughts: Evolution, Mathematics, Religion

Warren McCulloch many years ago published an essay entitled "What is a Number, that a Man May Know It, and a Man that He May Know a Number?" McCulloch described himself as an experimental epistemologist, and was one of the pioneers of the scientific effort to understand how the brain actually performs the functions of thinking. His thinking about the interrelationship of numbers and biology was helpful to him in leading to fruitful realms of research and analysis.

As an aside, the current Economist has an article titled "Mathematics: Let's talk about figures." It makes the basic point that numeracy is increasingly important as we move towards a knowledge economy, and the numbers of numerate people and people trained in the mathematically based professions are increasingly important indicators of technological and innovation capacity.

Unfortunately. the article tends to lump all the quantitative field under the term "arithmetic". It is important that people understand arithmetic, and can add and subtract, multiply and divide in their everyday life. It is perhaps less important now, with calculators and computers that people know how to calculate manually than it once was.

However, there are also fundamental requirements that people have skills in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, and numerical analysis. There are different requirements for literacy in each of these fields for the citizen in his various roles, as well as in the different professions.

The Economist also has an article titled "The science of religion: Where angels no longer fear to tread" about the scientists who are seeking to understand the neurophysiology of religious experience and the ways in which religion may be the basis of competitive advantage in the evolutionary process of natural selection.

It seems to me that, in analogy to the McColloch questions, we may ask, "What is man that he may be relgious, what is religion that a society may value it?" Has religious capacity in man evolved simply as a side effect of other capabilities that provide evolutionary advantage (e.g. language capacity) or has it evolved because of the advantages conferred by religious practice itself? How are the evolution of our species as a social species related to our evolution as individuals capable of religious experience?

Obviously, while religious practice seems to be all but universal in human societies, the specific nature of that practice is culturally specific. It is clear that the Europeans tend to be Christians, Arabs tend to be Muslims, Hindus tend to be Indian, etc. Thus different cultures have developed different religions, all responding to the same or similar collections of religious capabilities in their members.

It seems likely that over tens of thousands of years, man's religious capacity and societies religious institutions may have co-evolved. How does that happen?

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