Friday, October 20, 2006

The value of consensus

We don't exactly come into the world as blank slates. We may, for example, be genetically predisposed to self-transcendence (imagining ourselves part of a reality greater than ourselves). We may also have an innate willingness to accept the instructions of parents. Evolutionary biologists offer reasonable grounds for the selection of both qualities, and the geneticist Dean Hamer believes he has demonstrated a gene for the former.

Put the two qualities together and it is easy to understand why religion is a nearly universal human characteristic, and why the vast majority of people profess the religion into which they are born.

This last fact should give every thoughtful believer pause.

Theresa, through her daughter's good graces, provided me with an article from the May/June 20006 issue of Child Development, called "Trust in Testimony: How Children Learn About Science and Religion," that demonstrates rather convincingly the dependence of children on the testimony of adults.

Is our belief in a Sun-centered solar system based on the same adult assurances as, say, our belief in the resurrection of Jesus? Well, yes, to a certain extent I suppose it is. After all, we have no personal evidence for either belief.

But there is a difference. The number of the world's religions is multitudinous and they make mutually contradictory claims about the world. Science, by contrast, has devised a hard-won path toward consensus. Every child on the planet who studies science in school will be a heliocentrist.

Imagine, for the moment, that with equal seriousness I tell a four-year-old child that an invisible guardian angel walks at her side, protecting her from harm, and reinforce my story with a picture, say. I also tell the child that billions of invisible particles called neutrinos from the center of the Sun are pouring though her face as we speak. One story is no more or less farfetched than the other. I'm not a child psychologist, but it's my guess that the child will more likely internalize the former story rather than the latter. After all, an angel represents only a modest extension from the common experience of children.

Later on, perhaps as an adolescent or adult, the child might consider the sobering fact that only her religious confreres believe in guardian angels, whereas all scientists the world over believe in neutrinos. It's the rare adult who has mastered the theoretical and experimental evidence for those elusive particles from the Sun, but we trust the physicists, at least provisionally, because we are impressed by their track record for generating reliable, useful knowledge, and because we understand that their claims are supported by a broad consensus among those who are qualified to judge the evidence.

Truth is elusive, but it is certainly not defined by an accident of birth.