Notions of Intuition in the Cognitive Science of Religion

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ABSTRACT

This article examines the notions of "intuitive" and "counterintuitive" beliefs and concepts in cognitive science of religion. "Intuitive" states are contrasted with those that are products of explicit, conscious reasoning. In many cases the intuitions are grounded in the implicit rules of mental models, frames, or schemas. I argue that the pathway from intuitive to high theological concepts and beliefs may be distinct from that from intuitions to "folk religion," and discuss how Christian theology might best interpret the results of studies in cognitive psychology of religion.

In Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), religious concepts and beliefs have been characterized as "intuitive" or "counterintuitive" by psychologists (Barrett 2004; Bloom 2004; Kelemen 2004) and anthropologists (Boyer 2001); and others (Pyysiäinen 2004, following Sperber 1997) have made use of a notion of "intuitive" representations in their accounts of religious cognition. The word 'intuition' and its variants are, of course, used in several different ways in ordinary language, and have also been used in multiple technical ways in philosophy, psychology, and other academic disciplines. I shall first examine recent uses of these terms in CSR, clarifying them in relation to existing usages in philosophy and psychology which contrast "intuitive" states and processes with those that are products of conscious, explicit reasoning. I shall then outline an account of how intuitions are produced in the mind via the rules of what have variously been called mental models, schemas, or frames. In Section 3,1 shall examine a few possible implications of this model-based account of intuition for CSR-particularly, the possibility that a study of the cognitive processes that produce "high theological" or "theologically correct" religious views might (somewhat surprisingly) be undertaken separately from the study of "folk" concepts and beliefs. Whereas the first three sections are explorations in the philosophy of a particular area of cognitive science, the final section will explore two questions from the standpoint of religious belief (and more specifically, Christian theology). First, what sort of religious epistemology enjoys the best fit with the theories in CSR discussed in the article? And, second, what sorts of further research questions are suggested, in turn, by this religious epistemology?

1. Overview of Usage

One cannot read very far in the literature of contemporary CSR without encountering claims that particular concepts and particular beliefs are "intuitive" or "counterintuitive." Indeed, it might seem that there is fundamental disagreement about whether particular concepts and beliefs -say, about the existence of disembodied spirits-should be deemed intuitive or counterintuitive. On examination, however, it will turn out that these apparent disagreements are only apparent, and that the parties to them actually share important assumptions about the nature of intuition, and about what makes a concept or a belief intuitive or counterintuitive.

1.1 Kelemen, intuitive teleology and intuitive theism

Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen argues that teleological understanding comes early to children, and indeed predominates their understanding of nature (Kelemen 2004). Young children prefer explanations of natural objects and phenomena in terms of what they are for to causal explanations. By age five, they understand that natural objects do not have human makers, but nevertheless view them in teleological terms (Kelemen 1999a, b, 2003, 2004). And evidence from six to ten-year olds suggests that they relate their assignments of purpose to nonhuman intentional causation (Evans, 2000, 2001; Gelman and Kremer, 1991; Kelemen 2004). She suggests that "these research findings tentatively suggest that children's explanatory approach may be accurately characterized as intuitive theism" (2004, 199). What Kelemen seems to mean by this is that normal cognitive development includes an earlyarising capacity and disposition to explain objects and events in teleological terms that imply a designer and/or fabricator, that these explanations persist in the absence of a perceptible candidate for such a role, and by mid-childhood dispose the child to attribute the causation of some natural objects and events to unperceivable agents. …