How religion spreads? The uselessness of reinforcers and reinforcement

Ideas have impact on people. Theological dilemmas have impact on those who formulate such dilemmas and on the future generations. They undertake actions (of whatever type) to solve these dilemmas, where and when these people find such dilemmas important. In this way, one can make some sense of the claim that Christological dilemma propels Christianity forward. However, this explanation cannot (at the stage our knowledge is in) be incorporated into a historical explanation: was Thomas Aquinas responding to the state of theology during his time, or was he a fame-hungry man who wrote his Summa Theologica in order to become famous, or was he afflicted by a rare disease?.? In other words, if we try to explain why St. Thomas wrote Summa, there are so many possibilities that a selection of any one possibility becomes a matter of taste and of one’s pet theory. Moreover, even then, such a selection fails to tell us much about western history. Consequently, such an explanation cannot become a part of historical explanation, if the idea is to make history intelligible and coherent.

This applies to scientific theories as well: Why did Newton’s theory generate the responses it did? Did Newton’s theory generate the problems? How can a theory generate problems? After all, a theory cannot do anything on its own without human beings doing something about these theories. Yet, we routinely speak this way and even write histories of sciences in this fashion. How could we write a history of physics (or any science) without making the problems and their solutions into the agent of the history of sciences? Of course, we add something about human beings to reduce the air of mystification but we cannot use these claims about human beings to explain the history of sciences. (Of course, we still do not know how to write an intelligible and coherent history of sciences, but that is a different issue.)

Our theories of learning are not in a position to help us here. We simply do not have the theoretical repertoire to even conceptualize the problems. True, we could make the philosophical objection that human beings have to do something and that without them doing something history is impossible. However, this objection, in itself, is not the problem requiring solution. No cognitive theory and no learning theory can tell us much about, say, scientific progress: why there is scientific progress or what it consists of. (Is not the question `does science make progress?’ itself mystifying?)

In other words, I am not convinced that talk of reinforcers and such like will help us in our case. It is not clear whether we need something different in the case of religion when compared to science, philosophy, literature etc. to explain how religion could spread among human beings. If we do, I am not sure reinforcement is what we need to be looking into. To the extent we need something different, here are two possible avenues.

(a) Religion constrains human thinking in two ways at least. It limits the kind of questions and their possible answers in a way that other accounts (say, scientific or philosophical accounts) do not. It is also an enabling constraint in the sense that it gives structure to human creativity. (Because all human thinking is a situated and limited thinking, creativity makes sense only because of such definiteness.) This locates the spread of religion by speaking about the cognitive aspect.

(b) Any learning process requires that the organism takes a definite attitude towards its environment. Religion enables the emergence of one such attitude because of its ability to generate a configuration of learning. This locates the spread of religion by speaking about the precondition for learning by looking at the evolutionary aspect.

I do not think that individual psychology is of much use to us because of the incredible variety of individual psychologies that are `open’ to religion. I do not think cultural psychology helps because it will be partial and fragmentary. In other words, I think that the spread of religion requires to be localized in the interface between evolutionary psychology and theories of learning on the one hand and cognitive psychology on the other.