Science In Review — October 2013

Car with hood up

Protip: internal combustion involves as much heat as it sounds like it would Public domain

I had a lot of time to think as I sat in the dark, waiting for the tow truck. I certainly wasn’t clinically depressed, but I was feeling low, and in a mental state that allowed for focused reflection. It was my third coolant issue in as many months, and the most severe. While wondering when the tow truck would arrive and preparing myself for worst case scenarios (blown head gasket, seized engine, car shopping), I was wrestling with the whys and wherefores of my predicament.

Three months ago, I got a call at work from my wife — “Your car left a green puddle in the garage this morning.” After work, finding a similar puddle in my parking spot, I drove straight to the service station with an eye on the temperature gauge. I only made it about halfway before the needle started rising out of the normal range; I pulled over to cool down and weigh my options. When the woman whose house I was parked next to came home, I sheepishly inquired whether she might be able to help me. Turns out she had some coolant which she graciously gave me, allowing me to travel safely to the new radiator I apparently needed.

Feeling grateful, I purposed to get a gift card for my anonymous benefactor. To the best of my recollection, I had not made any sort of mental bargain with God if He would send somebody to help me. It was a gesture that occurred to me after the fact, knowing that I had inconvenienced someone who seemed (understandably) a little leery of me but ultimately chose trust and kindness. However, when the grocery store didn’t have the particular kind of gift card I thought was appropriate, I lost momentum and didn’t follow through on my plan.

Two months later, I arrived home from work and was greeted with the now familiar sound of coolant boiling out of my (brand new) radiator. That turned out to be a manufacturing defect, and so I got a second new radiator free of charge. The incident caused me to remember my gift card plan, but I didn’t act right away nor make a definite plan to follow through. And then a week later, my car actually overheated, stalling out and leaving me waiting for a tow truck with nothing but time to think about that gift card.

Specifically, I was asking myself whether these subsequent incidents were God’s way of reminding me of my debt, and/or punishing me for my laziness. As a man of science, I am familiar with the reality of statistical approaches to quality, so I didn’t find it hard to accept that I had gotten a faulty part. But as a man of faith, I didn’t want to rule out the possibility that the God of the Bible, who arranged very specific and counter-intuitive circumstances to deliver specific messages to specific people, was now trying to deliver a message to me. And as a general cheapskate, I was bit sick at the thought of possibly having to spend thousands of dollars replacing an engine if I could have avoided the situation by purchasing that gift card!

Sabre-toot cat

When you aren’t the top of the food chain, it pays to be cautious by Robert Bruce Horsfall, Public domain

Amidst all of those thoughts, I was reminded of the evolutionary psychology which claims that religion arises from a tendency to assume agency where there is none. Early hominids who assumed a rustle in the grass was a predator were more likely to survive and pass on that tendency to their offspring. Even if they were factually wrong most of the time and the rustle was nothing more dangerous than wind, on the rare times when it was a predator the ones who always took precautions would be safe. Thus, it is reasoned, we are the descendants of those hominids who saw agency everywhere, which makes us superstitious and inclined to codify superstitions into religions. One of the less charitable versions of this logic concludes that religious beliefs are a mental illness. In the same way that clinical depression may be the overexpression of an adaptive mental pattern that permits intense, constructive contemplation and problem solving, religious beliefs may be the overexpression of an adaptive mental pattern that promotes avoidance of rare but costly dangers.

And then I thought about John 9, where Jesus and the disciples encounter a blind man and the disciples wonder who sinned. Jesus responds that the man is blind, not as punishment, but in order that God’s work might be revealed. That got me thinking — God is not glorified if I perpetuate a portrait of Him that can be dismissed as the product of mental illness. And if such a superstitious notion of God does come naturally by way of evolutionary psychology (a point which is not universally accepted, but is cited often enough to merit consideration), then believing in such a God is not really a matter of faith, but of instinct.

Going further, it struck me that one can read the story of the Bible as a trajectory away from such a superstitious, instinctual notion of God. I don’t think it is disingenuous to look at some accounts in the Old Testament, and even into the New Testament (including John 9), and conclude that the people of God tended to ascribe significance to every circumstance, good or bad. This can give the impression of a God who is capricious and arbitrary, and fosters a “what have you done for me lately” mindset. By contrast, God reveals Himself to be constant, merciful, and broad in His perspective.

Therefore, I decided that, as an act of faith, I should frame this story, not in terms of a God who was punishing me with a breakdown, but a God who can use the circumstances of life to remind us that keeping commitments, even those made privately and unilaterally, is a good way to live. And so after my car was towed away, I drove my wife’s car to the store, bought a gift card and a “thank you” note, and delivered them on my way to work the next morning.

Later, I would receive word that my engine was fine, and that the problem was an incorrectly attached hose from the installation of the second radiator. Deciding what that means is left as an exercise to the reader.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Paul Tucker commented on October 31, 2013 Reply

    What does any of this have to do with science?

    A few words about thinking

    One of the biggest mistakes we can make in life is to ignore or reject the possibility that we might be dead wrong about something that is very important to us.

    Don’t do this!

    Question everything. Embrace doubt. Second guess conclusions. Be humble; after all you could be wrong. You might be the first perfect person in all of history and prehistory who is incapable of being fooled by the mistakes, lies and delusions of others. But I doubt it. You might be the first ever to rise above and see through all the deceptive quirks, traps and biases that come standard with a human brain. But I doubt it.

    What good is it to hold tight to a position against every challenge if that position is in error? The goal is not to avoid ever changing your mind. The goal is to be right, or as close to it as you can be. If you value wisdom and honesty then you ought to value skepticism. Wisdom is recognizing that you don’t know everything and can be fooled just like every other human who has ever lived. Wise people change their minds when evidence demands it. Honest people don’t pretend to know things that they don’t know.

    This fundamental error in thinking crops up most often in politics and religion, of course. These two fertile fields of human thought, passion and silliness encourage if not demand that participants sacrifice their ability to think independently. This treasure is given away freely as rigid lines are drawn and feet set in cement. How can something of such value—the ability and the courage to think freely—be sacrificed by so many people with so little reluctance? Why the haste to become one more zombie in the mob? Why no remorse for the loss of so much humanity?

    Please do not undervalue your ability to think independently, to grow intellectually over a lifetime, and to always do your best to move closer to truth and reality. The warmth of mindless membership may be appealing at a glance but it’s fool’s gold.

    Change. Grow. Improve. Think and be fully human.

    —Guy P. Harrison

      Andy Walsh commented on October 31, 2013 Reply


      Thanks for reminding me of the need to regularly state the nature of this column. Once a week, I post a science link on the ESN Facebook wall, and at the end of the month I choose one of them to expand on for a blog post.

      This month, the article in question was a piece from Scientific American on depression, which discussed its possible evolutionary origins and how it might be an overamplified version of a functional mental state that facilitates problem solving. It was an idea I found interesting, but since I don’t have any experience or expertise relevant to depression, I didn’t have much to say. (Article here:

      However, it did remind me of a similar line of thinking, which says that religious beliefs are an overamplified version of instincts which would have kept our Stone Age (and/or earlier) ancestors alive. (See, for example, Shermer’s discussion of agenticity here: Some even go so far as to describe religious belief as a mental illness based on this reasoning.

      My recent experience with my radiator provided me with an opportunity to confront that topic directly. I have generally encountered two responses to such events. One is to attribute it entirely to random chance; the other is to interpret it as a product of God’s agency. My scientific training would tell me to go with the former, while I know Christians who would encourage me in the latter. As a result, I felt torn and a little dissatisfied with both options.

      But upon further reflection, I realized I had another option that was actually more Biblical and also intellectually satisfying — to allow what may very well have been random events (and maybe some human agency in the form of a mis-clamped hose) to be a reminder to do something that was worth doing as an end unto itself. And in doing so, I believe that I am beginning to see how a Biblical Christian faith can respond to a critique that it is just agenticity gone haywire — by noting that Jesus is also critical of superstitious thinking, rather than reinforcing it.

      Does that help explain what this has to do with science?

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