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Dr Scott Atran
research director, anthropology at the National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris


I think there has been little real scientific progress on how humans acquire their thoughts about the world (including themselves) or about how people translate their thoughts into actions. I see no reason to believe that we will ever have any deep insights into these matters. But there has been some small progress, notably in the work on the insufficiency of rational choice and utility (cost-benefit analysis) in explaining how we reason and behave.

Of course, theories of rational choice and utility do capture certain aspects of political and economic decision making in our society, in part because of the ‘looping effect’ that such theories have on people who believe in them (including in the professional lives of political and business leaders, and in the academic community that caters to them). So showing the limits of these theories is a valid and important scientific achievement.

But we are still very, very far from understanding the necessary or sufficient conditions for rational belief in matters of fact, much less religious belief, morality, justice, and humour and what, since at least the Greeks, All the Tribe of Logik Mongers would describe.

Scott Atran is research director, anthropology at the National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris, France, visiting professor of psychology and public policy University of Michigan, presidential scholar, sociology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City