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Religion, Off-Line Cognition and the Extended Mind

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This essay argues that the "classical" or "standard" computation model of an enviroment of thought may hamstring the nascent cognitive science of religion by masking the ways in which the bare biological brain is prosthetically extended and embedded in the surrounding landscape. The motivation for distinsuishing between the problem-solving profiles of the basic brain and the brain-plus-scaffolding is that in many domains non-biological artifacts support and augment biological modes of computation - often allowing us to overcome some of the brain's native computation limitations. The recognition that in some contexts not all of the relevant computational machinery fits inside the head suggests that we should reconsider the possible role(s) and significance of material culture in religious cognition. More specifically, the broad spectrum of rituals, music, relics, scriptures, statues and buildings typically associated with religious traditions may be more than quaint ethnographic window dressing. Rather than thin cultural wrap arounds that decorate the real cognitive processes going on underneath, these elements could represent central components of the relevant machinery of religious thought. By introducing tangible features of the world that can be physically manipulated and tracked in real-time, for example, the cognitive scaffolding that religious material culture affords seems tailor-made for allowing people to exchange the intricate "off-line" problems that arise from dealing with invisible, counter-intuitive supernatural agents for the kinds of "on-line" cognitive tasks they are naturally good at doing (i.e., recognizing patterns, modeling simple worldly dynamics, and manipulating objects).

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