bookmark_borderCognitive Psychology of Religion

I’ve been following developments in the cognitive psychology of religion over the past few years. I think they’re very interesting, and obligatory reading for anyone seriously interested in questions concerning the truth of supernatural and paranormal claims. I’ve come across a few accessible articles lately that are good introductions: Paul Bloom’s “Is God an Accident?” in The Atlantic, and Jesse Bering’s “The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural” in American Scientist. I’ve included half a chapter on this subject in my just-out Science and Nonbelief. And naturally, anyone interested in the details should check out books by Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and Ilkka Pyysiäinen.

As Bering puts it, “It is clear that when it comes to the big questions in life, our brains have evolved so that science eludes us but religion comes naturally.” There is a sense in which belief in supernatural agents comes much more naturally to our sorts of brains than does a naturalistic view — a possible grain of truth in claims that humans are born believers or that atheists at some level continue to believe. Just because I’ve managed to get myself thoroughly brainwashed by science doesn’t mean that my normal tendency to perceive gods and ghosts in certain situations is completely switched off. God-beliefs are almost certainly false — and cognitive-science based views of religion add further evidence to support this claim — but they are also likely here to stay.

bookmark_border*&^%$#@! Philosophers…

Speaking as a physicist, I think our biggest problem in science is being boring. Easily 95% of what we publish is ho-hum stuff, perhaps interesting to a handful of fellow experts in a sub-sub-subspecialty, but almost no one else. My own work has been no exception.

But as a physicist who is interested in religious and paranormal-related questions, I have to mess with philosophy as well as science (see my books). And I suspect that the problem with a lot of philosophy is pompous bullshit philosophers pull out of thin air.

The immediate cause of this rant is a book review I was reading, which discusses, among others, Heidegger (there’s exhibit 1 right there) and Levinas. Now, existentialist moaning from continental philosophers is bad enough, but when I came across the bit about Levinas responding to Nazism I snapped. Here it is:

After the war, gruesome revelations about the death camps–in which most of Levinas’s own extended family perished–provoked him to reassess the Western tradition in toto. Why was it, he inquired, that Western philosophy, despite its manifest sublimity and grandeur, could do nothing to prevent the genocidal mania of the Nazis? Especially damning, in Levinas’s view, was the realization that in the face of the radical evil of Nazism, Western thought had demonstrated its own comprehensive impotence.

So, what, aside from divining the bleeding secrets of the universe from their armchairs, philosopers are now supposed to be an equivalent of a military force? What sort of lunatic ambition is it to expect that philosophy should prevent Nazism? Levinas really did think, I’m guessing, that all that is important in a culture proceeds out of Very Very Deep Philosophical Presuppositions. After all, his way of solving the problem was to elevate ethics to a “first philosophy.” Sigh.

OK, I never expected much from continental philosophy in the first place. It can be an interesting form of literature, if you like that sort of thing and don’t take it too seriously, but that’s about it. I’m much more at home with philosophy of science and the sort of philosophy that works closely with and is continuous with the sciences. And maybe the more analytical strain of Anglo-American philosophy.

But then again, philosophers who are more interested in analysis and whatnot also, I think, regularly go off the deep end. Modal metaphysicians, and just about anybody enamored of armchair proofs or disproofs of God come to mind. Their whole enterprise is intellectually sterile, largely because they still haven’t quite let go of hopes for a “first philosophy,” and still entertain the delusion that you can get something interesting, even vital, solely by reflecting on concepts and not making connections to the rest of intellectual life. It’s the lingering ghost of the notion that you need to get some “metaphysical” things straight, and all the rest will proceed out of such fundamentals.

Now, this is just the sort of complaint many philosophers have long been making. I can only add my frustration from the outside, and hope the excellent insider-critiques by philosophers will eventually get somewhere. But damn, some parts of philosophy — especially backwaters like the philosophy of religion — have been slow in learning, and I’m not going to hold my breath for progress any time soon. Ignore the bastards, and get on with the real job of learning about our world.

bookmark_borderEinstein, Quantum Mechanics, God

I’d really like to know how some science-related myths enter the public consciousness, sort of like urban legends. There is a lot that concerns physics and religion that, whenever I run across them, I have to wonder how people come up with this stuff. And when I was browsing through an interview recently, I ran across two of my favorites within a couple of sentences of each other.

One has to do with Einstein. Just about everyone knows of him as an iconic science-genius with frizzy hair — rarely anything about his work in physics. In fact, one of the more widespread items of “common knowledge” about Einstein seems to be that he favored religion, believed in a conventional God and all that. It’s not exactly true — Einstein indulged in some handwaving quasi-Platonist God-talk, but also rejected any personal God. But what’s even more interesting is how Einstein gets turned into an authority on religion, when his thoughts on the matter are pretty second-rate, honestly. The urban legend of a devout Einstein is out there, regardless of its various inaccuracies, and it’ll never go away.

Then there’s quantum mechanics. I despair of all the times I see people casually using the word “quantum” as an equivalent of magic. The popular reputation of quantum mechanics seems to be that it’s a scientific endorsement of psychic powers, mystical illumination, cosmic wholeness, God, what-have-you. There are some people with physics backgrounds that promote this nonsense (though they should know better), but I don’t think that’s the only reason that particular myth has taken hold. Like the Einstein bit, it serves as legitimation for supernatural belief, helping create the impression that there’s good science behind religion. The Einstein and quantum mechanics myths hang in the air as vague items of common knowledge, the way people know the Earth is round but really have no clue why that is so.

bookmark_borderTaking Offense

It’s a couple of days old now, but it’s rare that I find an op-ed piece that I can so wholeheartedly agree with, so I urge everyone to look at Matthew Parris’s comment in The Times.

I realize that the whole Muslim-outrage-over-cartoon situation is more complicated than a matter of free speech versus fanaticism. Still, the whole “we must always respect religious beliefs” bit bothers me. My interest in free speech is largely academic, in the sense that I want everything, certainly including religion, to be open to criticism in an intellectual environment. But it’s hard to set aside places like universities and expect them to remain isolated from wider social pressures. My freedom to lecture and publish in a way that challenges religious sensibilities has a lot to do with the freedom to publish even tasteless cartoons and not fear for your life.

bookmark_borderAn empirical test of the existence of sensus divinitatis in atheists

Paul Manata, in a comment on the post about Dan the agnostic who claims there aren’t really atheists, linked to a paper he wrote arguing for a similar conclusion. The position he takes in that paper, following Greg Bahnsen, is that atheists really do believe in God–everyone does–but that they have a second-order belief about themselves that they do not believe in God. That is, they are self-deceived about not believing in God, and their professions of atheism are based on the erroneous second-order belief.

Although Paul has a section in his paper labeled “Empirical support for NA” (NA meaning the No Atheists claim), the evidence he appeals to is weak (that most people alive today and who have lived in the past have been religious) or non-empirical (that there exist arguments which–he claims–prove that the Christian God is a necessary presupposition of logic, science, and ethics).

But if there is really an innate universal belief in God–or a natural direct perception of God, a sensus divinitatis, a mental faculty that allows direct basic knowledge of God’s existence–it seems to me that we should be able to find much stronger empirical evidence of it.

Evan Fales (in “Critical Discussion of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief“, NOUS 37 (2003):353-370) raises the question of whether independent empirical evidence regarding such a sensus divinitatis (SD) and guidance of the Holy Spirit (HS) can be obtained (even granting the presumption that Christian theism is true):

However, maybe we can acquire independent evidence of the existence of the SD/HS mechanisms. After all, we have abundant evidence for the existence of sensory faculties that put us in touch with the world in reliable ways; also memory and reason. We are beginning to decipher the neurological substrata of these cognitive processes. Of course, our evidence here is evidence produced by these very faculties, so its evidentiary status begs the question against skepticism; but at least these faculties are not epistemically isolated from one another, or from
utilization in investigations that yield an increasingly ramified picture of the very processes thus employed, and of the grounds for trusting them.

Can anything comparable be done on behalf of the SD and HS? So far as I know, nothing of this sort has been done; and, short of some much more detailed specification of the alleged structures and processes, it is hard to see how it could be done. Perhaps there are no such structures; perhaps these “faculties” consist in ways God directly stimulates our thoughts. Absent a physical substratum, there may be no independently detectable evidence to be had. But if so, then so much the worse for the epistemic status of the claim that there are such faculties.

It’s this suggestion that I’d like to pursue, but first let me note that Fales presents three arguments based on empirical evidence which cast doubt on the existence of a sensus divinitatis–first, the divergence of claims and beliefs by those who claim to have one (lack of reliability, even within Christian sects). Second, the lack of a demonstrated superior moral life by Christians versus non-Christians (similar comparisons can be drawn between Christians and nontheists). Third, the presence of Bible verses–accepted by most varieties of Christian as authored by men inspired by the Holy Spirit, presumably with their sensus divinitatis functioning properly–in which “God performs, commands, accepts or countenances rape, genocide, human sacrifice, pestilence to punish David for taking a census, killing David’s infant to punish him, hatred of family, capital punishment for breaking a monetary promise, and so on”?

I agree with Fales that all three of these are defeaters for a sensus divinitatis (with the lack of agreement being the one I find most persuasive–surely a divinely created faculty would work reliably across the set of believers), but I would like to pursue his suggestion of examining evidence of empirical science. I think this would qualify as the sort of “theistic science” that Plantinga has elsewhere advocated. The example I will give is meant to be illustrative rather than a well-defined experiment–I’ll mention some problems with it at the end.

While flying on a plane today, I was reading V.S. Ramachandran’s book, Phantoms in the Brain. Chapter 7 of this book is titled “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” and is largely about a syndrome that occasionally occurs in individuals who have suffered damage from a stroke to the right parietal lobe, causing paralysis of (parts of) the left side of the body. The specific phenomenon he discusses is called anosognosia, or lack of awareness of a defect, and is also often accompanied by neglect, the failure to attend to the left side of the body. (He discusses neglect in chapter 6, “Through the Looking Glass.”)

The characteristic behavior of this problem, which is usually temporary, is that the individual is in complete denial that his or her left side is at all paralyzed. The chapter begins with the example of Mrs. Dodds, who had suffered a stroke two weeks previously and been confined to her bed or a wheelchair since that time:

“Mrs. Dodds, how are you feeling today?”
“Well, doctor, I have a headache. You know they brought me to the hospital.”
“Why did you come to the hospital, Mrs. Dodds?”
“Oh, well,” she said, “I had a stroke?”
“How do you know?”
“I fell down in the bathroom two weeks ago and my daughter brought me here. They did some brain scans and took X rays and told me I had a stroke.” Obviously Mrs. Dodds knew what had occurred and was aware of her surroundings.
“Okay,” I said. “And how are you feeling now?”
“Can you walk?”
“Sure I can walk.” […]
“What about your hands? Hold out your hands. Can you move them?”
Mrs. Dodds seemed mildly annoyed by my questions. “Of course I can use my hands,” she said.
“Can you use your right hand?”
“Can you use your left hand?”
“Yes, I can use my left hand.”
“Are both hands equally strong?”
“Yes, they are both equally strong.” (p. 128)

Ramachandran describes multiple patients with this disorder, and different forms of denial–some would make excuses for failure to move paralyzed limbs, while others would insist that they were, in fact, moving them.

He hypothesizes that the left hemisphere, where the functions of speech, syntax, and semantics reside, is also where beliefs get integrated into a coherent worldview and anomalous data is rejected via semi-Freudian mechanisms such as denial, reaction formation, repression, and humor, while the right hemisphere acts as “Devil’s Advocate,” presenting anomalous information and acting as a check on the reliability of the overall worldview. The damage caused by the stroke results in a failure on the part of the right hemisphere to get its point across that something is wrong.

Now here’s where things get interesting–there’s another phenomenon, called nystagmus, where the eyes make rapid involuntary movements, scanning rapidly in one direction (saccade) and then slowly back in the opposite direction (vestibulo-ocular reflex). This phenomenon occurs naturally in circumstances where you are observing motion, such as looking out a car window at telephone poles you pass, but also can occur in other circumstances. It can also be artificially induced by pouring cold or warm water into one ear canal, to create a
temperature gradient, which stimulates the vestibulocochlear nerve. (This is called calorically induced nystagmus.)

A side-effect of inducing nystagmus (with cold water in the right ear or warm water in the left) is that anosognosia temporarily disappears. The individual no longer denies being paralyzed, but recognizes the paralysis. Ramachandran attributes this effect partially to a stimulation of the right hemisphere, and also speculates that the phenomenon may be related to REM sleep (and predicts that “patients with denial should dream that they are paralyzed” and “if they are awakened during the REM episode, they may continue to admit their paralysis for several minutes before reverting to denial again” (p. 148)).

But about 30-40 minutes later, the denial returns, and when questioned about the interactions that occurred while the denial was gone, the sufferer will engage in further denial, confabulation, etc. to describe what happened.

Ramachandran speculates that the distorted body image of a sufferer of anorexia nervosa might similarly be changeable with such a test.

Now, one problem common in science is overgeneralization from a minimum of data, and this is almost certainly what is going on here. This very issue was discussed in 2001 in an email discussion archived here, which I think makes it unlikely that the details of Ramachandran’s speculation about the mechanism are correct. But if it were correct, my proposed test would be to use the calorically induced nystagmus test to see if atheists temporarily stopped professing nonbelief or disbelief in God–if they did, that would be very interesting empirical evidence in support of the “atheists actually believe in God but are engaged in self-deception” thesis. And that is, I think, the sort of thing that Manata should believe is possible to do if his thesis is correct.

This “no atheists” thesis, even if true, would not prove that atheism is false–we already know in other contexts that the heuristics used in normal everyday reasoning often lead to falsehoods. One of the conclusions of Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained is that religiosity is an expected outcome of the templates of representing and reasoning that human beings use. But if the “no atheists” thesis were proven true, I think it would add considerable weight on the ledger for theism and against atheism, and place the burden on the atheist side to explain why such a belief would universally occur in the absence of a God.

One further note–if there were empirical evidence in support of a sensus divinitatis through such a test, the next step would be to determine where it is localized and find what specific beliefs correlate with it, in order to address the reliability/incompatible belief issue raised by Evan Fales and determine whether the universal underlying belief is pantheism, deism, Judaism, some flavor of Christianity, or something else entirely.

bookmark_borderSecularism is Dying

Recently, Free Inquiry magazine had a very interesting “symposium in print” on the question, Secularism — Will it Survive? The affirmative answers seemed more like pious hopes to me, I have to say. And the thought I have given the question since has led me in an increasingly negative direction. I think secularism is moribund. Politically, it has been losing too many battles. Intellectually, it has become harder to defend without sounding like someone reciting outdated platitudes.

I am most familiar with Turkey (and by extension, the Islamic world), the United States, and to a lesser degree, Europe. I don’t see secularism faring well in any of these places, either in the sense of a social fact on the ground or as a political position.

In Turkey, the military secularism that has constrained national politics for many decades is dying a long, slow death. Interestingly, the more Turkey democratizes –in the sense of allowing ordinary people a voice and a say in how the government is run — the more public life takes on a Islamic cultural coloration. Government and the legal system will be more and more drawn toward recognizing this political reality.

In the United States, we have a culturally Christian nation. Though we went through a few decades where Christianity looked to be displaced from its informally established position, things seem to be returning to normal after conservative Catholics and Protestants figured out they could work together after all. We are unlikely to get a theocracy, but the anomalously strict separation of church and state we have enjoyed will very likely continue to be relaxed. Again, democratic populism means a very religiously-colored politics.

Europe might seem the global exception, along with possibly Japan. Socially and culturally it seems to have genuinely become secularized, among ordinary people as well as among elites. But there, the complicating factor is the large and growing Muslim presence. Europeans simply have to adapt, and I see no realistic option but Europeans acknowledging, for example, that free expression concerning Islamically sensitive matters is the equivalent of crying fire in a crowded theater. Europe will probably return to religion, not just through its Muslim minorities, but also because many Europeans will react to Islam by reaffirming a more Christian identity.

I don’t see secularism as having much of a capacity for defending itself. It is a position that is attractive to elites rather than ordinary people, and in a postmodern consumer environment, cultural populism is the order of the day. “Freedom of speech” starts to sound hollow when huge numbers of people are deeply offended — harmed, one can say — by impious speech. More importantly, it becomes hard to defend politically. No freedom is without limits. “Separation of church and state” becomes an empty slogan when strict separation begins to be seen as an illegitimate restriction on religious communities joining in a democratic political process.

So secularism is dying, I think. It is dying because for most humans, going without socially significant supernatural beliefs is as about as easy as celibacy. And it is dying because we live in postmodern times, where for all the gross inequalities of wealth and power created by our economic life, democracy is alive and well in the realm of cultural populism and identity politics.

bookmark_borderCould an Atheist Pass a Lie Detector Test while Proclaiming Atheism?

(Redating this post.)
While I am discussing the theme of defining one’s opponents out of existence, here’s an interesting twist on the idea. I received an email from a Christian with a link to an article that suggests most atheists could not pass a lie detector test if asked during the test if they believe in God and answered “No.” The following is an excerpt.

“Indeed, to suppress the truth that God has placed within each man only leads to varying degrees of neurosis. As the noted psychologist Rollo May wrote in The Art of Counseling, “I have been startled by the fact that practically every genuine atheist with whom I have dealt has exhibited unmistakable neurotic tendencies. How [do we] account for this curious fact?”16 And, perhaps even more suggestive, according to Senior Pastor Jess Moody of the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys, California, “Lie detector tests were administered to more than 25,000 people. One of the questions was, ‘Do you believe in God?’ In every case, when a person answered no, the lie detector said he was lying.” 17

16. Rollo May, The Art of Counseling, (NY Abingdon 1967), p. 215.
17. Cited in Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1986. We could not confirm this research. Convinced philosophical atheists clearly could pass lie detector tests since these measure conviction of belief. But such results, if valid, clearly show that the more garden-variety practical, as opposed to philosophical, atheists really aren’t so sure of their views.

Ultimately, the question, “Can atheists proclaim their atheism during a lie detector test and pass the test?”, is an empirical question, and even the author of the above article admits he was unable to confirm the “research” supporting the idea that atheists could not pass the test. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this turned out to be an urban legend.

bookmark_borderMuslims are even more outraged

The cartoon crisis keeps growing, with Muslim protests and threats (and minor acts) of violence worldwide. (See the cartoons.)

Ordinary Muslims are, by and large, playing to stereotypes — behaving like easily insulted fanatics. Muslim intellectuals writing in British newspapers are also doing their usual thing — blaming it all on Western racism and exclusion, saying that there are legitimate material grievances behind the protests, and saying the cartoons were nothing but provocations expressing Western hostility to Islam. Most Muslims agree that something has to be done to prevent such insults against religion.

Non-Muslim Europeans are also out to reinforce their own stereotypes, as weak-kneed people who are incapable of standing up for anything. A flood of apologies to Muslims have appeared, from newspapers that published the cartoons to public and government figures. It’s a terrible, terrible thing that Muslim religious sensibilities have been offended.

Americans who butt in also, by and large, fit stereotypes about Americans: conservative morons who enjoy the luxury of living in a country with a negligible Muslim population, and who counter Muslim religious fanaticism with righteous posturing of their own. Kick some ass, invade some more Muslim lands, spread the Christian gospel and teach those Ay-rabs civilization.

Sigh. On one hand, this whole fracas reinforces my general contempt for the human species. On the other hand, I can’t even get my usual fool’s compensation of a bitter sense of superiority. I’d like to come out and say I know the right and proper way to respond to incidents that (possibly deliberately) provoke religious offense, but I don’t see any way to do it without appearing a morally outraged twit myself. Again, sigh…

bookmark_borderEvangelicals fail to speak out on climate change issue

Environment-concerned members of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals had been hoping for the group to issue a statement on the dangers of global warming and the need to address the issue, but the chances of this were torpedoed “after NAE President Ted Haggard received a sternly written letter from 22 Bush-friendly evangelical leaders, including James Dobson.” Also signing this letter were ex-convict Charles W. Colson, D. James Kennedy, Richard Land, Donald Wildmon, Richard Roberts, and Louis P. Sheldon.

The letter stated that “Bible-believing evangelicals … disagree about the cause, severity, and solutions to the global-warming issue.”

More at the Washington Post.