Posts Tagged ‘belief’

NewScientist Article – Born Believers

Ah, science.  The use of our intelligence to explain away our intelligence.  Don’t misunderstand – I’m not trying to bash science, but I am certainly a foe of the way science is tossed about these days in an attempt to force naturalistic explanations upon every aspect of the world.   God, the scientists say, is not a scientific question.  What they mean is, God is not a scientific question unless they’re trying to explain it through naturalistic means.  You see, science has a very convenient position these days.  While preaching in words that science can’t prove or disprove certain things, scientists nevertheless make statements of superiority through intellect which infer the opposite.  This article is a prime example of this.

Early on in the article we are told:

It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

So without really getting into the article, you basically have their summary.  Religious belief is clearly inferior to the vast intellect of those who have overcome their silly inclinations.  And in fact, if we see a rise in belief right now, it should be no surprise since we’re going through tough economic times.  But wait! Lest you feel offended at their snide comments, they’ve left a nugget of joy – all centered around the words “finely tuned.” We’ll get back to that in a minute.  First, let’s examine some of research they’re talking about.

Notice what we’re told from the beginning:

“There’s now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired,” says Bloom.

Much of that evidence comes from experiments carried out on children, who are seen as revealing a “default state” of the mind that persists, albeit in modified form, into adulthood. “Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life,” says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford.

So how does the brain conjure up gods? One of the key factors, says Bloom, is the fact that our brains have separate cognitive systems for dealing with living things – things with minds, or at least volition – and inanimate objects.

This separation happens very early in life. Bloom and colleagues have shown that babies as young as five months make a distinction between inanimate objects and people. Shown a box moving in a stop-start way, babies show surprise. But a person moving in the same way elicits no surprise. To babies, objects ought to obey the laws of physics and move in a predictable way. People, on the other hand, have their own intentions and goals, and move however they choose.

I find it absolutely fascinating that from childhood, human beings have an inclination to believe that there is more to the world than just natural laws and physical elements.  They can tell that there is a difference between animate and inanimate.  Now, while I’m sure I’ve had some influence on my baby girl in these first 4 months of her life, there’s not much I can do to teach her the difference between a block and myself.  I can imagine it now:

Me: Here’s a box – see? No life! Now look at daddy! Life! Do you get it?

Baby: *puke*

The fact is, on her own, she can tell that there’s something different about me – something that says that I can choose to do things, while a block should do things in a fairly consistent nature.  But Dr. Bloom takes it even further – he is willing to state that we have a “common sense dualism.”  In other words, it is naturally within us to assume that there is an innate separation between mind and body.  After all, we’ve all probably had some type of imaginary friend.  The fact that we can even attribute a personality to something that is otherwise inanimate is pretty fascinating in and of itself.  Of course, this must be an evolutionary adaptation:

…Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says.

On the other hand, the idea that someone can be planning anything seems to be based upon the idea that they have a mind that I cannot predict.  The idea that I have an alliance with someone seems based upon the idea that we have chosen to work together.  Even if their body was around me 24/7, how could I possibly know what they were planning unless they tell me?  Forcing the bottom-up approach can really end up being problematic in these kinds of areas.

The interesting thing is, these defaults about how we view minds carries over into our defaults about God:

Based on these and other experiments, Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people.

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none.

I love that line – “education and experience teach us to override it.”  Recall that I mentioned earlier this notion of religious inferiority to “scientific” superiority.  That same bias shows up again here.  Sure – it’s our natural, inborn inclination to assume that there’s more to life than just physical things working in physical ways according to physical laws, and that there really is design and purpose in life, but that’s just something you overcome, if you’re smart enough.  I guess they’ve got a point – Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, and so many others in history who have contributed to science were educated and experienced enough to realize that we’re just matter in motion and God is just a delusion.  Wait a second…

Furthermore, we all know how much the God of the Bible is like the pagan gods.  Yes, existing eternally, expecting holiness, rewarding the righteous, condemning evil, loving everyone, etc. – it’s pretty similar to how human minds work.  You would think Isaiah 55:9 would be enough to disprove that theory.  No point in confusing scientists with the facts though, I suppose.

As we go through this article, things become clearer and clearer:

Olivera Petrovich of the University of Oxford asked pre-school children about the origins of natural things such as plants and animals. She found they were seven times as likely to answer that they were made by god than made by people.

These cognitive biases are so strong, says Petrovich, that children tend to spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention: “They rely on their everyday experience of the physical world and construct the concept of god on the basis of this experience.” Because of this, when children hear the claims of religion they seem to make perfect sense.

Two things are clear here.  Firstly, Romans 1:20 is proven correct.  Secondly, Romans 1:21 is proven correct.  Rather than come to the obvious conclusion that something within us leads us to God – that we naturally search for God even outside of our supposed indoctrination – we must conclude that all this is just an accident of nature.

As the article draws to its close, they expound on something we saw earlier:

So if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work, where does that leave god? All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: as Barratt points out, whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.

Indeed so – researchers would not want to commit the genetic fallacy, so they are hasty to admit that their findings say nothing of the truth or falsity of the claims.  Yet, what does the rest of the article really tell us about how they feel?  It’s a blatant inconsistency.  While they admit they cannot disprove God, they really seem to feel that this is just what they are doing.  And they look down on the believer for his ignorance on such things.  But in the end, what have they really proven?  Only that the reality of God should be obvious to man.

Just think about it for a second.  Does a person suddenly decide to climb up something large without proper safety equipment, or must he first overcome/ignore some innate concerns about his safety?  Does a person randomly decide to deprive themselves of food, or must they first feel there is a good reason to ignore their innate needs?  Point being, it takes a lot of work to ignore those things that are naturally within us.  But the ability to ignore those things does not necessarily make us better off for it.  Safety is important, and it can be achieved.  Our bodies need food, and hunger/thirst can be quenched.  So why is it that suddenly this one great part of who we are is the one thing which we must persist in ignoring?  Do you think you will wind up any better for it? Why are we told this is the one natural desire that cannot be quenched?

I will leave you with the wonderful words of a wonderful man – C.S. Lewis:

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

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