|Was God an Accident?; Music for today: Bill Monroe
||[Dec. 2nd, 2005|12:24 pm]
There's a great article in this month's Atlantic Monthly
by Paul Bloom called "Is God an Accident?"
He points out that nearly everyone in the world believes in the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. He posits that these beliefs are the after-effects of how our brain developed and that all of us have a predisposition to believe in the supernatural.
He uses recent research on the minds of infants to support the "religion-as-accident" theory.
I've always wondered about this. I've read Marx and Durkheim and Freud and although I thought their explanations for religious belief were kind of right, but I never felt that they were totally right. For example, I'll ask the Magic 8-Ball questions, and I'll take the answers seriously, even though I know logically the Magic 8-Ball works on statistics, probability, and on the way I frame my questions. Likewise, despite my strong dislike of metaphysics and the supernatural, I seem to be naturally inclined to look for metaphysical and supernatural answers for everything. This makes no sense unless my brain is somehow pushing me toward metaphysical thinking.
Bloom thinks there are two things which lead us to religious thinking: "First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, [we] infer goals and desires where none exist, [and look for patterns were there is only randomness]. This makes us animists and creationists."The first point: the Mind/Body split
Bloom posits that our brains fundamentally make a distinction between the physical and the psychological. "Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires." Children intuit such things and recognize, on a seemingly intrinsic level, that physical things should follow the 'laws of nature.' They also seem to intrinsically recognize that psychological things have minds. "(Autistic children have a problem with social understanding and sometimes don't understand that other individuals have minds of their own.)"
"[T]he separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct.
We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them...
This belief system opens the possibility that we ourselves can survive the death of our bodies. Most people believe that when the body is destroyed, the soul lives on. It might ascend to heaven, descend to hell, go off into some sort of parallel world, or occupy some other body, human or animal. Indeed, the belief that the world teems with ancestor spirits - the souls of people who have been liberated from their bodies through death - is common across cultures. We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder - some would say impossible - to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us."The second point: Our desire for purpose and pattern.
"Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged - it looks orderly to them, too orderly.
"Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged - it looks orderly to them, too orderly."
This explains my belief in the Magic 8-Ball and other silly nonsense (I freak out when I 'jinx' myself by saying, "X
never happens to me," or "I never X
I dunno. This is a simple and powerful theory that explains a lot. It explains why half of America believes in angels. (Fucking angels
for fuck's sake – I mean, why not Cthulu or Santa Claus or Big Foot or fucking leprechauns?). It explains why over 90% of Americans' believe in God and why even in 'atheistic' Iceland, where only 2% of the population goes to church, 80% believe in God. We're hardwired to believe. Despite what Marx, Freud and Durkheim think, the universal themes of religion are not learned. "They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."
Experiments mentioned in the article:
Six-month-olds understand that physical objects obey gravity. If you put an object on a table and then remove the table, and the object just stays there (held by a hidden wire), babies are surprised; they expect the object to fall. They expect objects to be solid, and contrary to what is still being taught in some psychology classes, they understand that objects persist over time even if hidden. (Show a baby an object and then put it behind a screen. Wait a little while and then remove the screen. If the object is gone, the baby is surprised.) Five-month-olds can even do simple math, appreciating that if first one object and then another is placed behind a screen, when the screen drops there should be two objects, not one or three. Other experiments find the same numerical understanding in nonhuman primates, including macaques and tamarins, and in dogs.
In a significant study the psychologists Jesse Bering, of the University of Arkansas, and David Bjorklund, of Florida Atlantic University, told young children a story about an alligator and a mouse, complete with a series of pictures, that ended in tragedy: "Uh oh! Mr. Alligator sees Brown Mouse and is coming to get him!" [The children were shown a picture of the alligator eating the mouse.] "Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator. Brown Mouse is not alive anymore."
The experimenters asked the children a set of questions about the mouse's biological functioning - such as "Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?" - and about the mouse's mental functioning, such as "Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?"
As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don't work, and neither does the brain. The mouse's body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.
...nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children use a functional one, such as "so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy." And when asked about the origins of animals and people, children prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism - and belief in God - is bred in the bone.
In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures - circles, squares, triangles - moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell. Further research has found that bounded figures aren't even necessary - one can get much the same effect in movies where the "characters" are not single objects but moving groups, such as swarms of tiny squares.
I grew up country. My town had a population of 23 people. It was in the middle of the desert on old Route 66 and it used to be a railroad town. My family owned a general store / gas station / bar / restaurant and we had an old jukebox. When my mom and dad took over the store, they removed a lot of my grandparent's old 45s and put in a lot of 70s and 80s country. I hated all of it. But some of the old 45s that my parents left in the jukebox reached me in a way that my parent's music did not.
So here's one of those songs: Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Monroe is one of the fathers of bluegrass and country music, and this is one of his most famous songs. Still, if you don't know it, you might love it, and if you know it, you already love it.
Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (1946)
"We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them..."
I'd be interested in seeing Bloom's sources for this statement, particularly ones that indicate such a duality outside of western culture which has, for the most part, been irrevocably, Platonically shaped.
It's a long article and I obviously didn't post all the references he made to outside experiments. However, I've heard of a lot of the experiments before, but never connected them to religion.
It seems that kids do have to different ingrained systems of understanding the world that have nothing to do with Platonic forms or Christian ideology. Babies and pre-vocal children seem to grasp basic 'laws of nature' and also seem to grasp basic 'social laws' that suggest knowledge of other minds.
I think you should re-read the part under the heading "The first point: the Mind/Body split." It's not thorough, but I think it covers your question.
this was your only tl;dr post that i ever read twice. interesting, but i disagree with/question a few things.
1. was there outside influence on the children (in their 4, or however many years) creating certain views?
2. where did they find these children they did these experiments on?
3. how large was the group?
the beginning section is pretty much old news.
fun read, though; i read it twice.
Again, I didn't have the time or inclination to transcribe all of the experiments referenced, but it ranges all over the place. Most of the experiments are published in various peer reviewed scientific journals, so I guess we can hope that each experiment had enough control groups to cover outside influence (which is never complete, obvs).
Pick up the article, it's well worth it.
And I dunno that it's old news; it's causing quite a stir.
We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct.
Well, not all of us.
The other day, I was talking with the husband of Ben's ex-ex-ex girlfriend. He was trying to get me to admit that I believe in God, which I wouldn't because I don't. He kept asking me if I thought anything was eternal and I said no. Then he said that if I think that nothing is eternal, I must believe that at some point, something came from nothing. I said I didn't disagree, but that I think the distinction between "something" and "nothing" is an illusion. I don't think there is "something" versus "nothing" and I don't think the mind or soul or whatever is distinct from the body or is distinct from a tree or from you or from anything else.
You and I don't.
But his point is that humans, in general, have a predisposition to think that way.
You and I are the exception, but that doesn't mean that rule doesn't hold. Again, we are in the minority in the world, let alone in the U.S. (95% believe in God; around half go to church; half believe in angels and miracles.)
Fascinating shit Troy. Perhaps that's why I have absolutely no belief in God, but when I'm in a pickle I might pick up a deck of Tarot cards and believe that some outside force is helping point me in the right direction.
That's sounds corny, but we all do it.
I hate that. I also pick up the Tarot, or sometimes do something totally OCD like pretend that every crack in the sidewalk in a day in my immediate life and all things surrounding the crack will auger my future.
I don't necessarily agree with the basic premise of the article. If human beings are biologically programmed to believe in a God or gods, wouldn't that tend to support creationist theory, almost like the spiritual equivalent of a "Made in Taiwan" stamp? I mean, for the most part we're all born with hands, too, and I don't see anyone getting excited about that "accident."
That said, the research itself is fascinating. Forgive me my lurking, please.
No, not at all.
It only supports creationist theory if you believe that everything has a purpose; that is, if you already believe
That's where a lot of people get evolution wrong. If you accept evolution, then you no longer need a purpose
, and something like "a universal belief in unicorns" in Species X doesn't actually mean that unicorns exist. It also doesn't necessarily mean that "belief in unicorns" is somehow advantageous to Species X, just that it has developed to be a universal. What it does mean is that there was a historical/evolutionary reason why the "belief in unicorns" developed in that species.
And hello, hoppergrass
, nice to meet you.
Oops, meant to add...it would be interesting to know what the evolutionary gain of such behavior is? Does the article mention this? I would guess that it has something to do with shared beliefs increasing cooperation between individuals resulting in increased resources and chances of survival for all.
you is makin my brain hurt. also, this brought up a lot of shit for me internally. i am a rationalist and a fortean and thus have no belief in god. but a very close friend of mine has started to question his lack of belief. why? because he's in AA. and that really makes me mad. i can't even talk to him about it! i'm afraid of what he is going to say and how that will make me think of him in a different way.
a universe without god, to me, is a much more wonderous place. all this was an accident! random! unplanned. that's completely amazing.
I like Bloom's theories. I have the article at home and i'll read it this weekend.
Ya know, when I was in the cult, I realized one thing: That shit works. AA without the religious mumbo-jumbo probably wouldn't be as effective.
I agree with you, but we're in the minority.
that's really fascinating... i guess i gave up on atlantic monthly too soon. i stopped reading the magazine after reading one too many reactionary articles and after they seemed to have dropped food articles altogether.
makes sense that people are predisposed to seeing patterns and intentions, since both skills are surival tools. after all, we have layers of sensory neurons devoted soley to picking up patterns, serving as a filter to keep us from sensory overload. and being able to infer intents and causes is also helpful for survival.
but the part about how we are conditioned to recognize a mind/body duality is surprising, considering it doesn't seem to confer a direct evolutionary advantage...
Yeah, I only buy it when I see something amazing on the newsstand. There new direction is not for me.
He's suggesting that it doesn't confer a direct evolutionary advantage. Which would partially accomidate for religion's checkered past.
I haven't read all through that yet, but this reminded me of a book I just read for one of my classes: In the Beginning...Creativity. It argues that we should see God as non-anthropomorphic serendipitous creativity. It's a little meta-physicsy, but you might like it.
I'm not really a fan of metaphysics and god-talk in general. Just leaves me dry.
Isn't it possible that the fact that we're hardwired to believe in the supernatural proves the existence of the supernatural?
It's possible, sure.
But what he's saying isn't evidence for the existence of the supernatural.
As I said above, if you accept the basics of evolution, then you no longer have any need for teleology or any sort of purpose.
At it's most fundamental, science ignores supernatural causes and looks at the corporeal, so the fossil record might have been planted by JHWH as a joke, but there's no way science could ever know.
It's so weird that you'd post this today. I swear to you that last night my roommate and I got into a LONG very in depth conversation about this.
Sometimes I wish I could just record some conversations. We came up with a ton of theories and ideas that all made sense, or none at all. So many possiblities to the meaning of things. Endless...enough to make you go crazy. Scientific and religious...a lot of contradictions.
I personally don't know what the f u c k to believe. I'm just gonna live my life and try to be a good person along the way.
In the end, once we die we probably just shut off and that's it. No nothing.
Maybe we should just except that this is it. This life, nothing more. You're feelings and emotions and "spirituality" are all there to make the time more interesting. If this is it...then s h i t man, just go buck nutty already and have a good time with it. What's that "everything is real, nothing is true" or "everything is true, nothing is real"...
I know we vaguely touched on this while having that convo about cat's being SO MUCH smarter than dogs. Emotions, and a heart and whatever...and I did say I believe in a soul and a "higher" power. I think I do because I'm afraid of dying/death. I feel so silly sometimes for believing in such a thing. While at the same time I feel guilty not believing. Again, it's enough to make someone crazy. Logically it makes sense that there isn't any thing supernatural out there. But emotionally it's depressing. It's like "so love, and all that jazz...how is that explained...why do things hurt emotionally...and why do connections FEEL so intense".
What do you think about the power of thought? How it evokes things to happen?
I'm not sure if it really evokes things to happen or if we are predisposed to think that it does. For sure, our actions have effects in the world, but then again, so does a butterflies.
At the bare minimum, I think our sense of free-will is not even close to correct. I doubt our common-sense notions of how we work are close to how we really work. But that's just a guess.
Also, I think the Greeks, despite their flaws had it right: live THIS life as thoroughly as possible. This is the only life you have. That, coupled with Nietzsche's version of 'do onto others', and I'm done.
I really like this, Troy. Thanks.
As you know, I am into a lot of metaphysical stuff although I can't really say I believe in it... like I think it's some ultimate truth or something.
This theory supports how I look at things. I can't think of any rational or logical explanation for a God but I've always felt this pull towards things spiritual. I know that I feel much better when I meditate and engage in other metaphysicy stuff - it seems to fulfill a need. So I decided to just honour that need without believing in any specific god, goddess, divine plan, etc. I never insist that I'm right - I just acknowledge my instinctual desire. I think reincarntion makes sense, if you accept a soul as a given, but I don't believe that it's true. Does this make sense?
I think that science will eventually explain all of supernatural phenomenon which I guess is why I'm into the metaphysics too.
My question... how does consciousness fit into all of this?
Where I'm at right now is that I believe in the universal consciousness that Jung spoke of and I think the sum total of that is what some have termed "God". The more I get into the Hindu way of thinking, the less I believe in the idea of a personal God - especially as a separate entity that controls/creates us.
I've always felt that pull too. Not necessarily in organized religion, but in a predilection to look for patterns where I know there are none and to look for answers in silly places (like in the Magic 8-Ball).
Consciousness is still damn mysterious. I really like Dawkin's book Consciousness Explained but I think he just barely scraped the surface (and so does he).
I don't buy the "universal consciousness" because, as I said above, although there seem to be universal archetypes, there meanings vary from culture to culture, which means they are only vague archetypes and are empty vessels for meaning - not what Jung was getting at.
I like Hinduism, but I HATE reincarnation for practical and political reasons.
so wait i am supposed to believe that
epistemology is not just for white people
anymore? no this all seems kind of silly
to me. of course we believe in god and
the brain and hilarious conversations.
Wait, who let non-whites play with epistemology?
Of course I don't believe in god. Duh.
This stuff is really interesting. More comments later after I'm done outlining for my First Amendment final.
Dude, looking forward to it.
hm. have not read the article, nor all of your comments, but here i go...
first of all (minor), "(Autistic children have a problem with social understanding and sometimes don't understand that other individuals have minds of their own.)" = BS.
the issue is actually far more interesting than that.
as for the rest, i am actually vaguely in agreement w/ vengeance_is_me. i mean, if we understand from a young age that the ball is still there, even when it is hidden, and that it will follow the same logic as when we can see it, then we already intuit that there are things that exist, which we cant see. not a big leap, anyway. so then there are all these things that happen in the world, from birth and death to sunrises and spontaneous cumbustion, which seem bizarre and inexplicable until we find perfectly logical explanations for them. so from there, its reasonable to assume that there must be some kind of explanation for most things we dont understand, but since we hate not knowing, be make up an explanation so we can sleep at night.
so, the real question is, why are we hard-wired to need an explanation in the first place?
Yeah, but that only explains our belief in a divine creation (and god): we make things; there is order in the world; order is something we make; therefore something like us made the world. That part of the equation is the 'we look for patterns' part, and is old news. It only explains god and creationism. And there's no end of ideas as to why we're hard wired to need explanations.
But why does every culture believe in souls and life after death? Those things do not follow any argument. You can't look at the world and intuit the belief in life after death - the change of the seasons means a whole new crop of plants, and trees simply lose their leaves.
The kicker in the argument is that children have two hard-wired systems for understanding how the world works, and those two systems clash and leave after-effects like 'belief in souls' and 'belief in life after death.'
I don't know about anyone else, but I think that's pretty cool.
And the autism thing is me paraphrasing. He was talking about the extremities of autism and I didn't have the time or inclination to go into details. I'll respond to the article in a sec.
ps, ive always loved that song, but i only knew the elvis version. this one is cool in a totally different way. :)
I believe in Cthulhu. I don't worship him, mind you, but I do believe in him.
Somewhat synchronistically, I am at present reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods- omigod it's so good I don't have words to describe...
Man, I really need to read it. I love the premise. And BTW, I don't know why I'm getting these notification now.
Still busy with finals, but much of what I was going to say was centered around the notion that our brains are hard-wired to filter stimulus in such a way that it creates and shapes our perception of the world as something orderly and understandable. We project purpose into things due to whatever biological accident arranged our neurons this way. Saying that this "proves" or indicates some creator is a logical fallacy somewhat analogous to the anthropic principle
; just because we're designed to believe in a Creator doesn't mean one exists.
If anyone is interested in further reading about how our brains shape and determine our subjective experience by filtering external stimulus into a functional order, I highly recommend Lakoff & Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh
speaking of ol' KM, he said, "The confession of Prometheus, 'in simple words, I hate the pack of gods,' is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity." Maybe its our own self-awareness of the mind's ownership over the body that allows for its own transcendence.
Did you ever read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes?
Basically he argues that our self-awareness came out around 500BC as 'voices in our head'. Ok... that doesn't make sense... Uh... Basically, he thinks that humans were all schizophrenic until that rough time period.
Cool theory, although it could never be proven.
No, I missed that. It's kind of funny because I always say, "I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but I also can't prove that Santa Clause and vampires don't exist." I then tell people I don't spend much time worrying about whether or not Santa Clause or vampires exist. He, however, took the metaphor to the next level.
Personally, I am an atheist, but some of this is wrong. I'm not referring to the original post, but to some of what follows.
You can't mix up the objective realm of science with the subjective realm of faith. While there is objective truth, which is arrived by objective experiments which seek to scientifically prove a point of research, such as is the example of the original post. It's true that you may be able to prove that we are predisposed to believe in god(s); but you cannot prove that god doesn't exist by this reasoning, and so you cannot actually use this argument against belief in god.
Faith is a subjective truth (to make sure you understand exactly what I mean by subjective truth here, check Kierkegaard on the subject.); the individual chooses to believe despite the fact that the doctrines of a religion makes no sense. When one makes a "leap of faith" that is a subjective truth which cannot be denied -- it becomes a commitment, somthing to dedicate your life to; that's the power of irrationality (like believing in smurfs -- you can think of loonies if you like). However, subjective truth is a choice the individual makes out of some personal need -- many people find religion helps them cope with life (I think it is like a last resort).
The experiments you describe are purely scientific since they do not deal with true faith, they only talk about people's dispositions towords certain reasoning and beliefs. You cannot, however, mix this objectivity with subjective truth. Individuals choose to believe in religions despite being able to understand them. It is the paradoxes and overall incoherence of a religion itself that makes it so powerful in captivating believers.
So, as you can I hope see, to mix objective (scientific) truth, with subjective (religious) truth is absolute nonsense. You can try as much as you can but you will never get anywhere. It is like going up to some great person you admire and saying "I will prove to you that you exist;" it's absurd and insulting.
The scientist trying to prove the non-existence of god is just as rediculous as the religious person trying to prove the existence of god scientifically. While I have to admit that the article has some interesting research, it bears no weight in religion which is in the realm of subjective truth. You have to be very careful not to mix up objectivity and subjectivity here.
No offense, but it's amazing how many people get this wrong.
Science can study anything that can be falsified, verified, experimented on, and predicted. The traditional split is that the scientific method relies on natural explanations, and uses objective techniques to measure, calculate and describe the material universe.
Religious methods are subjective, but they can be studied scientifically IF they can studied, measured, predicted, etc. You can study subjectivity, but not directly. You can measure and study the aggregate of what people believe and how they think. You can study group phenomenons and individual responses. You can compare and contrast animal studies with human experiments. It's easy, and people have been doing it for decades. What you can't study (or at least, can't study effectively) is an individual subjectivity.
Now that this study is out there, others can devise further tests to see if it's correct. It's predicts certain universal results, so we should see the test results in the next decade. It also predicts certain patterns of behavior, so, again, we should be able to see results in the next decade. It's not necessarily correct, but it could be, and finding out if it is correct is what science is all about.