Faith & Irrationality

I tend to go to some religious gatherings for a number of social reasons. Whenever I go to such religious gatherings, sermons and discourses, I have often looked at the twinkle in the eyes of the adherents and wondered as to how people can be so deluded, or how reasoning can be so flawed. I have studied the egotistical and selfish nature of the preacher(s) and these have taken many forms – from the overtly ‘I know what you should think because I have thought it out for you’ to ‘I am your humble servant, and I think that these are the solutions to all your searches’. I have looked into the eyes of the adherents who are trying to give meaning to their lives for a number of reasons – all primarily psychological. I have studies the reasons people convert from one religion to another (primarily from western to eastern religions), and on the selfish reasons for doing so. Psychological escapism is nothing new, and converts will justify their reasons without clarity and candor. The burden of a disturbed mind manipulates irrationality into reason.

Increasingly, many of us want to rid the world of dogmatically-held beliefs that are vapid, barbarous, anachronistic and wrong. Many religious people give us their take on how they and their system of beliefs would combat such beliefs, which is often scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share. We have stated, here on The European Rationalist, that silence in the face of dangerous lunacy, or even in the face of moderate unreasonableness, can be just as culpable as lying.

I was recently reading ‘In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion’ by Scott Atran (Anthropologist, University of Michigan) and an article at Edge (www.edge.org) “An Edge Discussion of BEYOND BELIEF: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, Salk Institue, La Jolla November 5-7, 2006” and I find that most of the points I wanted to be make as a critique, have already been made there.

Most religious people are irrational, as most us are in many situations in our lives, as when we fall in love, or hope beyond reason. Of course, you could be uncompromisingly rational and try whispering in your honey’s ear: “Darling, you’re the best combination of secondary sexual characteristics and mental processing that my fitness calculator has come up with so far.” After you perform this pilot experiment and see how far you get, you may reconsider your approach. If you think that approach absurd to begin with, it is probably because you sincerely feel, and believe in, love.

Empirical research on the cognitive basis of religion over the last two decades has focused on a growing number of converging cross-cultural experiments on “domain-specific cognition” emanating from developmental psychology, cognitive psychology and anthropology. Such experiments indicate that virtually all (non brain-damaged) human minds are endowed by evolution with core cognitive faculties for understanding the everyday world of readily perceptible substances and events. The core faculties are activated by stimuli that fall into a few intuitive knowledge domains, including: folkmechanics (object boundaries and movements), folkbiology (biological species configurations and relationships), and folkpsychology (interactive agents and goal-directed behavior). Sometimes operation of the structural principles that govern the ordinary and “automatic” cognitive construction of these core domains are pointedly interrupted or violated, as in poetry and religion. In these instances, counterintuitions result that form the basis for construction of special sorts of counterfactual worlds, including the supernatural, for example, a world that includes self-propelled, perceiving or thinking mineral substances (e.g., Maya sastun, crystal ball, Arab tilsam [talisman]) or beings that can pass through solid objects (angels, ghosts, ancestral spirits).

Religious beliefs are counterintuitive, then, because they violate innate and universal expectations about the world’s everyday structure, including such basic categories of “intuitive ontology” (i.e., the ordinary ontology of the everyday world that is built into any language learner’s semantic system) as person, animal, plant and substance. They are generally inconsistent with fact-based knowledge, though not randomly. As Dan Sperber and Scot Altran pointed out a quarter of a century ago, beliefs about invisible creatures who transform themselves at will or who perceive events that are distant in time or space flatly contradict factual assumptions about physical, biological and psychological phenomena. Consequently, these beliefs more likely will be retained and transmitted in a population than random departures from common sense, and thus become part of the group’s culture. Insofar as category violations shake basic notions of ontology they are attention-arresting, hence memorable.
 
But only if the resultant impossible worlds remain bridged to the everyday world can information be readily stored, evoked and transmitted. For example, you don’t have to learn in bible class that God could pick up a basket ball if you’ve already been taught that He can topple a chariot. And you don’t have to be told that God can become angry if you worship other Gods or do things He doesn’t like once you’ve already learned that He’s a jealous God. This is because such further pieces of knowledge are “automatically” inferable from our everyday commonsense understanding of folkphysics and folkbiology (e.g., relative effort and strength required to displace different sized objects) and folkpsychology (e.g., how emotions are related to one another and to beliefs). Miracles usually involve a single ontological violation, like a talking bush or horse riding into the sky, but leave the rest of the everyday commonsense world entirely intact. Experiments show that if ideas are too bizarre, like a talking tea kettle that has leaves and roots like a tree, then they are not likely to be retained in memory over the long run.

Religious worlds with supernaturals who manage our existential anxieties — such as sudden catastrophe, loneliness, injustice and misery – are minimally counterintuitive worlds. An experimental setup for this idea is to consider a 3 x 4 matrix of core domains (folkphysics, folkbiology, folkpsychology) by ontological categories (person, animal, plant, substance). By changing one and only one intuitive relationship among the 12 cells you then generate what Pascal Boyer calls a “minimal counterintuition.” For example, switching the cell ( − folkpsychology, substance) to ( + folkpsychology, substance) yields a thinking talisman, whereas switching ( +  folkpsychology, person) to (−  folkpsychology, person) yields an unthinking zombie. But changing two or more cells simultaneously usually leads only to confusion. Our experiments show that minimally counterintuitive beliefs are optimal for retaining stories in human memory (mains results have been replicated by teams of independent researchers, see for example articles in the most recent issue of the Journal of Cognition and Culture).

In sum, the conceptual foundations of religion are intuitively given by task-specific panhuman cognitive domains, including folkmechanics, folkbiology, folkpsychology. Core religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary ontological intuitions about how the world is, with its inescapable problems. This enables people to imagine minimally impossible supernatural worlds that solve existential problems that have no rational solution, including avoiding death or deception. Because religious beliefs cannot be deductively or inductively validated, validation occurs only by ritually addressing the very emotions motivating religion, usually through chant and music, dance and sway, prostration and prayer  −  all somewhat derivate of primate expressions of social bonding and submission. Cross-cultural experimental evidence encourages these claims.

Are Religions composed of Memes?

Memes are supposed to be cultural artifacts — prototypically ideas — that invade and restructure minds to reproduce themselves (without necessarily benefiting host minds beyond their capacity to service memes) much as genes dispose of physical individuals to gain serial immortality. Derived from the Greek root mimeme, with allusions to memory and mime (and the French word même, “same”), a meme supposedly replicates from mind to mind in ways analogous to how genes replicate from body to body. There is little theoretical analysis or experimental study of memes, though this isn’t surprising because there is no consensual – or even coherent – notion of what a meme is or could be. Candidate memes include a word, sentence, belief, thought, melody, scientific theory, equation, philosophical puzzle, fashion, religious ritual, political ideology, agricultural practice, dance, poem, and recipe for a meal; or a set of instructions for origami, table manners, court etiquette, a car, building, computers, or cellphones.Memes are supposed to be cultural artifacts — prototypically ideas — that invade and restructure minds to reproduce themselves (without necessarily benefiting host minds beyond their capacity to service memes) much as genes dispose of physical individuals to gain serial immortality. Derived from the Greek root with allusions to memory and mime (and the French word “same”), a meme supposedly replicates from mind to mind in ways analogous to how genes replicate from body to body. There is little theoretical analysis or experimental study of memes, though this isn’t surprising because there is no consensual – or even coherent – notion of what a meme is or could be. Candidate memes include a word, sentence, belief, thought, melody, scientific theory, equation, philosophical puzzle, fashion, religious ritual, political ideology, agricultural practice, dance, poem, and recipe for a meal; or a set of instructions for origami, table manners, court etiquette, a car, building, computers, or cellphones.For genes, there is an operational definition: DNA-encoded units of information that dependably survive reproductive division, that is, meiosis (although crossover can occur anywhere along a strand of DNA, whether at the divisions of functionally defined genes or within them). In genetic propagation, information is transmitted with an extremely high degree of fidelity. In cultural propagation, imitation is the exception, not the rule; the typical pattern is of recurrent, guided transformation. Modular and innate mental structures (like those responsible for folkphysics, folkbiology and folkpsychology) thus play a central role in stabilizing and directing the transmission of beliefs toward points of convergence, or cultural attractors.

Memes are supposed to be cultural artifacts — prototypically ideas — that invade and restructure minds to reproduce themselves (without necessarily benefiting host minds beyond their capacity to service memes) much as genes dispose of physical individuals to gain serial immortality. Derived from the Greek root with allusions to memory and mime (and the French word “same”), a meme supposedly replicates from mind to mind in ways analogous to how genes replicate from body to body. There is little theoretical analysis or experimental study of memes, though this isn’t surprising because there is no consensual – or even coherent – notion of what a meme is or could be. Candidate memes include a word, sentence, belief, thought, melody, scientific theory, equation, philosophical puzzle, fashion, religious ritual, political ideology, agricultural practice, dance, poem, and recipe for a meal; or a set of instructions for origami, table manners, court etiquette, a car, building, computers, or cellphones.For genes, there is an operational definition: DNA-encoded units of information that dependably survive reproductive division, that is, meiosis (although crossover can occur anywhere along a strand of DNA, whether at the divisions of functionally defined genes or within them). In genetic propagation, information is transmitted with an extremely high degree of fidelity. In cultural propagation, imitation is the exception, not the rule; the typical pattern is of recurrent, guided transformation. Modular and innate mental structures (like those responsible for folkphysics, folkbiology and folkpsychology) thus play a central role in stabilizing and directing the transmission of beliefs toward points of convergence, or cultural attractors.Minds structure certain communicable aspects of the ideas produced, and these communicable aspects generally trigger or elicit ideas in other minds through inference (to relatively rich structures generated from often low-fidelity input) and not by high-fidelity replication or imitation. For example, if a mother shows a child an abstract cartoon drawing of an animal that the child has never seen or heard of, and says to her child the equivalent of  “this platypus swims” in whatever human language, then any child whose linguistic faculty has matured enough to understand complete sentences, anywhere in the world, will almost immediately infer that mom is talking about: (a) something that belongs to the ontological category animal (because the lexical item “swims,” or its equivalent in another language, is cognitively processed under +animate, which is implicitly represented in every human’s semantic system), (b) this animal belongs to one and only one folk species (because an innately-determined and universal assumption of folkbiology is that animals divide into mutually exclusive folk species), and (c) the animal is probably aquatic (because part of the ordinary meaning of  “swims” is moves through water).

Inference in the communication of many religious beliefs, however, is cognitively designed never to come to closure, but to remain open-textured. For example, in a set of classroom experiments, we asked students to write down the meanings of three of the Ten Commandments: (1) Thou Shall Not Bow Down Before False Idols; (2) Remember the Sabbath; (3) Honor They Father and Thy Mother. Despite the students’ own expectations of consensus, interpretations of the commandments showed wide ranges of variation, with little evidence of consensus.

In a serial attempt at replication a student in a closed room was given one of the Ten Commandments to paraphrase; afterwards the student would call in another student from the hallway and repeat the paraphrase; then the second student would paraphrase the paraphrase and call in a third student; and so on through. After 10 iterations the whole set of ten paraphrases was presented to another group of students who were asked to choose one phrase from a new list of phrases (including the original Ten Commandments) that “best describe the whole set of phrases before you.” Only “Thou shalt not kill” was reliably preferred as a descriptor of the set representing the chain of paraphrases initiated by a Commandment. (By contrast, control phrases such as “two plus two equals four” or “the grass is green” did replicate).

A follow-up study explored whether members of the same church have some normative notion of the Ten Commandments, that is, some minimal stability of content that could serve for memetic selection. Twenty-three members of a Bible class at a local Pentecostal Church, including the church pastor, were asked to define the three Commandments above, as well as “Thou shalt not kill,” “The Golden Rule,” “Lamb of God,” and “Why did Jesus die?” Only the first two produced anything close to consensus. In prior questioning all subjects agreed that the meanings of the Ten Commandments were fixed and had not changed substantially since Biblical times (so much for intuition).

In another project, students compared interpretations of ideological and religious sayings (e.g., “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” “To everything there is a season”) among 26 control subjects and 32 autistic subjects from Michigan. Autistics were significantly more likely to closely paraphrase and repeat content from the original statement (e.g., “Don’t cut flowers before they bloom”). Controls were more likely to infer a wider range of cultural meanings with little replicated content (e.g., “Go with the flow,” “Everyone should have equal opportunity”) – a finding consistent with previous results from East Asians (who were familiar with “Let a thousand flowers bloom” as Mao’s credo). Only the autistic subjects, who lack inferential capacity normally associated with aspects of folkpsychology came close to being “meme machines.” They may be excellent replicators of literal meaning, but they are poor transmitters of cultural meaning.

With some exceptions, ideas do not reproduce or replicate in minds in the same way that genes replicate in DNA. They do not generally spread from mind to mind by imitation. It is biologically prepared, culturally enhanced, richly structured minds that generate and transform recurrent convergent ideas from often fragmentary and highly variable input. Core religious ideas serve as conceptual signposts that help to socially coordinate other beliefs and behaviors in given contexts. Although they have no more fixed or stable propositional content than do poetic metaphors, they are not processed figuratively in the sense of an optional and endless search for meaning. Rather they are thought to be right, whatever they may mean, and to require those who share such beliefs to commune and converge on an appropriate interpretation for the context at hand. To claim that one knows what Judaism or Christianity is truly about because one has read the Bible, or that what Islam is about because one has read the Qur’an and Hadith, is to believe that there is an essence to religion and religious beliefs. But science (and the history of exegesis) demonstrates that this claim is false.

Humankind does not naturally divide into competing camps of reason and tolerance, on one side, and religion and intolerance, on the other. It is true that “scientists spend an extraordinary amount of time worrying about being wrong and take great pains to prove other so.” The best of our scientists make even greater efforts to prove themselves wrong. But it is historical nonsense to say that “pretending to know things you do not know… is the sine qua non of faith-based religion,” that doubt and attempts to “minimize the public effects of personal bias and self-deception” are alien to religion, or that religion but not scientific reason allows “thuggish lunacy.”

Is Augustine’s doubt really on a different plane than Descartes’? Are Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s religious appeals to faith and hope in the face of overwhelming material adversity truly beside the point? Did not the narrow focus of science on the evidence and argument of the task at hand allow the production of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and are not teams of very able and dedicated scientists today directly involved in constructing plausible scenarios for apocalyptic lunacy? Were not Nazi apologists Martin Heidegger and Werner Heisenberg among Germany’s preeminent men of reason and science (who used their reason and critical thought to apologize for Nazism)? Did not Bertrand Russell, almost everyone’s Hero of Reason (including mine), argue on the basis of clear and concise thought, and with full understanding and acknowledgement of opposing views and criticism, that the United states should nuke Soviet Russia before it got the bomb in order to save humankind from a worse evil? And Newton may have been the greatest genius that ever walked the face of the earth, as Neil de Grasse Tyson tells us, but if you read Newton’s letters at St. John’s College library in Cambridge, you’ll see he was one mean and petty son of a bitch.

The point is not, that some scientists do bad things and some religious believers do good things. The issue is whether or not there are reliable data to support the claim that religion engages more people who do bad than good, whereas science engages more people who do good than bad. One study might compare, say, standards of reason or tolerance or compassion among British scientists versus British clergy. My own intuition has it a wash, but even I wouldn’t trust my own intuitions, and neither should you.

 

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