Questionable Motives

May 29, 2013

What is consciousness?

Filed under: cognitive studies,consciousness,Neurology,Neuroscience — tildeb @ 12:46 pm

From John Searle comes a TEDx Cern talk that is music to my ears:

January 19, 2012

Why do we still believe when we know it’s probably not true?

Filed under: belief,Evolution,Natural Selection,Neuroscience — tildeb @ 11:41 am

It’s not about the benefits we gain from believing in this or that. Or the supposed reality of the objects these beliefs describe.

It’s all about cost.

There is a compatibility problem between science and religion that isn’t going to go away no matter how often many earnest people assure us is no problem at all. There is, in fact, a very real problem of compatibility. This compatibility problem has everything to do with how we arrive at conclusions, what method we use to get there, and whether or not the two methods are indeed compatible. This is where the method of science and the method of religion come into conflict. These different methods are contrary to each other.

In Victor Stenger’s new book, he writes

“Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies–the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world.”

This is just it, opposing – and not compatible – epistemologies.

So knowing the tremendous benefits and reward granted to us by trusting the method of science, how is it that so many of these same people continue to hold religious beliefs?

The religious believer must temporarily suspend trust and confidence in the methodology of science that s/he knows works for everyone everywhere all the time when conflict arises between on the one hand these trustworthy conclusions and on the other hand those from religious belief that compete and contrast with them. It is here – in this temporary suspension of what we do trust – where we have to wonder how anyone can do this and still consider one’s self intellectually honest and respectful of a method of inquiry that has produced so much practical and reliable knowledge… knowledge the believer will still trust his or her life to.

Martie G. Haselton of UCLA (and David Buss) along with and Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle have come up with what they think works at explaining just this. They call it Error Management Theory, which seems to offer a very convincing explanation described here in Part I of Psychology Today and Part II here):

Their theory begins with the observation that decision making under uncertainty often results in erroneous inference, but some errors are more costly in their consequences than others. Evolution should therefore favor an inference system that minimizes, not the total number of errors, but their total costs.

Among engineers, this is known as the “smoke detector principle.” Just like evolution, engineers build smoke detectors in order to minimize, not the total number of errors, but their total costs. The consequence of a false-positive error of a smoke detector is that you’re woken up at three o’clock in the morning by a loud alarm when there is no fire. The consequence of a false-negative error is that you and your entire family are dead when the alarm fails to go off when there is a fire. As unpleasant as being woken up in the middle of the night for no reason may be, it’s nothing compared to being dead. So the engineers deliberately make smoke detectors to be extremely sensitive, so that it will give a lot of false-positive alarms but no false-negative silence. Haselton and Nettle argue that evolution, as the engineer of life, has designed men’s inference system similarly.

Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena.

Religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid.

This explanation makes good sense to me. It helps to explain to me how otherwise rational and reasonable people – even some very accomplished scientists – believe in absurd religious notions incompatible with the world we know and the natural processes it contains. They believe because it appeals to a part of their reptilian brain… to which they must then spend considerable time and effort attempting to justify (to make compatible with) with their rational and reasonable faculties! Hence, we immediately see why the incompatibility in religious methodology to that of science is really based on nothing more than a feeling that the belief might be true. This explains the need of the religious to then cherry pick whatever seems to fit the belief while ignoring or belittling strong evidence of what doesn’t. Evidence doesn’t matter to a feeling. The cost of rejecting the feeling might be too high.

One might think it rational and reasonable for people dedicated to science to stop undermining public trust and confidence in its methodology to support beliefs that are almost certainly not true, but the personal cost of rejecting the impulse to believe seems to be too high; this feeling – this emotional urge – to err on the side of reducing potential cost, too often wins the day in the compatibility battle while transferring the actual cost of widespread but inaccurate belief – the very real cost of not allowing reality (like recognizing anthropomorphic global warming) to arbitrate what is true about it – on to all of us.

December 18, 2011

Is religious revelation trustworthy?

Filed under: Neuroscience,Religion,revelation,Science,Supernatural — tildeb @ 11:34 am

Absolutely not.

I have written quite a bit about how holding faith-based beliefs can and usually does adversely affect one’s ability to perceive reality as it is, confusing attribution with causation. This problem of perception – of what comes from where – is nothing new, nor are faith-based beliefs the only guilty party. The tremendous success of consumer marketing, for example, relies on exactly this confusion: convincing consumers that values they themselves already hold come from, or can be enhanced by, owning the objects or ideas being offered for sale, values which are not inherent in these objects or ideas – in the thing itself – but can be experienced as if they were… by a process of attributing what we believe to the object.  For example,

We want to believe that pleasure is simple, that our delight in a fine painting or bottle of wine is due entirely to the thing itself. But that’s not the way reality works. Whenever we experience anything, that experience is shaped by factors and beliefs that are not visible on the canvas or present in the glass. (From the article, How Does the Brain Perceive Art? Wired)

These factors reside in the person doing the attributing and can be rather complex:

Our findings support the idea that when people make aesthetic judgements, they are subject to a variety of influences. Not all of these are immediately articulated. Indeed, some may be inaccessible to direct introspection but their presence might be revealed by brain imaging. It suggests that different regions of the brain interact together when a complex judgment is formed, rather than there being a single area of the brain that deals with aesthetic judgements.

In other words, we may not be aware of what it is within us that is influencing our value judgements and associated beliefs about the source from where that assigned value actually resides.

With this in mind, let us visit the central tenet of religious faith relied upon by so many christian writers on the web: revelation… a transforming personal experience that connects the person to the ‘reality’ of god, what the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as the disclosure of divine or sacred reality or purpose to humanity. My question returns, as always, to the central point made by those who use revelation as evidence for god: Is it true and how can we know?

I find it really interesting that no one I’ve come across claims to have had a revelation of divine reality from Nergal. Why is that? Well, I’ve had theists explain to me that Nergal is a false god, you see, so it’s perfectly understandable that no one would have such a revelation; there is no Nergal. Well, duh. That no one has ever heard of such a god, aka Erra aka Meslamta-ea, doesn’t even merit any consideration when one is already sure that such a god is false. But is the god false because it doesn’t exist or is it false because I don’t believe it exists? This is not a trivial question and bears an important consideration for gods that people do believe exist, believed to be the very source of their revelation. Can one still have a revelation from a god that one does not believe exists?

The god that is revealed to christians just so happens to be the very same one inculcated throughout their culture. What are the chances that this god – and not an obscure Sumerian one like Nergal – just so happens to be the very one revealed? Might there be a better understanding of what it is that is actually being revealed than to assume a personal disclosure by an cosmic agency hiding in the supernatural? By golly, maybe there is! Maybe – just like is revealed in marketing – the source of this divine disclosure is in fact ourselves, which may explain with – with no need for supernatural personal visitations – why the best predictor of which particular religious belief an individual identifies with is geography. And history. And familiarity.


June 19, 2011

What’s that I hear?

Filed under: brain,Music,Neuroscience — tildeb @ 11:26 am

This site is way too cool not to post. It reveals again just how large an interpretative role our brains play in perceiving the world around us… this time involving the auditory sense. But are our perceptions true in fact? Is the subjective interpretation just as ‘true’ as the objective sound? Check out these ten illusions.

(h/t to WEIT)

August 29, 2010

What is prayer?

Filed under: belief,brain,Neuroscience,prayer,Science — tildeb @ 8:12 pm

Over on John Shore’s site there has been a post and commentary about prayer. All the responses have been generally positive about the important role prayer plays in the lives of many. From it being like a relaxant before bed to enjoying the benefits of talk therapy unavailable to atheists, from the suggestion that prayer allows us to become conscious of god to the assertion that it is evidence for god, the comments have been interesting but very much of a type.

So I offered the following comment, which – unlike all other posts I have made – has been awaiting moderation for a day.  Makes me wonder why. Any suggestions?

Meditative prayer with god presumes the object reality of god. When we ‘feel’ better for the exercise, we reinforce our belief that god is real. This assumption is then used to justify belief in an intercessory prayer. After all, because we know that god is real through our experience of meditative prayer and we feel different during and after praying (so the cause must be external because we cannot arbitrarily change how we feel, right?), then it is but a very small step to believing that there must be something to intercessory prayer as well, where god somehow orchestrates a kind of intentional intervention. There are many scriptural references that intercessory prayer works. But are any of these references and conclusions actually true?

Well, we know that people who believe in the power of charismatic healing inhibit their brain’s capacity to critically think by shutting down parts of their medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and we know through a meta-analytic review that there is no evidence to show any causal link greater than chance between prayer and effect. We do know that mindful meditation alters brain chemistry and improves immune function, which brings into question our assertion of the need for any external agency for mood alterations and how we feel during meditative prayer at all.

Once again, we cannot trust that what we believe is true is necessarily true unless we have some less subjective way to test it. And when we do test the claims made on behalf of prayer, what we find is that it offers us no evidence for any external agency.

July 19, 2010

Does technology rewire our brains?

Filed under: Cause and Effect,Neurology,Neuroscience,Technology — tildeb @ 9:38 am

An interesting video from the BBC. Tip to misunderstoodranter.

June 15, 2010

Why are we willing to deceive ourselves?

Filed under: belief,Neuroscience,TED — tildeb @ 10:51 am

Michael Shermer talks about belief and how the brain prepares us for patterns and agency. The final few minutes has a very funny video.

TED video here

May 4, 2010

What do you predict will happen?

Filed under: belief,brain,Cause and Effect,Faith,Neuroscience,Religion — tildeb @ 3:38 pm

Let’s do some predicting of our own. What do you think happens to our brains when we fall under the influence of charismatic individuals like faith healers?

From New Scientist:

To identify the brain processes underlying the influence of charismatic individuals, Uffe Schjødt of Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues turned to Pentecostal Christians, who believe that some people have divinely inspired powers of healing, wisdom and prophecy.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Oh, that’s good. So what do you think the findings might be? Intriguing, isn’t it?

Let’s see:

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023).

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

Are we surprised the brain effect is based on the subject’s preconceived notions? Only if you are a believer in supernatural agencies, I suspect.

But if preconceived notions of authority and trustworthiness are indeed what causes the effect in the brain, then studies of a similar effect of other people in authority and trustworthiness should yield the same results. Does the study’s author take this into consideration?

It’s not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

So we wait and wonder…

April 14, 2010

Mass effect: is the transcendent religious experience actually a neurological hallucination?

Filed under: Neuroscience,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 10:35 am

From the abstract of a study done by Dr. Griffiths and colleagues in 2008:

Participants were 36hallucinogen-naïve adults reporting regular participation in religious/spiritual activities. At the 14-month follow-up, 58% and 67%, respectively, of volunteers rated the psilocybin-occasioned experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; 64% indicated that the experience increased well-being or life satisfaction; 58% met criteria for having had a ‘complete’ mystical experience.

From the article Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again in the NYTimes:

Since that study, Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues have gone on to give psilocybin to people dealing with cancer and depression, like Dr. Martin, the retired psychologist from Vancouver. Dr. Martin’s experience is fairly typical, Dr. Griffiths said: an improved outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries between the self and others disappear.

In interviews, Dr. Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.

“It was a whole personality shift for me,” Dr. Martin said. “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.”

The subjects’ reports mirrored so closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said, that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these “unitive” experiences, perhaps because of some evolutionary advantage.

April 5, 2010

Is there evidence that metaphysical concepts are man-made representations?

Filed under: anthropology,Metaphysics,Neuroscience,Science — tildeb @ 9:57 am

In the case of numbers, there is. And neuroscience is leading the way with evidence to back this up.

Does the concept of a quantity we call ‘five’ – a non-changing idea of a quantity greater than four but fewer than six – exist independently of any one person thinking about it, a concept that has been stable over time, across culture, independent of language? In other words, do numbers fall into the category of concepts that meet the definition of metaphysics: first principles that do not change over time, a universal notion that can be applied to particulars, and the teleological doctrine of causation that provides us with evidence of design or purpose in nature? Numbers have often been used as an example of a metaphysical ‘objective reality’ existing beyond or externally to ‘subjective experiences’ of this reality. But is this evidence actually true?

In this fascinating article we look at how our brains conceptualize quantity by use of numbers.

To start off with a bang, it appears that numbers are probably no more than about 10,000 years old! How do we know this?

When numbers are spread out evenly on a ruler, the scale is called linear. When numbers get closer as they get larger, the scale is called logarithmic. And it turns out the logarithmic approach is not exclusive to Amazonian Indians – we are all born conceiving numbers this way. In 2004, Robert Siegler and Julie Booth at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania presented a similar version of the number-line experiment to a group of kindergarten pupils (average age: 5.8 years), first-graders (6.9) and second-graders (7.8). The results showed in slow motion how familiarity with counting moulds our intuitions. The kindergarten pupil, with no formal maths education, maps out numbers logarithmically. By the first year at school, when the pupils are being introduced to number words and symbols, the curve is straightening. And by the second year at school, the numbers are at last evenly laid out along the line. There is a simple explanation. The logarithmic scale also takes account of perspective. For example, if we see a tree 100 metres away and another 100 metres behind it, the second 100 metres looks shorter. Our understanding of the passing of time tends to be logarithmic. We often feel that time passes faster the older we get. Yet it works in the other direction too: yesterday seems a lot longer than the whole of last week.

Our deep-seated logarithmic instinct surfaces most clearly when it comes to thinking about very large numbers. For example, we can all understand the difference between one and 10. It is unlikely we would confuse one pint of beer and 10 pints of beer. Yet what about the difference between a billion gallons of water and 10 billion gallons of water? Even though the difference is enormous, we tend to see both quantities as quite similar – very large amounts of water. Likewise, the terms millionaire and billionaire are thrown around almost as synonyms – as if there is not so much difference between being very rich and very, very rich. If our brains can represent numbers only approximately, then how were we able to “invent” numbers in the first place?.

“The ‘exact number sense’ is a [uniquely] human property that probably stems from our ability to represent number very precisely with symbols,” concluded Nieder. Which reinforces the point that numbers are a cultural artefact, a man-made construct, rather than something we acquire innately.

And the oldest anthropological evidence for precise symbols for numbers only goes back about 10,000 years!

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