May 13, 2009

'Why we believe in gods' lecture

From the Richard Dawkins YouTube channel: Psychologist Andy Thomson talks about why we believe in gods at the American Atheists 2009 convention. He talks briefly about the brain imaging study I wrote about in a previous post.

Of course he's an atheist speaking to a (I would assume) largely atheist audience and it comes through, but I think the main point, at least to me, is general enough to be appreciated and understood by everyone. At the very least he provides a hypothesis for how belief is generated in our brains, although he does focus too much on adaptations, and at the very most he demonstrates how unlikely gods are. There's plenty there to discuss.

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  1. Okay, firstly, I consider myself partly religious if you will. I have been involved with the Kabbalah (insert eye roll here) for, wow, five years now. But I wouldn't necessarily consider that to be a religion; to me it was ever more of a 'manual to life' largely based on the 'love thy neighbour' message that's actually present throughout all religions. (I just want to point this out now so you'll understand my point.) So, while it does have its roots in Judaism and one needs to believe in some kind of supreme power, I have always looked at it more from an intellectual point. The truth is, I don't know if there is a God or not. But either way, I look at, say, prayer as a way of a mind set. And here is where Andy Thomson comes into play:
    I do think he has some very valid points. Yes, the human mind is perceiptive to superstition and in need of company if you will. But the first thing I don't like about that statement is that it makes religious people look like brain-washed civilians from George Orwell's "1984". I think he's walking on VERY thin ice here.
    Because, and here is my second point, I do think that there are people out there (maybe like me) who look at the whole topic more from an intellectual point of view. By that I mean, not believing in some higher power in hope that he or she will come to my rescue but as a way to "program" your mind into being a more humane, kind, humble and helping person to your fellow people. (I think this is kinda hard to explain when you only have letters to express your self, but maybe someone understands what I mean.)
    I guess my point is 'spirituality' and being a so-called better human being. And that is a point that is not within that guy's theory. Maybe becauce he largely sees it as a bad thing.

  2. for example, Yehuda Berg (one of the main figures of the Kabbalah Centre) sends weekly emails with these 'manuals' that I talked about; not strictly religious if you look at it closely

    this is this week's message:

    One of the first things we learn in Kabbalah is changing ourselves is the only way to create real change in the world. We are the point of impact. Everything begins with us.

    And yet, how many of us wake up every day and think about the big picture? Do we wake up and think, "What I do today, how I treat people and how I act, will have an impact on the entire world"?

    Yes, we have these thoughts from time to time. But it's not something we have in the front of our minds often enough.

    Imagine what life would be like if everyone woke up every morning and decided, "Today is going to be the best day of my life and the best day of the world. I'm going to treat everyone with kindness and human dignity. I'm going to resist every impulse I have to give someone a piece of my mind. I'm going to let my soul do the walking & talking and just take my body along for the ride."

    What would happen then? We would brighten someone's day, who would in turn brighten someone else's day, and on and on and on. At the end of the day, it's conceivable that you could have impacted thousands of people. There would be huge change in the world.

    Nowadays we have so many people studying Kabbalah that we can speed up this chain reaction. But in order for it to work, we must give care and compassion every moment of the day. And when we don't have it to give, we must commit to finding the blockage that's limiting our love.

    This week, be a role model. Don't tell everyone else how to behave all the time. Provide a good example with your own actions. When you do, people will pick up on it and follow your lead. It's something they'll understand on a soul level and it will ignite a positive force within them as well.

    This is how we are going to get the job done.

    All the best,


    Now, would you consider that religious?

  3. First off, to discuss the actual content of the video: I don't think you get the point completely. Its' interesting that you see it as him describing just religious people as "brain-washed" when the point is that superstition and religious belief can be explained from the same cognitive processes we ALL use. In that case he's saying we are ALL brain-washed. Religious belief is just an "overshoot", if you will.

    About your own approach, I'm not sure I understood you completely. You say that on the one hand "one needs to believe in some kind of supreme power", but then when describing your own approach to spirituality you say that you "look at the whole topic more from an intellectual point of view <...> not believing in some higher power". So is this philosophy depending on there being a supreme power or not? It seems confusing to me, like they're trying to intellectualize the question in order not to have to take a stance, to live in that "fuzzy" middle ground where everything's relative. But that's neither here not there...

    If you take it from a more "intellectual" side, as you say, I wouldn't say the kinds of messages like the one you posted are strictly religious. A bit lofty and flaky for my liking, clearly well-intended though, but not really religious. However, they are based originally on the exact thing Andy Thomson talks about - the "reading" of god's intention and the expectation of god's involvement. "I will do what god wants me to do." "God will reward me for my good behavior". There's parental transference and attachment involved. You can intellectualize god away from it, and I don't mean that as a negative, but originally god was very much a part of this way of thinking.

    There's definitely also a component of magical thinking in there somewhere. The thought of "if you ask what you want, you will get it back." You can reason that by adopting a better attitude towards people, that people will behave better towards you and others. I don't think there are any guarantees, but it seems reasonable enough. It doesn't necessarily involve the belief in a supreme power, many people think that somehow "the universe" will reward them for their good deeds, but that's exactly it. It's rooted in the fact that our minds will readily accept that our own minds are the causing agents of phenomena around us. I've written a bit about this before here.

    So in conclusion, this sort of "spirituality" doesn't have to be religious. It depends on how far you take it yourself, god can be "reasoned away" from the equation. But I think it certainly appeals to the same parts of our mind processes that make some of us believe in god.

  4. It's actually sort of hard to follow Daniel. He's already said everything I would I have said.

    What you're doing is a form of religious moderation. You're just picking and choosing what to accept. I totally understand your reasoning. I'm a little more militant in thinking that it is time you recognized that religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge -- You obviously know you don't have to believe in God to be spiritual.

  5. Edit:
    You obviously know you don't have to believe in God to be a better person.

  6. Yes, I think Jonathan understood what I meant. Sorry, I'm having a real hard time trying to explain my thinking here. I guess a point I left out was that... uhm, how do I explain that... okay let's take Daniel's sentence "God will reward me for my good behavior". Now, even if I know that there most likely is no one up there in heaven, I willingly put myself under that way of thinking because the outcome is the same, no matter if I'm "a true believer" or not. The effect it has on your brain, your thinking, your actions... is the same.

    I don't know. Does it seem clearer that way?

  7. Like, I understand the cognitive processes behind it (what you and that guy are talking about) but I'm chosing to think that way anyway because of the effects it has on me. Even though my "believe" comes from a different place.

  8. Principium cuius hinc nobis exordia sumet,
    nullam rem e nihilo gigni divinitus umquam.
    -Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (bk.1,ln.149)1stC BC.

    "The first of her (Nature's) principles that we shall derive from this (observation of the world) is [that] no thing by divine nature is ever produced from nothing. " - my sloppy xlation.

    I haven't read the whole thread yet, but I wanted to post and thank Daniel for hosting.
    I'm still dl-ing the Thompson video.


  9. OK, I watched the Thompson video. I read this thread. And having done all of that the first thing I want to comment on is what bugs me most about Cognitive Psychology:

    These folks think EVERY aspect of human experience can be reduced to a series of biochemical interactions. What they describe has more in common with the Formicidae experience than the human experience. I see them as having all the building blocks, but none of the mortar. As a result, no matter how they stack the blocks it just isn't a person. Think of how Star Trek's Data character had the appearance of humans but not the spark that is Humanity. The science is solid, but it is only part of the Whole.

    Anyway, if Thompson is correct about the cognitive processes that make us "susceptible" to religion then he has to except that those same processes make him susceptible to atheism. He doesn't. I'm actually on the same team as Dawkins and his band of merry miscreants. And I get a big chuckle out of their refusal to admit that their atheism IS their religion. :)

  10. Hehe, not that I need to say it, but atheism is completely without content, it is not a philosophical position. No dogmatism :)

    And I think he actually acknowledged that because of these cognitive processes, atheism is actually more difficult to achieve.

    I think I must be one of "these folks" because I always end up reducing people to a trillion cellular robots.

  11. Yeah, "you people"! No seriously, I have a gift of over generalization. It gets me into trouble. Henceforth I will refer to them as the Cognitive Camp.

    Durkheim thought that the development of religion was directly linked to the desire for physical and social security. This fits with the Thompson material on a metaphysical level. If we have evolved in such a way that we are predisposed to look for agency in observed phenominon, then it is a short hop from Durkheim's personal agency within the group to agency from outside the group (ie. the supernatural.)

    My question is, does belief = existence. My imaginary friends have a role in my life, but their influence is limited to my life alone because they are a part of my mind. Gods are communal imaginary friends. Part mine, part yours, part theirs. In this case what you believe (your slice of the god) has influence outside your personal existence (ie. me). So dose that qualify as existence. Here is something that does not come from within any single person yet it has measurable influence.

    There was a similar argument over whether "culture" existed. These days we all agree that cultures are discrete material, philosophical, social, and behavioral entities that can grow, change, thrive, stagnate, or die.

    Does existence presuppose a biological component?

    This is all junk I waded through when I started studying AI's in the late 80's. Back then people were pretty optimistic that AI's would have agency and autonomy by the turn of the century. Hahahahahaha. The question of what if machines decided they had a god and started listening to it... was a hot topic for a long time.

  12. W00t!

    Preaching to the choir...I guess...

    It's kind of funny... partaking in the comment/train of thought about intelligent 'people' tend to corrupt their souls and damn themselves to the bowels of hell and neverending huge-piercing-'genitalled(? new word wheee!)'demon orgies for eternity by refusing to recognize the Almighty... LMAO I mean: reject ideas about the existence of deities- scratch that, let's be honest here: God, with the capital G, as in the Jewish/Christian or Allah one and other close derivatives...

    Through education society has managed to 'teach' its people through empirical and proven conclusions about what we call Science.

    Intelligent peeps, a.k.a. smartasses, usually end up figuring out that well, all those laws and theories sort of work out and they seem to be real. Maybe, the whole Bible thing is just a story book... and now I have an existential crisis in my hands: great.

    Others are so attached to this whole Devils and Gods and Heaven and Hell thing, they just figure: God invented Science too! And we were there with the DINOSAURS! like that movie with Raquel Welch... and forget that Dante had a lot of influence on all this shit based on even older myths...

    But I appreciate trying to convince them of something by using something they don't really understand: Science/Psychology(lol)/Psychiatry(lol 2). Which could very well go into another debate about Psychology not being a science either but ummm yeah... having holes and lakes is part of this World.

    Collectivism disguised as Individualism, and mixing this with fake Objectivism that is really subjective, and then twisting it inside a Shaker... with a splash of good ol' God, it's the problem... = brainwash.

    Of course, we are all so important we are gonna exist/live forever, cuz there's this Dude, who gives a shit, about my very particular soul, since I'm so special, and well it's like cattle all of a sudden and some of his cows are crossing over to the neighbor, who somehow is not as powerful as this Dude, but he gives candy that your supposed master Dude forbids you, and the Dude's friends are always undermining him and even think they can control and overpower him, but the Dude is all powerful and loving and yet we have the existence of the "lesser" dude who seems is not that lesser after all... And you gotta behave like the Dude says, or else you won't go hang it with him and his mateys when you die of cow disease, and you will end up being fucked up by the other dude, and his mateys...and you don't want that because that little dude is creepy and into freaky shit. Besides who doesn't wanna hang it with Mother Theresa and other holy virgins? Then this Dude became flesh through a virgin girl, so that he could sacrifice himself to himself... right. And 2000 years later he's still dying for um the sins of cows who weren't even born back there, but be careful cuz he is everywhere, like um the air... yeah, and his intelligence is so complex that he can multitask so well he can hear everyone and everything and see everything and oh yeah cuz this makes sense when you are attaching senses to a divine entity cuz that is how senses work...(omg i can be here expanding on this forever so I will cut it here cuz it will take HOURS)

    I think it exercises a remedy for a much simpler psychology of fear. Fear of death.

    When afraid, don't be cuz God is looking out for you; but if the shit hits the fan, he works in mysterious ways... and it's all in his Plans, but then you have freedom of Choice, but if he has a Plan and all it's decided aren't you damned either way? :P etc.

    I also bet that before (in the hebrew/christian) community there was a lot of trifles and disputes whenever someone decided to steal or enjoy adultery etc. that would end up in the big Death, which is to be feared cuz WTF HAPPENS? Is that it? there must be an explanation. Right? Death has to be evaded and explained.

    Moreover: what's the meaning of life!?

    Well why is human life so important that it has to have a meaning? You don't see cats going around pondering on that, or having any personal crises or existential anxiety, they just enjoy the ride. What makes us so special? Language?

    Meow Meow, Woof Woof, with the pertaining tone, serves for a much more efficient communication if you ask me.

    Then again there wouldn't be much of an existential crisis if we weren't fed so much bullshit since little... would there?

    Who's to say that animals that lack "language" aren't aware of their existence? They certainly don't speak English and cannot tell you about what's in their mind, but who knows? Elephants can paint and imagine, parrots dance with rhythm... all very undermined/underestimated throughout history...

    A long time ago I read about some theory about humans drifting from instinct more and more.

    If there was a God, and following that logic then everything he created would worship him, since he needs so much attention, as it is clear, and gets overly mad when he doesn't get his due credit and attention; anyway I don't see chickens going to church on Sunday.

    Religion is simply a social control system. And it's very exploitable, for profit (lotsa profit!) and governing.

    It doesn't matter if we explain it with philosophy or neurological studies, or by smoking the Peace Pipe.

    If anyone actually THINKS, they can see right through it.

    But it takes guts, and lots of courage.

    In the end Nietzsche hit the nail with a very unfortunate truth:

    "What the mob once learned to believe without reasons—who could overthrow that with reasons?"

    We can try, but will it ever be sufficiently effective?

    Even this guy was pissed back then... and Jesus-fans were not even in the picture:

    "Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot. Or he can, but does not want to. Or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how come evil is in the world?" ~Epicurus

    Along the way I was gonna go into the need for approval, child psychology and link it to attachment as he discusses but I'm tired. So...another day perhaps.


    BTW I want a Persocon.

    Oh and this guy is very funny:

    some things he said I don't agree with (in OTHER videos) but when it comes to God and belief-systems hes very funny... actually he's funny overall. And had some likable ideas.

  13. Jon: Come on! I'm sure you have some insights that I'm missing. Is there any part of his argument that's appealing to your artistic sensitivity for instance? Because usually one would hear many 'artistic' arguments for the opposite - beauty s being the evidence of god.

    Rico: I see what you mean. I wouldn't call that being religious per se, maybe "willful deception" if I have to call it something... hahaha. Still it's definitely religious behavior, maybe not motivated by belief but the cognitive substrate from which the behavior emerged I have to accept is the same. I think the word "spiritual" is awful so I won't call it that.

    John: What do you suggest by way of mortar? I don't think that when culture stepped through the door, we threw biology out the window. I dare say we have more in common with ants than most people would care to admit.

    To decide beforehand that the cognitive phenomena that form part of our culture are beyond the reach of natural science just because they're complex seems pretty odd, and a little bit anthropocentric. I don't think anyone proposes stacking up all the results of cognitive neuroscience and hey presto, you have a human being, or even an ant, or that it's the purpose even. But reductionism nonetheless gives us valuable insight into the rich substrate that the human experience emerges from. Thompson makes a convincing argument for the neurological substrate from which religiosity emerges, but it's not free from interactions with our culture and clearly we're not bound by it considering quite a few of us can realize when we're applying agency and emotionality to something that doesn't have any.

    Of course Thompson wouldn't agree than the same processes that make someone believe in an omnicient agency outside of themselves makes him be an atheist. I think there are completely different cognitive processes at work, as he himself says when he states that in a way it's more difficult 'not' to believe in god. But as far as saying that atheism has a neurological substrate just as much as belief in god has a neurological substrate, I think he would agree. This does not make god any more likely though.

    Now, what I 'don't' like from this lecture is the focus on adaptation. That's my main contention with this sort of evolutionary psychology. He's assuming that all of these cognitive neural bases can be explained by natural selection, that everything has been beneficial for something. For a molecular evolutionary biologist in order to say that he/she would have to amass a great deal of evidence and form a solid testable hypothesis, for psychologists all it seems to take is to come up with the idea and argue it. I'm more inclined into accepting that we can ground many components of religious belief in non-adaptive mechanisms or cultural mechanisms or even random events. But that's not denying that there's a cognitive neurological substrate from which religiosity draws from.

  14. ^ Yes, I agree, I think the whole thing is more conceptually based than evidentiary and that's a little disappointing. But I do think he's stepping in the right direction, at least in a way that could be integral to our evolving discourse about the nature of the human mind.

    to be continued ...

  15. "Willful deception", I like that. Haha.
    And yes, I agree: "spiritual" is a bad word because it brings so many stereotypes with it.


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