Saturday, March 8, 2008

God Blind Spot

Research on the human cognitive and nervous system has revealed a number of interesting endemic flaws. One is well-known. At the center of the eye’s visual field is a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the back side of the eyeball on its path to the brain. There are no light receptors in this spot, so there’s no vision there. The brain edits what we see so that except under specific circumstances it is invisible to us. But were someone able to cleverly place an object directly in your blind spot and keep it there as your eyes saccade around the room, the object would be completely invisible to you even though it sits right in your visual field. Aliens, in Peter Watts' Blindsight, hide in plain sight using a similar trick. (I highly recommend the book.)

In other studies, test subjects have been given the Wason selection task. Subjects are shown four cards placed on a table. They are told that each card has a colored side and a numbered side. On the table, the cards are 5, 2, blue, and brown. Question: which cards should you turn over in order to determine if this proposition is true: If a card shows an even number on one face, then it has a primary color on the other side? The correct answer is you need to turn over the 2 card and the brown card. If you turn over the 2 card and it is not a primary color on the other side, then the proposition is proven false. If you turn over the brown card and it has an even number on the other side, then the proposition is proven false.


In a number of large tests of this sort, a majority of subjects, sometimes a staggering majority, will get the answer wrong. They typically fail to realize that turning over the brown card is essential to testing the claim. If you turn it over and there’s an even number on the other side, then the principle in question is shown to be false. Many researchers on human rationality have taken these robust results to show that humans are fundamentally irrational, even with regard to some rudimentary logical inferences.

I'll make a suggestion about God that is conjectural and only supported by anecdotal experience. Consider my answer to TheEdge.org 's question: What do you believe but cannot prove? What if, perhaps like the blind spot and the Wason mistake, humans are flawed at the cognitive level or have a blind spot such that we have a very hard time thinking clearly about God, or failing to believe in God? Is it possible that deeper in our cognitive architecture there are some features that render us nearly unable to not believe or not be religious in some form or another? Look at the irrational and emotive sweet spot we have for music.

Could religion exploit a gap in our rational abilities that way? One thing that might support the claim is the almost unanimous adherence to some sort of religious belief among humans on the planet. The vast majority of people polled in the U.S. and in the west claim to believe in God in some form. And among people in the east, some sort of comparable spirituality is as pervasive. Self-professed non-believers and atheists all over the planet are exceedingly rare (perhaps that is more suggestive that atheism is a kind of cognitive pathology than the other way around.) My other reason for suspecting that something like this is the case is seeing in hundreds or even thousands of cases over the years of very careful, smart people go soft when the prospect of criticizing religiousness in any form comes up. When a believer begins to perform the mental gymnastics that some will do in order to prop up their belief, it is hard not to think that there’s something else going on here besides a sober analysis of the evidence.

Could such a hypothesis be tested? I think it could. It should be possible to construct a comprehensive battery of questions involving a variety of inferences, arguments, and forms of reasoning. Many of the questions could be formed without any reference to God. And many could be formed employing God in their subject matter. Then it would be possible to detect if there is any significant shift in people’s ability to reason when God is at stake. Such a test would be very difficult to design well. And even if the results seemed to indicate that there was a systematic change for the worse in God reasoning, why people do it would remain an open question. It may or may not be natural, genetic, or biological. It may or may not be cultural or brought about by some third cause.


In either case, I would be very interested to see the results of such a study. And I think it would help us to navigate our own limitations with regard to the God question. If we could come to understand this widespread and heartfelt attachment that people feel about religious matters, we would be better able to grasp our own relationship with the God idea.

5 comments:

Peter Watts said...

This is an interesting idea. I think I'll steal it.

Matt McCormick said...
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Matt McCormick said...
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paulv said...

When faced with the dilemma of why we are so prone to reject god or goodness, the notion of original sin was introduced. I see this as a similar exercise. To understand why so many people fail to grasp what is seen as eminently reasonable, we postulate an innate irrationality (like Chomsky's universal language). I will grant that it is in principle at least testable, but how are we to judge which set of responses in the testing is better. (without assuming against any conclusive proof that the universe at its core is rational) Gaming theory often finds people acheiving better results than the theoretical best practices. Are they being unreasonable, or clever?


Advertising executives bank on the premise that men will not be able to think straight when confronted with the sight of a beautiful women. Evolution explains why we have this soft spot for beautiful women, and why it might be hopeless or harmful to try to change that. It is however still useful to know when someone is using it to exploit us.

In the end, evolution may also explain why we have a soft spot for religion (assuming the shows that we do).

Though the prevalence of theism that you cite, would indicate from evolutionary principles at least, that it is not likely to be as dangerous or detrimental as your blog otherwise argues. We still need to be vigilent when it is used to exploit us.

Rosemary said...

The problem with this argument is that is ignores those countries where god belief is very low, and those religions which do not believe in a god.

The general universal trend, at least among educated civilized countries, is away from a belief in the supernatural. The better educated the country (on objective achievement tests, rather than on named credentials of years of schooling) the less god belief there is. The poorer, more wretched and less educated the individual the more likely they are to believe in the supernatural.

The conclusion might be that god belief is a primitive social conditioning thing that is overcome by education and socialized community support systems.