Sunday, March 30, 2008

Remembering God

If the brain processes that play a role in our belief in God themselves were unreliable how would we be able to determine it?

Memory plays a pivotal role in religious believing. Many people will recall a moment of conversion in which they believe they saw or felt God. During some moment of crisis or doubt or great need, many people will call out to God and have a profound, transcending experience that becomes the foundation of a large shift in their religious belief structure.

The New Testament Gospels were written by several authors decades after the alleged events of Jesus’ life. The stories are based on remembered accounts given by testimony to the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus is thought to have died around 30-35 CE; most scholars date the original authorship of Mark at 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 80, and John around 90.

We measure our own degrees of certainty and express our confidence about the truth of beliefs on the basis of a subjectively sensed feeling of knowing. If I tell you that Pluto is a planet, or that violent crime is a 30 year low, you just know immediately, and without reflection that the former is right and that the latter is wrong. Pluto is a planet feels appropriate, comfortable, or familiar, whereas Violent crime is at a 30 year low just rings false, even if you can’t sight objective evidence why. (The former is wrong, the latter is correct.)

Unless I go to some extraordinary steps to create or consult some external objective record, this subjective sense of certainty is all that I have to go on about what happened, what I think, or what is true. Determining how reliable this subjective method is would require two things. First, I’d need to actually make a careful check of the external, objective record against my memory and my sense of certainty and see just how reliable it is. Second, I’d have to take care not to commit other fallacies in the process of reliability checking. It won’t do to only consider and then cite as support those cases in the past where I have had a high subjective sense of certainty and the claim I was certain about was in fact correct. I don’t want to compound my errors by corroborating my ability to remember with faulty or selective memories.

In defenses of the validity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, for example, it is frequently claimed that despite the years that passed between the events and their recording, matters of such profound significance as witnessing miracles or hearing Jesus’ words would not have slipped easily from the minds of his followers. We have the general view that our memories may be less reliable with trivial and ordinary matters, but with events of vast implication as the resurrection of the son of God, memory can be trusted.

For an older generation, the assassination of President Kennedy was one such “flash bulb” moment for everyone in the country. Everyone can recall, with great detail and confidence, exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. Likewise, when the news went out about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and then the second, a vivid picture of where you were, what you were doing, and how you felt was burned into your memory.

It turns out, however, that we have good evidence to doubt our memories, even in these cases where it would seem to be most vivid and reliable. Shortly after the news of the space shuttle Challenger disaster went out, Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch had students in a psychology class write an account of where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Then two and a half years later, they had those students write another record of what they were doing when they heard the news. It is significant that before they saw the earlier record, the students predicted that their memories were accurate. But when the two accounts were compared, the details matched in fewer than 10% of the paired accounts. More than 75% of the accounts had significant errors, some of them dramatic. Yet, even when confronted with this clear evidence to the contrary, many students refused to believe that their later memories were inaccurate. In other studies, people disregard information from an external source that conflicts with their strong, subjective sense that something is true or that they have a certain ability.

With the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we have another opportunity to test the impact of profound and emotional events on human memory. If our memories of significant events are reliable, then we would expect our accounts of 9-11 or the resurrection of Jesus to be among the very best. But Daniel Greenberg has found at least 3 different accounts from President Bush of what he was doing when he heard about the 9-11 attacks. Perhaps he has a uniquely poor memory for such things, but more likely given what else we have learned about human memory, his trouble with the details coupled with a high degree of confidence about his ability to remember the details is typical.

There are several implications for the question of religious belief. First, we are demonstrably bad at remembering events, even occurrences of enormous personal, emotional, and social importance. Second, the degree of confidence about our ability to remember important events is also grossly out of synch with the facts. That it feels to me like I can remember with great clarity isn’t a reliable indicator that I can. Third, as a result, events in our personal lives that have profound religious significance that we recall later as the foundation of our beliefs can’t be trusted to be what we remember and aren’t more trustworthy because they have a great deal of poignancy. Fourth, we also know that when confronted with evidence that demonstrates how poor we are at remembering and judging, people are prone to reject that evidence in favor of their highly unreliable gut feelings. So taking heed of these lessons about ourselves will take some substantial effort to overcome our own resistant natures.

Greenberg, Daniel L. “President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18: 363–370 (2004)

Loftus, Elizabeth, "The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse," St. Martin's Griffin, (1994)

Neisser, Ulric and Nicole Harsch, “Phantom Flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger” in Eugene Winograd and Ulric Neisser, eds. Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Cambridge U Press, 1992), 9-31

Ross, L., Lepper, M. R. and Hubbard, M. Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 1975, 880-892


TheTheist said...

An interesting phenomenon yes, but I’m not so sure it is as “pivotal” as you would have us believe. Sure, there may be some who base their belief on a singularity, ever vigilantly trying to hold on to what was. However, this is just not the case with most believers. Indeed, moments that “have a great deal of poignancy” may serve as a catalyst for belief, much as a romantic weekend in Cabo may spark the unfolding of a future marriage. Yet that does not mean the memory of such is the sole basis for currently held beliefs; it is not the fundamental pin that holds the whole contraption together.

A person likely loves their spouse specifically because the feeling of love, of “knowing” this is true, is augmented throughout their lives. I highly doubt that the memory of “one” moment serves as the basis for their entire relationship. If a wife does not have reinforced the love she felt on her wedding day, she will no doubt lose faith in the relationship and likely end up seeking a divorce. The point is that those who have a conversion experience may fuzzy up the details of said experience but that is of little consequence when evaluating their faith.

It is not as important how it “began” as compared to how it has “gone” and even more so with how it is “going”. That is, beginnings may be exaggerated and misunderstood but that does not automatically negate any truth that has come from it. Our couple in Cabo may look back on their marriage, believing they were really in love back there on the beach, when in reality they were just drunk with lust. This however does not mean they do not love each other now. This does not mean there is “no” truth to their marriage.

We may be mistaken in many of our memories, but who really cares if we find truth in the current situation. Beginnings can be better or worse; it is the latter unfolding and what has come to be that matters most. Just as a marriage trying to live in a moment of the past will eventually fail for lack of sustenance, the believer who grips at a shadowy moment in time, failing to let it develop further, will also find their belief in God dwindle. God consciousness is an evolving relationship, possibly sparked by tragedy, but nonetheless sustained and forwarded by a continuous affair.

It seems to me the more important point to analyze is the continuity of “I know” purported by believers, not the accurate recollection of its conception. Most believers, while likely having a “first time” experience, nonetheless continue forward with belief because of what it does, not what it did. The anecdotal accounts of believer’s past experiences may serve as a point of reference but ultimately pale in comparison with subsequent developments. A successful relationship is one that grows in strength, not one that stagnates in the memory of the past.

Anonymous said...

Great post as usual. Just wanted to say that it's also a plus that you included citation material. Always useful to know where to look for more information!