Saturday, January 31, 2009

MacGyver-ing the Universe

Here’s what we know. Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, a singularity of infinite energy, infinite curvature, and infinite mass exploded cataclysmically, spraying particles out into space. As this matter became less dense and cooled, new particles formed from it, they alligned into new lawful patterns of behavior, and stars began to coagulate. Those stars eventually cooked the matter, forming still more kinds of elements, and some of them went supernova and sprayed these new heavier and more complicated elements out into space. That matter eventually coalesced into rings around stars, and then gathered into heaps that became planets. On some of those planets, at least on ours, some 3 billion years ago, primitive self-replicating strands of molecules began to form. Environmental forces were conducive to some configurations of these molecules and not others. More and more complex structures and patterns in those groupings of matter slowly began to emerge over millions of years by tiny steps. In time, organisms of greater and greater complexity formed spurred on by mutation, variation, and environments that were harsher on some than others. Slowly, adaptations accumulated, and in many cases, a long history of natural selection produced remarkably complicated organisms with highly developed features for responding to their environments and propagating the informational code for those features to their offspring. About 3-5 million years ago, hominids emerged on the African savannah that roved in bands and foraged for sustenance. In time, these creatures’ brains grew in size and their cognitive abilities for language and problem solving expanded. Now, you are here as the recent product of this series of events.

Despite a widespread consensus among our very best and brightest, and a mountain of compelling evidence (Daniel Dennett has said that we are as sure of the occurrence of evolution as we about the existence of oxygen), very few Americans (15%) believe that this is the whole story about the origins of human life. To be fair, many Americans, around 45%, now acknowledge that evolution occurred in the history of life on Earth. But of those, the largest percentage (30%) contend that God played a crucial role in it by “guiding it.” CBS Poll on Evolution

God created humans in present form
51%
Humans evolved, God guided the process
30%
Humans evolved, God did not guide process
15%

If we resist the urge to be cynical or despair about these embarrassingly low numbers compared to the rest of the educated and civilized world, we can see that 45% percent as a kind of progress. At least many people who only a few years ago would have denied any claim that they took to be contrary to a literal interpretation of the Bible are now making a nominal effort to reconcile the two views with this hybrid “guidance” position.

There is a set of baffling puzzles that are raised by the guidance view, however. Confining ourselves just to evolution and the development of life, not the origins of the cosmos, we must ask, in what capacity to God affect the process or unfolding of evolutionary history on earth? If life evolved by natural selection, what work was their left for God to do? Do we need to invoke God in order to explain the history of life, or has the theory of evolution rendered God extraneous?

There was a time when the picture we had of the naturally selected history of life was rather skeletal. Darwin, famously, did not know the exact method of information transfer from one generation to the next. Mendelian genetics and the discovery of DNA filled in those pieces of the puzzle. Biologists have proposed, tested, and rejected many taxonomical trees that attempted to locate different species according to their nearest relatives. New discoveries in microbiology, geology, and paleontology have forced us to redraw the tree of life, and have given us countless “missing link” species. Every year, our picture of the history of life on earth comes into sharper focus and more details are filled in.

There have been those (51% by the poll mentioned above) who deny evolution altogether and insist that all life on earth was created in its present form 6,000-10,000 years ago by God. One of their responses to evolutionary theory has been to argue that scientists cannot produce the missing links between species. They have been undeterred when one of those so-called missing links, such as Archaeopteryx is found, insisting, as Michael Shermer has pointed out, that for every gap that is filled, two more appear on each side of it. Fortunately, the numbers of people in full denial of evolution have been going down, albeit more slowly than they should. It can be difficult to reconcile the existence of antibiotic resistant germs or the need for getting a new flu shot each season with an outright denial that evolution happens.

For those who acknowledge evolution and insist that God had a hand in it, however, we must wonder about the explanatory gaps he is intended to fill. So far, we have filled in a great deal, nothing in the historical record or in biological research has indicated that there is some looming hole that we will not be able to fill. Even the non-scientist judge and jury in the Dover, Penn. Intelligent Design trial could see through the flimsy and dishonest attempts by religionists to argue otherwise. With every new fossil, and every new completed genome for a species, the room for this evolutionary God of the gaps shrinks.

If “guidance” is to mean anything at all in this context, it must mean something like God intervened in events or processes to produce outcomes that, were it not for God’s meddling, would not have occurred otherwise. So far, we do not have any serious indications that anything like this occurred in the history of life on earth. And if we do not have any convincing empirical evidence that God meddled, or boosted, or pruned the tree, what could be a person’s grounds for holding the hybrid view? The obvious answer is that they possess an independent set of religious convictions or motivations that they are attempting to reconcile with what has become scientific common sense. They believe that God created life, and they can see that the evidence that life evolved is undeniable (even the Pope has come around on this), so they must merge the two views to reduce the cognitive dissonance.

But the dissonance is still lurking around the corner. If evolution occurred, and God somehow guided that process, how is it that no religious doctrine every gave any indication of that whatsoever? Most religious traditions have a robust and fairly complicated story to tell about God’s involvement in the creation of humanity. Their doctrines do not lack for detail or interest in the topic. And yet none of those stories resemble in the slightest way anything like what we now know about evolutionary history. Even the most elaborate exegetical gymnastics cannot really make the Adam and Eve story in Genesis look anything like the account of human life we have from the fossil and biological evidence. If God played a role in it, then it wasn’t anything like what any of the religious traditions on the planet have said it was. And that discrepancy alone creates an enormous problem for anyone wanting to espouse the hybrid view. The God they are now dancing with doesn’t resemble the one that brought them to the prom in the first place.

Here’s another problem: leaving the origin stories from religions aside entirely, suppose the form that God’s meddling took was to prune the tree here and there in order to get the desired outcome—God created a sort of cosmic topiary so that the evolutionary process would produce some set of species that he wanted. A lightning bolt here, or a well-placed falling boulder could thwart one species and give another just the edge it needed to win the race. But can anyone take seriously the notion that the alleged grand creator of all reality would employ these sorts of microscopic and short-sighted means to achieve his goals? If God’s end goal was to produce homo sapiens, or more likely, a rich hospitable habitat for bacteria judging from the numbers, and this goal was evident to him from the outset, it boggles the mind to think that he would set out to achieve that end through such a torturous, inelegant, inefficient path. It’s even more laughable to suggest that in all of his divine wisdom and power, he’d be forced to resort to dropping a big rock on some unsuspecting Cro-Magnon in order to get the desired outcome millions of years and millions of generations later. On an isolated road one night, I jury rigged a burnt out fuse in my truck with a paperclip so that my headlights would work long enough to get me home. It wasn’t a very good solution, but I lacked the resources or the power to get there any other way. Would any God worthy of the name MacGyver his way through billions of years of history with bubble gum and duct tape? Lightning bolts and falling boulders scream out bumbling incompetence, not omnipotence and omniscience.

Furthermore, the problem is not just that the gaps for God shrink with new developments in biology. It’s that there just doesn’t seem to be any real explanatory need to insert God into the equation. If we’ve got a natural, non-purposeful, non-intelligent account of the whole series of events, then what exactly is added to our understanding by still insisting that God guided it? There are no real indications that any guiding was needed. So adding God into the account doesn’t actually explain anything. It certainly doesn’t give us the ability to make any predictions that we couldn’t otherwise. The hypothesis doesn’t seem to be corroborated by any empirical testing. So what motivation could we have, besides a lingering affection for the stories and doctrines that were artfully insinuated into our heads as children?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Neuroscience of Believing

When they are pressed for reasons or an explanation, a great many people who are religious, maybe most of them, will concur that their religious beliefs cannot be given substantial support in terms of evidence or rational arguments. To corroborate the mainstream view, there has been widespread agreement among philosophers and theologians for decades that rational and evidentialist theology is dead—the classical arguments for the existence of God do not succeed, nor can the full nature of religious belief and commitments be accounted for along those lines. Besides, billions of believers on the planet in history have believed fervently without any reference to or even awareness of anything resembling an argument for God’s existence. The notion that God can be somehow proven with an appeal to argument or empirical observation is the obscure construction of philosophers and is utterly foreign to the grounds of belief as most people see it. A few rationalist theologians and apologists continue to labor away, but their numbers dwindle and their anachronistic pursuits grow more and more out of touch with the scientific vanguard and the nature of ordinary religious belief.

Believing in God for the vast majority of people arises out of a particular set of feelings. They feel God’s presence in the form of guilt, satisfaction, transcendence, passion, beauty, awe, love, devotion and a host of other primal and powerful sensations.

So we have billions of people on the planet who engage in religious behaviors and beliefs, and who disavow attempts to rationally justify those beliefs. And centuries of tremendous and concerted efforts to derive some rational justification have come to nothing.

Meanwhile, in the background, our investigations into the biological and neurological foundations of human behaviors and cognitive dispositions have rapidly expanded and given us unrivaled and unprecedented insights into our nature. The human brain once seemed unimaginably complex and the gap from it to our minds and our cognitive lives as we know them from the inside seemed unbridgeable. But every new issue of the very best scientific journals on the planet contains studies that chip away at the problem. Bit by bit, we gain access to its inner workings.

Recently, prairie voles have gotten a great deal of attention. Neuroscientists became interested in voles because of their rare propensity to form long term monogamous relationships. It turns out that when her oxytocin levels are increased, the female vole locks onto the nearest male. The findings give us more insight into the chemistry of attachment, love, and relationships. In Nature, this week (457, 148 (8 January 2009), Larry J. Young says that the implication of these studies is that “pair-bonding in humans . . . can be enhanced or suppressed by tinkering with brain hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, and predicts that we’ll be seeing new drugs to do just that.” Imagine being able to supplement marriage therapy, or being able to stifle the obsessive behavior of a celebrity stalker.
See John Tierney’s story in the New York Times, and see the article by Young, “Being Human: Love: Neuroscience reveals all” in Nature.

So if we are now penetrating the neurobiological sources of love, the most mystical and powerful of all human emotions, can similar developments in the neurology of religious feelings and behavior be far off? We have already seen a host of studies exploring religious experiences, propensity towards mysticism, genetic correlates of strong religiousness, the benefits of religiousness, psychological commitments to religious belief despite cognitive dissonance, and countless others. We’ve also seen an increasing body of evidence and arguments that show that introspection by the individual is not a reliable or accurate means of ascertaining the reasons why they believe and act as they do. These arguments for an externalism about belief, justification, and the mind cast more doubt on the antique position that believing in God is the result of some sort of carefully reasoned, deliberative, and consciously rational process.

Overall, what is the situation we are in currently with regard to understanding our own religiousness? We have a set of beliefs and behaviors that by widespread agreement are not based in rational or evidential considerations. And those beliefs and behaviors persist doggedly in the vast majority of humanity. The question is, then, from what do they spring? A live and increasingly well-supported hypothesis is that the real cause of religious belief is built into the neurobiological nature of the human nervous system. Of course, no amount of neurological information about the mechanisms of religiousness will change the way it actually feels or what it is like to believe from the individual’s perspective. Finding out that oxytocin or vasopressin are the physical sources of love won’t make loving your husband feel any different, nor should it make you stop loving him. Knowledge gives us power. If you find yourself not really being able to adequately articulate why you believe, and you can’t provide rational justifications to your own satisfaction or to those who have their doubts, but it just seems right—it feels like God is real, wouldn’t you want to understand what’s really going on inside of you? And doesn’t neuroscience therefore have the potential to liberate and empower us with an understanding of ourselves that has never before been possible in human history?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Doubt vs. Dogma

It has become quite common, especially with the slippery, post-modern turn that lots of defenses of religion have taken in recent years, to characterize an empirical/scientific worldview and religious worldviews as mere differences in personal preference. They are different frameworks or different language games, as the Wittgensteinians put it, with alternate sets of rules of dialogue. But it’s a mistake to evaluate one in terms of another. It’s also a mistake to assume, as most atheists do, that one is better than another. They are dedicated to different domains, and are not incompatible.

A variation on this theme is the “they are all just systems of faith” response that is frequently made to atheists. Ultimately, a belief system cannot be grounded on anything other than personal choice, and once you’re in, they all proceed by faith. The empirical approach is just as guilty (virtuous?) of believing without evidence as religious approaches.

The point of the latter is always baffling. Suppose that all “belief systems” as they put it, are based on faith. Is that a defense of a religious perspective? Is the point that since we always have to have faith, it doesn’t matter which one you pick? Or a person is blameless for having faith since it’s inescapable? But surely no one, except someone deep in the grips of some bizarre post-modern ideology, thinks that there’s really no legitimate or reasonable grounds of preference. You don’t really think that the view that women should never be allowed to go out in public without a male-family escort or shouldn’t be allowed to drive really serves Muslims just as well, or just as legitimately as another approach. Sure, they are managing to limp along and it serves them in their own way to a point. But you don’t really think that there are no legitimate criteria by which we can differentiate.

At their cores, there is a fundamental difference between a religious ideology and the scientific method that cannot and should not be glossed over. And the difference reveals why the latter serves us vastly better. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on the religious tradition, we see this essential theme. The approach to the world is fundamentally authoritarian. The source—God, church, magical documents—gives us the “facts.” It issues the rules for behavior, a picture of humans’ place in the world, and it puts humanity into a subservient role. The institution is structured from the top down. As we expand our experience and investigate the world, insofar as that is allowed within the tradition, we are faced with the problem of incorporating new information into that high inertia system. The policy for the religious mind is this: given that my doctrine is true, how can we make all of the information we discover conform to it? How can that information be interpreted such that it corroborates, or is at least consistent with the doctrine? Ultimately, if those discoveries can’t be incorporated, co-opted, or adapted to fit with the immovable bedrock of religious belief, then it is the new information that has to be rejected. We can see the struggle between religious doctrine and what we’ve come to realize is true about the origins of life on earth in the evolution/religion conflict right now. The uneasy compromise that lots of people have reached is this: It appears that life on earth evolved, so given that God exists and God created life, then evolution must be the means by which he created it. Polling data shows that this is the most popular view in the middle, with smaller segments either denying that evolution happened altogether, or insisting that evolution was the entire means of development of life on earth.

When the tide of empirical evidence grows strong enough, or social and political necessary make it absolutely unavoidable, religious institutions will sometimes slowly shift their doctrines. But for the most part, the institutions have their roots deeply seated in the past and the inertia is massive. The resistance to change and the temptation to fight new ideas are powerful.

The scientific/empirical approach embodies a fundamentally different model of the relationship between world and knowledge, however. Here the policy is to make our model of what the world is conform to what we find in the world, not the other way around. There is no authority, no doctrine, no sacrosanct scriptures that are infallible and above all doubts. Given all of the empirical observations we have made and information that we have, what is mostly likely to be true about reality that would explain those observations. No doctrine or principle is true a priori or immune to being revised or overturned in light of new information. Here doubt, skepticism, criticism, revision, and defeasibility are the essential virtues. Here we make the most vigorous efforts to guard against our mistakes and our tendencies to lapse into authoritarianism and dogma. A claim is never true because it was said by someone, it’s well-justified to believe it because it’s the best, most predictive, description we have found. Once it reaches a certain level of justification, we can say with confidence that it is true. But if that gets overturned, then so be it. We must go where the empirical observations take us, no matter what we thought in the past.

So in a word, the profound difference between the two approaches comes down to doubt vs. dogma, skepticism vs. faith. Will we embrace the approach that enables us to expand and clarify our place in the universe as is indicated by our empirical observations, or will we abandon the self-correcting methods of science for authoritarian edicts, issued from sources that allege to know better than us and who demand uncritical obedience and acceptance. Will we swallow our doubts, have faith, and hide behind the false security of an imaginary daddy figure, or will we have the courage to follow inquiry where it takes us?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Believing in the Sacred Is Good For You, Even If It’s Nonsense.

For years, research projects have been producing results that seem to indicate that going to church is positively correlated with lots of good things. People who regularly attend seem to be happier, healthier, live longer, are less depressed, and so on. Non-believers, and those who don’t want to get out of bed on Sunday morning, have groused long and loud about those studies. Lots of atheists have pulled out the magnifying glasses and attacked the rigor of these studies with enthusiasm. Many of these efforts have appeared to me to be clear cases of putting their conclusion first and then forcing the evidence to fit it. Believing is bad, atheism is right, therefore, we will not accept that church going could be a good thing.

But the evidence in favor of the correlation seems to be there, and it’s been replicated in lots of studies. The great debate, of course, has been over what the cause of the correlation is. Does going to church cause these benefits? Or do happy, thoughtful, healthy, and long-lived people tend to go to church in greater numbers? Sloppy thinking believers, encouraged by these studies, want to treat the correlations as vindication of believing (“God is blessing us!”). And equally sloppy minded atheists have sputtered and pointed out that non-believers can get all of those benefits by gathering together, supporting each other, meditating, doing charity work, and so on. In short, if we can do all or most of the things that church people do, but without the actual believing part, then we’ll get all the same benefits.

But it looks like that’s not true either. John Tierney published this report in the New York Times today: For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It

Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby are the authors of the study under review: “Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications”
(Not surprisingly, the Templeton Foundation, big money promoter of religion in science, was behind the study.)

McCullough and Willoughby draw five conclusions:
1) Religiousness is positively related to self-control as well as agreeableness and conscientiousness.
2) Religiousness achieves this influence through goal selection, goal pursuit, and goal management. Specific religions prescribe specific goals: Jews, Christians, and Muslims value positive social relationships and social harmony more, and individualistic and hedonistic pursuits less, than the non-religious.
3) The evidence is mixed for the claim that religiousness promotes self-monitoring. More research is needed.
4) Some religious rituals like meditation, prayer, religious imagery, and scripture reading promote self-regulation.
5) Religion’s ability to promote self-control or self-regulation (avoid drugs, alcohol, pre-marital sex) can explain some of religion‘s associations with health, well-being, and social behavior. More research is needed.

They argue that a very special state of mind or set of cognitive practices need to be achieved. It’s not enough to just go through the motions, and it’s not enough to have a general spiritual idea like “my life is directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being.” Strongly religious people are more conscientious and have more self-control than these sorts of new-agey believers. “Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”

It also won’t be enough to go to church and fake it for selfish reasons: Tierney says, “because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.”

Cranky, and short-lived atheists will holler, “But, but these people are being well-behaved for the wrong reasons…they’re just being obedient because they’re afraid of God.”

But that’s not the case either, “Religious people, [McCullough] said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.”

Apparently, what the sexed-up, drunken, church-skipping atheist needs is exactly what they can’t have: a real belief in the sacred. One has to have it in your head not just that eating right and exercising is good for you, but that there is something magical, mystical, or transcendent and maybe objective like God in your ideas about pursuing those goals. It looks like to really get the positive effects, you’ve got to have it in your head that the values are inviolate. (Although it’s not clear to me how this endorsement of sacred-mindedness fits with McCullough’s denial that new-agey believers can get the benefits.)

So the non-believer who wants to score all the benefits needs to find a sacred-feeling way to substitute for all the praying, believing, and devotional-ing that the believers are doing. And that sacredness needs to be a very close analogue to what the believers are doing when they focus all that mental energy and ritualized practice on God. But if the non-believer wants to stay true to their convictions and what they think the evidence shows about God, they need to walk this fine line without actually believing in God.

I can’t see how to do that. I don’t see how one can really accept the obvious and rational conclusion that there’s no magic, no spiritual forces, and no gods AND simultaneously achieve the mental states and habits of the believers that are producing these benefits. Either the non-believer has got to make a choice about what’s more important to them—truth or benefits—or they’ve got to find a way to have their cake and eat it too. (But cut back on the booze.)

Pascal’s choice here, famously, was to “deaden my acuteness.” It looks like some sort of self-lobotomy is in order.