cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

God in the biology


Nathan Schneider in What Happens when God is Biologized? valiantly pulls together the threads under three heads: cognitivists, neurotheologians and evolutionary biologists.

Brings to mind Sir Alistair Hardy’s The Biology of God, based on Hardy’s hypothesis that religious experience involves a kind of awareness that has evolved through natural selection because of its survival value to the individual.

Think of individuals or groups of believers who have gone to their deaths for their beliefs. It is not the simple fact of belief in a God that they have died for but the complex and sophisticated religion belief in God was part of.  Believing in the face of death is to me as much about the strength of the in-group drive than the beliefs died for.  Or, in other words, the tendency and capacity to belief would not work very well without group support. It is a double bind. To recant in the face of death (though in the holocaust it would have made no difference – they thought they were destroying a race as much as a religion) is to make it harder for the remainder of the group who survive to adhere to the belief they hold in common. Though the given reasons will be their faith, they cannot not have the idea of what comes after for the survivors if they are seen to recant under duress.

Any study of religions soon turns up the thorny issue of schism.

In the article is a quote from Cognitivist and Christian Justin Barrett, author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

“Belief in God comes naturally. Disbelief requires human intervention.”

I was struck by how patently silly this was, in the sense that a prodigious effort over millenia has been made to promulgate both the idea of God, of God over over Gods (at one time most peoples were polytheistic) and of the desirability and efficacy of one religion over another; while at the same time minds have been at work for centuries refuting God’s existence within the framework of new philosophical thinking  and scientific advance. Both belief and non-belief require effort, topping up, in various ways. One of these is the support of others who believe or disbelieve like you. A study of the history and sociology of religion will make it clear how proactive a process belief is, and how much it is a group activity. How over time  there have been shifts in emphasis, which is not unlike an evolutionary process, except that human thought in the main is deemed to be progressive, while evolution is blind.

The mountains of time theologians have spent on the proofs of God’s existence is just one part of effort to maintain belief in God.  I have long believed (or should I say’ had the opinion that’) the core to understanding belief,  religions and ideologies is through the psychology of the in-group. This is because the in-group tendency is surely biological whether or not the tendency and capacity to believe are.

Beliefs are taken to be the exemplar of persistence, but people have died (in both the sense of being adherents and non adherents) for political ideologies too.

We have no way of telling (no control experiment) if belief in God comes naturally, and persists, because people grew up in societies which were and are God saturated.  A natural experiment would be where a believer has been left isolated for years, of which there must have been a few. Or where individuals who were not believers were left on their own.  Auschwitz was a natural experiment: Where is God now?

There are those who turn away from belief. Perhaps their brains ought to be examined! Dan Barker gave up on religion. He might be put under the scanner to see if different areas of his brain light up. Would have been nice to check him before and after. He now says things like:

Basic atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of belief. There is a difference between believing there is no god and not believing there is a god — both are atheistic, though popular usage has ignored the latter.
Dan Barker, defending the “weak” definition for the word atheism, in, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, quoted from Austin Cline, “Defining Atheism: Contemporary Atheists

I am a bit confused here: are not the statements”I believe in God” and “I don’t believe in God” both beliefs?

Need to turn to philosopy : Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: belief.

There is a lecture by Richard Lewontin, Gene, Organism and Environment: Bad metaphors and Good Biology He’s the guy who helped write Not in Our Genes [1984] with Stephen Rose and Leon Kamin.*  He’s concerned about how we use words to explain things, particularly metaphorically.  One of the things he says (pretty much what is in Not in our Genes page 273 Penguin paperback):

Organisms do not simply adapt to previously existing, autonomous environments: they create destroy, modify and internally transform aspects of the external world by their own life activities to make this environment. Just as there is no organism without environment, so their is no environment without an organism.

He then goes on in a fascinating footnote, to take apart the logic of Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype, in which NIOG says Dawkins is forced to handle the fact that the organism acts on its environment by defining what we here call the “active environment” as an aspect of the organism’s phenotype.

Dawkins responded strongly to Not in Our Genes at the time of publication, e.g in New Scientist.

Maybe some of Lewontin’s arguments about the ifs buts and whyfors of explaining biology,  such as the organism-environment question, could be transferred to examining belief.

Then there is the business of believing in a different kind of God to the majority.  For example, the Cathars were ‘written out of’ history’ because their way of  expressing their belief in God was different from the established Catholic church. Belief in God is not just a private thought or public assertion: it involves a demonstration in personal terms (usually held in common) through religious practices.

In one way of looking at it, we might say that science may be beginning to show some sort of spiritual feeling exists (evolved) in the mind of man, but that it took the organised thinking of many men to explain what it was we were feeling.

It is always possible for an individual to claim a feeling means something or other: a transcendent or immanent sensation MEANS the presence of God; The feeling you get is interpreted as being in the presence of The Almighty. Tradition and social conditioning help to make it so.

Strictly, the appurtenances of faith – the  rules and regs that underpin it – are not faith itself: the dogma and accepted theology of a particular church, at a given time, are not the beliefs of individual people in an omnipresent all powerful God. They are add ons. There have been different add-ons at different times.

One might say that religion (organised religion) has been build around the spiritual feelings which people claim to experience. In other words, people come to a decision about what this vaguer feeling is about or points towards. The choice of what the experience is deemed to be has varied over time. Ancient peoples were not monotheistic.  They would have been unlikely to focus on a single God if they believed in many.  Does the argument that would be used to justify the change from polytheism to monotheism –that people didn’t understand correctly there was only one God till a certain time in history — mean that the God spot only evolved quite recently?

It has been suggested that in neolithic times sacred practices were often much closer to natural phenomena. In other words with the passage of time they have moved into the supernatural.

* Both Lewontin and Rose are Left-wing, so take it or leave it.

September 11, 2008 Posted by | God, religion | , , | Leave a comment

The Science Network Forum – Enlightenment 2.0 {2}

My immediate reaction to the talks in Enlightenment 2.0 was there wasn’t quite enough discussion on Enlightenment 1.0 (the cool new way to say The Enlightenment). Presumably the assumption was (many speakers were apologetic about covering the basics in such august company) the other participants knew all about it. However, because the Forum has been publicly broadcast with an wider, general educational aim –so will be watched by many to whom much of this is relatively sketchy, and some totally new to them — it might be worth TSN’s while to fill in some of the the gaps by adding to the website.

If you like me feel a need to start with the basics of The Original Enlightenment, the {Wiki: enlightenment} is a good way to start checking its main features were. It helpfully gives a list of names associated with the enlightenment and quite a few links.

This short student guide to The Age of Enlightenment lists Voltaire’s view in a seven point list, which is also a short-cut way of getting to the nub. If you are not proud: SparkNotes on The Enlightenment (1650 – 1800) is also useful.

The point, if you have watched Enlightenment 2.0, is to figure out what E v 2.0 might be or aim to be. I am not too convinced the talks did this. Some clever chap might have put up a comparison chart.

I started by looking at what was available on-line on the academics who contributed. People like Dawkins and Dennett are pretty well know public intellectuals, but there are other who are not but who introduced interesting research or ideas.

I will, later, put up a list of those speakers who I thought were really useful, those less useful, and those plainly there to sell books. One in the useful category is Melvin Konner, who wrote The Tangled Wing, considered a pop classic on nature v nurture, or as someone in a talk termed it, “hard-wired or culture”. This is Konner’s Notes and References (Caveat: The Dangers of Behavioral Biology), a chapter critique / analysis (pdf, be warned) of The Tangled Wing. Two good reviews of The Tangled Wing : here and here.

Sam Harris stands out in the “I’m here to sell my book” category. Now famous for his book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason , that topped the New York Times bestseller list. Or, maybe it is back there now? I wonder if they read him in the UK, us being heathens ‘n all He later wrote Letter to a Christian Nation. He features in the E 2.0 debate a lot. Makes sense to me! One of the themes across several speakers was natural morality vs. religious morality. Harris argues at least once that there is no need for morality derived from religions because natural morality suffices. In the main he seemed to reiterating small sections of his book on two main areas: Islam (and religion – bad things) and meditation (he has become interested in Buddhist meditation, which is vaguely 70s). I haven’t read the book, and am not likely to just yet, but you can be pretty sure any ideas he has have been around in some form or other since the last Enlightenment, apart from the neuroscience, evidement.

Dawkins (“that’s rubbish”; anti-God book out), Dennett (author of Consciousness Explained; anti-God book now out) and Harris (anti-God books now out) were the three most strident anti-religionists. Many others debated reasonably the ins and out, advantages and disadvantages of religion (and or science) while professing atheism. A small number simply put out their research interests without contextualisation. In the end it was up to the viewer to see how the ideas fitted into any notion of what E 2.0 might be. For example, there was a significant amount of neuroscience and a bit of psychology which was implied we know more about ourselves, but at no point did anyone say because we understand ourselves more clearly this and this is therefore true for E 2.0 over E 1.0

Professor Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, presented research results in cognitive illusion that reminded me of Daniel M Wegner’s Ironic Process Theory. Not listed on Wegner’s papers on ironic effects (pdfs!) is The Seeds of Our Undoing (1999).

January 24, 2008 Posted by | Enlightenment, Enlightenment 2.0, epistemology, evolutionary biology, Ironic effects, religion, science | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What we don’t know

February issue of Wired answers this question (?/!)

It might have been titled Something You Don’t Know For Everyone.

The Rumsfeld quote. What was it exactly? And did it mean anything?

“There’s what we know and what we don’t know and what we know we know and what we don’t know we know and what we know we don’t know…..”

Well, no! Or could it be:

“There’s what we know and what we don’t know; there what we know we know and what we know we don’t know….”

I don’t know!

Well if you vaguely remember it don’t know it exactly, or think you don’t know it, or even know you don’t know it, here it is amongst other Rumsfeldisms.

Which leads imperceptibly to:

Knowing and Not Knowing from doceo, James Atherton’s site.

Came across this about five years ago in a previous splurge of mental activity on science vs. religion. Note the Arab proverb right at the bottom and also

    If I don’t know I don’t know
    I think I know
    If I don’t know I know
    I think I don’t know

Laing R D (1970) Knots

which he puts at the top. (Maybe Rummie was a secret reader of R D Laing. If so he probably threw the lot in the bin round about 1978 like the rest of us should have. I kept them as a reminder of how far it is possible to go wrong on Nature vs. Nurture )


Began to find sociology of religion very interesting about 20 years ago. Read the piece by Gellner, The Pendulum Swing Theory of Islam, with that business about Syndrome P and Syndrome C, which is picked up briefly in a 2001 paper by Keiko Saliko in Arab Quarterly, called Modernity and Tradition in the Islamic Movements in Iraq.

My notes from Gellner at the time:

Syndrome P

* Strict monotheism

* Puritanism

* Stress on scriptural revelation: hence literacy

* Egalitarianism between believers

* Absence of special mediation

* Minimalisation of ritual or mystical extravagance:leaning to moderation and sobriety

* Stress on the observation of rules rather than emotional states

{Urban – fragmented territorially and organisationally}

Syndrome C

* Tendency to hierarchy

* Priesthood or ritual specialisation

* Multiplicity of spirits in other world

* Incarnation of religion in perceptual symbols or images rather than abstract recorded word

* Tendency to profusion of ritual and mystical practices rather than sobriety and moderation

* Ethic of loyalty towards personality rather than respect for rules

{Rural – great continuity (time) and extent (territory) }

January 24, 2008 Posted by | epistemology, religion, Rumsfeld, Sociology of religion | , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Belief & Enlightenment 2.0 Academic Forums

(1) Conference, Salk Institute, 31 October – 2 November 2007, titled

Enlightenment 2.0

The whole conference was videoed under the auspices of The Science Network

A range of academic speakers contributed.

This page takes you out to some of the speakers websites.

Deirdre McCloskey, professor of economics amongst other disciplines, quotes on her front page from Amélie Oksenberg Rorty:

Our ability to engage in continuous conversation, testing one another, discovering our hidden presuppositions, changing our minds because we have listened to the voices of our fellows. Lunatics also change their minds, but their minds change with the tides of the moon and not because they have listened, really listened, to their friends’ questions and objections.

No Double Standards blog has contributed thoughts to this and also lists briefly what each speaker was dealt with.

Sandwalk blog illustrates in the comments stream how confused things can get.

(2) TSN hosted another conference BEYOND BELIEF:Science, Religion, Reason and Survival also at the Salk Institute, La Jolla November 5-7, 2006, which was attended by many of the same academics.

The 2006 debate was divided into three section around three basic questions:

Should science do away with religion?
What would science put in religions place?
Can we be good without God?

It’s debatable whether this was really tackled. Most of the talks seemed to be set around each persons specialism, and were really about they had recently been up to. Though it was not to difficult to see where the subject matter fitted into the three questions. But it is really up to you to take it further.

So far there doesn’t seem to be much of an e-text/ transcript to go with the forum videos: watching the talks which go on for hours is not the quickest way to take on board the ideas. Two of the contributors were especially unhappy with the overall tone of the forum. Joan Roughgarden ( was reported later as calling it “an exaggerated and highly-rose colour view of the capabilities of science “) {2}. She is a biology and geophysics professor and Christian. Scott Atran (wasn’t happy either terming it “a neo-Christian cult”, by which he meant a scientist cult). He is amongst other things an anthropologist at CNRS (National Centre for Science Research), Paris. This dissatisfaction followed through into the second conference in 2007.

Melvin Konner, famous for his book The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraint on the Human Spirit (1982), (A must read by the way) took a rigorously analytical, yet conciliatory approach. The atheistic hawks such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris both with anti-God books out left no prisoners, attacking religion rather than defending science.

There is a subsequent Edge debate around Scott Atram’s contribution in 2006.

There are interesting personal stories which were revealed during the conference or will become apparent if the speakers backgrounds are examined with online material. I will write a dedicated post to a couple of these which are fascinating.

The posts here will concentrate on these two conferences for a while, with anything I find interesting or think important, though it is so vast if all the side issues are considered. Why isn’t there some sort of tight summary/synthesis by now.

The man in charge of both conferences is Roger Bingham, Centre for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is a Brit with a sharp wit. His asides between the talks are entertaining in themselves. Quite a few good jokes and quotes. He explained at one point that he had been influenced early in life by Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” {2}TV programme, reading out the words from the famous scene where Bronowski stands in the pool at Auschwitz to scoop up a handful of wet ash:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogmas. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
This is the Youtube of that section.

JB’s family perished in the holocaust. 18 January 2008 was the 100 anniversary of his birth.

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Bronowski, Enlightenment, Philosophy, religion, science | , , | Leave a comment