Tuesday, 24 March 2009

God in theLab: A review

Philosopher Stephen Law, provost of the CFI UK, organised a God in the Lab day meeting at Conway Hall, London on the 21st march, 2008. There were four speakers, three from Oxford University's Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology - anthropologist Emma Cohen and psychologists Justin Barrett and Miguel Farias - and Dr Mike Jackson, a consultant clinical psychologist.

The underlying theme is that human beings display from an early age, a matter of few months upwards, a capacity that the lecturers described as that of being "common sense dualist" (Cohen) or "natural born believers" (Barrett) Together they provided a variety of clinical and fMRI evidence and control studies supporting these claims.

Mind, body, and afterlife in cross-cultural perspective

Cohen focused on evidence for what she called "common sense dualism", a culturally malleable folk realism. She sought support for Paul Bloom's argument for "intuitive dualism".
Dualism is not learned - it comes for free - based on the way the mind is organised. Dualism emerges naturally in child development.
She presented a number of clinical studies of infants and children that supported this "intuitive" separation of "mind" and "body" which would be prior to cultural influences that we display as adults, such that many of the members of the audience would, atypically, reject the "ghost in the machine". Whilst this was more of a literature review she ended on quite a skeptical note mentioning a BBC report of a study into near-death experience, where patients who (temporarily of course) "left their body" in the operating theatre failed to identify hidden texts on shelves impossible to see from the operating theatre bed. At the end of her talk there was some issue over the loaded questions built into her tests or reports of tests on children, these contentions becoming more explicit with the afternoon speakers.

Divine Madness

First though, we had Mike Jackson who had explored the specific phenomenon of certain spiritual experiences that, to him, were very similar to certain psychotic experiences. Was this due to these being the same type of phenomenon and, if so, why is that some found these experiences benign and inspiring whilst others found them so detrimental that they lead to psychotic episodes? Or is the similarity only on the surface and there are substantively different processes occurring? His initial study of a more clinical variety was of only 10 persons, 5 in each category.

Later studies still with less than 50 people and including not just clinical reports but fMRI and other analysis led him to develop a cognitive model of psychosis where these experiences are broadly similar and lie on a continuum, the distinction in outcomes being more due to exogenous factors with respect to these experiences. A particularly strong indicator was that of childhood abuse leading to adult psychotic outcomes. I found this plausible but this might reflect my own bias, I would like to see further detailed work to confirm his hypothesis.

Born theists or just born believers?

In the afternoon we had far more contentious material. This was because both speakers, in different fashions appeared present results which were insufficient to lead to the conclusion they made. Whilst superficially taking the same theme as Emma Cohen, Justin Barrett took the argument much further attempting to show
In this presentation, relevant scientific evidence is presented. Children are ‘born believers’ in the sense that under normal developmental conditions they almost inevitably entertain beliefs in gods.”
Now (and indeed Cohen provided some similar questionable evidence) much of the examples seemed to be "leading the witness". There appeared to be a bias interpreting the infants and children's response according to the expectations of the adult researchers, much like leading question in flawed opinion surveys. Arguments and evidence were led to show that
Because of these assumptions, kids can reason about gods properties earlier than humans! They may readily understand, acquire and believe in god concepts that approximate these assumptions.
I have no issue here if this is supported by the historical and anthropological evidence of animism and ancient ancestors but Barrett goes further in arguing that:
Evidence exists that children might find especially natural the idea of a non-human creator of the natural world possessing super powers etc.
I am sorry, when Barrett claims that children would reinvent - uninfluenced by adults - supernatural beliefs to explain the world around them, that is plausible, but when he goes further to imply this would be of a single over-arching god concept, this surely is contradicted by the anthropological evidence. This might be a popular and dominant concept today but it is a fairly modern one in comparison to animism, ancient ancestors and polytheism.

Further it is one thing to argue for a shared dualism as a passing phase that children go through but there was little evidence and apparently little work has been done on how these changes as children grow up. An attempt to address this by arguing against Piaget is a straw man (who agrees with Paiget's original work any more?). Merely noting that 85% of our current world population has theistic beliefs is misleading. How many really have these beliefs and quite a percentage might have religious but specifically not theistic beliefs- such as various types of Buddhists.

All this led Barrett to reject what he calls the "indoctrination hypothesis" that "if you threaten and it can't be disproved they'll believe". This is a supposed version of an argument against faith schools. He argues, quite correctly in my view, that no, not anything, only certain things related to this innate and intuitive dualism and teleology are feasible. Still this does not refute what Barrett called the soft indoctrination hypothesis, where culture can fill in the details compatible with these innate capacities. Still this this is what I think everyone else understands by this hypothesis, the strong version being a straw man. This still leaves open the issue as to what type of religious beliefs are instantiated into our children in different faith schools are they potentially malignant, pathological or benign?

Religious based Analgesics?

Finally we had Miguel Farias who well understood that religious belief can vary quite substantially across the globe. He chose to focus pain relief and as to whether religious belief has analgesic effects.

Farias carried out a study comparing a religious to non-religious group, where the religious group were practising Catholics, where he got them into a religious state of mind using images of the Virgin Mary, with a control image of an equivalent non-sacred picture of a woman as a secular stimulus (specifically to not the evoke a religious state of mind). His studies including putting subjects in fMRI did discover an analgesic affect due to the religious state of mind that was absent in the non-religious group. He identified two brain regions that have this affect, regions that also work under different conditions of hypnosis.

However myself and other members of the audience found this study, whilst quite original compared to the others presented here, flawed. If the non-religious group had been able to individually select a suitable image such as a "happy place" or maybe a group of non-religious football supporters to collectively select an image of their team's biggest win I am not sure analgesic affects would not also be displayed. He certainly did not eliminate this in his study and although he said it was outside the design of the study this states a problem with the study as it seems difficult to draw any significant conclusion without such a less biased study as he presented.

Still I like to ague that one should "not sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort" and certainly if the remembering of positive childhood religious associations can indeed generate an analgesic effect this might explain why some religious people feel threatened by non-religious and secular approaches in society. We are inadvertently taking away their "security blanket". Still, even if this is the case, is it not more likely that such religions, unwittingly maybe, has subverted a conjectured natural analgesic propensity to make it associated with and thereby dependent upon that religion? It would be pointless to speculate further and would just reflect my bias rather than that of the researchers. Farias's work is, in my view, the most interesting but until he properly surveys non-religious sources of analgesic states of mind (if they indeed exist), it is premature to draw any substantive conclusions from this work.


The turnout for this talk, given there were no star names as compared to previous CFI UK talks was surprisingly good and this augers well for future themes for the CFI UK to explore and present.

Overall it seems that the three Oxford researchers displayed a bias not so much against religion but for a modern Christian conception of religion that they were seeking empirical evidence to explain or explain away. However I am wondering if they are suffering from a lack of outside critical appraisal of their work, or is this the reason they are now presenting their work in this conference and elsewhere, in order to take it to the next level?

Both theirs and Jacksons work is still early days. Still there is certainly nothing that could lead one to conclude that a particular form of religion such as modern Christianity or Islam is a necessary consequence of our shared developmental biological and psychological capacities and biases nor that modifying the religious education of our children could not have beneficial effects on our society.