How are Religious and Scientific Beliefs Acquired: Discussion

How are Religious and Scientific Beliefs Acquired: Discussion


I have attempted to try and summarize what I think are some of the interesting themes were coming up. In this particular session, which is “How
are religious and scientific beliefs acquired?” Well, I think some of the common themes to
the three talks is, first of all, there’s no inherent difference, necessarily, or at
least there’s a lot of similarities between religions and science because they are, as
a couple of talks have pointed out, they’re addressing explanations for what are unobservable
phenomena by inferring the presence of these invisible mechanisms and entities. The other
surprising thing I found was that in both domains there’s quite a lot of reliance
on testimony, even in fairly scientifically literate, well-educated individuals, that they can spout
off the mechanism but then when they’re asked about it a little more thoroughly, it
turns out that their justification very often defers to their professor, which is kinda
reassuring, if you’re a professor. One of the important themes I think, and certainly
this is something very central to my agenda, is that I think it’s not inconsistent that
we can occupy with different modes of reasoning, and I think the evidence is quite clear on
that. And yet, as Cristine pointed out in the last talk, that not the way it’s often
presented to the general public; it’s often set up as a very antagonistic debate between
science versus religion, and I think Cristine’s point is well made, that really, if we can
start to inform others the extent to which there is actually a lot of convergence or
coexistence, that’s actually in our interest to do so. And finally, I wanted to, what I
felt was coming out of the number of talks was in a sense there’s a difference between
endorsing or accepting a position, and literally understanding what that entails. It’s almost
as if they’re kind of politically divisive, or banners under which people see themselves,
and as I’ll explain, it’s quite– and I do know individuals like that, they say
that they’re really into science and then you discover actually that it’s not that they’re
into science, it’s just that they’re into rejecting religion. And so that’s an important
point to remember. Okay, so the individual talks… Paul skipped over many slides, so
I’m going to have to try to imagine what you were probably going to say, but this is
what I did get. I actually had prepared another slide for you, Paul, based on the chapter
you sent through, so i had to abandon that, delete that one. Yeah, it’s really hard
being a discussant, by the way. I should just point that out. But anyway, what I got from
your talk. First of all, this is that children do have an amazing capacity for imagining
the invisible, and this is evidenced in their capacity for pretend play, and their capacity
to entertain counterfactuals, and I think this is a point that was touched upon actually
in the first session, I think Jackie mentioned this, that in developing conceptual frameworks,
there’s an extent to which you almost have to be aware of what is impossible in
order to understand what is possible. So I would say, I would argue that actually it’s
invariably true that to have a sort of natural understanding of the world, you have to be
aware of what makes something supernatural. So I don’t think you can just say that’s
a way of thinking that you’re never going to have to entertain. It’s part of the process.
But when you are in a situation where you can’t see everything, it’s clear that
children use testimony quite a lot. And again, this is a theme, I think, across the three
talks is the tension or the alternative explanations for beliefs as the tension between believing
what you’re told in testimony, and this alterna-view, which is that many of the things
we believe emerge spontaneously as a consequence of our cognitive biases. Hi what does that
mean? I thought you’re signaling hello. Okay, I’ll move along a bit faster there.
Okay, and the long and the short of what Paul was saying was basically is that your context
of schooling strongly influences the extent to which you will believe in individuals with
special powers, so that is very much in the camp of testimony is one of the major driving
mechanisms. Okay. Andrew presented a variety of information dealing with the adults, of
course, and again the similar theme was testimony coming up, and I liked the anecdote about
students sort of saying “Well, it’s just what my professor told me”. I think that’s
interesting. And given, there’s a lot of similarities that he noted, and it turns out
this deferential or relying on testimony appears, again, to be this very strong, driving mechanism,
and less to do with actually understanding the science, and I think this is a good point.
I think that even people, even many of my students, I’m sure many of the professors
here will know this, that very often they’re not really that sure about the process
of what science is, and I know some colleagues who are not that sure about it as well, when
it comes to what is, how do you go about the process of science, what does it mean about
setting up testable hypotheses. I mean, there are some remarkable gaps, I think, when it
comes to understanding exactly how the process works. So, there are many misconceptions,
and certainly in the general public, that is very true. They always complain, as you
probably noted, whenever they bring on a scientist, that they never give a straight answer. That’s
of course because they can’t, necessarily give us straight answers, so they talk about
likelihoods and probabilities, which of course opens up the door for anyone who wants to
reject science; well you can’t prove that ghosts don’t exist, therefore they’re
possible. And then Cristine started off by reminding us about the problem, and it’s
not a trivial issue, it is actually quite an antagonistic debate, which has consequences,
and it is important that we do try to engage the public with this. There is a science of
superstition, there is a scientific approach to try and understand why people believe,
and rather than just telling people that they’re idiots or stupid, you know you’re preaching
to the choir; you’re never going to change someone’s opinion by using that approach.
You’ve really got to think about how you can present the message in a much more acceptable
way. And the truth of the matter is that we do not neatly divide into believers and non-believers;
there is a coexistence in most of us, as you’ll see if you come along, tonight’s lecture
I’ll be demonstrating that all of us entertain manners of supernatural beliefs. I don’t
see it being the case that it’s all in the individual or all in society; clearly the
two things are working together, and within an individual, of course, they can integrate
them and synthesize, and come up with very sophisticated ways of combining natural and
supernatural explanations, and again, Cristine’s work on biological concepts in Africa, notions
of viruses and how these operate, is a very good example of that. And the other point,
of course, that Cristine talked about is emotion. Emotion is, was mentioned again this morning.
There are rapid ways of seeing the world and understanding the world, and very often they
just seem right. We often forget that knowledge is not independent of emotion; classic studies
showing that if you disconnect emotional centers from, you know, the reasoning centers of the
brain, people just aren’t sure anymore. So we must never underestimate the importance
of emotion in giving you a sense of what is right. And that’s also the issue when it
comes to dealing with questions or topics, which are emotive, namely the existential
questions of why we’re here, what is love, what’s the point of anything. These are
emotional questions, they’re not, they’re not… clinical. So I’ll just say a little
bit briefly about work from my lab, because I come from the perspective is that, religious,
I mean clearly testimony plays a very important role, but I think that it kinda works because
we tend to believe what we’d like to be true. I am an advocate of the Type I/Type
II intuitive, fast reasoning kind of research, from Deb Kelemen and (I can’t tell what
the name is that he’s saying here, 9:18), it’s true, people do seem to find sort of
religious ideas very easy, very quick to accept, and if you put them in situations where you
pit the two against each other, they will invariably go for the quicker one first of
all. That doesn’t mean that you always defer to that, but it means it’s always there,
and I’ve been engaging in a program at work where you can reveal, using implicit measures
or other types of techniques, that people harbor both modes of thinking. And even though
you might be able to become scientifically literate, and be very vocal and open about
what you believe are the scientific laws of the world, deep down you still harbor all
manner of notions of beliefs, and if the context is right those can reemerge. So we’ve been
looking at various forms of belief, and by the way, I tend not to look at religious beliefs;
I’m much more interested in secular supernatural beliefs. I think that’s a point worth remembering;
not all supernatural thinking is religious, and for me, I think this is something that’s
often forgotten because you get many atheists who reject religion, what they’re really
rejecting are traditional religions, and they’re failing to recognize within themselves all
modes of supernatural notions: luck, fate, things like that. But we work on moral contagion,
this is based on Paul Rozin’s work, you know, you basically don’t want to wear the
clothing of a killer, you don’t want to touch people that you think are evil. These
are, if they were true, would represent supernatural-type explanations. Now that doesn’t mean they’re
not adaptive. We don’t know why people are evil. Maybe there is some biological contaminant;
maybe it’s a good thing not to touch them! But this becomes strangely manifested in all
manner of things: why you wouldn’t want to live in a house where a murder took place,
all these sorts of things. And we’ve shown that if you take adults who consider themselves
to be entirely logical, they will not wear the killer carding, or at least they’ll
wash their hands afterwards. Because they feel there’s something that’s just…
Cooties, someone said this morning, that has infected them. Voodoo: well, everyone knows
that voodoo is not real, but you know if you ask children they are confused about appearance
and reality. We’ve shown studies that if they, if you take a photograph of an object
and then alter the photograph– you make it wet, for example– they think the object in
the other room has somehow become damp. So they’re not clear yet between the notion
of relationships between representations and reality, and we’ve shown that adults, again
who claim to be entirely reasonable and rational, if you ask them to destroy photographs of
their loved ones, they probably wouldn’t do it, and if they do do it, we’ve shown
that their deep seated anxiety is revealed by galvanic skin responses firing through
the window. So they can say “Yes, explicitly I don’t have a problem with it,” but deep
down they do, obviously. Anthropomorphism: we do talk to things, don’t we. We talk
to our computers, our cars, and you know, I do studies of adults who still have their
childhood teddy bears, and they treat them as if they’re sentient, get lonely, and
all manner of things. And we’ve done implicit attitudes tests as well, and they actually,
they think of them as having minds. And then mind-body dualism, probably the most difficult
one for us to reject, because it just is the nature of phenomenology; we feel our minds
are separate to our bodies. That’s what we all feel, but the newer science says very
differently than that. So we’ve been looking at that using duplication scenarios, showing
that again, the tendency or the default is to assume this position. Will science ever
replace religion? I think that’s a question that many of us were asked to answer yesterday,
we went to film some things for your laboratory, and I think this is part of the issue about
the relationship between science and religion. First of all, I think you’ve got to recognize,
as I’ve already said this, there’s a difference between religions, which are organized systems,
and the secular supernatural beliefs that many of us have, and they can arise spontaneously.
They don’t need to be through indoctrination. As I said earlier, I think that natural concepts
by default will evoke supernatural boundaries, and so I think that they’re always going
to be part and parcel of the way that we reason about the world. Science has different levels
of explanation; there is no unifying theory. And indeed, even in scientific theories levels
of explanation are sometimes commensurate. So you can have a theory of atoms, which has
nothing to say about a theory about how flight works. And this is, you know, you can have
people in different departments working on the same problem coming up with different
explanations. For example, memory; that’s a very good example. We get neurobiologists
working on long-term potentiation, and that has almost nothing, or really little relevance to
something like a psychological theory of working memory; but they’re both dealing with memory.
So if people in the general public, they have a misconception that we’re all sort of playing
or working in the same territories, which isn’t entirely true. Historical perspectives;
well, when you try to get root of a religion, history tells us it just pops back into place,
or reemerges or morphs into something else. I don’t think it’s the case that we can easily get rid
of it; even secular societies in Scandinavia, yes they don’t endorse as many religious
beliefs, but then they have all their manner of notions which are equally supernatural.
And then we must remember, of course, it’s a very adaptive way of dealing with things;
people, you know, religion for them offers some sort of explanation. Having superstitions
means that you can endure things; that’s why sportsmen have superstitions. It makes
them play better. If you thwart them in their ability to do their rituals, they’re not
as good. So, it does actually have some benefits in that situation. And of course, it’s very
adaptive for groups. If you want to coalesce a group, create a religion. Religions signify
to other that you trust them, because you’re willing to believe things on faith in the
absence of evidence, so it’s a powerful mechanism for signalling allegiances. And
of course, then there’s the big one; they address the existential questions of why we
are here. So I just want to end up with a cartoon I just got off the internet. I kind
of, it reminded me people really think there’s this rise in the love of science, and very
often when you ask people about science, it turns out that they don’t actually really
know a lot about science. So we have: “Did you know that human hair and nails
are made from the same kind of stuff?” “Man yeah, I really love science.”
“I’m not sure you really understand or love science”
“When you say you love something, you just don’t love the exciting, fun parts. You
love the boring parts just as much. People who truly love science spend their lives studying
the tedious little bits as well as the flashy facts. You don’t love science, you’re
looking at its butt as it walks by.” Thank you.

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