Kiefer Lai 531 Presentation The Cognitive Bias Of Religious Belief


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An introduction to the cognitive science of religious belief.

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Kiefer Lai 531 Presentation The Cognitive Bias Of Religious Belief

  1. 1. The Cognitive Biases for Religious Belief LAI 531 - Science Curricula - Karl Kiefer - March 30, 2010
  2. 2. Homo Religious <ul><li>Religious belief and religious practices have existed throughout human history for all peoples. </li></ul><ul><li>While variations abound, the common element is belief in the existence of supernatural beings. </li></ul><ul><li>These beliefs have no evidence and would appear by modern scientific standards to be irrational. </li></ul><ul><li>The cognitive sciences have developed new evidence and arguments to account for the acquisition, transmission and persistence of these beliefs. </li></ul>Picture of a half animal half human being in a Paleolithic cave painting in Dordogne , France archeologists believe that cave paintings of half animal half human beings may be evidence for early shamanic practices during the Paleolithic. - Wikipedia
  3. 3. The Adaptive, Modular Mind <ul><li>Three conclusions from modern cognitive science will inform our understanding of the ubiquitous acquisition of religious beliefs. </li></ul><ul><li>The brain is composed of modules dedicated to specific cognitive tasks which are executed nonreflectively, automatically, intuitively. </li></ul><ul><li>The specific modules are the result of evolution and natural selection. They are adaptive solutions to past survival problems and opportunities. </li></ul><ul><li>The way people think and the concepts they produce are largely the same for everyone, everywhere. </li></ul>
  4. 4. Brain Modules Critical in God Concept Acquisition <ul><li>Theory of Mind (TOM): cognitive awareness that other individuals think, have beliefs, goals, intentions, desires. Iteration (I know she knows I know…) </li></ul><ul><li>Language: bonding (improves on grooming), staying informed about others in the group (who’s naughty and who’s nice, gossip); coordination of group efforts </li></ul><ul><li>Agency Detection Device : recognition of intentional agents (esp. predators) who have thoughts, goals, and desires </li></ul><ul><li>Person , Object, Animal, Plant, Artifact Detection & Categorization (ontological templates with rich inferences about properties) </li></ul><ul><li>Face Recognition Device: recognize faces; interpret emotions, intent </li></ul>
  5. 5. Folk Knowledge <ul><li>Mental modules work together to provide common, foundational domains of intuitive knowledge that enable people to make sense of the world: </li></ul><ul><li>Folk Biology : the mind categorizes and reasons about living things. Includes an “essentialist” philosophy (all dogs have a ‘dogness’ about them independent of their parts. Also includes “dualist” philosophy: mind is not matter nor part of the body. Lots of evidence of young children and people worldwide use same thinking. </li></ul><ul><li>Folk Physics: the mind has a tacit understanding of mechanical properties, principles including solidity, motion, and causality. Very young children display a knowledge of a set of rules that govern natural objects and artifacts which do not apply to living things. </li></ul><ul><li>Folk Psychology : attribution of mental states, goals, desires, intentional behavior to other people. By the age of 2 children recognize that others don’t necessarily share their own beliefs. By the age of 4 children recognize that others may have false beliefs. Includes Theory of Mind. </li></ul>A mother and infant particpate in the study on infant perception of categories at Vanderbilt University. (from Science News, 7/22/2004. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University)
  6. 6. Cognitive Processing <ul><li>W hile some cognitive abilities require maturation, all people possess minds immediately equipped to begin selectively recognizing relevant information from their environments and processing that information in specific ways. We are all intuitive biologists, physicists, and psychologists. </li></ul><ul><li>Raw sensory information is transformed into mental representations, where representations are pictures or models in the mind that allow for thoughts, beliefs, and actions. For example, the mind automatically processes a paucity of information to recognize faces, and we see them in clouds, toast, and shrouds. </li></ul><ul><li>Pascal Boyer calls some of these innate abilities “templates” with which we identify and categorize animals, plants, natural objects, artifacts, etc., like folders in a file cabinet. Each template also contains relevant information about each kind. The animal template, for example, contains information common to all animals. </li></ul><ul><li>Therefore, all minds are biased or predisposed to intuitively think in certain ways. </li></ul>
  7. 7. Intuitive vs Reflective Cognitive Processing <ul><li>Conscious cognitive processing is what we normally understand to be “thinking”. </li></ul><ul><li>Conscious, reflective processing uses deliberative reasoning, logic, mathematics, learned information, knowledge derived from experience. This should not be confused with “rationality.” Conscious thinking can be emotionally laden and irrational. </li></ul><ul><li>Intuitive beliefs tend to be universal, while reflective beliefs are not. </li></ul><ul><li>Reflective beliefs rest on intuitive beliefs, and are often selected or manipulated so as to be consistent with and supportive of intuitive beliefs. This is perhaps the original motivation for the “confirmation bias.” We are more likely to perceive as true a reflective belief which conforms with and triggers or activates intuitive beliefs. </li></ul><ul><li>God beliefs are both intuitive (as we shall see) and reflective. Theology represents the ultimate in reflective cognitive processing about God beliefs. The more theology distances itself from intuitive beliefs, the less likely it is that religious adherents actually believe in those dogmatic propositions. </li></ul>
  8. 8. The Social Mind <ul><li>Man is an intensely social animal and man’s mind has evolved to provide social intelligence. </li></ul><ul><li>Social intelligence requires and exploits cooperation and information. </li></ul><ul><li>Much of the brain’s work is focused on socially relevant activities: mind reading, monitoring social exchange, detecting cheaters, gossip, trading favors, building coalitions. </li></ul><ul><li>A suite of mental modules is designed to do this cognitive work. Two critical ones are the Agency Detection Device (ADD) and the Theory of Mind (TOM), which do the basic spade work in identifying and interpreting the minds of agents. </li></ul><ul><li>This predisposition to identify and predict the behavior of intentional, social agents obtains an eagerness to consider ideas which recruit these mental mechanisms. </li></ul>
  9. 9. Cognitive Processing of God Concepts <ul><li>Ideas about supernatural beings (gods and spirits) are cognitively processed with ADD and TOM as intentional, social agents. </li></ul><ul><li>The workings of ADD and TOM and social intelligence in general determine what gods are like. Gods engage our social mind. </li></ul><ul><li>People process god concepts with the ontological category of Person. </li></ul><ul><li>Inference from the suites of mental modules that comprise folk biology folk physics and folk psychology determine the characteristics of god’s properties. </li></ul><ul><li>The special properties of gods and spirits that matter to people are those that activate mental mechanisms geared to managing social interactions with human agents: giving and receiving, rewards and punishments, and social status. </li></ul><ul><li>Socially strategic information is of utmost importance in social interaction. Gods are usually represented as having full access to strategic information. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts <ul><li>Minimally Counterintuitive (MCI) Concepts are ordinary concepts, like person or tree or river or statue, processed by our folk knowledge PLUS a violation of our normal inferences. </li></ul><ul><li>So, for example, an invisible tree is a normal tree with a violation from folk physics about solidity. A person who walks through walls is a normal person known as a ghost, an otherwise intentional agent. A statue is an artifact; a statue that listens to your prayers and conveys them to god is an MCI. </li></ul><ul><li>Not all MCIs are supernatural. A plant that eats animals is an MCI that actually exists (Venus Fly-Trap). </li></ul><ul><li>Research has shown that counterintuitive concepts which are bizarre or which have many violations of inferences from folk knowledge are not as interesting or memorable as those which minimally violate inferences. </li></ul><ul><li>Most supernatural being (gods and spirits) are MCI and are interesting and memorable. Gods are often persons who know everything. </li></ul>Person + counterintuitive folk physics: Ghost walks through walls!
  11. 11. Teleological Thinking <ul><li>Of special interest in the cognitive processing of god concepts is the research done in the intuitive and ubiquitous nature of teleological thinking. </li></ul><ul><li>The Agency Detection Device (ADD) is hyperactive. When perceiving environmental events and objects, the ADD intuitively assesses agency and potential threat. Part of the inferential assessment includes assessment of purpose and design. </li></ul><ul><li>Research has demonstrated that children interpret both biological and non-biological natural world objects in telelogical (purposeful) terms, including non-human causation. Promiscuous teleological reasoning persists into elementary school, but begins to moderate around the age of 10. </li></ul><ul><li>Further research shows that college students will still promiscuously endorse teleological explanations of why animals and inanimate natural objects exist when tested in an unforced, “non-scientific” experiments. In other words, they know the “correct” explanations, but believe their teleological intuitions. </li></ul><ul><li>This suggests that children are “natural born theists” and that this mode of thinking, while moderated and perhaps disguised with further education, still persists into adulthood. </li></ul>Design in Nature By Max Ernst
  12. 12. The Value of Ideas <ul><li>Evolution has equipped all biological organisms with a way to “care”, a way to value things in their environment. So, for example, an e-coli bacterium values higher concentrations of its food in water, aspartic acid, than lower concentrations, and triggers its movements in the direction of sensed higher concentrations. </li></ul><ul><li>The human brain is also a value machine, a computer that cares. </li></ul><ul><li>The human brain has evolved the ability to assign values to ideas. Just as Pavlov’s dog learned to associate a bell sound with the provision of food, triggering salivation, the human brain can use ideas as bells. </li></ul><ul><li>An idea has value relative to a person’s plans, goals, and desires. </li></ul>
  13. 13. The Value of God Concepts <ul><li>Memory research has shown that perceptions and ideas are better remembered when there are emotional (value) associations. </li></ul><ul><li>An idea of a god who has socially strategic knowledge has strong emotional valence to its ideator and will invoke intuitive inferences about social status, coalitions, rewards, and punishments. This god can trigger emotions of awe, fear, love, resentment, etc. </li></ul><ul><li>This god, like other persons in the ideator’s group, is interested in the ideator’s moral behavior (is he reliable or a cheater?) This god, however, knows what is in the ideator’s mind and heart, and must be treated with special importance. This god must not be angered, and must be supplicated. This god must be brought into the ideator’s coalition and commitments must be kept. </li></ul><ul><li>An additional mental module, the human attachment system is easily recruited by religious concepts, where believers perceive their relationship to god as a familial, bonded attachment relationship, with similar feelings of security, love, and fear. </li></ul>
  14. 14. The Persistence of God Concepts <ul><li>A god with all socially strategic knowledge is relevant to all group members, and becomes a rallying point for community interests and the strengthening of group identity. Pressure arises for all members to include this god in their respective social interactions. </li></ul><ul><li>These pressures to believe also generates a group-wide faith in faith. Believing is a good thing. </li></ul><ul><li>Since god is aware of each group member’s moral qualities, that god becomes the central focus of moral concerns within the group. One step away from assigning authorship of moral dictates to god. </li></ul><ul><li>Rites and rituals further reinforce beliefs and commitments to god-belief. God is publicly invoked to witness and bless major milestones in life: birth, adulthood, marriage, death. These emotionally-laden ceremonies further generate high-value associations with god-belief. </li></ul>
  15. 15. Why Do Atheists Exist? <ul><li>Research, evidence, and history seem to show that belief in god(s) is natural. So, can we explain non-belief? </li></ul><ul><li>If the current account of god-belief is accurate, then atheists must either not have the same intuitions as believers, or they must overcome and veto similar intuitions with reflective reasoning. (This is a fertile area for further research). </li></ul><ul><li>Most atheists (by informal inspection and inference, and some polls) are so by virtue of reflection and education, especially science education. More research is also needed on the extent to which children in atheist families remain atheist vs extent to which they adopt religious beliefs in adulthood. </li></ul><ul><li>There is some evidence that many people (even religious leaders) remain in religious organizations and participate in religious behavior but do not share the religious beliefs, and are often even atheists or agnostics. They persist because of social pressures and the perception that they ought to believe (faith in faith). </li></ul><ul><li>. </li></ul>
  16. 16. Implications for Science Education <ul><li>If the conclusions of this presentation are basically true, then there are some avenues for further research with respect to science education. </li></ul><ul><li>Science education might be improved if it is delivered with conscious recognition of intuitive cognitive biases which impact on science understanding. Teleological thinking and the understanding of causation are a prime example. Additional effort could be made in the teaching of evolution by natural selection using graphical representations which provide a more solidified understanding of how nature can create complex things through very small increments of change. See, for example, Conway’s Game of Life . </li></ul><ul><li>Most atheists (by informal inspection and inference, and some polls) are so by virtue of reflection and education, especially science education. More research is also needed on the extent to which children in atheist families remain atheist vs extent to which they adopt religious beliefs in adulthood. </li></ul><ul><li>There is some evidence that many people (even religious leaders) remain in religious organizations and participate in religious behavior but do not share the religious beliefs, and are often even atheists or agnostics. They persist because of social pressures and the perception that they ought to believe (faith in faith). </li></ul><ul><li>. </li></ul>
  17. 17. Sources and Further Reading <ul><li>Atran, Scott (2002) In Gods We Trust, The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion , Oxford Press, NY </li></ul><ul><li>Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, Justin L Barrett, AltaMira, Press, Maryland. </li></ul><ul><li>Boyer, Pascal (2001) Religion Explained, The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought , Basic Book, NY </li></ul><ul><li>Montague, Read (2006) Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions , Dutton, NY </li></ul><ul><li>Pyysianen, Ilkka (2004) Magic, Miracles, and Religion, A Scientist’s Perspective , AltaMira Press, CA </li></ul><ul><li>Todd Tremlin (2006) Minds and Gods, The Cognitive Foundations of Religion , Oxford Press, NY </li></ul>