Putting Social Brain Mechanisms To The Task Of Figuring Out Unknown Natural Phenomena

Last fall, Wired reported on a study published last fall (“Neuroanatomical Variability of Religiosity.” By Dimitrios Kapogiannis, Aron K. Barbey, Michael Su, Frank Krueger, Jordan Grafman. Public Library of Science ONE, Vol. 4 No. 9, September 28, 2009) which finds religious people have extra activity in the neurological brain regions indispensable for social intelligence:

Brain scans of people who believe in God have found further evidence that religion involves neurological regions vital for social intelligence.

In other words, whether or not God or Gods exist, religious belief may have been quite useful in shaping the human mind’s evolution.

“The main point is that all these brain regions are important for other forms of social cognition and behavior,” said Jordan Grafman, a National Institutes of Health cognitive scientist.

the capacity for religious thought may have bootstrapped a primitive human brain into its current, socially sophisticated form.

Grafman suspects that the origins of divine belief reside in mechanisms that evolved in order to help primates understand family members and other animals. “We tried to use the same social mechanisms to explain unusual phenomena in the natural world,” he said.

This is consistent with the research that those with Asperger’s, who have diminished capacities for social understanding, also do not think at all in intentional personal terms when thinking up explanations of natural phenomena (unlike non-Asperger’s atheists, for example, who have normal dispositions to think about nature as being guided by personal intentions but deliberately choose not to due to rational considerations).

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    A common speculation about religion is that it is a form of anthropomorphism. We understand the world in terms of ourselves and human psychology. The cause of weather is a person greater than ourselves and so forth.

    If belief in God (an example of anthropomorphism) lights up a part of the brain interested in understanding other human beings (which we evolved to be good at), then nothing unexpected is happening. The science could be confirming the hypothesis that we tend towards anthropomorphism because of our interest and understanding of human psychology.

    In conclusion, I am not convinced that religion or belief in God is a fundamental part of the brain. It is just a common side effect of being good at understanding human psychology and misapplying it (anthropomorphism), which could also explain our belief in ghosts, alien visitors, faeries, etc.

  • b

    True, people subjected to religion have a different brain anatomy. Following the flock is not adventageous to thinking outside the box. The neural connections do not allow for flexible thought, serving higher purpose in the attempt to build cohesive societies. I have the utmost respect for atheism, and Nietche declaring God is dead. It all serves a purpose. As far as spiritual evolution, God is declared dead, so a re-birth of how we view God, Creator, etc. can occur. Not all people can have their eyes to the skies. The world needs “grounded” people to focus on humanity’s needs. However, just as spiritual people are “open” to respecting all beliefs, incl. atheism, am curious to understand the need to rationalize the mysteries of life. Forgive me, but Atheists are limited in the capacity to understand this. They are not open. There is a difference between understanding and beliefs (limiting rationalizations) and knowing the divine.

    • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

      However, just as spiritual people are “open” to respecting all beliefs, incl. atheism, am curious to understand the need to rationalize the mysteries of life.

      I don’t know what this means.

      Forgive me, but Atheists are limited in the capacity to understand this.

      To understand the mysteries of life? Are they more limited than other people? That sounds a bit prejudiced.

      They are not open.

      Again, this is prejudiced. Many atheists are philosophers trying to find out what is probably true using good reasoning. That is not a limitation in my mind. Some philosophers decide that God is the most reasonable belief to hold regarding that question, so obviously philosophy isn’t against religion in and of itself.

      There is a difference between understanding and beliefs (limiting rationalizations) and knowing the divine.

      Some knowledge is difficult to put into words, but atheists don’t all deny that fact. Philosophers make use of “intuition” and even Sam Harris has said good things about intuition.

      Atheists will disagree that we can “know the divine” in the way theists want. It might be possible to know the divine in the sense of knowing it as a fiction.

  • b

    Sorry. Let me clarify. In this, “not understanding the need to rationalize the mysteries of life.” Why must atheists judge and criticize believers? Ultimately, what good comes from this. To each their own. Live and let live. This applies to theists criticizing atheists as well. Yes, philosophers and scientists are “gifted” in thought and reason, a product of a well-developed mind. “Not open” meaning not “open” to knowing and experiencing the divine. Atheists are “closed” to knowing the divine, yes? This is absolutely not, in any way, shape, or form prejudice. In my understanding, most atheists deny heaven & hell, and death is final. Great. Then the difference between believers and non-believers in the context of spiritual matters is simply, believers experience the divine, non-believers don’t. Free will. One can’t be “open” if thoughts are focused solely on science and reason. True? That’s fine, whatever floats your boat. Intuition is common sense. Believers develop their senses. Some even develop both mind and senses. Yes, some see all this as science fiction, delusion, superstition, whatever. This is fine. Basically, it comes down to not accepting or appreciating other people’s realities as their truth.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Sorry. Let me clarify. In this, “not understanding the need to rationalize the mysteries of life.” Why must atheists judge and criticize believers?

    Constructive criticism isn’t an insult. It is part of our quest to make sense out of life.

    Of course, insulting behavior can be inappropriate in many situations and Atheists are just as wrong as anyone else for inappropriate behavior. That is just part of life. Not everyone is perfectly wise or mature.

    Ultimately, what good comes from this. To each their own. Live and let live. This applies to theists criticizing atheists as well. Yes, philosophers and scientists are “gifted” in thought and reason, a product of a well-developed mind. “Not open” meaning not “open” to knowing and experiencing the divine.

    Lots of atheists are very open to knowing and experiencing the divine, but it just doesn’t happen in all cases. Some atheists think such a suggestion is as absurd as asking us to be open to ghosts, Thor, Zeus, etc. How open are you to the truth of other religions, which could undermine your own?

    Atheists are “closed” to knowing the divine, yes? This is absolutely not, in any way, shape, or form prejudice. In my understanding, most atheists deny heaven & hell, and death is final. Great. Then the difference between believers and non-believers in the context of spiritual matters is simply, believers experience the divine, non-believers don’t.

    No, we are talking about “belief” not “experience.” Many people think we should be “open to Bigfoot’s existence.” We can “observe evidence of Bigfoot, such as footprints.” But the fact is that we don’t know for sure that we ever experience evidence of Bigfoot. To say that we all experience evidence of bigfoot is to beg the question. It’s to say, “I have observed the truth, and you haven’t. I have experienced God, so he obviously exists, and you guys haven’t experienced God.”

    Free will. One can’t be “open” if thoughts are focused solely on science and reason. True?

    Only if “open” means “be gullible.” Atheists and scientists are happy to prove that prophecies, ghosts, reincarnation, and God are real, but we aren’t so sure that we can do so.

    That’s fine, whatever floats your boat. Intuition is common sense. Believers develop their senses. Some even develop both mind and senses. Yes, some see all this as science fiction, delusion, superstition, whatever. This is fine. Basically, it comes down to not accepting or appreciating other people’s realities as their truth.

    We don’t have to accept everyone’s reasoning. We don’t have to say that all beliefs are “reasonable.” Atheists and scientists want to know what beliefs are “reasonable.” What beliefs are “probably true based on our current knowledge.” If a religious person isn’t interested in reasoning, justification, and rational belief, then it is perfectly normal to let people know that the beliefs such people hold are not rational and are possibly even irrational.

    People find it offensive for others to offer “constructive criticism” when it concerns their religious beliefs, but it is not offensive to offer “constructive criticism” when it concerns their beliefs in ghosts, faeries, conspiracy theories, aliens visiting the earth, and so on. Atheists who criticize religion can appropriately offer constructive criticism to religion just like to everything else.

    Some religions are clearly irrational and encourage violence towards outsiders. Even most religious people agree that such religions should be subject to the rigors of rationality. This is a double standard. Everyone else’s religion should be criticized for irrationality and dangerous thinking, but not one’s own.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I agree with what James has to say here. The one thing I would add, b, is that you seem to be arguing that there is some means of directly intuiting God as an immediate, simple experience, which requires no objective corroboration and is capable of no objective corroboration. You seem to be saying something like, believers have this direct intuition of God and so are justified in believing in God and atheists just do not have this direct intuition of God and so are justified in not believing in God. This leaves us in a hopelessly subjective situation in which because we don’t both have the same faculties, we cannot both have the truth.

    But to say that means that even though atheists are justified in not believing since we lack the God-sensing faculty you allege (without any evidence for it), we ultimately are the wrong ones because there actually is a God being sensed by believers. And not only are we wrong, but we are irremediably wrong since we just lack this “sense.”

    But I don’t buy any of this. Plenty of people have both fervently believed at one point and not believed at another (like me). The issue is not, for most of us, that we never had the same sorts of experiential internal data occur to us but whether or not we took it and interpreted it supernaturally or whether we took it and insisted that without evidence of a supernatural source, we should simply assume it is a naturally explicable phenomenon.

    This brings us back to standards of evidence in dealing with a common phenomenon, not just a problem of two different faculties. And I think that history is abundantly clear that more rigorous standards of evidence are always more powerful and more successful and should be promoted.

    And that’s why I care what believers think, because evidence based thinking is simply better both for individuals and society and is worth fighting for. Sorry that some people are made uncomfortable by this, I see no reason to compromise on it.

  • b

    Of course you side with James, lol… Does reason completely and absolutely disprove the existence of God. If you got the impression that I am “holier than thou”, this was not my intention, and I am trying to explain my understanding, however limited, of the differences. Regarding both theist and atheist truths, the ol’ “my way’s the only way” has no merit with me. Re: irrational thought-just as religion is a source of war and murder, so too can logic be twisted depending on the mind. I appreciate different beliefs and religions, and the rich mythological traditions they entail, as works of literature. People are drawn to beliefs that resonate at their level. No religion, belief, or logic could ever, as you say “undermine” my personal beliefs and experiences. Personally, I take a dim view of religion. Religion originates out of good intention, yet inevitably becomes a tool used for control, political gain, and economic power. Nothing good comes from distorting one’s thoughts through laws and fear, through the promotion of some universal agenda. As far as a connection with God, no religion, pope or phrophet can ever teach the sacred, nor can some philosopher teach you personally what is love (unless perhaps you’re dating:). I observe my truth, you observe yours. Yes, I experience God. You want to challenge me on this. You judge, and deny my “senses”, in a tone which comes as defensive, and that I allegedly witness something of mere coincodence, of some natural phenonmenon. You base these accusations on lack of your evidence, not mine. We cannot, nor ever will see eye to eye, or define some common denominator…though perhaps in ATTEMPTING to understand each other, the common factor is the same part of the brain is firing up :D As far as finding “common phenomenon”, and seeking what I think you see as superior evidence based thinking, humans are too varied. Too rigid; dogmatic consequences. It’s as if you are seeking some static, idealized state of perfection; the opposite of life which is organic. Look, I know what I know, and believe. Perhaps this will inspire another article to disprove God, perhaps not. Best wishes, guys.

    • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

      Does reason completely and absolutely disprove the existence of God.

      No, and whether or not it is rational to believe in God is up for debate. The debate is far from over. Some philosophers still think it is more rational to believe in God than not.

      If you got the impression that I am “holier than thou”, this was not my intention, and I am trying to explain my understanding, however limited, of the differences. Regarding both theist and atheist truths, the ol’ “my way’s the only way” has no merit with me. Re: irrational thought-just as religion is a source of war and murder, so too can logic be twisted depending on the mind.

      There is an objective and fairly absolute understanding of “logic” but I’m not sure how you are using the word.

      I appreciate different beliefs and religions, and the rich mythological traditions they entail, as works of literature. People are drawn to beliefs that resonate at their level. No religion, belief, or logic could ever, as you say “undermine” my personal beliefs and experiences.

      I would like everyone to try to have rational beliefs. Some people will say that nothing could ever change their beliefs and they believe it is OK to hurt people. It isn’t always obvious what will hurt people either.

      Personally, I take a dim view of religion. Religion originates out of good intention, yet inevitably becomes a tool used for control, political gain, and economic power. Nothing good comes from distorting one’s thoughts through laws and fear, through the promotion of some universal agenda. As far as a connection with God, no religion, pope or phrophet can ever teach the sacred, nor can some philosopher teach you personally what is love (unless perhaps you’re dating:). I observe my truth, you observe yours. Yes, I experience God. You want to challenge me on this. You judge, and deny my “senses”, in a tone which comes as defensive, and that I allegedly witness something of mere coincodence, of some natural phenonmenon. You base these accusations on lack of your evidence, not mine.

      Do you then deny that faith is necessary for belief in God?

      We cannot, nor ever will see eye to eye, or define some common denominator…though perhaps in ATTEMPTING to understand each other, the common factor is the same part of the brain is firing up :D As far as finding “common phenomenon”, and seeking what I think you see as superior evidence based thinking, humans are too varied.

      Philosophers can tell you which theories are probably true. Sometimes they can’t decide which ones are best, but there are always very poorly construed ones as well. I recommend that we continue to be philosophical and try our best to avoid being irrational.

      Too rigid; dogmatic consequences.

      I don’t know what you want to say here.

      It’s as if you are seeking some static, idealized state of perfection; the opposite of life which is organic. Look, I know what I know, and believe. Perhaps this will inspire another article to disprove God, perhaps not. Best wishes, guys.

      As a philosopher, I can’t be certain that my beliefs are true, and I can’t help but have a feeling that many of my beliefs are probably false. I think this is a healthy form of modesty that prevents people from having the arrogance to kill other people. We should be self-consciously cautious and uncertain.

      At the same time I can try to judge what is probably true given my current level of information and I can find out what other philosophers have to say who have spent a lot more time than I have thinking about various things.

      That said, I don’t personally have any interest in disproving God. As I said, many of us would prefer to prove that God exists and we just currently believe that it can’t be done. We also have an interest in good reasoning and want ourselves and others to be rational.

  • b

    This is all interesting, and good to pursue. I’m leaving now for my rustic, family cabin. No tv, no phone. Will I survive without blogs and facebook? One thought I do want to leave with, is hallucinations fall under the realm of abnormal psychology. Do spiritual visions lie in the opposite extreme? Could this be identified this way. There must be some research somewhere, but could it absolutly prove the existence in a rational way? We could go on about the methods and testing of this, but gotta go!


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