Nobel Laureate in Literature
445 times in 368 posts
Re: Chapter 2 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
In the second chapter Ralph Lewis goes through a number of perspectives on cognitive errors, primarily focusing on the mentally ill as reference points.
The section on delusion mainly connects it to excess self-reference. The psychotic patients (I would have said schizophrenic - I'm not sure if he is avoiding the term for a reason) he references have very weird interpretations of random events, interpreting them (or voices in their heads) as messages, seeing people around them as parts of a conspiracy, etc.
He makes at least two points seen as relevant to religion here: the first is that the imaginary meanings tend to "defend themselves" by recruiting interpretations of other phenomena, such as a psychiatrist trying to explain why the imaginary meanings are not reasonable, so that, for example, the psychiatrist is recognized to be part of the conspiracy the patient is believing in.
The second is that delusions are on a continuum of unreality, from slightly odd interpretations that normal people put together sometimes, e.g. everyone in the elevator is looking at me, to totally wacked out notions that even rudimentary reality checking would rule out. Lewis has clarified that odd ideas in the context of religion are not seen as signs of mental breakdown or inability to do reality checks. If you believe the earth was created in seven literal days, 6,000 years ago, that is not so bad because you weren't there. If you believe there are little green men in the tree outside your house, and that they make caustic remarks when you walk by, you need help.
In "The God Delusion" Richard Dawkins essentially argues that theists are delusional. It would be helpful for Dawkins to go through the matter with more care, taking into account nuance in how such terms get used. Tanya Luhrman's study of people who hear audible statements (when no one is present) from praying too intensely also offers some interesting insights. I think we already knew that supernatural beliefs are not mass psychosis, although they may share some common features and lie somewhere on the continuum of delusional experiences.
Next Lewis goes into coincidences, discussing some of the interpretations that make them into something more than coincidences. He is not happy with Jung's synchronicity, or "acausal significance" because, apparently, Jung has suggested these might arise because of entanglements of quantum wave functions or some other mechanism. I am suspicious of Lewis' reading of the matter - I have not read very much Jung, but "acausal" sounds plain enough as a declaration that the coincidence is a coincidence, but takes on significance because of the meaning it underlines. That is the interpretation Lewis himself makes in the case of Michael Shermer's extremely odd (and touching) experience which he shared with readers in his Scientific American column.
Mystical experiences come in for his examination next. The experiences of radical unity of the cosmos, of everything suddenly taking on dramatic significance and radiant beauty, he interprets as a phenomenon of the brain with particular likelihood in situations of dehydration and fasting. (I was reminded of Native American "vision quests.") As an alternative to some sudden revelation of the true nature of things, or the nature of some alternate reality, I think that makes sense, but like Timothy Leary's LSD experimentation, it is worth recognizing that the mind's ability to construct dramatically altered perceptions gives some additional perspective on perception and reality themselves, some ability to stand aside from the process. Plenty of people who have had mystical experiences have had their lives changed by them without any supernatural interpretation being put on the source of the experience.
In a diversion into the subject of scientific method, he discusses the notion of falsifiability and why "somewhere there is a green swan" is less falsifiable (you would need to look everywhere) than "all swans are white" which requires only that you look in the place with a single counterexample to falsify. A common complaint about "evidence" of God's existence is that the hypotheses keep shifting in response to actual evidence, so that we no longer accept fitness of organisms for their environment as evidence of God's planned creation but then theists no longer argue (for the most part) that God must have created organisms with their special adaptations.
The last two errors he takes on are unsystematic attribution of causality, he calls it pseudoscience, and reinforcement of compulsive ritual. The first he presents in the context of exorcism, which relies on unscientific notions about the cause of the person's bizarre behavior. Since exorcism sometimes seems to work, some people conclude that "something" from an alternate reality is involved. He puts holistic health practices in the same category - people notice when they seem to work, but find reasons to dismiss the evidence when they do not. Rigorous scientific testing so far finds no effects.
In a way, ritual and compulsion (Just in Case) fall into the same category. Someone with OCD feels reassured by some ritual, and does not test whether things are okay without it. The ritual gives a sense of control, and as any abnormal psychologist can tell you, this is a powerful reinforcer for the practice. I think there is a chicken-and-egg issue that Lewis doesn't go into: did the belief come first (e.g. germphobia) so that the sense of control comes only from keeping it at bay? or does a calming effect of ritual (from, say, washing hands or repeating a phrase) have an independent causality which simply gets snagged by the perception of danger?
In general, I would like to see a more robust discussion of emotion. Emotion is not reasoning, in the sense that it can be checked with Kahneman's "System 2" of careful, reflective processing. But it is heavily involved in the lived process of reasoning. Think of emotion as the system that tells an amoeba "move toward that chemical gradient" because food is there, or tells a spider "get out of here" when there is too much noise and disruption going on. Emotion links the organism's perceptions to motivation.
Since it didn't start out as a result of the reasoning process, there is no basis for thinking emotion should follow the rules of reason. And yet, evidently most complex animals do have some integration of the two systems. Our minds form connections between perceived causes and their perceived effects, but these depend heavily on the sense that the phenomena involved are important. (If Pavlov's dog had had a door close in the next room every time a bell rang, it is unlikely the dog would have "concluded" that the bell caused a door to close. But it does "conclude" that the bell brings dinner in the actual experiment, because knowing when dinner is coming is important.)
Evidently, along with higher brain power's ability to construct working models of the world came a capacity to trim the connections for those that are not "plausible" interpretations. (The bell doesn't bring dinner, but it is a signal of dinner time). So we create complicated ideas about what can cause what. None of these is perfect - I could give you some economic examples that, while they might not "blow your mind" would still give you reason to believe you don't have a very complete model of economics in your mind.
Motivated reasoning happens on two levels. The first is System 1 - once we latch onto a plausible version of what is going on, we don't usually keep looking for other possibilities. Stage magicians make use of this all the time. The second is System 2 - even if we have several plausible interpretations before us, the one we like due to emotional factors is going to face easier hurdles to continue being considered logical. That is, even when we are being reflective, and going to the trouble to check our logic, we will tend to perceive the evidence favoring the explanation we like.
The example with Michael Shermer was quite revealing on the subject. I would love to hear how it struck others.
So here's my point. Our emotions attach for reasons. That is, they are not random or arbitrary. So emotional "weighting" of the evidentiary process is just part of our mental system. Lewis thinks we would be in a better world if everyone would do all of their evaluation of plausible causality on the basis of the scientific method. And probably we would, but he is probably wrong to think this is costless.
To use an example from his world of medicine, we know for a fact that a good "bedside manner" results in more positive outcomes by patients. But medical science dismisses such matters as "placebo effects." Sorry, they don't dismiss them. But they don't give them the same weight. Because they cannot be measured and manufactured and controlled, they are not, in other words, scientific treatments, they are not considered part of the knowledge all doctors need to have. I can give some reasons why that might be a sensible choice given the requirements of medical training, but in actual, functioning practice, this is a gap. It is a mismatch between what medicine says is its goal, patient outcomes, and how it goes about pursuing that goal. I put it to you that this is because they favor the "theories" that they like.
It will come as no surprise to anyone what the medical system is imperfect, for all its diligent screening for evidence and requirements of peer review. But it might be good to keep this issue in mind when considering how people favor the interpretation they like, about God.