March 24, 2009

To The Brain, God Is Just Another Guy


npr god.JPG


The most important question about any scientific study, that must be answered before any others are asked:

What do they want to be true?


Per NPR:


npr god scan.JPG
etc.

The study did make some interesting findings, but of course not the one heralded in the title or in the article.

The only true statement in the NPR article is this one:

A study of 40 people -- some religious, some nonreligious -- found that phrases such as "I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me" lit up the same areas of the brain we use to decipher the emotions and intentions of other people.

NPR, and the study's author, unfortunately concluded more than this:

Grafman says the finding, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that there is no special circuitry in the brain that deals with religious belief. It also suggests that religion developed as the human brain evolved its capacity for complex social interactions.
Nope.

It's no stretch of the imagination to say that the majority of the NPR devotees-- and likely members of PNAS-- may not be outright atheists, but they're hardcore agnostics.  They occupy that space preferred by the self-absorbed who aren't sure what they do believe, but fervently confident about what they don't believe: anything their parents were into.  They're skeptical, but lazy; they "know" which things are not true, but can't be bothered to learn what is true, or at least make something up that is logically consistent.  The exception to this is evolution: they are passionate about evolution, though woefully ignorant of any of its principles or mechanisms.  Their zeal is partly in reaction to established religion, and evolution becomes a substitute for religion. 

Articles like this one fortify them.  They don't need the details; it's enough to know that science is discovering, bit by bit, that much of the intellectual or religious history of mankind over the past, say, 6000 years, is all crap.   It only took the sophisticated, post-Nixon mind to figure out what Kant couldn't.  "Whatever, man-- evolution has a billion years on you."  Indeed.

The study itself isn't too hard to explain.  Subjects were asked to agree or disagree with certain god related statements ("People go to hell," "God protects all people") while their brain was scanned.  The study found that the same regions were ones associated with understanding the intentions and emotions of human beings.  Ergo: God is just another guy.

The obvious criticism is that this didn't study the religions experience at all; what it studied was what regions of the brain interpret statements that relate to intention.  If they asked, "Jabba The Hutt thinks Leia is hot" it would have lit up the same regions, allowing the title of this article to be, "To The Brain, God Is Just Another Hutt."

Furthermore, it is very likely that many of these regions are only involved in linguisitic interpretations; if they had shown videos of people intending to do something, different regions of the brain would have been used.

But a more subtle criticism, and likely the most relevant one, is that this study was done on Americans born after 1970-- the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History Of The World.  Even if this was a valid test of how the brain deals with the religious experience, it's probably not applicable to how human beings in general, or over time, deal with the religious experience.  If they tested, say, Carmelite nuns "thinking about God," you'd probably get different regions.  (They did.) 

In other words, the study emphatically does not show that "to the brain, God is just another guy."  At best, it shows that American 30-somethings are not able to see God as anything other than just another guy; but who knows how 3rd century Romans saw God?  Given that the study was done at NIH, by  cognitive neuroscientists, published in PNAS and then reported on NPR, you would think that someone would have thought of this.  Or perhaps they did, which is why they wrote it this way.



npr god disclosure.JPG



Of course not.







Comments

Can you add a Facebook widg... (Below threshold)

March 25, 2009 1:30 AM | Posted by Mark V Wilson: | Reply

Can you add a Facebook widget so I can add links to your articles to my Facebook page, please?

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Another way they went wrong... (Below threshold)

March 25, 2009 12:22 PM | Posted by David Johnson: | Reply

Another way they went wrong was to establish a (false) equivalency between god and guys. They should have been looking at the areas of the brain that light up when people think about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy and then comparing the results with "thinking" about god.

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"The exception to this is e... (Below threshold)

March 25, 2009 3:52 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"The exception to this is evolution: they are passionate about evolution, though woefully ignorant of any of its principles or mechanisms."

Evolution is simply a popular strawman for those who believe their religious beliefs should trump scientific theory in secular life. This has made many people defensive about evolution. It would not suprise me if this defensiveness has led to belief for many, but even in that case I'd say it is not truly about evolution.

They are passionate about science, though woefully ignorant of any of its principles or mechanisms. Their zeal is partly in reaction to established religion, and science becomes a substitute for religion. Those modified statements with 'evolution' replaced by 'science' are how I see it. They have no idea what a study actually is, just that it is some kind of magically accurate test.

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What's frustrating about re... (Below threshold)

March 25, 2009 4:20 PM | Posted by zozo: | Reply

What's frustrating about reading this blog is that although most of the points made are very good, almost everything devolves into the reactionary "what's wrong with the kids these days" theme (okay, the kids these days's parents). There are excellent observations about media bias and the difficulties inherent in current psychiatry, but everything ends up being about the most narcissistic, shallowest generation ever.

There is a need for fresh voices, for folks to stand up to the groupthink, but the overfocus on narcissism, on "the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History Of The World" threatens to dilute a lot of the rhetorical strength. You run the risk of turning into "The One Trick Pony Psychiatrist."

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I generally enjoy this blog... (Below threshold)

March 25, 2009 5:28 PM | Posted by Jason Wagner: | Reply

I generally enjoy this blog, and overall this piece. But I agree with zozo. There are several statements that "dilute a lot of the rhetorical strength" to put it nicely.

"They're skeptical, but lazy; they "know" which things are not true, but can't be bothered to learn what is true, or at least make something up that is logically consistent."

That's a good point. Maybe you should follow your own advice.

"They don't need the details; it's enough to know that science is discovering, bit by bit, that much of the intellectual or religious history of mankind over the past, say, 6000 years, is all crap. It only took the sophisticated, post-Nixon mind to figure out what Kant couldn't."

I nominate this for the most ridiculous sweeping generalization in the history of the internet. Apparently blog writers don't need details either. They also don't need to be critical of their own writing when they're writing a blog about how we fail to be critical.

"Americans born after 1970-- the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History Of The World."

Another nomination. I would like to characterize the baby boomers as the Most Hubristic Generation In The History Of The World And The First Generation Ever To Leave The World Worse Off Than When It Was Given To Them. Furthermore, I will say it almost mindlessly, with an air of assumed authority and certitude.

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Dear LP, Let's app... (Below threshold)

March 25, 2009 9:47 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Dear LP,

Let's apply your own reasoning to this post. When you started typing it, what did you want to prove? Surely, there are gazillions of little studies which produced results that are tangentially consistent with an evolutionary conceptualization of how human mind, culture, and -of course- religion, err, well, evolved. You chose this one, a relatively easy target, to beat up. Why? What did you accomplish by making an "obvious criticism -that hearing statements about God cannot possibly amount to religious experience?" Why not going after this one for example? Too long? Too complicated? It is a review article, OK. But, how about this then?

Well, maybe the weakness of the study was precisely the reason why you went after it. The goal was not to show how authors made far fetched conclusions (who doesn't, for God's sake? :) The real goal was to suggest that evolutionary psychology is nothing more than a set of far fetched conclusions. Your earlier posts (devoted reader here) on how "costly punishment" may not be related to the evolution of "fairness" planted the seed, and now this...

Do you see religion as the only remaining weapon against narcissism? Do you think internalizing a belief system that promotes prosocial behavior and puts much emphasis on morality can immunize a brain against the malicious virus that is narcissism, and thus religion should be protected from the potentially devaluing gaze of evolutionary psychology? Or, did it take some of religious conversion to cure your own narcissism? What is your conflict of interest here?

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Evolution is a bit demorali... (Below threshold)

March 26, 2009 12:06 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Evolution is a bit demoralizing to consider a shield. It's just a physical process. It isn't incompatible with theism, either. Theism is.

I fit your profile, so I thought about it for a while. I can see your irritation at people dismissing the product of ages of philosophy and devotion by citing a theory they understand at a "things evolve" circular level. They use it because it has an assumed power, and turns the tables, allowing them to relax and do a high five or something.

What else should they do? Is your irritation purely regarding their pissing on their heritage and acting the fool? I see it. I don't think that's their intention, though. Just as they don't understand the theories they present, they don't understand the religious edifice they dismiss. It's a man's view of a lesbian. They know not what they do.

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I believe this to be in lin... (Below threshold)

March 26, 2009 3:13 AM | Posted by Serial Therapist: | Reply

I believe this to be in line with Dr. Palahniuk's theory that the typical Caucasoid Judeo-Christian American's conception of God is essentially an abstracted paternal construct and therefore representable as "just another guy"

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"Americans born after 1970-... (Below threshold)

March 26, 2009 9:44 AM | Posted by fraise: | Reply

"Americans born after 1970-- the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History Of The World."

Now now, y'all who are commenting on this are missing the subtle distinction here: "dumbest". Not the "only" generation of narcissists, but the "dumbest". Better to be a dumb narcissist than a clever one?

signed: INDEPENDENCE BABY boo ya (funny thing is my parents are the ones who use that term with honest-to-goodness pride, as if it were some incredible achievement to get pregnant and have a kid in the US on one of the 365 days in 1976, while I only use it to make fun of its existence...)

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You ought to take seriously... (Below threshold)

March 26, 2009 12:17 PM | Posted by shmoo: | Reply

You ought to take seriously the meaning of the expression pot meet kettle. It's a recurring problem with your posts. Are you really that oblivious?

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If you look at the study th... (Below threshold)

March 26, 2009 6:28 PM | Posted by Fenix: | Reply

If you look at the study that you linked to on the Carmelite nuns, the questions asked there were more subjective and experience-oriented ("I have had an experience which I knew to be sacred") rather than the objective ("People go to hell"). "I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me," while more subjective, is quite different from asking someone to have a religious experience, which is what they were asking the nuns to do - it was a study to measure to see what happens to the brain during a "mystic" experience, not to see what they thought about God when asked questions. In fact, only the experience-oriented questions brought out the findings of the study - the rest were no different from the baseline.

Perhaps your bias is showing. I agree with your statement that the original study did not prove anything conclusive in regards to God or how we view him. However, I would not resort to calling anyone "the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History Of The World" without a little bit more conclusive proof such as, I don't know, admitting that you are one so that we know you're citing a valid, first-hand source. As one of the anonymous posts pointed out, you're criticizing using the same bias that you claim is in the other article.
Your posts are usually pretty insightful, but on this one the lack of objectivity and curmudgeon-like air spoils any point that you had to make.

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To all the haters: I like ... (Below threshold)

March 27, 2009 11:13 AM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

To all the haters: I like this post.
Plus, I like how everything ends up relating to the young-adult-idiot-narcissist generation. Besides being fairly valid and significant, it is comforting, like how the Scooby Doo cartoons always ended the same way. Those pesky kids.

The Bible has a clear position regarding the human understanding of God: human's can't fully comprehend God.

I find the study results to be fully concordant with the Bible. Hah, take that, NPR!

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since when is God equal to ... (Below threshold)

March 27, 2009 3:41 PM | Posted by Trei: | Reply

since when is God equal to 'bad guys go to hell'?

is there no pre-requisite to being a scientist these days? dunno - like having more than 3 neurons, or not being brain-dead.

why didn't they just used a lie detector and asked a simple, yes or no question - "will you go to hell?" everybody's guilty of something

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Hope this one doesn't get c... (Below threshold)

March 27, 2009 3:58 PM | Posted by Diego Navarro: | Reply

Hope this one doesn't get caught in the spam filter

http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/that_voodoo_that_scientists_do/
"WHEN FINDINGS ARE DEBATED ONLINE, AS WITH A YET TO BE RELEASED PAPER THAT CALLS OUT THE FIELD OF SOCIAL NEUROSCIENCE, WHO WINS?"

You probably would enjoy that.

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While it's true that you co... (Below threshold)

March 27, 2009 8:32 PM | Posted by Fargo: | Reply

While it's true that you could call me an agnostic, and I'm 32, it's only in the sense that, naturally, I can't disprove a creator's existence. Beyond that it isn't a fear of expressing an opinion, or not having strong beliefs, it's just that with religion specifically I feel bothering to rampantly believe or disbelieve is a total waste of time and energy. It's rather like extra-terrestrial life, of the intelligent kind; deal with it if it comes up. Until then proceed advancing yourself, and your community, as best you can.

Meanwhile, we have useless arguments over the existence of something that, even should it exist, is pretty much by definition inscrutable, making it's impact on day to day life nil. Then there's others that cling to some idea that this thing does exist, but only they really know what's going on.

I'd say the real negative factor in that sort of thing is the pretense, or delusion, that not only you can know, but that it's important. To pretend such absolute knowledge seems, to me, a lot more self-centered than admitting there's no way you can know such a thing.

Understanding biological processes, however, is very applicable to us and our world. I don't have any sort of blind faith in the people that carry on scientific progress, since they're prone to have that same absolute faith in their ideas, but so long as they actually keep records then things are there to be learned by those that can ignore the author's conclusions. The same cannot be said of religion.

With that in mind I refuse to play Pascal's Wager, because I don't like the casino that game is played in, and the only payout amounts to little more than a pep talk.

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You confuse atheism with yo... (Below threshold)

March 28, 2009 1:43 PM | Posted, in reply to Fargo's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

You confuse atheism with your conception of atheism. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods, from the original Greek meaning of "without gods." All that atheists have in common "is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings."

There is no way to conclusively disprove the existence of something that doesn't exist. In addition to gods, atheists don't waste time in the attempt to disprove the non-existence of gremlins, fairies or angels.

Quasi-sciences like psychiatry fall apart when there is a lack of peer review to actually test the results of any particular "finding" stemming from "experimentation" or "research." Science continues to make mistakes, but if rigorously practiced, becomes self-correcting. LP continues to illuminate the absolute lack of rigorous science in the "helping" professions.

"Science is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned." --anonymous

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Psychiatry is not fake scie... (Below threshold)

March 28, 2009 6:22 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Psychiatry is not fake science. It is not supposed to be science. Psych (~soul/brain/mind) + iatry (healing) is about providing care, and at its best, with evidence based interventions. It is one thing to criticize badly conducted studies, but do not dismiss the whole field by accusing it for not being a science.

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It's funny to watch someone... (Below threshold)

March 28, 2009 9:02 PM | Posted by Moses: | Reply

It's funny to watch someone defend his sacred cows... And fail to see the irony and hubris contained in said defense...

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Not a defense, more of a cl... (Below threshold)

March 29, 2009 3:16 AM | Posted, in reply to Moses's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Not a defense, more of a clarification. There are a million things you can criticize Psychiatry for. Not being a science is not one of them. Family Medicine or Dentistry or even Neurosurgery are not sciences, either. This Blog's readers tend to make arguments/comments based on (at least some) substance, so, please do tell us more about your delusions of irony and hubris.

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Interesting that the mai... (Below threshold)

March 30, 2009 2:33 PM | Posted by Alone: | Reply

Interesting that the main criticism to this post is that it reveals my biases.

Let's assume I am very biased, and I deliberately misinterpret this study. There's no pretense that I'm the authority, it's all "my opinion"-- and _everyone_ knows that. But when NPR reports on a study, there is the general assumption that it's supposed to be true: "to the brain, God is just another guy." People walk away with _new information._ And certainly when the study author says "this is what we found with science"-- that matters a lot.

I can't emphasize this enough: I'm not interpreting the science in a study. The study itself is the interpretation. You want to detect bias in me, ok, it's the internet; but at least understand that the "objective" studies and media reports are just as biased. They just have better writers.

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"objective" studies and med... (Below threshold)

March 30, 2009 4:30 PM | Posted, in reply to Alone's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

"objective" studies and media reports are just as biased. They just have better writers.

You're a damn good writer, tll. People can grouse about your specific arguments, but they're all coherent, informed, and engaging. They strike a nice balance between being formal and conversational, and are always fun to read.

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So, if the part of the brai... (Below threshold)

April 1, 2009 12:07 PM | Posted by Nelson Leith: | Reply

So, if the part of the brain related to manipulation of physical objects had lit up, would they have concluded that "God is just another thing" and that religion is the result of the evolution of increased manual dexterity?

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I think you're guilty of so... (Below threshold)

April 4, 2009 10:10 PM | Posted by CPB: | Reply

I think you're guilty of some of the same type of sloppy thinking that this (admittedly) flawed article uses. First of all, you should know by now to avoid facile generalizations about largely heterogeneous groups of people based on mere flawed heuristics, or worse – personal biases. It starts with the sentence "they're hardcore agnostics," a somewhat dubious assertion given the extremely large proportion of people who listen to NPR. I doubt demographic studies would show that there are as many agnostics in the entire US as there are NPR listeners. Nevertheless, this point is somewhat debatable. What follows is not: you assert that not only are they agnostic but also lazy, illogical, and prone to evolutionary zealotry. With respect to this latter point, you stress that despite their irrational enthusiasm for evolution they obviously cannot understand it. Indeed how could anyone who listens to NPR? By the third or fourth paragraph it’s fairly obvious from your liberal use of the word "they / them" that you are no longer even sure about who you’re referring to (the scientists, the NPR reporters, the listeners – hell, why not all of them?) In short, you’ve degenerated from critical thinking into polemic , from critique into caricature.

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Great post. I was entertai... (Below threshold)

September 26, 2010 12:06 PM | Posted by Josh: | Reply

Great post. I was entertained (laughed out loud reading this) and challenged to think critically. Clearly the conclusions of the study extend beyond the evidence. The question then is one of motivation and what that says not only about the authors but about their institutions and the phenomenon they represent. Think you nailed it.

Funny how the same critical process of examining presuppositions and even suppositions that impinge upon the scientific process creates such ire among the readership on this topic more so than others. Would love some analysis of this phenomenon.

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I was probably burbling non... (Below threshold)

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