Thursday, December 03, 2009

Vox Dei   posted by Razib @ 12/03/2009 10:53:00 PM

David Killoren points me to this Ed Yong post, Creating God in one's own image. It is based on the paper Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs:
People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

Ed hits the main points well as usual, so let me jump to the discussion:
these data provide insight into the sources of people's own religious beliefs. Although people obviously acquire religious beliefs from a variety of external sources, from parents to broader cultural influences, these data suggest that the self may serve as an important source of religious beliefs as well. Not only are believers likely to acquire the beliefs and theology of others around them, but may also seek out believers and theologies that share their own personal beliefs. If people seek out religious communities that match their own personal views on major social, moral, or political issues, then the information coming from religious sources is likely to further validate and strengthen their own personal convictions and values. Religious belief has generally been treated as a process of socialization whereby people's personal beliefs about God come to reflect what they learn from those around them, but these data suggest that the inverse causal process may be important as well: people's personal beliefs may guide their own religious beliefs and the religious communities they seek to be part of.

Finally, these data have interesting implications for the impact of religious thought on judgment and decision-making. People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

There is always debate about how religion affects cognition and culture, and how cognition and culture affects religion. I suspect that in religious environments the default stance is that religion affects cognition and culture. Religion is after all assumed to be true, a reflection of some transcendent reality. It stands to reason that its impact upon humans would be significant if you believe that it is an expression of the ultimate reality (if you are a person to whom "ultimate reality" means something, you know what I mean, though I don't really myself). But many atheists hold to the same view. The New Atheists often put at religion's feet all the evil done in its name (though generally minimizing power of religion as a force for altruistic action or social cohesion). This view seems to hold that religion is something clear and distinct. More generally in civilized societies religion is a matter of rational and systematic reflection, detailed practice, and mindful contemplation.

On the other hand, there are those who emphasize how religion reflects social and cognitive presuppositions. For example, most American Christians would assert that their religion naturally leans toward an anti-racist perspective. This would not be something recognizable to R. L. Dabney. Consider the arguments of Susan Wise Bauer, a Reformed Christian historian, on the stance of many Christian Southerners to slavery. But in other writings she cites Dabney, who is still apparently influential among conservative Presbyterians (some have even attempted to defend slavery because it is Biblical, but to my knowledge very few conservative Christians will follow along here, instead relying in interpretations such as Bauer's). Even "conservative" and "orthodox" and "traditional" Christians seem quite clearly influenced by the distribution of norms around them. Similarly, I recall several years ago finding rather interesting the arguments of Indian Christians on why arranged marriage is Biblically preferred to love matches, with citations of specific instances in the Bible (consider the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca). Over the last few decades cognitive anthropologists who study religion have described models and reported results which show how religious phenomena, the bundle of traits which we bracket into religion, emerge from normal human psychological and social dynamics. Some scholars have even shown that the mental model of gods across cultures is actually invariant, though the verbal descriptions are very distinct. If you consider the power of culture to change religion, the shift from pacifist to non-pacifist stance among early Christians, or pro-racist to anti-racist stance among 20th century Christians, becomes more intelligible.

I tend toward the second model in terms of its utility in what can be gleaned about human social processes. If, for example, I read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament would I be able to predict which group was the more pacific, American Jews or white Evangelicals? I don't think so. Scott Atran reported in In Gods We Trust that religious believers showed little correlation above expectation in the inferences they made about correct behavior in specific situations in relation to their avowed religious beliefs. In other words, when people couldn't talk to each other and reach a religiously correct consensus, they simply gave a random range of answers. Both the Chinese Muslims and "Hidden Christians" of Japan moved in strange directions in relation to their co-religionists due to isolation. It seems plausible that to a great extent Emile Durkheim was right, religion is a reflection of society. But, it is also strongly constrained by human cognitive biases.

The connection between some of these ideas and what Ed Yong asserts is obvious:
Epley's results are sure to spark controversy, but their most important lesson is that relying on a deity to guide one's decisions and judgments is little more than spiritual sockpuppetry.

David Killoren has an alternative model:
I can think of at least one other plausible interpretation of this study.

If you believe in God, you probably think God is morally omniscient. That is: you believe that, if any given action X is wrong, then God knows that X is wrong - and conversely, if God believes that any given action X is wrong, then X really is wrong. (You might think God is morally omniscient because you are a theological voluntarist. But even if you deny voluntarism, as many believers do, you probably still think God is morally omniscient, if you believe in God.)

But if you think God is morally omniscient, then you would be irrational if you believe that, say, abortion is wrong (or permissible, or whatever) without thinking that God shares your belief. Given God's omniscience, a given judgment is correct if and only if God agrees with it. So your endorsement of any given judgment has the immediate implication that God shares your view.

The result is that, if you believe God is morally omniscient, then your moral beliefs also serve as conjectures about God's attitudes. Thus, in order to explain Epley's results, we don't need Yong's "Sockpuppet Hypothesis," as I'll call it. Epley's results are precisely what we should expect if religious believers consider God to be morally omniscient, regardless of whether religious believers treat God like a ventriloquist treats a dummy.

Killoren has an analogy clarifying what he's trying to get at:
An analogy can help here. Suppose I think that Dr. Smith, a famous scientist, knows everything there is to know about biology. Then, if I believe that platypuses are not mammals, I should believe that Dr. Smith believes that platypuses are not mammals. (After all, if I believed that Dr. Smith considers platypuses to be mammals, and believed that Dr. Smith knows everything about biology, then I would be crazy to think platypuses are not mammals.) But this doesn't mean Dr. Smith is my sockpuppet. If Dr. Smith were to tell me that platypuses are mammals, I’d believe him, even if I previously thought otherwise.

I can see where Killoren is coming from. When I was more deeply interested in philosophy of religion, and to a great extent thought religion was mostly about belief systems, I would probably be willing to go along with it. But at this point I think Ed Yong's thesis is more plausible because it is simple and dumb, and most people are simple and dumb. If you need to use an analogy that suggests that some cognitive cycles are being eaten up here, and I believe most moral cognition which has a religious tinge is actually "hard and fast" and more reflexive than this. Of course, in Tim Harford's The Logic of Life he shows that in the aggregate human behavior can quite often operate in a logical fashion as if it is undergirded by a chain of clean propositions derived from axioms. But I wasn't quite convinced by Harford's apologia; I'm still with Dan Ariely.

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