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Does Learning Maths Change How We Think?

26 Dec

Physicists have come to realize that mathematics, when used with sufficient care, is a proven pathway to truth.
– Brian Greene

As a maths graduate I’ve always thought that, although I’ve forgotten most of what I learnt, my studies gave me a really strong analytical mind, a well structured thought process, and better logical reasoning, which has stood me in good stead ever since.

So it was excellent going to this talk to have my suspicions confirmed.

Dr Matthew Inglis of the Royal Society gave the talk to show his evidence that “studying maths develops your thinking skills, logical reasoning and ability to resolve problems

More specifically he laid out the evidence that the more you study maths, the more you are able to spot flaws in an argument.

The idea that learning anything is good in itself, due to the way it trains intelligence, attitudes and values, is called the Theory of Formal Discipline. Some psychologists dismiss this idea, maintaining that what we learn is specific to the domain to which it applies and is not transferable, however Inglis has confirmed that the theory is true in the case of Maths.

Interestingly, he showed that people who study up to A Level are more able to spot logical flaws, however are subject to false positives, i.e. they are likely to find fault in an argument that is correct.

However, once studying maths to degree level, that excess is moderated, leaving someone able to find fault accurately.

After Inglis finished his talk there was a shockingly small-minded question. A woman said she liked the idea of having her children learn maths, but was worried this would limit their creative capabilities.

She clearly hasn’t studied much maths.

One of the subjects I loved at university was number theory – we often commented on the creativity needed to come up with a proof for a theorem. Mathematicians often talk about the beauty of maths – the ability to express complex concepts simply is brilliant, some even say poetic.

Besides anyone who’s studied Bach will know that his tunes are very mathematical. Often people who study maths are musical and visa versa, for example me!

I suspect part of the issue is that many people hold the belief that says emotion and creativity is distinct from logic and rationality, fed by the old left-brain right-brain myth. This is a bad idea, and quite harmful I feel. The idea that we cannot use knowledge creatively, or apply logic to emotion, is to limit what we are capable of. Simon Baron Cohen has shown that logic and empathy are not mutually exclusive.

What doesn’t help is that people seem to fear maths. I genuinely don’t understand why this is the case. When I told people I was studying maths at university many people would react with awe, saying I must be super intelligent. If I probed they would go on to reveal a real fear of the subject. I must admit, that although I’ve always found maths fun, it was substantially helped by my brilliant maths teacher Mrs Landon who would bounce into lessons, and excitedly tell us that she had “a super mega-equation” to teach us, that was “really powerful and exciting”. Her enthusiasm was infectious. And the principles she taught were simple. A good teacher does make a world of difference.

Bharati Krishna said “It is magic until you understand it, and it is mathematics thereafter“.

So, to get back to the subject, as Plato argued, mathematics should be taught to people to improve their reasoning skills, and as a foundation for the rest of their learning.


Art As Therapy by Alain de Botton

26 Feb
Soleil Levant by Monet

Soleil Levant by Monet

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.

– David Hume

Being a long time fan of Alain de Botton I jumped at the chance to see him talk on a new subject – Art As Therapy. His previous work has been fun to read and often helpful, and given I know very little about art, this is an interesting concept where I could learn some new things.

His idea is that “art is ultimately a therapeutic medium, just like music. It, too, is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism“.

Grand claims.

He added that some of the consolation that people previously found in religion can be found in art.

He says that this can be achieved using “a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks“.

After a fairly short introduction to this approach, he dived right into interpreting paintings, pottery and the like, making some excellent points with his psychological and philosophical interpretations, and I enjoyed hearing them.

However I found I had a real blocker with this approach. I actually wrote a comment on his Facebook page, on a post where he’d ‘interpreted’ some art, hoping to get some help with my problem. Here’s a snippet:


I’m one of the 96.5% you referred to on Friday night, that don’t ‘get’ art, in the way that those ‘in the know’ apparently do. Sure I appreciate the colours and shapes, the aesthetics of a picture. I also appreciate when a picture is skilfully produced.

I did enjoy your pithy aphorisms when looking through the works of art. But when you showed the Korean jug, I just saw a badly made jug – I didn’t extrapolate the commentary on the imperfections of human nature. Again the two-tone picture by a Japanese sounding artist from which you drew parallels to our human perspectives was a nice comment, but I just didn’t get it from the picture.

If we could all have our own mini-Alain to take around galleries with us then we could derive such consolation and insight from art. Otherwise it feels that – rather than drawing out from the works deep meanings intended by the artists – you’re projecting your philosophical and psychological expertise and experience onto the artworks.

Hence I could gain way more insight and consolation from an essay, a chat with a friend, or one of your books, than I could from a picture…

Alas the picture was taken down and the comments with it, even though I got quite a few likes beforehand!

I guess part of the problem is the certainty; he often phrases comments as if he’s telling us what the picture is saying, rather than what it might be saying. It’s blatantly subjective, because there could be plenty of alternative interpretations.

The other part of the problem is, as I say above, that contrary to the famous phrase that “a picture speaks a thousand words“, I disagree, and find I can gain so much more from words than a picture.

Now before I go any further, I should be clear – I’m not really into art. I think the Mona Lisa is crap, and find most art galleries exceptionally dull. I’ve been to loads of galleries including the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Prado, Musée de l’Orangerie, Tate, Vatican and the National Gallery and not found too many artworks that make me look twice.

But then I came to a bit of a eureka moment when idly jotting notes for this post. I was writing down what I thought of the few pieces of art that I have enjoyed, and some interesting things started to come out. Amusingly, it seems in writing this post, that maybe I’ve started to get what Alain is on about. Here you go:

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Even though I am not that ‘into art’, I have found an occasional piece that I really enjoy looking at. I can appreciate the technical prowess of some art works: say the Sistine Chapel. I was very impressed when I realised what looked like three-dimensional pillars with sculptures on them, were in fact just a part of the painting. I can appreciate the accuracy and detail in Canaletto’s painting of Venice.

Aesthetically, I appreciate beautiful landscapes, especially impressionist ones. I suppose an art aficionado might turn up their nose at such a populist viewpoint. But then I don’t really care.

I really like Monet – I’ve got Soleil Levant hanging up in my living room. But it took me being pissed in a pub in Edinburgh for this painting to catch my eye. Alain did argue strongly that the context in which we usually see art, namely galleries, is not conducive to getting the best out of art.

Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillère

Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère

Since then I’ve seen Monet’s stuff in four or five different galleries and I love staring at it. I think it’s something about the way that with really simple brush strokes he can project a quite complex and beautiful image. Perhaps part of it is that I, as an observer, fill in the gaps. Just pondering it now, in the light of Alain’s approach, perhaps I like it because one of my primary joys in my work is to solve a complex problem with something very simple, elegant and easy to understand. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence. His pictures certainly look nice.

I was stopped short by one image of Jesus on the cross in the Prado. Usually they show a chilled out dude looking all holy with a bit of a glow, but this one showed the agony of a man being tortured to death. The realism was good, though I suspect what drew me is that the artist was able to break a taboo.

Goya's Dog

Goya’s Dog

The only other one that really made me look twice in the Prado was Goya’s painting of a dog. For some reason this forlorn looking fellow, looking lost against the vastness of it all, stood out to me. Perhaps because that’s how I can feel when I contemplate the vastness of time.

So perhaps it is possible for someone like me to get something out of this method. But given the thousands of artworks I’ve seen, compared to the handful I’ve enjoyed, it’s pretty hard work.

If you want to explore the idea further, check out his website . I’ll be interested to hear your views on the way he interprets the art.

If you’re interested to ponder on questions such as what is art, and what is art for, then I recommend Grayson Perry’s excellent attempt at answering them in last year’s Reith Lectures.

How Well Does Freud’s Work Stand the Test of Time?

18 Jun

I recently went to a lecture by psychiatrist Allen Frances MD in which he argued that Sigmund Freud was half right and half wrong. And just because half of his ideas aren’t right it doesn’t mean that we should throw out the rest, as is popular these days.

Interestingly, Frances asserts that Freud didn’t come up with many original ideas, rather he was excellent at bringing together the latest ideas into an overarching and coherent model linking the brain and the mind. In particular he took Darwin’s work and popularised it. The excessive sexualisation within Freud’s work comes from the idea that natural and sexual selection “leads to the evolution of instincts, emotions and intellect“. What this means is that psychological behaviour is informed by sexual selection, i.e. we try to be more attractive. And therefore in Freud’s mind, the key link between the brain and the mind is the libido. He used the analogy of the brain as a hydraulic power plant, and the libido as the power source. As such, issues with the mind are due to build up, discharge or transfer of this energy.

From Darwin he took the ideas of “instinct interacting with the environment” and “everything has or once had a purpose“, ideas still alive and well today. He also took “introspection and dream analysis“: dreams “explain not only symptoms, but myth, art, literature and psychopathology of everyday life“. He saw the unconscious as having a major role in influencing behaviour. Dreams therefore are a great research tool as a window into the unconscious. However the jury is still out on what dreams & sleep are really about, though there is a clear link between them and memory and psychological stability.

Freud also took from Darwin the idea of comparing animal and human behaviours. He challenged human exceptionalism, that being the idea that we humans are somehow above all the other animals. I’ve written about this before, and it’s clear that we can learn much about ourselves by studying other animals, such as the bonobo ape. This was quite revolutionary thinking at the time – Frances called this “the most amazing discovery in the history of psychology“.

Also controversial at the time was his materialist view of human nature. No Cartesian dualism for him.

While he is most famous as the father of psychoanalysis he “began his professional career as a neurologist and made several notable contributions to the fields of neurology, neuropathology, and anesthesia“. He had the “ability to observe and describe a variety of disease processes“. He predicted epigenetics and pushed forward our understanding of neurons with his experiments. He did a lot to help further understanding how brain nerve cells worked and communicated.

Prior to Freud people were really writing about how the mind works from a first person perspective, and what Freud introduced was a slightly more empirical approach. He did this by looking at other people, even his own children. However, “he didn’t have much respect for experimental psychology, and certainly not for statistics“. So his approach was more rationalist than empirical: he would build up a convincing sounding theory but then not bother to do experiments to verify them.

This was one of his big blind spots: he was unable to keep followers that disagreed with him so couldn’t benefit from criticism. In fact he maintained that his detractors were neurotic! Frances claimed that what he saw in his patients were in fact his own modes of thinking he was protecting onto others. He wasn’t aware that someone could see things differently if they had a different set of experiences.

Sadly, Frances says, this still goes on today, with various groups and institutes having their own grand theories, and so closing their ears to new theories and research.

Francis added other defenses of Freud’s contributions, the big one being psychoanalytical practice – he can be considered the father of all modern talk therapies. He came up with the idea that psychosis is just carrying dreams in to waking state so the subconscious is not repressed. This clearly fits with the data today and means the condition is much easier to understand. He made the amusing observation that economists are just coming up with the idea that humans are not rational actors – if they’d have read Freud they might have come up with this earlier. I disagree with this – just because we don’t always understand our motivations, it doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of rationality.

One thing Frances didn’t mention was Freud’s negative view of the unconscious. He considered it to contain thoughts and urges  that are unacceptable to society: dark and immoral desires. Hence Freudian slips, and so on. It was, in his mind (pun intended), something to be controlled and kept at bay. Some have said that this held back research into the mind for decades.

However we now see the unconscious as something valuable, full of black box functions that allow us to do things without thinking. For example, I’m not thinking about the keys I’m pressing, the letters, morphemes or structure of this sentence. I’m simply considering the meaning I’m trying to convey and the rest is taken care of for me by my unconscious mind.

He summed up saying that we still understand so little about the brain and how it links to the mind, and consciousness. Brain imaging (fMRI) doesn’t say as much as we think – it’s way oversold. Plenty of people have commented on this saying that neuroscience is in its infancy. However we now have a much better model of the mind, that being the computational one: it’s about information processing rather than energies, and symptoms are a result of either hardware of software malfunction.

Addendum – Psychiatry In Crisis

Allen Frances is a sound chap. He is a psychiatrist who “was the Chair of the Task Force that prepared the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), often called the bible of the American psychiatric profession. However, he has been a vocal critic of the new DSM V, condemning what he calls its diagnostic hyperinflation. His new book, Saving Normal, explores why psychiatry has always been subject to so many fads, while deploring the medicalisation of everyday human experience and the excessive use of psychiatric medicine“. Given that overview I was sold.

During questions he opened up on the idiocy of much of modern psychiatry. He is a psychiatrist and he says that big pharmaceuticals have taken over the profession, and pedaled the nonsense that biological changes can be made with drugs and so fix people’s problems due to their “chemical imbalances“. He says this has harmed people. The brain is a very sophisticated computer so yes we need to understand it’s biology, but we also need to understand its workings.

He says that DSM III was useful to give more standard accepted criteria by which to admit people to hospital, but the unintended consequence is that people now just get 10 minutes with a psychiatrist ticking off items on a DSM checklist and prescribing drugs. 80% of these mind-altering drugs are prescribed by GPs or psychiatrists in such short consultations. Now “the DSM is rushed to publication to make money, by a small American association with 35000 members“. He reiterates his point, saying it’s so dangerous because these new silly diagnoses mean more harmful drugs are given to people. He quoted one psychiatrist who says that she recognises herself in almost every condition in the DSM. Some people like labels: it helps them feel understood and part of a group. But people can feel permanently stigmatised, and too often is used to explain away behaviours or abdicate responsibility.

Everything we do in life has a psychological impact. The great thing is this means that psychotherapy changes brain functions. The theme he kept coming back to was that in psychological therapy, it’s the relationship that makes the difference.

He quoted Hippocrates who said “it’s more important to know the patient that has the disease than the disease that the patient has“.

Tim Harford – Adapt (Lecture)

29 Oct

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
– Samuel Beckett

I like Tim Harford.

This lecture was an overview of the concepts in his book Adapt. He uses “biology, statistical physics, psychology and of course economics to explore how complex problems are solved, and the crucial role of learning from our apparently endless ability to screw up“.

(You can see him giving the same lecture here.)

Failure Is Productive If You Learn From It
He started by describing the brilliant Toaster Project. A chap called Thomas Thwaites decided to build a toaster – the cheapest £3.99 Argos toaster – from first principles. And I mean first principles. He tried to smelt iron ore, make the plastics, and so on. He found it was really very difficult, but after trying hard, and failing lots, making use of short cuts, and help from other people, he built something that approximated a toaster. It kind of warmed the bread a bit, and then caught fire.

The point Harford makes from this story is that by admirable trial and error Thwaites got to a solution. He then used it to point out how useful markets are. A producer does not need to think about how its product be used; the miner doesn’t know whether his iron ore will go on to be used for a toaster or for a fence.

Complex systems like this have evolved over time with trial and error and often nobody has a full view of how they work. As such they’re not going to be perfect. He draws an analogy with evolution.

Harford described another example. Unilever created a detergent that is sold in small capsules. To produce these capsules the raw material is squirted through a special nozzle. To design the nozzle they didn’t get experts in fluid dynamics or other disciplines, rather they prototyped different shapes, recording the outcomes, then refining the shape based on their observations until they had a nozzle that works. They don’t know how it works, but they have proved that it does.

This example draws out the trial and error aspect of his approach to complex problems. Here the Unilever boffins experimented. We tend to over value expertise, and while we shouldn’t ignore that, trial and error is more germane for difficult problems or complex systems.

A key to ensuring trial and error works is the feedback loop: the information that is learnt from failure must be used to refine the next iteration. If this informational loop is hindered then failure looses its power as a learning process.

He discussed the issues that people have adopting this approach. The ability to fail is not always seen as a virtue. Alas this attitude means that innovation can be stunted.

He then spent a lot of time talking about our tendencies to conform to the group we’re in. He described some experiments such as this brilliant video of how people can be made to conform in a lift. He then focusses on the well-known conformity experiments of Solomon Asch.

Asch “asked groups of students to participate in a “vision test”. In reality, all but one of the participants were confederates of the experimenter, and the study was really about how the remaining student would react to the confederates’ behaviour.

Each participant was put into a group with 5 to 7 “confederates” (people who knew the true aims of the experiment, but were introduced as participants to the naive “real” participant). The participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by another card with 3 lines on it labelled A, B, and C. The participants were then asked to say which line matched the line on the first card in length. Each line question was called a “trial”. The “real” participant answered last or next to last.

Asch hypothesized that the majority of participants would not conform to something obviously wrong; however, when surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (32%). Seventy-five percent of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.

The unanimity of the confederates has also been varied. When the confederates are not unanimous in their judgement, even if only one confederate voices a different opinion, participants are much more likely to resist the urge to conform (only 5–10% conform) than when the confederates all agree. This finding illuminates the power that even a small dissenting minority can have. Interestingly, this finding holds whether or not the dissenting confederate gives the correct answer. As long as the dissenting confederate gives an answer that is different from the majority, participants are more likely to give the correct answer.

So if you’re in a group, rather than do the usual conforming to keep the peace and fit in, it’s worth speaking up to give an alternative opinion. Even if your view is rubbish you’ll at least be emboldening another member to put forward their idea, and the group is therefore more likely to come to a more reasoned conclusion, as the prevailing view will be challenged. All ideas should be tested. If they fail they are not up to the job, if they pass muster they are proved to be worthy.

Harford then described the cognitive bias of loss aversion which is where people “strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains” which leads to people avoiding risks.

At the end of the lecture it was asked whether it is worth using this approach given the cost of failure? How much should we experiment?

It depends on the upside and downside. Someone like Google should experiment lots, the more experimentation the better, whereas a car manufacturer should experiment less as we need cars that don’t kill people! There is a cost-benefit analysis required here: what is the gain given the failure rate?

In Conclusion

Given mistakes are inevitable it’s best to think about the best way to make those mistakes. For example we can make them sooner in the process using trials and pilots. It’s important to manage the risk that comes from failure.

We should have the cojones to ask for honest feedback about ourselves so we can improve. It’s important to face down the ego and figure out why failure happens.

Mistakes are inevitable, in fact desirable. We need to work towards early discovery of failure, get better at managing risk and ensure good feedback loops. We’ll never get a perfect system but we can continue to refine the complex systems we have.

Defining Evil

28 Sep

Nothing is easier than to condemn the evildoer. Nothing is harder than to try and understand them.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Following from the previous post on Evil, here are some efforts trying to pin down a definition of evil, most of which I heard on a radio program about the subject:

Professor Alain Turain says that with “evil what is at stake is the destruction of the subject“. He says “pleasure is one possibility, also cruelty, it’s destroying your capacity to be a subject, as an animal, as a thing. A notion of degradation and destruction or the integrity of another.

David Mollet writes “The flaw in the discussion is the product of various assumptions about what an evil act is. It seems to focus on the act itself rather than the attitude of the person committing the act. I would offer a different definition of evil: some people do bad things but don’t think that they are doing a bad thing. These people are not evil. True evil is doing a bad thing while knowing that it’s bad.

What about the sincere person that think they are doing their duty, e.g. Anders Brevik? They would not be called evil by the intention definition, nor would the Nazi camp guard that thinks he’s doing his duty.

So by this definition “Brevik is not evil as he didn’t gain enjoyment from the killing, whereas Che Guevara is quoted as enjoying making the order to fire on his enemies.

Some would then conclude that “pleasure is not a necessary component.” which means we can say that both an intention and an act can be separately categorised as evil.

Also we talk about a distinction between violence and extreme violence.

Smith: “We want to know whether something is just very bad behaviour, gross moral turpitude, or do we need an extra category of evil. It’s definitely something to do with magnitude.

A useful question is: “is there a bigger pattern, a bigger system that corrupts your morality” – pushing towards Zimbardo’s conclusions?

Young: People can “try to ground a notion of evil by appeal to human rights. Human rights is not just a set of laws but part of a universal culture.

Professor Barry Smith suggests: “a separation between act and intention: what are evil intentions? Our intuitions are good at figuring out what an evil act is.” I disagree; it’s interesting that many people share the idea that there is evil but that they don’t agree on what it is.

I say that morals are obviously relative from which it follows that evil must also be relative. This explains why there is not a succinct definition on which people can agree.

Peter Young, a Professor of Criminology, says people often fall back on the holocaust when relativism is brought up and most agree that this was “evil”. But there were then, and are now, some people who think otherwise, thus it is still not an absolute.

Young says that “criminologists also don’t like to talk about evil. Using evil is a way to get away from relativism.

Michel Wieviorka (a Professor of Sociology who recently published a book called Evil) discusses the example of Anders Brevik who killed 79 people in Norway. “In looking for an explanation, we look to sociological factors: the political discourse of muslims and immigration, etc. But this is not enough. Then we look at psychological factors: let us understand the psychologies of the person involved, but of course this is still not enough.There is some mystery in what we try to understand. In the same circumstance one will commit a murder, another will not, and we try to understand this.”Young said “people try to stop the explanation by saying look, that’s just evil.

To understand you have to express empathy. Is this a limit to social science?

Wieviorka: “the more you help, the more you explain, the more you can help to fight against crime, it means that how will you fight something that you don’t explain? How do you fight racism for instance if you don’t try to understand why people become racist. You are not born racist you become racist. So if you don’t try to explain, maybe you need some empathy to understand the people that are racist, but because you understand does not mean that you don’t want to fight.

So is evil even a useful concept?

Wieviorka says “evil is not a concept readily adopted by sociologists. This is because religion gets in the way. It’s not a sociological category. It’s a non-explanation – it’s moral, political, religious. Not a tool to use in order to understand better, but an object in itself. Using evil becomes saying it’s something in itself, it’s not a human issue, it’s nature or its genes.

Laurie Taylor: “it’s useful as something to express extreme intolerance of certain types of behaviour but not nail it to a particular type of phenomenon. So do we need this category? Yes, we do want it, but it’s the target of explanation, not the explanation in itself. It’s a mish-mash of ideas and definitions. We can say the behaviour is what we want to explain.

A more useful paradigm than evil here.

PZ Myers – Sacking the City of God

20 Jun

I recently enjoyed watching this video of PZ Myers, atheist extraordinaire, and thoroughly affable chap.

In it he discusses how we atheistic, rationalist, freethinking types can pull down the edifice of religion.

He starts with a nice theme. He says that “in the beginning was the word” is not right. First came the blood; blood used to knit people together with a common identity. Support for your kin meant you, or at least your genes, survived. Then the king or pharaoh was the symbol of your identity, and looked after your welfare. But kings died. Next was the city as it out-lives the leaders – get behind the city and you prosper. But cities like Rome fell. So then came ideas. People rally around ideas. This is why christianity has done so well.

He quotes Evey in the film V For Vendetta: “We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed first hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them… ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love…

However, ideas can be beaten with other ideas.

Christians, even more moderate ones, “believe in some outrageous bullshit. The christian myths of a virgin giving birth to a god who dies are illogical lunacy. And the christian doctrines of original sin and redemption through blood sacrifice by proxy are crippling psychopathological abominations.

He says he sees three principles emerging among atheists: Truth, Autonomy and Community (though he’s quick to point out that he’s not forcing any of his principles on anyone as that would be to fall into the immoral approach of the religious).

Atheists seek the truth – evidence based rather than belief. We want to know how things work by testing, by looking at evidence. That’s science. We don’t say we’ve already decided how it works because it says so in a mythical story. We don’t say that’s how it works because that’s how we want it to be – that’s just wishful thinking.

Autonomy, as we freethinkers are all different and have a wonderful mix of ideas, backgrounds and personalities. We are where we are because we reject the orthodoxy, we are weirdos and outcasts, we are not sheep. For many years we have been in the minority, “often feeling alone in seeing through the god-awful babble of the church“. We detest people that try to impose rules on us. “People should be free to be who they are with impunity“.

The thing is there are more and more people standing up and speaking out against the taboo topic of the immorality and danger of religion. We are not all geeky nihilists, though there may be some that are part of the community. There are diverse atheistic groups, whether on the internet, or at atheist and freethinker conferences. There is power in community and together we can work better to “free minds from the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth” (to borrow from Morpheus).

I recommend his blog, where he features regular descriptions from people on why they are an atheist. It seems his mission is to make us superstition-deniers feel we’re not alone, that there are many of us out there, sharing the same core view that we are able to throw off the shackles of religion and move forward to a more grown up way of thinking.

Born To Believe?

5 Apr

On the back of the recent discussions around so-called militant secularism, a recent edition of the New Scientist has Justin Barrett discussing why belief in gods is so prevalent and concluded that “religious belief is ingrained into human nature”.

The premise of his argument is that from a young age we understand the concept of agents. An event that creates order must have an agent behind it, or to use a more contentious description: in our minds, a perceived design necessitates a designer. And it’s a good survival trait: if our ancestors saw a movement in a bush, to automatically attribute it to a predator rather than a chance breeze enables us to conclude that running away will decrease the likelihood of us being a tiger’s lunch.

When Barrett’s point is added to our in-built theory of the mind – which means that we are highly prone to anthropomorphism – we see the results: from the man in the moon to imagining ghosts.

Barrett said “the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born“. Couple this “with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, [and you have] children [that are] highly receptive to religion.

While an unfortunate amount of Barrett’s reasoning was nonsense, the conclusion makes sense. (One of the things he said is that “Mozart was a ‘born musician’; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.” Actually his dad was one of the best music teachers of the time and most critics agree that the stuff he wrote before 16 was not exactly top rate. He just had a lot of practice and a good trainer.)

This conclusion – that the presumption of agency leads to a belief in the supernatural – reminded me of a lecture I heard from Lewis Wolpert who discussed why we are biologically predisposed to a belief in gods.

He argued that tool use is uniquely human, though he drew plenty of criticism for that assertion.

But for the sake of his main point we can still say that we are significantly more advanced with our use of tools than any other animal. From cars to computers to factories we are streets ahead of the rest.

And the reason for this is that we have a clear understanding of cause and effect. For example: “The ability to foresee that by creating sharp stones would improve the chances of killing game was the defining mental change that led us to diverge away from our ape ancestors“.

Further, we seem to have a need to know the cause of things. People tend to be distinctly uneasy if they don’t know the ‘why’ of an event. And so when we can’t find a rational reason for something we still need a cause.

Enter the god of the gaps: things we can’t explain or don’t understand get called magic, or are assigned to a supernatural initiator.

The problem is, this means we have a tendency to extrapolate causation from a dangerously small sample size which makes us prone to errors. This results fairly easily in superstitions.

As a result of this very useful cognitive bias, we are predisposed to finding a nice simple cause for things. I would suggest that there’s not necessarily one big reason why people believe. We’re not simple creatures and there are many other influences that affect us – social pressure, childhood inculcation, fear of death, etc. Or as geneticists say: genes can be activated or suppressed by environmental factors. And so although I agree that we are probably biologically predisposed to believe in a god, I suspect that for those that do believe it’s not necessarily the only cause.

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