Tag Archives: Belief

Why We Believe What We Believe – Andrew Newberg

2 Nov

I’ve read a lot of good books describing how the mind works and this one is near the top of the list.

Andrew Newberg describes – with fascinating examples and studies – how we create our view of reality. Or to put it another way: our beliefs. This isn’t just about religion, though that is discussed in detail, but about how we create, adapt and persist our belief system and how that then shapes our perception of the world.

There’s some fascinating developmental stuff in there, such as how babies up to a certain age don’t believe an object exists when it’s outside of their perception.

He shows how a baby has twice as many neurons than an adult but way fewer connections. And in fact puts a positive light on the fact we lose brain cells as we age: we make too many connections as we grow, and pare away the ones that are not useful, resulting in a brain that can function better.

He discusses stages of belief such as how a child doesn’t have a moral dimension at first, understanding the difference between good and bad, i.e. as their actions affect them, but not between right and wrong, i.e. how their actions affect others – this is learnt roughly between the ages of 6 and 10, significantly influenced by the stories they are told, through which they learn to empathise.

Amusingly telling parents some of these things can result in an irrational response – “my baby recognises me”, “my baby is good and thoughtful”. But then we don’t like having our beliefs challenged, which is something he comes onto later in the book, discussing cognitive biases and how to become aware of the influences our beliefs have on our perceptions and corollary beliefs. This is also a good example of how we project our beliefs and way of thinking onto others, with an anthropomorphic bent,  a bias to which we are particularly prone.

So our view of the world is not a passive observation. We filter and process information according to our beliefs, which are acquired through nature, nurture and so on, and we actively create our view of reality.

His discussion of transcendent states is just brilliant. He covers nuns in prayer, Buddhists in meditation, Pentecostals speaking in tongues and an atheist meditating on God. These all bring excellent insights into how we can change our view of reality, suspend some of our belief systems, and become more open to, and aware of, other possibilities.

In Buddhist meditations, for example, we see an increase of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part that “monitor[s] our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task… and in planning and executing a task”. Most interestingly there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being. Also these practices can reinforce a person’s view of the world as any things experienced in that state are usually used to confirm ones belief system, and if you think on a belief for long enough it becomes real.

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) has a rather different effect: there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes and a “surrender of conscious will” (practitioners talk of a surrender of control to God). It therefore allows the person to think in new and creative ways, to see things from a different perspective, and is a useful mind-state in changing beliefs, in transforming oneself. Interestingly, glossolaliacs have an increased activity in the parietal lobes implying they have a greater sense of personal self, although as they tended not to practise for as long as the meditators, this may change if they practise more.

Newberg talks of these transcendent experiences as giving a feeling of oneness with the universe, or a connectedness with everything. With this will come a sense of peacefulness, and clarity of purpose. This was described by the atheist who meditated.

One of his closing comments is a challenge to which I continue to aspire:

Becoming a better believer is a difficult task to undertake, for re-wiring the brain requires patience and time. But if we succeed, to some small degree, then we will be better able to recognize our limitations, as well as our strengths. For this reason, I hold the deepest respect for those people who have had the courage to question and challenge their beliefs, for these are the individuals who have enriched our world through their creativity and willingness to grow.

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.

My Story (Burning Flesh)

12 Mar

I really like the smell of burning flesh. It makes my nose happy. If someone does something I don’t like I can get pretty angry. I can’t figure it out but that smell really calms me down. Goats and doves are especially nice.

I’ve got a son. Just the one. I really love him. To make him I had to make his Mum have him though – she didn’t know when we were making him. Some people think that’s bad. Don’t see why. I can do what I want. Her husband was pretty angry too. But then I’m bigger than him so there wasn’t much he could do.

I found out that these days people don’t think so much of my approach to calming myself down. So, I got my thinking hat on. Given how much the smell calms me down when people piss me off, I decided I should find something that smells super nice, to fix my anger problem once and for all.

And I came up with something no one else could have thought of. Watching my son die slowly and painfully calmed my anger down and now I’m able to say those magic words ‘I forgive you’. Who’d have thought it?

Some people think I’m not very nice. Others worship me as a god.

Who Came First?

11 Mar
If triangles had gods their gods would have three sides.

– The Hitch

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