Saturday, May 22, 2010

Know . . . Understand . . .Believe . . .

Thanks for the good, probing discussion this morning!  I really value the broad range of ages and experiences represented in the group.  A little heavy on the science end of professions :)= but we could do worse. . . it could be a clergy group!

We'll finish the book next time, for the discussion June 5.  In the meantime do feel free to post comments on the blog - let's see if the exchange can continue online.

I passed out a poem today - for those who weren't there, here is a link to it, with a lovely photo besides.   I like this poem because it raises some of the same issues we are talking about:  note how many times she uses the words "know," "understand," and "believe.".  She contrasts scientific "knowing" and intuitive "knowing" - not criticizing the former so much as affirming the latter as a legitimate way of being in the world.

Some words to watch for in all our discussions:  Believe . . . Know . . . True . . .Evidence . . .Reason . . .  We use these words on lots of ways, and it's helpful to be aware of just how we are using each at any given time.  

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where do beliefs about God come from?

Goodness, but all this thinking is taxing!  I do like that Barrett frequently repeats what he has said -- a courtesy to those like me who are really trying, but find it tough going.

He is especially good at summarizing chapters.  Here are some good places to review:

Chapter 1 -- Barrett reviews this on page 16, the section, "Why Do We Believe?"   He even starts out with, To summarize . . .   I like that!  In that chapter we have heard about nonreflective beliefs, and reflective beliefs.   Cognitive scientists theorize that we (all people) have certain "tools" -- inborn?  learned? -- that allow us to hold beliefs about the world around us.  The nonreflective tools react immediately, without thinking, so to speak, and make assessments about the world.   We will go with those instant beliefs -- we could call them intuitive beliefs -- unless there is good reason not to -- if upon reflection, given evidence and reasons, we disbelieve those initial beliefs. 

Chapter 2 -- Barrett starts applying these tools of the mind to our beliefs about gods -- supernatural "agents" be they ghosts or gods or dead uncle Ned who keeps bothering us.  If they are to be believable, they must be "minimally counterintuitive" -- MCI.  They can't be way crazy -- counter to those tools of the mind so wildly that no one would believe.  But a little off, surprising -- enough to catch our attention, and remember.   Barrett summarizes on page 30 -- Taking Stock So Far.  Thank you, Justin.

Chapter 3 --  The origins of beliefs in gods -- ADD, no . . . HADD.   Barrett says that one of the tools of the mind -- the Agency Detection Device -- is especially important in religious beliefs.  We like to find "agents" around us . . .  in fact we LOVE to find them, and so use the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, finding agents even in places where they aren't.  That great phrase "to summarize" pops up again the middle of page 33, reviewing HADD.    
Once we have, using HADD, detected an agent, another tool, Theory of Mind (ToM) kicks in, attributing to that agent abilities like purpose, feeling.

On page 43 we learn that women are better at HADD than men (autism is sometimes called an extreme form of "male brainedness");  and even men get better at HADD as we get older!
The section on 43 -- The Spreading Beliefs in Gods -- summarized Chapter 3.

Chapter 4 --  A Grand Summary begins this chapter on page 45.  Barrett goes on now to explore how those nonreflective tools contribute to religious belief, especially in gods with "counterintuitive physical properties."  That is, they are agents, but can't be seen.

There is a section about the gods and morality -- "People the world over seem to have massively overlapping senses of what constitutes moral behavior."  (47)  Barrett takes issue with the theory that religions invented morality and forced it on the world.  No, morality arose first, followed by religions.  (C.S. Lewis, by the way, in Mere Christianity uses this existence of morality within humankind as evidence for God.)  There is an interesting section on Fortune and Misfortune, and how people have connected those with morality and the gods -- pp 51 and 52.  

"As with everything else in life, we automatically, often non-consciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us [especially if a bad thing has happened to me!], and "stuff just happens" is no explanation.  Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events."

The section on Death is fascinating too. Barrett makes a good case (so I think) that the reality of death in humankind's experience practically forces us, given those intuitive tools of the mind, to postulate a life after death, a continuation not of a body (that is obviously dead, really) but of the mind, the soul.   The last sentence of 59 is important:   " . . .the sorts of minds we have require little peculiar inputs from the environment in order to rapidly move us toward belief in gods and full-blown religion."

Chapter 5 -- Barrett obligingly begins by reviewing the main points so far.  He wants to argue that religious belief springs quite naturally from our mental "tools" -- that with or without a religious structure people would "belive."   But of course we DO have many religious forms -- ceremony, ritual -- that support and encourage religious faith.  

There is some provocative information on how religion appeals to people -- the use of cognitive dissonance (p. 62), inoculation, and especially ceremonies and rituals.  

One thing that caught my eye, p. 69 --  the power of proclamation.  "When people hear similar claims repeatedly, even though they receive no evidence or proper justification for the claim, they tend to believe the claim."    Political people have known this for a very long time!  

Also a very interesting section on prayer -- and religion's use of "conceptual control." (p. 70)  Great sentence on 71 -  The rituals of Christianity and Islam typically do not try to address practical problems, such as bringing rain, ensuring fertility, or healing sickness.  Certain forms of Christianity do -- one thinks of Pentecostalism that is flourishing in South America -- with apparently good success. 

Chapter 6 -- The Naturalness of Belief in God.  Some fascinating research with regard to children and their beliefs.  Page 79 -- a key concept, the result of their research, is that children appeared to be theologically accurate from the first and did not lose this ability. 

Barrett then has sections on the key attributes of God -- Superperceiving, Immortal, Superpowerful,  Creator, and (maybe) Super Goodness.

AND THEN . . . a great summary of it all, page 90 . . . A Progress Report!   This is a quick and easy review of his key arguments -- enjoy!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Helpful Podcast: A History of Doubt

 "Speaking of Faith" is a wonderful resource for those interested in the world of religion.  The host, Krista Tippett, interviews in great depth a wide variety of people that span the religious world, and has a knack of asking great questions. The show even intertwines excellent music to enhance each program.  Just google "Speaking of Faith" to see the sorts of topics Tippett addresses.

Here's one that I think is a very helpful for our book group:  A History of Doubt --
"Poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht says that as a scholar she always noticed the "shadow history" of doubt out of the corner of her eye. She shows how non-belief, skepticism, and doubt have paralleled and at times shaped the world's great religious and secular belief systems. She suggests that only in modern time has doubt been narrowly equated with a complete rejection of faith, or a broader sense of mystery."

You can listen at the link above, or download it through I-Tunes.

See, or rather, "hear" what you think!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Our First Meeting Today

What a great group of guys today, meeting to talk about not what we think, but how we think.  Men schooled in the the sciences, math, engineering, social work, history, urban studies, from many church and faith backgrounds, a wealth of life experiences -- a wonderfully diverse group.

Barrett is careful to talk not about the content of religious faith -- what we may or may not "believe" about gods -- but about why we believe what we do.  He notes that most of us haven't arrived at "what we believe" by careful, thoughtful logic.  

Even those beliefs for which we seem to have lots of reflectively accessible reasons often, in fact have been arrived at nonreflectively, and the explicit reasons amount to justification after the fact and have little to do with the actual formation of the belief.  (page 16)

If religious faith is as important as its adherents claim, it would seem important that one think as honestly as one can about his faith -- be it in a God, or in no God.   Cognitive science helps us understand the process by which our minds engage the world, and determine how we act with one another in the world.  And Barrett argues that the basic "tools" of the mind point us toward belief in some sort of supernatural being.   But should we be satisfied with simply going where those tools lead us, or shouldn't we think reflectively about such beliefs?

We'll read chapters 4, 5 and 6 for the next gathering, two weeks from today -- May 22nd.  

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Do I Make A Comment?

Here's how you can participate by commenting on a post of mine, or on another person's comment. Note that I have to approve it before it is made available to all -- this is simply how I can limit participation to FCC-related people.

-- Ralph

1. go to

2. At bottom of the article, click on the word "comments" (there are 0 comments)

3. Type in your comment

4. There is a drop-down after Comment As.

5. Choose "Name/URL"

6. Type in your name; leave URL field blank

7. Click on Post Comment or Preview

8. Continue

9. Type in the Word Verification

10. Click on Post Comment

11. You then get a message that the comment will post as soon as Ralph OKs it. All comments will go through me.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why do we believe anything about anything?

There are two words that we’ll be using again and again through this exploration of faith. They are “believe,” and “know.” We use them all the time in life outside of faith: We know that 2 + 2 = 4, that today is Monday, that we are hungry, and in Oshkosh we know that dead lakeflies stink. We also believe things – we believe that the appointment is at 5:00, that our children are smart, that you spell “lakeflies” “lakeflies.” We could be wrong about any of those . . . and so we use “believe” and mean that we’re pretty sure, but could be wrong.

“Believe” in the religious sense has come to mean that we profess certain “truths” about God and our faith – God is good, Jesus was the Son of God, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and so on. A “creed” is a listing of statements the one may profess, or not. But when we get to Marcus Borg we’ll find that “believe” may have a different meaning . . .

The classic split between science and religion seems to revolve around the difference between believing and knowing. Scientists, armed with the scientific method that allows and demands experimentation, repeatable and open to evaluation, tend to use the word “know” more, as in “We know we cannot live without oxygen.” The pure scientist may go so far as to say that only what can be measured and tested – matter that can be observed – is “real.”

Religious people tend to use the word “believe” more – unless you are a fundamentalist who thinks that, because of a direct experience with God, he or she KNOWS God exists. Fundamentalists also lay out the Bible as their base of all knowledge – by faith saying that in it and in it alone resides all truth, and that it’s easy to read and understand that truth. They therefore say that the KNOW all about God . . . they profess no uncertainties, and even label any hesitation as evidence of inadequate faith, of false faith. They like the word “believe” but use it to mean “know without a shadow of doubt.”

But setting aside those folks (who, in my opinion, have talked themselves into an untenable position, and cling to it for fear of the wrath of God or at least embarrassment at church), religious people like us use the word “believe” more than “know.” I certainly do, fully aware that what I have believed in the past has more than once proven to be wrong.

Hence the first book – on why human beings believe. And not just why they believe religious things, although the book looks most closely at religious beliefs. But it begins with asking why or how we believe anything at all . . . how we assemble our knowledge about the world, and how we come to expect things of the world and its inhabitants, based on certain “tools” that appear to be universal.

The first chapter lays out a summary of what is the current, generally agreed upon theories of how we think. This is all new material for me, and for most people. The scientific field of study called “cognition theory” is a new one. A glance through the bibliography shows that most of Barrett’s sources are less than twenty years old. However we come out religiously, this is a fascinating introduction on how the mind works.

It is challenging stuff. We are being asked to think about thinking – sort of turning our heads around to peer inside our brain, knowing that we can do so only by using that same brain. But one can observe the processes of the mind, and this book invites us to do that, using these current theories of the mind.

Barrett says we have two kinds of beliefs: Nonreflective, meaning ideas we think “automatically,” without thought, without reflecting on that idea; It just pops up out of our brains; and Reflective – those things we believe because we have thought about them, reflecting on them as to weather or not they are “true,” or to be trusted.

Barrett says our mind is like a workshop that has many tools. The mind uses these tools instantly – Categorizers, Describers, and Facilitators. Once we have applied a category to something – does it have life, or not, for example – certain describers instantly follow – we believe certain things unreflectively, automatically, without question. But given time and experience we can expose an unreflective belief to reflection, and start evaluating it validity. The table on page 9 compares Nonreflective and Reflective beliefs.

Barrett then starts looking at religious beliefs through the lens of cognition theory.