Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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How your brain creates God (i.e. subjective ‘realities’)

Posted by robertpriddy on July 10, 2010

 

New Scientist article on human brain and its natural inclination for religious belief

In relation to the inset article: This is interesting because it indicates – at the least – how the human brain is most likely the creator of myths… rather than there being any spirit or soul which instructs the brain. On the other hand, the (admittedly tentative) conclusion that humans have a ‘natural’ inclination to religious belief is rather facile, to say the least. It is rather disappointing that the New Scientist publishes material which contains research based on imprecise or questionable usage of terms (eg. ‘religious ideas’, ‘natural inclination’, ‘hard-wired’).

The instance quoted to support this – hard times such as the Great Depression causing a rise in authoritarian church attendance – is not much of an empirical generalization… for surely countless counter examples could be found. The talk of the ‘brain being hard-wired’ for many different things, such as ’empathy’ and ‘romantic rejection’, then also ‘religious belief’ strikes a semanticist as an exaggeration in terminology for findings which are yet of a very tentative nature. For example, if the human brain is, through evolutionary pressures, now hard-wired for religious belief of some kind, how is that so many people are atheistic, agnostic or simply don’t care and never bother themselves with God in any shape or form.

Widespread atheism in a society is a recent development in human history, and does this not indicate that but the alleged “hard-wiring” proved soft after all? In the most progressively intellectual countries of Northern Europe, America (apart from the alleged USA religious majority), Australasia and so on, religion has lost it iron grip on the common mentality of people. Prevailing attitudes – which share the noosphere with opposite attitudes, can hardly be said to be evidence of ‘hard-wiring’. One suspects that there can sometimes even be a pseudo-religious agenda in emphasizing this supposed powerful ‘natural’ inclination (Thank goodness it is not called a ‘natural instinct’ any longer, as on the Cartesian-type model of a ‘God-embedded’ idea of God in human minds). In short, the jury must remain out and should not speak about their private conclusions until the evidence is overwhelming… which it most likely never will be, considering the huge exceptions I have so far only touched on.

The continued preponderance of religious ideas and their role in the arts, music, literature etc. can be explained in numerous other ways than by reference to evolutionary brain developments, which researches still remain in the shadow area of speculation, not verified and well-established hypotheses. Firstly, there is no longer a common religion in all cultures, and most religions were virtually unknown to one other in the main before the modern age of global communications. Besides, there were – and still are – many cultures where what religionists interpret as religion bears little resemblance to any of today’s mainstream religions. What can be defined as a religion is almost a political issue. This vastly complicates research addressing such sweeping terms as ‘religious’.

Secondly, the development of arts in civilised societies are understandably influenced by the other ideas, including prevalent religious beliefs. There can be many reasons for such influences other than then brain’s inclinations. There is the matter of getting accepted by others, which means communicating in terms they understand or prefer. The successful artist is almost always  dependent on a degree of pandering to prevailing tastes, fashions and the lingua franca of the ‘moral’ leaders or law-makers of society, often a priesthood,  if only so as not to be persecuted (one things of Bruno and Galileo for a start). Thirdly, that the brain can “conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters” is no more fundamental than what the mind of a child can create beyond the everyday world from which it draws its elements (especially of a religiously un-indoctrinated children) . Imagination is not limited to spirits, gods and monsters – of course – though these were employed by primitive humankind in an attempt to grasp the causes of the otherwise ‘mysterious’ nature (plagues, droughts, calamities rule a population and even that it rains ‘Deus pluit‘ and a thousand other daily enigmas to early people). This emphasis on religious element in imagination in the ‘hard-wired religion’ camp is without any empirical stringency, since alternative figments of the mind are innumerable too, especially today when all have potential access to everything all cultures have produced.

One of those who capitalizes on such research findings is Iona Miller of the Asklepia Foundation, 2003 writes: “The god-experience is a process, a subjective perception, rather than an objectively provable reality. Distractions cease, replaced by the direct impact of oceanic expansion, sudden insight, childlike wonder, ecstatic exaltation above bodily and personal existence, dissolution in a timeless moment, fusion, gnosis” I shall consider this in a separate blog later.

Se also On the roots of religious fanaticism

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