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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Archive for March, 2012

The brain as a belief machine

Posted by robertpriddy on March 29, 2012

Much has been discovered in recent times about how beliefs are formed, what conditions the process – especially through neurological studies.  I recommend the following work as an important contribution to the subject

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—
How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. 
By Michael Shermer. Times Books; 2011 400 pages; 

“Michael Shermer’s comprehensive and provocative theory on how beliefs are born, formed, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. The book “presents the evidence for Mr Shermer’s central claim: that, instead of shaping belief around painstakingly gathered, soberly judged evidence, people most often decide upon their beliefs first, and then use an impressive range of cognitive tricks to bend whatever evidence they do discover into support for those pre-decided acts of faith.” 

“In this work synthesizing thirty years of research, psychologist, historian of science, and the world’s best-known skeptic Michael Shermer upends the traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. Simply put, beliefs come first and explanations for beliefs follow. The brain, Shermer argues, is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. Our brains connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen, and these patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths.”

“Interlaced with his theory of belief, Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal. Ultimately, he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.”

There is also a “useful definition of a sceptic, as Mr Shermer understands the term: one who is aware of the fallibility of intuitions, and willing to take steps to minimize them. It remains, sadly, an uncommon combination.”

A strongly held-belief often gives a certain kind of strength to the believer, an ‘enthusiam’ which drives them and not seldom expresses itself in missionary excesses. By managing to exclude all doubts and by never seeing that any question has more sides than one. and by avoiding hearing contrary views, the ‘true believer’ – who suffers from a form of fanaticism – obtains a certain form of strength of purpose from it. This strength, because it rests upon a doubtful basis – absurd to others and to science – can however be brittle and liable to crack when put to the real test – either of experience or crisis.

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Richard Dawkins: the Inner God Illusion

Posted by robertpriddy on March 17, 2012

Professor Richard Dawkins has given a quite thorough account of the weaknesses and redundancy of the conception and belief in God mainly considered as an external (creative) cause or force acting upon the universe and mankind. However, he has not confronted what I deem considerably more numinous and mind-twisting conceptions of God as the omnipresent inner motivator of the universe and mankind. Though this ‘inner’ or personal Christ is found in Christianity too, not least in its mysticism, these ideas of ‘inner divinity’ are already gaining prominence, both in so-called New Age religions and bizarre forms of supposed ‘spirituality’, but not least in India, from where it seems to have originated long ago.

This brand of pan-theism is complex and can employ the subtlest causistry, so that even highly educated people with good language analytical skills are very easily taken in by its convolutions. Various interpreters of Adi Shankara’s non-dual philosophy (Advaita ) – including New Age variants are ingenious (one good example is Sri Nisagardatta’s book ‘I Am That’). Meanwhile, a noted European exponent of a non-dual God conception was the metaphysician Baruch Spinoza. Witness also the Sathya Sai Baba movement – consisting in some millions of believers with organisations in over 170 countries of the world, a striking example of the popularity of this ‘God is within, I Am God, You are God, Everything is God’ conception as embraced by a whole series of India’s Prime Ministers, Presidents, High Chief Justices etc. The substitution of the ‘new spirituality’ for traditional forms of theism has well begun. Imported Eastern thought and its re-invigoration since the 1960s plus the consequences of psychedelic experimentation are particularly involved. It has also diverse vulgarized forms, (eg. belief in ‘Jedi power’ rather than any traditional deity).

The sophistication and explanatory complexity of such pantheistic theories of omnipresent divinity is wide-ranging, it addresses many deep issues about our supposed ‘true nature’, ‘solves’ philosophical teasers about mind and matter, and explains paranormal phenomena and/or reported extra-sensory powers of all kinds. Some variants show very considerable rational resources – though they remain chiefly mental and not demonstrable experimentally. All in all, they are seen to be speculative to a high degree, resting on assumptions that are not borne out to any degree by empirical evidence or science. Once one is able to penetrate the labyrinthine theological explanations to get a critical overview of the whole conception they are seen to be self-defeating – the ultimate in long-distance circular reasoning. Its winding theoretical dead-ends can, however, have serious consequences for a persons’ life, especially since the common religious requirement of total faith in the particular doctrine and its promises of release from all cares and suffering (if not now, then in the hereafter).

To exercise ‘spiritual practices’ is the be-all-and-end-all of this resurgent religiosity. Such practices include the simplest forms like constant repetition of the Name of God, of prayers, of mantras and other verbal or oral sounds – devotional singing included. One very popular version of a path to spiritual realization is the stringent Pollyanna-mysticism of ‘A Course in Miracles’). At a more evolved level we find the concentration on action as an expression of one’s inherent divine nature – offering up all one does to God and ensuring that one acts according to supposed ‘divine commandments’ of one tradition or another. The most sublimated form of these ‘spiritual practices’ are those of service to mankind (regarded as service to God) – that is, doing good work selflessly. The inherent purpose of all these forms of ‘spiritual practice’ (Hindu sadhana) is claimed to be the attainment of identity with the Divine – or, worded differently, realisation of one’s own inherent and true nature as God. (There are many difficulties with this concept, of course – such as whether it should be a part of God or God per se!). This mysticism and its impracticability is extremely difficult to penetrate, not least because the claim is that one must commit  totally to it for a very long time to achieve its fruits- There is, of course, no way one can prove that such fruits – release from all suffering, never-ending bliss, consciousness etc are possible or can be achieved at all.

It seems that the expected demise of the ‘Church empires’ – partly because of their hollowness in the face of science, dryness in respect of personal daily experience – they may be replaced in much of the world by a much more personal (hence plastic and/or chameleon) idea of God which not only allows independence of worship but a wide range of personalised experiences of the supposed ‘universal omnipresent God’ through ritual, mediumism, channelling and other form of alleged religiosity. We are witnessing the start of what looks like a similar reaction as that which occurred when Roman civilisation and learning crumbled before the huge wave of fanatical Christian ascetics, anchorites and their supporters, as described so poignantly by Gibbon.

History shows that the predominant idea of God In societies and cultures within the range of history known to us has been of one or more animistic, theistic or deistic entities… a spirit, demigod or incarnation. These arose no doubt from a need to explain what (or who) rules over the environment and humankind – to supplicate and placate the imagined powers ‘outside’ the observable world or physical universe.

One hopes for the demise of such unsustainable ideas and beliefs – particularly in the doctrines and dogmas of traditional organized religions – in the face of the ever-growing and all-pervading importance of science as both an explanatory and a practical instrument of mankind – however long that may take (and if our species survives etc.). The unprecedented opening of the world to communication interaction, however, is bringing the silent global majority of religious believers more and more into conflict with the advance of human knowledge and culture that was once thought to be inevitable. Perhaps the clashes of mainstream religious dogmas which must surely leads to doubts and disillusion within them will eventually clear the way for secular, humanistic and non-faith-based societies… it is obviously too early to say. The intermediate phase would seem to be the rise and spread of the pantheism of the ‘inner reality’ brand. The search for “self-realization” in this mystical sense is the alluring attempt to find “the true self” as the creative motivator of both ‘the mind’ (i.e. minds) and its products, in short Divinity. This does not exclude the theistic bias – namely, that God can simultaneously be believed to be ‘behind’ all that happens – what we experience as reality – acting directly or indirectly as its ultimate cause (i.e. through ‘internal creationism’, where spirit creates the illusion of matter – itself taken as but an illusive mental-spiritual product). This pantheism is even sometimes extended to evolutionism — as an evolution of reincarnating and evolving ‘souls’ passing through a series of separate (biologically evolving) bodily incarnations.

Further, according to mentalist theories, the universe is conceived as the self-creation of mind, not of matter. This implies a philosophy of ‘mentalism’ as opposed to ‘physicalism’, which is the basis of many Eastern religious streams and – though in considerably weaker versions – in Western philosophy and ‘mystical’ thought. This ‘inner spirituality’ can fulfil the same psychological, social and emotional needs that long caused society’s dependence on an external God. With mentalism, one can have one’s cake and eat it – for ‘God is everything and everyone, within and without’. While logically and otherwise wholly untenable, demonstrating this becomes very tricky in the detail.

Nonetheless, the difficulties of this pantheistic position are considerable. It makes God equivalent to all being – so one cannot distinguish anything or anyone from God, not can one distinguish God any more than one can distinguish energy per se. In fact, one could substitute the word ‘energy’ with ‘God’ and vice-versa… as some do. The obvious difference that springs to mind, however, is that the concept of ‘energy’ is so very thoroughly and precisely defined and demonstrated – not least through the Einsteinian and quantum theories… whereas the idea ‘God’ is totally non-pragmatic and non-utilitarian, without any distinguishable reference and ultimately nothing but an all-encompassing term of terminal vagueness.

Perhaps we thereby arrive at something meriting Bertrand Russell’s amusing description “a night where all cows are black”, or the amusing but undeniable tautology ‘Everything is Everything’. (Note: Advaita – a variant of philosophical ‘mentalism’ – holds that matter is a mind-created ‘illusion’ (Maya) which is actually emptiness, hence: “Everything is Nothing and Nothing is Everything” – Sathya Sai Baba)

See also a deconstruction of the Hindu core ‘theology’:-  Advaita: failed theory of unity/non-dualism

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