Let’s go beyond stale and dismal science vs religion juxtaposition

I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently.  It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”.  I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations.  Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.

Anyway I had recently been feeling better.  The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this:  “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.”  My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).

After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully.  I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new.  Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.).  He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark.  More on that in a moment.

Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind.  One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”.  Now here is one of my major criticisms.  It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc.  (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes.  Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief).  This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.

Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17).  Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation.  We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible.  And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe.  I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.

My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion.  To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of  devotees.  Hypocrites, certainly.  Superstitious, yes.  Taking false comfort, ok.  Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does.  Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority.  I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.

I live on a farm in the country.  Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other.  And yes, religion does help people cope.  I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious.  I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times.  They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans.  And science?  Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.

Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14).  My context is this:  Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices.  Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods.  Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies.  Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.

Here is my point:  Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution.  If it stays, same thing.  In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society.   Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time.  I hear some ask who does this?  The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this.  As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17).  In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17).  I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).

To recapitulate:  I have been in a sour mood.  When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively.  Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate.  And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them.  Travel on.

I read and question and worry

I am finally reading the whole of Michael Lewis’ book, The Undoing Project, about the work and friendship of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Their collaboration and friendship seemed unlikely to others because they were so different in personality, but they worked closely, intensely and brilliantly for many years before they broke up in a storm of resentment. Their simitlarities are also important. Both were descended from Russian Jewish emigres, were atheists, served in the Israeli army in several wars, and were keenly interested in how the mind works and found insight through studying human errors. Both were incredibly intelligent and creative; Tversky was more outgoing and happy while Kahneman was more reclusive and described as depressed. Tversky was gifted as a mathematical psychologist and Kahneman was gifted as an applied psychologist. He advised the Israeli army on several issues over the years about training and selection of talent for military specialities. Together and singly they made pioneering contributions to the founding of behavioral economics. Tversky won a MacArthur genius award but died before receiving a Nobel and Kahneman won a Nobel prize for economics. One of the many who followed their inspiration, Richard Thaler, was just awarded the 2017 Nobel in economics. What I like about their work is that they demonstrate that our rational mind makes mistakes because of cognitive biases, i.e., our rationality is riddled with irrationality. Once again it seems that we can see plenty of truth, none of it absolute, if we look carefully.

The biases they uncovered operate on two levels. The first is ongoing across many situations and the second operates with each framing of a situation. In the first instance they found that people did not respond logically according to a cogent analysis of probabilities. That may be no surprise but they extended their research to include professional statisticians and found the same biases leading to the same errors and that is interesting. Many of their experiments involved posing scenarios and offering choices as to winning/losing/risk/certainty money and I confess this old clinical psychologist found them to be a bit arcane and begging for ecological validity. Still their results have been shown to be robust and to operate somewhat in the real world outside of the experimental design.

They described several biases, which they termed heuristics (a question here later) underlying these cognitive errors. One of these is availability, i.e., judgments and decisions are made with the information easily available, and I would add, given the ocean of information in which we moderns are drowning, information that is easily selected and usually in accord with our given beliefs. Another is representativeness, i.e., how prototypical is the phenomenon under review. This matters a good deal because we tend to think we know what will happen or what is going on if some similarity exists between phenomena. Kahneman and Tversky listed several other heuristics about base rates (failing to understand the frequency of categorical occurences in estimating deviation), sample size (believing small samples are valid), misunderstanding randomness (plenty of patterns to find though not significant), and anchoring (judgments made relative to starting point), and so on, you get the idea. They, especially Kahneman, also saw the influence of emotions. (Again, this is not news to clinical folk).

For the second level they investigated the influence of framing, i.e., how a situation is defined, and found, for example, that if a choice was framed in terms of financial loss, people took greater risks, and that if that same choice, i.e., exactly same outcomes, was framed as a gain, people were risk aversive. Again, many cognitive psychologists and pollsters understood this to be the case. Part of Kahneman’s and Tversky’s impact was based not on their rigorous systematizing and generalizing their ideas but on the fact that they were entering into the field of economics where tradition held that people, like the economists themselves of course, acted rationally. Discounting the fact that economic theories fail repeatedly to be predictive, in part because of irrationality in the system and in larger part, I think, because they are certain when they should be doubtful. (Ah, I hear the whisper of a tale about yet another civilization coming to an end.)

As I read along I wondered this about heuristics and framing: are they innate, based upon some neural algorithm or grammar like linguistic syntax, are they cultural developments like the acquired predispositons of the habitus? Are there individual variations even then? How we frame situations would seem cultural but also affected by personality, e.g., pessimists frame one way, optimists another, reclusive creative Kahneman one way, blithe and logical Tversky another. The judgment that something is an heuristic that serves us well except in key situations is based upon a knowledge of statistics and probability, and these are modern refinements of cognitive operations. It is telling that those whose intellect has been trained in statistics make the same mistakes as those who have not.

The larger issue for me is that we are animals, that our native talents for logic etc. are biological, and that our feelings, however inaccurate they may be in some modern situations, are the evolved basis of our intellect. To understand the embodied mind requires an understanding of our biological roots, how our capabilities are adaptive and maladaptive. Heuristics are both.  Consider this speech given by Kahneman in 1974 entitled “Cognitive Limitations and Public Decision Making,” where he said he worried about “an organism equipped with an affective and hormonal system not much different from that of a jungle rat being given the ability to destroy every living thing by pushing a few buttons.” Further, “crucial decisions are made today as thousands of years ago in terms of intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority” and “the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.”

Consider a message Tversky gave to historians, essentially that as they formulate the patterns of history, seeking to explain what, why and how events transpired, their efforts are marked by the same heuristics and biases as any other such efforts. Tversky’s and Kahneman’s research had shown that two more biases important in this field. One is that once people form an intellectual product they hold on to it despite evidence to the contrary. The other is that people think their predictions based upon hindsight are more certain than they really are. Further, Lewis states that their work countered Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” because knowing the past actually contributes to repeating it, i.e., making the same mistakes again. And that makes a lot of sense to me.

My intent here is always to understand how our humanity arises through our biology, hormones, emotions, heuristics and all but especially our empathy and symbolization. Tversky and Kahneman have little to say about our biology but their work points to the messiness of our biological selves and contributes importantly, I think, to Monod’s ethic of knowledge. Now I live in 2017 America where many citizens and leaders do not understand the fragility of life and society, do not understand the importance of making decisions through a rational decision-making system that takes into account the vulnerability and limitations of our mind, and all too many actively reject an ethic of knowledge. Oops! How has American society come to this (end)? Travel on while still we can.