Gravity, Groups, and God

Most people continue to harbor strong and influential religious beliefs

Posted Feb 06, 2010

Before the enlightenment of the 18th century, many scholars believed that thought was instantaneous and that action was governed by an indivisible mind separate from the body. If a palpable cause for a person's behavior could not be identified, the Divine or some counterpart constituted a more agreeable explanatory construct than invisible forces acting through scientifically specifiable mechanisms. Unparalleled advances in the sciences have occurred since the dawn of the Enlightenment, including the development of scientific theories about magnetism, gravity, quantum mechanics, and dark matter that depict invisible forces operating with measurable effects on physical bodies. During this same period, serious scientific research on invisible forces acting within, on and across human bodies was slowed and underfunded in part because the study of the human mind and behavior was regarded by many in the public and in politics as soft and of dubious validity. The result is that many still regard the mind and behavior as best understood in terms of the actions of non-scientific agents, such as a god or gods, and the manifestations of mental illness as the result of a failure of individual will - a denial of the possibility that invisible forces (that is, forces that are tractable scientifically but of which a person is not normally aware) can affect mind and behavior.

One could try to explain away the gap in scientific knowledge about invisible forces by referring to the conception of science and religion as systems of knowledge that are in opposition. This approach is common and evident in a spate of contemporary books that take the position that science and religion represent competing ways of understanding the world and that science (or religion) is the one and only valid way of understanding human behavior and the world around us. For instance, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins places specific Judeo-Christian theological doctrines under the scrutiny of science only to find that none passes scientific muster.

The vast majority of people from all educational backgrounds continue to harbor strong religious beliefs that affect their daily decisions and behavior, with both good and ill effects. These religious belief systems most commonly bump into scientific claims around invisible forces. When science opens up opportunities to improve the human condition by providing a more complete understanding of the causes of events, their measurable effects, and possible interventions- ranging from valid science education to medical advancements based on stem cell research - these opportunities are often threatened by the application of specific religious beliefs to these endeavors. Scientific research to understand religion and religious belief systems may be a more productive response than broad denouncements by scientists of any who hold such beliefs.

Conversely, when religion opens up opportunities for improving the human condition by questioning the emphasis on short-term self-interests at the expense of the collective, providing a more complete understanding of the human need to attribute meaning to events and their effects, and identifying possible interventions- ranging from the provision of tangible support to individuals in need, to the promotion of healthy lifestyles and ethical behavior-scientific research to understand these influences may again be a more productive response than broad denouncements by scientists that such beliefs are irrational. Indeed, the question of whether God exists is of much less scientific interest, and of much more questionable scientific merit (how would one scientifically falsify such a claim?), than the question of the causes, consequences, and underlying mechanisms for the observable human behaviors affected by invisible forces---whether they be physical (gravity), social (groups), or perceived spiritual (gods).

Contemporary science explains many of these phenomena but also points to the human capacities and emergent processes that derive from collective social structures and actions and, underlying the emergence of these structures, the human need for meaning-making and connecting to something beyond oneself. The dominant metaphor for the scientific study of the human mind during the latter half of the 20th century has been the computer - a solitary device with massive information processing capacities. Computers today are massively interconnected devices with capacities that extend far beyond the resident hardware and software of a solitary computer. The extended capacities made possible by the internet can be said to be emergent because they represent a whole that is greater than the simple sum of the actions that are possible by the sum of the individual (disconnected) computers that constitute the internet. The telereceptors (e.g., eyes, ears) of the human brain have provided wireless broadband interconnectivity to humans for millennia. Just as computers have capacities and processes that are transduced through but extend far beyond the hardware of a single computer, the human brain has evolved to promote social and cultural capacities and processes that are transduced through but that extend far beyond a solitary brain. To understand the full capacity of humans, one needs to appreciate not only the memory and computational power of the brain but its capacity for representing, understanding, and connecting with other individuals. That is, one needs to recognize that we have evolved a powerful, meaning making social brain.

Social species, by definition, create structures beyond the individual- structures ranging from dyads and families to institutions and cultures. These emergent structures have evolved hand in hand with neural and hormonal mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors (e.g., cooperation, empathy, altruism, etc.) helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too reproduced. From an evolutionary perspective then, the social context is fundamental in the evolution and development of the human brain.

The observable consequences of these higher organizations have long been apparent, but we are only now beginning to understand their genetic, neural, and biochemical basis and consequences. To fully delve into these complex behaviors, science needs to deal with the invisible forces that shape human life, whether it is in the form of physical, biological, or psychological forces. For instance, anthropomorphism, the irrepressible proclivity to attribute human characteristics onto nonhuman objects to achieve meaning, predictability, and human connection, is beginning to be subjected to productive multi-level scientific analysis. Experimental studies have shown that manipulations which increase feelings of social isolation without the possibility of resolving these feelings through human interaction have the compensatory effect of increasing people's tendency to anthropomorphize, including heightened beliefs in God. This scientific work has implications for understanding claims regarding the success of religious practices such as solitude as paths to feeling closer God. Research on anthropomorphism has now identified developmental, situational, dispositional, and cultural factors that modulate people's tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents ranging from technological gadgets to animals to gods, and the neural mechanisms underlying this transconfiguration of nonhuman objects into human-like agents are beginning to be revealed.

Guided by the insights from these new scientific theories of anthropomorphism, historical analyses may be worthwhile to determine whether concepts of god have changed across time and cultures such that god was created in the image of the believer rather than vice versa. Xenophanes (6th century B.C.), for instance, was apparently the first to use the term "anthropomorphism" when describing the similarities between religious agents and their believers, noting that Greek gods were invariably fair skinned and blue-eyed whereas African gods were invariably dark skinned and dark-eyed (joking that cows would surely worship gods that looked strikingly cow-like). Brain imaging research has confirmed that anthropomorphism is associated with the activation of the same prefrontal areas that are active when people think about themselves or project themselves onto others. At least some of the invisible forces of social connection can be investigated using rigorous scientific procedures.  These investigations will not answer the question, "Is there a God" or "Is there life after death," but they can help us understand the causes, nature, and consequences of such beliefs.