[WSF18] ‘The Believing Brain’ — Will the one true god please stand up?



Why do we believe? And is it healthy?

AiPT! Science was out in full force for New York City’s recent World Science Festival — check out the rest of our coverage, with the tag WSF18!

There are about 2.2 billion Christians and 1.7 billion Muslims on Earth. Another 2 billion identify as either Hindu or Buddhist, plus 14 million Jews along with over 4,000 other distinct religions, before even considering all the specific denominations within each. They can’t all be right.

“Even if a given religion is true, it hardly changes the question at all,” physicist Brian Greene declared, before introducing last Saturday night’s World Science Festival panel in New York City, entitled The Believing Brain: Evolution, Neuroscience, and the Spiritual Instinct.

“We still need to ask why it is that so many of us have a tendency to believe,” Greene said. “We have to ask ourselves, what is it about the human species that drives us to find order and meaning and, in particular, to find the turn toward the supernatural so utterly natural?”

From Left: Brian Greene, Lisa Barrett, Zoran Josipovic, and Barbara King Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

The genesis of belief

In the beginning, our animal ancestors may have shown signs of some form of spirituality or religiosity. Anthropologist Barbara King credited Jane Goodall as being the first to suggest chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, may be spiritual. “Behavior is an evolutionary platform,” she said, where cultural rules and rituals may have served as the building blocks to future religiosity.

Chimps possess a sense of awe and wonder, too, as well as the ability to perceive another’s point of view. They even feel empathy. “Just as culture evolves, language evolves, technology evolves — I believe imagination evolves,” King said.

King sees ancient burial rituals going as far back as 250,000 years ago as central to understanding religion’s roots. Even our ancient evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, made special efforts to mark graves, though King concedes this doesn’t prove they had a belief in any form of supernatural beings or an afterlife.

But later cave paintings by our ancestors depicted not only the animals they hunted but fantastical, mythical figures, like a bird-headed man. King went on to describe how early humans in Turkey moved massive rocks carved with similar elaborate animal images to spaces she believes had ritual significance, demonstrating early supernatural belief. She contends that religious imagination evolved from these earlier cues.

King believes animals have a deep awareness of loss, too. She described the behavior of a community of elephants after the death of the matriarch, as a parade of mourning animals arrived seemingly to pay their respects. Though they may not have the same awareness of death as humans, “they feel this profound sense of loss.”

Neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Barrett cited a similar example of chimpanzees supposedly showing respect for the dead, but sharply disagreed the behavior can be interpreted as animals demonstrating a theory of mind or deep feelings of loss. Barrett drew a distinction between affect, as in the physical sensory changes of the body, and more meaningful emotion.

Because the brain is easily tricked, we see agency even where none exists.

What may appear like grief, Barrett said, may simply be discomfort at a loss of an agent that helped regulate that animal’s nervous system. If you lose a regulating force in your life, it feels like you lost a part of yourself.

Barrett believes we’re wired less to react to the world and more to predict what is going to happen next, based on what happened in the past. We use past experiences to help us form explanations for why the world operates as it does, whether there’s veracity in those explanations or not. Barrett sees this predictive wiring as an “approach to understanding meaning-making of any sort.”

But Barrett was also quick to point out that we see similar wiring while indulging children’s imaginations when they assign agency to their toys during play. She drew a direct comparison between this and the kind of religious belief found in the ancient world, where gods weren’t supernatural, but connected to physical phenomena like weather and the sea. Assigning agency is key to Barrett’s view of religion, and because the brain is easily tricked, we see agency even where none exists.

Zoran Josipovic, a neuroscientist at New York University, identifies two sides of consciousness: mind, which creates experience; and awareness, which interprets the experience. In his view, “Spirituality and spiritual beliefs are consciousness trying to find itself.”

Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker added, prior to the discoveries of modern neuroscience, the idea that the mind could exist independently of the brain, a view known as mind-body dualism, wouldn’t have seemed so implausible.

From Left: Brian Greene, Steven Pinker, Lisa Barrett, and Zoran Josipovic Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

Why does religion endure?

Barrett identified three psychological attributes to spiritual beliefs: connecting to something larger than oneself, explanation, and agency.

King believes religion endures because of the sense of community it creates. She says it’s worth trying to replace religion with something that serves the same function but that “there’s something about the connectivity that comes through the transcendence that I think is important.” By bringing community and transcendence together, it allows people to share in that emotional meaning-making.

Greene cited the work of figures like philosopher Daniel Dennett, who describe how certain ideas tend to stick around and spread, which become the basis of religious belief. Barrett added that we build our reality through collective agreement. Many cultures don’t recognize a scowl as an expression of anger. We collectively impose meaning on a scowl. Memes are contagious because we have the ability to create meaning or a social reality where none existed before.

Are there benefits to belief?

Greene suggested a potential evolutionary reason for religion’s prominence — an overactive assigning of agency out in the world is potentially more advantageous than the opposite error, failing to see agency where it does exist. One classic example is that it’s far better to mistake a stick for a snake and be on guard, than to confuse a snake for an inanimate stick and walk unaware into possible danger.

One common “folk theory” Pinker wished to dispel is that adaptations serve to build group cohesion, stating that it’s genes for which natural selection selects.

Barrett described what she sees as potential immediate advantages to spiritual or religious belief. It can decrease stress — what she calls “metabolic burden” —  by offering answers for the inexplicable. Our brain’s main function is to regulate our bodily systems to keep us well, which it does by budgeting glucose and other chemicals. Uncertainty, according to Barrett, drains that budget in our nervous system faster.

As social animals, we rely on other people to take on some of that burden for us. Religious belief can relieve some of the rest. Aside from the potential negative consequences of religion, Barrett said, some data suggests broader happiness and well-being among believers. Faith is not merely psychologically comforting, but has a positive, physical impact on the body.

“Religious belief may have some cost associated with it that something like humanism doesn’t.”

Pinker pushed back on this point, suggesting a false explanation of the world, while capable of reducing stress by alleviating a fear, is harmful in a situation where an ignored threat happens to be real. Josipovic too sees an advantage to maintaining uncertainty because an “open experience” provides a better opportunity for growth.

Pinker further pointed to the dangers caused by religion. Barrett, however, stressed shared belief as key savings in one’s “body budget,” while agreeing religion can be both a useful adaptation in this sense and problematic in another, simultaneously reducing evolutionary fitness.

“It may be the case that religious belief may have some cost associated with it that, say, something like humanism doesn’t,” Barrett agreed.

Is scientific progress reducing religion? King doesn’t think so. She thinks religion might be here to stay, no matter what. Barrett sees both the advantages and disadvantages to religious belief and says it may be time to consider if the disadvantages outweigh the advantages because there might be a better alternative.

Greene’s final question for the evening was what would aliens think of Earth religions. King speculated they’d be baffled, but Barrett thinks they’d see it as a natural phase of our evolution, of which we’ll grow out.

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