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Pretending to Believe?
Posted: 12 May 2009 10:07 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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A while back, Salt Creek suggested that those who claim to believe in God are in reality just pretending to believe.  He gave a number of plausible motivations for pretending to believe in God, like fitting into one’s church group. 

It’s a tempting hypothesis.  After all, it seems incredible that anyone could really believe in such bullshit, doesn’t it?  I actually spent some time on Christian forums fishing around for evidence one way or the other.  I never discovered anything conclusive.

Then, just the other day, I was listening to Dr. Dean Edell on the radio and he related the results of an experiment that seems to indicate people really do believe in God.

Here’s a link to the Oxford Journal abstract:

http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/nsn050v1

Unfortunately, the abstract barely scratches the surface and you need a password to see the full text.  Here’s what I remember from the radio:

The researchers used an MRI to monitor brain activity in subjects who were asked to pray, talk to another person, or make a wish to Santa Clause.  What they found was that “This finding supports our hypothesis that religious subjects, who consider their God to be ‘real’ and capable of reciprocating requests, recruit areas of social cognition when they pray.”

In other words, at least some of the subjects (those who considered their God to be ‘real’) must have really believed in God because their brains responded to prayer as if they were talking to a real person.  The MRI results were different when they tried wishing to Santa Claus.  I think the researchers also asked some atheists to pray; the atheists’ brain activity response to praying was the same as when they wished to Santa Clause.

So, as incredible as it seems, at least some people who claim to believe in God really do.  Of course, that’s not to say that everyone who professes to believe in God really does.  It would be interesting to see the full text of the study, to see what percentage of the subjects who professed to believe passed the MRI test, thus separating the liars from the true believers.

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Posted: 13 May 2009 05:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 13 May 2009 02:07 AM

. . .
The researchers used an MRI to monitor brain activity in subjects who were asked to pray, talk to another person, or make a wish to Santa Clause.  What they found was that “This finding supports our hypothesis that religious subjects, who consider their God to be ‘real’ and capable of reciprocating requests, recruit areas of social cognition when they pray.”

In other words, at least some of the subjects (those who considered their God to be ‘real’) must have really believed in God because their brains responded to prayer as if they were talking to a real person.  The MRI results were different when they tried wishing to Santa Claus.  I think the researchers also asked some atheists to pray; the atheists’ brain activity response to praying was the same as when they wished to Santa Clause.

What is belief in God? If belief in God for a person equates cognitively to talking to a buddy, then what is that? The study could have done much more, though its results sound interesting.

If I were a Christian who only believed rather than knew, I expect that my brain activity would fall into what the study described. All the study did was to confirm that Christ-centered people have managed to be hypnotized or hypnotized themselves into pretending. The study confirms the fact that they feel they’re talking to another person. This sounds at least comparable if not identical to mirror neuron activity. In that sense, it could be falsely positive.

If the designers of the study wanted to say something more meaningful, they’d have enlisted the assistance of real-life heroes of some of the subjects, to see what sorts of imaging that might result from conversing with them. They might even have simulated certain heroes or movie stars through use of comedians who do voices, such as those of Ronald Reagan, JFK, etc.

Belief is drastically different from knowledge, and that fact seems to elude the brain imaging folks for some unfortunate reason.

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Posted: 13 May 2009 05:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 13 May 2009 02:07 AM

A while back, Salt Creek suggested that those who claim to believe in God are in reality just pretending to believe.  He gave a number of plausible motivations for pretending to believe in God, like fitting into one’s church group. 

It’s a tempting hypothesis.  After all, it seems incredible that anyone could really believe in such bullshit, doesn’t it?  I actually spent some time on Christian forums fishing around for evidence one way or the other.  I never discovered anything conclusive.


I think there’s a lot of behavioral evidence that “believers” don’t really believe what they claim to. They more than likely truly believe in a vague god notion of some sort, but they betray a sort of oblivious duplicity between their franchise rhetoric and their actions on a regular basis—rhetorical mismatches with their behavior. For the first example off the top of my head, if they truly believed they were risking eternal agony for getting it wrong, they’d take some measures to ensure they’re right. They also demonstrate mourning behavior that indicates a sense of finality rather than “we’ll see each other again in Heaven one day.” There’s a huge difference between the depth of despair between saying “good-bye, I’ll see you again” and just “good-bye” for good. “Good-bye” for good overwhelms whereas “good-bye, I’ll see you again” is just sad with some bittersweet mixed in. I think there’s a qualitative and vaguely but still distinct difference.

Antisocialdarwinist - 13 May 2009 02:07 AM

Then, just the other day, I was listening to Dr. Dean Edell on the radio and he related the results of an experiment that seems to indicate people really do believe in God.

Here’s a link to the Oxford Journal abstract:

http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/nsn050v1


MRIs also show that in a way we share emotions with others, including pain and violence, merely by hearing them described. I’m not sure an area of the brain “lighting up” in an MRI actually means very much as far as how that brain activity is being processed or interpreted by the host organism.

Antisocialdarwinist - 13 May 2009 02:07 AM

... at least some of the subjects (those who considered their God to be ‘real’) must have really believed in God because their brains responded to prayer as if they were talking to a real person.  The MRI results were different when they tried wishing to Santa Claus.  I think the researchers also asked some atheists to pray; the atheists’ brain activity response to praying was the same as when they wished to Santa Clause.

So, as incredible as it seems, at least some people who claim to believe in God really do ...


Atheists aren’t a good control group here. Apathists would be better, I suppose, but I’m not sure there is a good control group. Atheists are actively conscious of our disbelief though, so it seems obvious we’re going to cogitate in a fundamentally different way about praying to a god. They should compare MRIs of believers vs. people with imaginary friends and see how that comes out. That leaves the question of whether one can make something up and then truly come to believe it’s real and true.

Part of the problem here, though, is simply the vagueness built into the term believe. What does it mean to really believe something? Can we convince ourselves into genuine belief, or do we have to be convinced in order to truly believe? I think that may just be a personality and/or intellectual integrity issue. Some of us are far more intellectually responsible and have the humility to recognize our lack of authority over reality. That is, reality has no obligation what-so-ever to appease our personal sensibilities, so it’s absurd and even narcissistic to think what we want means anything at all in terms of what’s real and true. Our personal feelings are irrelevant. We can take actions to effect reality, but what we want is profoundly and utterly impertinent without some sort of action. Most people seem rather more arrogant and egocentric than that, in my experience, and the very religious are divas—histrionic narcissists—by comparison.

So some people are very humble and mindful to take measures that ensure they understand things as they really are rather than how they’d like things to be or even how they intuitively seem to be, and others function more with their emotions in charge of their intellects and presume what they think, utterly undisciplined, is true. This is where I distinguish between psychological/emotional adults and children. Most (most) believers are children in this sense, at least regarding matters of their religious faith (and notably, most often not that of others—another tell, another rhetorical mismatch that indicates they don’t believe religious faith is what they claim to believe it is).

Byron

[ Edited: 13 May 2009 01:30 PM by SkepticX]
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Posted: 13 May 2009 06:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Belief in belief is definitely a player in all of this.

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‘Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity’

‘If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature destroys them’

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Posted: 13 May 2009 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I hear and read Christians in particular doing anything from calling the faith of other Christians questionable to denouncing them, not at all uncommon. So I’m guessing this happening means there are people who say one thing/act one way   when it’s Sunday and another when it’s not. This is probably what Sam means about the human brain being so easily partitioned. It happens in all other contexts too, not just religious, so no surprise there.

I must say though, it has got to be pretty terrible on a social level. The true Christians don’t like you because you’re a big phony, and ..oops.. that’s what the rest of the world sees you as, with an incredibly minuscule, educated, tolerant minority considering you a victim.

[ Edited: 13 May 2009 07:12 AM by Argo]
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Posted: 13 May 2009 07:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Argo - 13 May 2009 11:05 AM

I hear and read Christians in particular doing anything from calling the faith of other Christians questionable to denouncing them, not at all uncommon. This is probably what Sam means about the human brain being so easily partitioned. It happens in all other contexts too, not just religious. No surprise there.


Yeah, religious faith is just the theistic expression of that particular human failing, that particular aspect of the Dark Side of human nature. It’s the chief aspect the definitively religious elements of our nature enable and encourage and even institutionalize. In fact I’d argue that’s what the definitively religious aspects of our nature are all about—excusing presumption and then justifying, validating and affirming the results.

Byron

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Posted: 13 May 2009 09:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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All this can say is that the same physical HW is used in the calculations. Example, if one person adds 2 + 2 = 5 and another adds 2 + 2 = 4, I’m sure the MRI would show the same areas in the brain being used.

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Posted: 13 May 2009 11:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Fine points and most excellent posts unknown z. and SkepticX. I’ll second your notions. (Not that you give a f- em, are, I damn.)

Mathew Alper posited in 1999, I think it was, in his book, The God Part of the Brain that fMRIs would eventually find an area of the brain that lit up in the true god-believers compared to the pretenders or non-believers, and whaddya know, he was right… even on the location.

I would think that an interesting fMRI experiment would include schizophrenics who “hear voices” and compare the areas that light up with the true god-believers. If the “hot spots” matched, would this then indicate a mental illness connection?

As a side note, wasn’t it Sam who said something along the lines of, “it’s the TRUE believers that we need to be most concerned about.”

*You’re lucky Antisociald., they took Dr. Edell off the air in my neck of the desert. Can’t have someone telling the truth, or disrupting the delusional ones here in AZ. Instead they put on a snake oil salesman… a doctor of sorts: A chiropractor with an obsession with nutrition and “alternative” herbal remedies… (a few of them do work though).

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Posted: 13 May 2009 02:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Pretending to believe?  No.  Most children really do believe in Santa.  Unlike frogs, we’re still a young species.  Rationality is still in its infancy.  What would you say, another million years before the majority can distinguish truth from fiction?  Twenty million?

On the other hand, now we’ve got the technology to speed these things up.  Soon we’ll have the ability to distinguish a rational fruit fly from an irrational one.  Then geneticists will know how to quickly produce a strain of rational fruit flies.  Then, we simply transfer this know-how to ourselves.  The trick is to get this done before we blow up the planet. 

What’s that?  You say religious couples won’t want a child who can distinguish fact from fiction?  They won’t want a child who isn’t hankering, like them, for Armageddon?

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“It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved.” - Sam Harris

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Posted: 13 May 2009 04:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Thanks I.I. Dean Adel is in my opinion a national treasure, one of “our kind,” (highly skeptical) broadcasting to millions each weekday. Maybe you can catch him on line.

Antisocialdarwinist - 13 May 2009 02:07 AM

A while back, Salt Creek suggested that those who claim to believe in God are in reality just pretending to believe.

Returning to this OP question, another way of saying what Salt Creek may have intended is that belief is pretending to know. I say this because it seems to me that pretending to believe is equivalent to pretending to pretend to know.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 13 May 2009 07:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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unsmoked - 13 May 2009 06:51 PM

Pretending to believe?  No.  Most children really do believe in Santa.  Unlike frogs, we’re still a young species.  Rationality is still in its infancy.  What would you say, another million years before the majority can distinguish truth from fiction?


You’re conflating the (presumed) age of the species (what’s your referent?) with the age of individuals.

Our brains develop to where we can distinguish what’s real and what’s imaginary, but most of us reserve one area and remain children within that context. It’s not like children failing to distinguish between imagination when their experience is inadequate and their brains aren’t even complete, it’s like adults still “playing” with imaginary friends and fearing the boogey man under the bed and such. There’s a reason we recognize those things as childish behavior. It only gets curious when those protected categories of ideas appear in every significant way precisely the same as those recognizably childish notions and yet are taken deathly seriously by adults to the point that the ideas in that category even have a major influence on how the individual perceives and understands reality.

It’s a completely different ballgame.

Byron

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Posted: 13 May 2009 07:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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McCreason - 13 May 2009 10:37 AM

Belief in belief is definitely a player in all of this.


good one.

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Posted: 13 May 2009 09:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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unknown zone - 13 May 2009 09:42 AM

Belief is drastically different from knowledge, and that fact seems to elude the brain imaging folks for some unfortunate reason.

I’m not so sure I necessarily agree with that.  I think the difference lies more in the process than in the end result.

For example, if you told me there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard (to borrow one of Sam’s ideas) and I took your word for it, I’d say in that case I believed there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard.  On the other hand, if I dug up the backyard with a shovel and found the giant diamond for myself, then I’d know there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard.  (Even then, since I’m no expert on gemstones, the most I could say I knew for sure was that there was a large stone resembling a diamond buried in my backyard.)

I’m not sure the end results (between the process of believing and the process of knowing) are any different from each other:  in either case, connections between different sets of brain cells are formed.  I suppose you could argue that the strength of the connections vary; things you know might have stronger synaptic connections than things you believe.  But I’m not sure that’s always true.  It probably depends on the individual.

So the reason the brain imaging folks don’t get the difference between knowledge and belief may very well be that there is no difference, at least as far as the brain is concerned.

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Posted: 13 May 2009 11:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 14 May 2009 01:15 AM
unknown zone - 13 May 2009 09:42 AM

Belief is drastically different from knowledge, and that fact seems to elude the brain imaging folks for some unfortunate reason.

I’m not so sure I necessarily agree with that.  I think the difference lies more in the process than in the end result.

For example, if you told me there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard (to borrow one of Sam’s ideas) and I took your word for it, I’d say in that case I believed there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard.  On the other hand, if I dug up the backyard with a shovel and found the giant diamond for myself, then I’d know there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard.  (Even then, since I’m no expert on gemstones, the most I could say I knew for sure was that there was a large stone resembling a diamond buried in my backyard.)

I’m not sure the end results (between the process of believing and the process of knowing) are any different from each other:  in either case, connections between different sets of brain cells are formed.  I suppose you could argue that the strength of the connections vary; things you know might have stronger synaptic connections than things you believe.  But I’m not sure that’s always true.  It probably depends on the individual.

So the reason the brain imaging folks don’t get the difference between knowledge and belief may very well be that there is no difference, at least as far as the brain is concerned.

I was recently watching an episode of Babylon 5 (an often excellent series) and there was about a 2 minute discourse that fits here.  The character speaking (G’Kar for any B5 followers) has, much to his dismay, been taken as a guru and a number of followers hang on his every word.  One of them asks him “What is truth? What is God?”  G’Kar looks unhappy, then goes into a monologue the gist of which is that we construct our image of God through the process of searching for God.  The questioner, at the end of this quite excellent monologue says “but you haven’t told us what truth is or who God is.”  G’kar looks totally disgusted and says: “Truth is a river, God is the mouth of the river.”  All the characters sitting around nod knowingly and write this down, saying “Ah!” while G’kar looks at them like they are idiots. 

How does this fit?  A believer will, in their bible study, or whatever they do as part of their religious studies and practice, will construct an internal image of God, or Jesus, or Mohammad, or Krishna, or etc., in the same way that we construct an internal image of another person.  We then interact with that image—as said, it’s all going on in the brain and it’s only a matter of which part of the brain, the part where we deal with social relations or a part where we deal with abstract concepts and ideas.  Would be nice to have Bruce Burleson’s POV on this.

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Posted: 14 May 2009 04:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 14 May 2009 01:15 AM
unknown zone - 13 May 2009 09:42 AM

Belief is drastically different from knowledge, and that fact seems to elude the brain imaging folks for some unfortunate reason.

I’m not so sure I necessarily agree with that.  I think the difference lies more in the process than in the end result.

For example, if you told me there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard (to borrow one of Sam’s ideas) and I took your word for it, I’d say in that case I believed there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard.  On the other hand, if I dug up the backyard with a shovel and found the giant diamond for myself, then I’d know there was a giant diamond buried in my backyard.  (Even then, since I’m no expert on gemstones, the most I could say I knew for sure was that there was a large stone resembling a diamond buried in my backyard.)

I’m not sure the end results (between the process of believing and the process of knowing) are any different from each other:  in either case, connections between different sets of brain cells are formed.  I suppose you could argue that the strength of the connections vary; things you know might have stronger synaptic connections than things you believe.  But I’m not sure that’s always true.  It probably depends on the individual.

So the reason the brain imaging folks don’t get the difference between knowledge and belief may very well be that there is no difference, at least as far as the brain is concerned.


This is one of the points I’ve long made against faith-based belief. To a more disciplined (adult) intellect, I think belief approaches becoming a synonym for knowledge, barring equivocation of course. But belief is a fudge term. What it actually means is a bit vague, and it has various uses that are pretty similar, so using it tends to just confuse matters rather than to communicate anything clear or definitive.

Personally I’d much prefer if it’s primary use weren’t part of its palate. The secondary uses have plenty of solid function, but the primary use is pretty problematic a lot of the time, as well as routinely misused by “believer” types.

Byron

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Posted: 14 May 2009 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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I think the place where the rubber really meets the road for “belief” is with matters like “brand loyalty”, “buyer’s remorse”, and “morning-after syndrome”.

I think that what is being bandied about in studies of so-called “religious belief” falls under the rubric of “intimidation” and/or “brown-nosing”.

Sometimes, as with folks like burt, it’s an overdose of Yoda™ or Castaneda™. The patents of these brand names have expired, and the generic drug is now best referred to by its chemical name “Blogospheron fuckwitrate”.

[ Edited: 14 May 2009 06:59 AM by Traces Elk]
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