Who cares if God exists?

Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University and avowed atheist, has written a strange piece at the Templeton Big Questions website, “Why we see spirits and souls.”  He makes three claims.  First, just  because science can explain something—like religious belief or consciousness—as a byproduct of the brain, this doesn’t mean that thing isn’t real. (You can see where he’s going with this.)  But few of us deny that the phenomenon of consciousness exists (after all, we do experience pain and other qualia); the problem has been to explain where it comes from and how it may have evolved.

But after arguing that ephenomena are still phenomena, he then backtracks and says that we can’t distinguish between perception and reality, and that anyway it doesn’t matter:

One of the strangest insights to emerge from neuroscience is the distinction between perception and reality. We experience our perceptions, not reality. Ever since the cortical physiology of color was first explored in the 1960s by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, physiologists have understood that color does not exist in any absolute sense.

Whenever I hear this kind of sly denigration of our ability to apprehend an external reality (an ability that evolution of course would have favored), I’m reminded of this limerick:

There was a faith-healer of Deal

Who said, ‘Although pain isn’t real,

If I sit on a pin

And it punctures my skin

I dislike what I fancy I feel.’

When a rabbit perceives the approach of wavelengths corresponding to the morphology of a “fox,” he’d better flee, for he wouldn’t care for what he’d perceive as the consequences of staying.

But Graziano’s main point is that even though our brain can conceive of a God, and science might explain this away as an epiphenomenon rather than a real deity outside of ourselves, this doesn’t really matter:

Much of the modern clash between science and religion focuses on questions about whether God exists independently or is a construct of the brain and whether the soul lives on after the body or ends when the brain dies. Are these crucial religious questions? I would argue that they are not. For the vast majority of people, religion is a way of life. It is about community and music, place and food, comfort and emotional support. It is, like all of human culture and experience, a function of our peculiar neurobiology, and we should try to appreciate it as such.

To deny that God’s existence is a question of consequence is a unique strategy in the annals of accommodationism.  And, as is so often the case,  the words of Orwell apply:  “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”  Maybe Graziano appreciates the potted plants, stained glass windows, and evensong of the church, but how many people would still be religious if they knew absolutely that God did not exist?  If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs to get out of the lab more.

101 Comments

  1. Paula Kirby
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I am afraid ‘strange pieces’ are all we can expect from scientists writing for Templeton. Given that the whole business of Templeton is to distort the truth and pretend to find congruence where there is only contradiction, how could they possibly write sensible ones?

  2. Hempenstein
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    …a function of our peculiar neurobiology…

    Um, and just how does human neurobiology differ from, say, canine?

  3. Jacobus van Beverningk
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    “It is about community and music, place and food, comfort and emotional support”

    Oooh! So, it’s all about my local pub then?

    I think I’m going to have another religious experience tonight.

    • angelo feriante
      Posted December 9, 2010 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      YES!!!! HAHAHA So true!!

  4. Insightful Ape
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    The truth does matter.
    As evidenced by Templeton’s crusade against it.

  5. Jacobus van Beverningk
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    The first claim reminds me of the response of the man whose shrink just diagnosed him with paranoia:

    “Yeah, well, but the fact that I’m paranoid doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not being followed!”

  6. Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    The Gnu Atheists must be winning, if now the question of a god or soul existing is not to be asked. How better to not be disproved, if the question is not to be asked in the first place. Umm… there are probably too many negatives in that last sentence, but I am too sleepy to work it out :)

    Shorter: We can never be proved wrong if the question is not asked, so just don’t ask it.

  7. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Much of the modern clash between science and religion focuses on questions about whether God exists independently or is a construct of the brain and whether the soul lives on after the body or ends when the brain dies. Are these crucial religious questions? I would argue that they are not.

    Alrighty, then, we’re on the same page. It’s amusing to see this stuff from scholars when it would never, ever, ever, be formally uttered by even the most liberal of religious bodies. (It is, of course, their tolerance for it that makes them enlightened.)

    • Tulse
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      No religious person I have known would think the actual existence of their god is irrelevant. This accommodationist view is profoundly patronizing to believers and their beliefs. Once again, it is the Gnu Atheists who show far more respect for the religious, by taking their beliefs as genuinely held, and as worthy of examination and rational discussion. Accommodationists treat religion as “the opiate of the masses”.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Very good point. I had reacted before actually reading the whole piece. That I’m atheist but not anti-theist stuff is truly insulting. (I’m on your side, you poor dear children.) But…Here’s your fee, run along now.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        How about the truly religious person for whom the idea of god is inconsequential. I refer here specifically to UUs and the small but growing number of non-theist Christians. (Michael Ruse told me you can’t be a Christian and not believe in God, but he didn’t cite a valid reference.)

        • Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

          You’ve met Buddhists. :)

        • Rob
          Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          Given that the central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus is the son of God, not believing in God invalidates that belief.

    • Shatterface
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t our ‘peculiar neurobiology’ come to an end when we kick the bucket, making the continued existence or non-existence of a soul of vital importance to religious believers?

  8. Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    One fruitful way to refute the “just because science can explain religious belief does not mean that those beliefs are false” straw man is to state that the claim is not that religious beliefs are false because they have a natural origin, but rather, since we know that religions and religious beliefs have a well-explained natural origin, there is no need to appeal to a supernatural origin of religion or religious beliefs.

    It may, of course, be logically possible that they do have a supernatural origin, just like it is logically possible that Obama is an alien reptile that has come to earth to enslave humanity for all eternity, but is it empirically probable? No.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      since we know that religions and religious beliefs have a well-explained natural origin

      More than that, we know that they have a well-explained historical origin. In modern times, we’ve been able to watch the growth of at least one world religion (LDS) from the time that its scriptures were fabricated. This is how we are, and this is how it happens.

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        We can even see the exact same thing quite clearly in the origins of Christianity.

        Consider: we go from Philo, who was there at the time and didn’t notice anything; to Paul, who knew no Earthly biographical details of his salvation god; to the Gospels, which are fanciful and contradictory; to Pliny the Younger, who saw Christianity as a wacky and dangerous new cult; to Justin Martyr, who argued for Jesus by equating him in excruciating detail with a seemingly-endless line of Pagan gods; and to Lucian, who detailed the story of a conman who convinced the gullible Christians to adopt all sorts of Pagan myths as their own.

        Cheers,

        b&

  9. Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    As you would say … potted plants, ergo Jesus.

  10. Juha Savolainen
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Of course, for the vast majority of people, struggle against heretics and witches is a way of life. It is about community and music, place and food, comfort and emotional support, erm…
    a nice communal way of keeping warm during those cold winter days…

  11. MosesZD
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    …religion is a way of life. It is about community and music, place and food, comfort and emotional support.

    He forgot bigotry. Hate mongering. Acculturation of misogyny. Make false claims about the universe and morality.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Gnu Atheist sez:

    “Gnu Accommodationism sez the question of gods doesn’t matter. So it sez don’t ask the question, because it matters.

    This is a question of Supernaturalist Superposition.”

  13. Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Courting, cleaving to, and institutionalizing non-evidential belief is for the most part dangerous. Our being able to perceive danger is valuable as in recognizing that a ferocious wild animal is a serious problem for our well being.

    When a mild-mannered animal approaches, we may ignore it (or touch it has lovely fur). When the majority of religious believers globally can be perceived as mild-mannered animals, we will be able then to ignore them.

    • Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      The approval of moderate religious beliefs are similar to people thinking that all small cats must be friendly just because the only small cats that they have ever seen are domestic and friendly. In that way, domestic cats belie the innate ferocity of the feline nature, as moderate believers give respectability to the very notion that faith is benign.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        A cat argument always wins, so I vote Thread Win.

  14. Darrell E
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Michael Graziano quoted from the OP:

    Ever since the cortical physiology of color was first explored in the 1960s by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, physiologists have understood that color does not exist in any absolute sense.

    Sure it does. There are absolutely discernible, predictable differences between different wavelengths of EM radiation that can be verified by anyone at any time to be the same. The labels we use to identify different wavelengths may be arbitrary, but it should be obvious that the word is not the thing. Sure, there are some people who perceive colors differently enough than the norm, and these people are understood to have atypical color vision. People with “normal” color vision, the large majority, agree on what red, yellow, blue, orange, green and so on are.

    Is this guy a bad scientist or a bad philosopher?

    • Kevin
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      I got into an extended discussion over this a while back. The person said I couldn’t describe “red” to a blind person…and I went on to describe the exact EM frequency agreed upon as “red”. (I had to look it up, obviously – I’m not that nerdy!)

      He could not see that the description I provided was perfectly specific and met his challenge (without even having to leave Wiki). It’s a peculiar bias the sighted have against describing visual phenomena.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        I assume he conflated describing the observation with the perception process. Like confusing the experiment result with the experiment.

        • Darrell E
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          Was he honestly confused, or was he creating his own reality to fit the world view he had already committed himself to believe in?

      • Tulse
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        So if I gave you the exact polarization that activates photoreceptors in squid, you would consider that a description of what a squid sees?

        • gillt
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          Sure, if by using it you were able to manipulate and predicted squid behavior. Then you could investigate the underlying neurobiology, then the genetic component, etc.

          • Tulse
            Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

            So what does polarized light look like to a squid?

            • gillt
              Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

              Squid use it to communicate with conspecifics. Learn the “language” and you’ll have a reasonably accurate way of describing what they see.

      • GrueBleen
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        You could even use it to describe Polaroid photography too, couldn’t you.

  15. Jeremy
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    One of the strangest insights to emerge from neuroscience is the distinction between perception and reality. We experience our perceptions, not reality.

    There’s someone who’s philosophically illiterate! Berkeley? Kant?

  16. Kevin
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Wow. The perfect storm of stupid. Hard to believe it could be encapsulated into one shiny diamond of inanity.

    I have often asked people who claim “nothing is real” to take their right hand, place it in a meat grinder of sufficient capacity and power, and hit the “on” switch. Not surprisingly, no one has taken me up on that offer.

    I will agree that some churches are beautiful places. I travel extensively, and when in Europe, I make it a point to see the cathedral of the city I’m in. It’s usually full of art and history. Which is WHY I’m traveling. That doesn’t mean the Christian god is real; any more than Ganesh is real if I visit India.

    I wonder if he actually read that last paragraph — is he really saying that we should be religious because of the pot luck dinners and the execrable singing? And that matters more than the truth claims of the religion?

    He should be a woman traveling solo in Saudi Arabia without a burqa. Religion is not benign. It is only evil by varying degrees.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Maybe evil by varying degrees, but we should remember what religions like Christianity did when they had the power. The degree of evil probably depends a lot on the degree of power that they have been or are being accorded, not on the religions themselves, which, as Hitchens rightly says, poison everything.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      I have often asked people who claim “nothing is real” to take their right hand, place it in a meat grinder of sufficient capacity

      I’ve used the “hit yourself over the head with the hammer” [guess I'm too squeamish], but when you phrase it like that I realize belief in solipsism or relativism has the problem of suffering every as much as beliefs in omnipotent gods.

      Who would dream up such a world?

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        “Who would dream up such a world?”

        I blame you! the rest of us are just figments of your imagination, anyway.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          No figment of mine would be a dick … oh, wait, I’m male.

      • jdhuey
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        Reality: that which can kill you, even if you don’t believe in it.

    • Brian
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      no one has taken me up on that offer. If you’re attacking Berkeleyan idealism, then I’m not surprised. I think it’s total bunk, but saying do this thing with your body is no better at refuting it than Samuel Johnson kicking a rock, hurting his foot, and exclaiming ‘I refute it thus!”. Berkeley didn’t say nothing was real at all. Real for him was real, just ideas, and no matter.

      Another limerick:
      There was a young man who said “God
      Must find it exceedingly odd

      To think that the tree
      Should continue to be

      When there’s no one about in the quad.”

      “Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
      I am always about in the quad.

      And that’s why the tree
      Will continue to be

      Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

    • Tulse
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I have often asked people who claim “nothing is real” to take their right hand, place it in a meat grinder of sufficient capacity and power, and hit the “on” switch.

      That’s a rather dramatic updating of Samuel Johnson.

  17. Hitch
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I’m not concerned about this one. There certainly are plenty of chances to find biological correlates for “god experience”.

    Once we get there this book will not really merit shelf-space expect for historic recording.

    And if it doesn’t then we have a real serious problem. In that we have biologically grounded “chosen people”. Whee.

  18. Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    If he’s trying to justify Unitarianism, then perhaps we have something to debate.

    The vast majority of religion has dogma. As soon as the tiniest iota of dogma enters the picture, his argument dissolves in a puff of equivocation.

    It’s funny, though… he kind of describes what Judaism (my wife’s family’s religion, meaning I have no painful associations with it from young childhood) has come to mean to me. He has described what religion can mean to an atheist. No surprise I guess, considering he’s an atheist… but isn’t that a little insulting to all the theists?

  19. Eric MacDonald
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read anything in philosophy of perception for nearly forty years, so I have no idea what philosophers are saying nowadays, but surely it is just wrong to say that we ‘perceive’ qualia. What we perceive are things, houses, dogs, cats, people, cars, countryside, etc. The difference between perceptions and sense experience is really quite stark. If you want to concentrate on the specific ‘sense data’ or ‘qualia’ you have to make a special sort of phenomenological switch, something like impressionist painters, especially, say, the pointillistes, tried to make, but then you are looking at the impression that the things that you see make on your sense receptors, not perceiving the things themselves.

    This becomes very clear when we listen to a blind person speaking about sound, and the very detailed, almost sight like way in which some blind persons seem to perceive sound to structure a world (much, one imagines, as bats do with far more sensitivity). Normally, we do not hear the different modulations of sound, but we would if we depended upon sound to orient ourselves in space.

    But all of these things have objective correlates. We can give good reasons for speaking about the various sense impressions (to use Hume’s language) that we can discriminate, but we can also study how people miss all sorts of visual cues from their visual field, or, as is the case with sighted person, so many of the auditory cues from the sound field. And all these various differences give us an idea of what we mean when we speak of objectivity.

    All of these things are simply missing when it comes to so-called ‘spiritual experiences’. No one denies that there are such experiences. They have been studied in some detail. But none of them give us any reason to suppose that they provide evidence for an objective world ‘out there’, independent of the experiences, which those experiences are (accusatively) of. No one has used them to build up a convincing ‘picture’ of what is really there.

    This kind of religious apologetics is deeply dishonest. It’s not only bad philosophy; it’s bad science; because we can use people’s experiences not only to study consciousness, but to study the world that that consciousness is consciousness of. To back off from those commitments, and to limit oneself some kind of levelling of experiences, so that none is either more or less significant for our understanding of the world is simply to have abandoned concern for truth altogether. It is a way of savouring the expectation of eating your piece of cake, and eating it at the same time. All complete poppycock, and “Big Questions” turns into “Big Fibs” while they think we are not looking. But, of course, it was Big Fibs from the very start. Religion lives off the big lie, and keeps trying to find different ways of telling it. Like every con man, they’re looking for a way to hide the machinery. This may be the latest, but it won’t be the last.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      I wouldn’t be so convinced of Michael Graziano’s atheism either. I am reminded that Alister McGrath uses his childhood ‘atheism’ to give himself street cred. I am sceptical of McGrath’s much repeated claim to have been an atheist. It seems to me that an atheist who can’t distinguish between gods and his automobile is perhaps much closer to theism than he claims.

      • Notagod
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        There’s nothing a christian won’t do if it might cause its jesus to rise.

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Hahahaha – brilliant last line, Eric.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      And if “qualia” is part of the epiphenomena of the minds sensory processes, it is highly illogical that the rest of the body doesn’t get similar attributes. Metabolism, blood circulation, muscle work, intestinal work, …: they should all have the same process data. What made the mind so special? (There is a true “demarcation problem” for philosophers.)

      Oh, I forgot. It’s the remaining seat of “soul”, “hearth”, and “stomach” “qualia”.

      But what happened with “the humors” then? I’ll get the vapors yet.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Speaking of philosophic mind “qualia”, we have also philosophic mind zombie clones.

      And here is why engineers are forever banned from philosophic conferences – _they_ can stop cloning around.

      [HT Pharyngula]

  20. Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Anybody else notice that the whole BQO site isn’t taking comments right now? Due to both technical and editorial issues. Now Dreher has said he’s suspending posting. He’s also taken down many recent posts. What gives?

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    If gods doesn’t matter, how come that Massachusetts Congressional candidate Mike Stopa runs on the ticket with Obama as atheist?

    Oh, I’m a dick, I should also mention that Stopa (R) runs on AGW denial (TM).

    It is probably because his PhD is in Computational Material Science. Yet another EE for the win!

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Wait a second. Are all you guys closeted anti-American radicals?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        I’m not even a-American. I worked in Texas for two years. Hi y’all!

  22. Antonio Manetti
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    For the vast majority of people, religion is a way of life. It is about community and music, place and food, comfort and emotional support. It is, like all of human culture and experience, a function of our peculiar neurobiology, and we should try to appreciate it as such.

    What nonsense.

    Religion is more than its externally observable phenomena. Believers live in a world created by belief (no cheap shots please).

    Furthermore, as Wittgenstein pointed out, to communicate at all, language requires a shared ‘world’. Thus, ‘If a lion could speak, we would be unable to understand him’.

    • Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Actually, interspecies communication is quite common. My own resident feline deity is, right now as I type asking me to rub his belly (and, of course, I’m obliging him — good thing I can put the wireless keyboard in my lap). He also understands me, for example when I tell him how scared I get when he tries to jump up on the stove.

      Much of our communication is non-verbal, and therefore difficult to translate into English. But, if you make even a cursory attempt, I’m sure you’ll realize that interspecies communication, even in limited form, is the norm, not the exception. Sure, a mockingbird might not discuss epistemology with a tomcat, but it certainly does a good job of letting the cat know when it’s trespassing.

      Cheers,

      b&

  23. Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Graziano commits a form of the genetic fallacy routinely diagnosed by philosopher John Searle. Graziano falsely thinks that by explaining the causal mechanism of perception it proves that there’s no reality. Silliness. Anyhow, if there’s no reality, then Graziano oughtn’t care if I continue to believe that there is one.

  24. Shatterface
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Shorter Graziano:

    ‘There IS no spoon!’

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    WEIT faitheist sum up: “Who cares if God is a phallus?”

  26. Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Since I was alerted to this online discussion, I thought I’d weigh in. I’m Dr. Graziano, the author of the reputedly horrific article on the human tendency to perceive spirits.

    Thanks for the views and comments: I actually do appreciate the discussion.

    But calling my work “accommodationism” is a bit off the mark. My particular description is so far from accommodating that it tends to outrage all sides of the issue. The religious are outraged at the suggestion that God and Soul are constructs of the brain with no external reality. The type of God I am offering is not the one they want. Yet my sociological bent, describing religion as a cultural phenomenon that’s unlikely to die out no matter what science shows or doesn’t show, but instead is likely merely to adapt, is anathema to the atheistic side of the culture war.

    In taking this in-between position, what I am doing is sticking to concepts that I think are likely to be correct. The us-vs-them mentality of the culture wars tends to drive people into bunkers where they take on somewhat exaggerated and sometimes incorrect positions.

    My point about perception being often as important to people as objective reality is probably too subtle to put into a short essay, and certainly too subtle for the present brief comment. But I refer you to my book, “God, Soul, Mind, Brain” which outlines the concept in great detail.

    Thanks again (sincerely) for the rebuttal article and the many comments.

    MG

    • Shatterface
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      How do I know you are Graziano and not merely qualia that I am experiencing as Graziano?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Here’s an exaggerated position: the existence of God and of the soul aren’t “crucial questions” for most religious people. It that supposed to be a description of reality, or is it merely wish-thinking?

      • articulett
        Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:12 am | Permalink

        I don’t see how they can’t be crucial questions– questions really for everybody. If there really is such a thing as a soul that lives happily or miserably ever after based on the whims of an invisible being, then I think we’d all have a vested interest in finding out more about these souls and this being who is said to control everything. What person wouldn’t be eager to refine their understanding if such things were shown to exist–especially given that the stakes were ETERNAL?

        When I was a kid I thought scientists should be testing the various prophets and infallible leaders so we could all know who was the “true prophet”. Surely they’d be better and performing miracles or prophesy or something.

        The problem is, there’s no evidence to build upon. Gods and souls are indistinguishable from invisible friends, Thetans, sprites, and demons. If there are real prophets they’re indistinguishable from fake ones, and everyone is going to hell according to at least one religion if not many.

        To me, understanding that despite eons of belief, there was no evidence for souls was a revelation– if scientists hadn’t found evidence of such things, then why would a I think any guru could. There was no evidence that any of them knew any more than any other when it came to invisible beings. It cut down on the angst of worrying that I might not believing in the right invisible guy with the right fervency and following the right rubric.

        I often ask theists if they’d want to know if there was no god– but many are offended that I’d even ask the question. I think a lot of people WOULD rather believe a lie than to find out that they were as deluded as myth believers of yore. But I’m not one of those people. And Michael Graziano doesn’t appear to be that way either. But I guess he is implying that the majority of the religious are.

        I doubt you’d find many theists saying they don’t care whether god and souls are real. But there are probably a good proportion who don’t want to consider that they may not be.

    • Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Dr. Graziano, I think the fundamental failure of your thesis is that color perception, though subjective and variable, has a readily identifiable source that can be subjected to scientific examination. On the other hand, the Higgs notwithstanding, no such phenomenon can be identified as the source of perceptions of gods. Worse, perceptions of gods are indistinguishable from perceptions of ghosts, goblins, faeries, Leprechauns, and everything else that goes “bump” in the night.

      I think you’ll find those of us you label as anti-theists (I prefer “anti-theism-ist,” myself, since it’s theism I object to, not theists) not only value truth above pleasant delusions, we see the harm from both the beliefs themselves (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”) and from the faith-based, anti-scientific thinking that supports the fantasies (“God is love; God wrote the Bible; the Bible says to kill witches; therefore killing witches shows them that you love them.”) and find it far outweighs any positives that may be gained from the pleasant fantasies.

      I think it certain that all modern religions will someday fade and be forgotten, just as has happened to all ancient religions. For the first time in history, we have reason to hope that they will be supplanted not by newer superstitions but by reason and evidence — or, at least, by uncritical acceptance of truths revealed by reason and evidence.

      So why on Earth would you pick now of all times as a time to give the mental disease of religious thinking a free pass?

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      describing religion as a cultural phenomenon that’s unlikely to die out no matter what science shows or doesn’t show, … , is anathema to the atheistic side of the culture war.

      “Culture war” is a US term with unclear political connotation. My preferred social description is “in the tradition of Enlightenment”.

      This isn’t anathema to atheism, it is an acknowledged theme:

      “No one can “eradicate” ideas or practices anyway. (But perhaps make them outdated.)

      I wouldn’t want to replace a (dystopian) faith such as post-semitism with another (utopian) faith such as the feasibility of eradicating religion.”

      But calling my work “accommodationism” is a bit off the mark. My particular description is so far from accommodating that it tends to outrage all sides of the issue. The religious are outraged at the suggestion that God and Soul are constructs of the brain with no external reality.

      The difference between believing in “constructs of the brain with no external reality” and “constructs with no external reality” (ideal deism) doesn’t seem to matter. And deism is the fall back option of theologists and accommodationists both.

      It is the unsubstantiated belief that is the problem, no matter where it originates.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      The reply is graciously appreciated, but

      In taking this in-between position, what I am doing is sticking to concepts that I think are likely to be correct.

      PZ: Squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Oh, snap!

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        Well, to be fair to Dr. Graziano, I don’t think he’s aiming for “the middle ground” out of a dogmatic belief that the truth lies midway between the two most extreme propositions.

        Instead, he seems (to me) to have honestly come to his conclusion based on the observation that there’s no absolute method for determining which perceptions are the result of external stimuli and which are the result of internal fabrication. While that may be a logically defensible position, I find it to be every bit as uselessly correct as solipsism.

        That is to say, his conclusions are worng, but only because his premises inexorably led him to them. Many other accommodationalists start with the premise that accommodationalism is desirable in and of itself and then seek or manufacture evidence to support that position — and, unlike Phil Plait, I’m not afraid to give an example. I don’t think that’s what Dr. Graziano is about here.

        I could be worng, of course….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

          I agree with that the aiming of the argument doesn’t start with a middle ground, but as you can see I believe he reached it, whether intentional or not.

          I’m rather uneasy with second guessing individual motivation.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      In fact, instead of anathema the side-stepping of religion is now an internet outrage/meme.

      PZ Myers on the future of religion as knitting: “we don’t want to take it away from them … treated on the level it should be treated … and really doesn’t affect their life as it has been [doing] so far”. ["pharyngula myers knitting" returns ~43 000 results.]

  27. Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps some clarification: I am fairly certain there is an objective reality, independent of the perceptual models constructed by my brain. As an ex-physicist, and also as a neuroscientist who has spent some years studying perceptual physiology, I am also fairly certain that most people, maybe all of us, practice some form of unintentional solipsism. A great deal of what we think we know about the objective world is actually a simplified and partially invented perceptual model constructed by the brain. Smooth surfaces, sharp borders, colors, solid objects, most of these concepts are, well, simplified ways to understand and interact with the reality.

    Intentionality is, as far as I can see, in the same category. Intentionality is a mental construct, a narrative we make up to explain action. When we sample wavelengths reflecting from an object, we construct inferred attributes of the object’s surface that we call color. When we see action, we construct inferred attributes that we call intentions. In this view, which I suspect is probably correct, “things that go bump in the night” ie the entire spiritual world is ultimately attributable to a type of computation that has obvious evolutionary advantage. It is the process, critical to social intelligence, of observing action and inferring mental states from those actions. The inferred mental states are, in a sense, simple predictive models that allow us to interact more successfully with other brains.

    Things get quite interesting when this computational machinery for constructing models of minds goes to work on actions, like floods and earth quakes, that are not really actuated by other brains. People are prone to see intentionality in those events.

    To quote my own book, “What is God but the perception of intentionality on a global scale? It is the perception of a single, unified mind behind every otherwise inexplicable event.”

    Yet for all that, I still absolutely refuse to attack religion. I have an intellectual position but not an emotional hostility. I am more interested in religion as a natural phenomenon worthy of study. If I am going to go to war culturally speaking, I’d rather defend the earth’s biosphere from industry than defend atheism from the religious.

    • Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      Dr. Graziano, If the spirit world is the result of hard-wired cognitive circuits giving worng answers, then shouldn’t we be as carefully and understandably dismissive of it as we are of optical illusions? That is, we should recognize when we are prone to, for example, incorrectly estimate lengths (such as in the famous v >-< illusion) and take pains to correct for the deficiency; therefore, we should also recognize when we are prone to incorrectly attribute intentionality to inanimate objects and take pains to avoid falling into that mental trap.

      And, while I certainly agree that the biosphere is in dire need of defense, particularly from industry, I would disagree that atheism needs any defense from the religious. Rather, it is human rights and the scientific method that need to be protected from the religious. Which of those three is most important could rightly be debated, but I think even you'll agree that we need solid science to save our biosphere, and that religiously-inspired attacks on biology, geology, and even astronomy are in direct opposition to the science necessary for the task. Right now there is a child who would otherwise be interested in biology who would grow up to solve some critical environmental puzzle but for the fact that she lives in Kansas and her parents have convinced her that Darwin is Satan.

      For, when it comes right down to it…religion truly is actively opposed to science, and it must always be. Some religious people certainly accept some limited forms of science, but all place absolute limits, declaring certain topics to be forever off-limits to rational inquiry. If the only limit was the question of the proximate cause of the Big Bang, that might not be such a terrible thing for any discipline except for cosmology, but we instead find ourselves in a world in which half of Americans reject the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and where a quarter or more think the planet was poofed into existence about the same time the Egyptians were perfecting the art of brewing beer.

      In such an environment, religious belief isn't merely an inconvenience for those who don't believe; it's an active enemy to the very survival of the species. The same half of Americans who reject Evolution also think Jesus will manifest himself in their lifetimes, and many of them would be happy to see a global thermonuclear war as the catalyst that brings that about. And, while some Christians are environmentalists based on the commandments in Genesis to be good stewards of the land, even more are anti-environmentalists based on the belief that it doesn't matter because Jesus will be here soon, anyway.

      If you are sincere in your assertion that the biosphere is in sufficient danger to merit defense, you should reexamine your aversion to offending believers.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Here’s the optical illusion I was referring to. The forum misinterpreted the text as an HTML tag and swallowed it whole….

        http://missleaman.wordpress.com/2007/11/29/optical-illusions-2/

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Ken Pidcock
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

          Ooh, Ooh, call on me. The very coolest visual stuff is from the Purves lab. And it supports both you and Professor Graziano, because the point is that the misperception is adaptively essential.

          • Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

            Yes, certainly — Purves is the bestest of the bestest.

            It would hardly surprise me that there are evolutionary advantages to these kinds of misperceptions. Indeed, I’d be surprised if there weren’t advantages. Surely it must take additional wiring to make us see things worng, and that must come at a cost, no? Therefore, one would expect some benefit greater than the cost.

            But my point doesn’t at all depend on the cost or benefit of misperception, merely on the fact that it exists and we can recognize it for what it is.

            The fact that our brains tend to make us think that the erupting volcano is angry at us doesn’t actually mean that the erupting volcano is angry at us. And whether or not the erupting volcano really is angry at us is entirely unrelated to whether or not there is an evolutionary benefit to thinking that it is. In this context, all that matters is that the erupting volcano is a mindless geophysical phenomenon, and that we must be careful to not let our natural instinct convince us otherwise.

            At least, not for any decisions that depend on truth and reality. For entertainment or artistic purposes, of course, all bets are off….

            Cheers,

            b&

    • Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      So don’t attack religion then; fine; de gustibus non est disputandum. But there’s a lot of territory between not attacking religion and saying that questions about “whether God exists independently or is a construct of the brain and whether the soul lives on after the body or ends when the brain dies” are not crucial religious questions. There’s also a lot of territory between not attacking religion and saying that “for the vast majority of people, religion is a way of life” (implying “to the exclusion of a set of substantive beliefs about god and the soul and life after death”). You’re doing more than not attacking religion in that passage; you’re providing it with protective cover.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for commenting again. It provides me the opportunity to apologize for my previous remark, which mischaracterized your position.

      Please understand the we are not so much interested in depriving believers of comfort and emotional support as relieving them of the anxiety of doubt. If you’ve never been asked to believe, you may not understand that but, trust me, supporting religion is more often than you might wish supporting mental slavery.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      Perception and intention as constructs, fine. That doesn’t affect science, and it doesn’t necessarily constitute intentional solipsism.

      But where you may see a fabled and aggressive militaristic framed “war culturally speaking”, I see the tradition of the observed Enlightenment.

      It is that simple, there is freedom of thought and speech as well as freedom of religion, and there is strength in all of that.

      It is in the perspective of the Enlightenment that questions “whether God exists independently or is a construct of the brain and whether the soul lives on after the body or ends when the brain dies” are important. Because we can answer them and we can enlighten people, and sway them from wandering in the darkness of religious ignorance. Because we can influence people with facts, and say them from harming others with ignorance.

      This is an old tradition of science. Ironically you call Huxley anti-science for his efforts of accommodation of religion in the then educational system that didn’t separate between teaching religion and about religion very well. But I would argue that the scientific anti-theism of Huxley, in general an opponent of organized religion, isn’t what is needed to follow through with the tradition of the Enlightenment.

      What is needed for “freedom of science and education”, the long sought for freedom of Enlightenment, is the recognition of science anti-theism, that religion is antithetical to the consistence of science and science consistence is antithetical to religion.

      Coincidentally it will help a long time social goal of putting religion in a proper and safe place alongside knitting. It is a win-win strategy.

  28. MadScientist
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    The short story: I worship money, and Templeton has plenty of it. If I say all the right things by Templeton, I might get some money.

    I’d just like to dig up the corpse of Pascal for a day. Let’s say there *is* a god just like in the bible. The old testament shows that it is a malevolent and capricious spirit. The new testament shows it is a sadistic and malevolent spirit. For the past 2000 years it has avoided contacting humans just to give them the impression that gods don’t really exist – just so that it can get its kicks out of torturing you for believing the wrong thing. Now should people be concerned that such a god exists? Wouldn’t they want to suck up to it and be happy in paradise rather than tortured forever by the masochistic bastard?

    Now spot all the fallacies in that piece …

  29. articulett
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I bet a lot of people would be very interesting in knowing if their preacher didn’t believe that god existed.

    I also think that believers would find it interesting that a growing percentage of scientists no longer believe in gods or souls.

  30. Posted August 24, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    “If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs to get out of the lab more.”
    On the contrary, if you don’t think that is true for many (and maybe even most) mainstream churchgoers, then maybe *you* should go to church more!(or at least talk respectfully to some intelligent people who do)

    P.S. And it might also help to try applying a bit of integrity to your characterization of what people you criticize actually say.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink

      Ironically you put up your own integrity-violating strawman: Coyne said “everyone”, so “many (and maybe even most)” would not contradict even if true.

      [/leaves because of the dense stench of so many strawmen burning]

      • Posted August 25, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        Of course he said “anyone” because he was being a dick. The point is that Graziano did *not*.
        So eat your own straw dickhead.

        • Posted August 25, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          P.S. …and also, of course, you didn’t deserve that last blast. Your misinterpretation of my intent was probably an honest mistake. But I do enjoy being a dick sometimes – at least when the audience is tough enough to take it.

          • articulett
            Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            Ah… so you are being a dick for “good reasons” in your mind.

  31. articulett
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if there is even a single theist who will admit to not caring whether gods or souls exist.

  32. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    It may interest in the context that there is a new result that disproves the existence of christian gods: if a quantum system has hidden variables from omnipotent gods interactions, any interaction at all, free will is violated. [Actually I suspect that the claim is old hat, but it is a nifty and strongest possible formulation.]

    The “free will” definition is along the lines I prefer for one’s mind model: ability to choose.

    Technically it is here revised by quantum entanglement so that Alice (the typical quantum physics prime observer) loses free will if there is mutual information between her choice and the system she chooses on. If “experimenter Alice misses one single bit of free will – that is if the mutual information between her choice and the local variables is one bit”.

    [Yep, still maintaining that even if there is no "free will" in actual physics, it is a useful concept for analysis. It's like the existence of "sets", "integers" and other such inventions we play with.]

    Continued omnipotence means no free creations. You can’t have it both ways. But maybe christians don’t care whether their religious text’s gods exist or not.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:29 am | Permalink

      Oops, that came out ambiguous: “even if there is no “free will” in actual physics”. Here I mean in any other sense (say, philosophical) than just ability to choose, a function easily observed in filters, cells, et cetera.

  33. efrique
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    … questions about whether God exists independently or is a construct of the brain and whether the soul lives on after the body or ends when the brain dies. Are these crucial religious questions?

    Too bloody right they are crucial questions. If God is *a construct of the brain* and religion is just a place where we can get a bit of community and feelgood-vibes, we can toss religion wholesale, because it assuredly does a great deal of harm. I can point to a thousand ways it leads to death, pain, illness, misery and unwarranted guilt.

    We can get our socializing and “feel-goods” in other ways – indeed we can turn our now much freer minds to finding even better ways to get those things.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Here is another way the question affect people:

    Doctor’s faith affect end-of-life care, religious doctors tend to not discuss and suggest options for care, presumably giving the patient a lower quality care, or at least immorally make decisions in the patients stead.

  35. Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, yes, more sophisticated,silly sophistry! Yes, some atheists just can’t say no to woo! That’s why I call myself a naturalist, rationalist and skeptic. However, I do call myself a new atheist who calls woo woo!What is with these other atheists?

  36. theinvisiblegods
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    This is an excellent post. Fine work and well written. Thoughtful and accurate. Fine job!


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