Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Brain Processes Facts and Beliefs Same Way


A new study was published recently by Jonas Kaplan and Sam Harris. Some interesting tidbits:
Up on a screen before them, participants would read declarative statements. Some were statements of religious belief, some of religious disbelief. Some were statements about more ordinary facts. Participants had to push buttons—indicating true or false—as the researchers watched their brains light up. Belief in God, disbelief in God, and belief in simple empirically verifiable facts all lit up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that governs your sense of self. We are, in some sense, what we believe.
The fMRI experiments do not pertain to these largest questions, of course. But they do show (again) what neuroscientists already know. "Intuition" and "reason" are not two separate activities. They're interconnected. From the brain's point of view, religious belief and empirical data are the same.
What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as "tables and chairs"). He says his results "cut against the quite prevalent notion that there's something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief."
"It is generally imagined," he wrote to me in an e-mail, "that scientific facts and human values represent distinct and incommensurable ways of speaking about the world. Consequently, most people assume that science will never be in a position to resolve ethical questions or to determine how human beings ought to live." Questions of gay marriage, the subjugation of women under the Taliban, a community's responsibility to its children: all these have been relegated to the realm of religion or "values." But, says Harris, the more we know, through science, about how people live—and how they think, and what makes them happy—the more real information we'll have about how best to live together on this planet.

To casual readers, this all may seem very obvious. Of course religious believers and disbelievers really do believe what they say! But it is not just interesting that we believe what we say, but that we believe what we say in the same way, neurologically speaking. Moreover, this study adds weight to the argument against the popular position espoused by such notables as Stephen J Gould that science and religion are somehow separate inquiries into "non-overlapping magisterium."

[Newsweek Article]

3 comments:

Daniel said...

I was right with it until the end when Harris makes an absurd leap of logic. Leaving aside for the moment how crude or grasp on neuroscience is, because the same part of the brain "lights up," matters of ethics suddenly fall under science's authority? I'm all in favor of the hard sciences (along with Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, and Philosophy) studying and trying to explain religion, or more broadly belief. But asserting an empirically valid sense of right and wrong?

Jay said...

Why the hell not? Why do we put up that wall between facts and morality? Maybe there is a wall. But let's find out if it exists before we positively assert that science cannot bring anything to the table.

Daniel said...

Because ontologically speaking, they're two different concepts. They are that way because we define them that way.

Science can certainly bring something to the table, as I said: study and explain belief and that will inform what we do with it. But to say that science can empirically identify good and evil runs against the way we chose to ascribe meaning to those abstract notions.