Blurring the line between science and philosophy

How do we use science and logic to carve off unnecessary, made up and “pre-loved” conclusions?

When religious belief is put under a scientific scrutiny, a curious protection mechanism (cognitive dissonance or “outrage”) kicks-in and believers come out all guns blazing.

A great example is can be seen in the recent New Scientist article somewhat controversially titled “Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God”. The title is a little on the sensationalist side of the equation but it hasn’t stopped believers from admonishing the research the story is actually about.

Scientifically, the article deals with research into the following observations:

  • Under stress people will find meaning in random noise where there is none (to the point of invoking supernatural causation)
  • The human mind has an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect that attributes meaning, design and purpose to natural phenomenon where there isn’t any inherent meaning (mountains, rocks, clouds)
  • The mind has a natural propensity towards dualistic intuition (common-sense dualism).

The studies are all legitimate scientific enterprises into how human beings create meanings from environmental data interpreted by the senses. The research concludes that humans have a natural tendency to create supernatural meanings and that this is a default mechanism of the brain that even atheists never fully get rid of.

This all fits within the existing scientific framework of mind, meaning and attribution so the results though interesting, are hardly startling.

Case study: Attempting to put supernatural belief on the same stage as science

Kenneth Hynek at http://www.kennethhynek.net (no longer active) wrote a piece about the research that advocated, up front, a dismissal of such research as a polemic. His premise is that the research, because it mentions irrationality and God belief, has overstepped its bounds.

He writes that the conclusions of the scientists was probably due to their atheistic bias. This is assuming the researchers are atheists, something which isn’t stated in the article and is irrelevant anyway given these ideas pass through peer review.

He then proceeds to layout a case for why the scientists are injecting their own leanings and philosophy into the study conclusions. He claims the conclusion that our minds create God is a dysteleological argument, and therefore not science because science is teleologically neutral.

This is legal ease for: science does not assume design and purpose in nature, so the attempt to explain God belief as natural is dysteleological (an attempt to argue against God’s existence from poor design). He says that a reductionist approach to the human body (here the mind) is dysteleological. This is nonsense as you will find if you read the New Scientist story.

The crux of Kenneth’s argument is a good lesson, oft misunderstood, about the difference between science, philosophy and pseudoscience so it is worth going over here. Kenneth writes:

You assert that our brains create “the god concept,” but from the same evidence I derive the supposition that our brains are designed to respond to the existence of a (very real) God. Both conjectures are of a philosophical nature, and the scientific evidence “supports” both conclusions, in as much as empirical data can be said to support philosophy in the first place…

…Yes, it’s possible that the mind invents God because it can perceive other minds and projects this ability out into the natural environment. But it’s equally possible that the ability to perceive other minds includes the ability to perceive, incompletely, the mind of God.

In science we are constrained to the evidence and the conclusions drawn from sound logic. You can’t just make a bunch of nonsense up and say, here you go, this is equally as possible as what person X claims. This isn’t science. To say something is “equally possible” doesn’t say anything about the possibility – something is either possible or not possible.

False equivalence

The “equally” is an attempt to denote probability, which is in the realm of science. In short, possible solutions or conclusions are useless – anyone could sit down under tree all day and make up possible alternative explanations. What this argument of “equally possible” implies is that both ideas start from the same place. Therein lies the fallacy.

The conclusion that “it’s equally possible that the ability to perceive other minds includes the ability to perceive, incompletely, the mind of God” has no foundation whatsoever in anything else we know and therefore, by Occam’s Razor, we can eliminate it as a possible alternative (unless some good reason arises in future that makes the claim more plausible).

This would mean finding evidence for some or all of the unknown factors needed to verify the claim, God being the most obvious. Claims that are untestable, and therefore unknowable by any epistemological standard, are carved off straight away. This is the kind of claim Kenneth is making, because by definition it can never be answered.

The corollary – that “beliefs are formed by a biological brain and that an overactive sense of cause and effect leads to invoking supernatural causation” is not contradicted by existing science. In fact, the prediction that minds will tend find meaning where there is none stems from other hypotheses of human interaction with the environment.

By the way, the definition of Occam’s Razor as stated by Wikipedia is:
The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.

Conclusion

Ironically, in arguing that philosophy is being called upon instead of rational reasoning and evidence, Kenneth succumbs to the pure philosophical rambling he is accusing the scientists of.

This “equally possible” brainstorming seems to be an attempt to even the playing field so that an implausible belief is characterised to be as plausible as a tested and supported claim. It necessarily requires diminishing the role of evidence in conclusions and elevating nonsense well above its justified level.

The researchers, and the New Scientist story itself state that their efforts nor their findings by no means prove or disprove God and that studies into cause and effect cannot solely account for the cultural phenomenon of religion.

It is, however, a legitimate study to find out why every culture on Earth has invoked supernatural causation to events and the attribution of meaning to objects and phenomenon. The research is aimed at finding out how the supernatural is conceptualised inside the human brain and what conditions exist for supernatural reasoning to trump reason and rationality.

Since we have no reason to posit a supernatural agency as the cause, what is the mechanism that allows those factors to emerge in human minds? And what they found is not surprising: we invent reasons because of an innate sense of cause and effect that tends to overextend.

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