25th of March

Are religious scientists being scientific in their beliefs?


My astronomer friend Wladimir Lyra summoned me into a facebook debate in which Alexandre Correia, a friend of his that is a professor at the Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal, said:

“God is the definition for “Intelligent Universe”. We were created by the Universe and we believe that we are intelligent, so, as an integrating part of the Universe, we have to admit that the Universe is also intelligent… So the question that remains is rather “Did the Universe want to create us, or was it just an accident?”, which can be replaced by the question “Did we want to create ourselves?”. This is too confuse…”

Fancy stuff. Correia added this after some humorous responses of others:

“Love and other feelings are also entities created in some human brains, so, are they more real than God? I am not trying to prove that God exists or not, but as a scientist I must keep my mind open. The disbelief in God is as dogmatic as its acceptance…”

Correia also pointed to a page dedicated to the Division of Perceptual Studies, School of Medicine, University of Virginia, a research group that seems to be dedicated to parapsychology. This is my answer after Lyra’s invitation:

I’m duly summoned. I don’t know why would Alexandre bring about a research group on “weird” phenomena, or why would we be astonished that they publish in journals with nonnegligible impact factors. Things like extant research groups or impact factors are poor substitutes for objective analyses of state-of-the-art evidence. Since Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos there is an increasing perception in philosophy of science that our theories evolve and our ability to judge how scientific they are must deal with this ever ongoing process. I cannot judge cosmology by taking one of Wlad’s articles nor could anyone judge evolutionary biology by taking one of Svante Paabo’s papers and reading it. 

So, if we can agree that parapsychology research groups have nothing to do with the evidence for the existence of a god or more gods, let’s move on. [I must add here that, for those who still think parapsychology is a serious science, former parapsychologist Louie Savva does not agree, and he is not the first parapsychologist to recant his own research field, as Susan Blackmore is prepared to tell you.]

Well, there is serious research on how religious myths arise. I suggest as a starting point for study the works of Justin Barrett, Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. Boyer has summarized much in his “Religion Explained”. Grosso modo, religious concepts are made when violations are credited to entities that belong to basic ontological categories of the human mind. ‘ANIMAL’ is an ontological category, another one is ‘PERSON’. These ontological categories work for us as a kind of catalyst for understanding. When you show a seal for a child on the TV, the child pretty much already makes assumptions about the seal – these assumptions (such as that the seal dies if split, gives birth to live pups, etc.) are inferences made from the ontological category, and must not be uttered explicitly for the child to know them.

Barrett and Boyer found out that myths are united by one single ‘algorithm’ (so to speak): introducing one violation on the expected properties of an entity, that is surprising according to the entity’s ontological category. So the Aymara of the Andes believe in a mountain that feels hungry if not fed by them. The mountain belongs to the category of ‘NATURAL OBJECT’, and hunger is not one of the basic properties of a natural object. A god belongs to the category of ‘PERSON’, but has no body, has no birth nor death, and has counterontological mind properties such as omniscience.

Barrett’s research shows that, regardless of your cultural cradle, regardless of you being an Atheist or devout Christian, stories that contain this kind of myth (built as described) will glue on your memory easier. This is a clue of one of the reasons why religion persists. But also, if their theory is correct, shows that, when the ontological category of ‘PERSON’ evolved in our minds because of selection pressures favoring social interaction, it served as a raw material for myth construction. The PERSON category must have evolved so that we could predict the behavior of our fellow human beings. It contains cognitive tools such as the theory of mind and empathy.

Long story short, let’s review what kind of thing we’re dealing with when we try to consider scientifically a concept such as ‘God’. First, we must remember that the correct null hypothesis is that there is no God, so if we cannot provide any evidence of any God, we should be atheists as a default position. That is true for any scientific claim. Second, we must unveil what kind of hidden inferences are made when people talk about gods, and those include the assumption that so-called ‘God’ has a mind like our own, has cognitive abilities for creation like us, feels like we do. All those things have evolved in our lineage. Evolutionary genetics is on the verge of discovering how that happened – the studies with the gene FOXP2 were a great debut: first we discover this gene is different in humans and neanderthals [and causes speech impairment in some mutations], second we put its human form in mice and discover that these mice develop more connections between their neurons in some parts of the brain, and this accounts for cognitive phenotype. We are in an era that is indeed going from molecules to minds, with the care that this investigation demands.

So, in light of recent research we have no reason to accept any minds that do not come from molecules, such as the minds of gods. This is a reasonable metaphysical conclusion supported by evidence. On the other hand, people who love you touch you, pay attention, observe, help and usually give you as much evidence of their love as you would need to believe them.

Scientists that still consider the God hypothesis as probable are just being victims of our universal lust for ‘counterontological’ concepts like those described by Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett. In other words, they are not thinking scientifically, their claims of pro-God probability are freudian rationalizations for the natural appeal of myths that easily glue not only on our memories, but on our emotional and cultural wishes as westerners.

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  • The existence of religious scientist show off that scientific approach is over estimated.It makes very clear too that the status of scientist is over valued too.
    Scientific approach is not more than a man invented method. Most individuals, and scientists not excluded cant face the real truth and will seek comfort in irrational behaviour.Let it just be like that.

  • Olá Eli, mt bom seu texto! Tb escrevi um texto recentemente sobre a linha de pesquisa que vc comenta, mas mais focado na linha de pesquisa em si. Segue o link caso te interesse:
    http://cienciaumavelanoescuro.haaan.com/?p=208

    um abraço,
    André

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