Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Neuroscientific arguments against religious beliefs

(This is the second post in my series on psychology & religion. See here for the first.)

It's fashionable these days to think that neuroscience, particularly certain kinds of brain imaging studies, undermines religious beliefs in so far as those beliefs are based on claims to genuine religious experience. On closer examination, however, this kind of neuroscientific debunking argument is unsuccessful. To argue for this claim, we'll return to Gregory Peterson's article, which has a very helpful discussion of the argument in question.

The basic thought behind the argument is this: neuroscience, by finding neural correlates that are sufficient for religious experience [1], undermines the claim that such experience is genuine, and (to the extent that religious experience serves as justification for religious belief) undermines religious belief. But there are two ways neuroscience can threaten the validity of religious experience: by threatening its content or its causal origins.

Typically, Peterson writes, genuine religious experiences are regarded as having a particular kind of content as well as a special sort of causal history. I don't think either of these are necessary conditions on genuine religious experience. Against the first, consider Augustine's 'tolle lege,' which is not any special kind of content as such; and against the second, it should be noted that it's consistent (on at least some ways of construing the interaction of God with the natural realm) with an experience being genuinely religious that it has a purely natural causal history.

Those concerns aside, are neural correlates a threat to the content and causal origins of religious experience? Peterson thinks, and with this I tend to agree, that neural correlates tell us very little about the content of religious experience, so there is not a threat in that regard. As for the causal origins of religious experience, there may be some threat from neural correlates, but a rather limited one. As Peterson writes: the religious believer would have to admit that “the human mind is primed for… religious experiences but that it can be manipulated to produce false positives.”

It's important to notice that this is a very minor threat, indeed perhaps more minor than Peterson suggests. Consider an analogy to color experience. Suppose neuroscientists could artificially induce the experience of red. This would tell us little about the verdicality of non-artificially induced red experiences. At most it tells us that beliefs formed on the basis of such experiences are fallible, but doesn’t undermine our confidence in those beliefs. Note that it doesn't show that outside the laboratory context our color beliefs have the wrong kind of causes. This analogy strongly suggests that the ability to induce religious experience in a laboratory is no threat to religious experience in the field, as it were. Nor should a similar result pertaining to religious experience undermine our confidence in religious beliefs. It's presumably widely agreed, and not at all problematic, to point out that our religious beliefs are fallible and can be caused by the wrong sorts of things, and that seems to be the most that the neural correlate argument establishes. The argument does not show that religious experiences out in the field do not have the kinds of causes that religious believers take them to have.

It appears, then, that neural correlates pose a very limited threat to the causal origins of religious experience, and no threat at all to the content of religious experience. The neuroscientific argument against religious beliefs has been found wanting.

[1] Psychologists disagree about whether such correlates have already been found. For our purposes we can stipulate that they have.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Philosopher's Carnival: Call for submissions

I'm hosting the next Philosopher's Carnival on April 4, and welcome your submissions through this form. Given the theme of this blog, the theme of the carnival will be the philosophy of religion, including relevant aspects of the history of philosophy as well as substantive philosophical arguments. You may also submit posts from any area of philosophy. I'm hoping for a nice batch of philosophy of religion material, as well as plenty of general philosophy posts. Thanks!

Cognitive science arguments against religious beliefs

This is the first in a series of posts about whether psychology can debunk religious beliefs. I will begin by examining debunking arguments highlighted by Gregory Peterson in his recent article "Are Evolutionary/Cognitive Theories of Religion Relevant for Philosophy of Religion?" (Zygon,Volume 45, Issue 3, pages 545–557, September 2010). Peterson considers psychological debunking arguments from three different fields: cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. In this post, I will focus on debunking arguments from cognitive science.

Cognitive science debunking arguments
The first cognitive science argument goes like this:

(1) According to cognitive science, the formation of all religious beliefs is completely explained in terms of certain psychological mechanisms.
(2) According to religious believers, the formation of all religious beliefs is not completely explained in terms of certain psychological mechanisms.
(3) Religious believers are mistaken about the explanation of why they hold their religious beliefs: the real explanation is given by cognitive science.
(4) Therefore, all religious beliefs are undermined by cognitive science.

Peterson points out, rightly enough, that this argument seems to commit the genetic fallacy: explaining why a belief is held does not show it to be false or rationally unjustified. 

We should notice some further problems with the argument as well:
A. The first premise is very strong, claiming that the cognitive science explanation of religious beliefs is complete. This would seem to beg the question against certain kinds of interventionist theism. If we weaken the premise, however, then the argument will not be as strong.
B. The second premise is not something religious believers need to be committed to. All they need is that the formation of their beliefs be justified, not that there be some special divine influence on their belief formation.
C. Finally, the argument relies on pointing out a mismatch between the explanations for religious beliefs given by cognitive scientists and by individual religious believers. But it’s unclear why this is relevant. Suppose a religious believer reads a lot of cognitive science and becomes convinced that he holds his religious beliefs because of the relevant psychological mechanisms, so that there is no mismatch between the explanations of the believer and those of the cognitive scientist. In this case, the argument simply doesn’t go through, which is puzzling. If anything, we’d expect the threat to religious belief to be greater the more the religious believer knows about the supposedly debunking psychological explanations. 

In light of these issues, as well as Peterson's objection, we can consider a more powerful version of the argument, the one that Peterson focuses on:
(1) Cognitive science completely explains how all religious beliefs are formed in terms of certain psychological mechanisms that have no truth-conducive relation to supernatural entities.
(2) If a belief about supernatural entities can be completely explained in terms of something that has no truth-conducive relation to X, then that belief is thereby undermined.
(3) Religious beliefs are about supernatural entities, and (by (1)) are explained completely by psychological mechanisms, which have no truth-conducive relation to supernatural entities.
(4) Therefore, all religious beliefs are undermined by cognitive science.

This argument has nothing to do with what explanation a believer gives for their beliefs, so it avoids the third problem I pointed out for Peterson’s version. It also avoids the second problem, since it doesn’t require theists to be committed to a special causal history for the formation of religious beliefs. The worry about the first premise remains, however.

Peterson fleshes out the argument by focusing on Pascal Boyer's account of religious belief formation, which goes like this:
-Our modular cognitive architecture, which evolved based on selection pressures, includes both (i) an agency detection module and (ii) an intuitive folk concept of agency.
-The agency module is hyperactive, sometimes detecting agency where there is none, including (so the argument goes) supernatural agency. Supernatural agency violates the intuitive folk concept of agency. So, supernatural agency is biologically counterintuitive, and belief in such agency is therefore more likely to be remembered, passed on, etc.
-In summary: The origin of religious beliefs is accounted for by the agency detection module, and the perpetuation of religious beliefs is accounted for by the fact that supernatural agency is counterintuitive.

As an account of the origin of religion, this argument does not undermine religious beliefs, according to Peterson. He thinks that it would only apply to the first religions, and would require some additional premises to be undermining at all.

As an account of the perpetuation of religion, the argument has some force as a hermeneutic of suspicion. How much force it has depends on the particular religious tradition in question.

I agree with Peterson that the argument is generally unsuccessful, partly because of the problem I mentioned earlier with the first premise. A second, and even deeper, concern is with appealing to Boyer's account of religious beliefs. In order for the argument to go through, we need to know that the agency detection module is not just generally hyperactive (i.e. giving lots of false positives), but also that in the case of religious beliefs in particular it is giving false positives. But we obviously cannot know that, unless we knew whether the religious beliefs in question were true or false, or justified or unjustified. To know that a belief, considered as an output of a psychological process, is a false positive, we have to know whether that is the result that process should have produced. Obviously we make very many valid inferences about agency, as well as plenty of invalid ones. The valid ones are justified on the basis of the subject's available evidence, the invalid ones are not. The question of when the evidence justifies the inference is a substantive question in epistemology, and one that is closely connected with the very issue at stake: the rationality of religious beliefs.   To give the cognitive science argument on the basis of Boyer's theory is, therefore, to beg the question against religious belief.