Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [4]: The Brain vs. the Eternal Soul

brain - illuniated

The period of roughly 2010-2016 apparently was a breakthrough time for neuroscience and the study of consciousness. About then, a scientific consensus began to emerge that the conscious human mind was generated by the brain — or, as some put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

In a 2016 article[1], University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth wrote that,

“In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

Since then, other brain researchers have added a third essential component:  our environment, particularly our cultural setting and its institutionalized belief systems.

Brain, body, environment — that’s it, that’s what brain science has come up with. It went looking for the soul and didn’t find it. As physician and researcher Paul Singh also wrote in 2016[2]:

“The idea of a transcendent self is a myth; the truth is that the self is a constructed self.”

Not only that, but when a consciousness based purely in physicality replaces traditional belief in an eternal, transcendent soul temporarily at home in a physical human body, other companion notions about the self, consciousness, and free will also come tumbling down. Singh admitted this wasn’t going to be easy news to swallow:

“I will be the first one to admit that the debates about the nature of free will, consciousness, and the self are far from over. It is not, however, because we don’t know the answers, but because we are not at a stage of human evolution and progress yet for people to accept such radical ideas. Such truths are scary in the sense that they undermine our ordinary and commonsensical beliefs about human nature and seem to threaten values that we hold dearly — one of the most important of which is moral responsibility.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible if you can suspend allegiance to the things you’re convinced of and convicted about, and instead give scientific knowledge a try. Singh makes his case with impassioned advocacy of science and the scientific method:

“I believe, however, that the truthfulness of a fact should be judged on its own merit rather than based on its social and emotional implications for the well-being of an individual or society. Truth should be acknowledged first and then solutions sought that will be implemented in light of the good and bad that truth has revealed, not the other way around. Truth is about truth and not about convenience or about making us feel good about ourselves.

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because on one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense. Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional that the rest of us. It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains. This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in basic sciences.”

Frankly, that kind of rhetoric invariably come across as bombastic and opinionated and therefore easy for those convinced otherwise to dismiss. The well-worn neural pathways of our own brains are deeply rutted with their own notions of what is true, and not about to change to a new paradigm just because someone else is convinced it is the “Truth is about truth.”

On the other hand, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the precursor to scientific knowledge — “scientific skepticism” — is in fact a “a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.” I’ve been developing the skill gradually for years, without intentionally doing so. I was no scientist; I’d spent a lifetime in the humanities; my allegiance was with Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. I was not out to find or prove truth, or convince anybody of it. But I was looking for new thoughts, and years of reading and reflecting — like water carving sandstone — slowly brought my thinking to a new place.

The first time I read about the “materialist” version of consciousness I thought it was just plain odd, which made me highly skeptical. Ironically that skepticism eventually sharpened into a practice that brought me where I don’t find the materialist idea odd at all; in fact, it seems odd to think the way I used to. It now seems simple and obvious that everything we experience is processed within the confines of our largest organ — our skin — and that it has to be that way because, as a biological organism, there’s no other place where it can happen. Even if we think about an eternal, transcendent soul, we do so from our ephemeral, fleshly point of view. That’s all the equipment we’ve got.

Continued next time.

[1] The Real Problem:  It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be, Aeon Magazien (Nov. 2, 2016)

[2] The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [3]: Dualism – Reality A and Reality B

Janus

We’ve been talking about dualistic thinking — the kind that leads us to think we live simultaneously in two realities.

Reality A is “life in the flesh” — bound by space and time and all the imperfections of what it means to be human. It is life carried on in our physical bodies, where our impressive but ultimately limited brains are in charge.

Reality B is “life in the spirit” — the eternal, perfect, transcendent, idealized, supernatural, original source that informs, explains, and guides its poorer counterpart.

This dualistic thinking says there’s more to life than meets the eye, that humans are an “eternal soul having a worldly existence.” The dualism set ups a cascade of derivative beliefs, for example:

There’s a difference between the Reality A identity and experience we actually have and the Reality B identity and experience we would have if we could rise above Reality A and live up to the idealized version of Reality B.

Every now and then, somebody gets lucky or gets saved or called, and gets to live out their Reality B destiny, which gives them and their lives a heightened sense of purpose and meaning.

But those are the chosen few, and they’re rare. For most of us, our ordinary selves and mundane lives are only a shadow of our “higher selves” and “greater potential.”

The chosen few can — and often do — provide guidance as to how we can do better, and we do well to find some compatible relation with one of more of them, but sometimes, in the right setting and circumstance, we might discover that we have receptors of our own that can receive signals from Reality B. We call this “enlightenment” or “conversion” or “salvation” or something like that, and it’s wonderful, blissful, and euphoric.

But most of the time, for the vast majority of us, Reality A is guided by a mostly one-way communication with Reality B — a sort of moment-by-moment data upload from A to B, where everything about us and our lives — every conscious and subconscious intent, motive, thought, word, and deed — gets stored in a failsafe beyond-time data bank. When our Reality A lives end, those records determine what happens next — they inform our next trip through Reality A, or set the stage for Reality B existence we’re really going to like or we’re really going to suffer.

Everybody pretty much agrees it’s useful to have good communication with or awareness of Reality B, because that helps us live better, truer, happier, more productive lives in Reality A, and because it creates a better data record when our Reality A existence ends and we pass over to Reality B.

And on it goes. No, we don’t express any of it that way:  our cultural belief systems and institutions — religious doctrines, moral norms, legal codes, academic fields of study, etc. — offer better- dressed versions. But it’s remarkable how some version of those beliefs finds its way into common notions about  how life works.

At the heart of it all is our conviction — not knowledge — that this thing we consciously know as “me” is an independent self that remains intact and apart from the biological messiness of human life, able to choose its own beliefs, make its own decisions, and execute its own actions. In other words, we believe in consciousness, free will, and personal responsibility for what we are and do — and what we aren’t and don’t do — during what is only a sojourn — a short-term stay — on Earth.

Those beliefs explain why, for example,  it bothers us so much when someone we thought we knew departs from their beginnings and instead displays a changed inner and outer expression of who they were when we thought we knew them. “Look who’s in the big town,” we say. Or we pity them and knock wood and declare thank goodness we’ve been lucky. Or we put them on the prayer chain or call them before the Inquisition… anything but entertain the idea that maybe Reality B isn’t there– along with all the belief it takes to create it — and that instead all we have is Reality A — we’re nothing but flesh and bone.

It’s almost impossible to think that way. To go there, we have to lay aside conviction and embrace knowledge.

Almost impossible.

Almost.

We’ll give it a try in the coming weeks.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [2]: Cultural Belief and Mass Delusion

We think we have an independent ability to think and believe as we like, to know this or be convinced about that. But that’s not the whole story:  our outlook is also shaped by our cultural context.

As we’ve seen , when enough people agree about what is true — whether they “know” it or are “convinced” of it — their agreement becomes a cultural belief system — for example, as reflected in a religion, country, neighborhood, business, athletic team, or other institution. Cultural belief systems are wired into the neural pathways of individual members, and as the culture coalesces, its belief system takes on a life of its own thorough a process known as “emergence.” As the emergent belief system is increasingly reflected in and reinforced by cultural institutions, it is increasingly patterned into the neural pathways of the culture’s members, where it defines individual and collective reality and sense of identity,  The belief system becomes The Truth , defining what the group and its members know and are convinced of.

Throughout this process, whether the culture’s beliefs are true in any non-subjective sense loses relevance. The result is what physician and author Paul Singh refers to as “mass delusion”:

“[When a conviction moves from an individual to being widely held], its origins are rooted in a belief system rather than in an individual’s pathological condition. It is a mass delusion of the sort that poses no immediate threat to anyone or society. Mass delusions can become belief systems that are passed from generation to generation.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

For a dramatic example of this concept in action, consider an experience described by Jesse Jackson:

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Despite a lifetime of civil rights leadership, Jackson’s cultural neural conditioning betrayed him. What he experienced was not just personal to him; it conformed to a cultural belief system. The particular “mass delusion” involved has been confirmed by clinical research.

“Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people’s brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

“When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala — the brain’s panic button — was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005)

When cultural beliefs are not constantly reinforced — by cultural norms of thought, language, practice, etc. — the neural networks that support them can weaken, allowing opportunity for new beliefs.

“‘Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain,’ says [Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University] ‘If you challenge [beliefs] by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you’re going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other.’”

Where Belief Is Born

This helps to explain, for example, why religious believers are more likely to “fall away” if they are “out of fellowship.” Or what can happen to a student off to college, a world traveler, or an immigrant. It also helps to explain why leaders and despots alike can manipulate brain networks to create cultural belief systems to fit their desired ends:

“In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

“The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.

“The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.

“Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well – stereotypes and simple ways of thinking,” says Taylor.

“This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.”

Where Belief Is Born

More next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

How did Paul know that? Why was he so convinced?

According to psychology and neuroscience, he didn’t know it, he was convinced of it. The difference reflects Cartesian dualism:  the belief that we can know things about the natural world through scientific inquiry, but in the supernatural world, truth is a matter of conviction.

Academics draw distinctions between these and other terms,[1] but in actual experience, the essence seems to be emotional content. Scientific knowledge is thought to be emotionally detached — it wears a lab coat, pours over data, expresses conclusions intellectually. It believes its conclusions, but questioning them is hardwired into scientific inquiry; science therefore must hold its truth in an open hand — all of which establish a reliable sense of what is “real.” Conviction, on the other hand, comes with heart, with a compelling sense of certainty. The emotional strength of conviction makes questioning its truth — especially religious convictions — something to be discouraged or punished.

Further, while knowledge may come with a Eureka! moment — that satisfying flash of suddenly seeing clearly — conviction often comes with a sense of being overtaken by an authority greater than ourselves — of being apprehended and humbled, left frightened and grateful for a second chance.

Consider the etymologies of conviction and convince:

conviction (n.)

mid-15c., “the proving or finding of guilt of an offense charged,” from Late Latin convictionem(nominative convictio) “proof, refutation,” noun of action from past-participle stem of convincere “to overcome decisively,” from com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”).

Meaning “mental state of being convinced or fully persuaded” is from 1690s; that of “firm belief, a belief held as proven” is from 1841. In a religious sense, “state of being convinced one has acted in opposition to conscience, admonition of the conscience,” from 1670s.

convince (v.)

1520s, “to overcome in argument,” from Latin convincere “to overcome decisively,” from assimilated form of com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”). Meaning “to firmly persuade or satisfy by argument or evidence” is from c. 1600. Related: Convincedconvincingconvincingly.

To convince a person is to satisfy his understanding as to the truth of a certain statement; to persuade him is, by derivation, to affect his will by motives; but it has long been used also for convince, as in Luke xx. 6, “they be persuaded that John was a prophet.” There is a marked tendency now to confine persuade to its own distinctive meaning. [Century Dictionary, 1897]

Both knowledge and conviction, and the needs they serve, are evolutionary survival skills:  we need what they give us to be safe, individually and collectively. Knowledge satisfies our need to be rational, to think clearly and logically, to distinguish this from that, to put things into dependable categories. Conviction satisfies the need to be moved, and also to be justified — to feel as though you are in good standing in the cosmology of how life is organized.

Culturally, conviction is often the source of embarrassment, guilt, and shame, all of which have a key social function — they are part of the glue that holds society together. Becoming aware that we have transgressed societal laws or behavioral norms (the “conviction of sin”) often brings not just chastisement but also remorse and relief — to ourselves and to others in our community:  we’ve been arrested, apprehended, overtaken by a corrective authority, and saved from doing further harm to ourselves and others.

Knowledge and conviction also have something else in common:  both originate in the brain’s complex tangle of neural networks:

“It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. ‘There’s probably a whole combination of things that go together,’ says [Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University].

“And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005).

And thus protected by the knowledge and convictions wired into our neural pathways, we make our way through this precarious thing called “life.”

More next time.

[1] Consider also the differences between terms like conviction and belief, and fact, opinion, belief, and prejudice.