Addiction, Belief, Bible, and Bad Financial Advice

My name is Kevin and I’m a belief addict. Here’s my story.

The Widow’s Mite

I once told a friend who was a legend in the financial planning industry how I was attempting to follow the advice of the Bible story known as “the Widow’s Mite”:

[Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,  and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

Luke 21:1-4 (NKJV)

“That’s dangerous advice,” my friend said, always blunt, “It makes no sense today. It will hurt you.”

Did he just say Jesus gave bad advice?

I had no comeback. I was an evangelical Christian at the time, trying to follow all kinds of Biblical advice in my career and finances. “Dangerous advice.” “Makes no sense today.” “Will hurt you.” How could that be? I mean, we’re talking Jesus here. And anyway, doesn’t God’s advice move with the times?

If you start wondering if Jesus gave bad advice or that something he said is outdated, you’re not an evangelical Christian anymore. You violated the Protestant Reformation doctrine of sola scirptura – the belief that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible.

“[Martin Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian.”[1]

You can’t be an evangelical without the Bible, especially the parts about Jesus. Question either, and you’re out. You’re no longer a believer.

Go ahead – move a mountain!

Jesus himself set up the primacy of belief:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

And it’s not enough just to believe – you also have to not doubt. Plus there’s one more implicit clause in there:  if the mountain doesn’t move, it’s all you fault. If you start out believing but then have your doubts, belief won’t work for you. Jesus’ disciple James made sure we got the point:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Okay, I think I get it — God gives generously, but if you doubt you can’t receive. Right? God does His part, but you can screw it up. Does that strike anyone else as sort of… unfair?… lopsided? If nothing else, God doesn’t seem to be very effective in the way He “generously” hands out advice. And why do I keep calling God “He” anyway?

But you don’t think that way when you’re in the grip of belief.

You are always the problem.

Belief seeks its own purification by cleansing itself from doubt. It does that by making the believer the problem. To stay on the right side of belief, you need to believe your way through your doubts. Belief is a closed loop — you either believe or you don’t – you start in belief and end in belief. Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”

I wandered intellectually my first couple years of college, then had to declare a major. Okay, let’s see… I’m a Jesus Freak… I know, I’ll be a religion major! Studying the world’s religions, I was soon swimming in doubt. I told that to my “that settles it” friend. He handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

I can still see the hardness on his face. Religions venerate those who long endure and despise those who don’t. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter. Lesson learned: you don’t entertain doubt, you double down on belief.

Belief’s endless loop is what snared me, got me addicted. It played directly into a tendency I’d demonstrated all my short life: be exceptional, take everything to the extreme, out-commit, out-work everybody. Decades later, I would learn where that came from. But as a kid, an adolescent, and a young adult, it was my identity, my calling card. Eventually it would also be my ruin.

After we graduated, we missed the intensity of our college experience, and looked for ways to replicate it. Our leaders — zealous young men like me, only a few years older but they seemed so much wiser — started writing books about how to create authentic new testament churches, meeting in small groups and homes, teaching the Bible and doing miracles. We called this “church planting” and prided ourselves on the idea that we were doing just as the early apostles had done.

That’s who I was when I had the “that’s dangerous advice” encounter. In the face of that blunt dismissal, I needed to prove up my beliefs by pushing them to the limit, one more time.

And so I did.

Belief reminds you that if your doubts persist, there are consequences. Turns out there are also consequences to not doubting when you really ought to – which was how my life played out for the next couple decades, as I set about to prove that Jesus’s financial advice was doable.

My education in bad financial advice started early.

Everybody went to church where I grew up: mostly Scandinavian Lutherans, enough German Catholics to make up a parish, plus the “other” — Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Methodist…. My family was “other” – we went to the Congregational Church, where we were into the 60’s Revolution. We read poetry, played guitars, thought believing everything the Bible said was anti-intellectual. Our Sunday bulletins from HQ advocated social justice. I can still see one of them like it was yesterday: stacks of coins like poker chips, with the words “and God said to him, you fool!” – that was from the Bible, the back cover said.[2]

The Parable of the Rich Fool

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12: 13-21 (RSV)

Powerful stuff. I was an impressionable 7th grader. I pinned the bulletin up in my room, and kept it with me for years.

Consider the lilies…

About that same time, my older sister was into art and calligraphy. She made a poster with some watercolor lilies and these lines:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his Glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Luke 12: 27 (RSV)

I loved it, memorized it, used to sneak into her room to look at it when she wasn’t around. The text comes right after the Parable of the Rich Fool:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

Luke 12:22-32 (ESV)

That was the sum total of my financial education growing up: don’t worry about money, don’t worry about making it, don’t worry about saving it, don’t worry about where it comes from or what it’s for, and whatever you do, don’t ever get rich or you’ll end up like the guy with his new barns full of harvest and the grim reaper at his door. And the best part was that if you just keep your priorities straight – i.e., you keep believing what the Bible says — everything you need will just show up – food, drink, the whole deal.

When I read that now, I think it’s crazy. I agree with my friend: it makes no sense. But as a pre-teen I thought it was the ultimate in cool.

I never grew up.

My financial education was fixed at age 12. It survived intact through college economics, a few years in insurance and financial planning, an MBA program, all the way into a career in law. There was plenty of fodder for doubt all that time, but it never touched me.

Never mind that my radical Biblical economics didn’t have much company. Most Christians seemed to know it didn’t work. Maybe that’s what the Book said, but… well never mind. But I minded a lot. I had something to prove. I was a commando Christian, living on the edge, taking belief to the extreme, going where weak belief dared not go, out if front showing everybody else back there that Jesus’s unorthodox advice really did work.

Hmmm, no ego in that…

I was committed. I probably should have been… committed, that is.

One Disaster After Another

The first couple decades of my adult life followed a pathetic pattern of first doing well in my career and then dropping out to pursue some kind of Christian vision. Making a living always came in second to the important stuff and besides God would provide, just like Jesus said. The result was a series of financial disasters about every two or three years, followed by me sulking back to work until I had enough savings to afford getting inspired and trying again. It helped that I was smart and worked hard, so new employers kept forgiving my patchwork resume.

After yet one more disaster to end all disasters, I finally started to learn self-awareness, started asking questions, started doubting. I didn’t know yet that to doubt at all is to end belief – that’s all it takes to break the spell.

A couple decades later, and I was what I am today: an atheist. I didn’t see that coming, didn’t set out to become one, resisted for a long time, finally just sort of drifted into it. I’ve read others who’ve told the same story. We’re not as alone as we think we are.

The Self-Help Gospel

Along the way, I spent considerable time hanging out in the world of self-help. I am going to write separately about that, so I won’t say much at this time, just that after a few years I finally saw the remarkable similarity between self-help and Jesus’s teachings on belief. I had never heard so much God language since my early Christian days, although people often substituted “The Universe.” Create your own financial and career reality by believing it into existence, and God/The Universe will back you up. But you do need to believe, and keep believing, keep intending and reminding yourself first thing in the morning and before going to sleep at night, and you need to make your a board and read this book and especially that one, and you need to go to these seminars, and lay your money down everywhere you go… all to stay pumped up, to keep believing. And if it didn’t work for you, well you are responsible for everything in your life, so if it’s not what you want you need to up your belief commitment – do more, more, more.

Believe, believe, believe… Christianity and self help were indistinguishable. Life as a “believer” –- religious or secular -– worked the same way: believe and don’t doubt, and you get the goods.

A couple key experiences kept repeating, and the lessons I drew from them started to loosen the tether.

One was that belief was never about the thing you were trying to believe into existence — the mountain you were telling to get up and jump into the sea. Instead, belief was one long exercise in the dynamics of belief itself. Belief was about believing. You spent all your energy believing and believing in your belief. You never got out of the loop.

Another – the hardest lesson of all — was that believing was the culprit, not me. It wasn’t all my faulit after all. Gospel Finance 101 truly was lousy advice, even when it was recast as self help. It truly didn’t work in today’s world. It truly was dangerous. It truly did hurt me – and my family.

The over-arching problem was how belief operates in the human brain, and in human culture.[3] When you start to doubt, you drop out of the cultural context that’s been supporting your belief system. Without constant reinforcement, the neural pathways that run your belief fall into disuse and eventually go dormant as you start looking elsewhere for answers, which requires new neural pathways, and in time your new skeptical neural pathways take over.

But belief isn’t all bad.

Belief is inspiring and motivating. It throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, replaces them with a world of new possibilities. The brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all the punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” We get a rush of it when we break out, try new things, take risks.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration Meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed closing in on seven million times. Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration Meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[4]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Good for dopamine: it gets us moving, and that’s usually a good thing.

But it might be too much of a good thing.

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get lots of self-help inspirational quotes and to do lists. They’re okay as far as that goes, but they’re not the whole inspiration story. We need inspiration to get going, but all that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[5]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence: the motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; and reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance: each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett: your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[6]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Dopamine is why belief is addictive, why belief always wants more, more, more. It’s not a legally controlled substance, but it ought to be – especially for people like me.

Use it at your own risk.

I kind of wish somebody had told me that. But I doubt I would have listened.

Addict? Who me?

[1] Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)

[2] Apparently it was okay to use the Bible for our social causes, even if we dismissed it for other purposes.

[3] See this blog’s series on Belief Systems and Culture, also Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief.

[4] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[5] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[6]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).

So Consciousness Has a Hard Problem… Now What?

god helmet

We’ve been looking at the “hard problem” of consciousness:

  • Neuroscience can identify the brain circuits that create the elements of consciousness and otherwise parse out how “the meat thinks,” but it can’t quite get its discoveries all the way around the mysteries of subjective experience.
  • That’s a problem because we’re used to thinking along Descartes’ dualistic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is objective, empirical, and invites disproving, and belief-based conviction, which is subjective, can’t be tested and doesn’t want to be.
  • What’s worse, science’s recent work in quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has blurred those dualistic lines by exposing the primacy of subjectivity even in scientific inquiry.
  • All of which frustrates our evolutionary survival need to know how the world really works.[1]

Some people are ready to declare that subjective belief wins, and science will just have to get over it. That’s what happened with the “God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article), Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the helmet for use in neuro-religious research:

“This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. ‘If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,’ [says Dr. Persinger].” [3]

The God Helmet creates subjective experiences shared among various religions, such as sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. Since all of these states have been either measured or induced in the laboratory, you’d think that might dampen allegiance to the belief that they are God-given, but not so. Instead, when the God Helmet was tested on a group of meditating nuns, their conclusion was, how wonderful that God equipped the brain in that way, so he could communicate with us. Similarly,

 “Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science. Aeon Magazine (Oct. 9, 2013)

If we’re not willing to concede the primacy of subjectivity, then what? Well, we could give up on the idea that the human race is equipped to figure out everything it would really like to know.

 “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (1997)

Evolutionary biologist David Barash attributes our inability to the vastly different pace of biological evolution (what the operative biology of our brains can process) vs. cultural evolution (what we keep learning and inventing and hypothesizing about). Trouble is, the latter moves way too fast for the former to keep up.

“On the one hand, there is our biological evolution, a relatively slow-moving organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and that nearly always requires an enormous number of generations for any appreciable effect to arise.

“On the other hand is cultural evolution, a process that is, by contrast, extraordinary in its speed.

“Whereas biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes, cultural evolution is … powered by a nongenetic ‘inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become almost entirely independent of any biological moorings.

“We are, via our cultural evolution, in over our biological heads.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, David P. Barash (2018)

Give in to subjectivity, or just give up…. We’ll look at another option next time.

[1] The study of how we know things is Epistemology.

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [8]: Science and Snake Oil

snake oil salesman 2

Science requires that its findings be falsifiable:  you have to be able to prove them wrong. That they might be right isn’t enough; if they can’t be wrong, they’re not science.

Belief in the supernatural isn’t falsifiable, therefore it’s not science:

“Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth — these can never be disproved.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History,by Kurt Andersen (2017)

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because no one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense.

“We often see what we already believe is there, not what is actually in front of us. Perhaps the greatest of all examples of this are religious experiences. People with religious experiences always see in their visions what they have been taught all their lives. For example, a Muslim will never see a vision of Jesus in his religious experience and a Christian will never see Mohammed.

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

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

Consider falsifiability’s take on homeopathic medicine:

“Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme.”

Fantasyland

“We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine… Even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who … continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

“Homeopathy was the original ‘alternative medicine,’” Kurt Andersen writes. He describes how it was soon joined by mesmerism, phrenology, séances, and traveling snake oil salesmen, brought to us by illustrious champions such as Methodist John Wesley, Presbyterian Sylvester Graham (as in graham crackers), John Kellogg (of cereal fame), and “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, Celebrated Cancer Specialist” (father of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil), Along the way, it helped to spawn “New Thought” religion — e.g., Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science churches and today’s New Age movement.

Alternative medicine works because of the placebo effect:

“Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers themselves. If the patients who had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

“The upside was that homeopathy inherently fulfills the Hippocratic Oath:    . Homeopathic medicines contain negligible active ingredients. If thousands of homeopaths and millions of patients, as Mark Twain said, wanted to ‘bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away,’ that was their problem.”

Fantasyland

In her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, Lissa Rankin M.D. tells how she switched from conventional to alternative medicine after realizing that lots of people in placebo control groups actually do get better taking those sugar pills. They may be in the minority, but still…. I once heard a medical researcher tell a group of MS patients to “Find your placebo — if you think it will help you, it probably will.”

But placebos aren’t science, and the “Scientific Proof” in Dr. Rankin’s book title is off target. Last time we heard about the science behind your GPS. You don’t want it to “probably” work, or work just some of the time, or so rarely it’s a “miracle” when it does. You want it to work every time, everywhere. If it doesn’t, then the science behind it has been falsified (proven wrong), and it’s back to the drawing board.

Eventually science and investigative journalism teamed up to put the snake oil peddlers out of business:

“[At the start of the Twentieth Century,] medical science advanced, and the American Establishment decided to put an end to large-scale quackery. The new mass-market magazine Ladies’ Home Journal stopped accepting ads for patent medicines, and Collier’s published a game-changing eleven-part  investigative series on the ‘tonics,’ ‘blood purifiers,’ and ‘cures’ racket — and a year later the Pure Food and Drug Act became federal law, putting most of that industry out of business.”

Fantasyland

We’ve been digressing a bit. Next time, we’ll get back to what this has to do with consciousness and the self.

Heaven: A Clear and Present Danger

1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ

Religion’s endgame is perfection:  bliss, rapture, Heaven, life everlasting, enlightenment, Nirvana, mystical union. Perfection is your reward — in this life and the one to come — for practicing what your religion preaches.

The Age of Enlightenment is also after perfection:  Utopia, the march of civilization, the triumph of human progress, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It puts its faith in reason, science, technology, humanism.

Historically, religion and the Enlightenment have been sometimes friends or at least respectful adversaries, but nowadays they are — like everything else — polarized, wary, distrustful, disrespectful, and often vicious adversaries. But their shared endgame makes them barely distinguishable in their attitudes and agendas says Chris Hedges in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.”[1]

The book’s title might be too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”  Hedges doesn’t have anything against atheists in general, but he has a lot against the new atheists, likening them to religious fundamentalists:

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.

“We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.

“These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world,  one where force and violence, self-exaltation and blind nationalism are unquestioned goods. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

And that’s just a taste. The whole book is like that. It’s like reading the Prophet Amos — it thunders.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19     as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:  18-24 NRSV

I Don’t Believe in Atheists has the most wildly polarized reviews I’ve ever seen. People love it or hate it, and the ones who hate it, hate it savagely — beginning with the book’s title, which apparently commits the unpardonable sin of not making it instantly clear whose side it’s on. Hedges, for his part, believes that the fatal flaw of both religious and secular fundamentalism is that neither actually believes in sin.

There’s a lot to talk about here. More coming up.

[1] For more on the new atheists, you might investigate the Closer to Truth video series “Is Atheism a New Faith?”.

Why Faith Endures

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62 NIV

I once told a leader of our campus Christian fellowship about doubts prompted by my religion major classes. “Get your Bible and read Luke 9: 62,” he said. I did, and can still see the hardness on his face when I looked up. Religions venerate those who long endure, honoring their moral steadfastness. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter.

Scarlet letterReligions punish doubt and dissidence through peer pressure, public censure, witch hunts, inquisitions, executions, jihads, war, genocide…. The year before, the dining halls had flown into an uproar the day the college newspaper reported that the fellowship had expelled a member for sleeping with her boyfriend.

Religions also have a curious way of tolerating their leaders’ nonconforming behavior — even as the leaders cry witch hunt.[1]

These things happen in all cultural institutions, not just religion. Neuroculture offers an explanation for all of them that emphasizes group dynamics over individual integrity. It goes like this:

  • When enough people believe something, a culture with a shared belief system emerges.
  • Individual doubt about the culture’s belief system introduces “cognitive dissonance” that makes individuals uneasy and threatens cultural cohesiveness.
  • Cohesiveness is essential to the group’s survival — doubt and nonconformity can’t be tolerated.
  • The culture therefore sanctifies belief and stifles doubt.
  • The culture sometimes bends its own rules to preserve its leadership power structure against larger threats.

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017) illustrates this process:

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017) explains why the process seems so perfectly reasonable:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

What does it take for individual dissent or cultural change to prevail in the face of these powerful dynamics? We’ll look at that next time.

[1]  This “bigger bully” theory was remarkably evident when Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, said evangelicals “kind of gave [Donald Trump] a mulligan” over Stormy Daniels, saying that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that’s willing to punch the bully.”

Religion on Demand

god helmet

“Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — ‘create’ these experiences on demand?”[1]

It’s a good question. And so is the obvious follow up: if technology can create religious experience on demand, how does that affect religion’s claims to authenticity and its status as a cultural institution?

Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the “”God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article) for use in neuro-religious research.

This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. “If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,” [says Dr. Persinger]. [3]

The experiences created are not doctrinally specific, but are of a kind widely shared among different religions — for example, sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. All of these states have been measured or induced in the laboratory[4]:

Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains ‘create’ a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?

“In the last few years,” says [Dr. Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City], “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., [says that] “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode’ … and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.”

“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”

 “When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium. “These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”

The parietal lobes are also the areas that [Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of neurotheology, has] found to have lower brain activity during prayer.

And much more. In addition, research has also helped to explain such things as why people with chronic neurodegenerative diseases often lose their religion:

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” [says Patrick McNamara, professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009)]. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Does this research signal the end of religion any time soon? Probably not, says Dr. Newberg:

Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.[5]

Tim Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), agrees:  religion, he says, is simply “too ingrained as a human instinct.” See also this article[6]’s analysis of the current state of the science vs. religion contention, which concludes that the scale seems to be tipping more to the latter:

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

There are plenty of contrary opinions, of course, and all the technology and research in the world is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. pro or con. We’ll look at why not next time.

[1] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

[4] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[5] Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Vince Rause (2001).

[6] “Why Religion Is Not Going Away And Science Will Not Destroy It,” Aeon Magazine (Sept. 7, 2017).

Why Belief Works

Our experience of the “real world” will conform to what we believe. It has to, because our brains insist upon it.

They do that in part through neuro-cultural conditioning — the process by which the neurological wiring of a culture’s individual members is patterned after the culture’s belief system, and vice versa. This is the case with any kind of cultural institution, whether national, religious, scientific, economic, corporate, professional, team, tribal, or otherwise.[1] This post looks at religion as an example.[2]

Tim Crane is a professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest. “I work in the philosophy of mind,” his online CV says, “I have attempted to address questions about the most general nature, or essence, of the human mind, and about the place of the mind in the rest of nature.” In his book The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), he cites William James’ 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience for a definition of what he calls “the religious impulse”:

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms, one might say that it consists in the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

Christian Smith is a sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s his definition of religion:

“Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on promises about the existence and nature of supernatural powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.”

Religion: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Both authors stress that religious principles and practices need to match in order for religion to be effective. In other words:

“Faith without works is dead.”
The Epistle of James 2: 17

As it turns out, “faith without works is dead” is not just scripture, but accurate neuroscience as well. When we practice what we preach, we set up a self-sustaining loop in which belief drives thoughts and behavior, which in turn reinforce belief. In that way, religion develops the brain while the brain develops religion:

“Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined.’”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

The more widespread and enduring the religious practice, the more the religion develops scriptures, rituals, icons, and institutions to sustain itself. Therefore a Bible passage such as this…

“I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
 or their children begging bread.”
Psalm 37: 25 NIV

… becomes both community truth and the “testimony” of individual adherents. But what happens when belief and experience don’t align — e.g., when a member of the congregation and her children in fact go begging?

Some religious thinkers, like the writer of this Huffington Post article, reckon with the contradiction by distinguishing belief from faith. Beliefs are products of the mind, she says, and deal with what can be known, while faith is a product of the spirit, which traffics in what cannot be known. Since knowledge is always shifting, belief can and probably will let us down, while faith in what can’t be known remains inscrutable. Faith therefore invites belief to step aside in favor of “trusting beyond all reason and evidence.”

That outlook captures the essential center of the definitions of religion we saw above:  that there is a “divine order” populated with “supernatural powers” that exists alongside but separate from ours. (Of which we have only limited understanding, the belief/faith outlook would add.)  Whether this satisfies the brain’s need to align internal patterning with external experience is the kind of issue being taken up by the new discipline of neurotheology which looks at where religion happens in the brain.

Neurotheology’s inquiries have far-reaching implications for many of our common assumptions about how reality is structured. For example, if faith can be explained in neurological terms, then it could be located — in whole or in part — along with belief on this side of the theoretical divide between human and supernatural existence.  This shift would likely have a ripple effect on similar dichotomies, such as known vs. unknown, real vs. imaginary, objective vs. subjective, observed vs. inscrutable, temporal vs. transcendence, etc.

More on neurotheology coming up.

[1] For more on cultural patterning, see the other posts in this blog’s category The Basics of Belief. Culture, and Reality.

[2] I talk about Christianity because it is the only religion I have personal experience with. And I am aware, by the way, that I write this post under the influence of my own neuroscientific cultural bias.