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.”

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.

Emergence

 

murmuration

One fine afternoon autumn day I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action — specifically, a “murmuration” of birds, which is created by “swarm behavior,” which in turn falls in the category of emergence.

Emergence explains how the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The term is widely used — in systems theory, philosophy. psychology, chemistry, biology, neurobiology, machine learning — and for purposes of this blog, it also applies to cultural belief systems and the social institutions they generate.

Consider any culture you like — a team, club, company, profession, investor group, religious gathering, political party…. As we’ve seen previously in this series, the group’s cultural sense of reality is patterned in each individual member’s neural wiring and cellular makeup. But no one member can hold it all, and different members have varying affinity for different aspects of the culture. As a result, each member takes what the others bring “on faith”:  the group believes in its communal beliefs. This faith facilitates the emergence of a cohesive, dynamic cultural body that takes on a life of its own, expressed through its institutions. .

That’s emergence.

To get a further sense of how this works, see this TED Talk that uses complex systems theory to look at how the structure of the financial industry (a transnational cultural body) helped to bring about the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Systems theorist James B. Glattfelder[1] lays out a couple key features of self-organizing systems:

“It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

“And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.”

In the end, he says, there’s an innate simplicity to it all — “an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.”[2] He compares this outcome to the inevitable polarized logjams we get from clashing cultural ideologies:

 “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Trouble is, we seem to be predisposed toward ideological gridlock and dogma. Even if we’ve never heard of emergence, we have a kind of backdoor awareness of it — that there are meta-influences affecting our lives — but we’re inclined to locate their source “out there,” instead of in our bodily selves. “Out there” is where the Big Ideas live, formulated by transcendent realities and personalities — God, gods, Fate, Destiny, Natural Law, etc. — that sometimes enter our lesser existence to reveal their take on how things work. Trouble is, they have super-intelligence while we have only a lesser version, so once we receive their revelations, we codify them into vast bodies of collected wisdom and knowledge, which we then turn over to our sacred and secular  cultural institutions to administer. We and our cultures aren’t perfect like they are, but we do our best to live up to their high standards.

We do all this because, as biocentrism champion Robert Lanza has said, most of us have trouble wrapping our heads around the notion that

“Everything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head. We are not just objects embedded in some external matrix ticking away ‘out there.’”[3]

In our defense, the kind of systems analysis that James Glattfelder uses in his TED talk requires a lot of machine super-intelligence and brute data-crunching power that the human brain lacks. We’re analog and organic, not digital, and we use our limited outlook to perpetuate more polarization, ideological gridlock. and dogma. Culture may be emergent, but when it emerges, it walks right into a never-ending committee meeting  debating whether it has a place on the agenda..

Next time, we’ll look at what happens when emergent cultures clash.

[1] James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund. and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager.

[2] Here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain the murmuration I watched that day.

[3] From this article in Aeon Magazine.

It’s An Inside Job

In Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” “Concordance” is peace of mind, which we all know is an inside job.

peace of mind

But the concordance Wexler is talking about is not the kind reserved for the enlightened few, it’s the kind that’s a brain health necessity. Our brains work unceasingly to maintain harmony between us and our surroundings, including our cultural setting. When internal and external are out of sync, the result is cognitive dissonance which, when left unresolved, leads to physical, mental, and social disease, distress and disorder. Neurological concordance is therefore a surviving and thriving skill, and can be traced to the corresponding part of the brain:

“Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.”[1]

cognitive dissonance

The straightest  path to concordance is conformity. Nonconformity, on the other hand, generates both intracultural and intercultural neurological conflict. [2] This potential for conflict was the context for Wexler’s peace of mind declaration — let’s hear it again, the full quote this time:

“This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” (Emphasis added.)

Peace of mind therefore requires the alignment of inner and outer belief systems. This article[3] defines the term:

“Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.

 “The species Homo sapiens developed so-called belief systems. These are sets of beliefs reinforced by culture, theology, and experience and training as to how the world works cultural values, stereotypes, political viewpoints, etc.”

In order for personal (internal) and shared (external) belief systems to align, the culture’s members must share comparable neural pathways, consciousness, perceptions, sensory tastes, physiology, and the like.[4] When they do, the culture becomes recognizable in its members. Think of the Olympics’ opening ceremony parade of athletes:  the Yanks are obviously the Yanks — nobody else has quite their swashbuckling sense of derring-do. Or think of professional cultures — lawyers, accountants, engineers, physicians — meet one, and you can just tell. Or remember what it’s like to visit a foreign culture — it’s not just the signage but it’s… well, everything —  how people look, sound, act, their customs and values….

All of that is the result of biological, chemical, environmental, and other influences, all stored in individual brains and bodies. But how is cultural patterning transmitted from one individual to another? John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, wanted to know, and finding out led to his seminal book The Construction of Social Reality:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

This article[5] provides this summary answer to Searle’s questions:

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Vastly simplified, the process of enculturation looks like this:

  • New members enter via an entry point such as birth, naturalization, initiation, etc.
  • They observe the culture’s members thinking and behaving in the culture’s characteristic ways.
  • Through observation and imitation, they take on the culture’s mindset and become habituated into its belief and behavioral norms.
  • In time, they become recognizable as members of the culture along with its other members.
  • Then, an organizing principle called “emergence” asserts itself, so that the whole culture takes on a life of its own that is bigger than the sum of its individual members.

We’ll talk about emergence next time.

[1] “What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?” Scientific American Mind (Nov. 2015).

[2] There’s been a lot of research on conformity and nonconformity in the past ten years. If you’re interested in digging deeper, searching “neuroscience of conformity” and “neuroscience of nonconformity” will turn up several scholarly studies.

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] See the prior post, Microbes of Meaning.

[5]Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture”, Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania,