Two things at once

>> Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So there are now at least two psychologists claiming that mental conflict between faith and reason may be hardwired into the brain. No, I don't get it, either, I'm just telling you what I read on MSNBC.

Apparently, these psychologists did an experiment where some subjects were given a positive critique of a scientific theory and some were given a negative critique. Then they were given a response-time test designed to test their reactions to positive and negative words, with the words "science," "God" or something else (a "neutral control word") flashed before the good word or bad word, the idea being that if you had a positive reaction to "science" then you'd react more quickly or slowly to the good word or bad word; I think that's how this worked. And from this exercise, Jesse Preston UI-Urbana-Champagne concludes:

"We can only believe in one explanation at a time," she told LiveScience. "So although people can report explicitly, 'Look, I've been a Christian all my life, and yes, I also believe in science and I am a practicing chemist,' the question is, are these people really reconciling belief in God and science, or are they just believing in one thing at a time?"


Rational materialist that I am, and lover of Chuck D. (no, not that one, although he's pretty cool and I love Public Enemy; I meant this one), I have to ask the people behind a project like this to explain themselves. I don't mean explain their notion, which I understand (I'm not stupid, well, at least I hope I'm not), I mean they need to explain exactly why the brain ought to work this way, preferably in terms of Natural Selection, which is the prevailing scientific model for How Things Work in biology.1

I mean, okay: let's suppose I accept this proposition that the brain can either believe in a religious explanation or a materialistic explanation at one time. Tell me why? Why would the brain evolve that way? The alternative case, that the brain can process many things at the same time--this is something that I can make sense of. (After all, the inherent survival advantages of being able to flee from a bear and a tiger at the same time while not running face-first into a tree seems a little self-evident, or is it just me?)

And why faith or reason, eh? I mean, I can (mostly) drink coffee while driving, walk upstairs while talking on the phone, I can even walk and (believe it or not) chew gum without asphyxiating myself or tripping (or, I'm proud to add, losing bladder control). I can talk while playing video games, watch a DVD while drinking a beer, and I used to sometimes be able to remember the chord changes to "Running To Stand Still" while singing a rough approximation of the tune at the top of my lungs.2

The MSNBC piece goes on to quote a science historian from Hampshire College, Salman Hameed, who says that the psychologists' results are a combination of a cultural artifact and the "conflict thesis," the notion that religion and reason are inherently opposed. While I'm not a fan of religion myself, I'm going with what Mr. Hameed said, as opposed to the explanation that sounds really, really dumb. I think that there's a bit of conflict between religion and science, at least up to a point, but it isn't because of an either/or switchpoint in the brain: it's because the system of scientific inquiry is inconsistent with expressions of dogmatic belief, and because the fruits of the former are incompatible with specific claims of the latter. That is to say, "God told me so" isn't a scientific claim, and "the world was created during a six-day stretch in 4004 BC" is a false claim. However, "there is no god" also isn't a scientific claim, and one can certainly devise a system of mystical belief that does not contradict the system of scientific inquiry or make implausible factual claims (and people have done so).3

But that's a conflict (if it exists) over the terms and conditions on which we approach the universe and our experiences within it, not a function of the hardwiring of the brain. But that, I suppose, doesn't generate a good headline, now does it?4

1Although, in all fairness, Preston's and Epley's hypothesis seems so out of left field to me that I'd actually be thrilled in this specific case if they offered a theological model for why the brain ought to work this way. I know God purportedly works in mysterious ways, but maybe they could find a Bible passage that at least vaguely alludes to why God would have written a single-tasking operating system for the brain.

2Once, yeah. Now? What is that, in D, I think? I'm pretty sure there was a D on there somewhere. Or was it a Dm? It's only, like, three chords--hell, it might only be two, I don't know anymore. Anyone got the tab for that?

3I'm uneasy with this paragraph, actually. I'm not sure that mystical and scientific claims can get along so much as I think that one might lie beside the other without waking it up and forcing it to move. If you believe that supernatural, inexplicable, mystical forces pervade the universe, how do you factor them into the scientific project--how do you, for instance, show that angels aren't causing apples to fall to the ground and demons aren't holding atoms together? And if you're saying that these mystical forces are measurable and demonstrable--that, for instance, you can weigh angels and name demons, then why aren't you considering them natural phenomena like gravity and the strong nuclear force?

4A complete aside: during the writing of this piece, the laptop I was using kept generating "out of memory" errors, which seemed strangely appropriate, given the subject.


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