God On My Mind – BBC

This new programme from the BBC pulls together some strings from evolutionary biology and neuroscience to attempt to explain religious and other beliefs.

I think these programmes will only be available to UK listeners, but if I can find a transcript I’ll put up a link.

From the programme information…

Part 1: Evolution:

We are programmed by our genes to believe in supernatural powers and to obey moral codes. Is this because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage? Iranians, Scandinavians, Papuans, chimpanzees, twins and wedding rings offer some startling answers.

Part 2: Neurology

Almost half the population claim to have felt the presence of a power beyond themselves. But what happens in the brain during religious experiences? If magnetism can produce visions, then what price mysticism and meditation? What’s the difference between sainthood and schizophrenia? And why are many believers convinced that God speaks to them in their dreams?

9 thoughts on “God On My Mind – BBC

  1. I listened to the programme last night.Most of the contributors seemed to come from the USA and appeared to be influenced by the strange beliefs about religion that are expressed there.None of the research proved to me that any sort of gene exists for religious belief.Surely religious thoughts came about as a way of explaining the world before our scientific knowledge grew.

  2. Hi Peter,I agree with your last sentence, and that's essentially what the scientists are saying. I'm not sure what you mean by the first part, particularly "…appeared to be influenced by the strange beliefs about religion that are expressed there." The scientists were merely saying that there appears to be intuitions that tend toward certain kinds of reposnses that in some people are expressed as religious belief.I don't know to what extent any particular scientist thinks they have found what might be called a religious gene. It is more likely that a gene or set of genes express behaviour in the brain that for some people comes out as religious belief, but in others is expressed as other types of beliefs, which may or may not be supernatural. If the natural (inherited) tendency to believe stuff exists then its particular expression in an individual will be heavily influenced by environment – e.g. the culture and religion of that individual.The trials on silver foxes that were selected specifically for domestication behaviour also saw morphological changes that weren't specifically selected for. See also here:"Despite selecting only for behavior, numerous dog-like morphological and physiological novelties emerged in the foxes (Trut 1999, 2001). Among some foxes, skulls became wider and snouts became shorter. Individuals with floppy ears, truncated tails, curly tails, and anomalous pigmentation patterns (Figs. 2A, 3), all dog-like traits, were observed in at least some foxes. The farm foxes also show signs of heritable relaxation of the reproductive cycle, with biannual oestrus appearing in some animals (Trut 2001)."So is religious belief, or more general belief tendencies, a product of natural selection or a byproduct?

  3. Thanks for visiting my website, Ron. We hold different views, but we also have free will, so that is to be expected. If my view is correct, one day we will both know that. If your view is correct, neither one of us will ever know for sure.

  4. Hi Dave, thanks for responding,"If my view is correct, one day we will both know that. If your view is correct, neither one of us will ever know for sure." – Yes, I agree. I wasn't sure if you were simply stating this or if you were implying that this suggests one view is better than the other. I don't have a problem with not knowing or being uncertain."We hold different views,…", I agree, "…but we also have free will,…", we might disagree on the details of free will*, but that makes no difference to "… so that is to be expected.", which I agree with, irrispective of what free will is**.* Free will could be a purely causal matter of physics => chemistry => biology => behaviour, the hypothesis I favour at the moment because all our evidence suggests this to me. Any current alternative hypothesis tends to require non-physical, and in some cases supernatural, phenomena, for which we have zero evidence. ** Even if our behaviour is determined entirely causally I'm happy to categorise our bahaviour as free will, purely as a discriptive term that encapsulates the complexity of behaviour of a system that is causal but has apparent free will. In other words, we're so complex in physical makeup, but so limited in mental capacity that we can't distinguish between real free will and apparent free will.

  5. Hi, I am from Australia.Please find a completely different Understanding of God, religion AND scientism via these references.www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-science.aspxwww.aboutadidam.org/lesser_alternatives/scientific_materialism/reductionism.html

  6. Hi Anonymous,I agree with much of what is said about science in those links. It is very much a contingent process of discovery through the use of the senses and reason to reveal what appears to be a material world. Science, through the same process also reveals that however deep we go we never seem to hit rock bottom – we never arrive at an ultimate absolute reality. Even if such a thing exists I think we would still have a problem recognising that we have reached such a reality, partly because our human senses and our capacity to reason has been shown to be extremely fallible and limited. Science recognises this.One of the great benefits of science is that it has a two fold approach to problems. It builds up confidence in results because any experiment can be repeated by anyone else anywhere and reproduce the results. It also puts itself under continuous scrutiny and scepticism since experiments are attempts to falsify the hypothesis being proposed. Many critics of science like to point out some of the inherent flaws – you can have bias, some scientists may not be honest, mistakes can be made, etc., but the benefit of science is that it is the best method we have of overcoming these know flaws. But getting back to some of the comments in the links you provided, yes, science does mostly support materialism. But not because materialism is a starting philosophical position, but because science does not provide any evidence of anything other than the material world. And if science can't show it then we can't experience it, because science is merely the rigorous and methodical use of our sense and reason, and that's all we have to experience the world. Don't get me wrong; when I talk about what science CAN'T show, I mean what it can't show because it is inherently incapable, I don't mean to suggest that science currently has an explanation for all we experience. Clearly, when it comes to some things, particularly the workings of the brain that result in consciousness science has a long way to go.But even in this last regard it has made significant progress. And this is what religion and other mystical traditions have not. They started at a time when scientific knowledge of the material world was pretty thin. It was thought, and still is by many, that various forms of meditation in introspection can give you access to some plain of reality that science cannot. This may have seemed reasonable in its time, when introspection was all that was available. But now these methods seem vacuus because there is zero evidence of any of these other 'ways of knowing' have anything to show. All these mystical experiences show is that by their methods you can put your brain into a particular state. It may appear as though you have some access to some other plain, but there is no evidence that this is the case. And now science is showing more and more that many of the brain states that have been claimed to be religiously or mystically inspired in some way are simply physical states of a physical brain. States like out of body experience can be induced by electrical probes in the brain or the application of external electromagnetic fields. Experiences like a horse rider feels of achieving oneness with the horse (the type of 'oneness' experienced in some martial arts) can be attributed to specific known brain mechanisms. …

  7. ctd…If we have a closer look at some of the comments on the second link you provided…Eddington – "…Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point in human consciousness — the one centre where more might become known." – Well, that's the point. Might. But there is never anything to show for these experiences, beyond perhaps a state of well being that comes from controlling the mind to some extent. It's okay supposing that human consciousness has some otehr capabilities, but these are just claims.Eddington – "There we find other stirrings, other revelations, than those conditioned by the world of symbols…Surely then that mental and spiritual nature of ourselves, known in our minds by an intimate contact transcending the methods of physics, supplies just that…" – Well, frankly, no. These mystical methods never produce anything beyond what you would expect from deep concentration or relaxation. They produce nothing that acts on the physical world, and nothing that the physical world can measure, beyond the fact that the brain is doing something slightly different than it does during other tasks.Body of page – "If science were truly a method for unrestricted inquiry into any and every corner of human experience and thought, its limitations would not be so severe." – Well, it is unrestricted as far as we can tell, because we have no evidence to the contrary. But science is the progressive acquisition of knowledge built on prior knowledge, so naturally it doesn't have all the answers right now, and probably never will – but that will be a limitation of the human element rather than anything innately wrong with the acquisition of information as knowledge. And of course, just because science has these self-acknowledged limitations it doesn't mean that some other system has better access to knowledge."But the scientific method (as it is practiced in the current, political climate of scientific materialism) limits itself to the objective, and largely steers away from the unrestricted exploration of the subjective…" – this isn't quite right. Science does investigate the subjective, though this is a difficult area. It tries to construct objective knowledge about the subjective – such as Damasio's investigations into the emotions."…though some non-mainstream offshoots do try to reconcile the scientific method with a broader exploration of the subjective, e.g., Sheldrake" – Sheldrake has problems. We can discuss his morphic resonance and other ideas sometime if you wish. Though I think Sheldrake is quite wrong about many things I have to say he was hard done to when one scientist called his book blasphemous and suggested it should be burned. Hardly constructive criticism.

  8. ctd…"Scientific materialism thus is only really capable of making findings about the objective aspects of reality." – Fair point, because that's all our senses and reason are capable of, as far as we can tell. But then this applies to mystics – they have only their senses and reason; they have no evidence that they are observing anything beyond what appears to be a material objective world."It is not capable of reaching any ultimate conclusions about subjective reality…" – then nor is mysticism; or at least it has zero evidence so far."Thus, scientific materialism’s primary philosophical limitation is that it presumes that objective reality is the only reality." – No! It doesn't presume it, it finds that this is all there appears to be, because it is founded on what appears to be our only capacities – senses and reason."The philosophy of scientific materialism also has political force in the sense that it tends to enforce itself as the only acceptable view on reality." – Well politics gets everywhere there are humans, but generally, no, this statement is wrong. It is not enforcing anything. Show some evidence for what is claimed by this mysticism and science will listen. Make the mysticism fit the scientific method – this isn't a complex task, just show some evidence that can be replicated under scientific conditions."Should you or I actually claim that we have seen God, or that we have come into contact with a Greater Reality, we are likely to be subjected to ridicule…" – With good reason, because very similar claims that are obviously crazy, and which religious or mystical people would accept are crazy, are made by crazy people. The second of the God On My Mind programmes gave some examples of scientists inducing what appear to be religious type experiences, and a religious person was asked what they would think if such experiences were induced in them, and they said they would still believe they were religious experiences. Generally it's the religious and mystical that cannot provide evidence for their claims. Science is claiming nothing but what it can show, and in ridiculing other claims it is doing so for the boldness of the claims in the absence of evidence rather the absence of the phenomena themselves. If you could demonstrate these phenomena science would have to accept them. When science advocates use phrases such as "this mystical phnomenon does not exist" what they really mean is "there is no evidence for this claimned mystical phnomenon and so we can continue to act as if it doesn't exist."

  9. ctd…"…immediately interpreted to be (even hallucinatory) by-products of the material brain, rather than evidence of a Greater Reality." – But what evidence is there that these experiences are evidence of a Greater Reality? How do you know this? What are your criteria for determining that? Science is very simple at heart. Put up or shut up. When science offers simple explanations that don't require us to believe in something for which there is no evidence it makes sense to follow the scientific explanation. By all means carry on investigating these phenomena, but if you want the wider world to listen, show some evidence.On the matter of Jesus – "..again using the logic of reductionism…" – Mystical types misunderstand reductionism. Reductionism is simply a tool of science to break down a problem into simpler parts, to discover the internal operation and rules of a complex system, one that is too complex to understand simply by observing it externally. What this paragraph is criticising is not this normal reductionism but an analysis of data that it doesn't accept. By all means question the data or the analysis, but giving it what is often seen as the pejorative label of reductionism is just an attempt to deflect the argument."In so doing, they throw out all kinds of other possible alternatives: for instance, that He was a genuine God-Realizer and a true Spiritual Master, even if not “the Son of God”." – Well, yes, because there's no evidence that he was these things, only unsubstantiated claims. Most scholas would reject the claim that he was a woman, or a goat, for the same reason, that what little evidence there is of him suggests he was a mortal man.That's enough for now, though there's plenty of other points to go at.I'd be interested to hear your response. I don't know if you're an advocate of the ideas in these links or if you were just offering them up for comment.Thanks,Ron

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