Daily Archives: October 6, 2009

Sam Harris Discusses SuperSense

The very talented and smart Dr. Sam Harris (I am not sure whether he has finished his doctorate so I apologise if I have not given him the correct title) has just published a neuroimaging study of believers and non-believers in the online journal, Public Library of Science (PLoS) where he reports on the brain activation when evaluating the truth of religious (“Jesus Christ really performed the miracles attributed to him in the Bible”) and non-religious propositions (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader”). They found differential activation in the brains of believers and non-believers. Thank goodness for that or we would all be screwed! For a full exposition on that remark, see my discussion of mind body dualism in my book SuperSense.

Brain imaging is an immensely seductive technique as it resonates (ha –ha  neuroscience joke) with how we intuitively think the brain works. We like pictures of the internal workings of the brain. I should point out that Harris and colleagues are comparative experts in this fields as I am a virgin imager but about to pop my neuroimaging cherry later in Nov when we embark on a project of neuroimaging believers and non-believers as well. I too am looking for differential activation but one that is counter-intuitive to what one would expect. That’s where I think the technique can be valuable so stay posted. A recent review of the whole methodology of neuroimaging of social functions was highly critical claiming that most studies were subject to experimenter bias. Let’s hope our study avoids this pitfall and produces publishable results though the initial seduction for publishing neuroimaging research seems to have worn off in the scientific community in recent years.

You used to be able to get any imaging study published in the top science journals Nature and Science in the 1990’s but that’s all changed now – every department seems to have scanner now desperately seeking funding to operate. So where does one publish? The Public Library of Science of PLoS is a fast track journal but you have to pay to have your studies published there. There is something that sticks in my throat about that. It smacks of correspondence degrees but I guess all journals have costs and may that will be the way of the future. More importantly it has free public access which is great.

If you did not know, Sam Harris is the best-selling author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” and has some of the best put-downs I have ever heard when confronted about his out-spoken views in public. He has now returned his attention to his science and I expect that he is enjoying a welcomed relief to the vitriol that must have come his way. So I was delighted to see his recent papers. I blogged his intriguing finding about cognitive dissonance earlier and he seems to gathering empirical evidence to support his theory that belief is primarily transmitted by others.

However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented and to say that Justin Barrett and I are coming from the same position is simply not true – Barrett interprets cognitive biases as intelligent design! I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”

Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture. Some of us are different – why? I think this new empirical approach to looking at the brain basis of belief is going to be an interesting research agenda as it has implications about individual differences. I hope Harris and colleagues continue this work.

I am more on your side than you realize. So relax. Enjoy life. There probably is no God.

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