William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Are We Hard-Wired for Faith? Guest Post by Bob Kurland

Bob Kurland is a “retired, cranky, old physicist.” This article originally ran in modified form at Reflections of a Catholic Scientist.

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God”—St. John Damascene, as quoted in the Catechism, 2559.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”—John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Interestingly, the average human brain weighs about 1.5 kilograms, has about 160 billion cells and about 100 billion neurons connecting the cells. The complexities of the brain are inconceivable. One can look at the brain and see the incredible complexities and the miracles of the Divine…or one can respond…that this has nothing to do with G-d. Some people will be inspired with belief in the Almighty; others will claim that somehow billions of cells and neurons working together can be created through random evolution.”—Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, Jewish World Review, 17 January, 2014

My favorite way to spend driving time is listening to audiobooks, the latest being The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience by Professor Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, who has used SPECT imaging (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) to show what brain regions (and thus, what brain functions) are activated or deactivated by such religious acts as prayer, meditation, contemplation.

The technique involves intravenous injection of a radioactive chemical that is metabolized by the brain during activity; the metabolic act/brain activity occurs almost immediately after injection, but enough residual radioactivity remains for it to be detected.

There are two relevant issues. The first: “Is mind purely material–is the brain simply a meat computer or something more/other?”. The second: “Given the relation between brain function and religious experience, how was this acquired—by adaptive evolution or bestowed by God?” If it were possible to build a self-aware android—Data of Star Trek—would that android naturally have a religious sense, or would it have to be endowed by his creator?

Brain regions

Certain regions of the brain are involved in various cognitive and emotional functions.1 Such regions are activated or deactivated (as appropriate) in different ways during prayer or contemplation of the Deity by those experienced in prayer and by atheists.

Newberg’s early study was on Franciscan Nuns who had decades of experience in contemplative prayer. During the act of prayer the “attention” and “language” regions of the brain were more activated than for a baseline study while the spatial orientation (sense of location) were deactivated, as shown in the figures below.

Franciscan Nun SPECT scan, from Prof. Newberg

In this figure, the brain image under “Baseline Scan” is taken during “normal” activity (no prayer or meditation). The image under “Prayer Scan” is the brain image corresponding to intense Centered Prayer. In the prayer image, the frontal lobe region (“attention”) is red, more activated than during the baseline. Similarly, the “language center” (lower left) is more activated (redder) during prayer than for the baseline.2

Franciscan Nun SPECT scan, from Prof. Newberg

This figure is also a SPECT scan image of one of the Franciscan nuns. Note the less intense spatial orientation area during prayer (yellow versus red). Prof. Newberg argues that the lower activity of the orientation area corresponds to a feeling of losing self, of oneness with the universe, a feeling often associated with deep meditation and contemplation. The same sort of changes are found for other adepts at meditation, for example, for Buddhist monks. On the other hand, an atheist contemplating God (or his/her notion of God) shows little change in brain activity, as the last figure shows.

Atheist contemplating God, from Prof. Newberg

One MRI study cited by Newberg (I can’t find the original reference) finds that those practicing prayer and contemplation have larger frontal lobes (concerned with attention and focusing activity) than do non-practitioners. But since this was not a study over time, one can’t know whether the prayer/contemplation activity is a consequence of the greater size or that the brain has increased in size after years of prayer.

Newberg also proposes that the practice of prayer/meditation will improve brain function, memory, and help alleviate various kinds of brain dysfunction. If religious experience modifies brain activity, and if one has a sudden conversion experience, how can that change brain activity if it is due only to some physical mechanism? Changes in the physiology of the brain take time, they’re not accomplished in an instant.

Let’s accept the proposition that changes in functional brain activity can be correlated with prayer, contemplation and other religious activity. What then? Is it the case that God changes the brains of the faithful? Or that the functional correlation of brain activity with religious activity is due to adaptive evolution?

The notion of adaptive evolution rests on a Darwinian mechanism for evolution–that prayer increases survival prospects and thus the transmission of a genetic predisposition to prayer is enhanced. Now both Pope John Paul II and I believe that evolution—the descent of species—is more than just a hypothesis. However, as far as the Darwinian model goes, some scientists and philosophers–faithful and non-believers–and I are skeptical; the Scottish verdict “Not Proven” applies.

A prehistoric savage chieftain is distraught over the death of a comrade and while watching the flames of a funeral pyre conceives of the spirit of his comrade going above, like the flames, and finds peace. I find it hard to credit that such a disposition to think of an afterlife is 1) genetically implanted and inheritable and 2) contributes to survival. Granted that general qualities—intelligence, the ability to form abstractions, imagination—may be due to genetic endowments and will therefore enhance survivability, but that does not imply particular aspects of those qualities are also due to particular genes. Indeed, the so called “God gene” proposal rests on minimal statistical evidence. As Carl Zimmer‘s criticism has it:

“Instead the book we have today would be better titled: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.”—Carl Zimmer, Scientific American Review of The God Gene

I think we can dispose of the argument that religious feelings have been engendered by adaptive evolution, or at least conclude that this proposition is not proven. The deeper and more difficult question is the nature and source of religious experience. If mind and consciousness are but emergent properties of a meat computer, the brain, then are religious feelings due only to fortuitous neural physiology, as philosophers such as Dennett, Churchland, Chalmers, would propose? Or do these thoughts and experiences come from another source, the Holy Spirit?

To address this question adequately requires a book at the very least: one would have to consider the nature of “Mind” and “Consciousness”, and that is a matter distinct from labeling the neuro-physiological factors at play during a religious experience.3 Quantum mechanics may have a role, as suggested in two of my previous articles, “Do quantum entities have free will..“and “Quantum Divine via God, the Berkeleyan Observer” and by several philosophers and physicists.4

An aspect of this problem that has not been explored fully by philosophers is the growth of self-awareness/consciousness and intelligence. We are born with only a rudimentary sense of self, and this progresses through infancy and early childhood in several stages to a more complete development, five stages according to Philippe Rochat. How does this development proceed? Is it genetically programmed?

I can only say that I don’t have enough knowledge to come to a conclusion. Although it seems evident from the arguments of Penrose and Searle that our brains are not meat computers, it is not clear how the mental and physical elements of consciousness are separable. I think that quantum mechanics plays a part in consciousness, but I don’t know how that can be specified. I have faith that the Holy Spirit inspires us, but I’m not sure how that is done, although evidence for this might be found from conversion experiences. Perhaps the most trenchant comment on consciousness and The Divine has been given by Rabbi Goldstein in the opening quote. That being said, I believe that consciousness, along with the deeper levels of quantum mechanics, is now and may continue to be a mystery.


1See the web presentation by Professor Elaine Hull, or books by Dr. Newberg, Why God Won’t Go Away, or How God Changes Your Brain.

2Metabolic activity of the brain is color coded–blue is least, red is most; the color coding is on a relative, not absolute scale. Changes in brain activity are more evident on a gray scale than with the color coding.

3The various views of Mind and Consciousness are explained nicely by John Searle in his book “The Mystery of Consciousness“. A later book by Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology proposes that quantum mechanics is a necessary basis for free will and thus enters into consciousness.

4In addition to Penrose’s books on quantum mechanics and consciousness, there are Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, The Mindful Universe by Henry Stapp, Mind,Brain & the Quantum by Michael Lockwood, Quantum Mechanics and Experience by David Albert, and The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers. The last three explore the relation of the Many Worlds/Many Minds interpretation of quantum mechanics to consciousness.

Bob Doyle’s website on information theory, consciousness and quantum mechanics is also interesting and informative.

Finally! Global Warming, The Musical

Our beneficent government gave $700,000 dollars to a theatre troup to create the musical The Great Immensity.

Maybe you didn’t catch that. Our most giving righteous wise government, through its National Science Foundation, gave seven-hundred-thousand dollars to a group to put on a play about global warming. Seven. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. American tax dollars. Science.

Our friend Luboš Motl writes all about it; Daily Caller has a few tidbits, too. The plot of the play:

Through her search, Phyllis uncovers a mysterious plot surrounding the upcoming international climate summit in Auckland. As the days count down to the Auckland Summit, Phyllis must decipher the plan and possibly stop it in time. With arresting projected film and video and a wide-ranging score of songs, The Great Immensity is a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: how can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?

Right out of the Protocols of the Elders of Oil. The only reason everybody hasn’t rushed to link arms and cease exhaling carbon dioxide is because they have been hoodwinked. The ignorant fools!

Well just wait until the public gets a lot of the hit song from The Great Immensity “Margin of Error”, perhaps the first instance in recorded history in which an opinion poll is set to music. $700,000. Science.

Margin of Error from Polly on Vimeo.

The polls show
Fifty-seven per-cent
of Americans think something’s happening
to the Climate.

Now Yours Truly fancies himself a bit of a playwright. His Dinner with Atheists was performed on Broadway (the author read it aloud while walking down that very street). And his Sandra Fluke Mows The Lawn was considered by him for various nominations of actual awards, such as the Tony.

So it is with some authority I speak on this topic. You therefore know you can trust me when I say I want to get in on this. Seven-hundred-thousand dollars is a lot of money and I deserve it. Gimme.

My global warming musical will be called It’s the End of the World and it’s All Your Fault. Plot thus far:

Young scientist Nigel is watching Fox News when he has an epiphany. The reason his grants aren’t funded is that he hasn’t yet admitted the world is about to end. He converts and finds success! Join him on his one-man quest to find love and to never quite solve the problem of Global Warming (if it were solved, then no more grants). [I’m still trying to work in a sword fight. Everybody loves sword fights.]

I preview for you today fragments of the soon-to-be hit songs.

Wither the Weather?

The weather
   She’s a changin’
You’d betta
   Cry like a little girl

The storms
   Gettin’ stronger
Summer squalls
   Causing people minor inconveniences.

The hot heat
   She’s a risin’
Ever hotter
   Almost a whole tenth of degree more in the next fifty years.

Baby, It’s Hot Outside

Take off that coat, baby
   It’s hot outside.
No need for that scarf, baby
   It’s hot outside.

The thermometer is readin’ lower
   You know it’s hot outside
But the models say it’s higher
   That’s why it’s hot outside.

The icicles on your nose
   Confirm it’s hot outside
The endless winter weather
   Mean global warming’s on its way.
Oh baby! It’s so hot outside!


I met a man on the street this day
Who tried to tell me that
Global warming was no threat to me
That cooling was where it’s at.

So I shouted Denier!
And shot him in the head.
The judge,
who was an Obama appointee,
let me go Scott Free.


Get Me That Grant

Get me that grant, oh!
   Get me that grant
Get me that grant, oh!
   Get me that grant

Oh, Get me that grant
   A really big grant
Oh, Get me that grant
   A whopping big grant

Gimme that grant now
   How else can we learn?
I want it real bad now
   Else the world will burn!

And now for brilliance. Let’s make this a collaborative effort. Everybody join in and provide your own songs. But the time we’re finished even the fishes in the sea will be humming our tunes and then the world will be a better place!

My Genes Made Me Vote For Obama: Predisposed Reviewed

My brain made me pick this image.

My brain made me pick this image.

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford.

If a conservative is a person who clings to what is, who resists change and who distrusts innovation, then, to pick an example at random, a New York Times op-ed writer is a conservative. The last thing anybody who works at that paper wants is a change in the culture. Except for eliminating his enemies, he wants everything to stay just as it is.

What’s a liberal? Somebody who delights in the new? Who’s willing to take risks? Who thrills venturing into the unknown? Who is happy to leave other people alone as long as they leave him alone? Then, brother, Yours Truly is as liberal as they come. The last thing I want is a continuance of Modernity.

Maybe I had no choice except to be so liberal. Maybe each of us born with our politics and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why, babies born and raised in China, Kenya, or Fiji, were they transported here as eighteen-year-olds, would surely line up reflexively at the polls behind the jackass or elephant.

Sound strange? Well the key thesis behind Hibbing’s book is that we can “measure preferences on bedrock dilemmas and [that] these preferences should line up with political attitudes and beliefs in any given historical or cultural context” (emphasis original). Neuro- or bio-politics, as it were, is a new field, and one for which I have some sympathy. Our biology surely accounts for some of our behavior.

Yet I can’t figure the academy out. Haven’t we heard we’re all born equal, that none of us are different except for the pernicious or beneficent environment in which we were raised?

Take a lump of genes wrapped in skin and from birth let it live with two adults (let’s not be judgmental and call them “parents”) who listen to NPR, shop for organic food, and who attend marches for X Rights (where X is variable), and that lump will grow up to be one of the bien pensant. Or let him slog it out with a blue-collar mom and dad who watch Fox News, eat donuts, go to church, and attend Fourth of July parades. Then the lump will turn into Patrick Buchanan. Or Yours Truly. Environment and education—nurture, that is—rules.

But the academy also tells us there is no such thing as free will, that our genes our “selfish”, that our choices are made for us by that which is us biologically but not us mentally, that our behavior is hard-wired, that the reason we don’t like arugula is because of this gene, and the reason we are generous is because of that gene.

Hibbing and pals are somewhere in the middle—definitely not in the first camp. The view that “social context alone determines human behavior…has been a source of misunderstanding and even catastrophe throughout history.” Biology plays an under-appreciated role.

For example, they say it is because of biology that men are more likely to be math geniuses than women—no! Wait. No, no. That can’t be right. I correct myself. Absolutely not. Math ability can’t be genetic. Do you think these guys are some kind of sexists? No, sir. What Hibbing and others say is that the way we act politically is partly genetic.

They have the statistics to prove it. Weak, almost non-existent-correlation, small-sample, based-on-questionnaires, limited-applicability statistics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger collection of maybes, perhaps, probablys, could bes, supposings, possibles.

Here’s the problem. To prove any biological component of ideology you first have to separate the sheep from the goats. Only way to do that is to ask questions, which must be shaded such that divisions can be found, further supposing these divisions are forever fixed. These divisions will be fuzzy and accompanied by great uncertainty. Next is to investigate some ideologically driven behavior, like (they claim) smell preference or what jokes people think funny. That, too, will be measured with error. Last is to correlate the two measures (almost always using a straight line) and report on statistical “significance.” Unless the measurement error is accounted for, which is never is, the conclusions will be far, far too certain, which (as far as I could tell) they always were for the studies reported in this book.

Nobody outside the academy disagrees that biology is influential in our makeup. Some people are naturally delightful, like Yours Truly, and some are naturally bitter pills, like Harry Reid. Some of us are inveterately honest (me) and others choke on the truth (Reid). Others have massive intellects (you know who) while some can only parrot easily won slogans (thanks, Nevada). And we won’t even mention pure physical handsomeness.

Yet biology cannot be fully determinative. Identical twins don’t act in lockstep. The few studies Hibbing cites show twins are often found to be on opposite sides of the same questions, but perhaps not quite to the same rate as non-identical siblings. Environment plays its part: our intellects are ever at work. A man who was a liberal (as that word is commonly thought of) for much of his life can change to be a conservative, and vice versa.

The biological signal of political views is weak at best. I was convinced by none of the studies described in the book, all of which used the kinds of classical statistics (p-values, mostly) which guarantee over-certainty. Though there is enough evidence (from the book and elsewhere) to say biology is often determinative. Why didn’t the authors look to, say, intelligence, which has a robust biological signal? Too political: the findings go in the wrong direction.

Anyway, the authors are keen on their program: they claim their research will bring happiness to one and all by drawing a parallel argument about the course of the politics of homosexuality.

If recognizing that sexual orientation is anchored partially in biology leads to greater tolerance of different lifestyle choices, recognizing that political ideology is also tied to biology will lead to greater tolerance of different political viewpoints.

My knuckles locked up on writing “lifestyle choices” (thank God for the lubricating powers of whiskey), and there is hardly definitive proof how much if any homosexuality is caused by biology (but let that pass), but this is balderdash. I’ll tell you what will be “recognized.” When somebody disagrees with a progressive on a political point, he’ll recognize that his opponent is genetically defective. God help us when genetics testing becomes (more) commonplace than it is (especially in abortion decisions).

A last funny thing. The studies of political differences due to biology strangely always come down on the side of liberals. I keep a list of these studies (here and here) and they invariably paint a dark picture of traditionalists. Oh, and yes: there are increasing calls for selective breeding.

Another Fool Calls For My Arrest: Or, Adam Weinstein Slips A Nut

Whinestein receives his orders via wire.

Whinestein receives his orders via wire.

Another eek-screeching scrawny-brained bug-witted pretty-boy addled cancerous ferret has called for my arrest.

My crime? Sanity.

Adam Weinstein (@AdamWeinstein), writing at a place with the puerile name of “Gawker”—come to think of it, only peeping Toms could reason so badly—demands “Arrest Climate-Change Deniers.

Arrest. As in detain by force and incarcerate. For how long, pretty boy never says. Deniers. As in those who have rationally concluded that more than two decades of busted forecasts can only mean that apocalyptic global warming must be false.

Whinestein is in bad company. He joins professor Rod Lamberts, who says the ends justify the means when dealing with “deniers”, and professor and Queen of Smug Lawrence Torcello who is convinced dark forces have banded together against him.

There used to be a name for these sorts of walking wounded, men whose brains have ceased performing their customary duties, but in modern psychology everything and nothing is a disease, so there is no point in using it.

“Man-made climate change kills a lot of people,” says Whinestein. Now it is useless telling this overgrown child that this statement is laughably false. He has constructed a wall of Legos under his mother’s kitchen table to block information like this from seeping in. There he sits, crouched in his safe gloomy murk, aligning his toy soldiers as they battle for All Mankind. If you needed proof of the danger of reading comic books past the age of twenty, this is it.

A man would have to have cheese between the ears to post in block letters above a picture the words “Consensus: 97% of climate scientist agree” and fail to realize that therefore there are 3% of climate scientists who disagree with the “Consensus.” We could therefore ask Whinestein how many of these scientists he would cart off to concentration camps if we didn’t already know his mathematical skills do not allow him to count past his twelve toes.

And anyway, that 97% is overblown by an order of magnitude. Dear activists: this means the number is too big; hold your arms apart to get an idea how big. Whinestein says he wouldn’t shoot actual scientists who disagree with his non-considered opinion, only those who repeat what the scientists who disagree with him say. Make sense? Expecting sense from a progressive is like standing on Wilshire Boulevard awaiting the Stage Coach. No matter how earnestly you desire it, it isn’t going to come.

Like Lamberts and Torcello, Whinestein believes he has stumbled across the Protocols of the Elders of Oil. Just like the 300-pound Wellesley graduate (major: Womyn’s Studies) who swears she was abducted by Greys and probed lovingly over a long weekend, Whinestein is on the corner screaming, “The truth is out there!” at passersby.

Conspiracy is always the first refuge of zealots. The ignorant, being ignorant, are unable to fathom that others can’t see the hidden patterns which are so plain to them. Those who disagree must be evil, and are therefore fair game for the firing squad.

I’ve told this so many times I’m sick of repeating it. Just once more. Whereas Whinestein is well compensated for his fact-free global warming rants, Yours Truly has never accepted consideration of any kind for his advice. Not that I didn’t and don’t want to. But nobody ever offered it and those I asked said come back next week—but next week never came. On the contrary, my reasoned skepticism has cost me plenty.

Just last week, I had a job lined up that would have been perfect. My dream job. But the organization came back, “Sorry, we don’t want to be associated with deniers or denial.” Me they liked. But they were frightened of foamy-mouthed knuckle-draggers like Whinestein. Last thing a businessman wants is to come to work and see monkeys ooking and eeking and swarming the shrubbery lining the parking lot. It’s a distraction.

I thus invite pretty boy Whinestein or lusty Lamberts or twiggy Torcello or any Gaiaian caped crusader—readers, please email these…these entities for me—to name the time and place and I’ll be there. There they can try their luck arresting me.

Update Reader Brad R reminds us of Richard ‘Killer’ Parncutt.

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