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Can fMRI Predict Who Believes God? Part II

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII

I don’t want to bore us, but it is crucial to read the team’s explanation of their extraordinary behavior when culling people:

While gradations of belief are certainly worth investigating, our experiment sought to characterize belief and disbelief in their purest form. It was, therefore, essential that we exclude subjects who could not consistently respond “true” or “false” with conviction. Our decision to exclude data from subjects whose answers were not consistent with our pre-screening criteria was part of our original design and was not made based on any evaluation of the scanning data (the fMRI data from these subjects were never analyzed). While we adopted the criteria of excluding anyone who responded to one category of statements with less than 90% predictability, the 7 subjects who were excluded on this basis had responses that ranged from 22% to 43% discord with the expected responses. (For instance, one subject who passed our initial screening as a nonbeliever actually agreed with 43% of the religious Christian statements once inside the scanner.)

This provides a legitimate and entirely justifiable excuse for a spit-take. They did what? They excluded data that was not “consistent”? What’s “consistent” mean? Just what does “90% predictability” imply? How exactly do we quantify answering “with conviction”? And didn’t they just say that some people were excluded because of “technical difficulties with their scans”, yet they now say that “the fMRI data from these subjects were never analyzed”?

Scientific papers are meant to be recipe-like, so that others might reproduce the results. Reproduction is impossible here since we have no clear idea exactly how this experiment progressed. Nevertheless, we push on.

They knew their experimental behavior was unusual, for they immediately sought to allay the readers’ fear:

Thus, the high exclusion rate at this later stage of the experiment represents the failure of our brief screening procedure to accurately assess a person’s religious beliefs, rather than a bias in our approach to data analysis.

Oh, well, if they say so, it really can’t be bias, can it?

Anyway, they ended with “fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers”. Harris did not say whether the nonbelievers were committed. He did not say whether any, regardless of group, were lying. Most unbelievably, Harris did not say whether the non-Christians were non-believers in any other deity or practiced any other religion. Were there any Buddhists in the second group? Jews? Scientologists? Unitarians, even?

They were all college students, though, which almost goes without saying these days. No word on what reward, if any, these young adults were given for participation.

Intent?

One might suspect that this study has nothing to do with what areas of the brain “light up” when somebody thinks about Christ, and more to do with Harris’s bafflement that any person would think about Christ at all. My evidence for this is that the very first words of his paper’s Introduction have nothing to do with biology, chemistry, neurology, or statistics. They are instead about a busted prediction from folks of the far-left end of the political spectrum:

Since the 19th century, it has been widely assumed that the spread of industrialized society would spell the end of religion. Marx [12], Freud [13], [14], and Weber [15]—along with innumerable anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and psychologists influenced by their work—expected religious belief to wither in the light of modernity. It has not come to pass. Religion remains one of the most prominent features of human life in the 21st century. While most developed societies have grown predominantly secular [16], with the curious exception of the United States, orthodox religion is in full bloom throughout the developing world.

Harris then leaps from from the theoretical hole in which has dug himself and states, “Given the importance of religion in human life, surprisingly little is known about its basis in the brain.” He then mentions “the fact that a variety of clinical conditions related to dopaminergic dysfunction-mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and temporal-lobe epilepsy–are regularly associated with hyperreligiosity”? But then so are placidness, charitableness, friendliness, wholesomeness, etc. “associated” with religiosity. Yet, somehow, Harrris forgot to mention these. We can only wonder why.

I must stop here, since it is no longer obvious, and remind us that Harris and his co-authors purport to be scientists interested in scientific, i.e. dispassionate, disinterested, discoverable questions.

We needed that admonition lest we read the following (also in the paper’s Introduction) and get the wrong idea:

While there may be many Catholics, for instance, who value the ritual of the Mass without actually believing the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the primacy of the Mass within the Church still hinges on the fact that many Catholics do accept it as a metaphysical truth—a fact that can be directly attributed to specific, doctrinal claims that are still put forward by the Church. There is, of course, a distinction to be made between mere profession of such beliefs and actual belief [33]—a distinction that, while important, only makes sense in a world in which some people actually believe what they say they believe.

A distinction that, while important, Harris and his team were sloppy in keeping, as noted above, and as will again be noted in their experimental protocol. This is the first and also the last we heard of Catholics, the Mass, and transubstantiation, incidentally, so there appears to be no reason to bring them up, especially since Harris did not distinguish between kinds of Christians in his sample, a most important point.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII

11 thoughts on “Can fMRI Predict Who Believes God? Part II Leave a comment

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    In Europe at least, this did not happen immediately. The Christian churches were able to extend their influence, mainly because more and more people got the right to vote. The Christian churches’ influence started to wane with people increasing their economic independence. And at the same time, less and less people thought of themselves as Christian. Hence the hypothesis it was the welfare state that was a major factor in less and less people believing.

  2. Just curious: Do these so-called scientists ever make a focus of their studies a comparable investigation of the emotional conviction – and possible disturbance – required to embrace a full atheistic worldview? To be truly atheistic is to declare that one is pretty darn sure there is no God. Considering the kind of knowledge one would need to possess so as to be this certain, one would ironically have to have a god-like knowledge base. (Evidence of narciissim, megalomania, and juvenile rebelliousness against authority could require a follow-up study.) Contrary to agnosticism (having significant doubts), which seems an entirely honest and rational position, to be a full blown atheist seems to require a leap of faith (under the guise of inference) beyond presently knowable data. It is no surprise then that many (especially the new) atheists attack theism and theists with a religious fervor comparable to many religious fanatic’s attacks on other religions. The irony seems to be lost on them: they despise and fear people who believe in God and thus often attack them with a bizarre ferocity. Poor religious thinking is poor religious tthinking no matter who the thinker may be (or degrees they may hold) or what philosophical affiliations or biases he or she may hold.

  3. Speaking as an atheist I’ve often thought the Achilles heel of the new atheist movement is the scientific output of self professed atheists.

    Harris’ is rubbish, you should look at Dawkins’, it’s not great.

  4. The concept of God is extremely abstract and often negatively defined, so it is questionable what, concretely, “believing in” God would mean in terms of brain function. It might be more fruitful to scan the brains of people believing in vs. not believing in much more clear-cut but still fundamentally important abstractions such as (a) a nontrivial root of the Riemann zeta function with real part unequal to 1/2, or (b) an even integer greater than two which is not the sum of two primes.

  5. Marx [12], Freud [13], [14], and Weber [15]—along with innumerable anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and psychologists influenced by their work—expected religious belief to wither in the light of modernity. It has not come to pass. Religion remains one of the most prominent features of human life in the 21st century. While most developed societies have grown predominantly secular [16], with the curious exception of the United States, orthodox religion is in full bloom throughout the developing world.

    “Freud, Weber, Marx and Marcuse, thank you for the Franfurt Sch…err, This Perfect Day!”

    You mean, the Long March Through the Institutions still hasn’t killed off religion in that “curious exception” the United States? Shocking. Things in Europe are going so great as they slowly die off…”By their fruits you shall know them.”

    Look, to get back to science: Why not ask the same set of questions to a larger sample (say 100+) under fMRI first, then give them a questionnaire about their religious beliefs and social attitudes and in the great tradition of Double Blindness someone else who doesn’t know Who is Who look at the scans and tabulate the results. Wouldn’t that be much more, um scientific? Might actually find intersting correlations.

    The only way this seems “reproducible” is copying and pasting the article.

  6. Clearly the time is coming when the ossified beliefs regarding the so called scientific method will be thrown onto the ash heap of history. The paradigm shift will bring the new light and insight and humankind will be able to advance to the next step of emotional and intellectual development. The absolute harmony between humans and zooplankton will be the foundation of the new logic. Aliens will change their attitude and will not invade us. Oh, and it will be possible to urinate in all colors, finally!

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