27 July 2008

Which Came First? The Data or the Result?

It would seem that vjack at Atheist Revolution and I are on the same wave-length this morning. Today, he blogs about a study linking serotonin with spirituality and I'm blogging about this "study." Apparently, Oxford University professor Oliveria Pertovich is claiming that we are hardwired for belief in God, not atheism.

Well, I find a number of problems with this, but I'm no Oxford University professor, so what do I know? I do find this bothersome, though:
Asked whether it was hard-wired into the human psyche, she said: "Definitely so, but it is important not to build too much into the concept of God. It's the concept of God as creator, primarily."
Okay, so we're specifically talking about God as creator, a concept we are all wearily familiar with. We're not just talking some primitive predilection of human infants to concoct silly supernatural causes for observed but unexplained effects. Gotcha.
Some basic concepts of physics such as inertia and gravity seem to be present early in life. They behave as if they have certain expectations of the physical world. They expect things that are visible, then disappear behind a screen, to reappear at the other end and are surprised if they do not. They expect things that are suspended to fall down, and if the objects hover they are surprised.
Hmmm, but this sounds like the primitive cause-and-effect thing I mentioned a second ago, not at all the 'concept of God as creator' that was so important to note.
They are highly similar in the basic ways of how they go about their everyday understanding and how they try to make sense of it, including God. They are equipped with certain core principles of understanding.
Wait a tic, where'd the specific concept of God as creator go? 'God,' 'creator.' This, to me, as I read it, is a specific entity, personified, and performing specific tasks, like creating. This doesn't at all sound like some vague mysterious force that causes things to happen. So, which is it lady?

Not to mention, this study was done on Japanese kids and British kids, ages 4 to 6--how controlled was this experiment from which she claims she harvested her 'empirical evidence?' Did the parents of these children promise never to mention 'God', as creator or otherwise, while these kids grew big enough to walk and talk? Or did they take these infants from birth and lock them up somewhere to guarantee that no religious concepts could be slipped to them? Is she really saying that these kids came to this specific personified concept of God as creator with not one single tiny bit of environmental, cultural influence? Why's that important? Because she claiming belief (or worse, knowledge) of God is inherent--it's our natural state.
Dr Petrovich says she is specifically interested in whether any theological aspects could be seen to be natural in their development. There's a difficulty because theological concepts are necessarily reliant on verbal communication.
Really? This woman teaches at Oxford? 'Theological concepts are necessarily reliant on verbal communication.' Communication like families instilling a specific cultural reference into the growing minds of their children?

Basically, Petrovich seems to be taking primitive reactions to our environment and our flawed human interpretations of them--interpretations that often, rather embarrassingly, fall over into the vague supernatural category--and turning them into a specific inherent knowledge of a biblical God. This God is the cause and effect--he was the cause of creation and we are the effect. She's applying this to chemistry and psychics. She's saying at 4-6 year olds come to this very specific conclusion with zero influence from their families. And only after explaining that religion being hard-wired in the psyche is 'definitely so,' she then goes on and says she's interested if theological aspects can be derived from her study of kids doing what kids do as they try to figure out the world.

Lady, it sound like you already have. This, as I read it, is a ridiculous example of a final answer masquerading as 'theory' and the forcing/manipulation of data to prove it.

Look, it's one thing if you want to say that atheism is a learned trait--that the supernatural concepts we might come to, whether inherent or environmental, are later rebuked through reason. Fine. And it's also another thing to say that our brains are somehow hardwired to seek out supernatural explanations for our environments. I could even buy that. It's 'supernatural:' beyond what is natural--beyond what we have knowledge of to be natural, and when we're infants, we have knowledge of practically nothing, natural or otherwise. So yeah, I can see this epic confusion happening.

I wouldn't say, however, that just because that might be the case, it doesn't make it any less ridiculous. We are a very flawed species and very often we think and do incredibly stupid things--inherent or not. But to say that we are hardwired specifically to interpret a personified entity that creates everything and causes everything to happen, as opposed to some nameless, faceless mass of woogity-boogity that causes it all--that's too much.


  1. Seems like we are often on the same wave-length. It makes me sad that the general public seems to have such a poor understanding of science and how it works.

  2. Agreed. It certainly allows 'theological psychologists' to spout off about crap like this and be taken seriously. Throw "Oxford" in there and it can hardly be refuted. *sigh* It seems that all you have to say is 'empirical evidence' and 'definitely so,' and boom it's science and it's true!

  3. Following the links to here

    Petrovich:"On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word "God," instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., "nobody knows") or an incorrect response (e.g., "by people")." .

    Uh-huh. Good old multiple choice.

    "This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all. So where do these children get the idea that creation is in God’s hands?"

    I don't know..... from the multiple choice questions they were presented with, perhaps?

    It’s an example of a natural inference that they form on the basis of their own experience. My Japanese research assistants kept telling me, "We Japanese don’t think about God as creator — it’s just not part of Japanese philosophy." So it was wonderful when these children said, "Kamisama! God! God made it!" That was probably the most significant finding."

    So, if these children supposedly grew up without the concept of 'God', how did they understand what it actually meant when they were presented with 'God' as a potential answer?

    Here is an interesting review paper which seems pertinent to the discussion. Prior to, or in the absence of, scientific explanations, children's common sense, intuitive understanding of reality is often very wrong. For example they apparently have trouble fully grasping the concept of a spherical earth. Most significantly, "children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose": their world is filled with purposeful agents and objects that are seen to be the product of the design and intent of these agents. It is no surprise to find that children presented with questions about the origin of things would tend towards explanations involving intent and supernatural agents (especially where these are presented to them in a multiple choice format.....sheesh).

    Petrovich's work says nothing about religion. We all appear to have some reservations about the methods (!) and the results have been over-interpreted, presumably due to the author's own cultural biases.

    "At the moment, you have very good psychologists with no education in theology or religion, and theology people who have no technical knowledge of how to do psychological research."

    Why are either of these things desirable?

    "What I ideally would like to do is obtain a proper, funded post in academic psychology of religion within a psychology department."

    Ah. I see.