31 May 2009
OK, but what is actually being measured? Cutting through some of the technical jargon, the philosophy page is the most revealing.
"It is known from reflexology therapy that certain parts of the hand have an energetic link to the organs of the body. According to ancient Eastern healing science, the individual zones on the hand are connected not only with the body organs and the consciousness, but also with colour and the subtle energy centres. [...] Neural therapy also works through the reflex zones of the skin.
In applied kinesiology, the interactions of the consciousness and the activity of the organ are analyzed, as well. [...] Certain emotions and thoughts resonate with certain parts of the brain, which are interconnected with various organs. This is confirmed by the studies of Dr. Gerd Ryke Hamer (see his book, The New Medicine), who explored the connections of emotional conflicts with brain and organ tumours, and other diseases through computer tomography. [...]
The philosophy and technical concept (indirect meridian measurements through reflex zones as well as the colour presentation and numerical values) are unique to the Biopulsar."
OK, so the Biopulsar is an "indirect meridian" measuring device. This requires a lot of theoretical links to justify the significance of the output. One thing is a direct CT or fMRI scan, quite another to assume the same level of energetic details can be achieved by placing one's hands on an electrical contact board.
I'm skeptical, but if anybody has used this system then would be good to have some feedback. A system for direct measurements may still be far too expensive for most individuals or therapists - even though the Biopulsar website itself has no indication of its price.
The Mind and Life Institute believes that in order for the dialogue between meditation and science to have a durable contribution to humanity, collaborative research programs must be conducted in first rate Western scientific laboratories and the results of those studies be published in prominent peer-review scientific journals. Thus far collaborative research has been focused on collecting data from highly trained meditative adepts using fMRI, EEG and MEG neuroimaging techniques and other psychological, neurological, and immunological measures. Most importantly, these meditative adepts are not only "subjects", in the classical sense. Instead, they are true collaborators, helping to design the scientific research protocols, and participating in analysis and publications.
Of the Eastern religions, Buddhism has had the highest level of penetration in the West outside of immigrant populations. However, I think that the esoteric practices of Hinduism and Taoism have much in common with Buddhism and all three traditions should be looked at together. Having said that, let's see what the Mind & Life Institute has to say.
The first major impact of Buddhism on science is in the study of consciousness and the range of human abilities. What is normal? What are the limits of human experience? How do we distinguish reality from illusion and delusion? Western science has often been accused of being so objective as to have ignored subjective experiences. For example, the main branch of psychology studied at university during the 20th century has been behaviourism; mainly because both inputs and outputs are measurable and thereby people's actual subjective experiences that happen in the middle of the process can be ignored and then deduced from the data. I think, however, that the global village is a recent phenomenon and that we still have a wide range of educational and philosophical traditions around the world. Just as modern science was born in Europe and is now a worldwide enterprise, so Buddhism, or at least the esoteric practices of Buddhism, may have been born in India but there is no reason why it should not become a universal tool for exploring consciousness. That is why I also mentioned Hinduism and Taoism: shorn of their religious shells, they are at an experiential level talking the same language.
The scientific focus on data, empiricism and objectivity has discarded a lot of ideas that were based on superstition or just plain wrong. By doing so it has also come to appreciate that there are aspects of the human experience that remain baffling and mysterious. Into the scene steps the accumulated data of centuries of experimentation on human consciousness from the subjective point of view. Experiences such as lucid dreaming, religious visions, altered states of mind, out of body experiences all once seemed like pathologies. Yet now, with the help of medical physics on the one hand and the knowledge of expert meditators on the other, these exoteric and esoteric scientists are discovering common ground.
This is a major step forward in human knowledge. We may soon reach a point where the inner and outer scientists share a common philosophical framework. As an aside, this may also herald the end of fideist religions. Mystical traditions do exist in the Near Eastern monotheisms but they have usually been marginalised, if not driven wholly underground. The fundamental problem for dogmatic religions is that human consciousness may throw up unorthodox experiences. The esoteric traditions such as Buddhism have accepted this and their focus has been not so much on dogma but on seeing how far human experiences can go. Yes, a theoretical framework has grown up around these experiences but it is periodically updated to reflect any new discoveries. What is the ultimate reality we can experience? This quest is as scientific as the search for the ultimate physical reality. At some point, a truly universal theory of everything will have to account for both phenomena.
This leads to the second influence of Buddhism, which is in the sphere of epistemology: the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know what we know? What is reality really like? Varela spends less time discussing epistemology as this seems to lean more towards the philosophy of science than to experiencing new levels of consciousness. The main influence here has been on physics and its innumerable problems that have arisen ever since the birth of quantum mechanics. Non-local phenomena and a vacuum that is both empty and yet brimming with potential all have parallels in Buddhist philosophy. The newtonian ideas of cause and effect still have domains in which they apply, but at the most fundamental level quantum effect mock any notion of strict causality. My problem here is that trying to wed Buddhism with theoretical physics may backfire if at some point in the future there is another scientific revolution and a new higher order is discovered. This may be unfounded, but although such philosophical cross-fertilization has proved useful to both sides I still think that the most fertile ground is with the neurosciences and biophysics.
30 May 2009
Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend £1.9 million investigating why people believe in God. Academics have been given a grant to try to find out whether belief in a deity is a matter of nature or nurture.
They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.
Researchers at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford will use the cognitive science disciplines to develop “a scientific approach to why we believe in God and other issues around the nature and origin of religious belief”.
Justin Barrett, a psychologist who has been quoted in support of arguments by both the atheist Richard Dawkins and his critic, Alister Mc-Grath, a Christian theologian, said: “We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural. We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose.”
He compared believers to three-year-olds who “assume that other people know almost everything there is to be known”. Dr Barrett, who is a Christian, is the editor of the Journal of Cognition and Cultureand author of the book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? He said that the childish tendency to believe in the omniscience of others was pared down by experience as people grew up. But this tendency, necessary to allow human beings to socialise and cooperate with each other in a productive way, continued when it came to belief in God.
“It usually does continue into adult life,” he said. “It is easy, it is intuitive, it is natural. It fits our default assumptions about things.”
Dr Barrett said: “The next step therefore is to look at some of the detailed questions – which religious beliefs are most common and most natural for the human mind to grasp?” The most exciting questions were in areas such as the different responses to polytheism and monotheism, for example, and relationships between religion and evolutionary biology.
He and his colleague Roger Trigg will be investigating whether religion is a part of the selection process that has helped humans survive or merely a byproduct of evolution.
The three-year study is being funded by a £1.9 million grant to the Ian Ramsey Centre from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research into religion, science and spirituality. There will be seminars and workshops, while £800,000 will go towards a small grant competition, with 41 grants for different projects.
Professor Trigg, a senior research Fellow at Oxford and author of Religion in Public Life: Must Faith be Privatised?, said: “Religion has played an important role in public life over the past few years and the debate about the origin of religion, and how it fits into the human mind, has intensified. This study will not prove or disprove any aspect of religion.” (Times Online)
I will keep track of this research and will post more. If you have any news then please leave a comment. One word of caution; the research is another Templeton funded project. The Templeton Foundation has a lot of money and is unashamedly Christian in outlook. Look closely and one of the goals is to see how "natural" belief in God is. In the theologian's mind if it can be shown to be natural then it is very close to being true. Trying to prop up metaphysical beliefs, rather than investigating spiritual mental states is not, in my opinion, a huge step forward.
29 May 2009
Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. "It's not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it's that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."
This is, indeed, good to see. However, I suspect we're also going to be entering a phase where the direction of research may also be contaminated with religious ideology and it is also good to know who says what.
As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary progress. "I don't think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.
This is precisely my feeling on the matter. The shared delusion that may result in social cohesion can also lead that whole society to an early grave. Such dead-end cults would be difficult to find historically but we get an inkling of them in some of the contemporary suicide cults. A belief in afterlife has to also have some good excuse to live this one out fully first.
"Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life," says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford.
One thing the article fails to mention is that Justin Barrett is not only an anthropologist but also one of the founders of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Religion and Science. Barrett is described in the New York Times as a "prominent member of the by-product camp" and "an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” [and] “that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.” He considers that “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people, Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” What did I say about investigating both the research and the researcher?
Children do seem to have an innate common-sense dualism between things with minds and inanimate objects. The dualism extends to being able to conceive of minds as separate from their bodies. The common experience of having fantasy friends is one consequence of this. But some of the research seems to contradict this in that it found that children were prone to ascribe meaning and intention to natural physical phenomena – it rains so as to help plants grow, the sun shines because it keeps us warm, and so on. I'm not sure if the researchers looked deeply enough if this was a consequence of the way children's stories are written in that very often animate and inanimate objects are characters with intentions and purposes. Whatever the source of these ideas they do seem to be deeply embedded, with it being a very short step from believing in imaginary friends or disembodied minds to gods and an afterlife.
[...] religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring in our brain, says Bloom. "All humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away." Olivera Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking.
Seeing patterns where none exist may well be an attribute of the brain but extending that to the supernatural sphere is not an obvious progression. The last piece of research quoted showed that people under stress or feeling a loss of control would be more prone to seeing patterns in random data. The results are interpreted as showing that people under stress are more likely to seek solace in meaning, even if that meaning is purely imaginary. Hence the link with the original observation that religious belief seems to increase when times are difficult.
The final message is that, whether belief says anything about the object of belief, religion is not going to be going away any time soon. Religious faith is the path of least resistance when the world around us seems to be descending into chaos. In contrast, disbelief requires more effort.
It is also interesting that this article prompted an editorial in the same edition. The editor shows a certain resignation in research showing that irrationality may well be the natural human state and that scientific understanding has not only been hard won but may also be more fragile than many of us would hope.
Let's assume you have a religious faith, whatever it might be. Your faith is in a particular set of doctrines and probably a particular deity. From the point of view of a believer, the beliefs are obvious, self-evident truths. Now, is it possible to have two faiths simultaneously?
Is it possible to be, for example, a Roman Catholic and a Zen Buddhist at the same time? Is it possible to be a Jehovah's Witness and a Hassidic Jew at the same time? Is it possible to hold two distinct and different religious beliefs simultaneously?
The beliefs have to be distinct in that any fusion between two belief systems is a form of syncretism and thereby results in a third belief system that is different from its two original components. Many cults have developed as tributaries from one main source, but they still regard themselves as different with a distinct set of beliefs.
I propose that it is not possible to hold two different religious beliefs simultaneously. It is just not possible to have the emtional certainty in two conflicting beliefs, such as in an eternal heaven and hell and in rebirth, at the same time.
Now, let us add to our thought experiment some simple scientific 'beliefs'. "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow." That is not a particularly controversial belief but perfectly scientific. Is it possible to hold such a 'belief' and at the same time hold on to one's religious faith? There are innumerable scientific propositions about our universe that are indisputable. There are also many scientific propositions that are still hypotheses waiting for verification or falsification. By phrasing every scientific proposition in the future tense gives them all the status of hypotheses waiting for personal testing.
This is not the place to delve more deeply into the philosophy of science; remember, this is a psychological thought experiment. The point here is that the religious believer thinks that by labelling scientific propositions as 'belief' he is according them equal status to the doctrines of his religious belief. But they are not the same thing - they are two different states of mind. That is why it is perfectly possible to be a religious believer and a scientist at the same time. The vast majority of science does not even impinge on religious doctrines. When it does, then the individual has a dilemma.
I am becoming convinced that religious belief is an emotional state of mind, somewhat like being in love. Try telling someone that the love they have for their partner is a delusion! What kind of reaction would you get? Try also telling someone who is not in love that their "non-love" is actually in reality a form of love! What reaction would you get then? This aspect of belief needs some research but would be interesting to see who would have the bravery to fund it.
For the religious believer, trying to call scientific propositions beliefs is the sign of self defence. Imagine someone told you that your partner had been unfaithful to you. The reactions are myriad, from disbelief to outright divorce. The emotional turmoil is very real but love is not so easy to turn off, even in the face of evidence that it isn't reciprocated.
These last thoughts require another article. For now, it suffices to say that religious faith is an altogether different state of mind to opinions held about scientific theories - our language should reflect this difference rather than obscure it.
Also published at Asylum Joy.