Our site has technical problems and is in the process of being updated and re-vamped. If you have trouble posting a comment, send it, please to our webmistress Tiffany This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  . Thank you for your patience!

We are not intuitive monists — but then, what are we?

I have recently been watching the fascinating iTunes lectures by Tamar Gendler on the philosophy of human nature. Two of the lectures discuss what she terms "parts of the soul", but what I will here rather cumbersomely refer to as "parts of human personhood". Reviewing the western tradition, Gendler traces our tendency to subdivide the human person into parts to a continuous tradition in western philosophy and psychology. She discusses, amongst others, Plato's distinction between appetite, ratio and spirit, Freud's division between id, ego and superego, and more recently, the immensely popular division in cognitive psychology between system 1 (phylogenetically old, unconscious, and fast) and system 2 (more philogenetically novel, under conscious control and slow).

Such divisions of human personhood are cross-culturally ubiquitous...

Read more: We are not intuitive monists — but then, what are we?

Religious beliefs: Matter of fact or of preference?

In the public sphere, religious beliefs are often considered to be a matter of private sentiment or preference, not as matters of fact. While this may be helpful for the maintenance of a pluralistic society, religious individuals often regard their beliefs as true in an objective sense. Attempts to incorporate fictionalism into religious practice, such as the Anglican Sea of Faith, have met only with limited success.

There is thus a tension between the large diversity of religious beliefs, which prompt a more subjectivist understanding, and the appraisal by individual religious believers, who seem to have a more fact-like understanding.
How do we intuitively conceptualize religious beliefs? In an article entitled "The Development of Reasoning about Beliefs:  Fact, Preference, and Ideology" (forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Larisa Heiphetz, Elizabeth Spelke, Paul Harris, & Mahzarin R. Banaji investigated how children and adults view religious doctrinal and faith statements. They made a psychological distinction between three kinds of beliefs: factual beliefs (beliefs concerning states of affairs, of things that are believed to be true in some objective sense); preference-based beliefs (incorporating cognitive appraisals, and varying across individuals and contexts), and ideology-based beliefs (such as religious beliefs) which contain elements of both fact and preference.

Read more: Religious beliefs: Matter of fact or of preference?

What explains foxhole theism?

The well-known dictum that there are no atheists in foxholes (the source of this phrase is uncertain) is false. After all, there is even a military organization for atheists, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers. Having read several the testimonies from these military men and women, I was struck by the extent to which (Christian) religiosity (regular prayer, semi-compulsory meetings with chaplains) is an ingrained part of military practice, and how tough this must be for atheists. As one MAAF member put it: "I was there for most of these prayers thinking, 'Religion is why we are in this war [Iraq] in the first place, haven't you guys figured that out yet?"

Sergeant York

Cognitive scientists of religion do not deny that people can remain atheist in the face of mortal danger. But there is a steady stream of literature indicating that, although one can be an explicit atheist in such cases, priming people with mortality-salient stimuli seems to increase implicit religiosity. For instance, Tracy et al. (2011) found that reminding people of their mortality increases their propensity to accept creationist accounts and to reject evolutionary theory. This result was obtained regardless of the participants’ religion (or lack thereof), religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Jong et al. (accepted manuscript) showed that although mortality primes do not increase people's explicit religious convictions, they do increase implicit measures of religiosity. I will refer to this phenomenon as Implicit Foxhole Theism (IFT).

The theoretical framework in the literature to explain IFT is terror management theory (TMT). Accordingly, people cope with their awareness of death by investing in some kind of immortality. Religious beliefs, which cross-culturally, but not universally, have a literal form of immortality in their package deals, play a salient role in this.

Admittedly, not all religions paint a rosy picture of the afterlife.

Read more: What explains foxhole theism?

Atheist clergymen and belief in belief

A while ago, Dan Sperber blogged about research by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola on atheist clergymen. Their paper, which is available in open access here, provides a fascinating qualitative study on atheist clergymen from various denominations, all of whom were anonymousmy interviewed about their doubts and loss of religious belief. If found out they risked losing their job at the very least, and being expelled from the religious community that had been their home for so long. Yet, many of them expressed moral qualms about not coming out: was their silence a form of hypocricy, or was it all for the best?


Empty church

 Could Christian atheism rekindle an interest in religion?


"I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go. Because I do feel kind of hypocritical." (Dennett & Lascola 2010, p. 137)

Read more: Atheist clergymen and belief in belief

Theology and cognitive science

In the next academic year, I will be a research follow at the University of Oxford on a project that examines the implications of cognitive science of religion for theology (see here for a summary of the project).

Masaccio's trinity

The Holy Trinity by Masaccio, 1425

Traditionally, cognitive scientists have argued for a large cognitive divide between folk religion and theology. Folk religious beliefs are considered to be cognitively natural, whereas theology is chock-full of concepts that are difficult to represent. Pascal Boyer has termed the tendency of laypeople to distort official theological doctrines to reflect more intuitive modes of reasoning ''the tragedy of the theologian''.

Read more: Theology and cognitive science

If "Religion is natural", what about atheism?

In 'cognition and culture' circles, it is almost a matter of common wisdom, it seems, to claim that religious belief is natural, whereas atheism, physicalism and other forms of unbelief are unnatural (see for example this paper by Robert McCauley). Sociologist Rodney Stark has announced the death of secularism, and the thesis that religious belief is gradually making way for an age of reason, originally proposed by the architects of the Enlightenment, has been laid to rest as a case of wishful thinking and of old-fashioned cultural evolutionism. Religion is a panhuman cultural phenomenon, which can be materially attested in the form of burials and representations of supernatural agents since least 50 000 years ago. Cognitive scientists of religion argue that religious beliefs are natural: modes of reasoning that are characteristic of religious belief appear spontaneously in young children, without explicit instruction. Examples include an intuitive mind/body dualism (the fact that we have different inference systems about minds and bodies, proposed by Paul Bloom); intuitive afterlife beliefs (the intuition that minds continue to exist after the physical death of the person, due to Jesse Bering) and intuitive creationism (understanding the world in teleological terms and as a product of intentional design, proposed by Deborah Kelemen).  

However, the persistence and relatively wide cultural spread of atheism and other forms of unbelief may present a challenge to this received picture of the naturalness of religion. In many secular nations, the number of people who denote themselves as without religious affiliation is on the rise. A recent mathematical model published online on ArXiv indicates that, if current trends continue, religion will soon go extinct in several of these nations. Of course, being without religious affiliation does not always equate with unbelief, but it does seem to suggest a trend of decreased religiosity. 

Last year, in a special issue of Religion, Justin Barrett argued that atheism does not defeat the "naturalness of religion" thesis...

Read more: If "Religion is natural", what about atheism?

The Zeus problem revisited - or is it the Jedi problem?

In their recent paper (available here) in Journal of Cognition and Culture, Will M. Gervais and Joseph Henrich call attention to the Zeus problem. If religious belief is solely guided by representational content biases (as many scholars in the cognitive science of religion have argued), why do people generally not come to believe in the gods of their neighbours, or indeed, in gods of the past such as Zeus? Zeus has all the features that are characteristic of successful religious agents, but he is no longer a target for widespread belief and commitment. Of course, what Gervais and Henrich do not mention is that there are in fact modern believers in Zeus and other members of the Greek pantheon, namely adherents to Hellenic Polytheistic reconstructionism. As can be seen in the movie here, Zeus is still an object of worship today. There are about 2000 adherents to this form of paganism in Greece today.


<object width="640" height="505"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/KT0az7g1PJ8?fs=1&amp;hl=fr_FR&amp;rel=0&amp;color1=0x006699&amp;color2=0x54abd6"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/KT0az7g1PJ8?fs=1&amp;hl=fr_FR&amp;rel=0&amp;color1=0x006699&amp;color2=0x54abd6" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="640" height="505"></embed></object>


So is there in fact a Zeus problem? I am not so convinced, since it turns out that even religions that make no secret of their purely fictional origins are quite successful.

Read more: The Zeus problem revisited - or is it the Jedi problem?

Epistemic trust in scientific practice: The case of primates studies

tamarinsA few days ago, I received a favorable review of a paper of mine. The reviewer suggested some minor improvements, one of which led me to reflect on epistemic trust in scientific practice. In the paper, I cited a recent study of which Marc Hauser was the lead author. The reviewer suggested that I replace this reference by a similar study on primate cognition. Fortunately, in this case, it turns out that there were other studies that reach similar findings. My paper was a revision of an earlier submission which I had been told to 'revise and resubmit'. At the time of this earlier submission, the Hauser investigation had not yet been made public.

The paper I cited was not compromised in the recent Harvard investigation, but it is nevertheless tainted since it has appeared in the time when the scientific misconduct took place. I would have changed the reference anyway, even if the reviewer had not brought it up. For some researchers, the consequences of this affair may be much more dramatic, if they directly relied on Hauser's findings in their experimental designs or conclusions. I am thinking in particular about his language research, which has led to the retraction of the 2002 paper in Cognition.

Read more: Epistemic trust in scientific practice: The case of primates studies

Endorsing evolution: A matter of authority?

As I discussed earlier in this blog, there appears to be substantial cross-cultural variation in the degree to which people endorse evolutionary theory. According to a study by Miller et al., some countries are characterized by an almost universal acceptance of evolutionary theory (e.g., Iceland, Japan), whereas in other countries (e.g., USA, Turkey), less than half of the population endorses it. This cross-cultural variation seems to result from an interplay between cognitive factors (what cognitive mechanisms underlie our understanding of evolutionary theory) and cultural ones (why do we endorse evolutionary theory).


The popularity of evolutionary theory in Japanese pop-culture is nowhere more obvious
than in the Pokemon Universe - Cartoon found on Comics Alliance.


Read more: Endorsing evolution: A matter of authority?

Essentialist animals?

Over the past few decades, there has been a lot of research published on 'psychological essentialism', which has been observed cross-culturally in young children. Essentialism is the tendency to think about animals, plants and social categories in terms of hidden 'essences'. The earliest experiments that indicated psychological essentialism in children were by Frank Keil (1989, Concepts, Kinds, and Cognitive Development, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA) who asked preschoolers what would happen if an animal was surgically altered to look like a member of another species. For example, would a raccoon that is surgically modified to look and smell like a skunk actually be a skunk? Young children believed that the creature would still be a raccoon. Three-year-olds and four-year-olds believe that also an apple seed, planted in a flowerpot would still grow out to be an apple tree, or that a cow raised by foster parent pigs would still exhibit normal bovine behavior (Gelman & Wellman, 1991. Insides and essences: Early understandings of the non-obvious. Cognition, 38, 213–244). What is more, children are even more essentialist than adults. For instance, Indian preschoolers believe a Brahmin child remains Brahmin, even when raised by untouchables; Five-year-olds believe that French babies brought up by English-speaking parents will grow up to speak French. Essentialism has been documented in several non-western cultures, indicating that this psychological tendency may be a stable part of human cognition (Gelman 2004, Psychological essentialism in children. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404–409).

This raises the question: Is essentialism restricted to humans, or does it also occur in other species? Obviously, the experimental procedures I just discussed all rely on language, so experimental design should be radically adapted to probe psychological essentialism in other animalleibniz3s. Yesterday, I was observing (in an unsystematic way) my cat's behavior (an adult male), and his behavior motivated me to think that essentialism may have its roots in the way animals make concepts.

Let me elaborate. Since he was a young kitten, Leibniz, my cat, has been playing with balls of various sizes and in various materials. Ping pong balls, small rubber balls with bells, soft, fluffy balls, etc. Whenever he is presented with a ball and he is in a playful mood, he will gently tap the ball with his front paw. Occasionally, he sees a ball that is obviously too large to play with. Even then, he will try to tap the ball with his front paw (as he did a moment after the picture was taken) and gives up only after a few tries.


Read more: Essentialist animals?

Is the spell broken? Reflections on evolutionary debunking and religious beliefs

At the Notre Dame conference Darwin in the 21st century, Paul Griffiths gave an interesting talk on evolutionary debunking arguments for religion. Evolutionary debunking arguments basically say that religious beliefs are unjustified because they are a byproduct of evolved cognitive predispositions. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon summarizes this position very aptly: If religion is natural, i.e. if religious beliefs can be explained as a byproduct of everyday cognitive capacities, we need not invoke supernatural entities to explain these beliefs.

Guy Kahane (in his forthcoming paper 'Evolutionary debunking arguments' in Noûs - draft available here) argues that evolutionary debunking arguments come in the following general form:
  1. Causal premise: belief is the result of evolved psychological predispositions
  2. Epistemic premise: There is no connection between the truth value of our evolved beliefs and their fitness functions (natural selection is not a truth-tracking process).
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, religious beliefs are unjustified.
Take as an example the tendency of people to think themselves on average smarter, kinder, more attractive, more sophisticated, etc. than others.

Read more: Is the spell broken? Reflections on evolutionary debunking and religious beliefs

Cumulative culture in the lab and chimpanzees

At the recent EHBEA conference held April 6-8 at Saint Andrews, I saw presentations by both Andrew Whiten (a primatologist who specializes on nonhuman cultural traditions, especially in chimpanzees) and Christine Caldwell (who examines cumulative cultural evolution in the lab). It was interesting to see the question of cumulative cultural evolution from these two very diverging perspectives.

It is now generally established that nonhuman animals, including chimpanzees, macaques and a variety of bird species, display a socially transmitted behaviors, which in humans are termed cultures. However, to date the evidence for cumulative cultural evolution in nonhumans remains sporadic. For example, in the case of nut-cracking chimpanzees in the Taï forest, there is little variation in how nuts are being processed, i.e., cracked by means of a hammer and anvil, and whereas some individuals have learned to use auxilliary stones to stabilize the anvil, this innovation has not spread to the entire population. The question is: why not?

a typical use of anvil to crack a nut from a Taï forest chimpanzee

Andrew Whiten recently co-authored a study in which chimpanzees were confronted with an optimal and cumulatively built technique for extracting honey from an artificial device. Whereas the individuals learned the simple 'dipping' technique with ease, they did not master the more complex 'probing' technique, which built on elements of the dipping technique they already mastered. The chimpanzees thus got 'stuck' at a simple but suboptimal technique, although control tests showed that the more difficult technique was not beyond their cognitive capacities. Why would this be? Whiten tentatively suggested in the paper that chimpanzees may be 'conservative', unwilling to try a new technique if the one they already knew was good enough.

Another line of reasoning, which has garnered much attention, is that of Tomasello.

Read more: Cumulative culture in the lab and chimpanzees

Cross-cultural variation in creationism

There is substantial cultural variation in the prevalence of creationism, i.e., the view that the Bible (or other religious writings) provides a historically accurate account of how living things came into being. In some countries, like Iceland or Japan, the view that species arose through a gradual process that is characterized by random variation, selective retention and modification through descent, is almost universally accepted. By contrast, and to the chagrin of scientists and philosophers of science in the USA, only 40 - 50 % of US citizens accept evolutionary theory. In this respect, the USA only does slightly better than Turkey, which ranks lowest on the list of Miller et al.'s study in Science (2006, vol. 313). Where does this variability come from?

Read more: Cross-cultural variation in creationism

How persistent are intuitive (erroneous) beliefs?

My motivation for posting this blog is simple: I am wondering whether it is possible for humans to ever truly internalize counterintuitive scientific principles like evolutionary theory or Newtonian (let alone Einsteinian) physics.

According to developmental psychologists like Elizabeth Spelke or Susan Carey, and cognitive anthropologists like Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, humans are endowed with inference mechanisms that enable them to acquire knowledge of the world (these inference mechanisms are known by several terms, such as core knowledge, conceptual modules or intuitive ontologies). Sometimes these inference mechanisms are at odds with scientific principles. A well-studied example is impetus physics, the view that inanimate objects, in order to be propelled, have to be laden with a force (impetus) by an agent or another object in order to be set in motion. This impetus physics yields a lot of imprecise predictions: for example, over 50% of adults believe that a ball, being launched by a sling, will continue in a curvilinear path, or that a ball dropped by a running person will fall straight down instead of describing a parabolic path. Newtonian physics, in contrast, predicts a parabolic path, a prediction only consistently made by people with a college training in physics (see McCloskey's 1983 review in Scientific American to get an idea).

However, an ingenious experimental procedure by Kohhenikov and Hegarty (2001), Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8) shows that even expert physicists are guided by the intuitive impetus physics under some conditions.

Read more: How persistent are intuitive (erroneous) beliefs?

Is Saint Nicholas a god?

Saint nick, horse and Petes

Today is 6 December - for those living in Belgium and the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will come to distribute gifts and candy to young children. Saint Nick has been the predecessor of Santa Claus in the US (as you can still see in his red costume, although the bishop's mitre is replaced by a red bonnet, the horse by a flock of reindeer, the Petes by elves, and all references to Christianity have been discarded). It is remarkable how resilient Saint Nick in spite of the foreign cultural pressure of Santa Claus; he is not likely to go away, even though shops tried to promote Santa Claus fiercely a few years ago.

Read more: Is Saint Nicholas a god?

Philosophy and Psychology: Special issue on number and language

The question of how language and conceptual thought are related is unresolved in both philosophy and psychology. Many recent tests of the so-called 'Whorfian hypothesis', the idea that the structure of a particular language influences the way its speakers conceptualize the world, have focused on number. As has been noted earlier on this blog, the results of these investigations do not present a unified picture.

Read more: Philosophy and Psychology: Special issue on number and language

Additional information