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Jul
23rd
Mon
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S. Hawking, L. Mlodinow on why is there something rather than nothing and why are the fundamental laws as we have described them

                         

According to the idea of model-dependent realism, our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no modelindependent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own. An example that can help us think about issues of reality and creation is the Game of Life, invented in 1970 by a young mathematician at Cambridge named John Conway.

The word “game” in the Game of Life is a misleading term. There are no winners and losers; in fact, there are no players. The Game of Life is not really a game but a set of laws that govern a two dimensional universe. It is a deterministic universe: Once you set up a starting configuration, or initial condition, the laws determine what happens in the future.

The world Conway envisioned is a square array, like a chessboard, but extending infinitely in all directions. Each square can be in one of two states: alive (shown in green) or dead (shown in black). Each square has eight neighbors: the up, down, left, and right neighbors and four diagonal neighbors. Time in this world is not continuous but moves forward in discrete steps. Given any arrangement of dead and live squares, the number of live neighbors determine what happens next according to the following laws:

1. A live square with two or three live neighbors survives (survival).
2. A dead square with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (birth).
3. In all other cases a cell dies or remains dead. In the case that a live square has zero or one neighbor, it is said to die of loneliness; if it has more than three neighbors, it is said to die of overcrowding.

That’s all there is to it: Given any initial condition, these laws generate generation after generation. An isolated living square or two adjacent live squares die in the next generation because they don’t have enough neighbors. Three live squares along a diagonal live a bit longer. After the first time step the end squares die, leaving just the middle square, which dies in the following generation. Any diagonal line of squares “evaporates” in just this manner. But if three live squares are placed horizontally in a row, again the center has two neighbors and survives while the two end squares die, but in this case the cells just above and below the center cell experience a birth. The row therefore turns into a column. Similarly, the next generation the column back turns into a row, and so forth. Such oscillating configurations are called blinkers.

If three live squares are placed in the shape of an L, a new behavior occurs. In the next generation the square cradled by the L will give birth, leading to a 2 × 2 block. The block belongs to a pattern type called the still life because it will pass from generation to generation unaltered. Many types of patterns exist that morph in the early generations but soon turn into a still life, or die, or return to their original form and then repeat the process. There are also patterns called gliders, which morph into other shapes and, after a few generations, return to their original form, but in a position one square down along the diagonal. If you watch these develop over time, they appear to crawl along the array. When these gliders collide, curious behaviors can occur, depending on each glider’s shape at the moment of collision.

What makes this universe interesting is that although the fundamental “physics” of this universe is simple, the “chemistry” can be complicated. That is, composite objects exist on different scales. At the smallest scale, the fundamental physics tells us that there are just live and dead squares. On a larger scale, there are gliders, blinkers, and still-life blocks. At a still larger scale there are even more complex objects, such as glider guns: stationary patterns that periodically give birth to new gliders that leave the nest and stream down the diagonal. (…)

If you observed the Game of Life universe for a while on any particular scale, you could deduce laws governing the objects on that scale. For example, on the scale of objects just a few squares across you might have laws such as “Blocks never move,” “Gliders move diagonally,” and various laws for what happens when objects collide. You could create an entire physics on any level of composite objects. The laws would entail entities and concepts that have no place among the original laws. For example, there are no concepts such as “collide” or “move” in the original laws. Those describe merely the life and death of individual stationary squares. As in our universe, in the Game of Life your reality depends on the model you employ.

Conway and his students created this world because they wanted to know if a universe with fundamental rules as simple as the ones they defined could contain objects complex enough to replicate. In the Game of Life world, do composite objects exist that, after merely following the laws of that world for some generations, will spawn others of their kind? Not only were Conway and his students able to demonstrate that this is possible, but they even showed that such an object would be, in a sense, intelligent! What do we mean by that? To be precise, they showed that the huge conglomerations of squares that self-replicate are “universal Turing machines.” For our purposes that means that for any calculation a computer in our physical world can in principle carry out, if the machine were fed the appropriate input—that is, supplied the appropriate Game of Life world environment—then some generations later the machine would be in a state from which an output could be read that would correspond to the result of that computer calculation. (…)

In the Game of Life, as in our world, self-reproducing patterns are complex objects. One estimate, based on the earlier work of mathematician John von Neumann, places the minimum size of a selfreplicating pattern in the Game of Life at ten trillion squares—roughly the number of molecules in a single human cell. One can define living beings as complex systems of limited size that are stable and that reproduce themselves.

The objects described above satisfy the reproduction condition but are probably not stable: A small disturbance from outside would probably wreck the delicate mechanism. However, it is easy to imagine that slightly more complicated laws would allow complex systems with all the attributes of life. Imagine a entity of that type, an object in a Conway-type world. Such an object would respond to environmental stimuli, and hence appear to make decisions. Would such life be aware of itself? Would it be self-conscious? This is a question on which opinion is sharply divided. Some people claim that self-awareness is something unique to humans. It gives them free will, the ability to choose between different courses of action.

How can one tell if a being has free will?

If one encounters an alien, how can one tell if it is just a robot or it has a mind of its own? The behavior of a robot would be completely determined, unlike that of a being with free will. Thus one could in principle detect a robot as a being whose actions can be predicted. (…) This may be impossibly difficult if the being is large and complex. We cannot even solve exactly the equations for three or more particles interacting with each other. Since an alien the size of a human would contain about a thousand trillion trillion particles even if the alien were a robot, it would be impossible to solve the equations and predict what it would do. We would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will—not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions.

The example of Conway’s Game of Life shows that even a very simple set of laws can produce complex features similar to those of intelligent life. There must be many sets of laws with this property. What picks out the fundamental laws (as opposed to the apparent laws) that govern our universe? As in Conway’s universe, the laws of our universe determine the evolution of the system, given the state at any one time. In Conway’s world we are the creators—we choose the initial state of the universe by specifying objects and their positions at the start of the game. (…)

If the total energy of the universe must always remain zero, and it costs energy to create a body, how can a whole universe be created from nothing? That is why there must be a law like gravity. Because gravity is attractive, gravitational energy is negative: One has to do work to separate a gravitationally bound system, such as the earth and moon. This negative energy can balance the positive energy needed to create matter, but it’s not quite that simple. The negative gravitational energy of the earth, for example, is less than a billionth of the positive energy of the matter particles the earth is made of. A body such as a star will have more negative gravitational energy, and the smaller it is (the closer the different parts of it are to each other), the greater this negative gravitational energy will be. But before it can become greater than the positive energy of the matter, the star will collapse to a black hole, and black holes have positive energy. That’s why empty space is stable. Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing. But a whole universe can.

Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. (…) Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Why are the fundamental laws as we have described them?

The ultimate theory must be consistent and must predict finite results for quantities that we can measure. We’ve seen that there must be a law like gravity, and we saw in Chapter 5 that for a theory of gravity to predict finite quantities, the theory must have what is called supersymmetry between the forces of nature and the matter on which they act. M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity. For these reasons M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself. We must be part of this universe, because there is no other consistent model.

M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings—who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature—have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph. But perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see. If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have found the grand design.”

Stephen Hawking, British theoretical physicist and author, Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Random House, 2010.

See also:

Stephen Hawking on the universe’s origin
☞ Tim Maudlin, What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology
Vlatko Vedral: Decoding Reality: the universe as quantum information
The Concept of Laws. The special status of the laws of mathematics and physics
Raphael Bousso: Thinking About the Universe on the Larger Scales
Lisa Randall on the effective theory

Nov
7th
Mon
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How Epicurus’ ideas survived through Lucretius’ poetry, and led to toleration

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                                    Illustration:  Oxford: Anthony Stephens, 1683

Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

"Therefore it is necessary that neither the rays of the sun nor the shining spears of Day should shatter this terror and darkness of the mind, but the aspect and reason of nature."

— Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Book I, line 90-93.

As Greenblatt describes it, Lucretius (borrowing from Democritus and others), says [more than 2,000 years ago] the universe is made of an infinite number of atoms:

"Moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. (…) There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.

All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms, it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully, endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited, die off quickly. But nothing — from our own species, to the planet on which we live, to the sun that lights our day — lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.”

— cited in Lucretius, Man Of Modern Mystery, NPR, Sep 19, 2011

””On the Nature of Things,” a poem written 2,000 years ago that flouted many mainstream concepts, helped the Western world to ease into modernity. (…)

Harvard literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt has proposed a sort of metaphor for how the world became modern. An ancient Roman poem, lost for 1,000 years, was recovered in 1417. Its presciently modern ideas — that the world is made of atoms, that there is no life after death, and that there is no purpose to creation beyond pleasure — dropped like an atomic bomb on the fixedly Christian culture of Western Europe.

But this poem’s radical and transformative ideas survived what could have been a full-blown campaign against it, said Greenblatt. (…) One reason is that it was art. A tract would have drawn the critical attention of the authorities, who during the Renaissance still hewed to Augustine’s notion that Christian beliefs were “unshakeable, unchangeable, coherent.”

The ancient poem that contained such explosive ideas, and that packaged them so pleasingly, was “On the Nature of Things” (“De Rerum Natura”) by Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, who died five decades before the start of the Christian era. Its intent was to counter the fear of death and the fear of the supernatural. Lucretius rendered into poetry the ideas of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who had died some 200 years earlier. Both men embraced a core idea: that life was about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. (…)

Among the most stunning ideas Lucretius promoted in his poem was that the world is made of atoms, imperishable bits of matter he called “seeds.” All the rest was void — nothingness. Atoms never disappeared, but were material grist for the world’s ceaseless change, without any creator or design or afterlife.

These ideas, “drawn from a defunct pagan past,” were intolerable in 15th-century Europe, said Greenblatt, so much so that for the next 200 years they had to survive every “formal and informal mechanism of aversion and repression” of the age.

“A few wild exceptions” embraced this pagan past explicitly, said Greenblatt, including Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, whose “fatal public advocacy” of Lucretius came to an end in 1600. Branded a pantheist, he was imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake.

But the poem itself, a repository of intolerable ideas, was allowed to circulate. How was this so?

Greenblatt offered three explicit reasons:

Reading strategies. In the spirit of commonplace books, readers of that era focused on individual passages rather than larger (and disturbing) meanings. Readers preferred to see the poem as a primer on Latin and Greek grammar, philology, natural history, and Roman culture.

— Scholarship. Official commentaries on the text were not intended to revive the radical ideas of Lucretius, but to put the language and imagery of a “dead work” in context, “a homeostatic survival,” said Greenblatt, “to make the corpse accessible.” He showed an image from a 1511 scholarly edition of the poem, in which single lines on each page lay “like a cadaver on a table,” surrounded by elaborate scholarly text. But the result was still preservation. “Scholarship,” he said, “is rarely credited properly in the history of toleration.”

— Aesthetics. A 1563 annotated edition of the poem acknowledged that its precepts were alien to Christian belief, but “it is no less a poem.”

“Certainly almost every one of the key principles was an offense to right-thinking Christians,” said Greenblatt. “But the poetry was compellingly, stunningly beautiful.”

Its “immensely seductive form,” he said — the soul of tolerance — helped to make aesthetics the concept that bridged the gap between the Renaissance and the early modern age.

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French nobleman who invented the art of the essay, helped to maintain that aesthetic thread. His work includes almost 100 quotations from Lucretius. It was explicitly aesthetic appreciation of the old Roman, said Greenblatt, despite Montaigne’s own “genial willingness to submit to Christian orthodoxy.”

In the end, Lucretius and the ideas he borrowed from Epicurus survived because of art. “That aesthetic dimension of the ancient work (…) was the key element in the survival and transmission of what was perceived (…) by virtually everyone in the world to be intolerable,” said Greenblatt. “The thought police were only rarely called in to investigate works of art.”

One irony abides. Epicurus himself was known to say, “I spit on poetry,” yet his ideas only survive because of it. Lucretius saw his art as “honey smeared around the lip of a cup,” said Greenblatt, “that would enable readers to drink it down.”

The Roman poet thought there was no creator or afterlife, but that “should not bring with it a cold emptiness,” said Greenblatt. “It shouldn’t be only the priests of the world, with their delusions, who could convey to you that feeling of the deepest wonder.””

— Corydon Ireland, Through artistry, toleration, Harvard Gazette, Oct 31, 2011

See also:

☞ Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st century B.C.), History of Science Online

"In De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the poet Lucretius (ca. 50 BC) fused the atomic theory of Democritus and Leucippus with the philosophy of Epicurus in order to argue against the existence of the gods. While ordinary humans might fear the thunderbolts of Jove or torments in the underworld after death, Lucretius advised his readers to take courage in the knowledge that death is merely a dissolution of the body, as atoms combine and reassemble according to chance as they move through the void. Against the Stoics, Aristotelians, and Neoplatonists, Lucretius argued for a mechanistic universe governed by chance. He also argued for a plurality of worlds (and these planets, like the Earth, need not be spherical) and a non-hierarchical universe. Despite the paucity of ancient readers persuaded by Lucretius’ arguments, his work was almost universally admired as a masterful example of Latin style.”

Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BCE – ca. 55 BCE) was a Roman poet and philosopher.

See also:

Stephen Greenblatt, The Answer Man, The New Yorker, Aug 8, 2011
Lucretius, Man Of Modern Mystery, NPR, Sep 19, 2011
☞ Christian Flow, Swerves, Harvard Magazine Jul-Aug 2011
Lucretius on the infinite universe, the beginning of things and the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, Lapidarium
Lucretius: ‘O unhappy race of men, when they ascribed actions to the gods’, Lapidarium

Jun
3rd
Fri
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Why people believe in strange things

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"Science is founded on the conviction that experience, effort, and reason are valid; magic on the belief that hope cannot fail nor desire deceive." Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion, 1948

Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic, (1872-1970), The Impact of Science on Society, 1952

"According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:

 82% believe in God
 76% believe in miracles
 75% believe in Heaven
 73% believe in Jesus is God or the Son of God
 72% believe in angels
 71% believe in survival of the soul after death
 70% believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ
 61% believe in hell
 61% believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus)
 60% believe in the devil
 45% believe in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
 42% believe in ghosts
 40% believe in creationism
 32% believe in UFOs
 26% believe in astrology
 23% believe in witches
 20% believe in reincarnation

More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution.”
— GALLUP, Paranormal Beliefs Come (Super) Naturally to Some

See also:
Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design (Gallup statistics)
Evolution, the Muslim world & religious beliefs
(statistics), Discovery Magazine, 2009 

"Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41 percent) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60 percent) agreed with the statement “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of science and the scientific process."

— National Science Foundation. 2002. Science Indicators Biennial Report. The section on pseudoscience, “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience,” is in Chapter 7

"70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. (…)

Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist of the times, which is affected in part by education, but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.”

Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, Times Books, 2011

Michael Shermer: The Believing Brain

"In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer argues that "belief-dependent realism" makes it hard for any of us to have an objective view of the world (…)

Philosophers of science have long argued that our theories, or beliefs, are the lenses through which we see the world, making it difficult for us to access an objective reality.

So where do our beliefs come from? In The Believing Brain Shermer argues that they are derived from “patternicity”, our propensity to see patterns in noise, real or imagined; and “agenticity”, our tendency to attribute a mind and intentions to that pattern. These evolved skills - which saved our ancestors who assumed, say, a rustling in the bushes was a predator intending to eat them - are the same attributes that lead us to believe in ghosts, conspiracies and gods.

In fact, neuroimaging studies have shown that, at the level of the brain, belief in a virgin birth or a UFO is no different than belief that two plus two equals four or that Barack Obama is president of the US. “We can no more eliminate superstitious learning than we can eliminate all learning,” writes Shermer. "People believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe non-weird things." (…)

As for our quest for objective reality, Shermer argues that science is our greatest hope. By requiring replicable data and peer review, science, he says, is the only process of knowledge-gathering that can go beyond our individual lenses of belief.”

— Amanda Gefter writing about Michael Shermer, The prison of our beliefs and how to escape it, NewScientist, 1 June 2011.

Children are born with the ability to perceive cause-effect relations. Our brains are natural machines for piecing together events that may be related and for solving problems that require our attention. We can envision an ancient hominid from Africa chipping and grinding and shaping a rock into a sharp tool for carving up a large mammalian carcass. Or perhaps we can imagine the first individual who discovered that knocking flint would create a spark that would light a fire. The wheel, the lever, the bow and arrow, the plow—inventions intended to allow us to shape our environment rather than be shaped by it—started us down a path that led to our modern scientific and technological world.

On the most basic level, we must think to remain alive. To think is the most essential human characteristic. Over three centuries ago, the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, after one of the most thorough and skeptical purges in intellectual history, concluded that he knew one thing for certain: "Cogito ergo sum—I think therefore I am." But to be human is to think. To reverse Descartes, "Sum ergo cogito—I am therefore I think." (…)

Michael Shermer, American science writer, historian of science, Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002, p. 23. 

Michael Shermer: Why people believe strange things | TED



Why do people see the Virgin Mary on cheese sandwiches or hear demonic lyrics in “Stairway to Heaven”? Using video, images and music, Michael Shermer explores these and other phenomena, including UFOs and alien sightings. He offers cognitive context: In the absence of sound science, incomplete information can combine with the power of suggestion (helping us hear those Satanic lyrics in Led Zeppelin). In fact, he says, humans tend to convince ourselves to believe: We overvalue the ‘hits’.”

Michael Shermer, American science writer, historian of science, Why people believe strange things, TED.com

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception | TED

In this video Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things — from alien abductions to dowsing rods — boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills. He explains what they are, and how they get us into trouble. Michael Shermer debunks myths, superstitions and urban legends, and explains why we believe them. (TED.com, Feb 2010)

Why do we believe in God? We are religious because we are paranoid | Psychology Today

Error Management Theory suggests that, in your inference, you can make a “Type I” error of false positive or “Type II” error of false negative, and these two types of error carry vastly different consequences and costs. The cost of a false-positive error is that you become paranoid. You are always looking around and behind your back for predators and enemies that don’t exist. The cost of a false-negative error is that you are dead, being killed by a predator or an enemy when you least expect them. Obviously, it’s better to be paranoid than dead, so evolution should have designed a mind that overinfers personal, animate, and intentional forces even when none exist.

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Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena. (…)

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid.”

Satoshi Kanazawaevolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, Why do we believe in God?, Psychology Today, March 28, 2008. (More). ☞ See also: Martie G. Haselton and David M. Buss, Error Management Theory: A New Perspective on Biases in Cross-Sex Mind Reading, University of Texas at Austin (pdf)

A Cross-National Test of the Uncertainty Hypothesis of Religious Belief

"According to the uncertainty hypothesis, religion helps people cope psychologically with dangerous or unpredictable situations. Conversely, with greater control over the external environment due to economic development and technological advances, religious belief is predicted to decline (the existential security hypothesis). The author predicts that religious belief would decline in economically developed countries where there is greater existential security, including income security (income equality and redistribution via welfare states) and improved health.

These predictions are tested in regression analyses of 137 countries that partialed out the effects of Communism and Islamic religion both of which affect the incidence of reported nonbelief. Findings show that disbelief in God increased with economic development (measured by lower agricultural employment and third-level enrollment). Findings further show that disbelief also increased with income security (low Gini coefficient, high personal taxation tapping the welfare state) and with health security (low pathogen prevalence). Results show that religious belief declines as existential security increases, consistent with the uncertainty hypothesis.”

Nigel Barber, A Cross-National Test of the Uncertainty Hypothesis of Religious Belief, 2011

"As to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (2%). Belief in God declines in more developed countries and atheism is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%. (…)

Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence. (…)

It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion. Hence my finding of belief in God being higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases. (…)”

Nigel Barber, Ph.D. in Biopsychology from Hunter College, CUNY, and taught psychology at Bemidji State University and Birmingham Southern College, Why Atheism Will Replace Religion. With economic security, people abandon religion, Psychology Today, July 14, 2011

Why We Don’t Believe In Science

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"Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. (…)

A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance. As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue. For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there’s the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don’t seem to be evolving.
This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin. (…)

As expected, it took students much longer to assess the veracity of true scientific statements that cut against our instincts. In every scientific category, from evolution to astronomy to thermodynamics, students paused before agreeing that the earth revolves around the sun, or that pressure produces heat, or that air is composed of matter. Although we know these things are true, we have to push back against our instincts, which leads to a measurable delay.

What’s surprising about these results is that even after we internalize a scientific concept—the vast majority of adults now acknowledge the Copernican truth that the earth is not the center of the universe—that primal belief lingers in the mind. We never fully unlearn our mistaken intuitions about the world. We just learn to ignore them.

Shtulman and colleagues summarize their findings:

When students learn scientific theories that conflict with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them.
(…)

Until we understand why some people believe in science we will never understand why most people don’t.

In a 2003 study, Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, showed undergraduates a few short videos of two different-sized balls falling. The first clip showed the two balls falling at the same rate. The second clip showed the larger ball falling at a faster rate. The footage was a reconstruction of the famous (and probably apocryphal) experiment performed by Galileo, in which he dropped cannonballs of different sizes from the Tower of Pisa. Galileo’s metal balls all landed at the exact same time—a refutation of Aristotle, who claimed that heavier objects fell faster.

While the students were watching the footage, Dunbar asked them to select the more accurate representation of gravity. Not surprisingly, undergraduates without a physics background disagreed with Galileo. They found the two balls falling at the same rate to be deeply unrealistic. (Intuitively, we’re all Aristotelians.)

Furthermore, when Dunbar monitored the subjects in an fMRI machine, he found that showing non-physics majors the correct video triggered a particular pattern of brain activation: there was a squirt of blood to the anterior cingulate cortex, a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain. The A.C.C. is typically associated with the perception of errors and contradictions—neuroscientists often refer to it as part of the “Oh shit!” circuit—so it makes sense that it would be turned on when we watch a video of something that seems wrong, even if it’s right.

This data isn’t shocking; we already know that most undergrads lack a basic understanding of science. But Dunbar also conducted the experiment with physics majors. As expected, their education enabled them to identify the error; they knew Galileo’s version was correct.

But it turned out that something interesting was happening inside their brains that allowed them to hold this belief. When they saw the scientifically correct video, blood flow increased to a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or D.L.P.F.C. The D.L.P.F.C. is located just behind the forehead and is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults. It plays a crucial role in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of those thoughts that aren’t helpful or useful. If you don’t want to think about the ice cream in the freezer, or need to focus on some tedious task, your D.L.P.F.C. is probably hard at work.

According to Dunbar, the reason the physics majors had to recruit the D.L.P.F.C. is because they were busy suppressing their intuitions, resisting the allure of Aristotle’s error. It would be so much more convenient if the laws of physics lined up with our naïve beliefs—or if evolution was wrong and living things didn’t evolve through random mutation. But reality is not a mirror; science is full of awkward facts. And this is why believing in the right version of things takes work.

Of course, that extra mental labor isn’t always pleasant. (There’s a reason they call it “cognitive dissonance.”) It took a few hundred years for the Copernican revolution to go mainstream. At the present rate, the Darwinian revolution, at least in America, will take just as long.”

Jonah Lehrer, Why We Don’t Believe In Science, The New Yorker, June 7, 2012. (Illustration courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

See also: ☞ A. Shtulman, J. Valcarcel , Scientific knowledge suppresses but does not supplant earlier intuitions (pdf), Department of Psychology, Occidental College, 2012.

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

☞ D. Kapogiannis, A. K. Barbey, M. Su, G. Zambon, F. Krueger, J. Grafman, Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief, Washington University School of Medicine, 2009 
☞ D. Kapogiannis, A. K. Barbey, M. Su, F. Krueger, J. Grafman, Neuroanatomical Variability of Religiosity, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), USA, Department of Psychology, Georgetown University, Washington, D. C., 2009
Is This Your Brain On God? (visualization), NPR
Andy Thomson, Why We Believe in Gods, Atlanta, Georgia 2009 (video lecture)
☞ Dr. Andy Thomson, "Why We Believe in God(s)", The Triangle Freethought Society, May 16th, 2011 (video lecture)
Jared Diamond, The Evolution of Religions, 2009 (video lecture)
Dan Dennett, A Darwinian Perspective on Religions: Past, Present and Future, (video lecture)
☞ Jesse Bering, We are programmed to believe in a god, Guardian, 4 January 2011 
☞ Michael Brooks, Born believers: How your brain creates God , New Scientist, 4 Feb 2009
Dan Ariely, We’re All Predictably Irrational, FORA.tv
The Believing Brain: Why Science Is the Only Way Out of Belief-Dependent Realism, Scientific American, July 5, 2011
'The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project' - Summary led by Dr Justin Barrett, from the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University, trying to understand the underpinnings of religious thought and practice through application of the cognitive sciences, 2011
☞ Robert Bellah, The Roots of Religion. Where did religion come from? Robert Bellah ponders its evolutionary origins, Big Questions, Oct 3, 2011
☞ S. Pinker, Scott Atran and others on Where God and Science Meet. How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion Edited by Patrick McNamara (pdf)
Biologist E.O. Wilson on Why Humans, Like Ants, Need a Tribe, Newsweek Magazine, Apr 2, 2012
Pareidolia — a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek para- – “beside”, “with”, or “alongside”—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech) and eidōlon – “image”; the diminutive of eidos – “image”, “form”, “shape”. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia. (Wiki)
Visions For All. People who report vivid religious experiences may hold clues to nonpsychotic hallucinations, Science News, Apr 7, 2012.
Political science: why rejecting expertise has become a campaign strategy, Lapidarium notes
The whys of religion vs. evolution. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne examines why Americans often choose faith over scientific findings, Harvard University Gazette, May 8, 2012.
In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins, GALLUP, June 1, 2012.
☞ Daisy Grewal, How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God, Scientific American, June 1, 2012.
Religion tag on Lapidarium

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Why do we believe in God? We are religious because we are paranoid | Psychology Today
”(…) Error Management Theory suggests that, in your inference, you can make a “Type I” error of false positive or “Type II” error of false negative, and these two types of error carry vastly different consequences and costs. The cost of a false-positive error is that you become paranoid. You are always looking around and behind your back for predators and enemies that don’t exist. The cost of a false-negative error is that you are dead, being killed by a predator or an enemy when you least expect them. Obviously, it’s better to be paranoid than dead, so evolution should have designed a mind that overinfers personal, animate, and intentional forces even when none exist.
Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena. (…)
In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid. (…)”
— Satoshi Kanazawa, Why do we believe in God?, Psychology Today, March 28, 2008. (More). See also: Martie G. Haselton and David M. Buss, Error Management Theory: A New Perspective on Biases in Cross-Sex Mind Reading, University of Texas at Austin (pdf)
Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception | TED.com



In this video Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things — from alien abductions to dowsing rods — boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills. He explains what they are, and how they get us into trouble. Michael Shermer debunks myths, superstitions and urban legends, and explains why we believe them. (Source: TED.com, Feb 2010. 
See also: ☞ Why people believe in strange things, Lapidarium resume 

Why do we believe in God? We are religious because we are paranoid | Psychology Today

”(…) Error Management Theory suggests that, in your inference, you can make a “Type I” error of false positive or “Type II” error of false negative, and these two types of error carry vastly different consequences and costs. The cost of a false-positive error is that you become paranoid. You are always looking around and behind your back for predators and enemies that don’t exist. The cost of a false-negative error is that you are dead, being killed by a predator or an enemy when you least expect them. Obviously, it’s better to be paranoid than dead, so evolution should have designed a mind that overinfers personal, animate, and intentional forces even when none exist.

Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena. (…)

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid. (…)”

Satoshi Kanazawa, Why do we believe in God?, Psychology Today, March 28, 2008. (More). See also: Martie G. Haselton and David M. Buss, Error Management Theory: A New Perspective on Biases in Cross-Sex Mind Reading, University of Texas at Austin (pdf)

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception | TED.com

In this video Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things — from alien abductions to dowsing rods — boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills. He explains what they are, and how they get us into trouble. Michael Shermer debunks myths, superstitions and urban legends, and explains why we believe them. (Source: TED.com, Feb 2010.

See also: Why people believe in strange things, Lapidarium resume