News Bits

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 8, 2009 in News

Here is my second letter to Mark van Steenwyk, posted at the Jesus Manifesto.

You know Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation? You may remember he’s a neuroscientist. Well, he and several of his colleagues recently published the results of a study on the neurology of religious belief called “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief.” You can read the Newsweek summary here, and the Epiphenom summary here.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Beelzebub October 9, 2009 at 2:40 am

I seem to recall from your correspondence with Vox Day that you have a general disregard for the “New Atheists,” (because you said that you generally agree with his opinion, and believe me, he has a general disregard) so are you positive, negative or neutral regarding Harris’s studies?

In fact, I would be very interested to know what your differences with them are, on point or policy.

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ayer October 9, 2009 at 5:34 am

Lukeprog: “The universe we find ourselves in, as revealed by science, is more surprising and wonderful than any religious fairy tale crafted by human minds. Indeed, reality turns out to be bigger and stranger than human minds can imagine. You can’t make this shit up. Literally.

I also discovered, as hundreds of millions of atheists around the world already knew, that life can be full of purpose and meaning and morality without God.”

Interesting that atheists often portray the universe as a “wonderful” place conducive to lives of “purpose and meaning” but simultaneously assert that the universe is filled with gratuitous evil and suffering such that the existence of God is ludicrous. Cognitive dissonance?

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ayer October 9, 2009 at 6:58 am

Newsweek: “”belief is belief is belief,” as Harris puts it. “We seem to be doing the same thing when we accept a proposition about God or the virgin birth as we do about astronomy.”

This seems to provide interesting confirmation of Plantinga’s argument in “Warranted Christian Belief” that belief gained through the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit is warranted knowledge in the same sense as knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, etc. The end result is the same, even if the mechanism of knowledge-acquisition is different. It certainly calls for further study.

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lukeprog October 9, 2009 at 7:03 am

Beelzebub,

Yeah, I’m writing stuff about the new atheists right now.

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IntelligentDasein October 9, 2009 at 9:24 am

Luke: I would love to see a series of 3 entries on the 4 Horsemen (their good, their bad, and their ugly additions to the faith conversation). I think that alot of very good things can be taken from them, even though they say some bitter stuff at times. (Dennett’s and Harris’ call for religion to be studied as a natural phenomenon that is not tip toed around and Dawkin’s very enjoyable and easy to read books on evolution for example)

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Silas October 9, 2009 at 9:55 am

This seems to provide interesting confirmation of Plantinga’s argument in “Warranted Christian Belief” that belief gained through the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit is warranted knowledge in the same sense as knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, etc. The end result is the same, even if the mechanism of knowledge-acquisition is different. It certainly calls for further study.

It would be really nice of you to describe one of your spiritual experiences. (Just reminding you, in case you missed me asking earlier.)

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ayer October 9, 2009 at 10:03 am

“It would be really nice of you to describe one of your spiritual experiences. (Just reminding you, in case you missed me asking earlier.)”

Plantinga is not referring to spiritual experience–that was William Alston. Plantinga is referring to knowledge acquired nonreferentially which nevertheless has warrant.

As far as a description of a spiritual experience, that requires a certain style of poetic writing that I am not skilled at; I would refer you to this by Simone Weil, who was skilled at conveying the inner life:

http://www.bodysoulandspirit.net/mystical_experiences/read/notables/weil.shtml

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Jeff H October 9, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Interesting study there. It’s definitely something that deserves more investigation. However, before ayer goes wild trying to show how this proves Plantinga, I’d like to point out that this study only dealt with strongly convicted people on both sides. I get the feeling that if they were studying agnostics (or other groups of people who would say they “weren’t sure” about these kinds of claims), they may find different parts of the brain being activated.

When we come across a novel claim, we must evaluate it using our own logic, as well as against other things that we perceive to be “fact”. Once the claim is accepted or rejected, though, we only store the conclusion in the brain. This saves us the hassle of having to recalculate the merits of the claim every time we come across it. After all, if you always come to the conclusion that a sturdy chair will hold your weight, then you can simply store that tidbit instead of trying to evaluate the entire situation every time. It’s a cognitive heuristic.

So, essentially, what this study seems to show is that, once stored, religious beliefs are no different than other beliefs (or “facts”, perhaps). That is obviously a very interesting and useful result in itself. However, it does not say anything about how these claims come about, how well people evaluate them, or even how they evaluate them. It is only looking at them once they are stored.

So no, ayer, it says nothing that would show that knowledge provided by the Holy Spirit is just as warranted as knowledge through mathematics. It only says that people store them and access them in the same way once they have them both in there.

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