Overweening Generalist

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Promiscuous Neurotheology: Pt.3

Denial and Forgiveness, Gratitude and Revenge
No, it's not the title of the latest from some prog-metal band from Norway: those are the topics that Dr. Michael McCullough of the U. of Miami (Florida) studies. He studies the origins of those actions in humans from an evolutionary psychology level. He appears to be a young hotshot in the field, with many papers published. He's interested in the origin of religion, too. He thinks it was adaptive because it helped people's self-control. McCullough thinks that religious people have more self-control, so that they set goals and meet those goals, their self-control via their religion helping them along the way. He did a multidisciplinary study of 80 years of worldwide research on self-regulation and the brain via meditation and prayer. Also, in his reading he found that when people viewed their goals as "sacred" they expended more energy and effort in attaining those goals. He also thinks people with religious "lifestyles" tend to have more of a God Is Watching Me So I Best Be Good outlook. Finally, he thinks religious people are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol (hey, alcohol is a drug), and they commit less crimes, are less prone to delinquency. "Religious people have more self-control than their less religious counterparts," or so goes a line from an article in Science Daily about McCullough's research.

Now I see from Dr. McCullough's Wiki that he also "holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religious Studies" at Miami. He co-wrote a book titled Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. He edited a collection of articles called Psychology of Gratitude.

I now beg the Reader for a short digression before returning to McCullough's ideas.

                                Wilhelm Dilthey (say "Dill-tie") had much to say about the
                                 late 19th century Methodenstreit - disputes on the methods 
                              of study - between the sciences of "Nature" and of the "Spirit"
                                  of human beings. Should the two be described differently?
                                   And if so: why? And: how?

Ideographic and Nomothetic Sciences
This has always seemed like heady stuff to me: tracing the origins of something like Revenge. And McCullough's sort of evolutionary psychology has been charged with telling Just-So stories by more than one high-powered critic. Personally, I find these books tantalizing, because, while they appear under the rubric of "science" they tend to amount to narratives culled from many studies. And there's nothing wrong with this! The old German distinction between Naturwissenschaften (studying Nature, or what we call the "hard sciences" such as physics, chemistry, and biology), and Geisteswissenschaften, the study of people and their systems: sociology, art, literature, anthropology, theology, etc: Nature was supposed to have been governed by descriptions that were "nomothetic," written in the language of mathematics, and concerned with the discovery of underlying law-like behavior of natural systems; the Social Sciences, primarily because we are dealing with the world we made and which includes ourselves and so is complex and filled with biases and the human spirit, were worlds of knowledge to be described in "ideographic" terms, or stories or reportage.

But for interesting reasons, this is not the way we try to reach the public about "science." Most of us non-specialists are not going to follow a book filled with equations. Give us our science couched in narrative! That light bends when it passes by a body of sufficient mass? Elaborate on this fantastic vision, please Mr. Smartypants! You can leave Einstein's equations - that chalkboard I once saw he was standing in front of in an old picture, filled with squigglies and numbers I ain't ever even a-hoidda? You can have it. Give us a picture. Please.

Value-Neutral Science Begins To Break Down, 1914-1944
Oh yes. There's one other face on all this I must address: for 100 years or more before 1945, there was an ongoing dispute about the sciences being "value neutral." Scientists were supposed to adhere to the idea that their work, their delvings and teasings-out of Nature's secrets, did not have social and political repercussions, or if they did, it was negligible. They weren't responsible for how their work might be taken later and used. Also: scientists were to consider politics as somehow beneath them. As the 1914-1918 war over some real estate near Alsace-Lorraine killed around 10 million people, this idea seemed less realistic. Mustard gas. Planes dropping bombs on people. All that.

Certain brilliant and courageous scientists came out strongly against the idea that their work has no ethical complications. On the contrary! And by late August of 1945, few scientists publicly stated that the pursuit of Nature's secrets was value-free. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was born, among many other advocates.

Still: Science Acts As Political Rhetoric
Despite the sniveling, embarrassing idiocy of much of the Unistatian public regarding matters such as evolution, stem cells, climate change, basic physics and how a woman's reproductive organs work - not to mention many have a rough go of it trying to find the Pacific Ocean on an unmarked map of the world - science is mysterious and carries a powerful rhetoric. When what scientific researchers are finding is convivial to business interests, it's great. When what they're saying might harm Big Biz's bottom line, they haul out their team of Public Relations (people trained to lie in very sophisticated ways) and create a counter-narrative and get it into the mainstream media, which they own, basically.

Now back to McCullough's work, keeping in mind that he may not think it has socio-political ramifications.

Well, maybe McCullough has some fine points to make about "religious people" and their ability to delay gratification, because their strong beliefs aid in self-control, and maybe that's an appreciable part of the narrative about why religion evolved. He certainly seems like a nice guy. And note McCullough's quote at the end of the short article I linked to. In his multidisciplinary studies on self-control and the origin of religion, he says he understands how strongly held beliefs in God can go the other way; his insights led him to understand the psychology of suicide bombers. "Religion can motivate people to do just about anything," McCullough says after reading 80 years of research.

I think my Dear Reader's own studies of the human condition would bear this insight out?

I dunno. I haven't read his work on forgiveness, but I've often wondered how forgiveness came about. Ditto denial and gratitude. He's researched revenge extensively too, but I've always felt I "understood" that one, and I think I might get bummed out reading about it.

The McCullough version of evolution of religion feels Just-So-ish to me, but I really don't know. There was one interesting thing that jumped out at me when I read the short article about his research: the rhetoric of having intent/goals, then using your religion (meditation or other endeavors that alter brain states) as a way to achieve desired goals...why does this seem familiar? McCullough hints at people who are religious sensing the presence of God. Hmmm. It's suggested that the "religious" view their goals as "sacred?"

Then I realized why this seemed familiar to me. McCullough seems like a conservative guy. Another section of my brain suddenly said to me, "Hey yahoo: Aleister Crowley has told you of the same little jewels, couched in a weird Modernist style!" (Albeit except for the drug stuff.) I had so compartmentalized my thinking that I didn't see it for two days: What young hotshot (seemingly) straight-arrow Professor McCullough found in his research had been urged on by the Wickedest Man of the 20th Century, the Great Magickian, Liber Al. Around 70 years ago. Only: Crowley used himself as scientific subject. Crowley's work and biography make his insights seem quite scientific (to those who don't know much about Crowley: he thought the experiments one does to change their brain should be noted in almost clinical detail, in notes and extensive other types of writings.) He'd studied many sciences - especially chemistry - and math. Whereas McCullough's arrival at these insights seems to have derived more from the Professor in the Library method. Who among us can listen to McCullough talk about the importance of "delaying gratification" without thinking of tantra? Anyway...

I had a good laff on all this...

We place no reliance 
On Virgin or Pigeon.
Our effort is Science
Our aim is Religion.
-Frater Perdurabo, AKA Aleister Crowley, another proto-neurotheologist

Finally, I'd like you all to meet Dr. McCullough, talking about religion and self-control. It's 3 minutes, and NB "If I were a betting man...":


Anonymous said...

You are right to be confused.
If it was Luke instead of Tony you
might have figured out it was Jaeger
the guitarist.

This is what happens when you rely on
short term memory instead of taking the time to look at the reference again.

I'm reminded of Terry M. again, in re
the social sciences, meaning no science at all but full of good

Vilfredo Pareto tried to change
that but hasn't made much headway
as far as I can tell. Heterodoxy
and heresy seem to have carried
us a lot further than assuming the
status quo has any reasonable set
of answers. So Crowley is now a
respectable source and burning Bruno was just a slight error in

Religion is easily used by humans
to reinforce a set of constraints
on a badly misunderstood inner set
of structures, each of which has to
compete for survival and each is
akin to Searle's Chinese room. As they are not transparent to the "I"
except by the effects it becomes
hard to account for behaviors in a
meaningful way.

The past has invested so much energy into a false picture of the
inner structure in the western
world that a contrary view is quite
difficult to have accepted.

What increases the difficulty is
some of these structures control
chemical brainstates and others
exist to exercize emotional
behaviorstates. This leaves the
conscious part at the mercy of
unseen forces, and supplies a ready
supply of victims to the psych
witch doctors and priests.

All you need at that point is a
neural mass of the complexity of
a human brain and it will build a
"reality tunnel" and the observer
portion is riding a maelstrom of
its own manufacture.

I'm not so much anonymous as lazy.

michael said...

Jeez, what a thoughtful, witty, entertaining response. Thanks!

Oh yes: Luke Jaeger. Blogger automatically marks someone "Anonymous" as spam, but I do get your post in an email, so I know to go in and unmark it as spam, make it appear in the comment section. I've had a few Anonymouses, so I wasn't sure who was who.

Your paragraph "Religion is used" contains the very witty idea that - if I read it correctly - subsystems in the brain have their own imperatives and communicate in a way comparable to Searle's "Chinese Room."

On a dissenting level, I'm totally staggered that we now can say about ourselves, "Well I was anxious there and made an error in judgement," then talking HOW that happened: the amygdala overrode the prefrontal cortex, sending signals about "fear" the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal axis, which sent a cascade of stress hormones throughout the body, raising the heart rate, affecting blood pressure, opened up sweat glands, etc, etc, etc: we can say a lot now that we couldn't say just 50 years ago. And with all the fMRI studies, this is accelerating.

But I do think you have a point: the Minsky-like "society of mind" contains many sections that don't seem to "understand" each other in any sense that I would receive messages in Chinese in a slot and, because I DO know Chinese, I scrawl the message of fine communication and send it back.

But then again, all of our thinking and talking seems to involve the ultra-mysterious binding problem: somehow all that white matter and grey matter, that 3-pound universe of colloidal structures...runs just the way it does.

Gawd, neuroscience seems the trippiest discipline ever invented!