Sapolsky on belief and biology

Robert M. Sapolsky is one of my favorite science writers — if you haven’t read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), A Primate’s Memoir(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), or Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), I suggest you get off your butt right now and visit your library or bookstore. He’s a primatologist who studies the endocrinology and behavior of baboons, but he always presents his work in terms of the human condition. We aren’t so different, we primates.

If you don’t feel like getting up right this instant, though, at least click on this link to his speech to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You’ll get a taste of that Sapolsky humanism that will get you wanting more, and he also has an interesting message: that religion is a kind of controlled psychosis.

It’s also a message that I’m surprised is not getting targeted by the creationists more. They are so hung up on godless evilutionism that they mostly don’t seem to realized that there is another, equally ferocious wolf coming up their flank, the neurosciences. Evolution is shredding their preconceptions about history and their origins, but neuroscience is going to rip out a different, but even more central concept: the soul. Minds are the products of electrochemical and molecular/physiological activity, not spirits or souls or extradimensional magical forces — brains are meat and thoughts are the product of ions and small molecules bubbling about in coordinated patterns. That doesn’t demean us and I think it makes us just as interesting and wonderful, but it is another case where the religious guesswork is proving wrong.


  1. #1 Carrie
    March 1, 2007

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter, because I have to give a hearty ‘amen!*’ to the Sapolsky love. He is perhaps my all-time favorite science essayist.

    *as it were

  2. #2 Steve LaBonne
    March 1, 2007

    Ah, good to see PZ (and Sapolsky) riding my longstanding hobbyhorse about how the believers- and not just the fundies- will really have a shit fit when the implications of contemporary neuroscience finally dawn on them. (I was always amazed that there wasn’t a much bigger hooha raised over, say, Crick’s “The Astonishing Hypothesis”.)

    Larry Moran’s gonna have a field day with the “shaman theory”, though. 😉

  3. #3 DaleP
    March 1, 2007

    “It’s also a message that I’m surprised is not getting targeted by the creationists more.”

    Note that Denyse O’Leary is well aware of this issue, and is currently writing a book “on the neurological EVIDENCE for the spiritual nature of human beings”.

  4. #4 greensmile
    March 1, 2007

    controlled psychosis” ?!!!

    Its far worse, its a contagious psychosis. The serious questions, since it is so prevalent, is how to maximize its benign side effects and minimize its harmful side effects.

    You could apply what Einstein told Freud about the roots of “collective psychosis”…it applies to the straying of religion into politics as well as anything else I have heard.

  5. #5 Aureola Nominee, FCD
    March 1, 2007

    It is true, however, that when it was coined the word “humanism” meant a return of human beings to a more central role in society, as opposed to the Church being the be-all and end-all of life.

  6. #6 J-Dog
    March 1, 2007

    Johnny Vector. Paging Johnny Vector.

    Very nice link!

    That is all.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    March 1, 2007

    I think humanist is a better word than Bright (not that the two are synonymous, or more than roughly linked sociologically). Personally, I think it’s more informative than atheist, which only conveys what I don’t believe in — hi, my hobby is not-stamp-collecting — rather than what I do.

    Skeptic refers to the process by which I moderate beliefs, not necessarily to any specific position I hold. “Global warming skeptics” and “9/11 skeptics” adopt the word to make themselves sound streetwise, but we could better describe them as credulous contrarians. So, in looking for a word which describes what I believe, which indicates my general principles — the Big Ideas which motivate me to practice skepticism — I’m led back to humanism, faute de mieux.

    To wax unnecessarily metaphorical, humanism is the path, skepticism the walking-stick and truth the destination.

  8. #8 Will E.
    March 1, 2007

    When people insist you can be a theist and still believe in evolution, I now think, “Yes, but can you be a theist and still believe in neuroscience?”

    Great speech, thanks for the heads-up.

  9. #9 Paul
    March 1, 2007

    I believe that the word humanism implies value in humanity over the interests of other species, and also implies that there is something about humanity that gives us need to state that we have a special place in the discussion of life in general on this planet, from a moral, ethical, or evolutionary point of view, none of which I believe to be true (other than we have the ability to talk, being nothing special because we spend so much time berating eachother).

    Now, as for the discussion of the term atheism. I personally don’t see why being theistic is normal, and we are required to post an a- in front of this moniker. Instead, I think that atheists should simply be considered normal, and theists should either obviously be theists, or ab-normal.

  10. #10 Sastra
    March 1, 2007

    Like Steve LaBonne and others here, I’ve also felt that the findings in neuroscience were much more damaging to a top-down religious view of reality than evolutionary biology. After all, if you get to exempt the Mind and all its products from those slowly accumulating mindless processes of nature, both the ghost in the machine and the ghost in the universe stay safely out of the way of science, and reign supreme.

    But I suspect that mind/brain physicalism (or its variations) will never stir quite the same passions among the general public. Why? Because it’s not going to be taught in the classroom to kids. That’s what gets people upset. Push the button, mass hysteria.
    “They’re coming after our children, and undermining our attempts to tell them about God!”

    Every schoolchild is taught that the brain is connected to thinking and feeling, sure, but that doesn’t prevent them — or anyone else — from vaguely visualizing the brain as a sort of tool which the Self uses to do work with. But imagine what happens if high school textbooks ever begin to address the issue of the “soul” directly, in any way other than “of course, none of this brain science stuff has anything to say about whether there are souls or not, that’s a different magisteria.” You’d see the public up in arms again, just like with evolution.

    They need to protect their babies, even more than they need to prop up their faith.

  11. #11 Steve LaBonne
    March 1, 2007

    They need to protect brainwash their babies, even more than they need to prop up their faith.

    Just thought I’d make a slight correction for you. 😉

  12. #12 David Wilford
    March 1, 2007

    I think Sapolsky goes over the top when comparing OCD rituals with religious rituals. One might as well say that personal habits such as wiping ones ass with only the left hand are OCD symptoms then. It’s more useful to think of habits as mental subroutines that once programmed are no longer necessary to think explictly about. I always put my car keys and wallet in the same place at night, so that in the morning when I am rushed I automatically pick them back up without having to search the whole damn house for them. Does that make me OCD? Of course not. It makes me a little better organized, that’s all.

  13. #13 Steve LaBonne
    March 1, 2007

    Pretty materialistic stuff.

    That’s a historically novel “philosphical” version of Buddhism extracted from the Pali canon by Western interpreters (and in that form I find it quite interesting myself, so I don’t mean that in a pejorative way.) I’m thoroughly unconviced that it’s true of practitioners of any variety of actual religious Buddishm in Buddhist countries, incuding the Theravada Buddhists of Thailand or Sri Lanka.

  14. #14 Shandooga
    March 1, 2007

    Evolution is a farce…but it’s your God-given choice whether to be taken by it.

  15. #15 Stanbio
    March 1, 2007

    Good to see you recognize Sapolsky and his brilliance. I’ve had him as a lecturer for a couple classes–his “Human Behavioral Biology” is one of the top 5 at Stanford–and his lecture on the biology of religion was so good it would make you cry, PZ. Amazed you haven’t cited that research more often.

  16. #16 Steve Watson
    March 1, 2007

    Nope. Doesn’t bother Theravada Buddhists….
    Is that what Sam Harris is into? Should be interesting to see if his non-physicalism survives his dissertation (is he finished yet?)

    Agree on the central thesis, that neurology is as big or bigger a threat to traditional Christianity than evolution. However, I suspect liberal Christianity could survive the loss of the non-physical soul. The loss of the non-physical God, though, would be a major problem for all but the most rarified theologies, in which God seems to be a metaphor for bits of our own psyche.

  17. #17 Jason
    March 1, 2007


    I don’t think it would need to be taught to kids in public schools to stir up the religious masses. It would just need to be demonstrated. Presumably, at some point we will understand the brain and the mind well enough to be able to build intelligent machines comparable to human beings. That will surely throw the religious for a loop.

  18. #18 onclepsycho
    March 1, 2007

    Oh but religions need not worry about a neuroscience threat, there’s already enough evidence for the soul:
    1) NDEs
    2) OBEs
    3) haunted houses
    4) reincarnation
    5) ESP
    6) PK
    And you can also add theories of consciousness involving quantum coherence în microtubules and Eccles’ “psychons”, plus defenders of qualia and the “hard” problem. Remember, the last pope had (almost) no problem endorsing evolution, as long as humans kept their soul: presumably he had good evidence for the latter, whereas he had to let go the former.

  19. #19 Greg Kucharo
    March 1, 2007

    Good stuff PZ. I keep rereading the speech. Thanks.

  20. #20 MJ Memphis
    March 1, 2007

    Steve Labonne,
    Actually, although it may be a form that appeals more to Westerners, what I wrote is pretty orthodox for Theravada (maybe Mahayana and Vajrayana, I am not familiar with their beliefs on the subject). From the Samyutta Nikaya: “When all its constituent parts are there, we use the word ‘cart’. Likewise, where the five aggregates exist, we talk in terms of a ‘living being’.”

  21. #21 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    If Theravada Buddhism really is fully consistent with science and reason, in what sense is it a religion, rather than, say, a school of philosophy or a scientific hypothesis? What feature qualifies it as a religion?

  22. #22 jbark
    March 1, 2007

    I think Lockean’s #3 is pretty relevant.

    The mere fact that in the Neurosciences there’s no singular figure analagous to Darwin, and no single specific theoretical framework analagous to Evolution, makes it more difficult for the nuts to find something to latch onto. They still don’t like it, but it’s tough to rally around.

    “I’m against a rejection of the concept of dualism” just doesn’t have the oomph of “I don’t believe in Evolution”.

  23. #23 ellroon
    March 1, 2007

    “brains are meat and thoughts are the product of ions and small molecules bubbling about in coordinated patterns.”

    I think my small bubbling molecules resent this but for some reason I want to go grill a steak….

  24. #24 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    “I’m against a rejection of the concept of dualism” just doesn’t have the oomph of “I don’t believe in Evolution”.

    How about “I believe people have souls” or “I don’t believe we are just biological machines” or somesuch? I would say that the theoretical framework underlying neuroscience–that the mind is a product or property of physical processes in the brain–is pretty easy to understand and communicate, as are the superficially-appealing objections to it (that unless we have a soul there is no free will, no moral responsibility, no meaning to life, etc.)

  25. #25 Sastra
    March 1, 2007

    I enjoy Jeremy Stangroom, often read Butterflies & Wheels, and found myself agreeing with his article “There is Something Wrong with Humanism.” And yet I am a secular humanist.

    How? He states it himself in the first paragraph: “The problem has to do with the fluid nature of the concept ‘humanism’. It has no single, precise meaning.” Well, yes.

    He takes on Kenan Malik’s variation — that human beings are somehow outside nature and reductionist explanations are anti-humanists threats — and makes excellent arguments against that which most secular humanists would agree with. I belong to both Council for Secular Humanism and American Humanist Association. From what I can tell, the former tend to be more hard-nosed materialists than the latter, and more politically diverse. Pick a flavor.

    Humanism is more of an approach to life than it is any particular set of conclusions. The “man is the highest of all things” nonsense is either anachronistic or the straw-man version used by traditional Christians to show that humanists “worship man.” On the contrary. It’s more like “we can only know things from the perspective of our humanity, and its limitations.” Science helps correct those tendencies to err.

  26. #26 ron
    March 1, 2007

    There are some Sapolsky lectures available on for those that are interested.

  27. #27 Jeff Alexander
    March 1, 2007

    mikmik writes:

    As humanists might? That is not demonstration of belief, that is conjecture.
    Why would free will preclude?
    No humanist I know says that conciousness is non physical!
    In fact, this is a red herring! Humanists are not concerned with the origin of thought, neither are they concerned with chemistry, nuerochemistry, or anything else to explain their thoughts. They(we), do not count on reductionism, nor argue against it, it is outside the point.

    I should have said it comes down to them stating that “everything is a form of belief, except my view”

    It seems that you may have missed the introductory paragraph. which reads

    It’s not easy to write critically about humanism from a secular perspective. The problem has to do with the fluid nature of the concept “humanism”. It has no single, precise meaning and there is little agreement about its constituent elements. As a result, to criticise humanism is to run the risk of being accused of a “straw-man” fallacy; that is, the fallacy of misrepresenting a position or argument in order to make it easier to criticise. It is easy to see how this might happen. Humanism isn’t any one particular thing. If a good argument can be made against any one of the things, amongst others, that it might be, then likely you’ll find that everyone disavows that particular thing. And then you’ve got a straw-man. It doesn’t take too many repetitions of this pattern of criticism and disavowal before you end up with humanism weakly specified as a kind of rationally inclined, human centred, atheism (or agnosticism).

    It is very clear that Stangroom is not arguing that “everything is a form of belief, except my view”, not even close. Your argument appears to be saying exactly what Stangroom complains of in his opening paragraph. When you state that “No humanist I know says that consiousness is non physical!” you are basically claiming that Stangroom is falling into the straw-man fallacy.

    If you disagree with his definition of humanism, fine. But to state that he is offering some sort of relative view of truth clearly doesn’t fit with either this article or his other writings. He argues very strongly against the notion that “everything is a form of belief”. See “Why Truth Matters” by Benson and Stangroom for examples.

  28. #28 mikmik
    March 1, 2007

    It is very clear that Stangroom is not arguing that “everything is a form of belief, except my view”, not even close. Your argument appears to be saying exactly what Stangroom complains of in his opening paragraph. When you state that “No humanist I know says that consiousness is non physical!” you are basically claiming that Stangroom is falling into the straw-man fallacy.
    Exactly what I am saying

    If you disagree with his definition of humanism, fine. But to state that he is offering some sort of relative view of truth clearly doesn’t fit with either this article or his other writings. He argues very strongly against the notion that “everything is a form of belief”. See “Why Truth Matters” by Benson and Stangroom for examples.

    Posted by: Jeff Alexander | March 1, 2007 06:13 PM

    My choice of words is still bad. I meant that he fails to show how his view is not a form of belief – to show that his view is even fundamentally capable of the objectivity he persues.

    Like: It may be that complicated robots have consciousness, free will and agency; that is, that they have the things which are important to many humanists. Unfortunately, it may also be that they do not, and to deny this possibility requires a leap of faith.
    Humanists have compassion, understanding and empathy. Robots with sentience are a straw man, ot red herring. They do not exist. They are irrellevant, they have nothing to do with “leap of faith”, nor does acknowledging or denying any posssibility have to do with faith.
    I understand the analogy of course, who doesn’t?
    But my point is that no one denies any possibility, and saying humanists deny this possibility by using one example, Malik, is anything but an anecdotal diversion.
    I still feel to see how using Malik as an example, is in any way representative of humanist thought.

    In fact, I see absolutely no way in which this defintion:
    Secular humanism describes a world view with the following elements and principles:[2]

    * Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
    * Reason, evidence, scientific method – Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
    * Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
    * Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
    * This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
    * Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
    * Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

    precludes an overall view of our world (existance) in which we are only a small part; it only shows that we are aware of the source of our understanding – us!

    Any animal is centered on its own existence, every animal is (probably) only concerned with its own place in reality and that place is the most important part of reality to that animal.
    In fact, it is the only possible perspective. There is only the proven ability to imagine reality from unself perspectives in one animal.
    All thought originates from one point of perspective, the entity possessing the thought. To argue that humanists are ‘human-centric’ is moot.
    To show that other philosophies are not, these guys do not show. It is very clear that Stangroom is not arguing that “everything is a form of belief, except my view”, not even close.
    I know they aren’t arguing
    for that, but arguing in that manner.

  29. #29 Fernando Magyar
    March 1, 2007

    Great post! Makes you wonder even more about the likes of Dr Harrub with his Ph.D. in neurobiology and anatomy from the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee. Someone should send him a link to Sapolsky’s speech. Then again he may be an example of of one of those cousins with a full blown pathology and in need of compassion and medication. Seriously though how does someone like him manage to get a Ph.D. in neurobiology without being able to think his own way out of a wet paper bag?

  30. #30 William
    March 1, 2007

    …wow, talk about publish or perish. I’ve been thinking exactly what Sapolsky just gave a speech on for the longest time. Oh well, he gets priority. ^_^

    There are plenty of other neurophysical bases for common religious experiences to add to his list:

    There’s a certain area of the brain — alas, I can’t recall the name — that’s responsible for things like body boundaries, distinguishing between “me” and “not-me.” In some of the experiments done on Buddhist meditation under fMRI, that area grew quiet when practitioners reported a sense of “oneness with the universe,” or “unity with all living things,” or the like.

    A recent study of proprioception (the internal sense of the body’s position) found that this sense can become off-kilter and lead a person to the sensation that there is someone (their body shadow) behind them, in the same position they are — for example, with arms wrapped around them, when their own arms are wrapped around their knees. More applicably to religion, when laying on their back and looking down at their own torso or feet, they can imagine themselves to their own ventral — i.e., above their body — looking down and seeing what they’re actually seeing.

    Sapolsky’s thesis on OCD is also supported by work on “the Lady MacBeth effect”: see a paper in Science by Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist on the connection between bodily cleansing and moral purification. Money line: “[After being asked to think about guilty deeds they had done,] Those who had washed their hands were about 50 percent less likely to volunteer [for a simple charitable project] — suggesting that, newly cleansed, they felt less guilty and thus had less need to absolve themselves.”

    There are recent suggestions of a genetically coded “moral grammar” present in mammals, and we know that mirror neurons can generate sympathetic emotional trauma. Dawkins proposes an analogy in answer to the question of why religion is, unlike other psychiatric anomalies, so contagious: he likens religion to a virus, attaching itself to moral codes — evolutionarily productive to disseminate in a population — to reproduce itself.

    There is much more that can be collected. I submit an additional hypothesis to the disussion of religion’s contagiousness: when people (mostly young people or others without solid analytical frameworks) hear a religious claim, it rings the same sort of bells as a mathematical axiom. They can remember having thoughts like that. Magical thnking, moral thinking, and mathematical thinking are, in their nuts and bolts, already a part of a child’s mental toolkit; development of personality involves reinforcing some of these tools, neglecting others and erecting countermeasures to others, and only on the rarest of developmental occasions actually adding a new tool that’s not a combination of those previously held. Religion simply tends to reinforce the native magical forms. If these become sufficiently categorized, we might even be able to form a component-level description of religion.

  31. #31 Kurt
    March 1, 2007

    There is also a nice set of lectures by Dr. Sapolsky available through The Teaching Company. The list price is sky-high, but if you catch them when they go on sale the price is more reasonable.

  32. #32 Not in anthro
    March 2, 2007

    hey its to see sapolsky getting more popular. i remember back when he was still working in bruce mcewens lab at rockefeller and really entertaining.

  33. #33 mtraven
    March 2, 2007

    Ahem: Sapolsky doesn’t just say that “religion is a kind of controlled psychosis”, he says it’s an adaptive form of psychosis. That supports my general view that all the railing against religion for being false that you see here and in Dawkins is really quite beside the point. If false beliefs are more adaptive than true beliefs, the false ones will predominate, yes? And no amount of yelling about how stupid the believers are will budge them, since the believers may quite reasonably judge that it’s in their interest to believe the false stuff because it makes them feel good.

  34. #34 BadAunt
    March 2, 2007

    Rey, (if you’re still reading – I’m a bit late responding) I’m living in Japan. There are libraries, but they don’t have much in English. According to my Japanese friends, most of them don’t have much up-to-date in Japanese, either. People tend to treat bookstores like libraries. In fact one of the bigger bookstores in Osaka provides desks and chairs.

    And Ron, thanks for link to the Sapolsky lectures!

  35. #35 Ichthyic
    March 2, 2007

    try this on for size:

    Abolitionists should appreciate that a false but adaptive belief is going to prevail over a true but maladaptive belief, and no amount of argument is going to change that.”


    or will you try to argue that slavery was maladaptive to the slave owner?

  36. #36 SEF
    March 2, 2007

    Would we say that a person doesn’t have an infection unless it caused a problem in their life?

    Actually, yes – or rather the fact of it wouldn’t normally be mentioned at all instead of proclaiming a lack of infection.

    Eg: all those helpful gut bacteria “infecting” you right now. They aren’t a problem (quite the reverse!) and people don’t generally refer to you as having an infection. They certainly don’t try to “treat” you for the “problem”. On the contrary, were you to have an aggressive course of antibiotics to treat something else which was genuinely a problem, doctors would (should!) then regard it as part of their duty to reinfect you afterwards with what you needed for good digestion.

    Eg2: All those skin-based bacteria currently “infecting” you but not causing any serious problem to you. Unless you are performing surgery, no-one expects you to potentially damage yourself by scrubbing them all off with powerful antiseptics. Nor do they generally refer to you as infected with a disease. You are merely one sort of carrier in that respect.

  37. #37 poke
    March 2, 2007

    mtraven, There’s a difference between a false belief being adaptive and a false belief being perceived as “helpful.” Firstly, adaptive doesn’t necessarily mean “helpful” (i.e., adaptive from our point of view). Secondly, something can be adaptive without us having to perceive it as adaptive. Thirdly, I don’t think many people perceive of their religious beliefs as being “helpful” anyway; they think they’re true.

  38. #38 Theo Bromine
    March 2, 2007

    Being an asymptomatic carrier of a genuine disease organism, though, IS regarded as being having an infection – for example, we can say that a person is infected with HIV even if the virus is causing absolutely no problems.

    There are numerous ways for one organism to host another. Of relevance to this discussion:

    1) host has an active infection that is harmful to the host organism

    2) host is an asymptomatic (eg Typhoid Mary), or pre-symptomatic (eg early AIDS infection) carrier of an agent that is likely to cause disease in the host or the host’s contacts

    3) host carries an agent which under normal circumstances is harmless, but can become harmful under certain conditions (eg antibiotics disrupting normal flora)

    4) host carries an agent which is generally beneficial

    So, given the analogy of “religious tendencies” as the agent, and “humanity” as the host, I pick somewhere around 2-2.5.

  39. #39 Mike Haubrich
    March 2, 2007

    Evolution is a farce…but it’s your God-given choice whether to be taken by it.

    So – is it opening in the West End? Or are they going to tour the Midwest before hitting Broadway? Where does Sabu the Elephant Boy fit in? Who was the playwright? What other farces has she or he written?

    How can I use my God-given choice if I don’t have any details? Is God another name for Ticketmaster? As far as farces go, I much prefer Noises Off! but I am willing to take a look.

  40. #40 Jason
    March 2, 2007


    We certainly do not know that religion is adaptive. Many evolutionary biologists believe that religion is a byproduct (“spandrel”), not an adaptation. Of course, even if it is adaptive, that would mean only that it was beneficial in our ancestral environment, not that it is beneficial in modern democratic technological societies.

    I have no idea how you think the premise “our brains and cultures are tuned to be religious” supports the conclusion that railing against the stupidity of believers is not a useful tactic. As you might expect, I emphatically deny that “railing against the stupidity of believers” is a fair characterization of the work of people like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Sagan and other prominent critics of religion. But I also think that railing against stupidity is certainly a legitimate and often useful component of the argument against religion. Sometimes, you just need to call a spade a spade, loud and clear.

  41. #41 Eamon Knight
    March 2, 2007

    Thirdly, I don’t think many people perceive of their religious beliefs as being “helpful” anyway; they think they’re true.
    I’m not so sure. I’m coming to the (cynical) view that, very frequently people do things (and accepting a belief is a kind of deed) first because of some perceived benefit, then rationalize them post facto.


    David Wilford wrote

    I think Sapolsky goes over the top when comparing OCD rituals with religious rituals. One might as well say that personal habits such as wiping ones ass with only the left hand are OCD symptoms then.

    Ever see a charismatic congregation speaking in tongues, or the congregation in a full gospel church rocking and swaying?

    But that sort of behaviour crops up in lots of secular situations, too. Never been to a concert where all of the fans know they’re “supposed” to sing the chorus, or clap in certain places? Or where everyone is swaying and stamping the beat? Ever danced?

    Somehow I feel like I lost the thread of Sapolsky’s argument. He seems to be saying that the religions were invented by these schizo/OCD dudes — but what do the rest of us get out of it? Most of us (ie. humans, and even many of us personally at one time) have been religious — are we all OC, or what?

    Anyway, there’s more to religion than ritual. I confess to being woefully undereducated in this, but it seems to me that any given religious tradition brings together a number of aspects of psychology, and that Religion (all of them considered at once) covers a multitude of diverse combinations of stuff — my religion (analyzed in terms of the psychological mechanisms involved) might be rather different from your religion so analyzed — even though we may share a pew in the same church. Sapolsky seems to be advancing a single-factor explanation for an enormously complex phenomenom, and I’m not convinced (though I don’t dispute that he has identified a contributor).

  42. #42 Jason
    March 2, 2007


    Sapolsky forgot to mention that the most important therapy for OCD is cognitive, in which victims ‘will’ themselves out of their obsession. There is a level of mind, of human intention that cant be reduces to bubbling ions and electrochemical surges. We can direct those processes through will and intention, as William James observed long ago. We are not just electrochemical machines.

    If you think “cognitive therapy” is evidence of an immaterial mind or soul or “will and intention” that influences physical matter, you don’t understand it. By what mechanism is this influence transmitted? What particles and forces does it involve?

  43. #43 Scott Hatfield
    March 2, 2007

    mtraven: I also agree that our brains aren’t necessarily oriented toward anything like truth, but here’s what Dawkins has said on a parallel track from:

    Dawkins: “I could easily believe that religion could enhance health and hence survival, and that therefore there could be indeed be literally Darwinian survival value, Darwinian selection in favor of religion. None of that of course bears at all upon the truth value of the claims made by religions.”

    I would go on to add that we must be careful to avoid the naturalistic fallacy: ‘adaptive’ doesn’t mean ‘good.’ After all, aggression can be adaptive. There is selection for infanticide in many taxa. That if might be logical, or increase the relative fitness of some primates, doesn’t make it less grisly.


  44. #44 Scott Hatfield
    March 2, 2007

    Sorry, post #100, ‘adobt’ should be ‘adopt.’ Perhaps I was thinking ‘about’ or ‘a doubt’, and my Freudian slip was showing. (sigh) SH

  45. #45 Ron
    March 2, 2007

    I would guess that ‘will and intention’ are a level of organization. We can decide to orient our neural processes–or not. In extreme schizophrenia perhaps we are overcome by our unbalanced chemistry. But usually not, we decide. Or we can decide not, it is determined by lower level chemistry.

  46. #46 Scott Hatfield
    March 2, 2007

    Hi, Jason. ‘Truth’, in the sense that I am referring to, would constitute an unbiased and entirely accurate description of reality, ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’.

    Let me hasten to say that I don’t believe any sort of human activity can meet this standard at the present, and that I am skeptical that it can ever be met. A few choice quotes gives the flavor of what I am trying to say:

    (Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain)

    “Modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye; or than meets the all too limited human mind, evolved as it was to cope with medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds through medium distances in Africa.”

    (J.B.S. Haldane)

    “”My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

    I’m also impressed by arguments like those of Nagel, who asked what it would be like to be a bat? I think I’m in pretty good company when I remark that there is no reason to think that our particular CPU is optimally configured to detect things, to perceive things, to evaluate things outside of our historical environment. Evolution doesn’t produce perfect adaptation for all populations, in all possible environments; it tinkers with existing modules and selects whatever jury-rigged arrangement that enhances fitness for a given population within a limited range of contemporary environments.

    BTW, after speaking with some good friends who are skeptics (over a beer, would you believe it?), I intend to offer you more meat with respect to what I believe. But, at their suggestion, I’m going to do it off-site so I don’t derail the threads here.


  47. #47 Ken Cope
    March 2, 2007

    I intend to offer you more meat with respect to what I believe. But, at their suggestion, I’m going to do it off-site so I don’t derail the threads here.

    Shorter Scott: I’ve got an argument so devastating I dare not make it here.

  48. #48 Jason
    March 2, 2007

    A vulnerability to false beliefs induced by a parasite is just another example of a flaw. If it were maladaptive the species would presumably evolve some kind of defense against the parasite. It’s an arms race out there.

    And yes, an organism with even a grossly false view of the world could certainly benefit from group or kin selection. We care for people in our families and communities who suffer pervasive hallucinations caused by schizophrenia, for example. But schizophrenia is a disorder, and presumably maladaptive. It’s hard to see how a species of schizophrenics could evolve.

  49. #49 Jason
    March 3, 2007


    Still waiting for those citations to the alleged “fundamentalist, “narrowminded”and “dogmatic” statements you keep accusing me of making. Apparently, this includes claims about nothing less than “the ultimate foundations of all being.” Back up your accusations or stop making them. Put up or shut up.

  50. #50 Jason
    March 3, 2007


    That book is sitting in my bookcase, unfinished. I’m not sure why, because I like Michael Shermer too. The tiger hypothesis is intriguing. Our apparent propensity to see patterns that aren’t really there must have some cause.

  51. #51 mtraven
    March 3, 2007

    Jason, why are you under the impression that my remarks are directed specifically at you? There is plenty of dogmatism on display here, check out PZ’s post on being “meaner, angrier, louder”:

    I think there is a place for ferocity and partisanship, too. …Others can coddle the fools who dither and simper wishfully over gods and old myths and apologetics, but some of us have to charge forward and stake out a solid position, one that excludes altogether the ancient fairy tales.

    I think it’s fair to call that dogmatic, and perhaps PZ would even embrace that label. He’s got a dogma and he’s not afraid to use it.

    As for narrowmindedness, that is even more self-evident. Take Caledonian’s last remark, #123, which was a response to me but managed to completely missed the point I was making, either willfully or through an inability to understand a viewpoint that is not dogmatically pro- or anti- religion. That is a very boring framework.

    Surely you don’t deny that scientific materialism makes claims about the foundations of reality? And that these claims are what distinguish it from religion? Did you actually read what was at the end of that link?

  52. #52 Scott Hatfield
    March 3, 2007

    poke, mtraven: Jason’s posed a question (#109) which I’m going to answer below, but since you both made a claim similar to the one I made in post #103, perhaps you would like to explain what you meant? It could lead to an interesting exchange for all concerned.


  53. #53 Scott Hatfield
    March 3, 2007

    Jason: I suppose I would accept your first statement as probable if you added the clause ‘all things being equal.’ If you didn’t, however, I’d be cautious: it’s likely that the processing power of the cerebral cortex could be greatly enhanced through a generous increase in cranial capacity, for example, leading (in principle) to an even more accurate description of reality—but then, there are limits to what the birth canal can support. Travathan (1987) makes a powerful case that there are serious evolutionary trade-offs between the narrow pelvis required for functional bipedalism, cranial capacity and neoteny in human infants, and how this may have contributed to uniquely human paths of socialization, such as midwifing.1

    In any case, speaking metaphorically, while the ‘purpose’ of brains could be said to promote survival, to enhance fitness, this typically occurs within the context of the original environment in which the adaptation emerged: thus, fitness is situation-dependent.2 There is some confusion on this, due to different senses in which the term ‘fitness’ has been used 3 and in the use of the technical terms ‘absolute fitness’ and ‘relative fitness’, which do not refer to the question of whether fitness is situation-dependent, but to other issues.4

    Even if it turns out that the adaptation in question has general utility (as intelligence, language and culture surely have), it doesn’t mean that it’s optimal for all environments, nor does it follow that it’s identical with the production of reliable algorithms for every sort of problem. As Gould (1983) writes: “We do not inhabit a perfected world where natural selection ruthlessly scrutinizes all organic structures and then molds them for optimal utility.”5 Indeed, it is often argued that there are good reasons to believe that optimization is unlikely, that in fact the entire contingent series of events producing a given adaptation might never occur if the ‘tape of life’ were to be
    replayed. 6,7

    So, the likelihood of human intelligence’s ‘survival value’ doesn’t strike me as a reliable indicator that it is optimal for every sort of problem that we might encounter in the future. Bacteria have survived for a lot longer than we have, and I doubt very much that their survival depends upon an’accurate description of reality’ like the one available to megafauna with big brains.

    Now don’t get me wrong. Is there good reason to believe that there has been selection for big brains, for cognitive ability? Absolutely. Is there good reason to believe that this ability is our best tool for investigating the natural world, through science and the application of reason? That’s my conviction, sure. But does it follow that human intelligence, however applied, is going to be able to characterize, investigate and solve every sort of problem? If we can’t affirm that, then how can we claim that the brain, a product of contingency, is oriented toward ‘truth’? Survival is an outcome, not an algorithm; some forms of self-deception seem rampant, and there is a wicked irony in Dawkins’ remark that it is ‘almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.’8

    1) Travathan, W. Human Birth: An Evolutionary Perspective. 1987. Aldine de Gruyter. New York..

    2) Wilkins, J. “Basic Concepts: Fitness”. January 22, 2007.

    3) Dawkins, R. The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection. 1982. W.H. Freeman & Company. Cambridge.

    4) Futuyma, D. Evolutionary Biology, 3rd edition. 1998. Sinauer and Associates. Sunderland, Maryland.

    5) Gould, S.J. Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. 1983. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.

    6) Gould, S.J. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. 1989. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.

    7) Moran, L. “Evolution by Accident.” V. 1.43. February 26, 2007. URL:

    8) Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. 1986. W.W. Norton & Co. New York

  54. #54 Colugo
    March 3, 2007

    Robert Trivers on science, religion, and truth:

    “Despite having provided evolutionary explanations for moral behaviour, Trivers is not an avid defender of scientific ‘truth’ or an enemy of religion a la Richard Dawkins. In fact, he believes religion is a “much deeper topic than Dickie can handle”, and that evolutionary thinking does not necessarily clash with faith. He has, however, nothing against atheistic assertions. A world with and without God are equally implausible to him. “We are so far from reaching truth that there is no point in imagining its absoluteness”, says Trivers, regretting that his home country should be the home of a unique brand of religious fundamentalism and anti-evolutionary thinking.”

  55. #55 khan
    March 3, 2007

    serious evolutionary trade-offs between the narrow pelvis required for functional bipedalism, cranial capacity and neoteny in human infants, and how this may have contributed to uniquely human paths of socialization, such as midwifing.1

    Do dolphins assist births?

  56. #56 Keith Douglas
    March 3, 2007

    Steve LaBonne: That overfocus is why I am always quick to point out that I am describable by many isms: atheism, rationalism, empiricism, socialism, technism, personalism, scientism, pragmatism (sort of), humanism, environmentalism, etc.

    Sastra: Don’t be so sure. Neuroscience has the possibility (very likely in my estimation) to erode traditional notions of responsibility, choice, will, etc. Our laws are or are about to become scientifically obsolete, and that will be a disaster for conservatives and a mess for everyone.

  57. #57 Scott Hatfield
    March 3, 2007

    Jason: I don’t necessarily disagree, if the word ‘truth’ refers only to the sort of testable claims that science can weigh on. I suspect that’s what you meant and I may have misread you.

    Perhaps we need some other term for things that might be true but which, for whatever reason, don’t seem to subject to test. There’s probably somebody out there reading this who knows more about this topic than me: any suggestions?

  58. #58 Jason
    March 3, 2007


    Jason: I don’t necessarily disagree, if the word ‘truth’ refers only to the sort of testable claims that science can weigh on. I suspect that’s what you meant and I may have misread you.

    Well, I asked you what you meant by the word and you responded that you mean something like “an accurate description of reality.” If you agree that our brains are oriented to an accurate description of reality (e.g., we tend to recognize tigers as tigers rather than confuse them with rocks or plants), then you’re agreeing that the brain is oriented to truth.

    You seem to have in mind, though, some notion of higher truth or absolute truth that goes beyond truth in the ordinary sense in which the word is used. But, as usual when you talk about such things, you don’t seem to be able to articulate any clear idea of what this higher truth is supposed to mean or how it is supposed to differ from truth in the conventional sense. It seems to be another terminally vague concept that you can’t say anything meaningful about. And as Hume said, nothing will do as well as something about which nothing can be said.

  59. #59 Scott Hatfield
    March 3, 2007

    Ken: For the record, I’ve never endorsed Hameroff and Penrose’s notion of wave function collapse in microtubules mediating consciousness. 1

    I do, however, commend Hameroff (1987) as containing a nice review of a variety of ideas, not just Hameroff, concerning possible microtubule function. 2

    Our previous exchange on that wasn’t very fruitful and I felt misread. Microtubule assemblies appear to be able to detect positional information within a gravitational field. This information appears to be essential to proper function in some eukaryotes, as shown by the failure of mictotubules to properly nucleate in microgravity. 3

    The paired centrioles, at right angles and configured in the familiar 9 + 2 array, seem to have a geometry that could facilitate this. 4

    I’ve wondered if these structures, which constitute an exaptation of earlier structures of cellular motility, could’ve have been similarly exapted for information storage in the brain. Rereading the past thread, I get the impression that you think I was proposing some kind of mystical redoubt for a non-naturalistic explanation of consciousness.

    But no. The notion I attempted to float was entirely naturalistic, conceived in fact as a product of natural selection. Imagine my chagrin to learn that the odious Jonathan Wells has seized upon the appearance of design in the centrosome as a test case for how design considerations could inspire scientific research. 5

    1) Hameroff, S. and Penrose, R.

    “Orchestrated Objective Reduction of Quantum Coherence in Brain Microtubules: The “Orch OR” Model for Consciousness” in Toward a Science of Consciousness – The First Tucson Discussions and Debates, eds. Hameroff, et al., pg. 507-540. 1996. MIT Press. Cambridge.


    2) Hameroff, S.

    Ultimate Computing: Biomolecular Consciousness and Nanotechnology. 1987. Elsevier Science Publishers. Holland.


    3) Papaceit, C., Pochon, N. and Tabony, J.

    “Microtubule self-organization is gravity-dependent”, in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science, 97 (15), pg. 8364-8368. 2000.

    4) Bornens, M.

    “The Centriole as a Gyroscopic Oscillator: Implications for Cell Organization and Some Other Consequences”, in Biological Cellulaire, 35 (11), pg. 115-132. 1979.

    5) Wells, J.

    “Do Centrioles Generate a Polar Ejection Force?” in Revista di Biologia 98, pg. 71-96. 2005.

  60. #60 Scott Hatfield
    March 3, 2007

    Jason, the definition I actually posed for truth in post #109 was a bit different: “an unbiased and entirely accurate description of reality.”

    Your subsequent posts, particularly #115, make it clear that this is not what *you* mean by ‘truth’. I think we are in agreement on that, and on the point that the brain is not a perfect truth-seeking machien, which of course means that its description of reality contains bias and inaccuracy.

    It seems a small step from that to concede that there are likely many ‘truths’ sensu Jason that the imperfect brain is not particularly “well-designed” (metaphor alert!) to notice, much less characterize, investigate or explain.

    If we also concede that the set of all possible true claims includes (but is not exhausted by) the set of testable claims, then it seems to me that there must be things which are true which we will likely never recognize, much less objectively describe.

    Now, I want to make it clear that this need not imply a redoubt for supernaturalism or any other sort of privileged metaphysical view: they can be thought of as “other things, entirely natural” rather than “higher things, vaguely referenced.” There may be gaps, insuperable gaps, but that does not mean that we suffer any gap to be filled with God. This was surely the sense of Haldane’s quip that the Universe is “queerer than we CAN suppose”, given Haldane’s own commitments.

  61. #61 Jason
    March 4, 2007


    Jason, the definition I actually posed for truth in post #109 was a bit different: “an unbiased and entirely accurate description of reality.”

    I don’t know what the words “unbiased and entirely” are supposed to add in this context. They sound like another bit of obscurantism and your argument here is starting to sound like what Sastra calls the “Everything is faith” argument–the idea that there is no knowledge, merely belief, and that all belief is ultimately a matter of preference.

    If you’re claiming the brain is not “oriented to truth” because truth requires an “unbiased and entire” accuracy that the brain cannot provide, do you therefore deny that we are justified in making any claims of truth? Do you deny that we are justified in claiming, say, that it is TRUE that Jupiter is the largest planet or that the Earth is not flat?

  62. #62 Scott Hatfield
    March 5, 2007

    Jason: Your question isn’t as simple as you think. Today’s ‘truth’ is tomorrow’s falsified hypothesis. Scientists are not, in my estimation, in the ‘truth business.’ We’re in the ‘model-making and model-testing’ business.’

    The same thing can be said about the brain; any model, however flawed, which gives the brain that holds it survival value over another brain will tend to be selected for, whether or not the other brain has proposed a model for the given phenomena, or no.

    Are we justified as regarding some things as being provisionally demonstrated, as a practical matter regarding them as true? Of course. It gives reason far too much credit, though, to describe these claims as products of a organ as ‘oriented’ toward truths, when its central concerns are not even conscious, much less rational. There is a part of our mind that seems useful for exploring our environment, but what of it? As far as I can see, you might as well say that an ant’s brain is oriented towards ‘truth’.

    Using the term ‘truth’ to describe this or that finding of science is similarly misleading, in my opinion. Tom Jarrett (JPL, CalTech) has this to say:

    “Truth. This is a word best avoided entirely in physics except when placed in quotes, or with careful qualification. Its colloquial use has so many shades of meaning from ‘it seems to be correct’ to the absolute truths claimed by religion, that it’s use causes nothing but misunderstanding. Someone once said “Science seeks proximate (approximate) truths.” Others speak of provisional or tentative truths. Certainly science claims no final or absolute truths.”

  63. #63 Jason
    March 5, 2007

    Make that, “If I have MISundertood your answer…” in the penultimate paragraph above.

  64. #64 Scott Hatfield
    March 5, 2007

    BTW, while I haven’t updated this in a while, here’s part of my old class web site that gives a brief primer on the nature of science, Popper-style, for a high school biology class….

    I’m shooting you the link so you can see that is not something I just pulled out of my hat for a talking point.

  65. #65 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    I almost forgot:

    Do you believe it’s TRUE that Jesus is divine?

  66. #66 Scott Hatfield
    March 7, 2007


    Failure to answer the question in the way you want is not an evasion, but an attempt to promote dialogue about legitimate epistemological concerns. These in turn are not smokescreens, but bear in a critical way on the kinds of claims that I am willing to make. If you ask a question that I regard as meaningless, misleading or clumsy, it would be cynical, not to mention disingenous, for me to simply respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

    With regard to the three challenges at the end of post #156, I do not take these to be statements that require my assent. They are facts, and I accept that they are true, but I don’t have to *believe* that they are true. The term ‘belief’ always implies something like faith, and none of these propositions require faith!

    The difference matters: it would be incorrect, for example, to say that you ‘believe’ in global warming, or in evolution! This feeds the impression, much exploited by deniers of same, that global warming or evolution is a belief system, held on faith. We should be keen to deny this, I think.

    Now with the renewed challenge on post #157, I’m working on a blog to address that, among other things, at the request and encouragement of others. I’m going to put it out there, and let you folks pummel it if you like. I’m just not going to do it here.

    I will say this, however: the question of whether Jesus is divine is clearly of a different logical type than who is the British P.M. at this moment. The latter is a fact and doesn’t require my assent; the former is not a fact, and manifestly requires my assent to give it any meaning whatsoever. It can only be averred by belief, which is to say in the absence of objective evidence. But it may still be true.

    Unfortunately, that’s about all the energy I can give someone who, by their own admission, has no real interest in my views. If I exist only to answer one particular question ‘yes’ or ‘no’, then you don’t really need me for this conversation. You can, I think, simply provide the answers you seek and then critique them as you choose.


  67. #67 Je'
    March 28, 2009

    I am a theist and I welcome research which seeks the truth without biases. Yet neuroscience shows that we all (including neuroscientists themselves)have preconceptions and resist change. We all have many beliefs and no real airtight proof for them-we read something, someone told us something, our senses reported something. All fallible. This being true, a little humility is in order.
    There is no justification for arrogant dogmatism in any quarter, including among humanists, atheists, or theists. When you start name-calling, you reveal that you run out of
    reasoning ability and reverted to the third grade playground level.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.