Randomness and God

The world is a confusing place. Correlation looks like causation; the signal sounds like the noise; randomness is everywhere. This raises the obvious question: How does the human brain cope with such an epistemic mess? How do we deal with the helter-skelter of reality? One approach would be to ground all of our beliefs in modesty and uncertainty, to recognize that we know so little and understand even less.

Needless to say, that's not what we do. Instead of grappling with the problem of induction, we believe in God. Instead of applying Bayesian logic, we slip into rigid ideologies, which lead us to neglect all sorts of salient facts.

A new paper by psychologists at the University of Waterloo explores the connection between the presence of randomness and our belief in the supernatural. (The existence of God is the ultimate refutation of randomness, unless God throws dice.) The scientists argue that we abhor randomness so much that when confronted with it - when we're reminded that nothing makes very much sense - we become more likely to subscribe to "spiritual control," or the belief that everything is caused by an invisible hand.

The study was simple: 37 undergraduates were told they were participating in an experiment concerning "effects of an herbal supplement on color perception." Upon arrival, participants read a brochure about the product. Half of the subjects were informed that, according to federal testing, the supplement has no side effects, and half were told that it has a single side effect, "mild arousal or anxiety." Participants then swallowed a pill that supposedly contained the supplement (but actually contained inert microcrystalline cellulose).

While "waiting for the compound to metabolize," participants completed a questionnaire that was supposedly unrelated to the experiment. Here is where the priming occurred: subjects were told to unscramble a variety of word sets. For half the participants, eight words in these sets were related to randomness, such as "chance," "random" and "chaotic". For the other half, these randomness primes were replaced with negatively valenced control words, such as "poorly," "slimy" and "injuries".

Finally, the subjects were quizzed about their religious beliefs. Did they think that that the universe is controlled by a God or a similar nonhuman entity? Is there a supernatural order, such as karma, that dictates the outcome of events? Does life unfold according to a master plan? Interestingly, "the randomness primes led to significantly stronger beliefs in the existence of supernatural sources of control than the negativity primes did." However, this effect disappeared in the group of subjects that were told about the side-effects of the herbal supplement, as they probably assumed that their mild anxiety wasn't about randomness - it was just a chemical hiccup.

The scientists summarize their results thusly:

These data suggest that belief in supernatural sources of control, such as God and karma, may function, in part, to defend against distress associated with randomness, even when the perception of randomness is not related to traumatic events.

Personally, I'm less convinced by the theological implications of the experiment than I am by the larger relationship between randomness primes and the search for patterns. (Religion is a vast, sprawling subject - it isn't going to be solved by a clever study involving 37 teenagers. People believe in God for an infinitude of reasons; as William James reminds us, one can only talk about religious experiences in the plural, for there are so many different kinds.)

What this study really reminds me of is the stock market. On the one hand, it's a mostly accepted fact that the stock market is a random walk. (Some smart behavioral economists disagree.) Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that, for the vast majority of investors, it's safe to assume that the market is so efficient that it's effectively random. So how do we react to this information? Do we stop trying to outsmart the S&P 500 and instead sink our savings into a low cost index fund? Do we seek the safety of bonds? Not at all. Instead, we become day traders.

This all reminds me of one of my favorite Bob Dylan quotes: "I accept the chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me. ."


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Thank you. I completely agree. Our consciousness is too feeble to grasp too many things in the universe, so it invents stuff to entertain and assure itself.

In intellective creatures, looking for causality favors survival by allowing for better predictions and more successful outcomes in the physical world and among individuals. So human beings are, among other things, cause-seeking animals. When we see effects without explicable causes, we are simply not able to stop seeking them. Until the Enlightenment, we resorted in such cases either to metaphysics -- theology, blessings, curses, magic, destiny -- or to despair and other less adaptive moods. Only very recently have we devised ways of considering randomness without a metaphysics, and as noted, those new ways aren't widely in use. (Narrowly considered, it isn't "useful" to perceive effects dissociated from a known cause.)

If the experiment you cite holds water, it is interesting that words connoting randomness, even when they have manifestly been decoded by the experimental subjects, would evoke metaphysics. In this case, it isn't disorder itself, but even the conceptual possibility of it that causes such reaction.

We are distressed by randomness because we are fashioned to predict the outcome of events based on some assumptions as to their intents and purposes. Absent some evidence of that purpose as being, or seeming to be, natural (i.e., nature's), the supernatural actor takes the stage.

Your understanding of karma is flawed. It sounds as if you are confusing it with the notion of fate. Karma is not a supernatural construct, but at least in part, a rather rational ripple of cause and effect. It does have something to do with choice and decision making and the aftermath of these things. It's scope is often vast and hard if not impossible to pin down, and many people invoke the wages of karma in superficial ways. Nonetheless, labeling it as supernatural is a bit off the mark. Thanks otherwise for your wonderful blog and books.

By Naomi Bailis (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

Just as we're hard-wired to seek out faces for good social/survival reasons and then see faces in clouds, humans have a predisposition to look for intentionality in our environment, and to find it.

Or we look to extract meaning from a group of 37 students, divided in half by the 1st phase of the experiment, divided again by "priming", then sorted by by answers to questions they've probably been pondering for most of their lives.

The only real use for this project, imeho, seems to be as a test run for one with hundreds of subjects. Otherwise it's just cumulonimbophysiognomy.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

Naomi Bailis
1) The description of Karma above is not Jonah's; he's simply quoting the text of the questions used in the study.
2) You're right. It always irks me a bit when the word Karma is used to describe mystical or supernatural forces. Plain and simple" "Karma" means "cause" as in "cause and effect".
3) There may be a reason reason for this persistent misunderstanding. In the Buddhist sense, the word Karma is often invoked to describe particular sorts of causes and effects, on the scale of lifetimes, and often focused particularly on the subtle way our thoughts and intentions, not just explicit actions, effect our lives and life experiences, which is a realm of cause and effect not well addressed by existing Western words or concepts. Understood in that sense, it's easier to see why the word is often misunderstood.

By zackrobbin (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

A bit off topic: yes, karma does refer to cause and effect but it refers to cause and effect working across multiple lifetimes - as well as within an individual life - and it's therefore tied up with rebirth. I can't see how that doesn't come under the 'supernatural' heading.

@Jonah - Good article Jonah, except that the start of your second sentence is the wrong way around!

I think you meant to type: Correlation looks like Causation (when of course, it is not necessarily causation). Causation will of course ALWAYS look like correlation, because it IS correlation.

E.g. babies correlate with mothers, but clearly don't cause them (other than being called a mother). Mothers cause babies, and so will always correlate them.

@Karma - I agree entirely with the other posters above. The Buddhist concept of Karma is one of action (karma) and consequences (Vipaka). The reason why so many people have a different view of karma than this is that the Hindu concept of karma is actually more widespread (especially amongst people who are neither Hindu nor Buddhist). This concept of Karma is more fatalistic and "magical", whereas the Karma-Vipaka concept is that consequences will follow your actions.

A Buddhist monk once taught me that although there will alwsys be consequences for ones actions, it does not follow that all things that happen to you are as a result of past Karma. The law that "Shit Happens" still holds, and is not incompatible with karma-vipaka (those were his actual words!).

Also, Karma-Vipaka is not cosmic justice. If someone commits a crime (karma) they might be caught and punished (vipaka) or they might get away with it and feel awfully guilty (also Vipaka) or get away with it and go on to commit worse crimes from lack of guilt or fear of punishment (also vipaka). Ultimately though, such things will tend to impact on the individual in a negative way (e.g. punishment, guilt, or committing worse crimes which will bring worse punishment).

@God as a pattern in the randomness - I agree with the other posters that humans look for causation and meaning in things that may not have cause or purpose in the human sense - Hence the invention of the God concept.

Hi Jonah,

I agree that people might often turn to religion during times of uncertainty; however, this doesn't mean that people are necessarily creating some fictitious supernatural entity or plan to explain what they cant otherwise understand. A variety of religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and other mystical faiths seem to embrace accepting the uncertainty of life. Buddhists often chant the mantra "don't know." This seems very similar to what you describe as "recogniz[ing] that we know so little and understand even less."

I don't really see turning to religion during times of uncertainty as much different than people turning to psychology when they are going through difficulties. For much of human history, religious leaders provided guidance for individuals going through dramatic changes in their lives. In fact, much of our current psychological concepts and tools owe their origin to religious practices. Mindfulness psychology is rooted very much in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has an entire chapter in his book Finding Flow on the influences of religious concepts.

I think we should look at religion in much of the same way you suggest looking at art in "Proust was a Neuroscientist." It is another lens from which we can better understand the human experience. For thousands of years, we had to describe our experiences in terminology which might seem "fantastical" or "ungrounded" by today's standards. However, I think the problem is not using these concepts or turning to religion during times of uncertainty. The problem comes from forgetting that these concepts (scientific or religious) are useful tools we use to help guide us. They are created by us and exist within us. They are not objectively "true." Rather we should use a more flexible understanding of truth. To quote William James "truth is a whatever helps us better understand the world." So my only point is that we should be cautious off writing off or explaining away concepts of god or religion as fictitious defense mechanism. There is a lot we can gain from religion.

Deducting from your picture you seem young and direct personal experiences helps to age and mature our wisdom. You wrote an interesting article and you do help us question some of our assumptions.

We need to learn how to live with incomplete definitions, including those of God. There seems to be a truly invisible force that operates in the context of connected reality, that is, a kind of ultimate superpower that binds uf all together. God is actually an inaccurate term as God is not a gender. Thus, I prefer the term Creator.

We should be careful about our insecurity. Creator cannot be killed as Creator is not alive as a mere mortal or singular physical entity. Why do we try to rationalize the role of the Creator away?

Don't we all have an electromagnetic forcefield around us? Wouldn't that explain the "truly invisible force" that "binds us all together," referred to above as the "Creator." It just seems like we're back to seeking a reason for randomness which the invention of God by humans seems to mitigate.

There is surely a reason for randomness to exist, but that reason doesn't have to be for a cause that's ultimately directed at us.

The idea that people look to faith in God because they cannot explain physical phenomena ( and its randomness) may be a convenient theory, but does not hold true for allâ¦if weâre talking deductive logic. And it is based on the assumption that faith in God and accepting the authority of science to explain the physical world are mutually exclusive perspectives. Furthermore as stated, the bases for faith are more varied and complex than that.
That said, âchaosâ or uncertainty does make faith possible - in the sense that faith can only exist where doubt is an option. Lack of predictability gives us our âfree willâ. It makes us less like a programme designed to execute the most rational choice . With perfect knowledge we would all be able to anticipate outcomes. I wonder would this not result in more randomness of the random walk kind, as observed in the efficient market example you quote? And perhaps make for a more confusing and less desirable world.

Life in and of itself seems to be a relatively random form of being. No one has ever come back after death and given a concrete answer as to it's meaning, except in the realm of religious faith. The answer to the question as to what is the meaning of life, is there is no answer.

Why on earth do you get such a large amount of space cadets and bizarre new-agers among you commenters, Lehrer? Do you advertise your blog to your intro students or something?

Olivier is a case in point, with this bizarre string of words:
"The problem comes from forgetting that these concepts (scientific or religious) are useful tools we use to help guide us. They are created by us and exist within us. They are not objectively "true.""

First of all, it is usually sentences or propositions that are considered true or false, not concepts. And while the concept 'elm' might exist within me (though I don't think even that idea is coherent in the end, but that's another story), the objects it is a concept of surely don't. And the fact that 'elms exist' is surely objectively true (what on earth would, btw, 'non-objectively true' mean?). I am not sure that you claimed otherwise, for the passage I quoted doesn't quite make sense. Maybe I wasn't sufficiently charitable.

"There seems to be a truly invisible force that operates in the context of connected reality, that is, a kind of ultimate superpower that binds uf all together."

Evidence other than wishful thinking and colorful imagination would be appreciated. And be sure that you, in describing the evidence, avoid the bias Lehrer's post is all about (seeing patterns where there are none) ...

"God is actually an inaccurate term as God is not a gender"

Even charitably disregarding the use/mention fallacy here it is hard to see what on earth you are talking about. I know certain languages in which the term for 'God' is a gendered noun, but so is the term 'Creator'.

"Deducting from your picture you seem young and direct personal experiences helps to age and mature our wisdom."

Personal experiences are also what leads us to stupid correlation/causation confusion, confirmation bias and, well, exactly the kind of attempts at eliminating randomness by positing disembodied wills or gods Lehrer is talking about.

Thirdmillenium Films:
"Don't we all have an electromagnetic forcefield around us? Wouldn't that explain the "truly invisible force" that "binds us all together," referred to above as the "Creator"."

No, it wouldn't.

"There is surely a reason for randomness to exist, but that reason doesn't have to be for a cause that's ultimately directed at us."

There might be have been a good idea behind that string of words, but it sure is hard to tell. I think you should have read through it before you posted.

"The idea that people look to faith in God because they cannot explain physical phenomena ( and its randomness) may be a convenient theory, but does not hold true for allâ¦if weâre talking deductive logic."

I see you use the phrase "deductive logic". I don't think you know what it means, however. The rest of the post is a word-salad. Sorry.

G.D.: I think you would get a lot out of reading What is God? by Jacob Needleman.

Great article, except the part about the stock market. It is actually widely accepted that the stock market does not follow a random walk. Die hard efficient market theorists will obviously never come around but they're becoming more and more isolated. You might want to check, among other things, Lo and MacKinley's seminal 1988 paper appropriately titled "A non-random walk down Wall Street".

Wikepedia's entry on the subject says:

"The mathematical characterisation of stock market movements has been a subject of intense interest. The conventional assumption that stock markets behave according to a random Gaussian or normal distribution is incorrect. Large movements in prices (i.e. crashes) are much more common than would be predicted in a normal distribution. Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that there is evidence that the frequency of stock market crashes follow an inverse cubic power law.[6] This and other studies suggest that stock market crashes are a sign of self-organized criticality in financial markets. In 1963, Benoît Mandelbrot proposed that instead of following a strict random walk, stock price variations executed a Lévy flight.[7] A Lévy flight is a random walk which is occasionally disrupted by large movements. In 1995, Rosario Mantegna and Gene Stanley analyzed a million records of the S&P 500 market index, calculating the returns over a five year period.[8] Their conclusion was that stock market returns are more volatile than a Gaussian distribution but less volatile than a Lévy flight.
Researchers continue to study this theory, particularly using computer simulation of crowd behaviour, and the applicability of models to reproduce crash-like phenomena...."

G.D., you seem not to have considered the context in which my comment was made, which was as a brief response to the previous one that, "It just seems like we're back to seeking a reason for randomness which the invention of God by humans seems to mitigate." I really did read my comment back to myself, and thought it sufficient for its purpose. It wasn't meant as a reply to the initial post, as I thought I had already done that (and again as briefly as I felt able).
if you would like to know what I suspect the reason is for randomness to exist, stay tuned. Jonah will surely give me cause to propose it somewhere down the line.

I agree with Lehrer. Homo sapiens cannot stand pure chaos. They are natural born pattern-makers, a trait that has probably served us well throughout the ages. Much of what we call âcommon senseâ is reasonable-sounding pattern building. When faced with chaos we try to fit the phenomena into a pattern from our pattern-hoard. One of the most useful patterns is cause and effect. If something precedes something else enough times it falls naturally into the âcauseâ category. If two items or events tend to have about the same frequency one or the other is likely to become a cause and the other an effect.
Many of what we call logical fallacies are simply misapplied patterns. If nothing visible or âeffableâ can be found to attribute the cause to, then an ineffable cause is attributed to it. Something unseen has to be the cause because there has to be a cause. The whole world of the supernatural thus arises. (Woops. there I go. I have just found the cause of the supernatural! Next thing you know I will have found the cause of god.)
Is language necessary for this phenomenon? Do animals like dogs or lions have models of cause and effect? They seem to. They seem to be able sometimes predict what their prey animal is going to do next. Wolf packs, for example will sometimes send one of the pack off ahead to await the running prey and take over the chase while the other wolves ease up to recover their wind. Do they all share an archetypal pattern, or they have to communicate a chosen pattern of action amongst each other.
Doggone if I know.

I like the phrase above: "natural-born pattern makers." The people I write about have been struck by what seems to them random disaster(although there are environmental/economic cause-and-effects operating behind the scenes). One thing I'd suggest is that in the face of randomness, one response is to downsize: if you can't make sense out of life, try to make sense of a day.

"Plain and simple, karma means cause".. Plainer and simpler, karma in Sanskrit is an act, or action or a deed.

Co-relation doesn't just look like causation, it's often assumed by the so called scientific world to be synonymous with causation. Case in point is the revered double blind study that is the work horse of modern research. The very fact that a particular side effect shows up in the test group is taken to be a possible effect of the test drug or condition. Never will the possibility of randomness be accepted in this case. In other words, pretty much all of what science has 'discovered' or invented is based on this holy grail assumption. If you observed it happen, and you can replicate it, then you must have found the sole cause of the effect.

The God argument is something that continues to baffle me. We have the agnostics and the hardcore religious fanatics. Who is to say who is right? As much as the atheist and agnostic know about the nonexistence of a supernatural force, the religious knows about the nonexistence of reason and evolution.

Any argument from either side is equally based on basic assumptions that can fall through the floor if challenged logically.

perhaps deism really is the way to go, then: it provides explanatory patterns of religion, but without creating the unpleasant image of God being the prime mover of so much awfulness.

1. G.D. : You are my idol

2. Jonah: I thought this was a beautiful article. You did a great job narrowing down your exploration to how we make sense of the chaotic world around us (in this case, using religion).

Please keep it up, and just know that whenever you bring the word "religion" into it you're going to get argumentative know-it-alls... but you're a gifted writer with wonderful ideas. Thank you for sharing :)

Swaroop, the agnostic by definition does not "know about the nonexistence of a supernatural force."

By Huntington (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thank you, Jonah, for a great article. This reminds me of the wonderful DeLillo novel _White Noise_; the first half of the novel is sublimely funny, but the whole of it reaches far beyond that to develop some serious thinking on these themes. Worth picking up!

It seems to me that believing the universe is a Godless mindless machine is just as much a defense mechanism against randomness as believing that there is a God.

The only position which isn't a defense against randomness is agnosticism.

The comments section reveals a whole lot of story-making with no evidence one way or the other - just that it fits the current way of thinking.

e.g., "Our consciousness is too feeble to grasp too many things in the universe, so it invents stuff to entertain and assure itself."

a. Our consciousness is feeble
b. It invents stuff
c. To entertain and assure itself

"a." so "b." is provided without any evidence.
The purpose of "b." is "c." is also provided without any evidence.

This might be proof of the truth of the statement "Our consciousness is too feeble to grasp too many things in the universe, so it invents stuff to entertain and assure itself." -- except that you'd have to prove this to be true universally. E.g., you'd have to show that "we invent stories to serve as cultural markers" isn't true, it is only to "entertain and assure ourselves".

"Instead of grappling with the problem of induction, we believe in God. Instead of applying Bayesian logic, we slip into rigid ideologies, which lead us to neglect all sorts of salient facts."

Balagangadhara, on the origin of religion:

"How sensible are these explanations? How plausible are they really? As I see the issue, not very.The claim that the âprimitiveâ man experienced the world as a chaotic entity borders on the incredible. If anything, he should have been impressed by the orderliness of the world: seasons, astronomical regularities, or even just the plain constancy and stability of the world around him.Water did not change into wine, streams never flowed uphill, objects always fell when let go, tigers and leopards never ate grass...the list is both varied and huge.Where would he have experienced chaos? Could he have seen ârandomâ events, such as unexpected thunder, and postulated gods to account for them? It is improper to speak of randomness with respect to early man, but only of unexpectedness.That is, certain events took place unexpectedly. However, if his experience of the world was such that it allowed unexpected events to take place, he need not postulate gods.

Besides, even if he did postulate gods to account for unexpected thunder, by virtue of this postulation alone, he cannot now anticipate and âpredictâ at all: it would remain unexpected. In other words, the postulation of gods does not render his phenomenal world more orderly than before. One might be tempted to argue that this postulation does not make the world more orderly, but that it merely removes the fear arising from confronting the unexpected. I shall very soon return to this argument, which locates the origin of religion in fear. For now, let us leave it aside to look at another argument.

Could not the very existence of this ordered world have been the reason for the postulation of gods? Is it not plausible that the primitive man sought an entity (or several entities) to explain how (or why) this order came into being? Again, this is not plausible. Why should he assume that it is in the nature of the divine being to impose order? Why should it be self-evident to him that the principle of order is God? This assumption is characteristic of religions based on the Old Testament, but how could one possibly argue that the primitive man necessarily accepted this theological assumption? After the Flood, as the book of Genesis (8: 22) tells us, comes the guarantee of the order and constancy of nature:

While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

Not only is God the guarantor but, as the Genesis story has told us by now, He is also the principle of order separating light from darkness, day from night when the earth was âwithout form and voidâ. For those who grow up in such a culture, it might appear obvious that the only way of explaining the natural order (before the scientific theories came into being) is to say that it either reveals or requires God or gods. I submit to you that it was not so obvious to the primitive man who did not have a handy exemplar of the Old Testament and had never heard of Christianity.

Could we say that the natural world of the Early Man was hostile? Or that he experienced uncertainty because he lived in a world of âscarcityâ while longing for security? Caution is called for when one begins to speculate about the psychology of peoples from other times (or other cultures).

Let us begin with the latter question.

The claim is that the primitive man experienced the world as scarcity. To assess the plausibility of this claim, we need to realise that his world gave him droughts and famines, floods and diseases, and plentiful supplies every now and then. That is to say, it would have been in the nature of the world to be this way. When there was scarcity at any one time, there was plenitude at another time. Both scarcity and plenitude would be parts of his experience of the world. The world of a poor man is not the world of a rich man minus his wealth; the world of the Early Man is not our world minus its wealth.To experience the world-as-scarcity â not merely as a world containing scarce resources â requires that he had experienced the world-as-plenitude and not merely as a world containing bountiful seasons. Even if scarce seasons were numerically more frequent than bountiful ones, he could not experience the world as scarcity. To the primitive man, that would be the normal way of the world. Of course, it is true that no prior experience of pleasure or plenitude is required to experience either pain or hunger. My point is that having hunger does not lead to experiencing the world-as-scarcity. For the Early Man, the experience of the world includes being hungry most of the time. This would be the way of the world, as far as he is concerned. If you or I were to be teleported back in time to his world, we would experience the world-as-scarcity. That is, his normal world would be our world of scarcity. Why should the Early Man long for security in an âuncertainâ world? The only plausible answer would refer to the typically human way of reacting to situations involving uncertainty. That is, it would appeal to human psychological make up. Do we not react in similar ways to situations involving uncertainty and insecurity? Perhaps we do; but this armchair psychologising, in the style of the enlightenment thinkers, could turn out to be true only under additional assumptions.

The backward extension of our psychology to the psychology of the primitive man can be true only if cultural evolution over the last thousands of years has not had any significant impact on the nature and structure of human emotions. Even the most rabid socio-biologist would have some difficulty in swallowing such a claim (but see Lorenz 1971), as would some psychologists (e.g. HarreÌ 1988).We need not enter into a controversy here, so let us continue. What, then, has changed because of cultural evolution? Presumably, our ways of thinking.That means to say that emotions are primarily biological in nature and are subject only to the laws of evolutionary development. This is how our backward extension could become true.

Because neither ethology nor socio-biology has decided the issue one way or another, we can press ahead and point out the implication of this stance. We need to assume, then, that human beings have two distinct âaspectsâ: the rational, which is subject to cultural change and the emotional that does not undergo change. One of the characteristic properties of human beings is their capacity to develop culture and change along with changes in the latter. What does change, as we have seen, is our ârationalityâ. Therefore, the âtypically humanâ in us is ârationalityâ, which evolves and not the âemotionsâ that are biologically determined. This picture is very familiar to us, especially from those days when men chose other words to express the theme. This bipartite division of human beings into the rational and the bestial is a centuries- old legacy. (It is interesting to note that most authors who describe the origin of religions in terms of âinsecuritiesâ etc., are also fervent critics of this âratioâ and âaffectâ distinction.) One might want to accept this legacy, but the only point I want to make is that without such an assumption and without accepting such an implication, it is very difficult to see how the claims about the early manâs psychology could carry plausibility at all.

An interesting comment but a terrible article on which to base it on. The statistical power of an experiment based on a 2x2 design with an overall sample size of 37 is simply dreadful (around 30% by my back-of-the-envelope calculations) and I am appalled that Psychological Science published the paper. Any undergraduate in an experimental design class would be raked over the coals for proposing a design like this.

By Apsychologist (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink


That man invents gods when confronted by his fragility before the terrors of nature or horror before death is an old idea, which stretches back to the Greeks. Popularly known as the âfear theoryâ of the origin of religion, it is attributed to Democritus. In the seventeenth century, an in- fluential and productive theologian at the Louvain University, Leynard Leys, Latinised into Lessius, argued in his De Providentia Numinis et
Animi Immortalitate. Libri duo Adversus Atheos et Politicos (reference and some details in Buckley 1987) that fear lies at the origin not of religion but of atheism. Here is his argument briefly. Why, asks Lessius, does man want to deny religion? Quite obviously, he fears the punishment that will be meted out to him on the day of judgement. Unable to live with the fear and terror gnawing at his vitals, he invents atheism, which denies the existence of God. Atheism, thus, alleviates his fear by removing the cause of that fear.

Here is where one can choose: invention of gods removes the fear, and thus religions come into being; denial of God removes the fear, and thus atheism comes into being.

Further: "Clearly, one of the problems of these âtheoriesâ is the fact that âchaosâ, âhostile natureâ, âmysteryâ, and such other terms are not descriptions of some âprimalâ or âprimitiveâ experiences, but concepts that structure
them. These concepts are the by-products of a culture, which experi- ences the world this way and not another way. To appreciate the signifi- cance of this statement with respect to the âhostileâ nature that the primitive man allegedly confronted, let us look at one element within that experience, viz. wildness.Wild animals and wild nature generate fear in man when he confronts them both: the former because they are unre- strained and unruly, the latter because it is untamed and uncultivated by man. While these are the dictionary explications of the term âwildâ, our common-sense psychology tells us that the wild is something that we, human beings, are afraid of.


Balagandhara narrates a story told about the birth of Buddha.

"Consider the italicised part of the story. Wild animals cease being afraid. Both in common-sense psychology in India and in the indefinitely many stories about the sages who bring âpeaceâ to the animals in the jungles by their presence and penance, the idea is the same: the wild is what is afraid of man. In one culture, the wild is what man is afraid of; in another, the wild is what is afraid of man. In the first case, one experiences nature as a hostile force and is afraid. How can that sentiment carry conviction in the second case?

Let me sum up: the problem with the naturalistic paradigm is that the concepts it makes use of, viz. âchaosâ, âhostile natureâ, âmysteryâ, etc., are not the experiential presuppositions for the development of religion. Rather, they appear to be the results of the development of religion."


Let us assume that the Early Man did have a fearful attitude towards the world: fear of ânaturalâ events, fear of the future, fear of birth and death, and so on. Would the postulation of God (or gods) remove this fear? I do not see how it could.

Consider the tales told by the Ancient Greeks about their gods. Or those told by the Indians as many thousands of years ago. Or even the tales of those tribes and groups, which the anthropologists are so fond of studying, about gods and creation, thunder and lightning, birth and death. In short, pick up any of these religious explanations (as our in- tellectuals call them) and look at it carefully.What do you see?You see an extremely rich and enormously complex explanation, which populates the world with all kinds of beings and entities. Intricate and devious in- tentions battle with unintended courses of events; divine and semi-divine beings vie with each other in choosing sides with the mortals; oftentimes crudely, and at others subtly, they influence the course of a war, the fortunes of a people and, now and then, even the banal actions of an unsuspecting person. In sum, these religious explanations create another world, which is even more complex than the events they are purported to explain.

Religious explanations, it is said, reduce fear by making strange events appear familiar and thus render them more manageable.To see how these early explanations could do no such thing, consider a banal happening like unexpected thunder (or even an expected one) and a possible explanation from a Greek peasant around the time of Homer: is Zeus quarrelling again with Athena? Were not some people saying that the procession of the gods last week took place at an inauspicious moment? There is that greedy merchant Leondros who, as everyone knows, used tampered weights to measure out his offerings to the gods. Or, may be, it has something to do with the impiety of this Greek peas- ant...And so it would go on and on. If this alone is not enough, there is still the problem that this peasant faces regarding his course of ac- tions. Our peasant, in other words, has more problems now than if he was simply afraid of the thunder and hid his face under the blankets or ran to his goats or sheep for comfort. Not only does he continue to fear the (unexpected) thunder, but he also piles up additional fears in a kind of masochistic glee and wild abandon. If religious explanations are supposed to reduce fear, and these early tales give us an inkling of the pattern of early explanations, then the early religions would not decrease but increase these fears. In our cultures, we are familiar with certain kinds of pathological individuals who do precisely that. In this sense, it is of course possible that the Early Man was a neurotic being so thoroughly under the grips of an illusion that he thought he was getting rid of his fears when he was really accumulating them.

There is one way a religious explanation could plausibly reduce the fear of the Early Man: it would reduce every event, every happening, and every misfortune to the same cause. Questions about how this cause does all these things are placed beyond the scope of human expla- nation and declared as a miracle. Such an explanation would be both simplistic and simpleminded, of course; but then, that is the explana- tion of Christianity and Judaism. Everything was the Will of God and theWill of God itself was a mystery.This is not a simplistic rendering of either of these two religions on my part, but the stance of Jews and the early Christians as late as second century C.E. (Common Era) much to the irritation and annoyance of figures like Galen, the famous physician. Discussing the problem of why eyelashes are of equal length, and speaking of the Platonic demiurge as well as the Mosaic God, Galen asks:

Did our demiurge simply enjoin this hair (the eyelashes) to preserve its length always equal and does it strictly observe this order either from fear of its masterâs command, or from reverence for the god who gave this order, or is it because it itself believes it better to do this? Is not this Mosesâ way of treating Nature and is it not superior to that of Epicurus? The best way, of course, is to follow neither of these but to maintain like Moses the principle of demiurge as the origin of every created thing, while adding the material principle to it.

For our demiurge created it to preserve a constant length, because this was better. When he had determined to make it so, he set under part of it a hard body as a kind of cartilage, and another part a hard skin attached to the cartilage through the eyebrows. For it was certainly not sufficient merely to will their becoming such: it would not have been possible for him to make a man out of stone in an instant, by simply wishing so.

It is precisely at this point in which our own opinion and that of Plato and the other Greeks who follow the right method in natural science differs from the position taken up by Moses. For the latter it seems enough to say that God simply willed the arrangement of matter and it was presently arranged in due order; for he believes everything to be possible with God, even should he wish to make a bull or a horse out of ashes.

We however do not hold this; we say that certain things are impossible by nature and that God does not even attempt such things at all but that he chooses the best out of the possibilities of becoming. We say therefore that since it was better that the eyelashes should always be equal in length and number, it was not that he just willed and they were instantly there; for even if he should will numberless times, they would never come into being in this manner out of a soft skin; and, in particular, it was altogether impossible for them to stand erect unless fixed on something hard. We say that God is the cause both of the choice of the best in the products of creation themselves and of the selection of matter. For since it was required, first that the eyelashes should stand erect and secondly that they should be kept equal in length and number, he planted them firmly in a cartilaginous body. If he had planted them in a soft and fleshy substance he would have suffered a worse failure not only than Moses but also than a bad general who plants a wall or a camp in marshy grounds. (Galen in Walzer 1949: 11; ....)

"That the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man, however, is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui; it needs a goal, - and it would rather will nothingness than not will."

Some bright guy said that a couple hundred years ago, and it's true.

By sherifffruitfly (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

One should read a best selling book called "The Shack" by William Young for a very different perspective on God's involvement in human live.

The world of investing tries to explain randomness in much the same way. There is a book by William Bernstein called Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk." A second book by Nissan Taleb is called Fooled by Randomness. The book was selected by Fortune as one of the 75 "Smartest Books of All Time."

As Eric Kandel pointed out in Neurophychology, we are conditioned by three types of learning. These are habituation, sensitization and classical conditioning. With habituation, you become desensitized when an event is not followed by a second event and sensitized when an event seems to lead to a second event even when the events are not connected.

Some random thoughts that may not be random, but I haven't figured out how to put them together:

1. If time is infinite, space is finite, and the amount of matter/energy in the universe is correspondingly finite, then Nietzsche's ideo of enternal recurrence seems to make sense.

2. Special relativity seems to indicate that each observatioal standpoint is in some sense isolated from every other observational standpoint. This suggests that there is something to Nietzche's idea of "center of force."

3. If each center of force is distinct from every other center of force, then the universe may be like a box of Tinkertoys. It can be put together in only so many ways.

4. Suppose each "instant" of the universe is like a Tinkertoy construction. Suppose another instant of the universe is like another Tinkertoy construction. Then how does the universe get from one construction to another?

5. And how would anyone know that a construction which "follows immediately after" another construction does in fact do so (i.e. why is it not a construction which follows the original construction by many googleplex years but is the most logical follow-on to the first construction?)

6. This suggests that there must be some kind of "glue" between one instant and another (or, alternatively, that there is no such thing as an instant, except as a convenient abstraction).

7. If our "selves" did recur sometime in the distant future, how would we know we were "we," rather than some past or future version of us? We wouldn't. A recurrent universe is indistiguishable from a block universe in which something happens only once, but that "once" is happening forever.

8. But if we live in a block universe or a recurrent universe, what account for a feeling of "now"? After we die, does the needle go back to the beginning of the record? If I was cloned into two persons, each clone complete with memories up to the time of cloning, each "me" would think I was the original and the other was the copy. Suppose one of them died (for convenience, almost immediately after the cloning). Would the dead me notice? Of course not. I'm dead.

9. If neither clone dies and there is no break in continuity at the cloning, each me would think of himself as the original. But we can't read each other's minds, because there is no mechanism for a person to read another's mind. And each of us has different memories after the cloning. So are we two different people? When did we become two different people? Is this an argument against the possibility of such cloning?

10. All this suggests that there is more to a personality (and perhaps to the universe) than simple memory and succession. There is a glue that binds past to present and future. The past is not simply contained in the present moment. In order to access memory, we have to "take time" to do so, and this access cannot take place in an instantaneous present.

11. Hence, "centers of force" must be internally connected with one another and hence, in some sense, the universe cannot be random. An event that we deem "random" is one whose connection with whatever else is going on we cannot explain. "Random" is an epistemological category, not an ontological one.

By JohnEMack (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

I believe that people try to turn to the easiest way out a lot. Sometimes i believe people use god as a resource to avoid a problem. They just pray instead of trying to figure it out and then get mad when people tell them to just go out and do it. I do believe that we tend to think everything is controlled by 'an invisible hand'. I thought it was kind of weird that the randomness priming people believe more strong in god than the other group. I strongly believe there is a reason for randomness. People don't know why, and we may never know but some believe it's god. Even I find it hard to live without knowing WHY but sometimes you just have to accept some things for face value because to us some things may just always be a random factor in our lives.

On anti-anxiety meds my need for religion diminishes completely... I can totally go with the theory.

By maggie_be (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

I appreciate this blog as it addresses a pet peeve of mine, that being the common adage, "everything happens for a reason." I hear this all the time, particularly when something bad or unexpected happens. Even the Bible, through the Book of Job, acknowledges randomness. Yet people seem to need to believe there is a God who acts as a puppieter calling all the shots. I wish I could come up with an effective yet caring retort when someone espouses this, other than to sigh.

By mary lightner (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

The simple impulse to problem-solve is at least as good a candidate for explaining the Waterloo results as distress-defensive anxiety, although perhaps there is a bit of anxiety in thinking of randomness as a PROBLEM to be solved. Interesting to note that "God" once CAUSED this anxiety that "God" is supposed to cure. Descartes feared the God whose will was radically sovereign and could negate mathematics. The entire Augustinian tradition flirts with this idea because "the mind cannot comprehend itself," as Augustine says, and a fortiori it cannot comprehend God--at least, not without falling into a "feigned" (anxiety-induced) faith. But this takes us back to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Saul of Tarsus v. the Gods of the philosophers. Strange how both religion and science share an interest in the principle of sufficient reason and each at different times comes down on each side of the question of whether everything that happens can be explained or not.

Mathematically, spatially, intellectually, metaphorically, our universe is expanding. Our need for knowledge expands exponentially, as we need to know more about the more we know. God is the putty that fills the cracks left between the things we know. Don't have the answer? God is the answer. Need to complete the calculation, but you don't know that value? Plug God in there, you'll get a solution. Then maybe later, you'll find that missing piece and put God back in your pocket for later.

This reminds me of Einstein's quote:
"There are two ways to live: one is as if nothing is a miracle; the other as if everything is."

There is nothing as such as 'Random', the term is used wherever we are unable to see or catch any pattern, or where if we start reasoning, it would require us to comprehend enough level of detail, that we cannot measure everything on every instance.

If one would go as deep as it would require to identify and acknowledge the hidden pattern in sequence of actions in history, nothing would seem like a Random, at the end it's all cause and effect.

God may exist in our minds and the phenomenon of a spiritual essence or a higher power can be understood in the context of people with epilepsy who often in the midst of aura based seizures have experiences of euforia and a sense of connection with God. What I am alluding to is "Spirituality is all in our heads".

It's Nassim Taleb, not Nissan. ;)