Theory of Mind and Belief in God
July 21, 2012 8:17 PM   Subscribe

How Humankind's Theory of Mind Could Have Produced God "As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can't help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven't even a smidgeon of a neural system... More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers.... So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people's behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind?"

See also.
posted by bookman117 (218 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
Love this topic, reminds me of Origin of Consciousness, a fantastic-though-crazy book length theory on the same idea.
posted by migurski at 8:21 PM on July 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Okay, okay, let's just put God aside for a moment, this article may have a point...except, none of that explains Jesus.
posted by PJLandis at 8:22 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind?"

Well, of course they are. As the Church has taught for centuries, God is beyond "mental states."
posted by koeselitz at 8:28 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Human projection of god tends to be highly anthropomorphic, is that a feature or a bug?
posted by Red Loop at 8:31 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Okay, okay, let's just put God aside for a moment, this article may have a point...except, none of that explains Jesus.

Abraham Lincoln existed too. That doesn't mean that he killed vampires. I read that in a book too.
posted by condiments at 8:39 PM on July 21, 2012 [24 favorites]


from article: "As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can't help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven't even a smidgeon of a neural system."

So this is really just a pop-science recapitulation of ev psych, then, right?

Can someone tell me if this inane usage of "theory of mind" to mean some kind of instinctive impulse (and not, well, a theory of mind) is actually used anywhere by anybody? I've never heard it before.
posted by koeselitz at 8:51 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've been writing for a while now pretty much this — that because human beings are primarily social, our cognition is organized around our ToM and is necessarily teleological (that all things can be understood as having a purpose, everything is the result of intent).

Theism is the obvious and most literal example of this with regard to worldview — but I think it's much more important to understand that this is a general principle of human cognition and our thinking is generally, systematically distorted in this way. We implicitly attribute intention to everything because we implicitly reason from "what is this thing for? for what purpose did this thing happen?". Even scientists who are trained to avoid this, and specifically even and tellingly evolutionary scientists who are extremely aware that evolution isn't teleological, can't avoid using at least some teleological language. Because this is built into our cognition at a fundamental level.

To be sure, it's very useful. Most of what we think about, and which has practical implications in our lives, is all about what other people are thinking and what are their intentions. But the natural world overwhelmingly doesn't work this way. And even when it does, as in the case of many other living creatures, our ToM is deeply anthropocentric and is more likely than not to fail us when we attempt to attribute specific goals to non-human creatures.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:52 PM on July 21, 2012 [41 favorites]


"After all, once we scrub away all the theological bric-a-brac and pluck the exotic cross-cultural plumage of religious beliefs from all over the world, once we get under God's skin, isn't He really just another mind—one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps above all else, intentions? Aren't theologians really just playing the role of God's translators, and isn't every holy book ever written a detailed psychoanalysis of God?"

Geez. Isn't the sky really green, and the sun actually blue? No.
posted by koeselitz at 8:54 PM on July 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's pretty amazing that he wrote this article without using the word "anthropomorphism". I wonder if he managed to avoid it throughout the entire book too.

I am extremely not surprised that he also wrote this book.
posted by XMLicious at 8:56 PM on July 21, 2012


This wasn't original with me by any means, but I've been repeating it for a number of years now: the human brain is wired to seek motive for anything that happens. Whenever random events happen, a large chunk of our brain automatically presents possible motives for that occurrence. The more important the event, the stronger the desire to find a motive becomes, to either repeat or avoid the stimulus.

Since only entities can carry motives, as soon as a human accepts that there was a motive, there must be an invisible entity to carry it. Gods, fairies, pookas, ghosts, leprechauns, brownies -- all variants on this underlying theme. When REALLY bad things happen... say Grok in the next cave gets hit by lightning, well, that entity must be extremely powerful, and must be appeased.

Voila, the first god.

In a very real way, monotheism is a huge step away from any kind of sense, because no one entity can successfully carry motives to explain everything that happens. Any monotheistic God has to be mad as a hatter. Polytheism, by creating multiple gods, can at least postulate individual beings that make sense, with really bizarre outcomes explained as conflicts between those beings.

It's all bogus, but at least polytheistic gods can be sane.
posted by Malor at 9:04 PM on July 21, 2012 [31 favorites]


except, none of that explains Jesus.

Doesn't need to. We don't actually know for sure if he existed. The only documentation we have of him is the Bible.

If the only handbook our thousand-years-hence ancestors had was Dianetics, they might insist that body thetans are totally real... and be willing to kill you if you claimed otherwise.

Let's just say that the writers of the Bible had very good reasons to make the Jesus story as appealing as possible. They were history's first marketers, and you know how trustworthy they are.
posted by Malor at 9:08 PM on July 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Or, to put it another way: if Christ hadn't existed, the Christians would have had to invent him.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 9:10 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK. You must trust me here... there are Baysians who fully expect to achieve godhood. Power over time and space and being, uprooted for the convenience of a slighted nerd boy/girl/other.

Let me break it down utterly and completely - A dragon hermaphrodite who likes peeing on people is the single most intelligent person I've ever encountered online, and the topic of breaking reality until it begs and whimpers at his feet is discussed as casually as the weather. On the other hand, LOL Furries!
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:12 PM on July 21, 2012


Note also that mental illness may be a big driver in the actual formation of religions. A charismatic, personable schizophrenic could tell you in total honesty the extremely realistic visions he'd had of supernatural visitations. Without modern medicine to understand and diagnose the schizophrenia, a high-functioning schizophrenic could easily found and lead a religious cult.

Combine visions of that sort with the human desire to seek outside motive, and religion would be essentially inevitable.
posted by Malor at 9:13 PM on July 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


So do you have to believe in God to believe that the Universe is out to get you?
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:13 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can someone tell me if this inane usage of "theory of mind" to mean some kind of instinctive impulse (and not, well, a theory of mind) is actually used anywhere by anybody? I've never heard it before.

I don't know how inane it is, but yes, it's very widely used in both psychology and philosophy, especially in connection with child development and autism. That's why you'll see things like this abstract from the abstract of a 2004 paper in a special issue of the journal Theory and Psychology devoted to theory of mind research:
The ‘Theory of Mind’ approach has been associated with probably the fastest-growing body of empirical research in psychology over the last 25 years, and has given rise to a range of different theoretical positions and elaborations within those positions. The basic idea is that understanding other people involves bridging a gulf between observed ‘behaviour’ and hidden mental states by means of a theory. The articles in this Special Issue subject ‘Theory of Mind’ to sustained critical scrutiny, and also present alternative accounts of how we make sense of—and make sense to—other people. They trace the historical sources of ‘Theory of Mind’, criticize its fundamental assumptions and favoured methods, and examine its applications to child development and the explanation of schizophrenia and autism.
In fact, the term is pretty old. It goes back at least to the 70s. For example, this paper (pdf) on whether Chimpanzees have a theory of mind.

But the term probably gets its widest use in child psychology (pdf), autism research (pdf), or both (pdf). (Okay, actually both the last two links are in both categories.)

Wikipedia has a decent entry on theory of mind.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:17 PM on July 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Can someone tell me if this inane usage of 'theory of mind' to mean some kind of instinctive impulse (and not, well, a theory of mind) is actually used anywhere by anybody? I've never heard it before."

With all due respect, from what you're written, it's not clear to me that you're completely aware of what either evolutionary psychology or theory-of-mind are.

EP isn't the blanket assumption that human cognition is an evolutionary adaptation with certain characteristics. That's just how I'd describe the non-metaphysical view of human cognition in general. EP's organizing principle is that human cognition is a basket of cognitive tools and that each cognitive tool is an individual adaptation. That's a relatively specific view of human cognition with many implicit testable hypothesis. (How successful the field has been, and how distorted by those with social agendas, is another matter.)

But I think most scientists who don't invoke metaphysics will agree that human cognition is biological, evolved, and that it is socially oriented. And this is deeply related to ToM, of course, because the way in which humans interact requires that we have ToMs, this capacity is qualitatively important (because of recursion and such), there's a fair bit of evidence on localizing structures and processes in the brain that implicitly involve ToM.

There are different kinds of social organisms. I use to refer to humans as "semi-gregarious". The important point, which is obvious in many ways, is that we interact and cooperate enough such that we have to know what to expect from each other in a complex sense, but that we don't cooperate so completely that it's possible to completely know what to expect from each other in a complex sense. This makes individual human behavior very complex and any model of human behavior (including the ToM in our own heads) very complex and much less than perfectly reliable.

Indeed, because we compete as often as we cooperate, there's an arms race going on between refining our ToMs and thwarting others' ToMs. In this context, it becomes especially important to correctly ascertain the goals and intentions of others. If we were much more cooperative, we could trust (or we'd just know, because our behavior would by its nature be more known and predictable), and if we were more competitive, we wouldn't need much of a ToM in the first place because we wouldn't care about the specifics beyond generally competing for resources.

It's very difficult for us to imagine an intelligence that exists outside this framework. I'm not even sure that we'd be willing to acknowledge, or even be capable of recognizing, an intelligence that exists outside of this. With that in mind, I could be persuaded that intelligence can't exist outside of this. But, mainly what I'm arguing is that our intellectual relationship with the cosmos is even more anthropocentric than we realize that it is — that projection of what is essentially a model of our own minds onto the universe as a whole in the form of theism (or "purpose" or "meaning") is the apotheosis of this.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:23 PM on July 21, 2012 [35 favorites]


From a sociological and historical perspective, why did the early Christians (and yes, I know differing communities with differing views and opinions existed under that label- or not- at that time) with their psuedo-pacifism and multiethnic message ultimately have the winning ideology in 1st century Judea, as opposed to the nationalist Zealots and the other groups interested in overthrowing Roman rule?
posted by Apocryphon at 9:27 PM on July 21, 2012


Yeah, just to make it clear, "theory of mind" does not refer to a scientific theory of cognition. It refers to the mechanism by which an individual attempts to predict the thoughts and responses of others. It's a specific set of cognitive tools that facilitate social interactions. And it has a solid physiological basis, in, for instance, the study of mirror neurons. Our social behavior is deeply biological.

From a sociological and historical perspective, why did the early Christians (and yes, I know differing communities with differing views and opinions existed under that label- or not- at that time) with their psuedo-pacifism and multiethnic message ultimately have the winning ideology in 1st century Judea, as opposed to the nationalist Zealots and the other groups interested in overthrowing Roman rule?

Those other groups were utterly defeated in open warfare with the Romans. Their movement was crushed, and the temple was razed.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:31 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's pretty amazing that he wrote this article without using the word "anthropomorphism". I wonder if he managed to avoid it throughout the entire book too.

Indeed. The two terms go hand in hand in most books and papers I've read on the subject, and with good reason.

Ah well. This article is a nice, if simplistic introduction to the Theory of Mind, assuming of course that the reader is unfamiliar with it. As Jonathan Livengood notes, the anthropic principle isn't exactly a new concept, and the Theory of Mind is discussed at length in scientific (neurology/psychology/developmental) literature to do with patients who have an autism spectrum disorder -- because they typically have an inability to attribute mental states to others.
posted by zarq at 9:40 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Malor: "Note also that mental illness may be a big driver in the actual formation of religions. A charismatic, personable schizophrenic could tell you in total honesty the extremely realistic visions he'd had of supernatural visitations. Without modern medicine to understand and diagnose the schizophrenia, a high-functioning schizophrenic could easily found and lead a religious cult. "

Except no major religion we know of actually formed that way.

Sincerely, this article is so incredibly off-base when it comes to religious doctrine that it's not funny. This modern assumption that nobody has ever thought about these things is beyond laughable. People were thinking about these things - and more coherently! - before the birth of Christ. The idea that religion is just one long anthropomorphic fever dream evinces a complete and total lack of knowledge of religion itself.

I'm genuinely surprised at the creedence this is getting here.
posted by koeselitz at 9:49 PM on July 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


Except no major religion we know of actually formed that way.

Do men in caves frequently get visited by the angel Gabriel? Do burning bushes speak to most people? Are many men commanded by voices to sacrifice their children?
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:51 PM on July 21, 2012 [21 favorites]


So do you have to believe in God to believe that the Universe is out to get you?

The Universe is out to get everyone, because the Universe is a gigantic insecure bag of dicks.
posted by zennish at 9:52 PM on July 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


Do men in caves frequently get visited by the angel Gabriel?

No, just eight foot tall Alabaster workout freaks.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:55 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Malor: "We don't actually know for sure if [Jesus] existed. The only documentation we have of him is the Bible."

Not exactly.
"Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus was a Jew who was regarded as a teacher and healer, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman Prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, on the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire."
I don't mean to derail the God-conversation and make it all about Jesus, but I couldn't quite let these responses go uncommented. The quest for the Historical Jesus is certainly fraught with problems, questions, and historical/theological complexities... I just want to point out that there are people who spend their careers studying this stuff. It's not just "because the Bible told me so."
posted by Zephyrial at 9:57 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Do men in caves frequently get visited by the angel Gabriel? Do burning bushes speak to most people? Are many men commanded by voices to sacrifice their children?

No.

Do the vast majority of Jews take these tales to be literal fact?

No.

As a species, we have traditionally established our cultural values through fables, mythology, morality tales and metaphorical stories. In the distant past, they were passed down orally. The Jewish Talmud is no different in that regard. In the last 2-3 millennia, the Talmud was written down, added to and analyzed / interpreted at length. It has changed a great deal, both in content and meaning.
posted by zarq at 9:58 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Except no major religion we know of actually formed that way.

Postulate: Jesus was a high-functioning schizophrenic.
posted by Malor at 9:58 PM on July 21, 2012


Postulate: Jesus was a high-functioning schizophrenic.

Counter-postulate from Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum:
“Now that you mention it, let’s see. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are a bunch of practical jokers who meet somewhere and decide to have a contest. They invent a character, agree on a few basic facts, and then each one’s free to take it and run with it. At the end,they’ll see who’s done the best job. The four stories are picked up by some friends who act as critics: Matthew is fairly realistic, but insists on that Messiah business too much; Mark isn’t bad, just a little sloppy; Luke is elegant, no denying that; and John takes the philosophy a little too far. Actually, though, the books have an appeal, they circulate, and when the four realize what’s happening, it’s too late. Paul has already met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Pliny begins his investigation ordered by the worried emperor, and a legion of apocryphal writers pretends also to know plenty...Toi, apocryphe lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere. It all goes to Peter’s head; he takes himself seriously. John threatens to tell the truth, Peter and Paul have him chained up on the island of Patmos. Soon the poor man is seeing things: Help, there are locusts all over my bed,make those trumpets stop, where’s all this blood coming from? The others say he’s drunk, or maybe it’s arteriosclerosis...Who knows, maybe it really happened that way.”
Whatever a religion's foundation may be, personally I find the structure it develops into, the mythos that it builds, and the strictures it adopts over time infinitely more worthy of analysis. Scientology has become far more than L. Ron ever imagined, for example. Most religions that exist today are a shining example of what happens when a group of like-minded people take an idea and run with it over generations.
posted by zarq at 10:07 PM on July 21, 2012 [18 favorites]


Malor: "Postulate: Jesus was a high-functioning schizophrenic."

Is this comment intended to make me clutch my pearls so tightly that I don't notice that you're not actually giving any evidence or reason at all for this postulate?
posted by koeselitz at 10:10 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


"It's not just 'because the Bible told me so.'"

Really? I believe there are exactly two contemporaneous mentions of Jesus that aren't biblical — some Roman historical document, I think, which just mentions a name; and a likely mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Neither of these include any of the things you quote as being accepted by scholars as being historically true.

While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course, it is very suggestive that there is essentially no contemporaneous corroboration of historical Jesus with regard to the the scope and importance of his life as portrayed in the Gospels. Furthermore, the majority of biblical scholars agree that none of the Gospels were written during Jesus' lifetime, or by their purported authors, as actual eye-witness testimony.

As there are a couple of contemporaneous mentions, and given the existence of the Gospels and their claims, then we can feel pretty safe assuming that Jesus was one of many revolutionary prophetic religious leaders of the time. That's about it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:10 PM on July 21, 2012 [17 favorites]


From a sociological and historical perspective, why did the early Christians (and yes, I know differing communities with differing views and opinions existed under that label- or not- at that time) with their psuedo-pacifism and multiethnic message ultimately have the winning ideology in 1st century Judea, as opposed to the nationalist Zealots and the other groups interested in overthrowing Roman rule?

I've heard more than once, though I can't say I've done the fact-checking on this, that one of the things that made the early Christians so successful was their use of a new technology: the codex. My understanding is that, where everyone else's literature was on these old-fashioned scrolls, they were putting their shit in books. And that was cool or something.

Is that the common understanding, or am I suffering from misinformation somewhere?
posted by etc. at 10:21 PM on July 21, 2012


Most religions that exist today are a shining example of what happens when a group of like-minded people take an idea and run with it over generations.

More like the the princess and the pea. For most mainstream religions centuries of work by smart people have stacked layers and layers of "matresses" on top of the seed of primitive barbarism. But that seed can still be felt at the core of it all..e.g. not eating pork because it tastes like people, who were probably sacrificed back in the day...

And there are a LOT of folks out that there don't bother pretending religion is anything but barbaric. Snake Handlers, people that try to cure their children with prayer, etc etc etc.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:22 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Roman historical document, by the way, is Josephus, and it's generally accepted that it's not reliable.

More to the point: PJLandis was absolutely correct that none of this explains the Christ. The whole point of the story of Christ is that infinite and absolute which the divine being encompasses is fundamentally not anthropic, and that the divine being nonetheless takes part in humanness thoroughly and wholly. That means having become a limited, finite human creature. It also means a saturation on the basic level in the inner beings of all humans. None of this is even broached by this infantile theory of what causs religion.
posted by koeselitz at 10:26 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I believe we see a recapitulation of the premise of the article in many historical discussions. We humans struggle mightily to give a narrative structure to history when in reality it is the product of the accretion of uncountable events, some with cause and effect relations and others with none. I think this is a significant issue in that context because it allows us an individual out from learning lessons from history because, after all, we are not those people and they didn't have the benefit of our intellect and awareness, and we'd do better given those same circumstances.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:31 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some of us might feel that all of what you've described applies equally to Krishna or Odin, koeselitz. Why would we grant your Jesus any special status?
posted by fredludd at 10:35 PM on July 21, 2012 [14 favorites]


"Theory of mind" is often used to refer to whatever mechanism is responsible for our mental state attribution. But that is sloppy. It presumes (as does this article) that we deploy tacit psychological theories in attributing mental states. That presumes theory theory and rules out simulation theory and certain modular theories. The preferred, more neutral terms, are "mentalizing" or "mindreading."

Koeselitz, this article isn't describing a renegade or crank hypothesis. It's a dominant view among scientists interested in naturalizing religion (that is, those who want to explain religious belief while taking it for granted that a correct explanation will not invoke the existence of god). Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Daniel Dennett: all think that the evolution of mentalizing systems and agent detection systems was key in the development of religiosity. The fact that none of these researchers was mentioned in this article is criminal.
posted by painquale at 10:37 PM on July 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


koeselitz, the way I read that post was more "okay, that explains how we got to "there's a god", but it doesn't explain how you go from that to "and he incarnated himself as Jesus Christ, the son of a carpenter, who preached his own divinity and then was put to death, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven"."
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:42 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, to put it another way: if Christ hadn't existed, the Christians would have had to invent him.

Nothing Jethro Tull didn't cover in the liner notes for Aqualung. And in song as well.

I don't believe you / you've got the whole damned thing all wrong / He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday
posted by philip-random at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cognitive Science catches up to Nietzsche!

And I don't mean that as an insult to Cognitive Science. Philosophy is the Art of Science in a lot of ways, or maybe the Theology of Science. It's always ahead of the sciences, which are concerned with more systematically ordered understandings than artistic re-presentations.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:46 PM on July 21, 2012


Saxon Kane catches up to C.P. Snow!
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:47 PM on July 21, 2012


It seems like this is just a popularization of ideas from Pascal Boyer (who isn't all that technical in books like "Religion Explained"). I'll probably read it, but I'm shocked that Boyer appears to be mentioned on only 2 pages (according to the index--and in 2 footnotes). I wonder how much space he gave Scott Atran and others who've written about this very issue (ToM and God/religion).
posted by whatgorilla at 10:48 PM on July 21, 2012


Michael Shermer wrote a book which discusses a similar, if not the same, idea. He uses the experience of climbers who often feel a second presence, a definite other person of being, alongside them during extreme moments at altitude when oxygen is low.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, 2011, ISBN 978-0-8050-9125-0
posted by PJLandis at 10:49 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was kidding about Jesus. Not funny. Point taken.
posted by PJLandis at 10:51 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"None of this is even broached by this infantile theory of what causs religion."

You know, I with you on taking theology seriously on its own terms and, as it happens, in your specific example that there's something deeply interesting involved in the nature of Christ.

But your irritation and condescension is inappropriate and annoying because you're criticizing this and commenting here from a different context than that in which this was written and the rest of the conversation is occurring.

I found that sophomore year at St. John's College (of which koeselitz and I are both alumni) was very, very frustrating for me because the remarkable ability of johnnies to read and discuss a text on its own terms frequently fell apart with the religious material. Christians were continually interpreting Old Testament passages as referring to Jesus, just as they'd been taught most of their lives, and I began to frequently ask "who is this 'Jesus' person you keep mentioning? I don't recall him from the text."

All this is to say that I'm a little disappointed in you. To examine the human tendency to theism from the perspective this author does, and the rest of us are doing, does not implicitly invalidate the deeply interesting and complex thinking about theology that very smart people have done otherwise. Okay, I understand that there are atheists around these parts, and elsewhere, who do take such a facile view of things. But, so far, they're not really present in this thread and you're not doing anyone any favors by invoking their presence by arguing with them in absentia.

Anyway, I might say that much of the really interesting stuff that happens with intellectually challenging religious doctrine (the nature of Christ, Zen, other examples) and related theology might be implied in this theory — that is, I might argue that the cognitive paradoxes inherent in mutually recursive ToMs give rise to these theological paradoxes.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:52 PM on July 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


This article gives a very nice survey of the naturalizing religion literature.
posted by painquale at 10:54 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


PJLanding when you say, "None of that explains Jesus," you leave us all to speculate as to what about Jesus you think needs explaining. That's a very ambiguous basis for a joke.
posted by RobotHero at 11:05 PM on July 21, 2012


I'll grant that it's a poor joke, but were you really confused about whether it was the Biblical Jesus or some other person?
posted by PJLandis at 11:07 PM on July 21, 2012


It's only a poor joke if you have to explain it.
posted by fredludd at 11:09 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Frankly, I'm pretty skeptical of any attempt to ground religion in biological necessity. The article is frankly stupid and reductionist; there is no need to reach out to any thoroughly psychological phenomena to explain religion. The immediate reality is that most people believe what they believe because they were raised to believe it. And, look, I get it: this all-to-convenient lack of courage to grapple with the wholly accidental, wholly historical nature of religion -- it's a way of preserving the so-called sacred unmentionable. But, sorry, feel free to play again. Religion is not some fundamental truth of the human condition, it is not some essential quirk of the human brain and it is not required by conscious, social beings. It is just another story, another game, another symbol acting on symbols, and it's a popular game precisely because it so vigorously denies that it is a game. See, most games attempt to immerse the user, they attempt to lure and persuade by turning various aesthetic knobs; religion does this but it goes much further. All of these various scientific attempts to "find God" in the brain or whatever are so much nonsense. Everybody knows where and what God is. Seriously, ask anybody and they'll tell you and that's the truth.
posted by nixerman at 11:10 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I didn't say "which Jesus" I said "what about Jesus."
posted by RobotHero at 11:10 PM on July 21, 2012


While I'm obviously not a believer, but I think there is good reason to believe in religious experiences of god or zen or whatever they may be which require more explanation than they were raised that way.
posted by PJLandis at 11:14 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


The article is frankly stupid and reductionist; there is no need to reach out to any thoroughly psychological phenomena to explain religion. The immediate reality is that most people believe what they believe because they were raised to believe it

This was the basis of the once-preferred explanation, but it does not explain why religiosity is so prevalent across cultures. Anthropologists have been driven to cognitive science and evolutionary psychology in order to explain religion as a cultural universal. We teach our children to respect democracy, but democratic societies are hardly universal. What makes religion different?
posted by painquale at 11:18 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


As for Jesus, I was anticipating a response where somebody might dismiss this whole idea because it doesn't the address the divinity of Jesus or something similar which isn't really all that relevant to the ideas expressed in the article. Does it make any more sense?
posted by PJLandis at 11:21 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there is good reason to believe in religious experiences of god or zen or whatever they may be which require more explanation than they were raised that way

PJLandis, you're operating on the assumption that there is something unique about particularly religious about so-called spiritual experiences. Drink some good scotch. Then you might agree that there's no need for a higher power to experience god.

We teach our children to respect democracy, but democratic societies are hardly universal.

Religion is not universal. I get why people think religion is universal but a hard look at the facts reveal just the opposite. There is no real similarity between all the nonsense that men have believed throughout the centuries. There is no universal grammar that links Western Christianity to Aztec sacrifices or Asian ancestral beliefs or African animism. There is no strong criteria to distinguish between religion and non-religion and, really, it's another sign of the extraordinary lack of seriousness of anthropologists that they would presume to study something called "human religion." This game is best reserved for philosophers because we don't take ourselves so seriously and when we say "all these very, very different things are really the same" decent people just laugh and move on.

The real danger here is not that people will take religious games seriously because, well, that boat has sailed. The real danger of imagining some "religious impulse" is that it is distraction. There is real science, real work to be done on social consciousness and all the efforts to "ground" religion in the brain detract from that. If scientists want to really help they ought to focus on real problems like how to talk to teenagers, or determining what it is that women want. This "hunting for God" nonsense is so much worthlessness and will never help anybody or change anything.
posted by nixerman at 11:33 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think internal, biological/psychological processes which fit into the social, learned framework of religion are likely or at least worth studying rather then dismissing them as reductionist.

No one as far as I can tell is insinuating that religion or god is some specific aspect of the brain, rather that certain parts of our biology/psyches underlie many common religious experiences. And I think these experiences are likely tied into our experience of our consciousness, which is always an interesting subject. If the religion bothers you, call it something else, Shermer ties it into alien abduction stories.
posted by PJLandis at 11:41 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"will never help anybody or change anything."

And history is full of research that paid dividends in ways that no one ever imagined at the time.
posted by PJLandis at 11:43 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hate it when most of the human race are idiots in comparison to nixerman. His superiority makes these sorts of social situations awkward.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:06 AM on July 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


If scientists want to really help they ought to focus on real problems like how to talk to teenagers, or determining what it is that women want.

Yeah, serious problems like interpersonal relationships, and how it is that you can figure out what's going on in someone's mind when their behaviour is appears to be irrational to me when I would do something completely different in their place... oh, like this problem addressed in the article. Shush, nixerman, the grown-ups are talking.
posted by harriet vane at 12:21 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the author does himself no favours by invoking evo-psych, which is seen by many - rightly or not - as dubious and ideological. It's also not needed for the core point of "people project intent into everything, which creates pixies, leprechauns and gods".

Or to put it another way: we feel there has to be a reason for things. Let's say a man goes to the doctor. He is diagnosed with cancer. He asks the doctor: why? The doctor says: "Well, as we can see from your family history, you have a predisposition to this kind of disease." He says: "But why? Why me?"

Cause and reason are not the same thing.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:24 AM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Theory of mind is what leads us to attribute agency and intentionality to inanimate objects. If this is the cause of religion, what object are humans mistaking for God? I'd expect a whole range of God-things. To my knowledge, they don't exist - God is usually supposed to be distinct from the universe, except in pantheism. Mostly it works in the opposite way. First you have religion, then you build crosses, statues, idols, etc. - physical objects that stand in for God. People don't worship objects believing they are gods, they worship objects believing that they are symbols of gods.

But even if you ignore that, believing that an object has personality is a lot different from believing it's God. So there are two questions: why do people believe in God; and, why do people who believe in God believe that he has a personality? This idea claims to answer the first question, but could only ever really answer the last one.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:28 AM on July 22, 2012


I think the author does himself no favours by invoking evo-psych, which is seen by many - rightly or not - as dubious and ideological.

I'm not sure where people are getting the idea that he uses evolutionary psychology in the article, other than making the utterly banal point that the theory of mind arose from the fact that it's beneficial for people to be able to figure out what other people are thinking and anticipate their actions given the social nature of our species, which would seem to be implied in the very idea of a theory of mind to begin with.
posted by bookman117 at 12:35 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


For most mainstream religions centuries of work by smart people have stacked layers and layers of "matresses" on top of the seed of primitive barbarism.

Whether you follow a particular religion or are an atheist, I really feel that calling the heart of someone's belief "primitive barbarism", is, well, I think it's really rude to be honest. And ignorant, divisive and dismissive.

I'm a a deep and abiding atheist, but really I find this kind of thinking - that religious people have been somehow hoodwinked, or that there is some kind of commonality to the reasons that people become religious, or how they practice it, and that - fundamentally - they don't know what they're doing and that it's bad, is so patronising, and it's probably my least favourite thing about mefi and smug atheists everywhere.

Most of the religious people I know - aside from their belief - view religion as a means of being a better person, to themselves, others and their community. If that's what "primitive barbarism" looks like, then I guess even though I'm an atheist I better break out the pelt, cause that sure as hell is something I try to practice every day.
posted by smoke at 12:40 AM on July 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


I hate it when most of the human race are idiots in comparison to nixerman. His superiority makes these sorts of social situations awkward.

Did I insult "most of the human race"? My bad. As a firm believer in all sorts of nonsense I wouldn't presume to look down on the ol' race. What I object to are naive attempts to justify nonsense by appealing to pseudo-science. And it is kind of funny though, you have to admit, that evolution and modern biology, which a great many intelligent persons rightly recognized as the final nail in God's coffin, is now being called upon to save God. This sort of subversion is ultimately very deliberate because fundamentalists can twist anything and everything to serve their nonsense and will never, ever, ever simply admit, "what I believe is not true so maybe I ought to believe something else?" But men will cross mountains rather than change their minds.

If that's what "primitive barbarism" looks like, then I guess even though I'm an atheist I better break out the pelt, cause that sure as hell is something I try to practice every day.

And who are you to look down on barbarians? Is it not possible that somebody might engage in a little bit of good ol' human sacrifice or stoning of adulterers or the indoctrination of children... and still be a good person? You think all barbarians are monsters? This is why people ought to be very careful about justifying the nonsense they believe. Deception begets deception and once you start lying about the big stuff you'll lie about most everything.
posted by nixerman at 12:48 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


bookman117: Yeah, you're right. I read this first thing in the morning, and the combination of "brain" and "evolution" made me think "any minute he's going to start talking about how girls like pink because their brains evolved to find berries". So yeah, disregard the first half of my comment. I stand behind the second part, which came - I think - from the more awake parts of my brain.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:52 AM on July 22, 2012


Theory of mind is what leads us to attribute agency and intentionality to inanimate objects. If this is the cause of religion, what object are humans mistaking for God?

I don't think the object needs to be visible. We can attribute a mind to "someone, somewhere".
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:54 AM on July 22, 2012


"What I object to are naive attempts to justify nonsense by appealing to pseudo-science."

The problem with your critique is that there's neither pseudo-science nor justification going on. In fact, your dismissal of any of the science involved is uninformed (and deserves a pejorative in exactly the sense that you're using "pseudo-science") and it's you who is justifying a moral position in your argument.

I'm willing to give you a little bit of the benefit of the doubt here because there are, in fact, people who try to justify religion by such a biological argument, just as there are people who try to justify patriarchal social structures on similar biological arguments.

But people have always made opportunistic arguments from nature for their predispositions whatever they may be and that someone, somewhere has done so is not even remotely sufficient evidence to discount the biological argument.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:01 AM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I really feel that calling the heart of someone's belief "primitive barbarism", is, well, I think it's really rude to be honest. And ignorant, divisive and dismissive.

I'll cop to all those, even the ignorance part. I'm ignorant of many religious epicycles, and probably all sorts of baroque filigree added layer by layer over the years. You have to bypass the Gordian knots of the past to move forward.

that religious people have been somehow hoodwinked, or that there is some kind of commonality to the reasons that people become religious, or how they practice it, and that - fundamentally - they don't know what they're doing and that it's bad

Are people "hoodwinked" by Aristotelian physics (I mean pre-Newtonian ideas about motion etc)? No, I wouldn't say they're hoodwinked, but rather they generally come to those sorts of ideas because its a very natural way to understand the world given our usual senory inputs. Its also totally wrong and totally unproductive, and it has to be wrung out of you, if you want to do anything technical.

Now take religion, you have some basic sorts of ideas that come very naturally to most people, you build up societal structures to drum it into them on a daily basis, you have centuries of work by the smartest people to make it more palatable...and lots of people believe it...SHOCKING.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:03 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, just out of curiosity, has nobody bothered to click on the second link provided, or has pretty much everyone just decided that the assertion that high functioning autistics are more likely to be athests/agnostics isn't noteworthy enough to be explicitly commented on?
posted by bookman117 at 1:05 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honestly I worked my way through part of the slate article, then got tired of the "slate-iness" of it. There are some way better links you could have put up there...
posted by Chekhovian at 1:08 AM on July 22, 2012


Questions about God have come up before on Ask Metafilter. But apparently no one has just flat out asked "Does God Exist?" I wish somebody would, because I'd like to know, and those people at Ask Metafilter could probably get the whole issue settled in a couple hours.

Actually, my fantasy is that God himself, who we all know has been lurking for years, would decide that this was the moment to pony up the bucks and join. I think God would be a great Metafilter user, but I may just be projecting.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:23 AM on July 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


God himself, who we all know has been lurking for years, would decide that this was the moment to pony up the bucks and join.

Looks like he did, and then got his account disabled...
posted by Chekhovian at 1:28 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


So when its comes to Mods Vs. Gods, the Mods win.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:29 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Looks like he did, and then got his account disabled...

Wow. The mods are powerful than I realized.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:35 AM on July 22, 2012


I'm pretty sure that Satan comments here at Metafilter. I've seen a bunch of his comments, but he keeps changing his username, and I'm not sure which one of you motherfuckers he is.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:37 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting topic of discussion, but the main article itself isn't actually very good.
posted by PJLandis at 1:43 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


So do you have to believe in God to believe that the Universe is out to get you?

No.

But if anyone asks, you didn't hear it from me.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:47 AM on July 22, 2012


"...that religious people have been somehow hoodwinked, or that there is some kind of commonality to the reasons that people become religious, or how they practice it, and that - fundamentally - they don't know what they're doing and that it's bad, is so patronising..."

I take it you were responding to another comment but your comment applies equally to the article and the idea that there are evolutionary/biological/psycholigical processes underlying religious faith and experiences.
posted by PJLandis at 2:00 AM on July 22, 2012


I'm sure there are these processes underlying it, but I feel like the divide our largely secular, western culture puts down between "religion" and... life, everything else, non-religion, whatever you want to call it, is a) not how religious people in ancient cultures thought, b) not necessarily how many religious people today think, and c) very much a cultural construction.

I dunno, I feel this kind of dualism has been built around a discourse driven, particularly in America, that places science and some kind of epistemological truth on the other "side" of religion - and indeed you could extend the dichotomy further to place "hard" science (your biology, evo psychs etc) against "soft" science (the social sciences, anthropology, sociology etc), and they are opposite sides and you cannot promote one without attacking the other.

The piece, and much of this kind of thinking really suffers, imho, from a lack of anthropological, sociological and historical knowledge about religions in societies. It's so weird, it's like they're trying to wipe the slate clean or something, like 'science' could be the only way to explain (really, invalidate) religion for the first time!

For ancient - and many modern peoples - religion is not somehow juxtaposed with politics, science, work etc. Religion was a thread in the fabric of life; inextricable and bound to everything. Religion as culture - as it still is for most religious people, so much more than belief, also identity, law, politics, ethics, medicine, etc.

It was/is not a matter of there being a "religion box", and all these other boxes, and being worried about the religion box growing so big you put all the other boxes inside it. It's such a baffling, ahistorical perspective. There was only one box, culture, and different things in that box fill different needs for different people at different times.

It's hardly controversial that, for many ancient peoples, one of the functions of religion was to explain phenomena that couldn't be understood any other way - exactly like science can be to us today.

Argggh, I won't bang on, it's too frustrating and the kind of atheists that love this stuff would never change their minds about it anyway. Suffice to say, I think it's a false dichotomy, ignores how and why we came to think that way, glides over any cultural aspects, and basically is deriding something the critics have failed to understand, or respect.
posted by smoke at 2:20 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


As far as my Theory of Mind goes, I usually include a good rub of salt, pepper and oregano, wrapped in foil and followed with a roast at 325 degrees at 30 min per pound. Most Theoretical Minds are a bit heavier, usually closer to 3 pounds, so check in on it after an hour or so. Good lord and biscuits, that's tasty!
posted by Zombie Jesus at 2:53 AM on July 22, 2012


A little off-topic, but the over-broad use of ToM can be really useful. When I was in school, I would give descriptions (both as answers in class and to people I was tutoring) like "the electron wants to go somewhere of lower potential" or "a photon tells the electron about the nearby proton". Some people got it right away; others couldn't get over the fact that obviously electrons don't want anything and photons can't talk. But it's super easy to remember what electrons and photons (and all manner of other phenomena) tend to do if you imagine them having desires and social lives.
posted by Jpfed at 4:15 AM on July 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


The piece, and much of this kind of thinking really suffers, imho, from a lack of anthropological, sociological and historical knowledge about religions in societies. It's so weird, it's like they're trying to wipe the slate clean or something, like 'science' could be the only way to explain (really, invalidate) religion for the first time!

The article isn't about "religion" as a whole, though. It's about a specific part of it: belief that natural phenomena are caused by some kind of higher intelligence. It doesn't really address the cultural aspects of religion.

And this kind of argument isn't about proving that religion is somehow "invalid"; it's about showing that god is unnecessary. If all human societies tend towards religious belief systems that assume transcendant intelligence, and if there is evidence that a specific common psychological tendency gives rise to this assumption, then religion might not exactly be refuted but we do have a pretty good explanation for it that doesn't involve the existence of god.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:28 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind?

I'd say "This is my surprised face"
posted by Decani at 4:42 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


First you have religion, then you build crosses, statues, idols, etc. - physical objects that stand in for God. People don't worship objects believing they are gods, they worship objects believing that they are symbols of gods.

This is not true across the board. There are plenty of religions that believe that god(s) at least "reside" in statues and icons, making them more than a symbol, and I expect that most, if not all, of these beliefs developed out of earlier ideas that those items were god(s).

On the flip side, this realization is a cause for iconoclastic movements offended by the idea that divinity can be encased in matter.*

*Iconoclasm is a lot more complex than this, and the philosophical wrangling that goes on is pretty interesting, if you like that sort of thing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:41 AM on July 22, 2012


In general, I'm just not grokking the oppositions that apparently many people here are intuiting and which are therefore causing them to be defensive. That is to say, several people, from diverse and mutually contradictory interests, are criticizing what they assume to be the implicit overriding message here in a way that makes it clear that they feel their interest is being directly attacked.

And I'm just not seeing it.

I'm not seeing that this reduces all religious ideas to anthropomorphism, or that it justifies religious belief, or whatever.

It's like..."climate is an expression of insolation and ocean surface temperature". (I don't know much about climatology, so don't fault me for the particular technical weakness of my example, please.) Such a statement, or argument involving that as a premise, isn't purporting to tell us everything we could possible know about climate, or that climate is simply and exclusively determined on the basis of those two variables, or that "climate" in this formulation is understood to be universal and isotropic, or whatever. Maybe if you have some strong vested interest in some highly abstracted, fundamental model of climate and maybe if this formulation seems like it might somewhat discredit it, then maybe it would make sense to get a little defensive. Maybe. Probably, though, you'd just be being defensive. Because, clearly, climate is a complex phenomena that is usefully examined and understood from various functional levels of description, and at various levels of detail, and variously so for various purposes.

It's like...hunger and food and cuisine. Obviously, the first principle is the biological imperative of sustenance. But that clearly can only tell us so much about human food acquisition and preparation habits and even less about the development and nature of cuisines. Or for that matter, variations in individual preference. The biological imperative argument neither justifies the existence of French haute cuisine, nor justifies its superfluousness. It doesn't reduce the nature of French haute cuisine to biology, either. It's just one way of understanding food, a useful way, a way that might well tell us some things that we wouldn't otherwise recognize or understand about appetite (for example, pica), but certainly doesn't preclude all those other ways of understanding the whole scope of human food and food culture, or diminish them, or elevate or justify them, for that matter.

It may well be true that what we are gathering under the umbrella of "religious belief" and "theism" is too varied to be usefully so generalized. If this is so, however, it doesn't invalidate this underlying argument because, in my opinion, the underlying argument is about an essential anthropomorphic tendency in human cognition that is far more general and variously expressed than just in "religious belief" or "theism" and so it would still be prior to all the various things we disaggregate from "religious belief".
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:44 AM on July 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


That is to say, several people, from diverse and mutually contradictory interests, are criticizing what they assume to be the implicit overriding message here in a way that makes it clear that they feel their interest is being directly attacked.

I can see it, though you should forgive me if I'm not able to get the words as eloquently as you've been doing this morning:

For a religious person, this argument seems to reduce religious belief to the mental equivalent of a knee jerking when tapped with a rubber mallet - it's an evolved (if somewhat less material) response.

For a rationalist non-theist, the argument would seem to give credence to the argument that a group of people can't help but be religious, which runs counter to the point of view that religion is an abberation grasped at by the weak-minded or those unfortunate enough to have not been exposed to free thinking.

It was an interesting article, and the post was worth it for the commentary here. Threads like this are why I love MetaFilter.
posted by Mooski at 5:59 AM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Theory of mind, after all, is "just a theory," in the sense that you can't do experiments to prove other minds beyond giving a Turing test. So you might conclude that the existence of God should also depend on the outcome of a Turing test, if you can get beyond the implied lack of faith.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:01 AM on July 22, 2012


Albert Einstein: "the fanatical atheists...are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people'—cannot bear the music of the spheres."
posted by crazy_yeti at 6:14 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


He may have said that, but he also said a number of other things of more direct relevance, e.g.:
It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems.
But his views on religion were heavily influenced by his belief in a deterministic universe and his rejection of the uncertainty required by quantum physics, and he turned out to be wrong about that. In any case I don't think he would have had a problem with this "theory of mind" argument.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:28 AM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


That ignored (and better) second link goes beyond the cliche of the people with Asperger’s not having theory of mind, offering an alternative that they "are simply less interested in the drama of others’ internal beliefs and motivations." It also doesn't simply assert that lacking theory of mind explains their non-participation in organized religion but further suggests that such religion is both learned (in its specificities) and expressed socially in activities which an Aspie would shun regardless of the capacity for mentalization.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2012


I would agree that the second link is generally more readable and gets to its point quicker (not being a promo for a book), but the two taken together pretty much lead one to a struggle between "religion arises from malfunctioning mental processes" and "atheism arises from malfunctioning mental processes...."
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:09 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't see it that way, but maybe that's because I don't assume that the non-neurotypical are malfunctioning.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:17 AM on July 22, 2012


I didn't see it that way, but maybe that's because I don't assume that the non-neurotypical are malfunctioning.

That's very enlightened of you. Now, go back and read that second article from the point of view of someone who assumes religious belief as a starting point (and that lack of religious belief probably means lack of moral sense). I think you will find, with that reading, the atheists and agnostics would be just as defensive as the religiously-inclined above.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2012


I'd recommend Pascal Boyer's book, mentioned above: Religion Explained. (Or, as others call it, "Religion Explained Away.") A convincing argument.
posted by kozad at 7:58 AM on July 22, 2012


I do assume religious belief as a starting point.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:00 AM on July 22, 2012


Apart from everything else, I'm completely astounded that anyone who would accept Hitchens as a rational standard-bearer would respect his bizarrely speculative and unfounded explanation for why pigs are considered unclean across many agrarian cultures. It's utterly anti-scientific. The reasoning he employs is like Swiss cheese, and having dabbled a bit in dietary history, I am not sure he's even familiar with any but the shallowest sources.
posted by Miko at 8:33 AM on July 22, 2012


Ahem...

I have this (unsupported) theory:

Basically the evidence for God is that people feel it to be true. You can talk logic to a believer until you are blue in the face and it doesn't matter where you direct your attack - historical evidence that refutes the Bible; the deep unfairness of favoring one religion over another; the utter implausibility of miracles; contradictions in the holy books; common threads in so many religions such as the god-hung-on-a-tree-resurrected; if God created the universe, than who made God; etc. etc. Someone who believes may go so far as to accept your logic but will still feel the personal connection, the love, the fear and the gratitude that they previously felt towards their personal concept of God.

A lot of true believers cannot shake their belief in God because he feels like he is there. They feel his presence, they have an echo of his voice in their memory, they have confidence: nothing really bad can happen to be because God is there, watching and will protect me. If something bad does inevitably finally happen it is easier for them to believe that the bad thing is not so bad and that God will still be there. Thus a confidence that God will not let them die turns into a confidence that God has created them to enjoy immortality. God would never abandon me. I am definitely going to die, therefore there will be not only a second life after this one, but it will be an even better one than this because I will be united with God even more strongly than I am now. I know God is going to improve things for me.

Of course a lot of this is simple social conditioning, like the way people take sides with the side they have been taught is best, where the Habs are better than the Leafs and nothing you can say and no number of lost games can convince them otherwise. Being partisan seems to be instinctual, but the team we pick is social conditioning.

If someone wiser than you who is normally trustworthy tells you that Jesus was sent to bring you eternal life it reinforces this feeling that so many people have and explains it for them. Now, people do have a strong capacity for unrealistic optimism and for self delusion but this belief in a personal God is extremely pervasive. Even when the trappings change so that we believe in repeat reincarnation based on how good we were, instead of eternal bliss in heaven with seven private virgins and/or a host of sexless angels, people tend to have some things very much in common across history and across different cultures.

I'm not very familiar with other religious traditions so my theorizing here is going to be necessarily very Christian-centric, but I'm guessing many of my points will apply to other religions than Christianity, however the next series of points are going to particularly apply to descriptions of a monotheistic God, or possibly Goddess. What I want to do next is to describe God.

(Quotes are generic stuff, of the kind said during the type of soothing Sunday sermon that most people fall asleep during, while nodding.)

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills wence cometh my help", "God's in his heaven..."

Feeling: God is UP there.

"Withour our aid he did us make." "Father and Creator.."

Feeling: God made me.

"I will never forsake thee" "An ever-present..." "God, who watcheth over us.." "God sees all"

Feeling: I might not be able to see him, but God is around here somewhere.

"I cry out to God most high.." "We can cry out to God in the day of our trouble and he will hear us."

Feeling: God will hear me and help me if I ask for help.

"No harm can come to me, for God watcheth over me." For God protected the people of Israel..."

Feeling: God is going to protect me.

"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?" "He will send manna..."

Feeling: God will provide food or whatever I need to survive

"God is all-forgiving" "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more."

Feeling: If I do something wrong God will be angry but if I am sorry he will forgive me."

My pet theory is that this set of feelings is instinctual. What does a baby need to do? He or she needs to lift up their eyes and cry for help and food. The baby who fails to do this is the baby who gets left in the crib (or down by the river where its primitive mother was foraging and forgot it.) When a baby feels hunger it screams, but as it gets to be a few months old and starts making some sense out of the world it needs more than just a reflex to yell when its hungry or in pain. The reflex to cry will only get it so far, but the instinct to seek "God" will get the kid started on a relationship with someone high up who disappears and reappears bringing food and protecting the kid. If a kid doesn't have these instincts it runs a strong risk of being neglected or abandoned. The feelings trigger behavior that is essential in a developing kid, such as looking for faces and making eye contact, smiling when it gets social stimulus, learning to stop shrieking when food is clearly just about to arrive, screaming for help when scared, clinging to a parent, cooperating with a parent, trusting a parent...

So my theory is that belief in God is a residual instinct from infancy. There's no evolutionary advantage to completely extincting this instinct as a person develops. It transfers well from one parent to another or to any secondary caretaker, and later from the parent to a bigger sense that there is a Father in Heaven who will protect my entire family. Pessimists are more realistic than optimists, but optimism also provides a person with better health and less anxiety. Belief in God similarly provides all kinds of benefits to the immune system, and to someone's mental health. A shared belief in God is like a shared optimism. It is likely to make a society more healthy and happy as a whole.

Disclaimer: I am not trying to use my theory to postulate the non-existance of God. I don't think explaining belief in God as an residual instinct from infancy in any way is an argument that this root cause for belief in God doesn't mean God exists. If you happen to believe in God, I assume you are comfortable with knowing and understanding that God chose to use many of the same systems to create you as He did everything else in the universe. You have a brain and you think with your brain and feel with your nervous system. If God wanted you to believe from your earliest days and to have the capacity to love him and learn about Him then how woud He create you? He's already using tissue and blood and bone, so why would He not also use tissue and neurochemicals to do it? It seems to me that any other system would be unecessarily cumbersome. Your relationship with God is already dependant on the way your material body works.

Secondary Disclaimer: I'm not trying to convince you that God exists either.

TL:dr: I theorize that the belief in God is based on feelings about Him being present, and that these feelings are infantile instincts that are there because they help an infant establish awareness of itss caretaker and later to develop social ties to its caretaker.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:51 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Morpheus: "Human beings feel pleasure when they are watched. I have recorded their smiles as I tell them who they are."

JC Denton: "Some people just don't understand the dangers of indiscriminate surveillance."

Morpheus: "The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms."

JC Denton: "Electronic surveillance hardly inspires reverence. Perhaps fear and obedience, but not reverence."

Morpheus: "God and the gods were apparitions of observation, judgment and punishment. Other sentiments towards them were secondary."

JC Denton: "No one will ever worship a software entity peering at them through a camera."

Morpheus: "The human organism always worships. First, it was the gods, then it was fame (the observation and judgment of others), next it will be self-aware systems you have built to realize truly omnipresent observation and judgment."

JC Denton: "You underestimate humankind's love of freedom."

Morpheus: "The individual desires judgment. Without that desire, the cohesion of groups is impossible, and so is civilization."

- Deus Ex
posted by Apocryphon at 9:24 AM on July 22, 2012


A lot of true believers cannot shake their belief in God because he feels like he is there.

A term that is often used to describe this feeling is immanence.
posted by zarq at 9:42 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


God himself, who we all know has been lurking for years, would decide that this was the moment to pony up the bucks and join.

Looks like he did, and then got his account disabled...


Not to split hairs but the name of that disabled account is "God's profile", not "God". Are you your profile? I know I'm not. It is but a pale reflection of me, and to some degree bullshit. Therefore God is real, Jesus is Lord. It stands to reason.
posted by philip-random at 10:04 AM on July 22, 2012


@twoleftfeet

you can prove nothing
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:12 AM on July 22, 2012


With Jpfed's example about electrons and protons, I don't think it helps me to attribute desires to them. I don't think I'd get hung up on it being technically incorrect, I think I just accept it as an expression, But in my head I understand it more like water flowing downhill than as a human desire.

I don't find people any easier to understand than inanimate things, so anthropomorphizing the latter to make them more comprehensible would be counterproductive. I'm also an atheist. This may be a coincidence.

I have subscribed to a similar theory. It's hardly a universal explanation for the entirety of religion, so it's important to not overstate the theory's explanatory power.

If this is the cause of religion, what object are humans mistaking for God? I'd expect a whole range of God-things. To my knowledge, they don't exist - God is usually supposed to be distinct from the universe, except in pantheism.

posted by AlsoMike


Well you mention pantheism, but just to declare it the exception. But weather, the sea, the sun, the moon, fire; pantheism works very well with this theory. But then some more abstract things, like life and death, justice, love, war, also get their own gods. And these abstract things are even harder to understand on their own terms, so the drive to find new ways to explain them will be stronger.

For example, is saying something like, "Here's ten commandments from God," kind of anthropomorphizing the more difficult abstract question of what is morally right?
posted by RobotHero at 10:14 AM on July 22, 2012


Apocryphon, you forgot the key line in that exchange:

Morpheus: "God was a dream of good government."
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:01 AM on July 22, 2012


Ivan: EP's organizing principle is that human cognition is a basket of cognitive tools and that each cognitive tool is an individual adaptation.

I'm scratching my head at this because isn't that just the Cognitive Psychology that Pinker so gleefully strawmanned?

Most adaptations such an the length of your middle finger and the thickness of your skin are multifactoral phenomena, in which, the environment is a critical and unavoidable part of the model. This isn't voodoo metaphysics, it's been the central part of evolutionary biology since the 1950s that makes quantitative models possible. Speculating on the evolutionary origins of those adaptations is pseudo-science unless you can demonstrate that you can quantify the genetic parts of the model, which we can't even do reliably for schizophrenia or g-factor.

Anyway, discussion of the origins of religion based on anthropomorphism of alien things fails to account for religions, where THAT WHICH IS (to borrow from a Hindu text via Aldus Huxley) isn't remotely anthropomorphic.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:04 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Theory of mind is what leads us to attribute agency and intentionality to inanimate objects. If this is the cause of religion, what object are humans mistaking for God? I'd expect a whole range of God-things. To my knowledge, they don't exist - God is usually supposed to be distinct from the universe, except in pantheism. Mostly it works in the opposite way. First you have religion, then you build crosses, statues, idols, etc. - physical objects that stand in for God. People don't worship objects believing they are gods, they worship objects believing that they are symbols of gods.

That is exactly the opposite of how religion developed everywhere. People always, always worshipped objects first. It took thousands of years for any culture to develop a philosophical basis for their religion, or anything close to monotheism. Monotheism pretty much everywhere it developed was a reaction to the discovery that the evolution of the universe was based on discoverable and predictable laws, not the whims of intelligent spirits that inhabit everything.
posted by empath at 11:13 AM on July 22, 2012


I had a really, really interesting conversation the other night, while driving through a pitch black Guatemalan road with a bunch of Californian pre med students in a shuttle bus. They were all the children of recent immigrants, four from central America, one from south America, two from the phillipines, one from India, one from Bali, one from china, and one from Vietnam. They were all Christian.

They started telling ghost stories, and supernatural experiences that they had. It was remarkable to me how similar they were, attributing malice and intention to cold breezes, knocks on the door, animal sightings, and so on. They had local variations, kids with dark hats and their skin turned inside out, succubi, floating heads of women and so on, but as far as what actually happened, as opposed to the supposed ghost behind it, it was all about attributing intelligence to random events, earthquakes, miscarriages and so on.

Not really sure what the point is here, just that the shape of superstitious belief seems to be fairly universal.
posted by empath at 11:23 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


That is exactly the opposite of how religion developed everywhere. People always, always worshipped objects first.

How do we know this? Even leaving aside the "everywhere", the fact is that the reason we tend to assume this is that the only evidence we have for the most ancient religious traditions is objects. Because they are physical survivals. Whatever philosophical/mental concepts underlay them, and perhaps vastly predated them, left no such evidences - by definition, they could not.

So it is indeed entirely possible that religion came first, and that material culture associated with it emerged later. Some people have mentioned a theory of mind in apes, and there's a certain amount of evidence that they can experience 'magical thinking.'

I just spent about fifteen minutes hunting for it without success, but there was an article dating back a couple years or so in which a group of female chimpanzees surrounded one of their fellows who was giving birth and all took up the same physical position that she was in. Given that chimpanzees have a range of other, better-known ways of demonstrating empathy and solidarity in moments like this, there was a question of what was going on here.

Researchers hypothesized that the chimpanzees were operating on the same sort of fuzzy logic that underlies prayer or ritually imitative actions - if we do this similar thing, it will help someone else in a similar situation. It's not hard to imagine our ancestors developing some more complex version of this long before they got to the point of creating material culture.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:30 AM on July 22, 2012


Monotheism pretty much everywhere it developed was a reaction to the discovery that the evolution of the universe was based on discoverable and predictable laws, not the whims of intelligent spirits that inhabit everything.

Not to pick on you, empath, but I'd be interested in evidence that the evolution of Judaism, or the more montheistic-tinged Hindu traditions, much less Islam and Christianity had anything to do with ideas like "the evolution of the universe" (as opposed to its creation?), "discoverable and predictable laws", and the absence of supernatural whim.

You also weirdly seem to have conflated religious philosophy and monotheism. The former vastly predates the latter. People were trying to work out coherent ideas of what divinity is/are well before anyone was thinking in terms of a single, exclusive divinity.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:33 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the distinction empath's trying to make is between the creation of a monotheistic god, which could easily be seen as ruled by discoverable and predictable laws, as opposed to a world where everything is inhabitated by spirit(s) that give them intention or consciousness which would make their actions self-determined rather than law abiding.
posted by PJLandis at 12:01 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


nixerman: The immediate reality is that most people believe what they believe because they were raised to believe it.... Religion is not some fundamental truth of the human condition, it is not some essential quirk of the human brain and it is not required by conscious, social beings. It is just another story, another game, another symbol acting on symbols, and it's a popular game precisely because it so vigorously denies that it is a game.

The second article provides an interesting counter to this assertion. From the beginning of the article:
Religion is a cross-cultural universal for more reasons than just the tendency to infer humanlike causation even in ambiguous circumstances. Religion serves powerful social needs, such as belonging to a group and obtaining the benefits of in-group altruism.
And the final paragraph ties it into Asperger's and other non-neurotypical individuals:
These ideas are consistent with a specific view of Asperger’s that is becoming increasingly popular: Individuals with Asperger’s can be characterized as having a different social/cognitive profile, but they aren’t automatically to be seen as having disability, impairment, or a psychiatric condition. An implication of this view is that neurotypical individuals who also have low socializing, less conformity, and a systemizing approach to information processing rather than a mentalizing approach would also be more likely to identify as agnostic or atheist compared with neurotypicals who are more social, more mentalizing, and more socially conforming.
Religion is more than something you grow up with, otherwise Christianity and other religions that heavily feature proselytizing would not be as big as they are. See a list of religious populations.

I was raised as a Protestant Christian, losing interest in my first year of college, then I made some friends who were devout Christians, so I started attending small study groups and Sunday worship. At first, I was excited about my "re-birth," and thought that Christ must be real if both Islam and Judaism recognized him as a real person. , and Islam even considered him a Messenger of God! So if the Bible was at all real, then Judaism and Islam were calling him a liar, as he proclaimed himself the Son of God and whatnot in the Bible. But the church I attended most frequently was lead by a pastor who was sure that the signs for the end times were all around us, and he always said "Don't believe what I'm saying, read it for yourself!"

So I read more, and in my 20s, found out that the Bible was cobbled together from writings made well after Jesus died, and there were a number of writings that were considered for inclusion but left out. And there's the content of the Bible itself, internal contradictions and passages that are overlooked in modern times as being archaic. So I lost the faith.

But along the way, I had some interesting conversations with fellow believers. One college friend came across his deceased Grandmother's Roman Catholic bible, and found extra books, and thought he should destroy it, to prevent others from being mislead. And more recently, my optometrist, upon learning that I was a new father, told me that he was a true believer in God after the birth of his daughter. He marveled at the creation of a new life, as if his daughter was miraculous, ignoring the billions of people alive right now, and the hundreds of billions who have lived before.

Religion provides some structure for an incomprehensible world (and universe) to make sense. And, as the second article points out, religion is more one person's belief in a god or gods, but fosters group cohesion and supports altruism.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:26 PM on July 22, 2012


"Religion is more than something you grow up with"

Although that is the biggest predictor of what religion you will have when you grow up.
posted by PJLandis at 12:52 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


filthy light thief: I find the second hypothesis deeply flawed in its data collection.
Colleagues and I reported preliminary evidence at the Cognitive Science Society this summer. We analyzed self-reports of religious beliefs that appeared in postings on the wrongplanet.net website, where many individuals self-identify as having Asperger’s syndrome.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:08 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Trying to Resist Temptation? Think about God: The new science of self-control shows that religious themes can bolster willpower
posted by homunculus at 8:05 PM on July 22, 2012


> Can someone tell me if this inane usage of "theory of mind" to mean some kind of instinctive impulse (and not, well, a
> theory of mind) is actually used anywhere by anybody? I've never heard it before.
> (koeselitz)

> it's very widely used in both psychology and philosophy, especially in connection with child development and autism.
> (Jonathan Livengood)


"Theory of mind" can mean two entirely different things.

1. A theory of mind (or anything) can be explicit and articulable, one that has been or could be expressed in words or other symbols. Only people can hold this kind of theory, because (barring the as-yet unencountered superintelligent space aliens) only people have the linguistic/symbolic skills required.

2. Or a "theory of mind" (scare quotes intended) can be can be implicit, inferred by an observer from behavior that apparently can't be explained except by assuming the behaving thing, whatever it is, has a grasp of the existence of other minds.

Errors of inference are common. Chimpanzee A over yonder is behaving toward chimpanzee B as if it sees chimpanzee B as another chimpanzee like itself, so maybe it does: possible, even likely. The great mountain sent the storm that destroyed the tribe because it knows our sins and hates us for them: not so likely.

Note where the implicit theory of mind is and who has it: the chimpanzee (we think) has an implicit theory of mind; and the mountain (we think) has an implicit theory of mind. Not us, the observers. We who are telling you about the chimp's awareness of other minds, and the mountain's awareness of other minds, we have explicit theories. If they weren't explicit theories, we couldn't tell you about them.


Note also that it's absolutely not necessary for us to be able to articulate any explicit theory of mind in order to do stuff that could cause a so-inclined observer to infer that we "have" a theory of mind (implicitly). Plenty of monkeys out there who would not be able to articulate any coherent theory of other minds but are nevertheless able to interact with other monkeys as other monkeys. Among people, plenty of naive realists out there who would not be able to articulate any coherent theory of other minds but are nevertheless able to interact with other people as other people.


Is there any overriding value in saying that the mere ability to interact with other individuals as individuals like ourselves is the same as "having" (in some sense) a "theory of minds" (in some sense)? Without hammering constantly on the distinctions (a) which kind of theory are we talking about, and (b) who or what is supposed to have it, this vocabulary lends itself to habits of thought that grow unintended, unjustified excess meanings like fungus. If there's no such overriding value, it strikes me as a fundamentally broken way of thinking about the subject. I do clearly see that those using the "theory of other minds" vocabulary here are trying to talk about something real, but it's a deeply garbled way of talking about it. (Not that that's anything new in either psych or philosophy.)
posted by jfuller at 1:50 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The idea that we sometimes mistakenly imagine minds and intentionality where they don't exist doesn't really help us decide whether any given attribution ("Does God exist?" "Do animals suffer in the same sense we do?" "Is there something moving behind that bush?" "Is my neighbor really a conscious being like me?") is valid or invalid.
posted by straight at 4:03 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The idea that we sometimes mistakenly imagine minds and intentionality where they don't exist doesn't really help us decide whether any given attribution ("Does God exist?" "Do animals suffer in the same sense we do?" "Is there something moving behind that bush?" "Is my neighbor really a conscious being like me?") is valid or invalid.

However, in the absence of other compelling evidence, since we know that we mistakenly assign intentionality and motive to randomness, then any given attribution should probably be assumed false. We find patterns where no patterns exist, and we find motive where no being exists to have a motive. That's why we need other evidence when we believe we see patterns or invisible beings that supposedly have motives.

In the case of animals suffering, we have pretty good evidence that at least mammals feel pain much as we do -- having watched my mother's dogs act miserable when they're hurting, I don't personally doubt this at all. But, going back to the evidence, we know that animals are real, we know they avoid things we find painful, and we know that mammals will react much like humans do when exposed to things that hurt us. Ergo, assuming that they feel pain is probably reasonable.

Those other examples are not connected to physical reality in any way, and lumping the concrete example of animal emotion in with them makes your argument seem like it has more weight than it actually does.
posted by Malor at 8:50 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's why we need other evidence when we believe we see patterns or invisible beings that supposedly have motives.

But if we find patterns where no patterns exist, how can we trust our treatment of evidence when we examine it?
posted by Miko at 7:09 AM on July 25, 2012


But if we find patterns where no patterns exist, how can we trust our treatment of evidence when we examine it?

How do we know that "no patterns exist" until we examine our evidence?

Scientific reasoning always starts in the "middle". You build a circuit, you put power through it, you check some voltage with a DMM. If your voltage reading corresponds to what you expect, that doesn't necessarily mean that you've proven that whats really happening is the exact physical circumstance that you set out to produce. What you've done is just compare the implicit assumptions of Box A with those Box B and check for mutual consistency. But if you do that enough times under enough varied circumstances and it all hangs together, then its pretty plausible that you've done what you set out to do. How you define "plausible" is another can of worms. Its the process that matters, not the exact result.

Its not strictly possible to make absolute claims, but that doesn't mean that we can make no claims whatsoever. You don't retreat from reality at the first sign of complication or subtlety.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:40 AM on July 25, 2012


But if we find patterns where no patterns exist, how can we trust our treatment of evidence when we examine it?

You don't, which is the point of significance tests in quantitative research, and triangulation and transparency in qualitative research. The Mythbusters episode on the Monty Hall problem is a nice little example of this principle at work. Both the empirical experiments and theoretical analysis of the problem demonstrate that our cognitive biases about probability result in the wrong answer.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:43 AM on July 25, 2012


Mythbusters did an episode on the MHP? And asavage is a fellow mefite — I feel spurned.

This is the weird downside of how the world is all on the web now — for like six or seven years my page was the most visible and linked-to site on the net for the MHP. But now there's like twenty much better ones and the Wikipedia page itself is more comprehensive than anyone could ask for. I've felt like I should have brought my site out of the mid-90s, where it still seems mired. But I'm a slacker. That's probably why asavage didn't contact me, come to think of it.

Anyway, I'm not exactly sure that the MHP is a good example of the point you're making. I mean, sure, it's a good example of how our intuitions and biases lead us astray and good quantitative analysis can show us that we've gone astray.

But the funny thing about the MHP is that the strongest false cognitive bias we have about probability — the gambler's fallacy — is not operative in people getting the incorrect answer and, perversely, it's very often the correct educated, trained contradictory to it that people wrongly apply that causes them to be confused and mistaken. That's an interesting irony.

The rest get the answer wrong just because they see two things which they can't differentiate and decide that makes each equally likely. But it's never those people who are difficult to convince they're wrong — it's the people who are absolutely certain that arguing that switching makes a difference is an example of the gambler's fallacy. They're so trained to recognize that fallacy, they see it when it's not there. Which I guess is, in a way, your point. As long as you're not differentiating where different untested biases originate.

But the deeper problem is that it's harder to do the quantitative analysis that you advocate than you make it sound like it is. I mean, I'm not going to disagree with you that it's all about doing that analysis. That's science, in one sense or another. But it's a mistake to think that there's some clear dividing line between analysis without bias and analysis with bias and that the line is found via some clear and obvious quantitative technique. The tools we use are like all our other tools — they increase power, or precision, but they don't necessarily increase accuracy. There's no way to prohibit the misuse of a powerful tool.

I used to regularly read Andrew Gelman's statistics blog, but I mostly stopped because a) much of it was too technical for me to follow; but, more relevantly, b) it was damn depressing. From reading him, I got the impression that the majority of scientists doing statistical analysis aren't as competent at statistics as they ought to be. That's an overstatement (and an example of confirmation bias), but even so.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:36 PM on July 25, 2012


I got the impression that the majority of scientists doing statistical analysis aren't as competent at statistics as they ought to be.

This is definitely true. You tend to learn it "on the street" as it were, you know because you're busy with other stuff. QM and SM does fire hose general probability mechanics into you at a basic level, but not real "statistics". Amusingly a friend of mine's UG dept didn't offer stat mech, so she said she might "take a statistics class" to indirectly learn a little about it...yeah statistical mechanics is only weakly related to statistics as taught in a statistics class. Sample sizes of 10^23 are slightly different than sample sizes of 23. Slightly...
posted by Chekhovian at 1:23 PM on July 25, 2012


... as they ought to be.

That potentially puts the bar very, very high, though, right? Does every research scientist need two PhDs (one in his or her field of research and one in statistics)? In a perfect(er) world, there would be a lot more people devoted exclusively to statistics who would be on-call to solve experimental design and analysis problems given to them by working scientists.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:06 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ivan: But the deeper problem is that it's harder to do the quantitative analysis that you advocate than you make it sound like it is.

I was not aware that I wrote anything about quantitative analysis being "easy." We shouldn't trust statistical analysis without transparency and peer review either. And to the extent that we do trust a statistical analysis, those claims are generally provisional, highly speculative, and limited. (Thus, my earlier criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology absent reliable psychometrics, and making general conclusions about atheism as a cognitive behavior from Web-site content analysis. Both make claims well beyond their ability to collect data in sport of those claims.)

But it's a mistake to think that there's some clear dividing line between analysis without bias and analysis with bias and that the line is found via some clear and obvious quantitative technique.

Certainly. Exactly who has made this mistake in this discussion, or are you talking more about a general principle?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:07 PM on July 25, 2012


I think that's definitely worthy of bearing in mind as a general principle.
posted by Miko at 2:16 PM on July 25, 2012


But if we find patterns where no patterns exist, how can we trust our treatment of evidence when we examine it?

I had a longer response written up, but realized that it can be tl;dr'ed down to just this: if a pattern lets you make accurate predictions about the behaviors of things, it's probably valid. The better its predictive power, the stronger its validity. That doesn't mean it's fully true, as 'true' and 'useful' are not the same things, but a really useful pattern will almost always have substantial truth behind it.
posted by Malor at 2:37 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We shouldn't trust statistical analysis without transparency and peer review either. And to the extent that we do trust a statistical analysis, those claims are generally provisional, highly speculative, and limited."

No, a very large portion of contemporary science is built around sophisticated statistical analysis and is not presented as "generally provisional, highly speculative, and limited". Transparency and peer review are often insufficient. Transparency is often insufficient because researchers often don't fully describe their statistical methods. Peer review is often insufficient because reviewers are often no more statistically competent than the researchers, and often less so.

"That potentially puts the bar very, very high, though, right? Does every research scientist need two PhDs (one in his or her field of research and one in statistics)? In a perfect(er) world, there would be a lot more people devoted exclusively to statistics who would be on-call to solve experimental design and analysis problems given to them by working scientists."

Honestly, my impression is that one of these two things is greatly needed; or, more reasonable, some combination of (lesser versions of) the two. A contemporary education in most sciences should include much, much more education specifically in statistics (both theory and application) and at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. But, also, statisticians should regularly be part of research groups and peer review.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:17 PM on July 25, 2012


Ivan: No, a very large portion of contemporary science is built around sophisticated statistical analysis and is not presented as "generally provisional, highly speculative, and limited".

Coming from biology, this doesn't make sense. Most studies focus on a single species, many on a single molecule. Systematic studies across taxonomic classifications are often less reliable the broader your taxonomic group. Ecological studies tend to be focused on a limited number of phenomena in a single study area.

So of course, those studies are provisional, speculative, and limited. Microbiology is faced with the problem that we've only cultured the tip of the iceberg in microbial diversity, and the behavior of cultured strains may or may not be predictive of ecological relationships outside of the lab. Paleobiology openly admits that it's limited by availability of fossils and the manpower to study those fossils. Any "common ancestor" claim can be falsified tomorrow.

Transparency and peer review are often insufficient.

Agreed. Beyond that, you're lecturing to the choir, and perhaps a we could work with a little mutual faith that we both understand that methodological rigor is hard work. Been there, done that.

The fact that it's deeply difficult work, the results of which might fall to future analysis, is one of the reasons why I don't find the Catholic philosophical argument that humans have an ability to identify Truth (therefore God) to be terribly persuasive. Truth strikes me as a substantially more difficult job than figuring out how to put an object in orbit. And perhaps the best we can do is a more limited pragmatic truth.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:23 PM on July 25, 2012


if a pattern lets you make accurate predictions about the behaviors of things, it's probably valid. The better its predictive power, the stronger its validity. That doesn't mean it's fully true, as 'true' and 'useful' are not the same things, but a really useful pattern will almost always have substantial truth behind it.

Seems a little radical, since many religious structures have made and can make "accurate predictions about the behavior of things." So under this approach they would have to be considered valid, even if not "true" for some definitions of truth.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on July 25, 2012


Well, you can be right with a pattern, even if you're wrong about why it works. But I'm not aware that religion has any consistent predictive power in any area but human psychology, and even there, it's not very good.

If you predict enough things, some of them will be right through random chance -- that's why I added the phrase about increasing accuracy typically indicating increasing validity. With the sheer number of things predicted by religion that haven't happened, the remaining things that have don't strike me as terribly valid.

Further, the specificity of the prediction also increases its validity.... "DOOM!" is meaningless, but "A comet will hit the Earth on or about November 18, 2012, wiping out all higher forms of life on Earth" is testable, concrete, and easily falsifiable. If we're still here on November 19, then the prediction was wrong. If there was a comet and it barely missed us, then that prediction was quite good, and we got lucky -- if there was no comet at all, then the person who made the prediction got things mostly or completely wrong.

That thing about falsifiability is important, too... for a prediction to be very useful, you have to be able to know both if it DID and DIDN'T come true. If there's no way to know if it didn't happen, then it was probably meaningless to begin with.
posted by Malor at 11:02 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not aware that religion has any consistent predictive power in any area but human psychology,

The first astronomy was religious in nature, and still works entirely well for planting your garden. To name just one of myriad examples. People have been noticing and predicting patterns for milennia, and only for the last few hundred years have they had anything like modern science to structure that examination - and yet they've learned a great deal, enough to survive, procure food, build, found universities, and produce generation after generation of human being.

Well, you can be right with a pattern, even if you're wrong about why it works.

Quite true! For so many values of human activity, the outcomes are enough.
posted by Miko at 7:20 AM on July 26, 2012


Quite true! For so many values of human activity, the outcomes are enough.

Sure, if you're happy with medieval technological and social levels.

Noticing a pattern is good, but we'd notice the same patterns with or without religion. And there are a lot of anti-patterns in religion that are exceedingly destructive. And the especially nasty problem of religion mostly not being falsifiable means that some really poisonous, terrible ideas stick around forever, like the hatred of women.

If religion had its way, Miko, you would be expected to be barefoot and pregnant. You probably wouldn't be allowed to read, and even if you'd been clever enough to figure it out, you wouldn't likely be allowed to speak with men about anything serious.

I would submit that from the religionist's viewpoint, this is their happy place, one of the values of human activity for which the outcome was enough.
posted by Malor at 8:17 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Love this topic, reminds me of Origin of Consciousness, a fantastic-though-crazy book length theory on the same idea.

You might find this interesting: Living With Voices - A new way to deal with disturbing voices offers hope for those with other forms of psychosis
posted by homunculus at 4:44 PM on July 26, 2012


koeselitz: The whole point of the story of Christ is...

... a matter for schismatic debate going back approximately 2000 years.
posted by lodurr at 7:15 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sure, if you're happy with medieval technological and social levels.

Mmm, yes and no. I mean, for so many of our activities, particularly those outside the medical realm, we don't really require the

If religion had its way, Miko, you would be expected to be barefoot and pregnant.

Oh, come on, now. I thought you knew a little bit better than making blanket generalizations about "religion" having "its" way. Evolution kind of wants it that way too, you know.

Listen, I'm not anti-science or anti-learning, but I have to point out that it's facile and false to say that no human knowledge systems before post-Enlightenment science were capable of identifying patterns and predicting phenomena. To assert that is purely ignorant, and I'm sure you must know that.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


it's facile and false to say that no human knowledge systems before post-Enlightenment science were capable of identifying patterns and predicting phenomena

They just did a shit job of it, and yielded plenty of false positives for all sorts of nowadays quite reasonable things.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:59 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mmm. Species survived.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on July 30, 2012


With infant mortality rates that seem insane today, with more diseases, and at a standard of living that now appears third-world in even the "civilized" world.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:44 PM on July 30, 2012


Mmm. Species survived

Yes, everyone knows those Easter islanders were NOTORIOUS atheists! All those giant heads were just busts of Karl Marx and Charels Darwin. And the Aztecs just loathed any belief in the supernatural. Thats why their civilizations perished. I'm just stating well known facts here. It's obvious to anyone that all humans everywhere would have died out if they didn't worship some sort of deities. And clearly the kind of deity doesn't matter at all. Just that you have some minimal quantum of religiousness. That's the key element in determining whether your species survives. Again, just the facts the obvious to anyone. Cleirly obvious.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:54 PM on July 30, 2012


With infant mortality rates that seem insane today, with more diseases, and at a standard of living that now appears third-world in even the "civilized" world.

Can we blame a lack of science for this? Nope. This is a matter of political will. We have abundant resources to conquer all of these problems, and sufficient knowledge to do so, which I agree is absolutely great. But we still cannot conquer it. This is why knowledge alone - no matter how exact - does not provide the solutions we need to live. The flabby, imprecise stuff of human hearts and minds governs access to the best kinds of practices that are shown by their outcomes to make life in this world better. Unfortunately. Science is one of the systems that can identify and produce positive outcomes - but, to our great frustration, it is not the tool which can implement them.

Chekhovian, you are making no sense. I'm not arguing that having a deity means a given civilization will never perish. I'm just pointing out that despite our apparently benighted condition for milennia, the human species survived. I don't place any really great odds on our supposedly enlightened civilizations, frankly, because we seem to be able to wipe out entire populations with regularity regardless of our advanced knowledge. Sorry, Afghan civilians! Sorry, Syrians, Haitians, Chinese. Sorry, poor people around the world.
posted by Miko at 7:57 AM on July 31, 2012


I don't place any really great odds on our supposedly enlightened civilizations, frankly, because we seem to be able to wipe out entire populations with regularity regardless of our advanced knowledge. Sorry, Afghan civilians! Sorry, Syrians, Haitians, Chinese. Sorry, poor people around the world.

If your argument against modern civilization is genocide, I know some ancient history professors who would like to have words with you and whoever signed off on your graduating.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:00 AM on July 31, 2012


I am not arguing against civilization at all. I'm just pointing out that if the mark of a "successful" civilization is not eliminating any populations ever, including our own through our own poor decision-making, we have never had and still don't have a successful civilization and I'm not sure we ever will, continuing on present trajectories.

I know some ancient history professors who would like to have words with you and whoever signed off on your graduating.

I'm sure they have better things to do; there are no problems with my credentials.
posted by Miko at 8:18 AM on July 31, 2012


our apparently benighted condition...

So you're putting religion in the smallpox/cholera/tuberculosis category? Great to hear! Glad you've come around!
posted by Chekhovian at 8:41 AM on July 31, 2012


So you're putting religion in the smallpox/cholera/tuberculosis category?

No, what would cause you to think that? Do you not understand the word "apparently," or did you simply misread my tone?

Besides which, smallpox, cholera, and tuberculosis are real things operating in a human context which had obvious impact. So was religion. So I suppose they do belong in the same category.

It is worth noting that modern science, in fact, did not produce the first smallpox vaccines or variolation approaches; folk medicine did. So it is an excellent example of what I am arguing here.
posted by Miko at 9:13 AM on July 31, 2012


It might either be helpful or just piss you guys off to let you know that I find your argument very annoying. You both seem to have axes you're grinding while both also being essentially correct. Without the axe-grinding, the points being made by both of you are pretty pedestrian.

Although, honestly, Miko, somehow you've morphed from a good-natured voice of reason to a slightly pissy antagonistic voice of condescension. You don't want to become me, do you?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:35 AM on July 31, 2012


To be sure, Chekhovian's in the same mode in this argument, too. Really, I'm embarrassed that I ever get like this. I highly respect all those engaged in this argument, and it's disconcerting because there's some weird defensiveness on both sides driving it — I'm pretty sure that neither side is making the extreme argument that the other is fearing and/or strawmanning.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:48 AM on July 31, 2012


"It is worth noting that modern science, in fact, did not produce the first smallpox vaccines or variolation approaches"

The smallpox vaccine as we know it, from cowpox, most definitely came to us through more or less scientific means.

And perhaps folk medicine did bring us good medicine, but it had no way of telling the difference between harmful and helpful "folk medicine" much less any method for understanding why or how any type of treatment worked.
posted by PJLandis at 10:45 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Although, honestly, Miko, somehow you've morphed from a good-natured voice of reason to a slightly pissy antagonistic voice of condescension.

Oh dear, there I go disappointing people again.

it had no way of telling the difference between harmful and helpful "folk medicine"

Of course it did; that's naive.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on July 31, 2012


What I mean by "that's naive" is that indeed, folk/traditional medicine was refined over milennia and did, in fact, offer means of telling whether something was more effective than no treatment or not, or more effective than another treatment or not - evidentiary outcomes. Even the WHO recognizes the utility of traditional medicines in certain contexts while also trying to identify critical points at which to apply approaches from institutionalized medicine.

The differences a modern scientific approach provides are those of efficiency: standardization, systematizaton, controlling for biases and other factors to some extent, and sheer speed. I can agree with you that traditional medicine often produces less effective treatments than modern Western medicine does, but not that all human attempts to experiment with treatements, apply them, and observe results were always failures until the last 300 years. Because that's not accurate, and that's not what the history of the human search for physical knowledge reveals. It is fair to recognize that even the scientific method is not an objective reality but a human construction, and has its own set of implementation requirements and inherent biases and flaws, and that it, in fact, builds upon and grows out of a human context of gradual growth of skill of ways to posit treatments, experiment, detect outcomes and technologies for doing so. That said, there are a lot of treatments worth questioning, like chemotherapy. I hope to hell we aren't doing that any more in a hundred years, because it will look like bloodletting before too long.
posted by Miko at 11:53 AM on July 31, 2012


"That said, there are a lot of treatments worth questioning, like chemotherapy. I hope to hell we aren't doing that any more in a hundred years, because it will look like bloodletting before too long."

No, it will never look like bloodletting because it's nothing like bloodletting.

The theory behind bloodletting was nonsense and the actual efficacy of it as a treatment is nonexistent. Chemotherapy is very much comparable to amputation of a limb too damaged to save and where a failure to do so will likely result in spreading infection and death. It's ugly, it has a large cost, it doesn't necessarily prevent what it's intended to prevent, but it's the least worst option or the only available option and it very definitely does save lives. It will be considered barbaric someday when better treatments are available. Not because, as in the case of bloodletting, it was the arbitrary application of an entirely fanciful and mistaken theory that was never a beneficial therapy.

If you actually work through the history of natural philosophy and science — and I don't mean in some history text or via some survey course, but actually read and work through the actual materials, in context, over years of coursework — then you come to understand that the common contemporary view of scientific progress is naive and hubristic, one which underestimates the reasonableness of past generations' comprehension of the natural world in context and overestimates the correctness of that of contemporary science. But you also see quite clearly how differently science is as a way of understanding the natural world, and how uniquely powerful and successful.

And, in fact, very much relevant to the original theme of this thread, one of the key parts of why science has been so successful is because it began to eschew looking for ultimate causes. Most prior natural philosophies, including traditional folklore and everything else, organize their comprehension around a presupposed metaphysical structure which acts as the first principles from which all observations are explained. That's not to say that theories and models aren't modified via trial-and-error and subsequent observation — Ptolemaic astronomy has its origins in a combination of practical observations and metaphysical assumptions, but was refined by many centuries of constant observation to the point at which it was, until Galileo's telescope, empirically indistinguishable from Copernican heliocentricism and was as reliable and complete a predictive model as you could ask for.

However, both the move toward heliocentricism and most especially and particularly Galileo and Newton on gravity and Newton on classical mechanics in general, are qualitatively different in that they represented a transition to simply describing observation and using quantitative analysis to construct abstracted symbolic models which are predictively reliable — and not by concerning themselves with why, with what the purpose is, what the ultimate purpose is, what the prime mover is, what it means, none of that. Gravity is especially striking because Newton makes no attempt to explain why gravity works the way it does, he proposes no mechanism for it, he just tells us that this is what happens in the natural world. And it's not because he eschewed religion or teleology in general — in fact, he was famously a mystic of sorts.

Science is not merely some moderate difference in degree from other natural philosophies, it is qualitatively distinct; and it most especially is qualitatively distinct with regard to its emphasis on empiricism rather than teleology and its use of rigorous and highly advanced quantitative tools. That doesn't mean that science is always right and other natural philosophies are always wrong. That's absurd. That's a caricature. In context, ironically, Aristotle was much more an empiricist than his contemporaries, though by our standards an often spectacularly poor empiricist.

And science as it is actually practiced, or could or should be practiced, is not that much like the Scientific Method that we were all taught in grade school. It is an institution, with all that implies, for good and ill.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:51 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you actually work through the history of natural philosophy and science — and I don't mean in some history text or via some survey course, but actually read and work through the actual materials, in context, over years of coursework — then you come to understand that the common contemporary view of scientific progress is naive and hubristic, one which underestimates the reasonableness of past generations' comprehension of the natural world in context and overestimates the correctness of that of contemporary science. But you also see quite clearly how differently science is as a way of understanding the natural world, and how uniquely powerful and successful.

I'm not sure what you think people do in a cultural heritage master's program, but I agree with you. Mostly. I don't agree that contemporary science is truly qualitatively different from other knowledge-seeking processes in human history.

And science as it is actually practiced, or could or should be practiced, is not that much like the Scientific Method that we were all taught in grade school. It is an institution, with all that implies, for good and ill.

This is exactly what I'm here to say.
posted by Miko at 1:43 PM on July 31, 2012


Naive? How long did bloodletting go on for?
posted by PJLandis at 1:47 PM on July 31, 2012


Also, bloodletting wasn't so without a theoretical basis or evidence of efficacy as you assert, since what it did in some cases was to slow the processes of growth of infectious agents, and I maintain it's a decent enough analogy. For those cultures that adopted the humoral theory, you can't really say that their approach didn't represent a system of "simply describing observation and using quantitative analysis to construct abstracted symbolic models which are predictively reliable" -- the model made was not perfectly reliable and was eventually replaced, but in fact that system did rely on physical observations made during the treatment of sick people and by using dissection and autopsy. The distinctions aren't tantamount to a worldview shift in how evidence is gathered and interpreted; they're down to refinements in the systematization of observation and recording of data and isolation of factors.
posted by Miko at 1:52 PM on July 31, 2012


When exactly is the humoral model reliable?
posted by PJLandis at 1:54 PM on July 31, 2012


I don't imagine that people in the past were somehow deficient in their ability to understand the world, and perhaps I overestimate the power of the scientific methods, but I firmly agree with Ivan that the science, and it's emphasis on empiricism and quantitative methods, is "uniquely powerful and successful." It's more than just a refinement. Not that these ideas or methods were unknown, but their elevation and recognition have made all the difference.

Plus I think you're confused about chemotherapy if your comparing it to bloodletting. Chemo, despite it's side effects, has proven benefits. People are alive due to chemotherapy who would not otherwise be so.
posted by PJLandis at 2:09 PM on July 31, 2012


Humorists did not see disease as demon possession, they saw it as physical in cause. Early physicians (Hippocrates, Galen) used the humoral model to create what are among the first diagnostic characterizations for diseases we still suffer from, such as pneumonia. He did this based on his observation of humoral characteristics, such as the production of phlegm, sweat, vomit, or bile. They noted seasonal cycles in disease transmission and noted that people pass some diseases on to one another in communities, creating usable models for disease prevention and patient isolation and general public health policies.

They were using empirical systems and those systems had results; not results as good as those we have now come to expect, but not results as terrible as just making shit up, either.

These thought systems don't come out of a different and utterly separate strain of human knowledge production than ours; they're direct antecedents of contemporary evidence-based systems.
posted by Miko at 2:10 PM on July 31, 2012


People are alive due to chemotherapy who would not otherwise be so.

And they often live just another couple of years before succumbing again and enduring more miserable treatment. I don't argue that it "saves lives," but I might argue that it's a freaking blunt instrument that I'm hopeful will appear extraordinarily unenlightened in future.

I firmly agree with Ivan that the science, and it's emphasis on empiricism and quantitative methods, is "uniquely powerful and successful."

I'd just modify that to say contemporary approaches to science - which include greater emphasis on control of experimentation and more quantitative. more longitudinal methods - are far more powerful and successful than those of the past, and we have every hope that future approaches to science will be far more powerful and successful than ours. I can't agree that "the science" is "uniquely" powerful or in some way a separate form of inquiry than the science practiced in the human past.
posted by Miko at 2:13 PM on July 31, 2012


Does the idea of Humors add anything to those observations?
It sounds about as good as demons, just name your demons properly and note the time of their attacks along with what fluid they conjure. I guess it's not a separate form of inquiry but it is an objective improvement over previous methods.

"extraordinarily unenlightened in future."
So, just letting people die would be more enlightened? Dying of cancer is rarely any better than the side-effects of chemotherapy, and it's often prescribed simply to alleviate suffering that comes along with advanced cancer even when it has minimal survival benefit.
posted by PJLandis at 2:20 PM on July 31, 2012


Back to chemo, I just think it's unfair to compare it to bloodletting. There are measurable benefits, however crude it may be in practice.
posted by PJLandis at 2:21 PM on July 31, 2012


I'm not sure what you think people do in a cultural heritage master's program...

Is this a way of implying that you read the original material and often do the laboratory work of a large portion of the most important scientific work? Because a cultural heritage master's program is obviously far more broad than just history of science. It is not the equivalent to history of science or philosophy of science. Or science.

"They were using empirical systems and those systems had results; not results as good as those we have now come to expect, but not results as terrible as just making shit up, either."

Some of us are well aware of the the humoral model. And yours is a vast overstatement. Galen is infamously an example of a failure of empiricism; his anatomy was terrible and it's not that hard to do anatomy. Indeed, I would think that someone with your background would be less likely to err in the way that you've erred because you'd be aware of the larger Greek cultural context of the humoral model and know that it most certainly did not arise from whole cloth out of observation and a construction of a model to fit those observations. There's a larger context of philosophy and religion in which those observations were made and integrated.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:24 PM on July 31, 2012


Does the idea of Humors add anything to those observations?

I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to get at by asking these questions. Of course the science of Humors isn't something that adds (much) to our current understandings of medical science (though its focus on holistic patient treatment is very contemporary). My point in bringing it up was not that it's perfect science by today's standards, but that it was not idiotic, ignorant, or wrong by the standards of its day and the state of human knowledge at the time.

just name your demons properly and note the time of their attacks along with what fluid they conjure

Not sure how that's really different than today's science, either, then; our demons are "depression," "congestive heart failure," etc. Empiricism is empiricism. But humoral science really didn't look to the supernatural as a disease cause. it didn't search for a "why," just a "how" or "what's wrong."

a cultural heritage master's program is obviously far more broad than just history of science. It is not the equivalent to history of science or philosophy of science. Or science.

Is that what your degree is in? Should the rest of us just shut up, then? The history of museums is inextricably linked to the history of science - they were, in fact, basically the same pursuit until after the Englightenment. I haven't been in a lab since college, but I know enough about the development of human inquiry to know I'm not on mushy ground here.

There are measurable benefits, however crude it may be in practice.

Which was also true of bloodletting, to a much lesser degree. Look, I'm not saying "throw chemo out," I'm saying it is obviously a miserable, blunt form of treatment that is not universally successful, and I'm not sure how it's pro-science to deny it. Obviously the goal of medical science should be to end the need for chemotherapy by developing superior and more efficacious treatments, not be content to celebrate the awesomeness of chemotherapy and leave it at that. To do so is fundamentally anti-scientific.

There's a larger context of philosophy and religion in which those observations were made and integrated.

Indeed, not completely unlike the larger context of philosophy which informs our science. But if context was so critical, why was this set of theories so cross-cultural? This approach thrived in many contexts under many different religious and philosophical models, always insisting on its empirical basis.
posted by Miko at 2:33 PM on July 31, 2012


If bloodletting had any positive effects, it looks as if they were completely incidental. Complain about chemo all you want, but bloodletting isn't a reasonable comparison.
posted by PJLandis at 2:47 PM on July 31, 2012


If bloodletting had any positive effects, it looks as if they were completely incidental.

Does this matter if the outcomes are desired? For instance, there's a common anti-depressant MAOI inhibitor that, it turns out, really helps people quit smoking. It wasn't developed with that intent, but people who use it to help quit smoking have better outcomes than those who don't. This off-label use was accidentally discovered and it's now prescribed for that use. Should we stop using it because its positive outcomes for patients are "completely incidental?

In fact, from what I've read about drug research, this kind of thing is not at all uncommon.
posted by Miko at 2:53 PM on July 31, 2012


The "wah, wah, wah, there's never been any progress" perspective never fails to amuse me, given we're having this argument while thousands of miles apart from each other, using devices whose functioning depends on the precise positions of small numbers of atoms (I'm thinking the insulatring layer in a FET here) etc etc. She will probably respond by saying that "no no, cavemen used flaked obsidian arrow heads, which can have single atom edges, so see, no progress!".
posted by Chekhovian at 2:56 PM on July 31, 2012


The discovery was incidental, but we aren't feeding MAOI inhibitors to people that they harm and hoping that it does something good which we don't know about.
posted by PJLandis at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2012


"I can't agree that 'the science' is 'uniquely' powerful or in some way a separate form of inquiry than the science practiced in the human past."

Some things under the Sun are new. That's not to say that you can't find, for example, empiricism outside of modern science. But science isn't just empiricism, it's an accumulated body of knowledge, an accumulated body of continuously refined analytical techniques which are unique in their comprehensive quantitative rigor, and it's a pervasive, globally widespread, cultural institution that has survived for many hundreds of years while nations rose and fell. In its cultural import it is only comparable to a great religion — but it is very different from religion in that it is primarily natural philosophy and as such it is the largest sustained project of natural philosophy in human history. In any one of its components it is not unique, but in the sum of its parts it is utterly unique and fantastically successful.

I feel like to some degree parts of this thread are examples of Snow's Two Cultures. I am deeply frustrated by this divide and how it causes people to become partisan and take intellectually untenable extreme positions. I could just as easily be arguing against the science folk and their defenders who have a naive view of science and find Kuhn threatening. Indeed, I more often on MeFi write comments defending pre-modern natural philosophy from people who tend to think that everyone who lived before they were born were ignorant hillbillies who believed stupid things for stupid reasons. But your arguments move beyond a criticism of such ill-informed prejudices into a more purely cultural relativism terrain, repeatedly arguing for equivalency rather than comparability.

Which is frustrating because people who are interested in science qua science, which should include scientists and their cultural promoters, have a lot to learn from those who bring to bear on the topic the tools and perspectives of historians and cultural anthropologists and philosophers. But, for example, your arguments that the difference between Galen and contemporary medicine is only quantitative and not qualitative entirely discredits everything else you have to say.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2012


The similarities are wholly superficial.
posted by PJLandis at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2012


"everyone who lived before they were born were ignorant hillbillies who believed stupid things for stupid reasons."

Not everyone. But people believe enough stupid things, for stupid reason today that I don't think I'm reaching when I assume they did so in the past as well.
posted by PJLandis at 3:01 PM on July 31, 2012


The "wah, wah, wah, there's never been any progress" perspective never fails to amuse me

Well, good thing nobody here has taken that perspective.

The discovery was incidental, but we aren't feeding MAOI inhibitors to people that they harm and hoping that it does something good which we don't know about.

Heh - are you so sure? Psychiatric drugs have a bumpy record. Kidding aside, though, my point is that though no one understood exactly why this improved matters at the outside, the patient is left better off, and so the treatment continues.

I could just as easily be arguing against the science folk and their defenders who have a naive view of science and find Kuhn threatening.

Well, exactly. Or I could just as easily be arguing your angle. I don't really disagree with you, I disagree with people who have an overly simple faith in what they understand science to be, and an underdeveloped fund of information about the history of knowledge.

your arguments move beyond a criticism of such ill-informed prejudices into a more purely cultural relativism terrain, repeatedly arguing for equivalency rather than comparability.

Yeah, I really don't see where. I think you're imagining this. I'm not sure how many different ways I can say that I ulimately agree with you while you still insist I'm disagreeing with you. I'm not arguing for equivalency; I'm arguing for viewing previous conceptions of the physical universe in their own context. It's all too easy for people to laugh at the thought systems of the past that were partly religious in nature; I think it leaves us poorer, though, to not recognize the aspects of those systems that worked, and in fact the aspects of those systems that continue to work for a lot of varieties of human experience. It's heresy to suggest that the 'good enough' model of the universe works for most people, but in practice, it does, as we live and die by it, for various reasons.

your arguments that the difference between Galen and contemporary medicine is only quantitative and not qualitative entirely discredits everything else you have to say.

You keep saying this but I don't think you've proved the point. I am not sure at what point you can assert that the paradigm shifted, night became day, and we were in a qualitatively different world. What day did that happen again?
posted by Miko at 3:05 PM on July 31, 2012


everyone who lived before they were born were ignorant hillbillies who believed stupid things for stupid reasons

You know what James Watt thought his greatest accomplishment was? Hint, it wasn't the steam engine, but rather his parallel motion linkage that allowed the steam engine work. Engines aren't built that way anymore, in fact, weren't built that way much longer after watt built his. But he had to do it, because alloys and precision machining technology needed to build it the "proper" way simply didn't exist. So he had to bootstrap.

There were some smart people back then, but a lot of their energies had to go to solving what we would consider side issues these days. Looking back on the past you have to always remember what they could do with what they had then, not how we would do it now.

But that's no excuse for reactionary relativist equivalency bullshit.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:07 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"my point is that though no one understood exactly why this improved matters at the outside, the patient is left better off, and so the treatment continues"

Yes. compare that to treating a patient, causing him to get worse for the most part, but causing an incidental benefit that you never identify or even recognize. MAOI inhibitors and bloodletting is miles apart!
posted by PJLandis at 3:08 PM on July 31, 2012


With a modicum of money and resources I could perform a study myself on bloodletting and give you an idea of how helpful it is for some common disease, along with the side-effects. I don't even need to know how it works, although that is mightily helpful, but I can discern with some degree of accuracy whether it helps or harms people.

People in the past were not incapable of make such a determination, but they didn't do so with any regularity or consistency because they failed to harness and fully recognize the power of the collective ideas we now call science.
posted by PJLandis at 3:13 PM on July 31, 2012


"The 'wah, wah, wah, there's never been any progress' perspective never fails to amuse me, given we're having this argument while thousands of miles apart from each other, using devices whose functioning depends on the precise positions of small numbers of atoms..."

You're misrepresenting her. She's not claiming there's no progress.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:14 PM on July 31, 2012


There were some smart people back then

You think?

Yes. compare that to treating a patient, causing him to get worse for the most part, but causing an incidental benefit that you never identify or even recognize.

They did identify a benefit - the patient continuing to live, and often recovering, which happened enough of the time to treated people that it reinforced the treatment, and many people had the treatment many times in their lives.

Where I do agree it fell down was that controlled study and isolation of factors had not yet been developed as an approach, so it was indeed difficult to tell whether the treatment or other factors were responsible for the patient outcome. It seems that at least some of the time, the treatment in fact helped prevent infection, which is incidentally responsible for the survival of an individual in a time before antibiotics had been imagined (though they were used to retard bacterial growth in forms such as sage added to food, though not with an understanding of microbial action).

When I took that drug, I had some side effects that caused me to get worse in a lot of ways, but I did quit smoking. It wasn't only the drug that was responsible, though. There were other factors.
posted by Miko at 3:16 PM on July 31, 2012


People in the past were not incapable of make such a determination, but they didn't do so with any regularity or consistency because they failed to harness and fully recognize the power of the collective ideas we now call science.

That's because they were in the middle of developing the collective ideas we now call science. If they failed, then we've failed. As Ivan F says, this is a cumulative, collective enterprise and it's built on a history - a history which contains much in the way of trial and error as well as much in the way of rigorous and systemic thought.
posted by Miko at 3:21 PM on July 31, 2012


I'm interested to hear where bloodletting helped anyone. Your assuming it did, as if it they couldn't have kept doing this thing that had no benefit but that did and does still happen. It definitely did not help the majority of patients, and it never accomplished what they intended it to do.

http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/essays/fair_tests/why-fair-tests-are-needed.html
posted by PJLandis at 3:22 PM on July 31, 2012


With a modicum of money and resources I could perform a study myself on bloodletting and give you an idea of how helpful it is for some common disease, along with the side-effects. I don't even need to know how it works, although that is mightily helpful, but I can discern with some degree of accuracy whether it helps or harms people.

That sounds like an example of a pretty terrible experimental design that, right out of the gate, would fail to prove anything and be completely anecdotal.

I'm interested to hear where bloodletting helped anyone.

Haven't you already Googled something like "benefits of bloodletting?"
posted by Miko at 3:24 PM on July 31, 2012


I just described a basic clinical trial, I didn't mean an experiment on myself.
posted by PJLandis at 3:26 PM on July 31, 2012


I did Google it, the only people who seem to think it had great benefit are Oprah and an ezine article.

Here's a Duke post..."Unfortunately, you can also say this about bloodletting: It was at best a useless practice and at worse a dangerous one, causing more deaths than it could ever claim to save"
posted by PJLandis at 3:28 PM on July 31, 2012


I don't really think you'd be the person to do it. And again, I'm not saying it's a treatment we'd want to use now. I'm saying it's a treatment that may have survived because outcomes indicated it was positive, until thought systems arose which could produce evidence that it wasn't as efficacious as other treatments, or could show that harm it may have caused outweighed benefit it may have caused.
posted by Miko at 3:29 PM on July 31, 2012


So, you're saying they needed the scientific method?
posted by PJLandis at 3:33 PM on July 31, 2012


"It's heresy to suggest that the 'good enough' model of the universe works for most people, but in practice, it does, as we live and die by it, for various reasons."

I agree with you about this. I had the same sort of response earlier in the thread when someone said something about naive notions of physics. Which struck me as both narrow-minded and hubristic because our naive understanding of physics is the model that evolution has built into us at a deep level — it's not Newtonian physics and not even remotely Einsteinian physics, but it's the physics of the environment in which we evolved (that is, on land, in an atmosphere, at 1g) and it's amazingly, beautifully accurate in that context. Most people don't really need to know even on an intellectual level a physics that is descriptive beyond this context and they certainly could not be functional in this environment if they had to "know" a better physics in the same sense that they intuitively know the naive physics they know. We can't even fully calculate a three-body (or more) interaction in the gravity of Newtonian physics, much less Einsteinian.

The idea that the naive physics we come by intuitively is "wrong" is an example of not understanding that there is no universal, comprehensive description of everything, there is only an appropriate level of description of something for a given purpose.

I won't defend a full philosophical relativism, but I completely agree that many people are weirdly authoritarian and evangelistic about promulgating a very narrow and cartoonish scientific worldview.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:33 PM on July 31, 2012


the only people who seem to think it had great benefit are Oprah and an ezine article.

Oh, so you skipped the WebMB. Mayo Clinic, and MSNBC pieces?

Again, I'm not going to bat for this as a system with contemporary values. I'm just saying that this was, to all appearances, a good idea at the time and one that was supported as standard medical practice. We've had similar "good ideas," even in this century, which ended up being not solidly evidence-based or weren't worth their detriments. One day, chemotherapy, though evidence-based for some (decidedly not all) desired outcomes, will be considered not valuable enough to be worth its detriments.
posted by Miko at 3:39 PM on July 31, 2012


Funnily enough, there is an actual illness that can be moderated by blood letting. There's this genetic condition where some people accumulate too much iron in their livers, which ultimately results in a painful death. If you donate blood, iron in the blood is lost, and iron is given up by the liver to replace it.

So periodic donations keep them alive. The bad part is that you have go into the hospital and have a giant needle stuck in your liver to check the iron content. Ouch. A buddy of mine was working on a SQUID sensor to remotely survey the iron content at one point.

So, see the ancient people's were right. Bloodletting is perfectly reasonable right?
posted by Chekhovian at 3:41 PM on July 31, 2012


The problem is bloodletting's benefit was never known. Any benefit was complete luck.

The WebMD article discusses research which the writer related to bloodletting, but the researchers themselves say nothing about bloodletting.

The Mayo Clinic article discusses a very specific disease which might be helped by bloodletting.

The MSNBC article is the same as WebMD

"But the mystery persists: “How could a procedure popular for 2,500 years have really been completely worthless?” Rouault asked."

They offer a wild theory, but nothing in those articles identifies a real benefit to bloodletting.

You're reaching to find any explanation, despite the clear evidence that no one who ever practiced bloodletting understood those rare circumstances when it might offer benefit as opposed to the majority of times it was just draining blood from people who needed it most.
posted by PJLandis at 4:03 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Medical leeches
drilling a hole in one's head to let the evil spirits out
posted by XMLicious at 4:03 PM on July 31, 2012


Lots of interesting stuff in these last thirty or so comments. Just a couple more things to chew on:

(1) The scientific method is itself evolving. Really simple experimental designs go back at least to Galen, and you can even see simple, controlled experiments described in the Bible (the controls are poor, but the basic design idea is right).

(2) The sorts of statistical ideas that you need in order to study complicated medical and especially epidemiological problems were not developed until the nineteenth century at the earliest. Randomization of treatment assignment was not invented until the late 1870s, then forgotten and not really picked up until the middle of the twentieth century (with the work of R.A. Fisher).

(3) Mixed populations, where some members of the population instantiate one causal structure while other members instantiate a different causal structure, are still headaches for medical researchers. They often lead to Simpson paradoxical problems, and they can result in what seems to be the case for blood-letting -- that for some small sub-population, treatment is effective but for most of the population it is not. If you are a researcher using a case-study approach (as is still done by a lot of medical researchers), it is not too hard to see how you could be both generally responsive to evidence -- real evidence, not fairy dust -- and also think that blood-letting or some other generally ineffective treatment is effective. And sometimes apparently better epidemiological methods get the wrong answer because they average over heterogeneous populations. If exercise was great for half of the population but equally bad for the other half, the epidemiologist might well conclude that since the average treatment effect of exercise is zero, it is just irrelevant to health. But that would be very wrong! (Yes, there are complicated ways of controlling for these sorts of problems, but they often leave a lot under-determined, and they often make strong, untestable assumptions.)

(4) Positive, contentful theory isn't the only thing that improves with time. Methodology and instrumentation also improve with time. And there is a reciprocal relation. For example, Lavoisier developed his oxygen theory in part because he had a better analytic balance than his predecessors.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:04 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


And again with the comparison to chemotherapy. The majority of patients who receive chemo live longer, they don't just pump random poisons into people and ask if they feel better.
posted by PJLandis at 4:05 PM on July 31, 2012


Yeah, that's in the Mayo Clinic piece. But I'm sure that's not what the Middle Ages physicians thought they were treating. There are some other results that indicate that an overabundance of iron could contribute to cardiovascular disease, and that reducing iron in the blood - via donation - could be a good thing for many people.

Bloodletting is perfectly reasonable right?

I don't think we'd want to bring it back in a major way. But hey, I donate blood a lot, and I like the idea that it means my bone marrow is generating fresh new blood cells.
posted by Miko at 4:06 PM on July 31, 2012


If we look hard enough, it's hard not to find a hidden benefit in anything. HIV causes weight loss.
posted by PJLandis at 4:10 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


The majority of patients who receive chemo live longer

Where are you getting that statistic? It's a sweeping generalization, and though it's a powerful tool that extends the life of lots of people and "cures" others (5 years cancer free for cancer patients, generally), or allows a temporary remission of autoimmune symptoms for others), it's still only true for certain conditions and certain populations. Overall, cancer survivorship is improving, but that's also in part due to things like awareness, early detection, and combined therapies that include surgery and radiation as well. It's kind of a complicated thing to reason about in such simple terms.
posted by Miko at 4:13 PM on July 31, 2012


it's hard not to find a hidden benefit in anything. HIV causes weight loss.

Quite true for many conditions and many treatments. So the question for treatment is twofold: is the outcome desirable, and is it desirable enough to endure any negatives that accompany it?

Thanks for that interesting comment, Jonathan Livengood.
posted by Miko at 4:16 PM on July 31, 2012


Yes chemotherapy depends highly on your cancer and other factors, but it does save lives and improve outcomes. We don't just dose people with chemo in the same manner that they drained people of blood, we actually look into outcomes and work to identify and control for known/unknown variables.

Please read up on chemotherapy, it is not only used to cure, but also to control, and often simply to alleviate pain and suffering because the effects of cancer can be much worse than chemo.
posted by PJLandis at 4:21 PM on July 31, 2012


PJLandis, you must read differently than I do. From MSNBC:

The discovery suggests that bloodletting, done early enough, may have slowed staph infections by starving germs of iron, National Institutes of Health iron specialist Tracy Rouault wrote in a review of Skaar’s research.

From the WebMD piece:

"Bloodletting in the preantibiotic era may have been an effective mechanism for starving bacterial pathogens of iron and slowing bacterial growth," writes Rouault.

It's a theory she has based on interpretation of the research. I wouldn't call her speculation on this a "wild theory," really, since she, to all appearances, is not a wild theorist.

no one who ever practiced bloodletting understood those rare circumstances when it might offer benefit as opposed to the majority of times it was just draining blood from people who needed it most.

You can have your point, but I'm saying something different: that they don't have to have understood it in order to note benefit that they could reasonably, at least some of the time, attribute recovery, at least in part, to their own medical intervention.
posted by Miko at 4:26 PM on July 31, 2012


From your link, they note chemotherapy as one of the major reasons 90% rather 60% of breast cancers survive today.
posted by PJLandis at 4:26 PM on July 31, 2012


Please read up on chemotherapy

Oh please. Don't assume I don't know what I'm fucking talking about.
posted by Miko at 4:26 PM on July 31, 2012


None of those articles address the idea that losing blood in the middle of an illness is a harm, so even if a few were helped everyone else was clearly harmed.

Read the article you just cited. Chemo is cited in breast cancer, ALM, ALL, almost every cancer on that list. It's not just a random poison we inject into people.
posted by PJLandis at 4:28 PM on July 31, 2012


From your link, they note chemotherapy as one of the major reasons 90% rather 60% of breast cancers survive today.

Awesome, that's one cancer.

Again, you don't have to take on a project of proving that chemo has benefits. I've never once said it isn't efficacious or doesn't have benefits. I've said that it sucks to experience and sometimes despite everything, it doesn't work. It doesn't work for all people, for all cancers, doesn't work forever, and doesn't prevent all cancer death. My entire point, in the discussion of chemotherapy, is that it's an awful enough treatment that we all fervently hope that science can do much, much better. If you don't hope that - if you're content with the current state of the science and think this is the best it's possibly going to get - then you're espousing a point of view that asserts that current scientific understandings are sufficient - the same, basically anti-science point of view that sustained marginally effective or ineffective treatments for centuries. And if you're content with it, you almost certainly don't have much experience with it.
posted by Miko at 4:30 PM on July 31, 2012


I'm not content, of course we can do better, but it's not bloodletting! It has a real, tangible benefit, whether curing, causing remission, or improving quality of life; of course it has harms, but at least we know what these harms and benefits are.

Calling me anti-science!!! Rich, very rich...

You're defending bloodletting, as if it was in the same category as chemotherapy!
posted by PJLandis at 4:33 PM on July 31, 2012


even if a few were helped everyone else was clearly harmed.

You can't assert that based on what was presented. Preventing infection might mean that most were helped.

From your link, they note chemotherapy as one of the major reasons 90% rather 60% of breast cancers survive today.

Wow, what a selective and factually errant citation. "The overall relative survival rate for female breast cancer patients has improved from 63% in the early 1960s to 90% today. This increase is due to largely to improvements in treatment, (i.e., chemotherapy and hormone therapy) and to widespread use of mammography screening." Which is exactly what I said above.

t's not just a random poison we inject into people.

Why are you unable to understand that I'm not saying that? Are you going to keep talking about how I think it's a "random poison?" I've made it clear that I don't think that. What I think is that if we are actually any good at making medical advances, it's going to become a dinosaur.
posted by Miko at 4:36 PM on July 31, 2012


You're defending bloodletting, as if it was in the same category as chemotherapy!

In some ways it is in "the same category": it's a state-of-the-art medical treatment which is thought, based on our best available systems of knowledge production, to be better than the alternative of no treatment at all or past treatments based on out-of-fashion theories, now discarded.

Beyond that, I'm not defending it: I'm just pointing out reasons why people may have thought it was effective. I know it's much more fun to think I'm defending bloodletting as a practice, because that is easy to mock and feel superior to, but I'm doing something different. If you ever want to talk about that, do let me know.
posted by Miko at 4:39 PM on July 31, 2012


Bloodletting wasn't limited to people with infections, not that they could tell the difference in the first place.

Loss of blood itself is a harm.
posted by PJLandis at 4:41 PM on July 31, 2012


I don't feel superior, I just felt that you were several underestimating the power of scientific ideas. Even if they seem so similar to basic reasoning, they were a huge advance in ways both big and small. Like you said above, you can criticize the design of clinical trial which puts you way ahead of centuries of people who practiced bloodletting without really knowing what benefits or harm they were truly causing.
posted by PJLandis at 4:44 PM on July 31, 2012


Loss of blood itself is a harm.

Says who? It's not a very serious one.

Class I haemorrhage (0–15% total blood volume) This represents up to 750 ml blood loss. Minimal physiological changes occur at this level. A patient may exhibit mild anxiety, but heart rate, blood pressure and peripheral circulation largelyremain unchanged. Urine output is only slightly decreased. The body can compensate well for this degree of haemorrhage. This situation is mimicked by a blood donation.

I always feel great after blood donation. And, you get a donut!
posted by Miko at 4:44 PM on July 31, 2012


I just felt that you were several underestimating the power of scientific ideas.

Yeah, I really don't understand how you can still think that if you are reading what I've written, but we may have some sort of language barrier going on, or something like that. I have immense respect for the power of scientific ideas, and immense respect for the long years of human ingenuity, trial and error, theorizing, testing, contesting, and gradual development of approaches that have gone into building them. And I expect that our own scientific ideas will look fairly paltry and rudimentary as our ability to investigate the universe progresses over time and with the kinds of technological advances Jonathan Livengood was pointing out.
posted by Miko at 4:46 PM on July 31, 2012


Try donating blood when your ill. The body can compensate for a lot of things, but I'm sure any specialist in infectious disease will not recommend loss of blood.
posted by PJLandis at 4:47 PM on July 31, 2012


Try donating blood when your ill.

What's the first thing that happens when you get sick? Go see the blood draw lady!
posted by Miko at 4:49 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think the technology is as important. They had telescopes and microscopes long before we they produced their greatest fruits.
posted by PJLandis at 4:49 PM on July 31, 2012


Language barrier? You compared an off-label drug use, that has been identified and tested, as being comparable to randomly offering a possible benefit that no one recognized.
posted by PJLandis at 4:50 PM on July 31, 2012


Anyway, I enjoyed this exchange although I believe we've violated the "Note:" below these comment boxes.
posted by PJLandis at 4:51 PM on July 31, 2012


What's the first thing that happens when you get sick? Go see the blood draw lady!

Either you're not participating in this discussion in good faith or you're responding to serious questions with jokes, and I'm not sure which is worse.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:22 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


That does not seem like a bad faith comment to me. She's pointing out that nearly no illness results in hesitation at drawing blood samples or regarding it as a medical ethics situation where some sort of harm caused by drawing blood must be balanced against the good of obtaining diagnostic information. Which would appear to contradict PJLandis's dismissal of her previous statement that it's not a serious harm.
posted by XMLicious at 6:34 PM on July 31, 2012


It was a little flip, but essentially serious, as XMLixious says. It's acceptable to draw the blood in the expectation that the results the blood draw yields will ultimately help reduce harm. The body can sustain the loss of a small amount of blood without compromising the overall system. If you've been sick for any length of time you know that you get "stuck" almost constantly!

It may be that in future we can test blood using injectable nanorobots and that might be preferable to drawing blood; then, our primitive methods of gathering the same information will look pretty antiquated. Until then its benefits far outweigh its physical costs.

I'm sorry for the long digression a casual mention of bloodletting caused. Ivan F made my point far better than I, ultimately.
posted by Miko at 6:54 PM on July 31, 2012


"I'm sorry for the long digression a casual mention of bloodletting caused."

I think there were very good points made on both sides and I regret the role I played in focusing the discussion on bloodletting/chemotherapy because, as these things almost always are, it was a pretty casual comment that was arguably ill-considered in that (I think) it's an overstatement but which was intended to illustrate a defensible and interesting point — but it was focused upon (by me, I'm ashamed to admit) as a weak point to attack and which then Miko naturally found herself entrenched in defending, and probably more strongly than she otherwise ever would have. And we do this because we end up seeing arguing these specific points as a proxy for the larger argument, which they really are not and the polarization that results does no one any favors.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:16 PM on July 31, 2012


I believe the bloodletting discussion was an offshoot of whether or not religion had a predictive ability the way science does. And I think that was an offshoot from the idea that religion was/is used to fill gaps in knowledge - if you haven't got the tools to figure out what lightning is, theory of mind jumps in and posits a thunder god who's pissed off and throwing shit at you the way your neighbour threw a spear at you after you pissed him off. You look around for other explanations, but can't find any (Ben Franklin had keys and kites to work with, maybe your animal skins are too heavy to get aloft or too precious to waste when you need them to keep yourself warm). Thunder god it is, then. I wonder what pissed him off? The search for evidence continues, but down a misleading path.

A natural investigation into the causes of things (and I think we all agree that in the past were many intellectually curious and intelligent people who had to make do with the tools available at the time) can get tangled up with a theory of mind that pops into a gap in knowledge whether we want it to or not. I find it much easier to explain how a computer works to non-technical people if I describe how it wants to talk to the printer but can't find it, that sort of thing. I know perfectly well that I've anthropomorphised it, but dammit, it's a language that both technical and non-technical people share. Theory of Mind is essential for social animals to survive; but it's got some nice side-effects too.

Hence the type of belief in what atheists call the God of the Gaps: a deity who used to be all-powerful and personally involved in our lives and the course of nations, but is now relegated to setting the Big Bang in motion then leaving the universe to carry on without intervention. Some people are ok with gaps in their knowledge, and it's certainly easier to be ok with it given the enormous quantities of information we'll never live long enough to learn; other people don't like the gaps, and Theory of Mind offers a suggestion, one that has tradition behind it.
posted by harriet vane at 12:51 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


In terms of chemo, I think amputation was probably a better analogue.
posted by PJLandis at 5:07 AM on August 1, 2012


Why would that be a better analogue? I can't imagine a time when we won't need to do amputations. Well, maybe I can, but it seems extraordinarily remote to think we could do something like direct stem cells at the individual nuclear level to grow in a specific enough pattern to rebuild a functional limb.

I think you're still hung up on the detail if you're still chewing this over, and not the larger point.

Ben Franklin had keys and kites to work with


Even Ben had to have a thought system that let him experience the electric charge (in this story, anyway) without simply attributing that to the Thunder God. It's not the evidence itself alone, but also the frameworks of thought, that produce what we think of as scientific knowledge. You can amass all the evidence in the world before someone - as we've seen - and if they simply do not accept or know how to use the reasoning system you are suggesting they approach it with, they will not understand the evidence in the same way you do.

But back to the "good enough" idea - it doesn't matter what causes lightning if you know that when the Western sky goes black in the middle of the day, you should retreat inside and not stand on top of a bald rock, because Ingvar next door got fried that way. That's what I mean by predictive power, and it's sufficient for many human purposes, enough to bring about the survival and development of human beings as they continued to create more sophisticated systems of knowledge. Some forms of reasoning have been embedded in workable, useful thought frameworks that have been available to people since well back in prehistory. If that weren't the case, we couldn't have developed animal husbandry or agriculture or bronze or aqueducts or the written word or really any such technologies.

Human beings tend not to settle for less than full control over phenomena that affect them (food supply, weather, and health problems being usually paramount) though, which is what tends to drive further investigation.
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on August 1, 2012


I agree with you about Ben Franklin, I was just trying to be concise. But yes, he had other things beside keys and kites. Was it Newton or Einstein who wrote of standing on the shoulders of giants? Every bit of knowledge we have now started off basic and simple, and has been added to little by little over the course of human history. And advancements in specific areas (including systems of reasoning) enabled advancements in different areas, and so on.

Re: 'good enough', I'm not seeing the connection to theory of mind and/or belief in god, though? Sorry, it's been a long and wandering thread here!
posted by harriet vane at 11:31 PM on August 1, 2012


I'm assuming a lot here, but I think people understood the benefits and risks of amputation at least crudely, as opposed to bloodletting which whatever benefits it might have had were basically unknown.

Amputation is crude, but it has some effectiveness and certainly saved at least some lives although I believe the majority of amputations probably died of complications.
posted by PJLandis at 4:49 PM on August 2, 2012


And regrowing limbs is a separate issue from amputation. You would probably still amputate them, for gangrene or whatever, before you would regrow one.
posted by PJLandis at 4:51 PM on August 2, 2012


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