10 February 2009

Is religion hard-wired in humans?

In the latest issue of the New Scientist, I read an article dealing with the question whether belief in the supernatural is hard-wired. Several scientists ran experiments and have some interesting but still inconclusive findings. Here are some excerpts:
It's not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it's that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."
So the taboo of religion has not being lifted. It's time it did. One should be allowed to study why people tend to be religious. Something is amiss here.
One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society.
Experiments involving children are particularly interesting:
When Deborah Kelemen of the University of Arizona in Tucson asked 7 and 8-year-old children questions about inanimate objects and animals, she found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks are there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds exist "to make nice music", while rivers exist so boats have something to float on.
And a thought-experiment:
Left to their own devices, children create their own "creole" languages using hard-wired linguistic brain circuits. A similar experiment would provide our best test of the innate religious inclinations of humans. Would a group of children raised in isolation spontaneously create their own religious beliefs? "I think the answer is yes," says Bloom.
Superstitious beliefs seem to be correlated with a lack of sense of control:

Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas in Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, asked people what patterns they could see in arrangements of dots or stock market information. Before asking, Whitson and Galinsky made half their participants feel a lack of control, either by giving them feedback unrelated to their performance or by having them recall experiences where they had lost control of a situation. The results were striking. The subjects who sensed a loss of control were much more likely to see patterns where there were none. "We were surprised that the phenomenon is as widespread as it is," Whitson says. What's going on, she suggests, is that when we feel a lack of control we fall back on superstitious ways of thinking. That would explain why religions enjoy a revival during hard times.

What I also found interesting (and alarming) is the opening paragraph of the article:

While many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance. This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times.

Let's hope that the current economic crisis will not cause the same phenomenon. But we never know... People want to believe and will believe even if evidence suggests otherwise.

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant