Monday, February 04, 2008

Belief in free will keeps us honest, study finds

Apparently, believing we have free will keeps us more honest. . In a recent study by psychologists Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia,
The psychologists gave college students a mathematics exam. The math problems appeared on a computer screen, and the subjects were told that a computer glitch would cause the answers to appear on the screen as well. To prevent the answers from showing up, the students had to hit the space bar as soon as the problems appeared.
In fact, the scientists were observing to see if the participants surreptitiously used the answers instead of solving the problems honestly on their own. Prior to the math test, Vohs and Schooler used a well-established method to prime the subjects' beliefs regarding free will: some of the students were taught that science disproves the notion of free will and that the illusion of free will was a mere artifact of the brain's biochemistry whereas others got no such indoctrination.

The results were clear: those with weaker convictions about their power to control their own destiny were more apt to cheat when given the opportunity as compared to those whose beliefs about controlling their own lives were left untouched.

Of course, the study does not show that free will exists; it shows what happens when people believe it doesn't.

Here's the paper.


Fearful universities: Why be afraid of the thinking mind?

Tristan Abbey reveals in the Stanford Review that Pope Benedict XVI and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were nixed as guests at Stanford.
A three-month investigation by the Stanford Review has discovered that university organizations declined to invite two high-profile intellectuals—Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before his inauguration as Pope Benedict XVI—after consultation with faculty and students who objected to their views
Huh? This is becoming a real problem. Isn't a key strength of a university its confidence in inviting people with diverse views?

If I were running a kindergarten, I wouldn't invite people with diverse views. The kids need an adult to help them to brush their teeth, not a debate about the merits of clean teeth. But ... a university? Why don't the faculty and students solve the problem of angst over diverse views by just growing up?

I have read Hirsi Ali's Infidel and, while we are obviously far apart in our views (she is an ex-Muslim atheist), I am indebted to her for finally helping me understand what on earth Christopher Hitchens could possibly mean by claiming that "religion poisons everything". Religion didn't have that effect in my life or the lives of most people I have ever known, and it is the bedrock of philanthopy in Canada. But Hirsi Ali had an entirely different experience, as her book explains, and for her religion seems to have been a mostly negative experience.

Not so, of course, for Benedict XVI. And Hirsi Ali may come round in time too. The key to religion is spirituality.


Spiritual Brain authors in the media: Denyse O'Leary on the God Exclusion

TV online: Denyse O'Leary was interviewed by Denise Lodde on 100 Huntley Street, for a special report called The God Exclusion, which aired February 1, 2008. It is program 7992 (the previous seg of the program is 7991). This is Real Media, not streamed live, and you may need to check the archives here.

Yes, that's the God EXCLUSION, not the God Delusion - the quite serious attempt by some to organize reality without God. As if.

I mean, you can organize reality without God if you want to get into Eastern ideas like karma, otherwise not.

People helping people: Why is it a puzzle?

To the Source advises me of another attempt to explain altruism (sacrificing oneself for others), this time by Steve Pinker in the New York Times Magazine, as an evolutionary strategy to spread one's selfish genes. Honestly, I do not know why they bother. But they do:
For the past several decades, leading neo-Darwinists have labored hard to provide a Darwinian basis for morality. The basic idea here is that morality is a form of extended selfishness. The mother who leaps into the burning car to save her children is acting unselfishly from her point of view, but from her genes' point of view, the action is entirely self-interested. The mother is simply trying to ensure that her genes make it into the next generation. Some evolutionists like Robert Trivers extend this logic to explain why we treat even strangers decently and fairly. This is called "reciprocal altruism," which may be translated as "I'll be nice to you, so that you can be nice to me."

Of course, that doesn't really explain why people help strangers or enemies, which they do surprisingly often. Some people just like to help or feel they must.

Actually, there isn't really a "problem of altruism." Only if you propose a theory by which everyone must be selfish, is there a problem of altruism. Absent the theory, it isn't a problem at all.

Over time, people develop a personal view of the world, which is not usually driven by genes, and they make decisions about helping from there.

In my own view, theories about "selfish genes" should be ignored unless specific genes are identified. Genes are real. The theory is probably not.


Spiritual Brain reviewer: Many scientists too gullible about materialism

The Charleston Post and Courier's Religion Editor (ret.) Skip Johnson, reflects on what we are trying to say in The Spiritual Brain. About Mario, he says, quite rightly,
... he calls on his fellow scientists to lay down their prejudices, open their minds, study the evidence with today's sophisticated equipment and see where it leads.

The major obstacle preventing such a study, Beauregard contends, is that most scientists who call themselves skeptics — a solid majority of scientists — are not skeptics at all; they are materialists. They are skeptical and often downright hostile to anything that smacks of religion, mysticism or spirituality, but they'll readily accept as fact almost any unproven materialist explanation if it seems reasonable. Anything that indicates humans might be more than biological automatons ("meat puppets"), or that otherworld explanations of some phenomena might be real, could shatter some of their most cherished dogmas.

I hear the sound of dogmas shattering on a daily basis, actually. Science is not confirming materialism. What's out there (and in us) is much richer and more interesting.


Religion and politics?: Generally, it all becomes politics

One of my Muslim friends, Mustafa Akyol, describes what happens when politicians try to start churches:
Perhaps the symbolism on the front wall of the church is meaningful. Above the small sized cross, lies a huge poster of Atatürk superimposed on the red and white Turkish flag. In the room beneath, there is another poster of Atatürk with a controversial quote: “When the homeland is in question, everything else is trivial.” This slogan, attributed to the Great Leader, has recently become the battle cry of ultra-nationalists, who say that Turkey is in danger, and thus all other values, such as democracy, human rights and freedoms are secondary. Apparently those trivialities include even the real great leader that a real church must be dedicated to — Jesus Christ.

And this politician wasn't even a Christian, but he did have a use for a church in his campaign machinery ... .

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Why can't they all lose? Why can't we all win?

There are times when, hearing attack ads that form the key shot in so many political campaigns today, I find myself saying the obvious thing. What a pity they can't ALL lose! They've all made each other sound like losers, so ...

Attempting to address this problem, a group called Association of Unity Churches has launched a "Look for the good" campaign, a positive response to negative campaigning. They hope they are having an effect:
One blogger on the "Look for the Good" website wrote, "I've noted with interest that at least one candidate -- a leader in the polls -- has commented on the need to let voters know what the party and the candidate is FOR, not what they are against ... I like to think that our announcements did make a positive impact."

Well, I hope they are too. It can't be good for voters' mental health to be besieged by attempts to create contempt for nationally known figures 24/7.

Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.