Hardwired for God?
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. An internationally recognized expert on the psychology of child development, social reasoning, and morality, he has won numerous awards for his research, writing, and teaching. Bloom’s previous books include Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil and How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, and he has written for Science, Nature, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Question: Why does religious belief exist?
Paul Bloom: Most humans are religious. If you ask most people, they'll tell you they belong to one or another religion. The most common religion on earth is Christianity, but Islam is coming a close second. And then there's just all sorts of religions. They differ in many ways, both in the beliefs that they have and in their practices, but they share certain common properties. So, all religions believe in some sort of supernatural entities, preachers without bodies, but have minds, like gods and spirits and ghosts and angels. All religions believe that one or more of these supernatural created the earth and created animals and created us. And they all believe in different forms, that we can survive the death of our body, that we are immortal.
And I'm very interested in where these beliefs come from, why they exist at all. And you can imagine different extremes, so some scholars argue that they're social constructions, they're inventions of culture, and that's why they're universal. Others argue they're biological adaptations. They exist because of the selective advantage they gave to our ancestors.
I have a view which is different from both of those. I think they're accidents. I think they're accidental byproducts of cognitive systems that we've evolved for different reasons. More specifically, we've evolved a highly powerful social cognition. A highly powerful cognitive mechanism for thinking about the mental states of others and evaluating them and judging them. And I think that the system is so powerful that it sometimes leads to certain unpredicted byproducts. Things that we haven't evolved to do. So, for instance, we're highly animistic. We see consciousness and agency and humanity all over, even when, you know, a scientist would tell us it doesn't exist. We're natural creationists. In that when we see structure in the world, like a tree or a tiger, we think somebody must have made that, again, we're on the look out for design. And I think we're natural born dualists. And what I mean by that is, that we see our minds as inherently separate from our bodies. And so this makes possible idea that our mind could survive the destruction of our body, or that it could go to another body, as in reincarnation.
So, I think that these three habits of mind, animisms, creationism, dualism, are present in all of us. They're not biological adaptations, they're accidents. But I think they're what make religious belief attractive and plausible and universal.
Question: What connection, if any, exists between religion and morality?
Paul Bloom: Many people, many religious people, many people in general, think that religion plays an important role in one's moral life. The very strong view, which I think nobody can take seriously, is that without religion we'd be monsters, we wouldn't care about other people. And the existence of atheists, who don't rape and murder and so on, seems to falsify that claim. But what about a more subtle claim, which is that religion on the whole makes you nicer? Well, this isn't a crazy theory, there's actually some statistical evidence in favor of it. So, for instance, religious people in the United States tend to give more to charity than atheists, even when you factor out religious charities, even when you think about things like donating blood or giving to the homeless.
And so you might think that religion is sort of ramping up your niceness in general, but I think there's another explanation, which is that religious in the United States are part of the vast majority and they tend to be happier and they tend to be parts of communities to a greater extent than atheists. And it might be the happiness and the community nature that explains this difference in giving, not religion per se.
And the reason why I believe this to be correct, is that you have now societies in Europe, like Scandinavian countries, that are quite a bit atheist, far more than the United States, and if religion makes you nice, you would expect these societies to be monstrous, high rates of crime, of exploiting one another, and none of that's true. In fact, these are swell places to live. These atheist communities are filled with people who don't tend to murder each other, don't tend to rape each other, don't tend to have all sorts of social ills that the United States have.
So I think the relationship from religion from morality is going to be complicated and interesting. I think it won't be hard to find places where religion corrodes morality, where religious belief leads to people rejecting their gut and appropriate moral feelings and doing monstrous things. Religion is an ideology and all ideologies have that power. But for the most part, I think people can be religious and good and be atheists and good, and that's what the data shows us.
Recorded on November 20, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
According to Paul Bloom, many religious notions arise out of innate features of our brains, including the tendency to "see consciousness all over."
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
A 2020 study published in the journal of Psychological Science explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.
- In 2019, researchers at Stanford Engineering analyzed the spread of fake news as if it were a strain of Ebola. They adapted a model for understanding diseases that can infect a person more than once to better understand how fake news spreads and gains traction.
- A new study published in 2020 explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.
- "These findings demonstrate one situation in which misinformation reminders can diminish the negative effects of fake-news exposure in the short term," researchers on the project explained.
Previous studies on misinformation have already paved the way to a better understanding<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1NzQ4NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE2Mjg1Nn0.hs_xHktN1KXUDVoWpHIVBI2sMJy6aRK6tvBVFkqmYjk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C800%2C0%2C823&height=700" id="fc135" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="246bb1920c0f40ccb15e123914de1ab1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="fake news concept of misinformation and fake news in the media" />
How does misinformation spread?
Credit: Visual Generation on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is the "continued-influence" effect?</strong></p><p>A challenge in using corrections effectively is that repeating the misinformation can have negative consequences. Research on this effect (referred to as "continued-influence") has shown that information presented as factual that is later deemed false can still contaminate memory and reasoning. The persistence of the continued-influence effect has led researchers to generally recommend avoiding repeating misinformation. </p><p>"Repetition increases familiarity and believability of misinformation," <a href="https://engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/how-fake-news-spreads-real-virus" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the study explains</a>.</p><p><strong>What is the "familiarity-backfire" effect?</strong></p><p>Studies of this effect have shown that increasing misinformation familiarity through extra exposure to it leads to misattributions of fluency when the context of said information cannot be recalled. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2017 study</a> examined this effect in myth correction. Subjects rated beliefs in facts and myths of unclear veracity. Then, the facts were affirmed and myths corrected and subjects again made belief ratings. The results suggested a role for familiarity but the myth beliefs remained below pre-manipulation levels. </p>
New research into fake news has uncovered something interesting about misinformation<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ddeac998508e09fb9d1b4691d6c20d28"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bJ5qUx1WOsg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>A 2020 study published in the journal of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797" target="_blank">Psychological Science</a> explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.</p><p>Fake news exposure can cause misinformation to be mistakenly remembered and believed. In two experiments, the team (led by Christopher N. Wahlheim) examined whether reminders of misinformation could do the opposite: improve memory for and beliefs in corrections to that fake news. </p><p>The study had subjects reading factual statements and then separate misinformation statements taken from news websites. Then, the subjects read statements that corrected the misinformation. Some misinformation reminders appeared before some corrections but not all. Then, subjects were asked to recall facts, indicate their belief in those recalls, and indicate whether they remembered the corrections and misinformation. </p><p>The results of the study showed that reminders increased recall and belief accuracy. These benefits were greater both when misinformation was recalled and when the subjects remembered that corrections had occurred. </p><p>Researchers on the project <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explained</a>: "These findings demonstrate one situation in which misinformation reminders can diminish the negative effects of fake-news exposure in the short term."</p><p><strong>The conclusion: fake-news misinformation that was corrected by fact-checked information can improve both memory and belief accuracy in real information.</strong></p><p>"We examined the effects of providing misinformation reminders before fake-news corrections on memory and belief accuracy. Our study included everyday fake-news misinformation that was corrected by fact-check-verified statements. Building on research using fictional, yet naturalistic, event narratives to show that reminders can counteract misinformation reliance in memory reports," <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the researchers</a> explained.</p><p>"It suggests that there may be benefits to learning how someone was being misleading. This knowledge may inform strategies that people use to counteract high exposure to misinformation spread for political gain," <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/afps-rtf101620.php" target="_blank">Wahlheim said</a>.</p>
The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.
- Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
- Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
- The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.
If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.
The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Oort cloud
Image source: NASA
Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.
Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)
No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.
It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."
"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."
Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA
The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.
"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."
The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."
Missing in action
Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."
So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.