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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part One

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the fifth installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

The fact that we differ from one another is such an obvious one that it hardly needs to be stated, yet much of academic psychology until recent decades has somewhat ignored that reality. The terms often used in scholarly discourse are “nomothetic” versus “idiographic” psychology. Nomothetic theorists focus on the similarities between persons (what we have in common, what makes us all alike) and, in the extreme, can mistakenly view human beings as entirely equivalent, so that understanding one of us generates a full understanding of any of us. Idiographic theorists, in contrast, focus on the differences between persons (what differentiates us, what makes us each unique) and, in the extreme, can mistakenly view each of us as so irreducibly unique as to render any general understanding of human psychology impossible.

As in most life situations, the truth likely lies somewhere in between. However, my personal bias is in favor of idiographic psychology. My favorite book on the subject is one whose title says it all (which conveniently absolves you of the responsibility of reading it): I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You. The failure to identify and work within one’s own personal uniqueness is, from a counseling standpoint, a major challenge; as Lily Tomlin once self-mockingly put it, “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I see that I should have been more specific.”

In this article, and one to follow later this week, I will be examining the role of personality differences, as well as the related issue of diversity in how we think and process information (so-called “cognitive modes”), in influencing how we perceive questions relating to creation and evolution. I am currently in the early stages of conducting research directly addressing this question. While the canons of research ethics prohibit me from directly divulging the results of these early pilot studies, I will at a few points hide my light under a bushel in the hope that astute readers will be able to find the bushel and kick it to one side, thus revealing the illumination underneath.

Models of Personality Diversity: The Pioneering Work of William James
About a century ago, the early psychologist William James wrote and published his now-classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, still considered among the “must-read” classic works on that topic. As part of that work, James introduced and elucidated the distinction between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” individuals. The former, as the name implies, were no-nonsense types with their feet firmly planted on the ground, people who were most interested in hard-headed practical realities and not given to introspection, internal analysis, or self-doubt. By temperament, they were realists and empiricists who believed in the world presented to them through their five senses and in the role of impersonal, objective logic. By contrast, the latter inhabited a world in which compassion, connection to others (including, perhaps, an unseen and nonhuman world), hidden meanings, transcendent purposes, and the like took center stage. These individuals were prone to believe that “the unexamined life is not worth living” but, in their tendency to question themselves and to be harsh self-critics, may have been more prone to self-doubt, guilt, and personal recriminations. In his book, James explored possible connections between this personality characteristic and two contrasting forms of religion that he styled “once-born” versus “twice-born” religious experiences.

Models of Personality Diversity: Other Important Additions
Possibly influenced (at least indirectly) by James’ work, many subsequent personality theorists have developed this same theme. The great-grandfather of them all, Carl Jung, developed his famous theory of psychological types on the basis of the idea that people differ in three important ways: in their focus on the outer world of action and interaction versus the inner world of reflection and introspection (extraversion vs. introversion), in their emphasis on practical concrete realities or on imaginative abstract possibilities (sensing vs. intuition), and in their use of either impersonal logic or personal values to make important decisions (feeling vs. thinking). (Devotees of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will know that later theorists added a fourth dimension to yield the famous sixteen psychological type designators.) Heather Cattell wrote extensively about these same notions using a different vocabulary and methodology, but also agreed that these fundamental differences largely reflected James’ original notion. Still more recently, McCrae and Costa developed and promoted their now influential Big Five model of personality diversity, again signifying that most if not all of these dimensions have at least implicit links to James’ formulation.

Can Personality Profiles Predict Views on the Origins Debate?
My research is focusing in part on the question of whether students’ personality profiles can statistically predict either their existing views on the origins debate (dividing students, by means of an original questionnaire, into creationist, theistic evolutionist, and secular evolutionist groups) and/or the likelihood that their views will change as the result of exposure to a secular education, either in general or specifically in terms of course content relating to evolutionary science. My original hypothesis was that secular evolutionists would be more “tough-minded” (prone to adopt a more reductionistic view of reality, in that only what can be scientifically established is real), while other groups would be more “tender-minded” (prone to view reality in less reductionistic terms that allowed for the possibility of nonempirical realities and nonscientific ways of knowing). Over time, students with different personality profiles might tend to diverge from one another in predictable ways even if they started their college experience with similar attitudes and beliefs about the origins debate.

In the next article, we’ll explore further implications of these differences with a more detailed emphasis on different modes of thinking.

Questions for Discussion
1. In your experience, do you agree with me that creationists and evolutionists (particularly reductionistic or secular evolutionists) differ in how they think as much as in what they think? In other words, to what extent is the dispute one about methodology or epistemology (what truth is and how it might best be determined or evaluated)?

2. If this is true, how might the gap best be bridged?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part Two

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the fourth installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin.

In the previous article, the basics of the social psychology of ingroups and outgroups was covered. In this follow-up, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at some of the reasons why social groups sometimes fail to understand or empathize with one another.

Ingroup Bias and Outgroup Bias: Two Separate Phenomena
The work of contemporary social psychologists like Brewer and Stephan suggest important cautions about how we view these effects. They remind us that ingroup bias and outgroup bias are two separate phenomena, not mere flip sides of the same coin. While these two processes often operate in tandem, they do not always do so: it is possible to identify strongly with a certain group, to draw meaning from my membership in that group and to see it as a central element of my self-definition, without disparaging those in other groups and without believing that all others should be “just like me” at the risk of second-class citizenship or dehumanized status. In some cases, I can affirm who I am while simultaneously affirming the value of those who are unlike me (“everybody’s beautiful in their own way”). In their research, they examine the questions, “Under what conditions will ingroup preference lead to negative attitudes about those who are different?”

Polarization Factors
At least three factors may be responsible for the tendency to polarize the social world (like me = good, unlike me = bad) or to view outgroup members prejudicially or unfavorably. These factors are described as 1) realistic threat 2) symbolic threat and 3) ingroup anxiety. Factors two and three seem pertinent to the origins debate, while the first is likely less relevant. Realistic threat describes a social interaction where the outgroup is competing with me and my group for scarce resources. While this element may underlie many geopolitical conflicts (it is a likely cause of many wars), it seems rather tangential in importance to the origins debate (unless one views academic respectability and cultural influence as “scarce resources” of this type).

Polarization Factors Relevant to the Origins Debate
Both symbolic threat and intergroup anxiety seem pertinent to the origins discussion. First, the outgroup can be a source of symbolic threat in that the very existence of their different ways and ideas challenge the validity and legitimacy of my own. One common response to symbolic threat is an attempt to delegitimize opposing ideas (through caricature or thinly veiled sarcasm, for instance) or to drive them underground in some fashion; this seems to closely describe the actual conduct of the origins debate on both sides of the divide.

Second, intergroup anxiety stems from the fear that I will be unable to handle direct contact or interaction with outgroup members: that I will not be able to “hold my own” (intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise), that my inadequacies will be publicly revealed, and so forth. This too seems relevant to the contemporary origins debate, as neither side seems readily willing to acknowledge gaps, flaws, or problems in their ideas. (Indeed, one wonders how many social conflicts would go away if we would all just memorize the phrase, “There is much I don’t know, and I have a great deal to learn from you”?)

Finally, these researchers intriguingly find that ingroup members who are most likely to show these effects are those who feel marginalized by their own group or who may feel as if they don’t quite fit even within their own circles. Such people may be most eager to demonstrate to themselves and others that “I really am one of you”. I can’t help wondering, by extension, if evolutionary creationists (though often seeing themselves as a bridge between the extremists) might sometimes fall prey to these tendencies. It can be wearing to have to try to prove to mainstream evolutionists our scientific credentials, while also defending our theological credentials to our co-religionists!

Questions for discussion
1. What are your existing prejudices with respect to the origins debate? It’s easy to find extreme examples of prejudicial statements by extremists on both sides of this debate, and to give oneself a clean bill of health on the grounds that “I’m not like that”. But, for most of us, prejudice comes in milder forms - so-called “implicit prejudice” that lurks in the subconscious mind. It’s hard to ferret these out, of course, yet essential to try. Are you holding to your remaining prejudices in the same way that an alcoholic justifies his drinking - “I can stop any time I want to”?

2. What steps might be helpful to reduce your own prejudice quotient? For some, biting your tongue before you speak, or gluing your fingers together before you email, might be a useful beginning. For others, meaningful (non-combative) dialogue with someone with whom you disagree might be a good start. Those of you who disagree violently with me are free to pick me as a dialogue partner. Post away!

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part One

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the third installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

Many social analysts would agree that we live in an increasingly polarized culture. Signs of social fragmentation are not difficult to observe, such as the much-vaunted phenomenon of “Red vs. Blue America”. William Strauss and Neil Howe have borrowed the term “cultural unraveling” to summarize their view of this increasingly disentangled, tribalistic cultural trajectory (a pattern that, incidentally, they believe recurs every eight decades or so, right before the emergence of a significant crisis experience that reunites the culture - stay tuned over the next decade to discover whether they were right).

In examining the origins debate, the contributions of social psychologists who have extensively studied the origins of prejudice and stereotyping should not be neglected. Most readers would probably agree that “creationists” and “evolutionists” rarely seem to understand (let alone value and respect) each other. Yet, without an attempt to understand another’s viewpoint “from the inside”, and without unconditional respect for the other’s humanity and fundamental dignity, little intellectual or social progress can be anticipated. Visser t’Hoeft had it right, in my view, when he wrote, “The essence of dialogue is not that we relativize our convictions, but that we agree to accept one another as persons.” Yet the social psychology of how we perceive those who differ from us very easily gets in the way of that essential attitude. In this article (and part 2 to be published later this week) we will examine the processes that lead to prejudice and discrimination.

Ingroups and outgroups: The Basics
Social psychologists have, for decades, utilized terms like “ingroup-outgroup bias” to explore the ways in which we perceive and respond to people who are either similar to or different from us. In one classic study college students were shown two abstract paintings and asked which they preferred. Most students had only a slight preference and probably did not have much, if any, emotional investment in this question. Yet, when divided into groups on the supposed basis of this preference, they showed biases against those who had chosen the other painting and preferential treatment toward those who had chosen the same painting as they had. If such minimalist influences can shape behaviors and attitudes so dramatically, imagine the potential impact of discovering that someone is -- like or unlike you -- a “creationist” or an “evolutionist”, especially if these are matters of great importance to you!

Group membership can drive the formation of prejudicial attitudes in two different ways. First, we can understandably come to believe that those in groups to which we belong are valid sources of insight and information. Because we know and trust those who we see as similar to ourselves, we invest their views with a greater degree of certainty, validity, and objectivity than they perhaps deserve. This includes their views of those who belong to other groups. Conversely, we tend to be skeptical of information presented to us by those who differ from ourselves. (Every semester at the university, I face some students - usually a minority - who are deeply skeptical of anything I say because, after all, I am a teacher - and all teachers are suspect.)

Second, all social groups have informal social rules and norms, which are often more powerful than formally written and enforced rules. These informal expectations reflect “the way we do things” (from this it is only a small step to “the way everyone ought to do things”) and, because these are often unarticulated and unexamined, are all the more powerful (fish don’t know they are wet). Thus, we become prejudiced because we trust those who are like us (so-called “informational influence”) and also because we want to fit in with those who are like us (“normative influence”).

Perceptual effects
Perhaps most frighteningly, our ability to be accurate in perceiving others - never mind conceptualizing about or acting upon our perceptions - depends heavily on these group membership factors. The classic terms “leveling and sharpening” have often been used to characterize these tendencies. We are aware of the diversity among groups to which we belong, and readily recognize the individuality and uniqueness of those who are fellow members of an ingroup. But, when looking at those who are different from us (members of an outgroup), we can easily lump them all together without intending consciously to do so. We have a strong tendency to see these people as “all alike” and to be relatively blind to distinctions between them that would be obvious to those inside that group.

Even if we do not take the further step of emphasizing the negative ways in which outgroup members are alike, these tendencies can strongly shape our attitudes. Research on eyewitness testimony has repeatedly shown that witnesses to a crime (or other event) who belong to a distinctly different social group than the suspect (or other target person) are much less reliable in remembering and reporting that individual’s appearance and behavior than are members of the same social group. In the most extreme instance, outgroup members can go completely unnoticed except for times when they violate the rules or confirm prejudicial expectations. (As the Hallmark card jokingly puts it, “One of the great things about turning 50 is that you can go to the mall and be invisible to anyone under 25.” I’ve had more than one teenager actually try to walk through me and then express astonished surprise that there actually was a human being there at all.)

Questions for Discussion
This week’s questions have a bit of an inevitably moralistic - perhaps even preachy - tone. As Don Adams used to annoyingly repeat, sorry about that. Yet, I’m holding my own feet to the fire as much as I am anyone else’s. One of the things I most appreciate about the pastor of my church is that, whenever he asks similar application questions in a sermon, he always ends with, “What about you? What about me?”

1. To what extent would you say that you can enter sympathetically into the world of the “other” (those who hold sharply differing views about matters you hold dear, perhaps including your perspective on the origins debate)? Setting aside the question of whether you think they are right or even whether you think their views are defensible, can you borrow a leaf from the counselor’s notebook and use “active listening” methods to be accurate in summarizing their views in a way the others would accept and affirm, using terms and mental frameworks acceptable to them? (It’s harder than it sounds!)

2. Mortimer Adler once famously wrote, “Comprehension should always precede criticism.” Yet, it’s easy to confuse a stereotypic understanding of another’s views, as seen from the safety of an outsider’s vantage point, with a thoroughgoing and honestly compassionate insider’s understanding. David Thompson calls this being a “moral tourist” - flitting (with some unknown mixture of curiosity and condescension) across the surface of another’s world without engaging it seriously as an equal, “one heart to another”. Where would you say you are on this continuum?

3. Given that Evolutionary Creationists (EC) have experienced a mental paradigm shift – whether (no pun intended) evolutionary or revolutionary in character – why doesn’t this group do a better job of serving as a bridge between the other, more polemic groups in this social debate? It would seem that ECs are uniquely qualified as mediators and “translators”, but it also doesn’t seem to be happening. Why not, in your view?

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Origins Debate through the Lens of Piagetian Theory

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the second installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

To understand how people form and maintain a point of view on the origins debate, it may help to step back and ponder how they form and maintain positions on anything. This can help distinguish content issues (what do you think?) from process issues (how do you think?) to avoid problems that emerge when the two levels are confused – as in the famous instance of the schizophrenic who ate the restaurant menu and then complained that it was not, as advertised, “tasty and nutritious”. Piaget’s famous theory of intellectual development, outlined below, is an important and classic take on this set of issues.

Schemata and Intellectual Development
To a Piagetian theorist, intellectual growth and development come through the refinement of so-called schemata. A schema is a way of thinking about or understanding the world, a “lens” or “window” through which one views reality. Thus, schemata are like “mini-theories” or “mini-paradigms”, and can include so-called “metanarratives” or “superstories” that provide a comprehensive explanation of all of reality. As such, religious (and secular) views of the nature of ultimate, metaphysical reality are types of schemata.

What differentiates adults from children, to Piaget, is the development of increasingly sophisticated, increasingly nuanced, increasingly fruitful, and increasingly effective schemata. There is a detailed set of age-based predictions (a so-called stage theory) that outlines how Piaget believes all of us develop our schemata as we move from infancy to adulthood, though this isn’t our primary concern here. Interestingly, the Apostle Paul hinted at a similar idea when he wrote, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, but when I became a man, I gave up childish ways”.

Schemata are internal and mental abstractions, but they are developed to enable us to deal effectively with concrete events of an external and phenomenal nature. This interplay between schemata (our pre-existing understandings or conceptualizations of reality) and the data of concrete experience is the way in which, according to Piaget, our schemata grow and mature.

Two different processes describe how schemata and experience interact. In the first of these, assimilation, pre-existing schemata are “imposed” upon the data of experience. In simple terms, we see what we expect to see, paying attention to relevant information (that which confirms or supports an existing schema) and discount (or fail even to notice) irrelevant or disconfirming evidence (particularly that which calls a prior schema into question).

While an overemphasis on assimilation can lead to closed-mindedness or rigidity of thought, as well as prejudice and bias, in more moderate doses it plays a very important role in intellectual development. Without assimilation, our ideas would be subject to change without notice at any time and would manifest no stability - in theological terms, we would be subject to “every wind of doctrine”. Without assimilation, we could not make use of the schemata we have, and indeed might well experience total disorientation. In the famous words of William James, the world might seem to us, as James hypothesized it did to an infant, “a bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion”. Without schemata (and the process of assimilation that underlies and supports it), we could not think or reason at all.

As long as the data of experience (or other indirect forms of data, such as those drawn from the experience of others whom we have reason to trust) confirms our existing schemata, there is no reason to alter our schemata or to move out of “assimilation mode”. Sooner or later, however, all of us encounter anomalous information that cannot easily be assimilated to an existing schema. (Think of a person who believes, for whatever reason, that red-haired people are evil, but who then meets an altogether admirable and saintly redhead.) While anomalies in small numbers can be explained away with relative ease (maybe she is a skilled hypocrite, or maybe she has simply dyed her hair red and thus isn’t a “real” redhead), if the number and gravity of anomalies mount, the discrepancy between schemata and experience increase to the point that there is increasing pressure to come to terms with the storehouse of anomalous data.

When the pressure to do this becomes intolerable, a person shifts - often with surprising suddenness - to the opposite process of accommodation. This represents an adjustment in (if not a wholesale abandonment of) an existing schema to bring it in alignment with anomalous information. If sufficiently radical (in situations where one overarching schema is abandoned in favor of a dramatically different or incommensurable one), this change may take on the outward features of a sudden “conversion”.

While, as an evangelical, I believe that true conversion in the Scriptural sense of the term - call this big-C Conversion -- is not humanly explicable and requires a supernatural referent, there is little doubt that dramatic viewpoint shifts of various kinds, which we might call little-c conversions, have an obvious Piagetian explanation. Thus, there are political “conversions”, conversions to atheism or agnosticism, and the like. Some gay rights activists talk about “gay conversions” as a metaphor for the radical self-redefinition that may precede or accompany “coming out”. In essence these are all schematic or paradigm shifts of a dramatic and sudden nature; they are typically preceded by a long period of hidden struggle as the two Piagetian processes battle for supremacy. Even true religious conversion partakes of these processes, though from a supernaturalist perspective they are not fully or reductionistically explained by them.

Since intellectual development (the ongoing enhancement of our schemata) depends on a delicate balance between assimilation (mental stability) and accommodation (mental flexibility), Piaget’s theory predicts that people faced with distressing anomalies will initially resist a change to their schemata (since maintaining relative stability in our thinking is essential both to good mental health and to our ability to maneuver in a complex world), but will then -- after a “delay” or “gap” during which the balance between assimilation and accommodation is on a knife-edge -- will suddenly, sometimes even catastrophically, shift perspectives and alter one’s prior schemata. This alternation between “stubborn adherence” to a new schema and “radical abandonment” to the challenge of a new schema is characteristic of all mental development, Piagetians believe.

Implications for the Origins Debate
The battle between creationist and evolutionary models of biological (including human) origins can be seen through the lens of this Piagetian framework. (Hence, of course, Piaget’s model is itself a schema - or, as he might have suggested had he thought of it, a “meta-schema” or “super-schema” that explains the development of all other schemata.) The theory itself is neutral about the direction of probable attitude change, but given the fact that the creationist framework is more likely to play the role of the pre-existing schema for believers, as well as the current overall state of the empirical data base (though ID theorists might disagree!), the “evolutionary conversion” is probably the more likely of the two. (I have no direct data to support this contention and would welcome replies from anyone who might have such data: given that movement in both directions probably does occur, how frequent is either type of change?)

It can be argued that the theological schemata of faith (belief in an eternally sovereign and personal God, in the universality and intractability of human sin, in the unique redemption offered by Christ, in the necessity of individual salvation, and in a “high” view of Scripture) can be kept logically distinct from the scientific schemata that involve proximal and mechanistic questions of secondary causation as related to biological origins. In short, believing (as I do) in the God of the Bible does not, in itself, necessitate either belief or disbelief in evolution, though atheists presumably have no choice but to accept the evolutionary paradigm: the EC position need not be a “way station” on the road to skepticism, nihilism, and irreligion. As a result, updating one’s schemata with respect to the biology of origins may have no inevitable impact on one’s theology of origins - a topic to be explored in a subsequent article.

Questions for Discussion
1. For those among the readership who have changed their minds about biological origins over the years, do you see evidence in your own intellectual narrative that Piaget’s concepts can explain your experience? Were your changes in belief or attitude initially fostered by awkward, anomalous information that you could not easily explain? Did you initially resist the implications of that information? Did you experience a sudden shift in viewpoint at some later time, perhaps showing the “straw that broke the camel’s back” effect in your own life?

2. Do you experience or perceive this process to be irreversible, for yourself or for others you have observed? Piaget might argue that it is rare (if not impossible) for a person to move backwards in this process of intellectual development, since schemata always become more comprehensive and complex (never less so). Is there anyone among the readership who “veered and tacked” back and forth between creationist and evolutionist postures?

3. Do you agree with me that biological (scientific) schemata can be kept distinct from theological schemata, in that beliefs in one realm do not directly or necessarily dictate one’s views in the other realm? “Distinct” does not mean “entirely separate”, of course. How, in your view or your experience, do the two sets of schemata best inform or influence one another?

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Introduction

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the first installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

Historically, the field of psychology has seemed as threatening to many Christians as the field of biology. This is due, in no small measure, to the influence of early watershed figures like Sigmund Freud and John Watson, who made no secret of their atheism and failed to separate their personal views on religion from their professional theorizing and research. As an unfortunate result, despite the attempts of individuals like William James and Gordon Allport to bridge the gap, roughly the first half of the history of academic psychology was characterized by the perception that psychology and religion were at odds, providing conflicting or even diametrically opposed views of the human condition.

Positive Interaction Between Psychology and Religion
Contemporary psychology views religion very differently. Interest in the psychology of religion is very much on the rise, and the emerging consensus within that subfield is that religion is a force for good, not for evil, in the world - though obviously religion, like any other human activity or institution, can be subverted and used for destructive ends. There can be little doubt that, in most situations, religious faith and mental health are positively, not negatively, correlated. Similarly, faith appears to facilitate physical health (including recovery from illness), social cohesion, and even tolerance for diversity. Contrary to the stereotype that a committed faith means bigotry, one writer has coined an opposite motto - “The more orthodox, the more tolerant” - to summarize what emerging research actually indicates.

Psychology and the Origins Debate
As a result, psychology may be able to offer considerable insights into how individuals and groups address and respond to the “origins debate”. The focus of the discipline of psychology is not to seek a resolution of that debate, of course, although modern psychology is forging increasingly powerful and important links to mainstream biology and the importance of evolutionary psychology is on the upswing. Rather, psychology’s contribution lies in helping us understand why and how people continue to disagree about matters of this kind.

Despite an overwhelming consensus about the question among the mainstream scientific community, the origins debate rages unabated within the wider culture, with few signs of any significant resolution. Perhaps the reason lies, not in the nature of the evidence as such, but rather in the nature of human psychology - particularly, the social psychology of how conflicts of this sort are generated and managed. Students of so-called “intractable conflict” note that there are certain kinds of conflicts that can seem almost irresolvable by ordinary means, disputes that take on a seemingly permanent life of their own.

Series Overview
Over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of articles that will examine the origins debate through three different “psychological lenses”. My hope is that this will shed light on the conflict and offer constructive suggestions about how it might be possible to work toward the beginnings of a resolution. For the record, I am an evangelical Christian who has a Ph.D. in social psychology from a secular institution and who is comfortable with the conclusions and theories of mainstream science. I attended a college whose official motto was pro scientia et religione - and believe it is entirely possible to affirm both without reservation.

This first article in the series will consider the question of how attitudes and beliefs are formed in the normal process of intellectual growth, as seen through the lens of Jean Piaget’s classic formulation of cognitive development. The next two articles will ponder the formation of biases and prejudices, with a view to understanding psychological forces that generate stereotypic understandings of social groups. The following two articles will examine the potential role of differing thinking styles and related personality factors on the question of why some people become evolutionists and others become creationists, or why some people change their minds about such matters while others do not. I will then wrap up the series with a modern-day parable.

Since most of the readers of this series may not have a strong background in psychology, I’ll do my best to avoid academic jargon. Yet, expect an introduction to a few multisyllabic, potentially larynx-choking technical terms like schemata, assimilation, accommodation, normative influence, cognitive modes, hemispheric lateralization, and such like. They’ll come your way in manageable doses, and will help you to stretch your vocabulary, which is good for everyone (research indicates that a good vocabulary helps prevent the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life).

Feedback Welcomed
Since the spirit of this Web resource is to generate dialogue, I’m ending each of these articles with some questions that I hope will serve as a springboard for discussion. I invite regular contributors and Web lurkers to respond to these questions or to generate additional questions of their own. I’ll make a serious attempt to reply in a timely manner. My philosophy of education is well summed up in the pop culture phrase, “we may not have it all together, but together we have it all” - as a member of a community of equals, I’m eager to learn from you and to pool our resources to explore these issues further.

Questions for Discussion
1. Do you agree with my perception that many Christians find psychology as threatening as biology? Why or why not? If so, why do you think this is so?

2. Contemporary psychology is increasingly wedded to the materialist (epiphenomenalist) idea that consciousness can be fully explained in material terms – that we are “just computers made of meat”. This is (or at least seems) incompatible with traditional Christian assertions (though not necessarily with the idea of the physical resurrection). Any thoughts about this?

I look forward eagerly to your responses, trusting that you will be charitable! As the stereotypic sheriff once told a group of would-be voters at election time, “If you like me, I want you to go to the voting booth tomorrow and put a big X in front of my name. If you don’t like me, use a small x.”

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved

Monday, 8 September 2008

Two new Guest-Post Series this Fall

As I indicated back in May, I am planning to publish a variety of guest-post series on this blog. The first of these series Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics was published in the spring. I am pleased to announce that two more series are set for this fall. In the first Marlowe Embree will discuss the social psychology of the origins debate. In the second, George Murphy, Terry Gray, and David Congdon will be discussing George’s paper “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin which appeared in the June 2006 edition of Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF).

Series #1: The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate (Starting Sept. 14)
Marlowe Embree teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. He is currently conducting some original research on whether personality differences affect a person’s conclusions regarding creation and evolution, and how likely they are to change their views. Using this unique perspective, and an excellent background in both the social sciences & science / faith issues, Marlowe will lead us in a discussion on the social psychology of the origins debate. In this 7-part series starting next Sunday, Marlowe will examine how our attitudes and beliefs are formed, how bias and prejudice affect our interaction with others, and how our thinking styles and personality profiles are important factors in how we make decisions, all within the context of the origins debate.

This, I believe, is a very important topic for Evangelical evolutionary creationists. Our task is, on the one hand, to assure Evangelicals that the acceptance of mainstream science does not imply an abandonment of faith in Christ. On the other hand, we must also assure those considering a faith commitment that they need not abandon scientific integrity when placing their trust in Christ. When pursuing these tasks, it is vital that we understand the motivations, attitudes, and biases that exist on all sides of the origins debate – including of course our own motivations, attitudes, and biases. Finally, we should be undaunted by the claims of some psychologists that their scientific findings make the idea of the divine redundant. Most of us have stared into this abyss at least once before (in biology) and God brought us through that experience with our faith intact; God can do it again for the sciences that directly study our humanity.

Series #2: Evolution and Original Sin (Starting Oct. 16)
Those that follow this blog closely know that John Polkinghorne’s work has been very influential in my own thinking. George Murphy and Polkinghorne are similar in many ways. Both began their careers as physicists and then later turned to the field of theology and pastoral work. Both are from “mainline” protestant denominations with roots in the reformation (Polkinghorne - Anglican; Murphy – Lutheran), but both hold strongly orthodox theological views even though many in their respective denominations may not. And both are doing serious (and urgently required) theological work on the interface between orthodox Christian faith and modern science, in particular the most difficult theological implications of biological evolution.

One example of this is George’s essay on original sin referenced above. Beginning in mid-October, I will be publishing a 7-part series on this essay that will include a summary of the original article by George, responses from Terry, David, and possibly a third person, George’s reaction to these responses, and finally George’s answers to questions from various readers.

This series will be somewhat of an experiment in two ways. First, it will be conducted like a moderated debate/dialogue with “the microphones” being passed around for audience questions at the conclusion. In this case, the microphones are comments; this means that comments will be turned off during the first several posts. Second, I am hoping that this series will encourage others to launch similar initiatives focusing on other articles from the PSCF. The journal has published many excellent articles on the interaction between faith and science, and I’m somewhat disappointed that there seems to be little discussion of these articles outside of the ASA. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. Whatever the case, I think serious, thoughtful discussion of these articles in the blogsphere has to be a positive step.

Future Series
As some readers may have noticed, these series don’t quite match the plan I laid out in the spring. Well, since this whole blog project is somewhat of an experiment, all I can say is this: expect the unexpected.

A brief update on two of the series mentioned earlier:

I have received a few commitments and tentative commitments to participate in my “Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church” series. I’m thinking of publishing this in the winter. However, right now I need a few more participants to make this successful. If you know of a pastor, elder, other church leader, or church layman who can provide an interesting perspective on the response to evolution in the Evangelical church (local church, denomination, parachurch organization, or the wider Evangelical church) and might be interested in participating, please send me an email or have them contact me directly.

Finally, I firmly believe that it is important to hear Evangelical student’s views on science and faith. I’m looking for a wide variety of Evangelical students to recount their experiences and/or provide their perspectives for a “Student’s Perspective” series. Actually, I haven’t put much thought into this yet and have done no recruiting; I’m open to ideas. If you have general comments on how I should proceed, leave a comment here. If you have something specific you would like to mention or discuss, please send me an email.