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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


Cliff Martin said...

Dr. Embree,

Thank you for this series. So timely!

Question 1) Yes. Just as there is a (mistaken) perception that biology is an attempt to explain life sans a Creator, there is a (perhaps even stronger) perception that psychology is an attempt to explain the inner workings of the human heart sans any Spirit-spirit interaction. A healthy dose of pro scientia et religione could go along way toward correcting both perception.

Perceptions can change! Twenty-five years ago, as a young radical Christian, I strongly opposed a friend’s choice to study psychology. Today, his psychology practice in a neighboring town has benefited from several referrals from this now older and (hopefully wiser) friend. And he has graciously assisted me with free consultations on behalf of other people I have counseled.

I was interested in the source and/or supporting data of the quote “The more orthodox, the more tolerant”. Many would, of course, scoff at the notion.

RBH said...

I left psychology (Ph.D. level) 20 years ago, and haven't followed the psychology of religion literature. Nevertheless, I find the introductory material in Embree's post implausible, or at least very difficult to evaluate. He wrote

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.(Bolding added)

First there is the terminological slippage from "religion" to "religious faith" to just "faith." Those are not synonyms, of course, and it's unclear to me whether the literature supports that range of claims.

That there are no references makes it difficult to evaluate the generalizations. Many of those who read this blog are professionals in one or another scientific field, and we (or at least I) like to see references to support general claims. The one quotation I could track down -- “The more orthodox, the more tolerant” -- apparently occurs only in the introduction of a book by a journalist attributed to a graduate course subtitle by an unknown professor (the Google scan dropped that page of the references). That can scarcely be represented as the "consensus" of a professional field. And I find it implausible on its face; for example, it would require some strong evidence to convince me that religious faith as it is practiced in a great many churches in the U.S. promotes tolerance for diversity.

Further, the attributions in that paragraph wholly ignore a quite plausible hypothesis for the purported good effects of religion/faith, namely the effects of social support in cohesive communities of like-minded individuals, independent of the social 'glue' that holds the community together. It would be very helpful to see references to research that isolates the purely religious aspect from the more general social cohesion variable. Absent that, the claims in the paragraph are merely assertions, not dependable conclusions.

This is not to say that the post is uninteresting, only that it is impossible to evaluate the claims made in it. I trust that subsequent posts will provide more by way of evidential support and references.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

I take rbh's point; in my defense, I offer the fact that these articles are very much not a formal academic paper. I believe that my general point (that psychology views religion much more favorably than it did, say, two decades ago) can be amply documented. This doesn't strike me as the place for presenting a rigorous literature review, but off-line (as I would prefer given my schedule, see below), I would be glad to engage this matter. I am making no claims that this shift in the attitudes of the psychological mainstream have any direct bearing on the truth-claims of Christianity or of any other religion. I only note, by way of introduction, that attitudes change. The general consensus (see Worthington et al.) is that there is a small but significant positive (not negative) correlation between religious faith and psychological adjustment or perceived well-being, though the actual relationship is a bit more complex than that (there is a curvilinear trend also, so "extremists" probably show lower levels of adjustment than those with a settled but more moderate faith).

The notion that "the more orthodox, the more tolerant" is far more controversial within the literature, though it may depend on what is meant by tolerance (requires a precise definition). It is true that religion correlates negatively with openness to values (narrowly defined), but this may not be the same as tolerance generally. The quote was used by the late Christopher Lasch, who, as you suggest, was not a psychologist - though he was something more than a journalist (he was a professional historian). Try The True and Only Heaven or The Revolt of the Elites for a summary of his thinking. He is by no means unbiased (he has an axe to grind and he is grinding it), but then, I would argue (following Clouser and Dooyeweerd) that neutrality about religious matters is a cognitive (or existential) impossibility.

Let the comments continue - highly useful.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Having consulted my 53-year-old memory banks, I don't want to publicly swear that Lasch can be linked to my (apparently all too controversial) quote. He isn't alive to confirm or deny this, so I could (for by no means the first time) be wrong. I have read Great Souls as well (which was, undeniably, written by a journalist!) and may have conflated the two sources. If so, my apologies. It's still an interesting idea; I'll be digging more deeply into the literature to further seek out empirical confirmation or disconfirmation of it as the days roll by, time permitting. It's an idea worth exploring, though tangential to my article series.

This is my first venture into the blogosphere, so I've already learned an important lesson: readers may jump on what the writer (in this case, me) thought of as a "throwaway line". That's good, though; accuracy in even small matters is important. As with the now-famous bridge to nowhere, I was for this quote before I was against it....

D. F. Siemens, Jr. said...

I don't see that psychology is inimical to the Christian faith, but some claims by psychologists and neurologists are problematic. I have expressed my views: PSCF 57:187 (2005); Philosophia Christi 4:523 (2002). However, I hold that a human spirit, as well as the Infinite Spirit, is not amenable to scientific study.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

I'm deeply intrigued by this set of issues and will want to read your article. An approach to this set of issues that I often use in class is that offered by philosopher F. F. Centore, who suggests six possible solutions to the mind-body problem, as follows.

Reductionistic materialism (RM): In this view, the material world is the only reality; mental constructs are entirely excluded. In consequence, we can speak of the body (and its observable acts and behaviors) but not of mind. Radical behaviorism of the Skinnerian sort is an exemplar of this view.

Nonreductionistic materialism (NM): In this view, we can use the word "mind" as a useful construct since human consciousness, and cognitive processes, exist and can be meaningfully studied. However, consciousness, as an evolutionary emergent or epiphenomenal by-product of the functioning brain, cannot be afforded any sort of unique ontological status. The mind cannot exist without the body (brain) in any sense. The material world remains primary. This is probably the consensual view among contemporary secular psychologists in the West and represents the regnant worldview among the majority of social scientists (Lillard, 1998), though there are significant minorities (including yours truly) among the social science community.

First-order psychosomaticism (P1): Both material and mental realities exist; the mind is more than an epiphenomenon, and mental events (such as choices and decisions) can affect brain states as well as the other way around. However, mind and body (brain) are irretrievably linked and interdependent, and the mind necessarily dies with the body. Aristotle is the best known proponent, within Western philosophy, of this view.

Second-order psychosomaticism (P2): While mind and body remain organically linked, so that neither is complete without the other and unique selfhood can be attributed equally to both, the mind does not require the existence of the body. Hence conscious individual personality can survive the death of the body, but the normal state is one of a mind-body integration. This is the traditional view of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, including an emphasis on the resurrection of the physical body.

Vitalism (VI): In this view, mind or soul, whether conceived as individual selfhood or as manifestations of a collective soul or universal soul, is primary. The physical world exists, but has a distinctly secondary status. The connection between mind and body is ephemeral or accidental and may be altered from one time to another, as in the case of reincarnation from one body to another. This best represents most variants of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as of neo-Platonic thought.

Reductionistic immaterialism (RI): In this view, the material world is strictly illusory and does not exist at all. One cannot speak of "body" in any formal sense (though we have the appearance of bodies). Mind is all there is. The philosophical idealism of Berkeley is the most fully articulated variant of this view.

Even this schema may be too simple. For instance, Polkinghorne's "dual-aspect monism" view is difficult to classify within Centore's schema and may represent a seventh, distinct view.

I remain a dualist (Centore's P2 view) but recognize the difficulties involved. For still more on this issue, see www.uwmc.uwc.edu/psychology/dualist.htm

James said...

I think you ought to be fairer to us nonbelievers. I don't know whether religious belief is good for people or not. Thing is, I don't think religion is evil, I think it is false, which is quite a different thing to say.

When I think about human psychology, I assume that no gods or devils or separable immortal souls are involved just as I also assume the truth of arithmetic, the geography of the Earth, and many other things. Inquiry requires assumptions. In the case of trying to understand the social psychology of the origins debate, I certainly assume the truth of the Theory of Evolution or, more accurately, I know it to be true. Which means that the psychology of Creationism is the psychology of an error. If a person comes into the room and says, "There's a dog outside," the fact that there is a dog outside is a pretty good explanation for his comment. If somebody comes into a room and says there is a unicorn outside, we are likely to look for an entirely different kind of explanation.

Steve Martin said...

Wow - that last comment was worth a post in itself. I didn’t realize there was such a diversity of views on the resolution of the mind-body problem. Quick question: I’m assuming that “Nonreductionistic materialism” above is similar to Nancey Murphy’s (and others) “Nonreductive Physicalism”. Is this true? Also, when I read Polkinghorne’s brief description of “dual-aspect monism”, I assumed it was similar to “nonreductive Physicalism”. Maybe I’m wrong.

For others here that may not be familiar with the mind-body discussion, some Evangelical Christians maintain that not only are there good scientific reasons to abandon dualism (soul & body as distinct entities) but good biblical & theological reasons as well. They argue, for example, that the early church was unduly influenced by Greek thought whereas the original Hebrew concept was more monist. The most readable book defending this view (IMHO) is Nancey Murphy’s Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies (much easier than Whatever happened to the Soul – that was a tough slog!).

Although I find Murphy’s ideas interesting & somewhat attractive, I can’t say I’ve made up my mind on this one yet – there are certainly challenges (eg. See David’s paper Neuroscience, Theology, and Unintended Consequences and Marlowe’s defense of dualism Why I am a Dualist.

So, my answer to question #2 is “I’m not sure yet”.

My answer to #1 is, for myself – No I don’t find either psychology or biology threatening but yes, I believe that psychology is a bigger bugaboo for many Christians (I don’t think Cliff’s experience above is all that uncommon).

Mark said...

With respect to #2, it seems that Christians ought to be prepared for a future in which there is a scientific explanation for consciousness and human mental processes. The history of religiously motivated 'lines in the sand' against what science can know ('science will never be able to explain X') has not been good to the religious side.

I'm also looking forward to this series - thanks for your efforts.

Pete said...

I am very much looking forward to this series. For one, I am very interested in psychology and my favorite sub-field is social psychology by far. My education in the field consists solely in my love to independently read textbooks of which I have read David Wells Psychology and Social Psychology.

I have been trying to formulate in my mind recently why some people "convert" to the reality of common descent and others don't. And somehow I knew it was more an issue of "personality" then presentation or even intelligence (though proper education certainly has a role). This to say, I knew the reason that I accepted common descent after finally understanding the data and none of my friends did was not solely because I understood the implications better but partly because of personality differences. That is as far as I could go. You seem to be addressing this point, and I am very excited to see you explore it.

As for your question, yes, my community is very threatened by psychology (I'm an outlier). As for you classification of mind/body, interestingly enough I am an NM. I think it is best to assume (and as we study more and more we will converge on) the idea that the mind is totally encapsulating in the physical brain. But that doesn't mean I don't believe in life after death, but any removal of my consciousness from my body will be a supernatural event of the almighty God, and I accept such a future purely on unevidenced faith, not because I can show my thinking somehow hovers in an outward dimension then my physical brain.

Finally, as for psychology and my faith being threatened, I must admit it offers some doubt. For instance, if you were to bring in Richard Dawkins, and hook up some electric probes and start shocking certain parts of the brain and all of a sudden he was this devout believer in God, I would seriously question whether my faith was not solely based on certain physical properties of my brain.

RBH said...

Martin wrote

I take rbh's point; in my defense, I offer the fact that these articles are very much not a formal academic paper. I believe that my general point (that psychology views religion much more favorably than it did, say, two decades ago) can be amply documented.

Being an intermittent blogger myself at the Panda's Thumb I appreciate that these are not formal academic papers. Nevertheless, it's helpful to have pointers to supporting materials, particularly when one is blogging in one's role as a professional in a discipline.

Again, I regard the series as potentially interesting and useful, and to the extent that it enables readers to get into the literature it can be very helpful.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Steve, regrettably I have not read Murphy's book... so many books, so little time. From what I know of her ideas, she does seem to mirror the NM position which, as noted in my earlier post, is normative for the social sciences generally. See the previously cited Lillard article on "ethnopsychologies", (not sure how accessible these are to the general public, but easily found in the PsycArticles data base at subscribing academic libraries), in which she outlines the basic features of the "European-American Social Science Model" (EASSM) of personhood and consciousness. All who believe in telekinesis, raise my hand.

On the other hand, I don't think Polkinghorne is entirely a "nonreductive physicalist". He is not a dualist, but argues that mind and matter are two sides of the same coin (just as, in his analogy, waves and particles are two different manifestations of light). His argument, in The Faith of a Physicist is, as expected, detailed and profound. He seems to draw rather heavily on the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead, though somewhat distancing himself from him, to suggest that all forms of matter have at least a rudimentary consciousness. I find this idea troubling in its implications, though non-dualists likely find my belief in an immaterial self equally troubling.

To me, all understandings of consciousness are frought with difficulty. For the materialist, the problem is one of how the qualia of consciousness can emerge from a purely physical system and how free will (assuming it really exists) can be generated by a physical system (the brain) that, presumably, is subject to the same laws of physics (chance and necessity being the only operative factors that science can address) as anything else in the universe.

Ultimately, I am drawn to the idea of the so-called "new mysterians" that no one has even the ghost (pun intended) of a clue what consciousness really is. We are like Newton's mythical child on the beach. We know much more about the brain than we did 25 years ago, yet seem to me a l-o-n-g way from having even the tiniest glimmer of an idea of what consciousness as such really is.

Still, if the materialists are right, that doesn't mean the end of my faith. I agree with those who have offered similar assertions.

James, I wasn't trying to be "hard" on those who define themselves as "unbelievers" (a non sequitur, since everyone believes in something as ultimately real, be it the material cosmos or something either within or beyond it). The universe is complex. It's not surprising that people differ in their views of reality. I simply note that psychology, once strongly influenced by an implicit (or not so implicit) atheism, is more balanced and nuanced now. Looks like Freud was wrong and Jung was right: spirituality is an essential part of who we are, though we'll always likely differ about what that term might mean.

Gordon J. Glover said...

"...(research indicates that a good vocabulary helps prevent the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life)."

Makes sense to me. Learn twice as many words so you can forget half of them and still be ok.

I just finished reading "Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion" which studies the religious conversion experience from the nonreductive physicalist position. Looking forward to this series!

James said...

Embree's claim that "everyone believes in something as ultimately real, be it the material cosmos or something either within or beyond it" is, to use a fancy word, a paralogism because it uses "belief" in two senses in the same passage of thought. Religious belief is something considerably more elaborate. if not more problematic, than mere assent. Implying that everybody has to have some sort of belief of the religious kind, i.e. belief in something 'ultimately real', is just a covert version of the hoary old there are no atheists argument. Religionists are welcome to believe that (in either sense of belief), but it's begging the question to assume its validity in advance. Speaking for myself, I gave up trying to have ultimate beliefs a long time ago as part of a spiritual quest to achieve personal humility!

If there is going to be a serious scientific study of religious psychology, people of faith and people without faith are going to have to be able to speak about human religious phenomena in a natural history way that doesn't presume that, for example, spirituality implies the reality of spirits. A neutral vocabulary would be desirable, and a little conceptual clarity would help too. The word "spirituality" itself is a case in point since it mostly seems to mean "anything about people that we chose to regard with heavy breathing." Does it even have a discernible meaning beyond its role in religious propaganda? Obviously the word has what Georges Bataille called a job. Does it have a non-theological definition? When somebody claims that Jung established that spirituality is an essential part of who we are, just what are they claiming? That religiosity is pretty much ubiquitous in our species? We hardly needed Jung to tell us that. Beyond that, Jung, Switzerland's 20th Century version of Paracelsus, didn't establish a damned thing to the satisfaction of anybody beyond the parsons and middle-aged housewives who find him edifying. At least Freud could write.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


This is heading for some deep waters. I don't want to ignore your good remarks, yet also want to avoid a tangent from which there is no return. I'll try to respond with some degree of brevity (academics are rarely brief, but I will try).

There is a long-standing epistemological dispute about this very issue: is it, or is it not, possible to view the universe neutrally and thus establish an objective posture on which all persons might agree? Extreme answers in either direction are problematic in my view. A dogmatic "yes!" means, ultimately, the disparagement of religion (it is, at best, the icing on the cake and can be dispensed with at no particular loss). A dogmatic "no!" means the isolation (or quarantine) of different faith communities with no possibility of building a bridge from one to another - and (at the risk of annoying you) those who lean to the "no" side are indeed prone to view atheism and agnosticism as faiths. (Of course, the existence of the universe doesn't seem like a faith commitment - it is a "properly basic belief". But belief that the universe is self-explanatory or self-existent is not a properly basic belief; that idea is certainly not self-evident, for I don't share it and frankly don't "get" it. And, conversely, for those who have it, the inner confirming witness of God's presence is (at least in the mind of greats like Alvin Plantinga) a properly basic belief - I know that God exists in just the same way that I know trees exist, that is, by direct experience. (This annoys those who have not had such experiences, or who have or think they have reductionistic grounds for dismissing them, no end.)

I think it is hard (maybe not impossible?) to build that bridge between religious and secular views of reality, or indeed between theistic and nontheistic faiths. We agree on some important things, of course - and personally I think that mainstream scientific conclusions can fall within that category of potential agreement. We agree (or can come to agree) on what is seen. We are likely not to agree on what is not seen.

This has practical implications. The ire that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Weinberg, et al. have about religion is that it is divisive. My rejoinder is that some divisions are good. To say "I am not X" does not require that I devalue or disparage those who are X. Yet, it is good to know what I am and what I am not. The alternative is a hopelessly fuzzy self-definition, or so it seems to me - as George Kelly notes, concepts are defined by what they exclude even more than by what they include.

I don't think we'll resolve this; the most we can hope for is to be mutually charitable.

Try Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, or an article by Hall et al., "Conceptualizing Religion".

End of sidebar. I now return us (I hope) to the issues closer at hand, but noting that it is hard to find the necessary common ground to discuss these other issues. It's the old problem of the elephant - you think an elephant is like a rope, I think it is like a tree. (If it really is a rope, what about those colored leaves?)

Jordan said...

I'm really not sure just what to make of Marlowe's second question yet, but in answer to the first, I will say this: I don't think many Christians find psychology as threatening as biology. We just don't see Christian anti-psychology organizations popping up like we do anti-evolution ones, and I'm not sure why this is. Statements about God being nothing more than a product of our minds seem a lot more threatening to my Christian faith than statements concerning our common ancestry with monkeys. Why Christians don't take more heed of modern psychology, I don't know. Maybe we just aren't paying enough attention. We often have a tendency to simply ignore what we don't agree with.

James said...

I don't wish to hijack this thread, but I would like to make one point: identifying yourself as a nonbeliever is not the same thing as associating yourself with a particular positive point of view, even if that point of view is oen that is commonly called atheism. There are all sorts of people who don't assent to the proposition "there is no god [apparently]" without thinking that fact goes very far towards defining what they think is the case about the world or what else they just don't know. Traditional European-style atheism or secularism, on the other hand, is far more specific than that. Somebody like Dawkins really does operate with Enlightenment era presuppositions. He sounds like an 18th Century rationalist who came unstuck in time. Quaint or not, that may be a defensible position in its own right. It is not, however, mine. I certainly don't buy into the warfare of science vs theology view of history that seems to go with being an atheist of the village persuasion. Not believing in God is a big deal to members of particular theistic sects. It isn't necessarily a big deal to the rest of us.

By the way, Embree speaks of the "great" Alvin Plantinga. From what I've read, Mr. Plantinga is a very nice guy. His philosophical ideas, on the other hand, are pretty routine from where I sit. I'm not sure that he himself would be happy with this great business. He's impressive to a certain kind of religious person. I guess you could say he's like the man who is world famous in Poland.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jordan,
You might be right about psychology being less threatening to most Christians; my hunch was the opposite - but we may both be right here. First some background on what I’m thinking.

I think that many Christians take a utilitarian approach to the sciences, including both biology and psychology. For those Christians, biology is not threatening at all (obviously important training for medical doctors among others) and psychology is also in general not threatening (important for clinical psychologists). (Note, however, that there are some Christians that view even utilitarian psychology as “anti-Christian” since all psychological / psychiatric problems can be boiled down to sin). Once one goes beyond the utilitarian aspects of a science (asking for eg. why do things work this way?), then one has to deal with some serious implications. In biology, this obviously includes “Is there a physical explanation for how life developed?”. In psychology (or at least evolutionary psychology) that might include “Is there a physical explanation for why humans act the way they do?”.

My view - forming as we speak – and no references :-) :
1) If Christians confine themselves to utilitarian sciences, they do not generally find them threatening
2) Once one gets beyond this however, (eg. origins of life, species, consciousness, morality) then indeed the sciences can be perceived as threatening
3) All things being equal for both #1 and #2, I believe psychology is threatening to more Christians than biology.
4) BUT, all things are NOT equal. A) The scientific support for biological evolution (origin of the species) is much more developed than the origin of consciousness for example (from what I understand, we barely grasp what it is let alone how it originated).
B) This scientific support has generated much more organized opposition among Christians & thus more mindshare. People are thinking about it and talking about it. Neuroscience & related fields are much more peripheral in the public mindshare.
5) So, I think once neuroscience etc. advances, we are going to see much more public conflict in this area.

So the answer may be: Biology is more threatening to a higher absolute number of Christians because most are completely unaware of the research in psychology (just about everyone has heard of biological evolution). But for those that are aware of both the fields of biology & psychology, the odds are that psychology will be more threatening.



“I guess you could say he's like the man who is world famous in Poland.”

Which of course says absolutely nothing about whether the man deserves to be world famous outside of Poland. :-)

Lame and Blind said...

On (2), my sense as a cognitive scientist (I'm a linguist in the Chomskyan tradition), is that this question is very much up for debate and that there are an increasing number in cognitive science who are starting to put forth the view that consciousness is probably not explainable by science (not that religion should/could explain it any better). At the very least, the reductionist view is on the wane as it is becoming apparent that many of the insights from psychology, linguistics, visual perception, etc. are not obviously linked to biological properties of the brain in any direct way (though of course they must be linked in some way). Though the majority may still hold out hope (and rightly so) that the mind-body problem can be solved, it is becoming increasingly common to see this recognized for what it is: hope - and hope that isn't based on much progress to date.

Dean said...

As a religious historian, I can only say that the thrashings about of whether or not the field of modern psychology threatens or gets along with religion is one that cannot be answered on such a superficial level. As a computer scientist, I recognize the value of reducing complex ideas down to small, solvable steps. As those steps are solved, others may become apparent so that a step or two backward and sideways must be taken to solve an unexpected branch in the path to resoluton of the larger issue. But eventaully, with patience and thought, the final issue can be solved.
Such may not be the case, however, in the existance/non-existance of a god. I tend to subscribe the the idea that Thomas Huxley set forth in the original meaning of the word "agnosticism." It is not what the word is usually taken to mean today, that is, a "not sure" attitude, or sometimes a "show me and I'll believe" attitude, which in and of itself weakens the whole idea of any kind of search for god because both those attitudes tend to be something rather more like "I don't know, I don't have the resources to find ut, and even if I did, I wouldn't bother." Huxley's definition of "agnosticism" was that the existance of a "god" is not only unknown, but, in fact, cannot be known beyond question. That leads to the obvious realization that belief in god is a personal decision, and that alone. One chooses to believe, or one chooses not to. On the surface, it's as simple as that.
Why a person makes that choice as opposed to the other is the key question here. Associated with that is a second question of why some who have made one choice are then capable of minds and joining the other camp, while others are not. That second question seems the most interesting to me from a Psychology standpoint, and if it could be answered, would remove any further conflict between psychology and religion.
The answer to that second question will reveal why believers and unbelievers continually stay at each other's throats, each demanding the other be convinced to see things in their way.
But when a question is truely unanswerable, in a "cosmic" sense, then all the argument about it becomes just an exercise in proselytizing for the other camp in the struggle between belief systems. Once again, you believe, or you don't believe.
The unescapable fact is this: believers, regardless of what their opponents say, believe unquivically what the Bible says (or the Koran, the Torah, etc), while the unbelievers point to established scientific evidence that believers' assertions cannot possibly be true based on 2000 years or so of continued scientific discovery.

Dean said...

During the so-called "Age of Reason", that began sometime around the late to middle 17th century C.E. and continued through the late 19th or early 20th, many philosophers tended to believe that reason would eventually put religion out of business because it would disprove the basic tenets on which religion is built. They failed, however to take into account the fervor with which some believers cling to their established without requiring evidence of any kind. It surely can be no surprise to anyone that today, in a world that grows ever more unstable and unsure, that religion, and especially fundementalist religion, is strengthening once again, as people search for some goal or purpose of meaning in life; it's simply too difficult to imagine an existance where there isn't any, and all that awaits them afer death is cold oblivion forever.
By the way, I cannot subscribe to your pro scientia et religione, not if you believe in the Bible as the literal Truth. And if you don't, can you really call yourself a Christian, in the true sense of the term? Whether the Bible is true or not is beside the point. The positions are mutually exclusive. Either you believe in the religious view, or the scientific one. There is very little room for overlapping of the two.
I look forward to the remainder of your series.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Dean,
Welcome to the dialogue ... but this series concluded about a year and a half ago, so I don't think too many people (including the guest-author) will be following this thread anymore.

Your point that science and faith are mutually exclusive is pretty much the antithesis of everything posted on this site. Many posts & comment threads have discussed different aspects of the faith / science dialogue. For most of us hear, the Truth revealed in God's creation (studied by science) and his revelation in his Word (the Bible) are perfectly compatible.

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