How Would You Respond?

Tuesday I posted on an article by Justin Barrett contained in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. This book, edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett, consists of scholarly essays covering a variety of topics relating to the discussion of science and the Christian faith. The contributors range from believers to skeptics and approach the topics from a variety of different angles. Justin Barrett is a Christian and his study of psychology of religion has not led him to banish God from the picture. Many others, however, take a different view. Today I would like to look at an article by Dylan Evans The Third Wound: Has Psychology Banished the Ghost from the Machine?

Dylan Evans has a Ph.D. in philosophy, training in psychology, and has published a number of books including Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine. He was a Lecturer in Behavioral Science at the School of Medicine, University College Cork at the time The Blackwell Companion went to press. I believe he has since left his position at Cork.

Like Barrett, Evans explores the psychology of religion. Unlike Barrett, Evans believes that the study of psychology has dealt a death blow to Christianity as a justified belief. The cosmological challenges raised by Galileo and Copernicus and the biological challenge raised by Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection are, he claims, minor in comparison to the challenges raised by a better scientific understanding of psychology.

There are three specific issues Evans raises in his argument that psychology has banished Christianity from any serious, rational consideration. These are worth looking at and considering because they raise doubts and concerns that confront many Christians, that lead to loss of faith for some as they grow and learn, and that prevent non-Christians from considering the gospel message.

The Virgin Mary in Glass, Image from Wikipedia

Human Error.The first issue Evans discusses is that of human error. Here he looks at some of the same ideas considered by Barrett, and some other studies as well, but comes to different conclusions. He cites Barrett among others in his discussion. Human beings are adept at pattern recognition. We are more likely to identify a pattern in a random phenomenon than to mistake a true pattern for chaos. This leads to a tendency to attribute causation to an event when no causal connection exists. The same capacity for pattern recognition is seen in cases where religious faces (Jesus, the Virgin Mary etc.) are identified in a grilled cheese sandwich, a tortilla, or a recently cut willow tree.

The tendency to identify a causal connection when none exists was also identified in studies of pigeon behavior as early as 1948 – Evans cites a study by Skinner here. He also cites studies that suggest that paranormal thoughts and hallucinations are caused by high levels of dopamine in the brain. Thus the claim is that pattern recognition and the tendency to attribute causation is merely an adaptive attribute for survival with a purely chemical basis.

Hallucinations, “Chinese whispers” and natural human cognitive faculties explain away key characteristics of religious belief. By “shining a harsh light on the often prosaic nature of religious experience as a natural phenomenon” psychological research undermines any justified confidence in the supernatural truth of Christianity or any other religion.

Has psychology banished God?

Does a prosaic explanation of religious experience undermine justified belief?

The Placebo Effect. Miraculous healings in scripture, not to mention reports throughout church history, can be understood as examples of the placebo effect – something Evans has studied and written about.  Belief in the effectiveness of a treatment has a surprisingly large impact on its effectiveness. This belief changes the way that chemical messengers are secreted in the brain and activated in the immune system. But if there is no causal connection there will be no healing. Evans points to the fact that we hear of the lame walking but not of the regeneration of new limbs where one was lost in an accident. A truly supernatural explanation should find either equally possible, the realization of only one kind of healing points to a “purely” natural explanation.

According to Evans the healings of Jesus in the NT are merely examples of the placebo effect, his other miracles were typical conjuring tricks of the era, the post resurrection appearances were hallucinations.  Both Jesus and his followers genuinely believed these were from God – but all can be explained as common psychological phenomena of normal, fallible human beings. Self-delusion is also a feature of human psychology.

Shakey the robot, Image from Wikipedia

The Mechanical Mind. Evans suggests that research leading to the formation of artificial intelligence, the creation of an android or robot, is the ultimate death knell for Christian belief. After some rather absurd historical examples of dubious origin lacking citation or critical analysis (and perhaps intended to play off the psychology of belief and incredulity of readers) Evan writes:

An early example of the new generation of “cognitive robots” was Shakey. Developed at the Artificial Intelligence Center at Stanford Research Institute between 1966 and 1972, Shakey had a complex cognitive architecture in which distinct functions such as perception, planning, and natural language processing were implemented by separate programs, which reflected the emphasis of cognitive psychology on the functional decomposition of mental processes.  (p. 341-342)

Evans claims, following the work of Daniel Dennett, that the functional decomposition of cognition and the human brain will eventually eliminate any ideal of human exceptionalism. All that makes us human will be understood based on simple components, so trivial to build that they leave no room for a human soul. “At this point there is no place in the machine for any ghost to hide.

Much to Consider. The article by Evans raises a number of serious questions. These must be dealt with in a  serious and thoughtful manner. Studies of the cognitive structure of religious beliefs will give rise to doubts and questions.  But Evans’s article also raises another issue. The Christianity he argues against is a rather truncated form (or so it seems to me). The miracles of Jesus were supernatural “magic tricks” that proved his divinity. Natural explanations and the action of God are mutually exclusive. There is no story of the mission of God in a Christianity so easily dismissed. I will reflect on this in a future post. But for today I would like to simply pose a question or two.

What would you say to the young Christian who is challenged by argument such as those raised by Evans?

What would you say to the non-believer? How would you address these arguments?

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If you would like to comment on my post please see How Would You Respond? at Jesus Creed.

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