An excerpt from
The Ethical Brain
by Michael Gazzaniga
The Believing Brain
The President’s Council on Bioethics was formed to look at the ethical implications of modern biomedical discoveries, and we were fast out of the blocks in considering the hot button issue of our time: cloning and stem cell research. This meant that, in no uncertain terms, we would be confronting the embryo question, a question that elicits secular, religious, and utilitarian discussion of beliefs—strong beliefs—from almost anyone you talk to. The council was not, as one might imagine, a group of scientists. While a number of members had biomedical training, many did not. And many of those with biomedical training held personal beliefs that trumped a straight utilitarian or secular view of the matters at hand. In short, the council reflected a real cross section of society: a group of people that ranged from those possessing complex secular beliefs about the value of the natural world, to those who held utilitarian beliefs, to those with deep religious beliefs
Nowhere does the human capacity to form and hold beliefs become more stark than when clear scientific data challenge the assumptions of someone’s personal beliefs. It would be easy to spin a story line about how a particular person with a set of religious values resisted the biological analysis of this or that finding in an effort to reaffirm his or her belief. There are many such stories, but they miss the point. Scientists themselves are just as resistant to change a view when confronted with new data that suggest their view is incorrect. All of us hold on to our beliefs, and it now appears that men are even more tenacious about not letting go than are women
Let me be as clear as I can about what I mean by “holding beliefs” or having belief systems. Many roads lead to holding beliefs. For many religiously oriented people, rules and codes to live by are spelled out and delivered by the religion in question, when one signs on to it. For the scientist, scientific rules and codes become part of the beliefs one must uphold upon joining the ranks of the particular science. For utilitarians, the decisions society makes about life’s challenges become their own beliefs. Overall, and this is my view about the nature of beliefs, our species instinctively reacts to events, and in a specialized system of the human brain that reaction is interpreted. Out of that interpretation, beliefs emerge about rules to live by. Sometimes they have a moral character; sometimes they are of an utterly practical nature. We can form beliefs slowly or quickly. Studies have shown startling aspects of how we can generate and hold onto a belief. People who buy a computer-generated lotto ticket for a dollar are reluctant to part with it if offered more money for it seconds after its purchase. Offering two bucks—a 100 percent increase in their investment—doesn’t do it. In many instances the offer has to be extended to twenty bucks. Why? Why do we hold onto our beliefs—new or old? Interestingly, it turns out that scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than are preachers.
Our species can develop beliefs at lightning speed. We create them almost as a reflex. We now know that the left hemisphere of the brain—the one that attaches a story to input from the world—creates these beliefs. We also know the many ways the strength of a belief can be manipulated: it can be placed in conflict, followed by resolution; it can be subjected to reinforcement and repetition; and emotional tags can be attached to it, or it can be diluted with competing ideas. And given that we know these things about beliefs—that most are interpretations based on the knowledge available at the time they were formed, and that they nonetheless seem to stick in the mind—how can we manage to take seriously so many current religious and political beliefs? The ethical and moral systems that emerge out of traditional religions and political systems frequently have common views on right and wrong. But perhaps the reason they do is that, in our species, the mind has a core set of reactions tolife’s challenges, and that we attribute a morality to these reactions after the fact. Is a moral “deep structure,” to use the ethicist Ronald M. Green’s phrase, driving not only certain common values but also the need to create the cultural edifices of religion? In the next chapter I will get into what the common moral spark might be and how it might work. But for now, it is importantto understand how beliefs are formed—at least as I see it.
How Our Brain Creates Belief:
People of all ages and from many different countries have completed this test, and the amazing result is that they all respond more or less the same way. What is different is how they interpret their response, which is based on how they think and feel about the issue at hand. Only 30 percent of the respondents gave sufficient justification for their decision. For an explanation to be sufficient, it had to include the facts of the actual moral dilemma.
All of this suggests that religious beliefs have a strong social component. While religion may have begun from an instinctual reaction common to all humans, it evolved into a social support system and a system of rationalization that tries to make sense of the individual personal response we all feel. Peoples in different historical contexts, who possess different attitudes about a variety of life issues, will invariably come up with different overarching theories about a moral stance.
Toby Lester, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, has spent a great deal of time trying to understand how religions develop, what attracts people to them, and what allows some of them to thrive. He has written that religious movements follow a sort of “supernatural selection,” operating under Darwinian rules. The religious movements that have survived over the years tend to be the ones that promote health, mate selection, and security. The Christian community “put an emphasis on caring for its members, for example; that emphasis allows it to survive onslaughts of disease better than other communities.” The Mormons“ do an enormous amount of social services for one another, all of which builds community bonds” and gives the church’s members a sense of security. The Mormons “have only been around for a century and a half, but already they’re on the verge of becoming a world religion with millions of adherents and allsorts of cultural and political influence…”
Further supporting the theory of “supernatural selection” is the finding that the new religious movements in Africa that have been successful are those that tend to “help people survive, in all of the ways that people need to survive—social, spiritual, economic, [and] finding a mate.” As Lester concludes, “The sources of religious experience may well be mysterious, irrational, and highly personal, but religion itself is not. It is a social rather than a psychological phenomenon, and, absent conditions of active oppression, it unfurls according to observable rules of group behavior.”
This is also the view of David Sloan Wilson, who wrote in his brilliant book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society: “Something as elaborate—as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming—as religion would not exist if it didn’t have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechanisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside of them.”
Pascal Boyer of the Center for National Scientific Research in Lyon, France, believes that the religious concepts (such as “spirit” and “God”) that have been “culturally successful” flourished because the innate cognitive capacities for social interaction that are connected to “morality, group identity, ritual and emotion” are consistent with such religious concepts. In other words, he believes that the religious concepts that most easily fit into our cognitive social framework are the most likely to survive. For example, the concept of “spirit” activates the primary and fundamental category of “person,” and even though the concept will violate your general expectations of what a person is—made of biological material, for example—you will assume the spirit has qualities of a person. You will envision spirits that can perceive and remember events, that have minds, and you will credit them with other human features. The success of the concept of “spirit” thus depends on how well we can fit it into the ontological category most closely related to it—that is, to the category of “person.” This may be why the concept of the Holy Trinity in the Christian faith (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) has survived 2,000 years—it allows the concept of God to fit better into the ontological category of “person.”
Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 145-55 of The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, published by the Dana Press. ©2005 by the Dana Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the Dana Press.
The Ethical Brain
©2005, 220 pages
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 1-932594-01-9
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