Sam Harris v. Raymond Tallis on Neurotheology

neurotheoIn his latest piece in the New Humanist, Raymond Tallis criticizes the way neuroscience is being used to reduce religious thought to brain function, calling out a recent study on the neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief by Sam Harris:

The subjects were scanned as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious propositions such as “The Biblical God really exists” and nonreligious propositions such as “Santa Claus is a myth.” In both believers and nonbelievers, and in both categories of stimuli, belief was associated with a greater signal in the ventromedial cortex. … However, religious thinking was more strongly associated with brain regions that govern … emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict. Thinking about ordinary facts, by contrast, is more reliant on memory retrieval networks.
According to Harris , this study “furthers our understanding of how the brain accepts statements of all kinds to be valid descriptions of the world”. … It confirms what the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has asserted, namely that religious thoughts and behavior survive because they are byproducts of ordinary brain function. It is not because they have relaxed their standards of rationality that people accept implausible religious doctrines but simply because this doctrine fits their “inference machinery.” Religion is a spin-off of a more general trait to draw inferences beyond what experience tells us and to seek a coherent explanation of what is around us.

Harris has responded, telling Tallis he has got the conclusion wrong:

For instance, we do not think our results confirm that the brain has a “God spot,” or that religion has been selected for by evolution. On the contrary, our data lends some support to the idea that belief is belief is belief. After all, we found that the difference between belief and disbelief, in both religious and nonreligious subjects, was essentially the same, regardless of what was thought about. Bizarrely, Tallis considers this finding of belief’s content-independence to be a terrible defect: “since they are unable to show a profound difference between religious beliefs and nonreligious beliefs, they tell us nothing about the former.” Unless, of course, no “profound difference” exists.

Category: Neuroscience

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