September 27, 2010

Notaro: Why do we believe what we believe?

I love the intersection of psychology, rationality and memetics: "Why do we believe what we believe" by the IEET's Kris Notaro:
One can make the argument that people accept certain memes over others mainly because of what they are taught they will get out of believing them. If we apply instrumental conditioning (similar to classical conditioning) where we replace behavior with belief, the consequence would be, for example, that belief in god leads to eternal life in heaven. Or we can make the claim that “god experiences” lead to a warm feeling in the “heart and minds” of those who believe God is there for them. Therefore, they believe and act accordingly to what the meme’s reward is: eternal life and/or a good feeling.

In a conversation I had recently with a professor of psychology, we both agreed that a modification of the Critical Period concept is probably the primary reason why people in today’s culture believe in God. This would entail that the critical period for people to take on a belief in God would extend to adolescents and young adults. I personally started to question the existence of God in middle school where Prof. A. started to question her faith during high school. We are both agnostic/atheist primarily because of these experiences early in our brain development. We both accept modern paradigms of science over religion.

Neuroscience has shown that specific brain regions, synoptic bonds, and neurotransmitters influence people to believe one concept over another. Philosophy , sociology, and psychology demonstrate how people can take on certain beliefs because of critical periods of learning, choice (Doxastic Voluntarism), cooperation, and instrumental conditioning. Each of these pressures on the brain can lead to the propagation of concepts/memes. There are no definitive schemes which explain why be believe what we believe as a society, culture, and world. However I would argue that in the healthy brain that all these reasons are interconnected, from brain regions, to simplistic mythical stories.

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