Science 17 February 2012:
Vol. 335 no. 6070 pp. 798-798
Book Review

Science and the Ontology of Belief

P. William Hughes | 6 Comments

Engaging both the history of philosophy and the development of science, Matson focuses on how we differentiate sense and nonsense.

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"Only those organisms capable of abstract, representational language (i.e., human beings) possess the ability to hold high beliefs. " - this seems another example of a high belief, which may or may not be true.

Submitted on Mon, 02/20/2012 - 11:22

Current evidence from molecular biology argues against the complex “evolution of evolution” required to get from the survival value of “low beliefs” in microbial cells to the requirements for “high beliefs” in people. For example, there are incalculable odds against a) the simultaneous evolution of two cells that signal and recognize sex differences and immune system differences and b) the simultaneous evolved interaction of 1532 genes required for the morphology of the mammalian placenta and c) the simultaneous appearance of new genes for human brain development. These “abc’s” from our evolved written language may not be absolute requirements for high beliefs, but they attest to the likelihood that something more than natural selection is involved in the ability of philosophers to profess beliefs about anything.

Theories that attempt to explain everyday beliefs but fail to connect the biological basis of low beliefs required for survival to the high beliefs that philosophers may discount, are not “grand” theories. Grand theories about the development of our beliefs must begin with the development of a single cell, and that cell must first be fertilized.

If the theories of philosophers did not side-step the evolution of sexual reproduction and consciousness, they might be obliged to clarify why stepwise natural selection now appears to be part of a vastly more complex plan; one that may be more evident to some scientists, and especially evident to molecular biologists.

Are others willing to simply skip from the beliefs about survival and asexual reproduction in microbial cells to beliefs about biologically based evolution of human language and philosophical musings sans sexual reproduction; the mammalian placenta; and de novo genes required for the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness? If not, a paradigm shift may be required to bring atheists and theists to a more current understanding of natural selection that helps clarify the history of human intelligence and the written Word without simply dismissing the allegorical representations of molecular biology in the Christian Bible (see for review Collins, 2006).

References: a) Jin et al., (2011). Sci Signal, 4(186), ra54. b) Lynch et al., (2011). Nat Genet, 43(11), 1154-1159. c) Zhang et al., (2011). PLoS Biol, 9(10), e1001179. Collins, F. S. (2006). The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press.

Submitted on Fri, 02/17/2012 - 20:32

If Matson indeed "classifies all religious beliefs as high belief," he's apparently ignorant of the wide variety of experiences that have induced people to become religious or change religions. Many of these experiences include visions of God and other wholly convincing sensory experiences.

Even if all of these experiences are fully explained by natural causes, they are certainly first-hand experiences. The explanations of the experience may stem from high beliefs, but they have genuine low-belief origins.

To the best of my knowledge, however, people who have such experiences are in the minority in most religions. If that's true, most religious people do not have first-hand (low belief) experiences to back their commitment to religious beliefs; this tracks with the author's ideas. But to ignore these phenomena is to display his ignorance of religious experience. Such ignorance is as pathetic as it would be in someone trying to explain the behavior of ants without ever mentioning, or showing awareness of, the role of pheromones.

That doesn't mean Matson is wrong, but he should be embarrassed. (Assuming the reviewer is correct.)

Submitted on Fri, 02/17/2012 - 09:45

In the notifications I received today is information on how social experiences, genotype, and phenotypic expression can alter the brain and behavior. The article exemplifies what is known about how chemicals associated with nutrition and with social experiences alter the brain and behavior. The direct link from the sensory environment to gene activation, hormone secretion and neuroanatomy is not via the spectral senses, like vision and hearing, which we typically associate with behavioral affects because that's what we have been told about cause and effect. See, for example:

Mixing of Honeybees with Different Genotypes Affects Individual Worker Behavior and Transcription of Genes in the Neuronal Substrate Tanja Gempe, Silke Stach, Kaspar Bienefeld, Martin Beye

“…genotypes of social partners affect the behavioral responsiveness and the neuronal substrate of individual workers, indicating a complex genetic architecture underlying the expression of behavior.”

“Indirect genetic components that arise from interactions of worker phenotypes may aid in the understanding how complex innate behaviors of worker bees are orchestrated by just ~15,000 genes.”

Stories that place the input from spectral senses at a level of importance higher than input from the chemical senses are examples of the nonsense many people seem willing to believe.

Submitted on Fri, 02/17/2012 - 07:15

Another example of a "high" belief is the belief that we are primary visual creatures with regard to the development of our personal preferences for the physical characteristics of others. There is no animal model for this, and the belief is facilitated only by story telling and advertisements focussed on visual appeal. In constrast, the "low" belief of any animal capable of thought must be that olfactory/pheromonal input is responsible both for the development of food preferences and mate preferences that only appear to be based on visual appeal. Chemical appeal underlies reproduction via acquisition of nutrients, and calibration of speciation via its role in choice of a genetically diverse conspecific.

Submitted on Fri, 02/17/2012 - 05:25

The text "propositions á la logical positivism", should be read as follows: "propositions à la logical positivism"

Submitted on Thu, 02/16/2012 - 18:27