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Background

In pursuing the tandem lines of inquiry of science and the humanities, the Network serves as an example of the human capacities and emergent processes that can derive from collective social structures and actions. In the chapters to follow, the Network examines the nature and power of unseen forces, ranging from human coregulation to physiological effects of spiritual beliefs. The exchanges across disciplinary perspectives suggest that the “dominion of the solitary individual” is insufficient to understand the human mind or to optimize human health and well-being. To understand human nature and the human mind, one may need to appreciate human needs and capabilities that have not been given due attention.

Homo sapiens are a social species, which means there are emergent organizations beyond individuals that contribute to the ability of our species to survive, reproduce, and care for our offspring sufficiently long that they, too, survive to reproduce. As a consequence, evolutionary forces have sculpted neural, hormonal, and genetic mechanisms that support these social structures. Among the possible consequences explored in this book are that: 1) people are not the entirely self-interested, short-term-thinking, rational decision makers assumed by the mythical creature Homo economicus and 2) some of the amorphous dissatisfaction and chronic diseases that characterize contemporary society may be, in part, the consequence of the denial of the differences between the nature of these two beings. Existing scientific studies of religion have established the pervasiveness of religious beliefs and practices and an association between these beliefs or practices and physical as well as mental health. Religious beliefs and practices have also contributed to failures to heed life-saving medical advice and to the horrendous treatment of others. It will be through the serious investigation of such beliefs and practices, not through their denial, that we may ultimately be able to identify which aspects of these beliefs and practices are beneficial, for what individuals and in what contexts, and through what specific mechanisms.

Recent research has made it patently clear that William James underestimated the faculties of human infants when he suggested that their first sensory experiences were a “blooming, buzzing confusion.”2 But what James’s sentiment did capture is the overwhelming complexity and uncertainty that exists in the child’s environment, and the inherent difficulty in making sense of that complexity from scratch. Our drive to make meaning is irrepressible—when we do not understand the forces that drive our actions, we invent narratives that make these invisible forces feel more predictable and understandable, even if only in hindsight. But we do not do it alone.

Adults as well as children must explain the uncertainty and ambiguity of natural phenomena (calamities of weather, death, and reproduction) and social phenomena (human agents) to operate effectively. But not all actions are perceived as being equivalent. Forces operating on objects to compel action, as when gravity causes rocks to slide down a mountain, are viewed as external causes. Forces operating on human bodies to produce action, in contrast, are viewed as reflective of purpose, driven not only by external causes but also, more important, by abstract reasons such as goals, aspirations, and destiny. The meaning-making proclivities of humans are so irrepressible that when external forces operate on human bodies to produce a significant impact on humankind, even the causes of the actions of these human bodies tend to be regarded in terms of more abstract purposes and reasons. The anthropomorphic description of hurricanes is a case in point.

Actions of objects have causes, whereas actions of humans have reasons. Invisible forces that operate on humans but that appear to operate independent of human agency have been the subject of religious speculations for centuries. These invisible forces include

  • Internal neural and biological forces (such as homeostatic processes and autonomic activity) that exert regulatory forces that are largely hidden from conscious experience or control
  • Strong emotions that seem to arise apart from conscious human intention (such as rage, fear, and empathy)
  • Phenomena such as dreams or hallucinations that seemingly operate independent from the human will
  • Motivations, biases, inclinations, and predilections (such as anthropomorphism, ambiguity avoidance, and preference for simple explanations) whose presence is so universal that, like language, the capacities for their development or expression may have an evolutionary basis
  • Individual beliefs (such as the belief that there is a reality outside our head and we are not dreaming
  • The belief in human freedom
  • The belief in values (such as equality, and so on), attitudes, preferences, goals, or intentions
  • Aggregated beliefs that result in social norms, values, religion, culture, and social movements
  • Codified forces such as decrees, rules, alliances, and laws

Before the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, many scholars believed that thought was instantaneous and that action was governed by an indivisible mind separate from the body. If a palpable cause for a person’s behavior could not be identified, the Divine or some counterpart constituted a more agreeable explanatory construct than invisible forces acting through scientifically specifiable mechanisms. Unparalleled advances in the sciences have occurred since the dawn of the Enlightenment, including the development of scientific theories about magnetism, gravity, quantum mechanics, and dark matter that depict invisible forces operating with measurable effects on physical bodies. During this same period, serious scientific research on invisible forces acting within, on, and across human bodies was slowed and underfunded in part because the study of the human mind and behavior was regarded by many in the public and in politics as soft and of dubious validity. The result is that many still regard the mind and behavior as best understood in terms of the actions of nonscientific agents, such as a god or gods, and the manifestations of mental illness as the result of a failure of individual will—a denial of the possibility that invisible forces (forces that are tractable scientifically but of which a person is not normally aware) can affect mind and behavior.

One could try to explain away the gap in scientific knowledge about invisible forces by referring to the conception of science and religion as systems of knowledge that are in opposition. This approach is common and evident in a spate of contemporary books that take the position that science and religion represent competing ways of understanding the world, and that science (or religion) is the one and only valid way of understanding human behavior and the world around us.3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 For instance, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins places specific Judeo–Christian theological doctrines under the scrutiny of science, only to find that none passes scientific muster.

The vast majority of people from all educational backgrounds continue to harbor strong religious beliefs that affect their daily decisions and behavior, with both good and ill effects. These religious belief systems most commonly bump into scientific claims around invisible forces. When science opens up opportunities to improve the human condition by providing a more complete understanding of the causes of events, their measurable effects, and possible interventions—ranging from valid science education to medical advancements based on stem cell research—these opportunities are often threatened by the application of specific religious beliefs to these endeavors. Scientific research to understand religion and religious belief systems may be a more productive response than broad denouncements by scientists of any who hold such beliefs.

Conversely, when religion opens up opportunities for improving the human condition by questioning the emphasis on short-term self-interests at the expense of the collective, providing a more complete understanding of the human need to attribute meaning to events and their effects, and identifying possible interventions—ranging from the provision of tangible support for individuals in need to the promotion of healthy lifestyles and ethical behavior—scientific research to understand these influences may again be a more productive response than broad denouncements by scientists that such beliefs are irrational. Indeed, the question of whether God exists is of much less scientific interest, and of much more questionable scientific merit (how would one scientifically falsify such a claim?), than the question of the causes, consequences, and underlying mechanisms for the observable human behaviors affected by invisible forces—whether they be physical (gravity), social (groups), or perceived spiritual (gods).

Contemporary science explains many of these phenomena but also points to the human capacities and emergent processes that derive from collective social structures and actions and, underlying the emergence of these structures, the human need for meaning-making and connecting to something beyond oneself. The dominant metaphor for the scientific study of the human mind during the latter half of the twentieth century has been the computer—a solitary device with massive information-processing capacities. Computers today are massively interconnected devices with capacities that extend far beyond the resident hardware and software of a solitary computer. The extended capacities made possible by the Internet can be said to be emergent because they represent a whole that is greater than the simple sum of the actions possible by the sum of the individual (disconnected) computers that constitute the Internet. The telereceptors (such as eyes and ears) of the human brain have provided wireless broadband interconnectivity to humans for millennia. Just as computers have capacities and processes that are transduced through but extend far beyond the hardware of a single computer, the human brain has evolved to promote social and cultural capacities and processes that are transduced through but that extend far beyond a solitary brain. To understand the full capacity of humans, one needs to appreciate not only the memory and computational power of the brain, but also its capacity for representing, understanding, and connecting with other individuals. That is, one needs to recognize that we have evolved a powerful, meaning-making social brain.

Social species, by definition, create structures beyond the individual—structures ranging from dyads and families to institutions and cultures. These emergent structures have evolved hand in hand with neural and hormonal mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors (such as cooperation, empathy, and altruism) helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they, too, reproduced. From an evolutionary perspective, then, the social context is fundamental in the evolution and development of the human brain.

The observable consequences of these higher organizations have long been apparent, but we are only now beginning to understand their genetic, neural, and biochemical basis and consequences. To fully delve into these complex behaviors, science needs to deal with the invisible forces that shape human life, whether it is in the form of physical, biological, or psychological forces. For instance, anthropomorphism, the irrepressible proclivity to attribute human characteristics onto nonhuman objects to achieve meaning, predictability, and human connection, is beginning to be subjected to productive multilevel scientific analyses. Experimental studies have shown that manipulations that increase feelings of social isolation without the possibility of resolving these feelings through human interaction have the compensatory effect of increasing people’s tendency to anthropomorphize, including heightened beliefs in God. This scientific work has implications for understanding claims regarding the success of religious practices, such as solitude, as paths to feeling closer to God. Research on anthropomorphism has now identified developmental, situational, dispositional, and cultural factors that modulate people’s tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents, ranging from technological gadgets to animals, to gods, and the neural mechanisms underlying this transconfiguration of nonhuman objects into humanlike agents are beginning to be revealed.

Guided by the insights from these new scientific theories of anthropomorphism, historical analyses may be worthwhile to determine whether concepts of gods have changed across time and cultures such that the god was created in the image of the believer rather than vice versa. For example, in the sixth century B.C., Xenophanes was apparently the first to use the term anthropomorphism when describing the similarities between religious agents and their believers, noting that Greek gods invariably had fair skin and blue eyes, whereas African gods invariably had dark skin and dark eyes (joking that cows would surely worship gods that looked strikingly cowlike).9 In 1841, the theologian Ludwit Feuerbach broached the idea of God as a projection of ourselves. Brain imaging research has confirmed that anthropomorphism is associated with the activation of the same prefrontal areas that are active when people think about themselves or project themselves onto others.10

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