Sunday, 12 August 2012

Three really is the magic number… sort of, pt 1: The Holy Trinity, the Trimurti and spirituality.

The following is the script from my latest video on YouTube, viewable here:

“Does there truly exist an insuperable contradiction between religion and science?  Can religion be superseded by science?  The answers to these questions have, for centuries, given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting.  Yet, in my own mind there can be no doubt that in both cases a dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer.  What complicates the solution, however, is the fact that while most people readily agree on what is meant by ‘science,’ they are likely to differ on the meaning of ‘religion.’” – Albert Einstein

The above seems a somewhat unguarded comment by Einstein: to claim a decision before a definition of terms.  It is somewhat of a pronouncement.  This said, I agree with Einstein, but for the lack of a definition of terms, and those I hope to clear up.  In this vein, for the purpose of this article, I’d like to clarify that I am mostly talking about monotheistic religions, the Abrahamic religions in particular, and Christianity most of all, given its long-standing relevance to Western culture.  Also, for the sake of convenience, I will use the term religion as a collective noun, much the way science is sometimes used to collect under one heading the work, thought and action of those who work within that framework.  I also wish to make a distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, which, I hope, will become clear.

Spirituality is a word that gets bandied about quite a bit, in both theist and atheist circles, and it is one that is liable to generate many and varied reactions because of this.  A number within the atheist community, for example, seem to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to it, but this is mostly because of the way that it is misused by some theists or, to use that ugly, but more accurate word, religionists.

The key point of difference between religious and secular interpretations of ‘spirituality’ comes down to the way in which the root word ‘spirit’ is meant.  Theistic or supernatural belief invests the word ‘spirit’ with the idea of the ‘soul’, but there is no compelling reason why ‘spirit’ can’t have a more poetic, non-magical meaning.  Zeitgeist, for example, literally means ‘the spirit of the age’, but I don’t think that anyone would suggest that a period of time has ‘soul’ (references to the 60s, and Stax and Motown aside).  Likewise the idea of esprit de corps (regard for the honour of the body to which one belongs ) and ‘community spirit’ (the sense of belonging to, and participating in, a (local) community ), are ideas that have nothing to do with a ‘soul’ in the theistic sense.  It seems clear that in both senses ‘spirit’ is an abstract concept, a product of the mind, used to create oneself (or others) a place to fit or a way to engage with the wider reality of the world.

So what do I mean by spirituality, then?  To start with, to try and mend the fence between the theists and the atheists, I’d like to use the definition given by Tony Buzan (of Mind-Map fame).  He suggested, paraphrasing somewhat, that spirituality is ‘having an understanding of one’s place in the world’ .  This seems to me to be a useful definition because it allows a theist to contextualise themselves with reference to their god, and it allows atheists to do so without a god, be it by the sum of their social interactions, science, philosophy, or any other bases for self-definition.

A more fully contemplated definition appears in ‘Spiritual, but not Religious’ by Robert C. Fuller: “Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things.  This is true even when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation.  We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die.  We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world.  An idea or practice is "spiritual" when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.”

If that is spirituality, what is religion? To my way of thinking, religion often aspires to help an individual on their path to spirituality.  At its core, it seems to be a codified form thereof, but most organised religions have moved away from that basic description.  A quote often cited to show how long this has been the case is the somewhat infamous, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."   The ‘new atheists’ certainly seem to take this quote of dubious provenance to heart.  For myself, particularly in matters of humanity, I am always sceptical of any argument that is portrayed as being black and white (nature versus nurture springs to mind).  So to say whether religion is wrong or right is to grossly over-simplify the question.  Any given religion seems to be a monolithic structure, a self-stereotyped, homogenous mass, with all people believing in Christ, for example, often being lumped in together.  This definition is not helpful, given the vast gulf between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example.

It seems that the biggest difference, then, is within any given religion rather than between theists and atheists.  And maybe this is what Einstein was referencing with regard to the difficulty of defining ‘religion’.  If we split the theistic camp between theists and religionists, I think we actually have a clearer and more helpful distinction.  A theist being someone who believes in a god, and who contemplates the meaning of their existence with reference to that god.  A religionist, by contrast, is someone who places the hierarchy and the holy book above god, subconsciously or otherwise, and contextualises themselves with regard to dogma, doctrine and (usually self-serving) ideology.  This is effectively the difference between those that engage with religion’s function (theist) and those that engage with the form (religionist).

It seems that these distinctions can be made more pronounced when talking about science.  There are those that embrace science and religion (more likely to be theists), and those that deny science in favour of religion (more likely to be religionists).  The scientists whose names generally crop up as also being theists include Newton, Mendel and Lemaître, and rightly so.  Less frequently mentioned, though surely deserving a place in that pantheon, as I discovered in a wonderful lecture series by Frank James at the Royal Institution, is Michael Faraday .  So how do theists position science with regards to god?  “[Thomas Aquinas] believed that God reveals himself through nature, so that rational thinking and the study of nature is also the study of God...” .  So it’s appropriate to talk about the products of science, such as evolution, as relevant to a discussion on spirituality.

The evolutionary adaptation that seems to have the most importance when discussing religion and spirituality is called the ‘Theory of Mind’.  The word ‘theory’ is not being used here in the scientific sense, but in a ‘folk psychology’ sense.  Folk psychology being that which almost all humans engage in everyday to try and understand, interpret and predict their fellow humans across the scope of all human interactions.  The eminent psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, Sasha’s cousin) has done a great deal of work on Theory of Mind by studying those that don’t really have one, or whose development of it is much slower than normal.  Autistic people, my son included, are noted for their delayed or suppressed Theory of Mind.  Baron-Cohen (2001)  defines Theory of Mind as "...being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action.  In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and other's minds."

As a social species humans had to develop this cognitive trick of Theory of Mind in order to be able to understand and interact with their fellows, and to be able to intuit their beliefs; even, or maybe especially where one knows that the basis of these beliefs is wrong.  Baron-Cohen (1999)  suggests that Theory of Mind, as we know it, occurred as recently as 40,000 years ago in human evolution.  He goes on to suggest that it was built upon key elements that may be as old as six million years, approximately the point at which humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor.  Indeed it was Premack and Woodruff’s (1978)  work with chimpanzees that defined Theory of Mind in the ethological, and ultimately the psychological, world.

Theory of Mind has a graduated history in human evolution, just as it has stages in child development.  Children generally achieve Theory of Mind by four years of age.  That said, what parent of a 2-3 year-old hasn’t been driven spare by the dreaded ‘…but why?’  This is not indicative of a full-blown Theory of Mind, but it is the child’s recognition that other brains contain different information.  A complete Theory of Mind is properly adopted when the appropriate brain structures come ‘on line’, and as with any ability, Theory of Mind, once it is available, requires ongoing learning.

Psychology has a great deal to say about learning.  For the purposes of this article I’m only going to mention one thing: operant conditioning .  Operant conditioning is the modification of behaviour by the reward/punishment (in this case the perceived success/failure) of that behaviour.  In other words, as the organism operates upon the environment, so the environment operates upon the organism – the organism learns from the environment and in some cases the environment (when it’s other organisms) learns from the organism.  I mention it here for one very simple reason: one element of operant conditioning (and indeed Classical/Pavlovian conditioning) is ‘generalisation’.  This is where we take something that we know to be true of one thing we’ve learned and apply it to all similar things until we discover new rules that disconfirm some, or all, of that generalisation.

I’d like to illustrate this point more fully.  On the most excellent BBC panel show, QI, there was an episode where the inimitable Stephen Fry asked “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after…?”   Predictably, the differently inimitable Alan Davies suggested ‘C’ and got a klaxon (and lost points) for his trouble.  The issue was that there are more words that disconfirm this rule than there are those that conform to it.  Does this make the rule no longer useful?  According to that episode, yes, but that’s not the case.  To explain: Haçienda is originally a Spanish word, so if all words that fail to conform to ‘‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’’ are Spanish, or indeed defunct night clubs in the north of England, then the rule is no longer useful.  But that isn’t the case, so the rule is still useful, even though the rule is also disproved by ‘weird science’.

So how does the generalising of rules, even increasingly incorrect rules, impinge on Theory of Mind?  As children we learn to use Theory of Mind through social interaction, through the success/failure of predicting the behaviour of other’s based on our beliefs about their thoughts.  If, having learned about these other minds in the social environment, one generalises the rule to the entire environment it will appear as though all of the things a human mind has (intent, intelligence and emotion), are in the environment.  If we take the QI example of ‘‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’’ as ‘There is a God’, then, as with all of the words that disprove the rule in different ways, there is seemingly ambiguous and even conflicting disconfirming information on the matter of god.  We humans tend to pay more attention to things that seem important and/or that we already believe  (or that we are taught to believe).  All of the issues that might offer a disproof of the existence of your god (depending on your personal interpretation) – the fact of evolution, the problem of evil, the statistical failure of prayer   – are lesser disconfirmations that can be allowed for, individually, as not altering the central rule.

The only mind that a person is able to project into their environment is their own.  This must surely be the root of a great many of our species’ anthropomorphic religious (and other supernatural) experiences, from ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ to ‘Mother Nature’.  The feeling of oneness with a mind that is effectively one’s own, out there, not just ‘in the world’ but ‘through-out the world’.  One might be tempted to say that this generalising of Theory of Mind is relatively recent (Baron-Cohen’s 40,000 years, for example), as it must coincide with the rise of monotheistic religions.  I would suggest that the rise of monotheism has more to do with the rise of perceived personal autonomy within the social group, and the effect such autonomy has on conceptions of self, and thus god, but that’s a different article.  It seems, though, that more traditionally collectivist cultures do tend more to multiple gods.  Hinduism, for example, has many gods, albeit that it has one (Brahma) that is also three (the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) , and some argument as to whether all of the 30 ‘devas’ are also aspects of the one (that is also the Trimurti).  Indeed, this particular debate may be all about Theory of Mind.

This configuration of Theory of Mind, conditioning (learning) and generalisation uses well-established psychological theories (in the scientific sense, not the colloquial sense of ‘hypothesis’) and does away with the need for new theoretical models; of which there are many.  Furthermore, it lends itself very strongly to the idea of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ in the theistic sense: “The original idea of a spirit is of a disembodied agent, as an immaterial soul or a non-material intelligent power.”   Both the belief in a god, and the feeling that we have a soul, is predicated on exactly the same ‘feeling’ about the world, rooted in our Theory of Mind, and different from theist to theist based on their socio-cultural upbringing and the conditioning (learning) they have undergone.

Theory of Mind is intimately related to the emotion/subjectivity from whence it came.  An understanding of one’s own mind is central and formative to Theory of Mind.  The logical outflow of ‘I’-centric thinking is necessarily statements like ‘My God is the one true God!’ and so forth.  Clearly this is a by-product of one’s personal god-concept being, virtually by definition, oneself.  This is underscored by numerous neurological studies.  These studies have provocative titles like ‘Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs’ (Epley, et al. 2009) .  In others, the principal findings don’t pull any punches: “…religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks” (Harris, et al. 2009).

Is the idea of god having a psychological source a new idea?  Not only is it not new, but it is much, much older than psychology itself.  The traditional Yogic greeting ‘namaste’ has been ascribed numerous nuanced meanings that boil down to ‘The God that resides in me greets the God that resides in you’, indeed Gandhi is apocryphally credited with providing Einstein with this definition: "I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides.  I honour the place in you of light, love, truth, peace and wisdom.  I honour the place in you where, when you are in that place, and I am in that place, there is only one of us."

If gods are indeed projections of over-generalised theories of mind, then the idea of any group of people all having the same god is incoherent.  It is only through other vagaries of the human evolutionary and social environment that there haven’t been seven billion schisms.  In Christianity there are around 41,000 denominations and sects , and in Hinduism there are as many as 330 million aspects of god  that could potentially be worshipped individually (though this is probably just a large number implying infinite ).  All that said the similarity between people’s perception of god speaks to the commonality of the human experience (and religious education).  This is why I feel that religion, but particularly organised religion, can’t hope to be authoritative on the full scope of spirituality it can only speak to human commonality.

Spirituality, as a term, has a relatively short history of people tainting it with groundless belief and convenient untruth.  Religion, on the other hand, has a long and rich history deeply rooted in superstition; for all that it was ostensibly aspiring to the spiritual (and would deny the charge of superstition).  It is a shame that religion did not adopt a ‘living document’ approach to its holy texts (which would have been more in keeping with the idea of revelation, for one).  Indeed, both religion and science might have been many centuries more advanced by now had religion done this, whether off the back of Thomas Aquinas’ feelings on the matter, or not.  It is up to the religious institutions of today to decide whether they continue to cling to the vestiges of a tattered religion built on the bedrock of a changeless book, or to actively and publicly build the houses of their gods on the shifting sands of our ever-changing understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit.

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.  When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.  So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” ― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

1  The Chambers Dictionary (11th Edition). (2008). London: Chambers Harrap.
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  Fuller, R. C. (2001). Spiritual, But Not Religious. Oxford: Oxford University Press (
  Often erroneously attributed to Seneca the Younger, the quote is from Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, known to be rather vitriolic on the matter of Christianity, apparently.
  Retrieved on 21/06/2012 from
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  Baron-Cohen, S. (1999). Evolution of a theory of mind?  In M, & Lea, S (eds) The descent of mind: psychological perspectives on hominid evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  Premack, D & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515-526
  What are known as cognitive biases such as attention bias and confirmation bias.
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  Epley, N., Converse, B. A., Delbosc, A., Monteleone, G. A. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2009). Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Dec 22;106(51):21533-8.
  Harris, S., Kaplan, J. T., Curiel, A., Bookheimer, S. Y., Iacoboni, M. & Cohen, M. S. (2009). The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. PloS ONE, 4(10)
  Prinja, N. K. (2002). Explaining Hindu Dharma (2nd Ed.). Leicester, UK: Vishwa Hindu Parishad (UK), pp. 14.
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