Sunday, 24 April 2016

Of Secularism, The DSM5, Faith, and Lizard People

- Bruce Long

(Note that Memetic Planet sources and references are included as hyperlinks in the text, and as interspersed book links.)

What does it mean that 12 million Americans are convinced that the world is run by reptilian aliens in human disguises?

Surprisingly, US citizens holding lizard people beliefs are currently not considered to be delusional or cognitively defective according to the main tool of psychiatric assessment in the Western world: the DSM5 or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual by The American Psychiatric Association (or at the very least, psychologists are having a hard time determining what to make of it). Nor are those belonging to religious faiths whose beliefs are just as ill-founded and irrational.

In the debate about the value of religious faith in today's world, the question of psychological implications and status of religious devotion versus unbelief is undoubtedly one of the most important, and one of the most contentious. In atheist (and especially new atheist) movements there are many famous and outspoken commentators that not only question the alleged psychological benefits of religious devotion and belief, but openly condemn it as deleterious to cognitive competence and mental health.

Anti-Faith Secularism

There's a growing (booming?) number of scientists, philosophers, policy makerslawmakers, and mental health professionals who publicly lament the damage caused by deeply held and irrational religious beliefs that can often be technically and clinically classified as irrational and either conducive to anxiety, paranoia, and depression, or otherwise simply harmful to the believer and those around them. These concerns have extended past groups traditionally regarded as cults to mainstream religions.

Mental health professionals - especially psychiatrists - have been perhaps more reticent to come forward with concerns. In part this can be traced both to broader clinical trends in the profession, and to the difficulties associated with delineating such things as healthy and pathological paranoia, and the complexity of criteria for ascribing delusion. However, it is also undoubtedly due to political and cultural pressure within the profession that extends as far as affecting the content of the manual for psychological assessment - the famous (or infamous - depending upon context) DSM5 diagnostic manual (more on this below).

Pro-faith (and anti-New-Athiest) Secularism

The view that religion is necessary for psychological health is often held by those that are not necessarily religious themselves, but that are broadly laudatory of the religious devotion of others,and of the idea of religious devotion as beneficial. I'll call them para-religious, and their beliefs meta-religious (that's religious devotion to the general idea of religion). Such views can accompany conservative objectivism about truth, or else cultural relativism (although in both cases the conviction is that it is objectively true that religion is a requisite component of morality and civic virtue) and a range of other views. Moreover, such views often accompany the pathologising of scientistic atheism as pscyhologically problematic.

Then of course there are devout believers: often called true believers. For them, the content of their beliefs is nothing less than an immutable and irrevocable truth acquired through social transmission and acts of the will or - often according to them - one form or another of intangible and untestable divine inspiration. Suffice to say the ascription of delusion is repugnant to them. Suffice also to say that this is not sufficient to make it untrue, and neither are studies that set out a-priori intending to prove the necessity of faith by unbalanced emphasis and selection of criteria that constitute effective confirmation bias. This group certainly wants to assert that atheists are spiritually deficient (not a consideration that many atheists feel the need to be concerned about, as it is based on a-priori value bias), but they're also not shy to label atheists both foolish and also mentally unbalanced (and these accusations and ascriptions are much older than new atheism is).

In opposition to claims that faith is essentially and clinically delusional, many secularists regard a lack of religious devotion as unhealthy both socially and psychologically. Simultaneously, they're convinced that religious devotion is not harmful and has significant value - even if the belief content is irrational. Many espouse the kind of pragmatism about belief proposed by American philosopher William James, which, brutely put, encourages embracing any belief that provides assurance, happiness, and prosperity - largely regardless of its content (in philosophical and cognitive scientific terms, the content of a belief is what it refers to, what it is about, and its meaning) or its practical consequences.

Other secularists value religious devotion of any kind as a necessary component of a moral conscience, stable psychology, and civic character. This is probably a dire mistake motivated by numerous ill conceived premises and assumptions relating to the assumed intellectual superiority of perceived moderate views, a proto-theory about the necessity of external moral motivators regardless of the existential status of those motivators, the positive social value of religious institutions, and the value of empathy for humanism. David Hume's warning not to make an ought from an is looms large (an example application of Hume's point is that just because everyone is doing it, that doesn't mean one ought to do it).

The secularist and pragmatic pro-faith position is very popular, and many studies are enlisted to support its thematic mainstay: religious faith is good for the moral rectitude and psychological health of people and communities/society (or otherwise hang the psychological health if moral rectitude is perceived to have been secured). However, there is a serious question of the conflation of the basic benefits of community and belonging to a social group (any social group) with the benefits of religious devotion, as is evidently a problem with studies such as this one. Such studies rarely seem to implement adequate controls for  - or avoid equivocation on - other causally salient factors like the health benefits of having friends (not being isolated) and being part of a community (they're also contradicted by numerous studies that demonstrate that religious psychotics and delusionals are more common, and much harder to treat successfully). The point being that community and friendship do not have to have anything to do with religious faith or spirituality either in principle or practically, yet religious devotion tends to be awarded the credit for positive pro-social and psychological outcomes by secular pro-religionist and pluralist psychiatrists.

Another notable aspect of the above linked schizophrenia study is that the sample size is extremely small: only 103 outpatients. These conflations, study control problems, and a-priori commitment to conclusions constituting circular thinking are rife in such studies.

In another recent study, researchers associated empathy with religious belief. They measured the responses of brain regions (assemblies of neurons and brain networks) associated with empathy and socialisation, and those associated with critical and scientific thinking (it is not arguably very clear how scientific thinking is to be defined in such a setting). Their conclusion: critical and scientific thinking does not light up the neural structures associated with empathy and socialisation, while the parts of the the brain that light up for religious and spiritual thinking are associated with empathy and socialisation. Therefore religion and spirituality are conducive to pro-social outcomes and empathy, while critical and analytic thinkers tend to be a-moral (that is very much the implication of the conclusions drawn by the researchers).

To be more thorough about the problems with conclusions of studies antagonistic to anti-religious positions, like that of Jack et. al. which implies that religious and spiritual reasoning is indispensable to positive socialisation: one has to engage with the studies to find assumptions or gaps in reasoning. The research by Jack et. al. is peer reviewed and seems rigorous. It cites results of earlier studies by the same researchers that indicate that the DMN or default mode network of neurons in the brain (it 'lights up' for socialisation and empathy), and the TPN or task positive network (it 'lights up' for mathematics, physical tasks, and cognitively demanding non-social tasks) function mutually exclusively - or at least seem to inhibit each other:

Second, it has long been known that the TPN and DMN exhibit an antagonistic relationship, in the sense that activation of one network corresponds with deactivation of the other network below resting baseline. Initially, it was observed that a broad range of cognitively demanding non-social tasks (which we characterize broadly as involving ‘analytic reasoning’) not only activate the TPN but also deactivate the DMN [50, 71]. It was later found that the TPN and DMN also tend to be in tension during ‘spontaneous cognition’, i.e. when the participant is not given any task [72]. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘resting anti-correlation’ between the networks. It suggests that competition between the networks is an emergent property of the network architecture of the brain. Finally, we have demonstrated that attention to engaging social stimuli not only activates the DMN but also deactivates the TPN. In a subsequent study[30] it was shown that this pattern of DMN activation and TPN deactivation was present for humanizing depictions of individuals, whereas dehumanizing depictions, which are associated with decreased moral concern, either involved decreased activity in the DMN or increased activity in the TPN. Taken together, these findings suggest that we are neurologically constrained from simultaneously exercising moral concern and analytic thinking. (Emphasis added)
Now apart from an enormous philosophical question mark hanging over the idea of morals (what they are and if they are even real), what is important here is that - considerations of psychopathy aside - the networks can still be engaged separately by one agent. One agent might be engaging the TPN for certain tasks (concentrating on a mathematics exam) and later engage the DMN (for hugging the kids and talking with friends). Even if the TPN is favoured over time in some agents compared to others, one cannot infer from this that those agents specifically need religious faith to engage the DMN for empathy and socialisation (that would be drawing a very long bow indeed) and certainly not that those agents are anti-social (English longbow long). (There is an even greater philosophical question about what should be regarded as healthy social behaviour, but that is for another article.)

The researchers identify in their findings an explanation for the longstanding intuition that analytic and spiritual thinking are at cross purposes in the brain:
We suggest that this structural feature of the brain underlies the long noted anecdotal tension between materialistic and spiritual worldviews. This linkage is supported by three observations. First, brain areas implicated in analytic thinking (TPN) support cognitive process essential for maintaining a naturalistic world view (e.g. thinking about objects, mechanisms and causes; [29,49, 71, 7377]), whereas the brain areas implicated in moral concern (DMN) are associated with thinking about phenomena which have traditionally been thought of as non-physical, namely minds and emotions [7883]. Second, brain areas associated with materialism (TPN) tend to be suppressed when brain areas associated with moral concern (DMN) are activated [29, 71, 72]. This might explain the tendency to link mind with spirit, i.e. the view that minds and emotions are associated with the extra- or super- natural. Third, brain areas associated with analytic thinking are associated with religious disbelief [73, 74, 84], and brain areas associated with moral concern are associated with religious belief [73] and prayer [84, 85].
Aside from the almost alarmingly flawed assertion that naturalistic worldviews are not able to sustain - or are separate from - spiritual thinking, it is hard to see how assertions that emotions are not physically reducible can be so easily sustained as categorically correct. But those are the least of the problems with what is happening here.

Religionists and para-religious secularists have been quick to infer from the outcome of this and other studies a confirmation that the favouring of critical and scientific thought is somehow anti-social. The inference being that such thinking belies anti-social sociopathology, and that there's confirmation of the 'religion/supernaturalism is necessary and healthy' thesis afoot.

More moderately, the (Jack et. al.) study has been used to support Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) - a beloved favourite of para-religious secularists everywhere:

The study also points out that some of the great scientists of our times were also very spiritual men. "Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight," says Jack "Many of history's most famous scientists were spiritual or religious. Those noted individuals were intellectually sophisticated enough to see that there is no need for religion and science to come into conflict." 

There it is: the meta-religious faith in the dogma that faith and science are not essentially in conflict in ways that matter to scientific progress and coherence. To put the contrary argument simply - either the god of the gaps is real and an explanation for natural phenomena, or it's not and it isn't, and science is going to be very different indeed on each alternative.

Less respectably, Jack et. al's study is taken by pro-religion para-religious commentators to support the astonishingly premature and baseless assertion/inference that the best scientists are likely to be spiritual and/or religious (copious evidence in the contemporary scientific community to the contraryas well as analytic:
According to the scientists, the individuals who manage to use both networks and avoid suppression of one or the other are better equipped to understand the world and come up with scientific discoveries. (Emphasis added.
So - those that admix science and spirituality are smarter scientists because deploying more different kinds of cognition - even those which are conducive to privileging emotions - just has to be better for doing science - doesn't it? No. It's an article of pragmatist and meta-religious secularist faith, which is just as contradicted by neuroscience (studies about cognitive focus, for example). The received wisdom says "Just believe us on this, because we're pluralist, and pragmatic pluralism is a hammer for any and every nail, because we doggedly believe it is, and our peers down at the Royal Lodge tea party won't talk to us otherwise." Well, perhaps the last assertion is extrapolation.

But of course here again is the kicker - as mentioned above: no other beliefs or mode of thought was investigated in connection with moral concern apart from religious and spiritual variety. What about humanism? What about socialism? Utilitarianism perhaps? The latter (utilitarianism or the ideology that says an action is moral if it minimises suffering and maximises happiness for the greatest number of peope) would arguably not even be associated with the DMN as much as with the TPN, or would engage the latter as much as the former for scoring happiness, and yet it is one of the best modern theories of morals that we have available. This study might completely miss the correlation between moral concern and the activation of the TPN in thinkers that are naturally utilitarian or consequentialist. Utilitarianism has no necessary spiritual or religious facets at all. 

But an affirmation of Gould's NOMA seems very much to be one of the intentions of the researchers themselves. Again, this relies on the a-priori assumption that critical and scientific thinkers don't have any other way of lighting up the part of the brain that are associated with sociability and empathy, and moreover assumes that empathy is a sound constituent of moral thought and conviction. Both assumptions are unwarranted.

The researchers are clear about the fact that the brain has probably evolved to work in this partitioned way in order to prevent cognitive confusion:

The neuroimaging findings show there is a constraint on activating both brain networks at the same time. However, tests of empathic concern and of analytic thinking measure people’s ability within specific contexts. Engaging social stimuli are associated with activation of the DMN and deactivation of the TPN, whereas analytic problems are associated with activation of the TPN and deactivation of the DMN. Hence, there is no contradiction inherent in an individual excelling in both domains, provided they engage and disengage the DMN and TPN in a manner appropriate to the context. Indeed, it is plausible that this feature of the brain’s organization is present precisely so that analytic and empathetic thinking do not interfere with each other. (emphasis added)
Note that it moreover still does not logically follow in any sense that religious devotion is either the only approach to lighting up the DMN, nor that it is even the best approach. The study simply didn't test for thinking about - say - sex parties with friends, secular humanism, or the labor movement. Somehow, however, the researchers achieve simultaneous demonisation of unbelief as immoral or amoral and therefore anti-social, and laudation of - you guessed it - pluralist Jamesian pragmatism.

The first study of the researchers compared subject performance on critical and physical thinking tests with their performance on empathy tests, and took a voluntary score from them of their degree of religious devotion:

Study 1 suggests that the relationship between analytic thinking and disbelief may be at least partially accounted for by the observed negative correlations between analytic thinking and moral concern, and the positive relationship between empathic concern and belief in God or a universal spirit.
There is an a-priori assumption here that affects set up of the research: only a score for religious belief and spirituality was taken. No one asked the agents to provide a score for how humanistic or utilitarian they were. It's assumed a-priori that religious and spiritual devotion is the best and only way to secure pro-social moral rectitude. If the entire research program was rerun without any reference to spirituality or religion - it is likely that a confirmation of a correlation between humanism and diminished analytic thinking would have been demonstrated. Or in some cases - utilitarianism that deploys a scoring system for determing what is moral action - moral rectitude might well come out correlated with the TPN.

The link between moral concern and religious devotion therefore does not indicate that analytic thinkers are less morally concerned because they're not religious - only that they are don't tend to be religious.

There are a number of other problems with this research. For example, in Study 4 participants are asked to answer a question about prosocial intentions:

This scale asks to participants “to what extent do you intend, in the next six weeks, to… A representative item is “Go out of your way to help a stranger in need.”
The glaring problem here - and it does affect other parts of the study - is that the believer in a god could simply lie and report in the positive because they feel compelled to do so, but not actually ever follow through with action, with the background intention that they might later ask for forgiveness on the basis of the same belief - perhaps. More importantly, the analytic thinker and unbeliever may well be reticent to answer positively - not due to a lack of prosocial conviction - but for many other reasons such as because they are more careful about making future predictions. The intention is there, but the expression of it is curbed by rational assessment and caution. This is not controlled for and could easily be a common trait for that type of thinker.

In other words, the believer is confident to express their intention as they believe they will be forgiven if they fail to perform, whereas the unbeliever is reticent to irrationally guarantee something they feel - on a rational basis - might be difficult to achieve given context or prevailing conditions. Then there is the spontaneous, humble personality that acts altruistically without premeditation: also common and not accounted for.

Moreover, the utilitarian and atheist humanist may have similar moral leanings - but they're simply not identified. And, not to want to confuse the issue unnecessarily - but recent utilitarian assessments of empathy from Yale professor of psychology Paul Bloom also put a pall over the value of human empathy anyway. It might turn out to be a bad thing for the aspiring humanist.

Study 8 in the research seems to dispense with the possibility that any kind of positive social participation should be as good as religious social participation for the indication of moral concern. It allegedly does so by demonstrating that increased empathy and moral concern is not based upon the membership of or regular contact with the religious group or community:

These data serve to both replicate and extend the above studies by demonstrating that neither socially desirable responding, religious practice, nor social contact associated with religious affiliation explains the positive relationship between moral concern and belief.
Again, this does not negate the possibility that it's not only religious and spiritual beliefs that can form the basis of - or otherwise be correlated with - moral concern and empathy (again, if we think Bloom is wrong about empathy being bad) but that a variety of other beliefs can serve the same purpose: humanistic, secular, socialistic, and altruistic outlooks could all give a similar result. These could all in turn be positively correlated with analytic thinking.

Cultural Pressures

The United States is both home of the American Psychiatric Association and of a fascinating culture from the viewpoint of the philosophy of religion. Americans have perhaps the most diversified belief systems in the world. It's the home to many of the same fundamentalist Protestant and Catholic denominations as are present in Europe, a variety of  types of Islam and Judaism, all of the faiths of Asia including Hinduism and Buddhism, well as myriad sects and derivatives of Christianity from Mormonism, to Jehovah's Witnesses, to Pentecostals. The variety of faiths is staggering.

This pluralist (although majority Christian theist) religio-cultural landscape is arguably largely attributable to some key cultural and political factors in combination. The famous cultural paradigm of manifest destiny is a keystone of individuality and independence: the power of the will of the individual. The pluralist ideologues among the Founding Fathers and authors of the constitution with their disdain for the theocracies and state religions of Europe ensured a culture supportive of religious freedom of individual choice - although arguably this took some time to mature and enclaves of authoritarian extremism resulted in such anomalies as the Salem Witch trials, the Ku Klux Klan, and the imposition of Christianity upon native Americans. Democratic ethos plays a large part. Finally, Jamesian pragmatism cemented the national commitment to pluralism in the 19th century. The combination of pluralist para-religionism and freedom of choice in devotion are undoubtedly some of the primary influences on the complex religio-cultural makeup of the American people.

In part The United States has in common with parts of the European continent and British Commonwealth what could fairly be called a meta-religious outlook. It's a kind of cultural religious devotion to religious faith. Faith in faith. So it's hardly surprising that avid new atheist criticism of the psychological and sociological value of religion are frequently not well-received. Conflicts between Darwinist and scientistic worldviews and the religious are concomittantly common to US history.

Of course, the recent rise of 'the nones', and the long term presence of Marxist derivative and traditional atheist and non-theist belief systems mean that this picture is far from complete without acknowledging the presence of ideologies that provoked the Macarthy era Cold War paranoia, but the USA is still predominantly religious by any account.

The DSM5 and Lizard People

In keeping with the theme that there is something not just anti-social, but psychologically problematic with religious faith, famous biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins' suggestion that theist believers are suffering from a 'god' delusion is not presented as a metaphor. Famous working evolutionary biologist and atheist activist Jerry Coyne has backed calls from philosopher Peter Boghossian to revise DSM  - to include irrational religious devotion as a psychiatric delusional disorder.

The argument, which is much stronger than many pro-religious secularists will find comfortable, is that religious devotion gets a pass 'just because': just because it is popular, conventional, common, and widespread. It's not just at first blush that these don't seem to be very good criteria for regarding religious devotion as not-delusional. There are arguably glaring inconsistencies - if not overall contradictions, in the relevant DSM references. As mentioned above, Hume taught us some time ago that one should not try to assert an ought based upon an is, but the authors of the DSM5 apparently favoured pluralist political molification.

The DSM5 defines delusion as follows:

Delusion. A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgment, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility.
So what you have here is an enormous concession to beliefs that would otherwise be regarded as delusional, irrational, and incredible - because they are held by a majority of persons in the culture - or even the subculture. In other words - if you're a member of a subculture of 12 million people that believes that there are lizard people in human suits running the world - then you're not delusional by dint of complicity and community opinion. (There are echoes of De Tocquville's tyranny of the majority for democracy here.)

But of course there is a glaring problem with this outcome. Those 12 million Americans are also part of a much larger society in which much larger groups have a sound understanding - even if limited in complexity - that extraordinary claims need solid publicly verifiable proof. The awareness of the importance of scientific evidence - and more importantly awareness of the efficacy of science - is just as widespread as the conspiracy theory about lizard people rulers. This does not even take into account the common understanding that such things are difficult for any group to hide - even if it has massive resources. Then there are clear and obvious indications from within the conspiracy theoretic subculture itself: only so many perfectly normal screenshots and videos of newscasters and anchor women can carry the caption "Look at her lizard pupils" before even the most ardent believer should have a closer look, or else look for better proof. Camera lights in retinas? Artefacts in video encoding? Anyone? Err - pranks? These are common knowledge items.

Even if the society is pluralistic and defined by principles such as Jamesian pragmatism, pluralism, and manifest destiny as described above - the lizard people belief is not only still obviously irrational and extremely delusional, but it is so on the terms of the DSM5 definition itself. Religious devotion is not marked by any significant relevant differences or distinctions with lizard people beliefs at all, even when historical context is taken into account. Like religious devouts, lizard people believers are also members of multiple subcultures and a larger culture that has taught them the importance of not jumping to wild conclusions without some scientific and material evidence. In other words, on an easily accessible rational basis they should be science believers also, and that on its own should trump their lizard people beliefs. Let alone that they are part of a culture that makes basic rational discourses on a number of levels easily accessible - even for less well educated persons.

The DSM5 continues thus:
Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g. persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, grandiose)...Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences...The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity.

The conflicting evidence and the dearth of supporting evidence should be rationally apparent to most of the lizard people believers in the US based on their awareness of basic science and of the pluralist nature of their own culture. Support for belief pluralism and the theses like that of Gould's NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) should not negate any of the above: not if agents are rational. Simply stated - it is straightforward to support secular, intellectual, and religious belief pluralism whilst still identifying that some beliefs just don't make sense in the light of a dearth of evidence, or an abundance of contradictory evidence. Not to do so is irrational and can only be called delusional. Mass delusion maybe - but pathological and by extension anti-social delusion nonetheless.

Can anyone really claim that there is any more negative evidence for, or any less of a dearth of positive evidence for, the existence of an all knowing, omnipresent god being that doesn't like homosexuality or pork, and that seems to have a character best explainable on the basis of psychology and psycho-social developmental influences due to its having been created as a fiction by the believers that are so like it in views and behaviour? Not with any credibility given openly available scientific understanding and its cultural credibility.

More to the point - what is not both delusional and grandiose about believing sincerely that one is the child and heir of a grand omniscent, omnipresent creator of the universe, and who stops to not only bother taking notice of the miniscule inhabitants of one world among trillions, but then issues mandates against consuming pork and shellfish, and against thinking about sex with beautiful women (which instinct is a deep part of the human psyche). The undeniably grandiose delusion that the believer is part of a grand supernatural army enjoined to bring about the apocalypse and celebrate the destruction of all unbelief, is almost rendered insignificant in the face of apparent copious delusions of reference involving believing that some god of the universe assumed to exist with no demonstrable evidence is bothering to talk to one personally and through an arcane religious book.

It doesn't matter that religious books are often taken as such: rational modern human beings should know better precisely because of the science part of Gould's NOMA. Gould's NOMA should tell the rational thinker that the god of the gaps is not a good way of doing science, and therefore that Gould's NOMA is wrong.

Even a casual untrained reader should know enough about narcissism from popular culture and the internet to identify it in the beliefs of those that require compliance and affirmation of their beliefs on pain of demonisation and threats of divine punishment. It's clinical definition in the DSM makes the case for the delusional and pathological status of theism even more acute.

Religious faiths have beliefs and premises that are every bit as irrational and apparently delusional as conspiracy theories of the lizard aliens kind on this scale, and there are really no salient differences that set the two apart in such a way as to make one less apparently pathological than the other.

Para-religious and pro-religious secularists need to stop trying to bend all of psychology and social psychology against science just to preserve a misguided idea of anything goes belief pluralism that does not constitute freethought at all, but rather suppresses it with prohibitions on rationality in favour of the freedom to embrace harmful, anti-social, and counter productive delusional ideation on the Jamesian basis that it makes one feel - wrongly - affirmed, freethinking, and independent. Correspondingly, the DSM needs to identify Christianity and Islam as delusional in accordance with the immense preponderance of properly objective scientific evidence.