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Seeing the Meta from Mt. Science


Disagreement between those who emphasize science and those who emphasize religion tends to be reducible to a matter of ignoring boundaries. This can be direct, as when a religious person holds that a scientific finding cannot be true because it contradicts his or her faith, or indirect, as when a secularist implies that science is providing meaning or moral judgment.

One can see the indirect version — crossing boundaries by assumption — when scientists fail to include the possibility that a religious belief is correct while attempting to explain their findings. Whether they realize it or not, they have given to science the realm of discerning what is and left to religion the realm of what we want to believe. As we see in public education, the first principle is to leave God out of it and focus, instead, on human beliefs about Him when it can’t be avoided. This dictum crosses science’s boundary to smuggle in the belief that God can’t be real.

In a recent UPI article, Brooks Hays reports on a paper by psychology professor Adam Green. The fact that Green works at Georgetown University, an ostensibly Catholic college, illustrates how deeply ingrained is the faulty notion that real science is not permitted to acknowledge the possibility of God as an actually existent Being.

Green and his team found that people with a strong capacity for “implicit pattern learning” — meaning that they subconsciously pick up on patterns — were disproportionately religious, especially those who are very religious and believe that God “intervenes to establish order in the universe,” in Hays’s language. Without knowing that a pattern existed or being told that their task was to find patterns, these folks picked up on them.

Given increasing doubts about the replicability of social science experiments, put aside the question of whether Green’s findings are accurate. (Although they intuitively make sense.) Of interest, here, is the researchers’ conclusion:

“This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods,” said Green, who also serves as the director of the Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition. “Our hypothesis is that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power.”

If one takes away the defensiveness about possibly generating evidence of God’s existence, one can see that the conclusion isn’t strictly in line with the findings. It is the conclusion to which one would come when the first priority is to find an explanation that doesn’t possibly imply that religious people are correctly identifying something true in reality. Green’s experiment didn’t find that religious people were more likely to believe there was a pattern. Rather, it found that they were more likely to spot a pattern that did exist.

Why wouldn’t the conclusion be that his religious subjects were more adept at spotting an actual divine pattern in the universe? They weren’t more likely to want to see a pattern, and they weren’t more likely to think they’d identified a pattern when there wasn’t one. They subconsciously understood what the pattern was in the experiment. That doesn’t prove that their powers of discernment must extend to the broad complexities of the universe, but it’s possible.

If the study had found that people good at implicit pattern learning were disproportionately successful stock traders, our first hypothesis wouldn’t be that they “ascribe” patterns to the market’s animal spirits. It would be that they’re good at seeing patterns, which gives them an all-important edge in picking and choosing investments at split-second speeds.

Indeed, in that case, investment firms might start hiring Green to test their job applicants!

This isn’t to say that we should use the pattern test to find people who can tell us what to believe about the universe. But if the role of science is to discern and describe what is, it will be seriously handicapped to the extent its practitioners refuse to acknowledge that people’s beliefs can be true… even if they derive from some other source than a rational experiment.

Featured image: A serendipitous cloud formation captured by Carl Tidy.


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