Sam Harris is better known as a leading atheist, but he’s also completing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and a forthcoming study by Harris is a flawed but important contribution to how we understand the neuropsychology of belief.
Harris and his colleagues asked participants to respond to a number of statements with buttons presses indicating that they either believed, disbelieved or were undecided about each proposition.
The participants were shown statements relating to mathematics, geography, word meaning, general knowledge, ethics, religion and their own life.
While they were doing this brain activity was measured by a fMRI scanner, with a view to finding out which areas of the brain were involved in ‘belief’ and ‘belief states’.
It’s a straightforward study and you may wonder why no-one has ever done it before. It’s possibly because, from what we know about belief, it’s not clear that this study tells us much more about belief rather than what happens when people respond to questions.
Belief is a concept that is used all the time in psychology but is a pain to define in a way that science would be happy with. If you’re not convinced Eric Schwitzgebel’s guide to the problem is about as good as you’re likely to read, but I’m going to give a quick run through of the most relevant issues here.
One of the main problems is that experimental neuropsychology relies on measuring brain and behaviour during activities, and there is no single activity that represents ‘believing’.
When do you believe Paris is the capital of France? Only when you think about it or all the time? Presumably, we believe it all the time as we don’t assume someone has stopped believing it when they think about something else or are unconscious, when asleep perhaps.
The above example treats belief as a proposition stored in memory (a semantic memory in psychology parlance), but you can easily respond to a belief question if you’ve never thought about a proposition before in your life.
Do you believe tigers wear pink pyjamas? Presumably you don’t, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever thought about this before. It’s an answer reconstructed from fragments of other information you have in memory, reasoning and ‘gut instinct’ to varying degrees.
Saying you believe something can work the same way, of course. You may never have thought about it before, but you can say you believe it.
Just these two examples show that saying you believe or disbelieve can involve retrieving a ‘fact’ from memory, or might involve any number of other mental processes to give an answer.
Furthermore, its not even clear that two people retrieving facts from memory are even thinking about the same thing.
Here’s another question. Do you believe snow is white? Imagine two people are asked this question. One believes snow is frozen water, the other believes it’s star dust.
Considering that each person believes that the subject is something completely different, are they answering the same belief question, or is one answering ‘I believe frozen water is white’ while the other is answering ‘I believe stardust is white’? Now scale that up to concepts like democracy or religion.
This is known as the atomism vs holism debate in philosophy and concerns whether we can ever consider belief is isolation (‘snow is white’), or whether we can only consider them in relation to other beliefs that might need to be accessed at the same time (what we believe a word represents, or, even, what we believe the about what we believe).
These issues are essential for neuropsychologists, because they predict different patterns of brain activity, even though the behaviour (e.g. responding ‘I believe’) is exactly the same.
The point of having so many topics in Harris study is that despite these issues, on average, there might be some brain differences involved in answering ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’ regardless of the topic, but the mental processes involved in answering these questions might be so diverse that it’s difficult to say whether the average brain activity actually describes ‘belief’ in any meaningful sense.
This doesn’t mean the study is worthless though, and in fact, it’s an essential step in the scientific study of belief.
Science tends to start big, obvious and practical, and work through objections, new ideas and problems over time with new experiments. This study is one of the early but essential, big, obvious and practical steps.
Interestingly, some philosophers (known as eliminative materialists) argue that the concept of belief is just one we’ve inherited from everyday or ‘folk psychology’ and because of the conceptual problems with it, we’ll eventually realise there are no distinct mind or brain process that can be coherently identified as ‘belief’.
Like the concept of ‘rooting for your team’, we’ll just realise its too broad to be scientifically useful and we’ll disregard the idea of ‘belief’ mechanisms in the brain in favour of a variety of better specified concepts that reliably map onto mind and brain processes.
Importantly, studies into the neuropsychology of belief, like this one, can help answer these questions, and eventually, they are likely to have profound implications for everything from lie detection to clinical medicine.
Link to full-text of Harris’s study.
Link to Schwitzgebel’s on belief for the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Link to write-up from Time.