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How Religion Hijacks Neurocortical Mechanisms, and Why So Many Believe in a Deity


iNow
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So, are there any questions or comments regarding any of the articles I've shared?

Sort of.

 

I wasn't aware of a lot of these studies. I'm impressed with how far along we actually are in figuring out the "parts of our sum". Not to say we don't have a very long way to go yet.

 

Some things notably missing from the puzzle that intrigue me:

The development of specific dogmas among religions. For instance, why is hell a "lake of fire" rather than a "chamber of torture devices"?

The nature of the change from animistic to theistic, where applicable.

The mechanism behind polytheism to monotheism. (Always struck me as weird, why give up the big family for the single father?)

Edited by JillSwift
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Some things notably missing from the puzzle that intrigue me:

The development of specific dogmas among religions.

This was touched upon somewhat in the video I shared back in post #24 (specifically, in section 3 of the talk).

 

http://blip.tv/file/2204956

 

To summarize, my take was that the specific dogmas largely come from those in the tribe/pack/group who were traditional schizotypals, but who were viewed by members of that group as leaders... as people with vision... as sages and/or medicine men. The nature of the dogma itself is largely derived from these types of individuals... individuals who are themselves often rather charismatic and affective... then they are simply spread and taught by cultural means... much like any sharing of information and/or stories within the community, as opposed to being promulgated genetically.

 

 

The nature of the change from animistic to theistic, where applicable.

The mechanism behind polytheism to monotheism. (Always truck me as weird, why give up the big family for the single father?)

Again, this seems to be the result of changes in culture and tribal communities more than it being due to changes in genetics or neurocortical mechanisms. By analogy, different cultures will have different hair styles, and those styles will also change with time. However, the central theme of this thread relates more to the fact that hair grows at all, and less about how we choose to groom it.

 

Thank you for the questions, though. :)

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iNow,

 

The article, left out two important considerations, in considering the order in which things had to happen. One, as brought up by a comment after the article, was the unmentioned facility of "language". Another was the thorough consideration of where and when the rudimentary components required for an organism to possess "imagining" or other component facilities developed in other life forms, along with human evolution.

(in terms of human evolution, the required components for the brain mechanisms required for our discussion had to be present at certain points in the history of organisms on Earth that would give other organisms, tracable back to the same part of the tree, the same rudimental mechanisms to evolve from.)

 

The first, language, requires in my opinion, inclusion as being crucial to the discussion.

 

What mechanisms were required, or which facilities of our brain are responsible for symbol formation? What is a symbol, symbolizing?

 

How important is language to thinking? Are there any thoughts you can have without language?

 

How much communication is possible, without language?

 

Answers to questions like these are important to separate evolved mechanisms, from the subsequent development of a species, based on the species "use" of the mechanism.

 

Children are often studied to try and understand, what comes first. There are real analogies between the development of a embryo to a mature adult, and the evolution of a single cell to a modern human. But one is the development of an already fully evolved human, and the other is the evolution of the human organism through natural selection.

 

If one is to consider early "modern man" as more or less a fully evolved human, then the developments since, are just that, developments, and the stuffs before that are the important considerations to be looked at, in terms of our evolution from the primordial muck.

 

Regards, TAR

Edited by tar
added an r to primordial
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iNow,

 

The article, left out two important considerations, in considering the order in which things had to happen.

 

Which article, TAR? I've shared a bunch. Maybe you could use the quote feature in your posts to assist in clarity. Just wrap quote tags around what the person said, or hit the "Quote" button at the bottom right of the post prior to responding.

 

 

 

Syntax is this:

 

Stuff username said, including any nifty links and whatnot goes here.

 

... which would render like this:

 

Stuff username said, including any nifty links and whatnot goes here.

 

Thanks.

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Okay, cool... Thanks. You had some criticisms, but I suspect you only read the New Scientist (popular media) presentation of the data, and not the study itself.

 

I wonder if many of your questions/concerns might be addressed by reading the article itself. If not, perhaps you can mention the specific part of the article with which you have concerns or where you feel there are gaps.

 

 

Here is that article:

 

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/363/1499/2055.full

This paper reconsiders how we should approach the study of the evolution of religion. The discussion leads me, however, to a more general consideration of the way social cognition has been approached in recent literature. This reconsideration bears in mind the kind of problems that Colin Renfrew has called the ‘sapient paradox’. The paper proposes a cognitively and neurologically more probable scenario for the development of religion than certain recent theories that are questioned by the problems he highlights.

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iNow,

 

I read the full article linked in #206 and particulary latched on to

3. The transcendental social and religion

This social indissoluble unity between the living and the dead and between what is often called the ‘religious’ and the ‘social’ has never been better explained than in a famous article by Igor Kopytoff ‘Ancestors as elders in Africa’ (Kopytoff 1971). Although the article is phrased as a criticism of earlier work by Fortes, it actually follows the latter author closely. Kopytoff points out how in many African languages the same word is used for living elders and for dead ancestors whom, it has often been said in the literature, Africans ‘worship’. This is because in a sense, in the transcendental sense, they are the same kind of beings. Kopytoff stresses how both ancestors and elders have much the same powers of blessing and cursing. This leads him to assert that to talk of ‘ancestor worship’, and thereby to suggest something analogous to an Abrahamic notion of a distinction between material and spiritual beings, is an ethnocentric representation that imposes our categorical opposition between the natural and the supernatural, or between the ‘real’ and the religious, onto people for whom the contrast does not exist.

 

But more for the inclusion of the fact certain words had both real and imagined meaning, then for agreement that the transcendental social was the best vehicle for characterising the role of religion in the social development of our species.

 

Here's an approach that mirrors the direction I think we best go in understanding the mechanisms which religion uses.

 

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2394570

 

What is presently missing, and urgently needed, is a systematic attempt to bridge the analytic gap between those defining trends in the study of mind. This was the principal challenge for ‘The sapient mind’ meeting that took place in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge between 14 and 16 September 2007 and which forms the basis of this special issue. Our aim was to channel the huge emerging analytic potential of current neuroscientific research in the direction of a common integrated research programme targeting the big picture of human cognitive evolution, both before and most importantly after the so-called speciation phase, i.e. the period when biological and cultural coevolution worked together to develop the genetic basis of the human species, as we know it (Renfrew 2008).

 

Regards, TAR

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Interesting piece. Thanks for sharing that here.

 

I liked this bit:

 

Thus the crucial question we need to ask here concerns precisely these embodied processes that allow cultural practices to build upon the human biological endowment in order to produce cognitive accomplishments. This leads us to the theme that underlies in one way or another all the papers in this issue and constitutes also a possible conceptual bridge between archaeology and neuroscience, i.e.
learning
.


Merged post follows:

Consecutive posts merged

As for this part:

 

The first, language, requires in my opinion, inclusion as being crucial to the discussion.

 

What mechanisms were required, or which facilities of our brain are responsible for symbol formation? What is a symbol, symbolizing?

 

How important is language to thinking? Are there any thoughts you can have without language?

 

How much communication is possible, without language?

You're trying to bring in ideas with which the study is not concerned. That type of work is being done elsewhere. You will generally find scientific research to be very precise and and the questions they ask to be rather focused and well defined, otherwise, your data is meaningless and unhelpful. If you try to do it all in one study, you will fail, hence those involved in this work focus their question, try to find answers, then based on those answers will ask new questions and seek answers to those (in a "one step at a time" approach).

 

There is other work being done on the subjects you've identified. If you're interested in that work, then by all means, look into it and read more. However, it really isn't necessary for the specific study which you faulted for leaving it out.

 

In essence, by way of analogy, some people are here talking about which of two food choices is more nutritious, and you are trying to fault them for failing to solve world hunger. ;)

Edited by iNow
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iNow,

 

Well sure. To do a proper study you have to focus. This way you get some actual facts, some actual puzzle peices. Still the puzzle need to be put together at some point, using the facts. I am more of a problem solver, puzzle doer, than a scientist. Perhaps that is why I butt heads so much in here. I ACCEPT the science, somebody did the work and gave us a fact to put together with all the other facts that others discovered. But they HAVE to fit together. If a peice has no home in the general puzzle, then it isn't very useful to us in putting the whole story together. Each thing has to fit with the other, the bridge between facts is crucial in both verifying the truth of the fact, and finding its place in the total picture.

 

Regards, TAR

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Well, I take issue somewhat with your suggestion that these studies I've been sharing do not fit together... that they have "no home in the general puzzle." I find that suggestion incredibly inaccurate, but this may be due to the fact that I've already (in my own past) read studies which address most of the questions you've been asking about language and learning and societies, so perhaps I'm biased since I already know what those "puzzle pieces" look like and how the pieces presented in this thread tie so well together with them.

 

Either way, thanks.

 

 

Does anyone else have any comments about the specific articles or presentations shared in this thread?

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I ACCEPT the science, somebody did the work and gave us a fact to put together with all the other facts that others discovered. But they HAVE to fit together. If a peice has no home in the general puzzle, then it isn't very useful to us in putting the whole story together.

No, no no, they don't.

 

Reality is reality. The pieces of evidence are just that - pieces of evidence. If they don't "fit together" it's because the theory isn't good enough in explaining them, not because one of the pieces is faulty.

 

The theory should fit the evidence, tar, not the other way around. If we would go around trying to find evidence that fit a theory, we'd have an incomplete, biased view of reality rather than an understanding of how reality actually works.

 

That's called confirmation bias.

 

Each thing has to fit with the other, the bridge between facts is crucial in both verifying the truth of the fact, and finding its place in the total picture.

That bridge depends on our explanation; the facts exist and the facts need to be explained. The bridge doesn't verify the facts or "finding its place in the total picture", the bridge serves to explain the facts, and it is totally DEPENDENT on the facts.

 

Not the other way around.

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reality isn't reality..:)

it has no definite value, reality i mean, any explenation to reality (including science) is as good as how well it strings the pieces of the puzzle together..

 

the puzzle of life doesn't have a defined set of pieces to be solved with, those pieces being scientific findings or any other products of a certain methodology.

 

science is based on our perception of reality, not reality.

 

and any scientific piece that doesn't fit the puzzle is due to a mistake in our perception, in science, not reality.

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Okay, so how do you know if a piece doesn't fit because it was measured wrong or if a piece doesn't fit because the "perception of reality" (hence, a theory) is wrong?

 

You must have some way of differentiating between an error in perceiving the "piece" and a bigger error in the whole theory.

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If the above discussion continues, can you two maybe take it elsewhere? ;)

 

 

 

Back to the thread topic, a recent study published by Sam Harris in PLoS ONE:

 

 

http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007272

While religious and nonreligious thinking differentially engage broad regions of the frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobes, the difference between belief and disbelief appears to be content-independent. Our study compares religious thinking with ordinary cognition and, as such, constitutes a step toward developing a neuropsychology of religion. However, these findings may also further our understanding of how the brain accepts statements of all kinds to be valid descriptions of the world.

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Back to the thread topic, a recent study published by Sam Harris in PLoS ONE:

 

http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007272

I wish his sample size were larger.

 

I think there are two more things that would illuminate the seats of belief that I hope will get this kind of attention.

 

Authoritative belief - what's the brain doing when it evaluates new information comming from folks ranging from "just some guy" to someone introduced and showing all common "signs" of being an expert.

 

Agnostics - and this would need a really large sample. What's going on in a brain that's not quite pinning down a belief. I would speculate a finer balance between hippocampus/parahippocampal gyrus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity.

 

Were the sample size larger - and I expect other studies of a similar nature will eventually give us a substantial sample - I'd call this some of the strongest evidence for religious proclivity.

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Since the 19th century, it has been widely assumed that the spread of industrialized society would spell the end of religion. Marx [12], Freud [13], [14], and Weber [15]—along with innumerable anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and psychologists influenced by their work—expected religious belief to wither in the light of modernity. It has not come to pass. Religion remains one of the most prominent features of human life in the 21st century. While most developed societies have grown predominantly secular [16], with the curious exception of the United States, orthodox religion is in full bloom throughout the developing world. Indeed, 1humanity seems to becoming proportionally more religious, as the combination of material advancement and secularism is strongly correlated with decreased fertility [17]. When one considers the rise of Islamism throughout the Muslim world, the spread of Pentecostalism throughout Africa, and the anomalous piety of the United States, it becomes clear that religion will have geopolitical consequences well into the 21st century.

 

I sensed a secular humanist bias in the study.

 

Made me wonder, if the same study was constructed with half republicans and half democrats, or half hard secularists, and half soft secularists, and the questions constructed with appropriately related content, that the results would have been the same.

 

Regards, TAR

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Made me wonder, if the same study was constructed with half republicans and half democrats, or half hard secularists, and half soft secularists, and the questions constructed with appropriately related content, that the results would have been the same.

 

Yes, the results would VERY likely have been the same. The study shows that what we believe is considered to be true and is processed in the same areas regardless of our ideology and regardless of the topic of the belief... and.. regardless of the evidence available for holding that belief.

 

 

http://www.newsweek.com/id/216551

What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as "tables and chairs"). He says his results "cut against the quite prevalent notion that there's something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief." Our believing brains make no qualitative distinctions between the kinds of things you learn in a math textbook and the kinds of things you learn in Sunday school. Though the existence of God will never be proved—or disproved—by an fMRI scan, science can study a thing or two about the neurological mechanisms of belief. What Harris's study shows is that when a conservative Christian says he believes in the Second Coming as an undeniable fact, he isn't lying or exaggerating or employing any other rhetorical maneuver. If a believer's brain regards the Second Coming the way it does every other fact, then debates about the veracity of faith would seem—to the committed believer, at least—to be rather pointless.

 

<...>

 

"It is generally imagined," he wrote to me in an e-mail, "that scientific facts and human values represent distinct and incommensurable ways of speaking about the world. Consequently, most people assume that science will never be in a position to resolve ethical questions or to determine how human beings ought to live." Questions of gay marriage, the subjugation of women under the Taliban, a community's responsibility to its children: all these have been relegated to the realm of religion or "values." But, says Harris, the more we know, through science, about how people live—and how they think, and what makes them happy—the more real information we'll have about how best to live together on this planet. The fMRI experiments do not pertain to these largest questions, of course. But they do show (again) what neuroscientists already know. "Intuition" and "reason" are not two separate activities. They're interconnected. From the brain's point of view, religious belief and empirical data are the same.

 

 

Another interesting thing about this study was how it showed the uncertainty even among the strongest and most ardent believers. This was demonstrated in their delayed reaction times to the questions regarding gods existence... Slower reaction times correspond to greater uncertainties.


Merged post follows:

Consecutive posts merged
I wish his sample size were larger.

Yes, I agree. Larger N is always better. It appears they had to exclude 13 of the participants after the psychological assessment, and 10 were later dropped due to technical problems with their fMRI scans, so that hurt, but the data is still solid and the error bars very tight. The probability that the result is due to chance alone is incredibly small.

 

 

Also, I think that the design was really cool.

 

Once inside the scanner, subjects were presented with a series of short statements through a video-goggle display (Resonance Technology, Inc). After reading each statement, they were asked to evaluate its truth content with the press of a button, indicating “true” (belief), “false” (disbelief), and “undecidable” (uncertainty). The presentation of stimuli was self-paced. Stimuli were drawn from two categories, religious and nonreligious. All statements were designed to be judged easily as “true” or “false” (the response of “undecidable,” while available to subjects, was not expected).

 

<...>

 

For the purposes of stimulus design (not presentation) we generated our statements in groups of four (true and false; religious and nonreligious):

 

The Biblical God really exists.
 (Christian true/nonbeliever false)

 

The Biblical God is a myth.
 (Christian false/nonbeliever true)

 

Santa Claus is a myth.
 (Both groups true)

 

Santa Claus really exists.
 (Both groups false)

 

Despite the belief, and despite the response, the same area of the brain was activated and with the same magnitude.

Edited by iNow
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iNow,

 

"It is generally imagined," he wrote to me in an e-mail, "that scientific facts and human values represent distinct and incommensurable ways of speaking about the world. Consequently, most people assume that science will never be in a position to resolve ethical questions or to determine how human beings ought to live." Questions of gay marriage, the subjugation of women under the Taliban, a community's responsibility to its children: all these have been relegated to the realm of religion or "values." But, says Harris, the more we know, through science, about how people live—and how they think, and what makes them happy—the more real information we'll have about how best to live together on this planet. The fMRI experiments do not pertain to these largest questions, of course. But they do show (again) what neuroscientists already know. "Intuition" and "reason" are not two separate activities. They're interconnected. From the brain's point of view, religious belief and empirical data are the same.

 

I like this soft secular approach. I think it more scientific than the hard secular, which can appear "holier than thou" on occassion. Puts us all on a more even playing field.

 

Regards, TAR

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iNow, how do mate. This thread has developed into a fascinating discussion, exploring personal philosophies. However, I am quite interested in understanding if there is a genetic cause for those people who find it difficult to imagine what others are thinking. Also, are there any animal models for empathetic behaviour?

 

Moreover, is there research into the imagining of 'other worlds?' For example, I saw an interesting documentary where two professors visited an African tribe to experience hallucinatory visions and described seeing other imaginary worlds where there were serpents that communicated telepathically to them. Both professors saw mostly the same type of 'other world' creatures and the tribesmen saw almost exactly the same creatures themselves. This would argue for the similarity of the brain's architecture despite different cultural biases.

 

Finally, and I hope you can put me out of my misery on this one, are we all, as human beings, on a spectrum of OCD or schizotypal personalities? Additionally, are there genetic studies, or even genealogical studies to show if OCD or schizotypal behaviour more common in certain religious families and less prevalent in less religiously biased families?

 

I think you are being true to the OP and are being genuine in your efforts to stay on topic. However, it is a difficult and personal topic for many people to address.

Edited by jimmydasaint
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iNow, how do mate. This thread has developed into a fascinating discussion, exploring personal philosophies. However, I am quite interested in understanding if there is a genetic cause for those people who find it difficult to imagine what others are thinking. Also, are there any animal models for empathetic behaviour?

 

Moreover, is there research into the imagining of 'other worlds?' For example, I saw an interesting documentary where two professors visited an African tribe to experience hallucinatory visions and described seeing other imaginary worlds where there were serpents that communicated telepathically to them. Both professors saw mostly the same type of 'other world' creatures and the tribesmen saw almost exactly the same creatures themselves. This would argue for the similarity of the brain's architecture despite different cultural biases.

 

Finally, and I hope you can put me out of my misery on this one, are we all, as human beings, on a spectrum of OCD or schizotypal personalities? Additionally, are there genetic studies, or even genealogical studies to show if OCD or schizotypal behaviour more common in certain religious families and less prevalent in less religiously biased families?

 

I think you are being true to the OP and are being genuine in your efforts to stay on topic. However, it is a difficult and personal topic for many people to address.

Hi Jimmy - Good to see you, mate. :) Let's take your questions over here:

http://www.scienceforums.net/forum/showthread.php?t=44494

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iNow,

 

Wired for religion.

 

Two mechanisms identified in the brain, a reward and punishment mechanism, and a mechanism allowing one to take another's perspective could, when looked at, together, generate many of the phenomena occuring in the mind, and in the brain's interface with other brains.

 

Due to the reward and punishment mechanism, a brain seeks to find the state of reward, and avoid the state of discomfort. Awareness of body, control of body, memory of states, and memory of the sequence of states that resulted in reward all reinforced each other. Pleasurable states and painful states, good and bad positions to take. Self centered but not unable to mimick. Whoops. Mimicking. Haven't thought that through.

 

Do we understand that mechanism?

 

Regards, TAR

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Hi Tar,

 

I'm not certain if I agree with your use of the reward/punishment distinction with this work. It sounds to me as if you think that being able to understand the minds of others and other such things results in a reward response in the brain (yes, we do understand reward and pleasure systems in the brain very well... just ask people who work with cocaine addicts, for example).

 

I don't think the reward system is activated by this ability, though. If you are suggesting otherwise, I'd welcome some supporting evidence which shows that our ability to mentality rehearse interactions with unseen others and that our ability to assign false beliefs is somehow connected with the reward/punishment reinforcement systems (and how those abilities interact with dopamine and serotonin levels, etc.).

 

Again, I really don't think these underlying neurological mechanisms are tied in any way to behavioral reinforcement as we understand it. I would need to see some articles to be convinced otherwise.

 

However, what I DO think is that these mechanisms have been reinforced evolutionarily... that they have been selected for. I see them being reinforced from one generation to the next, but that is a completely different form of reinforcement than the "sex feels good" and "pizza makes me happy" types of reinforcement to which you seem to be alluding.

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iNow,

 

Well I'll have to go look up some stuff, but I remember years ago reading a study that showed similarities in the chemical rewards to the brain in gamblers, when they win, and drug addicts when they take a certain drug. It took me down a line of thought, that I rightly or wrongly have used to understand people's actions and underlying motivation.

 

For instance, I will sit at a computer screen and play Civilization or Soduko or what ever, and enjoy the "winning". Even though this activity doesn't enhance my life in ANY other way. It isn't social. It doesn't put food on the table, and it certainly doesn't help anybody else or society. Maybe it might improve my understanding of how civilizations build success upon the success of the past, and planning and such, or the Soduko might teach me how to use various directions of logic similtaneously, but basically, the purpose is to conquer the world, or complete the sudoku, and feel good about it.

 

I subsequently viewed this same reward (punishment) mechanism as being somewhat, if not directly and associatively analogous to pleasure/pain, good/bad, success/failure, victory/loss, and when combined with our associations with others right/wrong, love/hate, proper/improper, accepted/not accepted, legal/illegal, and so forth.

 

Interesting to me, is how this idea of what pleases/displeases you can be attributed as well to others, and one can gain pleasure by pleasing another and just the knowledge of the pleasing (even though the other might be unseen, or even imaginary) is pleasing.

 

It can go so far as to explain things like "rationalizing" where you do something hurtful, but search for some other (real or imaginary, internally or externally based) entity that it would please, and therefore make it alright.

 

The calculus of how this all works out, for an individual or a group or a society, or a species is indeed ongoing and complex. Pleasures and pains on one level can outweigh the rewards and punishments on others. Individuals develop personalities based on the formulas that have worked best for them, and fall into roles, that please their friends and family, coworkers, and society, and perhaps nature as well. Cause after all, if we please ourselves, we are pleasing ourselves and we are natural.

 

Regards, TAR

 

P.S. I will go look for some corroborating evidence.

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TAR - Just to be clear, I understand the reward/punishment mechanism rather well. My point is that it doesn't seem to apply to the neurological architectures under discussion in this thread... architectures which... when taken together... result in a tendency toward belief in deity.

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