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Brainwaves and pickpockets

December 2011 | by Edgar Andrews

Professor Hood is an atheist who believes that our brains are ‘hard-wired’ with a ‘supersense’. Good news? Apparently not. According to Hood, this ‘supersense’ seizes on erroneous childhood beliefs and produces adult superstitions and equally groundless religious beliefs.

In his book Supersense: from superstition to religion — the brain science of belief (Constable & Robinson Ltd) he claims that pre-school children are already ‘deeply committed to a number of misconceptions’ and argues that ‘adult supernaturalism is the res­idue of childhood misconceptions that have not been truly disposed of’.

Odd that most of us grow out of a belief in Father Christmas, but that many grow into a belief in God — as did the writer of this article when, as a 19-year-old university science student, he read the New Testament for the first time.

Perhaps Hood’s belief in a ‘supersense’ is itself a hangover from the common fantasy among children that they possess secret or magical powers like the ability to fly.

Either way, it is clear that Hood’s ‘childhood misconcep­tions’ come in two flavours — those we abandon (such as Father Christmas) and those we don’t (such as God). Could the simple explanation be that one sort is indeed false but the other true?

Fantasy?

Children, says Hood, tend to ‘ex­plain the natural world in terms of purpose’ — for example, trees exist to provide shade and the rain to quench our thirst.

Hood also asserts that someone with Alzheimer’s disease returns ‘to the teleological [purpose driven] thinking of the seven-year-old’. He continues: ‘It is because most religions offer a story about origins and purpose that crea­tionism [i.e., belief in a Creator] fits so well with what seems nat­ural at seven years old’.

So there we have it. If you believe in God and creation, you just never grew up. Sad that the great scientist Michael Faraday who actually founded the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures not only believed in God and creation, but was a Bible teacher of some distinction!

And what does the Bible tell us about creation? That ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1), and that ‘the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things that are visible’ (Hebrews 11:3). That is, the universe was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) and not made from any pre-existent materials. And this agrees with modern scientific thinking!

Less than 100 years ago, sci­entists thought that the universe had always existed and never had a beginning. As an undergraduate, I heard the astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle argue in favour of his theory of ‘continuous creation’, which, if true, would explain how an ex­panding universe could have ex­isted for ever.

But in 1916 Einstein’s general theory of relativity revolutionised scientific thinking about space and time, and cosmologists have become increasingly aware that the universe, as the Bible says, had a beginning. (The ‘big bang’ model is a popular expression of this now-accepted truth.)

How is it, then, that Professor Hood can relegate a belief in creation to the dustbin of childhood fantasy? If the universe had a beginning, then someone or something must have created it. And if it was not created by the all-powerful Spirit we call God, what was responsible for its origin?

Explanation?

The distinguished cosmologist Stephen Hawking thinks he has an answer. In a recent co-authored book, The grand design, he writes: ‘Because there is a law [of nature] like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … A spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going’.

Notice that Hawking agrees with the Bible that creation came ‘from nothing’, but he replaces God by gravity. But this is com­plete nonsense. Hawking’s ‘expla­nation’ of creation-without-God requires that certain laws of nature (like the law of gravity) existed before the universe existed. But the laws of nature are nothing but our scientific descriptions of the way the universe works! How could they exist before there was any universe to describe — and thus be available to create that universe?

It’s rather like saying that a painting could exist before the canvas exists on which it is painted. Of course, we could argue that the painting does have a prior existence in the mind of the artist and that is correct.

Thus the laws of nature could have existed in the mind of God before the universe was created. No problem there. But what is not possible is that these laws existed in the absence both of the universe they describe and of any mind in which they could reside. Yet this is exactly what Hawking is saying.

Reality?

But let’s get back to the Christmas lectures. Another of Professor Hood’s claims is that our minds are easily deceived. Not only does our ‘supersense’ trick us into thinking like a seven-year-old, but it is ‘what makes us truly human and explain[s] how you create your own version of reality, what makes your brain decide what informa­tion to trust and what to ignore’ (so reads a press release).

This is why pickpockets are so easily able to distract us and why we sometimes have false memo­ries. Professor Hood’s ‘goal is to explain how everybody’s brain creates its own version of reality and how we have less control over our own decisions and perceptions than we like to think’ (The Times, 30 July 2011, p.19).

He declares: ‘One thing I guar­antee is that I will leave the audi­ence wondering if they can ever trust their brain again’. That only applies to you and me, of course. Hood himself clearly believes he can trust his own brain and its theories.

It used to be said that ‘sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’ but this no longer applies in the brave new world of evolu­tionary psychology. The psycholo­gist is right and all we seven-year-old adults just need to grow up!

This idea that we create ‘our own version of reality’ in our m i n d s i s b e c o m i n g q u i t e fashionable. In the book cited earlier, Stephen Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow spend a whole chapter explaining that what we perceive as the real world ‘out there’ is actually a somewhat distorted model constructed in our own minds from the data input by our five senses.

When we look at a red hat, what are we actually seeing? All that enters our eyes are light rays of a certain wavelength and an intensity that varies from point to point on our retinas. The informa­tion gathered by the retina is con­verted into electrical nerve im­pulses that travel to our brain and only there do they create the im­pression of a red hat. Conclusion? There’s really no such thing as a red hat!

Bias

The problem with all this is that if ‘reality’ is manufactured in our brains rather than being a genuine property of the world around us, whose reality is real? In Hood’s reality God doesn’t exist, while in my reality he certainly does (be­cause I know him as a Person).

Furthermore, science itself has enormous problems if reality exists only in our minds. Why? Because science is based on the assumption that there is a reality — the natural world — that is external to ourselves, which we can study objectively and which obeys natural laws about which we can all agree.

Why, then, do people such as Professor Hood cast doubt on what our minds are telling us? Because they want to dismiss a belief in God as childhood fantasy or fe­vered imagination.

If there is no reality outside of our own minds, then God is a fig­ment of our imagination. But just as science tells us that there is physical reality outside of our minds, so also the Bible tells us that there is a spiritual reality ‘out there’ as well.

Indeed, it tells us that ‘in him [God] we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). As a sci­entist, I have found the Bible is true to experience, especially the experience of being reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

For me, the Christmas message of a Saviour will always trump the Christmas lectures of a sceptical psychologist.

Edgar Andrews

The writer is Emeritus Professor of Materials Science at the Uni­versity of London and author of Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything (EP Books).