Invited Post by John Nail, Ph.D.
One of the ongoing conflicts in our sharply divided nation is that between religion and science. Extremists on one side argue that science is attempting to supplant God and religion. Extremists on the other side argue that science ‘has proven that God doesn’t exist’. The battleground for this supposed science vs. religion conflict involves Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (Evolution). The problem isn’t that science and religion inherently conflict, the problem is that the antagonists fail to understand science and religion.
Science is knowledge of the natural – everything that behaves according to the ‘laws of nature’. We should note that the laws of nature are generalizations based upon observations of nature. Possibly the most famous law of nature is gravity – items fall when dropped. Note that the Law of Gravity is not a theory – it does not explain why items fall when they drop, only that they do. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was the first real theory (explanation) of gravity.
Religion deals with the supernatural, as in ‘outside the laws of nature’. Science cannot determine if God does or doesn’t exist as God wouldn’t be bound by the laws of nature. To illustrate the difference between the natural and the supernatural, we can answer the question ‘how many bacterial colonies are on the head of a pin’, but we cannot answer the question ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. We can scientifically study bacterial colonies; we can’t scientifically study angels. One obeys the laws of nature and the other doesn’t.
Pseudoscience are non-scientific beliefs that claim to be science. The most objective test for determining if something is science or not science is Karl Popper’s concept of falsification – every scientific theory makes predictions that can be tested. If the prediction is verified, the theory survives; if the prediction is not verified, if nature does something different from what the theory predicts, the theory must be modified or discarded. Note that the falsification concept does not mean that the scientific theory (explanation) is wrong – only that the theory is proven to be wrong if it makes wrong predictions.
As an example of the falsification concept, the theory of Evolution predicts that bacteria that survives exposure to an antibiotic will become resistant to that antibiotic. If, however, the bacteria became more susceptible (less resistant) to the antibiotic, this result would falsify (disprove) Evolution. As most of us know, bacteria do become more resistant (not less resistant) to antibiotics. The problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria is a serious issue in medicine.
Clearly, theories involving the supernatural do not make testable (verifiable) predictions. The inability to test supernatural explanations makes them not falsifiable and thus, not scientific.
Magisteria is a term for ‘teaching authority’. Almost two decades ago, Stephen Jay Gould argued that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion as science’s magisteria is the natural world, religion’s magisteria is the supernatural world and there is no overlap, and therefore, no conflict between the two. To put this in different terms, everything that follows the laws of nature can be studied by science; everything that does not follow the laws of nature cannot be studied by science. Science cannot study the supernatural and the supernatural has no place in science.
Creationism (even when it calls itself ‘scientific creationism’) is clearly not science as it 1) invokes a supernatural creator, 2) is not falsifiable as it does not make testable predictions, and 3) as per the writings of the creationism supporters, the act of creation cannot be studied. Clearly this is religion not science.
The theory of Natural Selection does not inherently conflict with religion unless one truly believes that the Earth is 6000 years old, as calculated by Bishop Ussher via a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Note that this ‘young Earth creationism’ argument is an example of religion improperly getting out of its magisteria.
While the following is not a scientific statement, one can view Evolution (Natural Selection) as ‘the invisible hand of God working through nature’. As a scientist, I don’t find this objectionable, as long as it isn’t confused with science.
DR. NAIL is Chair of the Chemistry Department at Oklahoma City University
Invited Post by Dennis Jowaisas, Ph.D.
One way to solve this problem is to decide that evil behavior results from possession of a person by evil “spirits”, whatever that may mean in a particular culture’s belief system. Another way is to decide that the people who behave in an evil way, always culturally contextualized, are evil, or bad, in and of themselves. “They should know better.” Therefore, they are responsible. But even the possession theory of evil may hold the person responsible: the possession results from some moral flaw or overt or covert misbehavior. Holding the person responsible makes it easy to deal with them: we punish evil. Exactly how we punish depends upon the culture.
At the outset I want to acknowledge that modern psychology and neuroscience have shown that some folks are possessed! They possess a nervous system that is dramatically different in function than the nervous system of the average citizen. Some persons with a history of violence and difficulty in complying with basic social and legal rules have damage to parts of the brain that govern or influence exactly those kinds of behavior. We know enough about brain behavior interactions to be sure about this. Brain disorders that involve the limbic system, one of the primary systems regulating emotion and memory, reliably result in poorly regulated social behavior and violent behavior. This is particularly true of damage to the septal, hippocampal, and amygdala areas of the limbic system. Damage to or malfunctioning of prefrontal areas of the cortex, areas that exert executive control over emotional expression and decision-making, result in persons who make consistently poor judgments about how to behave in various situations. They also exhibit hasty or impulsive decisions that seem to ignore obvious outcomes or consequences. The orbitofrontal cortex seems particularly important in this behavior. All of these limbic and prefrontal brain parts are interconnected and emotional expression requires an intact and “normally” active brain system.
Some studies show that persons diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorder (APD) because of their cruel conduct and/or criminal behavior have relatively unresponsive limbic systems and orbitofrontal cortex. Consequently they are less “fearful” of social consequences for aberrant behavior. In essence, they are difficult to “socialize” through the typical mechanisms of punishment, guilt and shame. To influence behavior in these ways requires a conventionally reactive limbic, hypothalamic and prefrontal cortex arousal system.
In the previous syndrome of APD we see evidence of the “bad chemicals” that bedeviled Dwayne Hoover, Vonnegut’s protagonist in “Breakfast of Champions”. The brain depends on a very delicate balance of a dozen or more neurotransmitter chemicals for proper functioning. We know now that most of the so-called psychoses of 40 years ago are disorders of neurotransmitter balance and the prevalent treatments are drugs that selectively increase or decrease the concentrations of these chemicals in the various subsystems of the brain.
So, in this limited, biological sense we could say that evil resides within the person. But I don’t think that is what most folks mean when they claim the inner person as the source of evil. I believe those same folks will not be comfortable with the next consideration: evil lies outside the person, not in the form of some malevolent devilish source, but in the environment’s impact upon the person. In psychology we traditionally label this a behaviorist thesis but over the last three decades many social psychologists have focused on societal and cultural variables in order to understand why we act as we do.
Our first hint that the environment can have such powerful effects on our behavior comes from some old studies of honesty. Basically what we found was that most students will not cheat on an task unless the outcome is important and the chances of being caught are slim. When those two variables were manipulated so that the outcome really mattered and there was little chance of being discovered cheating, almost everyone cheated. OK, you say, but that is just that psychology research in an artificial setting, not the “real” world. And you would have a point, except ….
There are lots of other studies that show how easily people are influenced by circumstances. Two classic examples are the Solomon Ash line judgment studies and the Stanley Milgram obedience investigations. You may know about them and the details are readily available online and in introductory psychology texts. Here are the brief summaries. Ash showed that one third of all students would conform to erroneous judgments of the length of a line, even when the comparison line was twice as long as the target line. All it took was three students, in cahoots with the investigator, to make these wild judgments prior to the uninformed true participant. Now, seriously, how do we account for these results except by social influence, i.e., conformity. There is no way the target person could misperceive the length. In fact, some students claimed the lines “really were the same length” instead of accepting the explanation that they were conforming. How powerful is pressure to conform, eh? Remember, a third of students were so easily influenced they defied the evidence of their eyes, though not all rejected the conformity explanation when debriefed. Ashe also showed the conditions under which participants would resist conformity. Social situations dramatically affect our most basic judgments.
OK, I agree that the situation was rather artificial and the judgment wasn’t that important. But how about this study. A group of college students were asked to help train another group of students from a nearby college by collectively shocking them when they made mistakes on a task that was administered via computer. Of course, no actual shocks are delivered. In fact, there were no other actual students, it was all computer simulated, a sham controlled by the investigator. There are three experimental conditions for the trainers, all consisting of a comment about the arriving students they “overhear”.
Neutral: “The subjects from the other school are here”.
Humanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem nice”.
Dehumanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem like ‘animals’”.
As you probably anticipated by now, the most “shocks” in the subsequent “training” were delivered by the group hearing the dehumanizing statement, and the least by the humanized statement group. Remember, the students were randomly to groups so the only differences were the single, simple comment they overheard.
So, is evil situational? Are good people made to do bad things by circumstances? Does the social environment really control so much of our behavior? Perhaps the most active and, consequently, the most famous recent psychologist to actively promote this view is Phillip Zimbardo. His thesis is that most folks are at least morally average, generally doing the right thing most of the time. However, Zimbardo claims, decades of research shows that our behavior is very malleable. His argument is readily available in two places. The first is available at http://www.psichi.org/Pubs/Articles/Article_72.aspx, an article based on Zimbardo’s address to the national psychology honor society and originally titled “The Psychology of Evil: Seducing Good People Into Evil Deeds”.
The second source is his TED presentation, where his thesis is that the abuse by American soldiers at Abu Grabe was not the result of a few “bad apples” but caused by the “bad barrel”, the social environment arranged by the military command and CIA. (http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html )
In his TED talk, Zimbardo summarizes the evidence of classic experiments like Ashe, his own Stanford Prison study, and Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority. I leave it to you to investigate this argument now that I have introduced you to the dilemma of the source of evil.
Selective Bibliography and Videos
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 253-269.
Zimbardo, P. The psychology of evil. Eye on Psi Chi, Vol. 5, #1
Editors Note: Major source for this presentation
Zimbardo, P. G. (1970). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 17 (pp. 237-307). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press
One result of Zimbardo’s commitment to “doing good”: a positive psychology model of shyness.
details of the Prison exp. in slides
Zibardo’s tour of the former “prison”
Ashe’s experiment on conformity
NYT Science interview with Zimbardo
Zimbardo and Abu Grav
Podcast Part 2 of interview with PZ from Cardiff University
Podcast about Milgram Experiments on Obedience
Training soldiers to kill, but can they cope?
Is this man really levitating? What are some logical explanations for this apparent defiance of gravity? No trick photography is involved. Submit a comment to answer.
WATCH DR. SHERMER’S ”WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS” (and you’ll see why I was honored that he wrote the Foreword to my book)
Physical and Nonphysical; Scientific and Nonscientific
by John Nail, Ph.D.
This is the season in which ‘paranormal researchers’ spend time in old buildings (often charging people to accompany them) with various ‘scientific equipment’ for the purposes of ‘studying’ paranormal phenomena such as ghosts. Presumably, their goal is to photograph visual images of the disembodied spirits or record sounds made by them. However, there is one problem with this: it isn’t possible.
Vision and photography are possible due to physical existence. When you see your friend, it is because light being reflected from your friend is entering your eyes; when you photograph your friend, light reflected from your friend enters the lens and is recorded.
Presumably, ghosts / spirits are disembodied entities and do not have a physical existence, in terms of having a physical entity that could reflect light; if so, they could not be photographed.
Sound is produced by vibrations. Sound waves are produced by motions; once again, this involves physical entities, Not only would disembodied spirits be invisible and impossible to photograph, they would also be silent and would not produce recordable or audible sounds or other vibrations.
Of course, none of this is meaningful to the true believer in the paranormal. Studies have shown that people ignore evidence that conflicts with their beliefs and are unable to critically analyze evidence that appears to support their beliefs. Paranormal believers defend poor quality evidence that they claim that supports their beliefs and reject arguments that show that their beliefs are physically impossible.
It is sadly ironic when people try to use science to verify their antiscientific beliefs.
[John Nail is Chair of the Chemistry Department at Oklahoma City University]