Category Archives: Cognitive Science

Punching Walls: Have you?

BoxerFxI remember one of my early days of Emergency Medicine when one of my fellow providers picked up the chart of yet another male patient who had slammed his fist into a wall during a verbal fight with his girlfriend or wife.

“What an idiot!” my colleague said in disgust.

To which I incredulously replied, “Haven’t you ever hit something out of anger”? Wondering how he could have so easily forgotten the stupidity of his youth.

“Hell no! Why would I hit a wall?” he said with righteous surprise.

Well, with that clear signal that sharing my stupidity would not be good, I kept quiet. But I have slammed walls several times and broken my hand twice. And with that conversation, I realized that apparently not all men shared my stupidity, my explosive anger, my reflex to strike. I was actually surprised.

Years later, in a similar discussion with another colleague, I decided to share that I too had hit walls before. He then asked me “Why did you hit the wall?”

To which I unhesitantly replied, “Because my father raised me correctly. He taught me never to hit a woman.” To which my colleague responded with shocked eyes.

We are all different from each other. Sometimes we mistakenly assume that our situations are uncommon, but sometimes we are right. It is always good to find out, but only when it feels safe.

On a positive note, after my second fracture, I learned to go outside to sprint or to pick up tree sticks and therapeutically smash them — I had to dump my testosterone somehow. And it has been greater than 15 years since I even needed to do that. Further, I am proud to say, I have never hit a woman — its almost shameful that such a statement should ever have to be made, eh?

Is my new found freedom from rage due to a fall in my testosterones levels or due to maturity and insight? Unfortunately, I’d bet on the former.

Questions for readers: How about you, have you ever hit a wall? What do you feel about wall-hitters?

Note: I have treated women who have done the same, of course, but they have been far and few between.


Filed under Cognitive Science

Your Skepticism Temperament

Skepticism_MeterA person’s temperament makes skepticism a joy for some, yet uncomfortable for others. In spite of this mechanical fate, we inevitably tend to valorize our own temperaments over the temperaments others. Skepticism can protect us when it sees through lies and delusions but skepticism can also harm us when we find one fault and yet throw out all that is of value attached to that fault. Skepticism can cause further advancement as we throw off long-held misunderstandings, or it can harm us when we hesitate to take action being paralyzed by skepticism concerning inadequate information. Skepticism is a double edged sword.

So, where does your temperament fall on the skeptometer?  What do you feel is the ideal mix of skepticism?  If I were the head of a manufacturing company, I’d want a small percentage of my employees to be manic skeptics, a larger percent to be largely dutiful sheep and everyone else to be a pleasant mix non-confronting skeptics or Bleating Sheep who are joyfully conformative. I think such a company would have better chances than not of being highly competitive and successful against other manufacturing companies.

Well, it seems that perhaps both the human genome and society have realized the competitive advantage of such a mix and thus create a similar mix of temperaments among humans. So if we understand this essentially mathematical Darwinian outcome, we may perhaps be less inclined to unhesitantly declare our own skeptic-temperament to be virtue while imagining the temperament of others to be mere stupidity. Instead, we will understand the inherent frustration of a successful society–its values and dangers.

Questions for readers:  Where do you feel you are on the temperament rheostat?  How would you label the spectrum? Do you ever try to check your own natural tendency to valorize your temperament?


Filed under Cognitive Science

Box Turtles


Box Turtles are so cool.  My kids and I have captured a few around our house.  We raised them for a short while, then let them go.  But I was very surprised to see this little fella on top of building where I was working.  I mean just sitting there peaceful near a large puddle of water.  Walking down a hall, I just happened to be looking out the window and there she was — a funny little box turtle far away from her home.

But then my head did a double-take and my eyes, as amazing as the human eye is, decided to focus in and examine. Scroll down to see what my eyes and brain presented to me next.

Oh how very deceptive is the human mind.  This, of course, has all sorts of implications not only in religion but also in science, relationships and much more.  For it is our mind that does all of that for us.  Alas!

I hope I have set up this post’s visuals well enough so that you may have experienced what I experienced.

Question to readers:  Share a story of when your eye-mind tricked you.
Here is what I saw after focusing, both my eye/mind and my camera:


Filed under Cognitive Science

Why do Atheist Deconvert?

People leave their faith because their needs are not met. Most of the reasons I offered for why people join a religion are the exact same reasons they leave their faith. Those who deconvert may mock their former religion’s doctrines, tell others how hypocritical the members were, explain how they saw through the cult-like indoctrination and social manipulations, but in the end, most simply leave because their needs were not met.  They are either disillusioned by unmet needs they sought or new unmet needs arose. In either case, the noble reasons they offer for why they left their religion are often just protective, sterile wrappings around basic motivations — no matter how true.

Multi-level Marketers (MLM) leave their dreams of becoming millionaires when MLM doesn’t work for them. They leave because they fail. Their needs are not met. Their minds protect their pride from this embarrassing simple truth by making excuses like:

  • “I hate selling and convincing people of what they don’t need.”
  • “I don’t believe in the product”
  • “I saw through the scam.”

Years after leaving a faith, if she remembers, a believer may feel safer to confess her actual motivations. But often we are partially or totally blind to our actual motivations. Our minds package things neatly for us to preserve a consistent view of self, and a story where we are the heroes.

Christians often claim that Atheists deconvert in order to sin? Sure, that does happen.  That may indeed be one of their many motivations – they desire sex-outside-of-marriage, want to drink alcohol, don’t want to go to church each Sunday or don’t want praying five-times-a-day.  Leaving will help them escape the sneakily hiding their infringements, the guilt or the condemnation of others. But many leave their religion for ‘non-sinful’ reasons too: for better answers, for a more solid identity, for access to a wider social circles or others on the list. But for whatever reason, our minds often blind us from our raw, embarrassing motiviations and give us noble excuses.  We often don’t see our simple needs nor how our minds create ideologies and excuses to make us comfortable or successful in obtaining them.

Rationalizing is a normal function of mind and not limited to the domain of religion.  But I don’t think any habit of mind is limited to religion’s domain.

Question to readers:  Is this your experience? Please share a story.


Filed under Cognitive Science

Atheists who prefer Hell

As of 7/22/12, two out of five Atheists  (n=105) confirmed what many theists have suspected: Some Atheists prefer hell to an eternity with a good god in heaven. (see the poll here)

What the heck was that about?  Many atheist commentors were, like me, astonished with this finding!   But maybe there is hope:  Research has shown that what we say we do (or would do)  often does not  accurately match what we actually do or would actually do (for example: church attendance).   I don’t think any Atheist, in that actual situation, would really choose hell.  Instead, I think they used the poll to make a statement.

I did not post my poll to find out what atheists would really do, but instead to probe a suspicion I have concerning some blogging-Atheists’ personalities.   So here are some of my speculations about why some Atheist declared that they preferred hell to heaven:

  1. Some Atheists are so upset with theists’ notions of “God” and/or “Heaven” that they wanted to show it by choosing hell in the experiment.  They don’t care about the truth of their choice, but more about what their reaction emotionally conveys.  They want to convey a message and will sacrifice the truth of their actual words in order to convey that message — a common human communication behavior.  But remember, these same Atheists probably pride themselves in being rational.
    (1a)  Another version of this may be:  “I hate thought experiments that make me imagine something I don’t believe in.  So I am going to jump into Hell!”
  2. There are a disproportionate number of atheists that have a very rebellious temperament and who hate the idea of a dictator — even a benign one.  Thus, oddly, burning for eternity sounds far better to them than living under the rules of someone else. (see one temperament study here)
  3. The hell-jumpers assumed hell is just annihilation and assumed Heaven would be torturously boring.
  4. They miss understood the problem and/or read too much into it.  Or, I just wrote the problem poorly – though several commentors said it was clear.

Of course the results could have been completely inaccurate:  perhaps a bunch of Christians took the Atheist poll just so they could enjoy throwing us into hell.  🙂  Either way, of course this is not a valid research tool.  But understand that much rigorous research is inspired by hugely flawed anecdotal hints of possible connections.  Maybe someday someone will explore my theory more accurately for us.

Meanwhile I just wanted to say that I have observed many on-line atheists arguing with such vehemence that I think it obstructs their clear judgement — heck, I am sure I do it sometimes too.  This post was an attempt to demonstrate that possibility — even atheists display “the worldview defense” (explored at Ephiphenom’s post).

Offended atheists, fear not: My next post will explores the foibles of theists!

Question to readers:  What is your theory?  Is this probe of mine useless, or do you think there may be something to my suspicions?


Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion

Sanctified Therapists

This post was inspired by my conversation with an atheist who felt that religious therapists are categorically dangerous:

Religions offer their followers many things besides the false promises of salvation, eternal life or miracles.   They offer community, identity, education and for some, sanctified therapists. Before discussing the sanctified therapists within religious organizations, let’s talk about secular therapists.

Some of our best psychological therapists are family or friends or kind strangers.  But some do therapy for a living:  psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counselors and more.   Shopping for a therapist is difficult — we either take the recommendation or someone else or trust that the therapist has been screened by the our educational education system and the law.  We trust the “sanctification” of the education system.

People often rather naively trust our education systems to make reliable products.  Many do not question the social stamp-of-approval.  Such blind trust almost places the education system in a sacred position.   This is the ugly side of “sanctification” — not open to question (see my post on the “Cloak of Sanctification“).   But everyone reading this post knows how to question and certainly would not wander into any therapist blithely excepting brilliant shining wisdom.  Most of us would ask for a referral from people who know this person, even then we would go in expecting the therapist to slowly prove their trustworthiness and not rely on the degrees on her/his wall.

Well, before there were institutions cranking out psychiatric therapists, we had priests. People trusted religious institute to produce these counselors.  The religious counselors are usually trained by other in-house counselors who usually share the values and worldview of their clients.   Many atheists may look down on the counselor roll of religious specialists, but I think we should  acknowledge that screening of secular counselors should always be suspect also. Though I agree that a religious counselor has the potential to the pitfalls of ridiculous magic talk and false hopes, they are nonetheless perhaps more free of the secular therapists pitfalls of income-driven therapy and self-righteous “scientific” justifications.

All to say, I see no reason that a religious counselor should be any worse than a secular one.  What makes a good counselor is a very complicated set of conditions: relationship, self-insight, other-insight, investments, wisdom, agendas and much more. Who is to say that insightful skills are best achieved in ivory towers?  Likewise, who’s to say that the secular therapists are no less vulnerable to the short-comings of religious therapists?  We have to pick carefully and understand well the quality, training and skills of a therapist.

Consumers beware.

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Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion

Filtering out Ourselves

Our ‘self’ is not homogenous — we are a multitude.   Here is an index my posts on my many-selves perspective.

Above I try to illustrate one obvious consequence of this many-selves perspective.  I show myself as a cloud (fuzzy bundle) of all sorts of habits, beliefs, likes and dislikes.  Depending on the filters people use when they look at me, only certain salient traits will stand out to them.  We can find readers on this site doing just that:

  • Some Christians see an Atheist (see: “Atheism as an Epiphenomena“)
  • Some Buddhists see a materialist
  • Some Common Culturists see a Buddhist
  • Some Atheists see a Religionist — an “accomodationalist”

A classic Buddhist story illustrating this principle is the story of Four Blind Men and the Elephant.

More important than how others view us, is what we do when we look in a mirror.  We often use a filters and ignore many parts of ourselves.   I think it is important to embrace our multitudes.

Question to Readers:  What contradictory ways do you find people viewing you?


Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion

How Unique is Your Religion?

In my post entitled “We aren’t a religion“, I tried to illustrate how this phrase is used by some folks to, somewhat deceptively, declare themselves to be unique.  A Christian commentor then claimed just that: “Christianity is unique.”  I started debating with him but thought about critical questions that may be best to answer before continuing.  Deciding how unique Christianity or any religion is, comes with several problems to address before even trying to delineate what traits do or don’t make something unique:

  1. What is the definition of unique?
  2. Why are we having the discussion?
  3. Even if it were unique, why should we care?  Is uniqueness a virtue?

Below is a diagram addressing only the first question.  I illustrate 5 possible “uniqueness-positions” on the graph but here are an infinite number of possible curves, of course.  To aid in dialogue, I am OK with negotiating the meanings of abstract words like “unique” — I do not hold a Platonic view of language.

Questions for Readers:

  • Which curve is closest to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism — give us your thoughts.
  • Does this graph help you see some of the inherent issues behind uniqueness?
  • Is declaring one’s religion unique an empirical claim or an emotional claim?  (oooops, that is point #2 above)


Filed under Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

Global-Enlightenment Myths

I believe that meditation can offer a person valuable skills and insights.  But I don’t believe meditation can turn anyone into a god or anything god-like.  Many meditators claim that they or their masters have “the ability to see reality as it truly is”.  They make the claim so broad as to virtually claim to have the ‘Mind of God’.  And with their new god-like brilliant insight, their new “global enlightenment”, they claim global enlightenment:

  • Health Enlightenment:  they understand the real causes of disease and how to cure them
  • Psychological Enlightenment:  they can see the thoughts and motivations of others — they become psychic healers
  • Political Enlightenment:  they know the correct political policies needed to fix the world
  • Life Guide Enlightenment:  they can help you know the right job, the right spouse, the right hobbies
  • Physics Enlightenment:  many make miracle claims that defy the laws of nature

Wow, that is a lot to get from meditation!  I have heard identical claims among charismatic Christian leaders, great Yogis in Hinduism and among admired teachers of Islam.  Such claims are generic.  These claims come in many subtle disguises.  Otherwise skeptic Western readers may let these claims slip by because they are impressed with the charisma of their teachers, the beauty of their new found community or even the life altering experiences they had in their faith.  But if you read that last sentence again, you can see how it could apply to both Christian or Buddhist enthralled believers. This naivete bothered me when I was a Christian and I see it also in many Buddhist circles.   The Global-Enlightenment Myth is a universal trait.

I am inspired to write about it now because I am seeing it in an otherwise insightful book called “The Crystal and the Way of Light” by  a well-known Tibetan Vajrayāna teacher called Namkhai Norbu.  Norbu claims that Dzogchen (his meditation practice) allows one to not only see, but also enter into ‘the Primordial State’ where duality does not exist [enlightenment].  He claims duality blinds us.  OK, I confess, I am Buddhist-enough that I actually  agree with some of that but when he goes on to hint that such enlightenment confers far-reaching global miraculous powers then I start to doubt even the true things he may be saying.  He claims:

  • “Certain illnesses, such as cancer, are caused by disturbances of the energy, and cannot be cured simply by surgery or medication.” pg 32
  • He describes a miraculous virgin birth of the founder of Dzogchen (Garab Dorje) but says that understanding this miracle “seems impossible from the limited point of view of dualistic vision”. pg 40
  • Of Garab Dorje he says, “He developed the capacity to transform himself into any form he chose, as well as all the other ‘siddhis‘, or powers that arise when the dualistic condition is overthrown.” pg 56

You get the point.  I have seen this thinking among Zen Buddhist practitioners and others.  The “Global-Enlightenment Myth” is pretty pervasive — not just in Buddhism but in other religions too.  Heck, science-lovers quote Einstein’s views on religion and politics like it mattered in some mystical way.  People think that movie stars have special insight on how to run our countries.  Just because someone has an amazing talent in one field, does not confer them magical insight into all other fields.  We are suckers for charisma.  We are suckers for heroes.  Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think Global Enlightenment exists.


Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion, Science

Buddhist Dog-Brain

For the most part, dogs in the USA have it made:  They don’t have to work. They don’t have to worry about rent or taxes, They don’t have to worry about feeding their kids. So if I had to choose, heck, maybe being reborn as a dog would be better than being reborn as a human in my next life.  Heck, nowadays even calling someone a “dawg” is considered a compliment.

But anyone can tell you, much of the world treats dogs horribly.  I use to live in Pakistan where Muslims hated dogs.  Calling someone a “dog” is a deep insult in Islam.   It is not uncommon in Pakistan for people to throw rocks at dogs.  I saw diseased, malnourished, maimed dogs wander around towns all over Pakistan.  They run for cover every time some bends over in fear that another stone would come whistling toward their heads.  I even saw dogs get attacked with knifes and then wander about with a bloody dangling ear looking for food.

So it may not seem that being reborn a dog is such a good idea given the risk of being born in a Muslim country.  But even suffering dogs seem to suffer very differently than we humans do.  I am sure you noticed something I have:  dogs don’t pity themselves like we do.  You see 3-legged dogs hop around like nothing happened.  They wag their tails and play around just like other dogs.  Even the dog with the dangling bloody ear acted like almost nothing happened.  It seems like a dog can find happiness much easier than us humans.  It seems that they don’t have half the self-pity that we human carry around.  So it seems like hoping to be reborn a dog might not be as bad as you imagine even if I were reborn in Pakistan. [BTW, I love much about that country — just not they way they treat dogs and women.  Well and a few other classical Muslim things.]

So is it possible to have a Dog Brain when we face suffering?  I have recently been reading about Dzogchen (a stream of Buddhism).  Dzogchen idealizes the “non-dualistic” state.  Dzogchen looks at dualistic thinking like it is a curse.  Maybe that is what a dog doesn’t have — maybe they don’t have a sense of self that allow self-pity.  So  maybe these Buddhist are trying to shut down the parts of their human brains that make them human and returning to being a simpler mammal like a dog.  Well I am sure that is not a 100% true (smile), because I know Buddhists manage to keep the parts of the brain that enjoys all the wonders of the world.  And I doubt that dogs feel the wonder and awe that we do.  So maybe Buddhist are having their cake (a dog’s lack of self-pity) and eating it too (human awe).

That may sound derogatory and sacrilegious to Buddhists but maybe that is because all of us carry about a little Muslim in us that looks down at dogs.  Just as my earlier post asked the reader to see the beauty of the apparently sacrilegious phrase, “life is a game“, so today I am wondering if it is possible for readers to pause their dualistic mind long enough to see why desiring a dog brain may not be half bad?

Question to Readers:  Why do you think dogs can act fairly normal with injuries that would cause  major depression many of us?  Have you seen this?


Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion