Tag Archives: Cognitive Science

“Why I” Delusions

We all have dozens of “Why I …” stories which we use to repeatedly explain who we are.  We become secure in these stories as people have nodded to them in agreement over the years.  Here are just a few examples of “Why I” scenarios for which a person may have wonderful stories to explain away:

  • Why I am shy
  • Why I am afraid of spiders
  • Why I take charge in most situations
  • Why I don’t like my food mixed
  • Why I like slow movies
  • Why I don’t like country music
  • Why I think it is important to be neat
  • Why I think it is important to state your opinion strongly
  • Why I think we should guard other people’s feelings
  • Why I think logic is so important
  • Why I am suspicious of others
  • Why I feel we should learn to trust people

But with a little introspection, it becomes clear that many of our “Why I” stories are false.  To illustrate the potential self-delusion on such explanations, let me give an example from the famous 1990 Minnesota Twin Family Study.  Part of the study examined identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in different families so as to help tease out the role of genetics and environment in trait development.  One trait they examined was “fastidiousness”–how neat and organized a person is.  Here is a case study:

Two twin boys were adopted out to different families and never had communication with each other.  Both of the boys (now adults) were fanatically fastidious.  When asked to explain their fastidiousness, their “Why I …” explanations varied immensely:

Boy 1: “It is obvious.  Just look at the parents who raised me — they are sloppy pigs.  I became fastidious to compensate for all the messy chaos in my life.”

Boy 2: “It is obvious.  Just look at the parents who raise me — they are neat freaks.  I simply imitate them until it is now my habit too.

Question to Readers:  Can you share a “Why I …” story that your brain fabricated for you but that you now realize is contrivance to explain basic inborn traits?


  • I understand that personality theories which look at traits are fraught with challenges.  But this example has been useful to me in understand my own mind and those of others.
  • I wrote that many of our “Why I …” stories are false but I wanted to say “most” and another part of me wanted to say they are “ALL” are false.  But I was modest in my claim in order to appear reasonable to my readers and to assure that they stay open to the possibility that some of their self-stories are false.  😉
  • I considered “Our Bull***t” as the title for this post, but decided to keep it kid friendly.


Filed under Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking

I write like …

Just because you are an atheist, doesn’t mean you are free of all superstitious thinking.  I have lately seen several atheist sites that are posting a badge like the one below.   The badge this site offers is your own personalized badge generated by an algorithm which purports to find a famous author whose writing style is most similar to yours– and, oh yeah, they sell software there too.  Of course, depending on what clip of your writing you put into the analyzer, you get different authors that all write just like you — but there are a few common ones.  Heck, it may even be a random generator output.

Even Atheists will be tempted to run to this site and find out who they write like.  They may do it half seriously, but what about that other half of their minds?  Is this the part of our minds which also feeds our attraction to divinations like:  astrology, the I-Ching, Tarot cards, philosopher-types and more?  If so, some Atheists still have superstition pathways.  Neuro-circuits do not die, they just quiet down until the right opportunity strikes.

Most importantly, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I must be in their database, because the badge that came out for my writing looked like this:


Filed under Cognitive Science

Images of SELF

How do you see your Self ? Depending on your perceptive and cognitive tendencies, your world may be informed variously by one of these narratives (for the auditory brain) and/or images (for the visual brain).  Some folks even have kinesthetic models.  Because I am primarily visual, below I have sketched a few images which I think are the main common understandings of Self.  I think that understanding our model of Self can be very helpful in discussing religion. [Note: For you supernatural folks, an upcoming post will include mind-models that include the Divine.]

One Self

Probably the most common image of Self.  The Homunculus — a little you inside of you.  A vision of a continuous, fairly consistent Self.  The person sees themselves as ONE person, living inside their own head. The see themselves as owning beliefs and ideas.

Brain Self

Brain Self

This image of Self emphasizes materialism and offers no frills.  You are your brain.  There are many complex implications for this model, but this is the image.  But like the ONE Self image, this model also has the feel of a singular Self.  This has the feeling of ONE brain — not a divided one.  It still sees Self as unitary.

Modular Selves

The mind has a multitude of impersonal, unconscious modules.  Some are complex, some are simple.  They each have different functions.  Their complex interactions creates consciousness and the illusion of self.  This is a version of the computational theory of mind.    Some hold this model while still feeling like they have ONE Self inside — illustrated by the one computer which has created an image of self similar to the ONE Self model.

Many Selves
Many Selves

My “Many Selves” model is based on the Modular Selves model but where each of the figures represents a temporary fluxing alignment of the modules which are triggered by the environment and habits of attention.  These Selves are in people shape to illustrate that they are connected to emotions, sensations and physical habits.  That is, they are not mere calculators independent of a body — they have a feel to them.

In this model, there is no singular consistent unchanging Self.  The multiple players sometimes work independently, sometimes together. Sub-groups of these Selves separate off to form different behavior patterns.  This notion of Many Selves is so contrary to the notion of ONE Self that it might as well be saying that there is NO (ONE) Self.

Question to readers: Which image is closest to the one you use?  If your model is different from those listed, how would you draw it?  Please remember, for communication purposes, try to keep the image relatively simple with a brief explanation.

My Related Posts:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Bias: A Must Read

Martin Poulter

Here is a fantastic, 23-page Visual Guide to Cognitive Biases !

It is written by the chap on the right:  Martin Poulter. Martin has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and also writes this research blog: Bias & Belief.  We all have indomitable blind spots and Martin gives us ways to better remember them.

HT: A Nadder (another excellent site)

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Thought-Action Fusion

After a terrible flight over China, I had horrible flying phobia for years. To calm myself on flights, I felt that if I were to forcibly visualize (imagine) the future scene of me de-boarding at the airport to which we planned on arriving, then such visualizations would drastically improve, if not guarantee, the chance of my safe arrival.  It was almost like I felt that I wouldn’t be able to imagine my arrival it if it weren’t going to actually happen.  Additionally, I felt that I had the magic power to make it happen by the brute force of imagining it. Part of me knew this was ridiculous nonsense but another part of me fully believed it. So of course I did it.  What did I have to loose?  In fact, I still kind of do it on flights to this day.  And look, to-date I have always arrived safely. 🙂

Tom Reese at Epiphenoma describes a study that explores what sort of people, like me, actually believe that their thoughts can make an event happen.   In cognitive science this is called “Thought-Action Fusion”.   The studies compares Protestants with Atheist/Agnostics and shows that Protestants are much more prone to this cognitive bias.

Tom concludes his fine article by saying, “I suspect that the reason I am an atheist is that this way of thinking about the world just seems downright alien to me.”

But I am an Atheist and I have this strong cognitive bias.  In fact, I have a whole bunch of posts describing my superstitious tendencies.  But though I do agree with Tom that such a bias can be a risk factor to becoming a believer, it may only be a risk factor toward being a certain type of believer.  When I was a believer, I noticed many believers had no such magical thinking.   And, as my story shows, even some atheists have this tendency.  But I would suspect that “Natural born” atheists may be much less inclined toward “Though-Action Fusion”.  Tom Rees may be a Natural-Born Atheist.


  • Thought-Action Fusion is a cognitive bias available to Theists and Atheists alike.
  • Just because you have Though-Action Fusion tendencies doesn’t mean you have to indulge them!
  • So, you don’t have to cure a Christian of their superstitions in order for them to become an Atheist, they just have to be a significantly unattached to their superstitious tendencies .  This concept will be part of my developing series on “How to Cure a Christian“.

Question to Readers:  Do any of you do “Thought-Action Fusion”?  (please read Tom’s article for examples)

Related Post of mine:


Filed under Events, Philosophy & Religion

The Moral Mind

This is part of my series on “How to Make a Christian“.   In that post, I illustrated what an adult’s modular mind looks like before they become a Christian (seen to the right).  This post elaborates on the inner workings of our Moral Minds.  Keep in mind that the Tribal Mind supplies the Moral Mind with classifications of how to value the various people addressed in our moral calculations (thus the arrow).

In the diagram below I have enlarged the Moral Mind to illustrate some of its inner workings.  You will note that, like the mind itself (above), this module is also composed of sub-modules.  These modules often work rather independently of each other (except where arrows show otherwise) and thus our minds are often divided when it comes to moral behavior.

The Moral Mind

If you have ever taken an ethics class, you have learned these three common ethical systems:

  • Utilitarian Ethics:  “The greatest good for the greatest number.”  Here, the outcome matters.  (Consequentialism)
  • Deontological Ethics:  “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (and similar rules).  Here, the action matters. (Kant, Natural Law)
  • Virtue Ethics:  “The virtuous person is the moral person.”  Here, the person’s heart  is what matters.

Ethical Systems

You will note that in my model, these three calculators (and others) are working simultaneously in the person’s mind.  This illustrates part of the reason why philosophers have not reached agreement on morality.  The calculators (sub-modules) have all biologically evolved to solve different sorts of behavior decisions (moral choices) depending on different environmental settings and thus they have contradictory outputs at times.  Thus Philosophers and Theologians, trying to build one, simple, coherent intellectual system, run into the problem of trying to reconcile all these into one consistent. systematic, prescriptive ethical system.    Please note:  Two other common normative ethical systems not captured in this cute illustration above are: 1) Ethical Egoism and 2) Contractualism.

My model is nowhere near complete nor accurate but instead is just my attempt to sketch for you some of the complexity that is inherent in addressing morality.  Oh yes, please note:  No gods, spirits or ghosts where used or sacrificed in the making of this model.  But I will be later discussing how these sub-modules are commandeered to serve spirits and gods.

To finish this post, let me include below this SUPERB video by Andy Thomson from the 2009 Atheist Alliance International Conference where he explains this issue of contradictory moral modules in the mind.  My model basically agrees with much of what is in Dr. Thompon’s lecture.  Dr. Thomson has a private practice of general psychiatry and forensic psychiatry as well as serving as a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy and also at the Counseling and Psychological Services of the University of Virginia Student Health Services.  He has a B.A. from Duke University, and MD from University of Virginia School of Medicine.  Enjoy !


Filed under Cognitive Science, Ethics, Philosophy & Religion

The Tribal Mind

This post is a brief explanation of the notion of “Tribal Mind” used in my posts on the Modular God and How to make a Christian.

The relative size of a mammal’s brain seems strongly correlated to the size of troops in which they socialize. There are about 200 species of primates. They all vary in troop sizes and brain size. Baboon’s average troop size is about 50 while the average human troop size is about 150. The increased brain size is needed, among other things, to identify and remember traits of members of the troop.

One primate survival skill is cooperation. The downside of cooperation is the freeloader — the individual who exploits cooperation.  Thus, along with cooperation evolved the ability to contain the cheaters. All thriving cooperative societies must thus have a way to identify and limit these cheaters, thus large parts of the brain are devoted to identifying and keeping track of other individual’s cooperation and cheating records.

As human societies expanded, they created laws and enforcers to supplement the brain’s natural tendencies to keep troop size around 150. But that troop brain (“Tribal Brain”) still serves as a strong calculating module in our minds.  At its best, the tribal brain allows cooperation, but it also creates an “US vs. THEM” mentality — the tribal mind regulates the degree of hostility toward outsiders (those outside the tribe).   When the Tribal Mind gets co-opted by theology, it become the “Tribal God”.  The theology of a religion, among other things, regulates obedience to authority, tolerance and conventionalism which have strong impacts on the Tribal God.

Related Readings:

Related Triangulations:

  • Goyology: how one views and treats those outside their tribe/troop


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Atheist in Drug Rehab

Bottle of NarcoticsI was startled to learn that a close friend, also an Atheist, just entered drug rehab. He lives in another state and I only see him occasionally so it was easier for him to hide his addiction from me than from all those with whom lives and works.  But I was surprised when he sent me an e-mail telling me he was caught stealing and abusing narcotics for two years. I would have never guessed.

My friend was a successful professional, and is happily married with two young kids. His wife is an evangelical Christian.  He has always been very vocal about his Atheism and she married him understanding their differences.  They live near the wife’s very supportive Christian family in the heart of the Bible Belt. The wife takes the two kids to church but my buddy does not go and her church is aware that he is an atheist — her pastor has visited my friend and spoken politely to him a few times without obvious intent to convert.

My drug-addict buddy just started the 3-month rehab program — isolated from family and friends. He can only e-mail 20 minutes per day. He wrote me that his program uses a 12-step AA model.  Part of the program is that the addict is suppose to acknowledge and depend on a Higher Power.

As readers know, I am a sympathetic Atheist who feels that religion can offer many positive functions. To me, when I hear “Higher Power”, I often generously translate it to mean “Less of SELF” — which, in my Buddhist way, I can support. I also feel my buddy’s anti-social characteristics are counter productive for him.

So, when my friend wrote me from the rehab center and wondered what an atheist like him was to do with this “higher power” issue, I wrote him a reply which I consider consistent with the Buddhist notion of “skillful means“.   I essentially suggested he get religion.  Below is my letter suggesting one way to do it.   I’d love to hear your opinions.  BTW, my friend gave his excited permission for me to post his story and this e-mail.  Click “more” to read the e-mail (mildly edited):
Continue reading


Filed under Personal

The Default Bias

The Default Bias is another common human cognitive defect.  It seems that to avoid the discomfort of complex choices, we humans usually opt for the default supplied to us.  Thus many of our “choices” are not choices in any real sense.  This is further evidence for the illusory notion of both free will and the reflective intentional life.

The Default Bias can be seen in religion.  Greater than ninety percent of religious people belong to the religion of their birth — the default religion offered to them by the accident-of-birth.   Heck, even later converters choose from only those right in front of their noses.  But least self-righteous, hyper-rationalists dismiss the Default Bias as a uniquely theistic defect, let me illustrate this bias among largely atheistic Europeans.  The example below is taken from a 17 min TED talk by Dan Ariely (Duke University) on behavioral economics.

When looking at organ donation rates in European countries, we see that the distribution is bimodal — high donators and low donators.  Though people in these countries will object, the following pairs of countries are more similar than not and yet have opposite rates: Netherlands-Belgium, UK-France, Denmark-Sweden.  Intuitively inspecting which country falls into which mode reveals no clear pattern.   So what causes this difference?

Simple!  The Organ Donation check box on their driver license applications differ.  The low donating countries have the default as “I will NOT donate”, where as high donating countries have “YES I will donate” as the default.

Low Donor Countries

Leave it unchecked and your organs will NOT be donated

High Donor Countries

Leave it unchecked and you become a donator !


  • HT to Leah for the video
  • Luke does a superb interview with Stephen Maitzen (Atheist philosopher at Acadia University in Nova Scotia) where they discuss the accidental nature of belief choices using interesting phrases like: “The Argument from Divine Hiddenness”, “The Demographics of Theism” and “Clustered Distribution of Theism”.  Give it a listen if you have time.
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Filed under Uncategorized

Where god lives & how he listens

Must read:  Tom Rees’ article review at Epiphenom:  What you want, god wants.

This study shows how we create our gods.  It shows where the gods & spirits live.   I think this evidence also ironically shows how prayer works as I will now explain:

Studies on prayer clearly show that intercessory pray (AKA: other-prayer or magical prayer) does not work, but I feel self-prayer (praying that you yourself will grow and change) can be a useful tool for peace of heart and insights into daily life.  However, self-prayer efficacy is difficult to research.

Tom’s review of this brain research study supports my theory on self-prayer by showing that the reason we can learn much from self-prayer is because the god we are praying to is actually ourselves.  Now, if self-prayer were only talking to a non-existent god, it too would be powerless like magical prayer, but instead, a person’s earnest prayers may actually be reaching someone who listens and actually cares — themselves!

Yet self-prayer is not as simple as just talking to yourself in the normal way.  When people do deep self-prayer, they probably have better access to some of their multiple selves  which are not easily accessible consciously.  These selves contain information and ideas you may not be aware of at the moment of your prayer when you are locked in another self.  I know this sounds sort of woo-woo, but this view fits well, I feel, with some computational views of mind.  You can see this link if you aren’t familiar with my notion of  multiple selves.

So, if you couple the insights of this study that Tom reviews along with the notion of self-prayer and my view of multiple selves,  you may see why I feel self-prayer sometimes works.

Anyway, great article by Epiphenom !


Filed under Philosophy & Religion