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The Nature of Belief: Australian Science Festival Debate

ABC Radio National | 19 August 2006 | Duration: 30min 14sec

Theologian, filmmaker and cult buster Reverend Dr David Millikan, minister of the Uniting Church
Theologian, filmmaker and cult buster Reverend Dr David Millikan, minister of the Uniting Church

Why do you believe what you do? Is the human mind an organ designed for belief? Why are we so convinced of the existence of things we can't prove or see? Are some beliefs healthy and others pathological?


Natasha Mitchell: Hello, Natasha Mitchell joining you for All in the Mind here on ABC Radio National - great to have your ears. And we're with you and a live audience from this week's Australian Science Festival in Canberra - the hard topic for debate, 'What is the Nature of Belief?' Is the human mind an organ that evolved to believe? Why do many of us believe in things we can't necessarily prove or even see; fairies, goblins, God perhaps? Are some beliefs healthy, others pathological? And where do science and religion fit into this discussion? The brave souls taking on the topic are Professor of Psychology, Max Coltheart, who's a cognitive scientists and Scientific Director of the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science at Macquarie University. He's co-editor of the book, Pathologies of Belief. Margaret Wertheim, an award winning Australian science writer based in LA is author of Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. Margaret's written and produced multiple TV documentaries including Faith and Reason for PBS TV in the USA. And Reverend Dr David Millikan, minister with the Dee Why Uniting Church, is ex-head of ABC religion; a theologian, film-maker and cult buster. David has a book with publishers called Walking Backwards to Paradise about his 25 years of dealing with extreme religious movements. So let's take it away. For each of you, is there anything you personally believe but you cannot prove? Can I start with Max. Max Coltheart: Everything. (Audience laughter) But maybe you could formulate the question slightly differently. Is there anything I believe that I can't justify? I hope the answer is, 'There isn't anything'. But I'm sure there are some things that I don't know about that I believe that I can't justify but I think that is a weakness is that is actually true of me. You can't prove things true for certain in science, anybody can be wrong; you can make all kinds of mistakes. So that's why scientists would rather talk about the justification of a theory rather than proving a theory. Natasha Mitchell: Oh, well, we live in uncertain terrain then if we can prove nothing that we believe. What about you Margaret? Margaret Wertheim: I'll answer the question in the way that I answered the book of the same topic. Specifically I believe that we will never have a theory of everything and that there has been, you know, so many claims over the last ten or so years that we're on the verge of a theory of everything and it seems to me that that's highly unlikely. Because even a theory of the things that physicists claim would be encompassed in a theory of everything seems increasingly difficult. But to call anything a theory of everything just seems to be such a wildly overwrought claim that I don't think we will ever be there. Natasha Mitchell: Well Steven Hawking thinks that once we have a theory of everything we'll see the mind of God. Margaret Wertheim: Yes, and that is the notion that we can somehow be godlike and I suppose that as a former Catholic girl, I still hold to the view that there is a fundamental difference between man and God. Natasha Mitchell: And woman for that matter. David Millikan what about you, is there anything that you believe that you cannot prove and especially in your role as a Uniting Church minister perhaps? David Millikan: I'm a bit like Max actually, but I would need to know what you mean by a proof. If you mean a sort of demonstration that is incontrovertible that had the type of inevitability that cannot be denied, then I believe a number of things like that. But those things tend to be trivial; they tend to be things that have to do with analytical statements you know. Like mathematics and the like. But the important things like, 'Does my wife love me?' - I believe that to be true... Natasha Mitchell: ...Do you have proof? David Millikan: ...But I can't give a proof that is one of those proofs that exhausts any possibility of doubt. And I guess this is the nature of life itself. I mean, I believe the Swans will be in the grand final - that's a more speculative sort of belief I would guess. So what I'm saying is, I think, 'There's a lot of things I cannot prove in that sense', but if you're asking me, 'Can I provide some sort of reason for the things I believe such that it gives some integrity to what I believe', then yes. Natasha Mitchell: This leaves us with interesting terrain. Max, what does this say about the psychology of belief? I'm just fascinated that once we have beliefs we find them very hard to let go of and in fact, if someone tries to extract them out of us, in a sense it's an affront against our own identity and self. Max Coltheart: Well we form beliefs for at least two reasons. One is that they're inferences from experiences from everyday life, so we think so and so must be true because that would explain these various facts. And we probably like to think that's the only way we form beliefs. But there's another way in which all of us form beliefs; we adopt a belief because it feels good though it might be completely untrue. And that might sound irrational but if it makes you happy, why isn't it rational. And those are the kinds of beliefs that might be hiding in my unconscious and those that I couldn't justify if you forced me to actually make them explicit. But I'm sure all of us do this. Natasha Mitchell: What about you Margaret? I've been interested to read Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell he's asking for a sort of critical dialogue about religion. He reckons that in fact the belief in belief has become a huge phenomena as well, that in a sense, even if we don't all agree with each other's beliefs, we kind of have come to a position where we believe in other people's beliefs as they have them. Margaret Wertheim: Yes, Daniel Dennett's book seems to propose that people, particularly in America, he's specifically talking about the American context, that in America, people have this enormous need to believe that belief itself is good. And he seems to be proposing that in fact belief in belief is stronger than belief itself and this seems to be a way he has of, I think, trying to undermine the power of belief. Daniel Dennett's book is specifically trying to make a claim that we can scientifically analyse religious belief and his goal seems to be that if we scientifically study it and scientifically analyse it, that somehow this rational scrutiny will make it disappear. I don't think that is going to be the case but I also think there's something problematic with the whole potential project and that is that Dennett, the idea that we could scientifically study religious belief suggests that the interesting phenomena about religious faith are those that, as it were, are somehow like universal laws like the law of gravity. But I think I agree with William James's conception of religion that the most fundamentally important and to me interesting aspects of religious belief are the subjective personal ones. And Dennett seems to want to deny that subjectivity is the essence of religious belief and to me it is. Natasha Mitchell: David, religious belief is only one kind of cluster of beliefs, people have beliefs about all sorts of things and some of them are around the supernatural; things that they can't see or prove. Why is it that many of us believe in things that others find equally unbelievable? I was surprised to read that 72% of Americans reportedly believe in angels for example. David Millikan : You don't!? Natasha Mitchell: (laughs)...I'm going to hold myself out of this one. David Millikan: Oh no, look there's no accounting for the sort of absurdities that people will believe. And I guess the challenge that I've had to face over the years is coming to terms with the fact that these people are usually very nice people, strong people, well educated people. People who take these beliefs on with a type of integrity and try and live them out. I can give an example. I was talking to a friend of mine in Manly last week. She does new age things. She's recently bought a vibrating machine from Russia and it sits in the middle of the room and you sit around it and it exudes a type of vibe that does things to you. And she said to me last week, David I've had something very important happen to me; I've got to be open to this and I've now got to act on it. I said, 'What is it, what's happened?' She said, 'Well, I got the word very clearly last week that I'm going to be living until I'm 342!' She is a very strong, interesting person; her husband is a general practitioner, she has a master's degree and in fact, my experience is that people who get into those, sometimes quite bizarre, beliefs tend to be well educated, strong, creative, interesting people. They are not weak and easily led as is the normal misconception. Natasha Mitchell: Because, of course, you've spent 25 years or so delving into cults. David Millikan: I have. Natasha Mitchell: When collective beliefs go astray, when collective belief, in effect, becomes pathological. Interesting, experience I would imagine? David Millikan: Well it's interesting you say pathological. It's actually a very elusive thing to know why it is that this happens. And most of the time over the last 20 years or so I've been knocking back my pre-suppositions actually and discovering the difference between people in the midst of those groups and myself. It's not a qualitative sort of difference often; it's a difference of degree. I mean, I'm a Christian, I believe in the guy who survived death. A lot of my atheist friends thinks that a type of madness.

Natasha Mitchell: Clearly you don't think it is a type of madness? David Millikan: No I don't, no. It is central to my life; that's one of the beliefs central to my life. I'm happy to explain why I believe something like that, but it's not simply.... I would say, that if I can't justify or give reasons for the things I believe, then I have no right to believe. And this is in the sense this dilemma. Reason and faith are bound together and yet both of them are sort of imperialistic and both wish to consume the other. But faith without reason ends up as superstition and vacuous and reason without faith becomes conformist, dull and uninteresting. Natasha Mitchell: I think I will follow up with you in a moment about why you believe in God. But I'm interested Margaret in your journey over the last number of years in delving into history, unravelling the relationship between science and religious belief. Your sense is that they haven't always been at crossed purposes in the way that we think that they're in conflict now. Margaret Wertheim: Well, historically the record is very clear that science and religion have not been in conflict with each other for most of western history, indeed quite the opposite. The theological impulses were profoundly behind the scientific revolution. Why is it that the west developed this science to the point that it did? The Chinese, the Arabs were much greater mathematicians than we were at certain points in history yet they didn't go on to develop the scientific revolution. They had great technologies, but still didn't go on to explore science to the intense extent that we did. One of the reasons why the west did was because the whole idea of searching for laws of nature got allied with God. That God had written the book of the world in the language of mathematics, so to read that book was to essentially do a theological exercise. And all of the great practitioners of the scientific revolution were very clear in their own writings that that's what they believed they were doing. Natasha Mitchell: Was part of that though because also they didn't want to be cast out as heretics. Margaret Wertheim: No, no. That's as it were the post-facto story that has been told throughout much of the 20th century. But that idea is really a myth that was created in the late 19th century, specifically in America, and it's bound up with the history of the attempt to secularise education and to get tertiary education away from the church. So historically the record is very clear that science and religion were deeply entwined throughout the 16th, 17th and well into the 18th century and really even in the 19th century. And it raises an issue that I think that you talked about before, which I think is very important Natasha, that faith isn't just something that's about religious faith. Scientists too have faith - I mean the whole idea that nature can be understood in terms of universal laws; that requires faith. Physics is premised on the idea that the laws that apply here on earth also apply in Alpha Centurion on the other side of the universe. We have a lot of evidence suggests that that might be true, but it was an enormous act of faith to believe that in the first place. And it actually took the western world several hundred years to come to believe something like that would be true at all. So faith is fundamental to scientific enterprise too. Natasha Mitchell: And leaps thereof....leaps of faith. David Millikan: I agree with what Margaret's saying here it is clear to me that philosophy precedes science - philosophy and religion if you wish when they worked together. And not only this expectation of uniformity and predictability in nature, which I agree with you is a presupposition. But at that sort of basic level, when, to even arrive at the view that the cosmos is 'good' is a profound and influential thought. I mean, in some religious traditions you are not taught that the world is good, you're taught that the world is at war with the spirit, that the world is a sort of source of corruption, the world can lead you astray or, even that the world is infused with demonic or spiritual forces. Now a pervasive cultural attitude like that will not pre-dispose you to science. Margaret Wertheim: Or at least not science in the modern western mould. David Millikan: Not in a western sense no. And you see that same sort of squeamishness amongst the Greeks, I mean I'm talking about the ancient Greeks, especially with the influence of Plato and the like. They turn away from science as a result of that influence. Natasha Mitchell: Max, do you think that science and religion are both systems of belief in a sense, or is science something fundamentally different, as many would argue - especially scientists themselves? Max Coltheart: Scientists would like to say that what's special about a scientific system of belief is the emphasis on justification. But you quoted the figure that 72% of Americans believe in angels, well there's some recent interesting work which goes like this. You survey all your colleagues in a psychology department and you say. 'Think about all your colleagues, are you a better than average teacher compared to them?' About 85% of people say yes. Now there's something wrong there, the answer has to be 50%. So these are academics, not angel believers; nevertheless clearly they formed a belief, at least some of them, at least 35% of them, based on inadequate evidence. So there are these two kinds of beliefs and you just need to think about how did this belief arise, why does the person believe this? And the answer isn't always just as an inference from what happens to them, there are motivational factors at work all the time. Natasha Mitchell: And when we're weighing up risks in our own lives, you know catching a plane versus crossing the road, we make all sorts of horrendous predictions for ourselves that are way off the mark. And that in a sense is tapping into our belief about personal risk isn't it? Max Coltheart: Yes, absolutely so. People with say obsessive compulsive disorder, I've had one person who when she left the house would always hop down the corridor on one foot because she believed if she didn't do that somebody would break into the house when she was away. And so she always did this and nobody ever broke into the house - there you are! Natasha Mitchell: So we look for justifications for our beliefs rather than the contrary? Max Coltheart: That's right. Natasha Mitchell: Ha, interesting. Well what do you make of Max, there's been a whole swave of books this year by scientists who are either on one side critiquing religion, so Richard Dawkins author of the Selfish Gene is about to put one out that is absolutely scathing, vitriolic and on the other hand, the head of the human genome project, Francis Collins, has put one out trying to reconcile his own faith with science and his scientific practice. How do you read the times? Max Coltheart: Yes, well I'm like Margaret, I used to be Catholic and I was corrupted by the philosophers at Sydney University in 1957 which is what philosophers are supposed to do. How could I have ever believed that nonsense? My mother was very upset about this. Natasha Mitchell: Your mother was? Max Coltheart: Yes, she said I knew that would happen as soon as you went university. Natasha Mitchell: That's university for you! Max Coltheart: Yes, but it's perfectly true that many famous scientists are religious and I guess it might not be very comfortable to think about this but if you think, 'I'm adopting scientific beliefs because I'm inferring these beliefs from the things I see around me, cause that's how science works, and I'm adopting religious beliefs because they make me feel good. And you'd be a very unhappy person if you went around saying, 'Even if this belief makes me feel good, I'm not going to believe it unless I can justify it'. That way lays unhappiness. So I think you can reconcile those two different sorts of beliefs because you're adopting them for different reasons. And I think that's the way scientists can also be religious. Others would like to think that the way you form beliefs is only by inference from what happens to you, but that isn't true. I think Dennett has lots of examples where he seems to believe that that's the only way people form beliefs but it's patently untrue as the 85% better than average teacher shows you. Natasha Mitchell: Uhmm. Margaret, what's your take on it? Margaret Wertheim: In America where I live this is a particularly contentious issue at the moment because there is so much forcefulness on the part of religious fundamentalists to have creationism or intelligent design as it's now usually called taught in schools. So this had, I think, prompted an enormous response on the part of a lot of scientists and also on the part of some philosophers like Daniel Dennett. So I think that this sudden publishing boom that we have that you mentioned, is in part a desire to respond to the religious fundamentalism and to try to articulate for society alternative views. And someone like Francis Collins who is a very serious Christian, I mean he wants to simply put out there the idea that, 'Look you can be a Christian and you can also be a very serious evolutionary biologist'. Natasha Mitchell: Well he thinks evolution is God's creation. Margaret Wertheim: Yes, yes but then you have some like Richard Dawkins, who I think has an entirely different agenda. I mean, Dawkins is on record in many, many cases saying that basically he thinks that religion should be wiped off the face of the earth. It is as he calls it, a toxic meme and the sooner we get rid of it the better. And so Dawkins has a particular agenda to get rid of religion. And we have had a number of these books, and we have had a number of these books. The most famous one that's come out in America recently is a book called The End of Faith by Sam Harris who's a neuroscientist and like Dawkins, he believes that science will triumph over the next century and religion will be completely obliterated and the sooner the better. And I think that those books are, in my view, simply escalating the tension between science and religion, because I think they're presenting a view to America which is a really dangerous one,that it's us or them. My own personal view is that that is doing far more harm than good and that it's simply intensifying the view that's already on the religious right that science is their enemy. Natasha Mitchell: Sam Harris, the young neuroscientist who has written The End of Faith has said, 'The perversity of religious is that it all allows sane people to believe the unbelievable en mass'. I mean he's certainly putting some flames out there. Margaret Wertheim: Yes, one of the agendas of Sam Harris's book is to try to convince people that ethics and morality are not articulated by religion and that in fact we need to study molecular biology and the evolutionary history of humans to tell us what ethics really is. And actually I think it's that claim that in some sense is far more serious a threat to religion and that this is something that the religious right have always suspected is, as it were, a scientific agenda and now it's out there in the open, that it has actually become an agenda of at least some sectors of the scientific community. And I think it's that that is really the nexus of the problems that we are seeing between science and religion. Natasha Mitchell: So much to discuss there. David, this though is all a very potent example of conflict over beliefs. Beliefs and perhaps belief systems, coming head to head over what evidence we base our beliefs on. David Millikan: Oh, look, I would like to go back a couple of steps. I think a lot of it is prompted by bad philosophy too. I get a bit sick of scientists who suddenly decide they want to write a book about religion. At that stage they start to sound like amateurs. I mean I think of Paul Davies work you know, no doubt justifying the fact that he got the Templeton Prize. Natasha Mitchell: Which is a major prize awarding people David Millikan: In science and religion, which I mean, good on him it's a very lucrative prize by the way, about $700,000.00 I think. Natasha Mitchell: He's happy I think. David Millikan: Yes, type of thing that people like I lust after. But he is an example of someone straying into an area of philosophy and at that point you know, I get really sort of annoyed and I think we need rigor and we don't seem to have within western culture at the moment, a type of common philosophical language that allows scientists and theologians and philosophers and mystics and others to communicate. There is too quickly, and I think this is peculiarly the case in the US, people take sides very rapidly in the argument and it becomes ... Natasha Mitchell: Well it seems to be threaded intimately with the political debate there too doesn't it? David Millikan: Yeah, and people start taking really strong sort of positions and exaggerating their positions. Now I've got a very good friend of mine who publishes Cosmos magazine, an excellent little science magazine, Wilson da Silva, and he and I have quite animated conversations over a glass of raspberry lemonade or something. And Wilson's always saying to me, he's saying, David, I'm a scientist; I don't believe in anything, I'm interested only in facts. Now how annoying is a statement like that? And he will talk, he will talk with enormous evangelistic zeal about the nature of science itself and what science has to offer, not simply in terms of what it produces in terms of insights into the nature of the cosmos. But actually philosophical and that's where it's not up to the task at the moment. It needs theology and it needs philosophy with it. Natasha Mitchell: Interestingly you think that intelligent design and the whole sort of maelstrom around that, particularly in States, somehow we're a little protected from it here I think. David Millikan: We are. Natasha Mitchell:You've argued in Cosmos magazine in fact that it's both bad theology and bad science. David Millikan: Well it is, it is, I'm very suspicious of the intelligent design argument. I mean you might find that rather surprising for a theologian to sort of become querulous about the idea that the cosmos reveals some divine order, but I believe that is the case. I think one of the classic arguments for the existence of God is what's known as the teleological argument, which was first articulated by William Paley in the 1700s was it? - yes. And his example was the watchmaker argument. He said if you've never seen a watch before and you pick it up, you are able to draw certain conclusions from simply looking at this thing. It is different from everything around you, it's different from the rocks, the trees, there's a type of order. You can draw the conclusion that someone has made this. Now you can see that that argument then extends to talk about the fact that you can account for the cosmos by looking at it and discerning a type of order within it. Now that's an entirely respectable argument, it's been around in the church for hundreds of years - that and the cosmological argument and the ontological argument, the classic arguments. But in the hands of intelligent design it really is a tool being used by the creationists who want some scientific instrument to argue their case and to bring down the authority of science. That's the way that it's being used. Margaret Wertheim: But I think there's a very interesting issue that's going on with intelligent design and that is intelligent design has come about because America specifically has a constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. So you can't teach religion in American school, so they get no religious instruction whatsoever or even in comparative religion, or any discussion of religion within the school context. That's in the first amendment of the American Constitution, but it's something that's only come to the fore as an issue in American education when challenges began to be brought to the Supreme Court in the 1960s about, in fact the challenge was to keep religion out of the classrooms. And they won that, the supporters of science won that on the grounds that you couldn't teach religion in the classrooms because of the first amendment. And so what happened was that the creationists changed strategies. Instead of saying, 'We're going to teach the biblical story of creation because it's in the Bible', they said, 'OK, we have to teach an alternative science'. So they - it was a very powerful shift in rhetorical strategies because, as a friend of mine who's a scholar of these things said, 'There is no constitutionally mandated freedom from teaching bad science'. So, you know, as long as you cast it as science there's no constitutional law against teaching it. But what it raises the question, which I think is a really important question, is why is it that you can only teach views about creation that are so-called science? It seems to me that there is a need in our society to enable there to be some sort of discussions within the educational framework about, as it were, other conceptions of creation, other conceptions of reality, other conceptions of what constitutes, for want of a better word, the universe. And one of the reasons why I think that religious people have had to actually go down the intelligent design route is because the epistemological power of science has become so strong in our society, at least large sections of it, that if you want to claim that something is real you have to use the language of science. And if you don't use the language of science, it's said to be an illusion or a delusion. And I think that is a huge philosophical problem for our society as a whole; that we're channelling everything, any claim about reality has to be in empirical scientific terms. So that's why you also get the new age movements making claims about all of the paranormal phenomenon that a lot of new agers want to claim. They use the rhetoric of science like it's happening in the 5th dimension, or the 6th dimension. Or it's happening through string theory. Natasha Mitchell: There's that film What the Bleep do we Know. Margaret Wertheim: Exactly. David Millikan: The next time I hear 'quantum' in the mouths of the new age people I'm going to sort of vomit! (laughter) Natasha Mitchell: No one say that word here tonight! Margaret, you've even gone as far as to say that the western world is in a psychological crisis because, in a sense we've unsevered the strong connection that there was between the immaterial imaginings that we had once, a sort of soul space as you describe it and our material world. That's an extraordinary really to say for a science writer? Margaret Wertheim: I think the western world, with the rise of modern science, we came to have a purely materialist metaphysics and by that, what I mean is that we believe that the totality of reality is the physical material world as opposed to, say, the medieval conception of reality, which was there was the physical material world and then you had an immaterial spiritual reality which is the realm of the Christian soul. And pretty much every culture on earth except in the modern west, in addition to its physical conception of the world also has, as it were, other realms of being, other spaces of being, other, as it were, levels, gradations, parts of reality. And the west has uniquely in the scientific era, gone down this path of saying that the only plane of reality, as it were, is the physical material world. And so we have, as it were, de-legitimised a language, as to get back to David's point before, we don't have common language through which we can discuss any form of spiritualist conceptions. Whether you call them religious, whether you call them psychological and so the West has been in this sort of psychological crisis, I think, of trying to have a way of legitimately discuss not just what falls under the banner of religious or spirituality, but I would say even psychological . And it was interesting that this problem was understood early on that in the 18th century, early 18th century, John Locke made the statement that it wasn't stable for a society to have only a science of body and that eventually we would have to have a science of mind. And I think the west is sort of really wrestling with that problem ever since. And many people I think are crying out for some sort of language to talk about a human self and so they are inventing all these kind of languages to try to deal with this problem that have been completely pushed out of science. Natasha Mitchell: But in a sense we have always done, we've invented languages to describe our state of being for millennia perhaps. Max, what about you? Because you are dabbling in the life of the mind every day in your work and in your thinking as a cognitive scientist. First of all a response to what Margaret has just said, if you can up with a response. Max Coltheart: The definition of cognitive science is the science of the mind. So yes, you need to have a vocabulary for talking about mental events. It was really Freud that helped us there because he was the first person to consider unconscious mental processes. And it turns out that nearly everything in our mental life is unconscious; it's very hard to figure out what consciousness is for since we can do so many things with unconscious thinking. And we need that kind of terminology to talk about mental processes but I think this is rather different from whether there's a material world and an immaterial world. So my job is the science of mind but I think I'm working on the material world. I wonder what Margaret would say about that? Margaret Wertheim: Well of course cognitive neuroscience and cognitive science in general are now very much working on trying to understand the neuro-physiological basis of mental processes and hopefully ultimately the neurological correlates of consciousness as Christof Koch called it. But I think many people feel that there is as it were some aspect of humanness that isn't reducible to neuro-physiological processes, which doesn't necessarily mean to say they're suggesting that it exists independently of the body. Natasha Mitchell: Cause that's getting back to Descartes isn't it, that sort of split between the mind and the body, which didn't really reconcile the two in the way that we're wanting to today? Margaret Wertheim: Uhmm. But you can say that there is as thing called the self, and you can theologise that and call it the spirit or the soul but even if you don't theologise and you just simply call it self, and you can ask the question, 'Does the self deserve a discourse in its own right or is neurological science sufficient to explain all the phenomena that we would want to describe about the self', which is what someone like Daniel Dennett says, and I don't believe in God anymore so I don't consider myself to be a religious person but I do make the claim that my self is a fundamental part of reality and not an epi-phenomena of neurological processes. Natasha Mitchell: OK. Max, you've just said that you're dealing with the material domain when you're investigating, in your case, the extraordinary false beliefs that people have, delusional beliefs, that you're dabbling in the material domain to deconstruct the nature of those beliefs. Max Coltheart: A useful distinction here is when you're thinking about computers between the program and the machine so you can have a particular program that will do something like word processing, so there's one level of description of what's going on which is that word processing is going on and you can describe that by a flow chart pointing about what's happening. And another way of describing what's going on is what's going on in the microchips. And I think that's the way of thinking about the relationship between mind and brain. You can give a mental description of what's going on in metallise or you can give a physical description of what's going on, but you're describing the same event at two different levels. It's the same level with reality described in two different ways. Natasha Mitchell: What do you think about the arguments that are emerging now that we are as humans with the big exotic brains that we have, that we are hardwired to believe. We are believers because evolutionarily wise that's been an adaptive thing for us, to believe is to survive. Max Coltheart: Yes, I think that's absolutely right. So whenever we study people with delusions let me give you an example of two people we studied who had the belief that when they looked in the mirror it wasn't them but some stranger. You can quiz these people, you could say well if that's not you there why is the person always wearing the same clothes as you? Why, when you move, does that person always move? This is good evidence that it's actually you in the mirror but these people won't give that up. The source of the belief in the first place was these people have a form of brain damage that stops them understanding how mirrors work. It's called mirror agnosia and so when you're looking in this mirror it doesn't seem like a mirror anymore, it seems like a window. And if it is a window then anybody you're seeing there can't be you because they are a different part of space. So the two people we studied had a second problem to do with belief evaluation, they couldn't be persuaded by evidence that this feeling that it was somebody else there was wrong. That's a purely mental process forming the belief that it isn't you but some stranger. But it's understandable when you think about the two things that's gone wrong with these people - the mirror agnosia so this now seems like a window and then a disordered belief evaluation process that's caused by a second kind of brain damage. Natasha Mitchell: And you're trying to apply this idea across a whole range of delusions that you work with. I mean, you're working with people for example who think they're dead, or that their wife or their husband is an impostor. Or that a limb that is very much there and theirs is not theirs. Max Coltheart: Yes. So Cotard delusions are the delusions that you're dead and you can talk to these people and they'll say they're dead. So you say well, 'Do you feel hot and cold, do you feel your bladder's full when you want to go to the toilet?' Things like that. This is all meant to persuade them to say, 'I must be alive after all'. All the person said to me was, 'That shows that dead people can feel whether their bladder's full or not'. Natasha Mitchell: Oh gosh. Max Coltheart: And certainly people with somatoparaphrenia who have the belief that this is not their arm but somebody else's arm, often the arm of a relative or sometimes the arm of the investigator and so you can take people like this and put the arm in front of their table; 'Whose arm is that?' They'll say, the patient says to me, 'It's your arm', so I put both my arms next to this patient's arm and say, 'How many hands can you see?' And the patient says, 'I can see three'. 'Whose are they'? 'They're yours', the patient says. And I'll say, 'Have you ever seen a man with three hands'? And she said, 'Well, you've got three arms so you must have three hands'. And that was game, set and match for the patient. Natasha Mitchell: The most extraordinary false beliefs. Max Coltheart: Yes, that's right. Natasha Mitchell: To link these to your quest for unravelling the causes of such belief, in your thinking there and investigations are there sharp dividing lines between those sorts of false beliefs that people form and normal beliefs that we all hold, sometimes false? Max Coltheart: I think there are no sharp lines. It's very difficult to define delusion because we've tried to finesse that problem by taking examples where everybody would agree this is a delusion. But if you look at the definition of delusion in clinical physiological text books, it doesn't make any sense. For instance delusions have to be false for these definitions. But why should a delusion have to be false? As long as you've got no justification for believing it and as long as there's evidence to suggest that it's naturally true, if you're rejecting of certain belief ,because you've got good evidence for rejecting it, if it happens to be true, that's still delusional because you're not justified. And similarly, the definitions say of the delusions have to be bizarre but you can have perfection mundane delusions. So it's very difficult to define delusions; there's a grey area there and the only way round that is to take examples where everybody would agree this counts as a delusion. Natasha Mitchell: If we think about people who experience schizophrenia and some of the delusions and false beliefs they maintain, that someone is talking to them from the television, or that their house is wired up to spy on them or something like that. I mean, there's an active scientific discussion about the meaning of those delusions; you know, we can say they're pathological, but we can also say well, they carry meaning in the world of these people. And this seems to be sort of key to this discussion today. Just because beliefs don't stack up against demonstrable facts does that mean that they're meaningless in our subjective world? Max Coltheart: Well this thread of the discussion came from your question about whether we've evolved to be believers. I think we've evolved to be explainers. So if something weird happens to us, we can't just say something weird happened. We have to admit an explanation and you can see why, in evolutionary terms, that might have been important. And so if the thing that happens to you is really weird because it's caused by brain damage, there is no plausible explanation for it, but you've got to try and find and explanation. So when I wonder who that person is in the mirror, I've got to adopt the belief that it's not me otherwise I've just got an experience that has no explanation. And I don't think we can tolerate experiences that don't have explanations. Natasha Mitchell: David, Freud contested that religion was a sort of mass delusion, Marx called it the opiate of the masses. These are sort of great thinkers and their takes on religious belief. I know you've been sort of itching to respond to some of these efforts to reconcile faith and reason for example. David Millikan: Well they demand each other. Look, I saw a sign on a church notice board - there it is in big letters, 'Reason is faith's greatest enemy'. I look at this and I think, 'Good grief, what is happening,' I'm now worried about what's happening inside that church. Because one of the characteristics of an abhorrent new religious movement is a movement that robs its members of all mystery which remove from people the capacity to question, to doubt, and to reason. In fact all fundamentalist groups fear reason, cause reason provides an independent access and scrutiny of what the group believes. And this is why, for someone like me walking into some of these groups, it's such a sort of paradise and such a mystery. See at the moment, there is a sort of a coterie of groups like A Course in Miracles, Landmark Forum, Scientology and a couple of other groups that come out of the 50s/60s like that, that have at their base, a quite astonishingly radical philosophical thought. Which most of the people in those groups don't actually in a sense know about the implication. Like Landmark Forum for example. Natasha Mitchell: Which doesn't let any media near them I might add. David Millikan: Oh no, no, both of these groups are very fierce. Scientology is without question - that one group changed the whole character of the relationship between cults and western society because of the degree to which they have gone after their critics. Underlying this is this extraordinary philosophy which, in a way, it pervades the whole new age movement that we are the sole reality that we can establish in the cosmos. It's like a sort of radical solipsism, that you create your own reality. You hear new age people saying, 'Oh you create your own reality'. Most people mean, 'Oh if you work in a certain way, devote yourself in a certain way, outcomes will begin to group around you in your life'. But these groups mean that radically; they mean that the only thing you can establish is that you exist. So it's the Descartian think, you know; 'I exist because I'm thinking, I'm here'. And then they try to build up a sort of understanding of the cosmos and in that sense they load on the individual the entire history of the world. So whatever this world is that you live in, you've created it, you are God. Now that is a burden that crushes people, but how do you initiate a rational discussion of that sort of belief within a group like that? It's impossible. Natasha Mitchell: How do you initiate a rational discussion with yourself? I'm interested in the way that you reconcile a faith in God. I'm interested in how you reconcile your faith in God with also a real commitment in your life to reason and rational thought. David Millikan: There's just no choice really. I mean I've got to be able to say to myself at the end of the day, 'The most rational thing I can do is believe in Jesus Christ as my saviour'. If I can't say that, if I can't say to myself, 'There is a set of reasons for that belief which are respectable, which I am proud of, then I have no business standing up in front of ......' Natasha Mitchel: What's your test? What's your test? Do you need a test? I mean this is an interesting question - do you need a test? David Millikan: Of course you do, you must submit all of your beliefs to the scrutiny of reason. I believe that faith in a sense is reason testing itself. That we as rational beings survey the cosmos for things, possible things that we admire, respect, or perhaps might want to believe in. And we move towards these objects and our rational processes are working flat out, we're saying does this make sense? Is there a type of interior coherency about these beliefs? Do they contradict each other? That's the first test. Does it make sense in terms of the way it applies to me as a person? There's a whole series of tests you bring to bear and as you start to zero in and your reason begins to, in a sense, heighten your confidence that the object of your observation is a worthy object for you, then you get into this dance between faith and reason. Natasha Mitchell: Would you be able to do this same process on your own, independent of a faith community? David Millikan: It's difficult, it's difficult because I mean my life in the church is actually painful; I find life in the church really hard work because of, for a whole lot of reasons which I'm happy to go into, but that's another occasion. Yeah, no, so I would see myself more as a child of history, of philosophy and history. I mean I'm an avid reader of the great theologians and especially the first 300 years of the church, its life when it was grappling. When in was more in a situation like we are in Australia now, I think Australia is moving into a post Christian era and Christians now find themselves in a whole different relationship with their culture and they've lost that sense of privilege which I'm really glad about. It means that we have now got to argue our case cause like Augustine said, 'We seek to persuade not destroy'. Natasha Mitchell: I just want to come for a final question and then we'll hit the audience. Max, the thing about science that strikes me that it's not certainty making you alluded to this earlier. And in a sense this is where it can unite with religion as a process of enquiry I would imagine. Max Coltheart: Certain most scientist would say that their theories can't be ever proven, as I said at the beginning, that you can't be certain about theories because there have been theories in the past that turned out to be wrong and the current theories might well turn out to be wrong. This really comes home with a vengeance when you talk to people with delusions because they're absolutely committed to these beliefs and you know that they couldn't possibly be true. So if those people can be really committed to a belief when it's clearly untrue, and I might be too. I think the way to think about this is to ask the question is, 'Is it ever wise to adopt a belief even when it's not true?' And the answer to that has got to be, 'Yes', because the beliefs you might adopt might be very good for your own mental health, for society. Let's suppose that one consequence of believing in a god was that you treated other people better than you would normally. Often not the case, but if it did, then that clearly would be beneficial for society. And so for society this would be a good belief, even though it couldn't be justified in the way in which scientific beliefs could be justified. And that's why, that's the way I think we can reconcile science and religion, not if you're Richard Dawkins or not if you're a Scientologist because they are both fundamentalists; they don't believe in this reconciliation and they don't believe in the kind of pluralistic thing I just said about different reasons for adopting beliefs. David Millikan: Well what's the point in believing something that's not true, palpably not true? Max Coltheart: Might make you happy. David Millikan: Well what a desperate situation to be in. Margaret Wertheim: But it also raises the issue of who get to decide what's true and usually one of the things about religious beliefs versus scientific beliefs is that both are making claims to say that our side has got the lot on ultimate truth and that's the very contestation. What constitutes evidence? What constitutes even the grounds for saying I've got proof? Natasha Mitchell:Well, look, can I thank the panel. Professor Max Coltheart, Scientific Director at the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science at Macquarie University. Film maker and minister with the Dee Why parish of the Uniting Church and a theologian, Dr David Millikan and science writer and commentator Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace and joining us all the way from her home, now in LA. I really appreciate your being here, thank you, give yourselves a hand. My thanks to the crew Pauline Newman, Angus Kingston, Leila Shunnar and to Jen Parsonage, I'm Natasha Mitchell, back with you next week for All in the Mind and if you're in Oz enjoy the rest of National Science Week.


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