Friday, August 12, 2016

The Grand Design - by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Book Review: The Grand Design – by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantam Books, 2010)

This book was an absolute delight to read and I never thought I would say that about a physics book. I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time a few years back and found it rather unsatisfying. This one, however, was fascinating, fairly easy to follow, well-illustrated, and was even peppered with good natured nerdy humor and comics. It also delves into the philosophical aspects of physics and the nature of reality. The book doesn’t always seem to make sense but it does offer a good non-technical explanation of the current state of physics along with the perhaps more important qualitative aspects of what it all means.  
The authors point out that science increasingly informs and influences philosophy as new discoveries are made. Quantum physics shows that reality in the subatomic quantum level is fundamentally different and yet quite predictable. Quantum physics and classical physics are based on very different conceptions of physical reality. Richard Feynman’s idea of multiple histories is one of a number of quantum physics ideas that seem to defy common sense. The authors here adopt an approach they call – model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that we humans interpret sensory inputs by making a model of the world to explain reality. It may be the case that more than one model could explain reality. The history of science is one in which better and better theories, or models, have come about to explain reality. The authors think we now have a model that is a candidate for the “ultimate theory of everything,” which they call M-theory. They describe M-theory as a family of theories that is more like a map. M-theory predicts that many universes were created out of nothing and in each there are multiple histories. Our very existence selects only those universe(s) that are compatible with it. 

A short history of science is given from Thales and other pre-Socratic philosophers through classical Greece. Laws and relationships were then first tabulated with the string length harmonics attributed to Pythagoras and the principles of Archimedes regarding buoyancy. Anaximander, circa 610-546 BC, reasoned that humans ‘evolved’ from other animals since the first human infant would have been helpless and not able to survive. Empedocles discovered properties of air and fluids. Democritus divided matter into smaller pieces but postulated a limit to the division. Have we found it? Maybe. Maybe not. His ideas of the fundamental units, or atoms, crashing into one another are a precursor to the law of inertia. Aristarchus (circa 310-230 BC) reasoned that the sun was much bigger than the earth by geometrically measuring the shadow cast by the earth on the moon during eclipses. To him is also attributed the first heliocentric model and the suspicion that stars were distant suns. Based on these ideas and perhaps others he was said to have thought that humans were not so special in the universe, something modern science seems to suggest often. The ideas above were often not even popular in their time as there were many rival ideas. Was this idea that we are not special new? Probably. Of course many ancient explanations about nature were way off the mark and entwined with mythology. Aristotle was more influenced by direct observation but he still incorporated much nonsense. The authors go on through Kepler and his scientific (and religious) explanations of the movements of the heavenly bodies. The Church was still very powerful in Europe when in 1277 the pope noted that the idea that nature followed laws was heretical. Indians and Arabs developed mathematics. Kepler and Galileo are credited with the resurgence of the idea of laws of nature and Descartes believed that all physical phenomena could be explained by collisions of moving masses. His three laws became the precursor to Newton’s laws of motion. All of these scientists also sought to reconcile their observations with God and religious dogma. After all, it was God who made the laws of nature, right? 

“Today most scientists would say that a law of nature is a rule that is based upon an observed regularity and provides predictions that go beyond the immediate situations upon which it is based.”
Today, laws of nature are typically phrased in mathematics and generally hold universally or at least under a stipulated set of conditions. Newton’s laws hold until the objects in question approach the speed of light – then they must be modified. An unexplainable exception to a natural law might be considered a miracle or simply an unknown. Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) is credited with postulating scientific determinism: “Given the state of the universe at one time, a complex set of laws fully determines both the future and the past.” Others believe humans have free will so that determinism is only a feature of the non-human universe. The authors seem to favor the view that we are basically biological machines subject wholly to the laws of nature and that free will is basically an illusion. Even if we are governed by determinism there is such complexity that outcomes are difficult and often impossible to predict. Science and physics relies on ‘effective theories’ that successfully predict outcomes of experiments which only include small bits of the total of a system. Since we cannot document and describe all the details that lead to our behaviors or even predict what those behaviors will be we rely on the effective theory of free will, say the authors. They also note that most scientists would say that the laws of nature are a “mathematical reflection of an external reality that exists independent of the observer that sees it.” That is, the authors say, if an objective reality even really exists. 

Next, reality is explored. Ptolemy’s earth-centered model of physical reality was the most accepted because it seemed sensible and correct and could be partially explained scientifically. This model ruled in Western belief for 1400 years. Copernicus revealed a heliocentric model 1700 years after Aristarchus. The authors here note that in some sense both models could be considered real although the heliocentric model has much more evidence and mathematical support. They explore the idea that we are living in some sort of simulation, like in the Matrix movies. They note that we, like beings in a simulated world, cannot see our universe from outside of it. Thus, they claim – all realities are ‘model-dependent.’ “There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality.” Thus, they adopt the idea of ‘model-dependent realism.’ Realism refers to a situation where all observers studying a system will measure the same properties of it. Quantum physics makes any realism a difficult position to defend since on the quantum level the observer alters the observed. One theory – the holographic principle – suggests that our 4-dimensional universe is a ‘shadow’ on the boundary of a larger 5-dimensional space-time. The analogy is that we are like a goldfish in a curved bowl experiencing a distorted view of the reality outside of it. There are also ‘anti-realists’ who say that if it can’t be observed it doesn’t exist. Such was said for atoms when they were proposed but the evidence for their existence has grown vastly since they were proposed. Thus, since the evidence for their existence is so strong we are compelled to act as if they exist without actually seeing them (an idea from philosopher David Hume). That is the situation with the subatomic world. In model-dependent realism the arguments for whether a model is real or not are put aside and only the notion whether the model agrees with observation is considered. Thus, two or more models could well be correct in agreeing with observation. All knowledge really has a subjective component since we observe with our senses which are processed by our brain which builds models in the form of mental pictures. Regarding the subatomic world we build models based on mathematical observations and what we do know about larger units of matter through observation. We can’t see individual particles or electrons but we can see the effects they produce. Quarks are a model to explain the properties of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom but we will never see one because free quarks theoretically cannot exist in nature. On this basis, whether quarks actually exist or not, has been debated since they are theoretically forever unobservable. However, the quark model has led to many correct predictions of experimental results. Thus the quark model agrees with our observations of how subnuclear particles behave.

There are models related to the beginning of the universe as the Big Bang and ones that go back to before the Big Bang. The Big Bang beginning model is favored simply because it has observable consequences for the present and the latter does not (as of yet anyway). The authors note that a model is a good fit if it:

1.       “Is elegant
2.       Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements
3.       Agrees with and explains all existing observations
4.       Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.”

The idea of elegance is related to having few adjustable elements since a theory with many ‘fudge factors’ is not very elegant. According to many the “standard model” itself is inelegant, having too many adjustable parameters fixed to match observations, although it still has successfully predicted results and the existence of new particles. When too many factors are attempted to try and rescue a theory it is deemed inelegant. Sometimes a new model may be required. An example is given of the old model of a static universe and Edwin Hubble’s research of the light emitted by galaxies which suggested that the universe is actually expanding and not static. Hubble had expected to observe a static universe with as many galaxies moving away from us as toward us but he observed nearly all galaxies moving away from us and the further away from us the faster they moved away. It is not just the transformation from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian and quantum physics that represents a paradigm shift but all new theories replace old ones in similar fashion with variable levels of fundamental shifts. Einstein’s photoelectric effect showed that light behaves as both a wave and a particle depending on how it is observed.

The authors note that thus far there is no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe. The network of theories known as M-theory can describe phenomena within a certain range. While this does not satisfy the search for a single unified theory it is acceptable in terms of model-dependent realism.

Next the “alternative histories” quantum theory is explored where the idea of quantum superposition suggests that every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously. Newtonian laws are seen as an approximation of the way macroscopic objects composed of quantum components behave. The wave/particle duality of light and the uncertainty principle are two important aspects of quantum theory. The wave/particle duality was discovered in the famous double-slit experiments. The uncertainty principle was resolved mathematically by Werner Heisenberg. Basically it says the more precisely you measure speed of a particle the less precisely can position of the particle be measured, and vice versa. Due to the extremely small number that describes the uncertainty principle, Planck’s constant, it only noticeably affects particles on the subatomic level. In our big Newtonian world speed and position can be measured just fine with the uncertainty principle too small for us to notice.

“Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.”

Unlike everyday probabilities, quantum probabilities reflect a basic randomness in nature. Feynman  noted that no one really understands quantum physics. Even so it agrees with observation and has been well tested. Feynman developed the alternative histories formulation of quantum physics. His mathematical expression - the Feynman sum over histories – assumes that a particle traveling from point A to point B takes all possible paths simultaneously. The shortest path between two points is a straight line in the classical physics model. In the sum over histories models it is as well since the interference patterns enhance one another in the more straight line paths and cancel one another out in the diverging paths. Thus the reality of classical physics “seems” to be correct, especially with large objects.

‘Observation alters the observed’ is the gist of the uncertainty principle. Knowing one thing in the quantum world involves unknowing others. The concept of the past in quantum theory is that it is indefinite, based on possibilities, and that it has no single history. Thus, present observations affect the past. Physicist John Wheeler demonstrated this in his “delayed-choice” version of the double-slit experiment. 

In a discussion of the laws of nature leading to a theory of everything the authors go through the development of theories concerning the four fundamental forces: 1) the gravitation force; 2) the electromagnetic force; 3) the strong nuclear force; and 4) the weak nuclear force. Especially explained is the electromagnetic force which is the characteristic also of light on the EM spectrum. Einstein’s conclusion that the speed of light appears the same to all uniformly moving observers required a new interpretation of space and time. Thus it was discovered that space and time are intertwined and the new 4th dimension, ‘space-time’ was born. That space-time is curved became the basis of Einstein’s general theory of relativity which is a major upgrade to Newton’s theory of gravity. The curvature is non-Euclidian and resembles the shorter distances traveling by air from two points on the Earth as a ‘great circle.’ Thus objects move on ‘geodesics’ in a similar fashion rather than along straight lines since space-time itself is curved. The authors note that both Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Einstein’s theory of gravity are still classical theories, or models in which the universe is assumed to have a single history. These theories work in our everyday world – Einstein’s general theory of relativity is used to keep GPSs and aircraft on track to account for space-time based curvature. However, in order to study the subatomic world we need quantum versions of these theories which are not based on single histories but alternate ones of varying probability. Feynman and others developed the first one base on electromagnetism called quantum electrodynamics, or QED. This involves interactions of particles called bosons (particles of light, or photons, are an example of a boson) and fermions (electrons and quarks are examples of fermions). Feynman developed a graphical way of representing the sum over histories, now known as Feynman diagrams. However, there is a problem with this approach as the Feynman diagrams would give an infinite mass and charge to electrons which is not the case when measured. To adjust for this there is a process called renormalization where ‘fudge factors’ are used which can be considered mathematically dubious. Renormalization is an essential ingredient in QED and QED has been successfully used for subatomic prediction. 

The authors note that the division into the four fundamental forces may be artificial and that physicists have long sought to unify the four classes into a single law, or theory of everything. The electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces have been unified into the electro-weak force which does not require renormalization and has successfully predicted particles verified by CERN. The strong force can be renormalized on its own in a theory called quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. Here the quarks that makes up protons, neutrons, and other particles have a property called ‘color.’ QCD also makes use of a property called asymptotic freedom whereby the strong forces between quarks are small when they are close together and large when they are far apart – as if they were joined by rubber bands. Grand unified theories (GUTs) where developed to unify the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces but were struck a hard blow in 2009 when it was apparently revealed experimentally that proton decay is greater than 10 to the 34th power. In the earlier adopted ‘standard model’ the electro-weak forces are unified but the strong force as in QCD theory is considered separate. The standard model is yet unsatisfactory because in addition to not unifying the strong and electro-weak forces it also fails to unify the gravitational force. Integrating the gravitational force is more difficult due to the uncertainty principle. The uncertainty principle predicts that space cannot be empty, only at a state of minimum energy called the vacuum which is subject to what are called vacuum fluctuations, or ‘quantum jitters.’ Now I am confused! While renormalization can remove infinities it cannot adjust the infinity parameters of gravity theory. The theory of supergravity, based on supersymmetry could be an alternative explanation that relies on force and matter being two facets of the same thing. That means that each matter particle such as a quark has a corresponding partner particle that is a force particle such as a photon. Although many physicists think that supergravity can unify gravity with the other forces it is near impossible to verify. The partner particles have not even been observed. 

The idea of supersymettry developed from early formulations of string theory. The extra dimensions predicted by string theory are considered to be so ‘small’ as to be undetectable, analogous to a tiny tiny straw that is essentially a straight line to observation as the curved surface is too small to have visual significance. Different string theories which showed different ways of curling up the extra dimensions as well as supergravity are suspected to be different approximations of a more fundamental theory – called M-theory. It is unknown whether M-theory exists as a single approximation or a network of theories that all agree with observation. M-theory predicts 11 dimensions (10 of space and one of time) and allows for different universes with different apparent laws (whatever that really means!). The 4 dimensions are the ones that are most applicable to us with the other 7 curled up so much as to be rendered insignificant.

Hubble’s evidence for an expanding universe of course strongly implied that the (current) universe had a beginning, known as the big bang. The famous analogy is that it is as the surface of a balloon is expanding. Due to gravitational forces everything within the expanding universe does not expand but keeps its size. Evidence for the big bang includes cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) that hints at a hot early universe and helium abundance. At the beginning there was a singularity, where the temperature, density, and curvature of the universe were all infinite. General relativity theory does not work for the very early period of the universe’s existence. The early expansion of the universe, called inflation, had to move way faster than the speed of light. The idea is that if you go far back enough in time the universe was small – atomic scale small – so that the relativity theory that works in the macroscopic world breaks down and the microscopic world is governed by quantum theory. Thus “creation” or the big bang had to be a quantum event. In that early quantum-sized universe there were 4 dimensions of space and none (yet?!) of time. Thus, time behaved as another dimension of space due to warpage. This somewhat resolves the problem of whether time had a beginning similar to the round earth resolving there being edges to the seemingly flat earth. This “no boundary condition” of space-time at the beginning of the universe sort of resolves the idea of whether the universe had a beginning or not, they say – but I don’t fully understand it. It also removes the idea that the universe had to be set in motion by an entity or force, say God. A uniformly expanding universe will have the greatest probability due to its sum over histories but other universes in the multiverse would be more non-uniform/irregular/asymetrical. Our slightly non-uniform universe (as inferred by slight temp variations in the CMBR) is lucky for us, they say, since it allows for heterogeneity of matter. 

“We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.”

The sum of alternative histories of the universe (which themselves are governed by probabilities) leads to the appearance of being dominated by a single history that we tend to take as “the” single history. 

“We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes. That may not satisfy our human desire to be special or to discover a neat package to contain all the laws of physics, but it does seem to be the way of nature.”

A universe among other universes in which beings like us exist appears to be extremely unlikely and the rarity and special fine-tuning suggests that we could be a miracle, or more likely an apparent miracle. 

So, next is examined the so-called Goldilocks Principle – the notion that our universe is oddly “just right” for life in several ways: orbital eccentricity, axial tilt, the sun’s mass and our distance from it, our single sun, etc. These coincidences seem suspicious but we now have discovered that there are many other similarly favorable locations in the universe where life could theoretically develop. We are bound to find that the environment in which we live is required to support life. That itself leads to a principle:

“Our very existence imposes rules determining from where and at what time it is possible for us to observe the universe.”

That is known as the ‘weak anthropic principle.’ It gives ranges where life is likely. It is acceptable to most scientists.

The more controversial ‘strong anthropic principle’ “suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but also on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves. The idea arose because it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire universe, and that is much more difficult to explain.”

In order to make us possible, heavier elements like carbon had to form inside the heat of stars and then some explode in supernovas dispersing the heavier elements throughout space. The early universe (the first 200 seconds) was mostly hydrogen with some helium and a smaller amount of lithium. Heavy elements came much later. Carbon is created by the ‘triple alpha process’ from the nucleus of helium isotopes, the ‘alpha particle.’ There is a unique quantum state of the carbon isotope formed, known as carbon resonance, which vastly increases the rate of the nuclear reaction. This process requires that the fundamental forces of nature (the so-called four forces) be nearly exactly what they are – a case of serendipity? Fundamental constants and masses of particles also have to be in an extremely narrow range to develop life so these are further supports to the strong anthropic principle. 

“The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned, and very little in physical law can be altered without destroying the possibility of the development of life as we know it. Were it not for a series of startling coincidences in the precise details of physical law, it seems, humans and similar life-forms would never have come into being.”

So it seems perhaps that the universe (or at least our universe) is fine-tuned so that an observer would eventually discover its laws. The most convincing evidence for the strong anthropic principle, the authors note, is Einstein’s cosmological constant. Einstein called including it in his theory the greatest blunder of his life. However, in 1998 it was resurrected after studying distant supernovas. Its precision is uncannily precise – it is related to repulsive forces and if even slightly different the universe would have blown apart before the formation of galaxies. This strong anthropic principle has led some back to ideas of God and intelligent design. However, modern physics renders the remarkable unremarkable through the idea of multiple universes – the multiverse concept, of different universe with different physical laws. I think the idea is that we are so bound up with the laws of our own universe that it gives the mere appearance that there was an intelligent creator but we might ask “who made God?”

The idea of model-dependent realism suggests that the only reality we can know is made of mental concepts thus all tests of reality are model-dependent. In 1970 John Conway invented the Game of Life based on certain simple laws that led to complexities and those complexities led to different laws on different scales not unlike the different macro and micro (quantum) laws we understand in physics. The takeaway is that: ‘reality is dependent on the model employed.’ The authors note that we say that any complex being has free will – “not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions. Classical and quantum physics and other sciences as well have indicated that our universe has both fundamental laws and apparent laws. The second law of thermodynamics – that energy must remain constant and zero – implies that any “body” of matter in the universe is stable because it has positive energy.  
“Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing ….. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

“ … M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite – and this has yet to be proved – it will be a model of a universe that creates itself.”

Wow, my brain hurts, but in a good way. Mind blown but yet still holding together. Because gravity, blah, blah, blah. Great book!  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life – by Jesse Bering – (W.W. Norton and Co. – 2012 – Kindle Edition)

This great book is quite interesting. One of the main points is that our tendency to create and develop conviction in supernatural scenarios to explain events is instinctual, at least partially. This is a result of our – Theory of Mind – that we developed through our evolution. He discovered that we may be non-religious or even staunchly atheist and yet still intuitively act as if there is a controlling force in the universe that we seek to influence. This may happen most often when we are faced with tragedy such as the illness or death of a loved one or when we are victims of situations we find unfair. He mentions the similarity of the God concept to the “mafia,” offering us protection not to kill us – something I have joked about in the past. The God concept fills a need, one likely made by the psychological cognitive dissonance of mystery itself. It is an idea which can give one a sense of purpose. Bering describes himself as an “atheistic psychological scientist” so his bias is not one of a believer in dogma. His family was Jewish so that is perhaps a slight influential bias. Some scientists see religion and superstition as accidental by-products of our mental evolution, having no adaptive function in itself but related to other adaptive functions such as tribal coherence. Biologist Richard Dawkins purported such an idea in his book, The God Delusion. Bering sees the concept more as an adaptive illusion to address human gossip. The development of language necessitated the practice of behavioral inhibition because we could now know about one another through words. Particularly we could know about others’ tendencies and past actions by having someone else tell us. That would have the effect of making us “check” our public behavior. The new cognitive study of religion may be most useful, he notes, as religion may be best understood as a psychological adaptation. Throughout the book Bering invokes not only the views of philosophers and psychologists but also quite a few created literary and movie characters.

Bering tells the story of the Greek orator, Gorgias, a student of the philosopher Empedocles and a master at rhetoric, wit, and eloquent persuasion. In spite of his oratory skills Gorgias was frustrated by the realization that one’s subjective experiences could not be adequately communicated through words. We are each our own “bubble of consciousness” says London psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. Gorgias is also known as the world’s first “solipsist,” someone who denies the very existence of other minds. An experiment at Harvard recently suggested that we can under some (laboratory specific) circumstances experience the sensations of others, partially sharing their experience. The experiment involved a person in a long gown facing a mirror with their arms behind their back. Another person of the same size and same sex would from behind a curtain put their arms in the arms of the gown and when the person snapped their fingers the participants reported sensing that it was their own fingers but more importantly when a rubber band was snapped against their wrist there was a corresponding measurable skin conductance in the same wrist area of the other person. Of course, solipsism, is not intuitive since we intuitively sense and logically conclude that others have conscious minds similar but not identical to our own. He mentions the dehumanizing of people, specifically of the Jews by the Nazis, as evidence that we can train ourselves to devalue the conscious experience of others compared to our own. This is being played out all the time with ethnic conflicts and more recently with the Black Lives Matter movements. In essence the argument is that one’s private reality is more sophisticated, more important, and more valuable than another’s. Bering found himself sitting behind the philosopher Daniel Dennett at a conference and gave this kinda comical description of the odd irony:

“ … I couldn’t help but stare at the back of Dennett’s head – at the perfectly oblong shape of his skull, the sun-speckled skin stretched taut around it, the neatly trimmed ring of white hair…What irony, I thought, that I would be staring at the particular cranium containing the very mind that first posed the formal question of why understanding other minds is so central to evolved human psychology, only to realize that, though it literally lay at my fingertips, even this mind was no more than an airy hypothetical.”

Dennett proposed the idea of intentional stance, that we see others as having intentions and make choices based on their desires and beliefs. Our social strategies often depend on reading the intentions of others.

Bering goes through the work of those who studied other primates in the 60’s and 70’s: Jane Goodall and the others and their efforts and thoughts regarding the “humanness” of these species. Humans, however, have a much larger prefrontal cortex area of the brain and this area is associated with our evaluation of other minds, our ‘theory of mind.’ It seems to be the case that our theory of mind is what makes us uniquely human. This idea that humans are different than animals in this respect was seen as anti-Darwinian by scientific consensus at first, he suggests. Some scientists wondered if it was propagated by secretly religious people who would have a reason to see humans as “special.” Of course Darwin himself noted a big difference – but “one of degree and not of kind.” A researcher named Povinelli came up with some ingenious ways of determining whether chimps had a theory of mind. One was to allow chimps to reach through a Plexiglas partition to reach out or gesture to one of two persons, both who would give them a treat. After they got used to this the real experiment began where one of the persons was veiled with a blindfold or even a bucket over their head. The chimps surprisingly were unable to distinguish between the seeing person and the non-seeing one while in similar experiments 2 year-old children could easily distinguish. In these experiments the chimps apparently failed to “reason about what others see, know, feel, believe, or intend.” Experiments by others suggested that chimps may have some degree of theory of mind and even dogs and birds could – but there is still much debate and it is quite clear that humans high a very degree of theory of mind in comparison in any case. “We are exquisitely attuned to the unseen psychological world,” says Bering. He also says our evolved brains have become ‘hypersocial filters,’ as we apply our theory of mind to others and occasionally also to other things if presented in certain ways.

He asks the questions: Is God just another mind? One who willed our creation, observes us, knows about us, and occasionally communicates to us? Is God simply a functional illusion? God is often seen as the mind that knows all, as the ultimate “other.” Is it our theory of mind that allows as to even consider such an idea? Darwin saw the randomness of evolution as somehow still pre-planned by a higher power.

Next he delves into the contemplations of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte regarding human nature and God. Human nature is a product of the human mind, he said, and not a creation of God. Another way he said the same thing was in the statement: “existence precedes essence.” Bering compares such an idea to religionist Pastor Rick Warren whose book: The Purpose Driven Life, gives the opposing view that we were created by God for God (and the absurdity that he knows what God’s purpose for us is!). The hardcore scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins assert that even pondering the meaning of life is pointless but how can we resist? Even atheists no doubt wonder about the meaning of life. Bering wonders if Dawkins ever wondered if he was “called” to be a proselytizing atheist! Even Sarte, near death, noted that he could not help thinking of himself as a being emanating from a creator in contradiction to his ideas. Yet he still suspected his involuntary suspicion to be a trick of the mind, which now might be called a trick of the theory of mind.  One quote that popped up during this section for me was from John Lennon – “God is a concept, by which we measure our pain.”

Studies of deaf-mutes suggest that even they invented cosmologies as children in attempts to explain things and that even Helen Keller was said to have wondered as a child who made the sky, the sea, and everything else. Are we wired to wonder why? While language is required to communicate specific religious dogmas, those without language may just make up their own, as suggested by a story told by psychologist William James in 1892 about a deaf-mute that as a child made up stories about the moon watching over him like a god (although he related the stories as an adult after becoming adept at language and art.) Later, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that children had a penchant for what he called “artificialism,” making up stories about the world based on human needs. Thus. Piaget, like Sarte, saw humans as sort of stuck in an inescapable psychological bias. Paiget argued that children and even science-literate adults seem to believe that things exist for a certain reasons. We as humans make things for specific purposes so we are kind of wired to see things as purposeful and perhaps we project such thinking on natural phenomena, but if non-language children do it then perhaps it is intuitive. In science parlance this is called “teleo-functional reasoning.” Children employ it, until about 4th or 5th grade when the science paradigm takes root through education. Things are often seen as made specifically for human purposes by children. They might say lions exist to go to the zoo. Our early propensity for this type of thinking, says Bering, leads us to see religious ideas like “creationism” and “intelligent design” as very plausible. 

The idea of God as the First Cause is also seen as intuitive when questions are asked such as how did the first human or animal of a species appear. Oddly, he notes, we evolved to favor purposeful design over evolution in explaining our origins. We have a teleo-functional bias. There are many possibilities for origin even by creationism – God may have created us intentionally or accidentally, but due to the bias intentional creation is generally favored. I was staring through the dusky shapes in the trees and sky last night imagining the shapes into human-like spirit beings and wondering if this same teleo-functional tendency accounts for or contributes to the development of animistic cosmologies. Bering suggests the mechanism can be used to support a person’s belief that they have a specific destiny, especially when in accordance with the norms of a particular society. Believing in destiny, he says, is not bad in itself, but it can be if one gets so much conviction in a scenario that one commits crimes, which does indeed happen – think suicide bombers. It may be useful to some extent even if we realize it is a cognitive illusion. We do have some “predestination” by virtue of the socio-economic conditions into which we are born and our often limited choices of vocation but many break out of those molds. The teleo-functional bias can stifle creativity by only seeing people and things as having particular intended functions, by seeing them as purpose-constrained. Such “functional fixedness’’ is considered a cognitive bias. A huge support for teleo-functional bias is religion where God’s will or God’s plan always seems to have purposes in mind for everyone. Bering takes the story of brilliant Alan Turing who, being maligned as a homosexual, committed suicide. While Dawkins considered his maligning to do with religion, Bering notes that in 1950’s Britain homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder, so science was equally or even more complicit. He also mentions suicide and the idea that death is the choice of God and to kill oneself is thus a rebellion against God, or fate left alone, for that matter. The bottom line is that our teleological reasoning gives an at least quasi-instinctual bias that everything happens for a reason and that reason possibly involves some “higher” intention.

The next issue is that of seeing “signs,” of our tendency of reading clues into events that point us in certain directions. There is a long cross-cultural history of attributing catastrophic natural events to a wrathful God or gods. Songs and scriptures do the same. Typically the catastrophe is seen as a result of human behavior that offends or is unacceptable to God/Gods. In a less dogmatic form one may see such events as the universe acting as an intentional agent. Of course when we make up stories about such events it become dogma.

Bering recounts the theory of psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of the actor that starred in Borat and Bruno. He believes that autistic people suffer from an inadequately developed ‘intentional stance,’ which is the source of their problems with social activity. He also says they may have an overly developed sense of “folk physics,” which refers to their ability to discern and predict the possibilities and best uses of inanimate objects so that they are too preoccupied with how things happen and not enough with why things happen. Bering investigates ideas that autistic people develop a generally different concept of God. There were some like Temple Grandin and an autistic man Bering interviewed that seemed to have quite interesting ideas of “God” in a quantum sense as an ordering force in the universe and of consciousness powered by the entanglement of matter. These are fascinating and sophisticated ideas. He and others have suggested that the theological views of autistics are more scientific and less emotional. The jury is still out on that idea but it seems a plus for autistics to have a more detailed and perhaps sensible view of metaphysics. Autistics also do not seem to favor interpreting events and occurrences as signs from the divine. On the other hand schizophrenics seem to do just the opposite – find hidden meanings in unrelated events. They are generally paranoid as well as trying to make sense of their psychoses. Bering brings up the idea of signs in a story about visiting his mother’s grave and wondering if things were OK then hearing wind chimes on a non-windy day and taking that as a sign that they were indeed OK. The event (the wind chimes) was interpreted as a communication, seemingly intuitively, since Bering is an atheist. We developed through evolution to be aware of our surroundings since it enhances our survival. Being more aware can lead to more Jungian-style “synchronicities” which are seemingly connected but unrelated events. These co-incidences tend to baffle and intrigue us. Shamans traditionally take them as signs from the spirit world, sometimes according to precedents. Psychoanalysts also take them as meaningful, but perhaps in ways more unique to the individual. In evaluating all these events in terms of causality, we employ our theory of mind. 

Bering notes that New Agers have exploited and profited off of the human propensity to interpret events as having supernatural causes. He singles out Doreen Virtue’s hugely popular – Messages from Angels, series – as an example. Superstition exploits and probably conditions our theory of mind. Bering recounts a fascinating experiment meant to test our propensities for superstition when encouraged, at different childhood ages. Only the children 7-9, the oldest in the experiment responded to culturally manipulated suggestions of influencing an outcome through a supernatural agent. This suggests that that is the age when cultural condition about attributing supernatural causes to events can occur. In the experiment the kids were told about the magical powers of “Princess Alice” and when rigged events occurred like a picture falling from the wall and a lamp turning on and off it caused those older kids much more often to change their choices in the experiment. However, the younger children did not respond to such cues. While they could interpret the picture dropping as caused by Princess Alice they did not associate it with their own choices in the experiment. Apparently, the idea did not occur to them. The experimenters also concluded that superstitious thinking was an acquired cognitive skill, one possibly related to theory of mind development. Mature theory of mind involves the ability to reason about multiple orders of mental states – meaning for example to reason something like “he thinks that she thinks that they think that Bob doesn’t know that Connie thinks Sally is intelligent.” That statement I made up is close to the most orders of mental states humans can distinguish, according to some psychologists. A certain perspective (like third person) is required to connect personal events to supernatural causes.

In reading and speculating about the intentions of others with our theory of mind we also tend to speculate about supernatural influences from gods, demons, dead relatives, etc. It seems the same processes are at play. Natural events are often interpreted as signs, as hints from God. One example he gives is the Westboro Baptist Church which apparently believes that God now hates and punishes America with wars due to its welcoming attitudes toward homosexuals! Of course, he does this because he loves us! 

Studies have indicated that humans tend to associate the appearance of order with intentional agency. There have long been scientists who see in nature, even in evolution, the work of God (presumably the Christian God too). This can be seen as in the tradition of “natural theology” which began by inserting Christian propaganda in explaining scientific discoveries.

Belief in an afterlife may be common to all cultures. Bering mentions fear of nonexistence as one possible motivation and suggests that we use our theory of mind to support our belief in an afterlife. How can we even conceive of nonexistence since is cannot be experienced? Bering also notes that no one has really found definite connections between fear of death and belief in afterlife scenarios. He mentions an odd psychological delusional disorder called Cotard’s syndrome where a belief is manifested that one is conscious but does not exist, one is dead physically but alive psychologically. Two French psychiatrists who studied the disorder noted that: “the very existence of Cotard’s syndrome supports {the} view of a cognitive system dedicated to forming illusory representations of immortality.” Apparently, the belief in psychological continuity after death is quite widespread. In imagining what it’s like to be dead we have nothing to draw upon except conscious experience. Thus, “extinctivism,” the belief that when we die we simply no longer exist on any level, is something that is hard to imagine. There is only sleep, the brief daily period of unconsciousness to compare, but our brain is still functioning. Studies have shown that beliefs in immortality (at least psychological immortality) are not a result of cultural conditioning, that small children intuitively assume the continuity of existence after death. Cultural conditioning certainly affects how we depict such after death scenarios. Basically, he says, we have an innate sense of immortality because we can’t imagine not existing because it is not imaginable. We also know our living friends who are not currently present are alive and we can imagine them doing things (with our theory of mind). We also, he notes, typically imagine souls to have some sort of bodily form probably because that is what we are used to imagining about other people. Regardless of our intuitive sense of immortality he gives the situation as most science generally sees it: 

“The mind is what the brain does; the brain stops working at death; therefore, after death the mind no longer exists.”

In order to disprove that our sense of immortality is a psychological illusion we need to somehow show that the above postulates are incorrect.

Next is considered those deaths and situations that seem unjust and make one wonder about the motives of God in harming seemingly good people and rewarding bad ones. Some social psychologists think that it is because we are such a social species that when something bad happens “to” us we look for the cause in some “one” else, namely God punishing us. This comes from the habit of searching for human causes to human social problems. They say we blame God due to our habit of blaming other people. Some studies have shown that in areas where there is a lot of suffering, the belief in God is very high. One researcher gave the analogy that we seek answers to questions in the same way we seek orgasm from sex – it intuitively seems like the natural conclusion of curiosity. An answer to a mystery or question gives us the satisfaction of solving the problem. According to physicist Richard Feynman God is invoked to explain mystery and things we don’t understand. When science solves some mysteries there are still others to attribute to God. Bering notes that this view is incomplete in the sense that even if we know “how” we often still do not know “why,” so the alleviation of mystery by science is often only partial. In every society studied by anthropologists tragedies are attributed to supernatural causes – God, gods, spirits, or ancestors. Even when we know the scientific causes of things the superstitious mind remains. But fate often seems unfair so the argument that one is receiving retribution for one’s negative past actions is often not convincing. In the East there is the idea of atoning for karma in past lives which both complicates matters and seemingly solves the unfairness. Some people will feel so much guilt for an immoral act that they will seek punishment. We humans seem to have a sense that someone or something is watching over us. Even many non-believers in religion still seem to believe in some sort of destiny, in some sort of fairness of fate. One of Bering’s PhD students, Bethany Heywood, did a study that participants, half atheist and half believers, thought was about autobiographical memory but it was really about attribution of destiny. It was found that about two thirds of the atheists also attributed at least one event that ‘happened for a reason’ – they attributed some events to fate without believing in fate. It seems that despite our allegiance to rationality, it is difficult or maybe even impossible to let go of irrational notions.

Theory of mind led to inhibitions and considerations of the social effects of our actions. Without it we would likely be like our shameless chimpanzee ancestors. While chimps do have some complex social norms they are without inhibition. They don’t seem to feel as if they are being watched and evaluated by others. Our feeling of being watched and evaluated affects our behavior. When we think we are being observed we exhibit self-control and pro-social (rather than anti-social) behaviors. Our evolved ability to reason about the unobserved mental states of others allowed us to become empathetic and cooperative, but also strategic and conniving. Language allows gossip and gossip allows others to know our hidden motives and actions, if we expose them so we are guarded. Our reputations precede us. The human co-evolution of brain/mind and language allowed us to categorize in terms of past, present, and future as well as drastically increasing our capacity to conceptualize. Patience, restraint, modesty, and humility are arguably some of the results of our developed theory of mind. We tend to veil our more liminal actions from impressionable but also tattle-telling children and anyone who might show us in a negative light. Telling tales about one another is basically the same as gossip. In a social sense story-telling began with gossiping. Over millennia mythical tales developed. Children tattle but they don’t ‘tootle’ which refers to saying something good about someone. Thus the tattling is incentivized. Secrets are also notorious for not being able to keep. Because we are dependent on other people, says Bering, being ostracized can be very damaging. He also says people are more likely to say something incriminating in front of other people than something complementary. He gives examples from politics, which often involves exaggerated accusations of opponents. Mere associations can damage reputations. The children of rapists, and alcoholics, can be made guilty by genetic association which is socially unfair but could be seen as some sort of adaptive function. Bering seems to think that is quite plausible. I am not so sure, as it seems more cultural than biological to me. 

Language opened our mental lives to one another. Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar says it was language that changed social routine from grooming to gossip, which suggests that language has been around a long time, or possibly that our ancestors practiced social grooming in human form. We humans also tend to be braggarts and name-droppers, even though we may despise it in others. We tend to promote ourselves as a matter of social reality. Bering says we use our theory of mind to plant ideas and thoughts in the heads of others. Even false accusations can ruin reputations as just becoming associated with negative behavior can harm. People tend to demonize one another, particularly ideologues in my experience. In the real world and the cyber world we review things – this writing is one. These can affect reputations. We judge one another. We smear and exalt one another – all through language. Dunbar thinks a new form of socializing and bonding (from grooming to gossip) came about as we became able through language to increase our group sizes beyond about 80. A larger group meant increased protection from threats. Gossip also made it easier to root out the most problematic group members. Gossip polices behaviors. Language solved some problems and introduced others. The adaptive functions of competition and cooperation both depend mainly on language in humans. Animals don’t control sexual and aggressive behaviors like we do. In more recent times it is possible to atone for past behavior through apology, confessions, or even being blackmailed. Eyes carry gossip. Bering notes that many unexplained murders may be because the victim knew too much about the perpetrator. Panoptical awareness, or the sense of being watched, whether actually being watched or not, invokes fear of retribution. If someone can’t be identified it is a case of “deindividuation” a term coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Deindividuation means that the person is not paid attention to as an individual and so their behavior can’t be as easily monitored. To be part of a group is to be identifieable, to be given a history, a bio of sorts, a reputation. The deindividuated person may easily succumb to mob mentality or otherwise identify more with an anonymous group identity than that of an individual – and this gives them power mostly to cause harm it would seem. Bering notes that in Northern Ireland more sectarian violence and more harsh forms of it were inflicted by paramilitary members wearing masks. They also made more threats against those whose identities were known. 

Theory of mind and language likely co-evolved. One study indicated that thinking about God is associated with a heightened sense of individuation, of being readily identifiable as an individual. Study of many cultures suggest that in those cultures as well as our own is the belief that we are not anonymous to spirits, ancestors, God, or gods. When the eyes of other humans were not on us still the eyes of supernatural beings were and the panoptic self-control effect was/is the same. Since the eyes of others caused us to alter our behavior for adaptive reasons so too did the specter of a punitive God or supernatural beings. The source is likely the same. We went from being observed part of the time to being observed all the time. This view is heightened among religious people, true believers, and fanatics, and may be one reason they often exhibit high degrees of self-control. Thus, argues Bering, “God and his Ilk” is an adaptive cognitive illusion, a “strong target of natural selection in human evolution.” The beliefs (of being watched) and the resulting checking of behavior were adaptive due to early humans being part of close-knit societies and are part of our ancestral past. The development of religion can be seen as an extension of this adaptation, albeit an illusory one. 

“By helping to thwart genetically costly but still-powerful ancestral drives, these cognitive illusions pried open new and vital arteries for reproductive success, promoting inhibitory decisions that would have been highly adaptive under the biologically novel, language-based rules of natural selection. The illusion of God, engendered by our theory of mind, was one very important solution to the adaptive problem of human gossip.”

One study suggested that the larger the population of a cultural group the more human morality was thought to be watched by supernatural beings. Other studies suggest that mere belief in some supernatural scenario controls so-called moral behavior more than in non-believers. The adaptive illusion, says Bering, has nothing to do with any particular religion itself, it is rather the notion of religion itself. He also notes that this does not disprove the existence of God as one might argue that God created the particular cognitive illusion itself. However, that is grasping at straws, he says, and the strong conclusions here argue that the existence of God is rather improbable.

Even atheists, he notes, may succumb to religious-type thinking when dying. Even so, they are not in any way confirming God’s existence. They are mainly reacting to fear. (The concept of) God is a part of our inherited cognitive systems. The question arises whether shattering this adaptive illusion would be a good thing or bad thing. Another question is whether we can root out such an illusion even if we want to. 

Through such evolutionary reasoning we may come to the conclusion that God is both unnecessary and unlikely. Of course, that does not solve the mystery of life, if there really is one. If there is not, it still leaves the mystery of non-existence. 

This is a very important book with groundbreaking logical conclusions derived from social and evolutionary psychology.