Yesterday I was reading TIME magazine and came across a factoid that 92% of Americans believe in God. My first reaction? Wow, I'm part of a distinct minority.
Checking on the Gallup web site, I learned that this percentage is down only slightly from the 1940's, when the polling firm started asking this question. In 1967, when I was a godless existentialist drug-crazed college student, 98% of my fellow citizens believed in God, making me even more of an exception.
But am I abnormal?
Another survey found that only 1% of people in the United States said they've never believed in God, while 10% of people in the United Kingdom and 19% in South Korea said this.
Download Belief in God
This shows that belief in God varies a lot between countries. It doesn't really address the question of normality, though.
To me, my agnosticism (which sometimes feels more like atheism) strikes me as wonderfully normal now. To religious believers, I'm abnormally deluded -- failing to recognize the evidence of divinity that, to them, is so obviously evident.
This morning my pre-meditation reading was another chapter in David Eagleman's "Incognito," a book I'm enjoying a lot. Subtitle: "the secret lives of the brain"
In his Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question chapter, Eagleman presents his neuroscientific view of how we should view and treat people who break the law. While there's a large difference between criminality and religiosity, much of what Eagleman said struck me as relevant to my normality question.
His basic thesis is that assigning blame shouldn't be the focus of our courts and criminal justice system. Why?
Because there is essentially no evidence that we humans are able to do anything other than what we do. Free will may not be a fantasy, but there is no demonstrable scientific evidence for it. We have an intuition that people are responsible for their actions. However...
There is a tension between biology and law on this intuition. After all, we are driven to be who we are by vast and complex biological networks. We do not come to the table as blank slates, free to take in the world and come to open-ended decisions. In fact, it is not clear how much the conscious you -- as opposed to the genetic and neural you -- gets to do any deciding at all.
We've reached the crux of the issue. How exactly should we assign culpability to people for their varied behavior, when it is difficult to argue that the choice was ever really available?
Or do people have a choice about how they act, despite it all? Even in the face of all the machinery that constitutes you, is there some small internal voice that is independent of the biology, that directs decisions, that incessantly whispers the right thing to do? Isn't this what we call free will?
It sure is. However, both religion and the law are conflicted on this subject. Less charitably, they're confused about free will.
Eagleman points out that when it comes to being convicted of murder in the United States, "if you're eighteen we can kill you; if you're one day shy of your eighteenth birthday you're safe. If your IQ is 70, you get the electric chair; if it's 69, get comfortable on your prison mattress."
This is because age and mental ability are considered to bear on someone's responsibility for their actions, on their freedom to choose what to do. Somewhat similarly, Eastern religions see karma as causing us to act in a certain fashion, while Western religions posit sinfulness, the Devil, or some other negative force as leading us astray from the straight moral path.
Yet the same religions hold that we're accountable for good and bad deeds, including whether we believe in God or an impersonal higher power. As with the law's simultaneous embrace of no-free-will and free will, logically we're left with a big fat Huh? Makes no sense.
Here's how neuroscientist David Eagleman cuts through paradoxical crap and arrives at a scientifically defensible understanding of this whole blame/responsibility issue.
The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot or whether there is some little bit that is "free" to choose, independent of the rules of biology. This has always been the sticking point for both philosophers and scientists.
As far as we can tell, all activity in the brain is driven by other activity in the brain, in a vastly complex, interconnected network. For better or worse, this seems to leave no room for anything other than neural activity -- that is, no room for a ghost in the machine.
To consider this from the other direction, if free will is to have any effect on the actions of the body, it needs to influence the ongoing brain activity. And to do that, it needs to be physically connected to at least some of the neurons.
But we don't find any spot in the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead, every part of the brain is densely interconnected with -- and driven by -- other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore "free."
So in our current understanding of science, we can't find the physical gap in which to slip free will -- the uncaused causer -- because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.
This leads Eagleman to conclude that abnormal criminal behavior is always caused by an abnormality in the criminal's brain.
The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, "To what extent was it his biology [that made him commit the crime] and to what extent was it him?"
The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision making. They are inseparable.
Well, if this is true for abnormal behavior, it also is true for normal behavior. We and our brain are one. Neurons R' Us.
So the 92% of Americans who believe in God and the tiny percentage who don't are all doing what they have to do. This casts a different light on the notion of normality, taking it out of a moral sphere where people are assumed to be free to do this or that, and can be blamed or praised accordingly.
There's a lot of beauty in Eagleman's neuroscientific description of how the brain works. I haven't fully gotten my mind around it yet, which I guess I should rephrase as the brain inside the body that goes by my name hasn't gotten itself around it yet.
We're all just doing what we're doing. Stuff is happening. Connections, information, causes and effects, influences -- they're incessantly flying around inside brains and between brains like hyped-up mosquitos on meth.
There's no limit to the interconnected loopiness of reality both inside and outside of ourselves. We make feeble attempts to find the beginning or end of a piece of behavioral causal string that, really, has neither.
One person believes in God. Another person doesn't. That's a fact. But how this belief, or the lack thereof, came to be... that's not for us to know, because the knowledge isn't knowable.
We are not the ones driving the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and egg granted us with certain attributes and not others.
Who we can be begins with our molecular blueprints -- a series of alien codes penned in invisibly small strings of acids -- well before we have anything to do with it. We are a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history.
...My argument in this chapter has not been to redefine blameworthiness; instead it is to remove it from the legal argot. Blameworthiness is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.