God in the Lab Review Part 1: Itchy Ghosts

Yesterday I spent an enjoyable morning and afternoon attending a series of four talks organised by the London Centre for Inquiry titled ‘God in the Lab‘ (for the event website take a look here). As the title of the event suggests the talks were each based around the theme of researchers exploring religion from scientific perspectives. Each of the talks covered a different area and they were all very interesting (though some, it must be said, were presented more interestingly than others) and I thought that a good way to commit the event to my long term memory would be to write a review of it. Since each talk was on a different topic and included a heap of interesting research, I also thought it would be a good idea to write a seperate post reviewing each talk individually, rather than a mega post covering all four at once.  Below then is the first of a four part review of the event.

The event itself took place at Conway hall, run by the South Place Ethical Society, in an old church-like building with a maze of interconnected halls, rooms and general nooks and crannies. Most of the events held at the centre (judging by the posters and leaflets) seemed to be of the rationalist/humanist/atheist/agnostic bent which made for quite a quirky mix when combined with the religious decor. No doubt many so inclined would quickly leap to the conclusion that this further proves how atheism/humanism/rationalism/whatever is just another kind of religious belief system but personally, I suspect that it’s more likely the hall was previously a religious site and, just so happens, to have been bequeathed to the society in some way. Whatever the reason, it is a nice building, in that way that most old religious buildings are nice, at least architectually speaking… maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing but I just find big wooden halls and mazes of corridors next to funny shaped windows strangely appealing.

Moving swiftly on, the hall where the talks took place was nice and wide with a high ceiling and a general feeling of extreme woodiness. The room was quite full throughout the four talks and the audience was comprised of a suprisingly wide variety of folks (though there was a bit of a trend towards the middle aged academic look). Above the stage (though I only noticed midway through the second talk) was an engraved  motto reading “To Thine Own Self Be True”. When I saw that the deal was really sealed for me that this place seemed to be run along values I could respect and would be a place well worth revisiting. Anyhow, onto the real ‘meat’ of the day, the talks…

First up was Dr. Emma Cohen, an anthropologist from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology. Her presentation was titled ‘Do ghosts get itchy?’ and was a presentation of research based on exploring cross cultural conceptions of mind/body dualism. Dr. Cohen is certainly a good speaker and she was excellent at both providing quick and often amusing anecdotes to support her points and at varying her presentation methods just enough that she managed to keep everyone interested for the full duration. Her presentation was the most engaging of the day and set things off to a good start.

She kicked things of with a short bit of audience interaction, asking everyone to set aside their philosophical views and imagine having an out of body experience. She then asked a series of questions about what the audience imagined they could do or feel in their ‘out of body’ state which they had to rate on a continuum between definitely yes and definitely no. As you might expect most people rated things like being able to learn/hope/see/remember as possible and things like feeling hungry/sexual desire/cold/itchy as not possible.  She then revealed that her research showed that this sense of dualism (i.e. my body’s hunger is not part of the real ME but my feelings of love are) was found commonly, not only amongst the general population from the UK (she conducted interviews with people from a Starbucks in Oxford) but also amongst the the people she interviewed during her research into spirit possesion cults in a coastal village in Brazil.

<Incidentally my own answers followed the rather predictable pattern except I had hunger close to definitely yes because I couldn’t stop thinking about ‘hungry ghosts’ in Buddhism. For those who don’t know they are a type of Buddhist rebirth and are supposed to be very tall and extremely thin creatures (kind of like giant human mosquitoes) which possess insatiable apetite’s and, rather unfortunately, very long and very tiny mouths!>

She used this research as a jumping off point for introducing the main argument of her talk; namely that the mind/body distinction is not, as is commonly argued, a purely ‘Western’ construct deriving from the influence of Descartes philosophy but is instead a natural product of our cognitive makeup which makes all humans from a very young age ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ dualists (depending on whose terminology you prefer).

To support her argument she first presented a variety of ethnographic vignettes illustrating how dualism is found in a variety of societies from Inuit to Fijian, with my favourite being, the example of mediums in Brazil, who get drunk while possessed by a spirit and then are believed to be immediately ‘sober’ as soon as the ceremony finishes and will thusfrequently drive themselves home despite having imbued massive amounts of alcohol! 

She then went on to present the findings of research from some developmental pyschologists who, via a whole host of ingenius experiments, have been examining the development of afterlife concepts amongst young children. I won’t go into the detail of all the studies presented but the conclusions they arrived at was that children seem, from a very young age, to be intuitive dualists and indeed are retained into adulthood. This Dr. Cohen suggested is a very plausible explanation for why dualistic concepts are found so readily cross culturally and also offers an explanation for why some especially common dualistic religious beliefs are absorbed so readily by children i.e. souls going to heaven.

One of the take home points from her talk was that modern research somewhat contradicts the ‘indoctrination thesis’ as has been popularly championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins which argues that teaching children religious beliefs from an early age amounts to a form of child abuse. She countered that, in fact, it was conversely possible to argue that it was ‘natural’ for children to develop religious beliefs and that the way human brains are cognitively set up means that the development of such beliefs is all most inevitable. I tend to agree with her arguments but I think the clear retort is that something being ‘naturally intuitive’ does not mean that it is therefore good to teach children.  

Dr. Cohen was quick to point out both during the talk and in answering questions afterwards that her research was not intended to address any metaphysical questions about whether spirits or souls or whatever actually exist but simply to describe how modern research reveals that we are cognitively primed from a very young age to find such concepts appealing.

Personally, while I appreciate Dr. Cohen’s reluctance to get into metaphysical debates I find it hard to ignore the looming implications behind research showing that the human mind is set up to find dualistic religious concepts attractive. It certainly provides a quite straightforward rebuttal to the argument frequently raised (typically by fundamentalist Christians) that the only explanation for a religion spreading worldwide is that its doctrines must be true.

All in all it was a fascinating talk but for me the most interesting part was the various evidence of how dualism is not simply a Western concept. I’ve come across many blanket statements in anthropology, typically from postmodern inclined authors, who have outright stated that dualistic thinking is only a feature of ‘Western’ thought and it’s nice to finally have clear evidence that this is just as much nonsense as I previously suspected it was!


  1. Good write up. I tend to agree too.

    On the dualistic thought comment at the end.. Just a thought, but where those postmodernists talking about the exact same kind of dualism connotation as Dr Cohen?

    They’d still be wrong no doubt.. That pesky lot!!


  2. Well I have to admit I’m taking a bit of a dig but the anthropologists I’m thinking of tend to make sweeping generalisations that are also rather difficult to interpret making it difficult to know what exactly they are referring to. Nonetheless, I think that they would not be happy with the idea that dualistic thinking was a natural part of all humans cognitive development.


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