Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The truth will set you free (but are you better off?)

Continuing from where we left off:

During my tenure at the Quaker center, I occasionally measured my own life, my own happiness as an atheist against the pilgrims and seekers sojourning at the place. In retrospect, unless the people under examination had serious mental health problems (which wasn't common, but not exactly rare) I found that the majority of religious visitors, while not without their problems, were buoyant, scrupulous, friendly people of conviction and élan. I recall a man from Kenya named Shem who practically glowed in broad daylight. Kenyan Quakers tend to be of a Christocentric, veritably evangelical strain, and Shem's beliefs had a distinctly pentecostal complexion. The termini of his emotional gradient were "cheerful" and "ecstatic." As he roved the campus cum arboretum, his faith-steeped gaze found, as Shakespeare wrote, "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks / Sermons in stones, and good in everything." The world was a parable for Shem; nothing he encountered was not somehow representative of the Trinity, of grace and divine reason, or of man's progress from the womb to the world to the loving embrace of the Creator.

I could not (and cannot) believe in the things that Shem believed, and I did not (and do not) wish to. But I can only speculate as to what it must be like to exist in a world where everything from the commonplace to the celestial stands inextricably braided with the transcendent, and these relations are not only patently obvious but explicable. Listening to Shem speak I imagined he must experience his whole waking life the way the most of us most of us momentarily feel while reading a really good Rumi poem (if we're lucky).

I have to make the assumption that Shem's joie de vivre was the flowering of his faith, and I do acknowledge and emphasize that this is an assumption. Even though a wealth of studies (some of which we'll look at shortly) have suggested a correlation between religion and happiness, they are to be taken with a grain of salt. Secular-minded critics of these reports point out, often correctly, that many of the people and institutions conducting these investigations follow agendas that stand to benefit from promoting a link between happiness and religious belief. (But many of the atheists who impugn the credibility of all such studies are no less guilty of arguing in bad faith, as it were).

Further: religiosity is not an easily measured attribute. Studies on the possible links between religion and happiness (or anything else) must either begin with subjects' self-assessment of their own religious conviction (how can such a thing be quantified with any objectivity?) or their extent of involvement in a religious community—and community involvement per se is frequently associated with feelings of inclusion, meaning, and happiness. And we cannot rule out a reverse causation: what if happy people are more disposed to seek out religious communities (where they are available) and persist in their beliefs and practices?

Paul Klee, The Lamb

Let's peer quickly at a few studies. The first, "Social Participation and Depression in Old Age: A Fixed-Effects Analysis in 10 European Countries" appearing in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2015, was the subject of a Washington Post article "Want 'sustained happiness?' Get religion, study suggests." It is worth noticing that this piece implies that involvement in a religious community carries benefits that are not conferred by participation in certain analogous secular organizations:
Researchers looked at four areas: 1) volunteering or working with a charity; 2) taking educational courses; 3) participating in religious organizations; 4) participating in a political or community organization. Of the four, participating in a religious organization was the only social activity associated with sustained happiness, researchers found.

The study analyzed 9,000 Europeans who were older than 50. The report that studied older Europeans also found that joining political or community organizations lost their benefits over time. In fact, the short-term benefits from those social connections often lead to depressive symptoms later on, researchers say.Although healthier people are more likely to volunteer, the researchers found no evidence that volunteering actually leads to better mental health. Benefits could be outweighed by other negative impacts of volunteering, such as stress, Avendano said.

The researchers noted that it is unclear whether the benefits of participating in a religious organization are connected to being in the religious community, or to the faith itself.
Next: a 2008 piece in The Daily Mail ("Believers are happier than atheists") reports a Royal Economic Society presentation titled "Deliver us from evil: religion as insurance:"
People who believe in God are happier than agnostics or atheists, researchers claimed yesterday.
A report found that religious people were better able to cope with disappointments such as unemployment or divorce than non-believers.
Moreover, they become even happier the more they pray and go to church, claims the study by Prof Andrew Clark and Dr Orsolya Lelkes.

The research, presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference, echoes academic studies that have found religion can improve people's sense of wellbeing.

Using data from Britain and Europe, the study found believers enjoyed higher levels of satisfaction and suffered less psychological damage from unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.
In the interest of being thorough, it should be noted that subsequent studies have yielded contradictory results.

And though this one might be on the frivolous side—"Christians happier than atheists—on Twitter," as reported by CNN—the bare facts (and the concept itself) do indeed warrant a thoughtful stroking of one's personal beard:
The team identified subjects by finding Twitter users who followed the feeds of five prominent public figures. In the case of Christians, those select five were Pope Benedict XVI, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and Joyce Meyer, an evangelical author and speaker.

In the case of atheists, the five followed feeds included Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Monica Salcedo and Michael Shermer —
the latter two respectively being a self-described “fiercely outspoken atheist” blogger, and a science writer who founded The Skeptics Society.

With the help of a text analysis program, the researchers found that Christians tweet with higher frequency words reflecting positive emotions, social relationships and an intuitive style of thinking
the sort that’s gut-driven.

This isn’t to say that atheists don’t use these words, too, but they out-tweet Christians when it comes to analytic words and words associated with negative emotions.

Christians, they found, are more likely to use words like “love,” “happy” and “great”; “family,” “friend” and “team.”

Atheists win when it comes to using words like “bad,” “wrong,” and “awful”
or “think,” “reason” and “question,” said Ryan Ritter, one of the students behind the study.
(Cf. this 2013 piece in The Atlantic: "The Benefits of Optimism Are Real.")

Lastly, we have a Freakonomics podcast ("Does Religion Make You Happier?") featuring MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who spends a sizable portion of his airtime explaining why studies like these (including his own efforts) are intrinsically problematic and should neither be treated as unimpeachably conclusive or totally bogus. But as his chat with host Stephen Dubner winds down, he admits that the proposition that happiness and religion are linked is not without merit:
DUBNER: So let’s say I accept that finding that religious participation doesn’t just correlate to better outcomes in life but actually helps produce them: higher levels of education and income like you said lower levels of welfare receipt, disability and divorce. What, if you have any idea, are the mechanisms by which you think religious participation leads to these outcomes?

GRUBER: So there’s essentially several possibilities. The sort of least exciting possibility is through educational routes, which is maybe when there’s a lot of Catholics there’s more Catholic schools. Now, I don’t think that’s it. But that is one possible route. I think another route and the route that I probably find most likely is the church is essentially a social network, that essentially provides kind of insurance against bad things happening to you, and that it provides a place where you can go and network if you lose a job, you can have people who can help you out if times get tough, loan you money or whatever.

DUBNER: Or even if times aren’t tough, if you’re a successful business person theoretically you expand even more if you’re successful within your community.

GRUBER: Exactly. Basically churches are the source of social capital in society, are the main source of social capital in society. And therefore if you’re around more people like you, that’s a bigger community, that’s what we call in economics a thicker market. There’s more people around who can help you out as you’re growing, help you out if you’re hurting, it’s really sort of a social insurance notion of a church. And then finally and most speculatively, faith itself may produce better outcomes. I know a number of people who are very religious. It gives them a calmness and a certainty that allows them to be successful in other areas of their life.

DUBNER: I’m curious if along the way of doing this research if your research persuaded you to either get involved, or want to get involved more in something resembling religious participation since it seems to be pretty good for you, or were you convinced that you’re already doing well enough and didn’t need it?

GRUBER: You know, what it changed in me is it gave me, I probably had the typical secular, rich, liberal skeptic’s view of religion.

DUBNER: Which is what?

GRUBER: Which is that religion is sort of an opiate to the masses. You know, kind of, the religious right is kind of ruining America. Religion is a source of wars in the Middle East. Religion is basically bad. And I think it really changed my view on that, that I really gained appreciation for the role religion can play in people’s lives, appreciation for my friends who are more religious, and a respect for the role religion plays in their lives. But it didn’t really affect my religiosity. I think it’s something that just has to come to you or not. I was kind of forced to go to temple as a kid, I kind of burned out on it, and it’s just not, I kind of tried, and I just didn’t feel it. So I decided I wasn’t going to kind of fake it to make it. So it didn’t really affect my life. But for example, my wife is, she’s Unitarian. We raised the kids Jewish, although she never converted, and now she’s going to become a Unitarian minister. And I think that’s something I probably wouldn’t have been supportive of before I did this research. And now I’m very supportive of her. I think it’s great for her. She’s getting faith and doing that.
For my part, I confess that the studies I've read give me less pause than personal experience. At the Quaker center I met very happy, very motivated, very kind and generous people who happened to be very religious, and I can't conceive of any of the former characteristics existing independently from the latter. Moreover, I can't help but notice that most of the avowed atheists I've known before and since then have not exactly been the happiest, most grateful, or most satisfied people in my acquaintance. (Anecdotes do not equal evidence, but nor are they devoid of significance.)

The serious atheist believes it is in humanity's best interest that we negotiate with the world as it has been disclosed to us through the sciences, and expunge the lingering proscriptions and prejudices we inherited from superstitious tribes of the ancient world. But then why are the religious people I've known usually more grounded for the tenuousness of their grasp on reality?

If the motive of any philosophy is to lay out the blueprints for a happy, fulfilling, and productive life, how effective is a worldview that, for its empirical veracity, makes people less happy and fulfilled than those who maintain a belief in false deities (redundant)? (To be fair, secularists are still way ahead of religious types in acknowledging and trying to solve the problems of a civilization whose very metabolism is toxic to the biosphere.)

All of these questions and doubts are equally applicable where issue of free will is concerned. Free will might not exist, but are there benefits in believing that it does?

René Magritte, Elective Affinities

The data suggests (well, depending on who's reading it) that people who accept Semitic fairy tales as historical chronicle are happier than those who do not. Elsewhere, psychological studies appear to demonstrate that people who believe that their personal autonomy somehow exists independently of space, time, and basic causality are better off than those of us with a more reasonable understanding of human behavior.

Exhibit A: "The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating," 2007:
In two experiments, we found that weakening free-will beliefs reliably increased cheating. We measured cheating in Experiment 1 using a passive cheating opportunity. To avoid cheating, participants had to actively prevent the answer to an arithmetic problem from appearing on the computer screen. This scenario is perhaps akin to accidentally receiving too much change from a store clerk but not returning the extra money. In Experiment 2, we measured active cheating. We found that when participants were allowed to pay themselves for each correct answer on a difficult cognitive test, those who read statements promoting a deterministic worldview paid themselves more (in effect, claimed to have answered more items correctly) than did those who read other kinds of statements; moreover, participants who read deterministic statements and who paid themselves gave themselves more money than was earned by participants who were paid for their true performance.
Exhibit B: "Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness," 2009. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, so we'll just have to glance at the abstract:
Laypersons' belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.
Exhbit C: "Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation: The Brain Minds Whether We Believe in Free Will or Not," 2011. Once again, the admission price to the full text is thirty-five dollars, so must be content with the abstract:
The feeling of being in control of one’s own actions is a strong subjective experience. However, discoveries in psychology and neuroscience challenge the validity of this experience and suggest that free will is just an illusion. This raises a question: What would happen if people started to disbelieve in free will? Previous research has shown that low control beliefs affect performance and motivation. Recently, it has been shown that undermining free-will beliefs influences social behavior. In the study reported here, we investigated whether undermining beliefs in free will affects brain correlates of voluntary motor preparation. Our results showed that the readiness potential was reduced in individuals induced to disbelieve in free will. This effect was evident more than 1 s before participants consciously decided to move, a finding that suggests that the manipulation influenced intentional actions at preconscious stages. Our findings indicate that abstract belief systems might have a much more fundamental effect than previously thought.
Exhibit D: Recent Research on Free Will: Conceptualizations, Beliefs, and Processes, 2014. As the title suggests, this piece is a comprehensive overview of studies investigating the effects of a belief in free will upon human behavior/psychology (and it is free for perusal). It cites several studies (like and about the ones above) linking deterministic beliefs to unethical behavior and decreased motivation. It also brings up findings of a possible correlation between a belief in free will and happiness and productivity.

Exhibit D-1:
[A conclusion] about the usefulness of free will beliefs for self-improvement emerged from studies by Stillman and Baumeister (2010). After reflecting on personal misdeeds, people reported learning more from them to the extent that they felt guilty about those actions—but the effect was mainly found among those who believed in free will. Participants whose belief in free will had been experimentally reduced showed less inclination to learn from guilt and other negative emotions. The lessons were coded by independent judges who were blind to experimental condition, and these ratings confirmed the lesser learning among those who disbelieved in free will.

Stillman and Baumeister (2010) found that increased belief in free will caused students to volunteer their time to work in a campus-recycling program, especially after they had been made to feel guilty for the ostensibly large amount of pollution and ensuing wildlife deaths caused by fellow students.
Exhibit D-2:
Several findings have linked belief in free will to gratitude. Dispositional belief in free will was positively correlated with trait gratitude (Crescioni, Baumeister, Ainsworth, Ent, & Lambert, 2013). Boosting belief in free will experimentally made people feel more grateful for favors others had done them earlier in their lives, and an experimental study indicated that high belief in free will caused people to feel more gratitude toward a favor done for them in the context of the experiment, as compared to low belief (MacKenzie, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2013).

The link to gratitude is of particular interest because presumably it is not one’s own free will that is at issue (unlike in the studies above concerning cheating, stealing, aggression, helping, counterfactual thinking, recycling, and learning lessons) but rather another person’s free will. The gratitude research began with the assumption that gratitude is a positive feeling associated with thinking that another person conferred a benefit but did not have to do so. As already noted, the idea that one could have acted otherwise is integral to many conceptions of free will. Thus, the perception that one’s benefactor could have done otherwise (thus exercised free will in providing the favor) could be a vital component of feeling grateful about this. Consistent with this view, MacKenzie et al. (2013) found that disbelief in free will reduced both gratitude and the perception that one’s benefactor was motivated by a sincere intention to provide help. Indeed, the link between free will beliefs and gratitude was statistically mediated by believing that the person could have done otherwise (MacKenzie et al., 2013).
And finally, Exhibit D-3:
Several correlates of free will beliefs suggest a link to personal agency. People who believed in free will scored higher on self-efficacy and mindfulness (Crescioni et al., 2013). This fits a growing body of work suggesting that high belief in free will goes with an agentic approach to life, as in taking action and initiative to pursue goals and get things done (e.g., Alquist, Ainsworth, & Baumeister, 2013; Alquist, Ainsworth, Baumeister, Daly, et al., 2013; Baumeister et al., 2009; Stillman et al., 2010).

Other findings by Crescioni et al. (2013) indicate links to positive outcomes. People who believe more strongly in free will are happier and report lower stress compared to other people. They report higher levels of commitment to their relationship partners, greater forgiveness of partner misdeeds, and higher degrees of satisfaction with their romantic partners. They find higher levels of meaning in life. The latter link was replicated with experimental manipulation of free will beliefs, so one may conclude that believing less in free will actually causes people to find life less meaningful.
Of course, psychology studies have been proven to be generally unreliable—so who knows about any of this?

For now, let's pretend we accept it is at least probable that belief in god(s) and free are beneficial to human beings. What would the implications be?

It is a shame that where matters of faith and free will are concerned you're either all in or all out. The difference between "I control my own destiny" and "I do not control my own destiny but it is possible that more effective behavioral routines emerge when I act as though I do" is congruous with the divide between "GOD IS GOOD ALL THE TIME" and "well I don't really believe in God per se but there's got to be something more to this life than what we see and feel and whatever that is should be acknowledged etc., etc." It is doubtful that half-assing religious belief for the social perks, or accepting an appreciable degree of determinism in human behavior while still trying to outrun it will confer the same benefits as unalloyed conviction. (Cf. Alfred Whitehead's diagnosing the modern era with "muddled thinking.")

What if empirical truth possesses a negative marginal utility? What if there are areas of human life where delusion is better for us than lucidity?

It would certainly cast the red pill vs. blue pill scenario (as it is often framed by atheists) in a much more variegated light. What if ignorance is not only blissful, but actually useful in certain cases? If an untruth or a lie or a delusion is demonstrably good for us, is the evil we ascribe to falsehood negated in that instance?

1 comment:

  1. Even if the truth imposes a cost, it is the foundation for solving more problems. Truth will keep building better, and superstition will keep dragging it's feet.