God is head? If religion is hardwired, why don’t we all have our own gods?

An interesting article out of the Department of Psychology in Yale University made itself known to me, via the outstanding Why Evolution is True. The question being discussed is: do our religious beliefs stem from an intrinsic desire on the part of human beings to explain the world religiously? Or do they come from our cultural backgrounds? In other words, are our spiritual lives cognitive adaptations or social imperatives?

The conversation is not a new one. The article notes that many cognitive scientists view the pervasive existence of religion in human culture to be an outcrop of a biological need. For example, fearing an angry god may provide the moral guidance that allows for social bonding in the absence of instinct. If this concept sounds familiar, that’s because the same basic idea is echoed by many religious leaders seeking to legitimize spirituality as the only source of morality.

But the most interesting question raised in the article is: if belief in a god is biologically necessary, why don’t we all believe in our own individual gods?:

Consider belief in a divine creator. Young children are prone to generate purpose-based explanations of the origins of natural objects and biological kinds. They believe, for example, that clouds are ‘for raining’ and animals are ‘to go in the zoo’…

However, these older children do not spontaneously propose novel divine creators. Instead, they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies. This might be a singular God or multiple gods; it might be alien visitors or Mother Earth. If children are not exposed to such cultural beliefs, the explicit notion of an intentional creator might never arise.

So, a predisposition to think in terms of purpose certainly lends itself to a spiritual understanding of the world. But it does not automatically mean that the child will believe in god, much less create a god out of whole cloth which his peers will also recognize and respond to. That is for religion to do, and religion is an entirely cultural affair.

Both sides of the argument, I think, miss the point. The research on childhood development that shows kids reaching for existential and epidemiological answers demonstrates that it is the question not the answer that defines human cognition. Whether we seek those answers though faith, or through science or, as I suspect is the most common choice, a bit from Column A and a bit from Column B, is a matter of preference.

Sociology Technology

U of R researchers create Twitter app to bring out the germ phobic in all of us.

Researchers the world over are finding social media to be the data-mining gold mine of the century. Twitter in particular has been shown to be more accurate and faster in crisis situations than many official reports of the same situation. Now researchers at the University of Rochester are turning that data fountain to the task of analyzing the relative health of the Twitter citizens that inhabit it.

Like most Twitter data mining apps, this one relies on language analysis to determine if a person is actually saying that they’re sick or just “sick of” something. The results are sketchy at best, but a promising start. For example, training in on our area, one person tracked says “I feel like I’m gonna be sick,” but is that because she is actually sick? Or because she hates her mother’s nail polish? Impossible to say based solely on a single tweet.

Screenshot from GermTracker website, showing red, yellow and green dots where tweets that may be relative to sickness happened.

What is genuinely interesting and new about this particular app is the contextual data that they’re gathering. By analyzing a Twitter user’s proximity to factors such as pollution (using GeoCoded tweets, which reveal GPS data about the user’s location), researchers can infer some things about their lifestyles and correlate that to tweet data. For example, on the issue of whether exercising makes you healthier, there is this tantalizing clue:

For example, even people who regularly go to the gym get sick marginally more often than less active individuals. However, people who merely talk about going to the gym, but actually never go (verified based on their GPS), get sick significantly more often. This shows that there are interesting confounding factors that can now be studied at scale.

To be clear: this is scientifically extracted data, not scientific fact. Whether the above clue means that people who go to the gym really do get more sick than those who do not, or whether people who go to the gym complain about or discuss illness more often than those who do not is an open question, an answer for which would require a lot more research.

Still, researcher Adam Sadilek says that there are many practical uses of the new analytic software, from plumbing the social science facts to rerouting those concerned with influenza outbreaks away from subway tunnels when subway riders are reporting being sicker. Mysophobia? Yes. There’s an app for that.