Friday, December 19, 2008

Formation of Theistic / Atheistic Thought

I. Evolution
 a. Stimulus/Response
  1. Homeostasis
   One of the elements that define living organisms it that of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the property of a system whereas its internal environment is regulated to remain stable. Since the environment outside an organism is not necessarily in an equilibrium compatible with that of the organism (or in equilibrium at all) it is necessary for the organism to be able to respond to changes in its external environment in order to maintain its internal environment. This is called stimulus-response, another qualification for life.


Most often people think of stimulus-response in animalisitc terms: An event occurs in the environment that acts as a stimulus, this stimulus is percieved by the animal, the brain processes the event and formulates a response, and then organism acts out the response. While this indeed is stimulus-response it need not be this complicated. Any change in an organism in response to changes in the environment is classified as stimulus-response. While one can certainly imagine response to be random, only organisms that respond in a manner conducive to their survival would indeed survive. Stimulus-response can be as simple as the mere laws of physics, such as osmosis, which would allow a single cell to maintain its internal pressure and consistency of the chemical composition of its interior. It can be more complex even without a nervous system, as in plants where sunlight causes stems to grow asymetrically, resulting in the stem turning toward the sunlight.


Eventually, and for the purposes here, we come to animals, with nervous systems that specialize in recognizing stimuli and responding to them. Animals do utilize the more basic stimulus-response mechanisms (such as for breathing where oxygen is absorbed by the blood) but have the novel system of nerves and the brain to aid in this matter (at least most animals do). Another novelty (most) animals possess is the response of motion. To this end animals have developed special cells designed to respond to specific stimuli.


  2. Receptors
   In addition to other features that separate them from other organisms, most animals have nervous systems. Nervous systems are generally divided into two parts: 1) The Peripherial nervous system which collects information about the environment and sends signals to 2) the Central nervous system, which processes these signals and sends responses to muscles and glands affecting a response in the organism that either alters its internal functioning (through hormones) or causes the animal to move (through muscles).


   The structures by which an animal receives input about its environment are known as sensory receptors. Sensory receptors are very specialized and different ones are needed to react to different types of stimulus. Some examples of these are:


Electroreceptors (electric fields), baroreceptors (pressure), chemoreceptors (chemicals), mechanoreceptors (mechanical stress), nociceptors (cellular damage), osmoreceptors (osmolarity), photoreceptors (light), proprioceptors (position), thermoreceptors (hot and cold).


How these receptors detect the appropriate stimuli varies from receptor to receptor but all produce eletrochemical impulses that travel to the central nervous system for processing. While many (if not most) of the functions performed are done so invountarily and independent of outside influences (such as circulation or digestion) any voluntary responses an animal is to make must be done in response to detected stimuli. Since the detection of these stimuli requires the aforementioned receptors, an animal without these receptors (or an animal with nonfunctioning receptors) would not survive long. Almost all animals must actively seek food and evade predators and this requires motion, a voluntary act. Thus an animal's survival is directly related to its ability to collect information about its environment.
  3. Stimulation
   The stimulus-response process can be referred to as stimulation. The amount of stimulation an animal receives is almost as important as the type of stimulation. The factors affecting the amount of stimuluation are the number of receptors for a given stimulus and their sensitivity in detecting that stimulus.


Stimulation management is an important factor in the survival of a species. If an animal perceives too little (under stimulation) it will respond less to its environment. This means it will obtain less food and avoid fewer dangers. In short, it will stagnate and die. However, if it is too sensitive (over stimulation) the animal will be under constant stress and will be responding in situations it doesn't need to and its responses will likely be stronger than they have to. In short, the animal will work itself to death.


With under and over stimulated animals dying out, this leaves animals configured to receive an amount of stimulation conducive (or at least not deterimental) to their survival. This calibration is varies among different animals. Sponges, lacking a nervous system and the ability to move, embody stagnation. But this is fine given how they obtain food (filtering moving water) and defend against predators (passive defenses). However, other organisms with more complex nervous systems, such as humans, require more stimulation. It's a balancing act. The more receptors an animal has, the more information (stimulation) it can collect about its environment. However it must have the faciliaties to cope with the amount and type of stimulation or it will get little use from it.


 b. Abstract thought and memory
  1. Memory
   Once an animal exists in a manner where it receives adequate stimulation, it must have mechanisms by which it can respond to such stimulation. For many animals, this involves the central nervous system, or brain. The various receptors collect information from the environment and send it through nerves using electrochemical impulses to the brain. The brain processes this information, formulates a response, and sends impulses down to various parts of the body to enact an appropriate response.


The response for each set of stimuli is dictated by the programming of the brain. By far the simplest way to enact a response is reflexively and involuntarily. This can be represented by mere "IF THEN" statements. IF a certain set of stimuli are detected THEN a specific response is carried out. For example, if a fly detects a large object moving toward it (as detected by light changes in its compound eyes, and changes in air pressure on its hairs) its brain calculates the appropriate escape vector and sends signals to its legs and wings to push off and fly away.


Such reflexes and instincts represent hard coded programming in the organism's central nervous system. While efficient and reliable, these relationships cannot be altered. As such they are only useful for a finite set of stimuli. In order for an animal to survive, it must be able to respond to as many different combinations of stimuli as possible. This means it must have a large set of hard coded responses or be able to alter its programming in response to new stimuli. Hard coding is efficient in action, but becomes bulky and unwieldy when one attempts to hard code responses for all possible situations. As such, some animals evolved the ability to alter their own programming, or learn things and use that learning to formulate new responses for new situations.


To this end, animals capable of learning must possess a function where information stored so that it can be used as input for future responses. This storing of information is known as memory. There are three general types of memory animals possess: Sensory Memory, Short Term Memory, and Long Term Memory. Sensory Memory lasts for a few milliseconds after something is perceived. It is short in duration and has limits on the capacity of information "remembered". Short Term memory lasts from a view seconds up to a minute and has a higher capacity. Finally we have Long Term memory which has potentially unlimited duration and has a large capacity.


When an animal records an event in memory and that event is recalled (as in response to some familiar stimulus) it can then use the memory of that event in the formulation of a response to a given stimulus. This allows it to use experience to refine its responses to be more appropriate and to factor in the context of a stimulus as well as its content.


Memory and learning allow animals to discover threats that may not appear to be threats via other means or opportunities that may not appear to be opportunities through other means. Thus an animal with memory has the ability to exploit more opportunties and avoid more threats than organisms that do not possess memory. Memory comes at a price, however, and requires a more complex nervous system, including a brain and a cerebrum for more advance memory storage and processing.


  2. Abstract Thought
   In addition to memory, animals with complex brains possess the ability to peform abstraction. Abstraction is where a concept is

simplified, generalized, and removed from an actual tangible object. The general concept of a ball, for example, is an abstraction of actual spherical objects we encounter in real life. We can think about a ball without being required to think of a specific type of ball and without being required to be looking at an actual ball at the moment we are thinking about it.


Abstract thought is the basis for higher reasoning. Combining abstraction with memories allows an animal to perform thought experiments and imagine likely conclusions for a given set of possibilities. Abstraction is also required for communication. With abstraction, ideas can be conveyed independently of the objects they represent.


Abstraction helps in recognizing new things. Through experience we acquire a store of memories about our environment, including the things in it. Through this method we form abstractions about the objects we encounter. For example, if I live in a forest, I will acquire a collection of memories about specific trees. Through this I will form an abstraction about the concept of a tree. This abstraction will contain elements that are common to all the specific trees I have encountered in the past. Because of this, if I come across a new tree that I've never encountered before, I can still recognize it as a tree  if it matches with my abstraction of what a tree is. This is known as pattern recognition.


 c. Pattern recognition
  Pattern recognition is the process by which the content and context of a set of objects currently being experienced is compared to the content and context of the sets of objects in our memory. If a match is made, then it is said that we "recognize" the pattern. Alternatively recognition could be made through comparisons against patterns that are hardcoded, rather than learned.


  1. Template matching
   One type of pattern recognition is template matching. Template matching is basically a 1:1 matching with little abstraction involved. The pattern to recognize is searched against the exact templates that exist in memory until one or more matches are found.


  2. Prototype matching
   By adding a little abstraction we can perform prototype matching. This is where a concept is generalized and defined by its

attributes. This type of recognition allows us to classify quickly objects we see based upon appearance. An object with four legs and a back that people sit on is a chair. This recognition can be made independently of other specific features (such as the material it is made out of, the existence of arms, whether it reclines, swivels, etc).


While there are more types of pattern recognition, they are more or less variations on the previous themes: The object as a whole is broken down into a series of features. The content and relative context of the features forms a general abstraction which is compared to our memory. How abstract and general an association is made depends on how specifically we can recognize and classify the object. Often times we can make multiple classifications. I can recognize something as an object (most general), as a piece of furniture (less general), as a chair (specific), and as a metal folding chair (more specific).


The ability to classify things at various levels of generality is useful for truly novel objects for which we are unable to find a more specific match. For example, the ability to recognize something as a tree, but not knowing what kind of tree it is. Once we classify something, even generaly, it gives us the ability to formulate a response based upon that classification. If I classify something as a tree, and I know that trees offer protection from some predators, I can then attempt to climb the tree for safety. If I do not recognize it as, at the very least, a tree, then I will be unable to make that association.


  3. Pattern recognition Errors
   While useful, the nature of pattern recognition allows room for errors, especially when confronted with new patterns. For example, if we form the abstraction that "things with wings are birds" Then we will commit an error when we are presented with a bat. Once we become aware of, and familiar with, bats, and form a more specific template to represent bats, we will no longer make this error.


Errors can be avoided, however. By restricting the ability to make more general recognitions (such as "things with wings are birds"), then the errors that come with making them are eliminated. Under this more strict way of thinking we cannot have a general rule as "things with wings are birds" and must have something more specific, like "things with feathers, beaks, talons, wings and that lay eggs are birds". If we are forbidden from making an association more general than this, we will not commit an error when confronted with a bat. So what happens when we are confronted with a bat? Such a scenario is hard to imagine given that we are wired to attempt automatically to recognize and classify anything we can sense. We can deduce what happens, though, when we realize that in order to respond to something we must recognize it (either in memory or in hard coding). If we do not recognize it, we cannot respond to it. This highlights the price that would come with such strict pattern recognition rules.


So which is better? Over recognition, or under recognition? Since the environments in which we find ourselves are dynamic, we can expect to be constantly confronted with new patterns of stimuli. Since these patterns can represent threats or opportunities, failure to recognize them would be failure to avoid a threat or failure to exploit an opportunity. In both cases our ability to survive is less than if we have the capability to recognize (even erroneously) new patterns. If we fail to respond to a threat, our very lives are put on stake. If we fail to respond to an opportunity, we are at disadvantage against those that do recognize it.


An additional benefit to this type of error is in "filling the blanks". When we are presented with a pattern and we get a partial match our brain, using fuzzy logic, can fill in the blanks with what is most likely based upon the memories and experience of that specific organism. In this manner we can make decisions and formulate responses when presented with incomplete data (which we often are).


This error is not without its own price as it can result in attempting to exploit opportunities that aren't really there or avoiding threats that aren't really there. However, when we compare the price of errors of over recognition (wasted energy) and under recognition (death), the choice is clear. While over recognition certainly *can* lead to death, it is not as likely a result as with under recognition. This means that, typically, the animal will survive and learn. Now knowing more about the pattern that made it falsely think there was an opportunity or threat it will be less likely to make that mistake in the future, if it is capable of this level of reasoning as humans are.


There is another price associated with over recognition, and that is the creation of superstitions. Superstition, technically is any irrational belief. In common usage, however, beliefs identified as superstitions are generally beliefs that certain actions can influence or portend the future without any obvious causal link. It is not known exactly how superstitions form (at least to the degree that we could predict what would cause a specific superstition to form) but this type of behavior is evident even in non-human animals, such as pidgeons. For whatever reason, a causal association is formed in the animal's mind between two events. Despite no other reason to accept this relationship. Once such a causal link is suspected the animal is already in a frame of mind sensitive to evidence to support that causal link. Evidence against the causal link is likely to be ignored or dismissed. Through this erroneous pattern of reasoning, all new information either reinforces the superstition or is ignored.


Humans have taken all of this to new and bizarre levels. Something as simple and vital as pattern recognition has resulted in believing things like: breaking a reflective surface will result in bad things happeneing for the next seven orbits around the sun. Hanging a u-shaped piece of metal worn by a horse over the entrway to a house will bring make good things happen. By clasping your hands and kneeling and thinking thoughts in your head, you are establishing a communication with an immensely powerful being who will do your bidding. By all criteria that matter, belief in miracles or the power of prayer are superstitions. Only "evidence" in support of these beliefs are ever reported on, and evidence against are ignored, dismissed or arbitrarily attributed to other causes.


 c. Conclusion

 In conclusion of this part we see that superstition is the result of an error inherent in the pattern recognition abilities of animals that allow us to survive. It is unfortunate, but unavoidable. As humans we can use rationality to explain them away, but we cannot prevent their creation. The next part will show how humans, with their innate pattern recognition abilities and high levels of abstraction form superstitions that lay the foundation for religion.

by Drafterman of AvC