"And sometimes he's so nameless"

The Myth of Compartmentalised Minds

Posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 12, 2010

No, not an attack on modular theories of mind. (If  you don’t know what they are, don’t worry, it’s not relevant today)…

Instead I’m talking about a claim I often see levelled against Christians who believe in Evolution — that we are able to hold two incompatible beliefs by compartmentalising (I’m using the British English btw, as I live in England) our minds, keeping the ideas completely separate. Apparently Evolution (by Natural Selection) is utterly incompatible with Christian belief. Now long time readers will recall  that I have said this was certainly NOT the view of most Christians in Darwin’s own time: perhaps because that battle had already been fought over Lyell and Buckland and geology, but rocks are unfashionable and biology is sexy today; regardless I have written on the myths that cluster around Darwin, you can find my essay here.

I will sometime describe how Christians have reconciled the two, and my own theological thinking on the issue, but to be honest it was not a problem for Darwin’s bulldog T.H.Huxley (himself not a Christian but an ‘agnostic’ – not in the modern sense of the word though) who wrote –

” The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man or in the higher ver-

tebrata, was made with the precise structure which it exhibits, to make the animal which

possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. But it is necessary to remember

that there is a higher teleology, which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution, but is act-

ually based on the fundamental proposition of evolution. That proposition is, that the whole

world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws,

of forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was

composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay potentially in the

cosmic vapour; and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of

that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of fauna of Great Britain in 1869, with as much

certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapor of the breath on a cold winter’s

day.” Academy 1869

I think it’s too late at night to explore what Huxley meant by than now: again it’s not strictly relevant. My challenge is far more drastic: I don’t deny that minds well may well be compartmentalised, but I think such an attribute may actually be almost by definition a property of atheist not theistic thinkers. I am not saying atheists are wrong, or stupid: I am saying that some but not all atheists probably have stronger compartmentalisation of neural processes than religious believers, and that I believe if an experiment was conducted, it would show a tendency towards a theists having less compartmentalised mental processes. It’s a typically ironic CJ claim, but I think atheists actually really might have compartmentalised minds. I therefore as so often intend to up end a cliché and play with it till it squeaks…

So what do I mean by “compartmentalised minds”?

OK, firstly I am not sure if this works at mind level (Cognitive process) or brain level (neural connections) or perhaps most likely both, but clear if a mind is ot be compartmentalised then it suggests that parts work relatively autonomously of each other, or only interconnect occasionally. I think the cliché of Christians with “compartmentalisation” is probably meant to work at the level of beliefs, that is I guess heuristic structures  ideas, concepts, whatever. I put my religion in Box A that lives here, and my Science in Box B that works there.  And then I build a bloody great big garden wall in between the two!

There is only one thing wrong with this theory: it’s bollocks. Of course people can hold deeply contradictory ideas, and of course that can arise as a neural network develops and expands, if there is no checking process for consistency.  No disagreement there at all: the whole history of humans on this planet shows it, and I could point out that cancer is caused by smoking, and a lot of people smoke. I know the odds of winning the lottery: I still might buy a ticket (though only about three times since it was launched). That people can hold contradictory ideas strikes me as uncontroversial.  What strikes me as nonsensical though is the assertion that a deeply rational individual such as Prof Ken Miller does this, or I do, or most Christians do it more than atheists.

Now of course individuals brains vary somewhat in anatomical detail, individuals vary in the organisation of their neural networks and relationships to a small extent, and the mass of synaptic connections that  are excited and inhibited and make us “us” are of course unique. Likewise we vary in our cognitive processes at a psychological level, though we presumably share, as with the neurology,  massive overall similarity.  Now I was reading a paper by Dr. Christine Simmonds-Moore, on Thin Boundaries, Transliminality and Positive Schizoptpyy – I’ll reference it at the end when it struck me – atheists should actually have less integrated neural and psychological constructs?

Simmonds-Moore describes the work of Hartmann, especially his 1991 Hartmann Boundary Questionnaire (HBQ). The HBQ examines the boundaries: the compartmentalisation if you like, in the human psyche.His work based on this scale has since been examined, and several predictions confirmed. You can search Google to find experiments and papers, or if you have access just type “hartmann +boundary” in to PSYCHINFO and see what comes up. I’m not making this up… I even found the scale on a website, so you can try the test yourself.

I was unsurprised to note I scored as having thin boundaries.

What does that mean?

I really suggest if you want a proper overview you read Dr Simmonds-Moore’s paper.  I will summarise my understanding as follows -a boundary is the division between two ‘structures or processes’; with thinner boundaries, there is increased interaction between them. Those with thinner boundaries will integrate more structures and processes, resulting in a ‘”looser” associational thinking style’, a tendency to find ‘meaning’ in random noise, to integrate subliminal level information   and a tendency to experience altered states while awake. In short we might expect believers to actually have thin, highly permeable conceptual boundaries – their mental structures might well be expected to be considerable less compartmentalised than that of an atheist, who might have a more focussed/linear method of thinking? SOME BUT NOT ALL: obviously believers and disbelievers might be found in either category, thick or thin boundaried, but thin boundaries appear to be correlated with unusual mental states, belief in psychism, and at high levels sometimes mental health issues. I would suggest from the evidence that believers are more likely to be on average thin boundaried than non-believers: that is their thinking is a ‘”looser” associational thinking style’, subject to Type II errors – seeing things that are not there in random noise, finding false positives, mistakenly rejecting the null hypothesis. (Simmonds-Moore notes Brugger has made exactly this connection with Type II errors).

And thick boundaried (highly compartmentalised) thinkers? They are subject to exactly the opposite problem: failing to recognise the falsification of the null hypothesis, they fail to see what is there, and make Type I errors. Believers would be subject to false positives: non-believers false negatives, but belief or non-belief may well be related to the structure and relationships in brain/mind.

Now this is not a stick to beat atheists with: I am sure some of my more acerbic mates on the forums will type “…therefore God.” in a cynical response. Far from it, I make no claim whatsoever that this gets us one iota nearer to the truth or falsehood of any theistic or atheistic hypothesis – it is possibly completely irrelevant. In this brief piece I just wanted to point out something i said last night – we adopt linguistic  structures in our belief (or non-belief communities) and use them to view the world, often irrespectively of common sense – for it strikes me as fairly non-controversial that believers often show loose and associational styles of thinking, that bear no resemblance to reality, but which we repeat uncritically. Believers do it, non-believers do it, birds do it, bees do it, nice young men who sell antiques do it – we,  no, sorry that’s a song. :) I was simply interested in debunking one common cliché used to dismiss scientifically minded Christians as somehow mentally split in two: it appears the reverse may be true?

Anyway next time someone tells you  believers who hold to evolution and Christianity have “compartmentalised minds”; ask for the EVIDENCE. And if anyone wants to do a full study of boundary thinness and religious/spiritual belief, go for it I am aware of no paper, but Dr Simmonds-Moores interesting paper certainly made me think about this.

Night all

cj x


Hartmann, Ernest, (1991)  Boundaries in the mind: A new psychology of personality. BasicBooks, NY.

Simmonds- Moore,  Christine. ‘ Anomalous Experiences and Boundary Thinness in Mind and Brain’ in Smith, Matthew (2010) Anomalous Experiences, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina


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