The Myth of Compartmentalised Minds

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


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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5 Responses to The Myth of Compartmentalised Minds

  1. MikeMachina says:

    What cracked me up when I was taking that questionnaire is that for certain subject matters (things like aesthetic, order of infrastructures, visual things, math and logic, music, and the way I organize my things and definitions) I like big, bold sharp lines, concrete definitions, contrasting colors. I went through a phase in high school where I wore primarily black with with or primary colors (and I still like that aesthetic visually very much). To use the Taoist descriptor, I like to be surrounded by ‘yang’, most of the time, and most of my higher level thinking is extremely precise and logical.

    But other things, like rules that affect me, the separation between thoughts and feelings, paranormal stuff, the separation between awake and asleep/altered, interpersonal boundaries, I experience as all very wishy washy. The colors all run together. I’m very ‘yin’ emotionally.

    The only time I want to be surrounded by yin is when some rigid rules are getting in the way of what I want to do, and I start bending the rules to how they can suit me. I’m open minded about some things (e.g. the paranormal) but closed minded about others (trying new things when I don’t feel secure about myself).

    This is not much of a revelation though, as I’ve always known that I have two very polarized states and switch polarity quite often.

    I think people have different modes of handling multiple paradigms. I think some scientific Christians (or other theists) operate by parsing their research into one mental box, and their faith into the other, and they never mix. Others allow the two to mix, and they believe that the ‘rules’ of science and their faith must somehow overlap, because on a deep level, they must both be controlled by the same thing. And still others (though most likely the minority) are like me – they flip to find the best state depending on the situation. But generally speaking, they assign mental True values to both the science-based things and the faith-based things.

    I think the one distinction with Atheists (of the everything is material and reductionist, there is nothing out of the reach of science, quite often pseudo-skeptical variety) is that they almost always tend to be very concrete, rigid thinkers that believe that there is a specific, naturalistic answer for everything, even if they don’t know it yet, and this reinforces their logic and rigidity. They have two boxes – True things, and False things, and everything MUST be in one or the other, and if it remotely conflicts with anything they have already put in the True box, it immediately goes into the False box until further notice. This is also the same of Fundamentalist Theists, where you either are in line with everything they already believe, or you are a heretic.

    Ouch, did I just compare the operation of mental paradigms of atheists to be nearly identical to fundamentalists? 😛

    I think the accurate descriptors we are looking for are not theist or atheist, compartmentalized or fluid, but open-minded (willing to entertain the idea that truth is relative and fluid, and what they currently know is wrong) or closed-minded (the truth is the truth, and until something gives me a damn good reason to change it, I’m not changing it). Incidentally, people who score higher on the HBQ seem to be more open-minded in general. Did I hear somebody say ‘study in the making’?

  2. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    Mike, do a search for “ambiguity” on this blog. Last year think I wrote a piece in which I noted that many of the true believers and pseudo-sceptics I met on forums appeared to share one thing – an inability to handle, indeed a positive dislike, for “ambiguity”. I think we both agree strongly here.

    I just like analysing silly phrases and dodgy heuristics though, and exploring them fully. 🙂

    cj x

    • MikeMachina says:

      Thank you, I shall have a look 🙂

      Oddly, I dislike ambiguity very much myself. Very strongly at times. Yet I’m a practicing psion and a parapsychologist. Go figure.

      I think it’s because I can sort of allocate an ‘ambiguity zone’ where anything can be whatever it wants, so long as it doesn’t step outside the very solid boundary.

      Which, frankly, anyone who is into the deep sciences, complex physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, etc, should really ought to have, since most of that stuff is quite honestly made up and only happens to work pretty well. The only thing that has been really torture tested is General and Special Relativity, and a few aspects of QM. But I’ve read papers on Dark Energy and the like, and I swear it sounds straight out of a script of Babylon 5 or Star Trek.

  3. J says:

    A very interesting attempt at providing insight into various contradictory thought patterns. The discussion here seems a little mixed up. But that’s to be expect, especially when one’s own reasoning process is subject to precisely the same mechanisms one is trying to differentiate.

    I agree with your hypothesis that people with less compartmentalise thought processes are more likely to experience religious thinking.

    I think you have missed an important observation in that compartmentalisation is actually an effective method that some use to organise their thinking.

    Another crucial thing you seem to be asserting which is NOT TRUE is the suggestion that theological beliefs and evolution are mutually exclusive to begin with, and you also suggest that owing to this, which is taken as fact, the thoughts can only be attributed to a ‘compartmentalised’ rationale which keeps the warring factions separate. You also seem quicker to infer what you think of as faults in this mode of thinking.

    Judging by your aggressive (and unconvincing) assertion that anybody who thinks both simultaneously is thinking ‘bollocks’ (which is an aggressive assault but Not a convincing piece of rhetoric, as you should know) you may be sustaining your ‘faith’ in the flaws of compartmentalised from with this view.

    Nevertheless, for a critical thinker it is easy to believe in God and evolution without either coming into conflict. In the first place, this was the popular religious view when Darwin’s work was published.

    I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but Origin was greatly received by the church at first and attacking it is a relatively recent phenomenon, not owing to the reliability of the theory but owing to the fact it seems like a threat to the sanctity of the bible.

    The official religious body originally agreed it was enlightening and agreeable that God had not created all things in their final form. Only the weariest possible of people would be incapable of conducting a brief investigation which proves that this is true: Things do evolve and increase in complexity over time. e.g. civilisation.

    Another reason this was possible is, for centuries, not even the church really believed the bible was the final and unequivocal word of an omniscient God. They were discerning enough to observe that just because an authority claims to be divine, that doesn’t mean it is.

    Incidentally, the book of Genesis, which is really the only reason this discussion exists, is clearly not a factual account of history. It was written when scientific observation was relatively blurred and myopic and was put forward as a plausible explanation for how ‘things’ came to be here. In other words, Genesis is not an historical account but an archaic piece of rhetorical guesswork designed by an ancient administration to pacify enquiring minds.

    A critically thinking theologian may think “Well, I don’t believe what it says in the bible about the origin of the species, but that doesn’t disprove God”.

    Personally I’m agnostic. In fact, I think it’s provable that the existence, or not, or God, cannot be proved.

  4. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    Hey J, great o hear from you. Best start by clarifying one thing – I believe the polar opposite to how you have read my position – I certainly do believe evolution and theological beliefs are completely compatible, and as for Darwin and the Evangelicals may I recommend another one of my blog pieces –

    I think you somehow misread me? Be god to talk more on this though, I’m just a bit concerned that I may have somehow given completely the wrong impression – I was probably attcking, possibly satiriszing the view you refer to?

    cj x

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