by Rob R
Fans of the Scooby Doo cartoon series may recall a phrase that sleuth nerd extraordinaire, Velma, would repeat over and over again, "Science has proven a thousand times, there are no such things as Ghosts." Most fans wouldn't realize that this phrase was closely paralleled by Soviet communists who reportedly said, "Science has proven over and over, there is no God."
One might question just when and where either of these "scientific" discoveries was published. While neither claim can be substantiated, it is interesting to note that as formerly communist Russia rebounds toward the Orthodox church, the Scooby Doo franchise of recent years features "real" ghosts (as opposed to masked old cranks scheming to get some inheritance or real estate property who end up cursing "those meddlesome kids" for spoiling their plans.)
While science is ill-suited to approach most spiritual and metaphysical questions, especially with conclusive direct answers, there are scientific approaches to related issues.
New Scientist has published an article approaching the question of why religion/spirituality is believed to be hardwired in the brain.
Author Michael Brooks notes two previous suggestions about this question. First, that there is a specific area of the brain responsible for religious belief, and second, that religious belief is a result of adaptation. He sees reason for rejecting both claims, suggesting that religious belief is linked to a variety of mental functions, thus related to regions of the brain, and not just one area. He rejects the idea that these mental functions directly arose through adaptation for survival. Rather, he suggests it is an indirect result that through all these mental functions spirituality becomes natural.
Brooks cites Yale psychologist Paul Bloom who describes a "common sense dualism" that begins in infancy where babies distinguish between people and inanimate objects and later develops into a tendency to distinguish minds from bodies, noting a universal ability to think of the mind as distinct from the body and the ease with which one can even conceive of the mind as separable from the body. It is then a small step to conceiving ghosts, gods, and life after death.
One study where the mind body dualism demonstrates itself was by researcher Jesse Bering, who put on a puppet show for preschoolers in which an alligator eats a mouse. The children were then questioned about the implications of this show. They were asked if the mouse can still get sick or if it needs to eat and drink, to which the children answered no. But when asked spiritual questions such as whether the mouse still thinks and knows things, the children answered yes.
Children also demonstrate a tendency toward teleological beliefs, seeing design and purpose in the world around them. Here, the children claim for example that birds are here to make music or that rivers exist so boats will have something on which to float. This sort of thinking continues into adulthood when adults tacitly admit to a teleology, for instance, trees are here to make oxygen so we can breath.
Bloom says that we are all hard-wired for religious belief and that this programming doesn't go away with childhood. Another researcher, Olivier Petrovich, notes that even atheists possess this wiring. Bering has observed atheists who've attributed some purpose or agency behind traumatic experiences in their lives. He notes that "They don't completely exorcise the ghost of god - they just muzzle it."
Michael Brooks seems to attempt neutrality here noting that these findings conclude nothing about the existence of god, but I suspect he has more of an atheistic bent as he draws a connection with the ability to build fictive worlds. It should be noted that science depends on our ability to build fictive worlds, so this feature should not be linked with irrationality or delusion.
Of course, the atheistic approach to these findings would be, "How might it be that nature leads us toward these deceptions?" But of course, these findings fit a better unified picture where our hard-wiring assists us to see the truth that spirituality is stamped into our very flesh. After all, to view the mind as universally hardwired toward deception is the greatest paranoia one can have with bad epistemic results.