If you know what a critical period  is, skip this next paragraph:

A 'critical period' is a limited developmental period in which an organism undergoes certain physiological (& therefore psychological) changes, that have a permanent effect on the function of that organism. That is, certain epigenetic phenomena have a limited period in which they may develop to function in a particular manner. For instance, the attachment mechanism in ducklings has a critical period in which it identifies their caregiver, and thus any moving object during that period will suffice (mother duck, Konrad Lorenz, a toy train; ); however, following that period the ducklings do not develop an attachment (http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n14/experimento/lorenz/index-lorenz....). Human language is believed to have a critical period lasting until humans hit puberty (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_(feral_child). Cat's have a critical period in which they can develop certain ocular capabilities (http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Critical_period). Are there critical periods for the development of cognitive abilities in humans (e.g., logic, creativity, mathematics, etc.)?

More specifically, what I mean to ask is: is there a figurative critical period for rational vs. religious thought? In other words, when a human is developing, is there a limited window in which they can be primed to be religious or rational thinkers for life? I emphasize 'figurative' as surely plasticity of such evolutionarily insignificant developments rules any literal critical period out. I just wonder whether past a certain age, having believed one view of reality for your entire life, cognitive dissonance prevents any change to alternate beliefs, even as you accumulate additional evidence against your beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance is an effect due to the motivation to diminish incompatible information in your mind. For instance, if you spent five hours working on something tedious, rather than thirty minutes, you may come to believe you enjoyed it and it was more fulfilling to reduce dissonance. After a 'critical period', does the amount of time and effort put into religious thought rule out any conversion from it, as to do so would be inefficient? Does receiving more evidence to the contrary of your beliefs make you hold onto them stronger if you've had them for years? 

Sorry for being uneloquent and jargony, hope this stirs an interesting thought in someone.

Sol Gartner

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Replies to This Discussion

According to Piaget the time period in which a child progresses from concrete thinking to formal(abstract) thinking occurs on average in the 12 to 15 yr old age group, when the corpus colostrum completes the connection between the two brain halves. So, I imagine the period in which religious indoctrination is most successful is between 5 and 12..
I think people can change their beliefs at any age. I bet there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for that here among the participants on this forum. We talk to each other with the intention that our speaking make a difference in the life of the person we speak to. If difference making was impossible, or even highly unlikely, that would put a real damper on speaking and communicating. I think that from an evolutionary point of view, being able to change one's point of view through out life would be advantageous.
I think the likelihood that a person develops critical thinking skills decreases after a certain stage in development, I'm guessing adolescence early adulthood but it doesn't make it impossible for it to be changed. It just makes it more difficult.(Like learning a 2nd language when an adult) And the difficulty might make it less appealing to some people. If that's true then I would venture a huge factor is whether a person enjoys being challenged or not.

Or another thought is most people take on responsibilities by their mid 20's, careers, families, etc. It may not be a difficulty in learning but not being able to focus as much energy on such ventures. Life can get pretty hectic. There does seem to be a lot of people returning to college in their 40s and 50s because their kids are grown and they feel they can proceed with their personal goals.

Really interesting topic.
I think the underlying assumption here is that critical thinking as a whole is either present or not. I think this is likely a fallacious assumption. I think that most (wishful thinking?) religious believers do have the critical thinking capacity to understand that their beliefs are not logically sound. However, I think that the religious indoctrination that occurs before the age of reason sets the stage for the believer to ignore the obvious results of critical analysis as applied to religious belief. The contradictory thoughts of "all those people I respect and trust tell me to believe the relgious teachings" and "None of this religious teaching really makes sense logically" leads to the cognitive dissonance you describe which is ameliorated by the construction of a delusional framework of thought. Outside of the delusional framework, critical thinking remains intact, but within the delusional framework critical thinking is short circuited and the delusional belief takes precedence. I do think that it becomes harder to newly establish relgious belief in someone who has developed some basic critical thinking skills which I think can occur much younger than the shift from concrete to formal thinking that Jim points out was described by Piaget. The is best evidenced by most peoples loss of belief in Santa Claus at 7 or 8 years old, but often occurs much earlier, even 3-4 years old.
You are correct in that critical thinking skills can be developed during the concrete phase of development. Critical thinking skills can be learned regardless of the level of cognitive development.
Sorry for the book below - but bear with me.
Thanks for your thoughts - especially for pointing out Piaget, gave me a nice place to do some reading.

John - I enjoy your mention of how 'critical thinking stays intact'. I do agree with you, and did not do a good job explicating my line of thought (the use of 'critical period' does seem to imply that this able is either present or not - bad analogy). I don't mean to make an essentialist or determinist claim that after a certain period, there is little chance of developing reason - more so that there is little chance of changing one's beliefs due to cognitive dissonance, and that the more evidence to contrary present, the more one will use it to rationalize one's belief. 'When Prophecy Fails', an example of cognitive dissonance by Leon Festinger, tells of a case study of a group of people waiting for the end of the world. When that day came, and nothing happened, they rationalized the event and it made their beliefs stronger, not weaker. I often find that explaining science to religious people makes them hold on stronger to their beliefs (threat response), or if they are intelligent, to avoid cognitive dissonance they synthesize the new information with their beliefs.

In line with your mention, John, one thing I've always emphasized when talking to my atheist friends is that religious thought is in a way 'compartmentalized'. That is, any lack of 'intelligence' it may purport, may in fact only be in regards to that one line of thought. I have many religious friends who are quite reasonable, logical, skeptical, analytic and open-minded. Indeed, their intelligence often renders them more obstinate - as they are able to come up with complex arguments to defend their faith. I was once describing to a friend how certain evolved cognitive mechanisms involved in detecting and inferring other minds was responsible for anthropomorphism (i.e., God). He retorted, "Well if there was an intelligent designer, and he did not want to get involved directly, the ultimate plan would be to have the gears of time bring out a specie with the machinery necessary to know Him." Though I know this is no instance of clairvoyance, I just mean to point out that my friend is completely capable of synthesizing new information into old information, and open to it.

To provide an example of the compartmentalization of logic, can anyone think of an example where atheists may perform this same fallacy?

I always find that scientific debates about consciousness and free will evoke an identical response in nontheists, and many scientists. Of course, research in these areas is in no way conclusive, but all the evidence indicates two things: (1) there is no constant soul or 'entity' (that is, there is objectively no 'self', just the perception of one as a by-product of cognitive equipment), and (2) free will is physically and logically impossible (contingent on your definition of freedom, of course). When confronted with evidence for these findings (and a lack of contradictory evidence), nontheists get very defensive and find a way to synthesize the research findings to support their views of consciousness and free will. (To keep on track, let's not argue the ontology of the self and definition of freedom - I'll save that for another conversation :) ).

I like a good book and you deliver. I agree totally with the compartmentalization of thought and I have used the term "religious mind" to illustrate this idea. i.e. when speaking to a religious person about their faith I have given examples of other religions crazy beliefs and encouraged the person to rationally dispute those beliefs. Then when speaking of that person's specific irrational beliefs I encourage them to examine the difference between the rational thought they just performed and the switching on of their "religious mind". Mostly inneffective I admit.

As to the point of the original discussion seed, I think that age may have little to do with the intractability of religious delusion. I think the more dominant variable is the magnitude of the anticipated pshycological cost experienced by the believer that would be incurred in rejecting the belief. I think that, over time, religions have developed(evolved?) to maximize this cost through the concepts of hell, sin, and faith as virtue. This cost is also elevated by social isolation fears and loss of familial support fears. I believe the fear is so great in most religious believers, that these things play out in the subconscious and the thought of even considering loss of faith is denied to the conscious mind. This has implications which I think suggest that a less confrontational and factual approach and a more probing and Socratic approach would be more likely to motivate a religious person to question their faith.

On your final topic, I do admit that I find myself uncomfortable with the logical conclusion that there cannot be free will in the sense that most people think of it. Nonetheless, I accept the logical conclusion as probably accurate with the caveat that I hope some bright mind of the future finds some measure of free will within the confines of reality. This of course in no way inhibits my sense of satisfaction and enjoyment in life, so from a practical perspective, the presence or absence of free will is irrelevant to me.
I do admit that I find myself uncomfortable with the logical conclusion that there cannot be free will in the sense that most people think of it.

I'm about of the same mind, over here. The concept of not having free will and not being able to truly make choices gives me the willies, but it's what I see as a logical result of what we've learned through physics and neuroscience. The function of the brain is just a vastly complex series of microscopic cause and effect chains, the end result of which is thought and decision-making.
Joseph - I do find that when discussing this with others who hold a similar opinion, we end up laughing about how it doesn't change anything. Our phenomenological experience will always have the guise of a 'ghost in the machine'; discussing it may be illuminating, but it is in no way detrimental to the human experience.

John - I like the ideas of different ways to approach religious people. A hilarious friend of mine uses (unknowingly) the Socratic method, and always just start asking questions that make people think. He often tells me by asking questions about God (e.g., does he think like a human, have emotion, have memory, etc.) he finds that people never really think about this stuff, and they usually have to consider it on the spot. He also tells me most people that claim denominations have absolutely no idea why they are in that denomination than another, so by just asking why, he gets them thinking.

The shame is that religious thought is actually quite normal; that is, atheism is abnormal. We didn't evolve to accurately perceive the universe, we evolved to best survive and fuck. If you like a good book, a real game changer, which I do implore every atheist reads, is 'Why Would Anyone Believe in God?' by Justin Barrett. He is an evolutionary cognitive psychologist and anthropologist, who researches the evolved cognitive processes involved in religious thought. Riveting stuff, quick read, not too jargony.
The shame is that religious thought is actually quite normal; that is, atheism is abnormal. We didn't evolve to accurately perceive the universe, we evolved to best survive and fuck.

Yup, Dawkins goes over this a bit in 'The God Delusion', in chapter 5. It would be interesting to go more in depth with it, in a whole book on the subject. I'll have to check that out.

I will definitely check out the book.
Sol, thanks for the book reference. As I have never been a believer I have a real hard time wrapping my head around that very question 'Why Would Anyone Believe in God?'
I understand it from a cultural evolution POV and have fair understanding of the sociobiology. But, how the religious mind reconciles reality with with their delusional "world" has aways baffled me, particularly in the modern world..




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