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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Well if you'd like to read further on the subject, there's actually a great line of research out there that receives little (relatively) attention. The truth is, considering evolution, religion has two options, just like everything else: it is either (a) an adaptation or (b) a by-product of an adaption. Whether or not it is a by-product that found an adaptive use is irrelevant to the current point. It can't be unnatural - nothing can be. However, logical persons tend to commit the fallacy of assuming logic is a natural part of human consciousness, as we take for granted the developmental environments that educe it. Think of logic as a tool - not everyone acquires it, and if they don't, they use their intuitions and subjective experience as evidence (which is usually quite accurate, and an incredibly adaptive set of innate tools).

Here's some great books that discuss how religion is a result of social cognitive mechanisms. Rather than just validating our pre-existing contentions towards religion, they open new doors to actually explaining it, and thus illuminate the subject. I'd equate their status as 'theories' as much as I would gravity and evolution: the evidence is reliable, and only growing. I put them in order in regards to how much I enjoyed them, and put a list of great researchers who research the subject after (some evo/cog psychologists, others anthro & evo bio). Dawkins and Hitchens are great debaters, but I wish they would heed this research more often, as it may aid in the practical development of methods to move towards a more secular society. Scientists should know better than anyone that strategy supersedes force.

Religion Explained - Pascal Boyer (exhaustive - a religious cognition bible)
Why would anyone believe in God? - Justin L. Barrett
Breaking the spell - Daniel Dennett
Darwin's Cathedral - E. O. Wilson (approaches religion as a group-level adaptation)

Pascal Boyer, Justin L. Barrett, E. O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, Ara Norenzayan, Azim Shariff, Scott Atran, Ryan McKay, Lee Kirkpatrick, Richard Sosis, Dominic Johnson
I concur that Breaking the Spell is a great read. In chapter 4, page 109, Dennett describes a concept created by Justin Barrett, called a hyperactive agent detection device (HADD). He describes it as a dog leaping up and howling when a pile of snow falls, or a cat chasing a plastic bag in the wind, as if the bag were something alive. As humans are animals, they are not immune to this behavior and there is an example of how humans sometimes think they hear someone calling in the wind.

Dennett goes on to describe what he calls the intentional stance. "These cleverer animal minds ... treat some other things in the world as agents with limited beliefs about the world, specific desires, and enough common sense to do the rational thing given those beliefs and desires." (Dennett has written an earlier book entirely on this topic: The Intentional Stance.)

On page 112, Dennett goes on to mention how this relates to the development of folk religion. "So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. When someone we love ... dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating." He says that we may still think things like "Oh, look, this is something she always wanted..." even though she is no longer around.

He goes on to say that there was a problem of what to do with a corpse because there was a turmoil of emotionally not wanting to let the person go, but having an innate disgust mechanism around a corpse. Thus elaborate burial ceremonies were created.

Afterwards when the people who knew the deceased would continue to exhibit the intentional stance, they would create a "virtual person," i.e. "spirit," to ease their loss.
Convincing someone that free will is an illusion is a difficult job at best. The illusion is extremely convincing because the cause, as Joseph said, is a, "vastly complex series of microscopic cause and effect chains". When a decision is made by an individual the chain of events occurs so rapidly and on a subconscious level the conscious mind perceives it as a decision borne of free will. Having said that, I still see decisions I make as uniquely mine - that it's an illusion doesn't bother me.
Well, they are uniquely yours. No one else has the exact same brain structure as you, so they won't spit out the exact same output to every input.
I was actually thinking about running a few studies on this line of thought. It's interesting how we make external attributions to things inside our brains. If it's not conscious, we think it wasn't us (for instance, the subconscious decision occurring before it becomes a conscious thought). But if that's your brain making that decision, when did your brain become something other than you (and vice versa)? Not to open up the flood gates to a series of ontological arguments :)
Agreed, the "uniquely mine" was a rather stupid thing to state. I was trying to simply make the point that the illusion doesn't bother me.
No one else has the exact same brain structure as you
That's probably a positive thing for the gene pool.
*and why I hope to be around for the rise of genetic engineering
That is an interesting question. It may be the reason that I am struggling so as an adult who is new to atheism. I have always had a questioning mind, but was raised to disregard all my questions, and not to trust the rational side of my brain. I was taught to have blind faith, not just in god and spirits but in authority figures. Even though I would think in my head that things may not be so, in the end the indoctrination was successful for a large percentage of my life.

As an adult, I have found strong evidence against the nonsense I was taught as a child/teen/and young adult, however, there is a part of my brain that latches on so tightly even though I do not wish to believe. My non-belief is so vehement that not only do I not believe in the supernatural, but I also would not want it to be true even if there were a possibility. Yet, this small part of my brain seems stuck in a closed circuit that it cannot get out of.

However, I am inspired by many others on this site and others who were able to leave their faiths during adulthood and be secure in their atheism/freethinking/skepticism. My hypothesis is that it took a lot of indoctrination to get me to be this way, so I should not be self-critical that the truth has not "set me free" immediately. Instead, I will have to look at scientific, rational ideas every day to reinforce rationality to that part of my mind that is stuck in the twentieth century knowing that progress may come slowly, but indeed it will come.


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