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Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

This is the second post in the series -- I encourage you to read Part I if you haven't yet.

In defense of atheism

In Part I, I introduced Nielsen's primary argument for atheism, namely, that sentences used to talk about God are at their core incoherent. The word "God" fails to have an intelligible referent. We are not justified in believing in incoherent things.

In the chapter "In Defense of Atheism," he elaborates on this argument.

First, Nielsen notes that religious discourse tends to reflect particular human commitments and attitudes -- e.g., the feeling of gratitude for one's existence, regardless of the quality of that existence. Two example utterances he puts forth are "God is my Creator to whom everything is owed," and "God is the God of mercy of Whose forgiveness I stand in need."

Fact-stating utterances of this sort always presume some background knowledge. Every utterance exists in a larger context.

"Take the classic example 'The King of France is bald.' We need a context, an application of the Principles of Relevance and the Presumption of Knowledge, to know how to take it. If our context is the present, and the relevant questions are 'What is the King of France like?' or 'Is he bald?' then neither 'The King of France is bald' nor 'The King of France is not bald' would be a correct answer, for the above questions in the above context are not to be answered, but are to be replied to by being rejected. The proper reply--a reply which rejects such questions--is (De Gaulle notwithstanding) 'There is no King of France.' But if our topic is historical and, with some specific period in mind, we are asking 'What bald notables are there?'; 'The King of France is bald' is in such a changed context is an appropriate answer. And here it is a true or false statement." (p. 79)

In statements about the King of France or about God, "the King of France" and "God" are referring expressions -- i.e., there is the assumption that these expressions refer to something that exists. Additionally, there is the presumption that the speaker understands and believes in the reality of the thing being spoken about. In asserting the example utterances I mentioned above, "the religious man presupposes that there is a God and that this God has a certain character. The atheist, on the other hand, does not believe [the utterances] are true because he does not accept the presupposition on which they are made" (p. 79).

The point Nielsen is making here is that we cannot evaluate religious utterances in isolation from the complex activity we refer to as "religion."

Next, Nielsen wants us to recognize that when using expressions in language that refer to existents of some kind, one needs to know how the referring is to be done -- can one point at the entity? Can one identify it indirectly? His claim is that "the concept of God is so incoherent that there could not possibly be a referent for the word 'God'" (p.82). He refers specifically to the non-anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. Because the concept is so incoherent, he argues, it cannot possibly be true -- the rational thing to do is to reject belief in that God.

So how does he support this claim?

Incoherent God-talk

First, he notes that even if incoherent, "God" is not utterly meaningless. There are pieces of what he terms 'God-talk' that are deviant and pieces that are non-deviant -- e.g., commonly accepted uses are such statements as "God so loved mankind that he gave to the world his only son" and "God protect me in my need," while deviant statements include such statements as "God lost weight last week" and "God brews good coffee."

Second, Nielsen clarifies what he means by incoherency.

"[I]n saying that the concept of God is incoherent, I am saying that where 'God' is used nonanthropomorphically, as it is in at least officially developed Jewish and Christian God-talk, there occur sentences such as [the utterances mentioned earlier] which purportedly have a statement-making function, yet no identifiable state of affairs can be characterized which would make such putative religious statements true and no intelligible directions have been given for identifying the supposed referent for the word 'God'" (p. 83).

God cannot be physically pointed to in the world the way we can point to chairs and instances of green things. If God can be identified, it must intra-linguistically. But as mentioned in Part I, what does it mean for a thing to transcend the world, be an ultimate reality, or be an infinite individual? "If in trying to identify God we speak of 'that being upon whom the world can be felt to be utterly dependent' nothing has been accomplished, for what does it mean to speak of 'the world (the universe) as being utterly dependent' or even dependent at all?" (p. 83). If we are puzzled by "God", says Nielsen, we will be equally puzzled by these kinds of descriptive phrases. We know what it means to say that children or nations or lakes are dependent on other things, but we have no sense of what it would mean for the universe to be dependent on something.

He continues to discuss the dependent universe example:

"What are the sufficient conditions for the universe being dependent? What would make it true or false or what would even count for the truth or falsity of the putative statement 'The universe is dependent' or 'The universe is not dependent?' To answer by speaking of 'God,' e.g., the universe is dependent because God is its final cause, is to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps, for talk of the dependency of the universe was appealed to in the first place in order to enable us to identify the alleged reference of 'God'. And to speak of a logically necessary being upon whom the universe depends is to appeal to a self-contradictory conception, for only propositions or statements, not beings, can either be logically necessary or fail to be logically necessary. Yet to speak of a 'factually necessary being' upon whom the universe depends is again to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps; for what would count toward establishing the truth or falsity of a statement asserting or denying the existence of such an alleged reality?" (pp. 83-84).

If God exists, he somehow exists necessarily. But if the concept of a logically necessary being is self-contradictory, then it cannot be true that any being must exist simply because its existence is logically necessary. Nor, argues Nielsen, is there sense in the claim that there is anything which categorically must exist.

The problem is in determining what the referent of "God" is. The problem is that the phrases used to describe God (e.g., "a self-existent being," "a self-caused being") have the same problem of purportedly being referring expressions, namely, that there is no way of discovering their referents.

Another point he makes is that perhaps believers feel that they are in the presence of an "ultimate reality" that is taken to be God. But if this is to be taken as a nonanthropomorphic God and transcendent to the world, "it should still be evident that 'a transcendent X' could not be 'an X whose presence was given in experience.' Something given in experience would eo ipso be nontranscendent, for it would automatically be part of the spatio-temporal world" (p. 84).

It's possible that some people will argue that Nielsen is assuming too much -- some experiences, particularly experiences of God, may not be materially grounded in the spatio-temporal world. Philosophers have certainly posited that thought may have immaterial aspects. Could some kind of immaterial thought account for experience of God? Perhaps so.

The crux of Nielsen's argument

Nielsen's argument rests on this fact: If there is religious truth, the statements expressing those religious beliefs must be true. If he can show that the statements are indeterminate and incoherent, then, he says, there is nothing in those statements that could constitute something true or false.

One example Nielsen focuses on is what it means for God to act. In the case of a statement such as "God is the God of mercy of Whose forgiveness I stand in need," further statements are entailed: that God does or can do things and that God acts or can act in certain ways. "[I]t is utterly senseless to speak of being merciful if one could not even in principle act, do or fail to do merciful acts" (p. 86). Nielsen says that anyone, not just reductionists and materialists, can recognize the truth of this. To say that a being acted mercifully implies that the being acted; to act implies that the being acting is an agent that can perform actions. This may seem trivial; however, Nielsen argues that even if one allows for bodiless action, e.g., as in cases of chemical agents or forces producing effects, "there is still a physically specifiable something which reacts in a determinate physically specifiable way" (p. 88). If God is indeed non-anthropomorphic, realized as Pure Spirit, not a reality with a body or a spatio-temporal location, how does God act? We have no idea, says Nielsen, "of what it would be like for something to be done, for something to do something, for an action to occur, without there being a body in motion" (p. 88).

In saying that God can act, God is conceived of as being able to do things. But we can only understand doing things when there is something identifiable doing the doing.

"X is only identifiable as an agent, and thus X an only be intelligibly said to be an agent if X has a body. For agency to be logically possible, we must have a discrete something specifiable in spatio-temporal terms. But the transcendent God of Judaism and Christianity is thought to be a wholly independent reality, wholly other than the world which is utterly dependent on this 'ultimate reality' and is said to be ultimately unintelligible without reference to this nonphysical mysterium tremendum et fascinans" (p.88).

But then it is senseless to speak of God as an agent who acts, and sentences about God are therefore incoherent.

One might argue, here, that utterances like "God loves all His creation" and "God is all merciful" are symbolic or metaphorical, but are not themselves literal true/false statements. Nielsen remarks that some theologians will then recourse to describing God as "Being-itself" or "the source and unity of all beings," but the problem remains the same -- what is the referent of "Being" or "Being-itself"? For a statement such as "God is not a being, but rather Being-itself within which all other beings have their being" to be be intelligible, then "being-itself" must be a genuine referring expression. But it is not, for much the same reasons why "God" in the utterances discussed above is not.

Nielsen notes that some people will now bring up ineffability -- that there are ineffable truths that cannot be put into words and religious truths are of this category. The first part he agrees with; there are certainly "some things which are literally unsayable or inexpressible but are nonetheless given in those experiences of depth where human beings must confront their own existence" (p. 91). The second part he claims is incoherent.

First, if one claims that religious truths are ineffable, then some people with the proper experience can in a sense understand the concept of God but cannot literally express what they know to be true. Statements about the concept of God are not true or false statements; they merely hint at what cannot be literally stated. No sentences about God can literally express facts or assert that certain things are true or false, though they could be sensical, given their metaphorical or symbolic use.

"But if an utterance P is metaphorical, this entails that it is logically possible for there to be some literal statement G which has the same conceptual content. 'Metaphorical,' for that matter 'symbolic' or 'analogical,' gets its meaning by being constrastable with 'literal.' There can be no intelligible metaphorical or symbolic or analogical God-talk if there can be no literal God-talk. Thus the ineffability thesis is internally incoherent." (pp. 91-92)

Furthermore, Nielsen argues that if knows something that is literally inexpressible, then trivially, one cannot communicate it. One cannot be justified in saying that it is, in fact, God you experience, know, or encounter because one cannot significantly say that if one does particular acts or has particular experiences, one will come to know God. If one says that God cannot be described, then the word "God" is meaningless -- "we cannot even say that something is if it is indescribable" (p. 93).

"'What is unsayable is unsayable,' is a significant tautology. Only if one could at least obliquely or metaphorically express one's experience of the Divine could one's God-talk have any significant, but on the present radical ineffability thesis even the possibility of obliquely expressing one's knowledge or belief is ruled out. So, given such a thesis, there could be no confessional community or circle of faith; in fine, the thesis is reduced to the absurd by making it impossible for those who accept such a thesis to acknowledge the manifest truth that the Judeo-Christian religion is a social reality. On this simple consideration alone, we should surely rule out the ineffability thesis." (p. 93)

We don't understand the concept of God

Here, Nielsen reminds us that what he wants is for the believer to show how God-talk is a coherent form of language. "Faith presupposes a minimal understanding of what you take on faith, and if my arguments are correct, we do not have that understanding of a nonathropomorphic concept of God" (p. 94).

He acknowledges that so far, his arguments have relied on verificationist principles, and that it clearly not the case that sentences are only meaningful if verifiable. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim that only sentences can be meaningful or not meaningful, and only statements can be true or false; many meaningful sentences fail to make statements ("Could you pass the butter?"). However, he also argues that some form of verifiability is correct in determining factual significance.

What makes a meaningful utterances fact-stating? Nielsen argues that "a statement has factual significance only if it is at least logically possible to indicate the conditions or set of conditions under which it could be to some degree confirmed or infirmed, i.e., that it is logically possible to state evidence for or against its truth," (p. 95). If you disagree, he says, try to think of a statement that everyone would agree has factual content that is not verifiable in principle.

In summary

In Judaism and Christianity, God is conceived of as a nonanthropomorphic, transcendent being upon whom the universe is dependent. Believers must accept certain that allegedly factual statements are true, such as "There is an infinite, eternal Creator of the world." Believers take these kinds of statements to be factual. Yet Nielsen argues that these pieces of God-talk are not directly confirmable or infirmable -- we have no idea how to establish their truth or falsity -- and thus they are, in reality, not factual statements at all. Because the utterances fail to be fact-stating, there is a fundamental incoherency at the heart of these religions. One has no reason to cling to incoherent beliefs.


sun beams through an array of puffy clouds over a grey-blue ocean

Is belief in God unjustified?

As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I'm reading Kai Nielsen's 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.

Here's the route he takes in the first few chapters of the book.

Definitions of atheism and the problem of good empirical grounds

First, Nielsen defines a couple brands of atheism:

  1. If there is an anthropomorphic God proposed, the atheist rejects belief in God because it is false or probably false that there is such a God.

  2. If a non-anthropomorphic God is proposed, the atheist rejects belief in God because the concept of God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, or incoherent.

  3. The atheist rejects belief in God because the concept of God merely masks an atheistic substance, e.g., "God" as another name for love or as a symbolic term for moral ideals.

By "anthropomorphic," he references Zeus and Wotan -- gods for which we can know approximately what it would be like to encounter or observe them. By "non-anthropomorphic," he references the God of Luther and Calvin, Aquinas, and Maimonides, wherein God is transcendent to the world and cannot be pointed to; this God is mysterious and cannot be observed in any way, and certainly not through empirical means because anything that can be experienced and empirically observed is necessarily not an eternal transcendent reality (pg 16).

He then sets out the claims he intends to defend, namely, that

  1. There are good empirical grounds for believing there are no anthropomorphic spiritual beings, and

  2. There are good empirical grounds for believing that the non-anthropomorphic or even the slightly less radically anthropomorphic conceptions of God are incoherent or unintelligible.

In the first chapter, he relates some relevant autobiographical information: that he was raised with a vague Protestant background; he converted to Catholicism in late adolescence; he attended a Catholic university for two years and studied Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas; from these studies, he determined that one could not prove God's existence and went elsewhere to study anthropology and philosophy. He picked up influences from Spinoza, Peirce, Dewey, and Marx; also prominent were Hume and Kant's arguments that we have no grounds for belief in God (particularly an anthropomorphic God); from there he made his way to his current brand of atheism.

Here's a brief passage I wanted to share, primarily because I share Nielsen's concern about the jargon used by many philosophers. (Several friends of mine who've recently partaken in discussions of philosophy of religion with me can quickly attest that I regularly complain about the obscurity of the language used in the papers and books we read.)

"[S]ome of them [religious philosophers and theologians] also recognize that with Thomistic talk about Pure Actuality or Tillich's talk about Being-itself or anything of that order, it becomes utterly unclear what, if anything intelligible, is being affirmed that skeptics could not affirm as well. With such Thomistic or Tillichian talk, there is a complicated jargon but not intelligible additional claims of substance. Yet these Protestant thinkers still give us to understand that they themselves believe in something mysterious and profound and crucial to the human condition of which the nonbeliever has no understanding or no real understanding. They seem, however, to be quite incapable of explaining or even describing what this "more" is, though they are confident that they are not just saying the same thing as the skeptic in a more obscure and heightened vocabulary. Given such a state of affairs, I came to wonder, as did many others, if, after all, there really is a more than verbal difference and a difference in attitude between the sophisticated believer and the skeptic or whether such a believer actually succeeds in believing anything intelligible or coherent at all that is distinct from the purely secular beliefs of the skeptic" (p. 37).

In arguing that it should be impossible for someone with a tolerable scientific background and good philosophical training to think carefully about religious belief and then accept religious belief, Nielsen takes two approaches. First, he argues against proofs of God's existence, that revelation and religious experience are not in fact reliable and God cannot be known through these means, and that morality does not require religious belief. Second, building on the first set of arguments, he discusses whether and how we can establish the truth or probable truth of the claims of some religions, and whether we could reasonably accept those claims as articles of faith. He then turns to the question of whether religious beliefs can even count as valid truth-claims.

Essentially, Nielsen wants to show that belief in God is incoherent and thus unjustified.

A couple more detailed notes on Nielsen's arguments

I'm not going to spend a lot of time elaborating Nielsen's first argument, which is about how Hume and Kant concretely established that one cannot prove God's existence, and that "[r]eason and observation cannot show the unprejudiced mind, willing to follow the argument and evidence wherever it will go, that there is a God" (p. 43). Nielsen notes that many of us now take this fact as almost cultural dogma. He then addresses the question of religious experience:

"Since the destructive attacks of Hume and Kant, it has become rather common, particularly in certain Protestant circles, to claim that we do not need the proofs, even if we could have them, for we have a much surer way of knowing God, namely through direct religious experience" (p. 45).

There are two things wrong with this. First, the problem of introspection and attribution of causes to our thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. This is the problem Gazzaniga unearthed with his studies of split-brain patients; this is what Nisbett and Wilson talked about in their famous 1977 paper. There is no way to know that an experienced classified as "religious" actually is religious and actually has the supernatural as its cause.

Second, and this is the point Nielsen focuses on, the God of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions cannot be encountered (perhaps Zeus could be, though). If God is a pure spirit, transcendent to the world, mysterious and infinite, how could we encounter such a being? We cannot literally meet with such a being via our normal senses; if we could, then God would not be the God just described. Nielsen reports that some people claim that experiencing God is about experiencing "one's finitude, to have feelings of dependency, awe, wonder, dread or to feel a oneness and a love and a sense of security, no matter what happens" (p. 46). The problem here is that these are human experiences that can be understand and experienced sans God. They can fit into a secular view. As Nielsen goes on to say,

"Why should we multiply conceptions beyond need and say these understandable human experiences are also experiences of God or that they are best explained as experiences of God or as attesting to the reality of God? We are not justified in postulating such odd entities unless there is reason to think that the phenomena cannot be adequately explained by reference to less recherche entities, which are plainly realities of our familiar spatio-temporal framework" (p. 46).

In summary, Nielsen argues that there is no religious experience that guarantees that our experience is of God.

Nielsen then discusses appeals to faith; he asks why, if we must accept religion solely on the religious authority, which authority should we accept? Why Jesus rather than Buddha or Mohammed?

"If there is no proof for the existence of God, no independent way of establishing or making credible his existence, isn't a claim that Christianity is the Truth and the Way both incredibly arrogant, ethnocentric, and arbitrary?" (p. 47)

He also points out that one need not believe in God to have purpose in one's life, which is often another point of contention:

"Without God there may be no purpose to life, but life can still be purposeful, be worth living, even if there is no overarching purpose to life. Even if there is no purpose of life or purpose to life there can be purposes in life, e.g., to cure the sick, to achieve racial equality and social justice, to achieve happiness and a fuller and more varied life for oneself and for those to whom one relates, to achieve love and close human bonds and solidarity. These are purposes we human beings can have and they remain intact in a Godless world" (p. 48).

The last of his main points is about the coherency of the concept of God. Specifically, he discusses what it means to talk about God and how the word "God" is grounded in our language. If, as he suggests all Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions do, we leave behind an anthropomorphic and idolatrous conception of God, then who or what does the believer pray and confess to? To what or to whom are we referring when we use the term "God"?

"..."God," unlike "Hans" or "Erika" or "Mexico," cannot be ostensibly defined or taught. As we have seen, it doesn't even make sense to speak of seeing or encountering God. We can't literally be aware of God or stand in the presence of God. The term "God" can only be introduced intra-linguistically through definite descriptions" (p. 49).

Descriptions he notes include statements like "God is the only infinite individual" and "God is the maker of universe" and "God is the only ultimate reality upon whom all other realities depend." The problem with these is that they raise more questions: what is it for something to transcend the world, be an ultimate reality, or be an infinite individual? The words clearly have some meaning grounded in the language we generally use them in, and perhaps some people claim to have a proper conception of what it means for something to be the maker of the universe, but Nielsen argues that it questionable that these kinds of characterizations of God have sufficiently unproblematic meaning for us to actually understand what it is we are referring to.

A question he poses is this: What support do we have for either, e.g., the claim that God is the maker of the universe, or the claim that God is not the maker of the universe? "What experinceable states of affairs count for one view and against the other such that on balance we are justified in claiming greater probability for one view over the other?" (p. 49). Nielsen claims that nothing does -- but if all possible experiences and observations are equally compatible with either claim, then, he asks, what is each actually asserting? How does either sentence succeed in asserting something different than the other? What is one sentence claiming that the other is denying? There appears to be no answer here; Nielsen argues that none of the assertions really assert anything, on either side. As he goes on to say,

"Moreover, it isn't the situation where we just have two theories equally compatible with the available evidence. What we have is one set of putative claims -- the religious ones -- claiming to assert something thoroughly different, through and through mysterious, and of a quite different order. Yet there are no differences of an experientially specifiable sort between the two accounts. Experientially the believer cannot show what more he is asserting, can't elucidate, except in equally perplexing terms, what he means to be saying that the non-believer is not, so that the suspicion is very difficult to resist that there is, after all, no nonverbal difference between them" (p. 50).

Nielsen's conclusion is that the sentences used to talk about God, and what the word "God" refers to, are such that we cannot ascertain their truth or falsity and cannot distinguish between assertions and denials except verbally. In which case, he suggests, the religions that speak of God thusly are tied to such heavily problematic conceptions that they are rendered incoherent. How are we justified in believing in something so incoherent?


As I briefly alluded to, this is just what Nielsen says in the first couple chapters. It'll be interesting to see where he takes his arguments over the course of the next couple hundred pages. I also have a more recent work of Nielsen's sitting in the stack of books waiting for my attention. Perhaps in a week or two I'll update you on my progress...


One identity?

I ran across the following quote from Mark Zuckerberg the other day -- not for the first time -- but this time my initial response, instead of being some disgruntled mumbling about Facebook's privacy settings, was how Western.

_shadow of a girl on the ground, tan bark below red plank walkway below green weeds_

"You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." --Mark Zuckerberg

Why Western?

Richard Nisbett on Geography, ecology, philosophy

Last semester, I read a book called The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why by Richard Nisbett. As you may infer from the book's title, Nisbett talks about all kinds of differences in Western versus East Asian cultures and why those differences exist -- and I mean all kinds. It's a broad book. I'm going to give you the flavor:

Nisbett starts by outlining differences in philosophy. Greek philosophy took as a fundamental principle that matter divides into discrete objects. The Greeks drew a line between the internal and external, essentially inventing nature. Perhaps this was a result of their culture of debate, which relies on the notion that two minds can have different representations of the world and that the world has its own nature independent from both minds. Western cultures grew out of Greek philosophy. Since boundaries between any object and its surroundings were built in, people were discrete. Westerners emphasize individualism. The focus on objects and individuals may have led to many of dualisms we have encountered this semester.

Ancient Chinese philosophy, on the other hand, bespoke a constantly changing world, full of contradictions and moving in endless cycles. Harmony and holism were emphasized: there was a mutual influence of everything on everything else. Chinese has no abstractness, either; no “whiteness” without a thing that is white – the white of a swam, the white of the snow. People defined themselves in relation to others, interdependent rather than independent; the goal was The Way rather than truth or knowledge.

_man sitting on one of a series of folding chairs that are half-buried in the grass_

Some of these differences may have arisen in part from the ecology in which the cultures developed. Greece was a maritime location where people of many customs and beliefs were encountered, a city-state where rational argument was king, and curiosity and knowledge were valued for their own sake. Occupations favored the autonomous individual – herding, hunting, trading, fishing. Intellectual rebels could move cities to retain the ability for free inquiry, and the clashing of so many customs may have led to the development of formal logic to help deal with the frequent contradiction of opinion. In contrast, the Chinese population by and large belongs to the same ethnic group. Rarely were people with different beliefs and customs encountered, and because many people were farmers who depended on joint irrigation, agreed-upon norms and harmony with one's neighbors were the goal. From Nisbett's discussion, one might infer that it is the ecology that led to the development of these features of culture in the first place.

Assumptions about individualism - and language's role

Nisbett also talks about assumptions. Westerners, he says, consider people to be individuals, assuming that everyone is in control of his/her own behavior, oriented toward goals, striving to be different from everyone else, and preferring justice to be blind. This is Zuckerberg's assumption, in his above quote.

But not everyone thinks that way. Nisbett notes that East Asians tend to be more concerned with coordinated action and group goals, fitting in, and negotiating a “middle way” that will satisfy particular disagreeing parties. In Confucian philosophies, man cannot exist alone. This has interesting implications for how people understand themselves and how a self-concept is developed! East Asians tend to think that people are defined by their relationships to other people. This is reflected in their languages: Chinese has no word for “individualism” and Japanese has many “I” words, using different words to refer to the self in relation to parents, friends, or professors. East Asians, when describing themselves, refer to their social roles and find it difficult to not specify situations and contexts. Westerners explain personality traits, role categories, and activities – none of which are solely dependent on context.

_spray from a waterfall, red layered rocks above in the sunlight and green bushy trees in the shadows below_

What I wondered, while reading, was this: How does cultural emphasis on individualism versus collectivism change a person's concept of self? Fivush & Nelson (PDF) (2004) suggested that autobiographical memory and a concept of self are partially developed through an awareness of self versus other. Wang & Ross (2007) proposed that language is very important to autobiographical memory, and Ratcliffe (2007) suggested that a person might learn to distinguish the self as an individual through interactions with others – but Ratcliffe is a Westerner! Do Westerners build up a concept of self in a different way than East Asians? Does the fact that people who speak certain East Asian languages have few if any explicit ways to refer to individualism or to an “I” without reference to other people influence them to conceive of themselves in a more relational, collectivist way? This points to a deeper question: How much do people's languages impact their thoughts, conceptions, beliefs, and perceptions? Nisbett presented examples of how language might change how we think about the world around us. E.g., Westerners tend to learn nouns faster – nouns are objects, inert, and tend to be emphasized more in parent-child conversations. Verbs, which are reactive and about relationships, are more salient in East Asian languages. The properties of the language and how the language is used help drive the object versus relation and individual versus collective dichotomies we see across cultures. Again, I see the same paradoxical question: which came first, the language, or the concepts? How and why did these language differences originally evolve?

An interesting question here, with regards to the role of language priming for certain ways of thought, and differences in memory and recall, is this: Do people focus on things (such as objects, situations, and contexts) because they regard them as causally important, or do they regard them as casually important because they focus on them? Regardless of which statement is more true – and perhaps neither is – this statement highlights the role of interpretation. Nisbett discussed a study in which American students were primed to think either interdependently or independently. Students primed for independence rated individualist values as higher and collectivist values as lower; if primed for interdependence, the opposite was true. In an unprimed condition, American students rated individualist values higher while Hong Kong students rated collectivist values higher – but if primed for either case, all the students showed the aforementioned trend. This is interesting because Westerners, in their everyday lives, are constantly being primed as individuals, while East Asians are being primed with interdependence cues. Nisbett offers anecdotes of people who switched locations in the world and subsequently started behaving more independently or interdependently. Context matters!

Harmony vs agency

_sun beams through an array of puffy clouds over a grey-blue ocean_

Nisbett also explains the ideas of erabi and awase. Erabi is active, agentic: the idea that people can freely manipulate their environments to suit their own purposes. Awase is harmonious, fitting in: the idea that people adjust themselves to their environments rather than trying to change them. The Western versus East Asian dichotomy is clear here. Are Westerners resistant to context-based models of the world, to theories such as Pentland's (2007) that language may not do as much as we think, and to the general idea that individuals are subject to external forces and influences because of their erabi style? Perhaps this is also why the illusion of conscious will is so appealing – do Westerners have more of an obsession with free will than do East Asians? Nisbett notes later than East Asians report feeling less in control of their lives than do Westerners, but that they have less of an issue with this – instead of trying to control situations, they try to adjust them. East Asians also tend to be less susceptible to illusions of control than Westerners.

I am reminded of a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis: “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes that see reality.” It puts me in mind of expectations. Peoples' experiences set up their expectations about significance and meaning of future experiences – their culture influences what experiences they have. The same events don't mean the same thing to everyone. In the context of this person's experiences so far, different events may have been encountered more frequently, different behaviors may have been encouraged or discouraged, and different values emphasized. Nisbett (2003) discusses several studies that suggested East Asians are not as surprised by unexpected outcomes as are Westerners. This could be because they are more accepting of change to begin with – their world view anticipates that no situation will stay constant. Westerners, on the other hand, presume linearity of trends – the fact that they predict a trend to continue in its same direction could lead to their greater surprise when that prediction turns out to be false.

In sum: Agent, environment

In summary: Culture constantly surrounds us. It shapes how the people we interact with react to and interpret their environments, which in turn shape how they interact with us and what they emphasize in those interactions. It shapes and is shaped by language; language shapes and is shaped by our expectations and experiences. We have to keep in mind, however, that cultural differences are averages. Nisbett is careful to note this. Any individual person may not conform to the cultural norms. Although culture is a remarkably important context for a human, the development of a person in a culture is not quite so set as a cell being cultured in a petri dish. It is still the dynamic interactions between genes and an environment that develop a phenotype -- an agent plus an environment. The environment, for a person, includes that person's culture. A person's past experiences with aspects of their culture – e.g., parent speaking styles, emphasis on objects versus relations, language – will influence that person's present behavior. Oyama (2000a, 2000b) said we cannot attribute development solely to genes. Neither can development be attributed solely to culture, nor to the wider environment. It is through the interaction of all these contexts that we get functioning organisms.


Fivush, R. & Nelson, K. (2004) Culture and Language in the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory. Psychological Science, 15 (9), 573 – 577. [PDF]

Nisbett, R. (2003). The Geography of Thought. New York, NY: Free Press.

Oyama, S. (2000a). Evolution's Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Oyama, S. (2000b). The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pentland, A. (2007). On the collective nature of human intelligence. Adaptive Behavior, 15 (2), 189-198. [PDF]

Ratcliffe, M. (2007). Rethinking Commonsense Psychology. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillian.

Wang. Q., & Ross, M. (2007). Culture and Memory. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen, (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology (pp. 645-667). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


_several large rocks modified to look like faces_

Rock on

Are you familiar with perceptual control theory? If you aren't, the basic idea is this: People are not rocks. As Philip Runkel puts it,

"Living creatures behave very differently from lifeless things. Unlike a rock, a human does not just sit until something bumps it."

-- Philip Runkel, “Casting Nets and Testing Specimens,” pg 75

The idea is, organisms and agents and people get a bunch of different sensory inputs. They have some internal standards for what they want that set of sensory inputs to be like -- some desired state of the world. The difference between how they want the world to be and what the world is actually like drives what they do -- what we see as behavior. The reason this is appealing to me? Perceptual control theory (PCT) says we're not just input-output machines. Behavior is goal-directed and purposeful. It's a useful theory if you want to figure out why people are doing what they do and how to avoid or mediate conflict. Everyone has internal standards that they're trying to control. As Runkel says,

"[M]ost of us very often act as if we expect other people to behave like rocks. And when we act toward other people as if they were rocks or blankets or typewriters or teacups, we make unending trouble for ourselves. It is true that people do have some features in common with rocks and typewriters. There are, however, important differences between living and nonliving things that most of us overlook time and time again, and to our sorrow." -- Philip Runkel, "People as Living Things; The Psychology of Perceptual Control," pg 14

If you want to learn more, I've found you a nice list of articles, an informative Less Wrong post a friend linked me to, a comprehensive website, and Google. And yes, talking about PCT really just was my excuse to share those lovely quotes from Runkel.


_rain splattering on the pavement in front of a green bushy area_

Your expectations define your perceptions

It's raining.

Fat, corpulent water globules cascade from the sky. Plop, plop. A drop, and a few of its compatriots, dribble down the inside of your collar. They're cold. Wet, and unpleasant. The drops slither down your neck.

"Take my cloak," he [Lord Golden] suggested. "It would only get as wet as the rest of me. I'll change into dry things when I get back." [Fitz] He didn't tell me to be careful, but it was in his look. I nodded to it, steeled myself, and walked out into the pouring rain. It was every bit as cold and unpleasant as I expected it to be. I stood, eyes squinted and shoulders hunched to it, peering out through the gray downpour. Then I took a breath and resolutely changed my expectations. As Black Rolf had once shown me, much discomfort was based on human expectations. As a man, I expected to be warm and dry when I chose to be. Animals did not harbor any such beliefs. So it was raining. That part of me that was wolf could accept that. Rain meant being cold and wet. Once I acknowledged that and stopped comparing it to what I wished it to be, the conditions were far more tolerable. I set out.

--- Fool's Errand, Robin Hobb

Keep it in perspective

Keep what in perspective? Well, everything, but particularly the bad things, the frustrating things, and the irritating things. So it's raining. So you cut your finger slicing potatoes. So it's ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit and humid. You are in some set of circumstances and you wish to be in some other set of circumstances. You wish to be dry. You wish your finger didn't hurt. You wish to be cool and comfortable without drops of sweat sliding down your neck.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where wishes change the world's physical properties. We have limited control over our environments. We have slightly more control over our reactions to our environments.

"Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes that see reality." ---Nikos Kazantzakis

What you expect significantly influences how you will perceive your circumstances. The thing is, a lot of times, we don't explicitly set out our expectations. You leave the air-conditioned building with the continued implicit expectation that you'll be cool and comfortable, and when that blast of muggy, sticky air hits you, it hits you twice as hard because you're expecting something else.

What can you do about this? Try explicitly setting up your expectations. It may help prevent the disappointment of being wrong (and feeling unpleasant). Instead of thinking "Aaugh, I'm getting wet and the rain is cold, why can't I be warm and dry?" try thinking "Okay, I'm going out in the rain so I'll be wet and cold. That's just how rain is." Keep in mind that this works both ways--sure, you can set yourself up to expect to feel better about your circumstances, but you can also easily set yourself up to expect to feel worse.

As a final note, I'm sharing to a quote I occasionally turn to as a reminder to keep things in perspective, from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (on the subject of pop music):

"Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?"

Are you miserable because of your circumstances, or are your circumstances miserable because of your misery?