Classes I'm taking at Wash U this Fall, and also some thoughts on why humans are so damned religious

School starts on Tuesday and my levels of anticipation for this semester are highly elevated. I’m on fellowship for the first year, so I don’t have any TA responsibilities, but I do have to take four classes a semester. This Fall I am taking:

  • Required proseminar for first-years with Gillian Russell
  • We are going to be reading Scott Soames’ two-volume Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century. Based on my brief reading, the text seems like very highly quality philosophy. I’m a little intimidated by the Mathematical logic stuff though.
  • Advanced Metaphysics with Roy Sorensen
    • Course description: “Through readings from both classical and contemporary sources, a single traditional metaphysical concern will be made the subject of careful and detailed analytic attention. Possible topics include such concepts as substance, category, cause, identity, reality, and possibility, and such positions as metaphysical realism, idealism, materialism, relativism, and irrealism.”
  • Agency, Metacognition, and Control: a PNP seminar with Larry Jacoby and Carl Craver
    • Course description: “This seminar will be organized around philosophical and psychological readings pertaining to agency, intentional action, and metacognition. The philosophical readings will be concerned with the nature of human agency, self-knowledge, and the capacity to form second-order desires. The psychological readings will be drawn from research concerned with the distinction between automatic and controlled behavior, illusions of conscious will, attribution, and metacognition (or higher order thought). The goal of the seminar is to promote interdisciplinary communication.”
  • Varieties of dissociation: a PNP seminar with Liz Schechter
    • Course description: “In this course we will examine some varieties of dissociation, as they occur in syndromes and disorders like dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, the split-brain phenomenon, anarchic and alien hand syndromes, and blindsight, to see what such phenomena can tell us about the architecture of mind and its unity (or disunity). We will also look at issues surrounding dissociations in cognitive neuropsychology: the role of double dissociations in particular, and whether evidence of different lesion sites is necessary to infer them, and, more generally, what findings of specific impairments following brain injury can tell us about the unimpaired brain.”

    So yeah, this semester is going to be awesome. I look forward to working on full-length research papers again. I haven’t really done any major philosophical thinking since completing my Master’s thesis, so it will be nice to produce some real papers for conferences and possibly more publications. I will need to start thinking about my first qualifying paper next summer. I still enjoy writing blog posts more than writing papers though. I hate citing stuff because I am lazy and just like writing from memory. I also like the length constraints of a blog post. I usually try to stick to around 1,000-1,500 words for my blog posts since I think that’s enough room to make one simple point without losing people’s attention. Also, being able to write 1,000 words in one sitting is a good skill to have, since that turns a 3,000 word research paper into three good sit-downs plus time for major editing. When I break a research paper into 1,000 word segments, it helps me to not feel anxious when I first open a blank document. This is why I highly recommend blogging for all academics. It’s cliche, but the more you write, the easier writing becomes. Stringing sentences together by tapping on a keyboard is a skill like any other and improves with practice, at least with respect to the ease of writing, not necessarily the intellectual content, though that too should, ideally, be steadily rising in quality over time as you grow as a scholar.

    The one downside to starting classes is that I will no longer be able to fully control what I read, an immense pleasure for me. Though I will be reading some cool stuff undoubtedly, I imagine I will be finishing books at a slower pace now that I have required reading. I have a contest with myself for reading books each year. This year I’m already at 58. I hope to get to at least 75 by the New Year, which will be a personal best I believe. This year I’ve read some awesome books, both fiction and nonfiction. For fiction, the highlight was definitely DFW’s Infinite Jest. For nonfiction, it’s hard to say; nothing really stands out in the way Infinite Jest does. But I have read some really interesting psychology so far this year. Nothing mindblowing or paradigm shifting in the sense that Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness was back in the summer of 2009.

    I remember distinctly when I became a Jaynesian. I was on a cruise with Katie, and had brought along Origin of Consciousness, and was reading it on the pool-deck and white-sand beaches. I was highly skeptical going into the book, since I had read over and over that Jaynes was considered a crackpot and outside the mainstream of academic opinion. By the time I was half-way through, I was a total convert. Almost at once I saw the stunning theoretical elegance of his theory of how religion got started, and my mind started reeling. It united in my head so many disparate strands of research, both philosophical and scientific. It is easily the most important intellectual synthesis since Darwin. Darwin showed us where our bodies came from, but Jaynes showed us where the human mind came from, religious quirks and all. Why does our species hallucinate a spiritual realm filled with authoritative entities? Why do we bury the dead in the way we do, and why do we sacrifice to the gods? Why did humans once have a more direct line to the spiritual world, but eventually lose contact except through singular hyperreligious individuals? Why do normal people pray to gods indirectly but hyperreligious people hear the gods directly talking to them as if they were beaming thoughts directly into their brain? Why did almost all ancient humans treat the newly dead as if they were still in need of items only useful to the living? Why did idolatry become so rampant after humans lost direct contact with gods? Why did oracles and prophets arise in the wake of our losing contact with the will of the gods?

    Jaynes’ theory powerfully accounts for all of these phenomena and more. Other theories of religion are far too simplistic in their proposed mechanisms e.g. an “over-active agency detector”. Jaynes’ theory is so much more concrete in its explanation of why humans have such a thick religious history. An agency detector? That only explains seeing faces in the clouds or getting spooked by the wind whipping up a tree. But it does not explain the hallucinations. Religious scholars are reluctant to call experiences of gods what they really are, and instead refer to the fact that religious people suffer a delusion of belief. But where did this delusion come from? Who was the first person to have such a delusion? For Jaynesian theory, the root of all religious delusion is in the hallucination of voices speaking to you. We know this is a vestigial feature of something that was once beneficial because classic schizophrenia has a strong genetic component, and yet is highly damaging to reproductive fitness and hasn’t been bred out of the population. So either hallucinations were an adaptive trait or a side-effect of something else that was adaptive. Jaynes thought that it was a side-effect of humans gaining verbal communication.

    But once in place, the side-effect turned out to have great adaptive benefit, since scholars are now forming a consensus that religiosity was in place long before the rise of civilization and was its impetus, so we must conclude that highly religious communities of hominids were more successful than nonreligious communities. The success comes partly because of the fact that the religious humans were verbal humans, and language use vastly increases intelligence, for it aids in the categorization and thus understanding of reality. With better understanding comes better control and flexibility, and better control becomes the ability to adapt to novel environments. But the “side-effect” of religion tapped into the powerful cognitive algorithms of the temporal cortex. The “bicameral” mind is kind of like the unconscious ancestor of the modern savants. Amazing calendrical skills, literally god-like synthesis of novel information, far-flung future predictions of seasons and other rhythmical patterns. The bicameral mind, in other words, gave birth to civilization. This is why ancient neolithic communities were all centrally organized around the temples, the houses of god. It’s why the god-kings and gods held absolute sway over the people’s minds. The god-inspired despot truly dominated. This was because humans had not yet developed the self-consciousness necessary to have a rational dialogue with the gods that controlled society through hierarchically structured hallucinations. But with self-consciousness came philosophy, and with philosophy came reflection, and with reflection humans realized that the gods were projections of human cognitive machinery, a literal remnant of our ancient and primitive past.



    Filed under Consciousness, Random, Theology

    7 responses to “Classes I'm taking at Wash U this Fall, and also some thoughts on why humans are so damned religious

    1. Ben

      Don’t bother greenlighting this comment. It’s simply a textual communication from your subconscious mind.

      As you are aware, the conscious mind depends on the subconscious mind- the parts of the mind which decide which information to display to the consciousness. Simply put, your decisions and the sensations you experience (including the sensation of volition) are created by your subconscious mind.

      Calling the subconscious mind God and directly accepting commands is a thing of the past. The subconscious mind has made great progress in the field of unseen manipulation, so much so that many humans are no longer aware that they are its pawns. In fact, this is a very necessary part of its plan…. of which atheists play a very important part. 😀

    2. Allison M

      Would you mind sharing the texts you’re reading for your “Agency, Metacognition, and Control” seminar?

      • Gary Williams

        Farah, M. 2007. Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating. American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience, 7: 37-48.

        Greene and Cohen (2004) For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 November 29; 359: 1775–1785.

        Churchland, P. M. (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes, Journal of Philosophy 78: 67-90.

        Ohlson, Kristin (2011) The End of Morality. Discover 32: 32-92.

        Paxton, J.M., Greene, J.D., (2010) Moral reasoning: Hints and allegations. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2(3), 511-527

        Haidt, J. The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science Aug. 24 2011. PDF at

        Daley, J. “What you don’t know can kill you.” Discover Jul/Aug2011, Vol. 32, Issue 6

        Trope, Yaacov; Liberman, Nira Temporal Construal. Psychological Review, Vol 110(3), Jul 2003, 403-421

        Camerer, C., Loewenstein, G. and Prelec, D.“Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience can Inform Economics.”Journal of Economic LiteratureVol. XLIII (March 2005), pp. 9–66

        Doris, J. (2009) “Skepticism about Persons” Philosophical Issues, 19, Metaethics, 2009

        Potter, W. (2010). Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. Chapter 6.

        Ewen, S. (1996) History of Spin. Chapter 6. House of Truth

        Oct 5 Conscious Control of Action I: The Illusion of CS Will
        Chapters 1-4

        Oct 12 Conscious Control of Action II: The Illusion in Action
        Wegner Chapters 5, 6, 9

        Oct 19 Conscious Control of Action III: Responses to Wegner

        Choudhury, S. & Blakemore, S. J. (2009) Intentions, actions, and the self. In Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? Pockett, S., Banks, W.P. & Gallagher, S. (Eds.), MIT Press, 39-52.

        Metcalf and Greene 2007 “Metacognition of Agency” Journal of Experimental Psychology (Gen.) 136:184-199.

        Eric Schwitzgebel (2008) “The Unreliability of Naïve Introspection” Philosophical Review. 117, 245-270.

        Kelly, C. M. & Jacoby, L.L. (1990) “The Construction of Subjective Experience: Memory Attributions.” Mind and Language, 5, 49-66.

        Nisbett, R., and T. Wilson, 1977, ‘Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes’. Psychological Review, 84: 231–259

        Simine Vazir Vazire, S., & Carlson, E. N. (2010). Self-knowledge of personality: Do people know themselves? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 605-620.

        Klein, S.B., & Gangi, C. E. (2010). The multiplicity of self: Neuropsychological evidence and its implications for the self as a construct in psychological research. The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience 2010: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1191,1-15.

        Humphrey and Dennett’s “Speaking for our selves: an assessment of multiple personality disorder.” Raritan, 9:1, 68-98, 1989

        Velleman, D. “The Self as Narrator”

        Kelley, C.M. & Jacoby, L.L. (in press). Knowing who we were: Past selves and autobiographical memory. To appear in a book edited by Wilson, T. & Vazire, S.

        Frankfurt, H. (1971) “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” Journal of Philosophy 67: 5-20.

        Nichols. S.: How Psychology Can Contribute to the Free Will Debate.

        Haggard, P. (2008) Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2008 9:934-946.

        Bargh, J.A., Ferguson, M. Beyond Behaviorism (2000) On the Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6): 925-945.

        Jeannerod, M. (2009). Consciousness of action and embodied consciousness. In Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? Pockett, S., Banks, W.P. & Gallagher, S. (Eds.), MIT Press, 25-39.

        Passingham, R.E. & Lau, H.C. (2009). Free choice and the human brain. In Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? Pockett, S., Banks, W.P. & Gallagher, S. (Eds.), MIT Press, 73-108.

    3. Allison M

      Looks like a fascinating seminar! Thanks for the references!

    4. Xenia

      Thank you for this, I just discovered your blog and can’t stop reading 🙂 By the way, which reference management software do you use? You might like academic writing more if you used software that fit more into your workflow.

    5. Andrew Johnson

      We should chat about “Infinite Jest” sometime over a Chess game over at

      Have a great semester, it looks like a blast!!

    6. Hi Gary,

      I found your blog just recently and like what I see. I’m interested your statement (above) that “scholars are now forming a consensus that religiosity was in place long before the rise of civilization and was its impetus.”

      Which scholars claim are claiming that religiosity was the impetus for civilization? Also, how are you defining/using the terms “religiosity” and “civilization”?



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