Reading time: 10 minutes
I have to be honest with you: I’m excited to write this post. The reason why I’m excited is because we’re going to get into a little bit of science.
Just to be clear, I’m not an expert in science or even in biblical studies. My line of work (in the law) is completely different from both these areas, which makes discussing these domains rather intimidating. (Turns out that dipping your toe in someone else’s pool can be rather scary.) But we can only do our best, right? So, I’m going to do my best explaining something that really smart people study for a living. (Hopefully, I haven’t misunderstood anything, but it’s entirely possible I have. I’m only human.)
With that, unfortunately what follows is going to be terribly reductionist because I’m trying to economize my words, so if you want to learn more, I’ve referenced my sources in the Notes section.
If you’re wondering how science has any relevance to the Tower of Babel story we talked about in Part 1, you’ll understand in a minute.
Our Story-Making Brains
To start, consider this short narrative and take a moment to think about what is going on in your mind as you read it:
“The man drank wine and then he was in a car accident.”
Despite having only few details, our brains will theorize and construct a story in order to create meaning. This “theoretic instinct”, as the late 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James put it, is what drives our urge to understand and explain the world around us. James thought that our impulse for theorizing – or better yet, story-making – didn’t arise until adolescence, but some have found evidence to suggest that this tendency starts as early as seven months.
What did you theorize about our narrative? What do you think happened?
I’d venture to guess that the first thought that probably came to your mind is that there must be a causal relationship between the man’s accident and his drinking wine. Why mention the two events in one sentence if there was not one? With that, you probably wondered why the man got into an accident after drinking. From your experience, you know that people who overdrink have been known to get into car accidents, so you reason that the man must have had too much to drink. You feel pretty good about that explanation so you conclude that the man was in an accident because he drank too much wine. Remarkably, all of that processing probably happened before the next blink of your eyes.
Problem is, nothing in the facts of our narrative says any of that. It doesn’t say that the man drank wine to the point of drunkenness, only that he drank wine. Our story also doesn’t say that the man was in an accident as a result of drinking wine or even too much of it, only that he drank wine and then he was in an accident. That the accident happened next in the sequence of events doesn’t necessarily mean a causal relationship exits.
And yet, in the absence of additional data, our brains managed to not only come up with a theory, but one that makes sense. How does the brain do that? And why does it feel oddly pleasurable that we were able to fill in the gaps with something sensible and that feels correct?
According to neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, the pleasurable feeling that we derive from the rightness of our thoughts is actually governed by the same reward system in the brain that is responsible for addictions. In a nutshell what happens is this: When the brain receives incoming sensory data, that data is processed within its vast neural networks, each of which house what the neurologist Dr. Robert Burton calls a “hidden layer”, the connections between all neurons that involve any neural network. To give you an idea of how big these networks are, apparently the brain has about a hundred billion neurons (roughly equivalent to the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy), with parts that branch out in a thousand trillion synaptic connections. Amazingly, the brain builds these networks through repeated exposure to stimuli (with each exposure enhancing the connections between neurons), and it is the billions of individual neurons in our brains that are ultimately responsible for our conscious thoughts. Exactly how neurons generate conscious thoughts appears to remain a mystery, however, Dr. Burton posits that they must arise out of these hidden layers.
Once data enter the hidden layers outside of consciousness, it is scrutinized and evaluated by the brain’s neuronal cells. (Think of little people sitting inside your brain like the characters from Disney’s 2015 smash hit Inside Out trying to figure out how you should respond to external stimuli, where each little person represents a set of neural connections.) Inside this holding station, the information is subjected to a pattern recognition system. When the unconscious mind matches a pattern to one already in the brain’s storehouse, this triggers the brain’s reward system to release the neurotransmitter dopamine. The pleasure that we feel from the release of dopamine is what we experience as feelings of correctness or feelings of knowing or feelings of certainty. This is why our explanation for the man’s car accident makes sense and feels correct: our brains processed the words “drank wine” and “car accident” and matched them to previously learned patterns about drinking alcohol and car accidents. Our brains also perceived a causal relationship between the two variables because of the words “and then”, even though the facts of the narrative don’t say that a causal relationship exists. According to Dr. Burton, certainty is not a reasoned thought process or even a conscious choice; it is a mental sensation that happens to us.
These involuntary brain mechanisms that are responsible for our conscious thoughts are hardly impermeable. Turns out that everything from genetic predispositions to hormonal fluctuations to sensory information to our past experiences affects how information is processed in the hidden layer. This is why you can interpret our short narrative to mean that people shouldn’t drink alcohol at all, and I can interpret it to mean that you shouldn’t drink and drive. It’s why my husband can hate yams and why I can like them. It’s why you can see a dress as blue with black stripes, and I can see a dress as white with gold stripes. (I’m curious to know what colours you see on the dress that “broke” the Internet. My husband has said that he will argue to the death that it is the former.) As the neuroscientist Dr. Alan Jasanoff asserts, “[T]he most fundamental lesson of neuroscience [is] that our brains are biotic entities woven organically into a physical world from which they cannot be extricated without grave loss.” If that world was one in which we had absolutely no prior experience or knowledge of the effects of alcohol and the relationship between drinking alcohol and car accidents, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with the explanation above. (Try asking a three year old what our narrative means and she’ll probably ask you what wine is.)
Sophisticated though it may be, the processing work undertaken by the brain’s unconscious mind isn’t perfect, at least not at keeping us from making mistakes. For one, it seems that our pattern recognition system operates by calculating the correctness of our thoughts through probabilities. As a result, when presented with contradictory information, the brain will opt for the information that is probabilistically closest to something previously learned and already in the brain’s storehouse, even when doing so leads to error. In fact, we err because being probably right means we can sometimes be wrong, including when it comes to the stories we tell.
Let’s say we were discussing what happened to the man in our story (let’s call him Joe) and we were sure that he was in an accident because he overdrank. If Joe told us that he only had a few sips of wine (certainly not enough to inebriate him and affect his ability to drive), we’d probably scoff and think Joe was lying. The reason why is because this information wouldn’t probabilistically match with our prior experience of drinking and car accidents. In other words, our brains wouldn’t recognize Joe’s account as a valid explanation for what happened. The pattern that fits best with what we have previously learned is that Joe overdrank to the point of becoming inebriated that his ability to drive safely was impaired. If our certainty bias got the best of us, this is the story we would keep telling – even though, in this case, we would be wrong. Here, Joe was telling the truth.
Ultimately, the brain bristles at mystery (if Joe didn’t get into a car accident because he overdrank, then what exactly happened?) and wants a neat and tidy explanation. As a result, despite having scanty information, the brain will yield explanations that feel correct, even though they may be incomplete or grossly inaccurate.
Back to Babel
I mention our implacable drive for theorizing and creating stories in the context of discussing the Tower of Babel because I don’t think that this impulse is unique to people living today; last I checked, humans just like you and me, not supremely divine beings, wrote and interpreted the books of the Bible. This urge, driven by the brain’s insatiable appetite for patterns and guided by its penchant for calculating probabilities, is critical for our survival. It is what helps us learn, adapt, and navigate the highly complex world in which we live. Just like us, our ancient counterparts, including the person who wrote the story of the Tower of Babel and the ancients who interpreted it in the centuries thereafter, had an urge to explain the world around them in ways that made sense to them.
Scholars disagree as to the dating of the Babel story. Some believe that it was written in the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile, when the ancient Israelites would have lived among massive ziggurats for the first time. (Prior to the Exile, the ancient Israelites lived in small settlements across the lands of Canaan.) Others think that the story’s origins pre-date the exilic experience. Whatever its true date, take a moment to recognize just how old the story is (we’re talking millennia before the invention of toilet paper) and then consider that, despite how deep in the past its origins and earliest interpretations, people in those days weren’t any different from us when it came to processing information (at least not that I know of). Like our narrative, the early interpreters of the Tower of Babel had few details to work with, and like us, they read into the story and filled in the gaps to create meaning. Thanks to feisty little neurons working in their brains and the interaction of mind, body, and environment on their thoughts, it made sense to focus on the tower and its height and to conclude that the people of Genesis chapter 11 had nefarious aims that were offensive to God. If the interpreters of long ago let the story in Genesis speak for itself, there would be very little meaning to derive. As humans, we often venture beyond the facts to the terra incognita of imagination in order to create meaning and to understand who we are in relation to the world around us.
Consider this other interpretation of the Tower of Babel, also from the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin, which associates the building of the tower with idolatry:
And one said: Let us ascend to the top of the tower and engage in idol worship. … And with regard to that faction that said: Let us ascend to the top of the tower and engage in idol worship, it is written: “Because there the Lord confounded the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).Sanhedrin 109a:5
Remember that the Sanhedrin was composed between the fifth and sixth centuries CE, at least a thousand years after the date scholars believe the Tower of Babel was written. (At a minimum, this would be like the period between 1022 and 2022. That is no short timeframe.) In that period, the Jewish people found a creative way to understand and make sense of the little details provided in the Babel story, and that interpretation (one of several) managed to endure through time.
Approximately 1,400 years after the Sanhedrin, the Adventist writer Ellen White said the following about the Tower of Babel in Patriarchs & Prophets:
The whole undertaking was designed to exalt still further the pride of its projectors and to turn the minds of future generations away from God and lead them into idolatry.Patriarchs & Prophets, Chapter 10
Although the text in Genesis chapter 11 says nothing about idol worship, the notion that idolatry motivated the building of the tower has survived now for almost two thousand years (or perhaps longer), and it has become part of what the Babel story means. When you consider that there are plenty of Christians who say that their faith is based only on what the Bible says, it is remarkable that our understanding of stories like the Tower of Babel incorporate ancient ideas that are not grounded in the facts of the biblical story at all.
Funnily enough, I realize that by sharing this with you, I am putting my “theoretic instinct” to work. I am attempting to explain how our ancient counterparts, and we today, came to understand what the story of the Tower of Babel means in the absence of hard evidence telling me that this is how we ended up here (like God audibly speaking from the heavens). I am connecting the dots, reading between the lines, and looking for patterns that make sense to me – and you know what, I am totally okay with that. Sign me up, because even if I’m wrong, it means that I’m human and alive and the left hemisphere of my brain works.
But what does all of this mean for faith and how we should read the Bible?
For my thoughts on that, tune in to the conclusion of this series next week.
The short narrative above is my own, but was inspired by Dr. Burton’s article, Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live in the science magazine Nautilus.
Another article that influenced my thinking on this post is Our Storytelling Minds: Do We Ever Really Know What’s Going on Inside? from the science magazine Scientific American.
William James discusses the “theoretic instinct” in Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (1899).
Kathryn Schulz discusses the research supporting that our compulsion for theorizing can start as early as seven months in her notes to Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.
Dr. Burton discusses the brain’s neural networks and feelings of knowing in depth in his book On Being Certain: Believing That You Are Right Even When You’re Not. If you’re not up to reading the book, Dr. Burton published an article called The certainty epidemic in the magazine Salon that provides a good summary. You can also listen to podcasts featuring Dr. Burton on Human Current and You Are Not So Smart where he discusses the ideas in his book.
In his book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, the science writer Michael Shermer argues that once we assign meaning to the patterns we find, beliefs are born and then we seek out confirmatory evidence to support those beliefs.
The dress that “broke” the Internet is actually blue with black stripes. The reason why you and I see the dress in different colours has nothing to do with our eyes, but everything to do with our brains; it is the brain that make sense of the visual signals that it receives through the retina. According to neuroscientists, the difference in colours that we see has to do with whether we perceive the dress as being in low light or in bright light. When signals from the retina do not neatly correspond with what our brains expect (i.e., the information contradict), it normalizes the signals to what is probabilistically correct for us, based on our experience of the world. This article from Slate is worth reading: Two Years Later, We Finally Know Why People Saw “The Dress” Differently.
The quote by Dr. Jasanoff is from The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are.