December 09, 2002
Genetically Engineered Minds And Religious Experience

Over on the Gene Expression blog Razib has responded to my previous post On Religious Belief And Germ Line Engineering. I'd like to flesh out in more detail some of my ideas about genetic engineering and religious belief and experience.

First of all, when it comes to the God stuff there are beliefs, experiences, and behaviors. It will probably be possible to genetic engineering on minds to vary any one of those categories separately or to link them to happen together in various combinations.

Religious beliefs could be genetically engineered to be more likely. It might be possible to genetically engineer a mind to be more or less prone to believe in a God and a supernatural. This could probably be done without programming the mind to feel the presence of a supernatural being as a special experience. It might just be necessary to program in an uncritical sense of wonder and awe at life in such a way that a mind would be more prone to interpret their sense of awe as evidence of a supernatural existence outside of our own existence. Of couse, the more direct and heavy-handed approach would be to reinforce religious beliefs by programming a mind to feel periodic heavy doses of feeling like one is in a divine presence.

Experiences and behaviors could be genetically engineered to go together. Imagine a genetically engineered mind that feels a great deal of pleasure from carrying out some repetitive worshipful action. Imagine, for instance, genetically engineering a mind to respond repetitive bowing by feeling a strong sense of an intense presence. That feeling of a presence could be made to be pleasureable. This would encourage the bowing behavior.

Depending on the needs of the particular religion, the bowing could trigger other emotions along with the pleasure. The pleasure would be what is used to encourage the bowing. But the other emotions that accompanied it could be used to encourage types of desired resulting behaviors. For instance, anger or solidarity or other feelings might accompany the feelings of pleasure. One could even design a mind that would use the previous mental state that existed before the bowing activity as an input into some logic (all subconscious) to choose a new emotional state to experience. So, for instance, if a person came to worship with a group and that person felt some emotion that is akin to a feeling of injustice then the bowing could trigger pleasure and anger at the same time.

Or picture a mind that was genetically engineered to periodically have a strong desire to be with groups of people and also to want to bow. Minds could be genetically engineered to prefer a particular style of worship.

How about forgiveness and love? Hey, why not program them to happen? One could make a bowed head, closed eyes, and hands folded together in front of one in combination with some mental state all together cause someone to feel a strong sense of forgiveness. There are enough different aspects to a prayer ritual that it might be possible to combine the elements of the ritual and process them in a genetically engineered mind to trigger a feeling of forgiveness and of dissolving anger.

Depending on the needs of the particular religion the feeling of anger or the feeling of love could be triggered by ritualistic practices. But herein lies the political problem for humanty as a whole. Religious belief systems can conflict. If different groups genetically engineer their offspring with different God programming (different rituals or environmental stimuli as triggers for different emotional states and behaviors then the gaps between how different groups see each other could grow larger. Conflicts could become more intractable. and the resulting conflicts

As I've previously argued, one of the greatest threats from genetic engineering will come from mind engineering. Most discussions of genetic engineering of the mind that I come across are about whether and when it will be possible to raise intelligence. Certainly that will become possible to do and the impact of doing so will be profound. But the biggest threat to humanity from genetic engineering of progeny comes from genetic engineering that makes different groups of humans incompatible with other groups as a result of incompatible personalities. Differences in religious belief will lead to differences in choices of how to engineer the minds of offspring. This will become on of several reasons why humanity may break up into separate and viciously competing groups of mental types.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 December 09 12:44 AM  Dangers Mind Engineering

Patrick said at December 9, 2002 7:47 PM:

This reminds me of a series of SF books about a character called, if I recall correctly, Nathan Brazil. This was set in a future where an increasing proportion of humanity was living in a strictly socialist society, but had been genetically engineered to enjoy and thrive under such conditions.

Religion isn't the only ideology that might want people to be more receptive to it.

Randall Parker said at December 9, 2002 11:19 PM:

Patrick, this is definitely true. Yes, it will be possible to genetically engineer minds to make them more accepting of and more adaptive in particular kinds of societies.

I've long been of the opinion that there will be found to be genetically caused average personality differences (not just intelligence differences) in right-wing and left-wing voters in Western democracies. I even think there will be found to be average genetic differences between different factions of the right and left. So, for instance, traditional conservatives and social conservatives and libertarians will be found to have different average distributions of personality characteristics.

joe said at May 19, 2004 2:44 AM:

I firmly believe wat Patrick is saying. It was set in the future but whos to say what the future may hold for genetic engineering

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