Saturday, November 12, 2005

Is God an Accident?

This is the religion-as-accident theory that emerges from my work and the work of cognitive scientists such as Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Deborah Kelemen. One version of this theory begins with the notion that a distinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires.

Paul Bloom, a Yale professor of psychology and linguistics, has a fascinating article in this month's The Atlantic Monthly: "Is God an Accident? (Subscribers only, unfortunately.) Bloom hypothesizes that belief in the supernatural arises from the fact that we have essentially two cognitive systems which work together. When we think about inanimate objects like stones or baseballs, we use one cognitive system; when we think about people or dogs, we use another.

Bodies and Souls

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a [person]'s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks...

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them...

This belief system opens the possibility that we ourselves can survive the death of our bodies. Most people believe that when the body is destroyed, the soul lives on. It might ascend to heaven, descend to hell, go off into some sort of parallel world, or occupy some other body, human or animal. Indeed, the belief that the world teems with ancestor spirits—the souls of people who have been liberated from their bodies through death—is common across cultures. We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder—some would say impossible—to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us.

Bloom refers to a study in which scientists showed children a story about a mouse which was eaten by an alligator:

As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don't work, and neither does the brain. The mouse's body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.

We've Evolved to be Creationists

Then Bloom gets to the good stuff:

This is just half the story. Our dualism makes it possible for us to think of supernatural entities and events; it is why such things make sense. But there is another factor that makes the perception of them compelling, often irresistible. We have what the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has called a hypertrophy of social cognition. We see purpose, intention, design, even when it is not there.

In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures—circles, squares, triangles—moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell.

Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor.

Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged—it looks orderly to them, too orderly. After 9/11 people claimed to see Satan in the billowing smoke from the World Trade Center. Before that some people were stirred by the Nun Bun, a baked good that bore an eerie resemblance to Mother Teresa. In November of 2004 someone posted on eBay a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that looked remarkably like the Virgin Mary; it sold for $28,000. (In response pranksters posted a grilled cheese sandwich bearing images of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley.) There are those who listen to the static from radios and other electronic devices and hear messages from dead people—a phenomenon presented with great seriousness in the Michael Keaton movie White Noise. Older readers who lived their formative years before CDs and MPEGs might remember listening intently for the significant and sometimes scatological messages that were said to come from records played backward.

Bloom admits that "We are not being unreasonable when we observe that the eye seems to be crafted for seeing, or that the leaf insect seems colored with the goal of looking very much like a leaf," but goes on to say, "Darwin changed everything. His great insight was that one could explain complex and adaptive design without positing a divine designer. Natural selection can be simulated on a computer; in fact, genetic algorithms, which mimic natural selection, are used to solve otherwise intractable computational problems. And we can see natural selection at work in case studies across the world, from the evolution of beak size in Galápagos finches to the arms race we engage in with many viruses, which have an unfortunate capacity to respond adaptively to vaccines."

What's the Problem with Darwin?

What's the problem with Darwin? His theory of evolution does clash with the religious beliefs that some people already hold. For Jews and Christians, God willed the world into being in six days, calling different things into existence. Other religions posit more physical processes on the part of the creator or creators, such as vomiting, procreation, masturbation, or the molding of clay. Not much room here for random variation and differential reproductive success.

But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

It's not surprising, then, that nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children choose a functional one, such as "so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy." And when asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone.

Bloom's Conclusion

Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.


asher said...

This sounds reasonable. Human beings are always trying to make sense out of what they see in the world.

Darwin saw a world that was so complex and highly interdependent that he came up with the simple solution that it all came about by chance coincidence. In this way, randomness becomes a system.

All people in the world have some sense of religion. Folks from all over the world have claimed to see UFO's and aliens. Can we make a connection. (I threw that last one in just to confuse you all)

Laura said...

The real problem with natural selection is, I think, that it takes away our innate need to feel special. How can humans, something so unique, be simply an accident? Humans are egotistical and self-centered by nature I think. That's why we (especially western culture) are so obsessed with material things such as social status, consumer products (gotta get the latest iPod!). We need something to distract ourselves from the reality that we are, indeed, just another species inhabiting this rock.

CyberKitten said...

Laura said: We need something to distract ourselves from the reality that we are, indeed, just another species inhabiting this rock.

Very true.

People fought against the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun & not the other way around. They're still fighting against Evolution because it means that we're just another species amongst many.

We need to accept the fact that we're just another animal, on an average bit of rock, revolving around a middling Sun in a nothing special Galaxy amongst billions of others.

Mis-nagid said...

Most interesting is Bloom's original title for the article: "Was God an Accident?" Note the past tense.

Ben Avuyah said...

Great Post, JA, I am actually about three quaters of the way through Pascal Boyer's, "Religion Explained", and really enjoying it so far.
I was going to post on it, but you beat me to the punch !

Hayim said...

Hi JA,

I started my own blog :

I actually find fascinating the topic you chose for this post. I started to discuss it.

Jewish Atheist said...


Awesome! I'll check it out.

Mr. Gobley said...

Fascinating, endlessly so.

Harry Dale Huffman said...

All nonsense. The problem with Darwinian evolution theory is that it denies meaning itself. The proper question to be confronted by evolutionists is not what is the origin of species, but what is the origin of meaning within the theory? The answer is there is none, there is only the "semblance" of meaning. But that must extend to our very thoughts, even the most logical ones. If thoughts are derived only from essentially random physical processes, then logic itself is meaningless. But that is an absurdity. Meaning is NOT derived from anything else, much less from undirected physical processes. Meaning precedes all thought, makes thought possible--and the irrefutable fact that we do think, coherently and to our benefit, all the time, proves to us that meaning truly exists. Meaning is the key to logical thought, and its place of function, its home, is a higher reality than the physical. Those who haven't figured this out for themselves are but children, unknowing of themselves and that which really sustains them. "Natural selection" has never been properly defined, and is really just a euphemism for design, religiously held by those who dogmatically deny real design. Yet design can be scientifically verified, here and there and perhaps everywhere, and if you want to know the truth about the origin of religions in our world (and why they have been so divisive and suppressive), read "The End of the Mystery" (see