Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life – by Jesse Bering – (W.W. Norton and Co. – 2012 – Kindle Edition)

This great book is quite interesting. One of the main points is that our tendency to create and develop conviction in supernatural scenarios to explain events is instinctual, at least partially. This is a result of our – Theory of Mind – that we developed through our evolution. He discovered that we may be non-religious or even staunchly atheist and yet still intuitively act as if there is a controlling force in the universe that we seek to influence. This may happen most often when we are faced with tragedy such as the illness or death of a loved one or when we are victims of situations we find unfair. He mentions the similarity of the God concept to the “mafia,” offering us protection not to kill us – something I have joked about in the past. The God concept fills a need, one likely made by the psychological cognitive dissonance of mystery itself. It is an idea which can give one a sense of purpose. Bering describes himself as an “atheistic psychological scientist” so his bias is not one of a believer in dogma. His family was Jewish so that is perhaps a slight influential bias. Some scientists see religion and superstition as accidental by-products of our mental evolution, having no adaptive function in itself but related to other adaptive functions such as tribal coherence. Biologist Richard Dawkins purported such an idea in his book, The God Delusion. Bering sees the concept more as an adaptive illusion to address human gossip. The development of language necessitated the practice of behavioral inhibition because we could now know about one another through words. Particularly we could know about others’ tendencies and past actions by having someone else tell us. That would have the effect of making us “check” our public behavior. The new cognitive study of religion may be most useful, he notes, as religion may be best understood as a psychological adaptation. Throughout the book Bering invokes not only the views of philosophers and psychologists but also quite a few created literary and movie characters.

Bering tells the story of the Greek orator, Gorgias, a student of the philosopher Empedocles and a master at rhetoric, wit, and eloquent persuasion. In spite of his oratory skills Gorgias was frustrated by the realization that one’s subjective experiences could not be adequately communicated through words. We are each our own “bubble of consciousness” says London psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. Gorgias is also known as the world’s first “solipsist,” someone who denies the very existence of other minds. An experiment at Harvard recently suggested that we can under some (laboratory specific) circumstances experience the sensations of others, partially sharing their experience. The experiment involved a person in a long gown facing a mirror with their arms behind their back. Another person of the same size and same sex would from behind a curtain put their arms in the arms of the gown and when the person snapped their fingers the participants reported sensing that it was their own fingers but more importantly when a rubber band was snapped against their wrist there was a corresponding measurable skin conductance in the same wrist area of the other person. Of course, solipsism, is not intuitive since we intuitively sense and logically conclude that others have conscious minds similar but not identical to our own. He mentions the dehumanizing of people, specifically of the Jews by the Nazis, as evidence that we can train ourselves to devalue the conscious experience of others compared to our own. This is being played out all the time with ethnic conflicts and more recently with the Black Lives Matter movements. In essence the argument is that one’s private reality is more sophisticated, more important, and more valuable than another’s. Bering found himself sitting behind the philosopher Daniel Dennett at a conference and gave this kinda comical description of the odd irony:

“ … I couldn’t help but stare at the back of Dennett’s head – at the perfectly oblong shape of his skull, the sun-speckled skin stretched taut around it, the neatly trimmed ring of white hair…What irony, I thought, that I would be staring at the particular cranium containing the very mind that first posed the formal question of why understanding other minds is so central to evolved human psychology, only to realize that, though it literally lay at my fingertips, even this mind was no more than an airy hypothetical.”

Dennett proposed the idea of intentional stance, that we see others as having intentions and make choices based on their desires and beliefs. Our social strategies often depend on reading the intentions of others.

Bering goes through the work of those who studied other primates in the 60’s and 70’s: Jane Goodall and the others and their efforts and thoughts regarding the “humanness” of these species. Humans, however, have a much larger prefrontal cortex area of the brain and this area is associated with our evaluation of other minds, our ‘theory of mind.’ It seems to be the case that our theory of mind is what makes us uniquely human. This idea that humans are different than animals in this respect was seen as anti-Darwinian by scientific consensus at first, he suggests. Some scientists wondered if it was propagated by secretly religious people who would have a reason to see humans as “special.” Of course Darwin himself noted a big difference – but “one of degree and not of kind.” A researcher named Povinelli came up with some ingenious ways of determining whether chimps had a theory of mind. One was to allow chimps to reach through a Plexiglas partition to reach out or gesture to one of two persons, both who would give them a treat. After they got used to this the real experiment began where one of the persons was veiled with a blindfold or even a bucket over their head. The chimps surprisingly were unable to distinguish between the seeing person and the non-seeing one while in similar experiments 2 year-old children could easily distinguish. In these experiments the chimps apparently failed to “reason about what others see, know, feel, believe, or intend.” Experiments by others suggested that chimps may have some degree of theory of mind and even dogs and birds could – but there is still much debate and it is quite clear that humans high a very degree of theory of mind in comparison in any case. “We are exquisitely attuned to the unseen psychological world,” says Bering. He also says our evolved brains have become ‘hypersocial filters,’ as we apply our theory of mind to others and occasionally also to other things if presented in certain ways.

He asks the questions: Is God just another mind? One who willed our creation, observes us, knows about us, and occasionally communicates to us? Is God simply a functional illusion? God is often seen as the mind that knows all, as the ultimate “other.” Is it our theory of mind that allows as to even consider such an idea? Darwin saw the randomness of evolution as somehow still pre-planned by a higher power.

Next he delves into the contemplations of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte regarding human nature and God. Human nature is a product of the human mind, he said, and not a creation of God. Another way he said the same thing was in the statement: “existence precedes essence.” Bering compares such an idea to religionist Pastor Rick Warren whose book: The Purpose Driven Life, gives the opposing view that we were created by God for God (and the absurdity that he knows what God’s purpose for us is!). The hardcore scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins assert that even pondering the meaning of life is pointless but how can we resist? Even atheists no doubt wonder about the meaning of life. Bering wonders if Dawkins ever wondered if he was “called” to be a proselytizing atheist! Even Sarte, near death, noted that he could not help thinking of himself as a being emanating from a creator in contradiction to his ideas. Yet he still suspected his involuntary suspicion to be a trick of the mind, which now might be called a trick of the theory of mind.  One quote that popped up during this section for me was from John Lennon – “God is a concept, by which we measure our pain.”

Studies of deaf-mutes suggest that even they invented cosmologies as children in attempts to explain things and that even Helen Keller was said to have wondered as a child who made the sky, the sea, and everything else. Are we wired to wonder why? While language is required to communicate specific religious dogmas, those without language may just make up their own, as suggested by a story told by psychologist William James in 1892 about a deaf-mute that as a child made up stories about the moon watching over him like a god (although he related the stories as an adult after becoming adept at language and art.) Later, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that children had a penchant for what he called “artificialism,” making up stories about the world based on human needs. Thus. Piaget, like Sarte, saw humans as sort of stuck in an inescapable psychological bias. Paiget argued that children and even science-literate adults seem to believe that things exist for a certain reasons. We as humans make things for specific purposes so we are kind of wired to see things as purposeful and perhaps we project such thinking on natural phenomena, but if non-language children do it then perhaps it is intuitive. In science parlance this is called “teleo-functional reasoning.” Children employ it, until about 4th or 5th grade when the science paradigm takes root through education. Things are often seen as made specifically for human purposes by children. They might say lions exist to go to the zoo. Our early propensity for this type of thinking, says Bering, leads us to see religious ideas like “creationism” and “intelligent design” as very plausible. 

The idea of God as the First Cause is also seen as intuitive when questions are asked such as how did the first human or animal of a species appear. Oddly, he notes, we evolved to favor purposeful design over evolution in explaining our origins. We have a teleo-functional bias. There are many possibilities for origin even by creationism – God may have created us intentionally or accidentally, but due to the bias intentional creation is generally favored. I was staring through the dusky shapes in the trees and sky last night imagining the shapes into human-like spirit beings and wondering if this same teleo-functional tendency accounts for or contributes to the development of animistic cosmologies. Bering suggests the mechanism can be used to support a person’s belief that they have a specific destiny, especially when in accordance with the norms of a particular society. Believing in destiny, he says, is not bad in itself, but it can be if one gets so much conviction in a scenario that one commits crimes, which does indeed happen – think suicide bombers. It may be useful to some extent even if we realize it is a cognitive illusion. We do have some “predestination” by virtue of the socio-economic conditions into which we are born and our often limited choices of vocation but many break out of those molds. The teleo-functional bias can stifle creativity by only seeing people and things as having particular intended functions, by seeing them as purpose-constrained. Such “functional fixedness’’ is considered a cognitive bias. A huge support for teleo-functional bias is religion where God’s will or God’s plan always seems to have purposes in mind for everyone. Bering takes the story of brilliant Alan Turing who, being maligned as a homosexual, committed suicide. While Dawkins considered his maligning to do with religion, Bering notes that in 1950’s Britain homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder, so science was equally or even more complicit. He also mentions suicide and the idea that death is the choice of God and to kill oneself is thus a rebellion against God, or fate left alone, for that matter. The bottom line is that our teleological reasoning gives an at least quasi-instinctual bias that everything happens for a reason and that reason possibly involves some “higher” intention.

The next issue is that of seeing “signs,” of our tendency of reading clues into events that point us in certain directions. There is a long cross-cultural history of attributing catastrophic natural events to a wrathful God or gods. Songs and scriptures do the same. Typically the catastrophe is seen as a result of human behavior that offends or is unacceptable to God/Gods. In a less dogmatic form one may see such events as the universe acting as an intentional agent. Of course when we make up stories about such events it become dogma.

Bering recounts the theory of psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of the actor that starred in Borat and Bruno. He believes that autistic people suffer from an inadequately developed ‘intentional stance,’ which is the source of their problems with social activity. He also says they may have an overly developed sense of “folk physics,” which refers to their ability to discern and predict the possibilities and best uses of inanimate objects so that they are too preoccupied with how things happen and not enough with why things happen. Bering investigates ideas that autistic people develop a generally different concept of God. There were some like Temple Grandin and an autistic man Bering interviewed that seemed to have quite interesting ideas of “God” in a quantum sense as an ordering force in the universe and of consciousness powered by the entanglement of matter. These are fascinating and sophisticated ideas. He and others have suggested that the theological views of autistics are more scientific and less emotional. The jury is still out on that idea but it seems a plus for autistics to have a more detailed and perhaps sensible view of metaphysics. Autistics also do not seem to favor interpreting events and occurrences as signs from the divine. On the other hand schizophrenics seem to do just the opposite – find hidden meanings in unrelated events. They are generally paranoid as well as trying to make sense of their psychoses. Bering brings up the idea of signs in a story about visiting his mother’s grave and wondering if things were OK then hearing wind chimes on a non-windy day and taking that as a sign that they were indeed OK. The event (the wind chimes) was interpreted as a communication, seemingly intuitively, since Bering is an atheist. We developed through evolution to be aware of our surroundings since it enhances our survival. Being more aware can lead to more Jungian-style “synchronicities” which are seemingly connected but unrelated events. These co-incidences tend to baffle and intrigue us. Shamans traditionally take them as signs from the spirit world, sometimes according to precedents. Psychoanalysts also take them as meaningful, but perhaps in ways more unique to the individual. In evaluating all these events in terms of causality, we employ our theory of mind. 

Bering notes that New Agers have exploited and profited off of the human propensity to interpret events as having supernatural causes. He singles out Doreen Virtue’s hugely popular – Messages from Angels, series – as an example. Superstition exploits and probably conditions our theory of mind. Bering recounts a fascinating experiment meant to test our propensities for superstition when encouraged, at different childhood ages. Only the children 7-9, the oldest in the experiment responded to culturally manipulated suggestions of influencing an outcome through a supernatural agent. This suggests that that is the age when cultural condition about attributing supernatural causes to events can occur. In the experiment the kids were told about the magical powers of “Princess Alice” and when rigged events occurred like a picture falling from the wall and a lamp turning on and off it caused those older kids much more often to change their choices in the experiment. However, the younger children did not respond to such cues. While they could interpret the picture dropping as caused by Princess Alice they did not associate it with their own choices in the experiment. Apparently, the idea did not occur to them. The experimenters also concluded that superstitious thinking was an acquired cognitive skill, one possibly related to theory of mind development. Mature theory of mind involves the ability to reason about multiple orders of mental states – meaning for example to reason something like “he thinks that she thinks that they think that Bob doesn’t know that Connie thinks Sally is intelligent.” That statement I made up is close to the most orders of mental states humans can distinguish, according to some psychologists. A certain perspective (like third person) is required to connect personal events to supernatural causes.

In reading and speculating about the intentions of others with our theory of mind we also tend to speculate about supernatural influences from gods, demons, dead relatives, etc. It seems the same processes are at play. Natural events are often interpreted as signs, as hints from God. One example he gives is the Westboro Baptist Church which apparently believes that God now hates and punishes America with wars due to its welcoming attitudes toward homosexuals! Of course, he does this because he loves us! 

Studies have indicated that humans tend to associate the appearance of order with intentional agency. There have long been scientists who see in nature, even in evolution, the work of God (presumably the Christian God too). This can be seen as in the tradition of “natural theology” which began by inserting Christian propaganda in explaining scientific discoveries.

Belief in an afterlife may be common to all cultures. Bering mentions fear of nonexistence as one possible motivation and suggests that we use our theory of mind to support our belief in an afterlife. How can we even conceive of nonexistence since is cannot be experienced? Bering also notes that no one has really found definite connections between fear of death and belief in afterlife scenarios. He mentions an odd psychological delusional disorder called Cotard’s syndrome where a belief is manifested that one is conscious but does not exist, one is dead physically but alive psychologically. Two French psychiatrists who studied the disorder noted that: “the very existence of Cotard’s syndrome supports {the} view of a cognitive system dedicated to forming illusory representations of immortality.” Apparently, the belief in psychological continuity after death is quite widespread. In imagining what it’s like to be dead we have nothing to draw upon except conscious experience. Thus, “extinctivism,” the belief that when we die we simply no longer exist on any level, is something that is hard to imagine. There is only sleep, the brief daily period of unconsciousness to compare, but our brain is still functioning. Studies have shown that beliefs in immortality (at least psychological immortality) are not a result of cultural conditioning, that small children intuitively assume the continuity of existence after death. Cultural conditioning certainly affects how we depict such after death scenarios. Basically, he says, we have an innate sense of immortality because we can’t imagine not existing because it is not imaginable. We also know our living friends who are not currently present are alive and we can imagine them doing things (with our theory of mind). We also, he notes, typically imagine souls to have some sort of bodily form probably because that is what we are used to imagining about other people. Regardless of our intuitive sense of immortality he gives the situation as most science generally sees it: 

“The mind is what the brain does; the brain stops working at death; therefore, after death the mind no longer exists.”

In order to disprove that our sense of immortality is a psychological illusion we need to somehow show that the above postulates are incorrect.

Next is considered those deaths and situations that seem unjust and make one wonder about the motives of God in harming seemingly good people and rewarding bad ones. Some social psychologists think that it is because we are such a social species that when something bad happens “to” us we look for the cause in some “one” else, namely God punishing us. This comes from the habit of searching for human causes to human social problems. They say we blame God due to our habit of blaming other people. Some studies have shown that in areas where there is a lot of suffering, the belief in God is very high. One researcher gave the analogy that we seek answers to questions in the same way we seek orgasm from sex – it intuitively seems like the natural conclusion of curiosity. An answer to a mystery or question gives us the satisfaction of solving the problem. According to physicist Richard Feynman God is invoked to explain mystery and things we don’t understand. When science solves some mysteries there are still others to attribute to God. Bering notes that this view is incomplete in the sense that even if we know “how” we often still do not know “why,” so the alleviation of mystery by science is often only partial. In every society studied by anthropologists tragedies are attributed to supernatural causes – God, gods, spirits, or ancestors. Even when we know the scientific causes of things the superstitious mind remains. But fate often seems unfair so the argument that one is receiving retribution for one’s negative past actions is often not convincing. In the East there is the idea of atoning for karma in past lives which both complicates matters and seemingly solves the unfairness. Some people will feel so much guilt for an immoral act that they will seek punishment. We humans seem to have a sense that someone or something is watching over us. Even many non-believers in religion still seem to believe in some sort of destiny, in some sort of fairness of fate. One of Bering’s PhD students, Bethany Heywood, did a study that participants, half atheist and half believers, thought was about autobiographical memory but it was really about attribution of destiny. It was found that about two thirds of the atheists also attributed at least one event that ‘happened for a reason’ – they attributed some events to fate without believing in fate. It seems that despite our allegiance to rationality, it is difficult or maybe even impossible to let go of irrational notions.

Theory of mind led to inhibitions and considerations of the social effects of our actions. Without it we would likely be like our shameless chimpanzee ancestors. While chimps do have some complex social norms they are without inhibition. They don’t seem to feel as if they are being watched and evaluated by others. Our feeling of being watched and evaluated affects our behavior. When we think we are being observed we exhibit self-control and pro-social (rather than anti-social) behaviors. Our evolved ability to reason about the unobserved mental states of others allowed us to become empathetic and cooperative, but also strategic and conniving. Language allows gossip and gossip allows others to know our hidden motives and actions, if we expose them so we are guarded. Our reputations precede us. The human co-evolution of brain/mind and language allowed us to categorize in terms of past, present, and future as well as drastically increasing our capacity to conceptualize. Patience, restraint, modesty, and humility are arguably some of the results of our developed theory of mind. We tend to veil our more liminal actions from impressionable but also tattle-telling children and anyone who might show us in a negative light. Telling tales about one another is basically the same as gossip. In a social sense story-telling began with gossiping. Over millennia mythical tales developed. Children tattle but they don’t ‘tootle’ which refers to saying something good about someone. Thus the tattling is incentivized. Secrets are also notorious for not being able to keep. Because we are dependent on other people, says Bering, being ostracized can be very damaging. He also says people are more likely to say something incriminating in front of other people than something complementary. He gives examples from politics, which often involves exaggerated accusations of opponents. Mere associations can damage reputations. The children of rapists, and alcoholics, can be made guilty by genetic association which is socially unfair but could be seen as some sort of adaptive function. Bering seems to think that is quite plausible. I am not so sure, as it seems more cultural than biological to me. 

Language opened our mental lives to one another. Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar says it was language that changed social routine from grooming to gossip, which suggests that language has been around a long time, or possibly that our ancestors practiced social grooming in human form. We humans also tend to be braggarts and name-droppers, even though we may despise it in others. We tend to promote ourselves as a matter of social reality. Bering says we use our theory of mind to plant ideas and thoughts in the heads of others. Even false accusations can ruin reputations as just becoming associated with negative behavior can harm. People tend to demonize one another, particularly ideologues in my experience. In the real world and the cyber world we review things – this writing is one. These can affect reputations. We judge one another. We smear and exalt one another – all through language. Dunbar thinks a new form of socializing and bonding (from grooming to gossip) came about as we became able through language to increase our group sizes beyond about 80. A larger group meant increased protection from threats. Gossip also made it easier to root out the most problematic group members. Gossip polices behaviors. Language solved some problems and introduced others. The adaptive functions of competition and cooperation both depend mainly on language in humans. Animals don’t control sexual and aggressive behaviors like we do. In more recent times it is possible to atone for past behavior through apology, confessions, or even being blackmailed. Eyes carry gossip. Bering notes that many unexplained murders may be because the victim knew too much about the perpetrator. Panoptical awareness, or the sense of being watched, whether actually being watched or not, invokes fear of retribution. If someone can’t be identified it is a case of “deindividuation” a term coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Deindividuation means that the person is not paid attention to as an individual and so their behavior can’t be as easily monitored. To be part of a group is to be identifieable, to be given a history, a bio of sorts, a reputation. The deindividuated person may easily succumb to mob mentality or otherwise identify more with an anonymous group identity than that of an individual – and this gives them power mostly to cause harm it would seem. Bering notes that in Northern Ireland more sectarian violence and more harsh forms of it were inflicted by paramilitary members wearing masks. They also made more threats against those whose identities were known. 

Theory of mind and language likely co-evolved. One study indicated that thinking about God is associated with a heightened sense of individuation, of being readily identifiable as an individual. Study of many cultures suggest that in those cultures as well as our own is the belief that we are not anonymous to spirits, ancestors, God, or gods. When the eyes of other humans were not on us still the eyes of supernatural beings were and the panoptic self-control effect was/is the same. Since the eyes of others caused us to alter our behavior for adaptive reasons so too did the specter of a punitive God or supernatural beings. The source is likely the same. We went from being observed part of the time to being observed all the time. This view is heightened among religious people, true believers, and fanatics, and may be one reason they often exhibit high degrees of self-control. Thus, argues Bering, “God and his Ilk” is an adaptive cognitive illusion, a “strong target of natural selection in human evolution.” The beliefs (of being watched) and the resulting checking of behavior were adaptive due to early humans being part of close-knit societies and are part of our ancestral past. The development of religion can be seen as an extension of this adaptation, albeit an illusory one. 

“By helping to thwart genetically costly but still-powerful ancestral drives, these cognitive illusions pried open new and vital arteries for reproductive success, promoting inhibitory decisions that would have been highly adaptive under the biologically novel, language-based rules of natural selection. The illusion of God, engendered by our theory of mind, was one very important solution to the adaptive problem of human gossip.”

One study suggested that the larger the population of a cultural group the more human morality was thought to be watched by supernatural beings. Other studies suggest that mere belief in some supernatural scenario controls so-called moral behavior more than in non-believers. The adaptive illusion, says Bering, has nothing to do with any particular religion itself, it is rather the notion of religion itself. He also notes that this does not disprove the existence of God as one might argue that God created the particular cognitive illusion itself. However, that is grasping at straws, he says, and the strong conclusions here argue that the existence of God is rather improbable.

Even atheists, he notes, may succumb to religious-type thinking when dying. Even so, they are not in any way confirming God’s existence. They are mainly reacting to fear. (The concept of) God is a part of our inherited cognitive systems. The question arises whether shattering this adaptive illusion would be a good thing or bad thing. Another question is whether we can root out such an illusion even if we want to. 

Through such evolutionary reasoning we may come to the conclusion that God is both unnecessary and unlikely. Of course, that does not solve the mystery of life, if there really is one. If there is not, it still leaves the mystery of non-existence. 

This is a very important book with groundbreaking logical conclusions derived from social and evolutionary psychology.  


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