Book Notes: The Belief Instinct

As we’ve seen throughout this book, our private experiences generated by thinking about our individual purpose, the meaning of life, the afterlife, why bad things happen to good people, and so on, are highly seductive, emotionally appealing, and intuitively convincing — in most cases leading directly to belief in God. It is therefore more than a little foolhardy to think that human nature can ever be “cured”  scientific reason. As a way of thinking, God is an inherent part of our natural cognitive systems, and ridding ourselves of Him –really, thoroughly, permanently removing Him from our heads — would require a neurosurgeon, not a science teacher. So the real issue is this: knowing what we know now, is it wise to trust our evolved, subjective, mental intuitions to be reliable gauges of the reality outside our heads, or do we instead accept the possibility that such intuitions in fact arise through cognitive biases that——perhaps for biologically adaptive reasons—lead our thinking fundamentally away from objective reality? Do we keep blindly serving our genes and continue falling for this spectacular evolutionary ruse of a caring God, or do we peek behind the curtain and say, “Aha! That’s not God, that’s just Nature up to her dirty little tricks!”

Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct

  • Brian and I both really dug this book – an exploration of the evolutionary psychology that frames the human capacity for belief in the supernatural and the divine with stops along the way in existential writers, personal anecdotes, and fascinating research case studies.
  • Getting down to what it is that primes us for belief in God? That is the “theory of mind” that humans possess. “Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.” This may be what truly separates us from animals – our ability to project mental states onto others, including the inanimate and invisible others.
  • Which leads me to the human predeliction for teleological thinking. “A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature.”  Which basically means that from a very early age our theory of mind abilities lead us to ascribe end causes for nature that suit us or other animals. An example Bering uses involves a child’s explanation for why a mountain exists – “so that the mountain goat has something to climb on” – the child answers. It is this type of teleological thinking that gets us into creationism, and given that humans quite naturally start from this place of explanation (at our earliest ages), Bering posits that there will always be more believers in creationism than evolution. Belief in evolution actually requires some real intellectual work, whereas a teleological theory like creationism is inherent in most people.
  • Our over-active theory of mind is making connections and seeing signs everywhere. We connect a thunderstorm to our bad feelings about a potential road trip, some claim an earthquake as an Act of God designed to punish us.
  • And because of this on some level we believe we are forever being watched and judged, which has a huge impact on our behaviour – making us more pro-social than many primates. In the most obvious examples, we don’t shit, have sex, or pick our noses in front of others (as a general rule) – because we are aware of the other in a way a chimpanzee is not. While we have more propensity for cheating or dishonest behaviour when we think no one will find out (see the quote below for even more evidence of this), it is obvious that a theory of mind which posits an unseen watcher and ascribes judgement and motivation to it – can be a powerful force in keeping impulses in check. (Gossip in humans serves the same purpose as grooming in primates.)
  • This pro-social behaviour has obvious evolutionary advantages for a social species like humans who rely on others for survival.

As we learned earlier in this chapter, however, we also possess an especially effective, adaptive safeguard to protect our genes against  our evolved impulses and our vulnerably overconfident judgment: the inhibiting sense of being observed. Again, ancestrally speaking, eyes meant carriers, and carriers meant gossip. What further derails our selfish streak is the conscious awareness that an observer can identify us as an individual: a specific person with a name and a face. The more obvious —or traceable— our individual identity, the less likely
we are to engage in intemperate, high—risk behaviors that, though they may well reap immediate payoffs, can also hobble our overall reproductive success, owing to the adaptive problem of gossip. Only a rather dim—witted bank robber, for example, would enter his targeted establishment without a disguise. If one is convinced of being absolutely unidentifiable, the fear of punishment—or retribution vanishes. The famous social psychologist Leon Festinger referred to this general phenomenon as the process of “deindividuation,” which “occurs whenever “individuals are not seen or paid attention to as individuals.” ” Deindividuation is quite clearly a potentially dangerous scenario for the social group as a whole; if the individual actor cannot be identified, then the threat of gossip loses that personal punch, one that otherwise helps keep the actor’s egoistic needs in check.

Deindividuation is, of course, at the core of a mob mentality. It can also lead to acts of brutal violence against out—group members, because a “deindividuated” person is absorbed into an anonymous group identity and no longer fears the consequences of toting around an insolvably tarnished reputation. When faced with a frenzied mass of angry, anonymous people, relatives and friends of the out—group victim wouldn’t know where to begin looking for revenge against a specific perpetrator. In anthropological circles, it is well known that Warriors who hide their identities before going into battle are more likely to kill, mutilate, or torture than are those who do not bother to disguise themselves.

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