« On modeling the human response time function; Part 3. | Main | On Wit and Pith in Reviewing »

January 05, 2006

Is God an accident?

This is the question that Dr. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, explores in a fascinating exposé in The Atlantic Monthly on the origins of religion, as evidence by a belief in supernatural beings through a neurological basis of our ability to attritute agency. He begins,

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question ...

The question being, of course, whether the nearly universal belief in these things is an accident of evolution optimizing brain-function for something else entirely.

Belief in the supernatural is an overly dramatic way to put the more prosaic idea that we see agency (willful acts, as in, free will) where none exists. That is, consider the extreme ease with which we anthropomorphize inanimate objects like the Moon ("O, swear not by the moon, the fickle moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circle orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable." Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet 2:ii), complex objects like our computers (intentionally confounding us, colluding to ruin our job or romantic prospects, etc.), and living creatures whom we view as little more than robots ("smart bacteria"). Bloom's consideration of the question of why is this innate tendency apparently universal among humans is a fascinating exploration of both evolution, human behavior and our pathologies. At the heart of his story arc, he considers whether easy attribution of agency provides some other useful ability in terms of natural selection. In short, he concludes that yes, our brain is hardwired to see intention and agency where none exists because viewing the world through this lens made (makes) it easier for us to manage our social connections and responsibilities, and the social consequences of our actions. For instance, consider a newborn - Bloom desribes experiments that show that

when twelve-month-olds see one object chasing another, they seem to understand that it really is chasing, with the goal of catching; they expect the chaser to continue its pursuit along the most direct path, and are surprised when it does otherwise.

But more generally,

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human.

This doesn't directly resolve the problem of liberal attribution of agency, which is the foundation of a belief in supernatural beings and forces, but Bloom resolves this by pointing out that because these two modes of thinking evolved separately and apparently function independently, we essentially view people (whose agency is understood by our "social brain") as being fundamentally different from objects (whose behavior is understood by our "physics brain"). This distinction makes it possible for us to envision "soulless bodies and bodiless souls", e.g., zombies and ghosts. With this in mind, certain recurrent themes in popular culture become eminently unsurprising.

So it seems that we are all dualists by default, a position that our everyday experience of consciousness only reinforces. Says Bloom, "We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them." The problem of having two modes of thinking about the world is only exacerbated by the real world's complexity, i.e., is a dog's behavior best understood with the physics brain or the social brain?, is a computer's behavior best understood with... you get the idea. In fact, it seems that you could argue quite convincingly that much of modern human thought (e.g., Hobbes, Locke, Marx and Smith) has been an exploration of the tension between these modes; Hobbes in particular sought a physical explanation of social organization. This also points out, to some degree, why it is so difficult for humans to be rational beings, i.e., there is a fundamental irrationality in the way we view the world that is difficult to first be aware of, and then to manage.

Education, or more specifically a training in scientific principles, can be viewed as a conditioning regiment that encourages the active management of the social brain's tendency to attribute agency. For instance, I suspect that the best scientists use their social mode of thinking when analyzing the interaction of various forces and bodies to make the great leaps of intuition that yield true steps forward in scientific understanding. That is, the irrationality of the two modes of thinking can, if engaged properly, be harnessed to extend the domain of rationality. There is certainly a great many suggestive anecdotes for this idea, and it suggests that if we ever want computers to truly solve problems the way humans do (as opposed to simply engaging in statistical melee), they will need to learn how to be more irrational, but in a careful way. I certainly wouldn't want my laptop to suddenly become superstitious about say, being plugged into the Internet!

posted January 5, 2006 04:50 PM in Scientifically Speaking | permalink