By Vexen Crabtree 2017
We are biologically programmed to detect signs of predators (and prey) wherever they may be. This often means being distracted on occasions where slight movements or patterns make us think something ('an agent') is there watching us - possibly even hunting us! "It is far more advantageous to over-detect agency than to under-detect it"1. Hence, the hyperactive agent detection device (HADD). As a highly social species, we are always looking in the shadows for signs of plots, for possible indirect effects of "behind the scenes" actors who are organizing against us - or who are potential allies. Certain circumstances (dim lighting!) heighten our instincts to watch out for secret danger. The evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins says that "we are biologically programmed to impute intentions to entities whose behaviour matters to us"2 and unfortunately, this now includes inanimate forces from "the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks"2. Psychologist Justin Barrett originally conceived of HADD and says it is "fundamental to understanding concepts of gods and spirits"1. We Humans excel at abstract thinking and telling imaginative stories to fledge out our feelings. Hence, there are local tribal spirits, sky gods, evil and wild spirits, ghosts in certain buildings, and when most of them are no longer found to exist there is always the eternal creator-God who never really does anything but secretly influences subtle events in the world, seemingly in a manner that makes it an expert at stimulating our HADD while not being detected by any other means. Even in the modern world the attribution of natural events to 'magical' and 'spiritual' causes is an easier way to understand the world than to study it critically.
HADD is a form of pareidolia. Here's an introduction:
“The cognitive process of seeing patterns and drawing conclusions from random patterns and ambiguous data is called pareidolia. It is a highly common 'thinking error'4. A part of our brain, the fusiform face area, actively looks for any shapes, lines or features that might possibly be a human face. It does so devoid of context, and reports with urgency and confidence when it thinks it has results. That's why most pareidolia is involved with the perception of human forms in messy visual data. It "explains why some people see a face on Mars or the man in the moon [... or] the image of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun, or the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree"5. Auditory pareidolia is responsible for the way that all of sometimes mistake a whistling breeze for a whispering human voice. When people listen with expectation of hearing a voice they will hear spoken words in pure noise6. We often misperceive random events in a way that supports our own already-existing beliefs or hunches7. Some patterns seem and feel so natural and real that it goes against common-sense to deny them. But against all expectations and against our judgements, many perceived objects turn out to be illusions. Psychologist Jonah Lehrer says "the world is more random than we can imagine. That's what our emotions can't understand"8. The tendency for people to see more order in nature than there is was noted as long ago as the thirteenth century by Roger Bacon - he called such errors due to human nature the 'idols of the tribe'9. To study pareidolia sociologists have presented true sets of random results and analysed subject's responses to them. Coin flips, dice throws and card deals have all revealed that we are naturally prone to spotting non-random trends exist when in fact they don't10. Pareidolia results in superstitions, magical thinking, ghost and alien sightings, 'Bible codes', pseudo-science and beliefs in all kinds of religious, nonsensical and supernatural things10,11,12.13”
One major cause of religious thinking, say experts, is the tendency for us to see "agency" in the complicated sequences of natural events. Dualism is the simplistic idea that things have physical bodies and separate intentions that can exist independently of the body. It is easy to see how we, as a species, found it useful to develop such an instinctive view. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, explains that various components of our normal working brain can result in beliefs that are religious and irrational in nature, due to the scientifically inaccurate way that we model the world. The 'hyperactive agent detection device' is the clumsy name given to the clumsy way in which we tend to personify complex movements (giving them intentions):
“We are biologically programmed to impute intentions to entities whose behaviour matters to us. [...] Children, and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks. All of us are prone to do the same thing with machines, especially when they let us down. Many will remember with affection the day Basil Fawlty's car broke down during his vital mission to save Gourmet Night from disaster. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, then got out of the car, seized a tree branch and thrashed it to within an inch of its life.”
The psychologist Justin Barrett came up with the term "Hyperactive Agent Detection Device"14 to describe the kind of neurological side-effect whereby our first instinctive reaction to events is to try to figure out the intention of the agent who is behind them.
“According to psychologist Justin Barrett, this feature of our psychological functioning is fundamental to understanding concepts of gods and spirits [... Because people] detect traces of [supernatural agents'] presence in many circumstances [... Even] in many contexts where other interpretations [...] are equally plausible. It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions. [...] There are important evolutionary reasons why we (as well as other animals) should have 'Hyper-Active Agent Detection'. Our evolutionary heritage is that of organisms that must deal with both predators and prey. In either situation, it is far more advantageous to over-detect agency than to under-detect it.”
The idea of agency behind most physical events is normally quickly discounted. But when it comes to gods and spirits, it is very hard indeed to find any immediate evidence against our instinctive reactions. So, when seeking answers about the reason for an event, the 'something must have done it' part of our instincts cannot, in some people, be dismissed rationally. All it takes is a cultural framework or social discussion, and these indistinct feelings can be given concrete names and even personalities. A scholar of Eastern religion, Arthur A. Macdonell, explains that "as soon as a person has taken the place of a natural force in the imagination, the poetical fancy begins to weave a web of secondary myth" and personalized stories, myths, about this primal spirit become attached to the idea, with the details of the stories often taken from other sources16. So from an idea of agency, we humans excel at building up a backstory to go with the invented mystical being. Hence, there are local tribal spirits, sky gods, evil and wild spirits, ghosts in certain buildings, and when most of them are no longer found to exist as we develop our intellectual insights, there is always the eternal creator-God who never really does anything but secretly influences subtle events in the world. Our evolutionary history has led us into a world of spirituality and religion, based on cognitive functions that are designed to give us good instincts about when and where predators are. When this system starts getting in the way of our exploration of the actual world, this has become cognitive dysfunction.
As religion developed out of these instincts in our history, now, our present science disconfirms our projections of intent on to inanimate objects. But frequently we still believe in the religions that have developed out of these misdirected ideas. The attribution of natural events to 'magical' and 'spiritual' causes is frequently an easier way to understand than to study the phenomena scientifically. It is an easy way out of existential difficulties.
Current edition: 2017 Jun 2517
Parent page: What Causes Religion and Superstitions?
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(1999) 'Human cognitive adaptations to predators and prey', doctoral dissertation (Santa Barbara: University of California). In Boyer (2001)1 ch.4 'Why gods and spirits?' section Supernatural agents and dangerous beasts p165.
Barrett, Justin L.
(2000) 'Exploring the natural foundations of religion', Trends in Cognitive Science, 4(1), pp. 29-34. In Boyer (2001)2 ch.4 'Why gods and spirits?' section Supernatural agents and dangerous beasts p165.
(1996) 'Anthropomorphism, intentional agens, and conceptualizing God', unpublished PhD dissertation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University). In Boyer (2001)3 ch.4 'Why gods and spirits?' section Supernatural agents and dangerous beasts p164-167.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2003) The Skeptic's Dictionary. Published by John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, USA.
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. 1993 edition. Published by The Free Press, NY, USA. A paperback book.
(2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Published by Canongate Books, Edinburgh. A hardback book.