September 08, 2006
HUMANS have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be susceptible to supernatural beliefs, a psychologist has claimed.
Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive — despite the lack of evidence and advance of science — because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, said Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.
This evolved credulity suggests that it would be impossible to root out belief in ideas such as creationism and paranormal phenomena, even though they have been countered by evidence and are held as a matter of faith alone.
Even the most rational people behave in irrational ways and supernatural beliefs are part of the same continuum, Professor Hood told the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich yesterday.
To demonstrate his theory he asked members of the audience if they were prepared to put on an old-fashioned blue cardigan in return for a Â£10 reward. He had no shortage of volunteers. He then told the volunteers that the cardigan used to belong to Fred West, the mass murderer.
“Most hands went down,” he said.
These tendencies, he said, were almost certainly a product of evolution. The human mind is adapted to reason intuitively, so that it can generate theories about how the world works even when mechanisms cannot be seen or easily deduced.
While this is ultimately responsible for scientific thinking, as in the discovery of invisible forces such as gravity, it also leaves people prone to making irrational errors. “In most cases, intuitive theories capture everyday knowledge, such as the nature and properties of objects, what makes something alive, or the understanding that people’s minds motivate their actions,” Professor Hood said.
“But because intuitive theories are based on unobservable properties, such theories leave open the possibility of misconceptions. I believe these misconceptions of naive intuitive theories provide the basis of many later adult magical beliefs about the paranormal.”
This innate tendency means it is futile to expect that such beliefs will die out even as our scientific understanding of the world improves, he said. “The mind is adapted to reason intuitively about the properties of the world. Because we operate intuitively, it is probably pointless to get people to abandon belief systems.
“No amount of evidence is going to get people to take it on board and abandon these ideas.”
“I want to challenge recent claims by Richard Dawkins, among others, that supernaturalism is primarily attributable to religions spreading beliefs among the gullible minds of the young. Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces.”
This is pseudoscience and speculation mascarading as scientific thought.
The experiment of offering people 10 pounds to wear the sweater of a serial killer does not in any way support the conclusion that superstition is wired into our genes. It does even support the conclusion that the human mind is "adapted to reason intuitively."
This article doesn't even tell us what it means to "reason intuitively," which in my understanding of English is at best a very imprecise oxymoron created to describe complex thought processes.
People who are really good at pool or billiards are able to calculate their shots very quickly, sometimes with barely a thought to it. But the geometry of angles and the physics of rotation, velocity, and friction can be explained only through very complex mathematics.
It may be said that those people are "reasoning" in that their brains are, in fact, figuring out what shot will work. But they're doing so "intuitively" because they aren't consciously applying trigonometric formulae to the situation.
Further, the assertion that "intuitive theories are based on unobservable properties" seems to mean that people just make up ideas about the world and how it works apriori, without any direct experience with the world. If that is what this "scientist" is saying, he is wrong.
People begin life collecting perceptual information which they categorize into basic, concrete-bound concepts. From there, we abstract more concepts and from there still more concepts.
At each level of abstraction, we get further from concrete reality in our hierarchy of knowledge, but if each concept is properly formed, we can trace each concept back down the chain to physical existence.
In my mind, I compare the process of induction between physical reality and high abstraction to factor trees that I learned in my third grade math class.
504 = 2 * 252
= 2 * 2 * 126
= 2 * 2 * 2 * 63
= 2 * 2 * 2 * 3 * 21
= 2 * 2 * 2 * 3 * 3 * 7
The article provides us with the example of gravity as an invisible force that was discovered by this means of "intuitive reasoning," but Isaac Newton was not unfamiliar with gravity when he was sitting under an apple tree one day. He was familiar with Galileo's observations and Kepler's laws of planetary motion. He conducted experiments and observed how bodies on earth behave in motion and he extrapolated from there the idea of universal gravitation.
All knowledge is hierarchical in this manner and more advanced theories can only be formed once the "lower" ideas have been integrated. You can't run before you can stand and you can't do differential calculus until you can add.
It seems quite a stunning leap of the imagination to go from "people are superstitious" to "people are genetically inclined to believe any idea that passes their way even in light of contradictory information." Not only that, it is in direct conflict with the nature of concept formation in the human mind.
Another telling aspect of the story is the final remark in the article where the scientist says that he is driven to undermine the idea that people learn their superstitious ideas. He prefers to believe that people are born with an inclination toward the irrational. That is the lurid, petty motive of an impotent mind and weak self-esteem. He should be ashamed for that remark alone.
I have little doubt that evolution has driven the human creature to the point we see it today with the amazing apparatus of a brain at our disposal. The mechanisms of thought that allow us to integrate and differentiate entities -- be they percepts or concepts high or low -- is without question a result of the very nature of our biology which has been shown to be driven by our genes.
However, I am greatly dismayed by the scale of the epistemological error at play here.
In order to come to this conclusion and subsequently throw up one's hands at the idea of dissuading people from accepting ridiculous, irrational ideas about there even being things supernatural, one must have committed an error of grand proportion.
I'm not a practiced philosopher, so I have difficulty putting my finger on the exact nature of this error, but I do know that this line of thinking is presently widespread and dangerous.
Where else do we see arguments that the content of people's brains is determined by people's genes? We see this in the claim that (homo)sexuality is genetically determined. We see this in the claim that addiction is a disease. (A claim that begs for a definition of the word "disease.") The truth is that these claims are rather common these days.
How long will it be before the concept of "free will" is openly ridiculed in the scientific community? In politics, will eugenics rise to create a tyranny of genetic "perfection" such as seen in the movie Gattacca?
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