Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wired for Religion...At the Expense of Science?

In this excellent article, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discusses some psychological origins of religious and supernatural beliefs. It nicely summarizes and expands on a number of ideas I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

While I highly recommend the full article, I found one idea particularly noteworthy. To give some background--Bloom describes how we seem to have two separate innate systems for reasoning about inanimate or animate objects. This makes sense: inanimate objects are acted upon by causal forces, whereas animate beings can move on their own, so it is useful to divide the world into these categories. However, we naturally essentialize this difference, treating them as two distinct categories of things--matter and mind--and we thus become natural dualists. In Bloom's words:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.

Our animacy detection is so hypersensitive to finding agents that we see intention and goals where there are none. This gets to the striking point in the last sentence above: it means that we are not just intuitive dualists--we are intuitive creationists as well. Bloom quotes Richard Dawkins as saying that it often seems "as if the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism." (Spend five minutes in a blog thread with creationists and you will know what he means.) In a way, Bloom suggests, this is actually true--natural selection runs counter to innate intuitions about agency:

When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

It's not surprising, then, that nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining")... And when asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone.

I have previously blogged about psychological roots for supernatural beliefs. Bloom points out, though, that these may actually come at the expense of scientific understanding. At least, I would add, in those who do not work past those gut reactions and understand the ideas involved. Finally, we can see yet another reason why gut intuitions about the universe are of very limited weight when discussing its origins and workings.

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