At 3 Quarks Daily, an introduction to recent work on religion and cognition:
[It] does not see religious belief as a corruption of rationality, but rather as an over-extension of some of the very mental mechanisms that underlie and make rationality possible. In other words, rather than religion having emerged to serve a social or other purpose, in this view it is seen as an evolutionary accident.
The thing is, Mary Douglas, among many others, was already on about this. The whole theory of religion as beginning with the fundamental dualism, and supporting Freudian theoretical frameworks which explore the way this dualism operates and shapes our psyches, this is nothing new. It’s all right there, in anthropological theory, and it’s been developed, too, by feminist theorists.
Yes, but I think what is new and novel here is that Boyer and Bloom are tying this into what we have learned about the structure of the brain:
- We’ve evolved local optimizations for many behaviors: facial recognition, pattern matching, predicting how animate and inanimate things will behave.
- But those optimizations bleed over boundaries.
This stark separation of the world into minds and non-minds is what, according to Bloom, makes it eventually possible for us to conceive of minds (or souls) without bodies. This explains beliefs in gods, spirits, an afterlife (we continue without bodies), etc. The other thing that babies are very good at, is ascriptions of intentionality. They are very good at reading desires and intentions in animate objects, and this is necessary for them to function socially. Indeed, they are so sensitive to this that they sometimes overshoot and even ascribe goals and desires to inanimate objects. And it is this tendency which eventually makes us animists and creationists.
It’s a cognitive illusion, one of the same class of effects that make a batter perceive a fastball as rising instead of falling.
If you’re interested in cognitive bias, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds is a good introduction to the subject.
Though, telling someone that they missed a fastball because of how our brains work may not be as shocking as telling them that their religious beliefs are due to local optimizations in our hominid ancestors’ brains, and that the soul is just another rising fastball.
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