Friday, November 28, 2008

Crib Notes from Andy Thompsons "Why we believe in gods" lecture.

Religion may be a bi-product of other common, well-understood cognitive mechanisms (or adaptations) that evolved to solve survival problems not related to religion or faith.

Some of these mechanisms include:

Minimally Counter-intuitive Aspects: When we picture god(s), we attribute them with all the normally expected attributes of another thinking, conscious being. god(s) think, and feel, and are presented as vulnerable to all the same emotional and cognitive weaknesses that humans are. With a few “minimal” exceptions that step outside of our intuitive expectations. god(s) talk to us (in our minds), god(s) know what we are doing (because they are presented as omnipresent), god(s) know what we are thinking (because they are presented as omniscient), etc… But we still imagine them as thinking and feeling much the same way that we imagine ourselves to. We are more prone to accept something with minimal detours into the counter-intuitive than things that are firmly counter-intuitive. (Yes I understand the soon to be voiced problems with use of the word minimal in this example....)

Decoupled Cognition: We can envision and enact conversations with absent family members, deceased family members, etc.
(Some of us can envision conversations with god(s) and can further carry that conversation into an imagined or projected 2-way dialogue - using simple decoupled cognition to fill in the blanks of what our god(s) reactions might be to these conversations - interestingly this might explain why our mythological miracle makers seem to have a very anthropomorphized ability to perform miraculous events that seem to be limited or tied to the cultural understanding of the time of their origin.)

Reciprocal Altruism: We have cognitive mechanisms that automatically keep track of who we owe and who owes us. We track these things (to varying degrees) automatically.
(Religion is full of reciprocity. Just look at some of the “IF you do this...” and “IF you don’t do this...” messages inherent in nearly all religions.)

Childhood Credulity: Our cognitive development leaves children and adolescents open to the influence and suggestion of authority figures in their lives. So much so that they soak up the culture that surrounds them and adapt it as the status quo. This aids in the rapid learning of survival behaviours. It also allows for the infiltration of non-survival and/or toxic learning if presented from recognized authority figures like Parents, Teachers, Religious figures of authority, etc…

Vulnerability to Authority: all humans are vulnerable - to varying degrees - to figures of authority. IF we perceive an instruction as sourced in suffiecient authority, we may follow it even if it would otherwise be an instruction to perform a repulsive, abhorrent or out-of-character action.
(It should be fairly obvious how this relates to religion and authority structures inherent in same. Ref: Stanley Milgram -

Attachment System: When we are in distress - at all ages of life - we turn to a care-taker figure. Whether that be a parent when a child or adolescent, a spouse or partner when an adult, or some other care-taker figure we hope will succor us from our distress, this mechanism is present in all of us.
(This mechanism is likely responsible, in part, for romantic love and parental attachment. It should be fairly obvious how religion might make use of this mechanism and allow us to turn to a super-parent, per se. Ref: Letters of Mother Theresa indicating her “falling in love with jesus”, “getting married to jesus” etc...)

Transference: We base our present relationships on past relationships. We learn as children how to treat relationships. Our perceptions use this to form images of people like “Fatherly Figure” or “Good Motherly Figure” etc…

The Problem of Dead Bodies: We have “theory of mind” mechanisms that allow us to project a mind (somewhat like our own) into other people. We imagine them as having similar thought processes, motives, and emotions. When we’re confronted with dead bodies we recognize (from physical clues) that there is no life present, but our “theory of mind” mechanism continues to look for the thought, feelings, emotions etc that we expect to find there.
(It should be fairly obvious how this mechanism might relate to some religious concepts of continued consciousness or mind, after death.)

Hyperactive Agent Detection/Attribution: We all have mechanisms inherent that look for a cause where there may not be a cause. Sounds we hear at the edge of conscious audibility might be translated into ‘whispers’ or ‘other anthropomorphized’ sources. There is a strong benefit to experiencing false positives with this function over the potentially fatal repercussions of experiencing a false negative using this mechanism. We may see 1000 imaginary tigers in the trees and suffer no ill consequence, but to miss just a single tiger that is actually there could have fatal consequences.

Intuitive Reasoning: We fill in the blanks. When we don’t actually have knowledge, our brain attempts to fill in blanks in our knowledge.
(Hyperactive Agent Detection helps us to try to fill in these blanks with humanized or anthropomorphized reasons. Many optical illusions work using this mechanism where will envision a line that completes a ‘shape’ that may not exist. See attached image. Our mind creates the edges of a white-triangle where one does not actually exist.)

Motivated Reasoning: We doubt what we don’t want to hear.
(We don’t change beliefs easily, because this may put us at odds with the group (adopted kin) and that, in the past, was a counter-survival trait.)

Confirmation Bias: We tend to look for evidence that corroborates our opinions, or notice data that confirms our beliefs (much more so than data that does the opposite or is neutral to our opinions and beliefs) - sometimes even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

Mere Familiarity: We favour what is familiar (tradition) over something new or relatively unknown.

Belief in Belief: We have a bias toward belief. Our brain is set up to ‘form opinions’ rapidly - we perceive, form opinion or believe, then at leisure may pause and think about that which we’ve formed opinions about.
(Example - in the past, if a tribe-mate told us there was a tiger behind a tree, it would be a net positive survival mechanism to believe that claim, even if there were no tiger behind said tree. Another example of false positives being far more survival focused than any single false negative. Ref: Some republicans continuing to hound upon Obama as being a terrorist. If we continue to hear something, our cognitive mechanisms tend towards believing that - in spite of evidence to the contrary.)

Kin Recognition: We have strong tendencies to favour ‘kin’ over ‘non-kin’ in our social mentation - sorting our world into “kin” and “Near-Kin” and “not kin”.
(Interestingly, religion is rife with false or appropriated Kin-Terminology to describe figures of importance {to the religion} - Father for Priest/Minister/Pastor, Brother for Monk, Sister for Nun, etc.... Further there were - in the past - some very real benefits for ‘religion’ and ‘survival’ inherent in the artificial expansion of Kin-Perception in people belonging to a religious group.)

Mirror Neurons: If you were in a room with another person and they raised their left arm - that portion of their brain that controls the left arm, right motor cortex - would light up with activity. So would your brain. If that person hurt their left hand, their right-thalamus would light up with activity in response to that pain. So would your right-thalamus, even though your hand was not injured. You would literally feel the other person’s pain (to a reduced degree).

All these mechanisms, if appropriated by religion, can play upon our cognitive functions to reinforce the stories and functions religions attempts to appropriate - Particularly in artificial-kin environments.

EG: saviour mythology co-opting our cognitive mechanisms: artificial-kin, authority figure, agent attributed, decoupled mental conversationalist, object of reciprocal altruism, authority figure, super-brother/parent/caregiver, transferred-kin, object of attachment, source of intuitive answers to metaphysical questions, source of confirmation biased opinion/faith, familiar, playing upon mirror neurons with readily available images of suffering

This post is composed of crib notes taken by myself while listening to a lecture by Andy Thompson. All attribution, sourcing, credits, etc. should be directed toward his comprehensive research.

Andy Thompson's lecure is available for download or viewing here:,3373,Why-we-believe-in-gods,J-Anderson-Thomson

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