Post No.: 0086
Our instincts didn’t evolve to make a 1:1 accurate representation of the real world or the truth – they evolved for survival and reproduction success. So if misperceptions or lies don’t immediately kill us or make us infertile before we’ve bore and raised offspring then these can persist as beliefs. Our brains do all manner of pre-processing to the sensory information that comes into our sensory organs before we have a subjective experience, such that, by the time we have that subjective experience (never mind a conscious interpretation of that sensory information), it’s already been translated into something that best serves our goals of survival and reproduction e.g. believing what we saw was a face or figure in the shadows, even though it was actually something else. And so just because we may viscerally feel and believe that we saw e.g. a face or figure (agents or animate creatures, existing or imagined, including ghosts) in the environment, it doesn’t necessarily mean there was actually a face or figure of a human or other creature or being there.
To elaborate on some of the things written in Post No.: 0070, our cognitive machinery automatically hunts for living or animate things and agency (e.g. we don’t jump with surprise and go ‘whoa that window looks like a TV screen’ but we may go ‘whoa that cloud or pattern of stars looks like a face or person’). Apophenia and pareidolia may sound like ancient, mythical female beings but ‘apophenia’ is the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data (e.g. in the outcomes of a sequence of fair roulette or lottery games), and ‘pareidolia’ is a type of apophenia involving the perception of clear and familiar images (particularly faces or figures) or sounds (particularly voices) within random stimuli (e.g. faces in tea stains, figures in the mist, or words in records that are played backwards). Apophenia and pareidolia are hair-trigger biases because having an over-firing, over-assumptive, hyper-vigilant agency detection bias is overall better for survival than having an under-firing one (false positives are far less costly than false negatives when it comes to agency and threat detection – it’s better to scream or jump at nothing than be caught unawares and killed from something) but this means that lots of perceptual and cognitive errors occur in our daily lives as a result of our intuitions or instincts.
Humans also tend to over-perceive purpose for things in the world that lack other intuitive explanations or acceptable scientific explanations i.e. believing that everything has a teleological (end) reason for being. When we think of what we do, design and create – we normally do, design and create things with a teleological purpose (e.g. we’re making this vessel to hold some water, or crafting this bracelet for someone to show our love for them), and right from young we tend to think about objects and parts of the natural world in terms of their purpose/function. Hence it’s not surprising that it’s natural to think that everything in the universe was created or designed with an intention and purpose, hence the intuitive belief or acceptance of omnipotent supernatural agents that are so great (possibly immortal, invisible yet omnipresent) that they can even create the mountains, day and night, thunder and lightning, etc. (because we know that mere humans or other mortal creatures didn’t create them). And so if the culture introduces the concept of a god(s) then these beliefs are very easy and intuitive for children to accept.
A strong or satisfactory scientific explanation for a phenomena can negate a religious explanation for that phenomena. A weak or unsatisfactory scientific explanation, however, can conversely increase the belief in a religious explanation for that thing – hence this hydraulic relationship between scientific and religious explanations for phenomena. This means that if scientific explanations can be provided then religious beliefs can be abandoned, but many scientific theories are hard to intuit, understand or otherwise accept (e.g. that random evolution created all these complex ecosystems rather than intentional intelligent design, or that life has no objective meaning), and some people who’ve been god-fearing for a long time might not ever want to risk taking such a powerful and vengeful god(s) out from the picture either. Woof!
Our innate predispositions can thus be quite difficult to change via social learning, even when they’re over-firing and producing errors. They are by-product effects of adaptations that aided survival for our fluffy ancestors and us, just like e.g. we like the taste of sweetness because it indicates calories and energy to us, which we need or want, but a by-product effect is that we also find low/zero calorie artificial sweeteners tasty too (this particular by-product effect can be arguably exploited to our advantage in places where over-nutrition is a problem though), or we consume and hoard resources like there’s no tomorrow because there was likely no tomorrow if one didn’t do so in the harsh survival environments of our far ancestors, but a by-product or over-generalised effect in today’s environment of relatively easy plentifulness, at least for many in the ‘developed’ world, is that we’re now living unsustainably for the planet yet we still instinctively don’t want to slow down.
We are governed by heuristics, or simplified and often crude rules-of-thumb mental shortcuts, that work(ed) most of the time or work(ed) well enough – at least for the times and environments when and where they primarily evolved and the selection pressures present then and there – thus it’s hard to know whether these instincts will be good enough for future environments and pressures? Evolution is still happening and evolution can be fast (e.g. microbes and antibiotic resistance) but it typically takes maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of years for new complex organism species with new instincts to branch out from existing ones, especially the more complex an organism is – but this human world has changed so much in only the last few hundred years for this generally glacially slow process of evolution to keep up and optimise. (Well maybe ‘glacially’ is no longer considered a slow measure of time now with today’s rate of global warming and glacial melting(!)) Hence in these situations we must employ the hard, critical thinking of our system two (that understands that e.g. greed is not sustainable) and not just the fast, innate intuitions of our system one (that says e.g. greed is good). In rapidly changing and extreme survival situations, if a species does not evolve fast enough or enough individuals within a species do not adapt sufficiently enough, that’s when a species risks extinction.
Being hyper-vigilant of agency and over-attributing intentions to natural things were, and maybe in some contexts still are, overall adaptive to our survival and reproduction success – but one by-product of them over-firing is certain religious beliefs such as beliefs in incorporeal agents and deities. (It could be argued that religious beliefs later became adaptive in themselves though e.g. for ingroup cohesion and passing on moral lessons, or offering a formal way to believe that those we loved but died are still around somewhere.) Given our cognitive tendencies, our minds are naturally receptive to learning and accepting religious or religious-type beliefs if the evolution of cultural memes provides them (e.g. via the characters and the stories created and passed down through the generations).
Different social and environmental contexts affect the transmission and growth/popularity of cultural ideas e.g. if a highly prestigious person believes in something then more people are likely to believe in it too, if one’s peers believe in something then one will more likely conform with one’s group, and displays such as ritualistic or self-sacrificial displays can be credibility-enhancing too. And if people aren’t failing to reproduce and raise progeny because of their beliefs (that are as a result of their over-firing intuitions) then those beliefs will survive and maybe even thrive via cultural selection as these religious teachings get passed on from generation to generation.
So it’s all not to say that we should (or even could) abandon our instincts because most of the time they’re fine, at least for one’s species overall. And it’s not to say that all rational critical thinking leads to optimal or desirable outcomes either because sometimes they can lead to arguably immoral outcomes (e.g. harming a minority group to help a majority group) – but, regarding any instinct that we may possess, ‘not doing badly’ doesn’t mean one couldn’t possibly ‘do better’ (e.g. living under less perceived fear and stress of agents watching us when they’re not), and what is working seemingly okay in today’s world may not work so well in tomorrow’s either (although our instincts might actually work great again in tomorrow’s world e.g. maybe we’ll have more legitimate reasons to be worried about organisations or individuals watching our every move?! Albeit any surreptitious, miniature surveillance devices probably won’t brazenly look like faces or figures to trigger our apophenia or pareidolia!)