Post No.: 0070
As a follow-on from Post No.: 0039, we detect faces extremely well in order to avoid predators, but we ‘see’ faces even in inanimate objects, which may explain why we over-read and over-attribute agency everywhere, even to natural or random events. We also read into intentions, causality and teleological purpose, goal states or explanations to help us make sense of the social world and plan for the future, which may explain why it’s intuitive to believe in creationism/intended intelligent design rather than chance and natural selection. Our tendency to over-perceive agency and teleology therefore arguably results in beliefs in gods and the supernatural (e.g. some kind of agent makes the Sun go up and down everyday, there is a mysterious master plan to the universe). Agents, like people, are special compared to inanimate objects or natural processes too, and so we shouldn’t treat agents like mere objects such as rocks or processes such as gravity. The mind (especially our intuition-biased ‘system one’) is motivated to seek meaning, order and coherence, even where there is none.
A soothing balm for existential concerns and terror management (e.g. death or uncertainty) are motivational cognitive processes. Some things are worse than death, but death, including the pain of losing loved ones, is a big fear that can be soothed with beliefs in immortal souls and an afterlife (death denial). Some beliefs can ease our sense of helplessness, give meaning to a chaotic world, and can give an answer as to why some things seem unpredictable, unfair and seem to happen without reason. These existential fears and the fear of the uncertain may draw us into the more comforting and certain world of religion, which, in its various forms, claims to give us all the answers to everything we may ever want to ask (including the get-out-of-jail or dodge-all answer of ‘God works in mysterious ways’). Many people don’t want to accept that something happened to them merely due to stochastic/random processes, and religious or supernatural explanations can give such people psychologically satisfactory answers. (Blaming god and destiny can ease our fuzzy existential concerns – but pleading helplessness because it’s ‘God’s will’ (or appealing to traditions) halts societal progress and development in some communities though.)
Humans are incredibly social creatures and therefore evolved a ‘theory of mind’ too (a set of psychological capacities that allow people to understand each other’s mental states or the ability to imagine what someone else may be thinking and feeling), which helps people to better predict another human being’s behaviours and goal states, which may in turn explain the intuitive belief in ‘mind-body dualism’ (believing that a person’s mind is separate to their body – that we each have an immaterial soul or mind that is different and may even be thinking something different to what the body may be expressing).
The difference between our ability to comprehend and predict other people’s minds and our ability to comprehend and predict the (rest of the) physical world gives rise to the intuitive belief that mental states are fundamentally different from physical states, which in turn gives rise to the belief in ‘souls’ that are distinct and separate from our physical bodies and the physical realm itself. Infants innately have very different expectations for how physical objects/phenomena behave compared to how people/agents behave – this suggests that humans have developed distinct cognitive systems for understanding the behaviour of people/agents and the behaviour of other physical objects.
Severely autistic people more-or-less see human beings as like only physical objects with no separate minds or ‘souls’, but most people innately believe that we all have a mental state and a physical state and that they are separate to each other. Most people don’t see each other or themselves as just physical objects but as having separate immaterial or incorporeal souls that inhabit a body, and that it’s this ‘soul’ that is driving the body, hence we find it easy to imagine these ‘souls’ transferring or transcending from one body to another or into an afterlife, and being immortal even when the body dies. This belief is innate, even though neuroscientists who understand better how minds actually work understand that it evidently doesn’t work like that because the mind and body are integrated, and a mind cannot exist without a functioning, living, physical brain/body of some sort.
I can anticipate and understand that many people from around the world will find these arguments contentious. I am not here to try to convert people into atheism but to highlight scientific theories for why people intuitively possess the capacity to hold such beliefs in immaterial souls and afterlives, as a result of the human specie’s evolution as social creatures and the over-application or over-firing of these evolved genetic instincts. I still sometimes use terms like ‘souls’, ‘spirits’, ‘magic’ or ‘heaven’ as figurative expressions or within the contexts of fiction or fantasy but I don’t personally believe in ghosts or things that don’t have metaphysically natural explanations in the real world (although I’d truly love to unambiguously discover ghosts and other things that break the known laws of empirical science). I can differentiate between fiction and reality (e.g. it’s okay to catch creatures and make them fight each other in a game of Pokémon but please don’t do that with real-life animals!)
Furrywisepuppy doesn’t personally believe that a scientific perspective makes the universe and life any less amazing, feelings like love any less real, goals like forgiveness and harmony any less pertinent, and a positive future worth fighting for any less personally meaningful. And I personally believe that people of all faiths and non-faiths can find a way to peacefully co-exist by first better understanding each other. <3