In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there is a series of articles whose titles began super-you. HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces. This superstitious mind piece is written by Graham Lawton. Lawton writes, “The vast majority of people are religious, which generally entails belief in a supernatural entity or three.” Nevertheless, among the oceans of religiosity are archipelagos of non belief. Conservative estimates are that half a billion people around the world are non-religious.
However, among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep. Should you scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll likely find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.
Lawton writes that this is because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, make us very receptive to religious concepts. Psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia says, “there are core intuitions that make supernatural beliefs easy for our brains.”
One of our cognitive abilities is known as theory of mind which enables us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts. That’s certainly useful for a social species like us, but it also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own. The idea that mind and body are distinct entities seems to come instinctively to us. When teleology —the tendency to seek cause and effect everywhere and see purposes where there is none—it is obvious why the human brain is superstitious (See the healthymemory blog post (“Thinking 2.0).
Presumably these same thought processes underlie beliefs supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, spiritual healing, reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, lucky numbers and Ouija boards. Three-quarters of Americans admit to holding at least one of ten common supernatural beliefs.
Lawton writes, “With all this supernatural equipment filling our heads, atheism and scientific materialism are hard work. Overriding inbuilt thought patterns require deliberate and constant effort, plus a learned reference guide to what is factually correct and what is right and wrong. Just like a dieter tempted by a doughnut, will power often fails us.”
Experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves skeptics. Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of his own death, large numbers answer “yes”. People who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are frequently attributed to paranormal phenomena.
Of course, it is impossible to prove that everyone falls prey to supernatural instincts. The supernatural exerts a pull on us that is hard to resits. It is likely that the belief that we are rational creatures is wishful thinking.
One can argue that Pascal’s Wager does provide a rational justification for a belief in God. See the healthymemory blog post “God.”
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