Tucker's Reviews > The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering
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's review
Dec 16, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: finished, relativist
Read in March, 2011 , read count: 1

Bering thinks our commonsense notion of God is an "adaptive illusion" that evolved because it puts checks on our behavior, which is especially important for beings with language who can gossip about each other.

Noting a study that showed that nearly all 8-year-olds assume a creationist view of the world before they are taught otherwise, Bering argues that our obsessively, incessantly intentional stance leads us to be "teleo-functional," i.e. to see created/designed purpose in everything, especially in our own lives, and this in turn leads us to moralize about other people's behavior when we suspect they are not doing what they are "meant" to do.

He also refers to the "Princess Alice" study that found that 7-to-9-year-olds were extremely suggestible in believing that an invisible being was communicating with them. "And for most of us, it's God, not Princess Alice, who holds the privileged answers," he says, but clarifies that we don't generally think God speaks directly to us but rather is "encrypting strategic information in an almost infinite array of natural events...When the emotional climate is just right, there's hardly a shape or form that 'evidence' cannot assume. Our minds make meaning by disambiguating the meaningless." (p. 99)

He quotes Daniel Dennett's The Intentional Stance (1987), where Dennett explains: "the basic strategy of the intentional stance is to treat the entity in question as an agent, in order to predict--and thereby explain, in one sense--its actions or moves." (p. 18, footnote 14) Similarly, he mentions the work of Justin Barrett and Stewart Guthrie who suggested that humans have a "hyperactive agency detection device," especially when something is moving or making noise, which helps ensure we aren't eaten. It isn't just fear of motion that helps us survive; it is, more specifically, our fear that something is moving because it has a mind and is thinking about us. This is one use of our "intentional stance."

Perhaps as a side effect of our ability to imagine what other people are thinking, we also tend to imagine what we'll be thinking about when we're dead. As Bering puts it: "reasoning about our future selves, particularly what we'll be experiencing given an imagined set of hypothetical variables such as those believed to be present in the afterlife, is much like reasoning about what it's like to be another person." (p. 112) He finds this connection to the intentional stance more plausible than the idea that belief in immortality is a form of "terror management," since "studies don't actually show a correlation between fear of death and afterlife beliefs. " (p. 114)

Not only do we tend to imagine our "afterlives"--we also tend to imagine "God."

Research suggests our cousins, chimpanzees, have a greatly reduced ability to imagine what other people are thinking. For example, one study found that chimps gestured to someone who was blindfolded as if they thought the person could see them. Not only are humans good at this, but we are further advantaged because we have language, which allows us to knit together in larger societies because, through the power of gossip, we are able to learn which individuals to avoid. (p. 173, 182) This may explain why "In groups as diverse as British undergraduate students and Zinacantán Indians in Mexico, content analyses of 'free-range' conversations (essentially, data gathered by the researchers' eavesdropping) show that about 80 percent of all naturally occurring linguistic discourse involves social topics." (pp. 182-183)

I agree with Bering's analysis here: "atheism is more a verbal muzzling of God--a conscious, executively made decision to reject one's own intuitions about a faceless übermind involved in our personal affairs--than it is a true cognitive exorcism....This doesn't make us weak, ridiculous, or even foolish. It just makes us human." (p. 164) Atheists and theists use the same mental operating system. Neither group can claim pure access to metaphysical truths insofar as we're all being tricked by our own brains, and neither group should claim superiority to the other on the basis of being able to see clearly through their own gray matter. For this reason, philosopher Tamar Gendler came up with the word "alief" to describe the phenomenon experienced by the atheist who finds that she naturally gravitates toward certain supernatural explanations which she then consciously pushes away after evaluating it and deeming it to be superstitious nonsense. The superstitious intuition is not a belief, since the atheist rejects it as false, but neither can it be entirely ignored, as the atheist might be amused or intrigued by it and even report it to others or integrate it in artistic expression. (p. 88) What makes an atheist or theist lies in which of these intuitions we are able to acknowledge consciously and which we choose to accept or reject.

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Tucker If I remember correctly, the author wasn't trying to prove that God doesn't exist. Instead, he argued that the human brain is naturally inclined to believe in gods, spirits, souls, afterlives and other such things that haven't been proven to exist and for which there may be better explanations. For example, if you move an object when someone isn't looking, they may jump to an incorrect conclusion that a ghost did it. That little experiment doesn't prove that ghosts don't exist, but it demonstrates that people tend to believe in ghosts even when the evidence doesn't support it. The author backed up this claim using behavioral experiments as evidence.

If you are looking for an extended discussion on God's existence that is based on "real evidence or sense," I don't know why you would turn to the Bible. The Bible simply asserts God's existence. The fact that religious books sell many copies is not good evidence that their content is correct. (Different religious books contradict each other, for one thing. Do you just pick the one that sells the most copies?) In The Belief Instinct, Bering gave one possible explanation for why religious books sell so many copies: people instinctively believe in some kind of God. No, that doesn't prove that God (or ghosts, or aliens) doesn't exist, but it leads one to see these supernatural beliefs in a certain skeptical light, as tricks of the imagination.

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