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

The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

really liked it

One common phrase that always makes me grimace is “everything happens for a purpose.” Really? The moral and rational inconsistencies in that statement insult common sense. Believing that there is some divinely directed master plan behind natural disasters, miscarriages, or school shootings is no more intellectually defensible than believing in the tooth fairy – unless, of course, you are haplessly resigned to the notion that “God works in mysterious ways.”

In “The Belief Instinct,” evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering argues, conversely, that the human mind works in comprehensible ways. At the core of Bering’s argument are three essential hypotheses with fancy-sounding names, but which describe very familiar tendencies of the human mind.

First, “Teleo-functional reasoning” refers to the supposition that any object or artifact exists for some preconceived purpose. Related to this is the corollary belief that there is a purposeful agent behind everything that happens. Historically, for example, theologians have argued that the beauty and complexity of this world would be impossible without an intelligent creator to provide the necessary tweaks to make sure everything works as it should.

Second, “psychological continuity reasoning” posits that, by cognitive default, humans perceive existence as an ongoing state of being. A simple example would be my assumption that my wife still exists, even when she is not in my presence. More significantly, our innate tendency, when confronted by death, is to envision a person’s mental being to endure, somehow, in some for or another. Hence, we intuit that human beings have non-materials souls.

Finally, Bering’s most versatile postulate is that human beings possess a “theory of mind,” which serves us primarily in our social lives, but also lends itself to chimeras about the existence of God. I use my theory of mind whenever I try to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling at any given moment. By applying the theory of mind, I recognize that the people around me are independent thinkers with a mental presence every bit as complicated as my own.

Of theory of mind, Bering writes: “The evolutionary significance of this mind-reading system hinges on one gigantic question: Is this psychological capacity – this theory of mind, this seeing of souls glimmering beneath the skin, spirits twinkling behind orbiting eyes, thoughts in a flurry of movement – is this the one big thing that could help us finally understand what it means to be human.”

So, the simple explanation for our predilection toward supernatural belief goes like this. We are hardwired to believe that everything in our world was designed for a purpose. We likewise apprehend that non-material mental states can exist outside of the body. Combine these with theory of mind, and – voila – we conceive of an apparitional, all-knowing deity who fabricated the universe to achieve defined goals and who sees us, always, even if we cannot see it.

This general formulation seems feasible in terms of how it describes the inner workings of the human brain and the kinds of thoughts and actions it naturally produces. But, if we accept that supposition, we must then see these traits as evolved adaptations that facilitate reproductive success in the human species.

Here, it seems to me that Bering engages in a little teleo-functional reasoning of his own. Having established that the belief instinct is a universal attribute of human neurological machinery, he, in effect, asks what it is for. It must have a purpose, right? He theorizes that, equipped with a theory of mind, primitive human beings living in social groups found it necessary to curb their “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited” instincts in order to get along with others. They began to wonder what others were saying about them behind their backs. This compelled them to behave. However, other people were not able to keep a constant eye on them. That’s where the conception of an all-seeing God became a handy contrivance for ensuring conformity. Those who fell into line were more likely to achieve reproductive success. Theory of mind makes all this possible.

Maybe. Bering cites numerous studies in support of his position. Still, I wonder if Bering’s social explanation for the evolved belief instinct doesn’t confuse cause with effect. That is, it seems to me that human beings evolved a mind capable of supporting a theory of mind, first, and all the societal and philosophical institutions arising from it are derivative – some may be adaptive, others not so much.

My non-academic speculation aside, “The Belief Instinct” makes an important contribution to the sociology and psychology of religion. At the very least, it provides intellectual justification for refuting the quaint notion that "everything happens for a purpose."

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Belief Instinct.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

December 8, 2019 – Started Reading
December 21, 2019 – Shelved
December 21, 2019 – Finished Reading

No comments have been added yet.