Thursday, July 16, 2009


I recently finished reading the book Supersense: Why We Believe The Unbelievable by Bruce M. Hood. At the time, I had no idea how relevant the information in this book would be to a lot of the discussions going on in the blogosphere surrounding religion, science, and this whole "New Atheist" thing.

First, the author bio: Bruce Hood is the chair of the Cognitive Development Center in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. He was a research fellow at Cambridge, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a professor at Harvard.

The man, quite frankly, is brilliant. And entertaining, which is a rare combination in my opinion.

I hope to blow your minds with some of the information from this book, or at the very least get an interesting discussion going.

Here is the basic thesis of the book: Humans are pre-programmed to believe in the supernatural, whether that takes the form of religion, superstitions, or other beliefs that, if true, would violate the known laws of science.

A good number of you who read this blog consider yourselves to be Atheists, as I consider myself. We also consider ourselves to have scientific minds, to be so-called skeptics, etc. In other words, we feel that we only look at facts and evidence when it comes to existence on this planet.

But for 99.9% of us, that simply isn't the case, as you'll soon see.

First, let's talk about science and the layperson. Hood uses Noam Chomsky's language example "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" to demonstrate that even though the sentence perfectly follows the rules of grammar, it does not make any sense to us because of what we know about the words used. Hood says:
"So any new idea has to fit within existing frameworks of knowledge. This is why some ideas can be so difficult to grasp. Science, for example, is full of ideas that seem bizarre simply because we are not used to them. It's not that people are being stupid when it comes to science. Rather, many scientific ideas are just too difficult for many of us to get our heads around. On the other hand, folk beliefs about the supernatural seem quite possible. That's why it is easier to imagine a ghost than a light wave made up of photons. We have seen neither, but ghosts seem plausible, whereas the structure of light is not something we can easily consider." (p.8)
Notice that he says "imagine" rather than "believe in." His point is simply that for the average person, we can place the idea of a ghost into a framework, but the idea that light is made up of particles just doesn't make any intuitive sense. Think about this in terms of evolution. Yes, the Christian debate is more complex than this, but at the very heart of it is this idea that it is easier to imagine a divine being creating life on earth than it is to imagine man emerging from primordial soup only to gradually become the homo sapien we are familiar with today.

Hood's next major point is that as adults, we think that when we learn something new we abandon any previously held misconceptions. But this isn't entirely true:
"Consider an example from the world of objects. Imagine two cannonballs of exactly the same size. One is made of light wood and the other one is solid iron that is one hundred times heavier. If you were to drop them both at the same time from the leaning Tower of Pis, what would happen? Children think that heavier objects must fall much faster than lighter ones. Heavier objects do land before lighter ones, but only just, and that's because of air resistance....As a child, I did not believe this until a physics teacher demonstrated that a feather and a coin fall at exactly the same speed in a vacuum. Most college students make the same mistake. The amazing thing is not that adult students get it wrong, but rather that these are students who have been taught Newton's Laws of Object Motion and should know better. They should know the correct answer. Somehow the scientific knowledge they have so painstakingly learned loses out to their natural intuition about weight and falling objects." (p. 19)
I got that one wrong. Why? Because if I imagined a feather and a coin both falling off the table, I could not imagine a scenario in which the coin didn't land first. I don't experience life in a vacuum. So even though I KNOW what the correct answer is, the fact that it intuitively seems less plausible overpowers my learned knowledge.

Now here's where Hood starts to blow my mind:

Would you wear a sweater that belonged to a serial killer?

Would you rather own an original work of art or one that is an exact replica created by an expert forger?

Have you ever felt the desire to have an admired person autograph something?

Could you drink out of a glass after it has been touched by a sterilized cockroach?

Would you slurp your favorite soup after it has been stirred by a brand-new fly swatter?

Why does spitting on your own food make it disgusting despite the fact that you need saliva for digestion?

Some triggers for disgust have to be learned, as we know from cultural variations. But many of them seem to be hard-wired. And while the value of things such as art and signed items are culturally determined, nearly all of us tend to subscribe to some measure of preference for originals, old items, and things that someone of importance to us has touched or been in the presence of.

For now, let's concentrate on disgust:
"For me, the really interesting aspect of disgust and the associated contamination fears is that they all show the hallmarks of supernatural thinking. This is because they trigger psychological essentialism, vitalistic reasoning, and sympathetic magic. For example, sympathetic magic states that an essence can be transferred on contact and that it continues to to exert an influence after that contact has ceased. This is known as the "once in contact, always in contact" principle.....There's an old saying that a drop of oil can spoil a barrel of honey, but a drop of honey can't ruin a barrel of oil. This is the negative bias that humans hold when it comes to contamination. We intuitively feel that the integrity of something good can be more easily by contact with something bad rather than the other way around.

However, it's difficult to be reasonable about contamination once it's occurred. It's as if the contamination has energy that can spread. For example, imagine that your favorite dessert is cherry pie and that you have the option of choosing between a very large slice and a much smaller piece. Unfortunately, your waiter accidentally touches the crust of the large slice with his dirty thumb. The same thumb that you just saw him pick his nose with. Which slice would you choose? Given the choice, most of us would opt for the smaller slice, even though we could cut off the crust where the waiter touched it and still end up with more pie. As far as we are concerned, the whole slice has been ruined -- as well as our appetite." (p. 162)
I think most of us feel this way, despite the fact that it is not rational, reasonable, or logical. Now let's look at what Hood has to say about valued objects:
"We all treasure sentimental objects from within our lifetime that do not necessarily have any intrinsic worth other than their connection with a family member or a loved one. These objects are essentially irreplaceable. For example, engagement or wedding rings are typical sentimental items that are unique. If lost or stolen, most people would not regard an identical replacement as a satisfactory substitute, because these objects are imbued with an essential quality. Psychologically, we treat them as if there were some invisible property in them that makes them what they are.

But what if it were possible to make identical copies? Imagine that a machine existed that could duplicate matter down to the subatomic level, such that no scientific instrument could measure or tell the difference between the original object and the duplicate - like a photocopier for objects. If the object was one of sentimental value, would you willingly accept the second object as a suitable replacement? For most people, the answer is a simple no.

Identical replacements are not acceptable because psychologically we believe that individual objects cannot be replicated exactly even by a hypothetical perfect copying machine. This attitude is based on the assumption that originality is somehow encoded in the physical structure of matter. We intuitively sense that certain objects are unique because of their intangible essence. However, such a notion is supernatural." (p. 205-206)
Can any of you truly say that you would accept duplicate copies of objects that have sentimental value for you, without a moment's hesitation or any lingering doubt? And we're not even talking about living things - simply inanimate objects. I think all of us, Atheists or no, have certain things in our lives that we can't help but hold supernatural beliefs about. There are certain things and certain scenarios about which even the most rational, logical mind cannot escape supernatural tendencies.

One more example from Hood:
"Imagine that you are a hospital administrator and you have $1 million that can be used for performing a life-saving liver transplant operation on a child or to reduce the hospital's debt. What would you do? For most people, this would be a no-brainer -- of course one must save the child.

The economic psychologist Philip Tetlock has shown that people are appalled when they hear that an administrator would make the decision to benefit the hospital, even though more children would gain in the long term from such astute financial planning. What's more, they are also outraged if the hospital administrator decides to save the child but takes a long time to arrive at that decision. Some things are sacred. You should not have to think about them. You can't put a price on them. Likewise, if the choice has to be made between saving one of two children, this decision must take a long time. The choice should not be made quickly.

We intuitively feel that some things are right and some things are just plain wrong. Some decisions should be instantaneous while others must be agonized over. Decisions can haunt us even when there really should be no indecision. Every choice has a price tag if we care to consider relative worth. There are no free lunches, and so while we may be outraged and indignant about some choices and decisions, the reality is that all things can be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis.

However, a cost-benefit analysis is material, analytic, scientific, cold, and rational. This is not how humans behave, and when we hear that people think and reason like this, we are indignant...Likewise, when we hear that people could wear a killer's cardigan, live in a house of murder, collect Nazi memorabilia, we are disgusted. We feel it physically. Though a cost-benefit analysis may reveal our reaction to be out of balance with the actual costs, we still intuitively feel a moral outrage and violation of society's values." (p. 251)
So what's the point of all this? Well first of all, you should read the book. Second, we all subscribe to supernatural beliefs in one way or another. Some of us are more susceptible to them than others, but it is nearly impossible to function as a social being without having some of those beliefs, otherwise there would be no group cohesion.

It is very interesting to examine the way the mind works, especially in this particular subject. If we believe that a hat or a scarf that once belonged to a long-lost relative is special and priceless, unique and irreplaceable, imbued with some invisible quality or essence that makes it what it is, is it really such a huge leap to go from that belief to subscribing to alternative medicine or something as pervasive as religion?

Atheists are not completely exempt from supernatural beliefs. We just have fewer of them. And many aspects of science are so complex and counterintuitive that they run contrary to our existng frameworks. What seems to you, as an expert, as indisputable fact may seem just as far-fetched and supernatural to a layperson as belief in the effectiveness of prayer is to an Atheist. And this, in my opinion, is what allows scientists to also be theists.

I don't know what the fuck a "New Atheist" is, nor do I really care to. In my opinion, the entire notion is ludicrous and pointless. You either are an Atheist or you're not. To make further subdivisions from there is to turn it into either a religion or a political movement, neither of which it should be. But I digress.

If we can further understand the mind's tendency to believe in supernatural things and to revert back to childish notions of how the world works, we may be able to, if nothing else, teach science more effectively and without this need for debate. Do I believe that creationism should be taught in public schools or that evolution should not be taught in Christian schools? Absolutely not. But what this line of research is showing us is that maybe believers are born, not made, and that it is at least somewhat irrelevant what we try to teach people.

If you have even the slightest interest in these topics, I highly recommend this book.

In the meantime, discuss.


Becca said...

None of those examples really made me go "wow, I'd be totally irrational there". And I really want a perfect copying machine, that'd be sweet.
But there are plenty of other things I am irrational about, and it doesn't much bother me. I pray to the gods of the Western blot to give me my damn bands.

As I see it, getting santimonious about being "rational" is asking for having your hypocricy exposed nearly as badly as asking for a politician's resignation when they have an affair.

And anyone who says superstious ritual has no place in science has never worked in a tissue culture hood and had to worry about mycoplasma.

Anonymous said...

I don't think ANY of the examples stated here have anything to do with belief in supernatural. We're talking about attaching meaning to things that any organism that wants to survive is better off having--not choosing that big piece of pie is related to survival--those who take the big piece of pie and cut off the end probably make other choices that threaten their health. Experiencing empathy for another individual being is a trait that renders the society as a whole adaptive. Attaching meaning to objects thru limbic circuits is very different than believing in supernatural causes for natural effects or feeling that an object is embued with a unique quality. These are simply adaptive constructs that have nothing to do with the supernatural--the distinction seems utterly obvious. The scarf IS priceless because it is the only thing that the limbic system can ascribe meaning to....not because one thinks that it contains' grandma energy.'

JLK said...

But you miss the point, Anonymous. Why isn't an exact replica, right down to a molecular level, not acceptable as a replacment for grandma's scarf?

If it's simply the memory ascribed to it that the item evokes, a copy would have the exact same effect. You might go to a store and see one that looks just like it and say "Wow, that looks just like the scarf my grandma used to wear!" - same memory, different item.

But you would want the original because grandma touched it, wore it. Because it was HERS. We believe that there is some essence of grandma left in that scarf that would not be part of an exact replica. And that belief is, by definition, supernatural.

bruce said...

Thanks JLK.... that was really kind of you to write such a great review....what's more... you really the points I am making. Good with your pursuits


bruce said...

Don't know what happened with the omissions in the last post but just to say thanks again for understanding the points I made in the book.

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