Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Is Folkpsychology like Countrypsychology?

A fantastic article in the NYT magazine from this weekend on the study of belief. There's all the bluster that Richard Dawkins and his ilk are pushing, sort of a dismissal of religion as 'misfiring', which is an awfully loaded word for a scientist to be throwing around. Beyond that is a layer of amazing cognitive biological studies that Scott Atran terms 'folkpsychology':

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

A profound suggestion! Is being predisposed to belief in the supernatural a default mode for our brains? Do biological spandrels (like blood being red, a feature with a evolution-neutral value) serve as grist for such a system?

For those of us that hold rationalism in higher esteem than spiritualism, it's somewhat unpleasant to think of ourselves as recovering alcoholics - we need to be on constant guard of our reasonable sobriety lest we relapse into the allure of magical thinking and emotional comfort. Still, to me this is no different than any other high moral code we abide by or emotion we keep under check as to what is necessary or proper. Why should belief be any different than the willpower one needs to keep to a diet or maintain a budget?

We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in “Tragic Sense of Life.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”

I can't say I've ever heard death put so nicely before.

The article is a bit lengthy but well worth the read if this kind of stuff tingles your belief-default brain. Atran's most recent book, In Gods We Trust, is worth the additional effort.

1 comment:

Bobbi said...

Neat stuff. I'm surprised it didn't mention Terror Management Theory - regarding our beliefs & behaviors when we're in a "mortality salient" state (thinking about one's own death). Due to our huge cognitive capabilities, we can at least begin to think about the cessation of our own existence, which of course is terrifying. So what keeps us from being overwhelmed by the fact of our impermanence? We manage it by creating a worldview whereby something we do makes us "permanent" somehow: having children, making major contributions to society, and/or believing you will live forever in heaven.

Additional tidbit: Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski developed TMT as fellow grad students while drinking & bowling. At least, that's what they keep saying at the conferences I've seen them at...