The Agency Assumption: Why Do We Look for Intelligence in the Unknown?
The other day I was working on my laptop at the breakfast table when I heard a strange noise coming from my office. I stopped whatever it was I was doing and listened. At first this noise sounded like a persistent crackle – like a ball of wadded up cellophane. But as I listened closer, I heard patterns in the crackling that didn’t sound naturally produced. It’s difficult to describe, but something irregular in the audio signal got me thinking that the noise was being generated by a critter! Once I made the mental connection to deliberate conscious activity, I easily imagined that a rat was chewing a hole in something. Or that my daughter’s hamster was on the loose. Or that the cat was playing with something that he shouldn’t – like the hamster!
I decided to investigate. As I headed towards my office, the noise suddenly stopped. A quick scan of the room offered no clues, but the mere fact that the noise stopped as I approached confirmed my initial assessment: the cause of the noise was definitely intelligent! Some critter was chewing on something and actually had enough sense to keep it down as I approached him.
I headed back to the kitchen and just as I sat down, the noise started up again. Yup – now I’m extra-sure that there is something alive in my office. This time I snuck up to my office as quietly as I could, to avoid tipping off the critter to my presence. I wanted to catch he/she/it in the act of doing whatever it was that sounded like crumpled up cellophane. Only as I got closer, the sound seemed to be coming from my desktop. Are you kidding me? What rodent has the nerve to violate my sacred workspace? This is war! Except for one problem – the noise was coming from one of my computer speakers. What?
As it turned out, there was a bad connection or some kind of electrical interference causing my speaker to make crackling noises. To this day, I haven’t figured out exactly what it was*. Nor have I heard that same noise again. But the entire ordeal got me thinking about intelligent design.
Obviously, there was nothing illegitimate about initially associating the audio signal with deliberate conscious activity. Just as SETI researchers search for electromagnetic transmissions that have no known natural cause, I couldn’t match the mysterious noise with anything from my mental “database” of naturally occurring office sounds. Without a positive ID on the noise, I naturally assumed that agency was involved. So here are a few questions for discussion.
Was I wrong to form a hypothesis that included intelligent agency – even though that hypothesis was later falsified by new information?
Would I have still made the design inference had my mental database of naturally occurring office sounds contained an entry for “weird speaker crackling”? In other words, was my design hypothesis merely an argument based on what I didn’t know about naturally occurring sounds (argument from ignorance)?
Pre-scientific human cultures, both past and present, seem to over-anthropomorphize and over zoomorphize undirected natural phenomena. Does our psychology predispose us to readily ascribe agency to unknown causes? Could there have been any evolutionary advantages to this?
*Since this article was written, my left computer speaker has completely stopped working.