Over the last couple of decades neuroscientists and psychologists have begun to crack open the final frontier of the human organism: the human mind. What they have found is truly amazing.
Many things we have learned contradicts much of what we previously thought about the mind. For example, it is quite common and sensible to believe that we come into the world with minds that are essentially “blank slates,” and that what we know is written on those slates by experience alone. But that view appears to be wrong.
The human mind consists of a variety of distinct and interacting mental tools, each of which comes pre-loaded with some quite specific content and some processing algorithms. For example, it is now clearly demonstrated that human beings are naturally endowed with what we might reasonably describe as innate beliefs and innate cognitive processors.
On the belief side, developmental psychologists have identified numerous domains of understanding that are native to us, such as folk physics, folk biology, folk psychology, agency detection tendencies, and so on. What these discoveries seem to show is that our minds are pre-disposed to come to think about the world in very specific ways—ways that are determined by the kinds of minds we have.
So it looks like from birth, or rather through a regular and maturationally natural process, we have dispositions for form beliefs in the following domains.
- Objects move on inertial paths
- Objects cannot move through other objects
- Objects must move through space
- Objects must be supported
- Agents act to satisfy desires
- Agents have beliefs
- Animals bear young similar to themselves
- Living things need nutrients
In addition to these innate dispositions toward certain kinds of beliefs, we also seem to have cognitive mechanisms that dispose us to crunch sensory inputs in specific ways. We might call these “innate cognitive processors.” Examples of these would include things like contagion avoidance and agency detection.
Contagion avoidance is a natural aversion human beings share to things like dead bodies, animal waste and vomit, rotting food, etc. These things “gross us out” from a very early age. Indeed, the aversions we have towards them pre-date any data we might come to possess that would lead us to judge them dangerous. We are also repelled by them in ways that are independent of other aversive stimuli like smell (that is, you can’t explain this aversion by noting that people are scared off because of an unpleasant odor since studies show that the aversions are independent of that).
A second processor is our Agency Detection Device. Here, psychologists have identified a cognitive processor that seems to pre-dispose us to form beliefs in the reality and presence of (sometimes invisible!) agents under certain conditions. In these cases, when we look for the cause of certain events, motions, sounds, or structures, we are disposed to think that it was caused by a someone rather than by a something. Our ADD appears to be hypersensitive. It is very good at detecting agency, and in fact is more likely to generate false positives than false negatives. This is often referred to as our hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD), and may be reflected in manifold attributions of ghosts, fairies, forest spirits, and even personalities of machines!
In sum, psychologists have shown that our initial presumption about the contents of our mind was wrong. Our minds are not blank slates, but processing devices that come endowed with a complex operating system.
Many are quick to point out that this should not be surprising. When we look across times and cultures and find very similar beliefs concerning the nature of physical, biological, and psychological reality, those similarities cry out for some explanation. Since these diverse individuals have a very wide range of experience, something other than, or in addition to, common experience would seem to account for the similarities of belief. And so it is natural to conclude that there is some fundamental similarity among human minds that explains it. And recent empirical evidence has in fact confirmed this conclusion.
One type of belief that is pervasive across times and cultures is religious belief. One is thus led to wonder whether those sorts of beliefs are among those that we are naturally disposed to believe. One New Zealand religion scholar, Joseph Bulbulia, argues that the emerging consensus is yes: “The view of mind expressed by Descartes as composed of innate understandings given in advance of any experience has been thoroughly vindicated after sixty years of cognitive psychology. It may be that Descartes will be shown correct on another score, namely that knowledge of the Divinity is imprinted on every mind [as well]”
Bulbulia’s remark invites us to entertain three key questions:
- Is there any evidence that we are naturally disposed to religion?
- How do we explain the origin of these dispositions?
- What are the implications of such explanations for belief itself?
These will be explored in the next post.