Showing posts with label Supernatural. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Supernatural. Show all posts

25 September 2015

The Complex Phenomenon of Religion.

It's 25 years today since my father died. His death was one of the events that got me thinking about life, death, and all that. I dedicate this essay to:

Peter Harry Attwood (1935-1990).

Religion is sometimes portrayed as a simple phenomenon. As a simple crutch for the weak, as a "violent" control mechanism and so on. Although these kinds of criticisms sometimes contain a grain of truth, in fact religion more generally is a complex phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of a number of qualities, characteristics, or abilities that humans possess. In this essay I will try to outline a set of minimal common features of all religions and link them to an evolutionary account of humans.

The diagram below attempts to summarise some of the key factors involved and to show how these factors interact to produce the basic phenomena of religion. However, any given religion may include many more elements and be considerably more complex that this summary suggests. At the end of the essay I will add a few comments about Buddhism as a religion and about what makes Buddhism distinctive (or not).

Religion seems to minimally involve supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife. I have argued that belief in all these is "natural", by which I mean they are emergent properties of the way our brains work. I do not mean that these are necessarily accurate intuitions in the sense of being true. However, as ideas which have guided human behaviour they have been very successful in helping us go from being just another species of primate, to the highly sophisticated cultures we live in today (and I include all present day human cultures in this). What follows is not a critique, but a description. There are possible critiques of every point, both in the conclusions of religieux and of the reasons for things that I am proposing here. But I want to outline a story about religion without getting bogged down in the critique of it. In most cases I've made the critique previously. 

Supernatural agents emerge from a combination of such properties of the brain such as pareidolia (the propensity to see faces everywhere); agent detection and theory of mind (Barrett; see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth Are Still Plausible?). Fundamental to the supernatural is ontological dualism and the matter/spirit dichotomy.

Theory of mind is tuned to make living in social groups feasible and means we tend to see other agents in human terms (anthropomorphism). Supernatural agents are human-like in their desires and goals, and counter-intuitive only in that they lack a physical body. Because this is minimally counter-intuitive it makes supernatural agents more interesting and memorable. Thus, human communities tend to be surrounded by a halo of supernatural agents. Lacking bodies, supernatural agents may possess associated abilities, such as the ability to move unhindered by physical obstructions, but they are often located in some physical object, such as a tree, rock or home. Those who can bridge the two worlds of matter and spirit we call shaman. Though of course spirits also operate in the two worlds, if spirits remained wholly in their spirit world they would be a lot less interesting. For some reason the spirit world seems inherently leaky. Shamans interpret and use knowledge gained from spirits to guide decision making in the material realm. Supernatural agents can become gods and when they do, shamans become priests.

Fundamental to this account of religion is the social nature of human beings. Any account of religion which rejects the social nature of humanity or demonizes the basic structures and functions of human groups is simply uninteresting (so that is almost all psychology and most of social theory inspired by French philosophers). Unfortunately in this libertarian age there is a tendency to take a dismissive or critical stance on human groups. Social living is undoubtedly involves compromises for the individual. But the evolutionary benefits massively outweigh any perceived loss of autonomy. What's more human social groups look and work very much like other primate social groups. This has been apparent since Richard Leakey sent three young women to Africa to study chimps, gorillas and baboons in the 1960s. The most revealing of these studies was Jane Goodall's work on chimpanzees at Gombe stream, which showed chimp groups to share many traits with human groups. As social animals our behaviour is tuned towards being a member of a group, as it is in all other social primates.

Robin Dunbar showed that the average size of group that a social animal generally lives in, is correlated with the ratio of the volume of neo-cortex to the rest of the brain. For humans this predicts an average group size of ca. 150, a figure for which there is now considerable empirical support. The Dunbar Number represents a cognitive limit, beyond which we cannot maintain knowledge of each member of a group, their roles in hierarchies, mating preferences, past interactions, that is the information we need to be a well informed group member. In practice humans typically organise themselves into units of about 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500 and so on. Groups of different sizes serving different functions and operating with differing levels of intimacy and knowledge. As well as collecting information through observation, we use theory of mind to infer the disposition of other group members. The smallest viable unit of humanity is probably the 150 sized group.

Social living depends for it's success on the active participation of all group members and social norms. Norms are primarily to help the group function effectively. But they may work indirectly, for example to help strengthen group identity "We are the people who....". If social animals were, as economists claim, fundamentally selfish, then groups could not function. We are adapted to being cooperative. But there are temptations to freeload or break other group norms. Up to around the 150 number, groups maintain norms by simple observation. Everyone knows everyone else's business. 

Anthropomorphism allows us to relate to non-human beings as part of our group. We also have the ability to empathise with strangers, though empathy evolved to help us understand the internal disposition of other individuals or small groups. Empathy is personal, which is why we humans still have trouble comprehending large scale disasters without some Jarrod Diamond has noted that in places like the highlands of New Guinea, where the population is almost at a maximum density for hunter-gather lifestyles and thus competition for resources is intense, that tolerance of strangers is low (which is also true of other primate species). In many instances, strangers are killed on sight. However surpluses and trade between groups makes tolerance of strangers more feasible. Thus the factors which lead to civilisations (i.e. much larger groupings) also facilitated tolerance of strangers. Ara Norenzayan has argued that religion with "Big Gods" was a major factor in enabling the large scale cooperation implied by civilisation. Large groups mean that keeping track of each group member becomes more difficult. Monitoring compliance with behavioural norms starts to break down. 

Social groups which perceive an active halo of supernatural beings incorporated into their daily lives may rely on these supernatural agents as monitors of group norms (Norenzayan). In which case the role of the shaman is also expanded. The beings involved in monitoring are likely to become more active and present. They may begin to play an active role, for example punishing transgressive behaviour. Because supernatural agents are already counter-intuitive in lacking physical bodies, they can easily evolve in this direction. Those involved in monitoring the social sphere have a tendency to become omnipresent (the better to see you) and, as a result, omniscient. Once they start dishing our punishments they can become omnipotent as well. Thus ordinary supernatural agents can become gods.

Once gods emerge they typically require more elaborate acknowledgement, rather like a dominant member of the tribe gets first preference in food and mates. A group may enact elaborate and costly rituals aimed at securing the cooperation of spirits and gods. Making sacrifices (in the sense of giving scarce resources) helps to encourage participation in group norms (see also Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Costly sacrifices bolster the faith of followers. Those who officiate at such ceremonies are likely shaman initially, but become focussed on interpreting and enacting the will of the gods rather than spirits in general. In other words they become priests. The prestige of priests rises with the prestige of the gods they serve. Along with sacrifice, priests may introduce arbitrary taboos that help define group identity. As Foucault noted, the power of the group or leaders to shape the subject is matched by the desire of the subject to be shaped. As members of a social species we make ourselves into subjects of power; or even into the kind of subjects (selves) that accept the compromises of social lifestyles. As social primates we evolved to participate in social groups with hierarchies. On the other hand evolution no longer entirely defines us - we did not evolve to use written communication for example (which is why writing is so much more difficult than talking).

We have a tendency to think in terms of reasons and purposes - teleology. In teleological thinking, things happen for a reason. We exist for a reason. The world exists for a reason. Things happen for a reason. In modern life we often seek reasons in individual psychology. In the past other types of reasons included supernatural interference and magic. The stories we tell about these reasons for events become our mythology. Even so we are left with questions. If we are here for a reason, we want to know what it is (because it is far from obvious to most people). If following the group norms or the prescriptions of gods is supposed to make everything run smoothly, then why does it not? If gods are members of our tribe and can intervene to help us, why do they not?

Despite the emphasis on keeping group norms and associating this with the success of the group, life is patently unfair. We can be the very best group member, keep all the rules, and yet we still suffer misfortune, illness, and death. The world is unjust. But we tend to believe the opposite, i.e. that the world is just, that reasons make it so. If everything happens for a reason, then bad things also happen for a reason. But what could that reason possibly be? The meeting of injustice and teleology is extremely fruitful for religion, but before getting further into it we need to consider the afterlife.

The matter/spirit dichotomy seems to emerge naturally from generalising about human experience. Some people have vivid experiences of leaving their body for example which, on face value, would only be possible if the locus of experiencing is separate from the physical body. The very metaphors that we use to talk about aspects of lived experience tend to frame the matter/spirit dichotomy in a particular way. Matter is dull, lifeless, rigid. Spirit is light, lively, and infinitely flexible. Matter is low, spirit high. And so on (see Metaphors and Materialism). We understand life through Vitalism: living beings are matter made flexible by an inspiration of spirit. Spirit in many languages is closely associated with the breath—spiritus, qi, prāṇa, ātman, pneuma—perhaps the most important characteristic of living beings in the pre-scientific world.

The greatest injustice seems to be that our breath leaves us, i.e. we die. All living beings act to sustain and maintain their own existence, their own life. Self-consciousness gives us the knowledge of the certainty of our own death. In a dualistic worldview, death occurs when the spirit leaves the body. The body returns to being inanimate matter (dust to dust). In this worldview, spirit is not affected by death in the same way as matter. Indeed spirit is not affected by death at all. Once the spirit leaves the body a number of post-mortem possibilities exist: hanging around as a supernatural agent; travelling to another world (to the realm of the ancestors for example, or to paradise); or taking another human form. The precise workings are specific to cultures, but all cultures seem to have an afterlife and the variations are limited to one or other of these possibilities.

Something interesting happens when we combine normative morality, teleological thinking, and the afterlife. If things happen for a reason and one of the main reasons is our own behaviour and there is injustice, then it stands to reason, that our own behaviour is (potentially) a cause of injustice. We link behaviour to outcomes. And if everything happens to a reason it's hard to imagine the morally good not being rewarded and the morally wicked not being punished. And if something bad happens, then maybe we have transgressed in some way. In which case a shaman or priest must consult the unseen, but all seeing supernatural monitors (this is incidentally why the Buddha had to have access to this knowledge). This world, the material world composed primarily of matter, is manifestly unjust. By contrast, an afterlife is very much a world of spirit and as the basic metaphors show, the world of spirit is the polar opposite of the world of matter. If the world of matter is unjust (and it is) then the world of spirit is by necessity just. The rules of the afterlife must be very different. Gods hold sway there for example. Gods whose reason for being is to supervise the behaviour of humans. So it is entirely unsurprising that the function of an afterlife, in those communities which practice morality, is judgement of the dead. This happens in all the major religions, and dates back at least to the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Here we have, I think, all the major components of religion. And they emerge from lower-level, relatively simple properties of the (social) human mind at work. Thus religion is a natural phenomenon. It is not, as opponents of religion like to assert, something artificial that is superimposed on societies, but something that naturally emerges out of anatomically modern humans with a pre-scientific worldview living together. If chimps were only a little more like us, they too would develop like this. Neanderthals almost certainly had religion of a sort. The naturalness of religion predicts that every society of humans ought to have religion or something like it. And they do, except where people are WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD people are psychological outliers from the rest of humanity. But WEIRD culture is build upon layers of religious culture, with Christianity superimposed on early forms of religion (and perhaps several layers of this). Again, for emphasis, the naturalness of religion does not mean that a religious account of the world is either accurate or precise. It is certainly successful, depending on how one measures success, but as a description of the world the religious view tends to be flawed making it both inaccurate and imprecise. 

Religious communities have some distinct advantages over non-religious communities in terms of sustaining group identity and encouraging cooperation.  The Abrahamic religions certainly have many millions of followers, and the followers of these religions have established a vast hegemony over most of the planet. On the other hand Christianity seems to be waning. Religious ideologies are giving way to political ideologies. Communism was one such that is also on the wane. Neoliberalism seems to have survived the near collapse of the world's economies to continue to dominate public discourse on politics and economics. Liberal Humanism seems to be a potent force for good still, though as we have seen it cannot be successfully linked to Neoliberal economics. 


There are those who argue that Buddhism is not a religion. This is naive at best, and probably disingenuous. Buddhism has all the same kinds of concerns as other religions, all of the main components outlined above—supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife—and many of the secondary components as well. In many ways, Buddhism is simply another manifestation of the same dynamic that produces religious ideas and practices in other groups. Sure we have an abstract supernatural monitor, but karma does exactly the same job as Anubis, Varuṇa, Mazda, or Jehovah in monitoring behaviour. It's merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. WEIRD Buddhists play down the halo of supernatural beings, but traditional Buddhist societies in Asia all have folk beliefs which involve spirits (e.g. Burmese nat) and many similar animistic beliefs, such as tree spirits (rukkhadevatā) are Canonical. 

David Chapman (@meaningness) and I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter a few days ago (storified). DC noted that some of those who are opposed to secularisation of mindfulness training, are concerned about disconnecting mindfulness from "Buddhist ethics". They seem to argue that the problem is that mindfulness without ethics is either meaningless or dangerous, or both. DC's point was that there was nothing distinctive about Buddhist ethics and that, in the USA at least, what masquerades as "Buddhist" ethics is simply the prevailing ethics of WEIRD North America. So to argue against mindfulness being taught separately from Buddhist ethics is meaningless. For example Tricycle Magazine has run positive stories on Buddhists in the US military. If soldiers can be Buddhists, then Buddhist ethics really do have no meaning. Indeed there is nothing very distinctive about Buddhist ethics more generally, nothing that distinguishes Buddhist ethics from, say, Christian ethics. Sure, the stated rationale for being ethical is different, but the outcome is the same: love thy neighbour. (David has started his blog series on this: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud).

Certainly Buddhism is not the only religion to use a variety of religious techniques for working with the mind, including concentration and reflection exercises. Mediation was a word in English long before Buddhism came on the scene (noted ca. 1200 CE). Arguably all the practices that we associate with Buddhism were in fact borrowed from other religions anyway (particularly Brahmanism and Jainism). According to Buddhism's own mythology, meditation was already being practised to a very high degree before Buddhism came into being. The Buddha simply adapted procedures he had already learned.

So is there anything about Buddhism as a religion that is distinctive? Some would argue that pratītya-samutpāda is distinctively Buddhist. However too many of us portray conditioned arising as a theory of cause and effect, or worse, a Theory of Everything. It is certainly a failure as the latter, and far from being very useful in the former role (the words involved don't even mean caused). Since almost everyone seems confused about the domain of application of this idea, one wonders whether Buddhists can lay claim to the theory at all. If Buddhists make pratītyasamutpāda into an ontology then pratītyasamutpāda would hardly seem to be Buddhist any longer. Nowadays, Buddhists all seem to think that having read about nirvāṇa or śūnyatā in a book makes one an expert on "reality".

DC and I tentatively agreed that any distinction that Buddhism might have is probably in the area of cultivating states in which sense-experience and ordinary mental-experience cease, what I would call nirodha-samāpatti or śūnyatā-vimokṣa etc. It is these states in particular that seem to promote the transformation of the mind that makes Buddhism distinctive. It's just unfortunate that we have so many books about these states, and so many people talking about them from having read the books (and writing books on the basis of having read the books), and so few people who experience such states. The thing that distinguishes Buddhism is something that only a tiny minority are realistically ever going to seriously cultivate, and probably a minority of them are going to succeed in experiencing. So Buddhism in practice, for the vast majority consists in beliefs and activities that are not distinctively Buddhist at all - loving your neighbours, communal singing, relaxation techniques, philosophical speculation, propitiation of supernatural agents, and so on.

And while some people are having awakenings, the level of noise through which they have to communicate is overwhelming. Buddhists have adopted so much psychological and psycho-analytic jargon that Buddhism as presented can seem indistinguishable from either at times. One gets the sense that today's "lay" Buddhism is closely aligned with the goals of psychologists. Not only this but we also get a lot of interference from pseudo-science, Advaita Vedanta, and home grown philosophies.

So, to sum up, religion is a natural phenomenon. It emerges from, is an emergent property of, a brain evolved for living in large social groups. A religious worldview makes sense to so many people, even WEIRD people, because it fits with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Buddhism sits squarely in the middle of this as another religious worldview. But this does not mean that a religious worldview is accurate or precise, or that a secularised version of religion is an improvement on religion per se. Secularised versions of Buddhism are simply religion tailored for WEIRD people. It is more appealing to secularists who none the less feel that something is missing from their lives (because they are evolved to be religious). If Buddhism is distinctive, it is distinctive in ways that the vast majority of people will never have access to.

The main point I take from this is that religion is comprehensible. People who hold to religious views are comprehensible. While I think religious views are erroneous, I can see why so many people disagree, why religion remains so compelling for so many people. I can sympathise with them. And while I'm not an evangelist, it does make it easier for me to stay in dialogue with, for examples, members of my family who are committed Christians. As with the problem of communicating evolution, part of the problem with religion remaining plausible is the sheer ineptitude of scientists as communicators - their remarkable ability to understand string theory, or whatever, seems to be matched by an astounding lack of insight into their own species. And philosophers, whose job to is make the world comprehensible, have also largely failed. They both fail on the level of making new discoveries comprehensible and on the level of communicating why new discoveries are important. And when they fail, priests and other charlatans step into the gap, and that too is understandable. 


References to particular works or thinkers that are not linked to directly can be checked in the bibliography tab of the blog. 

21 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part II

Part I of this essay introduced Justin L. Barrett's ideas on reflective and non-reflective beliefs. Non-reflective beliefs are formed through experience of interacting with the physical world and unconsciously assimilated from people around us as we grow up. Reflective beliefs are thought through, but are shaped by non-reflective beliefs before we become aware of them. We find concepts plausible to the extent that they match our existing non-reflective beliefs. In part II we move on to discussing how supernatural beliefs fit into this basic pattern. 

Minimally Counter-Intuitive Concepts 

Belief in supernatural agents, gods or ghosts, does not require a special part of the brain. What is required is a concept that mostly fits our non-reflective beliefs, and thus feels intuitive, but that has a few counter-intuitive characteristics, enough to make it interesting and memorable. 
"These minimally counter-intuitive beliefs may be characterized as meeting most of the assumptions that describers and categorizers generate—thus being easy to understand, remember, and believe—but as violating just enough of these assumptions to be attention demanding and to have an unusually captivating ability to  assist in the explanation of certain experiences. "(Barrett 2004: 22)
Concepts that are maximally counter-intuitive are simply not believable.  Concepts that are maximally intuitive are believed without question and become part of the background. It is the concept that is mostly compliant with our non-reflective beliefs, but which violates them in an interesting way that captures our attention. Barrett offers the following examples: A dog that grows old and dies is unremarkable; but a shoe that behaved the same way would be a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Similarly an inanimate object that talks, an agent that can break the laws of physics, or a plant that eats animals are minimally counter-intuitive. Of course the latter really exists in the form of the Venus-flytrap. So being minimally counter-intuitive does not rule out the concept from being true.

A dog that talked might be minimally counter-intuitive, but a dog that wore a suit and ran a Fortune 500 company would be violate too many of our non-reflective beliefs and would be considered bizarre. Though this would work in a cartoon. Barrett asserts that what counts as bizarre varies according to individual experiences and cultural factors, but that whether a concept is minimally counter-intuitive does not vary. This is because all people have roughly the same collection of mental tools doing the categorising and describing that produce non-reflective beliefs. 

If a concept has too many counter-intuitive elements it seems implausible, but just enough makes the concept more interesting and memorable. And such concepts constitute a special group in Barrett's theory, precisely because they are interesting and memorable. Myths, legends, films and cartoons all play with this distinction. For example the talking wolf in the story of Little Red Riding-hood or the little bear in Goldie Locks are able to play an active role in the story and help to make the story memorable. Similarly for Pinocchio the wooden toy who becomes a real little boy. Many religious beliefs fall into the category of being minimally counter-intuitive, or are made up of minimally counter-intuitive elements. 

One of the key minimally counter-intuitive ideas is that death, the end of the physical processes of life, does not mean the end of mental processes. Children, for example, can readily conceive that death means the end of physical processes, but regardless of religious background, they tend to assume that mental processes continue independently of the body (Bering et al. 2005). So they are able to correctly assess that dead people no longer need to eat, but will assume that they still get hungry. This is very similar to the belief behind Brahmanical ancestor worship involving offerings of food and drink to the departed (preta). The offerings are transformed into smoke by the fire, the smoke drifts up into the sky where it nourishes the departed. Buddhists (rather cruelly) parodied the Brahmanical pretas as a class of tormented beings who can never slake their thirst or sate their hunger. Children of all faiths and none seem to reason this way about death from an early age. They do not see death as a full-stop, but assume that mental processes of the dead keep going, despite the death of the body. Many factors go to sustaining and reinforcing this kind of mind/body dualism. But underlying it are non-reflective descriptions of agents that do not rely on embodiment, so that unseen agents are minimally counter-intuitive. 

As Thomas Metzinger has said: 
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (Metzinger 2009: 78)
The separation of mind and body is a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Most of the time we experience our minds and bodies as inseparable. The out-of-body experience conflicts with this in an interesting and memorable way and it also consistent with our other non-reflective beliefs about death. We can go further, because this concept of being disembodied goes towards explanations of the world that address some of our deepest fears. If the thinking part of us can exist disembodied, then the Just World (or Moral Universe) Theory is a possibility, because life after death is a possibility. An afterlife is attractive and satisfying on all kinds of levels. So a complex of non-reflective and reflective ideas and concepts reinforce each other and make religious beliefs seem plausible, even though they contain counter-intuitive elements. It is this explanatory power that explains the success of religious ideas, despite the presence of counter-intuitive aspects. 

To summarise, a concept will seem plausible to us if it fits with many of our non-reflective beliefs (feels right), and also with our current reflective beliefs (makes sense). The relationships between reflective and non-reflective beliefs is recursive, a reflective belief seems plausible if it concurs with our non-reflective beliefs, but is also shaped by them to be more plausible. A minimally counter-intuitive concept fits with a large number of our non-reflective beliefs, but violates a small number of them. This feature makes the minimally counter-intuitive concept interesting and memorable. If the minimally counter-intuitive concept can also be put to use explaining mysteries, then it can seem extra-ordinarily plausible in our minds, despite the remaining counter intuitive elements. For example, religious miracles are implausible, but in the context of religious belief as a whole, this implausibility is what makes them interesting and memorable.

Of course many religious ideas, such as the Christian creator/law-giver/saviour God or Buddhist karma, are neither simple nor minimally counter-intuitive. Barrett offers two solutions to this problem.

Firstly a complex belief might be made up of parts that are minimally counter-intuitive. For example the idea of life after death is minimally counter-intuitive. The idea that morality can be understood via an accounting metaphor is broadly intuitive and seems to be common to many cultures (not least to Buddhist and Christian accounts of morality). And a just world is also a minimally counter-intuitive concept. So a complex concept such as a just world involving moral accounting in the afterlife, which is not itself minimally counter-intuitive, might not violate the principle because its parts are minimally counter-intuitive. And this this may be facilitated by the way we think about such things. When trying to think about karma we seem to take parts of it one at a time. Although Buddhism teaches that "actions cause rebirth"; we tend to think in terms of "actions have consequences" and a range of other partial concepts are are either intuitive or minimally counter-intuitive, so that the whole seems plausible.

Secondly systematic religious education (not to say indoctrination) and experience of religious practice might shift our non-reflective beliefs, so that what we feel to be intuitive may shift to accommodate what was previously felt to be counter-intuitive. For example we may not find "higher states of consciousness" an intuitive idea until we begin to meditate and start to experience them. The reinforcement that comes from being in a group dedicated to certain propositions cannot be under-estimated. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it:
"We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers."
However we've already seen in Part I of this essay, that under time pressure people tend to revert to non-reflective views about God. Some complex theological concepts crumble when people don't have time to be reflective. We may consciously take on religious beliefs for reasons other than their plausibility or implausibility. We may, for example, want to fit in with a community we find attractive. I think Barrett plays down, or overlooks, the importance of social factors of religious beliefs in his account.

We've already mentioned in passing that unseen agents meet the criteria of being minimally counter-intuitive (they are typical of agents except for the fact of being invisible). We must now consider in more detail how our brains process information about agents.

Finding Agents Everywhere

A key mental tool in religious beliefs is what Barrett calls the Agent Detective Device. What he means by this is the complex function of our minds which scans the environment for agent directed activity. This ability has clear evolution advantages. We need to be able to identify the presence of other agents. It is a key ability of social animals that we recognise others of our kind as agents of the same type as ourselves. Social primates, for example, work together to ensure that the group has gets enough food and is protected from predators. Predator detection is another key task for agent detection. When we're outdoors there are all kinds of sights and sounds, all constantly changing. Working out if the bump in the night is something to be afraid of, has clear survival benefits. And better to err on the side of caution and have a first approximation that the sight or sound is an agent, because taking evasive action from an inanimate object costs us little, whereas failing to take it against a predator might cost us our lives. This is why noises at night cause our hearts to race. That raised heart-rate prepares us for decisive action that may save our lives. For this reason Barrett refers to the Agent Detection Device as hyperactive, hence his acronym for it is HADD.

Barrett does not go into this, but it's seems that humans are not the only animals who do agent detection in this way. Mammals and birds also scan the environment for agents and tend to err on the side of treating movement as caused by an agent. This video of a cat being freaked out by a cucumber is both amusing and demonstrates the principle. The cat's owners have sneakily placed a cucumber behind it while it was focussed on eating. On seeing the harmless vegetable it launches into a spectacular defensive manoeuvre until recognition dampens the response. Similarly scarecrows deter crows because they set off the HADD.

One of the consequences of being predisposed to detect agency in the environment is that we attribute agency to things on very little evidence. Many a time we attribute agency to insentient and inanimate objects. Many people treat their computers as having agency for example, and this may be why artificial intelligence, in the sense of a human-like mind residing in a computer, seems so plausible to so many people. A sentient computer is minimally counter-intuitive, though scientists are not even close to creating an artificial mind. We also invoke Agent Detection in retrospect when we observe behaviour which is apparently goal seeking. Anyone who has sat around a fire, must have sometimes suspected that the smoke deliberately follows them wherever they sit. English people talk about the weather in a way that suggests they believe some moderately malign agent uses rain to torment them. Sometimes nature appears to pursue us, block us, or otherwise interact with us in a directed way. Our non-reflective fall-back is to seek an agent behind the action. Unseen agents are not entirely intuitive, but are minimally counter-intuitive.

Once an object is identified as an agent, or once a behaviour is identified as directed and therefore indicative of agency, it is passed to the Theory of Mind Device. The Theory of Mind Device recognises other agents as having a mind like ours, i.e. as having thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, memories etc. We model the inner life of the agent in order to predict what its next action will be and how we can best respond to that. With animals for example we predict whether it is likely to attack or retreat. We combine this with our knowledge of animals to predict the consequences of our own actions in these terms. This seems to be the evolutionary purpose of imagination, i.e. to model possible actions and consequences in order to determine a course of action. In the case of other members of our social group this ability to model potential actions and consequences is essential to being a group member.

Although Barrett does not say so, we might have extended his observation about hyperactivity of the Agent Detection Device, by observing that we are also predisposed to seeing all agents in human terms. In other words there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise non-human agents, to see their motivations for acting as being like our own. In the case of the dearly departed, we still identify them as agents, albeit disembodied, and our Theory of Mind Device describes what their inner life is like, and predicts what other kinds of properties the agent might have. Brahmins feed their departed ancestors because they understand that they themselves would hate to go hungry in the post-mortem gap between death and rebirth in heaven. It's not blind ritual or stupidity, as some Western scholars have ignorantly supposed, but empathy based on some very plausible suppositions that motivates the ritual behaviour in this case. That so many first world people fail to appreciate this and empathise with it, is more of an indictment of us, than of them. Which is not to say that ancestor worship is based on facts. It isn't. But it is a natural conclusion to come to and also expresses important values of caring for the community. 

Matthew Tyler Boden (2015) recently observed that supernatural beliefs do actually provide consolation. They help to explain why things occur and help people to understand themselves and the world (227). His 2015 study concluded:
The current study extends existing research by demonstrating that supernatural beliefs, broadly and peculiar beliefs, specifically, are considered adaptive in several ways, and the manners in and extents to which they are considered adaptive are associated with psychological benefits (229-30).
I know from long association with religious people of various stripes that part of the attraction of religious belief of any kind is the consolation it provides in the face of misfortune, old age, sickness, and death. 

Rationalists would have us replace religion with science. However, science is not always consoling or it is so complex that is does not help to explain to ordinary people why things happen. Also it explains how things happen, but not why. Science suggests that things just happen according physical laws and mostly without agents. This is not consoling (even to me and I love science). But worse, this view conflicts with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. If the question is how we should act with respect to other people, then a solid grounding in Newtonian mechanics is no help. General Relativity is more accurate, but still no help. Nor does Quantum mechanics shed any light. The "sciences" which might shed light on these subjects, i.e. the social sciences, are often hardly science at all. They routinely come out with simple truisms. I recall for example, seeing a scientific article that concluded that "time heals". Or they are deeply counter-intuitive - we want to have sex with one parent and murder the other. Or the vacillate between contradictory conclusions depending on the fashion of the day. From the point of view of the person in the street, the scientists cannot seem to make up their minds about anything. Whereas religious ideas seem "time tested and true", though this is an illusion since religious people argue more than scientists about what constitutes truth, and are prone to drastic direction changes inspired by revelations. From this point of view it starts to become clear why scientists have failed to persuade all, or even most, religious people to abandon religion. I would argue that the rise in secularism is not driven by people embracing science, but by a creeping nihilism. Not by finding meaning in physics, but by deciding that there is no meaning. And this is reflected in the growing prominence of Utilitarianism and Popularism in politics. 

What people actually believe is almost always a potpourri of ideas from a range of different sources. Modern Buddhists are unconsciously, but powerfully, influenced by the currents of modernity and have often tacitly adjusted traditional beliefs about karma and rebirth to fit with these currents. Many people are surprised when I tell them what the Pāḷi texts actually say about karma and rebirth. Very few, for example, seem to have grasped that the principle vipāka of kamma is punabhāva or rebirth. The Buddha of the Pāḷi Canon does not teach that "actions have consequences", so much as he teaches that "actions cause rebirth". 

A real problem with disembodied agents is that they have a superficial explanatory power and fit into our non-reflective beliefs about life. The fact that there are also counter-intuitive aspects to the belief is not, according to Barrett, a reason not to believe. Without specific training on how to observe events, we may miss the real extent to which a belief conflicts with the facts. An example I have used before, is that I know people who live in a "haunted" house. Many people who have lived there describe having met supernatural entities in the night-time. On face value a concept of a disembodied agent disturbing their sleep explains the situation. Then we read a description of sleep paralysis and realise that these particular hauntings are all classic examples of sleep paralysis, which does not involve any outside agency or disembodied mind. And yet some of my haunted acquaintances are reluctant to accept the sleep paralysis explanation because they are invested in the ghost: in a community of Romantics the supernatural interpretation is an important sources of kudos and social capital; having seen a ghost makes it more likely that the person will be seen as incrowd; but it also bolsters the non-reflective beliefs about the matter/spirit split and the afterlife. As Metzinger points out such experiences can be compelling in themselves, but they also often occur in a milieu where they fit hand in glove with other beliefs. Confirmation bias, that built in feature of reasoning, ensures that we treat confirmation of our beliefs differently that contradiction. We're likely to dismiss contradiction as irrelevant. 

We have particular ways of reasoning about agency. Most of the time it is transparent to us. We are aware of the results of this cogitation, but not the process. Agency Detection and Theory of Mind work unconsciously and produce non-reflective beliefs that both form the basis of comparison for reflection and also shape the reasoning process itself. With some introspection and a will to challenge conventional views we can have insights to some extent into how our minds work. What Barrett is doing is applying knowledge gained from neuroscience to construct a plausible narrative of how we navigate our world.


I find this account of belief in supernatural agency very helpful. It shows that belief in such agency is neither stupid nor crazy. It's not that believers are somehow inferior and non-believers superior. Religious belief is consistent with our non-reflective assumptions about the world, it is minimally counter-intuitive (or based on minimally counter-intuitive concepts), and emerges from the normal functioning of our minds. It is natural to have supernatural beliefs. Taken with ideas on how we make decisions, I think we begin to see why religious beliefs, like karma & rebirth, seem so plausible to so many people; and why simply arguing against them, or presenting "scientific" facts is not sufficient to change people's minds.

Karma & rebirth fit many of our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Although they contain counter-intuitive elements, these are not so great as to cause doubts in most people's minds. Indeed they make the concepts minimally counter-intuitive and thus more interesting and memorable. The explanations offered by karma & rebirth seem very satisfying. Many of my colleagues in the Triratna Order and acquaintances in the wider Buddhist world find that karma & rebirth both fit intuitively with their non-reflective beliefs, or as they say it both "feels right" and "makes sense". Rebirth seems consistent with how the world works for many people, especially if they have no training in Empiricism, and even for some who do. Karma, especially the more modernist "actions have consequences" style of karma belief, even more so. This is precisely what Barrett's theory predicts with respect to karma & rebirth. Arguing that karma & rebirth are counter-intuitive is not productive at this point, because it is precisely because the counter-intuitive elements that make them seem so plausible.

I follow Damasio in understanding the process of decision making as involving assessing our emotional responses to concepts. When a concept is consistent with non-reflective beliefs it feels good. When it conflicts with non-reflective beliefs, it feels bad. Feeling good, is more or less the same as feeling true. With minimal introspection we know what feels right, what feels intuitive, and we decide reflectively what seems true. Our reflective beliefs are shaped by and cohere with our non-reflective beliefs. If we ourselves or those close to us have experiences which can be interpreted as confirming our reflective beliefs as well, then we are ready to accept this. And as Metzinger points out in the case of out-of-body experiences, these kinds of experience are relatively common and extra-ordinarily persuasive. More so amongst a community of meditators.

In this way of thinking about the way we understand our world and make decisions, we also find the seeds of dissatisfaction and disappointment. While the "feels good = right" equation might have worked for pre-civilisation human beings, it does not work once we start living with the hyper-stimulation that comes with moderate levels of civilisation. And this may be why the upsurge in religious thinking in India is associated with the second urbanisation in the Central Ganges Valley.

The European Enlightenment bequeathed us two methods of approaching the world. The first was to pay close attention and to use instruments to get closer to the object, along with  standardised forms of measurement of increasing accuracy. The first such instruments used glass lenses to magnify objects, allowing us to see in more detail. We naturally seek to identify the regularities in our experience, so simply by paying close attention we improve the accuracy of our theories of the world. But the killer app for empiricism is not measurement per se, it is the second method, comparing notes. It is the comparing of notes that undermines the generalisations that any one person makes based on their experiences. Having multiple witnesses comparing measurements does indeed reveal the nature of the universe in a way that is almost impossible for the individual. The process of unravelling that nature is far from being finished, if only because each advance tends to also improve the accuracy and precision with which we can observe and measure. And limits of this improvement have yet to be reached.

The Enlightenment approach to understanding the world led to a devaluing of individual experience to some extent. Because if you are the only person who notices a phenomenon then it gets demoted to being an illusion at best and an hallucination at worse (presuming the witness is genuine and credible). This product of the Enlightenment provoked the reactionary Romantic attempt to revalorise individual experience. Romanticism is very influential in the English speaking world and has influenced how we see the arts especially. More particularly there are very strong threads of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, which are dominant because so few Buddhists have direct experience of practising Empiricism and so many have been taught to think of Empiricism as an enemy. Romantics like to validate individual experiences, the more unusual the better. The individual who has a peculiar experience is automatically seen as confirming the existence of a non-material world (essentially a world of spirit - see  Metaphors and Materialism). For a Romantic, unexplained phenomenon have the power of undermining reason and pointing to mysticism that cannot be explained by Empiricism because the experience is purely individual. 

It's important to understand the dynamic at work in the human mind, the inseparability of mind and body, of thoughts and emotions, the dynamic of what makes a plausible concept. Firstly it is important when we set out to examine our own conditioning and the views which shape our understanding of the world in order to free ourselves from intoxication with experience. Secondly, when we try to persuade religieux of our empirically derived point of view. In the first case this is a powerful tool for self understanding. We can see how views are like a gravity well into which we unconsciously fall and which takes a great effort to escape from. In a sense there is no such thing as a dispassionate point of view for the unliberated. What we must try to do is loosen the grip of views, by trying to see how views shape our world (our world of experience). It can takes years of practice to begin to see how the views we were conditioned to accept non-reflectively as children shape us, and to become disillusioned and disenchanted enough to set them aside. In the second case it means that we have to be extremely patient with people who do not share our views. Religious beliefs are some of the most intractable views there are, since they stem from our deepest desires and aversions. Arguing is unlikely to help. A Buddhist with no training in Empiricism, a strong conditioning in Romanticism, and a stock of personal experiences and anecdotes based on doing Buddhist practices, is not very susceptible to the argument I make here. I do not expect most Buddhists to be even interested, let alone convinced. None-the-less I think for those with experience of, or interest in, Empiricism, this argument provides a powerful explanation for the situation we are in vis-à-vis more traditional religious believers. We are more likely to understand them, than they are to understand us. And thus the onus is on us to be understanding.

It seems to me increasingly vital that we Buddhists make a distinction in what our goals are. The early Buddhists, at least, were clear that they sought to understand experience. When we say that we aim at insights into reality we are simply barking up the wrong tree. Nothing about the Buddhist methods will shed light on reality. Buddhists have little or no contribution to make regarding the understanding of reality. But Buddhist methods certainly do shed light on the nature of experience, particularly the first person perspective experience, and they certainly do provide some people with a sense of freedom from destructive patterns of behaviour. The trouble is that Buddhists find their own narratives about reality compelling.



Ardila, A.  (2015) A Proposed Neurological Interpretation of Language Evolution. Behavioural Neurology. doi: 10.1155/2015/872487. Epub 2015 Jun 1.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607.,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

Boden, Matthew Tyler. (2015) Supernatural beliefs: Considered adaptive and associated with psychological benefits. Personality and Individual Differences. 86: 227–231. Via Science Direct.

Cima, Rosie. How Culture Affects Hallucinations. 22 Apr 2015.

Damasio, Antonio. (2006) Descarte's Error. London: Vintage Books.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014) Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

Metzinger, Thomas. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.

14 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part I of II.

This essay summarises and explores some idea from Justin L. Barrett's short but important and influential book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004). Barrett's book is not simply an account of the psychology of theism in evolutionary terms, but goes into the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs more generally. He identifies several cognitive processes or functions that contribute to religious style thinking and locates them within a social and psychological context that lends religious concepts plausibility for the individual. We will focus here on Barrett's ideas on the plausibility of religious beliefs, which I will apply to the two beliefs central to the Buddhist religion: karma and rebirth. 

Barrett's work forms a cornerstone of my understanding of the psychology of religious belief. In my view, belief in just world virtually entails belief in an afterlife in order to balance out all the blatant unfairness and immorality (unrewarded goodness and unpunished wickedness) that we see around us. All religious afterlife beliefs are basically the same in that they amount to a post-mortem balancing of the moral books, whether this happens in one go, or through repeated rebirth, or reincarnation. Buddhism combines both of these two basic approaches: rebirth, unless one does something about it, and liberation from rebirth, if one has done what needed to be done (kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ). The afterlife is attractive anyway because the fact of inescapable death is so disturbing to a living being. Additionally an afterlife is made to seem plausible by phenomena such as the so-called out-of-body experiences, and many kinds of meditative experience, which seem to point to disembodied mind (ontological dualism). Combined, these factors suggest how religious beliefs, particular beliefs about universal morality and an afterlife, arose and became so ubiquitous in human cultures. Karma is our Buddhist myth of a just world, and rebirth is our myth of the afterlife required to allow fairness to play out. There are more and less sophisticated versions of these two myths, they all share these basic features.

However, we no longer live in traditional societies. We live in post-Enlightenment societies in which technological marvels are routine. When I was a child, ideas like video phones, personal communication devices, powerful personal computers, a universal repository of knowledge, automatic translation, and so on were the stuff of science fiction. Now, they are all rolled into one small handheld device. Science has transformed our understanding of the world: theories such as evolution, plate tectonics, relativity, classical & quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, genetics, bacterial-pathogenesis, are not incidental or trivial. They are powerful explanatory paradigms that accurately predict the behaviour of the world at different scales, even when, as with relativity and quantum mechanics we know the theories to be incomplete. In large measure the Ptolemaic/Christian worldview, with its false presuppositions and superstitions, has been superseded in Europe and its (former) colonies. Why then do religious beliefs continue to seem plausible to so many people, even outside the confines of classical organised religion? Why do some people abandon the superstitions of Christianity only to embrace the superstitions of Buddhism? We can situate this question inside of the larger question that Barrett addresses about why other kinds of religious belief, particularly belief in gods, persist into the modern era and to resist incursions by new knowledge about the world. 

Evolutionary Psychology & Mental Tools

Barrett's viewpoint comes under the rubric of Evolutionary Psychology. The basic idea is that the brain, and therefore the mind, is modular and these modules evolved and bestowed fitness (in the special sense meant by geneticists) on homo sapiens as a whole. For many years now neuroscientists have noticed that damage to certain parts of the brain produce a deficit in the functioning of the mind. For example damage to the occipital lobe of the brain affects vision in variety of ways. I've often cited Hannah and Antonio Damasio's work on injuries in the ventro-medial-prefrontal cortex and how they affect decision making (see Facts and Feelings). 

A recent article  by Alfredo Ardila (2015) highlights this approach in a very interesting way. When we lose the ability to speak it's called aphasia. There are two kinds of aphasia due to brain damage: Wernicke's-type, associated with brain damage in the temporal lobe, and Broca's-type associated with damage in the frontal-subcortical region. Wernicke's aphasia affects the lexical/semantic aspects of language, while Broca's affects grammar. This suggests that the two aspects of language evolved separately, i.e. that we have one language module that deals with words, and another that deals with how words fit together to make sentences. Ardila proposes a staged evolution of language in which animal style communication evolved very early; it was followed by a gradual build up of verbal signs for things or actions in hominids as our cognitive capacity increased. Only with the advent of anatomically modern humans did we begin to use grammar to create strings of words with distinctions between nouns and verbs, and so on.  This is consistent with Robin Dunbar's outline of the evolution of brain capacity and social group size and the theory of language evolution that he proposes (Dunbar 2014; see also When Did Language Evolve?). 

There are some vigorous critiques of the modular theory of Evolutionary Psychology, but it seems incontrovertible that the brain is divided into functional areas with different tasks and that it must have evolved to be that way. Sometimes another part of the brain can take over the function following an accident, especially in young people. There are of course the curious cases where people grow up with vastly reduced brain volumes due, for example, to childhood hydrocephalus, but have apparently normal brain function. In these cases brain volume can be as little as 5%-10% of typical. The reduction in volume has to happen early in life, and it's not clear how the number of neurons is affected (might their be the same number squeezed into a much smaller volume?). We also see people with severe epilepsy surviving radical brain surgery, where have the neocortex is removed, but again that part of the brain has been disabled from an early age and the brain has adapted to work around it. Mostly brain damage, in adults at least, results in permanent dysfunction. Whether this physical modularity translates into more abstract 'mental tools' of the kind that Barrett talks about, is moot, but it seems plausible.

A caveat to be aware of is that while science journalists like to see these areas in the brain as operating in isolation—witness the brouhaha about the so-called "God spot" (now refuted)—in fact the whole brain is active all the time, the whole brain is involved in producing experience and directing our activities. Some areas clearly do perform specific tasks, but they do so as participants in a system, and often a system within a system. And not only do we have to keep the whole brain in mind, we have to see the brain as situated in a body that also contributes to experience through the peripheral nervous system and sensory organs. Recently David Chapman and I discussed this issue and he argued that we need to acknowledge that cognition has a social dimension as well. I'm sympathetic to this view, it's consistent, for example, with Mercier and Sperber's Argumentative Theory of Reasoning, with Robin Dunbar's Social Brain Hypothesis, and other more systemic ways of thinking about life, but it takes us beyond the scope of Barrett's work and Chapman himself has yet to commit his ideas to writing (nudge, nudge). However once, I've spelt out this part of my psychology of belief, the obvious next step would be to attempt some kind of synthesis.

Barrett outlines some different types of mental tool. Some categorise sensory information, into objects, agents, or faces, for example; whereas others describe such objects once they are detected. Barrett highlights what he calls the "Agent Detection Device" (ADD) in his writing. This is the function of the brain that allows us to distinguish an object that is an agent, from one which is not: a rat from a rock; a snake from a branch. Ordinary objects in particular follow rules of movement that are bound by the laws of physics: a bird moves differently than a missile. We have an intuitive sense of the different ways that agents move compared to non-agents. An important agent describer is known as Theory of Mind (ToM). Having recognised an object as something that initiates its own actions, the ToM attributes to it a host of mental properties suitable to an agent. For example, agents have motivations or desires that set them in motion (emotion; from Latin ex- 'out' + movere 'to move'); they act to achieve goals; and so on. Understanding this allows us to interact creatively with agents in a way that is not required with non-agent objects and that enhances survival (e.g. trapping animal food or avoiding predators). As we will see, the ADD and ToM are central to Barrett's understanding of belief in gods.

In Barrett's theory, the mind is furnished with many categorising and describing tools which operate unconsciously and impose structure and order on our perceptions so that we can make sense of them. What we actually become aware of, out of the vast array of sensory inputs, is the product of considerable real-time processing that shapes how we perceive the world. 


Barrett identifies two kinds of belief: reflective and non-reflective. He argues that most beliefs are of the non-reflective kind. They arise from assumptions about the way the world works, automatically generated by the unconscious functioning of our various mental tools (especially categorisers and describers). We often don't even think about non-reflective beliefs, to the point where we may not know that we have a belief. And non-reflective beliefs are transparent to us, which is to say that we are not aware of the process by which we come to have a non-reflective belief. These are simply the beliefs that we deduce from interacting physically with the world and unconsciously assimilate from our family, peers, and society.

Barrett does not say anything about a relationship between non-reflective beliefs and Kant's idea of a priori judgements, but the similarity is noticeable. Non-reflective beliefs, in Barrett's view, encompass physical facts such as the belief that an object in motion will continue along its inertial path, objects fall under the force of gravity unless supported, or that physical objects cannot pass through one another. Such beliefs emerge, at least in part, through experience, which is then reflected in the way language works (See Lakoff & Johnson). So such beliefs are a priori, in the sense that they are prior to information arriving in conscious awareness and the process of forming them is transparent to us and therefore out of our control. We cannot help but understand experience in terms of our non-reflective beliefs. This certainly seems to correlate with Kant's idea of a priori judgements.

Reflective beliefs are the kind that we learn or decide for ourselves after consciously assessing the available information and making a decision. According to my own understanding (see Facts and Feelings, 25 May 2012), decision making involves weighing the merit of various bits of information. The salience of information is assessed by the emotions we associate with them. Thus my understanding is not that these reflective beliefs are "rational" in the old sense of that word. Contrarily such beliefs may well seem "intuitive", or "feel right" and this may be more important than other assessments of value. Given recent observations on the process of reasoning (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason) we need to be a bit cautious in how we understand the idea of "reasoned beliefs". Individual humans are quite bad at reasoning tasks, falling easily into dozens of logical fallacies and cognitive biases (including several dozen memory biases). If a misconception is repeated often enough it can come to seem the right thing through sheer familiarity (politicians and advertisers rely on this fact). Reason and rationality have to be see in this light, though Barrett was not writing with these ideas in mind. 

There's nothing about reflective or non-reflective beliefs that guarantees accuracy or truth, nothing that guarantees that we when act on them they will produce expected results. However I would add that the kinds of non-reflective beliefs that describe the way objects move, for example, are so reliable a guide to results that we need never question them, unless perhaps we are sent into space where gravity is so much weaker that we must learn a whole new set of reflexes. Non-reflective beliefs serve the purpose of unconsciously directing our actions in ways that help us to survive. As long as the subsequent behaviour has survival value, evolution doesn't care what the belief is or whether it is true. Survival value is the primary value of the system that causes us to form beliefs. Truth is optional.

Distinguishing these two types of belief is important for Barrett's theory. He's going to argue that reflective religious beliefs, such as the belief in God, rely heavily on non-reflective beliefs. He notes that when tested with plenty of time, people give good accounts of their reflective beliefs. But put under time pressure they tend to fall back on non-reflective beliefs. So for example when describing God at leisure, people are consistent with mainstream theology. God is able to be everywhere at once (omnipresence), to read minds, to know without seeing (omniscience) and so forth. But under time pressure the same people were more likely to attribute human limitations to God, such as having only one location in space, not always aware of our motivations, and needing to see in order to know.
"People seem to have difficulty maintaining the integrity of their reflective theological concepts in rapid, real-time problem solving because of processing demands (11)
The relationship between reflective and non-reflective beliefs in complex. Barrett identifies three major ways in which they are related.

1. Non-reflective beliefs may as a defaults for reflective beliefs. For example, handed an unfamiliar object and asked if we think it will fall when held up and released, our non-reflective understanding of how the world works will inform our answer in the affirmative. Barrett's other example in this category involves a girl stealing apples. Non-reflective belief, drawing on our mental tools for describing agents in the relation to food, lead us to unconsciously conclude that she is hungry. But perhaps we also recall that the girl earlier mentioned a horse that will allow you to pet it in return for apples. In this case we might choose the alternative hypothesis that the girl is bribing the horse with apples in order to pet it. Non-reflective beliefs also form our views about the horse as agent in relation to food, but having two options means we must reflect on the possibilities. In this case may rule out the default option (girl is hungry) but non-reflective beliefs still provide the default.

Something Barrett does not comment on here, but which he might have, is the phenomenon of the Attribution Fallacy. Social Psychologists note that we assign motives to agents, but that we almost always assign internal motives without reference to external circumstances: we understand agents to be preferentially motivated by internal considerations. If a girl is taking apples without asking, breaking established norms, then we typically assume she's doing so deliberately and knowingly, i.e. that she is stealing the apples (a moral judgement); that she is therefore "a bad girl". Walk along a British high street for five minutes and you're bound to hear a parent shout (or indeed scream) "naughty!" at their small child. And given the inconsistency with which the word is used, that children cannot help by grow up confused about what "naughty" means (leaving aside the etymology!). Barrett's example suggesting that we might conclude that the girl is hungry is charitable at best, and perhaps a little naive. Maybe if it were only one apple. If we witness repeated unauthorised taking, our conclusion tends towards moral judgement. What we do not do is cast around for other reasons. For example the girl may be suffering from peer pressure to steal apples, bending to the will of older peers, or trying to impress them in order to fit in. Or she may be trying to get attention from parents distracted by their marriage break up. These may be mitigating factors once our judgement is formed, but our judgement says that the responsibility still lies with the girl (or if she is very young with her parents). We tend to assume that wrong deed is carried out due to bad motivations, whatever else might be true. Even if we understand the actions of other agents through introspection - for example, by speculating what might motivate us to act in that way - we still do not seem to take environmental factors into account, but simply project our own emotions onto the agent.

In this sense the case for non-reflective beliefs being our default seems to me to be rather stronger than Barrett suggests. This could also be why first impressions are so hard to shift. First impressions are based solely on non-reflective beliefs. In the next part we will consider more closely the kind of non-reflective beliefs that make karma and rebirth seem plausible as reflective beliefs to many Buddhists.

2. Non-reflective beliefs make reflective beliefs seem more plausible. When our reflective beliefs coincide with the non-reflective beliefs generated by the mental tools that unconsciously describe the world, then there is a sense that the belief is more reasonable. When this happens we may say that it seems "intuitively right" or perhaps that it "feels right". This sense of rightness may be difficult to explain, since it is based on how well a reflective belief fits with our non-reflective beliefs (which are transparent and frequently unconscious).

In physics, classical mechanics largely coincides with non-reflective belief. Classical mechanics largely describes the world we can see with our eyes and thus any mathematical expressions are likely to be intuitive (to feel right). Relativity is somewhat counter-intuitive because it involves unimaginably large magnitudes of velocity, mass, and length, and tells us that time is relative to the frame of reference. Quantum mechanics by contrast, the description of the behaviour of subatomic particles, describes a world that no one can see or even imagine, and as a result is deeply counter-intuitive. Sometimes even scientists will refer to this as "quantum weirdness".

What seems intuitive, by which in Barrett's terms we mean "that which our non-reflective beliefs make plausible" is a very significant aspect of religious belief. For example, consider the passage I have often cited from Thomas Metzinger's book The Ego Tunnel
"For anyone who actually had [an out of body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body." (p.78)
Many of us, especially those who meditate, have experiences that lead us towards ontological dualism. One of the great meditation practitioners and teachers I have known makes exactly this point, i.e. that his meditative experience makes it seem incontrovertible to him that cognition is not tied to the body. It is this kind of non-reflective dualism, based on the "realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence" of these types of experience, in which our mind appears to be distinct from our body, which makes religious ideas (spirits, afterlife, gods) more plausible. Experience causes us to form non-reflective beliefs (e.g. mind/body dualism) that make our reflective beliefs (e.g. rebirth) seem more plausible. For many Buddhists, for example, rebirth is quite intuitive, quite an obvious proposition. It seems naturally plausible. Our non-reflective beliefs about the nature of our minds, the possibility of mental activity without a body, and the powerful desire for continuity combine to make a reflective belief in rebirth seem plausible and likely. Of course that a view seems plausible, even when the majority think so, does not make it true. It's not even a valid criteria for judging the truth of the belief.

But Barrett missed out something important here. yes, non-reflective beliefs do make reflective beliefs seem plausible, but the flipside of this is that they also make some of them seem more implausible. Most people, of whatever faith, find an afterlife plausible. The new annihilationists who rest their reflective beliefs on science are historically unusual, and their beliefs are powerfully counter-intuitive to most people. This is a large part of why supernatural beliefs persist despite progress in science; and why, despite regular debunking, people with "psychic powers" are still able to draw crowds and make a lot of money. And why people can read detailed explanations of why an afterlife is implausible and just write it off without a second thought. One Reddit commentator took one look at my essay There is No Life After Death, Sorry and said:
"I consider this article completely and fundamentally false. The author is fairly clearly a materialist, but he does not succeed in proving anything, here." (Reddit /r/Buddhism
But when pressed the commenter concedes that they didn't really read the essay. The title conflicts so drastically with their non-reflective beliefs that without a considerable act of will they come to the inevitable conclusion that I am wrong without reading body of the essay. And rejecting my argument without ever having carefully considered it seems a reasonable stance. In effect it is demanded by their non-reflective beliefs. This is all too common amongst Buddhists, who ironically tend to have a very high opinion of themselves with respect to rejecting blind faith.

Important in Barrett's theory is that the lending of plausibility to concepts is not simply a passive process. Because these non-reflective beliefs are actively involved in processing the information that is presented to our conscious minds. Therefore the third way that the two kinds of belief interact is:

3. Non-reflective beliefs shape memories and experiences.  Our minds are actively involved in perception. It's not that we have a perception and then interpret it. In fact interpretation and perception are simultaneous processes. In Buddhist terms the processes that go into making up experience, the five skandhas, work together simultaneously to produce an experience. What presents itself to our conscious mind is partly the product of our non-reflective beliefs. This is true also of memories. Everything that we become aware of is being filtered through our system of producing non-reflective beliefs. Again we see the parallel with Kant's a priori judgements. There is no experience that is not understood through our pre-existing beliefs about the world, including such "metaphysical" notions as space, time, and causality. But again this process is transparent, so that we do not realise that what reaches awareness is already a compromise. 

Non-reflective beliefs, along with memories of past experiences, are the standard against which we judge all other beliefs. A conclusion that is consistent with a larger number of non-reflective beliefs, is (unconsciously) judged more plausible and is thus more likely to become a reflective belief. The process by which this happens "often amounts to a crude heuristic" (15). Although Barrett's description of this process is evocative, I think Damasio has identified more accurately how this process works. Damasio (2006) describes a process involving emotional weighting of facts to determine their "salience" (See Facts and Feelings). By scanning our emotional response to certain conclusions we can evaluate many possibilities at once and come to a conclusion quickly and unconsciously. Even reasoning seems to involve this process of assessing the salience of information through how we feel about it. Because the decision making process works by integrating emotional responses, it is effectively able to assess many possibilities at once and present the preferred option (the one we feel best about) to our conscious mind quickly, but transparently. We then find reasons to justify our decision.

A fascinating example of this surfaced, as I was writing this essay, from the blog of Joseph LeDoux, the world's leading expert on the neurophysiology of emotions, especially fear. His published work on the amygdala stated that damage to the amygdala weakens the ability to assess threats and of course one of the most accessible aspects of our response to threats is the feeling of fear. But this was taken to mean that the amygdala caused fear. This is an example of the fallacy that correlation equals causation, we actually alter what we read or hear so that it fits our preconceptions. As LeDoux says "When one hears the word “fear,” the pull of the vernacular meaning is so strong that the mind is compelled to think of the feeling of being afraid." In fact the amygdala "only contributes to feelings of fear indirectly." 

As Barrett puts it, "people rarely work through a logical and empirical proof for a claim, Rather, what I call 'reflective' tools typically do their calculations rapidly." In Barrett's view it is the consistently with a large number of non-reflective beliefs which tip us towards a reflective belief. To the extent that this fits with Damasio's decision making model I think it is accurate. However for Barrett's theory this aspect is important because it underpins his view on what makes for a plausible supernatural belief. This brings us to the subject of minimally counter-intuitive beliefs.



Ardila, A.  (2015) A Proposed Neurological Interpretation of Language Evolution. Behavioural Neurology. doi: 10.1155/2015/872487. Epub 2015 Jun 1.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607.,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

Boden, Matthew Tyler. (2015) Supernatural beliefs: Considered adaptive and associated with psychological benefits. Personality and Individual Differences. 86: 227–231. Via Science Direct.

Cima, Rosie. How Culture Affects Hallucinations. 22 Apr 2015.

Damasio, Antonio. (2006) Descarte's Error. London: Vintage Books.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014) Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1988) Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Vintage.

Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

LeDoux, Joseph. (2015) The Amygdala Is NOT the Brain's Fear Center: Separating findings from conclusions. Psychology Today. 10 Aug.

Metzinger, Thomas. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.

07 February 2014

Good and Evil

Anubis weighs the soul of the deceased (left) against a feather representing the law (right).
A few weeks ago one of the blogs I read posed the question: If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good? The author went on to discuss some research that he thought addressed this question, though here I am more interested in the question itself. As Buddhists we might say that the question does not concern us because we don't believe in gods anyway. But for the purposes of this essay I'm going to treat karma as a god, a supernatural entity that does not have any human or anthropomorphic form, but which carries out precisely the same function as any god concerned with human morality.

Where Do Moral Gods Come From?

Briefly my theory of morality begins with hunter-gatherers living in Africa ca. 100,000 years ago. They lived in small, close knit bands that most likely rarely got above 150 members, or when they did, split into two or more new groups. The number 150, along with other numbers that emerge from studying natural group sizes for different types of human association, arose from Robin Dunbar's work on how neocortex size is correlated to group size in various animals (See Bibliography). 150 is the average number of close relationships that an average anatomically modern human being can keep track of. Groups both smaller and larger can and do form with varying degrees of intimacy. For example much larger groupings are possible when members are only called on simply to recognise the others. I suggest that below the "Dunbar Number" a group is easily able to keep track of each member and their behaviour. In particular small groups, living closely together have accurate knowledge of who is obeying groups norms and who is not. Above the Dunbar Number and group members begin to lose track of who is doing what, even though they probably still know who everyone is and a great deal about them.

Thomas Metzinger has argued, on the basis of his own out of body experiences, that it is entirely natural for humans to have a dualistic point of view on body and mind. Indeed he says that having had an out-of-body experience it's almost impossible not to become an "ontological dualist": that is to believe that consciousness is entirely separable from the body. Though to be clear Metzinger himself does not believe that consciousness leaves the body during the experience, but suggests that signals which convey information that contribute to the sense of self lose integration. The result being that we experience our visual point of view shifting away from our felt sense of embodiment. Experiments have shown that it is relatively simple to shift the point of view away from the body by confusing the senses in, for example, virtual reality environments. Out-of-body and similar 'mystical' experiences are fairly common and, in a pre-scientific world must have contributed to a worldview in which matter and spirit are seen as two different substances or realms (See also Metaphors and Materialism). Thus for most people, even many who don't believe in God, the idea of spirits and a spiritual realm seem quite natural.

Most hunter-gatherer societies seem to practice some form of animism. That is to say they see the world around them as a alive with non-corporeal life and/or they attribute sentience and intelligence to non-human living beings of both the animal and plant kingdom. One of the reasons for this may be the so-called Hyperactive Agency Detector that we all possess (see Barrett 2004). This function allows us to interpret agency, but it is tuned in such a way as to allow us to see agency where there is none. In the weather for example, or in the sun and moon. We also have a propensity to see patterns - this is a strong point for all mammals but is well developed in humans and some others. The most common patterns we see are faces, a phenomenon known as Pareidolia. Perception and interpretation of facial expressions is one of the most important skills we develop. The lack of this ability, as with some people who have Autism, can make social interaction very difficult. For a view on how Pareidolia might have affected the development of religion, see Guthrie (1995). Michael Witzel's (2012) work on comparative mythology shows that myths involving gods in human form, and a general view of the universe as alive and populated with sentience, or even the universe itself as sentient, were in place when the ancestors of all modern humans moved out of East Africa 65,000 years ago. So within the "group" we have to allow for a number of relationships with ancestors, gods, and other disembodied beings. I'm not sure what to call these relationships: super-social?

At some, as yet unknown, size threshold groups of humans begin to experience anxiety about the group norms. If there are too many breaches of the group norms, or too many people are not following them, then either the norms need to shift or the people need to be brought into line. Group norms have a strong survival value for hunter gather groups. They help the group to sustain its identity, ensure ease of communication, and effective collective actions. So when group norms are undermined there is reason to be anxious. However since group membership extends to the supernatural realm it might well seem obvious for group members to call on the non-corporeal members of their group, who are not bound to the world of matter or it's constraints, to keep and eye out for infractions and even to take corrective action. 

In Witzel's theory even our oldest Pan-Gaean myths show influence from the shaman. The job of the shaman is to act as interpreter or translator between the two realms of matter and spirit. The shaman can cross the boundaries of the two realms and return with knowledge and messages. Similarly some spirits can have an effect in the world of matter. However neither is at home in the world of the other and the shaman is at peril in his or her journeys. The spirit cannot stay in the realm of matter, but can only visit for short periods. Similarly they can only weakly interact with matter (and not at all if a scientist happens to be observing). 

It may come about that over time one particular spirit comes to be acknowledged as superior in their ability to observe and keep group members within acceptable norms. Perhaps they are then formally invested with this role and become an overseer god. With the rise of monotheism all the various functions of gods, including this one, were aggregated into a single cosmic father-figure who is at once creator, law maker, overseer and judge. 

One of the main problems with this worldview is one that we still have today. People who are wicked (i.e. do not obey group norms) often seem to avoid any negative consequence. And similarly people who are good (i.e. obey group norms) often meet with considerable suffering and misfortune. This is patently unfair. And one solution to it is the story of judgement in the afterlife.

It's not known exactly when we started believing in an afterlife, but archaeologists begin to find grave goods intended for use in the afterlife around 45,000-40,000 years ago. This around the same time that cave art begins and modern humans began to move into Europe and the Chinese interior. Witzel proposes that the myths that characterise what he calls Laurasia began to be composed  at this time also. Sadly Michael Witzel's book on myth does not really deal with the afterlife. But we can take Egyptian Anubis, who has the head of a jackal, as a representative of the afterlife judge. Anubis, like most judges, is impartial. He weighs the soul of the dead against the law and if it is lighter they go on to join Osiris in heaven, and if heavier they are devoured by a monster from a dark netherworld. Thus even if the wicked are seen to get away with murder in this life, the group can be confident that their norms will be upheld in the final analysis. All debts are paid. The universe has a moral order. This view of morality as accounting is one that George Lakoff has used to help describe the values of the political spectrum (See also: Moral Metaphors), but it adds to the overall picture of why an afterlife judgement might seem necessary. 

The afterlife gods, such as Anubis, care about good and evil because we care about them. The gods of any particular society care about group norms in precisely the same way that that society cares about them. And they are a final arbiter of good and evil - impartial and impersonal. Underlying this quest for fairness seems to be the idea of the ordered universe - cosmos rather than chaos. Although humans often crave novelty, novelty is only good when seen against a backdrop of stability and sameness. The values of groups are conservative. The ideal for us would be an generally ordered universe into which a small amount of novelty regularly found it's way.

The question of whether the universe is ordered or not ordered continues to unsettle us today. It is a question at the heart of all the physical sciences. Unfortunately just when we think we've got everything sorted out and have decided that the universe is ordered in a particular way some novel information pops up to disrupt that sense of order. As yet we are still undecided on just what the nature of the universe is. We see regularities at many different levels that can be used to predict behaviour, but generally speaking these only work on one level. On the human level Newtonian mechanics adequately describes how bodies move. But the description breaks down at different levels: very much larger (since it doesn't take into account dark energy) or on very small scales (since it can't be reconciled with how very small bodies behave). But for our ancient ancestors there seems to have been no doubt that the universe was ordered and that "moral accounting" works and is effective.

There are some behaviours that are more or less universally frowned on amongst humans. Killing a member of one's own group is one example. But on the whole good and evil are locally defined. Killing members of other groups is almost always fine, though how we define our group has gradually been extended. As a society we include a very wide range of people under the umbrella of our laws, though most of the actual individuals are still pretty parochial. One of the major social issues for the UK is immigration from non-English speaking, and particularly non-Christian countries. Many ordinary English people struggle to see immigrants as part of their group. The term "integration" comes up again and again in public discourse. Some political parties make considerable political capital from exploiting this issue.

For most of the time our concerns are with the minutiae and trivia of daily life. Extreme breaches of the rules are shocking. More so in worldviews which announce that their rules are absolute and universal. A complete repudiation of the rules is sometimes referred to as "pure evil", though clearly in this view there can be no such thing as pure or impure evil.

Buddhist Morality in a Nutshell

For Buddhists the norms of good and evil are well defined in terms of both motivation and consequence. Where the motivation is attraction and grasping, or aversion and pushing away, the consequence will be evil. Where a consequence is unexpectedly evil we either look for an unconscious motivation, or an evil action in a past life (and here again we strike the problem of eternalism). The ideal Buddhist doesn't react with attraction or repulsion towards sensations. Thus they do not create any new karma, though sometimes even the awakened must still suffer the consequences of actions already performed, as we see in the case of Aṅgulimāla.

Karma as a moral god has undergone some changes over time. I'm attempting to get this aspect of my theory published at present and waiting to hear back from the journal editors. Karma starts off as an impartial force that ties consequences to be experienced with actions performed. Initially the consequences of actions could absolutely not be avoided, though they might be mitigated. Gradually Buddhists "discovered" that certain practices could help them sidestep karma, for example: confession (vidūṣanā); opposition (pratipakṣa); restoration (patyāpatti); and seeking refuge (āśraya) (Caturdharmaka Sūtra via the Śikṣāsamuccaya p.160). This ability to avoid the consequences of actions fundamentally changes the metaphysics of karma.


So this is an outline of the mechanics of how morality might work. In line with Owen Flanagan's use of the term, I'm starting to think of this approach as "Naturalism". This is a general theory that tries to account not only for Buddhist morality, but for all morality. It's a theory that could be tested in a variety of ways and makes certain predictions about the nature of morality and religion in human beings. And this brings us back to the initial question:

If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good?

What I hope this exposition shows is that the question is not a valid one. Our gods care about so-called right and wrong, about anything at all, only to the extent that we do. And this is also true for Buddhists. The non-anthropomorphic supernatural moral force (i.e. moral god) of Buddhism, karma, is primarily designed to ensure that Buddhists conform to Buddhist norms. Buddhist morality is incompletely yoked to the pursuit of altered states of consciousness that are transformative for the reason that a guilty conscience is a source of distraction. Concern with conformity to morality and etiquette--the latter dominates the life of most monastics for example--is at least equally important in most Buddhist traditions.


Barrett, J.L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God?Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). 'Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.' Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–493. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J 
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1998) 'The Social Brain Hypothesis.' Evolutionary Anthropology 6 (5): 178–190. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)6:5%3C178::AID-EVAN5%3E3.0.CO;2-8/pdf
Guthrie,Stewart. (1995) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press
Lakoff, George. (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.
Metzinger, Thomas. (2010). The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the SelfBasic Books.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.