Seeking the Hidden Switches

Two juxtaposed articles in the June/July issue of Scientific American Mind offer some intriguing insights into how theistic beliefs may have first developed in the human species. First, an article titled Preschool Determinists:

When cognitive scientists Laura E. Schulz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jessica Sommerville of the University of Washington tested preschoolers, they discovered that the kids were thoroughgoing “causal determinists.” The children assumed that everything happens for a reason. Schulz and Sommerville showed the kids toy lights and switches that either worked all the time or only some of the time. The children then were asked to make them light up – or to prevent them from lighting. “The children consistently behaved as if the lights and switches operated sensibly – that effects happened for reasons,” Schulz says. When the contraptions were rigged to shine only occasionally, “children looked for hidden switches that might have blocked the toys, rather than accepting that the toys might operate at random.”

And another article in the same issue, Outside the Sandbox:

…Manny, a four-year-old, once asked his babysitter on a trip to the store: “Who sits inside the traffic light and makes it turn red?” Amy, the 19-year-old babysitter, replied spontaneously: “I don’t know. Should we take a closer look?” She pulled over and had the boy wrap his arms around the light pole, so he could get a feel for its size. “There isn’t room for anybody inside,” Manny concluded. “Then how does it work?” Amy told Manny that once they were home they could find out.

These two paragraphs exemplify two important and common psychological tendencies in human beings that, when combined, may account for the emergence of religion. The first shows that people, even young children, tend to assume that events happen for reasons and are not random. That is no surprise – evolution has gifted the human species with pattern-seeking minds, minds that are constantly on the lookout for ways that the world around us can be understood and thereby controlled to our advantage. In most cases, this is a highly beneficial adaptation, and it has spurred the development of civilization, of technology, and all the other fruits of the creative process that we now enjoy. However, our minds can sometimes be too eager to detect patterns, seeing them even where they do not exist – which accounts for our predilection to see faces and familiar shapes in clouds and stars, to see religious symbolism in random formations – and, as in this experiment, to assume the existence of hidden switches even where none exist. Our brains seem reluctant to embrace the existence of randomness.

Similarly, the child’s inquiry in the second excerpt showcases what Daniel Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, refers to as a “hyperactive agent detection device”, or more concisely, the “Who’s there?” reflex. That is to say, when a person experiences some phenomenon that they do not understand, often the natural response is to attribute it to a human or a human-like being. Dennett writes:

…there is no doubt at all that normal human beings do not have to be taught how to conceive of the world as containing lots of agents who, like themselves, have beliefs and desires…. We experience the world as not just full of moving human bodies but of rememberers and forgetters, thinkers and hopers and villains and dupes and promise-breakers and threateners and allies and enemies. (p.111)

Again, this is an important survival tendency: in general, it is better to detect agents where none exist than not to detect ones that do exist. False positives have fewer consequences than false negatives. (It’s better to jump at the rustling of grass that turns out to be nothing than to ignore the rustling of grass that turns out to be an armed enemy from a rival tribe.)

But combine these two tendencies, and what happens? We tend to believe that random phenomena we encounter have causes hidden from us; and we tend to believe that those causes are intelligent, human-like agents. And that is theism in a nutshell. At the beginning this may consist of simple animism, as every natural phenomenon is thought to have a distinct source. Over time, this seems to coalesce into polytheism, and then in some cases to monotheism. (The causes of such a progression would be a worthy subject of study in their own right.) And once this initial conclusion is widely accepted, people are adept at coming up with excuses for why those agents are not more obvious. If Manny’s babysitter had told him that the man who lives in the traffic light was extra small, or extra thin, or just plain magic, it is hard to doubt that he would have accepted that without question, just as children tend to accept similar stories about how Santa Claus gets into their homes. On such distortions of reason are religions born. But there is a hopeful side to this story as well: as Manny and Amy’s story shows, it is equally easy to plant the seed of rationalism in curious young minds.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    Over time, this seems to coalesce into polytheism, and then in some cases to monotheism. (The causes of such a progression would be a worthy subject of study in their own right.)

    I’ve seen some fairly convincing, if brief, arguments that the progression is in large part tied to the degree of hierarchy and stratification in a given society, with monotheistic cultures being the most authoritarian and stratified. Admittedly, some of this was from Professor Hank Wesselman, who I am quite certain was manipulating the curriculum and information given in his lectures in order to lend credibility to the expensive New-Agey seminars he led and occasionally passed out brochures for (examples include assigning two of his books as class texts, both of which were completely superfluous to the lessons, and misrepresenting the placebo effect).

    As for planting the seed of rationalism in young minds, I’m working on it. First step is getting her to talk…

  • SpeirM

    Of course, the assertion will be that God built this proclivity into us.

  • Rowan

    Well, we know that evolution happens, so what’s the point of adding God to the mixture? He’s superfluous.
    I always wonder – evolutionary theists who accept evolution but continue to believe in God – what kind of God are they thinking of? If you are going to believe in God, the fairy-tale of fundamentalists is actually more rational.

  • Shishberg

    Of course, the assertion will be that God built this proclivity into us.

    Yeah, so that we have a tendency to seek him through thick and thin. It would also cleanly explain why there are so many false religions (for any given “true” religion).

    Adam sort of implied it, but just to make it clear: this is not a proof of atheism, in itself. It is, however, an excellent explanation for how religion could have started regardless of whether any god or gods actually exist. It shifts the burden of proof back to theism (if it ever left) by explaining how we could have reached our current state of affairs without resorting to deities.

  • SpeirM

    Those are good arguments, I think. My own thinking tends to go along with Rowan’s. God is simply supernumerary. Yes, he might exist, but why? What compels us to believe he does? What about the universe would demonstrably be different either way?

    And the “false religions” observation is good, too. If we claim that the proclivities Adam speaks of were put within us to be evidence of God, then why aren’t there more specific ones to show us which god and any necessary particulars about him/her/it?

  • Philip Thomas

    Rowan, you and I believe that the scientific evidence clearly points to evolution. So belief that some other method was responsible for the development of human beings is less rational.

    On the wider point, fundamentalist believers face severe problems in the numerous contradictions in the Bible, in the immoral nature of many of its passages, and in the contradictions between the Bible and what Science tells us.

    So I contend that liberal theism is more rational than fundamentalism- and I think Adam also believes this. In addition, liberal theists are your ally on 90% of your agenda, so telling them they are less rational than fundamentalists is tactically unsound.

  • Alex Weaver

    I think what he means is that the Fundamentalists have a more solid basis of scriptural support in that they adhere closely in most respects to the bibles, particularly the contraditions in the Bible, the immoral nature of many of its passages, and the contradictions between the Bible and what Science tells us. This is a position Adam has argued (I believe it’s this essay).

  • Alex Weaver

    And for the confused, I’ve been commenting as Azkyroth for the past X long.

  • Philip Thomas

    Good morning Azkyroth Weaver. I have read God is Love, and you can read my response to it here:

    God is Love actually specifically states in the first paragraph that liberal theism is a more rational position.

    On Adam’s website there are many essays attacking the essentially irrational nature of biblical literalism. I’m not sure what you mean by “adhere closely”- do you mean that they embrace the Bible’s errors? Or that there are biblical passages which adequately explain those errors?

  • Ignoramus

    Philip Thomas, I just read your piece on Mithala. com, and I wonder, if your conscience can override the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, then why don’t you just use it all of the time?

  • Philip Thomas

    I do, when I obey the teachings of the Church I am obeying my conscience as well. I do not have strong feelings on all moral topics, though.

  • Philip Thomas

    Thinking about this some more:
    a)I don’t actually follow my conscience all the time: there is such a thing as sin (or whatever you choose to call it).

    b)Often the direction of my conscience is not very specific: it may consist merely in a desire to obey due authority, for example. My actions then follow on the direction of said authority, assuming said direction does not come into conflict with some other matter of conscience.

  • Alex Weaver

    I meant that they embrace the bible’s errors, and often act according to the less moral of its dictates and in an irrational fashion consistent with its internal contradictions. While vile, this is more or less consistent according to their view of the bible as God’s word.

    As for the essay, I specifically remember Adam citing on at least one occasion statements from liberal theists, saying he agrees that they are reasonable and morally sound, but then asking “how do they know?” Meaning that the bible does not support their positions and that if it is their own consciences from which these ideas are derived, then religion is unnecessary. Fundamentalism, by contrast, counts a significantly greater degree of Biblical support, even though no one with a functional conscience could endorse much of its position. I imagine this is what Rowan meant by fundamentalism being “more rational” (if so, not the best choice of words, but…).

  • Alex Weaver

    Let me clarify: the embrace the erroneous portions of the bible, though they do not admit them to be such.

  • Philip Thomas

    My belief in Christianity is based on my judgement that the Resurrection ocurred and that this should be interpreted in the way that the Church has interpreted it.
    This seems eminently more sensible to me thatn asserting that Christianity is true because the bible is inerrant…

  • Ignoramus

    Yes, that seems more sensible to me, too

  • Archi Medez

    Adam, thanks for the Sci Am Mind reference. Very interesting stuff. We were talking about these sorts of issues in a previous thread. As we expand our empirical knowledge of how the developing mind works, we will continue to increase our knowledge of how the mind invents religious beliefs. This is one of the most exciting areas of research.