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, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.