Pascal Boyer on Imaginary Friends and Supernatural Agents

Pascal Boyer on Imaginary Friends and Supernatural Agents January 11, 2012

Sorry for the hiccup as the site was down, but now that we’re back up, the blogathon goes on! Onward to 9:00am!

Reading Pascal Boyer’s frequently illuminating Religion Explained last fall, the single most interesting part for me was his discussion of imaginary friends. According to my mom I had countless imaginary friends as a kid. My imaginary friends were not your ordinary imaginary friends but imaginary children. Some of whom worked at the grocery store or who had retired and moved to Florida. I grew up to be a pretty socially-oriented guy and (for a long while) a fervent believer in God.

So here’s what Boyer has to say about the psychological connections between these facts in people like my younger selves, in the book The Fracture of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion:

It is certainly relevant that a good deal of human existence consists in interaction with agents that are not physically present–and that this is one of the major cognitive capactieis that made humans a very special kind of primates. Many, perhaps most, of our thoughts about other people occur when they are not around. memories of what people did or said, as well as expectations, fears and hopes of what they may do, are a constant theme of trains of thought and ruminations, and also the quintessential subject matter of gossip. In all human groups, people also fantasize about individuals they have not encountered yet (e.g.. Mr. Right). They also entertain thoughts and emotions about deceased individuals and about persons they will never encounter, like fictional characters. It may be a special feature of the human mind that we can create such representations and more importantly run rational inferences about them.

He goes on later:

Humans live in a “cognitive niche”, in that they more than any other species depend on information, especially on information provided by other human beings, and on information about other human beings. This dependence means that mental dispositions that help maintain rich and flexible representations of others, of their goals and mental states are crucial. Social interaction presets us with a whole gamut of possible actions from our partners as well as possible reactions to our own behavior. Reactions on our part should be fast but also appropriate.

In order to have to be ready for these fast reactions we are constantly varying scenarios in our minds, imagining others’ responses and preparing for various possible contingencies. So skill at imagining the intentions and mental states of other minds which are not present is crucial to this process. Enter imaginary friends:

Another salient case of a common domain of productive imagination is the frequent creation of imaginary friends by young children. From an early age (between three and ten) many children (perhaps more than half of them) engage in durable and complex relationships with such agents. These imagined person or personified animals, sometimes but not always derived from stories or cartoons or other cultural folklore, follow the child around, play with her, converse with her, etc. Young children know perfectly well that their invisible companions are not “there” in the same sense as real friends and other people. Now Marjorie Taylor has shown that the relationship with an imagined companion is a stable one, so the child must compute the companion’s reactions, taking into account not just the imagined friend’s personality but also past events in their relationship. What the companion does or says is constrained by their personality and must remain consistent and plausible even in this fantastic domain. Also, companions are often used to provide an alternative viewpoint on a situation. They may find odd information unsurprising or frightening situations manageable. So imaginary companions may constitute a form of training for the social mind, helping build the social capacities required to maintain coherent social interaction.

In many human groups supernatural agency is associated with moral understandings. This may take the form of explicit moral codes supposedly laid down by gods or ancestors, or stories of exemplary semi-mythical ethical paragons. More generally, people assume that supernatural agents keep a watch on them and are concerned about moral behavior. A cognitive-evolutionary account may explain why this latter assumption is “natural” enough to be found in non-literate groups but also in the spontaneous religious thinking of most religious believers.

These connections imply what was to me an unexpected link between the famously social character of many religions and the belief in supernatural agents found in them. The same, valuable, basic kind of psychological mechanism which trains many minds in social thinking enables them to be susceptible to highly superstitious thinking. Boyer cautions in Religion Explained against inferring that supernatural agencies are perceived and thought about identically with the way imaginary friends are. Obviously, unlike the children who know their imaginary friends are not real, many religious believers in supernatural agencies do not. So not exactly the same thing is happening. But the use of such supernatural agencies, especially when perceived as moral agents monitoring behavior, may be serving a comparable function of being the minds of others present in one’s own thought processes.

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