Sunday, May 30, 2010

Michael Shermer: Why people believe in "INVISIBLE" agents

Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American, "Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World," posits two human tendencies to explain why people believe in what he calls "invisible agents" (souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, etc.): 1) patternicity & 2)agenticity.

1)Patternicity: the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Examples: the "face" on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, etc.

Within this first aspect, Shermer points out that even though the recognition of predictive patterns in the real world (weather, animal migrations, cycles of edible vegetation) was critical to the survival of Paleolithic hominids, the problem is that humans did not evolve a "baloney-detection device" to discriminate between true and false patterns.

As a result, two types of errors can occur from the tendency toward patternicity: false positive (believing a pattern is real when it is not) and false negative (not believing a pattern is real when it is).

2)Agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents.

Shermer theorizes that because humans possess a developed cortex and a "theory of mind" (awareness of mental states, ie: desires, intentions etc in ourselves and others), they infer "agency" behind the patterns (ie: the invisible agents).

He further asserts that patternicity and agenticity, together, form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms along with their respective "invisible agents" (intelligent designers, etc).

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