on January 24, 2011
I do not read many non-fiction books in one sitting no matter how interesting I find their subject material as it is nearly impossible not to become bored at some point. Yet in the past year, Bering's book is one of only two that have kept my attention so captured.
As one of the leading scholars in the field of religious cognition Bering weaves a persuasive thesis that builds on the strengths of his research and others. Herein you will not find someone wrestling with theological minutia as cognitive accounts of religion go right for the root of what really matters for a rigorous account of the supernatural--the structure of the conceptualization rather than the propositional content. As Bering amply demonstrates, the foundations of religious thought are based on cognition that is much more general and deep than any specialized religious expression may superficially hint at.
The first chapter opens with an exposition on theory of mind--that ever present and nearly ubiquitous feature of our brains that fills it with recognition and understanding of other minds (only those with Autism and Asperger's syndrome typically have an impaired theory of mind). As the level of social sophistication was ratcheted up by evolution in our species, we broke into new niches that had previously been denied other Hominidae by their biological equipment--namely laryngeal and cerebral. A theory of mind allows us to represent what other minds may be thinking or intending and language allows these things to be communicated.
How does theory of mind relate to God?--in a foundational manner Bering argues. What is God but theory of mind applied to the mindless domain of nature where it does not belong? We see this illustrated by the numerous and interesting historical examples that Bering gives us such as the disaster with a bridge and a clown and some geese where many people died. (You'll have to read it to get the details.) In the aftermath, natural causes were ascertained (a faulty weld) but God was nevertheless invoked by many in the town as the "meta-agent" overseeing the event (note this was not to the exclusion of the actual cause). Indeed, a preacher even penned some sermons that laid blame to the "sins" of the town. God was therefore sending a symbolic message with the disaster to the townsfolk to get back on the straight and narrow path. Such instances are not the sole property of the past as the rhetoric of many Christian evangelicals surrounding hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake demonstrate. When looking at such examples it becomes clear that intentionality is also tied up in this process and is a clue as to why one of the most fundamental aspects of religion is the interpretation of natural events within a social-teleological frame.
In another central chapter to the argument, Bering takes on the afterlife and why these beliefs are often central in the constellation of important religious subjects. Included here is the claim that the precursors to reasoning about the afterlife emerge as a developmental regularity. Bering and psychologist David Bjorkland conducted an experiment where a puppet show about a mouse getting killed by an alligator was shown to a large sample of children. The surprising results demonstrated that even young children not yet enculturated into a particular religious tradition had a clear concept of biological death, yet still attributed thoughts and emotions to the mouse as if its mind were still functioning. More research covered here discusses how even many atheists that did not believe in life after death still reasoned about it as if consciousness were still active--such as saying that a dead man "realizes he's dead now." Bering calls this the "simulation constraint hypothesis" and argues that it is a foundational aspect of afterlife beliefs since it is impossible to imagine what it is like to be dead and this imparts the illusion that people can "go somewhere" after they die.
At the end of the book Bering makes a claim that I feel has been sorely lacking in this subject's literature--the explicit argument that this science is the way to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz of God and all his mental minions. As Bering notes, this is not a slam dunk argument for one could believe that this was the way in which the Almighty Creator of the Universe tinkered with human cognitive evolution to give us these, ahem, imperfect tendencies so we can recognize Him. Indeed, a leading scholar in the field, Justin Barrett, believes just such a thing. Yet, as one concerned with parsimony as Bering is, I find this to be very weak sauce.
Of course, this review merely constitutes a very poor, incomplete summary of an excellently explicated and important book that cannot even begin to give the full text its due. I hope that it may spark the interest of readers enough to pick Bering's book up and be introduced to the fascinating topic of religious cognition.
on February 18, 2011
Make no mistake about it, the title may sound mundane and overplayed but this is a VERY unusual book that had me thinking in genuinely new ways that I did not expect possible (and I am an old curmudgeon who has little patience for foolish ideas.) For a "popular science" book it is uncommonly well-written and so literate and is so persuasive that I would dare anyone who reads it to present a compelling counterargument to Bering's thesis. As another reviewer has said there is some "just so story" qualities to Bering's ideas about God and gossip but it is a hell of a good story with data to stand on. Due to the controversial topic (can anything be more incendiary than what he covers so gently in this book?) there will be many detractors and critics and some have already come out of the woodwork but notice how many of these are emotional reactions to the moral(istic) implications of what Bering is saying. Indeed some have said that Bering is more dangerous than Dawkins and I could not agree more.
It's like this: I had become an atheist about a decade ahead of the New Atheist surge beginning roughly with the publication of Sam Harris's The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. In most of that time the only books I could find addressing the issues of atheism that interested me--after reading Hume and Russell and a couple others--were deplorable, dull, badly written and uninspired affairs. Which is a shame, and rather surprising since some of the best writers I know about are actually atheists (Douglas Adams springs to mind--his The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is wonderful fun).
But then came the New Atheist "revival," and with it, several interesting and enjoyable books. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The God Delusion. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Several others.
And then it just all started feeling like too much. Each book started looking like just one more aspect of a dreary polemic about how god almost certainly doesn't exist. This is true. There is no cogent evidence whatsoever for the existence of a god, and several excellent reasons that argue AGAINST the existence of a god. But that's kind of dull, once you realize it.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that the LIFE of an atheist (this atheist, anyway) is dull or dreary. Not at all. But the TOPIC starts to feel almost as played as religion is.
There were a couple of works that took an approach and filled niches in ways that sparkled and stood out: The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods, for example, and Letting Go of God. But most of the material being produced that was skeptical of religion or argued for atheism felt listless, pedantic, and unnecessary.
Enter "The Belief Instinct." Extremely well-written, filled with fascinating literary references, anecdotes, study summaries, amusing, no longer than it needs to be--it's the first time I've seen someone address atheist themes in a fresh and interesting way in some while. For one thing, Berring makes no effort to argue for the truth of atheism. He just starts with the simple hypothesis, "If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral 'eye in the sky' that judges us, and so forth?" And the answers, while still retaining some of that evolutionary psychology "just-so story" quality, are backed by research and studies just convincing enough to make you think Berring's probably onto something.
I would go so far as to say that any honest theist who reads "The Belief Instinct" and Religion Explained back-to-back would be knocked back on her heels enough to realize that it is religion and spirituality that have something to defend, something to argue for, and that the rational default position should indeed be that our psychological and cultural evolutions have visited on our species a persistent--because often more helpful than harmful to reproductive success--illusion.
The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering
The Belief Instinct is an enjoyable book whose response to our basic belief system can be attributed to an understanding of the "theory of mind". Mr. Bering weaves an interesting narrative on how psychological illusions caused by the "theory of mind" gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. This 272-page book is composed of the following seven chapters: 1. The History of an Illusion, 2. A Life without Purpose, 3. Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs, 4. Curiously Immortal, 5. When God Throws People Off Bridges, 6. God as Adaptive, and 7. And Then You Die.
1. An enjoyable, well-written, well-researched book that builds up an interesting theory to a satisfactory end.
2. Elegant prose, very conversational tone throughout.
3. Mr. Bering is a well-read author who doesn't hesitate to immerse quotes, anecdotes, studies smoothly into his narrative.
4. At times, though-provoking but never unintelligible.
5. "Teleo-functioning reasoning" explained.
6. Evolution of our cognitive systems.
7. Interesting look at autism.
8. The human penchant to see meaningful signs.
9. Many references to scientific studies sprinkled throughout book.
10. The idea of an afterlife guided by our intuitions.
11. The illusion of purpose.
12. A thorough and satisfactory explanation of the "theory of mind".
13. Human evolution lead by the coevolution of the theory of mind and language.
14. The impact of human gossip.
15. The cognitive illusion of "God".
16. Good use of links and an excellent comprehensive bibliography.
1. I really wanted to give this book 5 stars but I was a little disappointed in what was not included in the book versus what was in it. Namely, a more thorough debunking of souls. I would have liked to have seen the term defined and more depth.
2. A little more science would have helped. Very basic, I understand the book is intended for the masses but more science was merited.
In summary, I enjoyed this book. It didn't take long to read and Mr. Bering does a wonderful job of tying everything together at the end. It satisfactorily addresses why we have supernatural beliefs and why it was advantageous to our ancestors. A little more "soul" searching would have been icing on the cake but a sweet treat nonetheless.
Recommendations: "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer, "Human" by Michael S. Gazzaniga, ", "Supersense" by Bruce M. Hood, "The Third Basic Instinct..." by Alex S. Key and "The Ego Tunnel" by Thomas Metzinger.
on July 19, 2012
The existential givens of life can be quite brutal: there is no absolute meaning, purpose, destiny, order, or permanence to our lives. (Yikes!)
The truth is, it's hard to really, deeply believe those truths. Although accepting these existential givens is ultimately (and counter-intuitively) a way towards a meaningful life, our primitive brains are designed to pad us from these realities. (After all, if our ancestors were truly aware of the truths of life, they might have not been so motivated for the daily hunt-gather-and-reproduce activities.) The mechanism our brains have used to buffer us from these harsh existential givens is the theory of mind--the capacity for us to reason about the unobservable mental states of others, be it people, deities, or other supernatural agents.
As the author explains:
"Evolved human cognition--in particular, our theory of mind--is directly responsible for the illusions of purpose and destiny, for the feeling that otherworldly communicative messages are encrypted in the occurrence of natural events, and, finally, for our intuitions that our mental lives will persist in the wake of our complete neurological death." (p. 130)
The theory of mind has had immense adaptive value in allowing our ancestors to turn a blind eye (/mind) to the existential givens and plow through the course of evolution:
"The intoxicating pull of destiny beliefs, seeing 'signs' in a limitless array of unexpected natural events, the unshakable illusion of psychological immortality, and the implicit assumption that misfortunes are related to some divine plan of long-forgotten moral breach--all of these things have meaningfully coalesced in the human brain to form a set of psychological processes. They are functional because they breed explicit beliefs and behaviors (usually but not always of a religious nature) that were adaptive in the ancestral past." (pp.191-192)
After showing how our theory of mind has helped us grapple with life's existential givens, the author masterfully (and courageously!) argues how God is but a cognitive illusion:
"By all accounts, the basic illusion of God (or some other supernatural agent) 'willfully' creating us as individuals, 'wanting' us to behave in particular ways, 'observing' and 'knowing' about our otherwise private actions, 'communicating' His desires to us in code through natural events, and 'intending' to meet us after we die is pretty convincing for most people...The cognitive illusion of an ever-present and keenly observant God worked for our genes, and that's reason enough for nature to have kept the illusion vividly alive in human brains." (pp. 195-196)
I found this book to be a brilliant, stimulating, and endlessly thought-provoking exploration into the meaning of life--or more accurately, how we make meaning when there really is no meaning. (Or as the author straightforwardly puts it: "The unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that."[p.137]) Wrapping my brain around these ideas has provided some nice cushioning for sitting on those concrete existential givens.
on September 2, 2012
A major criterion on which I rate a book is persistence: How much does it continue to influence my thoughts, even weeks and months after I've finished it? "The Belief Instinct" excels on this score.
I came to this book having heard about the theory of mind but not knowing a great deal about it. From Bering I learned much -- in particular its evolutionary advantages and the role it plays in the tendency of us human beings to ascribe happenstance and coincidence to a mind with a conscious intention.
What I wish Bering had addressed (and perhaps he will in the next edition) is how this relates (if it in fact does) to apparently supernatural events that seem to result in knowledge that I've not seen explained in any other way. A good example is people who report knowing that a loved one has just died -- knowing it even before they received the news -- because they had an experience of a communication from the person after death.
I am about to begin a PhD program in which I will conduct research on the design of technology to facilitate spiritual experiences. I am interested in the subjective nature of such experiences, independent of religious interpretation, and Bering's book has already had an effect on how I think of my research. I'm not quite sure yet what the final impact will end up being, but I am sure that my work will be richer because of Bering's insights.
Bering's main thesis is the "theory of mind" - the trait that, among all species, humans alone possess. The theory depends on our evolved ability to:
1. Mind-read - to predict what others are thinking and what they're likely to do.
2. Participate in and dissect gossip (the most widespread hobby humans have).
3. Learn to co-operate or be ostracized by the group.
4. Contemplate our own mortality.
These evolved abilities were responsible for the cohesiveness of early humans and their ability to survive. Bering says a by-product was the "instinct" to believe in supernatural agents.
The theory is not his own but Bering makes good use of it in applying it to belief in gods. He says, "Theory of mind is as much a peculiar trademark of our species as is walking upright on two legs, learning a language, and raising offspring into their teens."
Aside: I might add, from personal experience, this last project can extend into the twenties or later.
Thing is, religion is not the major emphasis: the theory of mind is and it evolved simultaneously with language and religion. Commitment to religion - at least in the early evolution of humanity - wasn't even costly. It was a by-product and proved helpful in enforcing social compliance. It was part of the package.
As Bering writes about the evolution of the mind, he develops the idea of a "Belief Instinct." Many atheists believe that "religious ideas amount to a sort of cultural virus, the human brain being parasitized by virulent concepts that children catch like a bug from infected adults." Not so, says Bering: "Just like a crude language sprouting up, at least some form of religious belief and behavior would probably appear spontaneously on a desert island untouched by cultural transmission, particularly beliefs involving purposes and origins." Then he says, "....since natural selection works without recourse to intelligent forethought, this mental apparatus of ours evolved to think about God without need of the latter's consultation, let alone His being real."
Bering says all this without sounding derogatory about any particular belief system - he doesn't try to talk anyone out of their religion. As to an afterlife - when you die your kidneys die, as does your heart, your liver, your spleen, and yes, your brain. Since your mind is what your brain produces, it's gone too, along with that 21 contested grams of soul. Like Occam said, the simplest answer is likely to be correct. Like Ecclesiastes says, the solution to life is to enjoy it while you can while doing all the good you can because it will soon be over. And that's all there is.
Our mind, our identity, is something the brain has provided for us. It is able to perceive for us our mortality - an apparent unique condition only we possess within the animal and plant kingdoms. It's not particularly comforting that our mind dies with our bodies. Like religious people, I, too would like it to be different, but there is no scientific evidence to justify any other conclusion. This scenario is unacceptable enough to guarantee the invention and persistence of belief systems that offer more pleasant alternatives. I would not deny that comfort to anyone despite overwhelming evidence for the sad truth. Our parts may be (and are) broken up and used by nature elsewhere but our minds will die. No wonder we invented gods.
on May 30, 2013
This book is a fascinating exploration of what drives human beings to believe in all kinds of ludicrous ideas, like destiny, purpose, meaning, and god. Most shocking of all is the dawning understanding that evolution has actually wired our brains to indulge in such delusional thinking. The book could be described as an in-depth analysis of Theory of Mind: the uniquely human capacity to understand that other people and creatures have mental states, or subjective experiences. This ability causes us to see purpose, intelligence, and intentionality in just about everything. What started as a social skill to help us survive in small tribal organizations has become a fundamental building block of how we perceive reality itself. Mr. Bering does an excellent job of fleshing out his arguments and covers the topic quite extensively. A slight warning is necessary, however: do not read this book until you are completely ready to abandon every last scap of magical thinking that you have heretofore indulged in. It's conclusions can be depressing, but this must be tempered with the realization that no one perspective on reality encompasses the whole picture. If nothing else, it's the best book on Theory of Mind that I've yet found.
This was a surprisingly slow read for a book that I picked up very eagerly. I was first introduced to the connection between religion and current cognitive science in a course on ancient religion, and I was intrigued. The idea is that the human brain is inclined to believe in some sort of divine agent because that sort of belief was beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. For example, when an event occurs, it's useful to think that that event was caused by an active agent rather than happening by chance; the cost of attributing something to an agent when it was really just a coincidence isn't very high, whereas attributing something to chance when it was actually the work of a deliberate agent could have very negative consequences. To take a very simple example, if some leaves move in the wind, that could be a sign of a predator; ignoring that sort of sign because we took it as meaningless might result in death. On the other hand, if we assumed that someone had moved the leaves and it turned out to be nothing, no harm would be done. So assuming agency behind events is a positive, and we evolved accordingly. This, of course, ties in to whether we perceive God's agency behind various events today. Doing so is in some sense natural.
The issue of God is further elaborated by the idea of "theory of mind". Not only do we assume that some active agent is behind things, but we can actually imagine what that agent might be thinking. This ability is apparently more or less unique to humans, and developed as a way to help us live together in society. Because we can imagine what others are thinking about us, and can therefore imagine the negative response to certain behaviours, we have to show some restraint rather than giving in to all of our urges. Incidentally, we come to imagine the mind of God as well.
I personally find these ideas very interesting, so I wanted to find out more after reading a bit about them for class. Within the week, I happened to come across this popularizing account, so I immediately bought it thinking that it would be an enjoyable read that simultaneously helped me understand the issues better.
The Belief Instinct did turn out to be full of interesting facts and did aid my understanding to a certain extent, but I found that the overall presentation was a bit lacking. There are lots and lots of descriptions of experiments, which were fun to read but sometimes made the book feel a bit disjointed. Worse, I didn't like the "popular" writing style at all. Rather than clarifying the issues, I felt that it sometimes obscured them, and it wasn't consistent. The switches between often fairly low-brow humour and somewhat more technical explanations were a bit jarring; at one point the author made a joke about using a big, scary word (teleo-functional), while at other points using unfamiliar psychological terms freely.
In the end, it took me about six weeks to finish this book because it just wasn't as gripping as I had expected. I do feel like I had learned a lot by the end (though my explanations of the theories should be taken with a big grain of salt), but I had expected so much more. I would still recommend this book to those interested in the topic, since I don't know of any others to suggest as substitutes, but I'll be keeping an eye out for other books dealing with the same ideas since I wasn't entirely satisfied with this one.
on August 16, 2012
This book is a must reading for any secular humanist who wants to understand the psychology of belief in the supernatural. Jesse Bering's The Belief Instinct finally connects the dots, going beyond Dawkins and Hutchins. A cognitive psychologist, Bering quotes study after well-designed study, including his own research. Without the slightest rancor or voice-raising, he calmly proves that god is a cognitive illusion in the family of teleological illusions, i.e. explaining things in terms of purpose, like young children saying, "There are mountains so animals have a higher place to climb."
In a calm and civil way, Bering disposes of the illusion that we have a soul, an independent and immortal entity that has nothing to do with brain function; that are here for a special purpose (again, this is a teleological illusion; but we can construct a purpose for ourselves within our social context); that there is an all-powerful Big Daddy in the sky (not Bering's term; he actually capitalizes the word god) who personally cares about each of the billions of us; that we continue to exist after death, hopefully in everlasting bliss rather than unending torment.
Bering convincingly shows that the human brain constructs reality in a way that is useful for survival rather than accurate. The illusion that we have a lot of control over the world (be it just by "knocking on wood" or performing any other magical ritual) is more adaptive than feeling helpless in a random universe. Far from assuming the shrill triumphant tone of certain atheist writers, Bering comes across as slightly mournful about the shattering of the seductive and sometimes beneficial cognitive illusions of the existence of god, soul, destiny, and afterlife. ". . . We are the first generation in the history of our species to be confronted directly by the full scientific weight of an argument that renders a personal God both unnecessary and highly unlikely". . . Whether shattering the adaptive illusion of God is a `good thing' or a `bad thing' isn't entirely clear."
Ultimately Bering favors living without the cognitive illusions that he has deftly disposed of. God is an illusion, but we are not alone in a frightening world. We have other humans for company, friendship, affection, help, and consolation. "We can live for each other -- here and now, before it's too late."