Promiscuous Teleology

My Typical Superstitious Morning

I laugh at my mind constantly.  She (my mind) is so silly, so primitive, so deluded, so stubborn, so dull.  I mean, how many times have I told her something is not true or not so and yet she keeps coming back with the same perceptions and conclusions.  She is totally unruly.  Yet, I can not live without her.  She is also the source of all the great joys in my life.  Alas!

This above story happened earlier this week and is just one of thousands of examples of how unruly my mind can be.  You see, the bulb simply burns out and I look for someone to blame.  This story reveals how my mind is obsessed with “agency”.  She assumes somebody is behind everything !  This phenomena explains much of religious thinking.  And don’t think that if you are an atheist your mind is free of religious thinking.  It ain’t that simple.

A huge delusion that feeds religious thinking is to see “peopleness” were it doesn’t belong.  Atheists should not be deluded in thinking that just because they have declared themselves free of the gods and no longer deluded by such abstractions, that they are somehow magically free from the curse of peopleness.  OK, I will stop inventing terms.  Bruce Hood, in his book “Supersense: Why we believe the unbelievable” tells us the proper academic phrase for “the curse of peopleness” — “promiscuous teleology“.  “Teleology” is the explanation of phenomena in terms of goals or purposes, as if an agent (a person) is behind an event.  And you’ve got to love the nuances of the adjective, “promiscuous”!  For indeed, the mind goes overboard looking for someone to be responsible for all actions — even if the action is simply a light bulb naturally burning out.  Hood points us to  research that shows that children from a very young age see the inanimate world as alive and relating to them.  Piaget called this “egocentrism” to reflect this self-obsessed perspective.  Children are also prone to “anthropomorphism”, which means that they think about nonhuman things as if they were human.  Adults do the same.  Have you ever lost your temper at a chair that is in your way?  This illustrates how the mind-modules, which are used by religious thinking, are present from a young age and don’t disappear just because someone declares themselves free of the gods.  Two other fantastic books which illustrate anthropomorphism in our religious minds are:

I think what happened in this light bulb story is a variant of that notion of promiscuous teleology which itself is a child of anthropomorphism — two persistent superstitious modules in all of our heads.   Being cognition modules, they must have had or still have some adaptive advantage to exist.  I won’t explore that in this post, but I did touch on the selective advantages of superstitions in my post on “The Benefits of Pareidolia “.

Here, a bulb blows out — but who did it?  No one, of course.  It just finally wore out.  Such is the nature of bulbs.  And when these sort of bulbs die [note the anthropomorphizing language — see how pervasive the thinking is], they go out with a bang.  But now the mistake jumps in:  When the bulb blows, my mind tells me somebody caused it to happen, a person did it.  My mind searches for someone to blame.  It reaches to the most convenient and closest actor — my wife.  She did it!  She probably screwed it in loose or bought cheap bulbs.  Or maybe the darn kids did it by continually bumping the lamp when playing.

“Stop it !  Come on! ” I tell my mind, “I love my wife and kids, why are you attacking them?”  But my mind often has no mercy.  In her delusions, my mind just throws stuff together and tempts me to buy into her story – at least emotionally so.  She does not expect me to analyze what she offers me, she just want me to nod, agree and reflexively move on.

A Buddhist perspective

Buddhism’s primary practice is the honest observation of the mind.  It trains the practitioner to bravely observe one’s true nature — how one’s mind works.  “Bravely”, because what we see is not always pretty or noble.  Buddhism teaches respect for the mind but also offers ways to discipline the mind.  It lets us realize that the mind, while serving us constantly, also generates all sorts of delusions which cause many problems in life.  Observation is the first step in the Buddhist practice.  This task is difficult and is aided by other methods which help weaken the delusions.

Buddhism offers many approaches to cure our undesirable reflexes that lead to our unsatisfactory experience of life.  One, is to observe the illusion but not to feed it.  The practitioner strengthens her mind to resist following a particular unhealthy thought.  For instance, I see my mind accuse my wife and children of causing the bulb to go out and I chuckle at my mind, pat her on the back, maybe even give her a hug and move back into a more restful mind.  Another method is to spend time contemplating positive emotions and positive beliefs so that when negative emotions bubble up (like anger toward others), I readily have positive modules fired up ready to take over if I deem the anger irrational or unproductive.

OK, I had no real intent to go into Buddhist solutions in this post, but I realized how central it was to how I viewed the above situation.  Don’t get me wrong, certainly there is no reason that a purely secular way of dealing with these insights could not be equally as productive.  But I do feel that working with the unhealthy aspects of our minds is best done intentionally.  And it is this intentional inner life that people often refer to as their “spirituality” or their “religion” or their “faith”.  I think this is one of the possible positive potentials of religions.

Sorry, this was a long-winded post, but if you made it this far, I have a few questions:  How do other religious practitioners reading this post work with such mundane emotions in their lives?  How do you pure secularists nurture your mental/moral culture?


  • Superstitious modules in the brain are present from a young age
  • “Promiscuous Teleology” and “Anthropomorphism” are just two examples of Superstitious Brain Modules.
  • Superstitious modules serve a function to the brain, but like all modules, they often are also misused to our detriment.
  • All religions capitalize on the Superstitious Brain Modules, but many of them also offer us methods to deal with their downsides.
  • Superstitious modules keeping working even in Atheists.  I am curious how we acknowledge them and use them.


Filed under Events, Philosophy & Religion

22 responses to “Promiscuous Teleology

  1. Interesting stuff! “promiscuous teleology” should really be an album name for some prog rock band. 😉

  2. Great first half of the post. Maybe the second half is great too, but I have not read it yet,we’ll see… ;^) What you write about ‘agency’ is so true; it is so familiar to me to feel the urge to lash out at someone when I stub my toe. And I have watched my kids yell at a sibling about a ‘stolen’ Lego, only to see them stand up to reveal the missing piece they were sitting on. It helps when overcome the urges when you can start to understand what your mind is doing in the process.

  3. @ Mike — thanx, indeed I thought the same thing of the title when I posted it !
    @ Rend — yeah, it is a bit long of a post and I knew the Buddhist thing would turn off some readers, but what the hell.

  4. Ian

    Hmmm…. Long delay for thoughts to settle on this post.

    You’re doing a pretty good job of evangelizing Buddhism 🙂

    Christianity teaches that negative thoughts or instincts are part of our sinful nature. The discipline of the mind is the discipline of submission of the self to God. Crucifying the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Thought crime is a key feature of spiritual discipline in Christianity, since the bible equates the thought with action in its sinfulness. One can, I think, train oneself to have only particular sets of thoughts. Be they ‘Christian’ thoughts, positive thoughts, or angry thoughts.

    Your post also brings up a topic that is really haunting me. I believe that ‘spiritual’ experiences (of transcendence, heightened pathos, bliss, etc) are states of the mind, and that religions have a long (evolutionary) history of setting up situations in which they can be engendered. Can the same experiences be found in other ways without having to buy into the woo? Or do those states depend on believing the world is other than it is?

    Can, for example, you achieve the Buddhist self-awareness and critical faculty without buying into the Buddhist woo?

  5. @ Ian

    Thanks for the evangelism acolade !

    Indeed, the woo in Buddhism abounds! I have a post on that coming up.

    Most Buddhist would not consider me Buddhist, and I commend them. Self-awareness and critical faculty are universal skills, that is what I learned from them. Forgiveness is a valuable skill I learned from Christians. And from Muslims, I learned that goat does not taste too bad !

    I agree that the ‘spiritual’ experiences are certainly states of mind and not trips to another world. Woo helps these, but I TOTALLY believe they are possible without woo. I still have them and don’t have hardly any woo left. Woo is me !

  6. Ian

    So do you have techniques for initiating those states?

    Or can you slip into them at will?

  7. I am assuming you mean other than partaking in lots of coffee or beer or other mind altering “foods”.

    No, I can not slip into them at will by any means!

    But there is a saying that goes something like “fortune falls disproportionately on the prepared” or something like that. Plus the fact that I am psychological abnormal, apparently (meaning, not in the majority in many aspects).

    I do believe that nurturing a mind with options and lack of fear increases chances of altered experiences. But altered is not necessarily valuable, just altered.

  8. BTW Ian, the above experience is normal, as I am sure you know. This sort of normal is constant with me. I consider this sort of experience the most valuable. Oddly, this post was almost completely unread except for a few cherished readers. 🙂

  9. Ian

    Yes, I realised that the experience was normal. I agree.

    It just raised the issue of the kinds of states of mind more strongly associated with religion, which I’ve been considering.

    As for a few cherished readers: doesn’t surprise me. I like the stuff I have to think about for a while, even if I don’t end up quite on topic 🙂

  10. First time commenter so please be merciful. Just for the record, I am a Christian. I think evolution is nonsense and I think that the atheists here are as deluded as you think I am. I am not looking for a fight, nor am I looking to convert anyone. I just have a question (and I am not even sure I know where I am going with it as of yet). You wrote:

    “Stop it ! Come on! ” I tell my mind, “I love my wife and kids, why are you attacking them?” But my mind often has no mercy. In her delusions, my mind just throws stuff together and tempts me to buy into her story – at least emotionally so. She does not expect me to analyze what she offers me, she just want me to nod, agree and reflexively move on.

    Some clarification from your perspective if possible? You speak of “the mind” saying things to you and then you responding to the mind. What is the “you” that responds to the “mind”? How does the “you” relate to the mind? Is it just another “part” of the mind or does it transcend the mind? What is it about “you” that is capable of seeing the madness in what your “mind” apparently wants you to believe? Maybe it is not a fair question but I was just wondering what your take was (and if possible try not to answer according to the crazy “mind” but according to that which stands in judgment of the mind and works to set it straight and put “it” in its proper place, so to speak). Does any of this makes sense? Is it only the difference between the rational mind and that part of the mind that is irrational? How can you be sure which part of the mind is correct and what is the “you” that would decide that? Now I am really starting to confuse myself.

    I haven’t read any of the books you recommended but I think these phenomena can be very easily explained within a Christian context based on how God designed us and the affects of the fall. Anyway, just some rambling thoughts that one of my minds (or whatever) apparently thought worth taking the time to explore.

    God Bless (and I do mean that),

  11. @ Ben (Kangaroo)
    That is a fantastic question. It is indeed a critical part of my worldview. I have written on it in other posts and will put together a “My Philosophy of Mind” Index post for you shortly. If you read a few of those posts, you may understand my position — if I wrote clearly enough. Actually, the two books I wrote on do not address my philosophy of mind. After I post the index post, let me know what you think. Thank you for visiting ! Love the question.

  12. Steve Wiggins

    Very insightful. I wrote a post on Faces in the Clouds some time ago, and I find Guthrie very persuasive. I think “agency” goes a long way to explaining religion. I fall victim to it every day; just ask my wife when happens when weather ruins a day’s plans or I catch too many red lights. We simply can’t get beyond the idea that someone out there is out to get us/help us.

  13. @ Steve
    Exactly ! Oh the curse of humanness !
    Hey, would you mind if I linked your name to your site and linked your post. I would love if readers had the option to visit your fine site !

  14. Steve Wiggins


    Sure, by all means! I could use a little more blog traffic!

    Thanks! (I enjoyed your epiphany post and am trying to recall any similar, if less moving, experiences.)

  15. Boz

    OP said: “Another method is to spend time contemplating positive emotions and positive beliefs so that when negative emotions bubble up (like anger toward others), I readily have positive modules fired up ready to take over if I deem the anger irrational or unproductive.”

    Sabio, can you please explain how this works, with a specific example of how you suppress anger?


  16. Ed

    Hi Sabio… no need to respond to this comment unless you see fit. I am just marking my territory… meaning I am searching for your posts that I have not been to yet.
    Regarding Buddhism, it is my opinion that most of the organizations claiming to be Buddhist actually are not. However, there are a number of folks these days that are following the Buddha way without labeling it such. Here are a few. This list in no way constitutes endorsement on my part! :-}
    Science and Non-Duality
    Francis Lucille
    Tony Parsons
    Byron Katie
    Josh Baron
    Jean Klein
    Rupert Spira

    Well, that’s a bunch… Some you might totally rip for good reasons but I think a couple you will appreciate, especially the first one, Science and Non-duality.

    I still have my suspicions about anybody who has a website proclaiming their understanding… especially when they make money doing it… or if you are endorsed by Oprah, god help you and your so-called understanding.

  17. Fred Abramowitz

    Wow! So much eloquent, succinct thought to consider. I don’t laugh at my mind enough. I’m rarely aware of it, as apart from me. Sometimes I feel I’m just a bullet in time and space, alternately hoping to hit the target dead on while at all costs avoiding slaughter and destruction of some precious thing. At other times I’m just a finger randomly flipping switches and feeling around for interesting feels. At the very last second I’m not going to figure it all out–just not going to do it. I’ve looked into the eyes of the almost dead and the dead so many times that I’m absolutely sure there is no afterlife. Oh sure, you can waste your time talking about it. That’s as endless as figuring out what you’d do with all that lottery money. Better to learn and practice useful techniques for use here on Earth while you still can. We are probably our own judge, in the ultimate environment of “right now.” Are you in heaven or are you in hell?

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  20. Josh

    Or I’m trying to figure out when the latest comments were posted to your site

    But now I’m about this topic I refer to remind as a she that would be the subconscious mind not the conscious mind but I’m not sure what your thoughts are in terms of the mind

    Do you make a distinction in the mind between the conscious and the subconscious I am so what distinction

    Now I’m back to my question is this sorry has it most recent activity

  21. Josh

    Well at least there is activity i c e by the way of a comment oh Heather August 8th 20/20

  22. @Josh
    I still monitor my website, but write far less often because I said most of what I feel important already. But I love to hear from commenters still.
    (1) I don’t wrestle with the idea of consciousness. Is a cockroach conscious, a rabbit, an ape, a comatose human. All interesting but not something I wrestle with since the terms are impossible (it seems) to tie down or establish. So, moving on …
    (2) Nor do I use the categories of conscious versus subconscious. If I had to use the terms, I’d say that the mind is all subconscious, with only occasional illusions of conscious agency tricking the agent. How is that for contradictory. That which we are granted awareness of drifts — nothing stays conscious or unconscious. The spotlight of awareness moves and even that, with little control, if any.
    I hope that answers your question.

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