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:
- Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer
- Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie
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.