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Michael Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain is a must read. Today I read a line in which Shermer is talking about Patternicity and Agenticity, basically the science behind how we assign patterns to things in the real world and how we often infer agents behind these so-called patterns.
A recognizable example for patternicity would be facial recognition. We see a face on a Martian landscape because we have evolved to create faces out of patterns as simple as two black dots on white paper, or in this case a few random rocks, shadows, and a few craters. Child development shows that infants often will smile at the two dots–a natural reflex to seeing a human face staring back and cooing at them. In fact, all the infant has done is mistake a face in a random pattern. That’s patternicity in a nutshell, although the psychology behind it is far more nuanced.
Agenticity is when we place an active desire or meaning behind some event. The volcano exploded! Why did it do that? Well, the volcano god must be furious at us! What did we do? Who knows? Let’s try to appease it by sacrificing a virgin! Yeah, yeah, okay–that might work.
After throwing the girl into the volcano, it doesn’t erupt, and then a Type I cognitive error is made. Virgins sacrifices appease the temperamental volcano god; or so it seems.
Shermer explains what agenticity is, stating, “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. That is, we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.”
Usually an agent is invoked to help explain things that don’t have readily available answers. Take the hypothetical cancer patient Cindy, for example. She is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She is informed that it has spread and that she only has a matter of months to live. But low and behold, her cancer suddenly goes into remission! Why did Cindy’s cancer suddenly go into remission without any medical treatment? Nobody knows. Wait, Cindy says, I prayed to God every day to heal me. My cancer then went away. It is obvious that my prayers were answered. It is a miracle! God healed me! Praise the Lord!
Cindy has basically attributed God as the agent which cured her cancer. That is, because she prayed, God saw fit to answer her prayers. This reinforces her belief that God is real, and affirms the practice of prayer is a valid way to cure cancer.
Now this is where I think Shermer’s top down observation is actually quite insightful. The reason being, God never first creates the cancer and then infects Cindy with it, as a test of her faith, and then miraculously cures her to prove his power and love. Instead, the person first must perceive an agent behind the cure, only after the fact can rationalizations begin to be generated for why God would have allowed Cindy to suffer something as horrible as a life threatening illness like pancreatic cancer.
I find this highly revealing because it shows the psychology behind what the human mind is doing when it perceives an act of God (i.e., the agent). The agent is inferred specifically because of a need to explain an event which is perceived to be intentional. Intentional in the sense that the event seems to have a design or purpose. In other words, Cindy’s cancer remission wasn’t some random chance event, it was perceived to be the intentional act of God who heard her prayers and magically healed her. Cindy’s faith supplied the purpose for why God chose to intervene.
Why I love this realization so much is that, at least for me, it shows how much God is a figment of the human imagination. If God were at all real, that is if he were an agent which interacted with the real world in any way, we would see both top down and bottom-up type events. The reason we can only observe Top Down type events is because we aren’t actually observing supernatural events. We are observing normal, everyday, mundane natural events and our minds are simply infusing agency into them.
Cindy’s prayers did not entice God to cure her. She merely assumed that because she believed that’s what her God would do and she didn’t have adequate knowledge to explain why her cancer went into remission. If doctors were to run tests, and found that her anti-cancer cells were overclocked causing a self induced form of immunotherapy because she was fighting off, say, a secondary infection/disease at the same time, then Cindy’s inference that God cured her would be demolished by the real scientific explanation. Once giving Cindy the proper knowledge of how her body’s own immune system works and how it fights cancer, this would effectively explain why her cancer went into remission without needing to make a supernatural inference. Cindy’s belief that God had cured her would be nullified.
But… and it’s a big but… Cindy probably wouldn’t change her mind. Studies have shown the more one feels out of control the more they will rely on supernatural explanations and attribute agency where there is none, even when their assumptions are proved false (see Deirdre Barrett’s book Supernormal Stimuli). Who would feel more insecure than a terminally ill patient fighting for their very life and fending off a bout of deadly cancer? Add this to the fact that Cindy already came into the game with supernatural presuppositions fully intact, due to her religious upbringing, and no amount of scientific knowledge will convince her that it wasn’t God who cured her cancer. At the most she might admit that doctor’s played a small role in seeing her get through it and helping her to cope. But ultimately, in Cindy’s mind, it was God that cured her.
Here’s the thing though.
Because God explanations can only work from the top down, and never the other way around, it makes me highly suspicious than any supernatural assumption depicts a supernatural agent or event. Indeed, it is more likely, that like the cancer patient Cindy, most people are simply making wrong inferences because they don’t have an adequate understanding of what it is they are experiencing.