An _Ad Hominid_ Argument for Animism
Attention conservation notice:
Note the date.
A straight-forward argument
premises of evolutionary psychology shows that humans evolved in an environment
featuring invisible beings with minds and the ability to affect the material
world, especially through what we'd call natural forces.
- (Premise) Humans have evolved psychological modules, which carry out
specific sorts of computations on very specific sorts of representations, as
triggered by environmental conditions. These modules are in fact adaptations
to the "environment of evolutionary adaptation", or, rather, environments.
- (Premise) Indeed, when we encounter a human cognitive module, we should
presume that it is an evolved adaptation.
- (Premise) Humans have modules for theory-of-mind, social exchange, and
otherwise dealing with intentional agents by reckoning with their beliefs,
desires, intentions, and (crucially) capacities to act on those intentions.
- Therefore, the human modules for theory-of-mind, social exchange, and
dealing with intentional agents are evolved adaptations to our ancestral
- (Premise) Humans often engage those modules when dealing with invisible beings,
often manifesting as (what scientists categorize as)
(In fact, such engagement of those modules was near-universal up to the
emergence of WEIRD
societies. The historical record shows aberrant individuals who did not do
this, but it's plain even from texts those individuals
authored, when they have come down to us, that their
bizarre behavior had absolutely no traction on the vast, neurotypical
majorities of their societies. [One is reminded of the militantly color-blind
trying to convince others that colors do not exist.] Moreover, treating
natural forces as manifestations of invisible beings who are intentional
agents, amenable to bargaining, threats, supplication, etc., etc., is still
very common in WEIRD societies, perhaps even modal.)
- (Premise) Engaging a wrong or inappropriate module is expensive, even
potentially dangerous, and thus mal-adaptive, and so should be selected
- If natural forces are mindless and invisible beings did not exist in the
EEA, then engaging theory-of-mind and social-exchange modules to deal with
natural forces and invisible beings would be mal-adaptive.
(Occasionally, people suggest that it's so dangerous to ignore another
intentional agent that it was adaptive for our ancestors to suspect
intentionality everywhere, on "better safe than sorry" grounds. I have never
seen this supported by a concrete calculation of the costs, benefits and
frequencies of the relevant false-positive and false-negative errors. I have
also never seen it supported by a design analysis of why our ancestors could
not have evolved to realize that storms, earthquakes, droughts, diseases, etc.,
were no more intentional agents than, say, fruit, or stone tools.)
- Since those modules are adaptive, we must conclude that invisible beings
with beliefs, desires, intentions, and the power to act on them,
especially through "natural" forces were a common, recurring, predictable
feature of the environments of evolutionary adaptation.
Of course, none of this implies that those invisible beings aren't as
extinct as mammoths.
To spoil the [not very funny] joke: even if the
relevant modules exist, they are engaged not by intentional-agent-detectors,
but by human mental representations of intentional agents. Once the
idea starts that storms are the wrath of some invisible being, that can be
self-propagating. For further details, I refer to the works
of Dan Sperber,
Culture (and to some
Symbolism). Credit for the phrase "ad hominid argument" goes, I
Holbo, back in the Early Classic period of blogging.
Minds, Brains, and Neurons
Posted at April 01, 2018 22:59 | permanent link