April 01, 2018

An _Ad Hominid_ Argument for Animism

Attention conservation notice: Note the date.

A straight-forward argument from widely-accepted 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.

  1. (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.
  2. (Premise) Indeed, when we encounter a human cognitive module, we should presume that it is an evolved adaptation.
  3. (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.
  4. Therefore, the human modules for theory-of-mind, social exchange, and dealing with intentional agents are evolved adaptations to our ancestral environment.
  5. (Premise) Humans often engage those modules when dealing with invisible beings, often manifesting as (what scientists categorize as) natural forces.
    (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.)
  6. (Premise) Engaging a wrong or inappropriate module is expensive, even potentially dangerous, and thus mal-adaptive, and so should be selected against.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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, especially Explaining Culture (and to some extent Rethinking Symbolism). Credit for the phrase "ad hominid argument" goes, I believe, to John Holbo, back in the Early Classic period of blogging.

Learned Folly; Minds, Brains, and Neurons

Posted at April 01, 2018 22:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth