Sunday, July 17, 2011

Flow Chart, Part 9

Psychology of Belief, Part 9: Agenticity

While it may be true that earthquakes are devastating and terrifying events, there is definitely nothing supernatural about them.  For example, it is a well-documented fact that the entire nation of Japan lies squarely on top of a major subduction zone caused by the intersection of no less than four tectonic plates [1].  It is therefore no surprise that the Japanese people have been forced to suffer through dozens of severe earthquakes and volcanic eruptions throughout their recorded history, and it should come as no further surprise when just as many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions continue to occur in the future.  It is, after all, the natural behavior one should expect when given the geological conditions below.  It simply cannot help but happen.

So why is it that so many people will happily attribute such events to the wrath of some mysterious deity when there is an obvious natural cause?

Consider the following experiment [2]…

I’m going to show you a movie.  As you watch the movie, describe what you see happening.  Ready?  Let's begin.

"Well, let’s see.  There is a triangle moving around inside of a rectangle.  Oh, here comes a circle and a little triangle.  Big triangle exits the rectangle… now big triangle and little triangle are colliding with each other … circle is now inside the rectangle… some more general bumping and poking going on …"

And so on and so on…

[Actual quote from subject:  "A large solid triangle is shown entering a rectangle. It enters and comes out of this rectangle, and each time the corner and one-half of one of the sides of the rectangle form an opening. Then another, smaller triangle and a circle appear on the scene. The circle enters the rectangle while the larger triangle is within. The two move about in circular motion and then the circle goes out of the opening and joins the smaller triangle which has been moving around outside the rectangle. Then the smaller triangle and the circle move about together and when the larger triangle comes out of the rectangle and approaches them, they move rapidly in a circle around the rectangle and disappear....” ]

In short, a bunch of geometric objects enter the scene, move around for a while, and then leave.  How much simpler could it get?  It should therefore come as no surprise whatsoever when over 95 % of subjects describe the footage in the exact same way, right?

Well, actually, YES IT SHOULD!

If you are like most people, this movie probably feels like more to you than mere cardboard cutouts undergoing stop-motion animation.  For example, you might suppose that Big Triangle and Little Triangle are engaged in some sort of conflict.  Little Triangle and Circle are apparently friends, or maybe even lovers.  Perhaps you even think the Big Triangle is a bully or a jealous husband.  Yet despite this apparent perception, the movie is still nothing more than lifeless geometric objects moving around on a screen.

[Actual quote from another subject: “A man has planned to meet a girl and the girl comes along with another man. The first man tells the second to go; the second tells the first, and he shakes his head. Then the two men have a fight, and the girl starts to go into the room to get out of the way and hesitates and finally goes in. She apparently does not want to be with the first man. The first man follows her into the room after having left the second in a rather weakened condition leaning on the wall outside the room. The girl gets worried and races from one corner to the other in the far part of the room. Man number one, after being rather silent for a while, makes several approaches at her; but she gets to the corner across from the door, just as man number two is trying to open it…”]

This is a phenomenon called “anthropomorphization.”  Not only will most people describe these objects in terms of animate creatures, but many of us will even come to perceive them as actual human beings, complete with a full set of emotions, motives, genders, personalities, and back stories.  In fact, this perception is so universal, that failure to do so can almost be consideed a sign of brain damage.  For example, autistic subjects who view this same animation will generally describe it more in terms of geometric objects rather than motivated characters [3].  Similar results have also been reported in the victims of severe head trauma [4].  Personification of the external world is therefore a ubiquitous facet of human nature with deeply seeded roots in our socially-focused neurology.  Most of us cannot help but exhibit this behavior, and it is important to recognize this fundamental bias in our perception.

So what does all of this have to do with earthquakes?

Recall from Part 8 of this video series that many human beings possess high levels of need for cognitive closure.  That means whenever some event cries out for an explanation, the natural tendency is to latch on to whatever answer happens to come along first.  However, as we have just learned from the Heider and Simmel experiment, a very pervasive tendency among people is to spontaneously perceive the world in terms of deliberate, emotionally-motivated characters.  The net result is therefore a process called “agenticity" [5].  When confronted with a mysterious and dramatic event like, say, an earthquake in Japan, there exists a strong urge to fill the void of uncertainty with the conscious actions of human-like agents.

[Agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents]

Now, armed with this new appreciation for a common bias in human perception, let us examine one of the more commonly-used arguments for God’s existence.

[Show clip from apologist video about William Paley]

Arguments like these can come in a wide variety of forms, but are all generally part of a larger class known as Teleological Arguments or simply Arguments from Design.  These arguments are wildly popular among religious apologetics, even though a casual scrutiny immediately exposes serious flaws.  For example, one variation will argue that the fundamental constants of the universe itself must have been "finely tuned," because slight perturbations to these constants would prevent the emergence of life.  Aside from the fact that this is obviously nothing more than a classical “God of the Gaps” argument, cosmologists have already refuted the premise entirely.  One famous study has even demonstrated a perfectly feasible universe, complete with heavy elements and carbon-based chemistry, in the total absence of a weak nuclear force [6]!

Worse still, it is hard to imagine how our universe is supposed to be "fine tuned for life" in any meaningful sense.  Between the cosmic shooting galleries of meteor impacts, cosmic radiation, volcanic activity, black holes, and supernova explosions, the universe seems far more interested in snuffing out life altogether rather than helping it flourish.  The entire argument is literally predicated on the existence of some cosmic uber-fairy with the power to precisely define the intrinsic laws of nature to his very choosing, yet completely happy with the vast, overwhelming majority of his own universe being completely hostile to the very thing it was allegedly “designed” to support!

In short, the real question we should be asking is not, “who designed the universe?”  Rather, a far more compelling question is “Why are teleological arguments so freakishly popular?”

Consider the following experiment [7]:

[The following is the warm-up demo given to subjects in order to help them distinguish between "made for something" and "not made for anything" concepts.]

This is a pencil.  It was made by a human for the express purpose of writing.  This is a pencil sharpener.  It was also made by a human for the express purpose of sharpening pencils.  These, however, are pencil shavings.  They have no purpose.  They are not made for anything.  It is just a pile of stuff that is there.  Maybe someone can use it for something, but it is not made for anything.  Is this distinction clear?  Good.

[This next section with the tiger is also directly taken from the article.]

“See this?  This is a tiger.”

“Ben says a tiger is made for something.  It could be that it’s made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo, or it could be that it’s made for other things.  But Ben is sure that a tiger is made for something and that’s why it’s there.”

“Jane says that this is silly.  A tiger isn’t made for anything.  Even though it can eat and walk and be seen at the zoo, that’s not what it’s made for.  They’re just things it can do or people can do with it.  Jane is sure that a tiger can do many things but they aren’t what it’s made for and they aren’t why it’s here.”

“Point to who you think is right.  Ben who thinks a tiger is made for something or Jane who thinks that’s silly because a tiger isn’t made for anything.”

Once you finish with the tiger, repeat this little game using pictures of anything else you can think of.  You can use clocks, noses, bunnies, bicycles; anything you want.  Just be sure that buried within your pictures are examples of natural objects with no meaningful function.  For example, you might want to include a mountain top.  In every literal sense imaginable, this object is nothing more than a pile of dirt and rocks that happened to rise up as a result of geological forces.  It has no purpose whatsoever and only came into existence through purely aimless, random, natural causes.

Surely, no grown-up would be silly enough to assign deliberate design to completely natural objects, would they?


When administered to young adults, it is perfectly common for 30% of the responses to agree with the “made for something” position while viewing completely natural objects.  This perception of design is even greater when presented with biological organisms like tigers and rabbits.  Yet in all frankness, a tiger has no more intrinsic purpose for existing than a mountain does.  Tigers are, after all, nothing more than the end result of a long chain of inherited allele variations in reproductive populations subject to natural selection.  So although such a process is certainly capable of producing complex structures with apparent survival advantage, there is no meaningful “purpose” to this any more than there is with geological forces as they pile up a mountain of dirt.

Now let’s shake things up a bit.

The mere fact that these numbers are anything other than zero is interesting enough on its own, but that’s still only half of the story.  To make things even more interesting, go and get yourself a group of 5-year-old children and then repeat the entire experiment with them.  Surely, the un-corrupted minds of young children will not be so prone to teleological thinking, would they?


In actuality, young children make very little distinction between the alleged purposes of man-made artifacts, biological organisms, and completely natural objects.  This makes teleological thinking a pervasive bias in human perception that is virtually hard-wired into our neurology at birth.  It is only through years of disciplined education and real-world experience that such perceptions tend to diminish.

So what does all of this have to do teleological arguments?

Here’s how it works.

As we have already shown, agenticity is a process whereby human beings tend to infer the existence of deliberate agents as the ultimate movers and shakers behind events in our environment.  A natural product of this perception is the general tendency to see objects in the natural world as being deliberately “designed” for some ultimate purpose, even when most of these objects demonstrably serve no purpose at all.  This perception is especially ubiquitous among children, and only tends to disappear as people get older and wiser.  Consequently, the teleological argument for God is, in a very literal sense, childish!  It has no empirical basis whatsoever, and serves only as an appeal to our intrinsic perception of causal agents that influence the world around us.

So are earthquakes and tsunamis really a sign of divine retribution against sinful mortals?  Is the universe really finely-tuned for the express purpose of supporting life?  Or are these concepts merely the cognitive manifestations of a tendency to perceive human characteristics in otherwise perfectly natural events?

[1] Barnes, G. L., “Origins of the Japanese islands: the new ‘big picture,’” Japan Review, Vol 15, pp. 3-50 (2003)

[2] Heider, F. and Simmel, M., “An experimental study of apparent behavior,” The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp 243 – 259 (1944)

[3]  Bowler D. M., and Thommen, E., "Attribution of mechanical and social causality to animated displays by children with autism," Autism, Vol 4, No 2, 147-171 (2000)

[4] Heberlein, A. S. and Adolphs, R. "Impaired spontaneous anthropomorphizing despite intact perception and social knowledge,"  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Vol 101, No 19, pp 7487 - 7491 (2004)

[5] Shermer, M. "Agenticity: Why people believe that invisible agents control the world,"  Scientific American, Vol 300, No 6, pp 36 (2009)

[6] Harnik, R., Kribs, G. D., and Perez, G., “A universe without weak interactions,” Physical Review D, Vol 74, 035006 (2006)

[7] Kelemen, D., “The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children,” Cognition, Vol 70, No 3, pp. 241 - 272 (1999)