Monday, June 1, 2009

The Human Mind of God

Here is a great article, exploring the cognitive psychology of Christian theology, on why God has a human mind, written by Valerie Tarico. Importantly, to me, Tarico is not making theological claims, but she explores how and why our mind constructs, interprets and relates to the Divine, especially the Christian God.

To begin, our over-active minds see patterns everywhere, not necessarily because these patterns exist, but because our minds are designed in a fashion to organize information quickly and efficiently in an environment with a super-abundance of stimuli. Intriguingly, for example, our over-active facial recognition modules (our ability to recognize and discern faces, old and new) allow us to see faces in the clouds, in nature, in ink-blots, or similarly, how some Christians see Jesus in food and other human-made objects. As such, when faced with unknowns and ambiguities, our minds utilize "inborn information modules" in order to find patterns sometimes where they don't exist - patterns inherent in our mind, not necessarily in random nature - because our minds default to over-interpreting information rather than under-interpreting information (an evolved safety technique?).

Further, according to Tarico, we have developed a "theory of the mind:" we have a mind, therefore others have a mind, and derivatively, we think, therefore others think. This allows us to navigate society and our complex webs of relationships - we can think about what they are thinking - and as such, we over-assume conscious intent in situations; we are adverse to assigning randomness to events, we have to assign credit/blame. This subscription of a "mind" can be generalized beyond humanity, as we can subscribe mind and thought to inanimate objects and even to a deeper, metaphysical Divine Power; these transcendent powers have "human minds" and employ thoughts, perceptions, preferences, sometimes emotions like humanity.

Also, theologically speaking, if our mind is predisposed to utilize certain cognitive schema - mental organizing principles - we preclude other schemas:
Nowhere in the world is there a supernatural being who exists only on alternate Tuesdays, or who sees everything but forgets it all in ten minutes, or who rewards us for ignoring and disobeying him. Nowhere is there a god who knows the future, but only the next hour, or a god who starves people to death whenever he is pleased with them, or who is exactly like an ordinary person in every way. Some ideas are simply not interesting to us. They may be counter-intuitive in ways that make them forgettable instead of "sticky." Maybe they don't make good stories or maybe we don't have good places to file them in our index of memories.
Similarly, when it comes to religious belief, those most salient theological principles incorporate an interesting deviation from an expected pattern. We start with something familiar and tweak it, leaving other basic assumptions the same:
If the supernatural thing we are discussing is a conscious being, it also needs to have a basically human mind.
This piques our interest, makes it more memorable, and to makes it easier to pass along to others. Think God Among Us born of a virgin, completely human yet 100% divine.

Tarico concludes (and teases us for her next installment):
Christian beliefs are highly successful at getting retained and transmitted. They fit our information processing structures and yet are counterintuitive in intriguing ways. They capitalize on our tendency to attribute events to human-like causal agents who have minds much like our own. They allow us to take machinery that is designed for processing social information and apply it to the problems of understanding inanimate objects and natural phenomena. They leverage our tendency to see patterns in ambiguous or random events. Consequently they are intuitive and broadly applicable and are easily remembered.

But if our brains allow for a wide range of religious concepts, how come so many people believe exactly the same thing? And what makes them so sure that those ideas are not only interesting--they are true? As we shall see in future articles Christian beliefs don't just fit our mental categories. They also leverage powerful emotions and social relationships so as to become the core reality for those who believe.

I'm looking forward to her next article! You?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If we all thought the same about a higher power, we wouldn't have so many wars. I have always said Satan invented religion

Some people need religion. Like they say, "Religion keeps the poor from killing the rich..." LOL

But some people just need to believe in something bigger than themselves. Something that keeps them honest. Other people just need something higher, or somewhere higher for them to go, or hope that they go to...

Or for others, it is the thought of meeting up with their Father/Mother or spouse/children. They just need something to hang on, even if they really don't believe it, or have doubts.

It's like Santa Clause. Some believe it just because they've been told, and things happen to make them believe it. But when they get older, they realize he really might not exist. My kids still like it, and they are grown.

For some, God is just something to believe in, to keep you from stepping in front of a bus.

And if that offends some people, then just mind your own business.

Let the athiests go their own way, and let the Christians, Mormons, Jews, etc. go their way.

If everyone would mind their own business about their religion the world would be better off.

But everyone has got to put in their 2 cents and think that their religion is the one that will "SAVE" us from the boggie man, or hell.

But I just want to go my way, whatever that peace and quiet. I don't want someone knocking on my door, or to be asked what church I go to...etc.

Just let me live in peace..... and wherever we end up, we end up. The day after we die, we will either be in heaven, or we will be worm food.

Either way, I will be dead. If I'm worm food, I won't know. If I am in Heaven, I'll be partying!!

I really enjoyed this article, Drew! I have doubts because of what was said....I have thought the same thing...