It is easier on the brain to pretend that there is a square there.
Looking at the diagram on the far left of this image, ask yourself how many shapes you see. Intuitively, you see five shapes: four circles and a square. In fact, there are no circles or squares there and while you know that cognitively, you nonetheless feel drawn to see circles and squares there. This, we have every reason to believe, is not a learned trait but one that results as a part of the function of the brain. At some stage in our evolution, the recognition of simple symmetrical objects must have been important, even if it is only to recognize objects that are artificially made by other humans (which explains why symmetrical objects like galaxies or planets or flowers appear to our minds to be designed). Our brains have evolved to think that it is simpler and therefore more intuitive to see a circle and squares where there are only the inference of such shapes. It is easier on the brain to pretend that there is a square there – if you stare at it long enough, you may even see the outline or a shadow of the rest of the undrawn portion of the square. You can take my word that this is only an illusion – I actually made that image in Photoshop and I did it (as you might imagine) with four black circles and a white square.
babies get the Matrix.
Similarly, experiments have been conducted where small babies who cannot communicate or socialize are nonetheless surprised when a toy placed in front of them spontaneously moves. They know intuitively that people or animals – things that have faces – move of their own accord and are not startled by this. But objects that do not have faces should not move and so babies are alarmed when they do. This is the origin of the idea of a soul. Our ancestors needed to know difference between safety and danger, between potential mates and competition and so, as long as humans have been making art, we have been drawing faces.
Other tests conducted by Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund have shown that children from a very small age understand that brain-death is what death is. They told children a story about an alligator who eats a mouse and asked them if the mouse’s brain still worked and the children almost universally said no. The children were asked to describe features of what the dead mouse could do or not do after death and they mostly agreed that while the mouse would no longer grow up to be a big mouse nor does he need food, anymore, he does still love his mother and he does still like cheese. Children intuitively believe in an afterlife. That does not mean that it exists anymore than that boys are braver and smarter than girls or that redheads have cooties or anything else that their evolving brains may conclude about the world.
When I was a boy, two of my favorite movies involved body-swapping boys who body swap with adults: Big (1988) and Vice Versa (1988). Some of the most popular movies or books in history, children and adults never bat an eyelash at the idea that beings who swap bodies retain the same experiential essence and it is that essence that is experiencing life and not the body.
In Vice Versa, for example, Marshall (played by Judge Reinhold) temporarily switches places with his 11-year-old son Charlie (played by Fred Savage). In the transformation sequence, father and son are both holding an ancient gilded skull with magical powers and the body of Marshall shrinks and transforms until it looks and sounds like Charlie’s and “vice versa”. In a way, their bodies are the same bodies just transformed to be identical each to the other’s. In one pivotal scene, Charlie’s Mom comes to Marshall’s apartment to check up on Charlie and see how his visitation is going only to find Marshall (who now looks like Charlie), sitting at the wet bar enjoying a martini to relax after a hard day back in Middle School. She ends the visit early and takes Charlie home. Marshall, now forced to take a bath in his ex-wife’s house as Charlie turns to his Mom when she comes in unannounced and declares: “I’m in the tub! Do you mind!”
I remember wondering if Marshall looks like and in effect is Charlie anatomically, then is it really far-fetched to think that maybe he shouldn’t be drinking and maybe his ex-wife really should be embarrassed about walking in on him when he is naked. And what is the difference? Considering that this movie came when I was 8-years-old, I think that those were actually pretty deep thoughts.
The brains of even the smallest babies before their first birthdays appear to be Descartes’ dualists. Not to belabor the point, but: babies get the Matrix.
When we have to live an entire lifetime after our parents are dead, of course our subconscious or conscious minds will be drawn to a system that teaches us as fully-developed adults that “I Am A Child of God”.
Given that babies understand from the earliest of ages that there is a difference between their experience and their physicality and that they get the same concept existing in others, we derive that babies intuitively understand intentionality. Like the second diagram in the image posted before, a baby understands that they, as a separate experience within their body, are looking at a person whose experience and identity are also separate from their body. By the time that children are old enough to have imaginary friends, they experience a second order of intentionality:
Orders of Intentionality
First Order: I know that…
Second Order: I know that you know that…
Third Order: I want you to know that God knows that…
Fourth order: I want you to know that God wants you to know…
And no one’s intentions are more important to you from your earliest days in life than your family. It cannot fathomably be coincidence that religions refer to their clergy with titles like Holy Father, Father, Brother, Sister, Elder or Patriarch, and to their deities as parents: Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Our Lady, Thine Only Begotten Son. When we have to live an entire lifetime after our parents are dead, of course our subconscious or conscious minds will be drawn to a system that teaches us as fully-developed adults that “I Am A Child of God”.
People believe in God because believing in God is easy.
We are hard-wired to seek “minimally counterintuitive Worlds”. Our ape-brains want a world that makes sense to our purpose-driven experiences just like they want there to be a square and circles where there are neither. As creatures programmed by Darwin’s Natural Selection to understand intentionality, of course we are tempted to assign purpose to things that happen in our lives. If you win the lottery, it seems to be better than simply good fortune but seems like part of a Plan set out for you. If you don’t win the lottery, it is very easy to believe that the lottery is just random, anyway! Meanwhile the winner might be tempted to defend himself to the jealous mob by saying “you don’t understand: I’ve had a really hard life and obviously I’ve just had this miracle coming to me”.
If you stub your toe, you might curse the world and ask “why is it always me!”
If your child dies in a tragic accident, you ask “what am I supposed to learn from this?” or “what did I do to deserve this?” or “what better purpose did God have with my child than for her to be with me?”
It turns out that no matter how hard these questions are to answer, the questions, themselves are entirely too easy to arrive at. It does not take a lot of brainpower to decide that the events of your life occur because God has a Plan for you or that God wants something for you or that you deserve something. It turns out that understanding that your bias taints your view of reality requires more cognitive effort.
People believe in God because believing in God is easy. Obeying God can be hard. But believing that God is in control is easy.
It is realizing that the lottery is random that is hard to do. It is realizing that the death of a child is pointless and tragic and not part of any plan to teach you anything that is hard to do. It takes a greater capacity for thinking to conclude that when you speak to the dead it is only to comfort yourself and that when you speak to God, you’re in no better position.