Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Inventing agency

It’s often hypothesised that gods were invented to help explain things that are out of our control.  We didn’t understand why crops fail, why floods and droughts happen, why stuff sometimes catches on fire and since we’re somewhat wired to see agency, we saw it in natural disasters and invented gods.  Then we compounded the error by developing superstitious behaviour: we made sacrifices and next year the river didn’t flood. While we’re excellent at inventing agency, we’re terrible at spotting things like regression to mean so we ploughed ever more resources into those superstitions.  And maybe that’s how a somewhat-wired tendency to spot agency where none exists became religion.  Other human tendencies make us into our own policemen.  Why else do Catholics confess to priests when their god is supposed to be able to see everything anyway? And that seals the deal. We’re trained to think that if we don’t buy hook line and sinker into the superstition, we have to mortify ourselves.

But this view of the origins of religion is usually seen as glib by the religious. They feel that their religion answers big and deep questions (spoiler: the answer is always goddidit in some mysterious fashion) and that it can’t be attributed to instinctive needs of this sort.

I have a question for these apologists.  How come every time there’s an earthquake, people all over the planet fight for airtime and column inches to tell us why it happened?  It’s usually claimed to be a result of homosexuality or some other perceived immorality.  But as PZ reports, people can and will invent any old madness. The East Coast earthquake today, for example, was apparently due to extracting oil from the planet, which would otherwise act as a lubricant, preventing earthquakes.

Isn’t that the exact same thing?  What about gamblers who imagine there’s such a thing as a lucky streak?  What about lovers who see the agency of destiny in their getting together?  Faith-heads, why do you reject some putative explanations for personally inexplicable events and embrace others?  Why do you embrace any explanations without evidence anyway?

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