Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hyperactive Agency Detection — A Just-So Story?

The hyperactive agency detection (HAAD), or hyperactive agent-detection device (HADD), is the most widely accepted explanation for religious belief in biology, psychology and sociology. It offers us a naturalistic explanation of the origin of beliefs which form the basis of every religion. Because of this, you can expect that many religious believers are skeptical of its claims. Some of them claim that this is a "just-so" story, part of "atheist mythology." The irony of religionists making this claim, when their religious beliefs are often backed up on the mere testimony of religious texts, which are chalk full of just-so stories, is stupendous. A just-so story is "an unverifiable and unfalsifiable narrative explanation for a cultural practice, a biological trait, or behavior of humans or other animals." Is the HADD hypothesis unverifiable and unfalsifiable? It must be both in order to meet the criterion of a just-so story. Here I want to list some of the evidence supporting the HADD hypothesis and support the view that it is a valid scientific explanation.

In their 2008 paper The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour, Harvard biologist Kevin R. Foster and Helsinki biologist Hanna Kokko test for the origin of superstitious behavors through an incorrect assignment of cause and effect, where they "conclude that behaviours which are, or appear, superstitious are an inevitable feature of adaptive behaviour in all organisms, including ourselves."

This is experimental evidence for what Michael Shermer termed patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. He writes:

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a baloney-detection network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error detecting governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. The reason has to do with the relative costs of making Type I and Type II errors in cognition, which I describe in the following formula:

P = C(TI) < C(TII) Patternicity (P) will occur whenever the cost (C) of making a Type I error (TI) is less than the cost (C) of making a Type II error (TII). 

The problem is that assessing the difference between a Type I and Type II error is highly problematic—especially in the split-second timing that often determines the difference between life and death in our ancestral environments—so the default position is to assume that all patterns are real; that is, assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind.

This is the basis for the evolution of all forms of patternicity, including superstition and magical thinking. There was a natural selection for the cognitive process of assuming that all patterns are real and that all patternicities represent real and important phenomena. We are the descendants of of the primates who most successfully employed patternicity. The Believing Brain (60)

A Type I error is a false positive, and is "believing something is real when it is not." A Type II error is a false negative, and is "believing something is not real when it is." For a short explanation of how this affected our hominid ancestors, see here.

On his blog Neurological, neuroscientist Steve Novella writes:

Understanding that HADD is an intrinsic part of human nature is part of the core knowledge base of the skeptic. 
As a neurologist and a skeptic I am particularly interested in how brain function relates to human intellectual strengths and weaknesses and how knowledge of such helps us to avoid common mental pitfalls. In other words, knowledge of how the human brain works helps us think better – to be more skeptical and avoid error. 
Psychologists and neuroscientists in recent years have demonstrated that our brains are hardwired to distinguish things in our environment that are alive from those that are not alive. But “being alive” (from a psychological point of view) is not about biology, but agency – something that can act in the world, that has its own will and can cause things to happen. Sure, this is a property of living things, but that’s not how our brain sort things out. We can perceive agency in non-living things if they are acting as if they are agents.

Other studies include: Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection

Across five studies, we found that awe increases both supernatural belief (Studies 1, 2, and 5) and intentional-pattern perception (Studies 3 and 4)—two phenomena that have been linked to agency detection, or the tendency to interpret events as the consequence of intentional and purpose-driven agents.

The term hyperactive (or hypersensitive) agency detection device originates from Justin Barrett's book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion)

How widely endorsed is this view? In A New Science of Religion Wilkins & Griffiths note:

The idea that religious belief is to a large extent the result of mental adaptations for agency detection has been endorsed by several leading evolutionary theorists of religion (Guthrie 1993; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2005). Broadly, these theorists suggest that there are specialized mental mechanisms for the detection of agency behind significant events. These have evolved because the detection of agency - "who did that and why?" - has been a critical task facing human beings throughout their evolution. These mechanisms are "hyperactive," leading us to attribute natural events to a hidden agent or agents. (142)

So widespread is this view, that even the Christian philosopher Michael J. Murray, a well-known occasional critic of the HADD hypothesis, calls it in his book Science and Religion in Dialogue, "the standard model." (460) And even famed Christian apologist William Lane Craig, notorious among theistic and atheistic debaters, acknowledges it on his website, Reasonable Faith, writing:

We humans have an inveterate tendency to ascribe personal agency to non-human creatures and even objects. We talk to our house plants, our cars, our computers. In fact some cognitive psychologists think that this tendency is actually hard-wired into the human brain. They call it the Hyper-active Agency Detection Device (HADD). We treat other things, even inanimate objects, as though they were agents.

Craig of course doesn't connect the dots in seeing how this is evidence against his religious views, but to be fair, that's not what his post was about. The term's coiner, Justin Barrett, writes in Exploring the natural foundations of religion:

On the basis of ethnographic data and psychological research, Guthrie argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment that might not actually exist [28–30]. Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy [31,32]. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; in other words, people can be said to possess hyperactive agent detection devices (HADD). According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there.

The implication for religion is that the HADD might lead people to posit agents, perhaps of a counterintuitive sort, that are then well-transmitted because of their easy fit within intuitive conceptual systems. Similarly, counterintuitive-agent concepts would be more likely to receive attention and be transmitted than non-agent concepts, because agent concepts are more likely to resonate with agents posited by the HADD.

28 Guthrie, S. (1980) A cognitive theory of religion. Curr. Anthropol. 21, 181–203
29 Guthrie, S. (1993) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press
30 Lawson, E T. and McCauley, R.N. (1990) Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture, Cambridge University Press
31 Heider, F. and Simmel, M. (1944) An experimental study of apparent behavior. Am. J. Psychol. 57, 243–259
32 Rochat, P. et al. (1997) Young infants’ sensitivity to movement information specifying social causality. Cognit. Dev. 12, 441–465

There's also neuro-physiological evidence that suggests superstitious behavior is affected by brain functionality:

From superstitious behavior to delusional thinking: the role of the hippocampus in misattributions of causality.


Nearly half a century ago B. F. Skinner proposed the hypothesis that human superstitiousness would be equivalent to the 'superstitious' behavior displayed by animals in operant situations involving response-independent reinforcement. Surprisingly, no attempt has ever been made to test this equivalence hypothesis experimentally. In the light of recent evidence for a common neurological basis of both superstitious beliefs held by normal subjects and delusional ideas of psychotic patients, Skinner's hypothesis has become topical again. We present an extension of the hypothesis which assumes dysfunction of the medial temporal lobe, in particular of the hippocampus, to be responsible for conditioned superstitions in animals, for common everyday superstitions, and for schizophrenic delusions. This hypothesis is based on (1) the observation of an enhanced 'superstitious' reactivity in hippocampectomized animals, (2) findings of an increased occurrence of popular superstitions in patients with a temporal-limbic epileptic focus, and (3) morphological and pharmacological evidence for schizophrenic delusions to be causally related to hippocampal damage.

For additional research, please see The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs by psychologist and neuroscientist Bruce M. Hood.

The HADD hypothesis is the best explanation we have for the origin of religious belief. That's why it's acceptance is so wide-spread in the sciences. And while it may not quite yet be a scientific theory, there is plenty of positive evidence supporting the hypothesis. What about falsifiability? This is perhaps the most important criteria of any hypothesis. Well, if one could falsify evolution, they'd falsify the HADD, and probably naturalism along with it. It's that easy. No evolution, no HADD. This is possible in principle and in practice. But if that's too much to ask for, given evolution, one can show any examples where Shermer's equation above is violated in a species or on a large scale. One can show examples from nature where species in the middle and bottom of the food chain do not exhibit the tendency for frequent Type I errors. That could show the hypothesis to be erroneous. The animal kingdom as it turns out supports the hypothesis quite well. It is clear from animal behavior that animals closer to the bottom of the food chain, like mice and other rodents, exhibit more Type I errors, and animals closer to the top of the food chain, like lions and elephants, exhibit less Type I errors. This makes obvious sense because animals with few to no predators wouldn't have adapted in such a way that made Type I errors more common than ones who did have many predators.

This is a list of some, but certainly not all of the evidence that supports the HADD hypothesis. This post may be updated as I find new evidence in the future. Please note that this hypothesis is not designed to "disprove" god alone. Claiming it does would be a strawman. The HADD hypothesis gives us a natural explanation for religious beliefs, and it can debunk the argument many religionists make that the wide-spread phenomena of religious belief cannot be explained naturally is somehow evidence that god exists. The HADD hypothesis renders that argument mute.

But even its critics, like philosopher Michael J. Murray (who William Lane Craig cited in his debate with Stephen Law when animal suffering was mentioned and later got his ass handed to him, twice) says, "Perhaps God set up our environment and the course of evolutionary history in such a way that we come to have cognitive tools that lead us to form beliefs in a supernatural reality (let’s call this the “supernaturalist explanation of religion”)....For all we know, God is likewise the indirect cause of the religious beliefs we have—beliefs that are directly caused by the cognitive tools psychologists have identified." So, at least one position a theist can take regarding the evidence of the HADD is to claim god used evolution to produce these beliefs. Right, because as Gregory Dawes has noted in Theism and Explanation, a popular objection to proposed theistic explanations are that they "exclude no possible state of affairs". (143) While he thinks they could be formulated to be falsifiable, I think at least some theistic explanations appear crafted such to be completely unfalsifiable. Not only that, the view Murray is expressing here is the very definition of a just-so story. So any theist rejecting the HADD hypothesis on the pain that it's a just-so story, can never concede and accept it, because then they are forced to accept a just-so story to fit it into their theology. Of all the possible ways the omnibenevolent god could have imbued religious beliefs in humans, he chose a multi-billion year process that guarantees incredible amounts of death and suffering for no necessary reason and one that is completely consistent with naturalism. Yup, the lord sure works in mysterious ways alright.

Ya'know my dad's one wild and crazy guy!

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...