Bruce M. Hood – Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

April 17, 2009

Bruce M. Hood is chair of the Cognitive Development Center in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. He was a research fellow at Cambridge and has been a visiting scientist at MIT and professor at Harvard. Hood has received many awards for his work in child development and cognitive neuroscience. His newest book is Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Bruce M. Hood explains how his agenda is different than the common skeptical agenda to disprove supernatural claims, and instead is an attempt to explain why people believe hold such beliefs in the first place. He argues that everyone is born with a “supersense,” an instinct to believe in unseen forces and to recognize patterns and infer their causation, citing examples such as seeing Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, or the case of the “haunted scrotum.” He explains how this supersense is universal, and that even skeptics and rationalists often exhibit it in their lives through rituals and the owning certain valued possessions, such as Richard Dawkins’ prizing of objects once owned by Charles Darwin or MIT growing saplings from the tree under which Newton first discovered the laws of gravity. He details how rituals give a perceived sense of control to believers, and how they may actually affect a believer’s performance. He talks about the “secular supernatural,” contrasting it with the “religious supernatural.” He argues against Daniel Dennett’s and Richard Dawkins’s thesis that religious belief results primarily from indoctrination in childhood. And he defends the position that unbelievable beliefs serve important social functions.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 17th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. And at the grass roots. Before we get to this week’s guest, Bruce and Hood, here’s a word from our friend James Randi about the upcoming amazing meeting. Really the best thing going as far as skeptic’s conferences out there. 

Hello, this is James Randi, if you haven’t guessed already. I am very pleased to announce that registration is now officially open for the amazing meeting seven. The biggest and best critical thinking conference in the world to be held from July 9th through the 12th, 2009 at the Beautiful Southpoint Casino, Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is a change in venue that will better accommodate the size of crowd we got last year, just short of nine hundred skeptics of all sizes, ages, shapes, ethnicity, homelands and degrees of enthusiasm. This July, our speakers will include the ubiquitous Michael Shermer from the Skeptic Society. Our good friend Adam Savage of the Myth Busters. Our President Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy Blog. Of course, Jennifer Wellat from the Science and Entertainment Exchange and the Penn and Teller duo. And of course, while our keynote speaker this year will be Bill Prady, executive producer of the hit television show The Big Bang Theory, and he’ll tell us about how he’s helped make it cool to be an accredited official nerd. We’ll also have our usual stellar panels, workshops and after hours entertainment, including a mentalism act by a well-known, bearded and cranky skeptic. You may know and love. He’ll be offering his audience a couple of brand new mental wonders that have not been shown before. Even to the magicians of the world, those who attend Town seven will also witness an actual real time test for our world famous challenge prize, an actual scientific, statistically correct, carefully controlled test which may lead to the awarding of the million dollar prize. This is just not to be missed. For more information, go to. Amazing meeting dot com. That’s amazing. Meeting dot com to get all the information on this amazing event, as always. This is James Randi. Still amazing. And I hope to see you there in Las Vegas at the amazing meeting, 7:00. 

I’m happy to have Bruce Hood on point of inquiry. He’s the chair of the Cognitive Development Center in the experimental psychology department at the University of Bristol. He was a research fellow at Cambridge and has been a visiting scientist at M.I.T. and a professor at Harvard. He’s received a lot of awards for his work and trial development and cognitive neuroscience. He joins me on the show to talk about his new book, Super Sense Why We Believe in the Unbelievable Bruce Hood. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. The deejay. Professor, your book is about skepticism. It’s a book of skepticism. You identify as a skeptic of the supernatural. Are you just another one of those authors who’s part of this trend to demolish other people’s unbelievable beliefs? 

Absolutely not. For me, the real critical question is why we have these beliefs and why they’re so prevalent and why they seem to be so resistant to reason. And for that, I think we’ve got to look at how these beliefs are formed, where they originate from. And what is the nature of these beliefs which make them so powerful? 

That’s one of the funny things about Super, since you don’t seem to be really aiming at skeptics, even though you are a skeptic. It’s almost like you’re saying skeptics are what kind of two close minded to really dig into your thesis? 

Well, I mean, you can address the evidence for beliefs. And that’s really what skeptics do. They take a critical view. And then they say, well, look, show me the evidence. Let’s evaluate. I’m not really into disproving or proving the existence of various supernatural beliefs. I want to know where these beliefs come from and why they’re so strong in comparison to the evidence, which at best is either non-existent or it’s too equivocal that you shouldn’t really even be considering it. And yet when you look at the strength of this belief in the general population, it’s overwhelming. And that’s a big discrepancy that we need to understand. 

Right. You say if science were actually so successful, why aren’t people buying its conclusions? People are still believing things that science says is nonsense. 

Yeah. I mean, we’re happy to have the the technology, the science. We use the Internet and we we’ve got the mobile phone and, you know, we can even fly to space. But and that’s fine. We’re happy to take all the benefits of it. And yet we don’t accept the scientific rejection of the supernatural. So there’s something about the supernatural that science is making very little impact against Jim Underdown. 

Bruce, define what you mean by super, since you’re you’re not actually saying everyone has a supernatural sense. Like, we all have five normal senses and one super sense. It’s more just that we evolved. What? To see patterns and meaning in the world, even if there’s not actually meaningful patterns there. Right. 


Well, the word super says I mean, the book was originally gonna be called The Supernatural Sense, and that was a hallmark to an old colleague of mine. Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Language Instinct. And in that book, he makes a very strong argument that the human mind and the brain that creates it has evolved to acquire language. Almost like an instinct is not something you have to learn. So I am, in the course of my research, also came to the conclusion that the mind and the brain that generates the mind is also designed to detect patterns in the world. It’s something that it’s effortlessly does. In fact, it can’t stop yourself doing it. And incensing those patterns. And that’s what I mean by the sense we also infer that something caused the patterns to be there in the first place. And often that’s true. There are there are forces and energies which cause certain patterns to happen. But we often make misconceptions and misconceptions which border into the realm of the supernatural, because if they were really true, they would be against the natural laws. So what I’m saying is that the super supersize is this inclination of humans to infer that there are hidden forces or energies or entities or stuff going on that creates the patterns that we think we detect when in fact these may be just pure coincidences or in fact, there is nothing there in terms of these extra dimensions to reality. So that’s what I mean by the super census’s inclination that we have now. Some of us are much stronger in that inclination than than others. And those are the believers, if you like. Whereas the other others are less inclined towards their super sense and can apply more, if you like, analytical or or if you want to use the word rational approach to interpreting these patterns. But even in these people who regard themselves as more skeptical or more analytical, I would argue they still harbor a super sense that they have to almost inhibit to stop themselves, you know, defaulting to because it is the natural way, ironically, of interpreting the world Jim Underdown. 

So we almost have a supernatural instinct, like we have a language instinct. And it’s not just the believers who have it. All of us do. There you know what rationalists who have their little superstitions, most of us wouldn’t consider them superstitions. We’ll talk about that in a bit. But kind of to get into this. Would you tell me about the case of the haunted scrotum and how that plays into your argument that we all have this superstitious sense, not just the religious or the whole the whole of his? 

An image I used in the book and it was spotted by radiographer not too far from where I work, actually. He was looking at a case of an under defended testees, a condition which is not uncommon in males. And he looked at the image and it looked like a face hand. This is actually quite common. People see faces all over the place. Faces are just one of those patterns that were trip wired to detecting in the natural world, even in the x rays of scrotum. And this shows that in that particular type of pattern, you need minimal evidence to detect the presence of an entity. So that’s just a bit of a it was a light hearted example of people seeing faces. Now, of course, I’m sure your listeners will have heard of the various other examples typically seen Jesus or the Virgin Mary on slices of pizza toast or on the walls of, you know, underpasses and so forth. And that’s a that’s a very common thing. And if you have a belief system which says that God will occasionally make a miraculous apparition, then you’re going to take that as evidence that there’s some higher being at work when in fact, it’s just a random pattern. And of course, we also find them on the on the moon. The great philosopher Hume pointed out that, you know, we see ARV’s in the clouds and a man on the moon, but we also see that in Mars. So everywhere you look in the natural world, you see evidence of entities Jim Underdown. 

So even a skeptic can see the face of Jesus under a piece of toast or the grilled cheese sandwich. But it’s the prior beliefs that imbue that with meaning. 

Yeah. But I would also I mean, I would often say that skeptics will will also have some belief that they may not even recognize as being supernatural. And the one I I spent some time on in the book is probably the most common one, which is that nine out, 10 people think they can tell when they’re being watched from behind. It’s so common that people do even regard that as something unnatural. But if it was really true that you could detect or sense, if you like, being watched from behind, then that would border into the realm of supernatural because there’s no natural model or natural explanation. We’d have that ability. And also and this is the most important point about all supernatural phenomena, is that when you study it empirically, the evidence for it is very weak. 

Jim Underdown the pervasiveness of the super sense, it’s it plays out in the lives of strict rationalists, not just the overly credulous, you know, like when a rationalist wants a books signed by someone like Sam Harris at a talk at a university or the sentimental value we place on things like wedding rings, photos of loved ones, deceased, or, you know, I travel, I carry the pictures of my loved ones on my iPhone. Or you talk about how Barack Obama played a game of basketball the morning of his victory in the Iowa primary. And so he continued that tradition on every election day afterward, kind of as a superstition. So even skeptics have this super sense and it plays out in their lives. They’re not even really aware. 

Yeah, it it forms the basis behind ritual and superstitions and habits. And people would argue, well, you know, I don’t really think there’s anything going on. I just it just makes me feel comfortable. Well, that’s all very well and fine. But the fact that you still engage in these behaviors and you you regard them as almost sacred suggests that there is something there is a super sense operating there. Now, here’s the interesting point is that, in fact, these these rituals, these superstitions can actually confer a degree of benefit, because if you thwart someone in doing one of their rituals, then they don’t feel they have as much control. So this this propensity to engage in superstitions and rituals, I think it’s the way that the the mind or the brain again compensates for uncertainty in the world, because the one thing that we don’t like is an uncertain future. And so you find superstitions in those preoccupations of past times where there’s a lot of chance or a lot of luck involved. So obviously, gambling is a classic many sports games. The athletes are typically very superstitious and those professions where the outcome of uncertainty could be potentially very dangerous. So deep sea fishermen and pilots and that kind of situation. And so these present us with potential danger. And so one way of dealing with that potential danger is to engage in acts or rituals which we believe confer some degree of control. And as I said, the irony is, if he thought someone in doing that, then they generally don’t perform as well in their game on the baseball pitch because they feel they’ve lost some of their lucky juju, as it were. So. So these superstition, superstitious rituals are a means of coping with uncertainty and stress. The first studies actually of this was done by Malinovsky in the 20s, and he identified in the Troubador Islanders that they had two modes of fishing. So when they were fishing in the lagoons, which was relatively safe, they didn’t have any ritual. But as soon as they went home to the open waters where there was much more likelihood of danger, then they had to. Engage in a whole ritual and superstition beforehand to protect themselves against the gods. And there was a wonderful paper in science just last year by Golinski Whitsun demonstrating that if you put people, you know, normal, rational people under a stressful situation, then you find an increase in their super sense. So they just they start to detect patterns among random noise. And they also endorse the likelihood that superstitious rituals will be more effective. So, again, it’s this idea of losing control in a stressful situation increases the likelihood of of defaulting, if you like, to Super Bowl, like when you’re more stressed or you’re more fatigued, maybe your brain is more fatigued. 

You exhibit more what OCD symptoms you have to run back and make sure you turned off the toaster or locked the door when ordinarily, you know, you get enough, you know, vitamin beer, whatever, you’re not going to be like that. You’re talking about how this super sense plays out in a lot of areas. In the book, you don’t just focus on superstition. You divide these kind of intuitive, supernatural beliefs pretty much exactly how the Center for Inquiry does in its various educational programs. 

So you say first there’s religious supernatural beliefs, that’s God’s angels, demons, stuff like that, and then what you call secular, supernatural beliefs. These are beliefs and psychics, haunted houses. Obviously, there can be a big overlap, you know, like the religion of spiritualism. Bruce, as a researcher, what kind of these beliefs, which of the two did you find more interesting to explore? Is it, in other words, a more interesting or important question to ask why people are religious or why people have superstitions like John McEnroe refusing to step on the white lines in a tennis court? You know, between the points in his games? 

Well, I actually I actually went for the middle ground. So there have been books about the role of superstitions and where they come from. 

And that’s very much in the area of psychology and the psychology of learning. And that’s been well established since the time of B.F. Skinner did his original work on this. In fact, he identified superstitious behaviors and pigeons. So that’s been well covered. And at the other realm, the discussion of religion, of course, as I’m sure your readers have known, has been well covered in recent years by the likes of the new atheists and arguing about the evidence, if you like, for for God. So I’ve actually strategically I tried to position the book to deal with this idea of the secular supernatural, which was more to do with the paranormal. But I didn’t want to write another book about E.S.P and precognition and all these kinds of things. I wanted to open the whole discussion to beliefs in general Jim Underdown and try and identify those beliefs that the people wouldn’t even necessarily recognize as bordering into supernatural. So that’s when I got into this this work on psychological essentialism. This is the idea that there is an energy or an essence that can be transferred into inanimate objects. And these are these are kind of commonly manifest in memorabilia collecting. I also deal with a very common assumption of cellular memory. This is the idea that you can take on the personality of a donor through having an organ transplant. This is a very common concern among transplant patients. 

Like, you don’t want the heart of a murderer. Exactly. You know, in a heart transplant. 

Yeah. And it builds. It combines. This work coming from Paul Rosen’s work on disgust. He’s he’s done a lot of research, the basic research of the mechanisms of what we find disgusting in the world and why we don’t want to eat certain foods or touch certain items. And I’ve combined that notion of contamination with the idea of evil contamination and more contamination. And so this is where we start to get into the realm of sacred objects. Why some objects are things that people want to approach and touch and have a physical connection with and other objects. Said you just don’t want to come anywhere near. And one way of interpreting that, again, is a super sense that there’s something in the material, there’s something in the physical world that is somehow crossed over from the mental world, as it were. And to understand that, I think we have to really look at the origins or the development of how we conceptualize, how we think about the physical world and the mental world. And that’s really the heart of the book in many ways, is looking at the development from the child. Right, from very early on, because that’s what I am. I’m a child psychologist and I’m sensing how the child makes makes sense of the world by detecting these patterns, but also by inferring causes and and seeing the presence of energies and and forces which are not necessarily there. So this kind of early way of conceptualizing the world is something that we all have. And we can’t, of course, learn, in fact, that these these forces are illusions and they’re not really there or the patterns are not really there. But we never truly abandon this early way of. So the supersensitive, intuitive kind of way of sensing structure and order in the world that stays with us even as we developed through education to, you know, highly intelligent, rational, analytical adults. Nevertheless, we still maintain this intuitive way of seeing the world. 

You’re calling it intuitive. You’re arguing that these beliefs come from kind of our hard wired super sense. You know, young children have it. It’s not just when they’re indoctrinated by culture. So you’re essentially disagreeing with folks you mentioned, you know, the neo atheist. You’re disagreeing with folks like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who say religion and superstition are contagion’s or viruses of the mind that are spread mostly through culture rather than, you know, being an instinct. You know, like the superstition instinct if we have a language instinct. 

Yeah, I am disagreeing with them. I mean, I agree I agree that religions are cultural. 

So the cultural framework. So the the name of the God or the nature of the ritual that you have to perform this clearly are constructed and passed on as what they call these means, these ideas. But but the point is they only work because of our inclination to accept the possibility in the first place. So I don’t think the mechanism is working by indoctrination at all. I think the content. Yes. Could be indoctrination. And it must be to some extent. But the point is, is that children will spontaneously generate their own kind of supernatural belief anyway. And that’s the true origin for beliefs. And that explains why the universal explains why the belief is so common, the same sort of emotions about the afterlife. You know, the idea of creationism is the reason that these are these are universal because this is exactly the way the child is thinking. You know, they don’t understand the concept of death. They don’t understand natural selection. And many adults who claim we do understand natural selection. So these are actually the defaults. It’s not the other way round, which I find quite remarkable because both Dennett and Dawkins do talk about this in their book, but they don’t give it any weight of evidence. The idea that you can somehow eradicate belief and religion by taking out of the equation just strikes me as so unlikely. I mean, the thought experiment, of course, is if if children could be raised on an island with adults, might. My prediction is that they would just generate their own rituals in their own gods in the same way that it’s popped up everywhere. 

That there have been pockets of society Jim Underdown just because it’s so hardwired. Right. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Super Sense why we believe in the unbelievable through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. A very interesting read. I think you’ll enjoy it a great deal. Jim Underdown. Bruce, the really unique thing about this argument in your book is that even though you’re a skeptic, you I don’t know. I don’t want overstate this, but it seems like you defend many of these beliefs as being useful evolutionarily, not only evolutionarily, but right now, today. So if we believe our deceased loved ones are watching us from heaven or somewhere, you say it’s more likely we’re gonna conform to society’s norms. Here’s my issue with that. That sounds a lot like the neo con argument that even though there is no God. The elites in this society should still foster religion as some form of societal control. 

Yeah, well, I mean, I do have to say that I don’t. I don’t have an apologist view. I’m not saying, you know, let’s just accept religion and make an apology for it. I think there’s an inevitability about religion. And I think that if we are going to tackle the worst atrocities which are done in the name of religion, then we have to understand the nature of the beast, as it were. So, no, I think there is clearly an adaptive value for supernatural belief. Otherwise, why is it still here? So there’s an argument. There has to be something that is doing quite right. And I in the book, I make a claim that the supernatural makes the possibility of it makes the sacred possible. What I mean by that is that all societies are groups which are socially cohesive, have to have a consensus of opinion that there are certain sacred aspects of their society. And what I mean by that? That there could be a it could be a could be an item. It could be a book. It could be a temple. It could be a place. It could be a tree. It could be a rock. 

It could be founding documents. Something up. 

It could be. It could be not necessarily religious. It could be a famous doctor. It could be the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. These are items which are sacred. And what I mean by that is that there generally shouldn’t you shouldn’t put a financial value on them, okay? They should transcend the mundane and sacred values are useful because it means that every member of that group understands the consensus, that it’s not something that can be owned or copied or duplicated by any individual, and therefore it’s sacred. So even the richest member of that society, the poorest member of society, had this shared opinion that this is what makes the. Sacred. And that’s what coalesces the group. Anyone who doesn’t buy into that notion of the sacred is therefore outgroup. And you can ostracize them. And so, you know, when you go in and you violate the temple, then there is indignation. It’s sacrilege because you violated the sacred nature of the temple. And so that’s what we need, these these sacred values to form as a social glue, if you like, to bring members of the group together. And how does something become sacred? Well, it does by the nature of it, becoming supernatural. In other words, it has properties which take it over and beyond the mundane and into the realm of the profound. So that’s why supernatural beliefs, I think, work not only at the individual level in terms of providing the kind of superstitious rituals and behaviors, but they can work at the group level as a means of forming a consensus of opinion that there is an additional dimension to reality. 

So if these supernatural beliefs work for people, they have these, you know, adaptive benefits. Yes. But, you know, real cultural, real measurable benefits, as you’re arguing, as your research suggested, which kind of supernatural belief works better? You know, you were talking religious, supernatural beliefs versus secular supernatural beliefs. I mean, who flourishes more people who believe in traditional religion or people who believe in New Age, stuff like psychics and tarot cards? 

Well, I think New Age is the emergence of New Age thinking new age religions, I think is a backlash against conventional religions. And, you know, I’m sure that there are going to be people listening to this who say, how can you possibly say that supernatural belief has any benefit? Look at all the atrocities done in the name of religion. You know, if you read Sam Harris’s book, it opens with a suicide bombing and people get really indignant and an angry that somehow accepting the possibility of supernatural makes these things acceptable. Well, it doesn’t make these things acceptable on my website. I’ve been supporting a campaign, by the way, just that the Newtown killings, which are currently going on in Africa. Whenever you have times of stress and disease and poverty, you get a rise in these these beliefs. And again, it’s getting back to this idea. I said earlier about stress and the need to have a perception of control. But that doesn’t make these things right. You know, obviously killing people for their body parts or which is what’s going on. 

You’re talking about the massacre of albinos. You know, because their body parts are considered, their organs are considered to have healing. Properties are. 

Yes. In Tanzania in particular, there’s been a a campaign to try and stop the killing of a Benos. Clearly, they are a very rare group among the blacks and they’re considered to have magical powers and they kill for their body parts. In Kenya, there was a recent, both of which birding. So, you know, these are examples where beliefs lead to atrocities. So whilst I’ve made a case in the book that in general, supernatural beliefs can work as a positive mechanism. Clearly it can dislike many other political movements. It can be distorted under certain very circumstances to create the atrocity. So it’s not the case that they’re completely innocuous. They can be perverted to justify what often very much political aims, trying to get rid of someone in your tribe or trying to ostracize other people. 

But nonetheless, you’re you’re saying that there are benefits to these supernatural beliefs? Yeah. And my question was, you know, which kind worked better, you know, which kind of tend to the flourishing life more? 

Well, I think I mean, I do honestly have the answer to that. I mean, I think that is a question for a scholar who would argue about the value of having religious beliefs as opposed to sort of secular belief, secular, supernatural beliefs. 

Yeah, I say it’s like the supernatural beliefs. The thing is that it’s only fairly recently. I mean, although there’s been ageism has been around for quite while. Thanks to Richard Dawkins. And I do think he does have to be commended on this. 

The caution of consciousness raising, of fatalism has made it much more acceptable. So I don’t know. I mean, in the past, we’ve always had religion Hamwi. And when there’s been attempts to eradicate a religion both in the Soviet and in the communist countries, it tends have just gone underground and thrived and come back as a resurgence. So I don’t know the answer to that question, which is more beneficial because religion has always been around for such a long time. But why do you take away religion then? You just replace it with a new set of equally supernatural kind of beliefs. This G.K chest and said, you know, when man starts bleeding, he doesn’t stop believing in God. You take religion where he will just believe in anything. And I think that’s pretty much true. 

And you’re saying that as a skeptic? 

Yeah. Because I think it’s an inevitable consequence of the of the hard wiring of the brain that that’s the problem that we are so inclined to infer the presence of these additional things. It’s inevitable. 

So that’s why religion persists. The supernatural beliefs, you know, superstition. Are there any other good scientific reasons why religion and belief in the supernatural is here to stay? I guess what I’m getting at is made it actually be that religion, the superstitious kind of way of looking at the world, they’ve served out their usefulness for homosapiens. Maybe they were useful way back in our evolutionary heritage. But today, in general, might they do more harm than good? 

OK. So this is this is the big question, of course. Can we ever eradicate religion in this in this current climate? Of course, all religions are facing increased pressure to adapt and modernize as we see the rise in the new age kind of thinking. The inclination towards supernatural beliefs in general I don’t think will ever go away. It’s a natural consequence of the mind, as I’ve said. And also, when you have increase stress in times of crisis, it exacerbates increases. So, again, I think it’s not something that we can control Jim Underdown. 

Right. Some are some thinkers have said you’re not going to eradicate religion until people don’t have the anxiety of living in late, you know, postmodern capitalism where, you know, you don’t know where your stability is going to come from. There’s no cell, social welfare net, etc. There’s a higher rate of unbelief in northern Europe. But incidentally, there’s also a much higher rate of social welfare there. 

Yes, exactly. And I think it’s wrong. So you have existential questions about, you know, where are you going? What happens when you die? Where you come from? That’s also going to be something. If you’re comfortable with those things that there possibly isn’t anything afterlife, then that’s fine. You probably you probably won’t be in quite any supernatural beliefs to that extent. But that’s not the majority of people. 

You know, most of us are concerned about these things. So, yeah, the inclination towards religion and the use of the crux that religion provides is clearly dependent on the circumstances at the time. And although you can kind of change the circumstances to try and remove religion forcibly, nevertheless, people still have their private belief systems and it will go underground, as we saw with the Falun Gong in China. And of course, now in Russia, we’re seeing the greatest resurgences of religion following all the years of attempts to remove Jim Underdown of a fundamentalist strain. 


Absolutely. And fundamentalism, as this extremism is, it’s almost symptomatic of the extent to which you try to you know, the more you push against it, the harder it bounces back, which is why I kind of think the atheist bus revolution, the you know, the campaign to put the atheist slogan on busses is is almost counterproductive in a sense, because we’re now seeing many more busses with religious slogans on them. But that’s a that’s a political Jim Underdown. Right. 

Bruce, my question was really about, yes, maybe these superstitious beliefs served a purpose way back when. But I guess I’m asking directly, do they necessarily have to today? Put it another way. You’re arguing that these are all vital lies. 

You know, these these beliefs in the unbelievable and untrue things serve good purposes. And and so, you know, they’re important to us. So are you saying if everyone gave up their unbelievable beliefs that society would just fall apart? 

I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, what I have to add in coming up with the theory, what we have to explain is the universals and why it’s still so prevalent and what we can explain it on an individual level. There is still this issue about why it seems to also exist at a group level. And in doing so, I’ve tried to come up with yes, it’s an inevitable consequence of the mind design that makes sense to the world. But there’s also this possibility that it makes these these sacred values possible. And I came to that really, I suppose, by the real research that we have been doing on on why we value certain items and we treat original and authentic items with a degree of reverence. 

Jim Underdown, my comic book collection kind of proves your point. 

Yeah, I. And I thought it was quite interesting when we had the recent TV series on Darwin, you know, of all people, Richard Dawkins was holding the stuffed birds a hundred labels by Darwin with great reverence. 

Of course, the other labels written by someone else, he dismissed. So this sense of having this connection with an individual who we admire, revere. And having that connection through their physical, the objects of the things which they’ve either done a signature with or touched. I don’t think that’s a trivial matter. I think that’s a very interesting and illuminating finding. 

You’re seeing the same things going on there as when we imbue objects with kind of sacred power or holy power or something. 

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, for example, there’s a tree grows in Amsterdam and the unfranked tree that should be cut down years ago. Trying to maintain it’s become sacred because Frank wrote about it in her diaries. This tree has taken on, you know, almost sacred value to the extent that are now growing saplings from the tree to replace it when eventually falls over. 10 of those saplings are on their way to North America to be planted in important sites. For example, the 9/11 site in New York, though, they hope to plant it also on the grounds of the White House. Now, that’s an example of a tree was taken on sacred value. But I would also point out that the apple tree, which Newton first discovered the laws of gravity, has similarily also been grafted and copied and is now in various sites, including M.I.T.. Well, now, that’s interesting because, you know, there is a sense of having this continuity, wanting to have connection with the important, you know, event or an object. 

But you imagine the M.I.T. folks being among the most rational out there. 

Yeah, I thought the story of Charles Simoni, I don’t know if you heard about this one, but he said he made his second trip to outer space trips out of space. 

I didn’t report it on the second trip, on the first trip. I do know for a fact that before they got on the launchpad to take them to the to the rocket, they had to get in the bus and they had to relieve themselves on the back wheels of the bus for good luck. Now, I find that kind of ironic that the pinnacle of human endeavor and science, technology and if you like, you know, science, a space travel, people still engage in behaviors and rituals which are done just for good luck. So there has to be something behind that which is still present in people who are entirely rational. 

Jim Underdown your whole point is that something behind that is hardwired. It’s kind of it’s in our brains. 

Yeah, it is. And people say, oh, it’s just association. Or they might say, oh, it’s just it’s just done as a habit. But I don’t buy that. I mean, I think that we treat objects as if they do contain some additional property, which makes them irreplaceable and special. And in the book, I talk about the Ship of Theseus. And this is the was written about by Plutarch, who was a Roman diarist, and he described the Ship of Theseus. This was a king, a Greek king who died. And he had this fabulous ship and they put it into storage. And each year when they went back to look at the state of the ship, they noticed that some of the planks needed replacing. And so over the years, gradually every plank of the ship was replaced. So it no longer contained any of the original wood. And so Plutarch then asked the question, well, what’s happened to the ship Theseus? And moreover, what happens if you reassemble all the planks that you’ve taken away, which is the true ship of Theseus? And for most people, it’s the ship which has been gradually replaced so that there’s no original material. So the point of that example is that even if you take all the physical material out of an object so it no longer has any of the original stuff, then we still maintain that it has the identity and it’s still the ship of Aficionado. 

Yeah, that’s an old problem and philosophy in it. It raises interesting questions these days about human identity when you consider that most of the actual atoms in a human being aren’t the original atoms, you know, at birth. 

Yes. And we’ve been doing this in our experimental work because we we convinced children that we have a duplicating machine, but we tell them can copy just like a photocopier. Can copy objects right down to the molecular level. And then we ask them which kind of objects can be copied and which ones can’t. And typically the objects which have they have an emotional attachment to like the teddy bears, their blankets or things which they don’t think can be copied. So in the same way, since you have an emotional kind of tie to something, then it takes an identity and a uniqueness. And I think that’s because we infer it. We intuit that it has some additional property over and beyond just its physical component. Jim Underdown. 

Bruce, what do you think about this worldwide skeptic’s movement? If these unbelievable beliefs, not just the ones about identity you were just talking about, but, you know, religion and, you know, the superstitious beliefs, we have been talking about the whole conversation. If they serve such useful purposes, isn’t it kind of therefore irrational to go around as rationalists and to try to dissuade people from believing all that nonsense? 

Well, it’s a difficult battle, but it’s not one where we should just throw in the towel, because I think the problem is, is that if you just step aside, say, well, let things be. It’s when these these beliefs lead to behaviors which are unacceptable. So as I said, we talked about the issues going on in Africa with the various aspects of witchcraft. And I’m sure many of the listeners who feel that the other certain religious practices which should be abolished or curtailed. So I don’t think just because there’s an inclination towards this, it doesn’t mean that anything done on the basis of that is acceptable in the same ways there. There are sex drives which are biological. But that doesn’t mean that we. Find rape is acceptable. So we have to understand that while somebody might have a biological basis and to a certain degree, it’s inevitable that the way it manifests itself isn’t necessarily so and so that that’s where we step ahead and hopefully a decent culture will curtail acts or behaviors which are unacceptable to most. 

So, Bruce, you’ve written super sense. Your goal isn’t to change people’s minds about their supernatural beliefs, and you’re not arguing to skeptics. This isn’t a rallying cry to get them fired up more. What’s the real point in your book other than just to describe why people might believe the unbelievable. 

Well, I wonder people really to just think about how they come up with their explanations and understanding of the world. 

In other words, how do they come up with their beliefs? Because everyone assumes that they are reasonable. Everyone assumes that given enough evidence, they can sit there and weigh up the pros and cons and make an informed decision. And what I’ve done a super sense is I’ve tried to highlight how that process is, in fact very often fallible and also to a certain extent is unconscious and driven by mechanisms that were not in control of. And sometimes those reasons or explanations that we come up with fall into the realms of supernatural thinking. So we have to be careful not to assume that there’s a weakness of thought. When people have supernatural beliefs, but rather recognize that they’re led to these processes or led to these assertions about the world, largely because of the way that the mind is designed to to interpret the world and see structure and pattern and force and energies when they’re not necessarily there. And whilst religions clearly are cultural and they’re they transmit their their belief system through word of mouth and ritual, they build upon these inclinations that there are hidden dimensions, that there are issues about where we’ve come from, where we’re going to deal with existential issues that are really, you know, present very early in development. And the child is already dealing with these issues. And it’s not weird that we’re indoctrinating children with our belief systems. Rather, we’re just coming up with explanations which resonate with the way they think about the world in the first place. 

Bruce, before we finish up. So if you’re not trying to make people, you know, little skeptics after reading the book, what are you hoping people take away from reading the book? Are they just giving a pass to be as superstitious as they are? Or I mean, in a sense, this is like, you know, this is like a philosophy book, although those are fighting words with some people. 


Well, I hope that I have raised consciousness about consciousness in many ways, because one of the things that the people who’ve read the book who are nonexperts have found very enjoyable is this almost crash course that some of the most sticky and fundamental problems in philosophy and indeed, what is the nature of the mind? What is consciousness? What is free will? And when you start to ask these questions, then you can see that we have lots of strange beliefs and assumptions, and many of those can actually be the foundation of how we misconceive what mines are. And so I what I think the book inadvertently in writing, I hadn’t really thought about this ideal with issues of freewill and determinism and things which are thorny philosophical problems. But in a way that I think the lay public, most people or non non philosophers will readily understand. And so when they read these things, I think they’ll see why there’s such interesting questions and how they can possibly lead into supernatural thinking. 

Last question, Bruce. You and your book, almost with an appeal to not rock the boat when it comes to supernatural beliefs. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you say something like that. If a skeptic doesn’t share the sacred values of his lovers and friends and community that they’re not going to trust them, they’re not going to be able to love him. Isn’t the solution to that problem rather than just going along with it all instead to raise the consciousness of the community about what’s better to believe? You know, what has more merit for belief rather than just going along with all these unbelievable beliefs? 

Well, the problem with that is that because most of these police have an emotional component to them, I talk it throughout the book about the role of intuition and intuition is the conscious processes that appear to rely very much on the emotional systems, you know, having that feeling that something is quite right. It’s not just a reasoning situation. It’s actually one which is based on a degree of emotional or felt certainty. And so the trouble with trying to eradicate beliefs, a deal just with the analytical aspects of the world is that you’d have to take emotion out of the equation. And when you take emotion out of the equation, then you become less human because it’s emotion, which is really what she allows us to connect in many ways. So I think the problem is that a lot of the kind of analytical, rational, skeptical way of seeing the world in many ways. Lacks the emotional commitment, and that, for most people is what makes relationships very powerful and very strong. So you really would have to become like Mr. Spock. And as we know, you know, there was always a problem with him kind of coming in terms with his human side because humans are very emotional and that’s an inevitable consequence. 

Bruce Hood, thank you for joining me on Point of Inquiry. I really enjoyed this discussion. 

You’re very welcome. Thank you, T.J.. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.