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Why is belief so hard to shake? Despite our best attempts to embrace rational thought and reject superstition, we often find ourselves appealing to unseen forces that guide our destiny, wondering who might be watching us as we go about our lives, and imagining what might come after death.
In this lively and masterfully argued new book, Jesse Bering unveils the psychological underpinnings of why we believe. Combining lucid accounts of surprising new studies with insights into literature, philosophy, and even pop culture, Bering gives us a narrative that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. He sheds light on such topics as our search for a predestined life purpose, our desire to read divine messages into natural disasters and other random occurrences, our visions of the afterlife, and our curiosity about how moral and immoral behavior are rewarded or punished in this life.
Bering traces all of these beliefs and desires to a single trait of human psychology, known as the "theory of mind," which enables us to guess at the intentions and thoughts of others. He then takes this groundbreaking argument one step further, revealing how the instinct to believe in God and other unknowable forces gave early humans an evolutionary advantage. But now that these psychological illusions have outlasted their evolutionary purpose, Bering draws our attention to a whole new challenge: escaping them.
Thanks to Bering's insight and wit, The Belief Instinct will reward readers with an enlightened understanding of the universal human tendency to believe-and the tools to break free.
Evolutionary psychologist Bering (Cognition and Culture/Queen's Univ.,Belfast) examines the part played by belief in the evolutionary past.
Humans, perhaps uniquely, think about the thoughts of others. This is known as the theory of mind. We conceptualize the unobservable mental states of others and reason about what they see, know, feel and believe. The author cogently explains the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages of this mechanism. The disadvantages start to accrue, writes Bering, when the very usefulness of the theory of mind floods our social brain, to "overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless." This plays directly into the propensity of humans to experience spontaneous questions of the meaning, purpose and origin of life—"an insuppressible eruption of our innate human minds"—which has found a foothold in teleo-functional reasoning. Things have a preconceived purpose, from the soul to signs in nature, and are put on earth to solve human problems and for human use, perceived as evidence of a designing hand at work, some supernatural agent behind tornadoes, volcanoes, human destiny, the flight of birds, etc. So there may well be a belief instinct, a Darwinian drive for explanation as the greater adaptive response. Though this supernatural agent, one of belief's expressions, is opportunistically manipulated when it comes to scientific explanation, Bering highlights its potentially critical role in natural selection. "The illusion of God," he writes, "engendered by our theory of mind, was one very important solution to the adaptive problem of human gossip." In other words, in group settings (which are better for survival), a bad reputation diminished your reproductive chances; if you saw the eye of God in everything, you behaved better.
Bering ranges comfortably among evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophical concerns, and finds the good science in belief.