The Ghosts We Think We See

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Just in time for Halloween, the latest edition of Newsweek has a neat article about the psychology of supernatural belief. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The mind also sees patterns in random data, which is why the sky is speckled with bears and big dippers. This drive to perceive patterns—which is very useful in interpreting experimental data as well as understanding people’s behavior—can also underlie such supernatural beliefs as seeing Jesus in the scorch marks and flecks of grain on a grilled-cheese sandwich. “If a stain looks like the Virgin Mary,” says Hood, “then it is a divine sign and not a coincidence. If the wind in the cave sounds like a voice, then it is a voice.” […]

The mind also tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects (ever yell at a balky computer?). This leads us to believe that natural phenomena are “purposeful, caused by agents with sentient minds,” says Hood, whose book “The Supernatural Sense” is due next year. It’s only a short step to thinking that “ ‘things that go bump in the night’ are the result of some spirit or agent,” not branches brushing against your drainpipe.

Sound like anyone you know?

An important point made in the article is that the tendency to see patters that aren’t there or to impart consciousness to things that aren’t conscious is a normal outcome of the way the human brain functions, due in large part to having to deal with incomplete sensory input. A couple of important lesson to draw from this (to me anyway) is that, first of all, rigorous empirical testing is necessary in science precisely because everyday perception can be so badly misleading. And secondly, the brain’s wiring can make it very difficult for people to disabuse themselves of supernatural beliefs. I still don’t know what the best method of doing that is, but getting them to understand the underlying means by which such beliefs form is probably a useful exercise.

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A line from one of the many Halloween specials I've seen over the years has stuck with me: the idea that Halloween was thought to be the day of the year when the barrier between the world of the living and the spirit world was thinnest and most perme... Read More

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I’m suddenly reminded of how Dembski wrote the preface for a book that argued that angels were all around us. See http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives[…]st_th_2.html

Steve Reuland Wrote:

I still don’t know what the best method of doing that is, but getting them to understand the underlying means by which such beliefs form is probably a useful exercise.

There are indeed some interesting exercises that move in this direction. There are some famous drawings (I’m sorry I can’t remember the artist) showing all kinds of strange creatures embedded in the branches of trees and bushes. In fact, by staring at a clump of branches and bushes in a dense wooded area, one can repeat this effect quite nicely.

Also by staring at a mottled tiling on the floor or any set of dense irregular patterns, provided they have rounded edges, you can pull out all sorts of creatures and faces.

I think many people are not aware of this effect, but when it is shown to them, (by making a light penciled sketch on top of the mottled pattern), they can begin to see these and start doing it themselves. It’s a lot of fun. And it is not true that children do it better than adults. I suspect many adults are socially embarrassed to do it.

I wonder if anyone from UD will read this, and figure it out?

I like to distinguish three modes to this:

1. Reification. This is just the detection of what we think of as a pattern, and giving it the status of objective reality.

Once we have decided that it is an objective reality, the next step is:

2. Personification. That the thing has some properties that we normally ascribe only to persons. Values, for example. Or purposes.

And the final step is:

3. Deification. Raising the status of the purposeful agent to heroic or divine status.

I think of “Chariots of the Gods” as an example of the third mode.

a normal outcome of the way the human brain functions

And furthermore controlled by hormones, affected by brain damage, et cetera.

It is an interesting exercise to bundle this with such things as the equally misused habitual “common sense”, memory construction at recall, a posteriori modeling of ones actions, et cetera, and inform or remind people how unreliable and unsuited such traits are when figuring out objective data and models as opposed to making snap judgments.

But it can be helpful as well, IIRC personifying objects is an effective way to process and remember the features, quirks and service that adhere to them. So why not make friends with your lab equipment, it can be a worthwhile habit.

The most convincing explanation I’ve seen for dreams is, it’s how the mind struggles to make some sort of narrative sense of random neuron firings. To quote Mother Goose:

The other day upon the stair I saw a man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today I wish that he would go away!

On faces in particular, there was a recent argument (sorry, I don’t recall the source) that the tendancy to see faces in inanimate material is a sort of side-effect of having a lot of neurons dedicated to the evolutionarily (sp?) important ability to recognize other humans at a distance or with other partial visual information. I.e. it’s important to recognize obscured faces, so we are able to process trace amounts of information into faces, so we end up processing things that only sort of resemble faces into faces.

About a year ago a very interesting volume dealing with these topics was published, and to my surprise it has thus far received relatively little attention. It is suitable for a general readership and is overall in line with current ideas in cognitive psychology: Tremlin, T. (2006). Minds and Gods: The cognitive foundations of religion. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 9780195305340]

Only in the past year or two have we had pets in the house. Two black cats. I was surprised to see how many ‘ghosts’ arrived soon after they did.

Now the ticking sounds of a heating or cooling wall, which I don’t remember even noticing before, requires evaluating to determine if one of them might be clawing the door frame to be let in. Now a small black shape in the corner of my eye will grab my attention as it never did before.

It is easy to see how such perception effects can support a belief in almost invisible agents.

“The mind also tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects …”

That sure describes a lot of the posters here on the Thumb. They are just sure that the universe has intelligence or is driven to become more complex or has some goal or purpose. When you point out to them that there is no evidence for this claim, they just say that the evidence is all around you, you just can’t see it. When you point out that known processes are sufficient to explain the diversity of life we observe on the planet today, they just claim that that can’t possibly be true. When you ask them for evidence, they usually just fall back on the same old tired “you don’t know everything” routine.

Assuming that inanimate objects have consciousness, goals and purpose is indeed commonplace. Especially among those whose beliefs are not constrained by evidence. But, as a wise man once said, the thing you most want to be true is the thing is least likely to be true.

Possibly germane is a quote from junior high school comes to mind:

“We live in a world of symbols and abstractions, and many a man dies by his own cliches.”

I can’t remember the author, but I think either his first or last name begins with a capital M. This has vexed me for a long time. Any help?

My home room teacher, Ruth Temple, had this printed out on mimeographed sheets that permanently covered the strip where the alphabet is usually inscribed above an entire blackboard (there were two in that classroom). I was twelve at the time. Those words have always made sense; then, since and still.

I’ve used this example a few times when explaining to beginning science students why statistical testing of well-constructed hypotheses is important.

First, I ask them to raise their hands if they’d ever thought about a person they hadn’t seen in a few years, and then received a phone call or e-mail from that person within a few days. Almost everyone in the room, including myself, will raise a hand.

Then, I ask them to raise their hands if they’d ever thought about a person they hadn’t seen in a few years, and heard nothing from them for weeks or months (if ever again). There’s usually a confused pause followed by a few smiles of recognition before I continue with the lecture.

TomS said “Deification. Raising the status of the purposeful agent to heroic or divine status. I think of “Chariots of the Gods” as an example…”

Gadzooks, Erich von Daniken? What’s next, Immanuel Velikovsky? That might actually work…Velikovsky would probably make sense to folks naive enough to accept intelligent design. Anyody want to open a second front?

The mind also tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects (ever yell at a balky computer?).

What is it about the word “inanimate” that seems to be confusing everyone?

This leads us to believe that natural phenomena are “purposeful, caused by agents with sentient minds,” says Hood, whose book “The Supernatural Sense” is due next year.

Talk about seeing things and making false associations.….

How can inanimate random shapes that are mistakenly associated with purpose “lead us to believe that natural phenomena are purposeful”? This is totally backasswards thinking.

If the mind, which is an ANIMATE living object, (read) “also” tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects, then it stands to reason that it is behaving in a way that is true to itself, as if interacting with another ANIMATE object. In otherwords, if the mind is attempting to associate false purpose for an inanimate object, it is because there is true purpose to be found for an animate object. The mind is merely trying to interact with another object like itself, which is an object made with purpose for a purpose.

Even Agent Smith understands that there is Purpose. And he is an inanimate object.….…or is he?

John S Wrote:

Only in the past year or two have we had pets in the house. Two black cats. I was surprised to see how many ‘ghosts’ arrived soon after they did.

Now the ticking sounds of a heating or cooling wall, which I don’t remember even noticing before, requires evaluating to determine if one of them might be clawing the door frame to be let in. Now a small black shape in the corner of my eye will grab my attention as it never did before.

It is easy to see how such perception effects can support a belief in almost invisible agents.

Oh, that’s easy - black cats really are agents of Satan! :-)

John Kelly Wrote:

If the mind, which is an ANIMATE living object, (read) “also” tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects, then it stands to reason that it is behaving in a way that is true to itself, as if interacting with another ANIMATE object. In otherwords, if the mind is attempting to associate false purpose for an inanimate object, it is because there is true purpose to be found for an animate object. The mind is merely trying to interact with another object like itself, which is an object made with purpose for a purpose.

Wow. That made no sense to me whatsoever.

The name for this phenomenon is pareidolia (but please do not ask me how to pronounce it!). Phil Plait has a fun discussion of this over at Bad Astronomy: http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/lenin.html

The mind also tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects (ever yell at a balky computer?).

Computers are the worst possible example, an example which reflects a woo-saturated dualistic conception of consciousness. Computers, like brains and unlike the sky, scorch marks, grilled cheese sandwiches, stains, caves, branches against drainpipes, etc. are control systems.

There are some famous drawings (I’m sorry I can’t remember the artist) showing all kinds of strange creatures embedded in the branches of trees and bushes.

Bev Doolittle?

The mind also tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects (ever yell at a balky computer?). This leads us to believe that natural phenomena are “purposeful, caused by agents with sentient minds,” says Hood, whose book “The Supernatural Sense” is due next year. It’s only a short step to thinking that “ ‘things that go bump in the night’ are the result of some spirit or agent,” not branches brushing against your drainpipe.

Agreed. This is a lovely explanation, and generally the right one, for all sorts of indeterminate things that go bump in t’night, and people seeing faces in random patterns of mold or dirt.

The problem I have with this and all other such “debunkings of the supernatural” is, what do you say when it wasn’t just something indeterminate that went bump in the night? What do you say when two, three, ten, a hundred people all report seeing the same very well-defined, highly convincing, impossible-by-any-rules-we-know audio-visual phenomenon? Or just one witness with an incredible story that happens to contain the proverbial “details he couldn’t possibly have known?”

Flint:

Mother Goose? Hardly. That quatrain

Yesterday upon the stair I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today Oh how I wish he’d go away.

is by William Hughes Mearns.

But this universal human tendency fails to explain the motives of creationists.

Of course all humans are prone to over-interpret random events as evidence for some kind of causality.

But superstitious belief in astrology, ghosts, and the like cuts across lines of political ideology and ethnic identity.

ID/Creationism is almost entirely associated with right wing authoritarian politics.

Although ID/creationism types may be falling for this common mental error, they are also encouraging and exploiting it in the service of a social and political ideology.

Great article. This stuff is all covered in-depth in the Skeptic’s Dictionary, a great read. www.skepdic.com

I take it as a given that we tend to personify objects and impose recognizable patterns on sense impressions. But to construe these facts as a straightforward smackdown of religious belief is folk science, bar-room anthropology, wishful thinking. Even to lump the whole range of religious experience under the heading of “belief in the supernatural” is to erase distinctions, to forego serious understanding, to define a crudely reductive comfort zone. A religion is not a set of beliefs. It is a socially embedded complex of practices and experiences that may (but may not) include affirmation of a doctrinal or dogmatic component, “beliefs.”

But even treating religion for the sake of the argument as matter of “beliefs,” affirmed propositions about matters of fact, the idea that religion is invalidated by being shown to rely on our neural equipment is a case of the genetic fallacy. Mr. Reuland’s notion that one might get people to “disabuse themselves of supernatural beliefs” by “getting them to understand the underlying means by which such beliefs form” is naive. All beliefs form, it is probably fairly safe to posit, by some causal means. If formation by traceable means were sufficient to discredit a belief, we could therefore believe nothing at all, e.g. 2+2=4. The discreditation that Mr. Reuland hopes for is purely emotional, a diminution of the believer’s sense or feeling that certain beliefs are plausible. He appears to me to imagine that the believer will feel dismay at the realization that their religious beliefs have causes, but not that the believer will realize that all their beliefs, including their beliefs in (say) evolution and arithmetic, must also have causes—perhaps extremely similar ones (same neural network)—and feel dismay at that realization.

The distinction between true belief and false cannot be decided by neurology, because all beliefs are neurological events.

L

I don’t know what we’re supposed to be making of all this. We tend to look for agency because it is often possible, and even when it is not, it is typically a useful way to model the world (science journals are rife with anthropomorphisms, and not just in biology).

So yeah, we look for purpose and agency behind things, but we also look at other patterns, like inheritance. ID and creationism are not simply some sort of mistake about agency, IOW, it is a deliberate and willful denial of the meaning of the patterns of descent and derivation. God-soaked Mexico does not have the kinds of problems with creationism and ID that we do, despite the not-infrequent imputation of divine agency to happenstance events there.

Religion does look for confirmation, that is to say, however it does not do so willy-nilly. Some religious folk are looking for old-timey signs, the present-day miracle, or even just the heavenly music. ID is a particularly nihilistic form, by contrast with more healthy religions, for it really isn’t looking for anything. ‘Bow down to statistically-determined design,’ is its message, and as a concept all on its own, it really has very few converts. Creationism at least is a bit more religious in the traditional sense, if hardly very convincingly, for it’s still looking for miracles in the strata, evidence for a miracle, “the flood.”

And really, most religious folk do have some conception of the need to confirm inferences to perceived purpose. Xians especially mostly don’t see the ghosts and other of the older “supernatural phenomena,” and has been over the witch thing for quite a while too. The desacralization of this world has been credited to Xianity in large part. The IDists don’t so much want to turn the clock back on that, as to determine that in the distant inaccessible past the supernatural done something that we don’t understand, really a very pathetic refuge from their ever-shrinking world of miracles.

I believe that mostly it’s the facts that IDists and creationists have gotten wrong, and have reinforced their wrongness to each other. They start out with “it couldn’t have all happened by chance” (duh), then move on to their “why are there still monkeys?” and other brilliant observations. Meanwhile, the superficially plausible “common design indicates a common designer” bypasses and ignores the huge differences between homology and analogy (the latter does fit the chant of “common design” reasonably well), and since the creos usually get to the kids first, it vaccinates them against thought.

The truth is that the Newsweek article tells against superstition, but it has little to do with ID or creationism. Design is not a “first appearances” inference from life. Miracles and reproduction are the two main “explanations” for life in the ancient myths, and even modification and transformation (something like evolution) play important roles. Design is a religious idea of the industrial age (that is when it arose in its modern form), and it has any number of fallacies, false “facts”, presuppositions, and reactions against science. But what it is not is anything that is obvious from first or second appearances, nor is it demonstrable from any sort of connected set of facts.

I do not think that the creationists, who are most of the “IDists”, really believe in “design” as such, but rather in miracle, only using design as a weapon against the hated evilutionists. In fact, I don’t know of any IDist who believes in anything we can mean by “design,” instead they believe in miraculous and unfathomable design by the Perfect Designer. Design is not to be understood like human design is understood, then, rather it is a kind of reductive modernist or even post-modernist “awe” at the “unexplained” that we are supposed to feel.

Let’s not forget that we are the only ones who demand specific purpose from ID’s “design”. They do not, they are trying to say that design indicates purpose, without being able to identify any kind of purpose whatsoever. Surely ID has twisted even immediate (if often incorrect) inference away from the sort that comes naturally to humanity, so that they deny the immediate sense of purpose that a child might believe in upon seeing an animal (as indeed do we), and yet they deny that purpose can be inferred from life at all, except in some nebulous and meaningless transcendental manner. They are the ultimate nihilists then, for neither the immediate and often faulty inference is to be accepted at face value, nor are the patterns of inheritance accepted as meaningful beyond a certain point, even though they accept that evidence at the “microevolutionary” level, and can show no break between “microevolutionary” and “macroevolutionary” processes and the results coming from those processes.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

Larry, I don’t think you’re logic is good. You’re conflating some form of idealism with evidence. Sure, all beliefs are really neurological events, but that is different from saying they are all caused by the same thing. YOu see some neurological events have external referents and some do not. The “believer” is evolution has an external referent– evidence– that underlies his belief. The supernaturalist has no external referent, only his neurological event.

Sharon Begley’s columns have moved the Discovery Institute to fulminations in print before. Will this one as well?

TomS’s three steps of reification, personification, and deifications are interesting, in that the specific purpose of the creation account in Genesis 1 was to abrogate the deification of the sun, moon, animals, and other “natural” objects in previous religious myths, specifically in the Gilgamesh epic. See, e.g., Conrad Hyers, “The Meaning of Creation” (John Knox Press 1984).

The night sky provided both seasonal and directional information to ancient peoples. The easiest way to access this information was to group the stars and name the constellations. Not because their mind made them look for patterns that don’t have any real meaning.

A very reasonable thing to do at the time, and still usefu for modern astronomers, ‘Orion’ being easier to remember than RA xxx degrees, DEC xxx degrees.

Unsurprisingly, the ancients made up stories about the constellations. It was their night show, their “TV”.

And yelling at a computer is okay; throwing it out the window is not good.

Correctly stated by the author. Humans are “wired” to see patterns which help us to interpret phenomena occurring around us. In prehistorical and ancient times the lack of knowledge led our ancestors to grab of this ability to finding patterns to help explain nature. Of course from that to assign anthropomorphic character to natural events is only a short step and subsequently we had the birth of religious thought. Again this is solely a way to account for reasons/explanations to nature. Under evolutionary pressures is not far fetched to see the all those events; patterns, anthropomorphic nature and religion as a natural consequence. The strong grip of religion to power over the populations is another result of our evolution but not necessary our future.

Re “So why not make friends with your lab equipment, it can be a worthwhile habit.”

Cause the equipment’ll never pick up the tab when you go to lunch with it. ;)

Henry

I don’t believe in ghosts. I sometimes hear them though, and more rarely see them. It doesn’t particularly bother me. Let me tell you about one.

During the early 1980s some friends bought a house in Brixton. It was a biggish house, built probably some time towards the end of the 19th century and located in one of the side streets off Railton Road. They were unable to move in straight away and were concerned about its being left empty, as there were many squats in the area and also some local troubles. Knowing that I had business to attend to in London they asked me, and I agreed, to mind the house for them for a few days until they arrived. It was winter and the electricity was not connected but the water was on and there was a gas cooker in the kitchen and a desk and a gas fire in one bedroom, so I was happy enough to stay and save the cost of a bed & breakfast too.

On the evening of the second day I was sitting at the desk, making notes by candlelight on some papers for a meeting the next day. Around half-past nine I distinctly and unmistakeably heard somebody walking up the stairs. It was a very light tread and I was not unduly alarmed - if it was an intruder I would have the obvious advantages of size, darkness and a fair familiarity with the layout of the house. So I put the papers aside, snuffed the candle and quietly stepped out onto the landing.

Well, as you can guess, there was nobody there. I poked around for a bit downstairs to check for any signs of entry, and finding none went back to my room, relit the candle and read for another hour or so before going to bed.

Let me stress, the noise does not require any supernatural explanation. I don’t know what caused it but it might have any number of possible natural causes: activity next door or on the street outside, the usual creaks and groans from an old house built on clay, my own pulse, small furry friends going about their business, and so on.

However, if I’m looking around for a word to describe what I heard, then bearing in mind that a word, a label, isn’t the thing it labels, “ghost” does seem to be the best fit.

Ric said:

YOu see some neurological events have external referents and some do not. The “believer” is evolution has an external referent– evidence– that underlies his belief. The supernaturalist has no external referent, only his neurological event.

I think this is a spurious distinction. Both have the same evidence (material reality: rocks, fossils, living creatures, humanity and its surroundings). They also share some similar or identical neurological events: sensations of awe, perceptions to which they assign the word ‘beauty’, conceptions of truth (as something precious and worth effort to apprehend and persuade others of) and attempts at logic/reason. The details differ: they interpret evidence differently and call different things true.

Religious people and their beliefs do not exist in a vacuum but often (always!) do have external referents: in human culture, history, religious upbringing, religious texts (holy books), and personal life experiences. These are things that exist. One may debate their relative worth and reliability and true interpretation; but these are not categorically distinct from such influences as practical technological experience, scientific training (indoctrination), textbooks, scientific eureka moments and a devotion to scientific method as a route to illumination.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on October 30, 2007 12:07 PM.

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