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The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

by Jesse Bering

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-07299-0
Publisher: Norton

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.