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Saturday, January 14, 2006

God is an Accident

God is an Accident

In the current issue of The Atlantic psychologist Paul Bloom advances a striking thesis: beliefs in the supernatural and spiritual are by-products of the human brain, specifically our capacity for “social cognition.” In other words, as the title of his article puts it, “God is an Accident.” He reports studies showing that infants under six months are able to anticipate or predict the movement of objects, such as the effects of gravity. For example, if a ball appears to be resting on a table, but remains suspended (because held by an invisible line) when the table is removed, the baby will be surprised (measured by the length of time the infant concentrates on the scene). In another experiment, children under three, after listening to a story in which a mouse is eaten by an alligator, will answer that the dead mouse no longer needs to eat or go to the toilet, but insist that the missing mouse can still think and feel.

So the argument is that our ability to experience objects in the world as other, and our awareness of ourselves, combine to produce imaginary constructs like “souls” and “heaven” and “god.” Religious beliefs, in short, result from the accidental extension of these abilities into and “beyond” the world. It’s quite a convincing discussion and I highly recommend it.

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