An interesting study just got coverage by the Independent. Researchers at The University of Helsinki tested religious people and found that as the level of their religious belief rose, so did their misunderstanding of the physical world. Believers who participated in the study were more likely to think that inanimate objects could think and feel.
Reading the article, I’m reminded of the kind of animism that was common in ancient spiritual traditions. The belief that everything had a conscious spirit; the trees, the rocks, etc. As the field of neuroscience makes more and more progress in understanding the brain’s internal mechanisms and how they interact, we have been learning more and more about the various ways in which our brains make mistakes. As an example, Michael Shermer, in his book “The Believing Brain”, discusses the evolutionary mechanisms in the brain that lead to this faulty thinking.
Among the reasons we attribute consciousness and agency to inanimate objects is the fact that we evolved an overactive agency detection system. Ancient humans would have needed to avoid danger to survive. If you, as an ancient human, see the leaves of a bush rustling and attribute it to a predator, if it just turns out to be the wind, then you have not lost anything. But if you instead assume it is the wind, and it does turn out to be a predator, you die and do not get to reproduce. This mechanism over time developed to such an extent that we humans saw purpose and consciousness in everything around us.
Science is all about repeatable results, however, so it will be interesting to see if anyone can or does reproduce this experiment and gets the same results. Time will tell. In the meantime, we should continue to promote education and work to foster a curiosity in the natural world among people. We need to get past our primitive, faulty ways of thinking and embrace the tools we have created to bypass that faulty thinking, like science and reason. Our global 21st century society faces many challenges, and coming together to face them will require us to abandon as much as possible the ancient fairy tales that so often divide us.