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Scientific American


published June 2009 | comments (11)
Why people believe that invisible agents
control the world
magazine cover

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind — the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others — we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agenticity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet-masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that the government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as “the one” with almost messianic powers who will save us.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them, well documented in the new book SuperSense (HarperOne, 2009) by University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood. Examples: children believe that the sun can think and follows them around; because of such beliefs, they often add smiley faces on sketched suns. Adults typically refuse to wear a mass murderer’s sweater, believing that “evil” is a supernatural force that imparts its negative agency to the wearer (and, alternatively, that donning Mr. Rogers’s cardigan will make you a better person). A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality is transplanted with the organ. Genital-shaped foods (bananas, oysters) are often believed to enhance sexual potency. Subjects watching geometric shapes with eye spots interacting on a computer screen conclude that they represent agents with moral intentions.

“Many highly educated and intelligent individuals experience a powerful sense that there are patterns, forces, energies and entities operating in the world,” Hood explains. “More important, such experiences are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence, which is why they are supernatural and unscientific. The inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.”

We are natural-born supernaturalists.

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11 Comments to “Agenticity”

  1. dennis dorian Says:

    I love reading your work…you make the complicated seem simple.
    I study Zen Buddhism (the Buddha (whoever) being a early rationalist) says to investigate everything, clearly.

    I find this in your writings.
    Thank You.

  2. Rich Says:

    I am a Deputy Sheriff and work at our counties detention center. Many of the detention officers cringe when I say during briefing before shift starts that I hope that it won’t be a busy day. They really believe that I have the ability to JINX things and make the opposite of what I wish for happen. Some of them try to get me to knock on wood. Ha Ha! Maybe I should say that I hope we have a busy day and see how they react to that!

    Thanks Dr. Shermer for all your work!

  3. An Apologist Says:

    Regarding your statement above: “If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error)”

    What preconditions or underlying assumptions would have to be true in order for this assertion or claim to make sense? Seems to me animals would have to possess rationality and the ability to use discernment, but to apply “reason” is a huge assumption over an impossibly large logic chasm. Additonally, you would have to assume that this was also an inheritable trait, and that it could be passed on to offspring, that the same trait responsible for enabling animals to reason this well would not also develop in predators who would learn to employ “the old rustling in the grass trick” to flush out these animals, etc.)

    I–and all readers–should ask: what are the preconditions of intelligibility (i.e. underlying unargued assumptions = presuppositions) would have to be present in order for this claim to make sense? Quite a bit it seems that have no scientific basis. You completely disregard the application of animal instinct (sight, sound, smell, hearing) as survival mechanisms, and instead grant such creatures the power of reason and discernment.

    The Skeptical Inquirer, indeed!

  4. Matt Says:

    @ An Apologist

    I think the author was just using that as an analogy to help the reader understand type I and type II errors. That wasn’t the proof of his theory, it was an example of how it could work. Plus this is a news article on the internet, not the write up of a case study which would probably be long boring and no one would read it. Think of it as the abstract of a research paper.

  5. James Turner Says:

    Let us not get into a hurry to throw out the baby with the bath water. Patterns are a critical part of our nature. Neuroscience shows that patterns are how we learn and remember since patterns create pictures and research by Neuro-scientists like Eric Jensen and Maria Wolf have shown that memory is really pictorial in nature not word in nature. If you look at Howard Gardner’s work on learning styles what you see is patterns that are used to teach and learn. Let be a little more scientific in our discussion of patterns and look at all the facts not just those that meet our personal notions about patterns or for that matter Agenticity !!! Thanks for listening

  6. Rhinanthus Says:

    That higher animals also possess “agenticity” is, I think, an empirical fact. My dog will bark whenever she hears a noise outside – even if it is just some snow falling from the roof. If she sees the snow fall she will not bark. I have no idea of the degree to which this is instinct vs. thought but the difference is irrelevent to the general argument. The default position in higher animals seems to be “if in doubt, assume that actions are caused by some amimate agent.”
    What separates humans in this regard from other animals is the next step: “if in doubt, assume that actions are caused by some animate agent. If you see an action but no animate agent and also can’t see an inanimate cause, then conclude that the action was caused by an invisible agent”. We have only to go one step further to get to primitive religion. If we see a BIG action (one that we do not have the power to create) but no animate agent nor any obvious inanimate cause, then assume that the invisible agent is much more powerful than us.

  7. Aristotle's Muse Says:

    Alright you ignorant atheists… if there is no god, then HOW DOES THE SUN KEEP ORBITING THE EARTH? BAM!

    You see people, that’s how you deal with atheist skum. With LOGIC! Hit that bullseye and the rest of the dominoes will come down like a house of cards… CHECKMATE!

    And on that note…

    Dunt dun duuh DAAAAHHHH!

    !!!!!!!!!MY ATHEIST STORE!!!!!!!!!

    Aristotle’s Muse

    This is my store. Maybe wearing an atheist T-shirt won’t change the world, but enough of them just might.

  8. Sacerdotus Says:

    Agenticity does not mean what this author claims it does. This article is hyperbolic reasoning that has no evidence to support it.

    1) The definition is wrong
    2) Why invisible agents? African folk religions believe in gods that are part of the material universe, not outside of it.
    3) What purpose would this author’s definition of “agenticity” serve in biological evolution?
    4) What pattern does invincibility have? In order for the mind to process patterns, it needs to have a prior template of pattern from which to compare from.

    I can go on and on, but the space here is not enough.

  9. Tomdog Says:

    1) What else does it mean?
    2) THey believe, but they are mistaken, unless you have proof otherwise.
    3)The biological “advantage”? That would be to survive.
    4) Who’s talking about invincibility? The prior pattern would be a associate being eaten by a sabre tooth.

  10. Sacerdotus Says:

    1)It means agents acting in the world – makes no mention of invisibility.

    2) Elaborate

    3) If survival were the advantage, then this would contradict anti-religious rhetoric that labels it as anti-peace. If religion causes wars as the rhetoric claims, then how can religion and invisible agents that comprise them assist in survival?
    4) The author is.

  11. Tomdog Says:

    1) You’re missing the point. Invisibility isn’t the issue. It’s the possibility that an agent could be present. The individual more likely to believe an agent is hidden, is more likely to survive.

    2)It’s a moot point. Not really applicable to the point being made and unnecessarily complicating a simple issue

    3) Again, your argument is not relevant to the point being made. Or do you agree with the rhetoric?

    4) The author is common sense. Watch a nature documentary.