Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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The brain and the mind ‘create’ God and miracles

Posted by robertpriddy on June 18, 2012

The New Scientist ran an article entitled:  ‘Born believers: How your brain creates God’. It proposes that the inclination of human beings to believe in God is natural in that some of the foundations for religious beliefs are” hard-wired” in human brains. (not: ‘hard-wired’ is a misleading bad metaphor for such a flexible and ever-developing neuronic organisation).  Experiments with children from a few months old to pre-school, have influenced some to conclude that “belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body is the default setting of the human brain.”  At the same time, it was stated that the ability to conceive of gods is itself not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: “an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none.” This casts a powerful lights on the entire root of religions.

This reminds of the way in which the brain has long been known to complete images, such as to ‘fill in’ the blind spot or make 3-dimensions where only two are shown but experience knows there are three. Also, the brain tends to see human features – especially faces – in all manner of visual impression, such as in clouds, everyday objects,  accidental formations like Rorschach-type ink blots. These are examples of ‘pareidolia’ whereby a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant. It is faulty perception, seeing something which is not there but which is anticipated (due to preconceptions or subconscious brain information). There have been many – and often striking – instances of perceptions of religious imagery and themes, especially the faces of religious figures, in ordinary phenomena. Those inclined to believe in religious figures, or wishing to have their doubts removed, are liable to fall for such accidental similarities as genuinely meaningful ‘miracles’.

 Carl Sagan hypothesized that as a survival technique, human beings are “hard-wired” from birth to identify the human face. This allows people to use only minimal details to recognize faces from a distance and in poor visibility but can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces.The evolutionary advantages of being able to identify friend from foe with split-second accuracy are numerous; prehistoric (and even modern) men and women who accidentally identify an enemy as a friend could face deadly consequences for this mistake. This is only one among many evolutionary pressures responsible for the development of the facial recognition capability of modern humans” (Wikipedia) 

In short, the human brain (long known not to be infallible in perception or in any other manner), functions to complete incomplete information. There is also the experimental psychological effect known as the ‘psi-phenomenon’ which enables us to see a fast series of images as a connected whole (such as by circling a sparkler quickly, or rapidly alternating two light close to one another until the brain merges them, or even watching a film).

The researchers who wrote the article found that children as young as three were found to attribute design and purpose to inanimate objects and animals. It is well-known that adults also are equally inclined to see design and intention where there is none. Put under pressure to explain natural phenomena, adults often fall back on teleological arguments, such as “trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” or “the sun is hot because warmth nurtures life”. Further  “…even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking….” and interviews with atheists made it clear that “they often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen. They don’t completely exorcise the ghost of god – they just muzzle it”

It is also known that trauma cause some people to slip into believing supernatural phenomenon and finding patterns when there is none “.when we feel a lack of control we fall back on superstitious ways of thinking. That would explain why religions enjoy a revival during hard times…… [this also suggests] that god isn’t going away, andthat atheism will always be a hard sell. Religious belief is the “path of least resistance”. Meanwhile,  disbelief requires an effort.

See also How your brain creates God (i.e. subjective ‘realities’)

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One Response to “The brain and the mind ‘create’ God and miracles”

  1. dns12008 said

    Well-written and also objectively-written article. The author has mentioned how even atheists and agnostics (atleast a good percentage of them) often muzzle the concept of god an d supernatural., more so in times of personal crisis and are struggling to find a purpose for their life.

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