toxic thought waste site

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 05 - Religion, The Early Days

The previous chapter was about laying the groundwork for understanding the brain modules that are in place that make religious belief possible. This chapter is about looking at the factors in play that cause various religion-like memes to win out over others.

Religious thoughts survive if we keep them in mind and share them with others. Any thought that can get itself rehearsed a lot will have the best chance. One way to get rehearsed is to actually work. For instance appealing to our dead ancestors for strategic advice may "work" in the sense that it subconsciously lets us make the decision ourselves. We *knew* what to do but somehow pretending the answer came from our dead ancestors gives us the emotional distance required to see things a little more objectively or perhaps just the courage to act on them.

Another way for ideas to get rehearsed and shared is if they take advantage of some brain flaw and at least *seem* to work. One possible flaw is the "superstition effect" where we tend to over include factors in our environment when considering cause and effect. We are especially vulnerable to this when cause and effect are effectively random (e.g. doing rain dances to affect the weather).

Of ideas that work or seem to work we will tend to favor those that are "interesting". One way that an idea can be interesting is for it to differ from everyday phenomena enough to stand out but is not so "crazy" that we'd have trouble remembering it. For instance, a hammer is a little boring. An invisible hammer that can sing songs about the color of desire while rotating inwardly along it's axis of saltiness will be hard to keep in mind. A talking hammer just does the trick.

Idea transfer can also take advantage of the parent/child relationship. It seems pretty clear that children are preprogrammed to accept as gospel whatever their parents say. Once an idea infiltrates the belief system it will have easy access to the next generation via this mechanism.

Paradoxically it may be the case that some ideas get rehearsed more simply because they are incomprehensible. The suggestion here is that an idea that actually makes sense will be stored in your brain as a "rough idea". This will make it susceptible to morphing as you recall it or share it with others. One requirement for the durability of an idea is that it not change too much. Therefore an idea that has to be memorized as rote will resist morphing and have enhanced fidelity.

One of the possible reasons for why religion thrives is that most people are, to some degree, susceptible to the power of suggestion. This may have had an evolutionary advantage in he age before medicine. The immune response is an expensive function of the body. It's much safer to run full bore if you are around people who can care for you. (Perhaps this is the mechanism behind the placebo effect). In any case this is one plausible candidate for why suggestibility should exist in the first place.

I find the above to be a pretty interesting conjecture. But I also know from experience that it is hilariously far from something a religious person would even start to take seriously. Why should they? They have a book with the answers completely laid out on every issue rather than a mishmash of vague speculation.

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