Bruce M. Hood - Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

April 17, 2009

Bruce M. Hood is chair of the Cognitive Development Center in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. He was a research fellow at Cambridge and has been a visiting scientist at MIT and professor at Harvard. Hood has received many awards for his work in child development and cognitive neuroscience. His newest book is Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Bruce M. Hood explains how his agenda is different than the common skeptical agenda to disprove supernatural claims, and instead is an attempt to explain why people believe hold such beliefs in the first place. He argues that everyone is born with a "supersense," an instinct to believe in unseen forces and to recognize patterns and infer their causation, citing examples such as seeing Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, or the case of the "haunted scrotum." He explains how this supersense is universal, and that even skeptics and rationalists often exhibit it in their lives through rituals and the owning certain valued possessions, such as Richard Dawkins' prizing of objects once owned by Charles Darwin or MIT growing saplings from the tree under which Newton first discovered the laws of gravity. He details how rituals give a perceived sense of control to believers, and how they may actually affect a believer's performance. He talks about the "secular supernatural," contrasting it with the "religious supernatural." He argues against Daniel Dennett's and Richard Dawkins's thesis that religious belief results primarily from indoctrination in childhood. And he defends the position that unbelievable beliefs serve important social functions.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


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Comments from the CFI Forums

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Here we have yet another “crazy is the state of humanity, get used to it” book. Some of the problems:

1) Fatalistic, no attempt to address historical trends away from religiosity, as if any level of religion is equivalent to any other level

2) equates any nutso religion/supernatural belief with the finding of any deep meaning/significance like your dead father’s watch or something you cherish.

3) equates “ritual” among modern educated people which they would describe as silly/absurd/fun/tradition with rituals among tribal peoples who literally believe the ritual has life and death consequences

4) Holds up as evidence the failure of atheistic communist states to halt religion as proof religion can’t be stopped; doesn’t seem to realize phenomena whereby persecution causes increased fanaticism (as in the case of consumers of Apple or Linux products)

As always, the book itself may cover some of this but based on the podcast.. Hood just seems not to have given due consideration to pertinent perspectives. Overall message seems to be: skeptics, you can’t change anything.. don’t try.

Posted on May 29, 2009 at 4:09pm by sate Comment #1

The book sounds interesting. I agree that the fetish for authenticity does have something of a religious tinge to it, and it sounds plausible that the same general mental module might be responsible for both sorts of things—both the Catholic’s belief that the bones of the dead saint will cure illness and Dawkins’s belief that slips of paper written on by Darwin are more valuable than those written on by someone else.

But to say that these two sorts of thought might be underlain by the same sort of mental module is not to say that they are equivalently irrational, nor that they amount to the same thing, which is what it sometimes sounded as though Hood was claiming. Dawkins may have a reverence for Darwin’s handwriting, and that reverence may in some sense be irrational, but at the end of the day it’s no more than a willingness to preserve and protect one sort of writing more than another. Dawkins certainly would not claim that Darwin’s handwriting had any sort of physical effects that were different from the handwriting of someone else. He would not claim it had the power to heal, to save, to curse, et cetera. Yet it is those later corollaries that are the concern of most skeptics and rationalists like Dawkins.

A closer attention to these differences would have made Hood’s argument more cogent. As it was, I really wasn’t sure what he was claiming, except that at times he sounded like the proverbial man with the hammer.

Posted on Jun 01, 2009 at 10:47am by dougsmith Comment #2

Hood is a belief in a beliefer as Dennett would say, making claims based on intuition and anecdote. Hood misrepresents what Dennett and Dawkins say about religion, memes, and evolutionary advantage. Also, the argument from evolutionary advantage for religion was well defeated preemptively by Dennett and Dawkins. Dennett and Dawkins don’t deny the human propensity to believe in the supernatural or other funny things (they know Shermer and Dennett writes on these), they give many examples, they do not think religion transmission is purely cultural. Some products of evolution aren’t primary adaptive, they are secondary byproducts, to claim that the universal nature of religion as evolutionary evidence for its utility is beyond naive. Dennett and Dawkins aren’t idiots, they don’t deny human nature, or are oblivious to it, they experience feelings the same as religious people. The difference between a sceptic and a believer is how they use these feelings to influence their beliefs and actions. Failures of attempts to irradicate supernatural beliefs in the past do not represent its impossibility, especially when new strategies are used. Hood’s defeatism, straw man arguments, and appeals to anecdotes all stem from an irrational faithbased belief in belief. There’s also a naturalistic fallacy emerging at times, that what is, should be, because most people are ruled by emotion they should be. Accept when Hood is offended by the consequences I guess, the usual “relativist when I feel like it” strategy.

Posted on Jun 02, 2009 at 4:38pm by Aj Comment #3

Dennett and Dawkins aren’t idiots, they don’t deny human nature, or are oblivious to it

I remember a conversation between Dawkins and Pinker, where Pinker told him that it is probably wrong to blame the parents for the religious indoctrination of their children as they seem to have no influence on their kids’ personality, to which Dawkins responded, “Yeah, I remember reading that in the Blank Slate.” That was it. To this date Dawkins keeps blaming parents for the religious indoctrination of their children and does therefore seem to be implicitly denying human nature. I am Dawkins’s big fan but this really bothers me.

BTW, great interview! I bought Hood’s book today.

Posted on Jun 02, 2009 at 7:40pm by George Comment #4

...where Pinker told him that it is probably wrong to blame the parents for the religious indoctrination of their children as they seem to have no influence on their kids’ personality…

Have you got a quote or a link? Personality and religious doctrine are completely different things. You certainly can blame parents for the religion of their children.  Of course Dawkins is going to blame parents if their children believe in Jesus instead of Krishna, I don’t think Pinker denies this. This has nothing to do with what Pinker says about personality in The Blank Slate.

Posted on Jun 03, 2009 at 4:46am by Aj Comment #5

Have you got a quote or a link?

I believe it was in HERE.

Personality and religious doctrine are completely different things. You certainly can blame parents for the religion of their children.  Of course Dawkins is going to blame parents if their children believe in Jesus instead of Krishna, I don’t think Pinker denies this. This has nothing to do with what Pinker says about personality in The Blank Slate.

The question is why people are religious and can we blame (if you see religion as a vice) the parents. Pinker and Hood seem to believe that nurture has very little to do with it.

Posted on Jun 03, 2009 at 5:58am by George Comment #6

The question is why people are religious and can we blame (if you see religion as a vice) the parents. Pinker and Hood seem to believe that nurture has very little to do with it.

You’re hedging now, and the claim is too vague to directly respond to. I don’t see how some religious ideas would be transferred without nurture, not all religions are the same. Pinker accepts the role of cultural ideas in religious belief. Pinker notes the similarities between religions and ideas behind them, and some ideas like dualism are from nature, yet another step must be made beyond that to disembodied minds (a phrase from Dennett). You don’t get Pinker believes “nurture has very little to do with it” from that, or that Dawkins believes nurture has more to do with it. Dawkins doesn’t use the example of dualism but he gives other examples of natural inclinations towards religious belief, like seeing faces in random patterns mentioned in the God Delusion. There seems to be no disagreement with the role of nature in the propensity to believe between Dawkins and Pinker. Pinker does claim that “religiousity” is highly heritable but Dawkins supports this view, and religiousity isn’t the same as religious doctrine which is not heritable.

Posted on Jun 03, 2009 at 12:41pm by Aj Comment #7

If Dawkins agrees that religiosity is highly heritable, why does he go on saying that, “it’s time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas”? Why is it a child abuse if these kids are genetically predetermined to see god’s face in every tortilla anyway?

Chesterton was right when he said that, “when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.“ What he didn’t know is that you first need to inherit the “religiousity gene” to believe in either god or “anything.” Chesterton didn’t know it and Dawkins doesn’t want to know it. Does Dawkins think that were he to stop the “abuse of childhood innocence” these kids will grow up to be rational?

Posted on Jun 03, 2009 at 1:37pm by George Comment #8

If Dawkins agrees that religiosity is highly heritable, why does he go on saying that, “it’s time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas”? Why is it a child abuse if these kids are genetically predetermined to see god’s face in every tortilla anyway?

Because religiousity and superstitious ideas are not the same thing, and that’s only the third time I’ve stated such in this thread. The fact is they’re not “genetically predetermined to see god’s face”, that’s not what Pinker thinks, that’s not what Dawkins thinks, and its pretty ridiculous to believe such nonsense. Humans are pattern seeking, face seeing, intention attributing, but it’s religious ideas that hijack these biases in favour of irrational beliefs, and that certainly isn’t from nature. If you read Dawkins book The God Delusion he goes through a few examples of these biases, so he definitely doesn’t deny they exist.

Posted on Jun 03, 2009 at 1:58pm by Aj Comment #9

OK, my mistake. When I said that kids are genetically predetermined to see god’s face in every tortilla, I didn’t necessarily mean they will see it at the age of three. At that age they will merely see a face, but they will identify it as the face of god when they grow up. If it’ll be the face of Jesus, Allah, or Simon’s head of a pig from the Lord of the Flies makes no difference. You can have a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia or cancer that won’t manifest itself until later on in your life. Hood suspects that it is while we are growing up that we develop superstitious ideas (by nature!) and some of us won’t simply let go of them in our adulthood.

BTW, where do the religious ideas come from if not from nature? From society, right? Ahh, that mysterious thing called the society that appeared out of nowhere…

Posted on Jun 03, 2009 at 7:56pm by George Comment #10

What gets me about Point of Inquiry is how often I end up muttering, “hey, I already said that…” (but didn’t make a big deal of it).

In this case, Hood is basically saying in sociological terms that people are naturally the way that (for example) L. Sprague and Catherine deCamp described them in the classic Spirits, Stars and Spells. When I wrote about the role of ritual I put this in a footnote:

You think you don’t believe in sympathetic magic? OK, here’s a test. Take a photograph of someone you care about. Make a copy of it on the office copier. Now, in private, defile that copy: scribble on it, smear it, tear it up, grind your heel on it.
Go on, I dare you.
If you can actually do this—treat a picture of a loved person like the piece of paper it undoubtedly is—without any qualms, you really do not have any of the sympathetic magician in you. But if the idea of doing violence to a picture of a loved one does give you serious qualms, or if you just couldn’t do it—excuse me, if you decided in a mature way not to do it—then welcome to the human condition!

My point? Hood’s probably basically right but his message should be no surprise to anybody. We’re all superstionists, sure; the great thing is to understand and use it well.

Posted on Jun 24, 2009 at 1:18pm by dcortesi Comment #11

We’re all superstionists, sure; the great thing is to understand and use it well.

Good point, dcortesi, and welcome to the CFI forum. Yes, we are all irrational at times. I would also say the important thing is to be aware of our failures when they occur. At the very least, be aware that there is no good reason for what we are doing, when we do something ‘superstitious’ or irrational.

Posted on Jun 24, 2009 at 1:27pm by dougsmith Comment #12

In this case, Hood is basically saying in sociological terms that people are naturally the way that (for example) L. Sprague and Catherine deCamp described them in the classic Spirits, Stars and Spells. When I wrote about the role of ritual I put this in a footnote:

You think you don’t believe in sympathetic magic? OK, here’s a test. Take a photograph of someone you care about. Make a copy of it on the office copier. Now, in private, defile that copy: scribble on it, smear it, tear it up, grind your heel on it.
Go on, I dare you.
If you can actually do this—treat a picture of a loved person like the piece of paper it undoubtedly is—without any qualms, you really do not have any of the sympathetic magician in you. But if the idea of doing violence to a picture of a loved one does give you serious qualms, or if you just couldn’t do it—excuse me, if you decided in a mature way not to do it—then welcome to the human condition!

My point? Hood’s probably basically right but his message should be no surprise to anybody. We’re all superstionists, sure; the great thing is to understand and use it well.

I find your example specious. There is no comparison between someone making use of a voodoo doll (an example of de facto sympathetic magic) and someone defiling a picture. In the case of the former, a supernatural process is implied. In the case of the latter, a symbolic action that has very real implications for our relationships. If you doubt this, imagine the consequence if the person in the photo were to walk in while you were in the middle of the defiling. That consequence is real and the aversion to the act is based on the understanding of relationships and symbolic communication even if strictly speaking it might not have any direct consequence. Implications of all thing unpleasant are unpleasant to beings that own imaginations and thus, scary movies are scary and the mere thought of a mate with another (imaginary) partner is unsettling. Maybe you simply rebrand this “magic” thinking but I find this is at best a disingenuous abuse of terms that conflates not clarifies.

The difference might also be stated thusly: No one averse to defiling a photo ever let their kid die by denying them medical treatment.

Posted on Jun 24, 2009 at 1:42pm by sate Comment #13

The difference might also be stated thusly: No one averse to defiling a photo ever let their kid die by denying them medical treatment.

Well, maybe and maybe not. However your main point is a good one. There is definitely a difference between kinds of irrational belief and action—some are harmless, particularly when they are understood to be irrational. Others can be deadly. And we definitely should not conflate the two.

Posted on Jun 24, 2009 at 1:51pm by dougsmith Comment #14

Well, maybe and maybe not. However your main point is a good one. There is definitely a difference between kinds of irrational belief and action—some are harmless, particularly when they are understood to be irrational. Others can be deadly. And we definitely should not conflate the two.

Thank you. The deliberate effort to blur the lines which actually aren’t that blurry strikes me as either sensationalistic (buy my book, I’ll prove you’re identical to virgin-killing savages!) or a resurfacing of tired po-mo antiscience (rationality is the new superstition).

Posted on Jun 24, 2009 at 2:23pm by sate Comment #15

I see where you’re coming from, sate, but I didn’t read dcortesi’s post quite the way you did. I think it’s also instructive to note that even those of us who pride ourselves on our rational approaches to the world can also be very swayed by irrational desires. They may not be as pernicious or harmful, but they are irrational.

Posted on Jun 24, 2009 at 2:32pm by dougsmith Comment #16

This podcast interview gets even better with the relistening.  The meaning and relevance of everything becomes practically everclear, which as you know is 200 proof!  Self-evidence is self-sustaining.  Human nature, etc. etc.  I love science!

Posted on Sep 26, 2009 at 7:21am by gray1 Comment #17