Motility, Automotion, and Agency

I just wrapped up chapter eleven of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve got only 35 pages to go to get through chapter twelve. I’ve been tempted to stop reading. Chapter eleven—and I am tempted to inject a bankruptcy pun here—has been more frustrating than the rest thus far. And yet I am glad to have persisted.

My intellectual focus these past months has been on agency. Et voilà, paydirt. Chapter eleven’s title reveals the context: Religion is a Team Sport. Let’s walk through this garden together.

A goal of Haidt is to educate the reader on his third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. He establishes parallels between sports and religion. And here’s the thing—I don’t disagree. But here’s the other thing—I feel that are equally vapid—, with no apologies to sports fans or the religious. Let’s keep moving.

“A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.”

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Chapter 12: Religion is a Team Sport

He talks about the organising and unifying functions of both. But here’s the thing. It unifies the like-minded. Haidt claims to be irreligious and not be into sports, and yet he cites these as somehow desirable. I find him to be an apologist for religion.

I am not a psychologist, but if I were, I’d be tempted to claim that Haidt’s conclusions follow from his personal beliefs. He believes in morals, society, order, intuition, and institutions. He is a textbook Modern and an extrovert to boot. I think he also falls into teleological fallacy traps. Was that a play on words?

His goal is to fuse the positions of Darwin and Durheim. Along the way, he reminds us of the New Atheists, their publications, and their positions: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion; Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Although he views religion through rose-coloured glasses, he comes to the conclusion that religions have done a great deal of harm over the millennia, but the good outweighs the bad, especially if you consider it through a social-moral lens. But if religion creates in-groups versus out-groups, which they do, and religious in-groups outlive even non-religious ingroups, then this is a winning option. But what if you don’t like that option?

Personally, I am a collectivist, but this is not willy-nilly any collective.

Haidt contrasts the New Atheist vantage that religious belief is an evolutionary byproduct versus a position that what started as a byproduct evolved into group selection and then, perhaps, an epigenetic phenomenon.

Here’s my contention:

Borrowing from New Atheism, Haidt adopts the notion of a “hypersensitive agency detection device [that] is finely tuned to maximize survival, not accuracy”.

The first step in the New Atheist story—one that I won’t challenge—is the hypersensitive agency detection device. The idea makes a lot of sense: we see faces in the clouds, but never clouds in faces, because we have special cognitive modules for face detection. The face detector is on a hair trigger, and it makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction—false positives (seeing a face when no real face is present, e.g., ), rather than false negatives (failing to see a face that is really present). Similarly, most animals confront the challenge of distinguishing events that are caused by the presence of another animal (an agent that can move under its own power) from those that are caused by the wind, or a pinecone falling, or anything else that lacks agency.

The solution to this challenge is an agency detection module, and like the face detector, it’s on a hair trigger. It makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction—false positives (detecting an agent when none is present), rather than false negatives (failing to detect the presence of a real agent). If you want to see the hypersensitive agency detector in action, just slide your fist around under a blanket, within sight of a puppy or a kitten. If you want to know why it’s on a hair trigger, just think about which kind of error would be more costly the next time you are walking alone at night in the deep forest or a dark alley. The hypersensitive agency detection device is finely tuned to maximize survival, not accuracy.

Op Cit, p. 292

I fully agree with the assertion that the brain values fitness over truth, and I’ve commented in several posts that pareidolia and apophenia create false-positive interpretations of reality.

But now suppose that early humans, equipped with a hypersensitive agency detector, a new ability to engage in shared intentionality, and a love of stories, begin to talk about their many misperceptions. Suppose they begin attributing agency to the weather. (Thunder and lightning sure make it seem as though somebody up in the sky is angry at us.) Suppose a group of humans begins jointly creating a pantheon of invisible agents who cause the weather, and other assorted cases of good or bad fortune. Voilà—the birth of supernatural agents, not as an adaptation for anything but as a by-product of a cognitive module that is otherwise highly adaptive.

Op Cit, p. 293

For me, this supports my contention that agency is a wholly constructed fiction. The same agency we ascribe to unknown natural events, we ascribe to ourselves. And perhaps this ability served an egoistic function, which was then generalised to the larger world we inhabit.

I have an issue with his teleological bias. He feels that because we have evolved a certain way to date; this will serve as a platform for the next level as it were. I’ll counter with a statement I often repeat: It is possible to have adapted in a way that we have been forced into an evolutionary dead end. Historically, it’s been said that 99 per cent of species that ever occupied this earth are no longer extant. That’s a lot of evolutionary dead ends. I am aware that few species could have survived an asteroid strike or extended Ice Ages, but these large-scale extinction events are not the only terminal points for no longer extant species.

So finally, Haidt essentially says that it doesn’t matter that these religious and cultural narratives are wholly fictitious, if they promote group survival, we should adopt them. This seems to elevate the society over the individual, which is fine, but perhaps the larger world would be better off still without the cancer? Just because it can survive—like some virulent strain—doesn’t mean we should keep it.

Finally, given these fictions, what’s a logical reasonable person to do? I don’t buy into ‘this country is superior to that country’ or ‘this religion is better than that religion’ or even ‘this sports team is better than that’ or ‘this company is better than that’.

Haidt does idolise Jeremy Bentham, but this is more Pollyannaism. It sounds good on paper, but as an economist, I’ll reveal that it doesn’t work in the real world. No one can effectively dimensionalise and define ‘good’, and it’s a moving target at that.

No thank you, Jonathan. I don’t want to buy what you are selling.

News Flash: From the time I started this content, I’ve since read the final chapter. Where I categorically reject a lot of what Haidt proposes in this chapter, I tend to find chapter twelve to fit more amicably with my worldview. Perhaps I’ll share my thoughts on that next.

If you’ve reached this far, apologies for the disjointed presentment. I completed this over the course of a day through workaday interruptions and distractions. I wish I had an editor who could assert some continuity, but I am on to the next thing, so…

Bonus: I happened upon this journal article, and it somehow ended up here. I haven’t even read it yet, so I’ve got no commentary. Perhaps someday.

Rai, T. S., and A. P. Fiske. 2011. “Moral Psychology Is Relationship Regulation: Moral Motives
for Unity, Hierarchy, Equality, and Proportionality.” Psychological Review 118:57–75

Cover art source

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