Hardwired to Venerate the Supernatural

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by Neil Godfrey

Natural intuitions feed into our social systems in strange and unexpected ways. To take just one example, our intuitions about supernatural beings are also associated with intuitions about social dominance in ways that are consistent across cultures. My colleagues and I have shown in lab experiments that when babies observe an agent capable of floating around like a ghost or a flying witch, they expect the levitator to win out in a confrontation with a rival who lacks such powers.7 To put it more pithily, we naturally look up to supernatural beings. This could help to explain not only why stories about superheroes – from Santa to Superman – are so popular with children but also why magical beings and their earthly embodiments are so often venerated in human societies.

7 Meng, Xianwei, Yo Nakawake, Kazuhide Hashiya, Emily Burdett, Jonathan Jong, and Harvey Whitehouse. “Preverbal Infants Expect Agents Exhibiting Counterintuitive Capacities to Gain Access to Contested Resources.” Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (May 25, 2021): 10884. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89821-0.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 7). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.

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12 thoughts on “Hardwired to Venerate the Supernatural”

  1. Gday Neil,
    Yes, our connection to the supernatural is fascinating to humans, but not well understood.

    Here’s some curious comments I recently found in 2nd C. Maximus of Tyre Oration 8, “What Socrates Daimonion Was, I” which made me think :
    ” [There is] a race of secondary immortal beings, the so-called daimones, that are stationed in the space between earth and heaven … thought to mingle with both gods and men …
    Some heal diseases, others advise … some disclose what cannot be seen, some accompany travellers … One is good, another is terrifying … There are as many types of daimones as types of men … ”

    Here’s the kicker :

    ” Show me a depraved soul, and you can be certain that it has no resident daimon or overseer. …
    But the robust soul who has been allocated a good daimon resists the confusion here on earth, and by freeing itself as much as it can from its association with the body, awakens the memory of what it saw and heard up there. ”

    So, some people are allocated and connected to a daimon above. Good people. Depraved persons have no allocated daimon. (But perhaps some persons are allocated a terrifying daimon. Evil people.)

    Key point : different categories of souls / people.
    And : Talmudic Jews believe in two categories – Jews with Jewish souls (Nephesh HoElokis?), and goyim with animal souls (Nephesh HaBahamis?). Not an un-important issue.

    What do you make of all these supernatural questions Neil ?

    We live in a society that largely dismisses the supernatural – those who’ve had Out-Of-Body experiences, travelled the planes, met daimones etc. are ignored. If you’ve been there and done that, you likely wouldn’t say.

    When I compare discussions and questions of the supernatural in Maximus and others from that era, I note similarity to modern discussions such as Dr Wayne Newton’s Journey of Souls (looking into re-incarnation through hypnotic regression into the between lives time.)

    I don’t think we have progressed at all in understanding these issues the last two millenia.

  2. I’m only a third of the way through Harvey Whitehouse’s new book and will post more detail in a few days/weeks. One thing I see is that what I posted back in 2016 from Pascal Boyer’s book has stood the test of some time and Pascal’s finds are repeated by Whitehouse (e.g. Religion Explained: How to Make a Good Religious Concept). As for the specific point you raise, again I will post more later, but the answer will involve the way perfectly good survival mechanisms that have evolved in our brains have been manipulated in problematic ways with the increasing complexity of civilization.

  3. The impression I have gotten is that people inherently want a good leader to stand above them. And obviously even the best leader means nothing if they can easily be usurped, so you want them not only to be ‘good’ (whatever that would mean for a leader) but also powerful, and special techniques and powers would reasonably give you an edge over your opponents. Heck, most people might even prefer an average but strong leader over a good but unimpressive one, because they like the stability of a leader that doesn’t go down easily.
    And then we start applying that to the strange world around us that we find ourselves in, where we find faces and agents everywhere because of how our brains evolved. Not a good recipe if you ask me.

    1. I suspect the impression you describe derives from a perception that people are generally powerless or facing situations that they find despairing, and that they are vulnerable to persons promising them some sort of “salvation” if they only follow them, the ones strong enough to give them hope.

      1. Hmmm, I wouldn’t call people ‘generally powerless’, usually people can work things out reasonably well. Worrying about things you can’t control happens all the time to people yet they don’t always ask for help from (perceived) leaders and elders. It’s not about saviour types, just leadership in general. During disasters people plead for the powerful and rich to do something with the idea that nothing the average person can do will be enough, or they argue about what authorities to defer to – bad or badly handed disasters tend to lead to changes in leadership or ranking.

        Of course sometimes a charismatic and friendly but ‘weak’ leader still gets popular like Lodewijk Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon. He managed to gain the love and trust of his Dutch subjects, but ultimately had to step down because he couldn’t stand up against his brother. (Honestly I couldn’t really say whether I think he was truly weak or strong, these are subjective terms and you could argue either way with him.)
        And obviously there’s always exceptions, people who are for some reason or other completely disinterested in having any kind of leader.

        Saviour types seem to require people to feel much more hopeless and powerless than usual, because we have them around everywhere yet usually they only hold the attention of only a fragment of the population. Same for populist politicians.

        1. I wasn’t trying to say people are powerless but was speaking of perception and when they feel or perceive themselves powerless in despairing situations. That’s when they may be more vulnerable to the idea of a saviour figure or a strong leader. This is probably more of a feature of modern large-scale societies. It’s a potential danger, in my view.

          As you said, people are not innately powerless — it arguably follows that they do not innately need “strong leaders”.

          1. (No worries, I understood you weren’t talking about your own views.)
            From what I understand the function of elders or leaders in a tribal setting is to make difficult or final decisions, and to even represent the tribe in negotiations? People generally don’t like to have to figure out the hierarchy again just so good decisions can be made again, especially during hard times. I think that’s why people do innately prefer leaders who are a little more shiny and special than the average person, they are expected to withstand more pressure and be of use in a crisis. And then there’s the bystander effect and all it encompasses, where we often need someone to take charge to get us to do what we actually already agree should be done. Arguably, that’s why people need leaders on hand. But I think they need to be pragmatic rather than glorious. Whether we get those is another matter.

            This also gets to another thing I thought about after my reply – people also like to shove off responsibility onto leaders, whether they’re actually present or not. I remember Steven Pinker giving an example of a car salesman pretending to talk about an offer with the boss but just taking a smoke, then he comes back with the message his boss doesn’t allow him to go that low. The buyers can’t argue with the owner themselves and won’t want to get the salesperson into trouble by making him argue more with his boss, so they accept the final offer.
            So sometimes the boss doesn’t even need to boss, their authority is useful on its own to settle the argument. Of course this same system is abused, but not necessarily. It just requires reasonable and respected authority figures instead of incompetent jerks… which can be very difficult to achieve when it’s not a tribe choosing the leader but a giant society. (And we definitely see this phenomenon in “It’s not me saying that, it’s God”.)

            Maybe this potential danger applies not just to modern large-scale societies though, but to any large societies much bigger than the 100-150 heads, because people are more removed from another, especially their leadership. Maybe then their idea of leaders becomes more abstract and idealistic? But they are not the only ones with amazing saviour figures, as we’ve seen them pop up in some tribal societies, and we can see in the texts left to us that this trend started up in the Hellenistic period with new personal crises – personal displacement and urbanisation. It always seems to come back to despair.

            1. Citizens assemblies function on the basis of randomly chosen representatives to discuss and help the community decide on complex issues and they have with them not leaders so much (unless you want to call a chairperson or moderator a “leader”) as specialists to offer expert advice. I have just finished Whitehouse’s book and one example he gives in some detail is the way the abortion debate was decided in Ireland:

              . . . . After many years of political deadlock over the issue of abortion in Ireland, a citizens’ assembly of ninety-nine individuals was able to formulate a set of recommendations that enabled the people of Ireland as a whole to settle on a solution via a referendum, the outcome of which was to repeal laws effectively banning abortion. There seem to have been several reasons why this process led to such a clear consensus on a topic that had previously seemed insoluble.

              — One was that the assembly comprised citizens who had little opportunity to gain positions of power as a consequence of their deliberations. They were selected from the general population as a representative cross-section but with no hope or expectation of serving in a similar capacity ever again.

              — Another key factor was that their discussions were extensively informed by expert opinion, allowing them to sift and debate research findings and their implications in a careful and methodical fashion.

              — And yet another was that debate was conducted according to tightly enforced principles which included openness, respect, and collegiality.

              What makes all these desirable features of debate and decision-making possible in a citizen’s assembly but seemingly impossible to achieve on social media, is that the costs of third-party punishment are real and you have to face your critics and opponents in person. It therefore takes genuine courage to advocate a particular viewpoint because there is a risk of having the weaknesses of one’s argument exposed and of losing support from one’s backers as a result. Participants in the conversation therefore have to ‘up their game’ by improving the quality of their arguments and avoiding ill-considered rhetoric. Followers of competing viewpoints cannot so easily dismiss, ‘unlike’, or cancel ideas or people they find uncongenial. And as a result, the consensus tends to form around more moderate viewpoints, incorporating a cross-section of interrelated perspectives. Such a process naturally finds the points at which our shared underlying moral intuitions overlap, and it uses these as a foundation on which to build rather than to divide.

              Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (pp. 258-259). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.

              1. Thanks for the quote and the links below, Neil. (As an aside, it’s nice to find papers I can actually view for once. I got enough money to buy the expensive books now and then, but I hate the academic barriers)
                That’s very heartening to read. I was originally going to add another paragraph about experts vs. leaders but I felt I was speculating too much already with too little science to quote.
                The one assembly I went to was poorly done, by invitation and not random, and did not have experts to give us accurate information about the issue with the result that the voting was done overwhelmingly by the older population in town (I only remember I and one other being the only ones in their 30s or younger), and I don’t think any of us really understood what it was we were discussing. Most must have been 50 and up, and several of them admitted it wasn’t entirely fair that so few young people were voting, who they knew had very different views on the issue. Luckily it wasn’t an important issue like abortion.
                But I know community talks are a common feature of small communities, and it would be nice to go back to a version of that. Of course there’s still concerns over how well the random selection will go (like jury duty in the USA, people will try to wiggle out of it), how selfish jerks will try to elbow in, how religious institutions will try to influence them… but that’s always a concern, I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of that.

              2. As must be painfully obvious all this time, you have unfortunately hit on a raw nerve of mine: looking to leaders for “salvation” of any kind is anathema to me, though no doubt we do need leaders to help heal a society, as we have seen with Nelson Mandela. My experience with hero worship and since then seeing Trumpism at work — my reflexes twitch against the idea and I look for arguments to downplay their role. Hardly objective, of course — but after a while I try to see things more rationally, objectively.

                In short, I suppose I don’t differ from most others — insofar as it is fundamental that leadership and authority must always be justified. And of course a leader who is an inspiration need not be a person with authority, and that makes a big difference. Such a leader inspires others to take responsibility and act together.

                Without a clear path for such community groups to be heard and potentially influence politicians the process will be severely crippled. The current political systems have fallen into the hands of the interests of neoliberal elites, I think. Our Labor Party used to be a genuine party of the people but has become a very faint shadow of its former self.

                We had a chance here in Australia to enshrine in the constitution a way for our first nations people to advise the government ultimately by means of community assemblies but it was regrettably knocked back by the hard right’s campaign in the referendum. Fear won out over good will.

                I was thinking about your point about jury service. Maybe those who try to wiggle out of it should be allowed to do so since their lack of interest probably suggests they will be a negative force in the proceedings. The larger the selection across socio-economic classes (determined by means of census data) should reduce the impact of obstructive ideological interests.

                (On the person who tries to shun his civic duty, I recall learning that the ancient Greeks called such a person a word related to our “idiot”.)

            2. On the leadership side, though, we both will surely like this research:

              Buhrmester, Michael, Michael Cowan, and Harvey Whitehouse. “What Motivates Barrier-Crossing Leadership?” New England Journal of Public Policy 34, no. 2 (October 19, 2022). https://scholarworks.umb.edu/nejpp/vol34/iss2/7.

              Cowan, Michael. “Inclusiveness, Foresight, and Decisiveness: The Practical Wisdom of Barrier-Crossing Leaders.” New England Journal of Public Policy 29, no. 1 (March 20, 2017). https://scholarworks.umb.edu/nejpp/vol29/iss1/14.

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