SuperSense

Review by John C. Snider

Is the tide changing in the struggle between science and religion?  For the last four hundred years (give or take a few decades), science has been content to challenge the claims of religion (and it’s made a fair amount of progress in that regard), but in the last few years, science has begun to take a serious look at the basis of religion.  Books like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral are just two examples from a wide and growing spectrum of literature that seeks to explain why we are religious.  Is religion just a meme out of control, or is there something in our genetics that moves us in that direction?

Increasingly, the evidence is pointing to the latter.  And as Bruce M. Hood (Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol) explains in his book SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (pub. by HarperOne, Apr 2009, 302 pp hdcvr, $25.99), irrational belief in the supernatural isn’t restricted to the religious.  Hood subdivides supernatural beliefs into two categories: religious (somewhat self explanatory) and secular (meaning things like ESP, telekinesis, UFOs, etc. which either do not require a belief in a god or which fall outside traditional religion).

It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what “supersense” is.  It’s not a sense like taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.  Rather, it’s an innate tendency, the result, roughly speaking, of various default settings that human beings possess, ways of interpreting the world that offer an evolutionary advantage but also cause us to overshoot in our perceptions.  We are pattern-seekers–our complex brains constantly sift and sort data to arrive at conclusions about reality, but sometimes we “see” patterns that aren’t there; e.g. coincidences become imbued with undue significance.  It’s the thing that makes us imagine hidden enemies when hearing the snap of a twig–even if we’re wrong most of the time, it’s an evolutionary advantage that, despite creating countless “false positives,” can ultimately make the difference between life and death.  We are also endowed with impressive facial recognition capabilities (very important in the multilayered social milieu that is human society); as a result, we often see faces where there are none (witness the unending conga line of Christs and Virgin Marys found in everything from mutant Cheetos to leaky overpasses, not to mention the infamous Face on Mars).  We also have built into our brains a tendency to view other sentient creatures–especially fellow humans–as essences, wholes which are greater than the sum of their parts.  We are, surprisingly, Cartesian dualists at heart, and there’s even research that connects a gene called VMAT2 with a tendency toward spiritual thinking.

All of the above is a quick summary that doesn’t do full justice to Hood’s perceptive analysis of decades of impressive research (much of it with infants and toddlers) that shows the kinds of presuppositions human beings have, and how even a lifetime of education and rational skepticism cannot totally erase.  Hood provides as example the fact that even strident rationalists are loathe to touch items owned by a serial killer, or harbor irrational sentimentality about childhood possessions.  (In an attempt to prove his case that rationalists and believers have something in common, Hood states that Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, “endorses supernatural aspects of Eastern mysticism and the possibility of the sorts of mental telepathy I [Hood] address and criticize later.”  Actually, I believe this is a characterization that’s 180 degrees off.  Harris does in fact endorse the scientific study of meditation, but he explicitly says that he thinks there’s something going on in meditators’ minds that need not be addressed in superstitious or religious terms.  Harris has taken his share of flak from the atheist community over this, but unless someone can point me to where I’m wrong, I’m 99% sure Harris never endorses anything supernatural, and certainly never mentions telepathy of any kind.)

{{{Bruce Hood responds: “I mentioned Sam Harris as he seems to support Rupert Sheldrake’s work on unseen gaze in his book.  Sheldrake is notorious for his claims that can’t be replicated so they are by definition unscientific and would require supernatural ability if true…[Harris] writes on page 41 of The End of Faith: ‘There also appears to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.’  Harris then cites [in End of Faith‘s bibliography] Sheldrake’s work on telepathy and the sense of unseen gaze.  I can assure you that Sheldrake’s claims have been adequately tested and fail to replicate.  Mainstream science has not ignored Sheldrake, just dismissed his claims of supernatural powers – though of course he argues they are natural.  So on balance, I think my criticism of Harris is warranted.”}}}

Hood concludes that “Humans are naturally inclined towards supernatural beliefs,”  but that these beliefs are nonetheless not scientifically supportable (“…evidence for the supernatural is elusive…It is almost always anecdotal, piecemeal, or so weak it barely registers as being really there.”)

Hood makes an odd assumption about this book: that skeptics would have less interest in reading it than believers!  Again, I think he’s got it completely backward.  Most skeptics I know hunger for information to help explain why their fellow human beings adhere to unsupportable beliefs, whereas believers scoff at any scientific explanation as either crass reductionism or simply “missing the point.”

Hood’s conclusions can be disheartening for nonbelievers who harbor secret hopes that children are rationalists deep-down-under, and that, properly raised, will be free of superstition and religion.  It seems this isn’t the case; that until we learn to change human nature itself, we’ll have to reconcile ourselves to the hard work of teaching critical thinking and encouraging a rational lifestyle as a perpetual corrective to our inbred “supersense.”

Supersense is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Visit Bruce M. Hood‘s Official Website.

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