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Some Thoughts on Belief in the Paranormal from an Evolutionary Perspective

By J. T. Enright

The mental life of present-day humans is doubtless the outcome of millennia of evolutionary history, which probably began as an extension of a more primitive sort of attempt to “understand” or “interpret” the recent past based upon concurrent stimuli, as well as to predict the immediate future. Both knowing the past and predicting the future are capabilities with self-evident selective value. It seems certain to me that higher apes - and even humble canines - can utilize the expressions and gestures of conspecifics to provide strong clues about the probable future behavior of their neighbors. Furthermore, my assumption is that higher apes - and probably even canines - could draw conclusions about whether another competing troop or pack had recently passed nearby on the basis of more subtle clues, such as residual odors, or perhaps footprints.

And the brain structures that facilitate such interpretation (which I will here call our “Personal Predictors” have developed in humans into remarkable instruments that are not only willing to, but are extremely eager to detect correlations in order to interpret concurrent stimuli. For example, there are many indications that our ancient ancestors probably learned to anticipate seasonal changes on the basis of celestial events, permitting more efficient hunting and facilitating the development of agriculture. The problem with a biological device that can accomplish such things, however, is that it develops a tendency to seek “explanations” for EVERYTHING. Its primary operating principle is that of presumed causality, meaning, of course, that everything has a cause, if only we could recognize it. The notion of randomness or of unique events becomes anathema. The stars in the sky? Constellations - star pictures - of course!  Did I fall down on the way home? Perhaps the gods were angry with me, or maybe my neighbor wished me ill - anything rather than admit that I wasn't watching where I was walking, or suspect that it's hopeless to seek a cause.

In searching for causality, it's pretty easy to run out of obvious and mundane candidate explanations, so a whole spirit world can be synthesized - think of all the gods the ancient Greeks and Romans had at their disposal as explanatory vehicles! And given this background, it would be amazing if superstitions had NOT arisen. If something bad happens to me, my Personal Predictor can be expected to canvass all the recent precedents - whether a broken mirror or walking under a ladder or having a black cat walk across my path - and draw a "probable" conclusion, which I may tell to my neighbors; and as soon as a second similar case can be documented, a belief system has arisen. It's so easy to recall the positive instances of correlated events, so easy to forget the instances in which the correlation fails. And for the latter cases, if a black cat crossed my path, I might have thought about the implications and evaded the negative consequences by having been extra careful that day. So the superstition can in that way even be reinforced by non-events.

Another major contributor to human belief systems is an unwillingness to accept our mortality. There MUST be something more! And so a whole spiritual world seems a natural expectation, a world in which the customary rules of physics and chemistry don't apply. Life after death? Of course! How could dowsers detect underground water? Physics and physiology provide no plausible candidate mechanisms, but if it's appropriate to think that my mother's ghost looks after me, then it's no big step to postulate "earth rays," which don't fit into the conventional electro-magnetic spectrum, but that's no genuine problem. Telekinesis? Well just because physics can't demonstrate the necessary transmission of energy doesn't mean that the spirit world cannot provide the mechanism. Was I thinking about my son just at the time that he telephoned me? My Personal Predictor finds "coincidence" an unacceptable explanation, but telepathy will do nicely, as long as I don't feel constrained by physics and chemistry.

Is there anything under what is known as the "paranormal" that would not fit into this kind of description of how superstitions arise? The Personal Predictor in each and every one of us seeks correlations that can explain the past, so that we can predict the future, and this activity has proven to be of survival value often enough in our evolutionary history that its sometimes grotesque misinterpretations are simply a price that we pay for not being simple victims of fate but creatures who can sometimes predict the future: superstitions just represent short circuits that haven't done that much damage in the past. Given, however, that modern medicine in most cases has some pretty good remedies available, it seems likely to me that superstitious acceptance of fringe-area remedies may lead to the gradual selective elimination of the "believing", superstitious frame of mind. So for the long-term future, I'm optimistic. My only regret is that I certainly won't live long enough to experience that superstition-free future.

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The author is a Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD and a member of SDARI.

This article is copyright 1998 by J. T. Enright. It has been published previously in PHACTUM (Vol.4, No.2), the newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking.