Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 16, 2009

The Evolution of the Soul

Psychologist Paul Bloom studies babies to understand how we think about complex topics like morality and religion.

David Goldenberg

Psychologists who study advanced human cognition—the "mind" part of the brain—need to be able to develop simple, repeatable experiments that chip away at the incredibly thick wall surrounding our understanding of our beliefs and consciousness. Paul Bloom runs the Mind and Development Lab at Yale University, where he comes up with elegant ways to ask infants and toddlers how they perceive themselves and the world around them. Bloom, age 45, is also one of the few scientists who is able to take those mounds of studies, synthesize them into general theories about how our mind works, and present them cogently to the general population through popular magazine articles and books like Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human.

Paul Bloom
"In the United States, if you're not religious, you're locked out of the dominant mode of communal interaction. To make matters worse, many people hate you."

Paul Bloom

For example, Bloom says that humans have a tendency to believe in God not because He exists, but because we have evolved to think of our bodies and minds as separate and because we have a "terrible eye for randomness." God, in other words, is an inadvertent byproduct of cognitive evolution. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Bloom tells Gelf what children think about their souls, why many atheists are unhappy, and how "unbearably cool" it is to research the evolution of metacognition.

Gelf Magazine: You state that children believe in life after death more than adults, thus suggesting that a belief in the soul is genetic.

Paul Bloom: More generally, the claim I've made is that everyone, including young children, are natural-born dualists. They think of the body as separate from the soul. This could manifest itself in lots of different ways. It could manifest itself as the belief in life after death. It doesn't have to. It's just the feeling that you are not your body. My claim is that this is universal. It's not an adaptation; it's rather an accidental byproduct of how our brains are wired up.

Gelf Magazine: One of our other speakers is Matthew Alper, who was one of the founders of the field of neurotheology. He claims that the belief in God is adaptive, because it helps relieve the fear of death.

Paul Bloom: That argument makes no sense to me. For people who believe in God, the fear of death doesn't go away. It's not like the 98% of the world who believes in spiritual beings no longer fear death. It would be simpler for us to just be wired up not to fear death.

Gelf Magazine: What are some universal qualities that people ascribe to souls?

Paul Bloom: I think the soul is the ego. The primary quality of the soul is that of free will. By soul I mean the feeling of being you. You see yourself as inhabiting your body but you don't identify yourself by it.
Imagine you without your body. I know you can do it. What would be left? Maybe you wouldn't be hungry or thirsty, but certainly your attention could drift, you could become angry or jealous. You can imagine yourself moving to another body or going to Heaven. You'd have certain qualities. You'd keep your personality, your memory, your free will, your desires, but everything bodily would be stripped away. I think that's the core notion of soul.

Gelf Magazine: You say that one of the reasons that most people are religious is that humans have a "terrible eye for randomness." We tend to see patterns everywhere. Do you think that is adaptive or is that also a result of genetic drift?

Paul Bloom: I'm not sure. There, an adaptation account becomes more plausible. We're hypersensitive to agency. You can imagine that that would be evolutionarily beneficial. If you hear a rustling in the trees, it's an excellent strategy to first assume that it's animate until proven otherwise. If you're wrong, you would have wasted a few seconds of attention. But if something is animate and you miss it, you're really screwed. From a signal-detection theory, it makes sense to have a real eye out for intention.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote an article for Slate in which you argue that it's the community aspects of religion that make people happy as opposed to the spiritual aspects of it.

Paul Bloom: There's a lot of debate over the effects of being a religious person, and there's some evidence that being religious makes you happier and nicer. The argument that I explored in my Slate article is that it has nothing to do with beliefs in supernatural beings or anything like that; it has to do with the community aspect. Particularly in a place like the United States, if you're not religious, you're locked out of the dominant mode of communal interaction. You're isolated. To make matters worse, many people hate you. To be an atheist outside of New York and San Francisco is to be a member of a clearly despised minority. Americans would much rather elect a homosexual or a Muslim to be president than an atheist. Atheists are like rock bottom. You can't trust them and they have no moral core. When people think of you that way, that's got to have an effect. The reason you're slightly less happy and slightly less generous is not that you don't believe in a spiritual being, it's that you are despised and you aren't welcome. The test case is societies where the majority of people aren't religious, like in Scandinavian countries. And those people are fairly happy and fairly nice. That suggests that it's not the belief that matters but rather the community. I view Scandinavia as an existence proof that you can have happy and moral atheists.

Gelf Magazine: Is there a divide between scientists who write for a popular audience and those who don't? Do you ever worry about being labeled a pop psychologist?

Paul Bloom: Not really. I devote most of my time to my research. Most of my time is spent publishing peer-reviewed articles. The interesting question is what happens if you go fully for the trade audience. There are always costs and benefits. There's a huge thrill in writing something that's read by many, many people. Sometimes writing a journal article is like throwing a pebble into the ocean. If you're lucky, a couple people read it. Sometimes zero. It's an issue.

Gelf Magazine: You don't think there's resentment from other scientists who are thinking about the same issues but don't have the tools or opportunities to communicate that on a broader level.

Paul Bloom: There can be a fair amount of envy. But also there's a tradeoff. To the extent you're doing that, you're not in the lab. Many of us would just rather keep our focus on our research.

Gelf Magazine: You mention that many of the elite scientists are atheist or agnostic. Do you think a good scientist can believe in God, or is it against the scientific method to believe in God?

Paul Bloom: The simple answer is that a good scientist can believe in God because many of the great scientists believe in God. We know it can happen. I would bet that throughout history the majority of the great scientists believed in God. I think what you're asking me is, "Is it logically compatible to believe and God and be a scientist?" My answer would be that it depends what you mean by God. Some people who say they believe in God, when you press them, they say they believe in love or happiness or that we should be nice to each other, or there's something beyond the everyday life we should attend to. Those are perfectly innocuous, pleasant beliefs and they have nothing to do with science. You might believe that a God jump started the universe billions of years ago and then left no trace. I don't know how you could prove that right or wrong and it doesn't conflict with any of science. But then again if your God created the earth 5,000 years ago and is constantly involved in miracles and speaking to people through prayer and so on, then that is incompatible with the way we know the world works.
If you're a physicist, it doesn't matter what you think about evolution. You could be a wonderful brilliant physicist and think that God created the Earth 200 years ago out of soap bubbles and granite. That's a weird belief to have, but it's not going to mess up your physics. On the other hand, if you're an evolutionary biologist, it would be odd to take the Genesis story as fact.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that scientists who are researching the evolution of morality and religion should have a role in debates about moral issues like abortion?

Paul Bloom: I think psychologists should have a role in the debates to the extent that they could clarify psychologically relevant facts. Suppose we were arguing about abortion and we were to ask, "What's it like to be a fetus?" You'd go to a psychologist and an embryologist and they'll answer your questions. Suppose we were arguing about affirmative action and we want to know if it makes people happier or sadder. A psychologist could help answer those questions. He won't tell you what to do with the data, but it might be relevant data. Psychology is relevant in the same way engineering is relevant.
Maybe the more interesting way in which psychology is relevant is that psychology can tell us a little bit about the way in which we make moral judgments and moral decisions. For instance, I have a couple of papers coming out with colleagues at Cornell in which we study disgust reactions. In one paper we find that political conservatives are more easily disgusted than political liberals. In another paper, we find that the more disgust-sensitive you are, the more disapproving you'll be about gay marriage. This in itself doesn't tell you whether you should be liberal or conservative, pro-gay marriage or against it, but it might be relevant in terms of figuring out what's going on when we have our moral reactions and judgments.

Gelf Magazine: To learn about the evolution of the human mind, is it better to study non-human primates or babies?

Paul Bloom: I think they each provide a different sort of evidence. I like the study of both. There are some things you're not going to be able to learn from primates because there are some things in the evolution of the human mind that may well have happened after we separated from primates. So if we've evolved in the last three million years, you could study capuchin monkeys from today until tomorrow and you're not going to learn anything from them. On the other hand, the study of babies has its own limitations in that some evolved human traits may only emerge later in life, like all sorts of sexual behavior. If you're interested in evolved sexual behavior, you're going to have to look at adults. But if you look at converging evidence from all different sources, it's kind of cool. This is an exciting time to do this work because the data is out there. You can do the experiments with different populations. We have the methods to tap all of this incredible understanding early on.

Gelf Magazine: You're currently working on a book about pleasure—

Paul Bloom: That's right. I got into this because I was looking at several different domains, including a number of studies on what objects people and monkeys prefer. I'm very interested in what we like about fiction, and imagination more generally. I've always been interested in disgust and food; disgust and sex; and the puzzles of masochism; and I decided to put all of this together in a book. The underlying theme of the book is that pleasure is deep. The pleasure we get from things even as seemingly superficial as sex and food are resonating to deeper aspects of things. For instance, it matters a lot for food what we think that food is. That will determine its taste. A picture of a naked person on the internet can be either intensely arousing or neutral or even repellent depending on who you think that person is. An object gains tremendous value by having a certain history.

Gelf Magazine: What sort of experiments did you do to look into that?

Paul Bloom: I just did a study on objects with Laurie Santos and Louisa Egan. We did a cognitive-dissonance experiment with capuchins and kids. It's a very simple study. You take three objects (usually M&Ms) that kids like equally, and you get the kids to choose between two of them, A and B. Let's say they choose A. If you give them a choice between B and C, they should be 50-50, since they started off equal. But it turns out they aren't, and neither are the monkeys. They'll choose C over B: the new one over the old one. The idea is that the act of choosing A over B makes you like what you choose more and denigrate the one you rejected. Since C is neutral, now it's preferred over B. With imagination, I've done some stuff with Deena Weisberg at Rutgers where we've found that four-year-olds have this amazingly rich understanding of fictional worlds. What Deena did which is really cool is that she wanted to know if children understand as adults do that there are multiple fictional worlds. So she asked kids, "Does Batman think Robin is real or make-believe?" and the answer was real. "Does Batman think SpongeBob is real or make-believe?" Make-believe. Even four-year olds seem to understand the cosmology of fictional worlds, which is unbearably cool.

Gelf Magazine: Is there any explanation, from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, about why we would be able to understand all of these layers?

Paul Bloom: Why can you imagine worlds that aren't real in the first place? What does that do for you? One theory is that it evolved so we could cope with imagining future possibilities. You could say, "What if I go out drinking tonight?" You'd imagine a world where you go out drinking tonight and you monitor that world and see whether you'd enjoy it. (Sometimes people do this explicitly. There's a wonderful document from Darwin where he carefully lists the pros and cons of getting married. He's imagining getting married and writing the pros and cons as he's doing it.) But then you imagine that you stay home and don't go to the bar. These are two different worlds and it's critical for you to keep them separate. Otherwise you can't rank them.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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