Psychologist Jesse Bering is best known for his often risqué (and sometimes NSFW) Bering in Mind blog for Scientific American, which examines human behavior — frequently of the sexual sort. But he’s also the director of the Institute for Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University in Belfast and his new book, The Belief Instinct, examines an entirely different subject: why our brains may be adapted to believe in gods, souls and ghosts.
How do you go from writing about sex to writing about religion?
Morality is probably the common denominator.
What does “theory of mind” — the ability to understand that other people have intentions and perspectives — have to do with believing in God?
I think [perspective-taking] originally just evolved as a social cognitive tool to help us interact with other human beings. My model suggests that this was co-opted by these supernatural beliefs and then that in itself became adaptive.
Theory of mind was so useful and so influential in our success with other humans, and with reasoning about other animals in terms of exploiting and predicting behavior, that it was overgeneralized to all sorts of inanimate objects — even to the universe itself having a mental state and interest in us.
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