Friday, 23 March 2012


Let's re-visit the story I told last time about the hominid who hears a rustle in the grass.  You'll recall that the pressing question was whether the sound was caused by the wind, or a dangerous predator.  This is a crucial distinction, on several levels, but note that there is a key difference present in this scenario that we haven't yet discussed...the wind is inanimate, but a dangerous predator is an intentional agent.

Agenticity="the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency."

"Examples of agenticity abound...Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around, and when asked to draw a picture of the sun they often add a smiley face to give agency to it...A third of transplant patients believe that the donor's personality or essence is transplanted with the organ...most people say they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, showing great disgust at the very thought, as if some of the murderer's evil would rub off in the material of the sweater."

As you can see these two concepts, patternicity and agenticity, are very interesting individually; but together I believe they have huge explanatory power.  Coming to understand their prominence, in our thinking, was a major "aha" moment, for me personally, and I have unwittingly witnessed this cognitive combo in action literally hundreds of times (in those around me as well as myself) since then.

"As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a 'theory of mind'--the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others...we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.  Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives.  Combined with our propensity to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise, patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms and much more...There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them."  (bolding mine)

Let me bring this a little closer to home, by using the rest of this post to hone in on a small sampling of ways in which patternicity + agenticity are heavily at work in modern day Christianity. I'll start with a really easy example...let's suppose that there is a terrible hurricane and, in the days that follow, Pat Robertson opines that it is more than likely a sign of God's judgement on the homosexuals, who happen to live in the affected area, and those who so brazenly support them. The logic, in Pat's mind, goes something like this:

Patternicity--There are a lot of homosexuals living in the city where there was just a hurricane; this can't be a coincidence!                                                                                                        
Agenticity--The God that I believe in strongly opposes homosexuality; he may have sent this hurricane to warn us to repent and turn from our wicked ways!

In a weird sort of way, this actually makes sense.  It's not a non sequitir, if you grant that Robertson's God exists.  It is however totally unfalsifiable.  There will never come a point where Christians can say, with 100% certainty, that Pat Robertson's hypothesis on hurricanes is incorrect.  Most Christians will reject his assertion out of hand however, simply because they don't like the sort of God it implies.  But there is a much better reason to reject it, and therein lies the rub.  More on that in a minute.

Let's move on to a much more controversial example; answers to prayer.  Are they real?  Let's break down the logic again:

Patternicity--I prayed about something that was worrying me last night and my situation improved today (this can't be a coincidence)!

Agenticity--My God answers prayers, because he loves me!  Prayer works!

First off recall that, as discussed last time, the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Christians tend to pray most fervently when they are feeling precisely this way (ie. stressed about something).  This means they're perfectly primed, ahead of time, to find what they're already looking for and expecting in faith (plus they count only the hits; ignoring the misses).  And here again there is no way to prove, in any sort of absolute sense, that these two items are not indeed connected (the prayer and the improvement in the situation at hand).  So why do I think the connection should be rejected?  Let's move on to a third example, and then I'll answer the question more directly.

Here are some song lyrics, from popular Christian singer (and former American Idol contestant) Mandisa:

Have you ever heard a love song, that set your spirit free?
Have you ever watched a sunrise and felt you could not breathe?
What if it's Him.
What if it's God speaking.

Have you ever cried a tear that you could not explain?
Have you ever met a stranger who already knew your name?
What if its Him.
What if it's God speaking.

Who knows how He'll get ahold of us?
Get our attention to prove He is enough.
He'll do, and He'll use whatever He wants to.
To tell us, I love You.

Have you ever lost a loved one
Who you thought should still be here?
Do you know what it feels like
to be tangled up in fear?
What if He's somehow involved?
What if He's speaking through it all?

Who knows how He'll get ahold of us?
Get our attention to prove He is enough.
He'll do and He'll use whatever he wants to
To tell us, I love you.

His ways are higher.
His ways are better.
Though sometimes strange.
What could be stranger than God in a manger?

Who knows how He'll get ahold of us?
Get our attention to prove He is enough.
Who knows how He'll get ahold of you?
Get your attention to prove He is enough.
He'll do and He'll use whatever He wants to.
To tell us I love you.
God is speaking, I love you.

(If you must hear it click here.)

Notice how this song is absolutely dripping with patternicity + agenticity.  The lyrics even attempt to, in effect, build a cumulative case, for the reality of these patterns.  She begins by saying things like "what if" He's involved and working through it all.  By the end, the lyrics grow more confident; "God IS speaking" (oh, and just in case you weren't sure what He was saying, it's "I love you.").  Remember too that God works in strange ways because, after all, "what could be stranger than God in a manger."  False/anecdotal patterns + agenticity = a nearly perfect (and highly emotional) ballad for believers.  No doubt many of them have been stirred to tears, while listening to this song, imagining all of the (deceptively "normal") situations that God was probably attempting to speak through in their own lives (if only they'd been paying closer attention!).

Let me wrap up by getting to the real point that I am trying to make here.  How do we sort out false patterns from real ones?  The best method we have is science.  The above patterns should all be rejected because they are ad hoc.  There is simply no good reason to believe that an "intentional agent" is involved at all.  Because of our strong inclination to make Type I errors (false positives), and then to further ascribe agency to them, it stands to reason that we should approach such matters with a high degree of initial skepticism.  Prayer, for example, HAS been scientifically tested...numerous times in fact...and it consistently fails such tests.  It didn't have to be this way.  God could have made the prayers of Christians more demonstrably effective than the prayers of Muslims.  Think of what a powerful testimony that would be!  So, unless God is deliberately trying to hide from humankind (and, if so, than how could it be in any way "just" for him to punish unbelievers in an eternal hell?), the conclusion is inescapable...prayer doesn't work.  Unfortunately, we did not evolve what Shermer calls a "Baloney Detection Network" in the brain, to distinguish between true and false patterns.  This is precisely why science, with it's self-correcting mechanisms (ie. peer review), is so incredibly important.

Keep in mind that each of the above are merely examples, of patternity + agenticity in Christianity...there are many, many more areas I could have analyzed (including belief in the existence of a "Holy Spirit", an invisible agent who supposedly talks to Christians inside their heads).

Belief is natural.  Skepticism is difficult.  It can be uncomfortable to not believe things.  I'll close with what is my favorite paragraph in the entire book; the big takeaway, for me, from "The Believing Brain"...

"...research supports what I call Spinoza's conjecture: belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.  The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly.  Thus it is that we should reward skepticism and disbelief, and champion those willing to change their mind in the teeth of new evidence.  Instead, most social institutions--most notably those in religion, politics, and economics--reward belief in the doctrines of the faith or party or ideology, punish those who challenge the authority of the leaders, and discourage uncertainty and especially skepticism." (bolding mine)


  1. Excellent post. I hadn't really given a lot of thought to agenticity, but I can easily see how it could work on us. Gotta admit, I'm not crazy about the idea of wearing a murderer's sweater either. :)

  2. Wanted to let you know these are still being found (Patternicity & Agency) and that I enjoyed reading. Thanks.