Agenticity, Patternicity, Belief

Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments


Historically, humanity has had a very slim understanding of its position in the universe. Ideas and thoughts were limited mostly to the immediately observable, and the ways we used to explain things was confined to this observable universe. A consequence of this limited understanding was a propensity to explain away things and situations in the most convenient way available, and often by the use of “agency”, or “agenticity” as Michael Shermer calls it, being the belief that all things are controlled by a thinking and deciding mind.

As Shermer says in his 2009 piece, as published in Scientific American:

“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 infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agenticity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms. “

This is understandable, because we can only really ever view the world from within the human context, where everything we do is apparently coming from a viewpoint of humanised determination. We see within ourselves the decisions we make, and we create the world we live in, to a certain extent, but only in the context of things we control. All things that lie outside our control, usually characterised by disasters or unfortunate turns of events, were then left up to immediate human explanation as they lay outside our understanding of the universe. More often than not we would ask not “Why is this happening?”, but rather “What have I done to deserve this?” Of course, the idea of deserving something means that we have created a situation where we have either pleased or annoyed “someone” to get into this situation, and therefore that “someone” has control over our lives. This thinking and controlling “agent” is apparent in all historical worldly dealings, and can be seen in the form of inventing humanised minds which determine the world around us by their will.

Once the best explanation for unexplained events was to ascribe them to invisible presences, usually in forms that we are familiar with as humans. For example, we know that when a man is angry or trying to scare someone, he will yell loudly, stamp his feet and wave his arms about. He may even strike someone, or be impassioned enough to kill for his anger. When, for example, an earthquake strikes a village, or a volcano blows its top, it is much like an angry tyrant, and we treat it as such. For a human, to appease them, we often calm them by giving them gifts, and we used the same logic when dealing with seismological or natural disasters. We treat the volcano as though it is a thinking, decision-making entity.

This tendency expands out all the way from living creatures, to plants and geographical regions such as forests and deserts, to inanimate objects such as bodies of water, stars, the sun and moon, and even the universe around us. The biggest of these tendencies is the deification of the whole universe, where we assign agency to everything, under the banner of a “god”. We attempt to placate the god, make offerings in its name, hoping to get on its good side, by doing “what it wants”. We ask this “larger mind”, or the “Mind of God” as coined by astrophysicist Paul Davies, for forgiveness, for prosperity, and for an end to suffering. And we do all this as if it were truth, as if the larger agency of a universal mind were a matter of cat, and not a matter of fancy. The only problem we have here is, there is no proof of such a thing as a god, regardless of Paul Davies’ conclusions on the matter as a Catholic.

If one looks at it as a series of ever-increasing steps, from the ancient tribes, whose only knowledge of the universe was what they could see immediately around them, and move forward to a civilization whose world-knowledge grows as populations spread out, it makes perfect sense. Starting with a small and localised tribal setting, a rain-dance, asking the local sky god for much needed rain, and moving forward to a larger knowledge of surrounds, making animal sacrifices to vengeful gods, eventually to a world civilization with a greater understanding of our universe, we see the gods absorbed and reabsorbed from many multifaceted demigods and deities, to one large all encompassing deity, or “god” (with the exception of polytheistic religions such as Hinduism).

These “gods” simply fill in gaps in our understanding. As we grow to explain why things happen, as we evolve our understanding of the universe, and as we work to understanding it better, many of these gaps have retreated away to insignificance, or disappeared completely. This “god of the gaps” is often employed as a “gotcha” moment for theists trying to prove the existence of their god or gods. And while the gaps in our knowledge are decreasing in size, each time a gap is filled, it creates 2 smaller gaps on each side, a point which theists have gleefully used to their advantage. Of course, as the gaps get smaller for god to exist within, so too does Occam’s Razor become ever sharper and more precise.

When evaluating our world we can often make mistakes. Shermer calls these “Type 1” false-positive errors and “Type 2” false-negative errors, which you can read about at his aforementioned article (which I recommend you do). We can be in states of stress or longing, we can be undernourished, or lacking sufficient water, or overly tired. Our mental state makes all the difference to how we perceive our surroundings, and also the importance we give to the signals in the world around us. Add to this, as Shermer mentions, the idea of “patternicity” or the propensity to find patterns in our environment, either intentional, human-made  patterns such as written language, or patterns in nature, such as the tendency for rain to come from clouds, dune patterns in the sand, or faces in tree stumps. We seek meaning in our environs to help us to survive in a sometimes less than hospitable world. We look for shapes that resemble humans, we look for faces, we look for signs. We try to find markers and signifiers that might point to things to make survival our easier, and we try to establish meaning from these.

“Patternicity” leads to phenomena like pareidolia, where a false-positive evaluation is made when looking at an object, landscape, or even a stain on a urinal. “Agenticity” gives the inanimate and random occurrences in life a human-centric purpose. In combination, this leads to giving these mistakes in identification a mind and will. These misidentifications are tenacious as they pander to our “gut” feelings, and have been backed by established theologies as indisputable truth, which pander to our desires about mortality. And this is where the real complexities around gods and religions start, but that is a subject for another day.

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  1. :)

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  2. V good I shall be reading the SA article, but one small thing “a matter of cat, and not a matter of fancy.”? I trust this is a typo. Anyway, off to read read Shermer.
    K.P. Spong.

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