Sunday, June 07, 2009

On agenticity

Michael Shermer on why humans are inclined to attribute observed phenomena (or perceived patterns) to the will of an intentional agent

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.
Shermer's brief column is an excellent primer to the subject, but for a more in-depth examination of agenticity, see this article by Pascal Boyer which focuses on the agenticity behind religion. And for a book length discussion of the subject, see Boyer's highly informative and thought-provoking Religion Explained (from which portions of that article are excerpted.)

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