jesse_bering's picture
Psychologist; Associate Professor, Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago, New Zealand; Author, Perv
I Have No Destiny (and Neither Do You)

If asked years ago whether I believed in God, my answer would have gone something like this: "I believe there's something…" This response leaves enough wiggle room for a few quasi-religious notions to slip comfortably through. I no longer believe that my soul is immortal, that the universe sends me messages every now and then, or that my life story will unfold according to some inscrutable plan. But it is more like knowing how and why a perceptual illusion is deceiving my evolved senses than it is becoming immune to the illusion altogether. 
Here's a snapshot of how these particular illusions work:

Psychological Immortality
There's a scene in Gide's The Counterfeiters where a suicidal man puts a pistol to his temple but hesitates for fear of the noise from the blast. Similarly, a group of college students who rejected the idea that consciousness survives death nonetheless told me that someone who'd died in a car accident would know he was dead. "There's no afterlife," one participant said. "He sees that now." 
In wondering what it's like to be dead, our psychology responds by running mental simulations using previous states of consciousness. The trouble is that death is not like anything we've ever experienced — orcan experience. (What's it like to be conscious yet unconscious at the same time?) I doubt you'd find anyone who believes less in the afterlife, yet I have a very real fear of ghosts and I feel guilty for not visiting my mother's grave more often. 

Symbolic Meaning of Natural Events
Psychologist Becky Parker and I told a seven-year-old that an invisible princess was in the room with her. The task was to find a hidden ball by placing her hand on top of the box she thought it was inside. If you change your mind, we said, just move your hand to the other box. Now, Princess Alice likes you and she's going to help you find the ball. "I don't know how she's going to tell you," said Becky, "but somehow she'll tell you if you pick the wrong box."

The child picked a box, held her hand there, and after 15 seconds the box opened to reveal the ball (there were two identical balls). On the second trial, as soon as the girl chose a box, a picture crashed to the ground, and the child moved her hand to the other box. In doing so, she responded just like most other seven-year-olds we tested. They didn't need to believe in Princess Alice to see the picture falling as a sign. In fact, if scepticism can be operationally measured by the degree of tilt in rolling eyes, many of them could be called sceptics.
More surprising was that slightly younger children, the credulous five-year-olds, didn't move their hands, and when asked why the picture fell, they said things like "I don't know why she did it, she just did it." They saw Princess Alice as running about making things happen, not as a communicative partner. To them, the events had nothing to do with their behaviour. Finally, the three-year-olds we tested simply shrugged their shoulders and said that the picture was broken. Princess Alice who?

Seeing signs in natural events is a developmental accomplishment rather than the result of a gap in scientific knowledge. To experience an illusion, the psychological infrastructure must first be in place. Whenever I hear mayors blaming hurricanes on drug use or evangelicals attributing tsunamis to homosexuality, I think of Princess Alice. Still, after receiving bad news my first impulse is to ask myself "why?"  Even for someone like me, scientific explanations just don't scratch the itch like supernatural ones. 

Personal Destiny
Jean-Paul Sartre, the atheistic existentialist, observed that he couldn't help but feel as though a divine hand had guided his life. "It contradicts many of my other ideas," he said. "But it is there, floating vaguely. And when I think of myself I often think rather in this way, for want of being able to think otherwise."

My own atheism is not as organic as was Sartre's. Only scientific evidence and eternal vigilance have enabled me to step outside of this particular illusion of personal destiny. Psychologists now know that human beings intuitively reason as though natural categories exist foran intelligently designed purpose. Clouds don't just exist, say kindergartners, they're there for raining.

Erring this way about clouds is one thing, but when it colours our reasoning about our own existence, that's where this teleo-functional bias gets really interesting. The illusion of personal destiny is intricately woven together with other quasi-religious illusions in a complex web that researchers have not even begun to pull apart. My own private thoughts remain curiously saturated with doubts about whether I'm doing what I'm "meant" for.

Some beliefs are arrived at so easily, held so deeply, and divorced so painfully that it seems unnatural to give them up. Such beliefs can be abandoned when the illusions giving rise to them are punctured by scientific knowledge, but a mind designed by nature cannot be changed fundamentally. I stopped believing in God long ago, but he still casts a long shadow.