Psychologist Bruce Hood explains to Tomasz Stawiszyński that such ideas as parallel universes or 23 dimensions of reality are not meant to be grasped by our limited brains – unlike religion or magic.
Guided by some mysterious impulse, I leave my hotel two hours before the scheduled time of the interview. I Initially thought that the Department of Experimental Psychology of the University of Bristol was not very far away, but Google Maps shows that it is a good distance from the hotel.
I use public transport to get there, and I arrive 30 minutes early. What I see is… a beautiful estate of single-family brick houses. In a word, nothing that appears to have anything to do with the field of psychology, let alone its experimental branch.
Getting slightly anxious, I walk up to a couple passing me by. “Do you happen to know,” I ask, “where the Department of Psychology is located? I have a meeting with Professor Bruce Hood in half an hour.” As it happens, they turn out to be Ania and Robert, originally from Poznań, Poland, and they have been living in Bristol for five years. The university is in a completely different part of the city, though the street names are the same.
When I reach for my phone to order a taxi, Ania and Robert suddenly tell me that they happen to be going there by car, and they offer to give me a lift.
And so I reach the campus 10 minutes before the meeting. When I look around to find the exact address, I can feel someone grabbing me gently by my shoulder. “Are you lost?” asks a man with the looks of a classic British gentleman. When I tell him I am looking for Bruce Hood, he gives me a wide smile and points straight towards a building across from us.
The impression that some invisible force is trying very hard to make sure this interview comes to fruition becomes even stronger when I run into Bruce Hood himself, by coincidence, on the stairs near the entrance. He looks like he has been waiting for me, as if he knew that I would walk in precisely at this moment.
As I enter Hood’s office, I am again caught by surprise. All in all, the man I am about to talk to is a professional sceptic, a psychologist and neuroscientist who methodically dispels various illusions. Like Morpheus from the memorable movie The Matrix, he offers us access to the world as it is, not as it seems to be. In his books, Hood shows that our various metaphysical convictions – for example, beliefs in ghosts, destiny, or some hidden structure lying behind apparently random events – follow directly from how our brains are built. In other words, we believe in these invisible forces because we were ‘designed’ to do so by evolution, not because they actually exist.
Meanwhile, Bruce Hood’s office is filled with symbols of those very powers. What a collection of old horror-movie posters! With their eyes all ablaze, green monsters, werewolves and phantoms all glare down at me from the walls. Plaster skulls decorated with some bizarre inscriptions perch proudly on the shelves. On the desk, there is a piece of paper with mysterious symbols scrawled on it, with the partly-covered word ‘magic’ being particularly eye-catching.
My initial conviction regarding Hood’s views and the possible course of this conversation grows somewhat shaky…
Tomasz Stawiszyński: Are you one hundred percent sure that is no such thing as ghosts?
Bruce Hood: One can never be one hundred percent certain of anything, because that would definitely be unscientific [laughs]. What we can do is formulate more or less likely hypotheses. As yet, we have no evidence of the existence of any phenomena that can’t be explained by natural laws. But there are, of course, phenomena for which we have no explanations yet, or that we don’t fully understand.
For example, consciousness.
For example. But that doesn’t automatically make consciousness supernatural. On the contrary, it is very natural. We simply need to study it better. As for supernatural phenomena, there are no ways to study them. All we have are various anecdotes that can’t be verified, and allegations of one-off occurrences that are impossible to replicate in controlled conditions. But I repeat, we can’t be one hundred percent sure that something doesn’t exist. From the logical point of view, you cannot prove that something doesn’t exist. The burden of providing convincing evidence is therefore on those who argue that something exists, not those who have doubts about that.
But that doesn’t stop you from arguing convincingly that our sense of identity and individuality – in short, the ‘self’ – doesn’t exist. Or that it’s just an illusion, as you argue in your highly-publicized book, The Self Illusion: Why There Is No 'You' Inside Your Head.
Trust me, none of my other books have got me into such trouble [laughs]. I mean not only with my readers but with my colleagues as well. I think that the definition of the term ‘illusion’ is crucial here. Many people believe that if we call something an illusion, we say that there’s nothing there. Meanwhile, the word ‘illusion’ simply means that something is not what it seems to be. People have a very strong sense of the reality of the ‘self’. However, the impression that we’re coherent, integrated individuals who make independent decisions about themselves and therefore have free will, is illusory.
Who are we, then? Who is the man who argues that the ‘self’ is an illusion?
That’s a fundamental question. It reveals the problem with the language that we use to describe such issues. Our language is egocentric, the pronoun ‘I’ is very strongly present, even at the level of grammatical structure. Therefore, the very way in which we formulate sentences implicitly conveys the message of the fundamental reality of ‘self’. In my book, I nonetheless try to show that what we mistake for this integrated, individual ‘self’ is essentially a dynamic system. In other words, it’s not individuals that engage in social interactions but dynamic systems that interact. The sense of ‘self’ is constructed partially as a result of this interaction, but it doesn’t determine its course.
To me, the ‘self’ is the unitary interface that appears at the boundary between the external reality and the complex system of the human body. It enables us to have meaningful interactions with other systems. We have only one body, but its behaviour comes from interactions between what are very different components. Our sense of ‘self’ in turn, is merely a manifestation of this cooperation, something that we call an epiphenomenon, which results in the impression that we are coherent individuals, moreover ones gifted with free will. On the other hand, we experience various disconnects and inconsistencies within our ‘self’ on a daily basis, but we try not to pay attention to them. But when do, we use different narratives to neutralize this unpleasant impression.
But do we need to negate the reality of the ‘self’ to accept the disconnects and inconsistencies in what we experience? Wouldn’t it be enough to conclude that we have an unconscious mind that manifests itself in bizarre dreams, impulses, symptoms or things that we do without having any idea why we do them?
You’re talking about how we experience ourselves, while I’m talking about how this experience is constructed. From the perspective of neuroscience, this experience is a by-product of very many processes taking place at the intersection between the brain and the external environment. Let’s take William James’s distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. The first concept refers to what I am experiencing in the moment, here and now; to my impression that I exist at this specific moment. The second pertains to my sense of identity, which also comprises memories, and by the same token, the conviction that my individuality is some time-dependent instance that has definite, unchanging features and a history. It turns out that we have two separate systems. In this context, a very interesting example is provided by Clive Wearing, a British musician and musicologist, whose brain doesn’t form any new memories and who permanently feels that he has just awoken from a long coma. His experience of ‘I’ is like that of many other people, but his experience of ‘me’, in the sense of the term proposed by William James, essentially doesn’t exist. In Wearing’s case and in many similar stories, it’s fascinating that he can learn new activities, but he is not aware of it. In other words, if he learns something on one day, he will be able to do that on the following day, but he won’t know why. That’s exactly the example of how our subjectivity is a result of the operation of various systems, not a uniform creation. If some of them stop working or become disrupted, our subjectivity is vastly changed. A tumour growing in the brain may cause very advanced changes in personality, as can various chemical substances, as we know perfectly well. Under their influence, people do things that they would never suspect themselves of doing. So who did them? Where lie the sources of such behaviours, if not deep within us? But the thing is, ‘I’ does not mean ‘me’. Once we understand that, the apparent paradox disappears.
This shows that free will is also an illusion.
In fact, the decisions that the ‘self’ experiences and defines as its own are essentially determined by an entire system of complex interactions of which we are not aware. There is no little man who lives in our heads, monitoring and controlling everything, no strategist who plots out our actions. Every decision is always the result of many information processes that are taking place simultaneously in several parts of the brain to which the ‘self’ has no direct access. During my lectures, I usually ask people which they prefer, chocolate or vanilla ice cream? When declarations are made, I ask how they made such a decision. No one can answer, because we have no access to such information. For sure, memories of previous experiences play a role. But, on the other hand, how was it that you ever opted for vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate for the very first time? Can you explain that? If not, maybe you should rather say that something else makes your choices for you? Where is there room for free will, then?
What do you mean by ‘where’? At this moment, I decide to drink some tea. Here it is – I take the cup and drink. Now I put it back on the desk.
I’d rather say that that’s the end result of the entire series of events that comprise our conversation. We earlier talked about the illusion of free will. At some point, you started to wonder what you could do to prove me wrong [laughs]. Your gaze wandered to the tea cup, and we know what happened next. Essentially, however, you can’t actually say how the impulse to drink tea appeared in your consciousness. The same holds true for chocolate or vanilla ice cream. If we can’t point to the source of our decisions, we can hardly call them ‘ours’ in the sense that we’re talking about.
Nevertheless, our entire culture is based on the assumption that we make decisions autonomously and therefore bear responsibility for them. The legal system distinguishes between insane individuals, who have no conscious influence over their actions, and those who act with premeditation, or fully consciously, and are able to make decisions. Based on what you’re saying, this distinction doesn’t make sense.
Please note that these boundaries are now shifting, becoming blurred. Many court cases involve a line of defence citing the latest discoveries in neuroscience that show that our decisions are not actually products of our conscious choices.
That means a revolution on a civilization-wide scale! What do you imagine, should we abandon the concept of personal responsibility completely?
We must absolutely keep it. Efforts to enact some new ‘neurolaw’ are doomed to fail. Let’s take what is known as the ‘warrior gene’, which may be responsible for predisposing certain people to aggression. Does its existence mean that we must change our laws? Of course not. The legal system has a completely different role to play, namely to impose punishments in a fair way on people who break the determined rules of social life and to isolate particularly dangerous individuals, so as to better ensure social order. That’s all.
Well then, if we assume that the human ‘self’ is an illusion, it’s a very peculiar illusion, because it constantly asks itself questions about the essence of all things and the nature of the universe. Religions, mythologies and different forms of metaphysics have tried to find answers to such questions since the dawn of time. In your book SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, you write that these are also types of illusions. Do you really never get the feeling that there is ‘something more’ out there, beyond the world described by modern science?
I constantly ask myself questions about the nature of the universe! The problem is, will my brain be able to cope with a possible answer? Let’s take the notion of infinity and ‘something from nothing’. I believe that they are really hard to understand because of the rules according to which our nervous system operates. The human brain – which I call the ‘Newtonian brain’, because it evolved on a planet governed by the laws of classical physics – is not entirely prepared to grasp levels and regions of reality where these laws don’t apply. The concepts we use describe our macroreality, or – colloquially speaking – the reality that we can see and hear. But when we have to cope with such issues as black holes or infinity, our brains become helpless. That’s why, when I listen to theoretical physicists, I don’t feel I have the insight to truly grasp what they’re talking about. They also use these notions in the strictly mathematical sense. That’s because their non-mathematical understanding goes beyond our cognitive abilities. I’m not sure if we will ever understand such issues as parallel universes or 23 dimensions of reality. They can’t be grasped intuitively, because their nature defies our deepest intuitions.
But this doesn’t mean that they’re magic [laughs]. The phenomena that we are talking about are first of all testable, and secondly verifiable. One of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century is that Einstein’s theories of general relativity and special relativity have been proven true through empirical observations. In other words, this theory offers verifiable and testable implications. It can be studied objectively. Meanwhile, claims about ghosts often don’t make verifiable hypotheses, and no one has succeeded in confirming them.
On the other hand, string theory and parallel universes are essentially impossible to confirm, either.
That’s true. But they’re nonetheless governed by the rigours of mathematics. As for stories about supernatural phenomena or psychic powers, we have only anecdotes. Or interpretations. Let us take the conviction that the mind can control physical things. That’s of course true! We do it every day, and we never really question how. We only need the right technology. We already have the first achievements in this field, and we will soon have machines that can read our brain activity and control robots. So this will be like controlling robots only with our thoughts. You surely remember the famous words of Arthur C. Clarke, who said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.
You’re now talking like a full-fledged representative of Enlightened rationalism and the scientific method, but your position in the conflict between rational thinking and religion – or more broadly, rationalism and irrationalism – is not so obvious. In SuperSense, you write openly that a predisposition for magical thinking, searching for invisible forces in the world and invoking the concept of transcendence, is innate and cannot be eliminated entirely.
Indeed. Richard Dawkins and many other outspoken atheists believe that irrationalism and the inclination to think in religious terms stem solely from the indoctrination of children. I don’t think that’s true. Our minds instinctively look for specific systems, structures, and mechanisms, which – if they actually existed – would have the features of supernatural phenomena.
Is that why all religions are in a sense similar?
Exactly. I’m convinced that if we placed a group of infants on a desert island and allowed them to grow up without any culture, they would sooner or later create some form of religion with gods, invisible powers and an afterlife. It would most probably be similar to the religions of prehistoric societies.
But what purposes does that serve, if religions and other beliefs involve seeing something that doesn’t exist?
There are numerous benefits. The conviction that you control the results of your actions, even if this is merely an illusion, gives you a sense of calmness and confidence, which makes you more effective. This has been shown clearly by research. That is exactly why superstitious beliefs are typically found in sports, and generally occupations where there is a degree of risk.
This also applies to politicians. You write about them in your book.
Yes. For example, I mention John McCain, who had many ‘lucky charms’, or Barack Obama, who played basketball before every primary election in the presidential campaigns. Such habitual and routine behaviours are aimed at securing success and prosperity.
Belief in supernatural phenomena becomes stronger in times of economic crisis and uncertainty. Obviously, this also holds true for bankers and traders and all sorts of people who should in theory be following rational models. In theory, because economists have known for around 50 years that people are not guided by their intellect in their market choices, but rather by superstitions, beliefs and emotions. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are among those who have written about this. They have demonstrated that the human mind consists of two systems or circuits. The logical and rational system, which is slow, and the intuitive system, which reacts in the blink of an eye. Most people, when making their decisions, are guided by these immediate impulses that follow from the intuitive system.
But the trouble is that this system is often wrong. In addition, our irrational inclinations also cause numerous problems.
Of course. I’m not diminishing the negative consequences that religions have entailed over history. But I understand religions as organized and institutionalized systems of beliefs. They work so well because they directly address the most urgent existential questions, respond to our deepest dilemmas and fears. In addition, they also form and reinforce group identities. Groups that are formed around a belief system that you can’t verify objectively require faith and trust to survive. Religions give them these qualities, and that’s a very strong way to unite people. The energy of groups formed in this way may be utilized for any purpose, good or bad. When people come under such influence, if religion becomes an immutable component of their sense of identity, it becomes very difficult to sway them. For example, it is impossible to convince them that things are different by presenting evidence that demonstrates something different than what their faith suggests, or by proving that their convictions are not rooted in any knowledge. That is because this challenges their deep sense of identity, without disputing their rational convictions. That is exactly why I think that Richard Dawkins and other neo-atheists are not going to be very successful.
The American philosopher and public intellectual Sam Harris, also a neuroscientist himself, believes that this is largely a matter of education. If people learn to think correctly, we will understand that irrationalism only causes problems.
I think Harris himself has all sorts of irrational beliefs, though he doesn’t always realize it [laughs]. People who are completely rational simply do not exist. Setting Harris aside, even Richard Dawkins believes in various strange things. Do you remember his documentary about Darwin? In one scene, he looks at an exhibit from the Galápagos Islands with a tag written by Darwin himself. He holds it almost with religious reverence, and says nearly in a whisper that it was touched by the author of the theory of evolution. He completely ignores the exhibits described by others, as this one seems to have some special, invisible power.
The thing is that Dawkins and Harris focus on attacking the mistaken logic of religious beliefs. I understand what they mean, that’s surely a very important activity, but I repeat that I don’t think they will be very successful. People don’t shift away from religion, and they don’t arrive at such positions through logic, but rather through emotions, identity and economic circumstances. The wealthier people become, the less fundamentalist they are.
If irrational people could not be persuaded to change their minds, we would still believe that the Earth is flat. Dawkins and Harris must be right to some extent.
Of course, I don’t want to say that education is unimportant. On the contrary, knowledge is undoubtedly an antidote to a lot of irrational thinking. That is why, in addition to economic factors, the rise of fundamentalist attitudes is also influenced by the level of education. These are, of course, strictly related, as more affluent societies are usually better educated. As part of people’s education, we should say as much as possible about the principles of the scientific method, making and verifying hypotheses. But we should not forget that there are many scientists who are also religious. They are truly convinced that there is no conflict between their scientific position and their religion, and that they can both pursue science and profess a religion. Incidentally, do you know that Daniel Dennett sings in a church choir?
Daniel Dennett?! I interviewed him a year and half ago, but he did not mention that.
[laughs] He probably doesn’t share this information very often, but it’s true. Of course, Dennett is not a man of faith, but he likes the aesthetics of religious ceremonies and the emotions they release. Simply put, we are largely emotional creatures.
Is a person’s inclination for religious faith or for atheism also innate?
It can’t be ruled out that there are certain genetic predispositions, but studies of twins show that the genetic factor doesn’t necessarily play a decisive role. Rather, a combination of different factors causes one person to become religious and another not. For sure, however, as I said earlier, it is impossible to sway people off their beliefs in a simple way, for example by explaining to them step by step where they have erred in their reasoning.
Should we do anything to sway them from their beliefs?
A person’s religious beliefs pose no problem as long as they don’t become tools of manipulation, as long as they are not used to justify discrimination, control, or open violence; views or attitudes that pose a threat to the social order, the welfare of all citizens, or the progressive advancement of civilization. The problem with fundamentalism is that its followers would like to turn the clock back. And that’s indeed dangerous. In many countries, basic aspects of biology are not taught at schools, because they contradict the dominant religion. I believe this is craziness in the pure form, an open denial of reality.
However, the experience of Western culture nonetheless shows that the transition from the Enlightenment to modernity was neither clear-cut nor easy. It turned out that many people found the process was not only painful but also unacceptable. Just try to remember how people reacted to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But even so, we were in the West relatively open to the development of science and everything it brought. That can’t be said about many societies that are now undergoing fundamentalist revolutions. In Iran, for example, science flourished up to the 1950s. After that, religious fundamentalists rose to power, shut down many universities and stifled free thinking. Consequently, it’s much harder to effect change there. Of course, history goes in circles, and every totalitarianism will collapse sooner or later, but we should remember that the human mind is bifurcated: one system follows the rules of logic, another follows the rules of emotions. If you asked me which of these systems is more powerful, I would not hesitate to say that the emotional one is. I am a big fan of reason, but that doesn’t change anything.
Is that why fundamentalism is growing in strength despite the unprecedented development of science, also including our ever-greater understanding of the reasons behind fundamentalist attitudes?
I feel that there’s now too much worry about the threat posed by fundamentalism. While it is true that the Middle East continues to be ridden by conflicts, and that the refugees coming into Europe cause fear – skilfully fanned by populist politicians – we still live in a world in which things are getting better. The situation in Syria is obviously tragic, but if we compare it to the tragedy of the Second World War, it turns out that that we’re still very far away from what happened some half a century ago. Steven Pinker, who is much more optimistic than I am, writes about this special tendency to complain about today’s reality, despite the fact that there is hard evidence that our lives are much better than the lives of those who lived in earlier periods in history, almost in every respect at that.
This pessimism and complaining, as well as the general atmosphere of declinism, are exactly what feeds European and American populism. People have the feeling that they’re losing control over what they believe is an increasingly chaotic and disorganized reality, so they seek narratives that allow them to regain this sense of control. As a matter of fact, however, things are getting better, not worse. This doesn’t mean that we have no problems with fundamentalism or terrorism, or that these problems are superficial. They’re not. But the situation is not as dramatic as it seems to us, because everything depends on the point of reference. Think about this island we are now on – the UK has been attacked and invaded so many times, but today’s people complain about their situation the most. Or maybe they’ve always complained. For thousands of years, people have constantly told themselves that the good times are gone and the bad times are coming.
Maybe that’s another natural disposition of Homo sapiens.
I think that it is indeed linked to the mechanisms of identifying threats and being ready to counter an attack. Of course, there’s instability in today’s world, but there has always been instability in the world. In the 19th century, the British Empire controlled many of the very countries we currently fear. We lost control of them, and we suddenly felt very shaky. But the thing is that it is hard to look at the reality in a fully balanced and objective way, or to make global statements about something looming on the horizon.
Religious views, which refer to something invisible and impart some deeper meaning to events that are completely random from the scientific perspective, satisfy yet another need: the need for myth, for a story that will free us from the power of randomness and give our lives meaning and importance. After all, from the perspective of modern scientific knowledge, our lives are just an impersonal interplay of atoms and blind forces of evolution. Which is kind of sad.
Indeed, magic and religion provide a very effective antidote to existential doubts and crises. The very prospect of an afterlife gives us a certain comfort, because it defines final and irreversible things as just another stage in the journey. Instead of facing the reality of existence, which is merely the random interplay of atoms, we have a hopeful and optimistic myth. At the same time, the vision of human life that emerges from modern science does not resonate with many people. It doesn’t satisfy our need for meaning, nor does it dispel our existential concerns. If we take the general sense of purpose out of the universe, or reality in general, we will get a picture that will be simply unacceptable to a large majority of us.
Because that’s how our brains have evolved. We are determinists that constantly seek causal relationships everywhere. Whenever we start interpreting empirical data, we immediately start to see sequences of strictly interconnected links. Causes and effects, events and other events that are their consequences. We find the very notion of randomness or coincidence very difficult to understand and accept. We see patterns and regularities all the time. This allows us to impose order on what is a complex and largely unpredictable reality. It is also partly what has guaranteed the evolutionary success of our species. After all, that’s what intelligence is all about: identifying patterns and using them to skilfully predict what may happen in the future.
Is this evolution of our brains connected to the dangerous conditions in which we functioned in the distant past?
To some extent, animals also have such skills. Predators can anticipate the movements and behaviours of their prey with a large degree of accuracy. Other animals store food for the future, so they have a sense of precaution. But awareness of life and death are most probably uniquely human features. Some claim that elephants have this as well, but I know no convincing evidence to support such claims.
In any case, people become aware of their own mortality very early, and this is something unique in nature. Of course, we should be very cautious in attributing any unique characteristics to humans, but this is nonetheless the case here. That’s why we have a tendency to tell stories about where we’ve come from, about where the world came from. These stories, in turn, have been strengthened by the rituals and structures of social life. That’s why they are still so popular, because their form is very attractive. We are trying to explain in an easy way the behaviour of elementary particles in the multidimensional universe – I fear that this not will be very easy. But creation stories have always been simple.
Even Bertrand Russell, a staunch atheist and opponent of religion, left some room for a certain metaphysical sense of the uniqueness of existence, astonishment at the very fact that there is something, rather than nothing. This doesn’t require any religion or even magical thinking. In a sense, this is a natural reaction to our existential situation. Do you know this feeling?
Of course, I have it very often. When I recently listened to some reports of space exploration and efforts to find life elsewhere, it struck me that, essentially, both the existence of extraterrestrial life and its non-existence would be equally bewildering and amazing. I totally agree with Russell in this respect.
That may pose a serious challenge for the rationalism and pragmatism of the scientific approach. Maybe we live in a world that is so unusual and bizarre that the mind will never be able to cope with it, and myths will always provide a satisfactory solution? But there are people who find rationalism and science perfectly sufficient.
Let’s remember that many people have religious beliefs, but use non-religious nomenclature to refer to them. They talk about “bad luck” or “good luck,” “destiny” and “fate,” but these are all convictions about a supernatural order. If you look at our culture through this prism – art, literature, movies and philosophy – it will quickly turn out that metaphysics is absolutely canonical. Whether it’s the Bible, Harry Potter or zombies – these are all the stories which we love, because they speak to our deep yearning for miracles and to the aforementioned primal intuitions. Circuses, parades of oddities, uncanny stories – people have always been passionate about them. Look at my office, I have plenty of such things here – posters, figures, and other pop-culture memorabilia from horror and science fiction movies.
You only lack the famous poster with a flying saucer and the words ‘I want to believe’.
[laughs] That’s from The X-Files, of course. This quote states a profound truth about man. We indeed want such narratives that guide our attention to somewhere outside this world. Our brains love to be amazed, they love curiosities and astonishment. They love magic and spectacle.
You write that we believe in what we want to believe.
Naturally. We all want life after death. We don’t want to leave this world. Telepathy, ghosts, precognition, the ability to go beyond the limits of time and space, or to control objects with our minds… Isn’t it all wonderful?
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
A British psychologist and neuroscientist, a lecturer at Harvard University and MIT (among other schools), a professor at the School of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol. He studies in particular the cognitive processes present in magical and religious thinking. His books include SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (2009), The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head (2012) and The Domesticated Brain (2014).
Introduction translated by Daniel J. Sax