Ghost Month is upon us, and the media both at home and abroad have been filled with tales of What Those Exotic Taiwanese Do during Ghost Month. Mark Magnier has an article on it in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Chin Wei considers a blockbuster American ghost movie and scoffs.
"I saw 'Ghostbusters,' but that's not how it's done," says the author of several ghost books and the host of radio and television paranormal programs. "You can't get rid of ghosts that easily, especially with those funny, weird machines. That's just comedy."
In Taiwan, ghosts are rarely a laughing matter. On TV, in conversation, at temples and in the recesses of the unconscious, they maintain a grip on island society. Taiwanese are ghost-crazy or, rather, crazy to avoid them. A recent survey of Taipei college students found that 87 percent were believers, and some say that could be on the low side.
Meanwhile the Taipei Times reported the other day that people were lining up to schedule surgery prior to the advent of the unlucky Ghost month -- just another example of integrated religion and everyday life are on the Beautiful Isle. This year's Ghost Month is especially annoying, for it will continue for an extra month, from July 25 until September 21, thanks to a calendrical oddity. According to an article in the Straits Times out of Hong Kong:
A quirk in this year's calendar has resulted in two seventh months - known as the Hungry Ghost Festival - with the regular seventh month from July 25 to Aug 23 and a leap seventh month from Aug 24 to Sept 21.
A leap lunar month occurs every three years to balance the lunar and solar calendars, explained Master Lee Zhiwang, president of the Taoist Mission. This time round, the leap month occurs in the seventh month.
Ghost month won't be the leap month again until 2044. Business is expected to slump here, though Master Lee has some reassuring news:
Master Lee agreed, saying: 'People should not be too worried about the second seventh month, because the gates of hell only open in the actual ghost month.'
Lucky for us, eh?
I was put in mind of this topic by Scott Sommers, who has recently been discussing evolutionary psychology on his blog. Evolutionary psychology is often confused with sociobiology by outsiders, but they are fundamentally different. As this primer on evolutionary psychology defines it:
"The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understand the design of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology, in which knowledge and principles from evolutionary biology are put to use in research on the structure of the human mind. It is not an area of study, like vision, reasoning, or social behavior. It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it.
In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This way of thinking about the brain, mind, and behavior is changing how scientists approach old topics, and opening up new ones. This chapter is a primer on the concepts and arguments that animate it."
Evolutionary psychology, then, views the mind as a set of evolved information-processing machines that solve the kinds of problems we encountered in our long evolutionary development. Just how does that relate to Ghost Month? One function of all this evolved cognitive machinery is to impute teleologies -- goals and purposes -- to Other Minds in the world. As we shall see, these teleologies, and the belief in Other Minds, form the basis for the beliefs in the supernatural so widespread in human society.
Consider belief in the supernatural for a moment -- people treat it as completely different than their other beliefs about reality. In Taiwan it is normal for people to seek an auspicious day for their weddings, and if one happens to be out driving on such a day, it is not uncommon to encounter a number of different wedding processions. Nevertheless, despite the fact that every wedding takes place on a lucky day, the divorce rate in Taiwan is skyrocketing. Looking at that cold hard fact, one would be forced to conclude that there is something badly wrong with the entire concept of lucky days. Certainly if a brand of lawnmowers worked as poorly as lucky days, no one would buy them. Yet, Taiwanese continue to get married on lucky days, and no amount of marital failure will convince them to change that concept of the way the world works. Why don't they give up this and other supernatural beliefs in the face of their constant failure? There are a number of reasons, ranging from the fact that supernatural beliefs tend to be not isolated facts but components of full-blown systems of belief with built-in subsystems for preventing believer doubt and defection, to their widespread acceptance among peers, but ultimately, humans refuse to give up these beliefs because they accord so powerfully with the inner experience of the believer. This inner experience, so convincing to the believer, is a by-product of our evolved cognitive machinery for dealing with intentions and Other Minds.
The philosopher Quine, in discussing the problem of translation, gave an example of an explorer who runs into a native in the bush. As the two are standing there, a rabbit bursts out of the undergrowth and the native shouts "Gavagai!" What does it mean? Rabbit? Food? My lost pet? A manifestation of the Great God Gai? How can the explorer possibly know?
There is a considerable literature on this problem in philosophy, but here we'll ignore Quine's original purpose and instead focus on another. As an adult, the explorer comes equipped with a number of assets in attempting to solve the problem of what the native means. He knows that the native is a human being just like himself. He knows that the native is attempting to use language, and trying to communicate with him. He knows that the native intends something. He already knows that while the number of possible meanings for gavagai is great, the number of probable meanings is very low. Rabbit, dinner, food, or animal are far more likely meanings than grass eater, manifestation of the Great God Gai, just like my daughter's stuffed toy, or long incisors.
But here's an interesting fact: at one time in our lives every human on earth plays the part of that explorer. A newborn baby is just like an explorer. He arrives in a mysterious place surrounded by people whose language he cannot speak, who make noises at him in conjunction with events in his environment. And he must puzzle out the meanings of those noises.
It was Chomsky who helped spark the cognitive science revolution in the 1950s by working out the implications of language learning for the internal structure of the mind. Chomsky argued that the language learning of children is too rapid for the brain to be some kind of general processing system. Children, he said, make correct and reliable generalizations about grammar from remarkably few clues. Further, their errors and experiments show that they, like Quine's explorer, come equipped with mental machinery that has expectations about what language is like. Instead of figuring out how language works, instead they simply work out which variant of the so-called universal grammar their particular language manifests. Wiki describes Chomsky's view succintly:
"....that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches."
Thus Chomsky asserted that the newborn baby comes equipped with a variety of cognitive machines that enable her, like the explorer, to solve the problem of being a stranger in a strange land. The baby's mind already knows that there is such a thing as language, and that it has grammar. It comes equipped with strategies that impel it to test grammatical structures until it finds the ones its own language uses, and to generalize the rules of its language from a very few examples.
However, Homo sapiens is a social primate, and human language is fundamentally a social act. Thus, in addition to ideas about language, the baby must also come equipped with a whole set of ideas that govern social interactions and enable it to function in a society of complex and competitive social primates. Writes Cosimides in the primer above:
"Evolved problem-solvers, however, are equipped with crib sheets: they come to a problem already "knowing" a lot about it. For example, a newborn's brain has response systems that "expect" faces to be present in the environment: babies less than 10 minutes old turn their eyes and head in response to face-like patterns, but not to scrambled versions of the same pattern with identical spatial frequencies (Johnson & Morton, 1991). Infants make strong ontological assumptions about how the world works and what kinds of things it contains -- even at 2 1/2 months (the point at which they can see well enough to be tested). They assume, for example, that it will contain rigid objects that are continuous in space and time, and they have perfered ways of parsing the world into separate objects (e.g., Baillergeon, 1986; Spelke, 1990). Ignoring shape, color, and texture, they treat any surface that is cohesive, bounded, and moves as a unit as a single object. When one solid object appears to pass through another, these infants are surprised. Yet a system with no "privileged" hypotheses -- a truly "open-minded" system -- would be undisturbed by such displays. In watching objects interact, babies less than a year old distinguish causal events from non-causal ones that have similar spatio-temporal properties; they distinguish objects that move only when acted upon from ones that are capable of self-generated motion (the inanimate/animate distinction); they assume that the self-propelled movement of animate objects is caused by invisible internal states -- goals and intentions -- whose presence must be inferred, since internal states cannot be seen (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Leslie, 1988; 1994). Toddlers have a well-developed "mind-reading" system, which uses eye direction and movement to infer what other people want, know, and believe (Baron-Cohen, 1995). (When this system is impaired, as in autism, the child cannot infer what others believe.) When an adult utters a word-like sound while pointing to a novel object, toddlers assume the word refers to the whole object, rather than one of its parts (Markman, 1989)."
One of the things that babies come equipped with is the idea that things in the world have goals and intentions -- as Keleman notes (see below), this idea is one of the first to emerge developmentally. It would have to be built-in, because it could never be discovered. If you think about it for a moment, the paradox is clear -- in order to grasp the concept of intentions, you need to already have a concept of intentions. Otherwise, we'd all be autistic children, entirely unaware that going on around us all the time are communicative acts.
As we have seen, the explorer and the baby are both aware that there are things with goals and purposes, and that behind those goals and purposes lies an Other Mind. Not only is the idea of intentions necessary for communication, we also need a theory of how the Other Mind works. Any kind of communicating, from persuading, building shared plans and goals, deceiving, pretending, requires this understanding. Humans do this so well that no one ever notices that we have a theory of Other Minds (as such) built into our behavior. Like processing color in our visual system or a smell in our olfactory system, humans parse the behavior of Other Minds automatically.
"We humans," said Richard Dawkins once, "have purpose on the brain." Both children and adults conceive of other things in the world as goal-directed and respond to them in that way -- a mode of thinking known as teleological thinking. It is easy to see why teleological thinking is so crucial to interactions with the world. Imagine, for example, if you saw a tiger crouched in the bushes, but lacking a concept of goals that you can impute to Other Minds -- such as the tiger's mind -- you would be quite unable to imagine that you were about it be eaten. Lacking a concept of Other Minds with goals and purposes, you would be unable to conduct social interaction with other social primates of the species Homo sapiens. Hence, teleological thinking solves an important adaptive problem, for without it, human intercourse would be impossible.
But humans go further than that, for we impute teleology to everything. As Deborah Keleman put it in her excellent article on the origins of teleological thought in The Descent of Mind:
"Comparative and development research suggests that, to a degree as yet unmatched by other primates...evolution has endowed humans with a propensity for intention-based reasoning....In contrast [to naive physical reasoning], the capacity to explain complex events and behavior on the basis of non-physical causes such as goals and desires, liberates individuals from proximate causal explanations so that they can hypothesize about all kinds of possible future outcomes. It is therefore a potent and compelling way of making predictions about the world such that you continue to survive in it -- a point sadly emphasized by people whose 'theory-of-mind' development has been impaired by autism.(p288-9)"
Keleman terms the ability to impute purpose to everything "promiscuous teleology." We do it routinely, so routinely that we are hardly aware of it. Ever attempted to fix a computer problem with the rueful comment to a friend standing next to you that "machines just don't like me." Ever kicked a table that you just stumbled over? Ever said, as you went out the door to play ball and it started to rain, "of course it rains on my one day off." Ever experienced an unholy glee as you destroy the computer in a software game -- "Take that! You bastard!" Congratulations -- you've just imputed mind and purpose to inanimate objects. Not only do you do that normally and promiscuously, no one around you takes any special notice of that behavior, for they are all doing the same thing themselves.
People often forget that prior to the advent of western science, and above all, Darwin's solution to the problem of evolution, humans automatically took the idea of purpose as inherent in the natural world -- lakes existed to house fish, trees to provide wood for humans, rain to provide water for our crops, and so on. That idea carries on today in the so-called Intelligent Design movement, whose evidence-free appeal lies entirely in the promiscuous ability of humans to impute purpose to Everything. Teleological thinking is so powerful that special training -- scientific and statistical training -- is required to deal with it. In this western society is quite strange, being the first human society in the history of the world to produce a whole class of people equipped with the understanding that Shit Happens and there is no reason for it. In other places, right down to the present, Things Happen for A Reason, because of the Purpose and Intention of the Other Minds in charge of it All. Thus, in the world of the pre-modern mind, there are no accidents.
By now it should be obvious where the origin of the idea of the idea of ghosts, gods, and demons lies: in our imputation of purpose and intention to the world, and in our innate conception that there are Other Minds behind that purpose and intention. Ghosts are just disembodied Other Minds, with purposes and intentions, whom we treat the way we always treat Other Minds -- we attempt to influence them through interaction with them. The entire concept of the supernatural essentially rests on the idea that the universe has a Will and a Purpose -- that the universe is an Other Mind which we can then influence by interaction with it -- cajolery (worship), bribery (offerings), and pleading (prayer) -- same as we would any other kind of Other Mind.
Thus, the subjective inner experience of the believer that the universe is purposeful and intentional is neither wrong nor irrational. It is a powerfully adaptive cognitive processing bias vitally necessary for social interaction and for making predictions about the behavior of things in the world. It works very well when applied to our fellow humans, enabling us to build robust and complex communities. Teleological thinking permits us to explain the things that happen to us, and to make predictions about the future course of events. It goes awry only when tested by methodologies that eliminate the subjective inner experience of the tester as an authentic source of knowledge about the shape of reality.
In part II of this series we'll take a look at the implications of this for local politics.
[Taiwan] [religion] [ghosts] [belief] [skepticism]