22 July 2016

Cat Superstition, and the Origins of Religion, Astrology, and all forms of Supernatural Beliefs

A few years ago, my (late) kitty cat friend and roommate Fushi jumped up on the table.
On the table was a large object of some kind - I don't remember exactly what, maybe a book, maybe a pot; whatever it was, it was kind of near the edge.

Supposedly cats are naturally graceful, but that seems to vary as much by the individual as it does for humans.
He bumped into this object, which teetered a bit from the impact, and he jumped right back down.
And the thing tipped over and came down behind him, crashing just barely behind him.
As anyone would, in such a circumstance, he quickly jumped out of the way.

But then he did something more interesting...

He continued to run.
In fact, he ran not only completely across the room, but right out of the room, and kept right on going across the entire house, before finding a safe hiding place in the bedroom.

Now, Fushi was not a particularly skittish cat.  He wasn't bothered by loud noises, he trusted human strangers, and even strange dogs as long as they didn't chase or bark at him.  He stood up to bully cats and went on adventures, sometimes for days at a time.

But this object, set in motion by his own actions, and continued in motion by gravity, had just scared him away.

And I realized that I recognized that particular sequence of startle - run - hide.
It is exactly what he - or really anyone - would do if someone jumped out of hiding to attack you.

The fact that he didn't just dodge out of the way, but continued to move after he was well out of range of the treat strongly implies that, at least on some level, he expected there was a chance that the inanimate object would continue to follow him.

I can't guess whether he literally "thought" that, in any concrete way.  Maybe he did think something along the lines of "that's probably not alive, but just to be on the safe side I better get out of here", or maybe all he experienced was a sense of fear and reacted purely on instinct.

It doesn't really matter.  Those two things are essentially the same thing.  Especially for behaviors that happen within a split second, not even humans really consciously make choices and carry them out (we just feel like we do, as we justify what we observed ourselves to do after that fact - uh, yeah, I meant to do that, of course...)

And then I realized, too, that from an evolutionary stand-point, this isn't actually so irrational.

Consider the possibilities: you can't ever really be 100% sure of everything around you at all times.
Maybe that rustling in the grass is just the wind.  Or maybe its a wolf.  If you assume its a wolf, chances are you waste some energy and time running away from nothing, when it turns out it was just the wind.  And chances are it is.  Probably 92 times out of a hundred it's just the wind, or a rock tumbling down hill, or a branch that broke off of a tree.
But if by default you assume that its just the wind, and it really is a wolf, well, that's it.
No second chance.
Game over.
And unless you already got a lifetime of reproduction in, there go all your genes along with you.
Including your genes of being laid back and assuming by default that things are not out to get you, just because they usually aren't.

The one who assumes by default that everything is out to get you has a better chance of survival, and therefor that's the default that's going to survive down the generations.

Now add in on top of instinct a part of the brain that is conscious, logical, and that demands information in narrative form.  A part of the brain which seeks to explain its owners actions with some form of rational intentionality.  Remember, "I meant to do that on purpose".

Well, when you reason it out - you know that no one is in the house but you and your human friend, who is on the other side of the room.  There is no one on the table.  But you just reacted as though this apparently inanimate object might get up and follow you - as if it fell down on you on purpose.
That's the key point here. 
Just like how we humans feel like it is far worse to murder someone "on purpose" than to kill someone with your car "by accident" - even though 99% of "accidents" are really "gross negligence", and even though in both cases the end result is exactly the same; we put special emphasis on "intention".
Intention, after all, is what distinguishes the branch falling off a tree due to gravity from a falcon diving from the tree to attack you - either may hurt, but only the falcon intends to hurt you, and only it will keep coming after you step out of the way.

What is really being assumed then, is that all things that happen, all physical motions and actions, may possibly have been done with intension.

And, well, if there is no living animal making an object move, the only remaining conclusion is that the inanimate object itself may have intention.

In other words, the cat figures there is a possibility that the box on the shelf meant to fall on him, in which case running away is a pretty smart reaction.

From there its only a small step further to feeling that maybe everything happens according to someone's plan, or that rivers and trees and the Earth might all have some sort of "spirit" in them - the source of their intentionality. 
Since maybe the rustle in the grass implies consciousness even when there is nothing there, that opens the door to the very idea of there being consciousness, even when nothing is there. 
That could mean ghosts, or it could mean gods.  Belief in both come from the same place.
If a box can decide on its own to go crashing down behind you - if it has both the power to move around in space, and an interest in you specifically - is it really that much more of a stretch to think that the stars have their own will, and care about you, and have the power to affect your life?

If you think about it, an awful lot of superstitions, religious, spiritual, and supernatural beliefs, all have at their root the projection of some form of consciousness or intention to something other than living animals.  It is the idea that things which happen, which we can't personally pinpoint the cause, must have happened for some reason, and the default reason is that someone else decided to make it happen.

Sometimes it really is just the wind, but maybe its safer for us to assume that it was God.

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