Are God’s Mental States All in Your Mind?


Where do we get our concept of God? I ask in the first person plural “we” because there is something pervasive and shared about “the concept of God” that we manage to think and talk about with each other.

This is illustrated by the Slate article of a week ago titled “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Brain.” The author, Jesse Bering, aims to explain “how our innate theory of mind gives rise to the divine creator.” Click here to read the article.

The article begins by noting the uniquely well-developed capacity we have to attribute mental states to others of our species, then present evidence that we also attribute mental states to inanimate entities. On this basis, Bering hopes to make a natural inference to the claim that in our thinking about God we are projecting a mental life onto an object that is neither animate nor inanimate, but unreal.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

“What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?” Great question! I would say, “That sounds like wishful thinking on your part. Show me the evidence.”

Of course, Jesse Bering doesn’t present any evidence. Our capacity to ascribe mental lives to members of our species seems, from Bering’s point of view, to be legitimate. That much is a relief. But our tendency, as Bering would put it, to do the same for inanimate objects suggests that we are somehow hard-wired to err in doing this.

Now, it doesn’t really matter that the evidence Bering presents for our supposed projection of mental lives onto inanimate objects is very weak, because even if Bering is right about that, it doesn’t count as evidence that that’s more-or-less what we’re doing when we think about God. But the evidence that we routinely project mental lives onto the inanimate doesn’t bear the weight of Bering’s conclusion. There are plausible alternative explanations for our behavior toward physical objects when we’re angry and for our talk about objects as if they were personal entities. I don’t slam the car door because I hold my car personally responsible for “refusing” to start and “making” me late to work. But I do slam the door and I do speak this way. The action is expressive of my frustration, if only to myself, and the speech is metaphorical.

When I think and talk about God, my acting and speaking is completely unlike my acting and speaking when my car won’t start. I believe that God is real, is a person, hears and responds to me, and so forth. Unaccountably, Bering doesn’t acknowledge this difference in my so-called “intentional-state attributions.” I only appear, through my behavior, to attribute intentions to my stupid car. But I do not actually attribute intentions to the thing. My behavior does not tell the whole story, a story that I know from the inside, as the person engaged in that behavior. But I do attribute intentions to a divine creator. In fact, I see evidence all around me of a creator’s existence and intentions.

If time allowed, I would show how the reality of our mental lives—acknowledged by Bering—is itself evidence for the reality of God, a supreme being with a real mental life. That will have to be for another time. Meanwhile, I encourage you to read the charming but misguided article by Jesse Bering. It neatly exhibits a pervasive confusion—one that nurtures a very real illusion about God.

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