Author Topic: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)  (Read 2630 times)

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Offline Immediacracy

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My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« on: June 26, 2010, 09:22:18 PM »
Yesterday I was driving to work and saw in my peripheral vision, a white sedan with something that could have been sirens on the roof getting on the freeway behind me. I felt the jolt of adrenaline hit my stomach, and as I instinctively slowed down and surreptitiously watched the car drove closer into view, I was relieved to find that it was not a police car, just a white taxi cab.

This got me thinking about the HADD theory of the evolution of religion and how it presumes to explain the deeply subjective phenomena of religious psychology with a superficial tactical reflex. Ironically, I feel like the HADD theory explains itself better than it does religion - assuming that every human behavior is an agent of natural selection is an overextended statistical gambit which capitalizes on the successes of evolutionary biology. It is the disembodied spirit of Darwin which the HADD theory identifies as the progenitor of religious universality.

One example of HADD which shows up in articles about the evolutionary psychology of religion is that people might mistake a rock for a bear but generally won't mistake a bear for a rock. This makes sense, and is used as support to connect that dots to the idea that this 'agency detection' is a likely basis for the idea of spirits, ghosts, etc. Conscious agents which are independent from physical form.

In my police car example however, you can see that there would be a clear survival advantage to having a hair-trigger reflex for threats in general, whether or not those threats had any conscious agency or not. I think this mechanism has no particular bias toward agency and indeed, if someone grew up in a world where rocks were rigged to explode and bears were tame then people would mistake harmless bears for inanimate but dangerous rocks.

There are other examples as well, discussions of psychological development in children and how subjectivity is presumed automatically in younger minds and how readily even adults will ascribe subjectivity even to abstract forms so that a circle might be said to 'chase' a triangle, etc. Again, these features of consciousness are tied to the HADD hypothesis, a protective mechanism which imagines ghosts to help avoid predators.

I submit that this Hyperactive Agency Detection Device is a weak hypothesis for explaining the subjective bias of subjectivity. To me, it makes more sense that agency is not mistakenly detected, but rather, exuberantly projected from it's source, a subjective agent. Human culture is nothing if not totemic. Masks, puppets, figurative drawings, voices and gestures, sculpture, drama, dance, song, etc reflect the nature of subjectivity itself - it's expression of character and creating stories with them.

Characters are what we are and what we do. This is 'our' most prominent purpose, and though it may have some obscure connection to genetic selection advantage, trying to understand subjective character dynamics from the perspective of evolutionary biology is like trying to understand the Sistine Chapel in terms of the chemical composition of Italian paint.

Character and myth doesn't come out of a moment of sudden reaction to a physical threat. That moment is relatively thoughtless. In fight of flight, circulation in the body is diverted away from the fictive circuitry of the brain's cortex and into the limbic brain and sympathetic nervous system.

If there was any real truth to the HADD theory, I would expect to see religions which had developed around the physical properties of 'agents' rather than a rich characterization of personality and history. The importance of something like footprints in tracking food and avoiding predators should develop into a detection-bias fueled worship of a magical foot, for example.

The HADD line of reasoning denies the specific cultural resonance of mythologies and focuses on the comparatively irrelevant feature of myth that relates to the use non-human agency in making characters more memorable. It collapses the 'who' and 'why' dimension of a person or 'a people' into a simplistic and counterfeit mechanism of 'what' and 'how'.

To me, the more powerful universality in myth is not non-human agency, but the description of superlative qualia. Myth is about exaggerating subjective essences to make them more tangible - to help us as individuals and members of a social group to understand our identity; 'who' we are. Simile and metaphor. Strong as Hercules. Wise as Athena. Powerful as Thor. The important part of these characters aren't that they are disembodied agents, it's the qualia of the agents themselves, the archetypal images of strength, wisdom, power, etc.

This is consciousness looking at it's own drives and fundamental principles and projecting them outward - not a hypertrophied twitch reflex for detecting potential predatory presences. Sometimes in myth, the superlative is not embodied in an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic form at all but as an abstract symmetry or inanimate synecdoche, like yin and yang, a magic spell/blessing/curse, a lucky horseshoe or a broken mirror, reading tea leaves or coins. I don't think that Buddhism posits any particular external agency, yet is considered a major world religion.

The spiritual dynamic is not always one of primitive man being deceived by his environment to have a better chance to survive, it is man actively seeking assistance from his environment for problems on complex and subtle levels. The universality of religion represents the structural form of human inquiry into it's own internal epistemology, to coax out intuitive insights from obscure regions of the psyche, not merely about matters of survival or reproduction, but about how to understand the stories we tell ourselves as individuals and as a society.
« Last Edit: June 26, 2010, 09:25:58 PM by Immediacracy »
"That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler

Offline none

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2010, 09:33:00 PM »
I have no idea what you are talking about.

Offline Immediacracy

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #2 on: June 26, 2010, 09:46:02 PM »
HADD is the one of the go-to theories used to explain the anthropological universality of religion in purely evolutionary terms.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

PDF - “What's HIDD'n in the HADD
"That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler

Offline Aerial

Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #3 on: June 26, 2010, 10:56:31 PM »
I like this person...they remind me of Sheldon in "Big Bang Theory".   :D

Offline kindred

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #4 on: June 26, 2010, 11:22:21 PM »
You got to explain that again. My mind works by picking out what practical application something has and if there is a FEW parts that are not at this moment useful, stocking them up too. All of that SEEMED useless. So my it just went over my head.
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Offline xphobe

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #5 on: June 27, 2010, 01:56:36 AM »
I don't quite understand the relevance of your analogy.  Whether it's a police car or only a taxi cab, you realize that without a doubt there is agency involved.  Small towns take advantage of HADD by painting an old clunker black and white, mounting a cherry bar to the roof, and placing it just over the hill.  Your panic reaction sets in, you tap the breaks, and maybe realize as you pass that it was a decoy, but by then it has fulfilled its mission: you've slowed down.

HADD isn't proposed as an explanation for religion specifically, but as a reason why in general we see purpose where there is none, and imagine living beings in inanimate objects.

We've all seen rock formations and clouds that "look like" something, usually an animal or person.  Nobody ever says "Oh look at that cloud: it looks like a rock I saw the other day."  They say "Hey that cloud looks like a horse", or "That rock formation looks like Jimmy Durante."

So it's no surprise that people in the Western world see Jesus in a burned tortilla.  Why don't they see Kevin Costner, or Morgan Freeman?

Man's first reaction upon hearing thunder was probably "The gods are angry".  I doubt they said "We don't know what causes thunder, so we'll withhold judgment until we have a firmer grasp of science."
I stopped believing for a little while this morning. Journey is gonna be so pissed when they find out...

Offline Noman Peopled

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #6 on: June 27, 2010, 04:33:24 AM »
bm

Sorry Immediacracy, I'm sure you noticed my general lack of responsiveness in "our" thread (you know which one). Just have time for the odd short reply here and there :(
"Deferinate" itself appears to be a new word... though I'm perfectly carmotic with it.
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Offline wheels5894

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #7 on: June 27, 2010, 04:54:32 AM »
I have come across this before - in a book called "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer. The idea of agency - ie a rock could be a bear so I will act as though it were - is probably the way early people survived just as, today, it saves us speeding tickets! A rustling in the tress behind us might be wind... or is it a wild beast - do we wait and investigate with a wooden spear or beat a hasty retreat? One can easily see that this process might end up with various agencies, wind rivers etc

The next stage, for this is the earliest stage of religion, would be to see someone come forward who claimed to be able to pacify these agencies (OK, lets use gods) a shaman if you like. in return for food and status the shaman can keep the people safe - and get some control over them.

Skip a while and the shamans are doing well out of this and can even weave stories round their supposed actions and even stories about the gods they claim to pacify. It is hardly a strain at the credulity to see this developing into the sort of religions we see in Egypt, and Babylon as well as Greece and Rome. In these cases, as well as Israel, religion was used as an arm of the state but it is still the same as the early shamans - we, the priests, will deal with the gods (god) for you and you can get on with your lives.

Oddly, Jesus was an oddball in religious terms - he told his disciples to dispense with the priests and to talk directly to god. It is an irony to see that it took well under 100 years for the shamans to get back in and start extracting money and power - Rome was a centre of power by 100CE for example.

Oh, and I recommend the book - it was a very good read.
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such that its falshood would be more miraculous than the facts it endeavours to establish. (David Hume)

Offline Immediacracy

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2010, 12:22:22 PM »
I don't quite understand the relevance of your analogy.  Whether it's a police car or only a taxi cab, you realize that without a doubt there is agency involved.
The police car is interpreted as a potential agency of threat, but not because of it's resemblance to a living being. I think that 'detection of agency' in these cases is just recognition of threats in general rather than anything having to do with animate vs inanimate or purpose vs coincidence. It's no different than when you crunch down on something hard in your dinner and worry that you've broken a tooth, or if you see something leaking out of your car you entertain the worst case scenario first (or no scenario in particular other than 'something expensive').

Quote
HADD isn't proposed as an explanation for religion specifically, but as a reason why in general we see purpose where there is none, and imagine living beings in inanimate objects.
HADD only appears to detect agency for those examples where threats are also agents. I think this aspect of pattern interpretation has to do with an individual's memories and deviation from those memories which prompt the sense of alarm. I've been pulled over before, so I now instinctively react to things that look like police cars, not because there is an innate, biologically evolved bias toward police car overdetection. It's not agency that's being detected, it's trouble that's being anticipated, and I think that it has little to do with projecting purpose and agency into inanimate objects or situations.

Quote
We've all seen rock formations and clouds that "look like" something, usually an animal or person.  Nobody ever says "Oh look at that cloud: it looks like a rock I saw the other day."  They say "Hey that cloud looks like a horse", or "That rock formation looks like Jimmy Durante."
The appearance of a visual simulacra has more to do with the mechanics of perception and symbolic association, than it has to do with survival. We see a horse in a cloud not just because our ancestors may have found horses to be a survival adaptation but because our personal archives of images are indexed according to personal and collective identifications.

The contents of these archives are more of a top-down collection of gestalt characters, faces, animals, body parts, etc than they are abstract swatches of color contrasts and line fragments which must be assembled into an image of Jimmy Durante. Jimmy is already in our memory, just waiting to pop out at any time - as a voice, a gesture, a nose, etc. How many of us even have much direct experience seeing Jimmy Durante in films? Our experience of Jimmy Durante is itself mainly an iconic cartoon simulation.

Again, a roundabout way of saying that HADD isn't responsible for imagination, and that the functioning of the imagination extends into phenomena that are very different from evolutionary biology, with their own subjective agendas. We see things in the clouds that remind us of things we know, not because we are programmed to detect, but because our normal process of seeing is a projection of subjective meaning onto objective patterns. We aren't seeing predators in the clouds, we're seeing ourselves.

Quote
Man's first reaction upon hearing thunder was probably "The gods are angry".  I doubt they said "We don't know what causes thunder, so we'll withhold judgment until we have a firmer grasp of science."
I think that if you think of how inside jokes arise within social groups, you can see the roots of religion. People who live together share common experiences and develop a language about those experiences, mainly to entertain each other. I would be more inclined to think of the earliest religious thoughts, typically animism and shamanism as relatively playful narratives. "The gods are angry" was said with a smile, to frightened children - not as a slipshod explanation in lieu of science.

We do this still today, as we anthropomorphize our technology, we might say 'my computer is not happy'. We don't believe it's literally true, but since the functional consequence of acting as if it were true is about the same, our subjective imagination may prefer to conceive of the computer in subjective terms. It's cute. Not because we're dumb or have a hair trigger detection of happiness in other animals for some neolithic animal breeding purpose. Such a purpose could provide some historical foundations, but that misses the most relevant part of the explanation.
« Last Edit: June 27, 2010, 04:28:42 PM by Immediacracy »
"That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler

Offline Immediacracy

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #9 on: June 27, 2010, 12:27:01 PM »
You got to explain that again. My mind works by picking out what practical application something has and if there is a FEW parts that are not at this moment useful, stocking them up too. All of that SEEMED useless. So my it just went over my head.
I'm just saying that the impetus for spirituality comes from the subjective imagination rather than objective selection pressures, and it's purpose is a subjective one - to help us understand ourselves, consciousness, imagination, symbols, meaning, etc.
"That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler

Offline Immediacracy

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #10 on: June 27, 2010, 12:42:05 PM »
I have come across this before - in a book called "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer. The idea of agency - ie a rock could be a bear so I will act as though it were - is probably the way early people survived just as, today, it saves us speeding tickets! A rustling in the tress behind us might be wind... or is it a wild beast - do we wait and investigate with a wooden spear or beat a hasty retreat? One can easily see that this process might end up with various agencies, wind rivers etc

The next stage, for this is the earliest stage of religion, would be to see someone come forward who claimed to be able to pacify these agencies (OK, lets use gods) a shaman if you like. in return for food and status the shaman can keep the people safe - and get some control over them.
Personally I don't really see the connection. I get that erring on the side of caution would help our ancestors run away from predators, but I don't see that translating in any way into spirituality. I think the universality of projecting agency has to do with the essence of what agency is - a creator, receiver, processor, simulator, and transmitter of meaningful experience.

Shamans and medicine men are more about dealing in luck, curses, love, healing, seeing the future or reading minds than they are about controlling other people. Shamans are typically outcast from their society but for their occasional role as consultant. Often androgynous and lacking social graces, shamans don't fit the bill of evangelical charlatan. They may serve up the Kool Aid, but they themselves are their own biggest customer.

Quote
Oh, and I recommend the book - it was a very good read.

Cool, I'll add it to the list.
"That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler

Offline Kaliyuga

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #11 on: June 27, 2010, 01:49:44 PM »
To me, the more powerful universality in myth is not non-human agency, but the description of superlative qualia

The important part of these characters aren't that they are disembodied agents, it's the qualia of the agents themselves, the archetypal images of strength, wisdom, power, etc.

This is where your argument falls apart for me, but I suppose that is another topic altogether.
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Offline Immediacracy

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Re: My case against Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)
« Reply #12 on: June 27, 2010, 04:22:33 PM »
This is where your argument falls apart for me, but I suppose that is another topic altogether.
I use the word qualia because I think it gets to the ineffable, idiosyncratic nature of subjectivity. Qualitative essences are the antithesis of objective material phenomena. They are archetypal and stereotypical complexes which manifest in a variety of associated images, meanings, and experiences. This is their actual composition - they are not made of atoms or cells, they are made of reflections and representations of aspects of our own selves, of the psyche.
"That which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler