The Frontal Cortex

God is a Corporation?

If William James were alive today, I’m pretty sure that he’d be an experimental philosopher. (He’d also be a cognitive psychologist, a public intellectual in the mold of Richard Rorty and a damn fine essayist, filling the back pages of the New Yorker and New York Review of Books with incisive articles on everything from poetry to public affairs.*) But back to experimental philosophy, or x-phi…Here’s how Kwame Anthony Appiah summarized the movement last year in the Times:

It’s part of a recent movement known as “experimental philosophy,” which has rudely challenged the way professional philosophers like to think of themselves. Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect.

But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments.

Perhaps the best known practitioner of x-phi is Joshua Greene, a Princeton philosopher by training whose done some excellent work on the cortical anatomy of morality. (Short summary: we’re less rational than we like to imagine.) But not all experimental philosophers rely on brain scanners. Most x-phi experiments consist of asking people questions. Over at Mind Matters, the website I curate for Scientific American, Joshua Knobe, of UNC-Chapel Hill, summarized some recent work on how people think about consciousness:

In one recent study, experimental philosophers Jesse Prinz of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and I looked at intuitions about the application of psychological concepts to organizations composed of whole groups of people. To take one example, consider Microsoft Corporation. One might say that Microsoft “intends to adopt a new sales strategy” or that it “believes Google is one of its main competitors.” In sentences such as these, people seem to be taking certain psychological concepts and applying them to a whole corporation.

But which psychological concepts are people willing to use in this way? The study revealed an interesting asymmetry. Subjects were happy to apply concepts that did not attribute any feeling or experience. For example, they indicated that it would be acceptable to use sentences such as:

Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.
Acme Corporation wants to change its corporate image.

But they balked at all of the sentences that attributed feelings or subjective experiences to corporations:

Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy.
Acme Corporation is getting depressed.
Acme Corporation is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue Internet advertising.

These results seem to indicate that people are willing to apply some psychological concepts to corporations but that they are not willing to suppose that corporations might be capable of phenomenal consciousness.

A recent study by Harvard University psychologists Heather Gray, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner looked at people’s intuitions about which kinds of mental states God could have. By now, you have probably guessed the result. People were content to say that God could have psychological properties such as thought, memory or planning. But they did not think God could have states that involved feelings or experiences, such as pleasure, pain or fear.

The basic point, I think, is that the human mind naturally parses abstract entities into various categories and gradations of consciousness. The end result is that God and Google share a similar set of psychological attributes. I do wonder, though, if different religions might have think differently about God. I’m pretty sure that the God of the Old Testament experienced some (mostly negative) emotions. See Jack Miles’ magisterial God: A Biography for more.

Update: For a really lucid introduction to x-phi (and why it’s not just a branch of psychology), see here.

*Back in the day, James wrote gorgeous appreciations of Whitman and Emerson and penned some fiery anti-war rhetoric.


  1. #1 Mitch Harden
    June 25, 2008

    I love Greene’s stuff.

  2. #2 Luis
    June 25, 2008

    Chaotists use the term godform for such phenomenons: God is a godform (and so are the polytheistic gods), corporations, sects and political institutions are godforms, money is a godform, markets are godforms too… It’s basically some virtual entity that feeds on the trust or faith of people but that, beyond that basic need, is also quite autonomous. It’s only partly inhuman and in many senses it’s superhuman.

    Of course, if they lose their faithful, the source of their vital energy, they lose all. But as long as they have followers they are quasi-human and super-human at the same time.

    It’s, if you wish, “high magic” (or “magick”, as any good Chaotist would spell it) but magic is nothing but manipulation of the psyche. They are in the end collective psychological phenomenons that experience collective emotions and ideas (of course some are surely in better position to influence the various godforms than the majority but they are still autonomous virtual crits anyhow).

  3. #3 Dr X
    June 25, 2008

    I share your question about about differences in attributions associated with different religions and wonder about the role of individual differences in conceptualizations of God. I’ve known people who speak of God’s anger, sadness or pain (I believe they’re referring to some sort of psychic pain rather than physical pain), though not God’s depression. I’ve heard people say that God worries about humanity, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to God’s anxiety or panic.

    One explanation is that depression and anxiety are seen as pathological conditions and, therefore, contradictory to a God who is, by definition, perfect. But maybe (I’m speculating freely here) some people view certain kinds of negative emotional experiences as “normal” and, therefore, accessible, even essential, to a perfect God. Trying to define what is part of, and what is not part of, a perfect being’s experience runs into walls of paradox, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see inconsistencies between individuals and even within individuals.

    But I do suspect that there is something to the point that Gray et al seem to make (unfortunately, I don’t have access to the article) — that the attributions we make turn on the question of whether there is a body associated with the mind. It leads me to wonder if Christians who strongly believe in a Jesus with a dual nature (flesh and divine) attribute experiences like pain, worry and sadness to God more readily than less Jesus-centric believers attibute those experiences to God. Might Mel Gibson be more likely to believe that God experiences pain than a Unitarian?

    The aggregate findings are very interesting, but digging deeper into individual differences might explain more about what we’re seeing.

  4. #4 Rev (ret)
    June 25, 2008

    Absolutely fascinating speculation. My guess is that the characteristics attributed to God (intentionality, compassion, anger, forgiveness) are heavily weighted toward human experience. Conceiving of a God (or god) in active relationship to ourselves (lawgiver, Lord, Father, judge) requires at a minimum imagining an entity in some way “like” ourselves. At least at some level, this is the opposite of an abstract formulation; it is more of a concretization.

    Another guess: that the religions that focus upon “relating” to God or the gods will always lean in the direction of God’s (or gods’) imagined emotions and even bodily experiences.
    Interestingly, such religions nearly always envision God’s (gods’) emotions & intentions in terms of positive, supportive relation to humanity (even judgment is presumably for our good). On the other hand, impersonal entities like corporations or governments are more likely to be characterized by negative, intrusive relations toward humanity (e.g. “Big Brother” imagery).
    Following Emily Dickinson’s imaginative vision of a God who “weighs the same as your brain,” we need to consider what attributes of ourselves we are ready to project or discover in the multitude of godforms (corporations, governments, economies, sciences, political parties, etc.) available to us; but even more, we need to be skeptical of any such attributes. Any godform (a great, useful term) is a mirror of ourselves, not a window on reality.
    Rev (ret)

  5. #5 matthew chapman
    June 25, 2008

    This post got me thinking about the fact that the British refer to corporations or organizations in the plural. “Acme Corporation believe” instead of “Acme Corporation believes,” “are” instead of “is,” etc. I’ve always found this mildly curious, but now i’m starting to wonder if this subtle difference is substantial in shaping the way we conceptualize corporations.

  6. #6 jope
    June 26, 2008

    And on that note, I’m currently reading Rushdie’s latest novel, which features an amusing introspection by the emperor on the pluralistic nature of the royal “we”.

  7. #7 Luis
    June 26, 2008

    Interestingly, such religions nearly always envision God’s (gods’) emotions & intentions in terms of positive, supportive relation to humanity (even judgment is presumably for our good). On the other hand, impersonal entities like corporations or governments are more likely to be characterized by negative, intrusive relations toward humanity (e.g. “Big Brother” imagery).

    Not really sure: all these entities are interested in transmitting a positive imagery about themselves, and all, including religions (specially religions I’d say) have a Big Brother side to them. Big Brother himself is also a (fictional) godform and as such also projected (into its fictional society, not us detached readers) a positive image of himself. That’s why it’s Big Brother, or in the common terminology or most religions Father: an authoritarian and controlling but also allegedly protective entity. The case with Orwell’s Big Brother is that we, as readers, see it from Orwell’s persepective not from that of the common Oceanian denizen, brainwashed daily by the Ministry of Truth.

    Corporations like any other godforms do make an effort to keep and expand their power base, their faithful (be them investors or customers) via publicity (specially) and also via some active intervention against negative publicity. So do political institutions, etc.

    Also the perception of the different high powers may vary depending on society, class or whatever other sector: the high esteem that US-Americans seem to have for God is certainly not shared by most Europeans, for instance. Upper class wealthy investors (and even middle class professionals maybe) surely have a much better perception of corporations than the working class. The perception of Allah and the Koran is totally different among Muslims than among non-Muslims.

    Even the perception of the Christian God as benevolent varies among sects and individual perceptions, and has varied through history as well. Nowadays it may be dominant a Hollywoodian Santa-like imagery of the Christian God but that was not always the case: in other times and still among some sects, the punisher God of Hell is dominant. Modern Christians are often in the odd position of historical Malgassys who rejected Christendom because Hell was something they could not believe in. But for historical Christianity divine punishment was at least as important as divine love and compassion.

    Any godform (a great, useful term) is a mirror of ourselves, not a window on reality.

    Glad you liked the term. Anyhow, godforms are largely autonomous, I think. Sure: they depend on the faithful but they also trasform them into their image. Money makes money-dependent and money-greedy people, Gods make God-followers (people who try to imitate them and/or abide by their norms), etc.

    That’s why I think the term magic is appropiate because it’s not something we can control directly, much less individually: they are socio-psychological phenomenons that trascend the individual. Possibly only alternative godforms can muster enough “psychic” energy to defeat other godforms. And that’s probably the reason why religion and ideology have been (and still are) so important in human history.

  8. #8 Rev (ret)
    June 26, 2008

    Luis, you are on the right track. Look at what happens when a random weather-event like a hurricane is given a name. (Remember when all hurricanes were given female names?) In the face of our own helplessness to avert it, we ascribe agency and sometimes even emotion to it. And then we project all of that onto God, so that a Pat Robertson or a Jerry Falwell “saw” in Katrina God’s retribution for the sins of New Orleans. In comparison to that projection, a corporation or an institution putting out a press-release is playing a childish game, like the Wizard of Oz. Whether in relation to random events or corporate or governmental gibberish, skepticism is the only appropriate response.

  9. #9 Hal
    June 26, 2008

    Wouldn’t almost all religious people agree that God experiences love? Some even define God as love! And yet no one would say that Microsoft or Google experiences love. This seems to be a very relevant distinction – I’m surprised it was not mentioned. (Well, not actually surprised, since it would undercut the story the article told.)

  10. #10 Luis
    June 26, 2008

    In comparison to that projection, a corporation or an institution putting out a press-release is playing a childish game, like the Wizard of Oz. Whether in relation to random events or corporate or governmental gibberish, skepticism is the only appropriate response.

    I would not dismiss anyhow the power of corporations or institutions to manipulate. It is a fact that in many countries more people is likely to believe an ad they watch almost daily than a sermon they will never listen to. TV has mostly replaced the pulpit – but that’s old news.

    But the power of certain institutions to manipulate reality is much bigger than just publicity: silencing for instance is an even more powerful tool and a tool is often in their hands (read Chomsky for details on how it works).

    And think of all the power that rotates around such a quotidiain item as money. We as species have lived with that idea for just a few milennia, we may have percieved some types of property or posession, and of value, since always but certainly money is very new (in evolutionary terms). Much more paper-money, deprived of all intrinsecal value, and the ultra-recent e-money, that does not even have a physical manifestation. In spite of that, for nearly everybody almost all orbits around money, like the planets do around the Sun. For me money is possibly the most fascinating of godforms: it moves the world, or at least humankind, even if it’s nothing. And not even the most radical communist experiment seems to have been able to get rid of it.

    And I’m not talking of the US dollar, nor the euro nor the yuan… If these were to fall something else would replace them with all likehood. We do give money its value but we can’t do otherwise – we can certainly ignore God or the President (at least somewhat) but nobody (except maybe a handful of lost tribal peoples) can ignore the incredible “magic” of money – even if most would agree it’s “black magic”.

    In fact one could think that all or most other modern godforms are subservient to this one: obviously corporations are but also governments, universities, charities, sects and maybe even God/s (even if it sounds blasphemous). In all temples of all religions there is a more or less evident way to collect money. The temples and the gods they serve would probably not be able to continue without this unholy pact. Some are ashamed and do discreetly but others have no shame and proclaim it constantly.

    But, getting back on topic, does money feel? I mean: like other godforms are said to feel. Money certainly “panicks at the stock markets now and then, money “likes” money, money is “shy”… but seems more inhuman than collective entities (institutions) or mythical beings (gods). Yet, IMO, it’s more powerful than all the others. It’s a very intriguing godform.

  11. #11 ringo
    June 27, 2008

    I am reminded of a catholic roommate in college who would try to end moral arguments with a resounding “DO YOU WANT JESUS TO CRY!”. The other two of us (jewish and buddhist) never could figure out how to respond to that.

    Sorta like Unix vs. Windows, I guess.

  12. #12 Anibal
    June 28, 2008

    But why we have such an inherent pronennes to atribute mental states to inanimate entities creating surrogates of mind everywhere?

  13. #13 Luis
    June 29, 2008

    Why not? Animism is the oldest form of religion. We humans have always done that, imagining with more or less reason that animals, trees, forests, streams, the sky or even mere rocks have emotions like we do. In fact, such kind of thought, even if “irational” can serve to integrate forms of popular wisdom (that make their own sense).

    Even modern science now and then does the same. Lovelock’s Gaia theory actually just says (with very good reasonings) that the Earth is alive and feeling. The border between alive or just physically (or sociologically) dynamical may be blurrier than what we usually tend to think nowadays. And, if it’s alive, it feels.

  14. #14 Anibal
    June 30, 2008

    That“s true Luis.

    But if we take into account simple principles of how analogy should works or judgments about similarity across types of entities, or even abstraction processes (in our current modern mind/brain or in our hominid prehistoric mind/brain) the existent barrier between our folk-psychology and our folk-biology, or folk-physics, impell us to understand the “mental realm” apart from the “physical realm”.

    I do not want to rewrite our antropological“s, etnographic“s, and history of religions“inherited wisdom and their learned lessons, but there are a great amount of data in developmental psychology pointing to the differential reasoning schemas at work either when treating solid bodies or either when dealing with intentions, desires…

    The so called AGENT DETECTION DEVICE (ADD) that gets hyperactivated within our ancenstral enviroment of evolutionary adaptiveness, where humans have to worry first and then scape when they hear something behind the bushes or shrubs, because thinking about what would be is putting into risk ones life (e.g. we are not scientists but survivors), it is a “just so storie” or an “ad hoc” fallacy of the worst evolutionary psychology, because it conceives humans as foolish or lacking the sufficient control to stop erroneous “mental” attributions or hyperattributions to everything is “moving”, as if we all humans in prehistoric times were schizotypic personalities.

    Nevertheless, the more parsimonius view is the “animism”.

    Un saludo Luis.

  15. #15 Luis
    July 4, 2008

    Hmmm… I don’t think such “erroneous” attributions are always really erroneous. I dont think hyperrationalism is so good either, specifically it lacks of holism: it’s too technical, it studies too much the details and, when it comes to undestanding the whole, it often finds itself lost.

    In my personal “mystical” experiences, I have seen for instance the city expanding into the wild and understood it as a biological phnomenon, like if the city would be just another criature or ecological system of its own. It is in fact, and as criature it has a “soul” (feelings, ideas, interests). Even if made by humans basically it’s not really human, yet it’s alive. If you can’t see that, if you just see the bricks, the wires, the fences and the roads as separate lifeless items, you are blind. Rationalism alone won’t see “the city”, you need a more holistic perception to see it.

  16. #16 fussball
    March 12, 2009

    Gute Arbeit hier! Gute Inhalte.

  17. #17 kelebek
    March 12, 2009


  18. #18 film izle
    May 29, 2009

    I am reminded of a catholic roommate in college who would try to end moral arguments with a resounding “DO YOU WANT JESUS TO CRY!”. The other two of us (jewish and buddhist) never could figure out how to respond to that.

    Sorta like Unix vs. Windows, I guess.

  19. #19 Firewire 800
    December 4, 2011

    I couldn’t agree with you more..

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