The world is a confusing place. Correlation looks like causation; the signal sounds like the noise; randomness is everywhere. This raises the obvious question: How does the human brain cope with such an epistemic mess? How do we deal with the helter-skelter of reality? One approach would be to ground all of our beliefs in modesty and uncertainty, to recognize that we know so little and understand even less.
Needless to say, that’s not what we do. Instead of grappling with the problem of induction, we believe in God. Instead of applying Bayesian logic, we slip into rigid ideologies, which lead us to neglect all sorts of salient facts.
A new paper by psychologists at the University of Waterloo explores the connection between the presence of randomness and our belief in the supernatural. (The existence of God is the ultimate refutation of randomness, unless God throws dice.) The scientists argue that we abhor randomness so much that when confronted with it – when we’re reminded that nothing makes very much sense – we become more likely to subscribe to “spiritual control,” or the belief that everything is caused by an invisible hand.
The study was simple: 37 undergraduates were told they were participating in an experiment concerning “effects of an herbal supplement on color perception.” Upon arrival, participants read a brochure about the product. Half of the subjects were informed that, according to federal testing, the supplement has no side effects, and half were told that it has a single side effect, “mild arousal or anxiety.” Participants then swallowed a pill that supposedly contained the supplement (but actually contained inert microcrystalline cellulose).
While “waiting for the compound to metabolize,” participants completed a questionnaire that was supposedly unrelated to the experiment. Here is where the priming occurred: subjects were told to unscramble a variety of word sets. For half the participants, eight words in these sets were related to randomness, such as “chance,” “random” and “chaotic”. For the other half, these randomness primes were replaced with negatively valenced control words, such as “poorly,” “slimy” and “injuries”.
Finally, the subjects were quizzed about their religious beliefs. Did they think that that the universe is controlled by a God or a similar nonhuman entity? Is there a supernatural order, such as karma, that dictates the outcome of events? Does life unfold according to a master plan? Interestingly, “the randomness primes led to significantly stronger beliefs in the existence of supernatural sources of control than the negativity primes did.” However, this effect disappeared in the group of subjects that were told about the side-effects of the herbal supplement, as they probably assumed that their mild anxiety wasn’t about randomness – it was just a chemical hiccup.
The scientists summarize their results thusly:
These data suggest that belief in supernatural sources of control, such as God and karma, may function, in part, to defend against distress associated with randomness, even when the perception of randomness is not related to traumatic events.
Personally, I’m less convinced by the theological implications of the experiment than I am by the larger relationship between randomness primes and the search for patterns. (Religion is a vast, sprawling subject – it isn’t going to be solved by a clever study involving 37 teenagers. People believe in God for an infinitude of reasons; as William James reminds us, one can only talk about religious experiences in the plural, for there are so many different kinds.)
What this study really reminds me of is the stock market. On the one hand, it’s a mostly accepted fact that the stock market is a random walk. (Some smart behavioral economists disagree.) Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that, for the vast majority of investors, it’s safe to assume that the market is so efficient that it’s effectively random. So how do we react to this information? Do we stop trying to outsmart the S&P 500 and instead sink our savings into a low cost index fund? Do we seek the safety of bonds? Not at all. Instead, we become day traders.
This all reminds me of one of my favorite Bob Dylan quotes: “I accept the chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me. .”