Re: Supersense

Supersense by Bruce M. Hood opens with a provoking question: Would you wear a killer’s sweater? The rational part of me wants to say, Of course I would, but mostly to prove that I can ignore the vague sense of unease that idea gives me. The part of us that creates that unease is what the author calls “supersense.”

The book argues that we believe in the supernatural because it fits with what we want to believe. That comes from our “mind design” or “the organized way in which our brains are configured to understand and interpret the world.”  (The book skips over the implication of whether a god designed that mind, but I have to wonder if an American author would have felt the need to address it.)
As this way of thinking emerges in childhood, the book describes much of the fascinating research uncovering the inborn expectations of babies.  As we grow up, these ways of looking at the world are overlain by rational thought and the executive function, but they never entirely go away. That’s why people use rituals to maintain the illusion of control. Also, in diseases of aging or brain injuries, these beliefs re-emerge.
The two major components of mind designs that the book returns to over and over are pattern-seeking and essentialism. Our minds insist on finding patterns, and explaining them. Our mind design is so organized to seek patterns, it finds them even when there aren’t any. When it attempts to deal with randomness and chance it’s not very good at it, choosing instead to impose its own ideas about order and cause. Since it’s useful to treat the natural world as if it had intent, especially the living beings we share it with, that gets extrapolated to god(s) directing all of nature.

Essentialism is the belief that every individual and every object has something unique that defines their true nature. This essence remains the same throughout an individual’s life no matter how their body changes. This leads also to the belief that some of this essence can connect or be transferred to other individuals.

Thus, in homeopathy, no matter how much you dilute the solution the essense is still there. Essentialism is the core of sympathetic magic and belief in the contamination of sin.  People want to own possessions of famous people just as much as they avoid wearing the clothing of the dead. Conversely, since we are a wicked and perverse people, some relish the idea of owning a killer’s sweater, or the house where Jeffrey Dahmer grew up.

When it comes to why we  have a supersense, the book largely sets aside pattern setting and essentialism, and considers how the supersense improves the coherence of groups, from families to nations. The supersense enhances our feelings of connection to each other and the world around us. The supersense is what decides some things define the unique essense of a group. These things are sacred values that can’t be measured or bought. Protecting those values protect the group, and the sense of sacredness means people will do anything to protect them.This book makes a lot of sense.

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