The Evolution of Misbelief

Posted on February 1, 2007


Some people I know are doing a internet conference on Adaptation and Representation and one of the recent papers discussed as part of it is “The Evolution of Misbelief” by Ryan McKay and Dan Dennett. It discusses the possibility that in certain conditions it may be evolutionarily advantageous to make systematic errors in the formation of beliefs. The idea has a clear application both to understanding religious beliefs as a natural phenomenon (which is what Dan Dennett is primarily interested in) and to understanding superstitious beliefs as a natural phenomenon (which is what I am primarily interested in).

One of the main ideas McKay and Dennett employ is that of Error Management Theory as developed by Haselton and others. The thought behind it is actually quite simple:

when one type of error (false positive or false negative) is consistently more detrimental to fitness than the other, then a system that is biased toward committing the less costly error may be more adaptive than an unbiased system

In other words, given the inevitability of error, it makes sense to be cautious and accept the greater possibility of less problematic errors so as to avoid the more problematic errors. This fits very neatly with questions of whether people tend to be oversensitised to the existence of patterns – similar issues of the significance of false posivites and false negatives coming up in that context.

The objection raised to that idea is that in dealing with actions we are not directly dealing with beliefs – in some cases it makes sense to check whether something is the case even though we do not think it is at all likely. McKay mention the objection but do not develop the issue. However, I think that they should in that, in so far as beliefs have any significance they do so due to the actions we undertake on their basis. Of course, the relationship between action and belief is complex but this does not undermine their interrelation. Nor does it undermine the usefulness of investigating and understanding belief through its interrelationship with action – there is no other way to investigate it, certainly not through the ultimately self-referential method of just looking at beliefs, themselves. So, I would argue that the significance of the objection is limited and only shows that one needs to be careful in stating on what belief one is acting. And, perhaps, more importantly, I suspect that the claim is actually empirically investigable – something that philosophers often fail to appreciate.

In the end, the article does not go into the application of the idea to religious beliefs – which is a pity – but simply presents a possible tool to be used in coming to understand them. As such, it feels like a first paper that introduces the ideas that wil be developed in a future project. I find the idea in it very interesting in the context of working on superstition and will have to pursue it by looking at the articles that McKay and Dennett refer to.