Does Barrett think that Superman is a counterintuitive concept?

Posted on December 11, 2009


Still working through Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? with my cognitive science of religion class. We’ve got to chapter 6 in which Barrett considers the traits of the christian deity and I have found myself gobsmacked by the argument that Barrett presents. He considers in turn the christian claims that their deity has infallible knowledge, is able to perceive anything we care to think of, is immortal, is able to do anything we can imagine, has created the universe and is perfectly good. For each of these traits, Barrett argues that it is plausible to believe them actually fairly intuitive. His reasoning is that children, supposedly, go through a stage where they consider normal people to have such traits (the evidence being the weakest, says Barrett, for perfect goodness). According to him, children learn that normal people do not have such unlimited abilities but simply can continue to hold the same basic belief in the case of the christian deity. Barrett closes his discussion by considering what implication these finding have for the claim that the christian deity is a minimally counterintuitive concept (87-88):

At first glance, God seems far more counterintuitive than would qualify as minimally counterintuitive. God has funny physical, biological, and psychological properties. So much for one or two violations of intuitive expectations. But a closer look at developmental evidence suggests that many of God’s fancier properties are not counterintuitive at all. ToM allows for a mind to be superknowing and superperceiving and to be divorced from a biological body. Likewise, mental tools do not require a disembodied mind to be mortal. We have no reason to believe that God’s superpowers present any special difficulty. On the contrary, mental tools suggest that someone has intelligently designed much of the natural world and may willingly embrace God as the Creator. On careful examination, it may be that God’s only counterintuitive properties concern God’s physicality, such as being omnipresent or having no location in space and time. If so, God nicely fits the parameters for a minimally counterintuitive concept, or MCI.

When I read this paragraph, I could not help but stare blankly at the page for a minute. I could hardly believe that Barrett had written what I’d just read so I then reread the whole section. Even now, several days later, I still find myself flabbergasted every time I read this section. I’ll try to express my various problems with what Barrett is saying in as coherent a fashion as I can.

Let’s accept for a minute that everything that Barrett claims is correct. What would the consequences of doing so be? OK, the christian deity turns out to be minimally counterintuitive. What about some other examples of deities? How about Zeus? He was immortal, but as we’ve just found out, this is nothing counterintuitive. He was also able to do very many things (not everything) that is humanly impossible, but that also does not have the potential to be counterintuitive. For example, he was able to turn himself into a swan to seduce Leda, but the christian deity was able to turn himself into a burning bush, so that is hardly newsworthy (maybe the truly surprising thing was that Leda found a swan attractive). Of course, Zeus was not omnipresent but spent much of his time on Mount Olympus. So, Zeus – clearly not counterintuitive according to Barrett. The same for Superman. All that leaping of tall buildings and outperforming of locomotive could not, after all, compare to the christian deity’s superpowers. Indeed, if we take Barrett’s claims from this chapter seriously, then pretty much no agent could be counterintuitive, other than the christian deity! Certainly, none of the other things he lists as ‘gods’ on page 21 – ghosts, demons, chimeras (such as centaurs or satyrs), or space aliens – have any abilities that would classify as counterintuitive on this definition.

The situation is worse, however. He claims that the christian deity’s one truly counterintuitive ability is the ability to be present in all places at once. Yet, as he himself points out, when people think about the christian deity they imagine it as moving rapidly from one place to another, rather than actually thinking of it as being in many places at once. So, according to Barrett, when most people think about the christian deity, they are actually thinking of a perfectly intuitive agent!

Clearly, something has gone badly awry in Barrett’s reasoning. He can not have it both ways – either the christian deity’s various alleged traits are counterintuitive or minimally counterintuitive concepts can not be used as an element of cognitive explanations of religion. I’d probably argue that the error lies in claiming that immortality, etc. are not counterintuitive properties. What, then, is the significance of the results coming from the cognitive development studies that Barrett discusses in this chapter? I would argue that, rather than render such concepts intuitive, they render them plausible enough to be considered. Barrett distinguishes between reflective and nonreflective beliefs. However, it is important to consider another distinction in this context that between how children and adults reason that dual process accounts of reasoning may be seen as pointing towards. As cognitive load studies show, adults do not generally stop reasoning in the way that children do but merely overlay more adult reasoning on top of it – being placed under cognitive load being useful to bring out the more childlike reasoning processes. So, counterintuitive concepts may, in fact, function by being attractive to childlike reasoning and counterintuitive to adult reasoning. Of course, this may be an overly complex claim. It may well be that what are called counterintuitive concepts actually function simply because they do appear sensible to child-like reasoning processes and adult reasoning merely fails to completely eliminate them, instead of helping to propagate them due to their surprising nature. Either way, Barrett has a serious problem.