Evolution of Religion

What are these so-called counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs exactly? Kelly and Keil (1985) suggest that counterintuitive ideas are based on a simple awareness of differences in species, known as  folk biology. Folk biology results from observations of our surroundings, which allows for an understanding of various entities in the world. With folk biology, people quickly learn what differentiates humans from other animals, plants and inanimate materials. These differences lead to  ontological categories: primitive species-based categories which roughly divide the world into categories like dead matter, plants, families of animals and finally humans. Based on this hierarchy, it is possible to make various assumptions about specific individuals. For example, a cat is capable of movement. Furthermore, it requires food to keep itself alive, otherwise it will die. Based on these facts, people can also be pretty certain that a cat has certain intentional behaviors: it will move towards food, and possibly kill some other living being to feed itself with. It is unlikely, however, that one will ever see a cat give a lecture in astrophysics – although cats are living beings, somehow they keep failing to understand the intricate workings of aerospace engineering. Folk biology therefore does not just aid in categorization, but also allows one to build expectations around a species’ features.

Kelly and Keil suggest that humans have a sensitivity for situations where these expectations are wronged, or need adjustments – for example, if a cat were to suddenly walk right through a wall. One can still be fairly certain that most of our predictions about cats will suit this one, with the ‘minor exception’ that this cat is not material. According to Kelly and Keil, counterintuitive events are those where an object that was previously nicely ordered in one’s mind shows a minor deviation. Given these circumstances, it is likely that people will remember the entity better and pay more attention to it. Deviations should not be too big: a cat that walks through walls, can fly, eat nails, travel through time and give an astrophysics lecture on gravitational collapse does not fit into the category ‘cat’ and is, quite frankly, too bizarre for words. Counterintuitive features are considered to be more attractive to people than features that are either intuitive or features that are bizarre. Kelly and Keil give some indirect evidence of this preference for people for counterintuitive events by studying the popularity of stories about  metamorphoses. An entity that turns into a completely different entity is definitely a counterintuitive event, but could possibly be a bridge too far. One can imagine a human transforming into another sentient being, but a human transforming into a cloud, or a lake? Surely humans will find that too far-fetched. And indeed, Kelly and Keil discovered that in the ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid and the ‘Tales of the Brothers Grimm’, both collections of popular stories, metamorphoses within ontological categories (human into dog) were far more common than stories about metamorphoses between ontological categories (human into lake).

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