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  • Supernatural Imagination 1

    Running Head: Evolution of Supernatural Imagination

    The Evolution of Supernatural Imagination


    Southeastern Louisiana University

    Author contact:

    Department of Psychology, Box 10831

    Southeastern Louisiana University

    Hammond, LA 70402 USA

    Phone: 985-549-3984

    Fax: 985-549-3892

    Keywords: imagination; religion; supernatural; social intelligence; Toba eruption

  • Supernatural Imagination 2

    The Evolution of Supernatural Imagination


    The hypothesis driving this paper is that childhood imagination evolved as a

    mechanism to prepare children for the adult social world. Around 70,000 years before

    present (ybp) two important changes occurred in the Homo sapiens’ social world. The

    first was an increase in complexity resulting from more frequent interactions and

    expanded trade alliances with out-group members. This change selected for a more

    sophisticated capacity in children for creating alternative situational models. The second

    important change was the emergence of supernatural beliefs associated with religion and

    religious rituals. This selected for specific supernatural aspects to childhood imagination

    including: envisioning omniscient supernatural agents, magical causation, imminent

    justice, and promiscuous teleology. The fitness advantages associated with adult

    supernatural belief provided the selective force for the supernatural aspects of childhood

    imagination. These fitness advantages included: increased intra- and inter-group

    cooperation and the psycho/physical health benefits of ritual healing. It is argued that the

    proposed model provides a more complete explanation for the variety of supernatural

    beliefs found in humans compared to theories based solely on anthropomorphism or

    agency over-extension.

    Religion and Imagination

    That religion requires imagination seems indisputable. Supernatural agents (gods,

    demons, spirits, etc), magical forces (miracles, karmic/divine justice, intercessory prayer,

    etc.), other worldly places (heaven, hell, etc.) and a ‘purposeful’ universe are common

    religious beliefs despite the fact that none have an adequate empirical basis. Instead, they

  • Supernatural Imagination 3

    are abstractions that people are compelled or inclined to envision. As best as we can tell,

    we are the only species with such a powerful imaginative capacity.

    It has been argued that the human tendency to over-attribute agency (e.g.

    interpreting a shadow as a threatening stranger) or our pervasive anthropomorphism

    (seeing faces in the clouds) lies behind our supernatural inclinations (Atran, 2006;

    Barrett, 2000; Boyer, 2001; Guthrie, 1993). While this may explain some of our

    supernatural tendencies, it leaves too many things unexplained to be a complete account.

    First, it raises an odd paradox. Over-attributing agency is not unique to humans, but

    supernatural thinking is (as best as we can tell). Second, there is no obvious reason why

    the agents we imagine should possess other peculiar characteristics such as omniscience,

    the ability to invoke magical forces, or the desire to enact retributive justice. Finally,

    there is no reason why agency over-attribution should lead one to posit a universe of

    inherent meaning or purpose (which human naturally seem to do).

    A more complete explanation may be found in the curious observation that all of

    the aforementioned unexplained characteristics are found in childhood imagination. The

    thesis of this paper is that this ‘curiosity’ is not just mere coincidence. Childhood

    imagination has particular supernatural features because it evolved to prepare children for

    the adult social world. That social world was growing increasingly complex and

    supernaturally-endowed in the late Pleistocene (about 70,000 ybp). Childhood

    imagination was shaped by evolutionary forces that made supernatural thinking socially

    adaptive. A general capacity for imagination facilitates interpersonal relational skills, and

    supernatural beliefs can foster powerful intra- and inter-group cooperation while also

    providing individual psycho/physical health benefits.

  • Supernatural Imagination 4

    The General Imaginative Capacity: Creating Alternative Situational Models

    In the current context, imagination is defined as the ability to create situational

    models unconstrained by the realities of the immediate present; what might also be called

    alternative situational models (Harris, 2000, p. 192; Hauser, 2006, p. 203; Zwaan &

    Radvansky, 1998). A situational model is a mental representation specifying how an

    object or system operates, or how an event is organized. For example, consider what goes

    on in the mind of someone who is listening to a narrator describe an event or who is

    reading about an event from text. In either case, the immediate reality of listening to a

    speaker or reading a text is momentarily set aside as the encoder mentally constructs a

    model of the event based on the description provided (e.g. “it was a dark and stormy

    night”). With this capacity, humans are not restricted to just mentally representing

    immediate sensory inputs (i.e. what is happening), but can additionally represent what

    did happen, what could have happened, and what might happen in the future.

    A child’s growing ability to construct these alternative situational models can be

    seen in a number of ways. By age two or three most children are able to engage in

    pretense or pretend play. In doing so they easily accommodate to play stipulations where

    objects are redefined to fit with imagined events and scenarios (Harris, 2000, p. 11-13).

    For example, if children are told that yellow bricks are bananas and red bricks are hay,

    they will feed yellow bricks to the monkeys (who like bananas and not hay) and red

    bricks to the horses. Furthermore, if additional animals must be fed, children will not re-

    use the already “eaten” bricks. Counterfactual thinking provides a second example. Even

    though three and four year olds rarely construct or express counterfactual statements,

    they nonetheless can imagine alternative antecedents and can distinguish between

  • Supernatural Imagination 5

    antecedents that would and would not have changed an outcome (Harris, German &

    Mills, 1996).

    There is only scant evidence that nonhuman primates might have a similar (albeit

    more primitive) capacity. Two recent studies have shown that chimpanzees and bonobos

    will select tools that can only be used hours later for accessing a favorite food source,

    suggesting that they can plan for the future (Mulcahy & Call, 2006; Osvath & Osvath,

    2008). Cheney and Seyfarth (2007, p. 279) propose that living in fission-fusion

    communities where group members are often separated from each other for hours or days

    may have selected these apes for a limited capacity to envision future encounters with

    other group members. Since most other primates (including nearly all monkeys) live in

    more static communities, it is not surprising that evidence of future planning in them is

    largely lacking. All of this suggests that our hominin ancestors very likely possessed a

    primitive capacity for future planning and possibly building situational models. However,

    as will be discussed later, the full flowering of this capacity most likely did not occur

    until relatively late in hominin evolution when social complexity increased substantially.

    Agency Detection: The Primate Origins of Imagination

    The first step in constructing a situational model is very likely agency detection.

    Agency detection refers to the ability to impute internal mental states, such as goals and

    desires, as causal forces behind action. Thus, when one attributes agency to another, one

    builds a mental model assig