The case of agenticity
Craving the sense of control is human. That you’ve got things covered, or rather – in the perhaps purest form of homo economicus – covered as well as possible.
The true ”rationalist” would, naturally, doubt that a mere human devoid of access to perfect information would ever be truly rational in the truest sense of the word. What I want to get at in this article are three not often discussed human cognitive tendencies that shape the way we human beings process and handle stimuli and information flows.
We have to give credit to the sceptic Michael Shermer (of Scientific American fame) for giving shape to the concept of agenticity, which means that humans as cognitive beings have a tendency to believe that things happening around us by principle must be caused by some responsible agent. It is closely related to the tendencies known as apophenia (to sense patterns in what is actually meaningless randomness, such as hidden messages in records played backwards), pareidolia (to consider vague or random stimulus to be significant, such as noticing face-like features in rocks) and hierophany (to see signs of “divinity” such as in the case of gods in burning bushes).
The tendency of agenticity is the reason behind why up to a third of all transplant patients believe that at least some aspect of the donor’s personality must be “donated” with the organ. The sense of the sun “following you around” is a prime case of agenticity being noticeable even in kids – or let’s put it this way: ever thought of why cartoon suns so often are depicted with a smiling face?
Agenticity as a concept points to the fact that we instinctively tend to try to perceive an actor as responsible for stimuli around us. A rattle in a bush we pass is a case in point, as we’d be put on alert; wary of the as good as identified danger crouched in the very same rattling bush.
Shermer would, using the rattling bush as case in point, point out the obvious origin of agenticity: natural selection. Over the course of evolution individuals more prone to agenticity (such as in the rattling bush situation) would over time turn out to be the ones most likely to survive and procreate, with time giving rise to a growing number of agenticity-prone individuals amongst the total population.
So where does all this “theoreticizing” leave us?
What it makes possible is quite a claim in itself: that the seemingly universal human tendency towards spiritual belief stems from the alluring cocktail that is apophenia, pareidolia and agenticity.
Not to forget, of course, the occasional hierophany-inducing burning bush.