The HPedia: Counterintuitive

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A key concept in the Cognitive Science of Religion is counterintuitiveness.  It refers to ideas that run contrary to the human brain’s innate or intuitive ways of thinking, based on models of mental modularity.

Pascal Boyer‘s research shows that counterintuitive ideas are memorable, so they are more likely to be passed on.  For example, a burning bush that speaks is counterintuitive (trees don’t speak, people do; things on fire burn up).  Such an idea is more likely to be remarked upon, making it a highly adaptive meme.

The degree of counterintuitiveness is important, however.  Modestly counterintuitive ideas are more memorable, but radically counterintuitive ideas are extremely difficult to remember.  The cognitive optimum, balancing counterintuitiveness and memorability, generally involves only one or at most two violations of intuitive categories.

Robert McCauley suggests that popular religion relies on modestly counterintuitive ideas, while theology and science are radically counterintuitive.  This explains why it takes arduous effort and training to grasp the latter two, while the former is grasped easily by all cultures and even by small children.

Violations of natural categories can be breaches or transfers.  A breach involves an object that does what it shouldn’t be able to do, such as a person who can see through walls.  A transfer consists of an object that absorbs the attributes of another category, such as a volcano that can think, desire, and become angry like a person.  Popular religious ideas frequently involve such transfers of agency to objects or aspects of the natural environment.

See also “Modularity of Mind” and “Agency.”

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