Is that really Jesus on your toast, or was the toast just contoured in a way that the burning pattern was such. Did the spirit of a dead relative really just shut off the lights in my room, or was there an electrical short. Most rational people generally understand that their brains play tricks on them and that these tricks are the root of all ghost stories or UFO sightings. Yet, time and time again, seemingly rational people tell tales of supernatural experiences. Why does this happen?
The speaker here, Michael Shermer, theorizes that all of the super natural occurrences that humans believe they encounter, or feel, or see, are all products of our innate internal process of seeing patterns and assigning agency to everything. We look for patterns in everything, and we want there to be meaning behind things, even where there isn’t.
Shermer believes it is evolutionarily engrained in us to believe weird things, that we are hard wired to assign meaning and see patterns in things that are totally meaningless. Consider this situation: There is a pre-human hominid roaming the plains of Africa. He hears a rustle in the bushes. He can either assume that its probably just the wind, or, he can think it could be a predator and run. Now, most of time, it’s probably just the wind. To the guy who ran, no harm no foul, all he did was expend a little extra energy. To the guy who stays, he will live 9 out of 10 times, but that 10th time it is a lion, and he dies. Thus, natural selection begins to weed out the people who act as though that rustle in bushes is just the wind. This, over time, has made humans biologically inclined to find meaning in meaningless things and to believe that there is agency behind what are probably just random occurrences. There’s a dark figure in my closet! Couldn’t just be the shadows of my clothes, must be a ghost! There’s lights in the sky! Couldn’t just be two planes flying close to each other, must be a UFO!
Personally, I find it very interesting to take a step a back from the weird things that people do and try to understand why they do them. This idea of assigning meaning to meaningless things has applications that extend way beyond just paranormal experiences or UFO sightings. Think of conspiracy theories. If you break down all the footage of the 9/11 attacks, and run through all of the events of the day maybe you can find something that looks a little off or doesn’t add up. But, instead of thinking that the explanation for it could be something simple that you haven’t considered, you immediately assign extra meaning to it and connect what is probably a meaningless occurrence to a massive government conspiracy. Go another step. Think about religion. You pray 100 times. One day after you pray, whatever it is you ask for, happens. Instead of just thinking about the rational explanation for why this event occurs, you immediately jump to the conclusion that it was your prayer that caused this event. You are assigning agency to this event, it was God who did it, not just the natural course of life.
Believing in this stuff is infatuating. There is a part of everyone that desires to believe in the extraordinary, but, there just isn’t any real evidence to support it. And until there is, Shermer explanation is the best for why people believe these weird things.