The mind of God

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
February 13, 2011

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Jesse Bering, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Northern Ireland and a blogger for Scientific American, has published an excerpt of his upcoming book, “The Belief Instinct,” in Slate. In the excerpt — “Are You There God? It’s Me, Brain” — Bering argues that belief in God is a near-inevitable result of the way our brains are built. We’ve evolved, he writes, to be “natural psychologists,” and so we see minds everywhere — even where none exist.

Bering’s argument starts from the fact that, as human beings, we’ve inherited incredibly powerful social brains. We intuit one another’s emotions and mental states with incredible speed and accuracy. Evolutionary psychologists say that we have a powerful, built-in “theory of mind,” which we use to guess what’s going on inside one another’s heads. Perhaps, Bering suggests, belief in God is only a kind of “flexing” of our social muscles — an overextension of theory of mind to the universe as a whole. “After all,” he writes, “once we scrub away all the theological bric-a-brac and pluck the exotic cross-cultural plumage of religious beliefs from all over the world, once we get under God’s skin, isn’t He really just another mind — one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps, above all else, intentions?”

Bering’s idea is hardly new — Richard Dawkins, for instance, suggested something similar in a TED talk a few years ago. Color me unconvinced, though. If belief in God is instinctual, then how do atheists overcome that instinct? I don’t believe in God, but I don’t find myself fighting some built-in tendency to personify the universe. If Bering is right, then one would expect very religious people to have overactive theories of mind. But that hardly seems true: Religious people don’t, as a matter of habit, personify inanimate things.

More importantly, Bering misunderstands the value that religion provides. His idea is that all people are religious the way children are religious — that is, in a literal, animist way. Being religious, though, isn’t about having an imaginary friend; it’s about understanding the meaning of life. My guess? It’s the search for meaning, not the search for other minds, that makes religion part of the fabric of human life. Religion, if it’s driven by an instinct, is driven by a meaning instinct. Aristotle wrote that “all men by nature desire to understand.” That’s a desire we all share, atheist and religious alike.

What’s wrong with ”Mad Men” Everybody loves “Mad Men” — except, apparently, Daniel Mendelsohn, a distinguished translator and critic who writes for The New York Review of Books. In a smart and scathing review of the show, Mendelsohn says the unsayable — that “Mad Men” is “a soap-opera decked out in high-end clothes.” And then he asks: If the show is so silly, then why do people love it so much?

Viewers all across America do indeed love their “Mad Men”: The show has won numerous awards and critical plaudits. Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers have launched “Mad Men”-themed clothing lines. Even “Sesame Street” is getting in on the action, with a “Mad Men”-themed segment of its show, in which Muppets try to make ads that make people glad, not mad. And “Mad Men,” Mendelsohn admits, is indeed a great-looking show, stocked with great-looking people.

Nevertheless, he argues, the show’s plot is cheesy, with a soap-like dependence upon “successive personal crises...adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction,” and so on. Its central drama revolves around a “rusty” man-with-a-hidden-past storyline. The acting is wooden, with the stars “acting the atmosphere” and playing “Sixties people,” rather than real human beings. “Mad Men”’s biggest problem, as Mendelsohn sees it, is that it smugly invites viewers to condemn its characters’ values — we’re expected to be appalled at the womanizing, drinking, smoking, and casual racism — while, at the same time, “it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too.” This is “the worst possible offense” a historical drama can commit: While it encourages us to look down on its characters, it teases our own “regressive urges.”

If “Mad Men” is so bad, then why is it so popular? Mendelsohn, who got drawn into it despite himself, thinks it has to do with the show’s point of view. “Mad Men” looks at its world from a “child’s-eye perspective” — from the perspective, for example, of a young boy like Glen, who’s played, incidentally, by the son of the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. The characters are opaque because that’s how parents seem to children; the plot is arbitrary because that’s how adult life looks to the eyes of a child. “The child’s-eye perspective,” Mendelsohn concludes, “is one of the strongest and most original elements of the series as a whole.” It’s the show’s greatest strength, but also the cause of its weakness. “Mad Men” is true to the experience of watching, and not understanding, one’s parents. And that means that the show offers viewers memory, rather than reality — nostalgia, rather than history.

The infinite Mondrian If you love Mondrian’s abstract paintings, but find yourself disappointed by the relatively small number of rectangles available for your perusal in each one, then the “algorithmic artist” Samuel Monnier has your answer: an algorithm which generates infinite, fractal, Mondrian-esque paintings.

Monnier, a theoretical physicist in Switzerland, doesn’t make the paintings by hand. Instead, he writes an algorithm — a set of mathematical instructions — that produces an image; once he sets it in motion, the algorithm produces the images on its own. The result, in this case, looks like a Mondrian-themed city map. There are several interconnected rectangles, each filled, in turn, with many smaller rectangles, and so on, to infinity; the image uses Mondrian’s colors, and even has a similar sense of balance and proportion.

Mondrian’s and Monnier’s methods may make similar images, but they are, of course, very different. An abstract artist is one who does something unusual: Instead of seeing the world in terms of objects, he sees it in terms of patterns. It’s hard to learn this new way of seeing. Mondrian’s abstraction was, as he saw it, the outcome of an arduous effort to get to the bottom of aesthetic experience, and to express a “pure” emotion. “The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object,” he explained. “Therefore the object must be eliminated from the picture.”

Monnier’s algorithms, of course, don’t struggle to uncover the abstract beauty hiding behind the world of everyday objects. They’ve never known the real world — they’re just algorithms. Maybe it’s a 21st-century kind of abstraction, rather than a Modernist one: Where Mondrian proposed a spiritual quest to see the world in a new way, Monnier expresses the aloof, automated abstraction of The Matrix.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.