Domains of Supernatural Agents’ Knowledge and Concern

Benjamin G. Purzycki

Benjamin G. Purzycki

While some supernatural agents know everything we do and think, others are not concerned with such matters, and their knowledge is limited. We can test each others’ knowledge about particular domains, but we have no concrete evidence regarding the minds of supernatural agents, let alone what types of knowledge they possess.

We find, however, that there are patterns in the mental contents attributed to deities. Some have argued that throughout history people have committed themselves to “the gods”, rather than countless other supernatural beings (e.g., cartoon characters, leprechauns, goblins, etc.) precisely because the gods are accredited with access to valuable social information (Atran 2002; Boyer 2001).

Recent evolutionary theories of religion claim that supernatural agents that evoke religious commitment and devotion are particularly concerned with certain types of social knowledge. This knowledge primarily consists of breaches of prosocial responsibilities (i.e., moral behaviour). As such, commitment to supernatural agents may function to inhibit self-interested behaviour, and thus, in turn, contribute to the evolution and persistence of human cooperation (Bering & Johnson 2005; Johnson 2005; Norenzayan & Shariff 2008).

Populations differ both in the sets of values they maintain and in the importance they attribute to different types of prosocial behaviour, and we would thus expect the concerns of supernatural agents to vary accordingly. What the gods know is an interesting question, but what the gods are concerned with is something that is more likely to motivate us to act in socially prescribed ways.

The Abrahamic God might not like it if you steal, for instance, but if you live in a small community where little value is held on the accumulation of personal property, then your deity may be more concerned with stinginess.

Boyer (2002, p. 75) argues that it is the perceived access of supernatural agents to socially relevant (i.e., socially strategic) information which makes them salient in our minds. Boyer makes a distinction between agents with “perfect” and “imperfect” access to such information. While there is cross-cultural variability, Boyer suggests that supernatural agents are typically granted “perfect access” to socially strategic information — a very specific domain of all conceivable knowledge. A number of studies have examined the distinctions between what people are supposed to attribute to God, known as theological correctness, and how people actually think about God. Whereas people say that God is omniscient and omnipotent when asked about this explicitly, more subtle measures of how people think about God’s powers show that people tend to implicitly attribute certain human limitations to God, such as the inability to be in two places at once (Barrett 1998; Barrett & Keil 1996).

In a response time task, we (Purzycki et al., n.d.) found that individuals took a significantly longer time to respond to questions regarding God’s knowledge of positive, prosocial behaviour than those regarding negative, antisocial behaviour. Moreover, socially insignificant knowledge (e.g., whether God knows how many pickles there are in Seth’s refrigerator?) yielded even longer response times. Despite God’s proclaimed omniscience, we seem to process God’s knowledge about negative social information more quickly than other knowledge we attribute to God.

Not all supernatural agents, however, are concerned with the general moral behaviour of people. For example, when religious traditions are bound to local ecologies, there is a greater stress on sacralizing particular areas which require resource management (e.g., Lansing 2007; Lansing & Kremer 1993) and defence (Sosis, in press). Such agents are acutely concerned with specific behaviours directed towards them in the form of costly rituals. This suggests that there may be no pan-human cognitive bias for supernatural agents concerned about prosocial behaviour.

We find significant variation across populations regarding the way people represent their deities’ knowledge and concern. Barrett (2002) discusses a number of predictions regarding the relationship between the knowledge and ritual behaviour of supernatural agents. If spirits, for example, have imperfect access to human affairs and “can only discern intentions based on a person’s actions, then the particular action will have relatively greater importance” than a person’s intentions (Barrett 2002, p. 104).

On the other hand, “having the right intentions” will be more important during ritual performances directed toward omniscient gods. We suggest that cross-culturally, omniscient supernatural agents will be primarily concerned with general moral behaviour, whereas supernatural agents who are limited in their social knowledge of human affairs will be conceived of as acutely concerned with the performance of ritualised acts that are costly to perform. In short, what spirits and gods know may not be nearly as important for religion as what they care about.

For instance, in the highly complex traditional Lakota (Sioux) religion, if one dreamt of the Wakinyan (lightning/Thunderbirds/beings) or one of its associates (e.g., rabbits, barn swallows, etc.), one had been chosen by the Thunderbeings to become a heyoka — or sacred clown (see Plant 1994; Wallis 1996 for further discussion).

Thomas Tyon noted that “the Wakinyan often command the man who dreams of them to do certain things” which are typically quite embarrassing for the initiate. If they fail to do whatever they are instructed to by the Thunderbirds, “Wakinyan will surely kill them” by a lightning strike (Walker 1991, pp. 155–156).

In sum, the Thunderbirds will present the dreamer with an embarrassing scenario that he or she must act out in public — in some cases, it is claimed that the conditions and people in the dream are also revealed, making the act quite specific. In this particular case, the supernatural agents — the Thunderbirds — are primarily concerned with whether or not the “chosen” individual carries out the act as detailed in the dream, and lives as a clown until his or her tenure is completed.

Individuals fulfil the wishes of the Thunderbeing to avoid reprisals from them. In this case, specific concentrations of the Sioux supernatural force Wakan Tanka (discussed above) are beings accredited with acute concerns and knowledge of the ritual behaviours of those “chosen” to be clowns.

In Tuva, local “spirit masters” of specific areas are also not accredited with concern for general human conduct. Rather, they are exclusively concerned with human conduct towards them. They are neither concerned with, nor do they punish people for antisocial behaviour towards one another, or even for leaving garbage around a sacred site. Although there is no obligation to do so, one pays respects to (i.e., “feeds”) spirit masters by making offerings of food, money, and/or tobacco, as well as by tying a prayer tie to the place where they are honoured.

Interestingly, there appears to be no consensus regarding the breadth of knowledge of these spirits. Most suggest that spirit masters only know what happens in their areas of governance, and few claim that they are omniscient.

However, there is virtual unanimity when it comes to the question of what spirits care about. After a barrage of questions regarding the moral concerns of spirit masters, one rather exasperated informant told Purzycki (in press b): “They do not care about litter, they do not care about how you behave, outside of paying attention to them and ‘feeding’ them, otherwise they get angry.” This suggests that there is not necessarily an evolved, cognitive bias toward representing supernatural agents as morally concerned minds, but rather a necessary flexibility in the domains of knowledge and concern accredited to deities. We also expect these attributed domains of knowledge to correlate with the particular types of behaviour prescribed ritually.

In both the Sioux and Tuvan cases, we see the attribution of agency to vague and often inconsistently conceived bodies. A Thunderbeing is often described as “shapeless, but He has wings with four joints each; He has no feet, yet He has huge talons; He has no head, yet has a huge beak with rows of teeth in it” (Walker 1917, cited in Brown 1989 [1953]).

The spirit masters in Tuva will frequently manifest themselves in various physical forms, but they are often described as “taking the form of X” rather than being perpetually material. The Abrahamic God is often conceived of as being everywhere but is attributed a body, not only in present-day thinking (Barrett & Keil 1996), but in sacred scriptures as well.

Conceptualisations of these supernatural agents are particular to their respective traditions. Each tradition, however, delimits the range of worldly affairs that these entities are particularly concerned about. Such specific domains of concern are not essential components of our basic ontological categories, and nor can they be produced by innate modules.

When we entertain the concept of God, the Thunderbeings, or spirit masters, our mind reading system allows us to attribute a mind to these entities. God concepts and the anthropomorphic spirit masters may violate default expectations about people, and the Thunderbirds and animal spirit masters may violate default expectations about animals.

Experimental studies suggest that these violations make such concepts easier to remember than intuitive ideas (Boyer 2000; Boyer & Ramble 2001). However, these supernatural agents vary considerably in their forms, concerns, and abilities. This variance represents differences in our cognitive models or schemas of our particular deities (for further discussion of the distinction between templates and schemas in the context of understanding religious concepts, see Barrett 2008; Purzycki in press a; Purzycki & Sosis 2010). So where and why do we find these divergences between what supernatural agents care about?

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