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Suppose you were using a telescope and zooming into Jupiter on the surface and saw a rock that had a face that looked very very much like your great grand mother. Suppose that it was very detailed to the point where it looked about 99% similar to her face (not something vague like the man on the moon picture you can find on the internet). After a few days, you look at Jupiter again and now notice the top of another mountainous region that looked 99% similar to your great grandfather!

Suppose now that there was no evidence that any human could have sculpted it, after all no one has been to Jupiter, much less been there to try to sculpt a rock that looks like your great grand mother.

Let’s now make one further crucial assumption. Imagine as if you could somehow know that this occurred purely from natural laws. What I mean by this is assume that you knew that no physical person or alien could have literally sculpted it. It occurred through completely natural processes

Now imagine these two candidate explanations.

A) the initial conditions and laws of the universe just happened to be set up in a way to create faces on Jupiter resembling your great grand parents almost exactly

B) God or some super powerful being outside of space and time did this on purpose

I think, or I suspect, that no matter how much you tried to rationalize for A, you would never actually prefer it and prefer B, especially with enough details in the face, Or atleast most people would. And if you would still prefer A) just keep imagining more and more detail to these faces. There must be some level of detail to the faces at which point you would be hard pressed to still prefer A).

Now, notice that technically, B) is superfluous. In B), because the faces occurred through natural processes, the initial conditions were still set up in such a way to produce the faces that they did. Except that they were set by God. And yet still, A) seems like an explanation that wouldn’t sit right.

I suspect this is because we can imagine many different ways the rock would have formed by nature but not many different ways the rock would have formed if there was a God or some trickster being interested in sending down a playful sign with regards to our grandparents

I suspect this is also because B) gives us a reason for why the faces occurred that A) doesn’t. But it gives us one more reason. It doesn’t give us a reason for why that God exists and why He would want to do that in the first place. And yet it still seems instinctively preferable.

What I also find interesting is that A) technically does give us a reason: the reason being that the conditions were set up in a way to result in the faces. And yet, this kind of reason doesn’t seem as satisfying as the kind of reason that involves personal intentions.

Is this because of psychology or this because of a valid philosophical instinct? In this sense, are agent explanations “better” in some sense than non agent ones?

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    Or C) your perceptual system is malfunctioning. See: Canals on Mars
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 11 at 15:13
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    Appended with philosophy of mind and other tags. Feel free to roll back. More of a philosophy of mind topic, since philosophy of design isn't about intelligent design so much as how people design and make things.
    – J D
    Apr 11 at 15:34
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    Hi Stella. You could improve your question by adding some tags, such as Theology, Philosophy of Religion, God, Theorites of God, Existence of God. Tags are helpful to other users of Philosophy.SE. Also, might want to consider using the moon instead of Jupiter. Jupiter is a gas giant. Has no mountains. Apr 11 at 15:38
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    @JD Well that made my comment rather redundant. lol. Apr 11 at 15:41
  • @AlistairRiddoch Haha. My bad.
    – J D
    Apr 11 at 15:42

5 Answers 5

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@Marco hit the nail on the head with where current science of human cognition is concerned.

There is a well studied and verified "agency bias" in humans. That this exists is quite well documented. What remains unexplained is why we have that bias. This review paper gives a nice summary, but basically it posits the evolution of the "social brain" -- by assuming agency and looking for agent-based-causes it is conjectured to have helped our ancestors avoid danger and navigate social contexts better.

The origin of the category “intentional agent” and the tendency of infants, children and even adults to employ it ubiquitously is often explained in turn by appeal to the “social brain hypothesis” that human cognitive architecture is an evolutionary adaptation to a selective environment in which competing individuals were and still are forced to cooperate within cohesive social groups.

The over-application of agentive explanations outside the social sphere is an unsurprising consequence of the tendency of selective pressures to favor false positives from risk detectors over false negatives.

Fields C. Motion, identity and the bias toward agency. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Aug 21;8:597. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00597. PMID: 25191245; PMCID: PMC4140166.

Per the above, it is sensible mathematically to prefer false positives (analogous to Pascal's Wager):

  1. No agency bias --> higher probability of false negative agency attribution and subsequent potentially lethal outcome.
  2. Agency bias --> lower probability of false negative agency attribution, but increased false positives. Expected cost to individual is mostly wasted energy or false theory of causation for that event -- death is unlikely due to false positive.

Note that there is some controversy about this as spending time figuring out "what agent" could lead to slower reaction time.

Now, whether this is actually the case is still debatable. It is another example of a plausible but unverified "just so" story that we get from evolutionary explanations: it's an interesting and plausible hypothesis, but not a corroborated explanation. The authors of the above paper offer some experiments to test this theory.


It is important to separate the existence of this bias (empirically demonstrated) to the reason for its existence. Ironically, the explanation of this is itself a potential example.

Either:

  1. It evolved as a result of selective pressure (naturalistic explanation)
  2. It was put there by God so we properly infer his existence intuitively (agent-based explanation)

I guess a third would be "God set up the world so that we would evolve agency bias to properly infer his existence." However, since we don't need to appeal to god to make evolution work, I'll leave this to the side. We can't know if the way the evolution worked out was somehow guided -- it seems consistent with a theory relying on unguided random variation in the presence of natural selective pressure.

Of course, this is a very sensitive topic because it has significant implications for religious belief.

You can see this struggle to overcome agency bias even in the most stalwart philosophers. Dr. Graham Oppy is especially good at bringing this out in his discussions with apologists. I'm not saying he's right or wrong, but just that the "bedrock emotion" driving the apologist responses is exactly this sense that agency allows more satisfying/non-coincidental explanations:

Oppy and Loke on Kalaam Soundness

Oppy and Craig on Mathematics and God

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    Your last point nails the head and might also come from an agency bias when you classify it as a non coincidental explanation. The agent itself along with whatever it determines is itself a coincidence or should be classified as one. I think this is what people might miss I don’t know Apr 11 at 16:38
  • @Stella -- correct. the usual way out is to presume libertarian/agent-causation makes it contingent without requiring "fantastic luck", but it is not clear that there is a coherent view of agent causation that doesn't devolve into randomness. Also, even if we grant freedom, then if the agent really had a free choice, then we are back at brute contingency.
    – Annika
    Apr 11 at 16:47
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Neither of your candidate explanations is quite correct as they both seem to assume a divine designer.

A seems to assume a deterministic universe where everything was designed in the beginning of time by an unknown entity. A better explanation would be that the evolution of the Universe just happened by coincidence to create spitting images of your relatives.

B unnecessarily assumes a god or another supernatural being, when a natural extraterrestrial being with powerful technology would be sufficient.

The real question is whether a deliberate design is a more plausible explanation than a random coincidence. This is in fact the same question that detectives are asking at a death scene: Was it an intentional crime or an unintentional accident?

In your example both explanations seem extremely improbable, but even improbable things do sometimes happen. I would say that a deliberate design is more plausible, as it is technically possible to build giant portraits in the outer atmosphere of Jupiter. An artist with motivation and sufficient technology is more plausible than a random coincidence.

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  • The whole point is that you have to assume it’s not possible for a human/alien to have done it Apr 11 at 12:18
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    @Stella Why would I have to assume that? Apr 11 at 12:37
  • Because that’s the point of the example Apr 11 at 13:04
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    @Stella What's the point of eliminating the most probable explanation beforehand? What's the point of having both explanations imply a divine designer? Apr 11 at 13:11
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    @Stella Only a divine being can design the initial (and all subsequent) conditions of a deterministic universe. That is why I suggested a regular universe that evolves, does not need a designer. Apr 11 at 14:17
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You ask:

Are agent explanations better than non agent explanations?

and

Is this because of psychology or this because of a valid philosophical instinct? In this sense, are agent explanations “better” in some sense than non agent ones?

From an evolutionary and therefore survival standpoint, absolutely. It's usually conveyed this way. From a survival standpoint, it is better to think the rustle in the bush is a lion and not a breeze and be wrong, then to think it is a breeze when it is a lion and be wrong. One gets you eaten! This idea that we quickly fall into interpreting complex events, ones that are potentially life threatening, comes from evolutionary psychology which is philosophical if one naturalizes one's epistemology (SEP). Today, the phrase (hyperactive) agency detection is often used to describe this. The famous philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this in his book of the same name the intentional stance. The WP article quotes Dennett from his book:

Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do. — Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance

This notion of the intentional stance has lots of empirical support. Consider when you see a face instead of the front end of a car. This is known as pareidolia. It's part of a broader spectrum of phenomena of cognitive biases and instances of apophenia. We, as human beings, are wired to actively structure our senses into types of experiences, a fact that became a major philosophical issue when the logical positivists tried to argue that observations were objective experiences. They ran into theory ladenness of observation, or the idea that what we perceive is colored by who we are and what we already believe. Wilfred Sellers (IEP) and others have put forth strong arguments that our spontaneous experience is in many ways normed before we become consciously aware, something he addresses with his Myth of the Given.

This then spills over into philosophy of religion, because it forms the basis of the idea that God or gods or supernatural beings as well as the religions that organize around them may be by-products of evolution, psychological spandrels of the mind. There is, in the philosophy, the "standard model" of the By-Product Thesis, that is of active philosophical interest. For instance, consider the article Religion as an Evolutionary Byproduct: A Critique of the Standard Model (UoC Press Journals). If you set aside the technical details of the debate, what you have is the fundamental idea that perceiving the universe as being managed or controlled by an agent allows people to socialize in a specific way with many benefits. Even regular prayer to God, for believers, improves health outcomes. Not to mention how religions tend to encourage in-group support.

So, yes, from an evolutionary standpoint, modeling phenomena with agency where none literally exists has a number of biological, psychological and sociological advantages. That such a thinking might not be as accurate as scientific theories is of little relevance if the benefits are many. Ultimately, a lot of psychological research focuses around this intersection of agency, belief, and outcomes, and forms the basis for debate within the philosophy of mind.

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I think your question is interesting even when put in a general sense, namely why do humans tend to find certain explanations more plausible than others when the explanations are of necessity very speculative? I suspect that the most promising direction of thought when looking for an answer is to consider the fact that human minds are a product of evolution, and therefore it is possible that the mental traits we possess today are those that maximised our chances of reproduction in less favourable circumstances. It would have been important for early humans, when faced with sensory inputs, to maximise the useful information to be gained from them. A human that saw a particular concentration of buffalo footprints, say, and concluded that a large herd had passed that way, might have had more chance of survival than a human who considered the evidence to be some random coincidence of footprints from isolated buffalos. Writing off the human likenesses on the surface of Jupiter as random events would rule out the opportunity of reaching more helpful conclusions, and it could be that primitive wiring in our brains makes us reluctant to do that.Perhaps we are programmed to look for more satisfying explanations because that tendency has helped us to survive in the past.

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This question has a variety of flawed assumptions.

First, it should not have been set on Jupiter. We cannot see the surface of Jupiter. Mars, or some moon, would have been a much better setting.

Second, neither of the two answers proposed is credible.

Option A is Superdeterminism, which delivers a planned universe for -- no reason at all, but just due to some hidden conspiracy set at the start of everything. Superdeterminism is an effort to rename a Great Deceiver hypothesis, without a deceiver involved, just chance.

Option B is agency postulation, but without any motives identified for the agent. This is not how design or agency hypotheses are used, as JD's excellent answer points out. One must postulate the intentions and purposes of an agent, which are not part of B.

There are two much more credible options which are not excluded, other than by decree by the OP.

Option C, there are undetected aliens who sculpted the two mountains, appear to be interested in communication with humanity, and for some TBD reason chose to use the OP's dead relatives to do this communication.

Option D, there is some manipulative powerful entity or cabal focused on the OP, and controlling his/her/their experience of a supposedly real world (See The Truman Show, or The Matrix for examples), and either the cabal is revealing this, or someone else has broken the shell of deception. The OP's option B would make far more sense in this sort of option D context, where the deceiver is a deity.

There may be other options that I have not yet identified.

As to whether agent explanations are more satisfying -- your question preclude any other kinds of explanations. And so long as humans ask "why" about our world, they will pursue the infinite series leg of Munchausen's Trilemma. Abandoning that leg, is to abandon science and naturalism. And if agent explanations push us one more explanation down that infinite series, they will be superior to NO explanation.

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