8 min read

Valerie van Mulukom: "There is a point where the imaginary becomes real"

Valerie van Mulukom: "There is a point where the imaginary becomes real"
Photo by Sonika Agarwal / Unsplash

Critical thinking is ultimately about belief formation. It requires you to develop habits, skills and attitudes that comply with norms for good reasoning, where good reasoning is defined as the type of thinking that is most likely to generate justified, true beliefs. Or, for those who find talk of truth too grandiose – accurate predictions.

Yet beliefs are tricky things. It is quite easy for us to profess our beliefs or to empathize with those of others, but that should not trick us into thinking it is obvious what beliefs are or that all beliefs are cut from the same cloth. Is your belief about the current location of your keys of the same kind as your beliefs about the ideal political configuration? Would you always act as if your beliefs are true? Did you arrive at your beliefs rationally? Is all your knowledge also belief?

These questions range from the philosophical to the psychological and they are all important if we want to find ways to boost critical thinking. To learn more about beliefs I spoke with Valerie van Mulukom, a cognitive scientist from Coventry University who specializes in religious belief, worldviews and imagination. Why are there religious beliefs, if there seems to be so little ground to have them?

"We are the odd ones out," she says with a big grin. "I am a big fan of Joseph Henrich, I should say, and I think our culture is the weird one, with our fascination with empirical evidence and truth. Our worldview dictates that we should follow the science, but humans do not actually work that way. We interact with each other and we make decisions on the basis of how we think we should relate to each other."

Van Mulukom draws on the work of the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson to make sense of human beliefs. Wilson argued that to understand human worldviews, we should distinguish between factual realism and practical realism. Factual realism is the empirically supported, logically sound description of the world that is coveted by science, while practical realism is a view of the world that may be wrong, but that is useful to achieve particular goals. A belief can exist for either (or both) purposes.

"David Sloan Wilson mentions the example of inhabitants of the Puluwat Atoll in Micronesia, who believe that the islands in their area can move around," says van Mulukom. "The tribe has built a navigation system around this belief which works. It is practical for them to hold the belief, although it is factually wrong. I think that evolutionarily, this type of belief is much more important than factual realism."

Indeed, van Mulukom thinks that for religious beliefs, discussions about their factual dimensions miss the point. The beliefs hold value because they are practically realistic, even if it may not always be obvious what the practical purpose is.

"When scientists talk about religion, they are often talking about the Abrahamic faiths that developed in larger societies," van Mulukom continues. "There is a recent paper that suggests that in larger societies religious beliefs mostly explain social phenomena, while in smaller societies the religions explain natural phenomena. Perhaps in smaller societies, people want to explain the facts around them, while people in larger societies are more interested in how they relate to each other."

This idea fits with van Mulukom's own work, which showed how religious services can boost social bonding and align moral convictions. Specific religious beliefs are perhaps instrumental to social cohesion, which does not mean that they are not truly held, but rather that their factual dimension is hardly a concern for believers.

Van Mulukom draws a comparison with conspiracy beliefs. "It is fairly well established that for conspiracy believers, it is often not that important whether their theories are true or not. They want to show they are not sheeple and that they are part of a group that deserves more respect and opportunities. Conspiracy beliefs are supposed to help people meet psychological needs, such as the need for control. However, conspiracy beliefs are not successful at that. They are associated with lower psychological well-being, which means that as practical realism, well, the beliefs are just not very practical!"

Can such beliefs still be addressed on a factual basis, though? Would increased critical thinking do anything, if the believer has purposes different from establishing the classical 'justified true beliefs'?

"Conspiracy beliefs have real-world consequences, which means we should address them at a factual level to some extent," van Mulukom argues. "For example, when people do not socially distance or wear masks during a pandemic, that has real health consequences. But if you look at interventions on conspiracy beliefs, you see that many psychologists only focus on the factual level, arguing that once you see an irrational belief, you need to teach people to think better or show them the facts. I don't think this is enough, I think we are treating conspiracy beliefs the wrong way. My intuition is that conspiracy beliefs have a lot to do with marking social identity and legitimizing a perceived threat."

So how to deal with them? "I am not sure what is needed for an unverifiable belief to still persist. Perhaps it is just its net effect – religious beliefs have been shown to increase cooperation. I have argued that conspiracy beliefs are somewhere in the middle of a continuum, combining both epistemic and social purposes for believing. The theories are about threats in the actual world and that makes them different from something like a belief in the afterlife. A conspiracy believer might decide to retaliate against the perceived threat, as we have seen with the Pizzagate shooting or the destruction of 5G masts early in the covid-19 pandemic. Yet it is also not clear whether most conspiracy believers really believe the theories or just spread them."

A key thing that conspiracy beliefs and religious beliefs share is that they are dependent on imagination. "Imagination is the ability to simulate something that is not currently presented to the senses," explains van Mulukom. "The overlap between religion and imagination is that both concern thinking about things that are beyond the here and now. In religion, this may be expressed through the experience of God.

"I am fascinated by the idea that there is a point where the imaginary becomes real. I don't make any claims about the existence of God when I say that, I am just interested in what needs to happen in your mind and body to have a sensation like that. A similar thing happens in fiction, where we can experience a film as being real. An interesting thing is that there's a trait, called absorption, which seems to predict immersion in both religious experience and fiction.

"Some religious beliefs clearly depend on our capacity for imagination. Realizing someone is dead is one thing, but then considering that there might be something else going on after that, that requires imagination. Similarly, we cannot empirically verify God to be in the here and now, so thinking about that concept requires imagination.

"This ties in with a larger question, whether religious belief is evolutionarily adaptive or a by-product of something else. It is hard to see how an unverifiable belief in something supernatural could have an adaptive function, but I think the evidence points towards religious beliefs supporting social bonding. If you go back to the basics, we have the capacity to remember and think into the future, which depend on similar mechanisms in the brain. It would be functional to be able to do counterfactual thinking, to simulate trial and error when you are hunting or something like that. And once that ability is in place, all sorts of ideas can appear.

"I don't think a religious brain evolved and was then used for other types of imaginative thinking. I would say that religious beliefs are a cultural phenomenon that arises from evolved cognitive capacities. Because religion is so sacred for some of us, we treat is as something very particular, but you can also look at it as another cultural phenomenon that is persistent and influential, like music or art generally."

Indeed, beliefs similar to those found in religion can appear in secular communities. In a series of experiments, van Mulukom and colleagues investigated the emotional responses to metal music among members of the metal community. In addition, the researchers looked at whether specific metal music artefacts were considered to be sacred by the fans and how the fans would respond to (hypothetical) defilement of the artefacts.

"There are all these different aspects about religion, such as sacredness and rituals and we were considering whether the mechanisms we have identified for religion are specific to it. And now, if we use methods from the cognitive science of religion, we find that members from the metal music community can find specific objects sacred, such as photographs or guitar picks and that violating the objections is considered sacriligious. So it could be the case that religion has just used these mechanisms really well, which have sacredness to it, but also involve social aspect and make people bond, cooperate and survive.

"There is something special about religion, though, as it consistently outperforms secular equivalents. Secular communes consistently do worse than religious communes. And it might actually be the unverifiable, supernatural component that makes a big difference. We did a study where had people do secular and spiritual yoga and compared the two and we found people bonded more strongly after a ritual if they felt connected to something bigger than themselves during the ritual. Both in the secular and spiritual condition. You can call this self-transcendence. And this experience, it helps the efficacy of the ritual."

Promoting the bonding between people is likely to also influence their belief formation, as reasoning is a socially situated phenomenon. What religions seems especially good at, then, is creating a context in which beliefs can be reproduced.

"What's hard to understand about religious belief is that a belief can simultaneously exist to explain something about the world and also has a social function," says van Mulukom. This multi-purpose view beliefs is at odds with the more simple tale that says people have either an accuracy motive, or some other goal.

And this simpler view may also have led to a misconception, prevalent in western culture, including in academia. "There's a broad view that religious belief is intuitive as opposed to analytical. However, to me this does not seem to be true. We have studied analytical versus intuitive thinking in religious people and found that religious people are not necessarily low in analytical thinking. Especially if we are talking about Abrahamic faiths, there are complex theological arguments on why to believe certain things and not others.

"These traditions are very much examples of reflective thinking ."

If you'd like to receive interviews like these in your inbox (and you are not already receiving them), you can subscribe to The Reasoning Report for free! This also gives you the ability to share your factual, practical or in-between beliefs in the comment sections of Connecting Cells.

Want to read the scholarly work by Valerie van Mulukom? The following are articles that touch on the topics discussed in the interview.

  • Charles, S. J., van Mulukom, V., Saraswati, A., Watts, F., Dunbar, R. I. M., Farias, M. (2022). Bending and Bonding: A randomized controlled trial on the socio-psychobiological effects of spiritual versus secular yoga practice on social bonding. Current Psychology.
  • Messick, K.J., Jong, J., van Mulukom, V. & Farias, M. (in press). The Nontheistic Sacred: The Psychological Functions of Metal Music and Artefacts. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.
  • van Mulukom, V.(2019). The Cognitive Science of Imagination and Religion. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion 5(1), 5-20.
  • van Mulukom, V. Pummerer, L., Alper, S., Bai, M. H., Čavojová, V., Farias, J. E. M., Kay, C. S., Lazarevic, L., Lobato, E. J. C., Marinthe, G., Pavela Banai, I., Šrol, J. & Žeželj, I. (2022). Antecedents and consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs: a systematic review. Social Science & Medicine 301, 114912