Cognitive Core Systems explaining intuitions behind belief in souls, free will, and creation myths

A book I’m currently reading, Cognitive Pluralism, cites research suggesting that human infants as well as many non-human animals (particularly primates) are born with four “hard-coded” core reasoning systems:

  • A Core Object System which identifies cohesive and continuous objects (as opposed to say liquids or heaps), enables tracking of such objects, and causes us to expect that objects will follow some specific properties: they will preserve their boundaries, move as a unit, interact with one another only through contact, and be set into motion only when acted on through direct contact. Has some signature limitations, such that we can only attend to about 3-4 objects at the same time.
  • A Core Number System which allows for numerical comparisons, such as by saying that a set with thirty stimuli is larger than a set with ten. Unlike the core object system, the core number system is nonmodal and not limited to contiguous objects; it can compare the number of e.g. sounds or actions.
  • A Core Agency System that causes us to intuitively treat humans, animals, and other things exhibiting signs of agency as being different from objects, liquids, or heaps. Things that are classified as agents are expected to exhibit autonomous, goal-directed behavior; and they will activate social behavior, such as when an infant imitates their actions.
  • A Core Geometric System which represents space and environment according to geometric properties such as distance and angle, while ignoring non-geometric properties such as color and smell. Does things such as constructing perspective-invariant representations of geometric layouts, or predicting how objects will appear when turned around or look at from a different perspective.

Now one particularly intriguing hypothesis which the book mentioned was that the intuitive human belief in souls or consciousness continuing after death, may come from the Agent and Object systems having different classification criteria. In particular, objects are assumed to only move when acted upon, while agents are assumed to exhibit independent, goal-directed motion.

Apparently the psychologist Paul Bloom has proposed that seeing or thinking about a human causes us to perceive there being two entities in the same space: a body (object) and a soul (agent). While the book did not explicitly mention this, this would also explain the origin of many intuitions about free will and mind-body dualism. Under this model, the object system would classify the body as something that only moves when being ordered to by an external force, requiring an agent in the form of a mind/soul being the “unmoved mover” that initiates the movement. One could also speculate on this being the intuition that motivated Aristotle’s unmoved movers in the celestial spheres, to say nothing about all the different creation myths, if we have an inborn intuition for movement requiring an agent to set it going.

Also, as a fun implication: if you were to design an AI to have the same core reasoning systems, then it might also have an intuitive belief in free will, souls, and creators.

Further reading: Cognitive Pluralism cites Spelke & Kinzler (2007), Core Knowledge, in Developmental Science 10:1, as well as Paul Bloom’s 2004 book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, which based on its title sounds absolutely fascinating and which I probably want to read soon.


  1. Thanks! Please continue to post summaries of interesting ideas from books. This saves all of us a lot of time

  2. mitchellporter

    Could you remind us what the alternative to souls, free will, and creation is?

    • Kaj Sotala

      Just… them not existing? (not trying to be smug here, genuinely puzzled as to what kind of a response/alternative you might be expecting)

      • I am curious (honestly). With the same logic why don’t you follow the path towards the conclusion of objects not existing? It feels to me that this is because you have your own presuppositions over the nature of reality.

      • Kaj Sotala

        Ah, but notice that I never said I reject the existence of *agents*. I said that I don’t think souls or free will exist (or creators, but that gets complicated by simulation argument stuff so let’s exclude them for now).

        At this point I think it’s useful to ask “what does it even mean if we say that agents or objects exist”?

        When a core knowledge system “assumes the existence of” either objects or agents, that means that the systems have some set of criteria that they use for classifying some perceived pattern as an object or agent. And once something has been classified as such, the core knowledge system will use a specialized set of prediction rules to predict how that entity will behave in the future.

        In other words, a system makes the simplifying assumption that if something looks like an object (or an agent), then its behavior can be predicted using a specialized set of rules that define how an object (or an agent) behaves.

        And one could say that objects (and agents) do exist, in the sense that this assumption – or rule of thumb – is usually correct. It really does let you predict an entity’s behavior more accurately than not – most of the time.

        But what this is, is fundamentally an abstraction (in the software engineering sense): something that hides away underlying complexity and pretends that it’s simple, so that we don’t need to take all that underlying complexity into account and can just use a simplified set of principles for thinking about it. And here we get into the sense in which abstractions aren’t actually real: the simplifying assumptions we make about them don’t always hold.

        A quantum physicist would tell you that objects don’t actually exist, and if you try to hold onto your existing intuitions about there existing discrete, separate objects while you’re doing quantum physics, you will just get confused. The existence of objects, while a useful simplifying assumption if you’re dealing with the macroscale world, is something that you would simply be better off discarding when thinking about the quantum world.

        Similarly, while the existence of agents is a useful assumption in many situations while you’re dealing with humans, there are situations where making that assumption will just lead you astray. If you’re doing neuroscience, for instance, the intuitive assumption of there existing an ontologically basic agent somewhere in the brain is what makes different forms of the homunculus fallacy so ubiquitous.

        Now, getting back to objects, agents, souls, and free will…

        If I’m dealing with the physical world, the existence of objects does continue to be a useful simplifying assumption. When I’m handling my phone or my keys, treating them as consistent objects does help me handle them better.

        Similarly, in a lot of situations when I’m dealing with other people, it pays off to model them as agents: this makes it a lot more easier to navigate the social world.

        But should I also apply the “agent” concept in a way that causes me to hypothesize the existence of say souls, for which I have no other evidence and which doesn’t seem to give me any additional predictive power? I have no need of that hypothesis: assuming souls would just complicate my model for no gain in predictive power. And when I also already have a satisfying answer for why my mind would come up with the soul hypothesis in the first place – that is, that the agent system is applying its working assumptions outside the domain in which they are valid – I can just discard it entirely.

      • Ok, so what you are saying is that objects exist as much as agents (which you equate with the soul) but you do not think there is much of a practical use in the concept of the soul.

        I would argue otherwise. Let’s not assume the soul being something supernatural here. That would not make any sense as everything that exists is natural by default. That would be my view at least. And also let’s agree, as I think we are, that a word (such as agent or object or soul) is an abstraction and not the thing itself. The question then is whether the abstraction describes characteristics that can be verified by experience and be used for our orientation in the world.

        Based on the above the concept of a ‘soul’ is actually very useful and there is an abundance of technical writings (albeit sometimes expressed in religious or mystical language – but you can get over that -) about developing the ‘soul’ in the right manner.

        The ‘soul’ implies something that is inside you and that can be corrupted or refined. It also implies that it is distinguished from intellect and emotion. Let’s look at this two statements in a technical light:

        We know that there can be dissonance between the intellect and emotion. Your thought ‘tells you’ that you should not do something and your emotion indicates that you should do it. Then there is another part of yourself that can observe emotion and intellect from the outside (with practice). You can even practice observing the thing in you that observes emotion and intellect. This movement inwards can be conceptualised as you getting closer to your soul. I am not saying that something magic will happen but I can say from experience that something *useful* will happen.

        Then there is the vast topic of refining the soul. Although you do not think in these terms you are probably acting as if you believe in them as you are a product of a culture based on these kind of principles. The refining of the soul is the science (yes, science) that has produced concepts such as: honesty, generosity, service, love, patience, greed, deception, envy, virtue, vice, good, evil etc.

        Do you find these concepts self evident? If yes you should think about the evolutionary process that allowed them to become self evident.

        I am barely scratching the surface here. The literature here is vast and advanced. And our culture is in great need of understanding it instead of dismissing it as primitive.

      • Kaj Sotala

        When I said that I don’t believe in souls, I meant that I don’t believe in the existence of something supernatural that e.g. exists independently of a physical body or continues its existence after the death of the physical body. You seem to be talking about something entirely different when you use the word “soul”. I don’t dispute that your use of it can probably be a useful concept in many cases. (I would personally use different terminology for talking about the things that you’re talking about, but that’s a question of the kind of language one is used to, rather than a factual disagreement.)

      • Sure, that is why I explained that at the start.

        But we are not saying the same thing *exactly*. There is a subtle conclusion that, if understood, might change your approach to studying these things. The study of the ‘soul’ can be seen as an *applied science* that has been attended to for thousands of years. In the east it is actually some times referred to as ‘the science of man’.

        The reason I am repeating this point is that these studies are more advanced than Western psychology and neuroscience (though the disciplines are complimentary and it is essential for them to be combined). And yes, findings of these traditions have been evolved through and codified for transmission in myths, religion and mystical texts.

        So, let’s take the material seriously (but not believing in them in a fundamentalist sense of course) and *study them* instead of labelling them as superstition.

        Good Luck :)

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