Have we been HADD (with some help from Professor Wentzel van Huyssteen)

I’ve always wanted to be called Wentzel so was glad to be able to attend a lecture titled The Self and Symbolic Behavior: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Evolution of Religion. You can’t go wrong with a title like that and Prof van Huyssteen made no mistakes. I had always thought that the HADD (Hyperactive Agency Detection Device) was a kind of academic joke shared by a small clique who could figure out the acronym but it seems I was wrong. Here before me, in embodied form, was an aging silverhaired Professor from Princeton Theological Seminary taking the concept seriously. But also providing a critical analysis by wishing to include it in a group of terms like ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness and emotional contagion and theory of mind.

The HADD engages a mind game in which one is obliged to construct what it must have felt like hearing something go bump in the night 20,000 years ago. The idea as set out by Justin Barrett is that the HADD evolved as a means of protection in a hostile climate where it was safer to assume the worst – that the bump was a sign of another person, another animal who may provide a threat. This is a conceit which is nevertheless hard to avoid when you start to thing about it and it seems so reasonable as to be agreeable. But I’d draw attention to the term device. What is a device in the context of cognitive science? Are we really supposed to think of a discreet neuroprocessing unit specifically for the over-detection of  agencies.  

This is of course nonsense, not least because it is an illegal move to assume anything about what our 20,000 year old ancestors thought. It seems to me that the HADD is an unnecessary concept because its function can be perfectly well subsumed within the idea of delusion, the attachment of the adjective paranoid may or may not be relevant. This matters because the combined construction of meaning involves an imaginative construction of (shared/communal) reality. I prefer the term lusion to delusion or illusion as it calms the negative connotation and rediscovers the fact that we operate in a world imagined from our understanding (including our understanding of the facts) – notwithstanding the obsession of western metaphysics with establishing the real reality. Obviously a Hindu ‘ontology’ has little difficulty operating with a concept of the unseen but all religions are predicated to some degree (perhaps at a folk level) on there being another reality.

Whatever, my point is that the HADD as a distinct concept interposes a specificity that is unhelpful because it distorts. Instead of discussing meaning acquisition in general terms the HADD focusses on one imaginary scenario. To construct a ‘device’ is to make a differentiation too far because it separates out the encounter with the unknown from the general question of meaning. But maybe I’m just being paranoid.

R x


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