Dan Sperber – Apparently Irrational Practices


Event Date: 28 March 2013
Room B36
Birkbeck Main Building
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX

The Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck presents:

Mind & Language Conference at Birkbeck College

The Cognitive Science of Religion


Professor Dan Sperber (Institut Jean Nicod, Paris) – Apparently Irrational Practices
Chair: Samuel Guttenplan (Birkbeck)

People — and children in particular — don’t accept assertions or instructions blindly; they exercise some degree of epistemic vigilance. This vigilance can be directed at the source of the information: how competent and benevolent and hence trustworthy is the source of information? It can also be directed at the content: how consistent and coherent with what the individual already knows is that information? When a content is partly opaque — as is typically the case for instance when children or adults acquire new competencies — then vigilance towards the content is ineffective and vigilance towards the source becomes determinant on its own. Opaque contents from a trusted source are, somewhat paradoxically, more likely to be accepted and to spread than contents more open to evaluation. Earlier work on apparently irrational beliefs had shown how this help explain their propagation. The talk extends this line of explanation to the case of cultural and in particular religious practices, drawing on experimental work by developmental psychologists Gergely Csibra and Gyorgy Gergely (who have demonstrated that children imitate more readily an opaque action ostensively demonstrated to them by a trustworthy source), and on forthcoming work of anthropologist Radu Umbres on imitation in cargo cults.


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