From Mixing Memory, a report of a recent study about the belief in autonomous technology:
The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness. Epley et al. note that, for example, that people outside of committed relationships are more likely to have personal relationships with god, that “insecure and anxious attachments to others” are associated with stronger religious beliefs, and that the death of loved ones can increase the strength of religious beliefs. That religion serves a loneliness-reducing function seems a reasonable hypothesis, then.
In their first study testing this hypothesis, Epley et al. gave participants descriptions of four “technological gadgets,” and then asked them to rate the gadgets on five anthropomorphic dimensions (whether the gadget “had ‘a mind of its own,’ had ‘intentions,’ had ‘free will,’ had ‘consciousness,’ and ‘experienced emotions,’ p. 115) and three non-anthropomorphic dimensions (“attractive, efficient, and strong”). Then participants then completed a loneliness scale with questions like, “How often do you feel isolated from others?”
Well, I guess the subject of the inquiry was actually “religious thinking,” that is, the attribution of agency to inanimate objects or animals.
First, I note that the shamanistic or paganistic models of religious thinking are typically the only way that post-Enlightenment scientists are able to think about non-positivistic psychology. This is because they are stuck in the paradigm described by Spinoza, in which any phenomena beyond human comprehension still necessarily originate within nature. While sneering at the primitive superstitions of the babbling, subhuman religious nuts, these scientists blindly run in circles in their little pantheistic paradigm.
Secondly, I note that attributing “agency” (that is, anthropomorphic identity, consciousness, and will) to inanimate objects and animals is precisely the entire research agenda of modern science. If you deny any special quality of human thought or experience, and deny the existence of any discrete being having such qualities that is greater than humans, then you are left with the hypotheses that the qualities of identity, consciousness, and will experienced by humans either arose from inanimate objects and animals, or have always been present in inanimate objects and animals.
Third, and most interestingly for me, this study supports my hunch that the belief in autonomous technology arises naturally and spontaneously, and that its modern manifestations may simply be culturally specific, rather than historically unique.