Correlation-Causation Fallacies and the Origin of Religion

In the below video, a pigeon—let’s call it Shirley—engages in a correlation-causation fallacy. Shirley clearly presumes—insofar as pigeons can presume anything at all—that the machine is releasing food to her because she’s making a half-turn to the left. In reality, of course, B. F. Skinner is the cause of her feeding, and he could readily bamboozle her if he began to feed her randomly or in response to a different action on her part.

And perhaps the origin of religion is here. One can readily imagine an early tribe of humans noticing a correlation between a behavior and a desired event and concluding (incorrectly) that the one caused the other. Then—when that specified behavior and desired event did not correlate—one can imagine someone in the tribe offering a clever explanation to account for it (we didn’t do our ritual properly, we’ve been sinful lately, we’ve lost the god’s favor, our king displeases the god, etc.).

One can also imagine the esteem, and subsequent political and social power, that would accrue to such a clever explainer—the first theologian.

In turn, it wouldn’t take long for the successful theologian to surmise that he was in favor with the gods, correlating his own behaviors and insights with his good fortune, and feeling a compulsive need to repeat them.

When you’re hot, you’re hot.

And on his death, the first theologian’s followers would then take on the task of preserving his legend and techniques (both of rationalization and of ritual).

A pretty good racket before the discovery of science. Still a pretty good one.


Here’s a bit of an article reflecting on correlation-causation fallacies (a.k.a superstitions) in relation to sports:

[W]hen the stakes are high – such as with sports – there is even more pressure on our brains to “capture” whatever behaviours might be important for success. Some rituals can help a sportsperson to relax and get “in the zone” as part of a well-established routine before and during a big game. . . . Tiger Woods always wears red the last day of a golf tournament, because he says it is his “power colour”. In baseball, Wade Boggs claimed he hit better if he ate chicken the night before.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Correlation-Causation Fallacies and the Origin of Religion

  1. Malcolm West says:

    How then would these bamboozled fools ever have “discovered” science? Besides the Greeks have been doubting clever “theologians” for over two-thousand years—and look where that’s got them: philosophy majors in debt. As you noted, superstitions are alive in well (i.e. diet fads/pills, most supplements in general, and even the weather forecasts are rationalizations). But larger in scope, the our modern sciences are a correlation-causation fallacies on crack; pragmatism is not a science but a faith. Causation is apparently all in our the minds anyway [thanks Hume and Kant].

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s a pretty easy question to answer, Malcolm. The “bamboozled fools” got frustrated and took a crack at doing things differently. Francis Bacon first proposed empiricism as an alternative thing to try in place of theology.

      Why? Because a priori reasoning from theological premises was clearly getting humanity nowhere.

      Read Bacon’s great short story, “The New Atlantis.” It lays out in imaginative form Bacon’s hope for a world based on a foundation of certain knowledge—that is, of knowledge built up through methodical empiricism. It’s largely the world that we did indeed end up with.

      Thank goodness for Francis Bacon getting fed up with the airy theological castles of the monotheistic religions. And thank goodness for the Enlightenment in general.

      I agree with you, by the way, that the metaphysical premises we tend to associate with science (cause and effect; naturalism; a real world is still there when we’re not looking, etc.) cannot be empirically grounded. But the thing that distinguishes science from theology is that it works. It has improved the human condition and suggests that its epistemic methods are sound. By contrast, there’s are no good reasons to think that the epistemic methods of theologians are sound (religious knowledge from personal experience, revelation, inner intuition, miracle, authority, etc.). In any event, there’s no evidence that they are sound. And they do no demonstrable good or advance human knowledge in any discernible way.

      As for your contempt of the pragmatic benefits of science, I hope you don’t seriously entertain it while you’re flying in a plane at 30,000 feet or taking your children to the doctor for their vaccinations.

      Perhaps you prefer the days when religious superheroes magically ascended into the sky without the aid of anything at all and when children got sick they were brought to witch doctors.

      Contempt for scientific pragmatism. Please.


      • Malcolm West says:

        Thanks Santi. I will check out Bacon’s New Atlantis.

        My point was geared to your rather hasty and sharp simplification between science and theology. Even Nietzsche recognized how “clerical” lab coats are; together with Foucault, such guys loved to point out that one of the main sources of propulsion for Western society–and so one thing directing its future trajectory–is the use and definitions of, authority.

        You mentioned authority and “inner” intuition as epistemic methods of theologians…we are all theologians then. Human actions and thoughts will [by their very nature] be based upon and require inner and outer authorities and intuition. Beside, is not even the act of reasoning just a self-conscious intuition [C. Van Til].

        I am indeed very skeptical of, as much as I am a child of, pragmatism. It works, but it will get us nowhere. Just as we are technologically savvy today, building and flying in these jets and ingesting those vaccinations, yet with no particular standard to judge whether we should or should not; [think of the bio-ethical issues of today, we have the ability so why not just do it].

        Utility can never replace only rename ‘certainty’ [and therefore reclassifying whatever is authoritative]. Thank goodness consistent pragmatism and intellectual fragmentation and will never exist, we have simply found out the world is more complex than we thought, nevertheless: the world is either intelligible or it is not; likewise, humanity is an intelligible creature or they are not. You’re right in thinking this is not a game.

        But the biggest joke of “post” modernity yet is in thinking of all the different ways of being tolerance [intellect, moral, etc]; and then using self-deceived sophism and sophistry to bring everyone else along. You brought up “The New Atlantis” as a sort of cultural text, I will see your Bacon and raise you a book like “1984.” Has humanity gotten any “smarter” or has it simply found new ways of “entertaining” itself? Actually, shows like Jersey Shore make we doubt the both of these possibilities.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        You don’t like postmodernism, but you made a postmodernist observation: science cannot be untangled from ideology.

        I don’t entirely disagree with your point. When Christianity went into cultural free-fall after Darwin, the bourgeois ideologies that came to the fore—accompanied by their priests—were literary studies (the secular Western canon as a new Bible communicating culture to the masses), science, and the university quest for knowledge in general. Also replacing and sublimating religious impulses were nationalism, political parties, Marxism, fascism, romantic love, eugenics, and consumerism. “The flies change, but the shit is the same.” You can see sublimated forms of religion in all sorts of contemporary institutions. There’s a reason Sunni Muslims don’t like the iconography of Western culture—it’s obviously suffused with idolatry. What is a brand, but an idol?

        And you are looking into the abyss and trying to point out the human dilemma at a deeper level. I understand. Pragmatism is no substitute for the hard questions: should we do whatever our science enables? And how do we decide?

        I think the great dilemma of the second half of the 21st century will be whether or not we should make improved humans. The Chinese are not being shy about their eugenic ambitions, and the world may find itself in a eugenics race very soon. Unlike the Nazis, human scientists, just a few decades from now, will actually have the Promethean fire in their hands to refashion our species to an ideal vision (better temperament, smarter, stronger, etc.). We’re already cyborgs with external memory devices (our smart phones).

        I think you’re too optimistic in saying that the world is too complex for the success of pragmatic agendas (such as eugenics). Demographers tell us, for example, that 70-90% of all human beings will live in cities a half a century from now (70% of Americans already do), and what is a city but an artificially controlled environment?


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