Where Do Ghosts, Gods, and Devils Come From?

Brett Alan Williams
7 min readMar 20


Physical evidence for supernatural belief appears to have begun before 11,500 B.C. This is the date of that enigmatic and mesmerizing temple at Gëbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey with its massive, T-shaped stone pillars weighing 7 to 10 tons that punctuate circles of stacked stone walls. More than twice as old as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza, this puts Tepe between 500 to 1500 years before any signs of agriculture. This implies it was built by wandering hunter-gatherers, who nonetheless came together for the massive labor effort required at a fixed location with no metal tools, no writing, no domesticated animals to pull heavy loads. It also implies a common system of belief was spreading among them.

But long before even Gëbekli Tepe, artifacts in the archeological record indicate supernatural convictions. Among them are cave paintings in France, Spain, and Indonesia, some dating back 44,000 years. Interaction with hunter-gatherers of the Americas from the 1600s, from Australia by Lieutenant James Cook’s encounter with aboriginal people in 1770, and the few remaining foragers left today show that supernatural beliefs were prevalent among early peoples. As archeologist Henri Frankfort wrote in his classic text Before Philosophy, “The world appears to primitive man neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life; and life has individuality, in man and beast and plant, and in every phenomenon which confronts man — the thunderclap, the sudden shadow, the eerie and unknown clearing in the wood, the stone which suddenly hurts him when he stumbles while on a hunting trip. Any phenomenon may at any time face him, not as an ‘It,’ but as a ‘Thou.’”

What would make humans naturally prone to consider inanimate things as individuals with personalities? It turns out it’s a matter of deep biological evolution responding to the realities of life, the structure of our brains, and the consequences of both.

Consider the psychology of mind-body dualism. We look out onto a world separate from us. Even our body parts seem to have a kind of separateness. While my body is a part of me, it’s not “me.” My mind — some call it the soul — is very much apart from my body. If I lose a finger or a leg, I’m still me. Réne Descartes got this going in 1641 with the idea that the body is made of material stuff and the mind is made of spiritual stuff, but today the mind-stuff is seen as an emergent property of the material. That there is no independence is evident in the findings of experimental science. As neuroscientists David Eagleman and Johnathan Downar put it, “Cut off the supply of oxygenated blood to certain brain areas for more than a few seconds, and the faculty of speech disappears, only to return if the blood flow is quickly restored. Stimulate [electrically] a pathway near the subthalamic nucleus of the brain [at the center of your head], and a bout of overwhelming and inexplicable sadness [as stated by the patient] drives the patient to tears within seconds. Stop the stimulation, and the sadness resolves again within seconds. Block a single type of calcium channel in a single population of neurons… of the midbrain, and its firing pattern changes from [continuous] to [pulsed], collapsing the entire house of cards of consciousness itself.”

Next, ponder “mind-reading,” also known as mentalizing or theory of mind. This skill helps us sense the unseen intentions of other individuals with minds of their own. This takes place among a cacophony of signals from others, from surroundings, current actions, and memories of past experience, all processed to gauge threats, prospects for resources, and reproductive opportunities.

And then there’s our tendency for teleology, “the sense that natural objects and events exist for a purpose.” A version of this is heard as “All things happen for a reason.” Per evolutionary cultural psychologist Ara Norenzayan, “As early as five years of age, children have the intuition that lions exist so that we can visit them at the zoo, clouds are for raining, and mountains are for climbing. Adults hold [these views] too…”

Put these psychological propensities together, and that world out there that appears as separate from our mind as our finger can also have a mind of its own with intentions in the thunderclap, the sudden shadow, the stone which suddenly hurts us when we fall. By “mind-reading” those other objects and events, that stone must have chosen to hurt me for reasons I can speculate on as I depart, rubbing my bruise. Maybe I kicked it from the path on my last walk here. Perhaps it was related to that stone I chipped to release its cutting magic as a spear, ax, or butcher knife as the purpose for rocks like that. The stone could just as easily have chosen not to hurt me, so there must be a reason it did. And as a next step in the supernatural process, “if all things were designed for a purpose, doesn’t it make sense that there is a creator who designed them?” Just as I created the ax? A creator separated from the world with a mind of its own that I can read, console, and pray to for favors, speculating on why it sent that storm to blow down my hut. Eventually, all these propensities would come to be codified as tales, myths, then religions incorporating both. Per Norenzayan, “Religious beliefs and rituals arose as an evolutionary by-product of ordinary cognitive functions that preceded religion… ‘Perceiving’ gods, therefore, is an act that is fundamentally tied to our ability to perceive other minds.”

Evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss labels this capacity as hyperactive agency detection, “which leads us to infer that unseen forces are human agents… We mistake a shadow for a burglar but never mistake a burglar for a shadow — an error management mechanism that helps us to avoid costly errors such as being robbed or mugged.” As psychologists Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenaur, and Vohs report in Bad Is Stronger Than Good, “Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” Hyperactive agency detection is about our obsession to find, correct, and defeat threats to our survival. We’re always on the lookout for bad news, be that from network newscasts, conspiracy theories, or angertainment. Good news needs no attention, no effort to fix. “This adaptation leads to misapplied anthropomorphism…” in everything from that storm to that sound outside my door in the night to flying objects that are simply unidentified yet suddenly become alien spacecraft full of little green men. That an uncategorized thing in the sky would lead us to leap over a host of rational explanations to “UFO” is no different from jumping to the conclusion that God makes everything happen for a reason.

Per Eagleman and Downar, “The brain is an evolved biological organ. As such, its products — our thoughts, actions, emotions, moods, fears, etc. — are shaped by evolutionary pressures… all constructions of a long, undirected evolutionary process.” Beneath the word “evolution” is another: “kludge.” Evolution works with what’s already there. New systems are kludged onto old ones in very unintelligent designs. The traffic layout in circles around the city center was typical of old Europe. In the U.S., traffic management evolved from circular routes into rectilinear arrangements where the interface between the two is a traffic jam, as anyone in the American northeast can attest. So too, for the evolution of human brains. An emergent property of joining concentric circles of traffic to rectangular layouts is congestion. An emergent property of growing new structures of the brain onto old ones is mathematics, art, and science, as well as gullibility, irrational beliefs, and wild actions.

Biologist E. O. Wilson wrote, “the brain exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly. The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its tools.” Presumably, so are superstition, myths, and religion.

Beliefs in, and the magical capabilities of, supernatural beings like spirits, ghosts, gods, and devils appear as a cultural innovation piggybacked on the kludged evolutionary wiring of that noodle on our shoulders, not a discovery. We then spent millennia elaborating these notions with philosophy, ethics, dogma, and orthodoxy woven into historical events as they unfolded or were re-spun to suit our psychological needs.

We humans are built to be superstitious. It’s little wonder that today we witness the irony of conspiracy theories amplified on the high-tech software and electronics of asocial media. Far from being aberrant, superstitions, stereotypes, and biases are human norms with broad implications for governance, civilizations, and the planet these institutions reside on. Institutions filled with sometimes brilliant, sometimes nutty humans. Nutty because of the way we’re kludged.


Paragraph 2: “a ‘Thou.’”, Before Philosophy, p. 14

Paragraph 4:Cut off the supply…”, Brain and Behavior: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective, p. 262

Paragraph 6: “the sense…”, Big Gods, p. 16. Ibid., p. 16

Paragraph 7: “if all things…”, Ibid.,, p. 16. “Religious beliefs…”, Ibid., pp. 8, 17

Paragraph 8: “which leads us…”, David M. Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, Routledge, 2019, pp. 395–396. Roy F. Baumeister, et. al., Bad Is Stronger Than Good, Review of General Psychology, 2001, Vol. 5, N. 4, 323–370. Evolutionary Psychology, pp. 395–396

Paragraph 9: “The brain is…”, Brain and Behavior, p. 8

Paragraph 10: “the brain exists…”, E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature, 1978



Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com