B.C. and the Role of Belief
My Religious Dilemma
I always wanted to be an atheist, but was never able to convince myself that there were no divine forces at work in the world.
I tend to ponder, a lot, and most of the strategies that I have for dealing with the world are rational strategies, and yet, religion and divinity don't seem easily discussed in a rational, scientific framework. The intellectual part of me tells me that there is no reason for me to believe in gods, and yet I believe anyway.
A Meta-discussion about Religion and the Need to Believe
Why do people need to believe in divine powers? Or for that matter, why do people believe in any form of the paranormal? One of my strongest religious/paranormal beliefs is fate; I am frequently exposed to events and people that seem to open doors and point me toward critical life decisions. My life is full of little coincidences that lead me to believe that some force is trying to tell me things.
Cognitive psychological theory suggests that the human brain is constantly performing complex pattern recognition. Thus, our brains are busy noticing coincidental patterns. When these coincidental patterns seem to connect events around us, and things that we have wished for, we assume that some thing or some one has done us a boon. A purely rationalist analysis of this follows:
Here's a good everyday example: often, when the phone rings, I know who it is that's calling me. How?
Just what exactly do I mean when I say 'often'? 90% of the time? 50% of the time? Well, honestly, I've never sat down to figure out the percentages. Is it statistically significant? Well, it seems that way to me, but I've never applied formal statistics. Could it be that I have a good idea about who is calling because I'm familiar with the particular telephone habits of my friends? I don't know, but there have been times when I have heard the phone ring, and I've thought to myself, "I wonder if that's Joe, who I haven't heard from in six months?" And I'll answer the phone, and, I'll be damned, it's Joe. Is this merely an oddmatch?
Making Sense out of Nonsense
How strong is the need to see sense in nonsense? The Skeptical Inquirer, official publication of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), reported an interesting experiment: Four first-year psychology classes received a performance by Craig Reynolds, an exotically dressed stage-magician. In two of the classes, the students were told that Reynolds was a graduate student who was interested in the paranormal and who would be demonstrating psychic abilities. "The instuctor also explicitly stated: 'I'm not convinced personally of Craig's or anyone else's psychic abilities.'"2 In the other two classes, Reynolds was introduced as a stage magician who would demonstrate stage trickery. In this latter case, the students are told that the "stunts Craig performed are 'easy amateur tricks that have been practices for centuries and are even explained in children's books of magic."3 Here's the result:
What's going on here? People who had been told that they were seeing simple tricks disregarded the instuctors and chose, instead, to believe in the paranormal.
Thomas Gray and his Survey of Students
Thomas Gray, a social psychologist, tried to address the issue of paranormal belief and education. His basic premise was "that people, at least in part, believe in what we know to be scientifically unsubstantiated claims because they are ignorant of what constitutes good versus bad evidence"5, and so designed a survey to test the effect of higher education on belief in paranormal phenomena (such as ESP, UFOs, astrology, reincarnation, and von Daniken's theory). The survey was distributed to four hundred and nineteen students in a variety of courses at Concordia University in Montreal. The results were "disconcerting to those who, like myself, expected to see dramatic differences in the level of belief in the paranormal as a function of university experience"6. In general, reported belief in paranormal phenomena was quite high: around 80% believed in ESP, 60% in UFOs, 60% in reincarnation, 50% in astrology, and 40% in von Daniken's ancient astronauts7 -- and what is sobering to note is that the differences between belief levels of junior and senior students were not generally statistically significant. Notable findings include the fact that for psychology students, belief in von Daniken's theory climbed from around 30% to around 50% between the introductory and advanced level8, and that 1 in 5 advanced psychology students indicated that they believed in a plausible-sounding theory which did not even exist, but was invented by Gray as a control variable9.
Gray suspected that university education was not helping these students to be critical thinkers, and so took his research one step further. He surveyed students of a course on "The Science and Pseudoscience of Paranormal Phenomena," and gave them the same survey at the end of the course. Additionally, he performed a follow-up check on their answers to the same questions one year later. He found that:
In conclusion, Gray's results suggest that in the long run, it does not matter much what students are taught. It is Gray's opinion that neither training in how to assess evidence, nor specific debunking of particular claims, produces lasting decreases in belief in paranormal phenomena. Most importantly, he cites as the reason for this, the weight carried in people's minds by single instances of confirmation of paranormal belief.11 Gray, Hofstadter and The Skeptical Inquirer all implicate this "cognitive bias" as a cause of belief in the paranormal.
Science and Rationality as "Truth" Systems
Although I have a lot of respect and admiration for Douglas Hofstadter, I am a little disappointed by his dismissal of things non-scientific. To be sure, he raises a lot of interesting questions about the nature truth and objectivity, but he very clearly states:
Hofstadter touches on a question that is fundamental to the notion of truth: can we discern truth from untruth? What mechanisms do we use to do so? What, to us, is "clearly untrue", and why?
For my part, I am influenced by postmodernist theory -- theory that suggests that we no longer have the ability to perceive the world, except through eyes that have been coloured by ideology. The real has given way to a simulacra of the real, which we like to think of as real because then our heads hurt less. So I often find myself wondering if there is such a thing as an ideology of science. Is it possible that paradigms of science to prevent us from seeing something that cannot be represented in the framework of science? Is it possible, I wonder, that science is completely incompatible with the paranormal? Unfortunately, there is a very scary association in the minds of most people that equates science with truth. For these people, that which can be represented in the domain of science is the de facto truth, so that science is not in the business of determining the truth, but rather, defining the truth. But even if you dismiss the opinions of learned scientists like Hofstadter and decide that it is appropriate be openminded about the paranormal, should you then also be openminded about whether or not the Holocaust took place? If not, then why not?
Hofstadter says "In a way, therefore, to try to pursue the nature of ultimate truth is to enter a bottomless pit, filled with circular vipers of self-reference."13 Hofstadter makes a fascinating comment on the way we discern truth from untruth: using the style of presentation. As McLuhan says, "[t]he medium is the message."14 If I publish a theory in the National Inquirer or the Toronto Sun people would think it was all a bunch of crap (but would, inexplicably, buy it anyway). If I publish it in Scientific American, people would tend to believe it. What does that say about the nature of truth? How does one apply ration and intellect to a system of truth that merges form and content?
To be clear, somehow we make distinctions between that which we believe and that which we do not believe, and if we probe far enough, we notice that rationality fails us. In the end, it seems to be that we decide for ourselves what we find credulous. It is merely the case that Hofstadter and I make those distinctions differently.
2 Douglas Hofstadter, "World Views in Collision", Metamagical Themas, p. 102. Based on the essay "Fooling Some of the People All of the Time," by Barry Singer and Victor A. Benassi in The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1980/81.
5 Thomas Gray, "Cult Archaeology and Creationism", 1987. p. 22. I am indebted to K.D. for exposing me to this material (and, in fact, for most of the analysis that I have merely reworded).
7 ibid, p. 25. There were some minor gender differences (females were more likely than males to believe in ESP, astrology, and reincarnation, as likely to believe in ancient astronauts, and less likely to believe in UFOs).
8 ibid, p. 26.
9 ibid, p. 26.
10 ibid, p. 32.
11 ibid, p. 33.
13 ibid, p. 109.
14 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.
Copyright © 1996 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated October 20th, 1996.
Back to my religion page.