Blue Feather

B.C. and the Role of Belief

Religion [...] is the opium of the people.

- Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right

I want to believe.

- Sign on the wall of Fox Mulder's office in The X-Files

I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, than is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.

- Charles Hoy Fort


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:

First, we notice and remember matches, especially oddmatches, whenever they occur. (Because a [paranormal] anecdote first requires a match, and second, an oddity between the match and our beliefs, we call these oddmatches. This is equivalent to the common expression, an "unexplained coincidence".) Second, we do not notice non-matches. Third, our failure to notice nonevents creates the short-run illusion that makes the oddmatch seem improbable. Fourth, we overlook the principle of equivalent oddmatches, that one coincidence is as good as another as far as [paranormal] theory is concerned.1

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:

First... in both the "magic" and the "psychic" classes, about two-thirds of the students clearly believed Craig was psychic. Only a few students seemed to believe the instructor's description of Craig as a magician, in the two classes where he was introduced as such. Secondly, psychic belief was not only prevalent; it was strong and loaded with emotion. A number of students covered their papers with exorcism terms and exhortations against the Devil. In the psychic condition, 18 percent of the students explicitly expressed fright and emotional disturbance. Most expressed awe and amazement.4

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:

"[t]here were statistically significant decreases in [belief] at the end of the semester, but clearly the immediate gains dissipated (except in the case of UFOs) over the course of the year the students spent back in the generally proparanormal environment... The finding that a course specifically dealing with evidence for the paranormal has only modest and not very durable effects on beliefs makes it less surprising that a more general university education has virtually no effect. It does not, however, make me more comfortable with what appears to be a failing in our attempts to improve students' critical abilities."10

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:

[M]y view is that there is such a thing as being too open-minded. I am not open-minded about the earth being flat, about whether Hitler is alive today, about claims by people to have squared the circle, or to have proven special relativity wrong. I am also not open-minded with respect to the paranormal. And I think it is wrong to be open-minded with respect to these things, just as I think it is wrong to be open-minded about whether or not the Nazis killed six million Jews in World War II.12

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.

1 David Marks and Richard Kammann, The Psychology of the Psychic, as excerted in Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas, p. 100.

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.

3 ibid

4 ibid

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).

6 ibid

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.

12 Douglas Hofstadter, Post Scriptum to "World Views in Collision", Metamagical Themas, p. 113.

13 ibid, p. 109.

14 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.

Copyright © 1996 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated October 20th, 1996.

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