Notes on the book:
"Why People Believe Weird Things."
By Michael Shermer
Notes taken by Ed Sr.
Herein lies the key to understanding this phenomenon. Life is contingent and filled with uncertainties, the most frightening of which is the manner, time and place of our own demise. For a parent, an even worse fear is the death of one's child, which makes those who have suffered such a loss especially vulnerable to what "psychics" offer. Under the pressure of reality, we become credulous. We seek reassuring certainties from fortune tellers and palm readers, astrologers and psychics. Our critical faculties break down under the onslaught of promises and hopes offered to assuage life's great anxieties. Wouldn't it be marvelous if we did not really die? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could speak with our lost loved ones again? Skeptics are no different from believers when it comes to such desires. This is an ancient human drive. In a world where one's life was as uncertain as the next meal, our ancestors all over the globe developed beliefs in an afterlife and spirit world. So, when we are vulnerable and afraid, the provider of hope has only to make the promise of an afterlife and of the flimsiest of proofs. Human credulity will do the rest.
This hope is what drives all of us -skeptics and believers alike‑ to be compelled by unsolved mysteries, to seek spiritual meaning in a physical universe, desire immortality, and wish that our hopes for eternity may be fulfilled.
What, then does it mean to be a skeptic? Some people believe that skepticism is rejecting of new ideas or, worse, they confuse skeptic with cynic and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. Skepticism is a method, not a position.
The analyses in this book explain in three tiers why people believe weird things: 1) because hope springs eternal; 20 because thinking can go wrong in general ways; 3) because thinking can go wrong in particular ways.
How Thinking Goes Wrong
"A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."
"For when confronted by a true believer whose apparently supernatural or paranormal claim has no immediately apparent natural explanation, Hum provides an argument that the thought so important that he paced his own words in quotes and called them a maxim: "The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), "that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be ore miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates, should really have happened. I weight the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief of opinion."
Also known as the fallacy of redundancy, begging the question, or tautology, this is when the conclusion or claim is merely a restatement of one of the premises. Christian apologetics is filled with tautologies: Is there a God? Yes. How do you know? Because the Bible says so. How do you know the Bible is correct? Because it was inspired by God. In other words, God is because God is.
Ideological Immunity, or the Planck Problem
In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: "educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions." According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counter-evidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an "immunity" against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones.
The Quest for Immortality
Death, or at least the end of life, appears to be the outer limit of our consciousness and the frontier of the possible. Death is the ultimate altered state. Is it the end, or merely the end of the beginning? Job asked the same question: "if a man die, shall he live again?" obviously no one knows for sure, but plenty of folks think they do know, and many of them are not shy about trying to convince the rest of us that their particular answer is the correct one. This question is one of the reasons that there are literally thousands of organized religions in the world, each claiming exclusive knowledge about what follows death. As humanist scholar Robert Ingersoll (1897) noted, "The only evidence, so far as I know, about another life is, first, that we have no evidence; and secondly, that we are rather sorry that we have not, and wish we had." Without some belief structure, however, many people find this world meaningless and without comfort. The philosopher George Berkeley (1713) penned his example of such sentiments: "I can easily overlook any present momentary sorrow when I reflect that it is in my power to be happy a thousand years hence. If it were not for this thought I had rather be an oyster than a man.
It might be splendid if we were all to adopt Socrates' reflectiveness just before his state-mandated suicide: "To fear death, gentlemen, is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greatest of blessings for a human being; and yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that it is the greatest of evils." But most people feel more like Berkeley and his oyster, and thus as Ingersoll was fond of pointing out, we have religion.
Because purely religious theories of immortality‑ based on faith, not reason‑ are not testable, I will not discuss them here. Suffice it to say that by "immortality" most people do not mean merely living on through one's legacy, whatever it may be. As Woody Allen said, "I don't want to gain immortality through my work; I want to gain it through not dying."
What most of think of as "real" immortality is living forever, or at least considerably longer than the norm. the rub is that it seems certain that the process of aging and death is a normal, genetically programmed part of the sequence of life. In evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkin's scenario, once we've passed reproductive age (or at least the period of intense and regular participation in sexual activity), then the genes have no more use for the body. Aging and death may be the species way of eliminating those who are no longer genetically useful but are still competing for limited resources with those whose job it now is to pass along the genes.
Historical Transcendence, is it such a small thing?
Given these prospect, where can the non-religious individual find meaning in an apparently meaningless universe? Can we transcend the banality of life without leaving the body? History is the one field of thought that deals with human action across time and beyond any one individual's personal story. History transcends the here and now through its fairly long past and near limitless future. History is a product of sequences of events that come together in their own unique ways. Those events are mostly human actions, so history is a product of the way individual human actions come together to produce the future, however constrained by certain previous condition, such as laws of nature, economic forces, demographic trends, and cultural mores. We are free, but not to do just anything. And the significance of a human action is also restricted by when in the historical sequence the action was taken. The earlier the action is in a sequence, the more sensitive the sequence is to minor changes, the so-called butterfly effect.
The key to historical transcendence is that since you cannot know when in the sequence you are (since history is contiguous) and what effects present actions may have on future outcomes, positive change requires that you choose your actions wisely, all of them. What you do tomorrow could change the course of history, even if only long after you are gone. Think of all the famous people of the past who died relatively unknown. Today they have transcended their own time because we perceive that some of their actions altered history, even if they were unaware that they were doing anything important. One may gain transcendence by affection history, by actions whose influence extends well beyond one's biological existence. The alternatives to this scenario: apathy about one's effect on others and the world, or belief in the existence of another life for which science provides no proof, may lead one to miss something of profound importance in this life.
Ayn Rand: "The precept: "judge not, that ye be not judged" is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself. There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims. The moral principle to adopt is: "judge , and prepare to be judged."
Morality is relative to the moral frame of reference. As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, one can be more tolerant of other human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people's actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance, and thus reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group dangerous to individual freedom.
What separates science from all other human activities (and morality has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis) is its commitment to the tentative nature of its conclusions. There are no final answers in science, only varying degrees of probability.
There is not a single answer to the question of why people believe weird things, but we can glean some underlying motivations, all linked to one another, from the diverse examples I have discussed in this book:
- Credo Consolans: More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to. It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling. According to a 1996 Gallup poll, 96% of American adults believe in God, 90% in heaven, 79% in miracles, and 72% in angels (Wall Street Journal, January 30, p. A8). Skeptics, atheists, and militant anti-religionists, in their attempts to undermine belief in a higher power, life after death, and divine providence, are butting up against ten thousand years of history and possibly one hundred thousand years of evolution (if religion and belief in God have a biological basis, which some anthropologists believe they do). Throughout all of recorded history, everywhere on the globe, such beliefs and similar percentages are common. Until a suitable secular substitute surfaces, these figures are unlikely to change significantly.
To the frequently asked question: "What is your position on life after death?" my standard response is "I'm for it, of course." The fact that I am for life after death does not mean I'm going to get it. But who wouldn't want it? And that's the point. It is a very human response to believe in things that make us feel better.
- Immediate Gratification: Many weird things offer immediate gratification. The 900 number psychic hotline is a classic example. People call for one or more of four reasons: love, health, money, career. Using cold-reading techniques, the psychic begins broad and works toward specifics. Trite statements are true for everyone. Callers forget the misses and only remember the hits. Most important, they want the psychic to be right..
- Simplicity: Immediate gratification of one's beliefs is made all the easier by simple explanations for an often complex and contingent world. Good and bad things happen to both good and bad people, seemingly at random. Scientific explanations are often complicated and require training and effort to work through. Superstition and belief in fate and the supernatural provide a simpler path through life's complex maze.
- Morality and Meaning: at present, scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning have proved relatively unsatisfying to most people. Without belief in some higher power, people ask, why be moral? What is the basis for ethics? What is the ultimate meaning of life? What's the point of it all? Scientists and secular humanists have good answers to these good questions, but for many reasons these answers have not reached the population at large. To most people, science seems to offer only cold and brutal logic in its presentation of an infinite, uncaring, and purposeless universe. Pseudo-science, superstition, myth, magic, and religion offer simple, immediate, and consoling canons of morality and meaning. Because I used to be a born-again Christian, I empathize with those who feel threatened by science. Who feels threatened?
Like other magazines, every so often "Skeptic" sends a mass mailing to tens of thousands of people in order to increase circulation. Our mailings include a "Business Reply Mail" envelope, along with literature about the Skeptics Society and Skeptic. Never in these mailings do we discuss religion, God, theism, atheism, or anything whatsoever to do with such subjects. Yet every mailing we receive dozens of our postage-paid envelopes back from people obviously offended by our existence. Some of the envelopes are stuffed with trash or shredded newspaper; one was glued to a box filled with rocks. Some contain our own literature scrawled with messages of doom and gloom. "No thank you, there is none so blind as he who will not see," reads one. "No thanks, I will pass on your anti-Christian bigotry," says another. "Including you skeptics every knee'll bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," warns a third. One person sent me "Free Ticket No.777 eternal admittance to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus the Son of God." And, if I don't? The flip side is another ticket, this one a "Free ticket to spend eternity in the lake of fire with the devil and his angels."
If there were only one thing skeptics, scientists, philosophers, and humanists could do to address the overall problem of belief in weird things, constructing a meaningful and satisfying system of morality and meaning would be a good place to start.
- Hope Springs Eternal: Linking all these reason together is the title of the final part of this book. It expresses my conviction that humans are, by nature, a forward-looking species always seeking greater levels of happiness and satisfaction. Unfortunately, the corollary is that humans are all too often willing to grasp at unrealistic promises of a better life or to believe that a better life can only be attained by clinging to intolerance and ignorance, by lessening the lives of others. And sometimes, by focusing on a life to come, we miss what we have in this life. It is a different source of hope, but it is hope nonetheless: hope that human intelligence, combined with compassion, can solve our myriad problems and enhance the quality of each life: hope that historical progress continues on its march toward greater freedoms and acceptance for all humans; and hope that reason and science as well as love and empathy can help us understand our universe, our world and ourselves.
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