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Stardate 20.033

Ascent out of Darkness ~ Armchair Philosophy from the 'Silly Beliefs' Team


When scientists sense spooky stuff
We've all heard someone talk about a mysterious event that they experienced, one they can't explain in natural terms, and where they quickly, or reluctantly, suggest that something spooky was at work, that a god or a ghost or some other supernatural thing might have been the cause. Personally I normally roll my eyes and question the quality of our education system when this happens. But what about when scientists start relating their spooky experiences, intelligent people that are highly educated and trained to think critically? People that spend their careers explaining how weird events have quite natural causes, even though on the surface they can often appear mysterious. Why do some scientists occasionally stumble and then pick themselves up, only to be speaking nonsense, suggesting explanations that usually come from the mouths of priests and psychic mediums and ghost hunters? We expect gullible, ill-informed people to embrace silly beliefs, but why do scientists occasionally lose their way and start supporting medieval nonsense?

This interesting line of thought was prompted when Peter wrote and asked the following:

I wonder if you ever heard of and your opinion of a story that the quite famous Marcelo Gleiser told in one of his books and on his site. (Added below)

What is confusing me is that of all professions, that man is a theoretical physicist (!) and maybe not even a bad one. Should he not know better than to jump to a supernatural explanation? Please give me your wisdom on this...

"Nearly everyone has had weird experiences, things that happen in life that seem to defy any sort of rational explanation.

It could be strange sightings, events that apparently challenge the laws of nature, that evoke the supernatural, or feelings of being possessed by some kind of universal awe, that elicit a connectedness with something grander, timeless.

What are these events — and what are they trying to tell us, if anything?

For a rationalist, the usual response is one of dismissal, based on the law of large numbers: When there are billions of people experiencing billions of different events every day, chances are that some will encounter events that are so rare that they are deemed, on the surface, as unexplainable. Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and an expert on what could be called the experience of the sacred, has written extensively on the subject in The New York Times as an op-ed contributor, in books for the general public, and in more academic settings. When she was a graduate student in England, she had one such experience that left her wondering. She was on a train, going to interview with a group of people that practiced a form of powerful magic, when she felt strange:

"I was reading a book by a man they called an 'adept' — someone they regarded as deeply knowledgeable and powerful... And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting."
She writes of the experience:
"I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can't explain."
Luhrmann mentions how Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a notable rationalist, had one such experience that defied any sense of logic and left him stunned. I know Michael and can attest to his rock-solid convictions. A few weeks before his wedding, his German bride-to-be shipped many of her belongings to their home in California. Among them was an old radio that belonged to her dear grandfather, the closest father figure she had growing up. The transistor radio had been broken for years and Shermer's attempts to fix it failed. They tucked it into a drawer in their bedroom and forgot about it. On their wedding day, they were surprised to hear music coming from upstairs. After searching for possible sources, they were amazed to see that it was the transistor radio, as if it had come back to life on its own. "My grandfather is here with us," Shermer's wife Jennifer said, tearfully. "I'm not alone." The radio stopped playing the next day, as mysteriously as it had started.

I also have had one such experience (actually more than one), that I relate in detail in my recent book 'The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected', under the chapter heading "The Witch of Copacabana." Here is a brief summary:

When I was growing up in Rio, my parents loved hosting dinner parties. My father, a dentist, had welcomed to his practice many of the Portuguese immigrants that flooded Brazil after the Carnation Revolution of 1974. One day, he invited the former Minister of Justice (a sort of attorney general) and other friends to dinner. He offered the minister a whisky. After taking a sip, the minister gave my father a perplexed look. "Izaac, this is tea, not whisky." My father's mouth dropped. He ran to the closet where he stored his liquor and confirmed that the open whisky bottle had been filled with tea. The same with every open bottle with amber-colored liquid. My father ran to the kitchen to find our cook Maria, a small black lady in her 50s with pitch-dark beady eyes. We knew she was a high priestess of the Macumba, a widespread religious practice mixing elements of African black magic and fetishism with Catholicism. Maria confessed immediately, as if what she had done had been obvious. My father was furious, and fired her on the spot. Maria looked him in the eye and cursed the house: "Something bad will happen to this house." I was horrified. Maria tried to comfort me. "Don't worry, boy, you have 'corpo fechado' (closed body), and nothing will harm you."

My father, a superstitious man, took his precautions, filling his pockets with garlic and the house with branches of rue, a plant that many in Brazil believe is a sort of chlorophyllous evil barometer that shrivels when harm is near. A month passed and nothing happened. We went back to our routines and hired a new cook. One day, as I was studying for an exam, I felt a compulsion to go to the dining room. Our rococo-style dining table was flanked on both ends by furniture containing fine crystal. Behind my father's seat at the head of the table was a closet with glass doors and three glass shelves, where my parents stored beautiful wineglasses made of Bohemian crystal. At the opposite end of the table was a brass beverage trolley, with a top glass shelf covered with crystal bottles filled with port, sherry and liqueurs of all colors, each labeled with a small silver necklace.

I was standing by the dining table in a strange sort of daze when something, maybe a subtle noise, made me turn toward the closet. At that very moment, the top shelf broke in half, and all the heavy glasses came crashing down onto the second shelf, which in turn collapsed onto the first shelf in a horrifying waterfall of shattering crystal. Dozens of priceless antique glasses were instantly destroyed. I hardly had time to blink, when another cracking noise made me turn toward the trolley at the other end of the table. In a flash, the top shelf collapsed, taking all the crystal bottles to the floor with it. The noise was deafening. Shards of glass flew everywhere. I was paralyzed. The new cook came running from the kitchen and crossed herself. She packed her things and vanished that same night, never to be seen again.

Shaking uncontrollably, I phoned my father at his office. "It's the curse, dad. She did it! Everything crashed, right in front of me. The closet and the trolley, practically at the same time!"

I spent a long time trying to come up with a reasonable explanation: a supersonic boom; an earthquake; maybe I was in a hypnotic trance and did it myself. Nothing added up though. To have both events in almost synchrony was deeply perplexing. And it involved drinking, as it should. This is a mysterious event that remains unexplained.

People react differently when faced with such situations. Some feel it as convincing evidence of the supernatural and embrace a religion (a conversion event) or a mystical practice. Others, perhaps in fear for what such event may represent to their worldview, vigorously push it aside as an odd coincidence. Or they honestly think of such stories as some of life's bizarre twists, without any opening to otherworldly dimensions.

In my case, I remain agnostic. Being a scientist, I'm well-aware that nature tends to follow precise rules, some of which we have managed to understand and to describe. However, I'm also well-aware of our limitations, of the fact that we are surrounded by mystery and by what we don't understand.

Science's purpose is to crack open some of these mysteries, and it does so magnificently. But science can't crack them all. And that's okay. A bit of the unexplained is good, as it keeps us a little unsettled. We must keep an open mind as we peel layer after layer of reality, prepared to be surprised at every step — and humbled by what we can't know."

Like Peter, I too have been confounded over the years by such people, especially scientists who readily debunk all manner of silly beliefs, but who then suddenly tell a personal story about something that mystifies them, and losing all their critical skills, they revert back to some ignorant medieval peasant and proclaim that maybe spooky things were afoot.

These people will often highlight that nobody has an answer to the event they're talking about, it is utterly mysterious, which would be true since by definition a mystery is something that baffles us and hasn't been explained. But then they contradict themselves (and their scientific training) by suggesting that maybe they do have an explanation, that maybe the supernatural realm exists and its effects impact on the natural world. They have no evidence for this hypothesis, and the mountains of robust evidence they do have regarding how the world works argues against it, so what is it that can turn scientifically minded people into superstitious morons? We can understand ignorant peasants embracing ancient stories of gods, demons, ghosts, witches and curses, but why do knowledgable and normally skeptical people suddenly lose their way and suggest we should at least consider some bullshit nonsense that didn't even make sense when we were living in caves?

Rather than suggesting some spooky explanation for which there is clearly no evidence, they should be prepared to admit that currently we simply don't know what the explanation is. There is nothing shameful in admitting that we don't know the answer, whereas simply making up answers, any answer no matter how silly, is nothing to be proud of and not at all helpful. Certainly if pushed they could acknowledge that some god has been suggested as a possible explanation, but equally they could say that fairies or Santa Claus on a drunken night on the town could be possible explanations. Any fool with an imagination can come up with explanations, the trick is to come up with an explanation that is rational and can be scientifically verified. Spooky explanations are often pushed to explain mysteries, especially by people who are poorly educated and ill-informed, and perhaps they need to be included on the complete list of possible explanations, but way, way down at the very bottom. There is no good reason that effectively argues that these spooky explanations should leap frog all the other far more plausible explanations on the list and become number one, become the explanation that is most likely to be true. People should be confident enough to admit that they simply don't know the answer to some mystery, and not feel the need to fill that knowledge gap with nonsense.

But some people do occasionally fall off the wagon, and start suggesting supernatural activity rather than debunking it, so what might explain this unexpected behaviour? My best guess would be the insidious and widespread use of childhood brainwashing. As they grow up, most children worldwide are immersed in the supernatural beliefs of their family and their community, and young children have evolved to believe pretty much anything they're told, no matter how ridiculous it might sound to an informed adult. In later years, as children age, as reasoning faculties improve and knowledge of the world increases, some childhood beliefs are easily dismissed as nothing more than entertaining nonsense, like belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and evil trolls. One reason that these specific beliefs are eventually rejected is because when children begin to doubt the stories they were told and challenge the adults telling them, the adults quite quickly admit that they're not true. And that's all adults, not just adults that are skeptics or scientists. So their growing knowledge about how the world really works combines with the adult admission of lying, and belief in the Tooth Fairy and trolls vanishes completely from their minds.

But of course supernatural stories told to children don't just involve fairies and trolls, they also include gods and demons and ghosts and evil curses. And young children believe in them as strongly as they believe in Santa. They absolutely believe the stories that their parents and their wider community tell them, that, for example, if they misbehave then a god will punish them, perhaps immediately or perhaps when they die, and Santa will punish them at Xmas time. The major difference between the god stories and the Santa stories is that when they later begin to doubt the stories and challenge the adults to tell the truth, while adults will readily admit that the Santa stories are not true, they will continue to argue that the god stories are definitely true. They do not waver on this, and their outward behaviour such as daily prayers and attending religious rituals and fighting to have their god beliefs influence how society functions show that they do sincerely believe in their god stories. And it's not just isolated adults refusing to ditch their god stories, worldwide most adults and most communities reinforce each other's belief in gods, demons, ghosts and curses. Clearly this sincere and widespread behaviour can confuse and worry those questioning the god stories. After all, why would billions of people over thousands of years waste enormous amounts of time and money and sometimes even lose their lives to maintain a belief that wasn't true? Surely so many people couldn't be so wrong for so long? (Spoiler alert: Yes, they can.)

For most of history knowledge of how the world actually worked was lacking, so it's not surprising that historically most people jumped to supernatural explanations since that was all they had. They didn't have any scientific explanations to consider instead. Superstition and ignorance fed off each other. Only in more modern times have people been given a real alternative, the chance to apply critical thinking and scientific evidence to explain why things happen. Does an event have a natural cause or a supernatural one? Armed with this relatively new and very reliable way of looking at the world, most scientists and informed laypeople now subscribe natural causes to ALL events. Even for certain events that science hasn't yet fully explained, such as the origin of life or human consciousness or that "ghost" your cousin says she saw, the general consensus is that when and if an explanation is found, it will be natural. It must be remembered that not once has a single supernatural belief ever been shown to be true and the natural explanation false, while untold supernatural beliefs and claims made in holy books have been shown to be utterly bogus. Science has an amazingly impressive record of success while supernatural beliefs have a worse than pitiful record. An incalculable tally of successes for science compares with an embarrassing zero for the supernatural beliefs that have been shown to be true.

It's understandable why many people even today are still enslaved by supernatural beliefs, since many are ill-informed and continue to fall back on their childhood brainwashing for answers. When confronted with something weird and unusual, they'll explain it by recalling some old story about gods and demons from their holy book, or they'll ask their priest, or they'll book a session with a psychic medium, or they'll simply drop to their knees and pray for guidance from some imaginary deity. What they won't do is consult a scientific expert or read a science book or even quiz their more skeptical friends for alternative explanations that don't involve spooky stuff from the supernatural realm. Every story I've heard of secular folk recounting some weird incident that they can't explain, leaving the door open for spooky explanations, that spooky explanation always involves a belief they were immersed in as a child. You don't hear of a person with a Christian upbringing suggesting a supernatural cause from the Muslim religion, eg jinns. Whether it's fairies, leprechauns, trolls, gremlins and ghosts or telepathy, telekinesis and psychic mediums or even alien abduction, the weird explanations that people suggest are almost always sourced from their childhood brainwashing. When they struggle to find a quick explanation to some mystery, silly beliefs from their childhood surface and start nagging them, and what better way to explain a mystery than by wrapping it in a deeper mystery.

But since scientists and laypeople with an acceptance of the scientific view of the world are not so ill-informed, and since they are happy to dismiss and even demonstrate that untold supernatural beliefs are nothing but superstitious nonsense, why do some of them come out with an account of some weird event that they too are reluctant to ascribe a natural cause to? Why the sudden loss of confidence? Why do they leave the door slightly ajar for a supernatural explanation to sneak in? Why do their critical thinking skills desert them for this one special event, usually an event that they experienced personally?

As I've said, my guess would be that their childhood brainwashing is still having an effect, it's suppressing their better judgement. Supernatural stories were so invasive in their upbringing that they cannot be purged completely. Like the antibodies that remain unnoticed in our bodies after a disease has passed, and like diseases such as malaria that can cause relapses years later, notions of gods, demons, ghosts and curses can remain long after people thought they had dismissed them. I've met many people that had a strong religious upbringing and have now rejected supernatural beliefs, but every now and then you see doubt surface, they question some behaviour and wonder: But what if I'm wrong, what if God is real and watching me? This nagging worry always seems to be there below the surface, and occasionally some incident causes them to re-evaluate the validity of those childhood stories. As Gleiser said, we will all encounter a weird event at some time in our life that we can't explain, and these events, because they were personal, will often affect us emotionally far more than simply hearing the same story experienced by someone else. And once a scientifically-minded person has dismissed all the likely natural causes, what else is left to grasp at? For many it's the supernatural explanation. People often fall for the either-or fallacy, the view that if one explanation is shown to be wrong then the alternative explanation must be right, by default. A well known example is the Christian belief that if evolution was shown to be false, then that means that their God must have created the variety of life we see around us. The answer to life is either evolution or God. Of course the problem with this way of thinking is to assume that there are only two options (when in fact there are many), and that the failure of one sees the success of the other. There are of course other options that Christians fail to acknowledge. If evolution by natural causes was false, the creator of life could have been one of the Hindu gods, or one of the Aztec gods, or far more likely than any god, it was advanced aliens that created life on Earth. Just as dismissing evolution doesn't automatically take you to the Christian God, dismissing all the likely natural causes for some weird event doesn't automatically take you to a supernatural cause.

Scientists like Gleiser occasionally make this mistake of thinking that if they dismiss all the natural causes then that only leaves supernatural causes. Wrong. All we can potentially dismiss is the natural causes that we know of, and to the level we understand them. There could be untold natural causes that we currently have no knowledge of that caused some weird event. The most we can say about unexplained events is that we can't explain them, that we don't currently know their cause. We have no justification whatsoever to say that because we can't explain something then obviously we should start thinking about supernatural answers. That's as ridiculous as saying that because a child can't explain how the toys got under the Xmas tree then they are justified in believing in Santa Claus. Just because something is a mystery today, that doesn't mean it will remain so tomorrow, and even if something does remain a mystery, that doesn't mean it must have a connection to the supernatural. It just means that it is too difficult for us to explain. Children can't explain how TVs work, but they would be foolish to insist that they were the work of gods. And Marcelo Gleiser himself makes this point in his book, writing that,

'To state that something can't ever be known about a topic is a very dangerous position to take, as the history of science itself has shown. What may look now as "beyond material phenomena" may turn out to have a perfectly materialistic explanation in the future.'
That statement and many others by Gleiser in his book suggests that he is critical of those that jump to a supernatural explanation simply because science is (currently) at a loss to explain it. But then his story about the curse placed on their house by their cook, and the following statement, suggests that his view of the supernatural is not so clear cut:
'The truth is, I was a very mystical teenager, in awe of the mysterious. I still feel this awe, even though my youthful mysticism has now grown into a deep spiritual connection with Nature.'
He described his tale about the curse as, 'events that apparently challenge the laws of nature, that evoke the supernatural' and then asked, 'What are these events — and what are they trying to tell us, if anything?' Gleiser, in my view, makes a confusing argument. He rightly explains why a lack of explanation today is no reason to argue one will never be found, but then he seems to argue that perhaps we shouldn't be so quick as to dismiss the supernatural explanation in the case he experienced years ago as a superstitious teenager. With his scientific education, he should know better, as should numerous other scientists that stumble back into supernatural waters, like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan, scientists that all promoted the natural world but still refused to dismiss the supernatural world outright. Einstein and Sagan both grew up in Jewish families, while Darwin and Shermer grew up in very religious Christian families, with Shermer even working as a fundamentalist evangelist before he saw the light and became a renown skeptic. Many scientists promote the natural world and dismiss supernatural views and yet they can't compel themselves to make a complete break. Occasionally a question or stance or incident will arise that sees them reject all their scientific training and critical thinking and sees them hold out an olive branch to some supernatural belief. If we look at Gleiser, he recalls a weird event from his youth and he suggests a black magic curse as a possible cause. Why not gods or demons or poltergeists as most people would opt for? Because as Gleiser explained, his father was a superstitious man and their community was immersed in examples of this black magic, their own cook was a practitioner. This was one of the main supernatural beliefs that surrounded Gleiser as a child, perhaps more so than God, and thus this is the belief that Gleiser grasped when he was at a loss to assign a natural cause. This shows that when some people feel let down by science they embrace a powerful belief from their childhood. They don't by default embrace God, they simply latch onto a powerful childhood superstition, one that they believed as a child, and in Gleiser's case it was a belief in evil curses. Gleiser simply can't break free completely of his childhood brainwashing. Every now and then it resurfaces and makes him say something silly.

We don't get to tell our brains what we want to believe, our brains tell us what we believe, and we simply inform the world. New information can certainly make us change our mind about some things, but I suspect that some core beliefs, laid down when we were very young and impressionable, are very difficult if not nearly impossible to change later in life. For example, an emotional fear of God instilled as a child is not easily vanquished by reason. Argument after argument can be presented, but emotion will simply keep screaming, But what if you're wrong? Remember the horrors awaiting in Hell for blasphemers. The Greek philosopher Aristotle is quoted as saying, 'Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man' (a belief later co-opted by the Catholic Church to spread Christianity), which argued how important early childhood influences are to the development of the adult that follows. There are untold cognitive biases that affect how we think and influence what beliefs we hold, and I suspect that childhood brainwashing in supernatural beliefs, and continual reinforcement from family and the community as an adult, serve to keep these silly beliefs simmering away in some deep recess of our brains, even if we think we have long outgrown them. Occasionally some comment people make or stance they take will reveal that these silly beliefs are still influencing them, even if they try and pretend otherwise. Gleiser's story about an incident in his past where he raises the possibility of evil curses is but one example.

Another example of childhood superstitions unconsiously influencing us is the NDE. People of all beliefs, such as Christians, Muslims, Hindus and atheists, have reported what is termed a Near Death Experience (NDE), where they describe what they experience when they have "died" momentarily before coming back to life, say with a heart attack or during surgery. Christians report meeting Jesus or God or their deceased loved ones in Heaven, before being told it's not yet their time. But the weird thing is that Muslims never encounter Jesus or experience the Christian version of Heaven, neither do Hindus or atheists. People of different beliefs experience visions that mesh with their imagined view of what death will be like. Of course if there was a god waiting for us when we died, then everyone, no matter their belief, should see the same god, even the atheist. The fact that everyone sees a different afterlife, an afterlife based on the stories they were told as children, again supports the argument that childhood brainwashing remains with us into adulthood, and when our critical faculties stumble for whatever reason, these superstitious ideas will quickly take control of our thoughts.

Yet another example of childhood superstitions returning to haunt adults is where scientists and like-minded folk live a secular life and claim to reject belief in the supernatural realm and gods, and yet they refuse to call themselves atheists. Clearly they are still being subtly influenced by their childhood fears, that maybe there is a god that will punish them horribly if they deny his existence outright. Their fears force them to play it safe.

Marcelo Gleiser, as well as Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan are all such scientists. If you read their work, they all essentially argue that the supernatural realm isn't real, that gods aren't real, but they all refuse to call themselves atheists, someone who lacks a believe in gods. They all want to argue that we can't be sure about God. Marcelo Gleiser writes in his book,

'I am a professed agnostic. Atheism — even though probably correct in its core assumption — is too dogmatic in its absolute rejection of God.'

'I don't see any reason to believe in God or in the existence of the soul, but I cannot absolutely rule either out.'

Gleiser argues that agnosticism is the intellectually honest stance to hold, but I'm reasonably sure he and scientists like him wouldn't argue in public that we should be agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus or even the Greek god Zeus, even though the argument for the existence of God is no different to that for Santa and Zeus, in that, to use Gleiser's rationale for agnosticism, we 'cannot absolutely rule either out'. That Gleiser shows no agnosticism towards the existence of Santa and Zeus is revealing. There are thousands of gods that Gleiser could claim to be agnostic about, but he's not, he only expresses uncertainly about one god, the very god he was told stories of as a child. Those stories rattling around in his head, as silly as they are, continue to influence and unsettle him. While no doubt happy to dismiss the Muslim god Allah and the Hindu god Shiva and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, Gleiser won't risk offending his childhood god by putting him on the shelf with Zeus, Allah and the Easter Bunny. Gleiser's childhood brainwashing is still running the show.

If agnosticism makes intellectual sense, that if we can't have absolute proof of the existence of something, then we should simply assert that it may or may not exist, we can never know one way or the other. But since we can never have absolute proof of the existence of anything, and most people agree on this point, then that means that logically we must be agnostic about everything, not just God. But notice that people are generally only agnostic about the existence of God, not about Santa Claus or stars or woodpeckers or even something like love or free will. And when I say God, I mean they are only agnostic about the existence of their God, they aren't at all agnostic about the gods other people talk about, they're quite certain that they don't exist, even though that argument doesn't make rational sense. No matter what religion people align with, the agnosticism argument apparently only works for their god, whoever that might be, which is just further evidence that childish thoughts are holding the reins.

So where does this leave us? It's true that we can't prove that fairies and trolls and evil curses aren't real, anymore than we can prove that viruses and stars are real, there is always the possibility, albeit very, very unlikely, that fairies are real and stars aren't. But that is no reason to adopt agnosticism, to wander around in a fog of uncertainty, since that way leads to certain failure and a wasted life. Since we can never have absolute knowledge, of anything, not even of our own existence, then the only rational way to live, if we are indeed alive, is to allocate probabilities to what we think is real and get on with living our lives as best we can. Using reason and scientific evidence we can reach a consensus on what is likely real and what likely isn't. We can say that based on what we know, then Santa Claus and fairies likely don't exist, in fact they are so unlikely that we can simply say they don't exist, we don't waste time being dicks and insisting that they have a reality factor of, say, 0.000000000000000001, where one is true and zero is false. Rocks on the other hand may have been given a reality factor of, say, 0.999999999999999999. So expect to see rocks, don't expect to see fairies. In conversations down at the pub, don't beat around the bush, simply say rocks are real and fairies aren't. And that's the way most people converse. While we could acknowledge that we can't prove absolutely that evil trolls aren't real, we all accept that the evidence suggests that trolls are so unlikely as to be nigh on impossible, so let's not sit on the fence, let's have the courage to say they aren't real. So when it comes to stories of gods, ghostly souls, miracles and fiery places of eternal torture, does the available evidence suggest they are likely real, or just primitive, superstitious myths, and likely just a fantasy? Clearly the evidence argues for fantasy, that the likelihood of gods and the supernatural realm being real is no better than for Santa and his hidden base at the North Pole. Even Gleiser says he sees no 'reason to believe in God', so why do these scientists not have the courage to stand behind the conclusion the evidence clearly reveals? Why do they leave a light burning for the supernatural realm, like a child missing his teddy bear? Because their childhood brainwashing won't let them forget that they used to believe in other possibilities, it holds them captive and is so ingrained that no manner of evidence can sway them. On some deep level they apparently yearn for a magical world that doesn't exist, that never existed, but that they find too difficult or too painful to let go of completely.

Luckily I have no such trouble since I had no childhood brainwashing, at least not of a supernatural nature, so I can as easily dismiss gods as I can Santa Claus. I can easily align my worldview with what makes sense, not with what makes some ignorant priest happy or fearful, and not with some supernatural explanation that by every measure seems impossible. That said, I can recall examples of where my brain tried to tempt me with misleading childhood memories. I have seen UFOs on three separate occasions, and each time my brain very quickly jumped to the alien spaceship explanation. Luckily I managed to fight it and I sought more mundane explanations, which I eventually found. As a kid I grew up on sci-fi comics and TV shows like 'Star Trek' and 'Lost in Space', so I was primed to see aliens in the sky, not gods. While I don't believe aliens are visiting us, or that it's even likely, I couldn't stop my mind from flashing back to my childhood fascination with space travel and screaming ALIENS! I'm convinced that as an adult had I not been suitably informed about science and critical thinking, I would now be regaling people with my encounters with several alien spacecraft. Unable to find a natural cause for my sightings, I would have happily settled on aliens as the explanation, especially after the third sighting. I can't help but see a connection here with emotional childhood experiences. I can't stop my mind from thinking aliens, and I constantly need to fight that explanation, and those with emotional childhood experiences that featured the supernatural can't help but see gods, demons and lost souls. The difference is the emotional involvement. I'd view a possible alien spaceship sighting as fascinating, whereas people might view a possible supernatural event as evidence that the scary stories they heard as children, of torture in Hell and of evil curses, as suggesting there really could be something out there to be genuinely terrified of. Or that the spirit of their dead Aunt Beryl is trying to make contact and talk about what colour to paint the kitchen.

So I take little notice of these stories of spooky events, even when told by scientists, since their brain is leading them astray. They have lost their objectivity due to it being an emotionally personal experience, they are being mislead by their childhood brainwashing, and if they were instead told that story by a stranger, they would likely dismiss the supernatural explanation without hesitation, listing all the more plausible natural explanations.

Childhood brainwashing

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 27 Apr, 2020 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend


  1. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 07 May, 2020

    In connection with the above post, of why scientists occasionally lose their way and start promoting nonsense, Peter has sent through a link to a related article in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, entitled:

    The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails to Protect against Irrationality
    It lists some Nobel Prize winning scientists and other 'brilliant scientists' who have fallen 'prey to questionable ideas', and questions how this might have happened. It suggests that intelligent minds are not immune to cognitive biases. The article argues that,
    'Therefore, even highly intelligent people may neglect to exercise their critical thinking capacities when they are insufficiently motivated to do so, especially when they are certain they are right. Although highly intelligent individuals may be more capable than other individuals of subjecting ideas to skeptical scrutiny, they may not always feel compelled to do so'.
    For untold years people have asked why I bother to question believers in gods and ghosts and visiting aliens if I don't believe they're real. My response has been that they fervently believe they are real, and so I want to hear their arguments, as I know I could be wrong and I don't want to hold false views. I'm very confident my views are correct, but not that confident that I won't consider new arguments, and I'm certainly not that brilliant that the thought that I might be wrong is inconceivable. The article concludes by reminding us that,
    'we should be careful not to suspend our scientific skepticism even in the face of pronouncements by the most accomplished of scientists'.
    Just because someone is an authority and expert on some topic, we shouldn't automatically accept everything they say as correct, especially if they are expressing a view on something outside their field of expertise. Even within their field they can be mistaken, so we should still consider their argument rationally and discern whether other experts agree with them. Name any famous scientist, such as Einstein, Darwin or Newton, and you can find numerous scientific pronouncements that they got wrong, so even the greatest minds aren't infallible. And when you look at their lives outside science, when they start expressing their views on topics for which they are no more qualified than you or I, say, ethics for example, then they often show themselves as people I wouldn't want to call my friend. I can admire the scientific achievements of some of these brilliant scientists, but I often find myself struggling to admire or even like the person themselves. The advantage with this attitude is that scientists and experts have to win me over with their arguments. A winning personality or PhD or a Nobel Prize won't make me ignore the evidence and just take their word for it.
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Last Updated May 2020