The Hyper-Belief Problem

Posted by on November 21, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment

On the flipside of Hyper-Skepticism, where a person is so skeptical that everything is to be doubted whether proven beyond reasonable doubt or not, is the tendency that many have to believe all manner of strange and unprovable theories. I have experienced many of these firsthand, during my years as a teenager where I truly believed in the professed powers the “New Age” mysticism. I held as credulous the multifaceted beliefs of crystal healing, reiki, astral projection, psychics, mystics, tarot, UFO abductions, you name it, I gave them all credence. The reasoning behind this was that I held the belief in my mind that there was so much more to know about the universe and the way beings and the like interacted that was beyond our ability of knowing that all of these strange and wonderful mystical powers and ideas held as much truth as the claims made by modern medicine and science. Combined with that was a love of fantasy, and in equal measure the “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” factor that a lot of these beliefs hold in common. I also held a deep distrust of anything professed by the mass-media, and in the years around the First Gulf War, I saw all governments as being part of a large conspiracy, one that sought to keep the people blind of the “real show” behind the apparent everyday mundanity of life. I experienced first-hand the powers of ritual and meditation, and though the physical and mental responses that occurred as a result of these was purely my own reaction, I held these ideas to be home-truths about the way the world worked, and saw those who didn’t “get it” as blinded to the undercurrent of the fabric of reality of experiencing life as a human being.

Fast forward to my years at university, where I was exposed to many different viewpoints from lecturers and fellow students, many of these unfounded beliefs dissolved into the fantasy realm where they belong. These beliefs, when held to scrutiny, fell by the wayside like discarded rubbish, and I never looked to them again except with a certain amount of novelty and nostalgia. I can still remember the feelings I felt, and can even re-invoke the states of trance and meditation at will (given the right situation etc), and can even spin the whole spiel about crystals, laying of hands, astral projection etc., convincingly to someone who calls themselves an expert. These things haven’t left me, but I have since gained a greater (and much more intellectually rigorous) knowledge of the sciences, of the scientific method, and the claims and knowledge of the world around me, as it is understood by those who actually study it.

The thing I remember most about being a “New Age” believer was the level of acceptance of ideas I possessed. I was very open-minded, and like the character “Storm” in the Tim Minchin poem, was so open-minded that my brains were spilling all over the place. I wouldn’t call this gullibility either; I was quite specific, almost scientific while working through the “New Age” ideas; they had to conform to rules as set out by “experts” in the field, and many of them crossed over into the beliefs and practices of other areas of mysticism. These beliefs somehow worked with each-other; crystal meditation worked with reiki on a level of “resonance”, or the spiritual vibrations of the stones, and their colours represented the chakras of the human body. Apparently, these same colours are the ones that could be seen by people who see “auras” surrounding human bodies, and apparently can be “channeled” to “heal” the “inner self” and the body. The main thing they all had in common was that they were all fanciful, and used half-answers or metaphors for answers where indeed true and concrete answers did exist.

I notice with interest how many people who choose to believe in the powers of “New Age” medicines and teachings also readily embrace other areas of “New Age” philosophy. Many who believe in conspiracy theories also reject mainstream western medicines in favour of alternative herbal remedies or traditional Chinese therapies like acupuncture. Many who believe in the power of reiki also believe in the powers of chakras and kundalini energies. Those who believe in the powers of dream interpretation can very easily tip into the spiritualist realms of “totem animals” and “vision questing“. Most of these people, almost without exception in my experience, believe in the real and meaningful signs and symbolism behind astrology.

It is also amazing the degree to which these beliefs are in parallel with religious beliefs, and in many cases actually cross over into the mainstream religions to varying degrees. Belief is so multifaceted that many “New Age” practitioners also believe in the healing powers of Christ. Many absorb the “Wiccan” beliefs into their Buddhist beliefs, and the teachings of Krishna and Buddha weave their ways into the new age mysticism on many levels.

Hyper-belief doesn’t start and end with mysticism though. Conspiracy theories abound in the modern age, including everything from those who maintain that 9/11 was an inside job, that the Moon landing was faked, and that the government is introducing mind-control substances into our water to keep us placid. In this world, there is a huge underground conspiratorial movement of the ultra rich who are deliberately misleading us about facts in order to make it easier to control our minds and lives. (See also the Illuminati and related, the Bilderberg Group.) This is the vision of a paranoid dystopian future, one where we are mere drones in the system created by the rich to enjoy their spoils at our expense. In this world, Hurricane Sandy was actually caused by “cloud-seeding” and “chemtrails“. (“Contrails”, the visible lines left behind jets as they streak across the sky, can have an effect on precipitation, but they have nothing to do with “cloud-seeding” and little if nothing to do with hurricane formation.)

What is really scary about belief, and hyper-belief, is just how easily people can be led into or misled into belief. In 2005 British skeptic Derren Brown conducted a series of social experiments on unsuspecting members of the public. He is incredibly intelligent, and highly charismatic, and uses known techniques for persuading people into believing things they would otherwise disregard. The most interesting of his experiments was entitled Derren Brown – Messiah (DO watch this, it’s well worth your time) , which Wikipedia describes below.

The concept of the show is to highlight the power of suggestion with regard to beliefs and people’s abilities, and failure to question them. Brown makes it quite clear that if any of the subjects accused him of trickery he would immediately come clean about the whole thing, a rule similar to one of the self-imposed rules of the perpetrators of the Project Alpha hoax. Using a false name each time, he succeeds in convincing four “experts” that he has powers, who openly endorsed him as a true practitioner. The fifth expert, the Christian evangelist Curt Nordheilm, is reserved in his response; whilst impressed by Brown’s performance, he does not agree to a public endorsement without at least meeting him again. Brown concludes with his impressions of the experience and summary of how belief systems work.

He manages to convince some “known” psychics that he too is psychic by demonstrating his ability to perform “remote drawing”. He poses as a faith-healer, and convinces both an evangelical preacher and a group of “self-professed atheists” that not only is he a real healer, but to the atheists that god exists. He convinced a “UFO abductee” and UFO writer that he had been abducted by aliens and had been returned to earth endowed with the ability to “sense” other people’s medical problems and medical histories.

Brown highlights in this show just how easily people can be misled, tricked and persuaded to believe just about anything if the following criteria are met:

1. The person has to be willing to participate for them to be convinced.
2. The person already has an active interest or (at minimum) a curiosity about the subject at hand.

Brown readily admits that he chooses people for his experiments who will fit these criteria, and chooses them accordingly. For instance, when setting up the “Information session” for atheists, the precursor for attendance was people seeking “truth”, whether they be atheist or not. They were suggestible, looking for answers, and may have been on the verge of some kind of “deistic conversion” in any case. To some degree the settings are “set-up”, but no more than any charlatan may do when trying to convince someone of an ethereal idea (especially when the convincer stands to make money from the transaction). So far from being a “fake” situation, it is closer to a real-life situation than, in that the “victims” were chosen, than would be in a random situation.

Hyper-belief is a much more problematic area than hyper-skepticism in that it is far more widespread and pervasive, and all of us are prone to believing something that is without merit or without proof. All it takes is a sufficiently charismatic person, a situation where they are in control, and the right amount (but not too much) of  information to make something convincing. The skeptical communities, if they possess a “healthy” amount of skepticism, are a great asset in the fight against untruths, pseudosciences and woo.

When it comes down to it, we are all searching for answers. Some of us are so desperate to find these answers that just about any answer will do. Religions, spirituality and conspiracy theories all play upon this need, and are much more effective on those who are already willing to believe.

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1 Comment

  1. All I can say is: “Why can’t Bigfoot be real, dammit!”
    I agree that hyper-belief is more of a problem than hyper-skepticism because it is so widespread. In a way, it is simply the ability to think beyond what we know, given some attainable hints.  If our hints were usually good, then this would give us as individuals more knowledge (which is all estimated, guessed at, not real knowledge) than we’d otherwise have time to accumulate.  
    Thus, religion.  But also, maybe something worthwhile and adaptive.  Not necessarily, though.

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  1. Notes On Skepticism | Lynley Stace - [...] The Hyper-Belief Problem from Martin S Pribble, who talks about the time when he was into New-Age stuff in…

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