03 March 2010

The Will to Believe

In May 1975, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan debated Uri Geller on the subject of the paranormal. Asimov's speech, reprinted in a book set during the conference in which the debate took place, is below.

"I do not think that the problem of the refusal-to-believe on the part of magicians is a serious one. It is paralleled by a far greater, far greater, and far more intense refusal-to-disbelieve on the part of almost everyone else. I do not wish to speak specifically of Mr. Geller, though his applies to him, for it is true of anyone who invades the area lying outside the narrow and constricted boundaries of what scientists will, without serious argument, accept.

"The para-scientific fringes are intrinsically glamorous, they are exciting and delightful, and they court belief. Millions will grant the belief and will not be deterred by anything scientists will say, especially since scientists cannot counter with anything equally evocative but can only grumble a spoilsport , 'It isn't so!'

"In fact, so eager are people to believe the essentially incredible that they will resent, even with violence, any effort to advance evidence in the favor of disbelief. If some mystic, with a wide and ardent following, were to disown all his previous statements, if he were to declare his miracles frauds, and his beliefs charlantry, he would lose scarcely a disciple, since one and all would say he had made his statements under compulsion or under a sudden stroke of lunacy. The world will believe anything a mystic will say, however foolish, except an admission of fakery. They actively refuse to disbelieve.

"Is there, therefore, anything to be accomplished by arguing against mystics, or by trying to analyze their beliefs rationally? As a healthful exercise to improve and strengthen one's own rationality, certainly. As a hope to reform fools, never.

"But it doesn't matter. My own attitude is to bid the world, believe! All of you -- believe! Believe whatever you want, for in doing so, whatever misery you bring upon yourself and others, you will nevertheless never affect reality. Though all earth's four billion swear from top to bottom and left to right that the earth is flat and though they kill anyone who dares suspect it might be an oblate spheroid with a few minor irregularities, the earth will nevertheless remain an oblate spheroid with a few minor irregularities."


Personally, I don't like the idea of surrendering to our will to believe.  I do recognize that debating supernaturalism with reason is as in Thomas Paine's view kin to giving medicine to the dead. People believe these things because they want to satisfy various needs and desires -- the need to be intrigued by the mysterious, for instance, or the desire to control even things that lie outside ourselves.

For me, the supernatural is abysmally shallow compared to the wonders of the natural world, and I wonder if this obsession people seem to have with it is inappropriately natural, or the result of cultural indoctrination.


John Schmidt said...

"inappropriately natural" <-- I suspect that belief in the supernatural is unavoidable consequence of 1) our social nature and 2) the limits of our senses. As social primates, we have brain systems that allow us to anticipate the behavior of others according to our own thought processes. Our senses, unaided, cannot reveal to us the true nature of reality. We needed to become tool-building apes before we could begin to understand the mechanical nature of reality. During our long pre-technological existence it was inevitable that our brains provided us with supernatural "explanations" for mysteries that we could not understand. Our "theories of mind" were very good at allowing us to predict human behavior, so we just naturally apply that same tool to everything. We naturally imagine human-like supernatural forces as a way to account for mysterious events that are actually caused by hidden mechanisms.

smellincoffee said...

It would seem, then, that only the Newtonian idea that the universe is ruled by principles could allow for naturalistic thinking.

It seems as though the supernatural is a stand-in for the inexplicable.

John Schmidt said...

I've read a small amount of translated works from the ancient Greeks. I have the feeling that Aristotle and some Ionian philosophers arrived at the idea of seeking mechanistic accounts for mysterious phenomena, but they did not have the tools of modern science and they simply invented fictional "explanations" for phenomena that were "naturalistic" (in a science fiction kind of way) rather than supernatural.

Michel Daw said...

We will never change WHAT the masses believe until we address WHY they choose to believe it. What benefit (and there are real benefits) do they derive from their beliefs. Relief from fear, satisfaction of desire, comfort from grief, hope for the future. Until we can teach them to have joy in their circumstances, serenity in their troubles, and reserved forethought for their plans, they will continue to fill those voids with the fantastic and the supernatural.

smellincoffee said...

That's it exactly. People allow themselves to be dominated by political and religious ideologies because these things meet their emotional needs and desires. I don't think we can change one mind through rational arguments, but only through helping people see that there are better -- saner, more humane -- ways of meeting our needs, or by helping people break free of emotional tyranny. Our emotions ought to serve us, not the other way around.