Reply to Lex Crane


Dear Lex,

I thank you for the opportunity to read your paper on certainty. It is a significant piece of work and I am sure it will be a tremendous success at your symposium! I am interested in knowing how your religious colleagues respond to your paper.

As you might have suspected I find that I disagree with some of what you say. In general, I find that you have diagnosed a serious problem in our culture, have described the symptoms with care and brilliance, have pointed to the consequences of the problem with insight and accuracy; but, I believe, you have arrived at the wrong treatment protocol!

What we need is more, not less, reason. Before we disappear into cosmic religious wooliness we need to actually try to think critically and skeptically. We need to assess the information that is used to manufacture consent (see Chomsky) by our leaders and by our corporations. How is that we have come to believe that driving an SUV is GOOD for the environment?? Not, I think, by looking at the evidence, but rather by responding warmly to television pictures of outdoors scenes only available to the four-wheel drive units that are destroying the outdoors. How is it we are able to buy into so much nonsense in fields of “complementary medicine” and epistemology? Why do so many of us believe so much nonsense? Because, I think, we fail to engage our critical thinking unit.

Imagine that a Viennese prankster, to amuse his friends, invented the whole business of the id and Oedipus, and made up dreams he had never dreamed and little Hanses he had never met. And what happened? Millions of people were out there, all ready and waiting to become neurotic in earnest. And thousands more ready to make money treating them. – Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The following beliefs are strongly held by large numbers of people. Each of them has been hotly disputed by others:

  • Through hypnosis, one can access past lives.
  • Horoscopes provide useful information about the future.
  • Spiritual healing sometimes succeeds where conventional medicine fails.
  • A widespread, transgenerational Satanic conspiracy is afoot in society.
  • Certain gifted people have been able to use their psychic powers to help police solve crimes.
  • We can sometimes communicate with others via mental telepathy.
  • Some people have been abducted by UFOs and then returned to earth.
  • Elvis lives.
  • Vitamin C can ward off or cure the common cold.
  • Immigrants are stealing our jobs.
  • Certain racial groups are intellectually inferior.
  • Certain racial groups are athletically superior, at least in some specific sports.
  • Crime and violence are linked to the breakdown of the traditional family.
  • Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.
  • The death penalty is a deterrent.
  • Smoking marijuana leads to hard drug usage.

Despite high confidence on the part of both believers and disbelievers, in most instances, neither side has much — if any — objective evidence to back its position. Some of these beliefs, such as telepathy and astrology, stand in contradiction to the current scientific worldview and are therefore considered by many scientists to be “irrational.” Others are not at all inconsistent with science, and whether or not they are based in fact, no one would consider them to be irrational.

Nineteenth-century rationalists predicted that superstition and irrationality would be defeated by universal education. However, this has not happened. High literacy rates and universal education have done little to decrease such belief, and poll after poll indicates that a large majority of the public believe in the reality of “occult” or “paranormal” or “supernatural” phenomena. Why should this be so? Why is it that in this highly scientific and technological age superstition and irrationality abound?

It is because our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, an engine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not. This belief engine selects information from the environment, shapes it, combines it with information from memory, and produces beliefs that are generally consistent with beliefs already held. This system is as capable of generating fallacious beliefs as it is of generating beliefs that are in line with truth. These beliefs guide future actions and, whether correct or erroneous, they may prove functional for the individual who holds them. Whether or not there is really a Heaven for worthy souls does nothing to detract from the usefulness of such a belief for people who are searching for meaning in life.

Nothing is fundamentally different about what we might think of as “irrational” beliefs — they are generated in the same manner as are other beliefs. We may not have an evidential basis for belief in irrational concepts, but neither do we have such a basis for most of our beliefs. For example, you probably believe that brushing your teeth is good for you, but it is unlikely that you have any evidence to back up this belief, unless you are a dentist. You have been taught this, it makes some sense, and you have never been led to question it.

If we were to conceptualize the brain and nervous system as a belief engine, it would need to comprise several components, each reflecting some basic aspect of belief generation. Among the components, the following units figure importantly: 1. The learning unit  2. The critical thinking unit  3. The yearning unit  4. The input unit  5. The emotional response unit  6. The memory unit  7. The environmental feedback unit.

The Critical-Thinking Unit

The critical-thinking unit is the second component of the belief engine, and it is acquired — acquired through experience and explicit education. Because of the nervous-system architecture that I have described, we are born to magical thinking. The infant who smiles just before a breeze causes a mobile above her head to move will smile again and again, as though the smile had magically caused the desired motion of the mobile. We have to labor to overcome such magical predisposition, and we never do so entirely. It is through experience and direct teaching that we come to understand the limits of our immediate magical intuitive interpretations. We are taught common logic by parents and teachers, and since it often serves us well, we use it where it seems appropriate. Indeed, the cultural parallel of this developmental process is the development of the formal method of logic and scientific inquiry. We come to realize that we cannot trust our automatic inferences about co-occurrence and causality.

We learn to use simple tests of reason to evaluate events around us, but we also learn that certain classes of events are not to be subjected to reason but should be accepted on faith. Every society teaches about transcendental things — ghosts, gods, bogeymen, and so on; and here we are often explicitly taught to ignore logic and accept such things on faith or on the basis of other people’s experiences. By the time we are adults, we can respond to an event in either a logical, critical mode or in an experiential, intuitive mode. The events themselves often determine which way we will respond. If I were to tell you that I went home last night and found a cow in my living room, you would be more likely to laugh than to believe me, even though there is certainly nothing impossible about such an event. If, on the other hand, I were to tell you that I went into my living room and was startled by an eerie glow over my late grandfather’s armchair, and that the room went cold, you may be less likely to disbelieve and more likely to perk up your ears and listen to the details, possibly suspending the critical acumen that you would bring to the cow story. Sometimes strong emotion interferes with the application of critical thought. Other times we are cleverly gulled.

Rationality is often at a disadvantage to intuitive thought. The late psychologist Graham Reed spoke of the example of the gambler’s fallacy: Suppose you are observing a roulette wheel. It has come up black ten times in a row, and a powerful intuitive feeling is growing in you that it must soon come up red. It cannot keep coming up black forever. Yet your rational mind tells you that the wheel has no memory, that each outcome is independent of those that preceded. In such a case, the struggle between intuition and rationality is not always won by rationality.

Note that we can switch this critical thinking unit on or off. As I noted earlier, we may switch it off entirely if dealing with religious or other transcendental matters. Sometimes, we deliberately switch it on: “Hold it a minute, let me think this out,” we might say to ourselves when someone tries to extract money from us for an apparently worthy cause.

[Taken from James Alcock – to see his full paper on belief go to:

Lex, I find that we do not always share the same heroes of the intellect. I have little use for Joseph Campbell any more; his mythogenetic theory is just silly and, of course, not subject to any empirical tests. I would prefer Martin Gardner.

William James was completely seduced by the trickster Mrs. Piper, and as a result of not using his critical faculties came to believe in a transcendent world of paranormal pulsations.

Einstein was a great physicist but I am not convinced that he is particularly right about religion. I prefer Carl Sagan.

Lex Crane is a serious student of the nature of things who has taught me a lot about the world of literature and thought. He is still my hero, but has drifted off into some cosmic religion that I find less than understandable. He may be right about mysticism over reason, but I see no reason to believe so.

So, there you have it.





One thought on “Reply to Lex Crane

  1. Pingback: A week’s assignment! | Episyllogism

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