Have you ever heard of James Randy? For those of you who haven’t, James Randi used to work as a magician, escapologist, mind reader and the like. He claimed no special abilities, but used a series of tricks and techniques with nothing more in mind than providing entertainment for his audience (and making a living, obviously). As he learnt his trade, it became clear to him that the tricks and routines that he was performing were very similar to the phenomena that others were presenting as genuine supernatural abilities. He realised that people who claimed to be contacting the dead, bending spoons with their minds, and reading the thoughts of their audience members, were either using similar techniques to the ones that he had learned during his career in magic, or, as he put it, they were doing it the hard way.
The Amazing Randi, like several great magicians before him, went on to debunk the claims of ‘supernatural’ workers, eventually setting up an organisation which offered a million dollars to anyone that could display a genuine supernatural ability under his own exacting test conditions.
That was 23 years ago (at time of writing), and despite numerous attempts, nobody has managed to claim the award. Why not? It’s simple.
Supernatural abilities don’t exist. Nor do ghosts, fairies, elves, pixies, zombies, magic, dancing skeletons, wiggly woos, or the jubbly monster. They are the products of the human mind. Attempts to find reason where none exists. Cries for either help or attention.
God? Don’t get me started! That’s another article altogether.
So many claimants of powers above and beyond those of the natural world have been publicly shown to be fraudulent, that one has to wonder why people still believe in this shit. Well, it boils down to a couple of things.
Reasons that People believe utter Nonsense 101. With Grantham Montgomery.
- Making order from chaos.
The future is a frightening place. Why? Because you can’t be sure what it contains until you get there. There could be anything lurking in your future. Death, disease, sadness, pain – You just don’t know. You have no way of knowing. Of course, you want to be sure that nothing nasty is waiting for you, so you look for signs or little things that you can do to put your mind at rest. Perhaps you could become vegan. Perhaps you could stop smoking. Maybe you should meditate. It might be worth checking your date of birth against the way that the stars line up. Definitely don’t walk under any ladders. If a black cat crosses your path, be sure to kick the fuck out of it.
- Relinquishing responsibility.
You are important. Where would you be without you? What would you do if you weren’t there to take care of yourself? Nowhere, that’s where. This is why carrying yourself through life is such an onerous responsibility. I mean, you’ve had pets die on you, for fuck’s sake. What chance do you stand looking after a whole you? You have kids as well? Jesus!!
Wouldn’t it be nice to have some advice in these uncertain times? Even if that advice turned out to be bad, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to blame the person that gave it to you for your current and future woes? As long as you aren’t directly to blame, then that’s fine, right?
- Fear of death.
We all know that death will come to claim us in the end. It’s inevitable, so it would be nice to have a bit of an insight into what it entails and what happens to us afterwards, wouldn’t it?
I said that we wouldn’t get into God here, so let’s leave religion for another article sometime, and go with the next best thing – ghosts. Scary as they are (or would be if they existed), ghosts don’t just make things go bump in the night. They also confirm that there is an afterlife. Much as we can’t fully conceive of an eternity of nothingness after we die, almost anything else seems like an infinitely better option. An eternity of joy in the afterlife resort of your choice would be preferable, but failing that, wandering around old castles, warehouses and public toilets carrying your own head is more appealing than absolute oblivion, right?
- Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias a mental phenomenon that causes individuals to favour information that agrees with what they already believe. For example, a person who believes that dogs are more intelligent than cats will find evidence to support their belief in most encounters with the animals. A person who believes that cats are mentally superior would find evidence to support their own opinion in those exact same encounters. Each would be more likely to believe stories of their animal of choice doing incredible things than they would be to believe stories about the other creature. They only observe phenomena that confirms their current beliefs.
If a person had been brought up, then, to believe that burning a frog would make it rain (and people genuinely do), then any rainfall occurring within minutes, hours, days or weeks of their ritual amphibian incinerations would be seen as evidence of the efficacy of the method, and it would likely be difficult to have them shake that belief.
- People are fucking stupid.
It’s fair enough that people want to make themselves feel better about the future, and give themselves the illusion of increased control over it. For the most part, it does nobody any harm, and even when it does, it is mostly to the detriment of the believer. It’s a terrible shame that people can screw up their entire lives with erroneous beliefs, especially when those beliefs have been engrained in them from childhood by dipshit parents, but if they won’t listen to reason (and there is plenty of it out there), then there is no cause for the rest of us to lose sleep over it. Fuck em.
It’s when people start believing things that make them a danger to others that we need to stand up and take notice. Female circumcision, for example, a practice in which the sexual organs of young girls are mutilated for some twisted reason or other, is a disturbing result of some seriously messed up beliefs.
Other people believe that their god will love them more if they do harm to people of different faiths. I promised that we wouldn’t get into religion today, but seriously?
Some enlightened souls believe blood transfusions are wrong, and would rather die than have one. When this only affects themselves, there isn’t a problem. It’s just one less idiot in the world. When they impose this horse shit on their children though, they need to have a good hard look at themselves.
Beliefs are part of being human. As intelligent creatures, we need them to help us make sense of, or at least exist in a complex and uncertain world.
As I write this from my ministerial office, I am of the belief that my house is still where I left it this morning. I have no evidence that this is the case, but that was definitely the situation when I was having breakfast there earlier, so it is more convenient for me to hold the belief of its continued wellbeing than it is for me to drive the 45 minutes back to check.
I believe that I will wake up tomorrow morning. I have no evidence to suggest that I will, but past experience makes me quite happy to simply believe it.
I believe that my family and friends are all doing OK. I can’t see them right now, but there would be little point in worrying about them just because they are out of sight.
If I didn’t hold on to these beliefs, I would simply go mad. I need them to function as a human being. There is no alternative.
Belief can be a useful mental shortcut. What a shame that it so often causes a mental short circuit.
Minister of Stuff.