8.Human beliefs

 

A few years ago I took a trip to Rome and of course visited the Vatican, which as you must know, is the headquarters of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church must be one of the least compromising churches, requiring absolute faith from its members.

I like to think of myself as at least an agnostic and more likely an atheist, but I must admit some prudish Church of England upbringing comes out when I contrast the poverty of Italy with the finery of the Church of Rome. However, I visited the various museums and chapels, willing to admire them as human creations, whatever the builders thought was inspiring them at the time, and whatever church tax they must have cost.

One of the churches to visit is St Peter, and in particular the dome. You can actually walk around inside the walls of the dome, the tunnel sloping inwards, until you come out on the roof of St Peter's with a fine view of St Peter's Square and the Vatican gardens. Mounted on the edge of the roof are a number of larger-than-life statues of saints, looking down into the Square below. They are quite impressive, especially when you consider their age. No less impressive is the complex gleaming arrays of obviously modern lightning conductors, mounted carefully at all prominent points and no doubt following the best practice. I was particularly interested to notice that each saint had his or her personal lightning conductor.

Now the mounting of lightning conductors on high buildings seems a perfectly reasonable precaution to take in a region of the world noted for lightning storms. I was pleased to note that other high, secular buildings in Rome were similarly protected.

But the Vatican? Is it really necessary to protect the Vatican from the bolts of Jupiter (sorry, God?). If you are a Catholic, and I feel safe in assuming that the inhabitants of the Vatican are Catholics, you must surely believe that you are living in the most holy place on the Earth. This is IT - the other end of the hot line to God. So don't these good Catholics think that God could make some small dispensation, could instruct his angels, or at least the angel responsible for "Thunderbolts, Southern Italy Region", to be just a little more careful with his aim when it comes to the Rome Area? If only because even a near-miss could be bad public relations? Or, (supreme blasphemy), don't they think God can do anything about where his thunderbolts fall? If they don't, and I'm afraid that that is very much how it appears, how can they be so sure of his power in other, less easily checked directions?

I left Rome irreverently imagining headlines that could possibly appear in the Roman Press were the Vatican not so carefully protected by man from natural catastrophes:

 

VATICAN BURNT DOWN BY LIGHTNING STRIKE!

Insurance company refuses to pay!

Claims "Act of God"

 

Yes, our beliefs are not always self-consistent.

 

Superstition - the beginning

But to see where a lot of our beliefs originate, imagine a 20th century man could go back into the body of a tribesman living in a small prehistoric settlement on the coast of what we now call West Africa, say 25 000 years ago.

He would be surprised to find an extremely complex network of personal relationships between himself and every other member of the tribe. There would also be an intricate power structure going right through the tribe, with the Chief and Elders at the top. Life and the daily routine would be carefully mapped out with simple rituals and procedures. Everything had a precedent - we always did it that way. When there was a good catch of fish, one had to be thrown back to placate the Sea God. Out of a good grain harvest, a portion had to be ploughed back to the praise of the Field God. Only certain families were allowed to manufacture fish-hooks, naturally made out of the bones of fish that made the best eating. Another family made the arrows used in hunting. Arrows for hunting monkeys were naturally tipped with monkey-hair, so they would fly truer to the target. This was everyday knowledge.

Top of the power structure was the Chief with his small band of elite warriors. The Chief ruled because of his undoubted physical strength and prowess with weapons. He was popular, ruling by force of personality as well as physical power. He knew how the tribe worked. Important events requiring the momentary efforts of the whole tribe, such as hunting expeditions or a conflict with a neighbouring tribe, would only be taken after long discussions with the Elders of the Tribe - and the Witch Doctor.

The Witch Doctor, with his acolytes, is a sinister and unpredictable figure. Even the Chief has sometimes to accede to the Witch Doctor because only he knows what is going on in the unseen spirit world which surrounds them. Only he can minimize the effects of evil spirits and solicit the help of friendly ones. He can look into the future, explain dreams and has a knowledge of what the star positions mean. This allows him to tell the tribe when to plant certain crops, go out fishing for certain shoals (but he may announce these events in a picturesque ceremony in which he predominantly figures). He is not seen often, living apart from the rest of the tribe, in a hut-complex surrounded by charms. He has regular consulting hours when he gives out (for a price), special charms to ward off the evil eye, to hang on a boat, or put in a field. He is also the one who knows all about the structure of the world, how it is supported on a stout bamboo pole and earthquakes are when the balance shifts. The world is covered with a huge gourd pierced with lots of tiny holes to let through the light of the Sun God when He goes below the horizon and goes behind the gourd. The gourd slowly turns during the night causing all he tiny spots of light to turn also. But there are also some small fire-flies which crawl around independently on the inside of the gourd. One of them has a reddish colour ...

The Witch Doctors stock-in-trade is:

- a few simple conjuring tricks,

- a good practical knowledge of psychology allied to a sound acting ability,

- a simple knowledge of herbs and their medical effects,

- the enormous credulity of the tribesmen.

Our 21st Century visitor would not be surprised to find a certain amount of strife between the Chief and the Witch Doctor.

During the day the Chief strolls jovially around the huts, followed by two of his unsmiling warriors carrying spears and shields. He may make a few obscene gestures in the direction of the Witch Doctor and the villagers will smile nervously. But come the evening, the long shadows stretch out, the sun sets, the temperature falls, fires are lit and his eyes stray fearfully towards the Witch Doctor's Compound from whence the throbbing drums and a strange coloured glow indicates communications with the Other World.

Yes, the Witch Doctor has a lot going for him. When he speaks of Evil Spirits and Good Sprits he is preaching to the converted. Everyone knows of the devils that lurk in the forest at night. The whole natural world is magic, there is little pattern, it is all controlled by Spirits, the moon, the stars, the wind, storms, lightening, the sun, the clouds, the seasons, good crops bad crops - all magic and only the Witch Doctor can help.

Over the centuries man's curiosity has gradually pushed the unknown further and further back. To be in a lightning storm is pretty frightening but we know it is "only" a static discharge of electricity between cloud and ground, will be over in a while and has nothing to do with the displeasure of the Gods. Science has cleared up the physical world fairly well, but what are called the "Mind Sciences" are not much advanced on what the Witch Doctor knew. And it is exactly in this area that there are so many charlatans, tricksters and frauds who prey on our superstition.

 

Superstition today

 

"Superstition - religion, opinion or practice based on belief in luck or magic."

"Magic - Art of supposedly invoking supernatural powers to influence events etc., any mysterious agency or power."

 

For superstition is still very much with us. Allied bomber crews in the last war all had mascots with them when they went out over Germany. A rabbit's foot, a walking stick. The chance of not coming back was one in twenty (5% losses), so who will blame them? My daughter had been reading a book about the supernatural and my friendly offer to draw a pentagon on the floor and see if we could "raise something" was almost hysterically refused. "Don't even think about it, Daddy!". And this in my apartment in the middle of Paris!

As in other human activities, there are fashions in superstition. In the 1800's, Spiritualism was "in" with mediums, ectoplasm, astral planes, ouija boards, table rapping, haunted houses, poltergeists etc. It all has a pleasant Victorian ring today.

Then came Extra Sensory Perception or ESP, which was an attempt to study odd effects using more scientific methods like card guessing. But this quickly became boring so then we were treated to more spectacular superstitions like the Bermuda Triangle, the Lost Cities of Atlantis, Flying Saucers, the Powers of the Pyramids.

Still going strong is Astrology, Dowsing, Pendulums, Numerology and of course the numerous religions and sects.

The last I remember was the Uri Geller phenomenon.

But let us take these superstitions one at a time.

 

Victorian superstition

The Victorian Wave revolved around the Ghost Story. A typical example would be about the sceptical "ghost hunter" who asked to be locked into the haunted room. When the door was unlocked the next morning he was found crouched gibbering in a corner of the room, his hair snow-white, mindlessly trying to push something away. Coffins often had to be reopened and were commonly found to be filled with blood.

All good Gothic stuff. Less diverting were the numerous Mediums who preyed on the recently bereaved, offering to bring messages back from "beyond the grave". In a séance, some would produce clouds of a white substance, "ectoplasm", which in the dim lighting could look like the loved one. It was quite unscrupulous and many were fooled, including at least one famous scientist (one who had made discoveries in radio, I'm afraid). It is really amazing how suggestible we are, especially if there is a little stress and excitement and very especially if we want that particular suggestion. The mechanism is always the same. The suggester talks and builds a matched filter (see Tutorial) in your head. Because of the strange surroundings, the normal critical faculties which would analyze these incoming words are not so effective. Then the noise signal, ectoplasm, is introduced. Ectoplasm was usually yards of fine

muslin concealed on the person of the medium or a confederate.

The muslin was slowly waved around in the gloom and you get an output from the filter, "It's him, it's him!". The Witch Doctor used straw to give a dense smoke, but the mechanism is the same.

To see the only convincing evidence for psychic phenomena, imagine for a bet you are slowly walking through the empty rooms of a "haunted house". It is midnight. Broken glass crunches under your feet and the moon shines through the uncurtained windows making bright squares on the bare floor-boards. You are just thinking what a waste of ...something flickers in the corner of your eye. You freeze and in the absolute silence your eyes strain into the black shadows. Nothing, of course. But suddenly you notice - the ghastly bright moonlight pattern on the floor - has it moved? There is something dreadfully wrong! And now you hear it, a slight creaking sound on the stairway just outside the door, the door through which you must go to reach safety. Something is waiting outsde in the corridor, something evil, waiting for you, licking its lips ready! Oh God! The hair on the back of your head rises, cold sweat runs down your back but you cannot move an inch, you stare wildly at the black square of the door, there is another slight creak! There is something there!

Well, calm down, it's only a story.

Now imagine the same scene, but this time you have a cat with you. Kitty is quite at home in the empty room. She stiffens and wants to be put down. She looks around carefully in the business-like fashion of the night-hunter. Hearing a creak by the door, she twitches silently round, all systems go. Unblinking eyes open and black, she glides noiselessly forward towards the door, tail flat down behind her, and disappears. A minute later she reappears, disappointed - no mouse. Bored, she rubs herself against your legs, purring.

Yes, quite a different reaction. You might not realize it, but what you have been programmed to fear is something like that cat but about 5 times larger. Your terror was that of the hunted mouse who fears the stealthy night-hunter. The fear of the unknown which you cannot see but which can hurt you.

The Victorian era was also noted for the "Psychic Anecdote":

"I was at the time serving with the 4th Hussars in the Transvaal. I was just getting into my camp-bed when my mother walked into my tent and smiled sweetly at me. Six weeks later I received a letter from England telling me she had died exactly at that time".

Interesting, but one can only gasp with amazement.

 

The Study of Extra Sensory Perception

In an effort to get all these phenomena into the laboratory, where they could be studied, card experiments were started. The idea was to have one person look at a card and another guess which card he was looking at. Both would make notes then move on to the next card. After the experiment the lists were compared and the number of "hits" counted. It was then possible to calculate statistically how unusual (say) 90 hits out of 100 guesses was. We were seeing "Telepathy".

It was sometimes found that one person was guessing no more that average but if you slid the two lists up during comparison you found that he was regularly guessing 2 or 3 ahead! "Precognition" it was called. This gave rise to debates on Free Will. After all, the argument went, if he can see into the future, there is a future ie. life is like a gramophone record and we can't do anything about it so why try. It is fate - Kismet.

Then there were those who were guessing 2 or 3 cards behind, but this wasn't so interesting.

How did telepathy work? Obviously your brain is influenced by your "mind" - material affected by non-material. Telepathy must be due to one mind affecting another brain. But wait a minute - if the radiation from a mind can affect a material brain, perhaps it can be detected affecting matter outside a brain. So very sensitive balances were constructed and people sat round, trying to make them move by "will-power". No result. Then they came up with the idea of using the statistical methods so successful with telepathy. If you roll dice you can calculate how often the number 6 should appear (1 in 6). Now if you roll the dice and get someone to "think" 6, perhaps it will appear more than 1 in 6. And with some people it did! It was called "Psycho kinesis". But the tests showed they had only done it for a short time and could not repeat it.

And that was the problem. It was a lot more scientific but all the tests on telepathy, precognition, psycho kinesis would occasionally give startling results (ie runs of correct guesses that were statistically very unlikely) but they were unrepeatable. There was talk of "fatigue". Then someone found he could get the same results by just comparing numbers from "random number" tables.

These telepathy tests have been repeated and repeated under every imaginable condition (under hypnosis, drugs of all sorts, using electric shocks to try to stimulate success, bio-feedback using EEG waveforms etc. etc.) and of course using computers to evaluate the results, to try to find any consistent patterns. (Just imagine how useful telepathy would be in espionage, in the stock market!) But no results have been obtained that could not be the results of chance.

One possible reason for the non-appearance of telepathy is that there is no such thing as the "mind". Brains work the way they do without the help of a non-material "mind". So if brains are completely material they fall into the category of things we know a lot about, and we are fairly sure that there is no way that one brain can influence another.

An argument for ESP is that our very early ancestors had it but it has died out with us as we have invented speech. But if you think a bit about this you will realize that telepathy, and even more precognition, would have given such a tremendous evolutionary advantage to any species developing it, that it would have out bred all others. If Extra Sensory Perception were possible, it would be used somewhere. We have not found it in animals, we almost certainly don't have it in ourselves, so it almost certainly doesn't exist. Which is a pity as it was a nice idea.

 

Astrology

Astrology is another attempt to look for a pattern in Nature. The sun obviously has a very great influence on us. If you live near the coast the moon obviously influences the tides. The stars form random patterns and the planets go through complex cycles - what do they influence? Astrology says they have an influence on the character and behaviour of humans who are born when a pattern is in a particular position. Human character is very complex and difficult to evaluate; it changes with time and mood. So what better than to associate the random pictures in the stars with the random characters and lives of humans? The clockwork precision of the moving pattern in the heavens gives a pleasing air of scientific rigour to the whole game. And a game that has been played for centuries since our Witch Doctor first raised his eyes to the stars. It is a game that is still played today and still believed (perhaps ashamedly) by many educated people.

But what does Astrology actually claim?

1. The position of the stars at the moment of your birth (ie. the moment you leave your mother's womb) determines your character.

2. The position of the stars at any instant thereafter continue to influence your ongoing life. An Astrologer can tell you the best time for you to start a new business, who to marry and when.

The scientific viewpoint?

Well, the scientist is stuck with the doctrine that every effect has a cause. It has worked very well so far and has given us a coherent picture of large slabs of natural phenomena. He is naturally reluctant to abandon it for one special group of phenomena. The scientist arrives at truth through doubt. He will therefore ask first how can the positions of the stars affect the character (ie. the relative effect of the genes) of an about-to-be-delivered child? And he will be forced to say immediately that they can have no effect: the child is fully formed. The critical instant surely happened 9 months before. So assuming this is really the date meant by Astrology, there are 3 possible modus operandi:

1. Variations in the gravity field strength on the embryo. Very difficult to understand if true. The planets do affect the gravity field, but it is very small compared to the moon and the sun. And the gravitational effect of our nearest star (Alpha Centauri at 4.3 light years) would be swamped by moving a chair around the delivery room.

2. Variations in some other force on the embryo. I'm really just putting this in to be complete. Perhaps I mean the missing and as yet undetected neutrino flux.

3. That the character of the child has nothing directly to do with the positions of the stars and the relation is a coincidence. Perhaps the season when the child was born was the real reason for the character difference? A child born in November has only one month to prepare for winter whereas one born in April will pass its first winter 7 months later when it is presumably stronger.

Now human love of complexity and pattern searching would be unlikely to leave this simple relationship alone (winter and autumn children different from spring and summer children) especially if you have nothing to do of an evening except look at the clear, star-laden skies of the Orient. Naturally the year has been divided up into more than two periods (12 actually) and each period gives rise to different characters, the actual character depending on the Star Sign (ie. where the Earth is as it goes around the Sun). For instance, there is a group of stars that, with some imagination, look like a bull. If you were born under this sign you are "plodding, strong-willed and can be very stubborn". Another looks like a pair of scales. These people are (guess?) "delicately balanced - harmony is essential - he can weigh up intuitively" etc.

It's called Sympathetic Magic and would be perfectly understandable to the tribesman who goes monkey-hunting with arrows tipped with monkey fur.

So the scientific method, so successful elsewhere, shows that there may once have been some difference between children born at different times of the year - presumably because the new born child in winter would have to contend immediately with lower temperatures, lack of sunlight, poorer food etc. whereas the contrary for a child born in summer. Well, perhaps in the Middle Ages or earlier. But now? Our children are well wrapped up in air-conditioned houses, dosed with vitamins from birth ... surely the differences must be minimal? Surely the characters of the parents and their social standing is more important in determining the child's character?

But before we condemn Astrology as rubbish merely because it almost certainly cannot work as described, let us look at its performance ie. does it in fact work?

Astrology can be tested by picking out some section of the population who have an unusual profession and would be expected to have a Star Sign corresponding to this profession. An example would be Professional Soldiers (a good example because their birth records are easily available). If Astrology is true, we would expect to find very few, if any, Libra or Pisces amongst the ranks of military men.

Libra

"Expresses himself through his artistic activity, creating beauty in form colour and sound. They are delicately balanced .. desiring peace at any price .. anger disturbs their physical harmony".

Pisces

"Chief characteristics are sensitivity and emotional response. Their qualities are expressed in warmth of heart, sympathy, compassion, understanding and a rather mystical attitude towards life. They are naturally quiet, trustful, loving, courteous and hospitable, can sense atmosphere and when they find themselves in an uncongenial environment they are easily cast down and made despondent"

But such is the case. The Armed Forces of Britain and France show no preference for any Star Sign. All the Star Signs are represented just as though there were no relation between Star Sign and character.

Similar tests have been run on doctors, explorers, scientists, lawyers...more than 60 studies have been made, covering many thousands of people. The results have always been the same - no correlation found between Star Sign and profession (and therefore character).

Astrology's answer to this is that the date of birth is only one (though a major) factor in determining the character. Others are the positions of all the planets and in particular the sign of the "Sign rising on the eastern horizon at the time of birth. The difference of a few minutes may mean the transition of one rising Sign to another. And so, if the moment of birth should prove to be incorrect the reading of the horoscope may be seriously distorted or given a faulty emphasis".

At this point you might think that anyone capable of understanding the arguments so far already would think Astrology is

pseudo. To my surprise, this is not so. It affords just another example of humans wanting to believe something. This is the phenomenon of the Matched Filter again. Build a filter "Astrology is true" in your head and it will only let data through that confirms and filter out data that doesn't, otherwise known as "tunnel vision".

But to grind the argument out to the bitter end imagine a child, still in the mother and about to be born. Can we really believe that its character is rapidly changing, emphasis shifting from moment to moment until suddenly, with birth, its character is frozen? Can a doctor, looking at a clock by the operation table, determine the character of a child by advancing or delaying the moment at which he makes a Caesarean section birth?

Similar absurdities could be confected about crossing the International Data Line or the Meridian.

Having shown that Astrology 1. probably cannot and 2. in fact, doesn't work in predicting character from birth date, you would think that Astrology's further claim to help you through life should be similarly written off. Not necessarily so, as the following anecdote illustrates:

A few years ago, in the Gold Market in London, a man was idly playing with his computer looking at how the price of gold fluctuated. There seemed to be some regularity but he couldn't put his finger on it and then suddenly, on an impulse, he tried to relate it to some astronomical data, as he was an amateur astronomer. To his surprise, there was some correlation (I don't know with what astronomical data). He carried on with his studies, helped by his wife who was interested in Astrology, but still nothing positive. And there it lay for a while. But one day he found out that the Chinese also have an Astrology system, just as complicated as ours, but different, as naturally based on the Chinese year. So he looked back at his old data on gold price fluctuations and there it was - the Hong Kong Chinese buying and selling gold in accordance with their Chinese horoscopes!

It was only a small fluctuation compared with (say) that produced by a war in the Gulf, so knowing when it would occur would not have made him a millionaire, but the principle is clear: if your business rival, girl friend, enemy, interviewer for a job, believes in Astrology, it is obviously to your advantage to learn about it too, as an aid to predicting and eventually influencing his activities.

And as far as I can see, this is the only use for Astrology.

 

Suggestibility

A pharmaceutical company has developed a new drug and want to test its effect. It is to be given to a number of patients suffering from painful swellings due to rheumatism. But by a mistake, instead of the drug, a completely innocuous powder was distributed. To the surprise of the doctors, a large number of the patients claim that the powder was very effective, they can now sleep at night and they insist on continuing the treatment.

What we are seeing is called the Placebo Effect and very useful it is to doctors. Briefly it can be defined as "If you think something will do you good, it will, and the more you are convinced it will do you good, the more good it will do you" And, more sinisterly, the reverse.

The Placebo Effect is now so well known that new drugs are routinely tested using at least a Blind Test. Here only half the sufferers are given the real pill; the other half are given some neutral pill. No patient knows which pill he has received and in fact is ignorant that a test is being conducted. The effectiveness of the new pill is determined by how much better the real pill is than the neutral pill - the Placebo - which will always give some improvement, at least temporarily.

But it might not be a pill that is being tested, but some complicated procedure requiring injections etc. In order that all the patients are handled exactly the same, not even the doctors administering the treatment know which are the real and Placebo injections. (They might otherwise inadvertently reveal which is which). This is called a Double Blind test, and shows the extent to which one has to go to combat human suggestibility.

Be on your guard.