Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert
-01- Beliefs come from a variety of sources that include the individual’s experiences, the influence of authority, and the interpretation of events.
-02- But beliefs … often serve to make the person feel better by… providing satisfactory explanations for events that are not well understood.
-03- An inability to find causes for important events and situations leads to mental discomfort, even anxiety, so there is a strong tendency to make up a causal story to provide an explanation. Ignorance about important causes is intolerable.
-04- p3: Believing passionately in the palpably not true…is the chief occupation of mankind. –H.L. Mencken
-05- p3: There is a strong motive for explaining any phenomena that affect us in casual terms, an ingrained need to organise the world cognitively—both the external world and the internal world of the individual. This cognitive imperative, which has been called a belief engine, may have evolved because it was essential for human survival…
-06- p4: …relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see and conclude what they expect to conclude. We only become critical of information when it is clearly not consistent with our beliefs, and even then may not give up that belief. Moreover, confirmatory information or events are much better remembered and recalled than those that contradict what we hold to be true. It is, as Francis Bacon put it, that ‘Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.’ …the reason why we are so attached to our beliefs is because they are like our possessions.
-07- p5: Criticism of our beliefs can feel like a criticism of ourselves.
-08- p5: Anticipatory regret…some people believe in the probability of an event by the vividness with which they can imagine it.
-09- p8: if someone is told, erroneously, that they are better or worse at a particular task they will, in general, at once explain why. We are masters of the ad hoc explanation.
Many interviewers of people applying for jobs or places at a university feel confident in their ability to predict long-term performance.
One of the interviewer’s chief errors is the attribution of the person’s behaviour to their inner disposition, their basic character, and the failure to take into account how they will behave in different situations. This is typical of how we judge the causes of other people’s behaviour. There is a well-established tendency to account for our own behaviour in a rather different way from that which we use to explain the behaviour of other people. We believe our own behaviour to be heavily influences by external causes and situations. By contrast, the behaviour of others is much more often believed to be the result of the product of their underlying personal traits and dispositions.
-010- 9: Making up a story to account for events in what seems to us to be a rational manner, is programmed into our brains. …confabulation, storytelling to account for the observations in a consistent manner but leaving out crucial bits of information.
-011- p12: Yet the actual number of deaths for 1,000,000,000 kilometers travelled is less than one for airlines and trains, around five for car drivers and passengers, fifty for cyclists, seventy for pedestrians, and 100 for motorcyclists.
-012- p12: Social scientists have identified four different types of attitude that people have with respect to risk and how it should be handled: individualists try to control their own environment but oppose controls; egalitarians are also against control, but regard nature as something to be obeyed; hierarchists believe that nature must be managed and are in favour of controls being imposed; fatalists just try to duck when necessary.
-013- p12: …surveys have shown that there is a perception among the general population that childhood vaccination is ten times more dangerous than it actually is, and that the possibility of death from a stroke is underestimated by a factor of ten.
-014- p14:…the real reason that those who wear helmets suffer so much less brain damage may be that they are, in general, more careful, and, for example, do not ride their bikes after drinking too much alcohol.
-015- p15: …if we take a random 1,000 people, we should expect ten to have the disease. Of these ten, only eight will be detected by the test. Tests on the other 990 will give 99 false positives. Thus only 8 out of 107 with a positive test will have the disease. That is less than 8 per cent! The patient, contrary to what most doctors think, should be quite reassured.
-016- p16: The considerable differences that exist between different cultures can affect their basic beliefs about the world, and even the way that they think. This is because social organisation directs attention to certain features and away from others, and can thus influence beliefs about causality. For example, in ancient Greece must emphasis was put on the individual, who could often choose the way they thought, and this was probably a major feature that enabled the Greeks, alone amongst all cultures, to discover scientific thinking.
-017- p17: Easterners see relationships amongst the parts but find it harder to concentrate on an object when it is embedded amongst others. Westerners’ perceptions will be affected by their basic belief that they have control over their environment. When presented with scenes of underwater life, Americans focus on the fish, Japanese on the lake and the relationships between the fish. …people attribute causality to events they pay attention to. Thus Westerners should attribute causality to objects. Easterners to content and situations.
-018- p17-8: …American students are more willing than Korean students to set aside beliefs based on experience in favour of logical explanations, and the latter are more likely to judge valid arguments as wrong if they have implausible conclusions. …Westerners respond to conflict by trying to decide who is right, while Easterners tend to yield points to both sides.
Illusory correlations are quite common, and illustrate a Chinese proverb: ‘Two-thirds of what we see is behind our own eyes.’ … Henry Thoreau said that ‘We hear and apprehend only what we half already know.’
-019- p20: We have strong beliefs about certain events that we have experienced, and that were important to us, but how reliable are our memories?…false memories can quite easily be triggered by suggestion, and can be related to confabulation.
-020- p20-1: In another experiment, students from MIT were given the biography of a guest lecturer. One group had a description of the speaker as cold, while to the other group the speaker was praised for his warmth. After the lecture, the students rated his performance and character largely in terms of the description they had been given beforehand.
-021- p21: It is very hard to alter someone’s beliefs, and we all look for confirmation rather than falsification. … In another experiment, participants were initially told a story that showed that a risk-taker was a very good firefighter, while another firefighter who was much more cautious was mediocre at the job. Given this information, the group concluded that risk-takers were better firefighters. They clung to this view even when told that the stories were just made up. [My emphasis.-V] Again, a magician performed fake psychic phenomena before a group of students. Afterwards they were asked whether they believed he had psychic powers, and about two thirds of the students believed that he did. They were then told that he was just a good magician and that he was faking it and he had no psychic powers. But about half of the students still believed that he really did have them.
-022- p22: But why are our beliefs so hard to lose or change or give up? I think there could be an evolutionary explanation: if beliefs that saved loves were not held strongly, it would have been disadvantageous in early human evolution. It would be a severe disadvantage, for example, when hunting or making tools, to keep changing one’s mind.
-023- p22: The freedom to have beliefs is very important, but it carries with it the obligation to carefully examine the evidence for them.
-024- p24: The Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives two definitions of belief: ‘The mental action, condition, or habit, of trusting to or confiding in a person or thing; trust, confidence, faith.’ A second definition is ‘Mental assent to or acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; the mental condition involved in this assent.’ And for ‘believe’, ‘To have confidence or faith in, and consequently rely upon.’
-025- p25: …beliefs always have a true and false value—how right or wrong they are—regardless of whether or not the individual is aware of this. … But belief sometimes comes close to knowledge for the individual. … belief is a disposition to behave in a manner that may be quite resistant to correction by experience…. Beliefs can be very strong, with little reference to knowledge or evidence, and it is often other people’s beliefs that seem the most fallible.
-026- p26: Descartes: ‘I needed in order to determine what people really believed to notice what they did rather than what they said.’
-027- p27: Beliefs come from a variety of sources that include the individual’s experiences, the influence of authority, and the interpretation of events.
-028- p27: But beliefs…often serve to make the person feel better by…providing satisfactory explanations for events that are not well understood.
-029- p29: An inability to find causes for important events and situations leads to mental discomfort, even anxiety, so there is a strong tendency to make up a causal story to provide an explanation. Ignorance about important causes is intolerable.
-030- p37: If a ribbon is tied to the baby’s foot and the other end to a mobile, they rapidly learn to kick and so make the mobile turn; a week later they will remember how to do it. But when you disconnect the ribbon they continue to kick. Piaget called this is a magical action, as they soo and smile at the mobile at the same time in order, probably, he thought, to get it to move. They are acquiring causal beliefs, Piaget’s studies on children led him to the conclusion that at an early stage in their development they had what he called feelings of participation in natural events that were accompanied by magical beliefs.
-031- p40: …the infant’s brain is ‘designed’ for the purpose of social interaction and understanding. Evolution has resulted in the selection of that design, as it is a great advantage to the individual to interact with, and understand others (children suffering from autism have significant problems with these skills related to joint attention).
-032- p44: ‘How’ questions increase in the fourth year, as does interest in biological phenomena, whereas interest in physical phenomena decreases.
-033- p46: They do acknowledge magical outcomes as a special class of phenomena, and this usually occurs when they are faced with puzzling processes. Children give magical interpretations for extraordinary events, like a toy car changing colour when dipped in cold water. They may also prefer magical interpretations is using them avoids a loss of some sort, or gets them out of a dangerous situation. They also accept magical transformations in fairy tales.
-034- p46: They will cook their observations in order to maintain consistency with their beliefs.
-035- p48: There is quite widespread belief among children that illness is a punishment for wrongdoing, and that they are to blame for their illness.
-036- pp48-9: Counterfactual thinking, thinking about the result if some event had not occurred, contributes to causal thinking. … In general, both children and adults use counterfactual thinking in connection with an unpleasant outcome; they think back to see how it could have been avoided.
-037- p66: Evolution never creates anything totally new, but tinkers and modifies what is already there.
-038- pp70-1: There is evidence from brain imaging studies that distinct brain regions are related to knowledge about different classes of objects, such as people, plants and tools.
-039- p72: Even though human ancestors were on two feet and had free hands some 4 million years ago, tool use is usually assumed to only go back 2 to 3 million years.
-040- p73: The first known stone tool industry consisted of simple stone flakes, found initially at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. … The skills required for tool making probably led to handedness—the preferential use of one hand, which increases the possibility of skilled motor control. … It took at least a million years to go from stone axes to other and more complex tools.
-041- p76: The earliest primitive human appeared about 1.8 million years ago with a brain size of 6oocc—2oocc more than an ape. Homo sapiens, modern humans like us, only emerged 1oo,ooo years ago with a brain that had increased from about 6oocc to 1,3oocc. The brains of modern humans are three times larger than those of other primates, and 75 per cent of the growth occurs after birth, while the corresponding figure in the chimpanzee is 40 per cent.
-042- p77: …frontal lobe damage can lead to compulsive grasping or the inability to use a tool even while understanding its function.
-043- p83: You believe that which you hope for earnestly. – Terence—Roman playwright (bc 190-159)
-044- p83: Causal beliefs are nevertheless fundamental, since a major feature of belief is that it is used to guide how we behave, and so is at the very core of our existence. One can think of it as an explanatory tool. When one refers to someone having a belief, we think we can quite reliably predict how that belief will determine their behaviourin particular circumstances. This view is technically called the intentional stance. This also implies that a person is aware of their own beliefs.
-045- p84: The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has made the important point that humans are incapable of looking at the world ‘in dumb astonishment or blind apathy’. and they always try to explain what is going on. This is fundamental to all thinking about beliefs, particularly those relating to causes that affect our lives. Story-telling, particularly about causes, is very important for us; there are studies that found that about 15 per cent of our day-to-day conversations contain ideas, that is, beliefs, about causes. We take facts from everyday experience and weave a story about them, which is sometimes true, sometimes less so. This is our way of keeping ourselves believing that what we do is good, and that we are in control of our behaviour.
-046- p84: In all cultures explanation of events of importance can be very pleasurable; it has even been suggested that explanation is to cognition what orgasm is to reproduction.
-047- p84: In constructing beliefs we use current knowledge as well as trying to retrieve relevant information;we also try to deal with consistency and inconsistency, both internal, and in relation to the views of others. These attempts are often unsuccessful, as many beliefs are founded on inadequate or insufficient kind from that involved in common beliefs.
-048- p85: The processes by which we arrive at our beliefs are best with logical problems that include overdependence on authority, overemphasis on coincidences, distortion of the evidence, circular reasoning, use of anecdotes, ignorance of science and failures in logic itself.
-049- p85: Beliefs, once acquired, have a kind of inertia is that there is a preference to alter them as little as possible. There is a tendency to reject evidence or ideas that are inconsistent with current beliefs, particularly is they undermine central beliefs; this is known as the principle of conservation. Cognitive consistency is another general idea in the psychology of belief. We are seen as information processors who seek cognitive coherence. A satisfying internal consistency about our beliefs—the stories we tell ourselves—is a fundamental part of human nature.
-050- p86: One view of how we acquire beliefs is that we first collect the facts, which we check carefully, and then, using them and logical reasoning, draw inferences. Rational beliefs can come from such a process. However, it is more common not to proceed along these lines. Instead we tend to believe even when we do not know the relevant and necessary facts. Often even the foundations for the belief remain hidden. There are processes in our brain that allow us to reach conclusions without conscious rational thinking. On this basis, belief is the result of intuition, though there may also be some checking of the facts surrounding the belief.
Humans have a strong tendency to construct novel interpretations to cope with the limited, even false, information available to them. There is, alas, not so clear a dividing line between the beliefs of the sane and those with mental illness, which can be seen to be clearly false.
-051- p87: Associative learning comes about when an event occurs that is associated with a quite different event. So, if some event, rain or plague, occurs close to some other special event—perhaps a rain dance or failure to follow a religious ritual—a causal connection may be believed to have been established. Regularity of an association between two events provides a strong basis for assuming a causal interaction.
-052- p87: Heuristics is the technical term used for the simple rules humans use for making fast decisions in their day-to-day lives: they are essentially simple beliefs.
-053- p88: …three general-purpose heuristics: availability, representativeness and anchoring. Judgements based on these are made, it seems, on a mixture of intuition and reasoning. It is also a general feature that there is overconfidence in the correctness of our judgements. There is, they claim, a tendency built into our cognitive machinery to find order in ambiguous stimuli—we seek patterns even when there may be none. But finding patterns in nature was a great evolutionary advantage and is part of our understanding of cause and effect.
Availability is related to the ease with which the information comes to mind and is accessible. … People do not naturally think like this: we tend to rely more on the information that most easily comes to mind—availability is a dominant feature. … When a hypothetical outcome is imagined or talked about, the individual then believes it is more likely to occur.
-054- p89: Another key heuristic is representativeness, by which we judge something new in terms of how well it matches what we already know. It provides a means for finding pattern in, for example, random sequences of events.
-055- p91: In general, when making decisions, people rarely test their belief on evidence that might show it to be wrong.
-056- p92: Beliefs can be acquired by accepting on trust the beliefs and words of somebody one regards as an authority, and by learning from personal experience. For some people, beliefs are like possessions, and can evoke the feeling of ownership and attachment that one normally feels for material possessions.
-057- p92: Schumaker draws a distinction between primary reality, the world as it really is, and personal reality, which biases the individual’s perception of the primary reality. The result is that much of the information in an individual’s mind is false, and is strongly influences by the local culture and beliefs. Going further, he argues that this could even be healthy. This is quite contrary to the view that a mentally healthy person is one who sees the world as it actually is. Schumaker’s view is that some self-deception correlated with mental good health—lying to oneself may be adaptive. Humans can benefit from misreading reality under certain circumstances.
-058- pp93-4: Across cultures, there are two relatively distinct classes of causal explanation. One is based essentially on the properties of the object, so some bodies float because they are light, of a person’s behaviour is something embedded in their nature. The other class of explanation assigns external forces, like leaves being blown by the wind, and holds that personal behaviour is determined by social forces. In Zatopec culture, a person’s behaviour is explained in terms of the social situation, as in Hindu culture. Americans consider that the person’s disposition as largely determines their behaviours. An interesting example of different cultural beliefs is provided by the analysis of two accounts of why two murders took place, one in the New York Times, the other in a Chinese language newspaper, the World Journal. The Times report attributed a major cause to the personal disposition of the murderer, namely that we has mentally unbalanced, while the Chinese paper emphasised the social situation, the selfishness and violence of American society. Such differences are much smaller in relation to beliefs in the physical domain, such as the movement of objects.
-059- p94: Particularly difficult is the origin of a fundamental belief in the theory of mind; that is, being able to have beliefs about the beliefs of other people, and thus how they will act. Individuals who are autistic do not have this ability.
-060- p98: …confabulation; that is, finding explanations for our experiences and conditions that have little relation to what has actually happened. It is probably closer to the way we normally think that we may like to believe. Confabulation is the phenomenon, whereby patients may produce false memories. For example, the patient may relate in graphic detail how his or her parents visited last night, and later it becomes clear that the mother died four years ago, and the father twenty years ago! Patients also recall incidents after hearing a story, though they were not part of the story. Such people are not aware that they are producing false memories.
-061- p99: Spontaneous confabulation, in which weird and false ideas may rove over a number of themes, seems to be the result of damage to the frontal lobes of the brain, particularly in the bottom region. It is much more common when the patient’s memory is very obviously poor. Confabulations might result from an inadequate ability to evaluate memories properly, failure to use common and general knowledge of the world, or failure to recall negative evidence.
-062- p99: …momentary confabulation, which consists of real memories but not in their correct temporal order, and fantastic confabulations, which are bizarre and bear little relationship to real events.
-063- p100: A delusion is defined as a belief that is firmly held on inadequate grounds and is not affected by rational argument or evidence to the contrary. Common religious beliefs are excluded from this diagnosis, probably as they are considered to be largely culturally determined, and not the peculiar or special belief of an individual.
-064- p100: Patients who have had a stroke that has affected the right hemisphere of their brains, so that their left side is paralysed, may deny on occasion that they are paralysed. For example, an elderly woman, who can neither walk nor use her left hand, will say she can do both. When asked to clap her hands, she will make the movement with her right hand and say that she is indeed clapping. This is similar to confabulation and is typical.
-065- pp100-1: Patients may recover from the brain damage and then stop denying they are paralysed. When questioned as to why they had a false belief, some deny that they had such a belief, whereas others may say that their mind knew it to be false, but would not accept it.
-066- p101: The Capgras delusion is another example of a neurological condition giving rise to false beliefs. When the patient sees someone he knows very well, a wife or parent, or child, he claims that the person looks like, for example, his spouse, but she is not really his wife and may be an alien impostor. In other respects the patient may be largely normal. One explanation is that in seeing his wife, he recognises her, but that the normal emotional response is absent and thus it could not be his wife.
-067- p101: A related but different disorder is prostopagnosia, in which the patient cannot recognise the identity of faces. Yet physiological studies show that the patient does respond to a familiar face, even though he or she fails to recognise the face as someone well known to them. The Fregoli delusion is one in which patients keep seeing someone close to them, possibly a family member, who follows them around but is unrecognisable because they are in disguise.
-068- pp101-2: There are symptoms of delusions in the general population, even in individuals who appear to be perfectly normal. Several studies have found that 10-15 per cent of the population have hallucinatory experiences in their lives, and 20 per cent reported delusions. A study of delusions in the general population made use of a delusion inventory. Questions in the delusions inventory included asking whether the subject has the feeling that they can read other people’s minds, that other people can read theirs, that someone is aiming to harm them, that these is some mysterious power working for the good of the world, and that they are not in control of their own actions. For each of the forty questions, the subject was asked to indicate the strength of the associated belief. The range of scores overlapped considerably between normal and clinically deluded subjects. About 10 per cent of the normal group had scores above the average of the deluded group. The boundary between those with normal and those with abnormal belief is fuzzy. All these studies imply that humans have a natural tendency to somewhat mystical explanations, which are normally constrained, but can emerge under certain circumstances.
-069- p102: In judging a task involving simple probability judgement, subjects who scored higher on the delusion inventory showed what is known as the jump-to-response. This refers to reaching conclusions on minimal evidence. They also showed a need for closure, that it, the determination to give an answer rather than remain uncertain or experience ambiguity.
-070- p104: There are, it is claimed, certain common characteristics of mysticism in all cultures and religions throughout history. These are a feeling of blessedness and peace; a sense of the holy, sacred or divine; and a sense of the paradox of life,together with a sense of the ineffable. Mystical experiences are, for the individual, very real, as real as those of people who suffer from mental illness and have false beliefs. Moreover, evidence that human brains are prone to hallucinations, similar to those experienced in schizophrenia, comes from studies which found that about 40 per cent of American college students reported having heard their thoughts spoken out loud, and 5 per cent had actually held conversations with those voices. Only about 30 per cent had no experience at all of hallucinations.
-071- pp106-7: Severe depression provides a further example of pathological false beliefs, and can provide a nice example of how it is related to a normal function: the emotion sadness. The psychoanalyst Aaron Beck realised that it was her conscious thoughts of his depressed patients that really mattered. Instead of the psychoanalytical assumption that it is the unconscious thoughts that maintain the depression. Beck recognised the fundamental importance of automatic negative thinking by his patients. All their beliefs are negative and may have little relation to reality. Negative thoughts can permeate a patient’s mind and can result in false beliefs. These negative core beliefs are usually global, over-general, and absolute—there is no doubt.
Depression, too, has a strong genetic basis. Many episodes of depression are triggered by loss, which results in sadness, a normal emotion that leads to attempts to make up the loss. Depression can be viewed as sadness becoming excessive, even malignant, and so giving rise to false beliefs. The cognitive processes in the brain interpret the emotion in this false manner and feed back to make the individual even sadder, and too often this can lead to suicide.
In the inner world of the depressive, the self is perceived to be ineffective and inadequate, whereas the outside world is seen as presenting insuperable obstacles; moreover, there is the belief that the depression will continue forever, and that the patient will never get better. The sufferers draw negative conclusions without any evidence to support them – ‘I failed once, and this means I will never be successful’; and reach important conclusions on the basis of a single event–’John says he does not love me, nobody cares for me.’ Underlying there negative thoughts are a set of false beliefs, and it is the aim of cognitive therapy for depression to uncover and correct these beliefs.
-072- p109: Anorexia is a condition absent in non-Western cultures. However, there is in Asian a mental disturbance known as koro, which affects men who believe that their penis is shrinking, will enter their abdomen, and that they will then die.
-073- p112: There are doubts whether attempts to change fundamentally held beliefs—such as political beliefs—would be successful, as hypnotic subjects seem to retain a capacity to resist unacceptable thoughts and ideas if they are presented in a confrontational way.
-074- p113: The ability to accept two completely contradictory sets of information at the same time is known as trance logic.
-075- p113: Dissociation thus enables the subject to ignore some aspects of reality, so angels can be believed in without any real evidence.
-076- p115: Suggestibility can thus underlie many different beliefs, and we may be less in control of what we believe than we would like to believe.
-077- p118: There were hunter-gatherers, and group activity and tool use were very important. A key proposal I wish to put forward is that once causal belief evolved in relation to tools, and once language evolved, it was inevitable that people would want to understand the cause of all the events that affected their lives, from illness, through changes in climate, to death itself. Once there was a concept of cause and effect, ignorance was no longer bliss, and this could have led to religious beliefs. People wanted to know what caused the important events in their lives, what would happen in the future, and what action they should take. Uncertainty about major issues that affected their lives was an intolerable then as it is now. There were feelings of fear, of illness and other dangers like starvation, that had to be overcome.
-078- p118: William James claimed that ‘how to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do’. How do our beliefs help or hinder in this plausible scenario? Religion can help, because it promotes optimism and hope. It provides believes with a sense of purpose and meaning in life, but can also give rise to negative effects such as guilt.
-079- p119: For many religions, there is a belief in a god who is like a person without a normal body: free, eternal, all-knowing and capable of doing anything. This god is the proper object of worship, and can return the world from evil to normalcy. A number of faiths have a strong similarity with regard to the idea of creation, as well as physical cause. The key notion is that the world was not only created by some divine being, but is being continuously maintained and changed.
-080- p119: There are so many religions and the differences in detail with regard to their beliefs are so great that they can contradict each other,. In this sense most must have beliefs that are wrong, though there will be many who will argue for the validity of one religion compared to all the others. Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist, recounts a nice story about telling the other diners at a Cambridge college dinner how the Fang people believe in witches who have an internal organ that can fly at night and destroy crops. There were even claims of some of the Fang having seen them in flight. To this, a prominent Catholic theologian said that he wondered how it could be possible to explain such nonsensical beliefs. But as Boyer know, the Fang were themselves totally puzzled by Christianity, particularly in the Trinity, three people in one, and by the belief that all misfortunes were due to two ancestors eating some exotic fruit.
-081- pp119-20: Religion may thus be thought of as one major way of finding meaning and value in the difficulties of daily life. Religion is practical, as it almost always involves interaction with, and help from, some supernatural being. All religions have some beliefs about death and fate of the dead, which may be reassuring to the living. Religion can also be viewed as a tradition transmitted by teaching, whose fundamental feature is its ability to help people deal with the problems of life, while at the same time by facilitating social cooperation and providing a sense of identity.
-082- p120: Religious beliefs provide answers to difficult questions, and can give order and meaning to situations even when explanations are absent. Religion provides an explanation for the causes of evil events, and this helps to maintain religious observance.
-083- p120: One of the earliest ideas about the origins of religion comes from the British anthropologist Edward Tylor, who in 1871 proposed that all religion is a belief in spiritual beings arising from the experience of death, and from dreams together with hallucinations.
-084- p121: Almost everything in their environment had some permanence unless thy could see the cause for its destruction and disappearance. They thus imagined the existence of the soul, which also provides a way of dealing with the fear of death, for the soul can live on. It thus made sense to honour, even obey or blame, one’s dead ancestors. All this could have reduced the fear of death, and so have been an evolutionary advantage.
-085- pp122-3: Religion is concerned with the supernatural, and thus involved forces and causes beyond our normal experience of nature, and this is something we need to understand. Humans will perhaps seek rewards through the supernatural if they are not obtainable by other means. Religion consists of very general explanations of existence, including the terms of exchange with a god or gods, for example, for good health. And since causal beliefs that promote survival, particularly those that relate to mystical forces, and even perhaps to the gods themselves? In addition, religion beliefs provided gods or ancestors who could be prayed to, and who might help to solve problems. Again, those with such beliefs may have been better adapted for survival if they were less anxious and healthier.
-086- p123: Religion is almost always regarded by its believers as a way of obtaining help from supernatural powers, possibly from a god.
-087- p123: That religion can be a source of comfort was claimed by Karl Marx, who spoke of religion as ‘the sign of the oppressed nature’, a view expressed by many other including Nietzsche, who said ‘Christianity is a sickness, arising from the envy of the underprivileged who felt it justified their position.’
-088- p124: They also believe less in chance governing their lives. There is good evidence for a positive correlation between being religious and being happy. This may in part be the result of assigning God as the cause in matters relating to health and death. Prayer is very important because the individual believe that he or she really can influence what will happen; some people believe they are empowered to communicate directly with the source of all control and change. Most religions teach that suffering is to be expected and could even be a valuable experience. Meaning is essential: if the meaning of suffering is clear, it is easier to bear. Death needs an explanation, and religion can provide it. We go to heaven or hell, our shadows persist, we become ancestors. Most religious explanations are comforting, but not all.
-089- pp124-5: All societies have beliefs about the origin of the world and what happens after death. Religion has declined a little in the West, but is still a powerful force in both the West and the East. An ICM poll in 2004 found that 85 per cent of Americans believe that God created the universe, while in Britain only 46 per cent believe in God. In Nigeria, 98 per cent claimed always to have believed I God, while nine out of ten Indonesians said they would die for their God or religious beliefs. A survey by the market research bureau of Ireland found 87 per cent of the population believe in God. Rather than rocking their faith, 19 per cent said tragedies such as the Asian tsunami, which killed 3oo,ooo people, bolstered their belief. In a 1996 Gallup poll in the USA, 90 per cent believe in heaven, 79 per cent in miracles and 72 per cent in angels. According to a 1991 Gallup poll, also in the USA, over one half believe in the devil. During the last thirty years, membership of the Mormon church has more than doubled to around 5 million, and that of the Southern Baptists has increased from around 8 to 16 million.
In 2001 just over three quarters of the UK population reported having a religion. More than seven out of ten people said that their religion was Christian (72 per cent). After Christianity, Islam was the most common faith, with nearly 3 per cent describing their religion as Muslim (1.6 million). Religion in the UK has declined in the 20th century as measured by church membership. Only the Catholic Church showed an increase. In 1998 about half of the people of Britain believed in God, but even occasional church attendance was down to about 25 per cent.
-090- p125: It is not clear why, if religion is in our brains, so many do very well without it.
-091- pp125-6: Two themes dominated social scientific theories of religion for some three centuries: the first that gods are illusions generated by social processes, ‘society’ as the nineteenth-century sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, ‘personified and represented to the imagination’; the second that the gods are illusions generated by psychological processes that are the product of a primitive mentality in so-called ‘primitive’ societies. There was in the nineteenth century a quite widely held view that ‘primitive’ people had a primitive mind, with lower intelligence compared to their Western observers. The Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer even went so far as to say that they had no concept of cause, and were without curiosity. This primitive mind hypothesis has been used to discredit not only the mode of thought in ‘primitive’ societies, but religion in general.
-092- p127: Religious experience, [William] James [in Varieties of Religious Experience] , is as real to those who experience it as an experience of the sensible world. There is thus nothing in the approach of any rationalist that could lead one to deny the ‘reality’ of such experiences, for ‘the extent of disbelieving in certain types of deity makes theologians of us, for these disbeliefs are a theology.’
-093- p128: The apparent reality of dreams shows that our brains can unconsciously generate experiences that have not actually occurred. Dreams may have played a role in creating certain religious beliefs. They can give an uncanny sense of a real event in a way that is still poorly understood.
-094- pp130-1Michael Shermer conducted a survey of the Sceptics Society in the USA, which has many members who are scientists, and found, to his surprise, that while they were indeed sceptical of the paranormal, over one third thought it likely God existed. He then tried to find out the basis for this belief, not only among them, but more generally. The answers he received were of two main kinds: first, that there appears to be a pattern of God’s presence in the world, and secondly, that belief brings comfort and alleviates fear of death. The latter reason was the main explanation for those questioned not about their own beliefs, but about why they thought other people believed in God. For those who did not believe in God, some 40 per cent said that it was because there was no proof of God’s existence. Other reasons were that such a belief was absurd and unnecessary. It is striking how little a role science plays in such explanations, and though there was some correlation between disbelief and interest in science, this may merely reflect higher education qualifications. The more educated, the less religious belief. Conservatives were more religious than liberal. And people who scored highly in openness were less religious. Men tried to justify their belief with reasons, women with emotions.
Not to have a religious belief is relatively modern. Unbelief is most likely a product of Greek thought. In his Laws, Plato argues for religious beliefs: the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul. Not to believe in these he regards as a serious crime worthy of prison, even death. For him, it is not a matter of acceptance but faith, trust and obedience.
-095- pp131-2: Religious belief is partly the relation of self to the rest of the world in some mystical manner, rather than to just objective reality. Three centuries ago, the radical English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan dismissed all religion as ‘credulity’, ‘ignorance’ and ‘lies’, and said that God existed only in the minds of the believers. He wrote:
For if a man pretend to me that God hath spoken to him supernaturally and immediately I make doubt of it. I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce to oblige me to believe it. It is true that, if he be my Sovereign he may oblige me to obedience, so as not by act or word to declare I believe him not; but not to think otherwise than my reason persuades me…For to say that God hath spoken to him…in a dream, is no more than to say he dreamed God spoke to him…
Voltaire was surprised by the presence of widespread atheism in England in 1730 and David Hume wrote him famous essay on miracles in 1748. ‘There is not to be found in all history any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves… It is strange that such prodigious events never happen in our days.’ Other attacks on religious beliefs came earlier from the French historian of mathematics and science de Fontenelle in 1687, and as early as 1711 the Earl of Shaftesbury was putting forward a scientific study of religion, which he discussed in terms of anxiety and illusion. Such an approach is at the start of a now long tradition of attributing religion to groundless fears and irrationality. Yet at those times in Europe, insanity was believe to be either due to the devil, or a punishment by God.
Sigmund Freud described religious beliefs as ‘illusion’ and ‘childishness to be overcome’. He developed a psychanalytic theory of religion based on the Oedipus complex: the desire of the son to sexually possess the mother and exclude the father. His explanation, that it had its origin in the killing of a dominant father who bounded females, and in the subsequent guilt of the murdering sons, cannot be taken seriously. He later developed his theory as follows:
Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father…religion beings with it obsessional restrictions, exactly as an individual obsessional neurosis does; on the other hand it comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but…in a state of blissful hallucinatry confusion.
–a description that in some ways could be applied to psychoanalysis itself.
-096- p136: Although the studies should be regarded as tentative, the evidence is that there is an inverse relationship between pain intensity, and religious beliefs. This is consistent with the findings that those within a religious community enjoy better mental health, possibly due to social support. There is also evidence that religious activities reduce psychological stress and promote greater well-being and optimism, and so help to reduce the bodily effects of stress such as that on the heart. Religious beliefs are complex; social religiosity, for example, is associated with a reduced risk of psychiatric illness and drug taking, while other beliefs such as God as judge and general religiosity are only associated with less risk of drug abuse.
-097- pp136-7: The Minnesota twin study did find that there was a genetic influence on whether an individual developed religious belief. The heritability was around 50 per cent, which implies a significant genetic component.
-098- p137: I think that religious beliefs were adaptive for two main reasons: they provided explanations for important events, and offered prayer as a way of dealing with difficulties. Those was such beliefs most likely did better, and so were selected for. As argued throughout this book, our brain has a natural tendency to find consistent and reasonable explanations for important events, and so religious beliefs are most likely parttly genetically determined.
-099- p138: It is thus of great interest that the psychologist Michael Persinger has stimulated the brains of subjects with electromagnets that cause tiny seizures in the temporal lobes. Many subjects had supernatural spiritual experiences, even religious ones, which included the sense of something or someone else in the room, distrotion of their bodies, and religious feelings. A possible explanation is that a shock can so disturb the system that strange experiences like this result, and this suggests that some aspects of religious experience are programmed into our brains. However, another study failed to confirm his findings.
-100- p139: For what a man had rather be true he more readily believes. – Francis Bacon 1561-1626
-101- p140: [Schumaker] argues that we are pre-eminently autohypnotic creatures and suggests that human beings are ‘a believing phenomenon, who must believe in order to live at all’. Others have suggested that a full apprehension o the human condition would lead to insanity, and that paranormal beliefs can help relieve this stress, particularly the belief that we live in some domain larger and more permanent than mere everyday existence. Moreover, for many, science is inaccessible and unsatisfying.
-102- p141: Magic, according to Voltaire (1756) ‘is the secret of doing what nature cannot do. It is an impossible thing ‘superstition is, after the plague, the most horrible flail that can infect mankind.’ And again, ‘The church has always condemned magic but has always believed in it. Magic rose in the East and them became enshrined in Christianity. As late as 1782 a witch was tried and executed in Switzerland.
-103- p143: Very few people are content to accept that blind chance plays a large part in their lives; they seek reasons and logical connections even when these do not really exist. The human, mind far from being infinitely malleable, tends to impose certain inbuilt patterns on experience. The presence of strikingly similar witchcraft beliefs in most known societies raises the relationship between witchcraft and human universals.
-104- p143: Belief in witchcraft provided intuitively attractive ways for evading logic, as there was no real evidence for the witches’ crimes. Witchcraft was about envy, and the power to harm others.
-105- p145: People may believe weird things because they want to, perhaps because it makes them feel good.
-106- p145: An essential feature of most beliefs in the paranormal is rationalisation, so when the belief is confounded by events, a kind of confabulation occurs. When the gods or witch doctors do not answer prayers, some reason is found for why they do not do so. If prayers for a sick child fail and the child dies, an explanation might be that the individual who prayed had committed some unforgivable sin.
-107- p146: Where a local world was in flux, attacks on witches could thus provide an outlet for frustration, a means to secure access to material and scarce resources, or to redress unwelcome shifts in the balance of power. Beliefs in witchcraft were therefore exploited for a scapegoating process that involved a trajectory of violence against defenceless individuals. There was no common model, although there were often strong points of similarity between outbreaks. Often the victims were marginalised from their communities; for example, old women without kin, or herd boys geographically isolated from the village. There was frequently a pronounced gender or generational character, with the female and the old being common targets. Some of those targeted were, however, the conspicuously prosperous, as with black traders, whose success had aroused aggressive jealousy, and who were seen as trading core traditional values for economic success. A survey in southern Africa found that four fifths of those accused of witchcraft were related to their victims—most frequently a wife or mother-in-law was accused.
-108- p149: Indeed, those who believe in UFOs have been found to have a high level of hypnotic susceptibility.
-109- p149: …one third of American psychotherapists accept that hypnosis facilitates recall of memories not just from this life, but also from some previous life.
-110- p149: There is a correlation between belief in paranormal phenomena and the ability to see patterns where there is little evidence for them, as in a random pattern of dots. There is also the correlation with the ability to fantasise, and the capacity to become strongly engrossed in the content of an unusual experience. A major factor is a traumatic event in childhood, such as extreme loneliness or physical abuse. Fantasy could be an escape from severe stress. It could also provide a belief that there is a world over which children have control. Indeed, control may be a key in relation to paranormal beliefs. Paranormal beliefs can provide a cognitive framework within which life events are comprehensible and therefore may be mastered. Personal experience of any paranormal phenomena provides a very strong basis for believing in them. But there also seems to be a powerful urge to believe in such phenomena, and this, as I have suggested in relation to false beliefs, may be programmed in our brains. Belief in paranormal phenomena is very difficult to change.
-111- p150: A survey in the UK found that people with strong paranormal beliefs had a high level of religious interest, but were not integrated into religious institutions or events. They were seeking transcendence, but were compensating with their beliefs for not being in an organised religion. A survey in Reading found that those who believed in the paranormal based this on personal experience. Examples included dreams that came true, seeing a dead relative, and thinking of someone dying who was in fact dying. About 70 per cent believed in the paranormal. Their belief often came from friends and the media.
-112- p150: Paranormal believers scored higher on the delusion scale, and they also made more errors in dedcutive reasoning task.
-113- pp151-2: In 1997, the self-proclaimed Vedic philosopher Leahcim Remrehs offered psychic wisdom over a radio station to Chicago listeners. He told how scientific thinking, compared to New Age Enlightenment, restricted one’s ability to perceive other dimensions, the future and the past. He invited callers to just give their date of birth and then ask a single question—this would allow him to tap into their cosmic vibrations. His success in telling the callers things about themselves, and their relationships was very impressive and persuasive. But this psychic was really Michael Shermer (backwards) using his psychological skills.
This is a nice example of the Barnum effect. If you make some general statement, people will take it as referring accurately to something specifically about the,. It is a technique used by clever mediums who not only claim to be able to contact the dead, but tell a person something important about their lives on first meeting. The extent to which the medium is self-deceiving is interested. The so-called psychic works from the general; for example, ‘I sense a tension in your relationship,’ or ‘You are wearing something very important to you.’ As Shermer points out, around half of all Americans believe in astrology.
-114- p153: An important feature for those who observe a psychic is the frame of mind in which they come to the event. Sceptics come believing they will be exposed to some sort of trickery, whereas believers in psychic powers expect a genuine display, and that they might even make contact with another world. These expectations do affect the observer’s experience. Their later recall of what happened, and whether there really has been a demonstration of extrasensory perception, is greatly influenced by their beliefs—the believers recall psychic phenomena even when the demonstration has been unsuccessful and nothing actually moved, as just described.
Many individuals have reported experiencing extraordinary phenomena during darkroom seances. Eyewitness claim that objects have mysteriously moved, strange sounds have been produced or ghostly forms have appeared, and that these phenomena have occurred under conditions that render normal explanations practically impossible. Believers in the paranormal argue that the conditions commonly associated with a séance, such as darkness, anticipation and fear, may act as a catalyst to produce these phenomena.
-115- pp155-7: An experimental method for studying ESP is the Ganzfield procedure, which tests for telepathic communication between a sender and a receiver. The receiver is placed in a reclining chair in a soundproofed room with translucent half ping-pong calls placed over the eyes, and headphones over the ears. A red floodlight is directed at the eyes and white noise played through the headphones. All this creates a total homogenous field—the Ganzfield. The sender is placed in another isolated room and is randomly presented with a picture, photograph or videotape. The receiver provides a verbal report of the images he or she has perceived. Then the receiver is presented with several, say four, images and is asked which matches the images they received. Of the four images only one was ‘sent’ by the sender, so the chance of being correct, by chance alone, is one in four. There was in 1994 a report in a respected science journal, the Psychological Bulletin, that the receiver did slightly better than this, and claimed to show a paranormal transfer, but those who have examined the report closely have concluded that the necessary evidence is flawed.
There are also claims for psychokinetic phenomena where the mind alone, just thoughts, can affect the behaviour of objects both nearby and very far away. Science has no evidence whatsoever that the implied forces could exist. Such phenomena, it is claimed, could act to heal, bring rain, or raise a table. Poltergeists, non-human agents, must be assumed to use similar methods. The stories are legion, yet those with such powers have been very constrained in what they might have done—changed lead into gold, prevented ageing, and so on. And once again, why are such extraordinary powers so rarely used? Science provides no evidence whatsoever that the implied forces could exist.
Many psychics claim to be able to help the police solve serious crime. Psychics have been used in over one third of the USA urban police departments and they have also been used in Europe. Wiseman and his colleagues compared the performance of two groups, one of psychic detectives, and the other a group of college students who were the control group. One of the psychic detectives was taken quite seriously by his local police force. Each group was shown three items that had been involved in one of three crimes: a bullet, a scarf and a shoe. The three crimes were, briefly: a soldier shot his wife and buried her, and she was identified by her shoe years later; a police officer was shot and the two men responsible were convicted on evidence that included the bullet; and an elderly lady was strangled by her scarf. All the subjects were asked to handle all three objects, and then filled in a questionnaire relating to the items, in which they had to say whether the statements about the crimes were true or false. None of the scores was statistically significantly different from random. However, the psychics, when told of the crimes involved, believed that they had in fact been successful—they had got some things right, like the scarf being involved in suffocation. But they ignored their false predictions.
Miraculous events are reported in many places, particularly in religious texts. The evidence, to put it mildly, is rarely convincing, and usually relies on personal testimony. An interesting example of the reliability of this personal testimony is provided by what Wiseman refers to as the best-known secular miracle: the Indian rope trick. Accounts of this can be found in Buddhist and Hindu literature, and there is eyewitness testimony from the fourteenth century onwards. In the standard accounts, a magician in a field or market square throws up a rope, which remains rigid. A boy then climbs up the rope and vanishes. The magician calls the boy back, and when he does not appear, he himself climbs the rope and vanishes. Next, the boy’s body, dismembered, falls to the ground, and the magician returns and restores the boy to normal health. Many individuals claim to have witnessed the trick, or at least some portion of it. Why do they believe they have seen such a ‘miraculous’ event? Wiseman surmised that whatever the reason, the reports would have become increasingly exaggerated over time from the reports of those who actually claimed to have seen it. And this is what he found: the average time that had passed since anyone reported seeing the boy climbing and disappearing was thirty years. There seems to be a real need for some to believe in such events.
-116- p158: A series in the UK, James Randi: Psychic Investigator, aimed to debunk psychic phenomena. A survey of attitudes, both before and after seeing the programme, found that about half believed that there was enough evidence to have serious discussion on the topic, and one quarter believed that ghosts were not imaginary. About one quarter believed in a supreme being with whom humans were not in contact. And about one third had had some sort of paranormal experience such as a premonition. The Randi programmes had virtually no effect on changing people’s beliefs, but some TV critics condemned them as hypocritical and tasteless for even questioning the paranormal.
-117- p159: With its promotion by the media, belief in the paranormal seems to be comforting to some, but is acutely irritating to others like myself. It suggests that there is a greater reality that we do not yet understand, and may never do. It opens up the possibility of life after death. It also opens up the possibility that we all have powers that we can develop to help us control our own bodies, and even the behaviour of other people and objects around us. But would people believe in ESP if it did not resonate with their own experiences, particularly coincidences? Recall that with just twenty three people in a room, the chances of two having the same birthday are fifty-fifty.
-118- p166: From this came Galen’s four humours—black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile—which were so dominant for the next 2,ooo years of Western medicine, even though their claimed functions were wrong and many other ideas were unreliable, if imaginative, with, for example, an emphasis on bile and phlegm coursing through the body causing epilepsy.
-119- p171: Witchcraft and the evil eye are not peculiar to so-called primitive societies as found, for example, in Africa, but were present up to the seventeenth century in educated Europe.
-120- p171: Germ theory only became established with Pasteur in the late nineteenth century. Bloodletting was believed in by doctors from Galen’s times, and it was the subject of one of the first clinical trials, by Pierre Louis in Paris in the early nineteenth century. He found how ineffective it was. Patients had been unnecessarily bled, with serious ill effects, for nearly 2,ooo years.
-121- p172: Charcot, the nineteenth-century French neurologist, used hypnosis to uncover hysteria, but failed to realise that the behaviours he observed were most likely due to the suggestions he made to his patients. Freud was much influenced by these explanations.
William Gladstone thought that everyone would be much healthier if they chewed each bite of food precisely thirty-two times—there are, after all, thirty-two teeth. And George Washington believed that a variety of illnesses could be cured by passing two three-inch metal rods over the afflicted area. Even today, there is enormous enthusiasm for remedies that claim to sure cancer and other serious illnesses, but for which these is just no reliable evidence.
Values can influence the definition of health and disease, as is illustrated by views on mental illness in America in the nineteenth century. Some physicians asserted with all their authority that women who enjoyed sexual intercourse, or who indulged in masturbation, were afflicted with various forms of mental illness as well as physical problems. There were also diseases that affected only blacks; one disorder was even named ‘drapetomania’, the overwhelming desire of a slave to run away.
-122- pp173-4: Studies of patients have found that around 50 per cent (it varies in studies from 30 per cent to 80 per cent) of visits to the doctor for physical symptoms that have no organic basis could be due to somatisation—the mind affecting bodily functions, often as a result of depression. This strong relationship between psychological stress and somatic symptoms suggests that religious beliefs could actually make things better by reducing stress. Religious beliefs and behaviours are inversely related to several of the risk factors for heart diseases. Lower blood pressure, for example, has a positive association with religious belief. The death rate from heart disease among Mormons is about 30 per cent lower than the general American rate. There are also studies showing that mental illness is lower in religious groups. [PN: The instance of heart disease in Mormons could be down to the fact that Mormons consume neither alcohol nor caffeine.]
-123- pp177-8: My own questioning of friends about the difference between viruses and bacteria found that they know that one does not take an antibiotic for an illness caused by a virus, but have not a clue that a bacterium is a living cell, while a virus is not alive, but contains the code for its replication that can only be used when it infects a cell.
-124- p181: The affected individual is no longer morally accountable for his actions, and a shaman or doctor names the ‘spirit’ responsible for the state. The resemblance between the psychoanalyst’s ego, superego and if and certain Western African psychologies relating to soul, nature and lineage has been noted.
-125- p182: The true advantage of the psychoanalytic mode of thought is that it is accessible to almost anyone, and there is nothing for which an explanation cannot be obtained, making it very seductive.
-126- pp184-5: The other, and unpleasant, side to the placebo effect is termed the nocebo. Nocebo involves getting ill or having unpleasant symptoms because of the expectation that this will happen. For example, 80 per cent of hospital patients given sugar as an emetic vomited, and asthmatics have had an attack caused by neutral inhalant which they were told would cause one, and cured by the same inhalant when told that it would help them. Medical students’ disease is well known: many students begin to get the symptoms of the disease they are studying. It is also the case that depressed patients have a greater probability of heart disease because, perhaps, of their negative expectations with respect to their health. The most dramatic example if voodoo death, which has been reported in diverse cultures in Africa, South America and Australia. Its success depends upon the victim knowing the spell or ritual curse has been cast. Somatisation, how the beliefs held can affect the body, could be a related phenomenon.
-127- p185: Not doing a proper clinical trial can lead to very misleading results; neither anecdote nor correlation will do. Consider, for example, my very reliable treatment for flu. Each morning when you are ill you get out of bed and sing ‘God Save the Queen’. I can guarantee you that in three weeks you will be fine again. Recall, always. Peter Medawar’s comment.
-128- p187: There are three forces, the only three forces capable of conquering and enslaving forever the conscience of these weak rebels in the interests of their own happiness. They are the miracle, the mystery and authority. –The Brothers Karamazov, F. Dostoyevsky
-129- p188: Forced beliefs manufactures to support other beliefs that are poorly supported by evidence. A current forced belief is the denial that males and females are different in waya other than those related to reproduction, though research shows clearly that they have different and complementary mental and physical capabilities selected during evolution.
-130- p188: For beliefs strongly held, it is often the case that there is virtually no evidence that will make someone give them up, and any evidence will be negated by various arguments not too unlike confabulation.
-131- p189: In a number of animal societies help is given to close relatives since it helps conserve the genes they share. Human societies are unique amongst animals in that many societies are based on cooperation between genetically unrelated individuals. There is evidence from sociobiology that some aspects of person commitment and altruism are coded for by our genes by controlling the development of the brain so that these behaviours are instinctive. This is particularly clear in relation to our helping those who share our genes.
-132- p189: When individuals believe that the other members of the group will be cooperative, they too will cooperate, but will be very disappointed when this turns out not to be the case. This could lead to breakdown of cooperation in the group as a whole. Even when there are a large number of cooperators in the group, studies have found that a small number of selfish individuals can result in zero cooperation throughout the group. To maintain cooperation, it is essential that most members believe that almost all of the other members are cooperative. This belief will be supported if there are known to be punishments for selfish individuals. There is also evidence that a considerable part of human altruism is driven by beliefs concerning what effect it will have on reputation.
-133- p189: A person who makes no emotional commitment can expect none in return. This commitment could be a key reason for people to value religion.
-134- p192: he subjugation of the native peoples of the New World was legally sanctioned. In the fifteenth century, two papal bulls set the stage for European domination of the New World and Africa. Romanus Pontifex, issed by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal in 1452, declared war against all non-Christians, throughout the world, and specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonisation and exploitation of Non-Christain nations and their territories. Another bull by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 to the King and Queen of Spain, following the voyage of Christopher Columbis to the island he called Hispaniola, officially established Christian dominion over the New World. It called for the subjugation of the native inhabitants and their territories, and divided all newly discovered or yet-to-be discovered lands into two, giving Spain rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe, and Portugal over the other.
-135- p195: There are some 5,ooo economic, political and religious groups operating in the United States alone, with 2.5 million members.
-136- p196: Cult mind control is not different in kind from everyday varieties of attempts as persuasion, but differs in its greater intensity, persistence, duration and scope.
-137- p199: Even among early scientists, there was the view of the soul as the organising force of the embryo, and in the nineteenth-century no scientist believed that the woman contributed anything important to the embryo other than nutrition: the sperm was the organiser.
-138- p199: From the moment that the egg has been fertilised by the sperm, the status of the early embryo is that of a human being according to most Christian religions, and this is particularly clearly stated by the Catholic Church.
-139- pp199-200: There is, in fact, nobiological basis for such beliefs, if only because the fertilised egg can develop into more than one person, namely, it can give rise to twins. I would argue that the embryo is only a person when the baby can survive outside the womb with minimal technical support. The divine basis for these religious convictions is far from clear, as it is of relatively recent origin. For hundreds of years, as mentioned above, the soul was thought to only enter the embryo around forty days after conception.
-140- p209: The concept of proof is central to some aspects of belief. This is an idea that he its origins in Greece in the sense that they made the concept explicit. Aristotle showed, and he was the first, that a proof depended both on deductive argument, and the validity of the premises from which the deductions were made. If the premises were true,one could believe in the deductions made from them. The practice of proof was used among other ancient societies but the explicit concept is Greek alone.
-141- p214: But what do other scientists believe about religion? In 1914 and 1933 there were curveys of scientists in which they were asked whether they believed in a God who has communication with humans, and to whom one might pray and expect an answer, and whether they beliebed in personal immortality. Yes, no, and don’t know were the only permitted answers. Similar surveys were repeated in 1996 and 1998. Over all those years, from 1914-1998, the proportion of scientists believing I God remained at around 40 per cent. However, for scientists of distinction—the scientific elite—only 30 per cent believed in God in 1914 and by 1933 it was only 20 per cent. In 1998 the elite scientists from the prestigious National Academy of Science in the USA were overwhelmingly 90 per cent non-believers, with biologists being most strongly represented. While some 45 per cent of ordinary Americans reject Darwinism evolution, in the UK the figure is around 10 per cent.
-142- p215: We must have the intellectual courage to live with such unanswered questions, rather than invent answers that have no basis other than in mystical experience.
-143- p216: Of course, it is possible for God to easily reveal to scientists his current existence: God only has to perform, publicly, one or two miracles, for good evidence to be provided. This evidence could, for example, be quite simple, like turning a lake into good red wine, or providing an instant cure for cancer. Such miracles would almost certainly lead to religious beliefs among the sceptics.
-144- p218: Moreover a case can be made that some of the false beliefs that arise in mental illness, particularly those with a mystical quality, can be linked to the religious circuits in the brain.
-145- pp218-9: I would argue that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs appeal to them, but with a fundamental provision that those beliefs must be reliable if they lead to actions that affect the lives of other people.
-146- p220: our belief engine, programmed in our brains by our genes, operates on different principles. It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers, loves representativeness, and sees patterns where often these is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority, and it has a liking for mysticism.
-147- p220: It is the action based on beliefs that ultimately matters, and respect for the rights of others is fundamental.
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert