This is an expansion really of some of the ideas developing out of the post concerning the claims of ‘militant’ atheists and the discussions myself and AC-1 have had about arbitrary beliefs (non-evidence based belief) and there value or lackof.

I want to consider a variety of phenomonal events and scientific research, observations and speculations that suggest that reality is not quite as it may seem. And that arbitrary belief may not be quite so arbitrary after all.

Our starting point in this journey is probably the solopsistic skepticism of Descartes in his first meditation. The sceptical questioning of whether we can trust our senses. The anti-realist conclusion is that we can only be certain of our being thinking and that anything else (such as an experience of the external world) can only be believed to be true, but cannot be convincingly known to be true. One classic example is the Brain in a Vat argument. Science offers us a similar cautionary theory when it talks of the observer effect. Where the act of observing or measuring a given phenomena may influence its outcome.

The Vision of Our Lady of Fatima

On 13 October 1917 at Cova Da Iria in Fatima Portugal, 70,000 people gathered to witness a miracle. Six months previously three children, Lucia Dos Santos and Francis and Jacinta Marto saw an apparition of a lady in a globe of light hovering over a tree. The lady spoke to them, telling them not to be afraid and that she had come from heaven. She announced that she would return to the same spot for six consecutive months at the same time, and that on the final occasion she would perform a miracle.

On the final apparition most people in the crowd reported not being able to see the Lady of Fatima, but it was recorded that 70,000 onlookers including the curious and the outright sceptical did witness a most unusual phenomena. The editor of the Lisbon daily newspaper O Seculo (a pro-government and anti-clerical secular paper) described it as the dancing sun. This was the description given almost universally by the witnesses that the sun danced across the sky. Closer inspection of the accounts reveal that what was observed was a huge silver disc descending from the clouds, rotating rapidly, performing aerial tricks and changing colours and emitting a heat that dried the soggy clothing of the witnesses who were stood in the rain.

What are we to make of this. There are numerous explanations posited.

1) The reports are simply untrue and a mass fabrication. However the large number of witnesses, the presence of sceptics including Dr. Joseph Garrett, Professor of Natural Sciences at Coimbra University among others suggests that witnesses believed that they observed the described phenomena.

2) The events truly were miraculous. This hypotheses may require a substantial leap of faith for atheist scientists, and for that reason I am not proposing it seriously, but it is a possibility amongst the others. This theory becomes difficult when one considers the possible scientific explanations for the phenomena and the difficulty of verifying the existence of (for example) heaven where the Lady of Fatima claimed to have come from. What is accepted even by the unmoved sceptics is that an event was predicted to occur, and consequently did occur.

3) The events are open to scientific explanation. First of all this must be true as the event was ‘observed’ by many so some comparison of the witness accounts can lead to the development of scientific hypotheses. Science has excluded the possibility of a solar event, there are no astronomical or meteorological phenomena reported that day by any observatory that could lend explanation to the event. However some have speculated about light interacting with stratospheric dust clouds causing the changing of the colours, this theory (widely accepted as possible) does not explain the reports of the disc moving, or emanating heat. Most scientists investigating the phenomena have concluded that there are possible scientific explanations for some of the reported phenomena but no overall conclusive explanation is evident. Many scientific researchers on this event also conclude extra-natural explanations not to be out of the question.

4) One common, and now substantially rejected explanation is that the 70,000 experienced a mass hallucination. It is rejected on the grounds of the numbers of witnesses, the variety of witnesses including scientific sceptics and that the phenomena was observed up to 18 kilometres away, by persons not involved in the events at Fatima.

These are some of the possiblities but one conclusive fact, relevant to this post though is evident, all of the witnesses are convinced of the truth of what they saw.

Postscript: the angel of Mons

This tale recounts how in 1914 at the Battle of Mons the British Army on the verge of defeat overcame the German forces by virtue of assistance from a ghostly or angelic army. The story achieved huge popularity at the time, and also gained credence when following the war a number of soldiers from both sides reported witnessing the said phenomena. Most scholars today reject that the event occured, due to the lack of credible witnesses, the lengthy delay (many years) between the event and the accounts given by alleged witnesses, and the existence of a work of popular patriotic fiction describing similar events. In short it is believed that the legend of the angels of Mons is nothing other than an urban myth created by sourcing various stories and projecting the wish-fulfillment of a society still in shock at the horrors of war. However it can be said to have had a functional value to society, much in the same way an imaginary friend provides a coping mechanism for varying crises.

Jung and the Seance

In Flying Saucers psychoanalyst Carl Jung recounts his experience, or rather lack of one, whilst attending a spiritualist seance with four other people. All four people claimed to have witnessed a vivid globe of light hovering over the abdomen of the medium conducting the seance. Jung claimed not to have seen any such thing. Over the course of his investigations Jung was convinved that the other four believed they had witnessed something, and that they were not lying about their experience. Furthermore he was professionally satisfied that his four companions were of a sound mind and not suffering from delusions, individually or en masse.

What is interesting is his confirmation of the mental state exhibited by those who have experienced religious/spiritual phenomena, as classified by Psychologist William James in his book the Variety of Religious Experiences. Jung describes that his companions, in common with other subjects who claim to have had such phenomenological experiences, found it “absolutely incomprehensible” that he could not see what they could see.

Jung concludes (with some importance for my conclusion on the value of arbitrary beliefs in the context of reflecting reality and truth) that what is “seen with our own eyes” acquires a realness commensurate with our notions of objective reality.

An Intermission: and why William James believes Science should pay more attention

The lectures (in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’) discussed the distinction between symbolism and reality. Symbols, such as the word “steak” on a menu, do not embody the actuality of the objects they represent. The word “steak” on a menu merely points to some slab of meat in the back of the restaurant. In a similar way, James posits that all of science is fundamentally detached from reality since the tools of science are merely pointers to some actual objective realm. He criticized his audience for the scientific tendency to ignore the unseen aspects of life and the universe. As an example, he discussed the way the notion of a lemon causes salivation in the mouth of an individual; while there is no lemon, there is clearly a process occurring worthy of academic inquiry.

A moral to the story of the Four Blind men of Cathay

This was an ancient parable about the limitations and expectations of human knowledge. It has many contempories in philosophy, from the Brain in the Vat, to Plato’s Cave. It is worth retelling in brief.

The four blind men of cathay walking forward grasp with their hands in order to feel their way towards their destination. They all speak aloud what it is they are feeling in order to help their companions along the way. The four blind men stumble towards an object. The first feels a wall, the second feels a pillar, the third feels a snake, and the fourth feels a vine. Yet despite their perceptions they do not realise that what they are all feeling is an elephant.

The moral, some philosophers have observed is that there is not, despite our attempts to wish to the contrary, a strict commonality to our perceptions. Where there is, or rather where there is expected to be, it is in fact the consequence of a democratic urge towards conformity.

Opinions and Social Pressure

In 1951 Solomon Asch, renowned gestalt psychologist and social scientist published his research titled ‘Opinions and Social Pressure‘. His experiments undertaken at Harvard concerned the effects of social pressure upon perceptual judgements.

When asked to correctly match the length of a line with that of one of three lines presented, participants made the ‘wrong’ choice less than 1% of the time. However, in a group where the majority was coached beforehand to unanimously choose the ‘wrong’ line, the decision of the unknowing participants was measurably affected. Under group pressure minority subjetcs agreed with the majority’s ‘wrong’ judgements 36.8% of the time even when the length of the two allegedly equal lines differed by as much as seven inches.

Asch states: “That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern.”

Other research appears to support Asch’s observations, including the famous Milgram experiments into the obedience of subjects to authority figures, even to the extent of performing acts that are in conflict with their personal conscience. And a 2005 study using MRI scanners which showed that social conformity engages regions of the brain devoted to spatial awareness. In other words, experimental subjects who gave in to group pressure actually saw things that way. Conformity was due to a change in perception rather than conscious judgment!

The relevance of this research is valid with regards ‘miraculous’ phenomena, religious experience, Instrumentalist scientists, in fact every truth-claim, or belief-based thought system, and worldview.

Why do we seem compelled to conform?

According to psychologist J.R.Smythies in his Analysis of Perception, it is because we have taught ourselves to conform. This theory proposes that the world of the child is quasi-hallucinatory, but that as they grow up they learn to ignore aspects of their reality that are considered hallucinatory by the adults around them.

Fans of Douglas Adams will not fail to notice the similarity of this idea to the SEP field (Somebody Else’s Problem).

Jean Piaget, natural scientist and developmental psychologist has consistently over the course of his published works demonstrated that notions of perception being innate or genetic are as yet unproved. In his work The Child and Reality (1972) the extent to which perception is learned becomes clearer.

The child learns to see geometric forms; the child learns to percieve in three dimensions; the child learns to establish objectal relationships. The ability to perceive may be innate, but it is clear that we learn what to perceive.

The media perceptions of non and pre-literate societies.

In 1961 Professor John Wilson of the African Institute of London University published “Film Literacy in Africa” (Canadian Communications v1 #4 summer 1961) describing his experiences of trying to teach non-literate tribes to read using film. The film that they were to watch was also supposed to teach them about sanitation. About 30 villagers watched the film and at the end of the film they were asked to recall what they had seen. To the suprise of the researchers they immediately answered “A chicken.” This was all they had seen in the film. The Chicken was flying away because it was scared. It is believed that chickens held some spiritual value for this community. Later the researchers studied the film and couldnt see a chicken. Eventually they discovered that in the corner of a couple of frames almost impercetible to the eye there was indeed a chicken taking flight.

Further research indicated that the villagers had been virtually oblivious to everything else in the film, seeing nothing prior to or after the chicken that was worthy of any recount of perception.

when we questioned them further they had seen a man, but what was really interesting was that they hadn’t made a whole story out of it, and in point of fact, we discovered afterwards that they hadn’t seen a whole frame they had inspected the frame for details. Then we found out from the artist and an eye specialist that a sophisticated audience, an audience that is accustomed to the film, focuses a little way in front of the flat screen, so that you take in the whole frame.” The Chicken was truly the “one bit of reality for them“.

Anthropologist Nigel Barley in his work with the Dowayo tribe of Cameroon discovered a similar phenomenon when showing them photographs. It would seem that pre-literate peoples are unable to see‘ the image until theyhave ‘learned‘ to focus on a point above the flat surface.

What do we see?

Cyberneticist and Phycisist Heinz Von Foerster attempts to explain that the human mind does not percieve what is ‘there‘ but what it believes should be there. We are able to see because our retinas absorb light from the outside world and convey the signals to the brain. The same is true of all our sensory receptors. However our retinas do not see colour. Von Foerster describes them as being blind to the quality of their stimulation and responsive only to the quantity.

This should not come as a suprise, for indeed “out there” there is no light and no colour, there are only electromagnetic waves; “out there” there is no sound and no music, there are only periodic variations of air pressure; “out there” there is no heat and no cold, there are only moving molecules with more or less mean kinetic energy, and so on. Finally, for sure, “out there” there is no pain. Since the physical nature of the stimulus – its quality – is not encoded into nervous activity, the fundamental question arises as to how does our brain conjure up the tremendous variety of this colourful world as we experience it any moment while awake, and sometimes in dreams while asleep.”

The answer is that the brain perceives what it wants to perceive. In the words of Michael Talbot We are not born into the world, but born into something that we make into the world. Or from Von Foerster “The Environment as we percieve it is our invention.”

We do not observe the physical world. We participate with it.

We may suspect Talbot proposes that the “out there” that Von Foerster is reduced to speculating about has the same ontological reality as Schrodingers Cat. Everything is grounded on its opposite. If the yes or no of Schrodingers cat is dependent upon which reality the consciousness decides to edit out, the yes or no of an “out there” universe must be assigned to the same category.

A note on Anti-Realism

In philosophy of science, anti-realism applies chiefly to claims about the non-reality of “unobservable” entities such as electrons or DNA, which are not detectable with human senses. For a brief discussion comparing such anti-realism to its opposite, realism, see (Okasha 2002, ch. 4). Ian Hacking (1999, p. 84) also uses the same definition. One prominent anti-realist position in the philosophy of science is instrumentalism, which takes a purely agnostic view towards the existence of unobservable entities: unobservable entity X serves simply as an instrument to aid in the success of theory Y. We need not determine the existence or non-existence of X. Some scientific anti-realists argue further, however, and deny that unobservables exist even as non-truth conditioned instruments.

A Conclusion of sorts.

In order to wrap this up I thought I would quote from John Lilly and his book the Human Biocomputer who neatly surmises my thoughts on the place of arbitrary beliefs in the field of knowedge, reality and truth.

In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally.”