Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

I had spent the Onam holidays at home. Sleeping, eating, watching movies and generally just letting myself redefine the boundaries of laziness. I also read this delightful book that I had bought but did not up until then have time to read.

It was an insightful, light, engaging and exciting book.  I have read similar books before. Like Phantoms in the Brain by Dr.Ramachandran and Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan. The book was funny in a very subtle way and featured a lot of DIY experiments. It was also a very unique book.

Most books that deal with paranormal phenomena simply give natural reasons and explanations for allegedly supernatural occurrences. But, that is not the main aim of this book. This book instead tries to focus on one of the several reasons that are generally considered to be the reason behind such things. Human fallibility. It tries to look at why our brains mislead us and the possible reasons for the existence of such chinks in our cognitive abilities. So, it is essentially a book more focused on understanding ourselves than anything else.

Our tendency to protect our ego, our beliefs and our self from perceived dangers, our ability to see patterns, to weed out unnecessary information and focus on the essential etc. are abilities that are necessary for our day-to–day life. But these same abilities and gifts can, given a set of conditions mislead and fool us. The book exploits these incidents to try to gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

The  part where the nature of free-will is analyzed was wicked-cool. The idea that one section of our brains is tricking another section into thinking that it is in control was interesting. I was really impressed by the way our brains carefully build up and preserve the illusions of consciousness and sense of agency. The book details how one can muck around with these things by oneself and some of the experiments described were very exciting.

There is one another chapter that really struck me. It dealt with how cults arise and certain personalities manage to gain absolute and total control over a huge number of people. I have witnessed this phenomenon in real life. Almost all of us have. I have always been doubtful of the claim that you can control another person using hypnosis and make him do things that he does not want to do. This book too is deeply critical of that idea. But, it goes on to point out that by studying cults one can learn a far more effective method of controlling other people. The tragic Jonestown incident is described in some detail to describe how such methods work in real life.

Very often we fail to realize that we are surrounded by and soaked with stuff that are so intricate, beautiful and mysterious. We don’t notice these beautiful things and don’t make an effort to understand and appreciate them. The book tries to explain the need for a more critical outlook on things and how it can lead one to a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of the world and it’s workings…

In response to a comment

I recently made a post detailing my position on one of the last arguments that people throw up in defense of religion in an all-out debate. The question of whether religion is the only practical and reasonable choice as a last resort for people in distress. The post was in no way meant to detail my entire position regarding atheism or my reasons for why I think it is a more intellectually honest and morally superior choice. It was merely meant to caricature the position that prayer has a useful role in people’s lives. I got this valuable feedback as a comment. I found that this comment mirrors the position of a lot of people and  is sort of a mean position when it comes to opposition to atheism or secular ideas. So, I thought that I would post a reply to it.

Sabu:(While agreeing with **** about the video) You say that religious belief degrades one’s intellect. And now, that is the opinion of an atheist. Even you move away from being tolerant and rational, and become one sided here. Religious belief is above/below rationality, it is a subjective thing. I don’t find any point in arguing what is right or wrong here. This whole religion thing might be a mechanism people sought for sharing their fears and tensions. Let that be. Why should you become so uneasy about such things?(The way the three member group got agitated was our starting point; It is time to do away with such baseless convictions as all those who believe in religion do so because they are not rational). There are as many number of hardcore ‘rational thinkers’ as there are hardcore fanatics. The best thing to do here would be to be tolerant. Religion has done many good things too (though I agree that bad things outweigh the good ones ). It has presented common people with a manifesto of living. It has made them more or less disciplined. And I think there is actually no way you can prove or disprove the existence of God. In short, let subjective things like belief or atheism not make us prejudiced and predisposed.

Even you move away from being tolerant and rational,…

The comment accuses me of moving away from tolerance and rationality because I accuse religious belief of restricting intellectual growth. I have a fair understanding of what tolerance means. It is, in a nutshell allowing people to make their own choices. It is leaving them alone and asking to be left alone regarding matters which are purely personal and affect no one else. I don’t think I have become intolerant merely because I restated the mainstream scientific position regarding the uselessness of prayer and it’s diversionary effects and consequences on my personal blog.

Religious belief is above/below rationality[sic], it is a subjective thing.

While it is hard to find absolute error with belief in a “higher power”, an esoteric and/or recondite  philosophy of life, worshiping of the universe(pantheism) or agnostic faiths, the same cannot be said of organized mainstream religion. Accepted scientific opinion is utterly opposed to the idea of a personal God with an anthropomorphic personality favoring one variety of one species of the millions that inhabit the earth. It is completely damning of the evidence for religion and the “unassailable truth” of the texts that form their backbone. We no longer have scientists or physicists of caliber pushing one religion or the other. I would like to recommend a piece by Stephen Hawking that was published in The Hindu.

If you look at surveys of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, you will find that 80+ percent of its members are atheists. Reason, curiosity, propensity for acquiring new ideas are all linked to a higher IQ. A lot of studies link higher IQ with liberal ideas and atheism.  So, there is something to back up my opinion that reason is in fact neither above nor below but somewhat opposed to religion.

“Why should you become so uneasy about such things?”.

Well that one is very easy to answer. The world over problems are being fueled by millenia old lies. We have Afghanistan(Taliban), Pakistan, India (BJP-RSS combine), the US(Right Wing Tea Party movement gaining force), Egypt(Agitation for democracy being hijacked by Islamists), Israel-Palestine(Israel committing atrocities in the name of fairy tales while masturbating to fantasies of a promised land), Palestine(Ideological rigidity aggravating suicidal tactics), Somalia(Al-Shabab) etc. etc. There is more than enough reason for anyone to be unsettled by the price that is being paid for the calming, soothing and tension-reducing effects of religion.

The way the three member group got agitated was our starting point; It is time to do away with such baseless convictions as all those who believe in religion do so because they are not rational.

That fact that the 3 people got agitated and started screaming like monkeys while the atheist did not does point to the fact that baseless convictions are indeed to fault. But which one is the baseless point of view. The one that made people scream in outrage and babble nonsense or the one that made a guy calmly explain what all precautions need to be taken to face an emergency. Also, I would like to make one more thing absolutely clear. No one believes in a religion because they are not rational. How does that make sense? You go up to a guy and ask him why he believes in Jesus or Allah and what does he say? “I am not rational, that is why!”? Absolutely not! The reasons for why people believe the stories are many.

Most of the time it is the only one they have heard. There may be fears of retribution for questioning fundamental tenets of their faith. They have not devoted time to question their beliefs. A lack of aptitude for the kind of science that can answer the questions and dispel the versions espoused by religions. A certain fear of death that needs to be handled more appropriately. I can’t list all the possibilities.

There are as many number of hardcore ‘rational thinkers’ as there are hardcore fanatics.[sic]

This one actually made me smile a little. Picture this scene. On a plane that is about to take off, suddenly the PA becomes live with the Captain’s voice,

“We have just received a tip-off…. There is a “hardcore-rationalist” on board. Everyone please stay calm….”.

The person who made the comment failed to note that the rhetorical impact of “hardcore” was somewhat mollified by its association with “rationalist”.

There are also “hardcore” poets, skeptics, artists, stamp-collectors, rock-fans etc. etc. Somehow, in all these cases the word “hardcore” fails to instill the same sense of foreboding that it does when combined with “religious fanatic”.

The best thing to do here would be to be tolerant.

There is no doubting that tolerance is a virtue. But, we cannot just do nothing when wacky stories start threatening our freedoms and start imposing themselves on us. Also, the idea that faith can help people become tolerant is deeply flawed. A truly religious person who absolutely believes in the validity of his faith can be tolerant only by resorting to a certain level of mental gymnastics(philosophy, anyone?), twisted interpretation of texts and/or by adopting a don’t care attitude. The tolerance is often tainted by sympathy, condescension and a sense of privilege. Also, the ultimate value of human life is more often than not, a corollary of the teachings of most religions. In some cases there is a marked contempt for life in this world that is encouraged by some faiths. This is where religions contradict humanism and secular values  most significantly.

Even if someone does succeed in convincing oneself that his God/Gods and other  God or Gods are all the same, there is still the unsettled question of which set of illogical and antiquated set of rules and practices need to be followed.

Also, sometimes, the conditions that such people impose on society and their opinions when it comes to questions which should be considered in the light of knowledge that came into existence within the last 1000 yrs or so tend to be a constant source of unnecessary suffering.

And I think there is actually no way you can prove or disprove the existence of God.

This is an argument that has been beaten to death. But it never fails to come up. Actually, we have had less success disproving the notion that we are living inside “The Matrix”. But, we don’t go around looking for Morpheus and if we feel that this world is “not real” we take medicines for schizophrenia. We also don’t fantasize about sleeping with latex clad chicks with USB ports on their bodies. The burden of proof when it comes to outrageous claims lies on the claimants. Also, the amount of effort that such claims inspire need to be modulated by the proof for such claims.

religious belief degrades one’s intellect…

I chose to address the objection raised to this statement last as it was one made to add punch to the article and was not that well-considered. But, still, I don’t think that there is any doubt about the fact that theocracies and religious institutions are not friends of the spirit of free inquiry and unbiased research. The worlds foremost centers of learning and scientific advancement in all ages were mostly the result of liberal and secular  leanings and mindsets. The dark ages, destruction of Nalanda, modern day theocracies, the decline of the US as a scientific power-house all stand testimony to the insidious power of unquestioning faith to sabotage scientific growth and advancement. There is a fundamental dichotomy between the kind of mindset that a religious person would need and one that fosters new ideas.

Some people are somehow able to manage to carry on despite this. But, it will only be a matter of time before his/her questions take him to a point where he/she has to confront the walls of dogma and unquestioning faith. What happens then? Which will get sacrificed first?

This one is an important question because in the answer lies our collective fate…

P.S. I greatly enjoyed replying to the comment and it made me think and reflect a little more deeply. I thank the person who made the comment for giving me an occasion to put down my thoughts in writing. I wish that more people would disagree with me and put down their objections here. Debates could follow and I am a big fan of them.