There was a fascinating show that my wife and I watched last night on Mind Field with Vsauce (Michael Stevens). It was season 3, episode 7, titled “Behavior and Belief.”
It was all about the nature of beliefs, and whether they are real, lies, true, false, or something else more fuzzy. I think it explored this subject in a very intriguing way, doing experiments with people, and they came to some stunning conclusions. This has many implications for religious and spiritual beliefs, particularly those beliefs that we may have believed were true and yet found them to be not so true, or perhaps even false, and have shifted our beliefs in that wake. What does it mean to “believe” something, or believe in something? What is the nature of superstition? Do our beliefs coincide with an objective reality, or do they have another function?
Here is the episode (requires a YouTube Premium subscription, which has a free trial if you haven’t used it before):
I have transcribed some of the more interesting sections of the episode below: the intro, part of the last experiment, and the conclusion. I will then add some of my thoughts about beliefs and religious beliefs, in general, and about Joseph Smith, in particular, from my Mormon background.
Hey, Mind Field! Vanessa here. Just kidding. My name is actually Michael. That part when I said that I was Vanessa, that was a lie. So you’re welcome.
Humans love lies. More precisely, we love things that aren’t entirely true – because we have to. It’s often all we have.
Completely proving something can be difficult, if not impossible. So instead, we have the faith of the believer, the confidence interval of the scientist. What we think we know, we really only believe we know.
On this episode of Mind Field, I’m going to take a look at a kind of lie we tell ourselves. And I’m going to use belief to turn a lie… into a truth.
(Michael: One of the most intriguing [of the fake ‘reverse exorcism’ experiment] was our final subject, Miriam.)
Actor: What was it like for you?
Miriam: Um, I went to another place.
Actor: Ok, ok.
Miriam: I immediately felt my mother’s – her spirit with me, she was telling me to come towards her.
Miriam: And when I got close to her, she was comforting me.
Miriam: Um, and I heard an angel say, “I’m here with you. I will never leave you.” And I continued to see wings.
Actor: Wings. Interesting.
(Michael: Miriam’s experience seemed to have a profound effect on her, but I wanted to hear more about what exactly happened to her.)
Michael: When you say that you saw things, describe for me what that was. Was it like a daydream, or was it more like, um, really there?
Miriam: It was extremely vivid. Um, I could feel the wind when it started going across. I could vividly see my mother standing there, smiling at me. She looked beautiful.
(Michael: The fact that Miriam had an out-of-body experience, and saw her deceased mother, was almost puzzling, because everything we did in the room was a lie. The priest was not real, the ritual was not a thousand years old, the nurse was an actress, but yet Miriam’s experience, and those of the other participants, were real.)
Michael: The thing that surprised me the most today was how personal every single moment was. I think because of a combination of the powerful imagery, both religious and scientific, it becomes the most powerful experience they’ve had. Even if you’re a very staunch atheist, a cross and a lectionary, these things, they’re pregnant with meaning.
Dr. Samuel Veissière: We seem to have found that by using those cues, people were able to tune in very, very deeply, and to relinquish their sense of self-control.
Michael: Here’s a question. What’s the difference between what we did today and what an actual priest can do?
Samuel: That’s a really controversial question. Um, I think the difference is that, unlike the priest, we understand the mechanisms through a more psychological route, whereas many priests may themselves be convinced that they are facilitating communication with the divine…
Michael: And perhaps they are. The results can be the same, regardless of the intentions of the facilitators. There’s no way to prove whether or not God worked in this room today.
Samuel: I guess ultimately, with the tools of science, no, there isn’t. These are still some really difficult philosophical questions.
So, we have demonstrated that our brains are belief-making machines. Rather than accepting confusion and uncertainty, we create superstitions and beliefs that make us feel like we have control over our lives. In fact, to not form a superstition or belief or guess about the world around us is to be powerless, even when superstitions are unconnected to reality. That doesn’t mean they can’t be powerful. Our ‘reverse exorcism’ ritual, and its practitioners, were all placebos. But the mere existence of our subjects’ beliefs in them made them real and transformative. So does that make us all fools? I don’t know – but I don’t believe so.
Bryce again here. This is fascinating to me! I think it begins to show that our beliefs don’t have to be based in entirely “true” or absolutely verified consensus reality in order for them to be vividly real and transformative in our lives. In fact, none of our beliefs may be based in absolutely verified and certain reality. We are always making educated guesses as to the nature of reality as it really is, what truth is, and believing we know. And that belief seems to have a very real impact on us in our lives.
So can we not know the truth, the absolute Truth, about reality? It seems that we can’t, at least not intellectually. Even science has found that we can never really prove the absolute truth about reality. Science can never perform all the experiments necessary that would show a theory to be absolutely true under every condition. We can only perform experiments that might show that a theory is false.
The Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper noted that we must distinguish between our ‘search for truth’ and our assertions of ‘certainty’:
Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories.
It is not the search for certainty. To err is human. All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain. It follows that we must distinguish sharply between truth and certainty. That to err is human means not only that we must constantly struggle against error, but also that, even when we have taken the greatest care, we cannot be completely certain that we have not made a mistake… To combat the mistake, the error, means therefore to search for objective truth and to do everything possible to discover and eliminate falsehoods. This is the task of scientific activity. Hence we can say: our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty.(Popper, In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years)
Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.
So, the “truth,” to Popper, is not absolute certainty, but rather it is the continual search for objective truth, eliminating mistakes along the way. Our aim is “objective truth,” but we will never be absolutely certain that we have that objective truth. We can never know anything is absolutely sure, beyond all doubt. Our knowledge remains forever fallible and uncertain, and therefore always in need of improvement, refinement, betterment, growth, progress, and correction (perhaps similar to the idea of continual revelation).
What’s interesting is that Popper seems to contradict himself:
A theory or a statement is true, if what it says corresponds to reality.
If all our knowledge is uncertain, then how would we ever know if a statement corresponds to reality as it really is, with certainty? We can’t! We don’t know reality for certain, so we can’t say if a theory or statement corresponds to it! At least not with exactness. Therefore, we can’t say that a statement is absolutely true. Perhaps the best we can do is check to see if it seems that a theory or statement corresponds to reality, to what we seem to know about reality, to what seems to be our perceived reality. We deal on a daily basis in relative truths, not absolute truths. Absolute truth would be certain truth, and we can’t know that, as Popper himself explained. We always seem to think we see reality as it is, but we don’t; we see it as we are. And the way we are changes, morphs, evolves, progresses, matures. Everyone sees reality a little bit differently. Sometimes very differently.
What we think we know, we only believe we know. It’s not certain knowledge. It never is! And what we believe we know can actually shape our perception of reality, so that our perceived reality actually is affected by our beliefs. Much of what we perceive in consciousness is not directly from information taken in by our senses, but rather it is largely shaped by our belief system, our memories, our prior experiences in the world.
As in Mind Field’s ‘reverse exorcism’ experiment, everything about it was a lie, it was fake, it was all made up, it did not seem to correspond with reality at all, and yet it produced profound beliefs in Miriam such that a spiritual experience actually became vividly real to her. She expressed that she actually visited another place, actually saw her mother’s spirit, actually heard an angel speak to her, and actually saw wings. Just to verify, Michael asked if this was like a “daydream” or was it “really there,” and Miriam replied that it was extremely vivid and real. The fake, false, made up, lies of the experiment actually produced a real spiritual experience in Miriam. It may not have been real to anyone else, but it was real to Miriam. She actually experienced it.
Would it be wise or sensible to tell Miriam that her experience was actually not real, that it was false, that it didn’t really happen? No, because for her, it did happen! She really did experience these things, and they affected her deeply. Even if she was told that all the apparatuses of the experiment were fake, imitations, a great big fraud, a complete deception, she might still have claimed that her experience was real, that it was true! She felt it, she saw it, she heard it, she was comforted, in her mind and conscious experience.
Dr. Veissière felt as though all the religious and scientific cues in the room helped the subjects “tune in very, very deeply.” To what they were “tuning in” he didn’t say, but perhaps to the depths of their consciousness. He says that this perhaps helped them to “relinquish their sense of self-control.” Perhaps their egoic mind was loosened, the ego executive control center softened, such that their minds were able to more freely associate ideas, concepts, and sensory experience, and more of the subconscious or unconscious became conscious. Perhaps the left hemisphere of the brain was able to let go of strict analysis, categorization, and judgment, and the more creative, intuitive, visionary, and holistic right hemisphere of the brain became more dominant in consciousness, allowing experiences outside the norm, but which were nevertheless still deeply meaningful and real to the subjects.
Michael asked if there was any difference here between what they did and what a priest does. While Dr. Veissière opined that while they might know some of the psychology of what was happening, a priest might think it was a real communication from the Divine. Michael jumped in and I think correctly noted that maybe they were the same, that the results could be the same whether performed by a psychologist or a priest.
As Michael concluded, we humans are “belief-making machines.” We make up stories about the world around us, beliefs, superstitions, best guesses, in order to make sense of things, to make sense of experience, and to give us a sense of control and understanding. Our environment, culture, relative knowledge, conditioning, surroundings, education, friends, family, experiences, all influence the stories that we develop in our minds, the beliefs we have about the nature of our lives and of reality. And these stories, these myths, this relative knowledge, what we believe is true, all influences what we actually experience in the world, and those experiences are as real as any other. They may occur more or less in our mind, in our consciousness, but they are yet real experiences, and they can have a deep impact on our lives.
They can encourage us to move in a certain direction, or to change course, or to do something, to behave a certain way, or to feel a sense of peace, or of accomplishment, or of deep meaning and purpose, of community, of well-being, of connection to something larger than ourselves, that we are part of something much bigger than it usually seems. Who are we to say that anyone else’s experiences are not “real”? They may not be real to us, or our peer-group, but they may be very real to them, deeply meaningful, life-changing, life-orienting, life-giving. They may give people a sense of power, of will-power, to act in their lives in a way that they may not have otherwise acted. It may give them faith, and hope, and bring them a sense of love. Miriam seemed to have experienced a deep sense of love, of comfort, of seeing her deceased mother, and of feeling a deep sense of connection with her. Why would we want to deprive her of that? In fact, we might say that it would be unethical to do so.
Note—and I think this may be very important—this doesn’t mean that we too must believe that Miriam actually saw her deceased mother’s spirit, that this was a real post-mortal spirit apparition of her mother. It means that we allow Miriam to believe she did, and to be comforted in that, to feel that deep sense of connection and love and beauty. Where her belief doesn’t impinge on my own beliefs or my freedom to act in the world, or that of others, then I think that we should not desire to interfere with such positive experiences, to shame them, to think we know reality better than her, that we know for certain the real truth about things. We may believe differently, our stories about the world and reality may differ, and that’s ok! This is compassion, it is empathy, a “feeling with” the other, an ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes. We don’t have to believe the same things as another person in order to be compassionate towards them, to have empathy for or with them, to give them freedom, or to love them.
The apparatuses surrounding many, if not all, of our experiences in the world may be entirely placebos, either consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally. They may not correspond to reality as it actually is, but only as it seems to be in the present. But yet they may still facilitate powerful experiences of love, compassion, devotion, community, belonging, beauty, comfort, peace, will-power, meaning, purpose, hope, and belief in life and being. They may give us the power and faith to keep on living life. They may, indeed, transform our lives.
Are we fools in doing this? No, as Michael, I don’t believe so. I think we are becoming wise. We are beginning to realize that we may not know absolute Reality or absolute Truth with certainty in our finite intellectual minds. We are opening ourselves up to the Mystery that is Life and Reality, becoming less dogmatic and more compassionate. We are beginning to recognize that Love may be at the center of all things. We are starting to let go of the egoic self that thinks it knows all things, and allowing a plurality of views to enter our consciousness, and of exploring those views to see which might help lead us all towards greater Love, Truth, and Life. And maybe, just maybe, if we are able to let go of that self long enough, we might be able to glimpse what is Real. This may not be anything known, but rather experienced, and it may just be one of the most powerful experiences and consciousness we can have in Life, of Life.
Joseph Smith & Mormonism
How does this relate to Joseph Smith and Mormonism? I wrote a paper for a conference a couple years ago, which I posted here on this website, suggesting that Joseph Smith may never have actually had any authentic ancient gold plates in his possession, even though he may have fully believed he did, or at least that he could transmute into such plates. And those around him may have fully believed he did too. He and they may have actually seen such plates in vision, and this may have been a very real experience for all of them. I proposed that such vivid spiritual experiences led to Joseph’s formation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon (itself a “history” of a people who may have never actually lived).
Such experiences, instead of being viewed as delusional, should perhaps be granted space for compassion and permission to exist for these people. Maybe they were very real to them, inspiring a variety of subsequent activities, organization, community, faith, hope, and love. It was utterly true to them. Joseph Smith perhaps had “eyes to see things that are not, and then [had] the audacity to say they are,” and such vision was transformative in the lives of many people then, and many millions since. As Ann Taves has well noted, Joseph had the “ability to see and create a new reality for himself and others,” a reality that perhaps didn’t formerly exist, but which gave his community a sense of purpose, meaning, faith, hope, and life. It was a story, a myth, a belief, not the absolute Truth, and yet it had profound power to change many lives, and bring people together as one.
Now, in our consideration of which of those changes that it provoked, or which of those beliefs, were good, positive, constructive, beneficial, hopeful, compassionate, love-filled, merciful, faithful, beautiful, or otherwise, we are free to evaluate and choose to believe or not believe. But asking whether the beliefs that Joseph and the early Mormons had were absolutely True or not seems to be beside the point, and a question that we cannot, after all, answer. They seem to have been true to them, to many of them, even to Joseph Smith, in my view. And because it was true to them, and full of so much meaning to them, it inspired them to organize a church, and to go to work trying to bring that same inspiration they experienced to others. It seems to have brought a deep sense of the Divine Presence into many lives.
As I noted in my paper, the beliefs that Joseph had, and which gave him such deep vision, I think transformed his own consciousness. I think he saw so deeply into consciousness that he experienced its foundation, and this changed his life. I think he saw Life, and Love, and the Real, and he knew he was One with this. And I think this was so thoroughly awesome and powerful and joyful and love-filled that he spent the rest of his life translating and interpreting that experience into relative truths, rituals, scriptures, revelations, organizations that could help guide others into the same experience, to bring them that same perception of Love, and the Real, and the One, in them.