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Why Do Humans Believe Impossible Things?

 
 
Reply Thu 2 Oct, 2008 04:16 pm
Why Do We Believe Impossible Things?
Our Belief System Is Powered by Our Tool-Making History, Scientist Says


Quote:
Why do so many people hold beliefs that are clearly false? A recent story on ABCNews.com said 80 million Americans believe we have been visited by aliens from another planet, and numerous studies show that millions of people believe in ghosts, extrasensory perception and, of course, alien abductions.

According to biologist Lewis Wolpert of University College, London, all those beliefs are clearly false, and they all share a common beginning. It may well have started when the first human realized he, or she, could make a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Wolpert is the author of a new provocative book exploring the evolutionary origins of belief, called "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast." The title comes from Lewis Carroll's classic "Through the Looking Glass," when Alice tells the White Queen that she cannot believe in impossible things.

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," the Queen replied. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
 
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Fri 3 Oct, 2008 06:49 am
@Robert Gentel,
The basis of Wolpert's argument could also be accounted for by anthropomorphism, rather than what he's calling a "Belief Engine". I think he makes some good observations, but is leaving out the simple human tendency to try to relate everything to themselves.
theollady
 
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Reply Fri 3 Oct, 2008 06:50 am
@Robert Gentel,
People believe these things because of experiences they do not understand.
I think it is much like falling in a hole that was dug for a trap--knocked unconscious- and when aroused from the state of unconsciousness; you might have these faint or patchy memories of what went on.
Going back to the scene of the trap, having someone explain and patiently give you details in REAL TIME, may help the person to put all the pieces together and not feel as traumatized anymore.

But what the person remembers is "FALLING THROUGH SOLID GROUND".
They have suddenly developed a sense reflex to mistrust certain terrain in those scenarios.

Not too hard to play with a persons mind. The common misperceptions usually have their base in some INDIVIDUAL trauma. Any of those who want to play with a mind, usually search for the right victim. There are those who can be hypnotized and tricked , and those who can't. Make no mistake about it, the "evil scientists " are out there.

It is my sincere belief, that not everyone CAN or ever WILL understand or sympathize with a person beguiled, hypnotized and controlled. For the simple reason, they have no LOGIC upon which to base the substance of the claim.
But tell that to the frightened child huddled in a corner. Or the foreigner hidden inside his home for reasons of non- communication.
There are about as many reasons as there are victims in society... and maybe it has always been so.
0 Replies
 
dlowan
 
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Reply Fri 3 Oct, 2008 08:08 am
@Robert Gentel,
Hmm...so it's supposed to be a need to attribute reasons.


Doesn't explain the remarkable persistence of false beliefs.
Robert Gentel
 
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Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:15 am
@rosborne979,
That covers a lot of the form the beliefs take but not a lot on why they are deemed so necessary. That man makes gods in his image, aliens in his image, animals in his image certainly shows a self-centered viewpoint but doesn't explain why he's creating gods and aliens and even various superstitions that aren't anthropomorphic.

That being said, I don't think Wolpert is very illuminating on the subject. The notion that human ability to deduct cause and effect might explain the desire to accept explanations for the unknown, even if it's not well supported by evidence but it doesn't do much to explain a tendency I see where people seem to actually like to believe in something like alien abduction for the sake of the entertainment value of the mystery.

There doesn't seem to be an effect that things like alien abduction really needs a cause for. Sure a light in the sky you can't explain might be a case but there's a whole subculture that seems to enjoy the pure entertainment value of believing something extraordinary. I think this is related to how suspension of disbelief makes things more interesting and how if you are willing to disregard nuisances like absent evidence you can get more entertainment out of the yarns.

An alien invasion story isn't nearly as riveting as actually believing that aliens are invading (e.g. The War of the Worlds radio drama), for example.
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:26 am
@dlowan,
dlowan wrote:
Hmm...so it's supposed to be a need to attribute reasons.

Doesn't explain the remarkable persistence of false beliefs.


I doubt any single theory will cover them all, but the ability to deduct cause and effect for nearly everything combined with the inability to do so for particular mysteries seems like a good combination to make a desire to accept a cause whether it is true or not.

Now why people stick to them in the face of contradicting evidence, or to a lesser extent the mere absence of evidence, is a separate curiosity but I think this still explains some of those cases fairly well. Things like evolution are harder to understand than creation, and when people don't have a firm grasp of the more difficult reality I think they'll tend to hold onto a belief that they can digest more easily. I think this is a big reason why very chaotic systems are rejected with preference for more orderly (even if outlandish) beliefs.

So instead of believing that things in life just happen as a result of uncountable variables you'll never fully have insight into some might prefer to believe there's a master plan by a higher power because that's simpler to deal with than the seemingly random events in life.

But you are certainly right that this can't explain all, and in my previous post I touched on other motivations I think are powerful in the mix. The desire to believe the extraordinary story is sometimes compelling (e.g. aliens) even if there is no real mystery to explain it seems the mystery is itself the end and not the means in many cases.

In other cases it seems to be things as simple as wanting to live forever. Religions tend to come with a very convenient afterlife, granting immortality to the believers. That kind of motivation (who doesn't want some kind of immortality for at least their loved ones if not themselves?) is powerful and I think certain beliefs are driven more by those kinds of motivation than the mere desire to ascribe cause to observed effect. A denial of ugly reality for a more palatable belief if you will.
Robert Gentel
 
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Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:37 am
@Robert Gentel,
To follow up on the anthropomorphism a bit:

I certainly do think that it's a big motivation in things like conspiracy theory motivation instead of just form. The desire to ascribe human causes to what might just be the seemingly random effect of many humans. So a cabal is more compelling than market forces and a creator more compelling than chaos.
0 Replies
 
OCCOM BILL
 
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Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:47 am
@Robert Gentel,
Robert Gentel wrote:
Why do so many people hold beliefs that are clearly false? A recent story on ABCNews.com said 80 million Americans believe we have been visited by aliens from another planet
What is so clearly false about that? We have some pretty sophisticated weaponry here and the ability to hurl it quite a distance into space. Who is Wolpert to say no superior being is keeping an eye on us?

And is theollady a "clear"?
Robert Gentel
 
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Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:56 am
@OCCOM BILL,
OCCOM BILL wrote:
Robert Gentel wrote:
Why do so many people hold beliefs that are clearly false? A recent story on ABCNews.com said 80 million Americans believe we have been visited by aliens from another planet
What is so clearly false about that? We have some pretty sophisticated weaponry here and the ability to hurl it quite a distance into space. Who is Wolpert to say no superior being is keeping an eye on us?


Whether or not they are, the belief is still held without any evidence for it. Who is Wolpert to say there is no Easter bunny?

There may well be an Easter bunny somewhere, but until enough evidence shows up to outweigh the evidence that it is fiction created by humans there's no basis to hold it as a belief. An entertaining theory perhaps, but not something there's reason to believe as fact. That it may be possible doesn't change that it is not factual but is held to be so widely. Anything is possible on a theoretical level.
hawkeye10
 
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Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:56 am
our natural inclination is to believe what we need to believe. Being able to identify inconvenient truths, accept them, and deal with them is skill reserved for superior men/women
0 Replies
 
dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 05:19 am
@Robert Gentel,
Yeah....a lot of what you're saying fits with a popular cognitive theory for why people tend to have such terrible and persistent feelings of guilt after something terrible happens....ie that it is more comforting to believe in a cause (even if that is something we believe we did and feel absolutely awful about) than it is to accept the pure randomness and unpredictability of reality. It's certainly a theory I use with people, that seems to make sense.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that seems to have reasonable rationality in terms of explaining our tendency to cling to beliefs in which we have some emotional investment, despite good evidence...it even predicts ( as I learned about it anyway) the tendency to cling ever harder the more evidence piles up against the belief....until sometimes we do a sudden flip and embrace the new theory....something which I notice appeard to happen in real life.

I have real trouble with the more florid conspiracy theory believers than I do with gillies and ghosties and ETs that go bump in the night.

It just seems to me, quite apart from anything else, that the most cursory experience of living in the world tells us that there is NO way enough people could keep a secret to maintain any of the wilder conspiracy theories away from the front page.

I guess that little conspiracy theories turn out to be right all the time....(like the US helping the coup that overthrew Allende and all those real politik things that you don't want to believe....I mean the recent murder of that poor Russian fella in London looked crazy to begin with) and that makes the crazy ones look better.


But yes, I agree a lot of it is it's just damned scary being a pretty helpless poor bare forked animal out here in one of the less majestic parts of the universe.

I can follow the wanting to live forever thing...it's the ripping out genitals, and being killed for eating hopping insects, and believing god/s want half the human race to be lesser, or that we ought to wear weird undergarments or WIGS (Hasidic women) or hot, stuffy tents or not touch our personal toyshops.

I mean, I know we project our weirdness onto the heavens.....but for PETE'S sake people.....how come more of us can't believe in a nice little eternal life without trying to make people down here so damned unhappy? Is it really the toilet training, or something? (That's a joke...for the irony challenged...)

Oh, I did a thread a way back about how some research said that denying false beliefs, and giving good counter-evidence, ends up, for a scary number of us, being remembered after a few days as an example of evidence for the belief being debunked.
0 Replies
 
gungasnake
 
  1  
Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 07:14 am
@Robert Gentel,
Quote:
Why do so many people hold beliefs that are clearly false? A recent story on ABCNews.com said 80 million Americans believe we have been visited by aliens from another planet, and numerous studies show that millions of people believe in ghosts, extrasensory perception and, of course, alien abductions.


Granted aliens traveling vast distances to kidnap people is hellishly unlikely, but why is it impossible? What law of physics forbids it??

I mean, the probabilistic odds against evolution are way beyond astronomical and yet large numbers of people insist that doesn't matter....
0 Replies
 
OCCOM BILL
 
  1  
Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 12:56 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Robert Gentel wrote:

OCCOM BILL wrote:
Robert Gentel wrote:
Why do so many people hold beliefs that are clearly false? A recent story on ABCNews.com said 80 million Americans believe we have been visited by aliens from another planet
What is so clearly false about that? We have some pretty sophisticated weaponry here and the ability to hurl it quite a distance into space. Who is Wolpert to say no superior being is keeping an eye on us?


Whether or not they are, the belief is still held without any evidence for it. Who is Wolpert to say there is no Easter bunny?

There may well be an Easter bunny somewhere, but until enough evidence shows up to outweigh the evidence that it is fiction created by humans there's no basis to hold it as a belief. An entertaining theory perhaps, but not something there's reason to believe as fact. That it may be possible doesn't change that it is not factual but is held to be so widely. Anything is possible on a theoretical level.


That's a pretty radical shift in the goal posts for you, Robert. I questioned the integrity of "clearly false" and you counter with "no evidence to prove it true"? That's quite a logical leap. Absence of proof is hardly proof of absence, as the term "clearly false" implies. There have been reported "sightings" for as long as we've been recording history. However flimsy you may find this evidence; it is evidence nonetheless. We're talking about people here, not scientists.

I find it unreasonable to a point beyond arrogance to assume that ours is the only system supporting life, in a universe so enormous and one we know so little about. As for intelligence and technology; I have no basis to assume ours is superior. When I consider our advances in the last century, as I consider what advances may come in the next... let alone the next millennium... or MILLION YEARS or even a Billion... I see no choice but to concede we may have only barely scratched the surface.

This tells me the idea of an interstellar visitor is NOT "clearly false." There is no basis on which to make such an assumption, for the scientist, let alone the layman (people.) A truly superior being may find it in their own best interest to regularly scan the universe looking for atmospheric changes that signal intelligent interference with nature... and to investigate such anomalies and perhaps even track them to insure their technology doesn't too far exceed their civility. I do not accept this distinct rational possibility as "clearly false." I doubt many scientists do either… let alone people.
Foxfyre
 
  3  
Reply Sat 4 Oct, 2008 01:26 pm
Story #1
Back in the 1960's a lady in her 20's from our church and our church nursery manager (age 60+ something) were incidentally traveling together from Amarillo TX to Perryton TX. These two are not related and were not close friends--their relationship was pretty much limited to the older woman supervising the younger woman's small children during church functions. Both were quite practical, sensible adults not given to telling tales or exaggerating events or prone to superstitious notions.

That night, a few miles outside of Perryton, as night fell, they report that they both saw a large object hovering low over a field adjacent to the highway. At most they were a couple of hundred yards away from the object at the time. The only word they had to describing this object was a flying saucer. As they slowed their car to get a better look it sped away at amazing speed. Following their report, several others examined the area where they reported seeing the object and found the winter wheat in that area disturbed.

Was it an alien spaceship? There is certainly no scientific evidence for that, but those two women believe that is exactly what they saw. It is difficult to say that there is no evidence of something when people report seeing what they see. And you are unlikely to convince people that they did not see what they know they saw.

Story #2
There are numerous accounts of people who report having seen other-worldly phenomena that would be described in some circles as 'ghosts'. Some of these are so vivid and graphic that you will not convince those who saw them that they did not see what they saw. Is there scientific evidence of such other-worldly presences? Probably not. But there is sufficient empircal evidence of psychic ability evident in some persons--sufficient evidence that law enforcement personnel have on occasion enlisted the services of such people. And I believe such people pretty universally agree that they sense other-worldly presences. Are those ghosts? I think nobody can say so with any certainty. But no evidence of any kind that such presences exist? Not if eye witness accounts can be dismissed out of hand in lieu of hard evidence.

The point made here is that just because we ourselves have not experienced such phenomena or that such cannot be supported or falsified scientifically does not translate to an assumption that such are 'impossible'.

Just believing something does not make it possible.
But not wanting to believe something does not make it impossible either.

0 Replies
 
theollady
 
  2  
Reply Sun 5 Oct, 2008 04:52 pm
@OCCOM BILL,
Occom Bill, I would like to know what you mean by:
Is theollady a "clear"??
Is that something like Queer.... or ignored.... or maybe ... whatever....?

I am just exactly what the 'name' I took indicates --- the OLD LADY--- Nearly 72 years of experience in ALL kinds of things....the occult, the republicans, the democrats, Ralph Nader, religion, poverty, relative riches (meaning fairly rich in relation to what I HAD been) sick, well, mothering, grandmothering, great-grandmothering, school teaching, dietician, cooking, accounting, Even some counseling and public speaking.

The young man Craven De Kere once posted 4 of my favorite compositions on the site of Poetry -- The Ravens Realm (If I remember correctly) My name then was louritter.

But as the Word says, mans days are three score and ten.... so I have passed the expiration date, and live on hallowed shelf- life...

I would really like to know what you meant by clear.
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Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Sun 5 Oct, 2008 05:48 pm
@OCCOM BILL,
OCCOM BILL wrote:
I questioned the integrity of "clearly false" and you counter with "no evidence to prove it true"?


I guess if you have a qualm with the article's wording that's fine with me, the writer is wrong to couch it as being "clearly false". However I think the belief in alien contact with humans is apropos to the study for the reasons I gave even if the wording of the article is imprecise.
0 Replies
 
 

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