Posts Tagged ‘afterlife’

After life is there more? (And would we want there to be?)

14/11/2009

Stairway2Heaven

manicstreetpreacher muses on the pros and cons of departing this veil of tears to a big theme park in the sky or to somewhere less pleasant…

I was invited to speak at Liverpool University on 18 November 2009 on an inter-faith discussion panel on the topic of the afterlife, called “Follow My Way 2: Life, Death & Beyond”.  Originally, the discussion was to be on the rights and wrongs of religious tolerance.  I was amazed that the University of Liverpool Atheist Society (ULAS) had asked me whether I wanted to speak following the disastrous public reaction to my outspoken views on religion in March earlier this year, about which you can about in piece, “More Than I Could Chew?”

I have had to up sticks and move to the opposite end of the country in order to find employment in a recession.  To travel to Liverpool and return to my new home would have meant a £100 return train fare and my last two days of paid leave which I had been saving to get home ahead of the Christmas rush.  In case you are new to this blog, speaking out against the parties of God is just about my favourite pastime at present and I leapt at the chance.  If nothing else, it would have been an opportunity to repair some of the damage done at the beginning of the year and learn to keep a cool head against a hostile crowd and potentially baiting opponents.

FMW2Poster

However, the topic changed overnight, away from the role of religion in the world and to the rather saccharine topic of the afterlife.  With great reluctance, I declined to speak.  I felt that I only had a very limited amount to say on the motion which essentially boiled downed to:

  1. I don’t believe in the afterlife.
  2. Like telekinesis, Father Christmas and fairies at the bottom of the garden, it would be lovely if we did have a soul separate from our bodies which floats off our brains at the moment of death towards a tunnel of life to be reunited with our loved ones and/ or to wait for our loved ones to join us once their time on Earth is up but there simply isn’t any evidence for it.
  3. The consequences of certain people believing in an afterlife can be truly sinister for the rest of us in this life whether we share their beliefs or not.
  4. We ought to stop looking forward to our deaths and make the most of the one life we do have.

ULAS have managed to persuade a member of The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) to speak and I wish him all the very best of luck.  If I was still living in or closer to Liverpool, I would probably have still spoken despite the change of topic, but it just wasn’t worth the train fare or the holiday time.

However, as is so often the case, the experience of being asked to speak on a topic has made me think deeper about that topic.  I half-regret turning down the opportunity now and present my further thoughts to anyone who cares.

If I was there, I would… apologise for all the offensive things I am going to say

I think it would be best to start off by trying to wash out the bad taste I had left in the mouths of the religious members of the audience after last time by making clear that nothing I say is done deliberately for effect and while I am bound to offend a lot of people in the room, this is not intentional.

I have half a mind to say the most offensive thing I could possibly say right away by quoting Jimmy Carr and saying that it is a shame about all the wounded British soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least we would have a cracking team for the 2012 Paralympics.

There’s a more than 50 percent chance of that one going down like a lead balloon…

It would be wonderful if it were true but…

After the apologies and explanation, the first thing to be said would be that there are loads of things that I wish did exist – such as The Force, lightsabres, telekinesis, telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden – but there simply isn’t any evidence for them.  The religious instinct is informed by the same mentality as astrology and tarot reading: the human tendency to see patterns in everyday events and infer some greater meaning to them.

I blogged on this at length following a lecture given by Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College hosted by the Merseyside Skeptics Society in September 2009.  We are swimming in probabilities; it would be more incredible if these coincidences didn’t happen!   There may be some anecdotal evidence for telepathy and reincarnation, but these studies are flawed by what is known as the “Clustering Illusion”, also known as the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”.   Rather like a marksman emptying his magazine at a barn door and then drawing on the target afterwards, if you repeat the same experiment enough times you are bound to see patterns emerge, but the conclusions drawn from them will be false.

American physicist, Victor J Stenger, touches on the search for a world beyond matter in his 2007 book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist and describes how the search for a soul, an afterlife, reincarnation and psychic powers has failed miserably.

Professor Susan Blackmore of Plymouth University charts her journey from naïve believer in the paranormal to hardened sceptic after she set out on a mission to prove in the lab that supernatural forces were at work, only to find that the experiments were flawed and the data inconclusive.  The story is told in her book, In Search of the Light: Adventures of a Parapsychologist.  At the time of writing, I hadn’t read Blackmore’s book myself, but she summarises her journey very eloquently in her debate on religion against Christian theologian Alistair McGrath at Bristol University on 13 November 2007.

A few years ago, thirty of the world’s “top” theologians met at the Vatican to discuss what happened to the souls of unbaptised babies after they die and whether St Augustine’s doctrine of limbo was valid.  I am struggling to think of a more intellectually forlorn exercise; did any of those theologians have any actual evidence of what does happen to the souls of said un-baptised babies, or even whether they possess a soul in the first place?

Positing that humans possess a soul separate from our bodies simply commits the philosophical fallacy of begging the question.  When did the soul evolve?  Do non-human animals have a soul?  Why would a deity bother with a mortal life at all and just have the afterlife as the norm so we can all enjoy his or her company straightaway?  How can a soul survive the death of the brain?  In what state is your soul when it leaves your body for good?  It wouldn’t be very enjoyable to be permanently suffering from a stroke for all eternity.

Sounds like hell to me

Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays.  How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?

– Mark Twain

I suppose my ideal version of the afterlife would be to live in a temple of knowledge and philosophical discussion with a library where you could read any book you chose for as long as you wanted and have discussions with the greatest thinkers of all time from Plato to Hume to Spinoza to Jefferson, one-to-one or in an auditorium.  But again, there’s just no evidence for it.

I have to say though that the Christian version of the afterlife sounds absolutely ghastly, as Mr Twain summarises so beautifully above.  I’m sorry, but did I miss something?  Spending all eternity singing the praises of your maker?  And you thought I was going to go for one blog post without quoting Christopher Hitchens, but it sounds like hell to me!

In 2000, Hitchens travelled to North Korea under his guise as a university professor and reported on the abject serfdom endured by the wretched population who are expected to wake up in the morning praising the Great Leader, Kim Ill Sung and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jung Ill, only to wake up again in the morning and begin the process all over again.

Kim Ill Sung became President of North Korea in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty Four.  It is almost as though someone lent the Great Leader a copy of the book challenging him to put it into practice and he gleefully accepted.

According to Hitchens, you will not open a newspaper, turn on a television set or watch a theatrical production, that is not dedicated to worshipping the cult of Fat Man and Little Boy.  However, Kim Jung Ill is only the head of the party and the army.  The head of state is still his father; surprisingly, since the guy has been dead since 1994.  Hitchens dubs the government a “necrocracy, or a “mauselocracy or a “thanatocracy.  Indeed, the son is said to be a reincarnation of his father.  This should strike a chord with the Christian apologist on the night.  It’s just one short of a Trinity.

But at least you can die and get out of North Korea.  Under Christianity and Islam at least, it’s only when you’re dead that the real fun begins.  Who would want this to be true?

Silly souls

Atheists constantly have the charge levelled against them that they cannot justify why they are moral and altruistic.  If we all end up the same way and there is no final judgement for our lives’ deeds, then why should we care what happens in this life?  Leaving aside for a moment my stock retorts about the intrinsic satisfaction of doing one of your fellow mammals a good turn without expecting reward or avoiding punishment, the theistic worldview hardly settles matters more satisfactorily.

Perhaps it is too cheap a shot to ask why religious people don’t just commit suicide rather than bothering with this veil of tears.  But the question still remains frustratingly unanswered: if there is going to be an in-gathering, if there is going to be a magical place where all tears will be dried and all injustices put right, then why do the religious care so much about what happens in this life?  Why do they want to control what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms?

It would appear that at least Mahatma Ghandi pre-empted my challenge.   Ghandi was undoubtedly the twentieth century’s most influential pacifist with his devastating policy of non-cooperation against India’s colonial masters, which sealed independence for the Jewel in the Crown in 1947.

However, it must be remembered firstly that Ghandi’s command to turn the other cheek only worked because the British Empire had by then been crippled by two World Wars in the space of 25 years and secondly, his ideals took a much more sinister side.   Ghandi’s remedy for the Holocaust was for the Jews to commit mass suicide because this “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.”

Even if we grant Ghandi’s religious dogma of karma and rebirth, is the suffering and agony of millions of people in this world an acceptable price to secure their happiness and freedom in the next?  Ghandi’s world was one where millions of people would have died in order for the German people to doubt the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich.  How would a world full of pacifists respond once they became “aroused” to the evil of Nazism; commit suicide as well?

The concern for human souls seems to have trumped the care for human beings when you consider the Bush administration’s denial of funding at the Federal level for potentially ground-breaking stem cell research.  Apparently a middle-aged father succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease or a young girl suffering from third degree burns are less important than the souls of three day old human embryos in a petri dish comprising no more than 150 cells.  If you think that still sounds like a large number of cells, there are over 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly.  You inflict far more pain and suffering every time you swat a household insect than if you use a three day old human embryo potentially to save another human being’s life.

You lot may be looking forward to checking out, but don’t demand the rest of us to come with you

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of the American population believe that Christ will return to Earth someday to judge the human race for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion.  At least 20% think that this event will happen within their lifetimes.

To an atheist, this might seem like a ridiculous belief – particularly when you consider that we have waited long enough following Jesus’ promise to return to Earth within the lifetime of his followers at Matthew 16 among several other instances – but it does not appear to be a potentially harmful preachment.   Until you consider that there are fundamentalist American Christians hard at work in the Holy Land to this day attempting to incite the already warring religious factions into nuclear Armageddon.

SecondComing

Ronald Reagan brought in Hal Lindsay and Jerry Falwell – a pair of religious lunatics of the first, second, third and fourth orders – to advise the Pentagon on biblical prophesy regarding the end of the world when it looked like he was going to turn the Cold War hot.  Falwell in particular worked hard at inciting the worst and most fanatical elements among Jewish settlers on the West Bank in Israel and was even awarded the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal in 1980 by Menachem Begin.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury (!), Dr Geoffrey Fisher throughout the 1950s and 1960s consistently refused to condemn the apocalyptic madness of Russia and the West during the Cold War.  When some observers were proposing all-out surrender to the Soviets in order to avoid doomsday, sheepish Dr Fisher wrote a tract that could have been produced by Ahmadinejad in the present day:

I am convinced that it is never right to settle any policy simply out of fear of the consequences…  For all I know it is within the providence of God that the human race should destroy itself in this manner.

There is no evidence that the human race is to last forever and plenty in Scripture to the contrary effect.  Though, as you say, the suffering entailed by nuclear war would be ghastly in its scale, one must remember that each person can only suffer so much; and I do not know that the men and women affected would suffer more than those do who day by day are involved in some appalling disaster.  There is no aggregate measure of pain. Anyhow, policy must not be based simply on fear of pain.

I am not being unfeeling. Christ in His Crucifixion showed us how to suffer creatively.  He did not claim to end suffering, nor did He bid His disciples to avoid suffering.  So I repeat, I cannot establish any policy merely on whether or not it will save the human race from a period of suffering or from extinction.

GeoffreyFisher

In a later interview, Fisher commented that “the very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other and more vital world, into which anyhow they must pass at one time.”

As Sam Harris comments in Letter to a Christian Nation:

According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on Earth.  It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen – the return of Christ.  It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves – socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically.  Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious.  The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

I don’t even want to get started on radical Islam’s commitment to Jihad, martyrdom, and three score and a dozen nubiles in paradise, so I’ll again defer to a man who is blessed with a far more eloquent turn of phrase:

The irony here is almost a miracle in its own right: the most sexually repressed people found in the world today – people who are stirred to a killing rage by reruns of Baywatch – are lured to martyrdom by a conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello.

Apart from the terrible ethical consequences that follow from this otherworldliness, we should observe how deeply implausible the Koranic paradise is.  For a seventh-century prophet to say that paradise is a garden, complete with rivers of milk and honey, is rather like a twenty-first century prophet saying that it is a gleaming city where every soul drive a new Lexus.  A moment’s reflection should reveal that such pronouncements suggest nothing at all about the afterlife and much indeed about the limits of human imagination.

– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason

A rather less pleasant place

I could not finish a piece on this topic without a reference to the dark side of an afterlife: that of eternal punishment.  This is an utterly evil concept that has surely ruined the lives and peace of mind of many children and which some have said is a worse form of abuse than the mildest forms of physical and sexual abuse.

Hell

Before the first “Follow My Way” in March 2009, I had read extracts of the Koran as quoted by others, namely Sam Harris in The End of Faith and the excellent treatment by prolific secularist and anti-fascist blogger Edmund Standing on Butterflies and Wheels.

I had also purchased my own copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran, but I had not read it in full.  I have now done so, cover-to-cover, and it was an appalling experience.  I am currently in the middle of writing my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.

Every time I now see someone wearing traditional Muslim dress or facial hair, I can’t stop myself from wondering, “What do you really think about me as an unbeliever, an infidel, a kuffar?  What do you really believe is going to happen to me after I depart this life?  Given that it says on practically every page of your holy book – which you claim is a miracle explained only if it were authored by an omnipotent deity – that I as unbeliever will face a painful chastisement in hell, fire or Gehenna for all eternity?”

I have not had the chance to ask this question of a believing Muslim myself yet, but I would certainly ask it of the Muslim apologist were I speaking on the night.

For the one life we do have

How’s this for an ending?

We’re all doomed.  One way or another we all end up dead.  The party will go on without us and we won’t be able to look down on it from on high.  The human race will go extinct one day.  Maybe at its own hands.  Certainly if the religious fanatics attempting to acquire apocalyptic nuclear weaponry while I write get their way.

But if we don’t finish each other off, then disease, famine or tempest ought to do the trick.  And our goose will be well and truly cooked in about half a billion years time when our sun runs out of hydrogen and swells up into a red giant and consumes half the solar system.  And if there’s anything left of us after all that, then the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see now in the night sky on a direct collision course with the Milky Way and will be upon us in [theatrical glance at wrist watch] ooooh… four billion years time.

If that doesn’t do it for us, then maybe I’m wrong and there is a God!

We have but a few short precious years of consciousness.  But try to make it count.   Try to enjoy the time you have.  And above all, try to help other people enjoy their time as well.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.  Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.  The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.  Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.  We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people.  In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and The Appetite for Wonder

Merseyside Skeptics Society Lecture on Paranormal Experiences – 17/09/2009

23/09/2009

chris_french

manicstreetpreacher learns about how the truth is not out there…  it’s up here.

On 17 September 2009 I attended a one of the best talks I’ve ever been to.  Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychological Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London gave a talk at the Crown Hotel pub, Lime Street, Liverpool entitled, “Weird Science: An Introduction to Anomalistic Psychology”.

The event was hosted by the recently formed Merseyside Skeptics Society and drew an impressive crowd which squeezed into the upstairs room of the Crown.  French is the editor of The Skeptic magazine and I hope won’t be offended if I called him Britain’s answer to Michael Shermer.

Most importantly, he was funny.  Very, very funny.

If you believe in psycho-kinesis please raise my hand.

The other day Uri Geller scratched his neck and his head fell off.  That’s the polite version of the joke, anyway.

The core of the lecture contained some fascinating revelations debunking psychic powers, extra sensory perception (ESP), psycho-kinesis (PK), life after death and alien abductions.

skepticmag

Population stereotypes

French began by putting paid to the claims of all psychic when opening a show that “we all have psychic powers within us”.  We were asked to think of a number between 1 and 10.  “Not three because that’s too obvious!”  I thought of seven.  It turned out that the majority of the audience did likewise!

Then we chose a number between 1 and 50 with two different odd numbers.  Thirty seven, thinks I.  And so did most of the rest of the room!

French explained that population stereotypes have shown that about one third of people will choose seven in the first example, thirty seven in the second and about a quarter will choose thirty five.

In a similar vein, arch-television “psychic”, Uri Geller, “transmits” a picture to his viewers, many of them guess correctly simply because they are apt to do so.  Similarly, out of a random selection of playing cards, most people tend to choose the seven of diamonds.  No supernatural powers needed there.

Anomalistic psychology

Opinion poll data shows that Americans have very high levels of supernatural belief:

25% believe in ghosts;

25% claim to have had a supernatural experience;

50% believe in the devil;

25% believe in astrology.

We might be tempted to seek solace in the idea of “those crazy Yanks”.  Alas, this is not the case.  A 1998 MORI poll showed similar levels of supernatural belief among Britons:

45% believe in life after death;

38% believe in astrology;

40% believe in ghosts;

28% believe in psychics and mediums;

64% believe in premonitions and ESP.

Heaven help us!  Nevertheless, there is some use in the universality of paranormal beliefs are useful in two respects.  Firstly, we should determine whether paranormal forces do actually exists and secondly, we can learn a great deal about human psychology by studying humans’ belief in such forces.  French and his colleagues start on the assumption that supernatural forces do not exist and they work on providing evidence for natural explanations.

Cognitive bias

French then went on to explain how humans process information about the world which cannot be replicated by computer software.  Our analysis of statistical probabilities and anecdotal evidence can lead us to draw faulty conclusions.

A paper published by Ellen Langer (“The Illusion of Control”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32 (1975) 311 – 328) argued that people perceive random processes as being under their control.  How many of us have lent over the casino screaming in our heads “Double six!”?  If you ever have to sell raffle tickets, apparently you will sell a lot more if you let people choose their own tickets as opposed to just tearing them off the book yourself; the punters believe that they have a better chance of winning if they have control over which ticket they get!

A good demonstration of this cognitive bias is to ask yourself which method of throwing dice will be more successful:

  1. Throwing 1 dice 10 times and getting 10 sixes one after the other; or
  2. Throw 10 dice all at once and having them all land on six.

Most people will choose option 1, because they have feel that they have more control over the dice.

Humans also have a very poor estimate of probabilities.  How many of us have been amazed when a very vivid dream we have had comes true a few days later?  Or we think of an old friend for the first time in a long time and they call in the next five minutes?

The truth is that we are swimming in probabilities.  How many dreams have we all had that haven’t come true?  Or how many times we have thought of an old friend and they haven’t called?  It would take some explaining if these funny coincidences didn’t happen!

Probabilities are often much lower than we anticipate.  Consider how many people you would need in a room for a 50/50 chance that one of them would have the same day and month (but not year) for their birthday.  When French posed this question, I had “three zillion” running through my head.  In fact, it is only 23!  And if you have 35 people, the odds go up to an 85% chance.

Transliminality is the hypersensitivity to psychological material (imagery, ideation, affect, and perception) originating in (a) the unconscious, and/or (b) the external environment.  French and his colleagues published a paper (Crawley, S E, French, C C, and Yesson, S A, “Evidence for transliminality from a subliminal card guessing task”, Perception, 31 (2002), 887-892 – Download PDF) which had the experimental subjects taking part in a computer simulation what they believed to involve ESP.

The computer flashed up the answer in screen to the subjects, but so briefly that they couldn’t actually see it.  High transliminals scored well, but they couldn’t explain why.  There was no ESP involved of course.

Cold reading and the Barnum Effect

Ill-informed and gullible members of the public often return from an encounter with a psychic saying that they psychic must be genuine because he or she “knew things about me that they could not possibly have known!”

However, they are merely living examples of the Barnum Effect: the tenancy that people have to accept vague and ambiguous statements as being unique to their personalities.  For example:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.

While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.

You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

At times you have serious doubts whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

If these statements sound like they came from a news stand astrology book, that may be because they did.  Such statements are sometimes called “Barnum statements” and they are an effective element in the repertoire of anyone doing readings: astrologers, palm readers, psychics, rumpologists and so on.  Just considering their opposite of the above statements for a moment shows them to be ridiculously demagogic.  I mean, who doesn’t have serious doubts sometimes over whether they have done the right thing?!

The Barnum Effect is an expression that seems to have originated with psychologist Paul Meehl, in deference to circus man P T Barnum’s reputation as a master psychological manipulator who is said to have claimed “we have something for everybody”.

I remember a few years ago while I was doing my post-graduate study and before I became a firm sceptic, one of my fellow-students directed me to an astrology website with personality descriptions for each sign of the Zodiac.  “I don’t believe in astrology at all, but the description for my star sign was scarily close to my personality,” she exclaimed.

Since my birthday is 18 April, I checked out what the website  said about Aries.  And was student colleague was right!  I remember it was scarily close to how I like to think of myself, particularly in how it said that I loved “spontaneity”.  It was extraordinary.  I mean this was spontaneity were taking about.  How many people get a warm fuzzy feeling when good things just happen?  Can’t be all that many, surely?

A couple of years later having read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and watching his TV series The Enemies of Reason, I returned to the same website with my sceptic cap firmly placed on my head and read the descriptions for all the signs of the Zodiac.  And guess what?  They pretty much all accurately described how I like to view my own personality.

Cold reading simply involves asking questions and confirming the answers back to the subject.  “Have recently suffered a setback in your life that has thrown you off balance…?   Of course not, you are actually riding high at the moment…”  If the subject is credulous, they will go along with it.

French recounted a very amusing experience he had when he appeared on The Richard and Judy Show posing as a medium.  He had never done this before and had no idea how to put cold reading into practice.  However, after a skim through a “How 2” book on cold reading, it all boiled down to was asking a lot of questions to his subject and then simply regurgitating the answers back to her and the result was that she was blown away by it.

For further exposition of psychics and cold reading, I recommend Richard Dawkins’ full uncut interview with Derren Brown filmed for The Enemies of Reason.

The unreliability of eye witness testimony

French demonstrated this with recourse to the clock on the wall of the pub.  It had Roman numerals on its face and he had covered it with kitchen towel before he began his talk.  We were asked to write down what the number four looked like: whether it was the more conventional “IV” or less conventionally, “IIII”.

I only guessed this correctly because a grandfather clock in my parents’ house has “IIII” on its face.  However, this is unique among clocks and virtually everywhere else four is represented as “IV”, which is what most of the audience decided.  The preconception is so ingrained in us, that most people only get it if they copy or trace the outline of the clock, and if they are asked later, they usually forget!

Our memories are often based on preconceptions and biases.  I once heard a barrister in court tell the judge that “memory is a creative process”.  Accordingly, reports of spiritualist séances vary drastically among participants.  Believers in the supernatural are far more open to suggestion and their memories are distorted far more readily.

In his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins recounts an experiment about how bad eyewitness evidence truly is:

Psychological experiments have given us some stunning demonstrations, which should worry any jurist inclined to give superior weight to “eye-witness” evidence.  A famous example was prepared by Professor Daniel J Simons at the University of Illinois.  Half a dozen young people standing in a circle were filmed for 25 seconds tossing a pair of basketballs to each other, and we, the experiment subjects, watch the film.  The players weave in and out of the circle and change places as they pass and bounce the balls, so the scene is actively quite complicated.  Before being shown the film, we are told that we have a task to perform, to test our powers of observation.  We have to count the number of times balls are passed from person to person.  At the end of the test, the counts are duly written down, but – little does the audience know – this is not the real test!

After showing the film and collecting the counts, the experimenter drops his bombshell.  “And how many of you saw the gorilla?”  The majority of the audience looks baffled: blank.  The experimenter then replays the film, but this time tells the audience to watch in a relaxed fashion without trying to count anything.  Amazingly, nine seconds into the film, a man in a gorilla suit strolls nonchalantly to the centre of the circle of players, thumps his chest as if in belligerent contempt for eye-witness evidence, and then strolls off with the same insouciance as before.  He is there in full view for nine whole seconds – more than one third of the film – and yet the majority of the witnesses never see him.  They would swear an oath in a court of law that no man in a gorilla suit was present, and they would swear that they had been watching with more than usually acute concentration for the whole 25 seconds precisely because they were counting ball-passes.  Many experiments along these lines have been performed, with similar results, and with similar reactions of stupefied disbelief when the audience is finally shown the truth.  Eye-witnesses testimony, “actual observation”, “a datum of experience” – all are, or at least can be, hopelessly unreliable.  It is, of course, exactly this unreliability among observers that stage conjurers exploit with their techniques of deliberate distraction.  (London: Bantam Press, 2009, pp. 14 – 15)

GorillaExp

It would be difficult to imagine more conclusive evidence that eyewitness evidence of ordinary human beings is notoriously fallible.

False memories

Nevertheless, this has a tragic element to it.  It is disturbingly easy to inject “false memories” into subjects to the extent that they honestly believe that they have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their parents.  Earlier this year, French reported on families being torn apart in the past twenty years.   Parents have ended up in prison because their children have gone into therapy and have emerged convinced that they have been the victims of massive sexual abuse:

I sat in a lecture theatre mostly filled with middle-aged or elderly parents living through this exact nightmare. Typically, their adult children had started therapy with no pre-existing memories of being sexually abused, but had become convinced during the therapeutic process that they had indeed been victimised in this way. So convinced were they that the “recovered” memories were true, they more often than not accused their parents directly of this vile act and then cut off any further contact, leaving their parents devastated and confused, their lives shattered…

One intriguing aspect of this awful situation is why the media generally appeared to lose interest. The press and broadcasters are often guilty of focusing on the human interest angle of stories at the expense of good solid scientific evidence, the MMR controversy being a case in point. As most scientists know, there never really was a “controversy” over MMR, with the consensus among medical experts being that there is no link between MMR vaccination and autism. But the human interest value of tearful interviews with sobbing mothers supported by the views of a few maverick scientists was always going to be enough to bias the media coverage of this issue, with tragic consequences.

There is even a British False Memory Society and False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the US dedicated to this phenomenon.

Needless to say, French has found that believers in the supernatural are more prone to experience false memories than others.  His experiments involved 100 participants being asked about a “flash bulb memory” in relation to a well-known news item; for example what they were doing when the aeroplanes hit the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.  However, one item they were presented with, the bombing of a tourist destination in Bali hadn’t actually happened (before Bali was bombed for real in 2002 that is!).  Subjects even mentally constructed news footage, including minute details such as whether the footage was in colour or in black and white and what language the commenter was speaking.

It is also well-established that the account of one person can affect the memories of others in the group.  This is known as “memory conformity”.  A very entertaining paper Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening (“‘It’s still bending’: Verbal suggestion and alleged psychokinetic ability”, British Journal of Psychology, 96, (2005), 115 – 127 – Download PDF) showed that subjects witnessing a conjurer’s “spoon-bending” could be convinced by suggestive comments from a “stooge” in the group that the piece of metal was still bending after it had been put down on the table!  (Checkout Wiseman’s blog as well, which has some fascinating optical illusions.)

Another way of implanting false memories is through “hypnotic regression”.  Unlike how it is often portrayed in films, hypnotic regression is very far from a psychological method of releasing repressed memories, but a bogus method of planting false ones.

Abducted by aliens

Die hard-believer in the paranormal, turned die hard-sceptic, Susan Blackmore published a paper in New Scientist magazine in 1994 on Alien Abduction Experiences (AAEs).  A typical report may go something like this.

I woke up in the middle of the night and everything looked odd, and strangely lit.  At the end of my bed was a four-foot high grey alien. Its spindly, thin body supported a huge head with two enormous, slanted, liquid black eyes.  It compelled me, telepathically, to follow and led me into a spaceship, along curved corridors to an examination room full of tables, on which other people lay.  I was forced to lie down while they painfully examined me, extracted ova (or sperm) and implanted something in my nose.  I could see jars containing half-human, half-alien foetuses and a nursery full of silent, sickly children.  When I eventually found myself back in bed, several hours had gone by.

French is convinced that AAEs are extreme cases of sleep paralysis.  About 40% of us have experienced this at some in our lives and I am certainly in that category.  It is the sensation of feeling trapped, suffocated and immobile (paralysed, you might say!) when halfway between sleep and consciousness.   For most people it passes after a few seconds, but for an unlucky 5%, it is far more traumatic.  These people often hallucinate, have difficulty breathing and feel another presence in the room.  This “presence” varies between societies.  People in Newfoundland see the Old Hag, whereas people in Japan see a samurai spirit.

Top Down Processing

When an interpretation emerges from the data, this is called data-driven or bottom-up processing.  Perception must be largely data-driven because it must accurately reflect events in the outside world.  You want the interpretation of a scene to be determined mostly by information from the senses, not by your expectations.

In many situations, however, your knowledge or expectations will influence perception. This is called schema-driven or top-down processing.  A schema is a pattern formed earlier in your experience.  This very often takes the form of pareidol: a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct, such as seeing the face of Jesus Christ in a burnt piece of toast:

HolyToast

Something like this went for $20K on eBay.  Sad.

Satanic rock lyrics!  Erm, sort of.  If you play the original track backwards and use your (vivid) imagination…

The lecture finished with what has to be the nadir of Top Down Processing: spending hours on end playing rock ‘n’ roll tracks backwards to distil dark and satanic messages to pollute the minds of the young and innocent.  Apparently Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin played in reverse contains such messages.  Listen to this backwards track first with your eyes closed and then play it again and read the lyrics on screen and below and make up your own minds:

So here’s to my Sweet Satan.
The other’s little path,
Would make me sad,
Whose power is Satan?
He’ll give those with him 666.
And all the evil fools,
There was a little tool shed,
Were he made us suffer Sad Satan.

Spooky or what?  Not the song played backwards.  The fact that some people obviously don’t have enough to do with their lives to indulge in such childishness.  However, certain fundamentalist Christians must have been very, very bored as this is precisely what they did.  The result was that several groups faced having their music banned as well as court action.  This happened to Judas Priest in 1990 after Raymond Belknap (18) and James Vance (20) went on a long alcohol and drug binge and made a suicide pact to kill themselves with a shot gun.  Where Belknap succeeded, Vance failed to take his own life and blew away the bottom part of his face leaving him grossly disfigured.

When it later transpired that the pair had been listening to Judas Priest that afternoon, the parents saw someone they could blame for the tragedy.  Judas Priest were taken to court in 1990 and the parents claimed that there were “subliminal messages” in the music that encouraged the boys to commit suicide; such as “Try suicide”, “Let’s be dead”, “do it, do it, do it.”  The band made a point of testifying in person at the proceedings, where they merely pointed that if they wanted to use subliminal messages in their music it would be tell the kids to buy more records.  The whole nonsensical episode can be seen in the 1992 documentary film, Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs Judas Priest:

Conclusio

French finished the audience question and answer session saying that that one of his opposition numbers in the debate is Rupert Sheldrake, who is satisfied that there is a case for paranormal forces.  Sheldrake debated the sceptical scientist, Lewis Wolpert at the Royal College of Arts in January 2004 on whether there were reasonable grounds to believe in telepathy.  However, French has never been able to reproduce Sheldrakes’ positive results for himself.   That will do for me.  If this stuff was genuine science, it would be possible for a sceptic to replicate the results under controlled laboratory conditions.

And as Wolpert said in his debate with Sheldrake, it would be lovely to believe in things like telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden, but there just isn’t any evidence for them.  If there were, mainstream scientists would surely have pounced on it by now and have won the Nobel Prize for Physics!

After a brilliant 90 minutes or so I my scepticism was thoroughly reinforced.  Such paranormal phenomena are best explained, not by recourse to the supernatural, but by the distorted perception of fallible human beings who desperately want to believe that there is something more out there.

But as Professor Chris French ended the lecture, perhaps the truth is not out there, it’s up here.

This was a brilliant event.  Three cheers to Mike, Andy, Marsh and all the others running the MMS.  I am very jealous that such a young society could put together such a fantastic event!