February 21, 2014

The Power of Belief

"The wish not to believe can influence as strongly as the wish to believe."
Dr. Ian Stevenson

This past week I ran across a story from The Atlantic about the paranormal activity lab that operates at the University of Virginia's School of Medicine. You can read the story (which is a longer and more in-depth feature piece) by clicking here. This certainly isn't the first time that I've read about academics who study the possibility that (shocker) modern science might not have all of the answers to life and the many unexplained events that have occurred, even in modern times.

I'm certainly not anti-science. I've taken science courses all the way through grad school. My bachelor's was in English and I was heavy into the theory of language as well as literary and cultural theories and how they inform our perception. Because of this I am quite comfortable working with abstract principles and not drawing immediate conclusions about everything. In fact, I've resolved that some things I might not ever understand. In my opinion, too many people are too much about closing their mind to possibilities, or in essence not believing. It's as if believing, or having faith if you will, is a toxin they're trying to avoid.

I've been fortunate enough to have been educated by scientists who understand at least to a degree the limits of our understanding, and how much science depends on human perception. You could literally spend your whole life studying human perception and never completely wrap your mind around it, mostly because it is the mind studying the mind, and that starts to get convoluted in a hurry. Can the mind really perceive all of its own operation, or are we just constructing a simulacra of the mind's functionality as we study it?

In the end, it all comes down to belief. People believe that science has all the answers and will not lead us astray. Other people believe science is full of crap and is leading us away from a loving god.

Case in point: I was at a local science museum with my kids back during the Halloween season. One of the displays talked about different "scary" subjects and how they relate to science. In the display was the bold declaration that there is absolutely no such thing as ghosts, because science has proven them to be false. My oldest, knowing that I write about the paranormal, asked me why the display said that. I told her that whoever put it together believes there is no such thing as ghosts. By nature, just because science has not validated a thing does not mean it doesn't exist. If that were the case, the very composition of our surroundings would be constantly shifting as scientific knowledge expands, because through science we are constantly finding out new information, or even realizing we were wrong about past assumptions or beliefs (even scientific ones).

I've experienced in my own life the power of belief. If I believe I can do something, it happens. It might not be without its challenges and even some failure, but sooner or later I do what I genuinely believe I can. Of course to a pessimist this sounds ridiculous, because as Stevenson points out in the quote at the top of this post, the wish to not believe is incredibly powerful.

What does all of this mean? To tell you the truth, I'm not exactly sure. Instead of running to a series of final conclusions about everything, I'm keeping my mind open. There's still so much we don't know, there are so many possibilities, that to declare that we have everything figured out is pure folly. Yet people do just that, mostly out of fear and the discomfort of not being able to label and categorize everything.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

The wish to not believe. That is really extreme. There are just so few extremes and certainties in our world, too. Science can't prove everything.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

As stated so well by the X-Files, I want to believe.

Robin said...

There are people who must believe one extreme or the other and will dismiss anything that doesn't jive with their belief. Like you, I find myself more open to Possibility. I am comfortable with the idea of things being beyond my comprehension.

mshatch said...

While I do believe in science I'm also well aware that that our knowledge about how the world works is in constant flux. Do ghosts exist? I haven't seen one (yet) but just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there.

Nicki Elson said...

I feel like I'm coming up more and more against people who treat faith like its toxic. It's the strangest thing. From where I'm at, I just can't understand why anyone would NOT want to believe.

But even with faith, I find myself struggling so much to try to explain everything - must get more comfortable with the ambiguous.

VR Barkowski said...

Skepticism doesn't mean a closed mind, it means a mind not easily convinced. I'm proud to be a skeptic, yet my mind remains open.

It is closed minds that lead to ignorance (root word: ignore). Where else could ignoring facts lead? Honestly, I know of nothing more supernatural, inexplicable, or unscientific than religious faith. Why does religion close so many minds?

VR Barkowski

Morgan said...

I don't think I'll ever really "grow up" because I always want to believe... it's so much more fun to believe. And who wants to live their life without magic?

When I went to Iceland a few years ago, I loved that so many of the people believed in elves. They really did! There were certain sections of land that we weren't allowed to step on because elves lived there. Now, I'm not quite that extreme, but I know that I definitely want my kids to grow up with an open mind and to believe in what might be possible...

I think it would be difficult to write paranormal and not believe to a certain extent... :)

(And thank you for your kind comment on my blog. I'm so very sorry for the deaths you've had to experience in your life...)

Steven said...

Diane, it is an extreme view!

Alex, nice reference to the X-Files :)

Robin, you're right, some people cannot strike that middle ground.

mshatch, no matter what you believe, the important thing is to keep an open mind, so good for you!

Nicki, there are quite a few people who fear faith. It's a horrible condition, as is the belief that you know everything.

VR, I myself am a skeptic, but everyone thinks that means you cannot believe anything. And you're right, many people hide behind religious beliefs and deny all other possibilities in the world. Ignorance is not bliss!

Morgan, believing is not only fun, it's been proven (by science) to improve one's health. I write about the paranormal because of experiences I've had that have taught me to question everything.