No 148. Our fickle relationship with truth
Most of us subscribe to the idea that the truth is a good thing, and yet most of us have a range of methods for denying the truth if it doesn't fit in with what we already believe to be true.
'There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true. The other is to refuse to believe what is true.' Soren Kierkegaard.
Many people are amazed that the various revelations about Trump, both before and after his election, have not deterred large numbers of Trump supporters. How on earth can they continue to support him, we want to know. But it is less amazing when you learn that a survey in December 17 found that 63% of Trump supporters agree with him that the press is 'the enemy of the people.' That is a very neat way of discrediting anything that the papers say about Trump that does not fit with what they want to believe about him.
Many of us find that pretty amazing too. How can people disregard facts? How can they disregard recorded conversations that they can hear with their own ears? Well, sometimes it is difficult to disregard things like that so they may have to resort to other ways of explaining events in such a way that they don't have to change their minds. Like it was taken out of context, he was tricked into it, it was just banter, he didn't mean it.
I say 'they', but the humbling truth is that we all do this kind of thing, on a daily basis. Some of the things we believe we are so attached to that we will simply delete anything that looks like a challenge to them.
I came across a good example of this last week when I went to a talk on Near Death Experiences (NDEs). It was given by Helena Cassol, an academic from the University of Liege, and she took us through some of the research her department is doing to investigate NDEs.
NDEs are experiences that have been recounted by a great many people who have come close to death, through a heart attack, a coma, or some other life threatening physical event. Similar experiences have been reported by people who meditate. The remarkable thing about NDEs is that there are consistent similarities between what people report. 90% report feelings of profound peace, nearly as many report overwhelming feelings of love. Many say they have encountered someone they know who has died, and many report seeing a spiritual being of some kind. Large numbers report seeing their lives flash by, and of experiencing other distortions of time. The interpretation of these experiences by the people who have had them also tends to be very consistent: there is life after death.
To your average science-oriented sceptic, among whom I have always counted myself, these stories could reasonably be expected to present a challenge. After all, there are some compelling and consistent factors here that point to something which is outside our usual earthly experience. But in practice they don't present any such challenge. Why? Because they don't fit into the model of the world that science-oriented sceptics have, that the only thing that is real is what you can see, touch and, preferably, test by way of a randomised controlled trial. So, like the Trump supporters, they set about explaining away these phenomena in ways that do not require a substantial shift of perspective - or in fact any shift at all. Once past the most convenient explanation, that all these people have made up their experiences, those explanations centre around neurological and psychological mechanisms that could produce hallucinations of this kind.
This is strange when you consider that scientists are some of the most curious of people. And even stranger when you consider that most of us would rather like to think that when we shuffle off this mortal coil there is something to look forward to. The stakes must be pretty high, surely, for so many of us to switch off curiosity and deny ourselves the comfort of immortality?
On the back of this talk a friend lent me a book called 'Proof of Heaven' by Dr Eben Alexander, an American neurosurgeon. He contracted a rare and usually fatal form of meningitis which put him in a coma and rendered him cortically dead for seven days. During that time he travelled to another realm where he experienced peace and unconditional love and beauty and a host of other extraordinary and delightful phenomena. So there he was, a neurosurgeon, a paid up member of the science-oriented sceptical community, having an other-worldly experience which felt more real than anything he'd ever experienced in his earthly life.
Like most people in his profession, Eben Alexander had always dismissed the idea that NDEs were anything other than neurologically produced illusions and he sheepishly admitted that he'd been so sure about that that he'd never bothered to read the literature. When he did read the literature, in order to understand better his own experience, he discovered that none of the proposed neurological or psychological mechanisms could have explained his experience, because they all required parts of his brain that had been completely disabled by his illness. He also noticed that he could easily discern the difference between the dreams and nightmares he'd had during his coma and the much more real experiences he'd had in the other realm. This is backed up by the research Helena Cassol and her colleagues have done, which has shown that the quality of the memories of NDEs, in terms of clarity and detail, is much more like that of recollections of recent real events than they are of dreams or psychotic events.
Has any of this made the slightest difference to what the sceptical science-oriented community believe? Probably not. Like Trump supporters, most of us are surprisingly tenacious when it comes to our models of the world and it is interesting to consider why. Here are some possible mechanisms....
We don't like things we don't understand, even if they're good.
We are comfortable with our model of the world and to change it would be very unsettling.
What we believe is a part of our identity, to change it would involve becoming someone else.
We don't want to believe in something wonderful in case it turns out not to be true. We don't like disappointment.
We don't like things that make us consider the possibility that we have got things wrong. That is embarrassing.
We prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, even if the familiar is not very nice.
You can appreciate what powerful drivers these must be when you consider that all the descriptions of near death experiences which have been documented down the centuries, in every country of the world, in every culture, gender and age, most of which are remarkably similar in describing a world very different to the one we usually experience, have been put down by the scientific community to abnormal neurological phenomena that no-one has ever been able to prove.
But hey, what if there is another realm? What if this earthly life is not all there is? What if, as the spiritual being told Eben Alexander, we are all loved and the fabric of the world and everything in it is love? After all, we would accept far fewer witnesses than there are for this to be convinced that someone had committed a crime.
Think of something that would be nice to believe, but which you think is unlikely to be true. It may concern life after death or God or Trump or climate change, or it might be that you're a good person, or you deserve to be happy.
Become aware of how you maintain your disbelief, how you sift information, discount what doesn't fit, look for what does. What is your attitude towards people who disagree with you, how do you handle what they say?
Spend a minute, an hour, a day, as if the opposite of your belief were true.
Notice what happens!
'People occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.'