SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social SciencesReference:
Religion and belief in the supernatural
Abstract: This article examines the following questions: why do people believe in God if there is no proof; is it possible to live without faith; where is the correlation between religious faith, belief in science, and belief in magic in the consciousness of modern people. The conclusion is made that the belief in the supernatural world occurs as a result of emergence of the cognitive abilities in primeval human (such as powerful imagination) and deep grieving over the death of a congener. The souls of the ancestors, who populated the mystical world, became the first gods. Religion has gradually separated from magic, but retained its connection to magic trough belief in the supernatural. The psychological experiments of the recent decades demonstrated that despite the joint efforts of the official religion and science to uproot the belief in magic from modern Western society, the belief in the supernatural remained on the subconscious level. Presence of phenomena that cannot be explained by science confirms that belief in the supernatural is not strictly atavistic remnants of the human psychology of past historical eras, but has certain empirical foundation. The scientific novelty of this research consists in the following: religious belief is examined in the context of modern experimental research of magic though for the first time; a new claim is made on the agreement between science and official religion in the fight against magic. Among the main conclusions are the following: religion historically and psychologically emanates from earlier human belief in magic; having separated from magic, religion begins to view magic as an adversary in the struggle from human conscience; religion becomes antagonistic towards magic and views it as manifestation of dark forces.
Keywords: spirits of the dead, participation, illusion of control, mysticism, miracles, paranormal phenomena, magic thought, religious beliefs, changed states of consciousness, parapsychology
Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.
Jean-Paul Sartre 
Moscow, January 11, 2014. It is bitterly cold. The immensely long line of people is entering the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, to venerate the Gift of the Magi brought from Greece for a few days. The loudspeakers in the underground stations ask people to delay their visit to the Cathedral due to the overcrowdedness, but in vain. The Gift is shown on the TV: this is a small metallic casket incrusted with precious stones and with some image inside. By the never ending flow people approach the casket, kiss it or touch with their foreheads, cheeks, hands or small icons. A reporter interviews some of the pilgrims. Many came from remote corners of Russia. All of them expect a miracle: Healing from diseases, happiness for themselves and family. According to legend this relic exists since the time of Christ. Like other relics, the Gift of the Magi became a gate that links the real world with the world of the supernatural, with god himself. Perhaps 30 thousand years ago, in the time of the Upper Palaeolithic, in the flickering light of burning pine branches people touched the Spirit of the Great Deer pictured on the wall of the cave, asking the spirit to give them luck in hunting. In tens of thousands years the cave became the Cathedral clad in marble, and the image painted in ochre on the cave wall turned into the precious piece of jewelry, but human beings remain the same, with their pains and desires, love, hope and the belief in the world that is invisible but can see them and help them if properly asked.
One day roaming YouTube I came across a talk by British biologist and science writer Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist. Someone from the audience asked him why he was so sure that God didn’t exist. Because – Dawkins answered, - there is no evidence whatsoever of god’s existence. And I thought – he is right, there is no evidence indeed. But at the same time another thought crossed my mind, this time not my own but the one which belonged to Tertullian (155-240 AD) – the early Christian author, who wrote “I believe because it is absurd” . Like Dawkins, Tertullian had a point: If there was evidence of god’s existence, the belief in god would not be necessary. We don’t have to believe in something for which we have evidence.
Indeed, why do people believe in god if there is no evidence of his existence? Can one live without any beliefs at all and rely only on scientific proof? Can traditional religious beliefs, the belief in science and the belief in magic coexist in the mind of one person? These are the issues I would like to discuss in this paper, in the context of the recent research on magical thinking in modern people.
The discovery of the world of spirits
A vast herd of wildebeests slowly moves on the hot African grass plane. For many days without water and food, crossing crocodile infested rivers, the animals move out of the drought zone toward the zone with the abundance of green grass. Predators, which are territorial and stay in the drought zone, are hungry and thirsty as well, yet have to wait patiently for return of the herds. But neither the herbivores nor the predators try to pray to gods for the desperately wanted rain. Humans are the only animal species which invented a prayer and a ritual – the ways of affecting nature by thoughts and symbolic actions. The belief that thoughts, words and rituals can directly affect natural processes and inanimate objects is the key feature of the belief in magic. This belief was the first form of religion.
When did this belief begin? Some anthropologists associate the belief in magic with the neocortex, which evolved around 500 thousand years ago and occupies a notable proportion of the human brain. The neocortex opened the possibility for new cognitive skills to develop, which were necessary for the emergence of consciousness, language and religion . Anthropologist Pascal Boyer suggested that the basis for the emergence of religion was laid down by the evolvement of such cognitive skills as attribution of activity to natural processes, attribution of consciousness to animals and inanimate objects, and some others. "When we see branches moving in a tree or when we hear an unexpected sound behind us, we immediately infer that some agent is the cause of this salient event. We can do that without any specific description of what the agent actually is” – he writes [4, p.144].
One can hardly argue against the idea that the belief in the invisible forces that are hidden in rivers, boulders, trees and animals requires a complex brain and advanced cognitive skills. The question however is was having the complex brain and advanced cognitive skills sufficient for humans to develop the idea of the invisible forces? The precursors of such cognitive skills exist in apes and other animal species, but the animals did not invent a religion. There is a fundamental difference between danger escaping behaviours based on detecting movements and sounds in the environment and the animistic belief in that behind these movements and sounds some invisible agents pull the strings . Danger escaping behaviours can be either hardwired in the animal brains by evolution (and then they are called instincts) or learned through experience (conditioned reflexes), but they are not based on beliefs. In order to believe in invisible agents, spirits and gods, people had to first develop the idea of what a spirit is. In other words, cognitive skills, however complex and advanced, are nothing but intellectual tools, just like a stone axe or a knife. But the idea of an agent or a spirit is an abstract notion that required a leap from the world of perceptual experience into the invisible world of abstract thinking. A leap like that needs two things: Powerful imagination and a strong emotional experience of some kind.
In my view (and in some others’ as well), the emotional experience that triggered the invention of the idea of a spirit was the realization of personal death. There are observations that even some species of animals – chimps, elephants and other mammals - act as if they understood that a dead or a dying conspecific is in a special state . But the animals don’t project death of a conspecific onto themselves. It appears that only humans had imagination powerful enough to be able to realize that what happened to their deceased tribesmen would also happen to them. In order to be able to invent the idea of life after death, people first had to discover that life will end in death for each of them and be shocked by this discovery. But for such a discovery the power of the imagination was key, since unlike death of their tribesmen, the person’s own death was always in the invisible reality of the future.
To reiterate, cognitive development provided necessary precursors for this discovery, among which powerful imagination was the most important one. Of all the animal species, only humans were able to escape from captivity of the immediate perceptual field and grasp the idea that sometime, in the invisible reality of the future, every living person is destined to die. This realization caused an existential shock at seeing a relative or a tribesman dead. The people saw that a person with whom they lived, communicated and hunted together due to some reason suddenly became a breathless body, and realized that the same would happen to all of them. By refusing to accept the fact of death, people assumed that the deceased lives on but left his or her body and passed into another world with that part of him or her that they called a spirit and today we call the soul. This was the idea of the afterlife. Eventually the world of spirits may have spread its wings to cover the whole of nature. Animals, trees, springs, lakes and mountains became to be viewed as containing spirits inside. Today we call this view on nature “animism”.
Dreams and hallucinations could be an additional factor that helped to develop the notion of a spirit. In their night dreams, people had experiences that differed from those they had in a waking state of mind: They could fly in the air, go through hard walls, see their deceased relatives. These experiences too may have attributed toward the idea that in a person’s body an entity lives that can go out of the body and wonder around while the person is asleep. British anthropologist Eduard Taylor maintained that ancients wrongly took their dreams for reality. This “error of judgement” created the belief in the invisible world of spirits . What is missing in Taylor’s account is that in order to make this error of judgement, people had to first notice that they are dreaming. Neurological studies suggest that some animal species have dreams , but animals are unlikely to remember or ponder their dreams. Pondering ones dreams requires reflective thinking – looking at the real world from the perspective of dreams, which are not currently present but need to be recalled. Making the leap from the perceptual world of the present into the invisible past required a push by some powerful emotional experience. The shock at the realization of inevitability of personal death may have been this push. Having invented the idea of spirits of the dead, people could assume that living persons too have spirits inside their bodies, and these spirits show themselves in their dreams.
In sum, the discovery of the magical world of spirits was triggered not by the intuitive cognitive skills and logical inferences, but by the powerful desire to live and the fear of death. In modern people the longing for staying alive and the fear of death are still there. But today, due to the achievements of science and medicine, people live longer and are less dependable of unpredictable circumstances of life. Many educated rational adults believe that magic and god are concepts from the genre of fantasy and don't really exist. But do they really believe this?
Belief in the supernatural
For a child brought up in a religious family the proof of the existence of the supernatural comes from his or her social environment. The child absorbs the parents’ religious views and rarely doubts them. In a similar way, adult religious believers seek support of their faith in their coreligionists. Even if a person is brought up in the secular environment where beliefs in magic and in god are viewed as a fallacy, the trust in science requires the support of social environment. Psychological experiments have shown that for most people the belief in science, just like the belief in god or in magic, is based not on independent experimentation and critical thinking, but on the support of their trusted social groups. For example, in one experiment educated adult participants (university undergraduates and staff members) were individually shown an empty wooden box, asked to place a brand new plastic card in it and close the lid of the box . Next, the experimenter chanted a magic spell intended to damage the object in the box. The participants were then asked whether they believed the object in the box had changed; most of them answered that they didn't. The participants were instructed to open the box and remove the card. They were surprised to see that the card now had engravings on it as if done by a sharp instrument. The participants were encouraged to examine the box for a false bottom and other hidden compartments, and found nothing. Despite the absence of a rational explanation, most of the participants denied that the card had been damaged by the magic spell. They argued that changing physical objects by just saying words is in contradiction with the laws of physics. Then the experimenter asked the participants to put their hands in the box and said that he did not guarantee the safety of their hands if he said his magic spell again. This manipulation aimed at removing the implicit assumption that the laws of physics are untouchable. The experimenter also asked the participants to give a written consent that they would not blame the experimenter for whatever happens to their hands after he says his magic spell. This was done in order to remove the participants’ feeling that the safety of their hands is being guarded by the conventional moral rule of not hurting the participant during the experiment. The participants now understood that their belief that a magic spell cannot possibly hurt their hands was no longer ensured by social conventions and hung on their personal courage. When under these circumstances the experimenter asked the participants’ permission to repeat his magic spell, half of the participants denied the permission and explained their decision by their belief that the spell might indeed damage their hands. This showed that removing the implicit social support of the idea that laws of physics are invincible made half of the educated adult participants admit that they actually believe in magic, both in their verbal judgments and in their behavioural reactions. In subsequent experiments when participants had to put under risk not their hands but their future lives up to 90% of participants acknowledged that magic could indeed work .
It is noteworthy that British educated participants showed a greater disbelief in magic than uneducated peasants in rural villages of central Mexico only when the implicit social support of this disbelief was provided. However, when this social support was removed, British participants exhibited their belief in magic to the same extent as Mexican participants . These data explain why in the ancient world, in Medieval Europe and even in the time of Renaissance, when the belief in magic was supported by dominant social ideology, this belief was overwhelming. It is only because of the phenomenal success of science in the last four centuries that the dominant social ideology changed and the belief in science took over. Yet the aforementioned experiments revealed that modern rational adults, who consciously deny their belief in magic, subconsciously still harbour this belief. The question arises of why is the belief in the supernatural able to withstand the pressure of scientific education? Could it not be because there is evidence that supports this belief?
Evidence for the supernatural
Paradoxically, the idea of the existence of some kind of omnipotent intelligence comes from science itself. Following Plato, Immanuel Kant maintained that science operates “borderline concepts” such as “infinity”, “ideas gas”, and “ideal steam engine”. But the real life prototypes of these borderline concepts must exist somewhere. For example, when we think of the concept “a bird”, we can show a real bird flying in the sky in support of this concept. By contrast, when it goes about the borderline concepts, such as infinity, there is nothing out there to show in support of it. It is impossible to see the real life infinity, the concept of infinity can only be represented as a symbol ∞.But we know that infinity is not just a symbol, it really exists. But where? It cannot exist in the human mind, since the human mind is only capable of making a finite (and not very large) number of operations. Even the most powerful quantum computers would be able to complete the “almost infinite”, yet still a limited number of operations. The infinity cannot exist in the physical universe itself, as the infinity is an infinite sum of mental operations, and the physical universe is devoid of any mentality. We have to admit that as a piece of reality infinity exists within some kind of omnipowerful mind – the mind of god. Usually, scientists and engineers are not bothered by this philosophical problem, they find it sufficient to catch in their minds “reflections” of these borderline concepts and create their real life approximations (e.g., a differential equation in mathematics or a real steam engine in technology). That these real life approximations (mathematical equations, bridges, cars, airplanes, computers) work is the proof that their “borderline” prototypes exist, and therefore the “holder” of these prototypes – god - exists as well. Of course, this “god of science and philosophy” doesn’t look exactly like the gods of the ancients and even like the god of modern religions, but there are some similarities. The god of science has the mind that is infinitely more powerful that the human mind. Some philosophers argue that we will never be able to understand the mind of god . But one doesn’t have to understand the mind of god in order to know that the god exists.
Another kind of evidence for the existence of the supernatural comes not from theoretical considerations, but from phenomena that cannot be cracked by science. The Big Bang that brought the universe into being, the enigmatic force in the universe that builds complex systems out of the simple ones, dark energy and dark matter, the emergence of life from non animate matter, the emergence of consciousness and free will – these and some other phenomena thus far escape scientific understanding. Of course, science will keep trying to reach a better understanding of such phenomena, but it is unlikely that science will ever be able to fully explain them. And this means that there is a mysterious “point of creation” within or outside the universe, which is beyond reach of the human capacity of rational understanding.
But let’s come back to the point in the early prehistory when the belief in the supernatural was discovered. People discovered the fact of their mortality. This discovery brought about the idea of the afterlife and the notion of a spirit or an agent. The invisible world of spirits expanded to include living humans, animals, plants and inanimate objects. The whole world began to be viewed as full of agents and spirits. Eventually the view of the world became more structured: The scope of entities with the spirits inside shrunk to include only god, people and, arguably, animals. There appeared a vast area of spiritless objects governed by unchangeable and universal laws. Physical science emerged, and other natural sciences that model themselves on physical science. Science, technology and medicine undermined the leading role of religion in modern industrial cultures, and ousted the belief in magic into the realm of subconscious.
The question arises of why did the belief in the supernatural not disappear entirely in the course of historical development, like disappeared many beliefs, such as the beliefs in mythical titans and in that the Earth is flat? The aforementioned evidence for the existence of the supernatural is mostly theoretical and is unlikely to prevent most people from completely abandoning the belief in magic and in god. So, why are these beliefs still there? A possible answer is because these beliefs serve people’s needs. In particular, the possibility to address gods through prayers and rituals helps people reduce the fear of death and suffering, thus increasing the people’s chances for survival. In psychology this psychotherapeutic function of the belief in the supernatural is called “the illusion of control” .
The illusion of control
Psychological experiments have shown that people feel more confident and act more effectively if they believe that they are in control over the situation than if they think that the situation doesn't depend on their actions. For example, in one experiment a group of participants was allowed to choose their lottery tickets; another group of participants received lottery tickets chosen for them by someone else. Although both groups had equal chances to win the prize, participants of the first group assessed their chances higher and were inclined to swap their tickets for different ones to a lesser extent than participants of the second group . In another experiment participants were instructed to watch a basketball player throwing a ball into the basket. Those participants who had been trying to visualize successful throws and thus “help” the player to score did indeed think that the player’s successes were achieved partly due to their imaginary “help”, despite the participants’ realization that their imagination could not possibly affect the player’s actions . One can assume on this ground that a petitionary prayer and other ritualistic pleas to gods play a similar role: They create in people an illusion of control over those situations of their lives, which are out of their control.
Indeed, why do many people are so eager to look into their future by addressing oracles and other fortune tellers? It would seem they should realize that if something was written into their fates then it would happen to them independently of whether they know or don’t know their fates. Yet people keep trying to learn their fates. In ancient Rome no serious actions (like going to a war or laying the foundation of a building) were taken without asking the fortune tellers and studying the omens. Even the decision to convert to Christianity was taken by the emperor Constantine because of the omen he had seen before the battle. Today people are less superstitious yet fortune telling is still a popular profession. In the media and on the web a small army of fortune tellers predicts actions of terror, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters. What can science do with this mania of predictions? This is not a realm for science. Even religion prefers not to intervene. As a result, the niche of Nostradamus is up for grabs, and there is no shortage of candidates. So, why do rational people seek to know their fates?
The “illusion of control” phenomenon might suggest an answer. People want to know their fates in order to feel they are in control over them. They understand of course that their attempts to change fate are futile and illusory, and yet this illusion has a soothing psychotherapeutic effect. In his poem “The Song of Wise Oleg” Russian poet Alexander Pushkin brings us an example. Prince Oleg asked a fortune teller of when and why he would die. The fortune teller prophesized that Oleg would take death from his favourite horse. Oleg was sceptical about the prophecy yet he replaced his favourite horse with another one. Many years passed, Oleg fought and won many battles. One day Oleg was told that his favourite horse had died. He mocked the false prophecy and decided to visit the horse’s grave. When he put his foot on the horse’s skull, a poisonous snake crawled out of the skull and bit Oleg. Oleg died, the prophecy came true. Oleg’s attempt to cheat fate failed – and yet it was not entirely meaningless. Let’s imagine that Oleg did not change his horse. In any battle he would have been worried that the horse fails him to bring him death, and this anxiety may have diminished Oleg’s effectiveness in the battle and even cost him his life. By changing the horse Oleg was calm and effective in battles. It didn’t matter that in the end the prophecy came true. What matters is that the illusion of having cheated the fate gave Oleg a very real advantage: Calmness and self-confidence in the battles.
Everyday superstitions perform a similar function of creating the illusion of control. By crossing our fingers or knocking on wood we make ourselves calm, as if pacifying the evil forces and soliciting help of our guardian angels. We know that these actions is nothing but a superstition, and yet these magical actions help. It is no coincidence that people of most dangerous professions (pilots, construction workers, sportsmen) are also the most superstitious ones . Where the results are unpredictable and stakes are great, science cannot help. All what remains is to rely on the supernatural, even if a person does not believe in it. More so if he or she does.
But what does this have to do with religion? – a reader may ask.
Magic and religion
As I mentioned above, initially magic and religion were one. People believed in ancestral spirits and animal spirits and those were their gods. Eventually in great civilisations like ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome gods acquired more diverse and clear forms. But along with main gods there existed a multiplicity of little gods and goddesses of the second rank, with which people communicated by means of magical rites. With the onset of monotheism, the war broke out between dominant religions (e.g., Judaism or Christianity) and magic for the people’s minds.
Indeed, the Bible condemns magic. “Never let a witch live” (Exodus, 22:18) is just one of many places in the Old Testament where magic is ostracized. And yet both the Old and the New Testaments are full of miracles. In the Old Testament, God creates the universe, including plants, animals and humans (Genesis, Chapters 1-2), the Great Deluge (Genesis, Chapters 7-8), at Tower of Babel men’s single language changes to many (Genesis, 11;1-9), Sodom and Gomorra are destroyed with fire from heaven (Genesis, 19:24), the wife of Lot becomes a salt pillar (Genesis, 19:26), Aaron's rod is turned into a serpent (Exodus, 7:12), The 10 plagues of Egypt (Exodus, 7-12), The manna from heaven (Exodus 16:14-35), The parting of the Red Sea (Exodus, 14:21-31), The sun and the moon standing still (Joshua, 10:12-14), Jonah is released from the great fish (Jonah, 2:1-10), The writing on the wall (Daniel, 5:22-31), and around 100 more. In John’s gospel at a wedding in Cana water is turned into wine (2:1-11), a royal official's son is healed (4:46-54), during the Fall festival in Jerusalem a man is healed of a 38 years infirmity (5:1-9), Jesus heals a man born blind (9:1-7), Lazarus is resurrected after being dead for three days (11:38-44). In Matthew’s gospel Jesus casts demons out of people with a word, finally, Jesus himself is resurrected from the dead.
So, the Bible condemns magic, yet magic is everywhere in the Bible. It appears that in the view of the Bible’s authors doing magic as such is not a sin; a sin is when a person is trying to do magic without the help of god. Considering that believing in magic is believing in spirits that live in the things of nature, doing magic without the god’s authorization means addressing the little spirits while skipping to ask the permission of the supreme spirit – god – at the same time. The Bible doesn’t deny that magic and miracles do really exist. From the historical perspective it isn’t surprising: One can’t cut out the umbilical cord that links religion to it’s mother – magic – without spilling some blood in the form of miracles. From the psychological perspective the Bible needs miracles to be convincing in the eyes of believers. Without miracles, the Bible would not differ from the ordinary description of historical events and historical anecdotes, and God and his representatives on Earth would not be able to inspire awe and enjoy the unconditional trust of people. It is unacceptable for the Church authorities to share magical powers with commoners; doing this could diminish the priests’ psychological influence over the people.
As a result, magic split into two categories: High magic and law magic. Initially the belief in magical reality was the way to overcome the fear of death and to anchor the person’s existence, which is full of sufferings and unpredictable dangers, in the everlasting world of the spirits. Simultaneously magical communication with gods performed some practical functions: People asked spirits to give them luck at hunting, crop growing or war. With time, in monotheistic cultures this role was taken by official religions, and the remaining part of magic turned into illegal “direct deals” with little spirits. Many of those who come to the practicing witches believe in god, but they see god as a powerful wizard of some sort who is high above and hard to reach. By contrast, the “small spirits” are closer to the people, they are less strict, can be bribed and look more accessible partners in business. Even within the realm of main religions in people’s daily life the “high” and “law” requests for miracles are erratically intertwined. Official religious ceremonies on Christmas and Easter is one thing, but in daily life people ask god for simple and mundane favours. Recently I visited a monastery near Moscow. The monastery’s divine role is accompanied by an established business, with the sail of soft drinks, cakes, calendars and icons. In the cathedral people habitually cross themselves in front of the icons, fire the candles, and queue for the holy water; hands and legs of a monument of the saint who is buried in the monastery’s cemetery are polished to shining by touches of thousands of believers who seek the benevolence of divine forces. Magical rituals on this ground are as mundane as consuming tasty cakes stuffed with cabbage.
And yet, in industrial cultures the number of people grows that do not belong to any established religion. Does this mean that these people live without beliefs at all? I don’t think so. If the energy of the belief in the supernatural is left without its main target - god, it finds another target. The new target could even be the theory that the belief in god is harmful and dangerous for people. There are scientists who fight religion with the zeal of a religious extremist, as if their disbelief in god was confirmed by god himself. Usually however, the disappointment in mainstream religions turns into another kind of belief in the supernatural. One such kind of belief is rational mysticism .
The belief “from the reason”
In his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” American psychologist William James (1842-1910) described unusual sensations he had experienced after taking in chloral hydrate and other hallucinogenic drugs. Although James was a hard believer in scientific method in psychology, he nevertheless admitted that mystical experience could be a reality. In his view mystical experience allowed a person in certain moments of life to switch to the “upper reality” – to the “mind of god”. Like James, some modern researchers believe that one way to achieve such altered state of consciousness is by taking psychedelic substances.
In 1954 English writer Aldous Huxley published a book “The Doors of Perception” in which he described his experiences after taking mescaline – a psychedelic drug obtained from cactus Peyote. Huxley reported that he had had the experience of oneness with higher reality which subsequently positively affected his life by broadening his consciousness and increasing his interest in life. In order to examine Huxley’s report, in 1962 psychiatrist and theologist Walter Pahnke conducted and experiment in Harvard University, which became known as the “Good Friday Experiment” . Participants (university undergraduates) were divided in two groups. In the experimental group participants received a pill of psilocybin (the active principle in psilocybin mushrooms) that produces altered states of consciousness, and the control group received an “active placebo” - a dose of niacin that produces some physiological changes but doesn’t affect consciousness. The participants were asked to describe their experiences and assess the strength of those experiences twice: Immediately after the session, which lasted for a few hours, and six months later. Participants who received psilocybin, but not the control group, reported profound mystical experiences, such as the feeling of oneness with the surrounding objects, of the divinity and uniqueness of each object, of the impossibility to put their experiences into words, and of the loss of awareness of their location in space and time. Six months later the participants acknowledged that the mystical experience had a positive effect on their lives: It made their religious beliefs more profound, intensified their feelings of compassion and love to others, and sharpened their perception of the beauty of life. This experiment was taken by many as a proof that an artificial intrusion in brain chemistry can produce mystical experiences similar to those achieved by traditional meditation practices, such as a prayer, concentration or long fasting. However, not everyone agreed.
Harvard university graduate Rick Doblin interviewed the participants of this experiment in 25 years after the experiment and found that along with the positive experiences they also had had negative ones, such as the feelings of fear, anxiety and concern that they were going mad. One of the participants who had taken psilocybin fell into the state of paranoia, rushed out in the street and started to proselytize the coming of the age of the global peace. Even after 25 years this participant occasionally felt fits of unaccountable anxiety. In other words, mystical experiences induced by psychedelic substances can be both positive and negative. Philosopher Steven Katz considers mystical experiences achieved by taking drugs as false. In his view the drug induced experiences are nothing but a reflection of noises in the brain of a person who took the drug, whereas meditation, yoga and prayer could indeed bring the person in contact with the higher reality .
With the aim of studying this issue in depth American radiologist Newberg and psychiatrist D’Aquili used the method of photon emission tomography to explore the brain activity of people who were at the peak of meditative states. They discovered that when people are immersed in a deep meditative state and experience the feeling of oneness with the universe their prefrontal cortex becomes hyper activated, which leads to the inhibition of neural activity in parts of the parietal lobes. Newberg and D’Aquili hypothesized that it is the inhibition of the brain activity in the parietal lobes that causes some of the characteristic phenomenological features of mystical experiences. They assumed that with the development of new advanced technologies of registering brain activity it would be possible to experimentally determine whether the mystical experience is genuine or results from pathological conditions, like hallucinations in schizophrenic patients . The authors sited studies which had showed that having genuine mystical experience positively affected people’s lives by increasing the people’s self-esteem, improving interpersonal relationships, decreasing anxieties and enhancing the ability to feel compassion to other people . However, further research revealed that mystical experiences initiated by psychedelic substances can also lead to the growth in narcissism, fanaticism and hatred.
If Newberg and D’Aquili thought that that they had found the brain localization of one particular kind of mystical experience – the feeling of oneness with the universe, then Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger claimed that he had found localization of all kinds of mystical experience, including the belief in god . He reported that many of his patients with brain trauma had experienced the feeling of some kind of ethereal presence, as if someone invisible was near them. If the right hemisphere was damaged, the patients felt that a demon or a ghost was chasing them. If the damage was in the left hemisphere, then the feeling of presence was in the form of voices. People with the damage in the left temporal cortex were particularly prone to this kind of experiences.
Persinger’s finding were not original. In ancient Greece they called epilepsy the “divine illness”. It has been established that epileptic fits are linked to disturbances of brain activity in the left temporal cortex where the functions of speech and “feeling of personal identity” are localized. During epileptic fits people may experience the feeling of the “presence of god”. Some theorists suggest that prominent historical characters, such as the prophet Ezekiel, Joan of Arc and other suffered this kind of fits. Relying on this and other evidence Persinger hypothesized that the left temporal cortex, which gives a person the feeling of “oneself”, when disturbed begins to interpret signals that come from the person’s right hemisphere as the presence of “another self”. Depending on a person’s life history, the person can interpret this “other self” as an alien, ghost, angel or god. To examine this hypothesis, Persinger and his colleague Stanley Koren created a special device they called “Octopus” but which later became known as “God helmet”. The device is a helmet consisting of eight electromagnets capable of emitting weak electrical field; when placed on a person’s head, the device can stimulate various parts of the cortex . Persinger reported that under certain spatial-temporal patterns of stimulation of the temporal lobes up to 80% of participants had had the “presence” experience.
Persinger doesn’t claim that all kinds of mystical experience is only an illusion created by the brain activity , yet his experiments make a conclusion like that possible. It is not clear though what advantage might the feeling of “presence’ have given to people in the course of evolution. Persinger’s interpretation of the feeling of “presence” as the presence of supernatural beings is also questionable. It is possible that what is present is simply an alter-ego of a patient himself or herself. Earlier experiments by Canadian neurosurgeon Penfield showed that electro stimulation of the temporal cortex can create in epileptic patients subjective experiences which feel authentic . This suggests that the “presence” phenomena evoked by the “God’s helmet” could be artificially induced simulations rather than genuine mystical experiences.
According to Persinger, the “presence effect” enhances the ability of extrasensory perception, or ESP (see the next section for more on that). Science writer John Horgan volunteered to try the “God’s helmet” on himself. He did not have the “presence” experience, however, he correctly guessed the information which Persinger’s assistant was trying to telepathically transfer to Horgan while his brain was being stimulated. Persinger reported that in his experiments 75% of participants had guessed the telepathically transferred messages correctly, whereas the chance probability of correct guesses was only 20% . The assumption that there is a connection between the “presence” experience and the ability of ESP is not arbitrary. Among many of god’s supernatural abilities is the ability to read people’s minds. If stimulation of a certain area in the brain connects a person to the higher reality, then this reality might indeed enhance the person’s supernatural abilities. Parapsychological phenomena (or psi-phenomena), such as ESP, are the abilities of the human mind to do things which science cannot explain. If it were possible to show in experiments that people can indeed do such things, this would be another evidence for the existence of the supernatural.
Psi as a window into the supernatural
Why do stage magicians show tricks? Why do we enjoy watching the tricks while we know that those are just illusions? Could it not be because on the bottom of the mind we still harbour the belief that the impossible is still possible? We know that a human being can’t levitate in the air or walk on water, but we can see ourselves doing these things in our dreams. In our dreams and the imagination all sorts of impossible things do have some kind of existence. And now suppose that we are seeing something impossible, like a person walking on water, happening on the stage. Immediately the thought “a person can walk on water” is upgraded in its rank on the scale of existence. Just for a fleeting moment at the back of our mind the miraculous phenomenon that we are seeing becomes a reality, while our critical thinking keeps saying it is a trick. Seeing the miracle evokes in us the emotion of surprise and, usually, happiness. The emotion of surprise is understandable, but why happiness? May be, because seeing a supernatural event touches upon the hope hidden deep in our subconscious that the supernatural is indeed real and we can be a part of it. If miracles do exist, then a miracle could happen to me, and my life is not just a random splash on the boundless ocean of time but has a meaning! In essence, stage magic is a simulation of the supernatural, a “research” on the supernatural by means of play. But is this kind of research possible by scientific means? We know that science refutes the supernatural as a fallacy. But some scientists put this bias under doubt. There appeared parapsychology – an inquiry into the supernatural phenomena by scientific means.
Parapsychological phenomena have been under investigation for over a hundred years. One of such phenomena is ESP - the ability to read other people’s thoughts at a distance or foresee the future. In a typical experiment they use Zener cards – five cards with one of the iconic geometrical shapes (like a cross, a circle or a star) printed on each card, in five copies each. In a test for ESP a person (an inductor) picks a card out of the shuffled pack and, looking at the picture, tries to pass the image to another person (a receptionist) who is situated in another room or building. The timing of the information transfer and reception is synchronized in advance. The receptionist tries to guess and draw the image. If the number of correctly guessed shapes is higher than the one expected by chance alone, then the result is viewed as confirming that the information transfer did indeed take place. There are multiple versions of this method. Many years of research on ESP showed that the effect is small but statistically significant . Some psychologists see a connection between ESP and the phenomenon in quantum physics called “entanglement”. Entanglement entails that two quantum objects interact in a way that the quantum state of one of the pair is accompanied by a certain quantum state of the other independently of the distance between the objects. Another effect studied by parapsychologists is telekinesis – the ability of a person to affect certain physical processes by a sheer effort of will; this effect too was supported in rigorous experimental studies . Nevertheless, most mainstream psychologists doubt these results and view parapsychology as a discipline on the border between science and science fiction.
As a researcher who never ventured in parapsychology I too had my doubts about reality of parapsychological phenomena, and so decided to conduct a few experiments myself. Because such experiments are time and labour consuming and a chance for their publication in a mainstream journal was zero, my attempts were motivated solely by my curiosity, and I conducted the experiments in my free time. I did not expect my inquiry into the supernatural to be successful yet decided to give it a try. However, the results were unexpected. My first attempt was made in cooperation with a researcher of anomalous phenomena Adrian Ryan . The experiment was on ESP, and the method we used had been developed by American physicist and parapsychologist Edwin May. A participant is told that approximately in 15 minutes he or she will be shown a photographic picture of a certain landscape or a city. What exactly this picture (named the "target") will show nobody knows, because the picture is on a computer’s hard disc mixed with other pictures. The participant’s goal is to visualize and draw this picture. The participant is instructed, after the experimenter gives a signal by saying “target”, to make a sketch by a pencil on a sheet of paper of the first image or landscape that crosses the participant’s mind. After the sketch is made, the experimenter switches the computer on and the computer randomly selects five pictures out of the pool of 300 pictures. It is assumed that the target is among these chosen pictures. Next, looking at the participant’s sketch, the experimenter ranks the five chosen pictures on the scale of similarity to the participant’s picture, with the least similar being given the lowest rank, and the most similar the highest rank. The computer is put to work again and randomly picks a picture out of the five earlier chosen pictures. The chosen picture is the target, which the participant was trying to see by making his or her sketch. The experiment ends with the experimenter showing the target picture to the participant. The experiment’s point is as follows: If the target picture chosen by the computer out of 5 pictures is the one that the experimenter had ranked the highest, then the experimental trial is viewed as a “hit”, meaning that the participant correctly guessed the picture from the future; if however, the target picture is ranked low by similarity with the participant’s drawing, then the trial is considered a fail. If the participants were not able to “see the future”, then the experimenter’s highest ranked picture would be chosen by the computer by chance alone, that is in 20% of all trials. If however the participant could indeed see the image from the future, then the target picture would coincide with the experimenter’s highest ranked picture significantly more frequently than in 20% of all trials. It is clear that in this experiment we deal not with the ordinary anticipation of future events on the basis of our past experience. For example, when we go to a cinema to see a new blockbuster movie we can anticipate the content, because our past experience tells us how blockbuster movies are made and what they usually are about. By contrast, in this experiment participants' past experience is of no help, because past experience cannot tell the participants what picture out millions of possible landscapes will be shown to them.
Participants were divided in two groups. Participants of one group were rewarded for participation with a small sum of money, independently of their success at guessing the target picture. In the other group participants were promised a sum 20 times larger than the normal reward if their trial would be a hit. The idea was to find out whether the increase in motivation to make a hit would help the participants of the second group mobilize their ESP ability and produce a larger number of hits than participants of the first group. The results were unexpected. Participants of the first group produced the number of hits significantly above chance, whereas participants of the second group scored at chance level. This indicated that participants of the first group, rewarded by a small sum independently of success, indeed exhibited the ability to “see the future”. At that their sketches were not always a mirror copy of the target picture; sometimes similarity was in meaning rather than in resemblance. For example, one participant drew a road, a windmill on the hill and mountains on the horizon, and the target picture proved to be almost exactly the same. Another participant pictured a strange human figure wearing a helmet and said it was an alien. None of the five pictures chosen by the computer even remotely resembled the figure of the alien. However, I noticed than one picture showed a wheat field with concentric circles and ellipses as if printed on the field by a gigantic stamp. I remembered that crop circles are sometimes viewed as made by aliens, and gave this picture the highest rank; this picture turned to be indeed the target picture.
The question is why the participants who had been promised a large reward for successful guessing did not exhibit the ESP. A possible explanation lies in the “optimum of motivation” effect. According to this effect, if the achievement motivation is too great, animals and people start to be anxious and the effectiveness of their actions goes down . In the replication experiment the method was the same, but the reward promised to the second group for successful guesses was a lot smaller. We expected that decreasing motivation might help participants of the second group do better. To our disappointment, this time none of the two groups exhibited ESP.
The second study was based on the method proposed by American social psychologist and parapsychologist Daryl Bem. Bem claimed that his study showed the effect of “Retroactive facilitation of recall” . The gist of the method is as follows. Participants were individually presented on a computer screen a successions of 48 words, which named one of 4 types of objects: Food, cloths, professions and animals. Participants had been instructed to visualize every word that they saw. After all the words had been presented, participants unexpectedly were given a memory test, which asked them to recall as many of the words as they could. So far this method was a standard psychological test on memory. But then the most interesting part began. The computer randomly selected 24 words out of the earlier presented 48 words, and the participants were instructed to classify these words by the 4 aforementioned categories (i.e., food, cloths, animals and professions). In other words, the participants were given a practice exercise – the opportunity to practice with these words and so better remember them. If this practice exercise had been given before the memory test we would not be surprised that the participants recalled the words from the subgroup that they saw twice (let us call it “subgroup with practice” – SWP) better than from the subgroup of the remaining 24 words, which they had no the opportunity to practice with (SNP). But the unusual result reported by Bem was that when the computer counted the correctly recalled words it found that the participants better recalled the words from the SWP than from the SNP. It appeared that the principle “repetition is a mother of learning” worked backwards: Even though the words form the SWP were repeatedly seen by the participants after they had recalled them they were still remembered better than the words from the SNP. Understandably, in the control session of this experiment, in which participants were not given the practice exercise, yet the computer still randomly selected the 24 words out of 48, there was no a difference in recall between the two subgroups of words. Having published his study in a respectable mainstream journal, Bem put a detailed description of his method on the internet and welcomed replications. I was one of dozens of scientists who conducted the replications. Most replications failed, but there were around a dozen successful replications as well . My replication attempt differed from other replications in that I repeated the experiment 3 times, with 2 groups of participants (experimental an control) in each trial . In 3 out of 6 groups of participants significant differences were found between the SWP and the SNP. The probability of this happening by chance alone was 0.002, which was significantly lower than the criterion 0.05 for the “no effect” assumption accepted in science. This means that my results cannot be explained by mere chance.
The difference between Bem’s results and the results of my replication was that in 2 out of 3 “successful” trials the words from SNP were recalled significantly better than the words from the SWP. Also, in one of these trials the significant effect was found in the control group and not in the experimental one. This goes against Bem’s hypothesis that the memory facilitation through practice works “from the future to the past”. It looks more likely that my results were caused by the direct affect of the experimenter’s mind on the data of the experiment. The classical “experimenter bias” effect is well known. This effect means that an experimenter unintentionally can influence the results of an experiment by giving the participants suggestive signals through voice intonations of facial expressions or by skewing the experimental data in the direction of the experimenter’s expectation. But my experiment was safe against the classical “experimenter bias” effect, because the participants could not see or hear the experimenter; during the experimental session I was isolated from participants by the opaque screen, and the participants received all the instructions directly from the computer. The results too were worked out automatically by the computer; the calculating program was locked, which excluded the possibility of tampering with the data. The only way for the experimenter to affect the results was if the experimenter’s mind was employing its ability of telekinesis, by directly influencing the random number generator in the computer. Because I expected that the SWP and the SNP should be recalled with different success, my subconsciousness might switch on and off the program of random numbers that the computer contained so that the computer selected the words from the SWP more frequently than from the SNP, or vice versa.
My results contributed to the discussions that go on the effects reported by parapsychologists. They showed that these effects are possible to replicate in an independent study, but not every time. This “incomplete replicability” distinguishes parapsychological effects from scientific, where systematic replicability is expected. What could be a cause of this difference? Sciences like physics or chemistry study inanimate objects which devoid any spontaneity and unpredictability within itself. For instance, physics of solid states studies metals, magnets, superconductors and similar macro objects whose properties are always the same. By contrast, parapsychology studies abilities of the human mind, such as ESP, telekinesis and clairvoyance. Even the human brain is an infinitely more complex object than any object researched by physics, and the human mind is even more complex. The element of freedom and unpredictability that is inherent in the mind makes the mind a notoriously difficult object to squeeze into the full scale replicability demand. Even in the mainstream sciences (e.g., biology, pharmacology and psychology) studies, in which measured effects include complex organisms, the replicability of results is not fully guaranteed and tends to decrease with time .
To summarize, the studies of parapsychological effects showed that supernatural events are not just science fiction, they do exist, but they cannot be manipulated the same way we manipulate physical events. For example, a stone thrown in a lake will always sink, but the mind’s ability of the ESP or telekinesis can appear and disappear in different experiments even when the experimental methods stay the same. There is only a probability of that the earlier received parapsychological effects would be replicated. This may not be good enough for the purpose of practical applications of these effects, but for the purpose of this paper – to examine whether it is possible to observe supernatural events by means of a scientific experiment – the reviewed effects are sufficient. Unlike the effects in physics, conscious phenomena are unique and unreplicable on the full scale. We don’t doubt that such phenomena as love, hope and belief exist. But all these phenomena are unique. One cannot love another person repeatedly, even less love another person because one was told to do so. And what about art? Paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt, Modigliani are unique and impossible to replicate with exactness. Dreams fall in the same category. Not a single night dream ever looks exactly like any other dream, yet we see dreams all the time. Magical phenomena, which parapsychology studies, are the phenomena of consciousness and not of nature. Their full scale replication may not be guaranteed but they are real. Shamans, priests, writers, artists and psychotherapists have been dealing with such phenomena for millennia, and now scientists too will have to learn to deal with such phenomena.
It is possible that the role of magical phenomena of consciousness in our future life will increase. It may be that a way will be found to increase replicability of some of these phenomena and use them in practice for the transfer of information or manipulation with technical devices without a physical medium. It is also possible that the whole picture of the world will change in an unpredictable direction. After all, the so called “anthropic principle”, which attracts an increasing number of advocates among scientists, states that the universe as we see it is impossible without intelligent observers . Perhaps, the principle of the “universal sympathy” (i.e., the magical between a person and the universe) which had ruled the magical universe for ages and was replaced by the universal law of gravity in modern science, will eventually take its position back. As a result, humankind will cease to feel itself being isolated and alienated in the cold and indifferent universe, and the fear of the unavoidable (and possibly not so distant) perishing will change for a more optimistic mindset, in which achievements of science will not be opposed to magic and religion but integrated with magical and religious forms of coping with the universe.
Conclusion: The necessity of the supernatural
When Napoleon pointed out to French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) that he had not mentioned God in his book, Laplace replied “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis” . In contrast to Laplace, French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) who was critical towards official Catholic church, nevertheless was of the opinion that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him” .
I started this paper with the questions: Why do people believe in god if there is no evidence of god’s existence? Can one live without any belief at all? How do the religious belief, the belief in magic and the belief in science come together in the minds of modern rational people? Further analysis showed that the belief in god grew out of the early people’s belief in magical reality of the afterlife. Spirits of the dead were the first gods. Eventually the belief in spirits developed into monotheistic religions which are hostile toward magic. But like birthmarks on our bodies, magical miracles accompany any religion.
Science broke into human minds like a comet and squeezed magic and religion to a limit but was unable to completely destroy them. Science despises magic as a fallacy. Religion dejects magic as a craft of the devil. Although many people today keep viewing themselves as believers in god, they deny their belief in magic. Some people deny that they believe in anything but hard scientific evidence. But psychological studies of the recent decades showed that these denials can be superficial: In the depth of the mind of most people the belief in magic lives on . This belief feeds into both traditional and “rational” religious practices.
Critical thinking makes believers inquire into the evidence of the existence of god. Although these inquiries are inherently contradictive (if there were evidence, there would be no need in belief), they are not meaningless. Theoretical considerations and empirical studies show that both in the human consciousness and in the outer world there exist supernatural events. These events reveal themselves in the form of mystical experiences, parapsychological effects and physical events that cannot be satisfactorily explained by science. The presence of supernatural events is not an obstacle for science but it suggests that the piece of reality explained by science is only a tip of an iceberg. It is hard to express this thought better than Voltaire did this in one of his letters. After his aforementioned phrase that it would be necessary to invent God, he wrote “But all nature cries aloud that He does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it [38, p. 210].
But if god exists, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why terminal illnesses and fatal accidents, why innocent people die in wars, disasters and catastrophes? The answer is – because they are alive. For living creatures pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, happiness and unhappiness always go together. And those who live will have to die. But the distribution is unfair. Some people live long and happy lives, others are born in poverty, suffer and die young. For those who are less fortunate philosophy is not much of a consolation. Only the belief that there is God who is just and will put things right in life or after death can offer a helping hand .
Perhaps, when people die they discover that there is no God. But while they are alive, the belief in God helps the people to overcome sufferings and gives them meaning and hope.
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