By Eric Bright
Update 2021-07-01: (1) Removed two dead links and the associated sentence. (2) Corrected a few typos.
“They call them extremists. We have our own names. We call them senators, congressman, governors, mayors, state legislators.” [Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition Executive Director]
It’s a disturbing observation that some people discuss matters not to learn or to investigate them but merely to convert you. I am talking about mystical minds, supers, and those who believe in things beyond the natural world or outside of the Universe, whatever that might mean.
There is a nice saying, attributed to Socrates by no one less than Plato, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.” And this is what the horror story I am going to tell you is formed around.
Let us assume, just for the sake of the argument, that we defined the word “god” already in such a way that it is coherent, consistent, and meaningful. That’s to say, let’s assume that we know what we are talking about. Then, we would be able to talk about what we called “god” without uttering pure nonsense. Only then! That is a big problem right in the beginning. In order for us to talk about an entity, call it x, we need to know something about it. Maybe we need to know what relationship(s) it might have with some other entities like y. Or perhaps what properties x might posses and lack. Even if x is an imaginary, abstract entity that we just made up, we need to know something about it.
How much do we need to know about x before we can start talking about it? Do we need to know everything about it before we can start? Everything that there is? Obviously not. Then, how much knowledge do we need to have, as a bare minimum, before we can start to talk about x?
In different sciences, when we postulate an entity such as x and we try to find its relationship with other entities, we usually know at least one thing about x, that x, whether it exists or not, might have some relationships with other entities.
Look at a very interesting entity called i, the imaginary unit, whose core property we decided to be i2 = -1. Pretty funny, eh? So, right away we know a few things about i:
1. i2 = −1
2. Solving i is not possible with axioms of elementary arithmetic, (as Edgar Brown said, “Simple equations such as a × a = −c cannot be solved even though a and −c are inside the real field unless we close the field with the addition of “i””); it goes against axioms such as:
a × 1 = a
a × −1 = −a
The product of two negative numbers is the same as the product of the same two positive numbers: a × b = (−a) × (−b).
3. And more…
As you can see, as soon as we assumed the existence of i as an imaginary friend, we started to know a few things about it. Nevertheless, all what we knew about it, or all what we assumed was nothing but
i × i = −1.
This example shows us something important: That what we know or assume about x cannot be nothing. Either we have to know something about x or we have to assume something about x.
Now, when it comes to the concept of “god,” people seem to either assume or claim to know something about it. Let us investigate each options separately.
Assuming that x exists
We usually assume something when we don’t know enough about what we are assuming. What comes after the assumption, is usually derived through induction or deduction. If our assumption is false, the consequences of our reasoning after the assumption does not matter. The consequences might be true (in case of invalid arguments from the false assumptions) or false (in case of valid argument from the false assumptions). In both cases, the consequences do not matter. No sound argument can be made that has false assumptions, valid arguments, and also true consequences.
If the assumption happens to be true though, and our arguments also happen to be valid, then we will have nothing but true consequences.
However, the big problem with this, when it comes to assuming the existence of “god” is this: How do you know that your assumption is true?
How do we know if an assumption is true?
There is one way, and only one way to make sure if an assumption is true: Testing.
There are many ways of testing an assumption to see if it’s true or false. But, all of them are testing, one way or another. You might be able to test it by:
1. Comparing it with other established facts and see if it conflicts with them
2. Find an example that contradicts the assumption
3. Try to gather evidences to support the assumption
There are many more ways of testing an assumption but all of these methods are different ways of testing. Among these methods, the weakest one is the third one. What the third method can do for us at best is to give us some hints. Examples and evidences alone are not enough for an assumption to be true. They must also coincide with (i.e. be corroborated by) other methods of testing our assumptions. Here is an example to show you why mere evidences are not enough to conclusively show an assumption to be true.
a. Let’s assume that all swans are white
b. We go to a park in Düsseldorf with a beautiful lake in the middle and see four white swans in there
c. Can we conclude that, “Yeah! ALL swans are white”?
d. No, we cannot.
e. How many more observations do we need before we can conclude that a is true?
f. Does seeing 100 white swans prove a?
g. No, it doesn’t.
h. Does seeing 100,000,000 white swans do the job?
j. How many then?
k. The number doesn’t matter. Evidences alone cannot prove an assumption like a to be true
Evidences might help us to go towards the right direction but they are not any indication of a general claim like a.
What can be done then? Is there any conclusive way of knowing if an assumption is true or false? The answer is yes.
The good news (no pun intended) is that there is a way of telling if an assumption is false. That brings us to the second item in the list of methods I mentioned above, i.e find an example that contradicts the assumption. If you can find one, only one example or observation that goes against what the assumption says, then the assumption is false. One is enough. Here is an example:
a. Let’s assume that all swans are white
b. We go to a park in Düsseldorf with a beautiful lake in the middle and see four white swans in there
c. Can we conclude that, “Yeah! ALL swans are white”?
d. No, we cannot.
l. Is there any observation that proves (a) to be false, once and for all?
m. Yes, there is.
n. What is that?
o. If you can show that there is a sawn that’s is, let’s say, black, then a would be false
p. As simple as that?
To recap, if we want to assume something and start from there, then we have to be able to tell if our assumption is true or false, otherwise what we are saying would be as useless as saying nothing. To see if our assumption is true or false, we have to test it. To test our assumption, we have to have an assumption that is testable even if it’s only in principle.
If our assumption is not testable, then we cannot test it, even in principle. If we cannot test our assumption, then we cannot know if it is true or false. If we cannot know the truth or falsity of our assumption, then it’s a useless assumption. If we use a useless assumption, all and every consequences that we might derive from it would be useless too.
How do we know if an assumption is testable? Easy! If there is a conceivable observation that we can think of that if it happens then it contradicts the assumption, then we have a testable assumption. Our assumption is not testable if there is no observation that we can possibly conceive of, even in principle, that if happens then it contradicts the assumption.
However, here is where the horror comes about. Mystical minds, which are almost always mystified too, do assume entities left and right, and they do care if their assumptions are true or false, and they do insist that their assumptions are true and they do insist that their assumptions are not false. However, to everyone’s horror, they refuse to admit that the truth or falsity of an assumption can only be determined by a test. They believe it’s enough to have some feelings about the assumption. They think it is enough to have some feelings about their assumptions for them to be true. Here is how they proceed:
I. Let’s assume that x exists
II. Let’s call x “god”
III. Let’s assume that the universe is something that is created
IV. Let’s assume that x created the universe
Now, if you ask them any of the following questions, they will answer yes to you:
Q1. Is it True that x exist?
Q2. Is it True that x is a god?
Q3. Is it true that the universe is something that is created, like a car?
Q4. Is it true that x created the universe?
Wow! Can you believe it?! And if you ask them aren’t those items from I to IV some assumptions that you made? They either say, “Yes” or, “No.” When they say no, they actually mean to say that items I to IV were not assumptions, but some expressions of matters of facts. We will talk about those too in the next section. But, those who would say, “Yes” are the marvels of all marvels.
Many such people don’t seem to be insane or mentally challenge in most things they do in their lives. But, somehow, they fail to hear themselves. This phenomenon cannot be explained by anything but cognitive blind-spot. Either they are insane, which is not very likely in many cases, or they are cognitively blind to the absurd situation they insist on putting themselves under.
These people do understand some rudimentary logical laws, even if they deny it, like “Yes,” is not the same as “No,” and either “Yes” or “No” but not both of them at the same time. They might not be able to articulate these basic laws of thought, but they use it to make their points when they answer yes and no to our questions. They use logic, whether they know it or not. Nevertheless, they cannot see the implications of what they say, using the exact same logic that they use to answer yes or no.
Some of them even believe, and don’t ask me how, that if they use the words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then they are okay because they are not using logic anyway. Yeah! They think so. You would be surprised to learn how many people sincerely believe that talking, communicating, speaking of god and the like, saying yes and no to questions and such have nothing to do with logic.
Not only laypeople tend to think so, the horror goes, some serious thinkers also think that way. This way, they think, they can shield against the inevitable reach of logic. And this is scary.
It is scary because this is such an enormous cognitive blindness. It’s devastatingly horrifying because it is such a gigantic blindness and deafness of mind so the person who believes like that cannot see himself making such an obvious mistake and cannot hear himself saying such an obviously nonsensical thing. If we were talking about the general theory of relativity and we were observing that most people could not understand it no matter what, then we would not have been, and should not have been, surprised. The general theory of relativity is extremely complicated to the point that it is almost fully incomprehensible by most of humans. To understand it, one has to learn mountains other facts, equations, definitions, and so on. Even those who have already learned the required background, might not necessarily comprehend the theory. It’s that hard.
But, in comparison, what I am talking about is simple. What I am saying is this: There are two types of mystic minds, one that assumed that abc is true and then proceeds from that assumptions, and those who claim that they know that abc is true and then they proceed. Almost none of them are willing to admit that they are using logic to do so, even if what they get out of it is totally nonsense. None of them are willing to admit that when they say, “Yes, god exists” they are indeed using logic, or better to say they are complying with the laws of logic or else they could not say, “Yes” or “No.”
So, here is the situation. We have a bunch of people who say, “Yes, there is a god” and also they believe that what they just said is contrary to saying, “No, there is no god,” and at the same time they believe that they are free from the laws of logic. Do you see my point?
Knowing that x exists
Now, if the first group of people that assume that god exist and then they suddenly forget about the assumption and claim that, “Yes, it exists” as if they proved something is not enough to terrify you, then let me introduce you to the second type of mystical mind: The knowers.
These people know all that. They don’t assume anything. They just know it. And “how do they know it exactly?” you might ask.
This is the terrifying part. This is the group that the world must be careful about. This is the group that we get almost all of our social and political problems from. This is the Dracula of the bunch I am scared to death from. These are as close you can get to insanity and still not be on medication.
These people do not assume that x exists and x is a god, and x created the universe. They fucking know it. And when you ask them to explain to you that how they know it, then you will see the incredibly terrifying face behind their sheep cloak. Like Count Dracula, they sense it, feel it, smell it. They have an extra sense or two that allows them to feel the truth of their statements.
As you know by now, a statement like “x exists” can be true or false depending on its relationship with reality or its relationship with other statements that themselves might be true or false. For example, if the state of affairs is xyz, and if I say that, “The states of affairs is xyz,” then what I said is true, and it’s false otherwise. But, to see if what I have said is true or false, I need to be able to test what I said against reality, against the actual states of affairs. Whether I would be able to do so or not is a different story, but that is how one would know if a sentence is true or false.
Now, throw all of what I said into the garbage because behold the knower is here. She knows that xyz is true by feeling the truth of the sentence, by seeing the truth of the sentence around her. She doesn’t need any test, she doesn’t need any logic, she doesn’t need ANYTHING to prove that xyz is the case. As long as she, the mystic, feels that xyz is true, she knows that xyz is true. Here is how she works (“iff” is a shorthand for “if and only if”:
i. Something is true for her iff she feels that it is true
ii. Something is true for her iff she is convinced that it is true
iii. Something is true for her iff she knows that it is true
iv. She knows something is true iff i
In items ii and iii “is convinced” and “knows” are almost interchangeable with “feels.” They all belong to the same special senses or personal experiences. This is when a human-like creature is able to “feel” the truth of a sentence in a human natural language. To her, if we can call it “her” anyway, it is not the relationship between the state of affairs and a given sentence that makes the sentence true or false. It is how she “feels” about it that makes a sentence true or false.
I must admit that this is not a terrestrial creature. Such an ability is not only beyond all and every human being that has ever existed or will ever exist, but also it’s beyond the ability of all and any sentient that has ever existed or will ever exist in the entire universe. So, “she” cannot be a person from the earth, nor can she be a person from anywhere in the universe. The problem, however, is that any such creature, by necessity, cannot be from ANY universe conceivable either. So, where did she come from?
If she cannot be from this universe or from any other universe for that matter, then what? How come we have it here on earth then? There are only a few possibilities that might apply to anyone who believes in items i through iv. Either she is delusional, ignorant, or both.
Is she delusional?
Without trying to be more precise than our question demands, let’s bring up one of the definitions of “delusion” and see if that would help us diagnose the situation.
A person is deluded when they have come to hold a particular belief with a degree of firmness that is both utterly unwarranted by the evidence at hand, and that jeopardizes their day-to-day functioning. (McKay et al. 2005, p. 315)
Although this is a useful definition for mental health personnel, it might not work in our situation too well. A lot of people who hold incredible beliefs with absolutely no evidence rather than their personal feelings, at the same time are able to function in the society where they live. Many can function very well indeed. But, that should not mean they are fine. Why not? Okay, then. Please let me elaborate on this.
So, a person might hold a patently false belief in her head and still not be counted as insane. At least that is the criterion that psychiatrist use to decide whether someone is delusional or not. They think that for an idea to be labelled as delusions, it is not enough for it to be insane, but it also has to be rare too where the patient lives. So, if you believe that you get sick if someone casts a dark spell upon you, and if everyone else around you in your community believes that too, then according to McKay and according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV 2000, p. 765) you are okay. Even if you strongly and sincerely believe so, you are still okay in that community. You are not delusional according to DSM-IV. So, if you believe in an exact same thing, but you live in Frankfort instead, then you are insane. Awesome, eh?
Why are you laughing? Don’t laugh at me. It’s exactly what DSM-IV implies. Don’t you believe me? Here is what it says:
Delusion. A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what is incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgment, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility.
As you can see, the DSM-IV definition goes well for a few sentences and then suddenly it becomes incredible. Wow! So, believing in all of those voodoo curses, dark spells, bone-powders mixed with cricket’s guts and raven’s snot that some believe heals almost any ailment, is fine as long as everyone around you believes in the same thing. So much for the DSM-IV definition.
DSM-IV has to accept religious insanity as normal too. Can you imagine what would happen if DSM-V definition (DSM-5 will be out in May 2013) would have edited that part out and included the religious insanities in? If you say, “War!” I won’t be surprised. So, to keep things under control, they have to go where the money leads them. Screw the truth!
For that reason, it is obvious that both McKay’s and DSM-IV’s definition are both flawed. They give demonstrably stupid false negatives. They both can be dismissed.
Now, let’s try again. Let’s get to another definition of delusion, this time by Karl Jaspers. In his 1913 book General Psychopathology he gives the criteria for delusion as:
- Certainty (held with absolute conviction)
- Incorrigibility (not changeable by proofs to the contrary)
- Impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
Are we getting somewhere? I think so. This definition is clear, conscience, and has both necessary and enough criteria for us to detect a delusion. It also does not yield to politics.
According to this definition,
- If I am telling my psychiatrist that I strongly and sincerely believe that I am dead, and no matter how hard he tries I never change my position, then I am delusional
- If after a car accident I suddenly start to believe, very sincerely and strongly that my parent are not parent but a couple of imposters who are pretending to be my parents, and no amount of evidence and counter examples, and ANYTHING ever convince me to the contrary, while they are my parents, then I am delusional (see Capgras syndrome)
- If after a blow to my head, I suddenly decide that the object that is attached to the left side of my body is not my hand despite the fact that it is, then I am delusional
- If I start to insist that I am Messiah (see Jerusalem syndrome), after showing a history of mental illness, then I am delusional (by the way, Jerusalem Syndrome is not listed or referenced in the DSM-IV. Are you wondering why not? hehe…)
- If I believe, for no other reason that how I feel, that there is a boogie man under my bed and nothing can convince me to the contrary, then I am delusional
I think you got the idea.
Therefore, if I believe that something is true because of the criteria i to iv above, and I believe it the way described by Karl Jaspers, then I am delusional. That’s to say, if the only reason why I believe in the truth of a sentence is because I feel it, or because I am convinced about it, or I just know it, and I give you no further explanation and I reject all the evidence to the contrary for no reason. and insist on it and an absolute fact only because I am sure about it and nothing else, then I am delusional. That, my friend, is one of the signs of insanity.
Is she ignorant?
Is it possible that she is not delusional but merely ignorant?
Well, yes, that too can be one of the reasons why a person buys into a given delusion in the first place, but it does not explain why she cannot get out of it when her faulty reasoning or her ignorance is pointed out and eliminated. Why does she insist on a false stance? Even when it is demonstrated to her that her reasoning was flawed or she was ignorant of several realities that lead her into believing such a nonsense? Why doesn’t she change her mind then?
One can argue that in many cases, the true ignorance that’s responsible for such a delusion is not fully eradicated, otherwise it would be mentally impossible to both know that something is false, and believe in it anyway at the same time. But, unfortunately neuroscience has shown otherwise. It is perfectly possible to know something and still deny it or to know that something is false and still believe in it. It is called delusion for a reason!
Is she delusional and ignorant?
This can very well be the case. These two properties are not mutually exclusive. If one is ignorant, it does not keep her from delusions and vice versa. If anything, the chances are that each property actually increases the effect of the other property. So, a deluded person might be even more prone to the possibility of remaining ignorant and an ignorant person might be even more susceptible to brain malfunctions that may lead to delusion. One thing that is pretty clear is that the presence of one does not exclude the emergence of the other.
The Horror Begins
Now, imagine that these delusional people, who are all around us, are holding high posts in our governments, in our hospitals, in our universities and schools, in our military, in our parliaments.
Imagine these people who talk to their imaginary friends when they find themselves in the middle of a crisis (or when they want to pass tomorrow’s exam or buy a new house for that matter), imagine them being our friends, our lawyers, our policymakers, our mayors and our governors.
Imagine these people who believe that there is a bearded guy in the sky that looks after them, imagine those who would put their lives on the line and insist that they have experienced something that you have not. Imagine those who are ready to be killed for what they are sure about, their imaginary saviour and personal assistance, imagine that.
Imagine those who believe that when one goes to a church and when a mammal puts a wafer into another mammal’s mouth, then the wafer magically transubstantiates into the flesh of their personal saviour who was himself another mammal, and at the same time he was not another mammal.
Imagine those who think that an imaginary being in the sky created man and woman with original sin. Then “he” came to the earth to impregnate a woman with himself as her child, so that he could be born. Once alive, he killed himself as a sacrifice to himself, to save you from the sin he originally condemned you to.
Imagine that! They are everywhere and they scare me to death.
American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR).
Jaspers, Karl (1997). General Psychopathology 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5775-9.
McKay, R., Langdon, R. and Coltheart, M. (2005). “Sleights of mind: Delusions, defences, and self deception,” Cognitive Neuropsychology, 10: 305–326.