Faith and Gullibility

G.K. Chesterton observed that people who rejected the Gospel as “superstition” were most commonly themselves believers in fairies, séances, or something equally peculiar. This is still true today; between DIY witchcraft, “no-religion-but-spiritual”, and lucky jerseys, the paranormal perspective on the world is flourishing in the twenty-first century like never before. (Recall that in the twelfth century, you would be condemned as a heretic for believing in witchcraft: this was the famous canon episcopi.)

But Chesterton’s point is in a certain sense a petty one to score: which of the trendy superstitions in circulation today is half as trendy as barren, godless materialism?

The vulgar errors of the plebs have actually become part of the metabolism of our godless society. As the Cathedral and its choirboys have gradually improved message-discipline on science and superstition (yes, they “freaking love science”), the contrast between the amusingly rustic ignorance of the commoners and the smug confidence of the overclass has become part of the status-structure that draws ambitious youngsters into the Cathedral’s cold embrace. Abandoning the poor to the torment of demons is now part of the Left’s plan; more room to tut-tut and demonstrate that you are a reasonable bugman, more misery to justify the next stage in the revolution.

But still, this fails to get at the root of the fairies and the séances and the horoscopes, which is neither faith’s relation to superstition, nor to the arrogance of those who lift themselves up above the superstitions they despise in others, but rather faith’s relation to gullibility.

Gullibility is a more general concept than superstition. Let us define superstition as gullibility with respect to opinions and possibilities that are held in contempt by the powerful, while gullibility itself is the epistemic equivalent of pettiness — an inability to dismiss highly improbable hypotheses.

I was visiting family friends who were insisting to me that they  had a (loud) appliance in their kitchen that would randomly turn on by itself — but only when they had been gone from the house for at least a full 24 hours. A gizmo that turned on by itself at random intervals could be explained as malfunction, but the fact that it had never turned itself on when they were home (or even when they were away at work for the day) they considered eerie.

The husband had given it some thought. He had been keeping track of how often it had happened, and over how many years. He seemed frustrated and uneasy, while his wife flat out stated it was the ghost of the previous owner of the house (and of the appliance).

Not because of any special piety or zeal, but simply because it was barely yesterday that I was an atheist, I had a vivid impression of the changes in my thinking process. It was not impossible that supernatural agency was involved, of course, but it was very implausible — because it seemed too trivial and indistinct to be worth the effort of a self-respecting angel. So I set that aside immediately, and stayed focused on thinking about what might actually be going on.

Putting aside the insignificant possibility lightened my mind almost in the way pouring water out of a jug would. I seem to remember that when I was an atheist confronting this type of “superstition”, I would keep the supernatural hypothesis in front of my mind, regulating my thoughts, considering the case from every angle but only from the perspective of what might disprove the superstitious opinion.

But a superstition is the opinion of a crackpot. Why was I worried about what crackpots believe? If Eddington has a hypothesis or Einstein has a hypothesis, then falsifying the hypothesis is science. Falsifying a crackpot’s hypothesis is proof that you place a low value on your time.

Even if the alleged anomaly is worth investigating in itself, there is no special reason that any evidence which contradicts the crackpot’s theory will bring you an inch closer to the truth. The “skeptical” approach that secular people are trained to take towards the paranormal may be solid virtue-signaling, but methodologically it’s cargo-cult science.

I also noticed something else new; as I was vaguely trying to imagine what sorts of explanation would be consistent with the facts (for example: someone sneaks into their house whenever they are out of town to turn on the appliance), and I was able to firmly discard the most implausible of these, too. The best account I can give: formerly, there seemed to be a world of difference between the implausible hypothesis I was duty-bound to reject (spooks) and the most implausible alternative hypotheses which were ideologically legitimate (strange men breaking into their neighbors’ houses to turn on appliances in statistically improbably patterns). The former had to be rejected; the latter had to be kept in reserve as a last resort.

Here is another possibility: I don’t know why the appliance turns on when it does. I wasn’t able to figure it out. It would be odd if I could, since I’m not an electrician or an engineer. The world would be a boring place if you could just suss out the answer to arbitrarily unusual questions without making any special study of the topic. Sometimes we don’t know. And often when we don’t know we don’t care. In fact, most of the time we don’t care about what we don’t know precisely because the insignificance of the topic is the very reason we never prepared ourselves to answer that type of question in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Faith and Gullibility

  1. Fortunately, physical phenomena are not very susceptible to the vagaries of political correctness. If you suspect to have discovered the presence of a new physical force, you have a moral obligation to devise a replicable experiment and publish your results.

    Anything else is magical thinking.


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