Seeing is not believing

I was recently speaking to a man who believed he had a guardian angel on the basis he had witnessed this angel saving his life. He had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car and awoke to find his angel sitting in the passenger seat holding the wheel straight. I presume that this sight shocked him into full consciousness at which point his angel disappeared and he resumed driving himself. I don’t know the full details of the story as I didn’t want to press him into trying to remember the finer points of what was clearly a dream. I have enough trouble remembering any dreams I have, even at my point of waking. He knew I didn’t believe that he had actually had an encounter with an angel but he was convinced that had I witnessed what he had, my own conclusions and beliefs would be similar to his.

The phrase “Seeing is believing” has become entrenched in common parlance with reference to events or occurrences that are uncommon or even miraculous. It rests on the biological fact that humans use sight more than any other sense for knowledge of their surroundings, leading us to trust our eyes even with other sensory information to the contrary. As a human, if you see something but do not hear or smell it, you will still be convinced of its existence. This does not work the same way for other senses, we have all heard, smelt and tasted things that weren’t there, even things that couldn’t have been there. Touch can be confused when used in isolation from the other senses and is of little use (except for vibration) when witnessing events not intimately close to you or for anticipating their outcome. This is certainly not true for all mammals, a child may be tricked by a convincing model or statue but this is not normally the case for a dog, who will rely on its sense of smell far more than sight, or indeed an echo-locating bat, who rarely (if ever) uses sight at all. We, as primates are genetically programmed to recognise parts of patterns and reconstruct the missing pieces in our mind to be aware of the whole. Safer to see the non-existent wolf than to miss the real one. This is extremely helpful in avoiding predation from semi-camouflaged animals in the forest or long grass and in our increasingly intelligent minds became an important tool, enabling us to predict aspects of the future based on previously witnessed events such as the coming of spring with the movement of celestial bodies or the fertile regrowth of certain plants following a wild-fire.

Given that these psychological aspects of us underwent positive genetic selection pressure (those who could see these patterns would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes than those who could not), it is not surprising that with time they became more acute, with people not just seeing the physical events but also superimposing divine action on top. This would appear to be the start of many worldwide pagan religions based on the “spirits” that reside in or control many aspects of the natural world. This gave people the ability to explain away the unpredictable aspects of the climate, giving reason for the dried up riverbed or failed seasonal floods. Aspects of humankind’s genetic make-up that had helped them survive for so long were now causing them to invent false superstitions (are there any other kind?) and divinities with ulterior motives. Sacrifice and reverence were needed to placate these malignant forces (if we want these items why wouldn’t our god?), now our genetics were starting to work against us as a sacrifice to a god can only be seen as a waste if that god is not there. As people moved from transient hunter-gatherer societies to settled farming communities, the exchange of knowledge and ideas continued and accelerated, enabling more complex religious belief systems to develop.

Sorry for going off on an historical tangent there but I hope it helps to illustrate the innate human ability (or indeed need) to see patterns and meaning where there are only physical forces acting on circumstance. We now know enough about meteorology to be able to explain droughts and floods without recourse to supernatural powers. However, people often see patterns & shapes in random markings (Jesus in a slice of toast), which is how the cliché of psychiatrists showing ink blottings to their clients came about.

Could this well-known psychological phenomenon really be the cause of so many people’s divine experiences? It must surely be a contributing factor and seeing as most ghosts and aliens are seen at night by people on their own who are often in highly emotionally charged or intoxicated states, it would appear to me to be the natural way our bodies would “make sense” of the experience. The cultural and historical aspects of a person’s account must also be explicated when referencing their experiences. In centuries past, nobody reported seeing or being abducted by aliens although many people had experiences with ghosts, spirits and demons. In the developing world, these supernatural encounters are still much more common than those with beings from outer space.There is also the fallibility of human memory to take into account, often conspiring against us, forcing us to remember things that did not happen and forget those that did. Have you ever discussed a memory with a family member, only to be disappointed that their recollection of events was different from yours? Chances are you were both wrong, people rarely remember things completely accurately without some sort of prompting or hard evidence.

It is for all these reasons (and some others) that scientific experiments must be repeatable by those not connected with the original experiment and verified by peer review before becoming accepted as scientific fact. A single person’s testimony can never be considered to be infallible and even a group of people can be manipulated into witnessing events that did not happen. This is why magicians and films with special effects are so popular, just because you saw the lady being sawn in half then put back together again, doesn’t mean it really happened.

None of this means that you shouldn’t believe anything you see until externally verified, you don’t need someone else to read this before you believe that I’ve written it. However, if something supernatural happens to you don’t expect me to believe it. There’s a big difference between thinking and knowing. The difference is subtle and not needed for everyday occurrences but the more unusual or unexpected the event the more scrutiny is required. Nothing about a personal experience can be truly known as factual but it doesn’t need to be in order for life to go on as normal. I don’t need to stand by the kettle to make sure it boils or get up at dawn to check the sun is rising. If I was up at dawn and it didn’t rise, then I would need to start checking. It’s the events that haven’t already been scientifically verified that need scrutiny.

As no religious experience (almost by definition) can ever be externally verified as true, I cannot belive in any.

Thanks for reading.


All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as possible.


2 Responses to Seeing is not believing

  1. jasondegray says:

    Good post. But, I do need someone else to verify its existence for me. It’s no secret that the internet is nothing more than insubstantial and invisible currents of information zipping through wires. There’s no substance to them whatsoever. In effect, they aren’t real. Since these insubstantial actualities are the only proof I have of your existence, you don’t really exist. But then again, the world around us only exists as it is filtered through our individual experiences.

    “What we experience in dreams — assuming that we experience it often — belongs in the end just as much to the over-all economy of our soul as anything experienced “actually”: we are richer or poorer on account of it.”
    FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE Beyond Good and Evil

    • I wasn’t too happy with this post as I needed to fudge the edning to get away from the inevitable conclusion of my apparant inexistence (at least not without verification). The fact thats its all ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ and aren’t tangible doesn’t mean they don’t necessarily exist, all our sensory information is also just electrical signals entering the brain. However, this doesn’t really get us anywhere further than Descatres “Cogito Ergo Sum”, or ” I think therefore I am”, the only thning we can truly know is that we are thinking, so we must exist.

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