Belief and Common Reality

by  —  January 7, 2008

I was sitting with a close friend, F, and his wife, W, in a Tucson breakfast joint the other month; the discussion was hovering around figures of the Deepak Chopra flavour: how those types continue to profess insight on the workings of the universe by stringing together sexy physics words like a guru-Mad-Lib but who still curry favour with a surprising number of people. My mental defenses were down as W had made it into my grouping of ‘friends-who-are-probably-not-nutjobs’, albeit through the historically treaty forming, and (in retrospect) stink-eye deserving, route of marriage; since they were down, i was totally unprepared for the steep plummet this conversation was just about to take…

Me: I don’t get it; it seems like people have given up on the idea of science.
W: Well, science has changed…
This is the point at which, in my mind, it was like one of those war scenes in movies right after a mortar lands nearby the main character. There was a ringing in my head which blotted out all other sound, the motion of time appeared to be irregular for a period (alas, were only Deepak there to calmly explain the ‘quantum’ basis for my trauma…). I turned over and over in my head, “How did this get into my inner sanctum?” – and after this soldier pulled himself to his feet, the conversation continued:
Me: No; it hasn’t. Scientific method has been the same for many centuries now. That solid pillar is one of the things that makes science great.
At this point, i think W attempted to get a word in, but it was too late — i was not unlike Apu confronted with Skinner’s idea for the ‘Billy and the Cloneasaurus’ novel.
Me: Scientific knowledge has changed, and that knowledge has had to go through the constant scrutiny of scientific method – but in no way has science changed.
A pause of awkward table silence set in…
W: Maybe I mean that people’s perception of science has changed…
And with that utterance, she firmly wedged her toe in the closing inner sanctum door out through which she’d just been booted.
She went on to schaden-regale me with tales of relatives who had been truly buying into a recent pulp theory that to achieve one’s physical-world goals, one need only visualize it and ‘think positively’ about it. It’s not that she’s from a family of dupes — thanks to large mass drivers like Oprah, The Secret is still in the top 25 best sellers at Amazon more than 13 months after its release. Now, before the reader gets polarized to one side on this particular idea, it is important to see this for what it is – a belief.

What’s funny1 about humans and their belief systems is that everyone has amazingly crystal clear vision concerning what insane bat-shit other people’s belief systems describe, but seem unable to look inward with that same clarity. Using, as an example, the family of belief systems which unquestionably has been the most deleterious to the coexistence of humans throughout the history of this planet, religion: the Protestant disagrees with the Muslim disagrees with the Jew disagrees with the Catholic disagrees with the Mormon disagrees with the Sikh disagrees with Zoroastrian and on we go (and just about everyone appears to disagree with the Scientologist).
Perhaps an explanation for this one way mirror, and what makes belief systems so dangerous, is that most people have a genuinely hard time realizing that a lot of the ideas in their belief system aren’t a universal truth — that they’re simply no-more than their personal point of view on a topic.


Let’s do some grouping on notions; a person can have a belief which is one of the following:

  1. Universally provable under rigorous tests in a scientific method framework. For example: the acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the earth at sea level is ~9.8 meters per second per second.
  2. Too complex and/or ill-defined to be provable under rigorous tests, but none-the-less can be measured to some extent and the resulting data can then serve as a basis for open debate on public policy; this grouping holds things like legal code and economic policy, amongst others. For example:2 available data shows that a highway speed limit placed at 65 miles per hour, from 55 miles per hour, increases per capita gas consumption and injury rates to a level that does not justify the impact on worker productivity due to transit time saved.
  3. Ideas for which there can be no observable data; also: historical items of which there is little and/or dubious and/or known-censored record. For example: a human being has a soul and should that human being have not followed certain guidelines during its physical life span, that soul may subsequently inhabit a place referred to frequently as ‘hell’.

A problem is that items in group #2 have historically stemmed from a moral code birthed from #3, and have often undergone little data measurement to validate their movement to #2 from #3; we will probably give the average shmoe way (way) too much credit here, but let’s posit that the confusion between personal belief and universal truth stems from the fog of continuum between #2 and #3.
Additionally, endemic in humans is the problem that they tend to think (believe) that 300 people believing X (from group #2 or #3), and 30 people believing not-X, ultimately means that X is the more ‘right’ belief. This sort of popularity contest of belief systems can be seen to be a basis for why it’s more common and acceptable to have Scientology’s Xenu exposed for its absurdities and less so for something like transubstantiation.
A further rot to the system, and perhaps related to this popularity contest flavour, is the person who never sheds the belief from childhood that if they believe in something strongly enough, then the ferocity of that belief will make it a universal truth. This one is particularly depressing, for history is littered with examples of the fallacious nature of this notion — one can observe, as an example, that people believed3 for a very long time that the Sun and all of the other observable heavenly bodies were busily orbiting the quite important earth; the moment that humans were able to correctly derive the motions of the bodies in our solar system was not also a moment in which universal tides shifted the velocities of everything in our solar system. People simply believed something which was not a universal truth, and now most do. Neither the previous mass belief in a false model, nor present mass acceptance, has had any physical effect, however, on the continued existence of that truth.


Whether it be the fog of continuum, or simple lack of personal questioning, what should not be allowed on the part of an individual is the failure to continually take stock and place their own beliefs into such groupings — for only after a person has done this can they have an intelligent discussion concerning things like research, discovery, and public policy. A person who cannot, or will not, perform this regular routine is a person who cannot, or will not, differentiate between that which is fact and that which is make-believe — something which we encourage in children throughout their development, and not something we should suffer in adults.

As a quasi-postscript, I have zero desire for this article to be seen as long winded entry into a political statement, for the ideas introduced here are ideas which apply to all aspects of life; that being said, a relevant current event should not be ignored in this circumstance. When presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee makes a statement such as, “But if there’s going to be a conflict, science changes with every generation and with new discoveries and God doesn’t. So I’ll stick with God if the two are in conflict.”, you Need to be concerned. Especially considering that were this man to be president, he would be in a weighty position influencing the budgets of things like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health – each of which are an artery for scientific research funding in the US. Simply put, he is incapable of making decisions incorporating a reality greater than his own — and no person like that should be allowed to be president.


  1. … though not funny-ha-ha []
  2. I’ve made up the concrete details strictly for posing an example – don’t quote me on them – potentially totally false. Warning. []
  3. Certainly this fits as a fervent belief during human history: the historical wealth of art, mythology, and model building devoted to this idea is extensive. []

Marked as: Belief SystemsIntrospectionScience  —  8 comments   (RSS)

8 Comments so far
  1. FatalTwilight January 7, 2008 5:26 pm

    Good Point…

    My Mom got sucked into that Secret Crap, and she used to repeat it non-stop, because she beleived it would hard-wire her mind to make it work.

    I pissed her off once by deliberitly buying ‘What the $^&!& do we Know’.

    What the Bleep was ok, if your new to that type of thing.

    But come on people, stop being narrow minded.

    I choose Chaos.

  2. Loki der Quaeler January 9, 2008 4:49 am

    What exactly do you mean by “I choose Chaos”?

  3. FatalTwilight January 9, 2008 1:01 pm

    I lean more towards the beleif of chaos science and philosophy.

  4. Loki der Quaeler January 9, 2008 1:51 pm

    I find it too good to believe that you’re going to mention ‘chaos science’ in the comments for this article; just to make sure we’re on the same page here: could you be pedantic about what you mean by ‘chaos science and philosophy’?

  5. FatalTwilight January 9, 2008 8:42 pm

    What I mean was more-or-so Quantum Physics and the chaos science that states that whatever we observe objectivly may not be as it seems.

    There is no one certain way to perceve things, as we all have different perceptions, which builds our reality. I could go on and on regarding microchosims and macrochosims in relation to the human brain, but ill just leave my reply to this to answer your question.

    I also lean toward a chaos magick and neitsche philosophy.

  6. magdalene January 10, 2008 8:12 am

    Perhaps you can consider your exchange with W a success. From what you’ve stated it appears as though she was able to examine her perceptions of science and then rationally sort them into “ok, this is science, this is not.” And if she wasn’t too shamed by the experience, she’ll be able to call upon it in future thought & future exchanges with others, using the “pillar” as a sturdy context from which to judge the wifty ideas bandied about by the likes of Chopra & the producers/most of the cast of What the Bleep do We Know?

    There’s a danger in a assuming that everyone should possess critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of what science is and is not — then being overwhelmed by the disappointment of the reality (disappointment taking many lovely flavors…a sense of entitlement, sanctimony [i’m having a chuckle about the use of this word in this context], uselessly railing, poignant sense of isolation, etc) such that the critical thinker’s powers of social catalysis are rendered flaccid.

  7. Fitz January 16, 2008 2:02 pm

    I’m less certain that people have given up the belief in science as much as those who never really understood have become more vocal and more widely listened to.

    With scientific inquiry attacked by both those who chose pre-rational faith as their main approach towards life and those who choose “Only the subjective is real” as their primary philosophical orientation the sciences have slipped further and further from the grasp of both the “common citizen” and “the intellectual” classes.

  8. christina April 2, 2009 3:02 am

    I was going to buy a book from an ad in TIME magazine called “Null Physics”

    Which stated it went far beyond “string cheese theory” and “Chaos Math”,

    to some kind of “black hole” stuff that explained it all. Making everything else

    obsolete. “This is the future!”

    Wanting to impress my Dad , who has a chemistry degree, I mentioned it and he
    said it was a bunch of crap.

    I still might buy it for the pictures.

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