-Robert Anton Wilson
“No amount of belief makes something a fact.”
-The Amazing James Randi
“Faith” should be a four-letter word. I propose a change in spelling. “Fath,” maybe.
Those “I’m always right” types absolutely need faith, or else those vicious doubts start creeping in. Not only will you find faith in the religious mind, calling God a fact, you’ll also find it lurking in the atheist, saying He isn’t. Come to think of it, anyone who uses the word “fact” so easily must be pretty faithful, at least when it comes to their own nonsense.
One of my favorite “always right” groups to hate is the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a self-proclaimed “skeptical” organization founded by professional debunker and ex-stage magician, the Amazing Randi. According to their website, the Foundation “was founded in 1996 to help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.” If you look at this statement closely, you’ll see that little demon, “faith,” wearing a lab coat and a clipboard, trying to look casual in the corner. It presupposes that “paranormal and pseudoscientific claims” are something to be defended against, and presupposition is the very antithesis of skepticism. It goes against the very spirit of skepticism: a “questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts.”
Although I’m sure most supporters of the JREF are scoffing right now at the idea that their beliefs are grounded in faith, there’s almost certainly one thing they never question: their own senses.
According to cognitive science, vision makes one of the largest contributions to our perception of reality. We rely on our sight to interpret the world around us, but in reality, it only sees a fraction of what’s there. The wavelength of visible light ranges between 380 and 750 nanometers, less than 1% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We cannot see X-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, or infrared.
And what we do see is pretty unreliable. Here’s how sight works:
Visible light reflects off of an object and enters the eye, where it is focused by the cornea and the lens, and beamed into the photo receptors of the retina. There, the focused light is interpreted by the photo receptors as visual information, which is sent along nerve fibers as electrochemical signals to the optic nerve at the back of the eye. The optic nerve then sends the signal to the visual cortex at the back of the brain where the information is interpreted as an image.
The monkey wrench in the system is found when studying the causes of visual hallucinations. So far, three have been identified by Drs. Assad and Shapiro: psychophysiologic (a disturbance of brain structure), psychobiochemical (disturbance of neurotransmitters), and psychodynamic (the “emergence of the unconscious into consciousness”). All three of these disturbances happen somewhere between the optic nerve and the visual cortex.
And, from what Patrick Henry Winston, a professor at MIT, says, “80% of the input to the lateral geniculate comes from somewhere other than the retina. A good deal comes down from the primary visual cortex, suggesting that vision is a matter of guided hallucination.”
In other words, the victim of a visual hallucination is relying on the same source of visual information as the rest of us. Without running medical tests on the brain, the only way to know that what we are seeing is real is the corroboration of another mind. Reality is apparently democratic.
Even a perfectly functioning brain will have a good deal of hallucination and deletion involved in its visual interpretation of the external world. While deciphering photons into visual representations, the mind goes through what is called “pre-attentive processing,” where the brain processes the image at the different visual centers along each stage of its path, keeping the parts of the image it deems important, and dropping those that aren’t. We can see this happening whenever we drive our car. One glance to the side is all it takes for our brain to recognize the truck in the next lane, but its details have most likely been tossed aside as unimportant. It’s like the brain says, “What’s that? Oh. Truck,” and stops paying attention.
Pre-attentative processing plays a much needed role in survival, of course. When looking down the maw of a tiger, we don’t want to spend too much time studying the gleam of its teeth. We just need to know that it’s time to run.
Another process used by the mind to interpret visual data is called “closure.” This function is evoked when a portion of an object is obscured. Through closure, the brain can imagine the missing information and will fill in the blank, allowing us to make judgments based on incomplete data.
In conjunction with closure, the mind uses “schemas” to interpret data. These are pre-determined scripts stored in our memory which are re-used to fill in cognitive gaps. In the instance of running from the tiger, due to your utilization of pre-attentive processing, you probably only consciously recognized a few salient elements of the experience, such as the teeth of the beast and the sound of its growl. The schemas already present in your memory however, will likely fill in the missing elements, giving you the more rounded memory of a full tiger, running behind you. This is why no two eyewitness testimonies will ever be the same.
Robert Anton Wilson, in Quantum Psychology, describes an experiment where closure and schemas were found to leave a false memory in their wake:
“I refer to the experiment in which two men rush into a psychology class, struggle and shout, and then one makes a stabbing motion and the other falls. The majority of students, whenever that has been tried, report a knife in the hand of the man who made the stabbing (knife-wielding) motion. In fact, the man used no knife. He used a banana.”
We can already see how our perception of reality is incomplete at its best, or absolutely fictional at its worst. And we’ve only been looking at the problems inherent in visual cognition and memory. There’s still the modalities of sound, smell, taste, and touch to be dealt with.
Knowing this, how can a reasonable mind claim to have access to any absolute truth? We can’t even trust our own eyes to deliver an accurate representation of reality. To be truly rational and objective, we have to question everything, including our own skepticism. Only then will we escape the influence of that demon called “faith.”