3. A World of One’s Own
or, How I was Saved by the Flying Saucers in My Spare Time, and You Can Be Too
One day a housewife named Dorothy Martin began to receive messages from her dead father – transmitted by means of “automatic writing” she felt impelled to produce. After a time messages also began to arrive from extraterrestrial beings, who described their worlds, way of life, and philosophical ideas to her. These beings were of a highly superior spiritual development; one in particular was named Sananda, whose former manifestation on Earth, it turned out, had been known as Jesus Christ. Sananda informed Mrs. Martin that the world would be inundated by a cataclysmic flood on December 21, 1954, but added that she and a group of disciples would be saved from the catastrophe, picked up by a flying saucer and carried off to the planet Clarion.
The press was informed of the world’s impending fate, and for a short time Dorothy Martin and her little group of followers became national news. On December 21st, however, neither a flying saucer nor a world-wide flood materialized. Though initially taken aback by this turn of events, Mrs. Martin soon received a new revelation: that the Earth had been saved by the goodness and devotion of the faithful, who had inspired a divine intervention. Unfortunately, her neighbors in Oak Park, Illinois were not completely pleased with this happy development. Under threat of legal action for creating a public disturbance, as well as the possibility of a psychiatric examination, Mrs. Martin fled the vicinity. However, after a sojourn in the Peruvian Andes, she eventually returned to the United States in 1961, and adopted the name of Sister Thedra. Continuing to commune with dwellers in outer space, she attracted a new band of faithful, and finally died at Sedona, Arizona at age 92.
As it happened, Dorothy Martin’s prediction of catastrophe for December 1954 attracted the attention of a group of psychologists who were involved in the study of belief. The result was the book When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, Stanley Schacter, and Henry W. Riecken, which introduced the concept of “cognitive dissonance” (and in which Mrs. Martin’s name was changed to “Marian Keech” to preserve her anonymity).
What, in actuality, is the “world”? In one sense, it could be described as constituting of all of reality. But for any individual, it must necessarily be something else.
Information about external reality comes through perception by the senses (as discussed previously); it is not reality itself which is experienced, but perceptions of it. Thus, for each individual, there exists the world as experienced, as opposed to the world of reality. Perceptions can never reflect the whole of reality, in either extent or essential nature (for example, human eyesight can only perceive visible light, not infrared or longer wavelengths, or ultraviolet or shorter ones). In fact, perceptions may not even correlate with reality (as in the case of optical illusions or various neurological conditions.) Therefore the world as experienced is always a limited or even inaccurate version of the world of reality.
Perceptions are not all that the mind experiences, however. There are also ideas. Ideas are experiences that are not the result of immediate sensory perceptions; they may depict things that do not or could never exist, call up the past through memory, deal with abstract concepts and symbology, organize and transmute and reorganize, or explore the furthest boundaries of imagination. (This concept of ideas versus perceptions was explored by David Hume, though he employed a different terminology of ideas versus “impressions”.) In other words, while sensory perceptions are most often closely related to external reality (by sheer necessity of survival), ideas are not. In many instances a disconnection of idea from reality will be obvious, even deliberate, as in a daydream or imagined scene – but at other times it may not be apparent, particularly in the case of an idea that is believed to be true, but is not.
Ideas that are thought to be true – in the sense that they are thought to have a correspondence to reality – may be considered to fall into two types: those that have substantial support from some sort of reliable evidence, hereafter termed knowledge; and those that do not have such support, but instead are based on something else, hereafter termed beliefs. (These terms of belief and knowledge, as employed herein, will thus have definitions that are somewhat different – and more precise – than common usage.)
The “something else” that beliefs are based on might take several forms. A common source would be “what everyone believes” – that is, beliefs shared by the individuals of a social group, perhaps absorbed during childhood, and thus constituting belief by default, through unspoken consensus. It would seem that people gain many of their beliefs in this way, assimilated from the society that surrounds them; beliefs which may include some of the most fundamental kind, concerning religion as well as ethnic and national (tribal) identity. Thus a ready-made view of society, and one’s place in it, becomes available from the very inception of conscious existence.
On the other hand, beliefs might also be instilled in an overt manner, through indoctrination by a teacher, mass media, or the written word. Where self-interest is concerned, beliefs that align with it would tend to be favored (as Upton Sinclair aptly observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Or in words quoted by Mark Twain: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”). Given the overwhelming importance of the unconscious (as previously described), instances in which beliefs are engendered or influenced by unconscious impulse – including inborn tendencies that might be called “instinct” – would be of crucial significance. And finally, belief might arise simply through misunderstanding, either by logical fallacy or mistaken perception.
Some beliefs, then, will be accepted without their nature being considered, in fact may not even be regarded as formal “beliefs”; these could be said to be implicit. Other beliefs may be consciously recognized as such, perhaps as part of an organized system, or possibly due to a realization that they are not accepted (or even contradicted) elsewhere; such beliefs could be termed explicit.
An individual’s worldview will be taken to be the sum of all the beliefs and knowledge possessed by that individual – that is, the body of ideas held to be true. A group of individuals, extending even to an entire society, may also have a worldview, which would be the aggregate of all the worldviews of the persons therein. There will of course be differences of opinion, but ideas that are in preponderance in the group will form its collective worldview.
Since an individual’s worldview is a total sum of beliefs and knowledge, then with the addition of perceptions, the result is everything that can be experienced and thought to be true, and so must constitute the world for that individual. Reality cannot be experienced directly, which means that the “world-in-the-head” (so to speak) is the only one that can, for any person, exist. Thus the world effectively becomes the world of the self.
The concepts of the worldview, and the world of the self it implies, are both extremely important, for they explain much of human behavior. Specifically, anything that challenges the central beliefs of an individual must be taken as a challenge to the world of that individual, and therefore to the individual’s self. Thus, a belief that is of little personal consequence and easily verifiable can often be readily changed (“the name ‘New Mexico’ means it must be part of Mexico, doesn’t it?”), but it will prove very difficult or impossible to alter a belief that is of great importance to an individual, for it is part of what that person is; and all the more difficult, given the inherent uncertainties of our world, if any evidence relevant to the truth of the matter is not clear and immediately accessible.
In the particular case of Dorothy Martin, it would seem that her world was a very unusual one. It encompassed beliefs in communication with aliens from outer space, spiritualism, sunken Atlantis and Mu, Christianity, and visitations by flying saucers. But more than this – more than simply having extraordinary ideas – she also received messages via automatic writing, so it would appear that some very unusual perceptions were also experienced. (It must be emphasized that Mrs. Martin was completely convinced that these messages were genuine, and that she did not appear to be insane in the sense of being unable to function in society. In fact, one of her closest associates was eventually subjected to examination by court-appointed psychiatrists, and found to be “entirely normal”, in spite of having some “unusual ideas”.) However, considering that the prophecies she produced were not very accurate, and that her “revelations” did not provide any new items of knowledge at all (in the sense of something supported by reliable evidence), it seems clear that her messages were not what she thought them to be. That is, rather than originating in outer space or the spirit world, they most likely came from her own unconscious mind. Thus they were, in a sense, genuine; it was just that their source was not what she thought it to be.
The reaction of Dorothy Martin and her followers to the failure of her prophecy of worldwide catastrophe also provides an example of the concept of “cognitive dissonance” – that is, they experienced mental stress, or dissonance, as a result of the apparent contradiction of their belief system, and were thereby impelled to somehow reduce said dissonance. At first conscious rationalizations were attempted, by resorting to the premise that the prophecy had not been properly understood. However, Mrs. Martin soon received a new revelation: that the catastrophe had been averted by divine intervention, due to the “light” spread by the devotion of the group. The likely source of this revelation was, of course, Dorothy Martin’s own unconscious, acting to reduce the stress that was felt. In this it proved to be quite successful, for most members of the group remained steadfast – in fact, their belief even appeared to have been strengthened, at least in the short term (though their long term reactions were not studied). Thus their own worlds were preserved from being undermined.
Though Dorothy Martin and her group made for an extreme case, rationalization is by no means an unusual reaction to contradiction, or any other form of cognitive dissonance (“those grapes were sour, anyway”). Even more common would be the tendency to simply ignore or avoid possible contradictions of belief, perhaps by attempting to remain safely within the confines of an established social group and its opinions, or accepting only sources of information which confirm whatever belief system might already exist.
Such behavior is extremely widespread, in fact almost universal, and its results are readily observed. For instance, there are many different religions, which often contradict one another on various points; and also many different political ideologies, for which the same is true (or even more so). Obviously, when one belief contradicts another, they can’t both be true, in the sense of having a correspondence to reality; actually, neither may be true. Yet in spite of this, confidence in contradictory belief systems persists, with no resolution ever achieved. The beliefs inherent in religion and politics, endemic as they are in human affairs, remain quite unshaken. Their power is pervasive.
It might also be observed that there exist varying degrees to which individuals are inclined to belief. Some acquire beliefs readily and hold them with great fervor, even if exotic or seemingly unlikely (as was the case with Dorothy Martin and her followers) – such people might be termed “True Believers” (a term popularized by Eric Hoffer, though in the more limited sense of belief in mass movements.) In this regard, it can be seen that the more important a belief is to the believer, the more ferocious its defense will be; for again, it constitutes a defense of the self – the world of the self, and all the hopes, feelings, deeds, and social relations that are bound up with it.
Interestingly, it may be possible to associate such defenses with certain types of brain activity, as indicated by a recent experiment conducted at the University of Southern California. Subjects in the experiment considered challenges to various strongly held beliefs while an MRI scan was performed on them, and it was discovered that those who held their beliefs with greater persistence also tended to have more activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is involved in threat perception and anxiety, as well as in the insular cortex, which deals with emotions. In other words, a threat to belief tended to be perceived as an emotionally charged personal threat. As one of the researchers involved, Jonas Kaplan, put it in a press release for the experiment: “Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong. To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”
In any case, considering the overwhelming prevalence of belief in religion, politics, and many other spheres of human behavior, it would appear that knowledge – a logical conclusion based on evidence – plays a relatively small role in the formation of ideas, at least much smaller that is generally assumed. In fact, it would seem that a common pattern of human behavior is this: to happen to adopt a belief (through unspoken consensus, indoctrination, self-interest, unconscious motivation, instinct, or even misunderstanding) – and then, when faced with possible contradiction, to dig in and defend it.
The fact that knowledge can be gained only after evidence has been considered means that it must be acquired gradually, one element at a time, often with considerable effort, and on occasion at substantial cost. It builds on itself, continually enlarged and modified by new evidence, so that its conclusions are always, to some extent, provisional, a probability rather than an absolute certainty. (An often cited example is the modification of Newtonian physics by its Einsteinian version – the older physics remains quite accurate (to the limits of measurement) in common situations, but the difference between the two becomes large under extreme (relativistic) conditions.)
In contrast, a belief can often be acquired with little or no effort, sometimes even without conscious awareness – though the defense of an existing belief may involve an elaborate program of rationalization. In other words, a conclusion may be arrived at first, before any substantial consideration of evidence, and then attempts may be made to support it only afterward.
It is also possible for belief to be mistaken for knowledge. That is, it may be assumed that a particular conviction is supported by evidence, even if that evidence does not actually exist (though it may be believed to exist). Such a mistake, made in simple ignorance, would seem to be quite common; indeed, in our age of ostensible respect for “rationality”, its semblance may be honored by insisting that certain ideas are “logical” and supported by “facts”, whether such is actually true or not. Thus ignorance may facilitate belief, and in a general sense, it might even be said that ignorance is the foundation of belief.
Further, unlike knowledge, a belief can be held with what seems to be absolute certainty, though that certainty is in itself a belief. Such desire for certainty may actually be quite natural, for life itself seeks certainty. Ordered complexity is the very essence of life, and the uncertainty of disorder is a constant threat to its continuation.
Finally, in spite of its sometimes tenuous relation to reality, belief can be (and often is) true, thus encouraging its acceptance, while knowledge can sometimes prove false in one way or another, due to incomplete evidence or faulty interpretation. However, knowledge is also adaptive, with mistaken conclusions (which must be tentative in any case) always subject to correction by new evidence or better understanding; while a particular belief, whether true or false, is essentially static, a thing that is assumed to be true, but never truly examined (though it might eventually be replaced by another belief – also unexamined). In other words, knowledge can steadily advance and improve, while belief, due its very nature, cannot.
Thus knowledge and belief are, by their very natures, inherently and implacably opposed: evidence versus presumption; consideration versus reflex; provisionality versus supposed certainty. To the extent that one is affirmed in the realm of ideas, the other must be denied. Indeed, Dorothy Martin and her followers – living in a strangely unique world of their own – provided a spectacular demonstration of such denial in action.
And so an important part of the world as experienced can now, perhaps, begin to be understood. Just as belief and knowledge and perception are experienced differently among people, so will a different world – a world of the self, a world of one’s own – exist for each and every one. That world of the self can never completely correspond to the world of reality, but it is also the only one that can be known; and every effort will be made to maintain it.
This is the nature of the human condition.
The book When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, Stanley Schacter, and Henry W. Riecken, was originally published in 1956 by the University of Minnesota Press. Aside from its study of Dorothy Martin (“Marian Keech”) and her group, it presents the history of a number of other apocalyptic and messianic movements, as well as fascinating insights on the nature of belief itself.
A detailed account of the phenomenon of “automatic writing”, along with several other “automatisms”, may be found in Chapter 4 of The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner.
The experiment conducted at USC that examined brain activity in relation to belief, referred to above, was described in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, dated December 23, 2016, while a related press release appeared on the university’s website for news on the same day.
A Personal Afterword
In the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous I sometimes feel as if I should offer this statement: “My name is Blackmun; and I am a believer.”
For just as members of the aforementioned association consider themselves to be alcoholics even if they do not drink, I consider myself to be a believer, in the sense of having such an inclination, even though I realize that belief is often not desirable – there evidently being an innate (and inescapable) tendency on the part of human beings to arrive at conclusions (often erroneous) based on fragmentary, unreliable, or even non-existent evidence. In other words, to believe.
Actually, I would at one time have very definitely been described as a believer in every sense of the word. I was raised in the Catholic Church, and as a child accepted its doctrines (so far as I understood them) wholeheartedly. One of the more traumatic experiences of my childhood, in fact, involved the realization that not everyone accepted such doctrines. I might also mention – not at all in a spirit of ridicule, but only to illustrate a psychological reality – that I also believed quite firmly in the existence of Santa Claus. After all, the adults around me all said that he was real; he was constantly mentioned on television and radio; for some time, all the children I knew accepted his existence; and most importantly, he apparently delivered wonderful presents every Christmas. Yet troubling questions remained. How could a single individual, even in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer, deliver millions upon millions of gifts during the course of a single night? This idea seemed to be contradicted by logic and observable reality; but in the end was to be accepted as an essentially miraculous event, an “unfathomable mystery”.
On one Christmas Eve my sisters and I left our house, taken along on an excursion to view holiday lights. And lo and behold, when we returned our presents were under the tree – which we were told had been delivered by the Jolly Old Elf himself! When I later reported this to some friends, however, they only sneered. Did I really believe in Santa Claus? In an instant the whole structure of belief came tumbling down, collapsed by the first serious doubt offered by people I knew. Suddenly it became all too clear that Santa was a pleasant hoax; there was no “unfathomable mystery”; logic and observation had been right all along (as I may have unconsciously suspected).
My belief in the Church was more steadfast, remaining mostly unshaken for some years thereafter. One particular development did seem peculiar to me, however. When I was a small child there existed a doctrine that eating meat on Friday was a “mortal sin”, but it later came about that the doctrine was annulled. How could that be, I wondered? A mortal sin was a serious matter, that could easily lead to eternal damnation. Could something be such a terrible sin one day, but not the next? (Many years later I learned of the rationale that the sin lay not in eating meat, but in proving disobedient to the Church … which somehow seemed even more sinister, in its way.)
Thus, even as a child who fervently believed, I was occasionally beset by unsettling questions. The history taught in the Bible – of a universe created in seven days, of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and Moses parting the Red Sea – seemed wildly improbable in the light of such scientific knowledge as I had acquired, or even common sense. These troublesome issues were not as threatening to belief as might be supposed, however, for the Catholic Church does not insist that every word in the Bible is literally true, as history; rather, that it is always true in matters of faith and morals. Nevertheless, questions continued to multiply, concerning not only history, but sacraments and miracles, philosophy and ethics, and the realities of everyday life.
So it was that by the time I reached high school I began to drift away from religious belief. It was a gradual process with no dramatic climax, no single precipitating event. It was just that the Church did not seem to have much meaning for me, nor did religion in general. There were too many questions that religion did not answer, too many issues left unaddressed, except by reference to things which could not actually be observed, or which logic could not explain. This steady decline in belief has only accelerated over the years, and now that I have reached old age, only its shadow remains. (It must be said, though, that for many other people the opposite trend seems to be more common: as they become older, and particularly as they approach their inevitable demise, religious belief tends to strengthen. This is something I have personally observed.)
Perhaps it is clear by now that although I was always capable of belief, there was also another faculty at work – one that always produced questions, sooner or later, which thereby became part of a search for evidence. Thus the proclivity for belief was never absent, but instead was opposed (and often overcome … eventually) by a desire for knowledge. As already noted, the process was gradual, the material structure of my worldview slowly being replaced, brick by brick.
Why such a desire for knowledge should exist in me is a mystery. I have absolutely no explanation for it. It has always been present, from a young age; in no way did I consciously choose it. I certainly do not consider it to denote any kind of moral superiority. Whether it is even “good” for me, or has done me any good, is impossible to say. It is simply a characteristic that exists, without apparent cause or explanation, as a thing in itself.
Yet at the same time the propensity to believe also remains, ever present, inescapable. Beckoning me to adopt a firm opinion, to take sides, to accept or reject, to support or oppose – whether I actually know something about the matter in question, or not.
For as I said: “I am Blackmun; and I am a believer.”