Why Do We Believe Impossible Things?

Why do so many people hold beliefs that are clearly false? A recent story on ABCNews.com said 80 million Americans believe we have been visited by aliens from another planet, and numerous studies show that millions of people believe in ghosts, extrasensory perception and, of course, alien abductions.

According to biologist Lewis Wolpert of University College, London, all those beliefs are clearly false, and they all share a common beginning. It may well have started when the first human realized he, or she, could make a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Wolpert is the author of a new provocative book exploring the evolutionary origins of belief, called "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast." The title comes from Lewis Carroll's classic "Through the Looking Glass," when Alice tells the White Queen that she cannot believe in impossible things.

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," the Queen replied. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Wolpert argues that our wide range of beliefs, some of which are clearly false, grew out of a uniquely human trait. Alone in the animal world, humans understand cause and effect, and that, he says, led ultimately to the invention of tools, the rapid rise of sophisticated technology, and of course, beliefs. Even the earliest humans understood that many events that shaped their lives resulted from specific causes. Therefore, there must be a cause behind every event.

Searching for that cause, Wolpert says, led to the rise of religion because surely there must be some purpose behind all this, some ultimate cause at work in the universe.

Wolpert is an atheist, but he says he isn't trying to convert anyone to atheism. If so, he may be the only person on the planet who is willing to share his deeply held beliefs without caring whether he can convince anyone to believe the same way. But his basic premise is sound. We all know other people, not ourselves of course, who hold some beliefs that are absurd, or at least grossly lacking in evidence. Why?

It all goes back to that first character who rubbed two sticks together.

No other animal has the mental framework for understanding cause and effect, Wolpert says. Chimps, apes and those famously clever New Caledonia crows come close, but they aren't there yet. Once humans reached that point, they turned a corner that ultimately shaped what we are today.

Some animals have used various things as tools, but only humans have put at least two different materials together to fabricate a tool for a specific purpose, and then go on to discover other uses for that same tool. Those first discoveries gave humans an edge on the competition, allowing the species to thrive.

But along the way things happened, some good and some bad. The effort to understand why bad things happen to good people, and so on, gave rise to what Wolpert and others call the "belief engine" in the brain. We want to believe there is a reason for it all, and that leaves us predisposed to believe in some things for which there is little or no evidence. If a certain belief makes sense out of an otherwise senseless event, then it must be true, right?

Wolpert argues that even false beliefs can serve a useful purpose. He concedes that religion, which he regards as false, has a purpose and has played a role in the evolutionary processes. People tend to look out for people of like faith, as in churches, and that support can make them stronger, thus improving the chances that they will live long enough to see their genes passed along.

If Wolpert's compelling argument is right, does that mean we have no control over what we believe? He says he was a very religious child, but became an atheist at the age of 16 because he no longer believed in religion. But could it be that his own "belief engine" made the decision for him?

Ever since Sigmund Freud dug into the secrets of the subconscious, many psychologists have argued that many of our beliefs are beyond our control because they are shaped by unknown secrets buried inside the brain. But if that's true, how do psychologists escape their own scenario? Wouldn't they be just as likely to be deluded as the rest of us?

Similarly, many biologists think the complex organism between our ears is driven entirely by biology. But if we all have a biologically based "belief system," aren't we all -- even biologists -- victims of false beliefs? As Wolpert concedes, maybe people just believe what they want to believe.

None of us approach complex issues, like whether or not to believe in a specific religion, or even a political candidate, with a clean slate.

How else can you explain 80 million Americans who believe we've been visited by aliens? Surely, if aliens invested the enormous costs of interstellar travel and came our way, they must have had a reason. Wouldn't they drop by the White House instead of a desert in New Mexico or Texas? Would there really be any confusion if they had, indeed, visited Earth?

The late astronomer Carl Sagan had a wonderful formula for measuring the truthfulness of any belief. Extraordinary claims, he said, demand extraordinary evidence.

The fact that so many are willing to believe so many impossible things with so little evidence is not comforting.

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