After reading Jack Hunter’s excellent E-Book; “Why People Believe in Spirits, Gods and Magic” recently, the use of the word “Believe” in its title, as well as its appearance, and that of the word belief, in the text reminded me of something that I have been pondering for some time. Other than in Jack Hunter’s book, I have noted a trend in papers and on-line discussions relating to such areas as Consciousness and Parapsychology to break everything down into one or the other of two classifications, that of either being grounded in material science (read true), or if not in agreement with the Materialists views of the Universe, as being based upon belief (read unproven or a fantasy). The thing that has surprised me recently though is that I am also beginning to see a trend where even the proponents of the non-material science explanations for observations made in these areas have begun to accept a pre-assigned position as “believer” in discussions, as opposed to demanding recognition as someone dealing in facts and reality, albeit a alternative one.
For example, if a published paper deals with a review of events experienced by people who “believe” that they have had interaction with a ghostly presence, details of the interaction are never stated in a form that would indicate even the possibility that what was related by the individual as their personal experience was in fact what the individual had experienced. Instead, words and phrases like; may have, believed to be, possibility, unexplained, etc., are used throughout the paper to describe their experience, leaving one with the impression that “while this may be what happened, they may have also just been imagining it”. Even if the incident is not fully understood by the author, by going so far in the effort to never state anything in terms that would indicate that the event being reported was a “paranormal event”, the author is in effect capitulating to the Science and/or Skeptic’s position that no matter what kind or quality of evidence is produced it will be inadequate as proof of anything.
Of course there is a definite need and place for an approach that involves a healthy skepticism on the part of anyone studying or researching such areas as Consciousness and Parapsychology, but to place all of the data collected into the realm of belief rather than experience, personal or otherwise, predetermines the outcome of the research with respect to its lack of acceptance by the academic community. To illustrate why I feel this is so I would like to review the connotations that come with the use of the word “belief”.
1. acceptance of truth of something: acceptance by the mind that something is true or real, often underpinned by an emotional or spiritual sense of certainty.
2. trust: confidence that somebody or something is good or will be effective.
3. something that somebody believes in: a statement, principle, or doctrine that a person or group accepts as true.
*from the Bing online dictionary
You will note that there is no mention in the definition above of any relationship between belief and fact. More exactly, it points out that belief is based upon the mere acceptance that something is true. Therefore, when the word belief is used to label a person’s understanding of a causal factor relating to an experience it implies that their understanding is not based upon any fact, just an acceptance without proof that something is, and consequently their conclusions related to the causality of the event should not be taken as of any consequence.
As I said in the opening, it seems at present that much of Academia and all of the Skeptic Community seem to divide personal knowledge into being based either upon “Science” or “Belief”. Frequently they deride the latter group through the use of such descriptive words as superstition, delusion and fantasy. But why must all reality that cannot be explained by current science be categorized only as a belief?
While it is true that societies in general, and we as individuals, all hold some personal beliefs that may not be possible to assign proofs to, at least some beliefs have been formed as a result of personal experience.
In some areas of science it is taught that all “knowing” (read personal reality) comes from one of only two sources: either through “Agreement Reality or through “Experiential Reality”.
Agreement Reality is reality that is based upon an acceptance of what we have been told, not what we have experienced ourselves. This form of reality matches the definition of belief very well. It would seem to me than that agreement reality is what is in operation when most people refer to science to explain something; we accept that something is true and real because science says it is. For example, we can accept that it is electricity that is lighting a room when we flip a light switch, and not magic, because we are told that it is electricity at work and not through any personal knowledge of the physics of electricity.
For another example, I doubt that anyone would use the word “belief” to describe their personal relationship with gravity, even though science is not able to explain what gravity is, or what produces the effect that we call gravity. I think that most people’s acceptance of the existence of gravity comes from both a form of “Agreement Reality” and from a form of “Experiential Reality.
Why? Because although we experience the effects of gravity all of our lives and can predict and make use of these effects, no one, including scientists, actually knows what the source of gravity is. Is it a wave form of undetectable energy that is generated by atoms, or are there something like gravity particles that are undetectable except by their effect? And although we know that gravity affects a beam of light, if gravity is a relationship between a mass and a mass, then how can there be a gravitational effect upon light which is a wave and not a mass (this is pretty much why the concept of the photon was developed, to offer an explanation for the inconvenient fact that light acts both like a wave, and like a particle with mass). So, although we accept gravity as being true with a sense of certainty, because we cannot define in terms of science just what gravity is, only describe what it does based upon personal experience, then by using the logic of some of Academia and the Skeptic Community, gravity should be dismissed as being merely a belief, not a fact.
But of course in the practical world of most people, gravity just is. There is no need to deal with the philosophical aspects of its effects on our lives. That is because in the “real world” the primary form of reality is “Experiential Reality”, a reality based upon or pertaining to, or derived from, experience. But when branches of science, such as Anthropology, study what they refer to as “primitive societies” they tend to classify the reality that governs the lives of the members of these societies as beliefs. In fact, they generally take it a step further and dismiss those beliefs as superstitions. But to truly understand such a culture it is first necessary to accept that these people’s lives are based at least as much upon experiential reality as through agreement reality.
For instance, the person being studied may have a life experience where they have witnessed a local person who is a healer curing people of injuries or illnesses through use of techniques that are in no way related to modern western medicine. Or they may well have at some point in their life experienced the healing process themselves. For them the healing process is an experiential reality based upon personal experience. For those from outside the culture that are studying the society to automatically label an experiential reality of this type as a belief or superstition is questionable science at best, and arrogance at worst.
What I propose is that those who study either these Primitive Societies or the field of Parapsychology in the modern Western World consider substituting something similar to the phase “experiential reality” for the word “belief” in evaluating the lives and personal experiences of the individuals in these cultures
 “Why People Believe in Spirits, Gods and Magic” by Jack Hunter
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