Years ago a friend, let’s call him Pedro, an amateur magician who really enjoyed his own shows, told me something that made me question his sanity. In one of his performances, before a large audience, Pedro supposedly executed a mind-blowing trick that earned him a standing ovation. I do not remember the details of the ruse–what did it emerge, change or disappear–but the final comment of his tale was odd: “I do not know how I did it.” By his expression and tone, Pedro was absolutely certain of possessing supernatural powers.
Can magic cause harm? The obvious answer is negative: wizardry shows are always entertaining but… Are supernatural powers real? No! Levitation, divination, telepathy, telekinesis, energy healing and the similar are quackery. Why do so many people believe in such stuff? They do because distortions in their mental models have altered their perception of reality.
Pedro soon left sorcery behind but his story illustrates the path that almost all the magical masters go through. Christopher French, a British specialist in the study of the so called paranormal phenomena, argues that the vast majority of people who claim to be psychics are convinced that they indeed are.
The passage from confusion to conviction is understandable for the impostors that profit from their chatter, but how does the naivety of their faithful followers originate? Deceiving large groups, when it goes beyond entertainment, is a felony that would not spread if it were not for the naive complicity–for the self-deception–of the credulous followers.
In somebody’s bewilderment, his or her reality is altered, blurred or darkened, and they see things differently. “Nothing is true or false: Everything seems to be the color of the crystal through which one looks,” wrote Ramón de Campoamor, the 19th century Spanish poet. Usually ‘our crystal’ is tinted from the outside, without us even realizing it. Our inclination to prefer hassle-free beliefs, as opposed to the challenging analysis demanded by reasoning, has been sown onto us since our childhood.
According to a study, carried out with 5-6 year old children and published in Cognitive Science journal in 2014, the religious stories, overloaded with fantastic characters, we learned in our early years could reduce our ability to differentiate between real people and illusory figures–between reality and fantasy–in the everyday life. Although the study acknowledges the possibility of additional factors that could have been unintentionally excluded from the scope, we all are acquainted with ‘degrees of naiveté’ both in ourselves and among our close friends. (I have an atheist friend who fears the ‘invocation of spirits’ and refuses to play with Ouija boards).
If we wanted to amend our mental models (and adjust the color of our glass) we should do it in three steps: identification, observation and modification. Identification is the recognition of the myths that were imprinted in our heads, without our consent, by our parents, by our first teachers and, in general, by the environment where we grew up.
Identification is followed by vigilance, the impartial observation of the effects in our behavior of those childhood beliefs that became irrefutable truths, whether metaphysical (saints, angels, demons …), folkloric (witches, elves, apparitions …) or ideological (dogmas, partisan, divisive attachments…). After identification and impartial observation, the third stage, the modification or adjustment of the mental models, should occur rather spontaneously.
In short, our beliefs of any kind, our preconceived views, impossible to verify as true, cloud our reason and deteriorate our capacity for analysis. It is not that we become stupid… No! Talented individuals who are fanatics of religions, ideologies or divisive attachments abound. It is the freedom to choose the premises on which we are going to reflect–to ponder–that is knotted and restricted by our beliefs. We continue to be clever but biased in our judgments and selective in what we choose to consider.
‘To reflect’–to express a conclusion resulting from thinking–comes from ‘reflection’, the returning of images that are sent back by shiny and smooth surfaces. Beliefs, as the preconceived opinions that are, darken and taint our mental mirror which, stained and contaminated, fails to reflect those truths that would otherwise be clearly obvious. Furthermore those biased opinions also blur the glass through which we are looking at the world.
Atlanta, December 26, 2016