theory about why people believe in mentalists and conspiracy theories

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 | Author:

Recently I came up with a new theory which explains why somebody believes in mentalists. It's not very amazing but I wanted to write it down nevertheless.

Do you think science explains everything? Or maybe it could explain everything, in future or in theory?
Maybe you do, but maybe you have this little thought: There must be something science can't explain, something science can't reach.

My theory doesn't explain why so many people believe in mentalists, neither does it offer a reductionistic explanation in terms of neuroscience. The theory aims at explaining which part of thoughts in an argumentation is different between a "believer" and a "scientist". The term "believer" means here: someone who actively believes in the phrase "science can't explain everything" (in it's common sense). The term "scientist" means here: someone who actively believes in the phrase "science can explain everything". Please, don't stumble over the words "explain", "everything", etc. I will be more precise below.


This text is somehow related to the text "on theories and stories", although you won't have to read that text in order to understand this one. Maybe that text eases understanding if you don't know the word "falsifiability".

A dialogue

Scientist: Hi Believer, good to see you!
Believer: Oh, Scientist, it's good to see you, too. I have thought about your question you asked me when we met last time for a cup of coffee.
S: You mean, what the verb "to explain" means to you?
B: Yes, exactly. I figured out the problem in our last discussion might have been that we used two words which had accidentally the same letters in it. Today, I want you to .. explain your word "explain", so we won't be irritated again.
S: Okay, good idea. Well, for me the word "to explain" has various different meanings. When I said "science explains everything" I wanted to say: "There is nothing that can't be predicted by a scientific theory", although I'm speaking of theoretical, not-necessarily existing theories, which may be discovered/invented in future. So, to explain means to be able to predict.
B: Aha, then you won't call "it's cold because it's winter" an explanation?
S: I certainly would! If you re-phrase a little bit, this says "if it's winter, then it's cold", so this is a prediction of coldness under certain circumstances.
B: And what about "it's cold because it's the will of God"?
S: Try it yourself, how would this be re-phrased into a prediction?
B: "If it's the will of God, it will be cold". This seems to be a true sentence. But somehow I won't consider this truly a prediction.
S: You're right, although it is a prediction, it is not falsifiable, that means: there is no experiment which you could perform to demonstrate that the law "If it's the will of God, it will be cold" is wrong. How would we know if it's the will of God now? I certainly don't know of any way to find this out.
B: Me neither. But maybe the priests are able to ask God.
S: Well, how would you know that?
B: I can ask them if they can speak to God. If they can, then "it's cold because it's the will of God" will be falsifiable for them. But not for scientists, of course!
S: What if they lie to you?
B: They would never do that. I trust them.
S: What if the specific priest you ask is insane?
B: I will ask someone I know personally.
S: Hm. Okay, I have to think about this. Let's meet again after you have asked your friend.

What has happened here? The problem doesn't really lie in the word "to explain" but in the word "everything". When the scientist (not only the one in the dialogue, but also every idealised scientist) says "everything", he means "the world which is seen by all humans". He means our collectively perceptible world. He does not mean something that humans can not probe. A good example are parallel universes. By definition, a parallel universe is something which we can never ever be aware of, so we can not describe it. Why are we talking about parallel universes? (Really: for me, it is a mystery. They belong to science fiction, not to science!) The scientist just calls "world" everything that he is able to probe, because otherwise he would have no criterion to exclude any concept of thoughts from "world". Do you consider Santa Claus part of the world? No, not the imaginary one, I mean the real one! You would say yes if there would be some way he actually influences us, right? But since Santa Claus lives in a parallel universe, we don't care about him. What would you say to me if I told you there is a parallel universe where everybody looks like Santa Claus? You would tell me I'm insane. Why? Why wouldn't you tell me I'm insane if I said the parallel universe consists of micro-black holes? This is equally insane, because there is no way (and there will never be any way) to find out if it's true.
(Sorry that this part of the text is a little bit messy. Maybe it's best you leave a comment if it confuses you.)

Another dialogue

B: Hi Scientist! I have asked the question.
S: Oh, hello. I'm curious, what did he say?
B: Uhmm... before I tell you this, I wanted to discuss another issue.
S: What's wrong?
B: I figured out we mean different things when we say "everything".
S: Oh no, not again this word confusion!
B: I'm sorry. When you say "everything", you mean "everything we can test against", right?
S: Of course, what else could someone possibly mean by this word?
B: Well, I say "everything" and mean "everything I can test against and, in addition, everything my trusted friends can test against".
S: anything your friends pretend to be able to test against...
B: Correct. But I trust them!
S: I see. Well, then I will re-phrase my sentence again. Science explains everything that every human beings can test against, in theory.
B: That's not a very interesting statement. You told me, science was all about theories which are falsifiable. Now you say: Anything which can be used as falsification can be described by a falsifiable theory.
S: Uhm, you're right.
B: Maybe what you thought was so important lies in the belief that it's not good to trust anybody.
S: Yes, when it comes to making reliable predictions, I don't trust anybody. Remember, if some people didn't adopt this attitude, we would still believe in a flat earth. There would be no GPS.
B: Obviously you got me there. Maybe this whole science business is just different from personal beliefs.

So the essence of my theory is: Someone who believes in mentalists just believes some people who call themselves mentalists, that they have capabilities beyond normal human beings. Someone who doesn't believe in mentalists thinks they lie about it or are insane.

What has this to do with conspiracy theories? Once you believe one person to have additional abilities, there is nothing to prevent you from thinking that there are more people with this ability. Why are so many people ignoring this? Why are the scientists not admitting that mentalists do exist? If you believe in a conspiracy theory, you typically believe someone who offers "exclusive" information. You can either believe this person, thus believing in the conspiracy theory, or you can just say yourself "he made this information up, it's not true". The ideal scientist is a sceptic, and trusts no one but the collective reasoning of mankind: everything must be, in principle, checkable by everyone.

It is up to you if you believe in "exclusive information" such as mentalists. But let me tell you something I think about when I decide this:
"If someone gets money when I believe this, then this someone is likely to be a liar".
An example: Someone tells you "give me 5€ or 5$ and you'll find 10€ or 10$ on the street tomorrow". Would you believe this? Another example: Someone tells you "give someone else money today and you'll get it back by luck tomorrow, because of good Karma". Would you believe this? I would prefer the second thought, that's for sure.

If you believe in the "there is more than science can explain"-stuff, think about: have you ever met anyone who claims to have additional abilities? Anyone who claims to be a mentalist or to speak with God? Maybe you have. Then think about if you trust this person. If you do, very well, then I consider your position reasonable. But in all other cases: Think about it again.


Category: English, Not Mathematics

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One Response

  1. "Or maybe it could explain everything, in future or in theory?" It's a quite unreasonable claim, that no sober scientist should make (of course we all dream of it). Two examples come to mind: First, in modern quantum mechanics certain thinks are discribed as probabilities and they make sense only as such. Still particles show up randomly and only few hope to predict "precisely" where. Second, even logic itself is limited. Goedel's incompleteness theorems show that some things cannot be "explained" formally.

    It might be still a good working hypothesis that everything can be explained just as believing in god may make your life easier, but there is more evidence for god than that everyhing could be (even theoretically) explained by science.

    Also your arguments about conspiracy theories seem week to me. There are conspiracy-theories that are difficult to proof wrong, just not falsifiable up until the future or even turn out right at some later point.

    By your above reasoning, color is a conspiracy-theory to the blind, since they have to ask the seeing to explain it (or they may prefer to trust some aperatus today).

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