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Why Believing Without Demanding Proof is Close-Mindedness

One common joke among skeptics goes as follows: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” Not only do I find this joke unfunny, I also find it pointless. If a person wants to take openness to new ideas to its logical conclusion, she will not end up being gullible or credulous. Rather, she will be a skeptic. True open-mindedness is not the same as accepting assertions without critical consideration. In fact, believing claims without being critical of them results in having a closed mind.

To see this, consider the following example. Suppose a friend of yours earnestly claims that he is being haunted by ghosts in his house. He tells you that he hears whispers inside his house even when he is alone and no television is turned on. During some nights, he hears cries or wails in the basement, even when nobody is there. He even catches glimpses of these ghosts walking around in the small hours of the morning. Worst of all, they sometimes appear behind him when he is looking at himself in the mirror, but the moment he turns around to face the ghost, it has already disappeared.

If you uncritically accept this friend’s allegations without demanding clearer evidence other than his vague anecdotes, you are closing your mind from all other possible hypotheses. You are rejecting many other possible explanations without giving them due consideration. You are being close-minded. By hastily jumping into the conclusion that he is being haunted without systematically investigating the causes of his experiences, your friend is being close-minded too. He has exhibited prejudice against the alternative hypotheses without giving them the deliberation they deserve. That is the definition of having a closed mind.

If you are open to all ideas, you should consider false perceptions such as pareidolia as a more plausible explanation for many supposed ghost sightings. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

If you open your mind to competing ideas, you will fairly consider other explanations. One explanation for most ghost sightings is the phenomenon of pareidolia. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

Consider the alternate explanations for your friend’s experiences. First off, he may be lying. History is replete with examples of people who claim special access to the spirit world, but who turned out to be charlatans. But suppose he is not lying. Suppose he has really experienced all the things described above. Well, he might be suffering from episodes of delusion. Perhaps some haughty neighbors are playing tricks on him. Or maybe an unusual but natural phenomenon is taking place in his house, one that is amazing and surreal but that does not require supernatural explanations. In fact, the phenomenon going on in his house, or possibly in his mind, might be yet unknown to scientists. His experiences might lead to new discoveries once close investigation has been done. True open-mindedness requires you to consider all these plausible scenarios and assess their likelihood in light of the evidence. In the absence of evidence, open-mindedness also requires you to withhold judgment.

But the cases where we truly lack evidence are very few. When it comes to people’s behavior, for example, we have plenty of evidence for errors in perception, credulity, or even fraud. The case of people claiming to be haunted is well-known and well-documented. There is plenty of evidence showing that people suffering from delusions sometimes claim to be tormented by spirits; treating the mental illness at the root of these delusions often make the “spirits” go away. There is plenty of evidence that elaborate pranks can be sometimes played by people on their neighbors and friends; I myself can relate to the pleasure of giving a friend a harmless fright. Furthermore, there are also a lot of natural phenomena that, when experienced, gives one a sense of the surreal and supernatural. Imagine seeing a Pepper’s Ghost illusion, or being victim to a case of pareidolia, or seeing a St. Elmo’s fire atop a mast near one’s backyard. Some buildings have acoustics that lead to the propagation of voices coming from far, far away. If you are in such a building, you can hear the murmurs of unseen speakers. If a person unfamiliar with scientific thinking experienced any of these or similar phenomena, it is easy to see why he would be tempted would jump to a supernatural explanation. A close inspection of these phenomena, however, does not reveal the supernatural, but only the super in what is natural.

It is a shame that so many people have the mindset that nature is dull and that any extraordinary experience can only be attributed to supernatural causes. This is lamentable because the lessons of our discoveries in science tell us otherwise. Science has shown that, contrary to our intuitions, nature is extraordinary and subtle, its workings no less than mind-blowing. Hastily supplying supernatural explanations for one’s extraordinary experiences is closing one’s mind to the beauty of the world. The lack of critical thinking leads to a close-mindedness that is blinding.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an  astounding experience, you will lose a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an astounding experience, you will miss a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind. [Photo credit:]

Does having an open mind mean treating all ideas as if they were all equally valid? Are skeptics being close-minded when they reject some explanations in favor of others? These and similar questions arise from the confusion between treating ideas equally and treating them fairly. Treating an idea fairly means giving it consideration by assessing its merit based on the evidence. If you treat ideas fairly, you will quickly discover that most of them are baloney and only a few are meritorious. Being open-minded requires you to treat ideas fairly, not equally. Believing in competing and often logically incompatible views of the world is close-mindedness; an open mind admits valid evidence and logic. Truly open-minded people know that not all ideas are created equal.

Worse than closing one’s mind to many possibilities, the lack of critical thinking leads to the practice of placing too much confidence on insufficient and flimsily evidence that have undergone very little examination. In short, not thinking critically leads to intellectual laziness and arrogance. Advocates of woo and the paranormal often accuse skeptics of being arrogant. What these fans of the supernatural fail to realize is that skepticism is not just a safeguard against being fooled by others. Skepticism is first of all a safeguard against being fooled by oneself. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you shouldn’t fool yourself, and that you’re the easiest person to fool.” This realization is at the heart of skepticism. It is what make skeptics cautious and fastidious. It is what gives them intellectual humility. In the end, critical thinking is not just the direct implication of true open-mindedness, it is also the product of true intellectual humility.

Posted in Philosophy, ScienceComments (0)


ghosts“Nobody likes a skeptic.”
— Dean Winchester, Supernatural

I’m a fantasy junkie. Every year, when new TV shows premier, I always check out the science fiction and fantasy ones first. The comic books I read aren’t of the superhero genre, such as Superman or Batman, but more fantasy stuff like Sandman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Trese (plug: Book 3 is coming out in November!). I’m actually writing an urban fantasy graphic novel right now. (OK, I’m procrastinating more than actually writing it, but it will get done.)

And no, I don’t believe in ghosts.

I’ve stopped believing in ghosts since I was 10 years old and decided that everytime I’d hear a strange noise at night, I’d get up and see what was making it. It always turned out to be something innocuous like paper being blown around by the electric fan, or an rusty door. Or a cat walking on the piano keys. As I got older, I’d volunteer to take the most “haunted” room of the house (it was my grandparents’ house, which was big and old, and supposedly housed a couple of ghosts according to my Mom, aunts and sisters who all swore they saw apparitions). In all the years I’d lived there, I never saw a single supernatural event or entity, despite my habit of walking around by myself in the dark in the middle of the night to check what was making that banging noise that woke me up.

Why do people believe in ghosts? You’d think that if they’d existed all these thousands of years, someone somewhere would’ve been able to get positive proof. Yet all we’ve come up with so far are a million anecdotes and those “reality” ghost shows, which are basically just footage of a bunch of idiots running around in a dark house and asking one another, “Did you hear that? Did you see that?” Yet a lot of people still believe they exist. And not just ghosts, but manananggal, tiyanak, mangkukulam, and a host of other supernatural beings.

It’s quite simple, really. For one, our eyes (and light) occasionally do play tricks on us. Even I’m not immune to that. For another, nobody really knows what happens to us after we die. Oh, sure, religion tells us that we go to either heaven, hell or purgatory, but as no one has actually gone to any of these places and come back to confirm their existence (at least, no one credible), the idea of ghosts comforts us. Their “existence” tells us that there is some part of us that lives on even after our bodies have been turned to worm food. They may be scary and all, but the thought of there being nothing for us after we die is a million times more terrifying. So we cling to the idea of ghosts being real. And everything else follows from there — the manananggal, the tiyanak, the mangkukulam. Oh, and let’s not forget the kapre and tikbalang.

I think the kapres, tikbalangs, tiyanaks and the like are actually quite awesome. But only as myths. Only in storybooks, movies, TV shows, and our daydreams and nightmares, where they belong. That’s why it’s called the fantasy genre, children. In Supernatural, the Winchester brothers may be demon hunters, but they go about their investigations in a scientific manner. They don’t jump to conclusions, and they make sound hypotheses which they then proceed to test. The reason why they can get proof of ghosts is because in their world, ghosts exist. When Joss Whedon — who is an atheist, by the way — created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he knew he wasn’t making a documentary on the undead, he wanted to empower the tiny blonde girl who kept getting killed off in horror movies, and turn her into a heroine we could all look up to. He wanted to explore the pleasures and pains of growing up, using demons and vampires as metaphors. Because that’s what mythical creatures are — literary devices that represent our dreams, our fears, our hopes. I say we keep them alive in our books and movies, but I also say we keep our heads and not think they’re lurking out there in the dark.

So when you think you see or hear a ghost, get up and investigate. Turn on the lights — and I mean this literally and figuratively. Use reason, logic and science. Be a skeptic. Because the real world is terrifying enough as it is without us having to be scared of our own shadows.

Photo from savaman / CC BY 2.0

Posted in Personal, Religion, StoriesComments (17)