Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Biologist Lewis Wolpert on the evolution of belief. He likens belief in the human mind as an outgrowth of our ability to create tools, which is the foundational expression of conceptual reasoning, which is what makes us human (he cites Kenneth Oakley’s 1949 work Man the Toolmaker).

Wolpert’s title comes from Alice in Wonderland, but he has, in effect, his own six impossible things that many people nonetheless believe in: general false beliefs (confabulations, urban myths, mental illness), the paranormal, (i.e., ESP or flying saucers), religion, medical beliefs (miracle holistic cures, for instance, or Freudian psychiatry, which he dismantles on page 182), morality and ethics, and science itself (Wolpert actually argues that science is the most realistic way to experience our world, but it’s clearly impossible in at least two ways: one being that scientific experiments often show what intuitively seems true is not — for instance, if you throw a bag of rocks into a pool, the water level will actually go down. The other is that we often invoke science to create false beliefs, say around marketing drugs, or the Nazi effort to argue that Aryans were superior and Jews in particular inferior (which led to particularly egregious behavior by scientists)).

His chapter on science was exceptional and should be studied by schoolchildren. It does a terrific job of explaining why science is so difficult to get, and also special amongst human thought.

It’s a clear-headed book, unlike the screeds of other learned atheists. Wolpert says specifically that “people have the right to hold whatever beliefs appeal to them, but with a fundamental provision that those beliefs must be reliable if they lead to actions that affect the lives of other people.” His own son factors in the book, as someone who has found faith and been the better for it.

Wolpert also cautions early on that much of what he has to say is speculative, in part because scientists have not devoted much study to belief.

Random things that caught my interest: Westerners tend to believe they have control over their environment and view the world in parts, while Easterners think relationships cause things, so murder is a failure of the social order in China, but a kind of mental instability (his words) in the U.S.

He raises the question of why, if we evolved with a propensity for religion (the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious), people seem to do just fine without it (a question that has vexed the religious forever, as we can see from Psalm 13 He doesn’t suggest that science has anything to do with this, but rather the development of complex technologies and industrial society, “where prayer and religion play a less clear role.”

He notes that even the Greeks, who invented science, didn’t for the most part take the necessary step towards experiments that now defines scientific observation (though he does give props to Archimedes, this blog’s namesake) weren’t prepared to do experimental science, for instance. That had to wait for the Renaissance and Galileo.

Leave a Reply