17 September 2011


Michael Shermer. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies. How We Construct Beliefs as Truths. Times Books/Henry Holt, 2011

Edmund Parish. Hallucinations and Illusions: A Study of the Fallacies of Perception. Facsimile reprint, Cambridge University Press, 2011 (Cambridge Library Collection: Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge)

Editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer examines the possible neurological and evolutionary origins of our willingness to believe all sorts of things, for example the need to see patterns in events, and the tendency to attribute events to the actions of conscious agencies. Much of this is fairly well travelled ground by now but still worth going over again. In general much of what Shermer says makes a good deal of common sense, but there are problems in some of his arguments.
For example he (a fiscal conservative) complains that much academic opinion is biased against conservatism, seeing it as a kind of pathology. Surely 'believers' in a variety of things could point out that much of the academic community is biased towards scepticism, and sees 'belief' as something requiring explanation.

The reality is, of course, that few if any of us are universal sceptics, indeed being a universal sceptic would lead one to the extremes of solipsism; so nearly everyone has sets of beliefs, which they will tend regard as uniquely obvious and rational, while the other fellows' are regarded as odd or even downright crazy. Thus skeptics tend to be very skeptical of parapsychological claims, yet show a much more lenient attitude towards, say, the Minnesota twin studies, every bit as belief driven (radical hereditarianism) and making as many extraordinary claims as anything produced by the parapsychologists. Still less do skeptics critically evaluate the various claims and activities of great guru James Randi.

This book shows that, actually, like many self proclaimed 'skeptics', Shermer is in fact a true believer, and, by his own admission, a congenital extremist. In high school he got religion, not for him a quiet personal faith, no, he becomes a fervent evangelist of the sort that gets up everyone else's nose; when he loses his faith, he doesn't just quietly decide that religion is not for him and get on with his life, he becomes a proselytising skeptic, a member of a "movement". His favourite sport is the extreme sport of transcontinental bicycle racing, an event which drives the participants, by his own account, to mental and physical collapse and bizarre hallucinatory altered states of consciousness, all of which sounds like some ancient vision quest or spiritual ordeal. He is attracted to radical libertarian philosophies such as that of Ayn Rand and her ilk, philosophies as every bit utopian as the most fervent Maoist. This is surely not the portrait of a cool laid-back sceptic.

The Parish book is an example of sceptical examination from an earlier era. It is a welcome reprint of a long out of print and virtually unavailable title. This edition was first published by Walter Scott Ltd in 1897, an enlarged version of a German original. Despite his rather English sounding name. Parish was a German academic and a pioneer in the development of theories about hallucinations; in his day there was much discussion as to whether they originated somehow in the eye, or in the brain, and whether signals could be sent back from the brain to the eye. While some of theorising now looks quaint from the perspective of modern neuroscience, the value of the book lies in its use of personal accounts.

What makes it of interest to Magonia readers is his use of the material gathered by the census of hallucinations conducted by the Society of Psychical Research in the UK as well as comparative studies by William James in the United States and Von Schrenk-Notzing in Munich. There are extracts from the Munich census and comparative tables.

Parish was sceptical of the claims of telepathy made by the members of the SPR and his analysis contains much useful discussion as to the fallibility of memory, the role of what would become known as false awakenings, hypnopompic and hypnogogic imagery etc. He also notes the difficulties of distinguishing hallucinations from illusions. There are also a number of cases of sleep paralysis, in two of which the percipients believed they were sharing their beds with corpses!

There is even a story which today would be reported as a UFO event: a retired army man reported that at seven in the evening on either the 25th or 26th October 1887 he was standing by his carriage in front of a little church, when he saw "a black ball (the size of a small balloon) rising up into the clear sky above the roof of the church. As it rose higher it lessened in size, and vanished in the direction of the moon, then, I think, in the first quarter, with one star above it (Venus)" This gave him extremely unpleasant feelings and the idea that "some misfortune is happening". He was to associated this with a turn for the worse in his ailing mothers condition.

1 comment:

  1. Diverse copies of 1897 edition of Edmund Parish (1861-1916) are available on archive.org. The better one is probably the following:


    (copyright probably expired in 1986 in EU)