Patterns in the Pier-Glass

Something I remember Stephen Covey saying one time is that people are inclined to produce evidence to support their own beliefs, whatever they should happen to be. I saw what I consider to be an excellent example of this, earlier today, whist watching a TV program about houses. The program is one in which a number of people visit each other’s houses and then vote anonymously about which one they like best and the winner gets a prize of one thousand pounds sterling.

In one of the houses – an old c18 English thatched cottage – the lady owner made the comment that the house was haunted. In support of this, she said that doors in the cottage would occasionally open or close all by themselves. Immediately, I wondered why she didn’t think that perhaps such events might be caused by a sudden unexpected draught or a faulty door catch or a crooked door jamb; these possibilities all seem much more plausible to me, especially in a house that old.

We just don’t know whether or not ghosts exist because, if they do, they seem to have so far eluded detection in any proper scientific study. But just like the owner of the house in the TV program, who insisted that there was a ghost living in the house, many people are convinced by events such as unusual noises or doors opening. Others might be inclined to ask questions such as, ‘why would a ghost need to open a door; aren’t they supposed to be able to walk through walls?’

Some years ago, I lived in a house which had a set of quite creaky stairs. Most evenings, after dark, a whole series of very unusual noises could be clearly heard. It sounded exactly like someone was walking up the stairs and across the room upstairs. Now, I think that if you were looking for evidence for the existence of ghosts, you could easily have convinced yourself that a ghost was living in that house. Personally, I put those noises down to a combination of the contraction of the house timbers and the creaky staircase.

The people who were looking around the c18 cottage were also divided about the causes of the reported phenomena. They deliberated over the matter as they looked around the house and later they discussed the matter with the lady owner. She then told another story about how her husband had also doubted the existence of the ghost and, on one occasion, whilst he was expressing his cynicism, the ghost, according to the lady, picked up a plate and threw it at her husband.

Now, just in case her audience was in any doubt, she elaborated that the plate had stood in the same place on the dresser for six years. But just at that precise moment, whilst her husband was expressing doubt about the matter, “she picked it up and threw it at him”. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn how or why she believed the apparent ghost to be female, but that is not the most important issue here. Why did she not simply conclude that the plate had fallen from the dresser? Surely, we all understand that these things can easily happen.

Of course you could equally well ask the opposite question: why should you not take her word for it and simply accept this evidence for the existence of her ghost? The answer, I believe, is because of our own predispositions. It is a natural human tendency to find what we are looking for; as George Eliot (Middlemarch) put it, to see patterns in the pier-glass when there aren’t any really . I think it is important for us to understand this tendency because, however reasonable we think our own view is, there is always the possibility that we may be mistaken.

Some people would have us believe that we are regularly visited by aliens and that there is plenty of evidence for the proposition. Others are more inclined to attribute the existence of UFOs to weather balloons, military experimentation or inter-planetary debris. Who is to say that we are not visited every day by aliens who selectively abduct specimens from the human population in order to carry out their experiments? However unlikely that suggestion may seem, the question remains: is it possible? The answer, I think, is that it is possible, if unlikely.

Questions like the ones above can help us to see a little into our own prejudices if we can allow ourselves to properly examine our own responses to them. If we want to believe in aliens, ghosts, fairies, vampires, dragons or anything else for which opinion is divided as to the possibility of their existence, then we must understand that any ‘evidence’ we produce is necessarily subjective. If that were not the case, we would all be agreed on the matter, just as we all agree – these days – that unicorns don’t exist. On a side note, I do realise that there may be someone, somewhere that does!

Of course, exactly the same considerations apply to religious phenomena. For believers, there appears to be abundant evidence for the existence of God, whereas, for others, such evidence is simply not convincing. The foregoing does not mean to suggest that we should not come to our own conclusions about any of the above matters. On the contrary, I believe we should, but I also think that we should develop the ability to respect the opinions of others who have reached opposite conclusions looking at the same evidence. We are very unlikely to convince someone to change their beliefs by presenting our own interpretations anyway.

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