Why We Believe Some Things Exist When They Do Not

Someone last week went to the core of humans in the New Yorker.

It first discussed a game asking players to rank fantasy beings, not by whether or not they believe them to be real, but by the extent to which they seem as if they could be real. Those to be ranked included angels, demons, dragons, elves, ghosts, mermaids, unicorns, tooth fairy, Big Foot, unicorns, etc. People tend to rank them in a consistent way.

We can assume skills of tale telling were honed around campfires for 200,000 years. Further, we can assume these tale telling skills found their way into the written word in the recent few thousand years.

Around the fourth century, BCE, Aristotle mused about tale telling. He suggested writers of a tale “should prefer a probable impossibility to an unconvincing possibility.” That is, better for Odysseus to return safely with the aid of ghosts, gods, sea nymphs and a bag containing the wind than for his wife, Penelope, to get bored waiting for him and become a black smith.

For a being to be considered real it needs to be grounded in something the reader considers plausible–something he is familiar with. Disney knew this so his cartoon characters are always subject to gravity and have human-like features.

Tales about religion need to portray their god in a form familiar to the reader. That is why gods, i.e., Jesus, are depicted has having human-like appearances. This is Aristole’s “probable impossibility” and the Disney cartoon character’s human illusion.

8 Responses

  1. Juan Ruiz

    “For a being to be considered real it needs to be grounded in something the reader considers plausible”

    Guess that explains the popularity of the glut of paranormal “reality” shows.

  2. I can’t prove love exists through science. No one can. Don’t tell me love is provable by the “Fiddler on the Roof” theorem.

    I can’t prove admiration exists through science. No one can. Don’t tell me building a statue of someone proves admiration.

    I can’t prove lots of things through science. No one can. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    Blessed is he who believes in God without seeing Him. His faith will be rewarded.

    1. Matt 8:40 Blessed is he who believes in God without seeing Him. His faith will be rewarded.

      The question addressed in the New Yorker article is the same one I discuss here often. It is, why do you believe in a god or a heaven you cannot see and no one else has ever seen? I think you would find the link interesting.

    2. godless

      Matt, could I prove you exist? I would argue yes, I could prove you exist. Can I prove my imaginary friend Joe exists? Nope, so I would need to use silly quotes like “Blessed is he who believes in Joe without seeing Him. His faith will be rewarded.”.

      If that doesn’t work I could say you lack faith in Him. By the way your lack of faith in Joe will result in you being tossed into a lake of fire for eternity. Makes perfect sense right?

        1. godless

          Joe says that he did die for your sins and can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Joe also says that ignorance is the work of the devil.

  3. Randall Wehler

    Jon,

    Bishop John Shelby Spong has made reference to the philosopher Xenophenes, that if horses had hands and they could draw, their god(s) would look like a horse(s). Like Spong, I continue to walk into the ineffable mystery our creator God on a daily basis and lean strongly toward a progressive theology. Thanks for your opinion piece.This world needs more seekers and inquirers.

    Randall Wehler

    1. Randall 9:32 Bishop John Shelby Spong has made reference…

      Thank you for that nice post. I’m a big fan of Spong and have his books on my shelf. He takes the faith to a place that is defendable and fits our modern reasoning. I think the faith will ultimately move to where he is, though it is not going there at the present moment.

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