Beliefism [5]: The “Do the Impossible” Gospel

Reality. Illusion. Delusion. Possible. Impossible. How do you know which is which?

Did that really happen?!

In 1983 David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear in front of a live television audience.

Except he didn’t. The statue was still there, it just looked like it wasn’t.

A magician manipulates our attention – we follow the decoy and miss the trick. An illusionist manipulates our perception – we look right at it but don’t see it. David Copperfield was performing as an illusionist – he didn’t change reality, he changed the audience’s perception of it. They only thought he did something impossible.  

Impossible can’t happen, by definition. The odds against it are infinite. If something impossible happens, the realm of possibility expands to take it in. The thing we declared was impossible wasn’t impossible after all – we only thought it was.

Christianity and self-help share the same “do the impossible” gospel. Can they actually pull it off? Let’s look at the self-help version first.

Self-Help Does the Impossible

Roger Bannister breaking the “impossible” four-minute mile barrier has become a self-help gospel trope. You can find a version of the following just about anywhere — I found it on a job website:

“Bannister broke the psychological barrier that had held back the greatest runners for over a century. Other runners now believed wholeheartedly that it was possible. It is no surprise then that within a few years, several other runners broke the four-minute mile too.

“For the majority of us who will never attempt to break a running record, the four-minute mile represents the limiting beliefs of what we think is possible to achieve in our lives.

“We tend to limit our goals in business, relationships, finance, health and profession within the realm of what society says is possible or impossible. But throughout history, there are a handful of people like Bannister, who break the limits of what’s possible and leave a lasting legacy.

“What makes them different isn’t their talent, skills or resources, but their belief system. They’d rather take the lead, step outside their comfort zone and risk failure, than wait in their comfort zone for permission from others to achieve the impossible.

“Followers wait for leaders to show them what’s possible. Leaders break the barriers of what’s possible.

“Which one will you choose?”

Talk about rewriting history to match your sales pitch….

Raise your hand if you think limiting beliefs and comfort zones and the rest of the self-help mumbo-jumbo was going through anybody’s minds at the time.

Me neither.

Now raise your head if you think all the other runners suddenly “believed wholeheartedly” that they could do it, too.

Me neither.

That was 1954. Roger Bannister was a competitive runner – of course he “would rather take the lead.” Duh. But now, we’ve got the four-minute mile self-help gospel memorized. Want something that feels impossible? The problem is your limiting beliefs. Believe you can have it, then go for it — break out of your comfort zone, take a risk. Ta da! – you did the impossible!

Don’t you wish.

Christianity Does the Impossible

Self-help has deep roots in Christianity – the original believe-the-impossible-into-existence religion. Here’s what Jesus said:

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things.” Nothing left out. Carte Blanche . Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

Raise your hand if you’ve done the impossible that way, or seen it done that way — live and in person, in real space and time.

Me neither. But that didn’t stop me from trying for over two decades.

Reality. Illusion. Delusion.

The idea of doing the impossible plays with our notions of how much “reality” is objective — the thing is really there, whether we think so or not – vs. subjective – the thing is only there because we think it is. If we only think it’s there, we can think it somewhere else. But if it’s really there, well now that’s a different story.

Current neuroscience says it’s both and neither. There’s external (on the other side of our skin) stimuli coming at us, but we don’t have any way to actually find out what’s “out there” because our experience of it is entirely shaped inside the hot, wet biology of our bodies and brains (inside our skin). So people like celebrity neuroscientist Beau Lotto think there’s no such thing as delusion, because everything is an illusion – reality isn’t out there, it’s in here, it’swhat we make up inside ourselves. (Yes, there is such a thing as a celebrity neuroscientist, and yes, that’s what Beau Lotto is. For lots more, check out and his book, TED talks, and Lab of Misfits.)

I get that… I think… sort of… at least the part about internally processing external stimuli. But I still think there’s such a thing as delusion – especially if the topic is doing the impossible – mostly because I’m quite sure I was delusional about it for all those years.

“Then I’ll get on my knees and pray/ we don’t get fooled again!”

I became a Christian as the 1960’s rolled into the 1970’s. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and the Jesus Freaks fit right in. Their Jesus served up counter-cultural radical ideas like turning the other cheek (“all we are saying/ is give peace a chance”) and loving your neighbor (“c’mon people now/smile on your brother/everybody get together/try to love one another right now”). Their Jesus tossed out predatory capitalism and invited us into charity and community and trusting our “Heavenly Father” for food, clothing, and shelter. Their Jesus upended our assumptions about what was true and how the world worked, and taught us to believe the impossible into existence. Their Jesus was always sticking it to the Man and liked to hang out and party with the losers (freaks) of his day. I was 19 and ripe for a way to be a Hippie without being stoned all the time. Of course I joined up.

Eventually I cut my hair and got a real job, but stayed committed to proving that Jesus’s counter-cultural, new truth, do-the-impossible vibe worked in primetime adult life. I wore a suit and tie (!) to work, but still pushed the Jesus Freak agenda to the max, and might still be doing that if I hadn’t gotten lucky and got myself kicked out of the “church renewal movement” I was part of for doing exactly what I’d been taught. (A story I’ve told elsewhere and won’t repeat here.)

On the way out of Christianity, I stumbled into self-help. It lacked Christian ecclesiology, iconography, doctrine, vocabulary, and historical trappings, so for awhile I thought it was some kind of new psychology-based way to successful living – which is precisely what the self-helpers want us to think. But after awhile, it was all too familiar. “God” was often still “God” but more often “the Universe.” The Bible was misquoted in pseudo-Biblical sound bytes. Jesus was mentioned now and then – usually with the lame “good teacher” title —  and sometimes was completely reinvented — like when The Secret declared that he was a millionaire. And on it went. Before long it was clear that self-help was a wannabe substitute religion for Christianity. Its belief dynamics were identical. Like Christianity, it declared that doing the impossible could become the new normal if we just believed. Both religions claimed they could show you how believe effectively enough to get the impossible things you wanted.

As far as I can tell, Plato was the first one to write, “wisdom is what works.” I pushed the “do the impossible” gospel to the point where it finally failed the “wisdom is what works” test so completely I couldn’t make excuses for it anymore.

If that’s not delusion, it’ll do till the real thing comes along.

Now I’m in recovery. I’m done with doing the impossible. That shit is toxic to me now. I can’t go anywhere near it.

Next time, we’ll look at the beliefism source code for both religions.

How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system

network

Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.