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.

“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made”

da vinci

We are starting this series on Consciousness and the Self by looking at some of the religious and secular foundations of the belief that humans are a dualist entity consisting of body and soul, and the associated belief that the two elements are best understood by different forms of inquiry — religion and the humanities for the soul, and science for the body. As we’ll see, current neuro-biological thinking defies these beliefs and threatens their ancient intellectual, cultural, and historical dominance.

This article[1] is typical in its conclusion that one of the things that makes human beings unique is our “higher consciousness.”

“[Home sapiens] sits on top of the food chain, has extended its habitats to the entire planet, and in recent centuries, experienced an explosion of technological, societal, and artistic advancements.

“The very fact that we as human beings can write and read articles like this one and contemplate the unique nature of our mental abilities is awe-inspiring.

“Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran said it best: ‘Here is this three-pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand…it can contemplate the meaning of infinity, and it can contemplate itself contemplating the meaning of infinity.’

“Such self-reflective consciousness or ‘meta-wondering’ boosts our ability for self-transformation, both as individuals and as a species. It contributes to our abilities for self-monitoring, self-recognition and self-identification.”

The author of the following Biblical passage agrees, and affirms that his “soul knows it very well” — i.e., not only does he know he’s special, but he knows that he knows it:

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139: 13-16 (ESV)

Judging from worldwide religious practice, the “I” that is “fearfully and wonderfully made” is limited to the soul, not the body:  the former feels the love, while the latter is assaulted with unrelenting, vicious, sometimes horrific verbal and physical abuse. “Mortification of the flesh” indeed –as if the body needs help being mortal.

Science apparently concurs with this dismal assessment. The following is from the book blurb for Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, by evolutionary biologist and psychologist David P. Barash (2018):

“In Through a Glass Brightly, noted scientist David P. Barash explores the process by which science has, throughout time, cut humanity ‘down to size,’ and how humanity has responded. A good paradigm is a tough thing to lose, especially when its replacement leaves us feeling more vulnerable and less special. And yet, as science has progressed, we find ourselves–like it or not–bereft of many of our most cherished beliefs, confronting an array of paradigms lost.

“Barash models his argument around a set of “old” and “new” paradigms that define humanity’s place in the universe. This new set of paradigms [includes] provocative revelations [such as] whether human beings are well designed… Rather than seeing ourselves through a glass darkly, science enables us to perceive our strengths and weaknesses brightly and accurately at last, so that paradigms lost becomes wisdom gained. The result is a bracing, remarkably hopeful view of who we really are.”

Barash’s old and new paradigms about the body are as follows:

“Old paradigm:  The human body is a wonderfully well constructed thing, testimony to the wisdom of an intelligent designer.

“New paradigm:  Although there is much in our anatomy and physiology to admire, we are in fact jerry-rigged and imperfect, testimony to the limitations of a process that is nothing but natural and that in no way reflects supernatural wisdom or benevolence.”

Okay, so maybe the body has issues, but the old paradigm belief that human-level consciousness justifies lording it over the rest of creation is as old as the first chapter of the Bible:

And God blessed them. And God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
 and over the birds of the heavens
 and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28  (ESV)

The Biblical mandate to “subdue” the earth explains a lot about how we approach the rest of creation — something people seem to be questioning more and more these days. Psychiatrist, essayist, and Oxford Fellow Neel Burton includes our superiority complex in his list of self-deceptions:

“Most people see themselves in a much more positive light than others do them, and possess an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of one’s qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly or entirely out of one’s control, and an unrealistic optimism about the future.” [2]

Humans as the apex of creation? More on that next time.

[1] What is it That Makes Humans Unique? Singularity Hub, Dec. 28, 2017.

[2] Hide and Seek:  The Psychology of Self-Deception (Acheron Press, 2012).

Fake Truth

shakespeare

When my love swears that she is made of truth, 
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 138

My sister was in second grade — two years older and far wiser than me. We were watching the clouds scuttling past the chimney when she announced,  “Look! You can see the Earth move.” We argued for awhile — she learned that in school, but what can you expect from a brother in kindergarten? No way the earth moves — if it did, I would know it.

As a matter of fact:

  • Earth spins on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 km/hr) .
  • It orbits the sun at 67,000 mph (107,000 km/hr).
  • Our Solar System rotates around the center of the Milky Way at 514,000 mph (828,000 km/hr).
  • The Milky Way zips through space at 1.3 million mph (2.1 million km/hr).
  • And the Universe? Well, that’s more complicated:

“The expansion rate of the universe is called the Hubble parameter. Because the fabric of the universe is being stretched out as it expands, galaxies farther away from us appear to be moving away faster. This is why the Hubble parameter is measured in units of kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/s/Mpc).

“We don’t know the rate exactly, but in the last 50 years, we’ve narrowed it down to either 67 or 73 km/s/Mpc. That’s not to say we believe the true expansion rate lies between those two values, but rather we think it’s reasonably close to either one or the other. So a galaxy 1 Mpc away — 3.26 million light-years — is moving away from us at 73 km/s (or 67 km/s, depending on which scientists you’re talking to). A galaxy 10 Mpc away would be moving at 730 (or 670) km/s.”[1]

That’s an incomprehensible number of incomprehensibly big things moving at incomprehensible speeds across incomprehensible distances. And somewhere in the midst of them, there’s the Earth — moving, big time. But thanks to gravity, proprioception[2] (awareness of where we are in space), and peripersonal neural networks[3] (awareness of what’s around us), we’re firmly rooted right here, unaware of it all, keeping our bearings by things that don’t move.

Or so we think. As a matter of fact:

Jerry Lee Lewis

“In Homer’s time, that star, which today we call Polaris, stood a dozen degrees from the North Pole; in Columbus’s time, it stood three and a half degrees away; in Sputnik’s time, it stood right near the pole. But about AD 15,000, as Earth keeps wobbling like a top, Polaris will sit forty-five degrees away.”[4]

In other words:

True North is not always True, and not always North.

true-north

Things we think are fixed and stable, often aren’t. Our perceptions go unchallenged because for purposes of managing our experience, good enough is good enough. My five-year-old self didn’t need to know about all that spinning, orbiting, expanding, and wobbling in order to run out and play. The same is true for my current self. sitting here typing this sentence:  I may be deceived in my present conviction that the Earth under this building is not moving, but I can still sit here and type no matter what the truth is.

In fact, self-deception is sometimes useful for life and death issues:

“Evidence suggests that specific instances of self-deception can enhance wellbeing and even prolong life. For example, multiple studies have found that optimistic individuals have better survival rates when diagnosed with cancer and other chronic illnesses, whereas ‘realistic acceptance’ of one’s prognosis has been linked to decreased life expectancy.”[5]

On the other hand, there are times when we’d like to not be deceived — like the one Shakespeare wrote about.

More to come re: self-deception and why belief doesn’t have to be true in order to work.

[1] “How fast is the universe expanding? How do astronomers calculate the expansion rate?” Astronomy Magazine (July 26, 2018).  (After several tries, I couldn’t get a link to the article to work, but if you copy and past it into a Google search, the article will come up.)

[2] “Proprioception is the medical term that describes the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It allows you to move quickly and freely without having to consciously think about where you are in space or in your environment. Proprioception is a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given point in time.” Very Well Health.

[3]Peripersonal neurons are cells in the brain that monitor the space around the body. Their activity rises like a Geiger counter to indicate the location of objects entering a margin of safety. The neurons can detect an intruding object through vision, hearing, touch, and even by the memory of where objects are positioned in the dark.” The Spaces Between Us:  A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. by Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano.

[4] Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

[5]Buddhism And Self-Deception,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 24, 2019).