Start: 8 May 2011 11:00
Intellectual Black Holes
Dr Stephen Law
Sunday 8th May, 11am
Wacky and ridiculous belief systems abound. The Heaven’s Gate suicide cult promised members a ride to heaven on board a UFO. Advanced students of scientology are taught that 75 million years ago, Xenu, alien ruler of a “Galactic Confederacy”, brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft shaped like Douglas DC-10 airplanes and stacked them around volcanoes which he then blew up with hydrogen bombs. Even mainstream religions have people believing absurdities. Preachers have promised 72 heavenly virgins to suicide bombers. Others insist the entire universe is just 6,000 years old (extraordinarily, polls consistently indicate this belief is currently held by about 45% of US citizens – that’s around 130 million individuals). And of course it’s not only cults and religions that promote bizarre beliefs. Significant numbers of people believe in astrology, the amazing powers of TV psychics, astrology, crystal divination, the healing powers of magnets, the prophecies of Nostradamus, that the pyramids were built by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that the World Trade Centre was brought down by the US Government.
How do such ridiculous views succeed in entrenching themselves in people’s minds? How are wacky belief systems able to take sane, intelligent, college-educated people and turn them into the willing slaves of claptrap? How, in particular, do the true believers manage to convince themselves that they are the rational, reasonable ones and that everyone else is deluded? Cosmologists talk about black-holes, objects so gravitationally powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape from them. Unwary space travellers passing too close will find themselves sucked in.
Our contemporary cultural landscape contains numerous intellectual black-holes – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can similarly find themselves drawn in. While those of us lacking robust intellectual and other psychological defences will be most easily trapped by such self-sealing bubbles of belief, even the most intelligent and educated of us are potentially vulnerable. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have fallen in, never to escape. If you find yourself encountering a belief system in which several of these mechanisms feature prominently, be wary. Alarm bells should be going off and warning lights flashing. For you may now be approaching the event horizon of an intellectual black hole.
Dr Stephen Law is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, editor of Think and the author of numerous books including Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2011).
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