The Future of History

Friday, 16 August 2013

Models of Reality

Arthur Ellison (1920-2000) was a distinguished scientist, Emeritus Professor of engineering at City University, London, and a dedicated researcher of what we might call the paranormal.

He once carried out an experiment, arranging for a bowl of flowers to rise up into the air during a lecture he was giving.  He made sure to pay it no attention, carrying on with his lecture as if nothing was happening.  Then, his lecture over, he invited questions from the students.

Some of the students present pointed out that, midway through the lecture, the flowers had risen up into the air.  Nothing more than that, just a (slightly puzzled) observation.

Some students claimed that they had seen "spirit hands" lifting the flowers.

And then there were some students who, it turned out, had seen nothing.  There had been no unexpected floral levitations during the lecture.  Everything was, and had been, completely normal.

A very interesting - and telling - experiment!

Let us look briefly at the three different kinds of reaction.

The sensible, realistic and (one might say) scientific response was that of the students who had seen it happen but who declined to impose any sort of explanation on the phenomenon of the self-raising flowers.  They had witnessed it, and presumably they questioned it.  "Something happened just then.  I saw it happen.  Did you?  I don't know how or why it happened, but happen it did.  Just an observation.  Can anyone explain it?"

At first glance, the silliest response was that of the students who reckoned they'd witnessed some kind of spiritualist display.  There were no "spirit hands" involved.  The students had made that up.  We can think of them as the overly credulous sort - the kind who seek an exotic, reassuring explanation for anything.

But - think about it - was that reaction any sillier than the response of those who refused to admit that anything had happened?  Every student in the lecture theatre had seen the flowers rise up.  But some just refused to accept that they flowers had moved at all.  It's as if their brains had filtered it out of their consciousness.  Flowers don't spontaneously take to the air of their own volition; ergo, they didn't.

Rather than admit that something had happened - which required some sort of (preferably rational) explanation - these students simply denied that anything had happened.

Professor Ellison came to the conclusion that we all inhabit different "models of reality".  These are formed from birth onwards, and they affect every aspect of our experience and behaviour in the world.

These "models of reality" also explain why certain scholars and academics refuse to consider any evidence which challenges their preconceived notions.

On a couple of the Arthur-related websites with which I am familiar, there is a sort of resident intellectual bully.  When any question is asked, he tends to deliver a flat, unequivocal statement, often of the sweeping variety, and very often with little or no evidence to back up his judgement.  The result is that perfectly innocent and reasonable queries frequently receive answers which are, at the very least, misleading.  But this individual will brook no challenge.  His authority (in his own eyes, at least) is beyond question.  If he says it, it must be so.  His word is the law.

If you question him further, providing evidence in support of your argument, he quickly descends to abuse.  His main weapon is ridicule.  To put it in simple terms, if his first "I know everything, you know nothing" answer doesn't end the debate, then he gets a little peevish.  Very peevish, in fact.

Like many an academic, he veers towards the "I saw no flowers move" end of the spectrum.  Now, naturally, Arthur-related discussions do tend to attract a fair number of those who saw "spirit hands" at work - that is, people capable of dreaming up rather far-fetched explanations for this, that and the other.  But every now and then, an "I saw the flowers move" type of question comes along.  And our irascible friend instantly tries to shoot the issue down.  "No flowers moved!" he effectively yells.  "Flowers don't move!"

"I saw it.  It happened."

And then things start getting abusive.

This, my friends, is precisely how proper, open and free debate is stifled, smothered, by individuals who flaunt their credentials and use them like a cudgel.  It doesn't make them right (indeed, they're often very, very wrong), but they have decided what they believe and absolutely insist that everybody else must believe the same.  And when the flowers rise up into the air, such demagogues go into damage-limitation mode: "You're an idiot if you think you saw flowers rising up into the air!"

But rise they did.

Whether such people simply can't see the evidence before their eyes - their "model of reality" preventing their brains from even acknowledging that such evidence exists - or whether they are so committed to preserving their "model of reality", and imposing it on others, that they will defend it regardless, the outcome is the same.  If you don't accept their sweeping statements, you're a loon, no matter how much evidence you can produce to prove them wrong.

This attitude is poisoning the political debate, frustrating the pursuit of historical research, preventing understanding, damaging the future.  But it's the way things are done these days.  If you can't prove your point, make false claims, shout and scream, hurl abuse and play the man, not the ball.  You might not win the intellectual argument, but you'll convince a few, and only those who know for a fact that they saw the flowers move - and refuse to be bullied into pretending that they didn't - will stand up to you in future.

Maybe.  Then again, they might just wander off, intent on investigating why the flowers rose up into the air, leaving you to keep preaching to your little flock of "I didn't see them move either" acolytes.

Ask yourself: if you saw the flowers move, how would you react?

Would your "model of reality" allow you to admit what your eyes had seen?  Or would you attack and ridicule those who were honest enough to say that they saw the flowers move, even if they're not sure how it happened?

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