First of all, L’shana Tova! Happy 5772! Which by no means should be taken to indicate my belief that the world is 5,772 years old.
On to the topic at hand…
There is a widespread misconception that we can always trust our senses to tell us the truth about the world. But human beings don’t work like that. We possess very complex, pattern-seeking cognition mechanisms. Our brain is constantly taking in an enormous amount of information that needs to be interpreted and classified. I’m currently reading Michael Shermer’s new book, The Believing Brain, in which he presents a solid account of why and how our brains function with regard to beliefs and assumptions about the world. He also talks about the kinds of evidence that are presented by believers as proof for the existence of God. They are inevitably based upon personal experiences or revelations recorded by so called eye-witnesses.
Now to the fun part of this post.
Many of you have undoubtedly heard about the famous video experiment in which several basketball players pass a ball around and the subject is asked to count the passes. Before you read the rest of this, take a look at an updated version, even if you’ve seen or participated in this before.
This video and its predecessor were created by Prof. Daniel Simons of the Visual Cognition Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His forthcoming book is called The Invisible Gorilla. I first learned of it from Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion where he used it as an example of how memory works and why eyewitness testimony concerning religious miracles is irrelevant. This is no optical illusion, but an obvious occurrence (or set of occurrences) that is not recorded by the brain because it is busy doing something else.
Some rabbis I know tell me that this is not applicable to the Jewish revelation because what happened at Sinai was public and occurred in front of a large number of people. Yehudah Ha-Levi made similar arguments in the Kuzari. Of course, we have absolutely no evidence of any such mass revelation other than a story in the Torah, which is the very source of its claims.
Putting aside specific religious claims, the fact is that most erroneous human beliefs are based on some kind of personal experience. As the invisible gorilla video demonstrates, we cannot always trust our senses. Or our belief systems.