Explaining the unexplained

The paranormal has been a subject of controversy. The evidence is often problematic. Take, for instance, psychics. Scientists have investigated their abilities. In experiments, psychics fail to do better than guessing. In a controlled setting, a psychic is isolated so that others cannot supply the psychic with information. Sometimes psychics make stunning guesses, but not in controlled experiments. That may often be due to fraud or manipulation, but perhaps not in every case. The same is true for the paranormal in general. Many paranormal incidents could be natural phenomena or the result of fraud or delusion, but a large number remains without explanation.

Thinking that science will give all the answers is a belief too. It can become like a religion once you begin to discard evidence to the contrary. Evidence for the paranormal does not meet scientific criteria. Science requires, for instance, that we can use a theory like the existence of psychic abilities to make predictions that we can subsequently check. If a psychic does not do better than guessing during an experiment, there is no such thing as psychic abilities, at least from a scientific perspective.

And yet, there are countless testimonies of people who have witnessed unexplained phenomena. The total number of these incidents is impossible to guess, but it could be billions. In the early twentieth century, Charles Fort collected at least 40,000 notes on paranormal experiences. These notes were about strange events reported in magazines and newspapers such as The Times and scientific journals such as Scientific American, Nature and Science. Millions more might exist in other journals and diaries.

Strange things also happened to me. In December 2010, my wife Ingrid and I were sitting at the kitchen table. She was discussing her late mother and father. Her mother had outlived her father for more than three decades. She then recalled that her mother had once asked her father to contact her as a spirit if he was to die first. She then remembered her mother later saying that he had never made himself noticed, ‘not even by stopping a clock.’

Just after my wife had finished speaking, a gust of wind blew a flower pot over the balcony. It made a loud noise. Even though it was windy, the blow suddenly came out of nowhere. It was a bit eerie. The next day she noticed that a clock and an alarm clock were both back one hour. One was connected to the power grid while the other ran on a battery.

Read More

So, did my wife’s father make himself noticed from the other side? Or were the wind gust and the clocks being back just bizarre coincidences caused by natural phenomena? Or did my wife made it up to have a good story to tell at birthday parties? I do not think that she did. Given the number of strange incidents in my life, I do not doubt it either. It is unlikely that she was mistaken, as she could only have noticed that these clocks were back by looking at other timepieces. And if she was wrong and did not find out about it, it still is a remarkable coincidence.

In virtual reality, the laws of nature do not have to apply. So clocks can stop for an hour, and elephants can fly. So far, we have not seen elephants fly, but it is possible in virtual reality. Psychic abilities may exist while the scientific method cannot certify them. And Jesus could have walked over water and revived dead people even though these stories may have been made up. Alternatively, the laws of nature could apply in an arrangement suggesting that someone is pulling the strings. The wind gust was already peculiar. The incident with the clocks made it even more mysterious.

Building a nation with religion

Throughout history, humans have imagined thousands of gods. Yahweh, the God of Israel, was one of them. The Israelites started as a tribe in Canaan, much like other tribes living there. For a long time, the area was under Egyptian control. That began to change after 1150 BC. Egypt was beset by droughts, food shortages, civil unrest, corruption, and endless bickering in the court, causing it to retreat from Canaan. Agriculture was the basis of existence in the area. That required territorial defence, hence states. In the resulting power vacuum, several petty kingdoms emerged. Israel and Judah were among them. This situation lasted until new imperial powers emerged on the scene four centuries later.

Map of Israel and Judah
The kingdoms of Canaan

Yahweh was one of several gods and goddesses worshipped in Canaan. At first, El was the supreme deity in the Canaanite belief system. The goddess Asherah was his wife.1 The new small states in the area needed religion to justify their existence. The kings of Judah, and perhaps also Israel, promoted a national religion around Yahweh to solidify their authority. Other kingdoms in the region had adopted national deities too. For instance, Molek was the deity of Ammon, while Moab had Chemosh to defeat its foes and to supply the country with blessings.2

Even though the worship of Yahweh may have become the state religion in Judah and possibly Israel, people still worshipped other gods. The Hebrew Bible testifies of tensions between those who worshipped other deities alongside Yahweh and those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone. But even those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone, still believed that the other gods existed. As Yahweh had become the primary deity, El became a generic word for god, and Asherah then became Yahweh’s wife.

As time passed by, new empires arrived on the scene. Israel was overrun in 720 BC by the Assyrians. The Babylonians conquered Judah in 597 BC after taking over the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonians destroyed the country and deported many of its inhabitants. Others moved to Egypt. The Jewish communities in Egypt, Babylon, and Judah became dispersed. The biblical authors responded to the situation by reconnecting them and showing that they share a common heritage. In this way, the Jewish community was not split up and did not go back to their prior identities of being the town of Bethlehem or the town of Lachish that had nothing in common. They belonged to a larger group, a nation, a family with common ancestors. The Hebrew Bible became a compilation of existing tales from these communities and the royal archives of Judah.3

After the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, Emperor Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel. He also commissioned the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. Those still living in the area opposed this and a political struggle unfolded. After seven decades, Ezra and Nehemiah finally succeeded in rebuilding the temple. At the time, Jewish society was on the brink of being wiped out. Israel and Judah did no longer exist. The remaining Jews were mixing with the surrounding population. Jewish leaders had to find a way to keep their people together. The editors of the Hebrew Bible aimed to preserve Jewish identity around a common religion, history and cultural heritage.

Judaism gradually became monotheist under the influence of Zoroastrianism. The prophet Zoroaster believed in a single good creator god and an opposite evil power. The Jews probably were henotheists at first. It means that they believed in other gods but only worshipped Yahweh. It is expressed, for example, in the commandment that you shall have no other gods before me rather than you shall believe there is only one God. Most of the Hebrew Bible has this kind of henotheist perspective.3 Zoroastrianism was widespread in the Middle East. This religion influenced Judaism by bringing in monotheism, messiahs, free will, heaven and hell, and Satan. Zoroastrianism not only affected Judaism. Some of the Greek philosophers around 400 BC were also monotheists.

The Hebrew Bible emerged under the reign of five successive empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Hellenistic Rulers, and the Roman Empire. There is no evidence for the historical account of the Hebrew Bible from before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The first chapters of Genesis resemble previously extant Mesopotamian myths. Moses most likely never led the Israelites out of Egypt. The unified kingdom of Israel and Judah under the reign of David and Solomon probably never existed but was invented to promote political unity. In this way, the inhabitants in the area all descended from one great nation. The tales about Abraham, Isaac, and Moses may have been legends from different communities merged into one narrative to promote a sense of single Jewish people.4

The survival of the Jews and their religion has been hanging by a thread for a long time. More than 2,500 years later, the Jews are still a people, so building a sense of peoplehood around a religion proved to be a successful long-term survival strategy. The Jews even managed to rebuild their nation. The odds of this happening were zero from the outset, but it has happened nonetheless. It is also remarkable that Judaism stood at the cradle of Christianity and Islam. In a controlled virtual reality, it may not be historical accident but part of a scheme.

Featured image: Torah scroll (public domain)

1. “El the God of Israel-Israel the People of YHWH: On the Origins of Ancient Israelite Yahwism”. In Becking, Bob; Dijkstra, Meindert; Korpel, Marjo C.A.; et al. Only One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Dijkstra, Meindert (2001).
2. 1 Kings 11:7
3. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Bart. D. Ehrman (2014).
4. The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). Coursera.

Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany

About the origins of religion

Humans are the dominant species on this planet because we collaborate flexibly in large numbers. Other social animals like monkeys and dolphins cooperate flexibly, but only in small groups. Ants and bees cooperate in large numbers, but only in fixed ways determined by their genetic code. Language makes large-scale flexible collaboration possible. Some animals use signs and calls, but we use far more words than any other species.1 And so large groups of humans can make agreements and communicate them. Flexible large-scale collaboration also requires shared beliefs. People must believe that a settlement is good even when they do not benefit directly from it. Societies founded on religion thus had a competitive advantage.

We imagine laws, money, property, corporations and states. We believe there is a law, and that is why the law works. The same is true for money and corporations. I can tell a dog about the benefits of using euros to pay a corporation to produce dog food, why there are regulations to guarantee the quality of the product and governments to implement these regulations, but a dog does not care. You cannot make dogs work together in a corporation to produce dog food by paying them money. Our ability to imagine things existed before there were civilisations. Archaeologists uncovered a 32,000 years old sculpture of a lion head upon a human body. These lion-men only existed in the imagination of humans.

Gods are imagined too, just like laws, property, states, and lion-men. People who share a religion can go on a holy war together and slaughter infidels. Religions can also motivate people to do charitable work and provide for the poor. And religions promote social stability by justifying the social order and promising rewards in the afterlife for those who subject themselves to it. The alternative could be endless class struggle or civil war. Indeed, our imagination makes us do things other species are not capable of. You cannot make a dog submit itself to you by telling that obedient hounds will go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss after they die while unruly canines will be fried forever in a tormenting fire.

Small bands of people cooperate because their members know each other and see what everyone is contributing to the common cause. In larger groups, this becomes harder, and people will cheat, rendering large-scale collaboration between strangers impossible. That is where states, money, and religion come in. They facilitate collaboration between strangers. As there is a survival-of-the-fittest-like competition between societies, those who cooperated most effectively survived and subjugated others. Religion was crucial in this respect.

The development of religion has been a continuous process in which thoughts emerged and interacted. Early humans were hunter-gatherers who imagined that places, animals, and plants have an awareness, feelings and emotions. For instance, a deer hunter might address a herd of deer and ask one of the deer to sacrifice itself for the hunt. If the hunting succeeds, the hunter asks forgiveness of the dead animal so that its spirit will not trouble him later on. These early beliefs concerned visible objects like animals, plants, rivers and rocks. Early humans felt that they were more or less on an equal footing with the plants and animals surrounding them.1 Over time humans began to imagine fairies and spirits. A crucial step in the development of religion was ancestor veneration.

The first humans lived in small bands based on family ties. Their ancestors bound them together. And so, people may have started to venerate the dead. It was a small step to imagine that the spirits of the dead are still with us and that our actions require the approval of our late ancestors. Ancestor veneration opened up the possibility to imagine a larger-scale relatedness in the form of tribes. A tribe is much larger than a band. It is also held together by a belief that all members share a common ancestor. Tribes are much larger and could muster more men for war. That is how tribes replaced bands. It can help when people attribute magical powers to their ancestors and fear the consequences of angering them. In this way, ancestor worship evolved into the worship of gods.

Hunter-gatherers can move on in the case of conflict, but farmers invest heavily in their fields and crops. Losing your land or harvest usually meant starvation. With the arrival of agriculture, territorial defence became paramount. States provided territorial defence and could afford larger militaries. Kinship was an obstacle to a territorial organisation. States defend their realm and enlist the people within their realm, regardless of their family ties. As people favour helping family and friends, this may require coercion. States thus needed a new source of authority, and the worship of gods may have replaced ancestor veneration. When humans started to subjugate plants and animals for their use, they needed to justify this new arrangement. And so, myths may have emerged in which the gods created this world and ordained that humans rule the plants and animals.

The religions we now have, originate from agricultural societies. The need for the defence of land and crops may explain to some extent why these religions are patriarchal, limit the freedoms of women, and shame unfaithful women more than men. The men defended their village. They may be more willing to protect women and children they consider their own. Men can never be sure that they are the father of a child so that they may desire to control the sexuality of women. Men can also walk out when they doubt their fatherhood, which may have given men a position of power.

Religions may have emerged out of ancestor worship so gods can be like mothers and fathers. People usually gave devotions to several ancestors. Each ancestor may have had a specific admirable quality. Consequently, early religions may have come with several gods and goddesses, each with a distinct role, which is called polytheism. Henotheistic religions emerged later on when people became emotionally attached to one particular deity. Henotheists believe that other gods exist but think that one god should be worshipped. And even polytheists could believe in a supreme deity who is more powerful than all the others.

The next step is monotheism. Monotheists believe that there is only one God who runs the entire universe. Monotheistic religions were so successful because monotheists, most notably Christians and Muslims, demonstrated an enormous missionary zeal. It is an act of charity to convert others when only believers will be saved. And because the worship of other deities is not permitted, monotheism could replace polytheism.

To facilitate the spread of Christianity in pagan areas where people worshipped local deities, the church invented saints to replace them, thus incorporating local beliefs into the Christian religion. That made it easier for people to switch to the new religion as each saint came with specific qualities like the old deities. For instance, if you are on a voyage, you can pray to St. Christopher for protection because he is the patron of the travellers. Later on, Muslims and Protestants could build on this achievement, and abolish these customs in favour of a more pure monotheism.

Monotheism comes with a few logical difficulties. We hope that God cares for us and answers our prayers. But prayers often are not answered, and bad things are going on. So how can an almighty creator allow this to happen? The obvious answer is that there is no god or that God does not care. That is not what we want to hear. And so people imagined Satan, God’s evil adversary, who makes all these bad things happen.1 And we hope that the people we hate receive punishment. If it is not now, then in the afterlife or a final reckoning on Judgement Day. And not very coincidentally, religions provide for this sentiment.

Then came science with a sobering message. Our existence appears to be the result of accident and evolution. Religions proliferated because they promote cooperation. Nowadays the belief is taking hold that all humans are unique and precious individuals. Indeed, we are unique. Our imagination makes us do things other species are not capable of. And so, technology may already have enabled humans to realise their fantasies. They may have turned into gods themselves when they became immortal and created virtual reality universes for their entertainment. We may be living in one of these universes. And this universe may have an owner we can call God. And God might use avatars to appear as an ordinary human to us.

Religion may be about to come back with a vengeance if we are to find out about that. Existing religions probably tell us very little about God or the civilisation that has created us. All the gods we worship are human fantasies. Most of what we think to know about God is a delusion promoted by established religions or our own desires. Still, the predominance of religions worshipping Abrahamic God appears not to be a historical accident. That justifies a closer look at the origins of Yahweh, the God of Abraham.

Featured image: Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany.  J. Duckeck (2011). Wikimedia Commons.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

A society on pillars

For a century, Dutch society consisted of identity groups based on religion or ideology. This division was called pillarisation. Religious and ideological groups encompassed several social classes. Social life usually was within your own pillar, and contacts with other people were limited. Each pillar had sports clubs, political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasters. Roman Catholics and Protestants also had their own schools and hospitals.

The pillars of Dutch society were Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Socialist, with each about 30% of the population. The Protestants themselves were further divided into smaller identity groups. The remaining 10% of the Dutch were liberal. The Dutch liberals were less organised and opposed pillarisation, but they too had their own political parties, newspapers and broadcasters.

Strong communities are close-knit, have shared norms and values based on ideology or religion, and come with social obligations. The pillar organisations focused exclusively on their own communities. This happened in other places in Europe too. Nowadays, similar models exist in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the same laws applied to everyone. And the curricula of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and public schools were nearly the same as everyone was preparing for the same state exams.

To make pillarisation successful, the overarching identity, for instance, the nation, should be strong, and the intensity of the identity conflict should be low. Western Christianity, which includes both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, features a separation of worldly and religious affairs, so religious beliefs did not conflict with submission to a state.

The Dutch are famous for their tolerance, which was at times close to indifference. The identity groups accepted each other and minded their own affairs. After 1800, there was no civil war in the Netherlands, nor was it close at any time. Leadership was also important. The leaders of the pillars were willing to compromise, and the members merely followed their leaders.

Nevertheless, identity issues dominated Dutch politics from time to time. For instance, on 11 November 1925, the cabinet fell when the Catholic ministers resigned after Parliament accepted an amendment introduced by a small Protestant fraction to eliminate the funding for the Dutch envoy with the Vatican. A Protestant government fraction supported the amendment.

None of the identity groups on its own was able to dominate society. Instead, they had to make deals with each other. On religious issues, Roman Catholics and Protestants often found each other. For instance, they arranged that schools and hospitals could have a religious identity and that the state would fund them like public schools and hospitals. The Socialists were able to make deals on working conditions and social benefits.

Pillarisation in the Netherlands began to take shape at the close of the nineteenth century. One could say that Dutch society was built upon the pillars. They allowed groups with different worldviews to coexist peacefully and work on a common destiny, which was the future of the nation. From the 1960s onwards, the pillars began to lose their meaning.

Pillarisation can be helpful if people believe in a shared destiny, for instance, the nation-state, but do not share a common background. In that case, everyone can live and work together with the people they feel comfortable with. Cultural and religious differences may subside over time. But as long as these identities remain distinct, people can organise themselves accordingly via pillars, and in doing so, avoid conflict.

Fat cat

The mystery of being

Why do we exist? People have been pondering this question for ages. The findings from science suggest that life on this planet emerged without intent and serves no purpose. We are inclined to see ourselves as unique, so we might delude ourselves by thinking that this universe is there for us, and so it must have a purpose, and therefore, a creator. The odds appear stacked against us being here, so our existence might appear a miracle. But if humans had never arrived on the scene, all the other species would still have roamed the planet, and no cat or fern might ever have wondered why it is there.

Once you reverse the argument, it becomes clear what’s wrong with it. My existence depends on my parents having met each other. My parents had not lived if my grandparents had not married. They, in their turn, depend on the many generations before them. According to chaos theory, small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have a dramatic impact on future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China.

So, if one of my forebears had done only one small thing differently, for instance, getting up earlier on one day, I probably would not be here. The probability of my existence is so close to zero that I might consider it a miracle. Similarly, the odds of humans appearing when dinosaurs were still living, and living creatures on this planet appearing when the galaxy was emerging, were negligible.

In a similar vein, people argue that it is unlikely that this universe emerged by chance. The laws of physics and the values of physical constants are fine-tuned for life to exist. But if that hadn’t been the case, it would have been impossible to observe this. There could be an infinite number of universes or big bangs that failed to create universes with different laws and constants. This universe might be just right by accident.

Intelligent design proponents claim that undirected evolutionary processes cannot explain the living creatures on this planet. They believe that life on Earth requires a creator. Indeed, the odds for life to emerge in the way it did, were zero from the outset, and still, we are here. But evolution is an organising principle. Given ample time, the possibilities are endless, and anything could happen. Scientific findings indicate that life on this planet had four billion years to develop.

The mystery of being is not a mystery at all. So many things could have happened but didn’t, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. That’s why the future is unpredictable. And there is not much more to it than that. Many people find it difficult to accept that their life has no purpose. And so religious people may contend that our existence is a miracle and proof of God. Their argument leaves open questions like why does God exist and how did God come into being? The simulation hypothesis does not come with these issues. It does not consider our existence as a miracle but as the product of advanced technology.