Disclaimer as always. Please, please pass me by today if you find happiness and security in religion. I'm not trying to change anybody's beliefs; I'm only an old curmudgeon, here to rant into the vastness of cyberspace when something sets me off.
Brian was murdered, Paul Is Dead, there is a God who watches over us all, Elvis has been sighted at the 7-11...
Permit me to plagiarize and paraphrase Michael Shermer:
The brain is a pattern-recognition machine that all too often finds nonexistent signals in the background noise of life.
What we have here is a signal-to-noise problem. Humans evolved brains that are pattern-recognition machines, adept at detecting signals that enhance or threaten survival amid a very noisy world. This capability is an association learning — associating the causal connections between A and B — as when our ancestors associated the seasons with the migration of game animals. We are skilled enough at it to have survived and passed on the genes for the capacity of association learning.
Unfortunately, the system has flaws. Superstitions are false associations — A appears to be connected to B, but it is not (the baseball player who doesn't shave and hits a home run). Las Vegas was built on false association learning.
Consider a few cases of false pattern recognition (Google key words for visuals): the face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich; the face of Jesus on an oyster shell (resembles Charles Manson, I think); the hit NBC television series Medium, in which Patricia Arquette plays psychic Allison Dubois, whose occasional thoughts and dreams seem connected to real-world crimes; the film White Noise, in which Michael Keaton's character believes he is receiving messages from his dead wife through tape recorders and other electronic devices in what is called EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon. EVP is another version of what I call TMODMP, the Turn Me On, Dead Man Phenomenon — if you scan enough noise, you will eventually find a signal, whether it is there or not.
Anecdotes fuel pattern-seeking thought. Aunt Mildred's cancer went into remission after she imbibed extract of seaweed — maybe it works. But there is only one surefire method of proper pattern recognition, and that is science. Only when a group of cancer patients taking seaweed extract is compared with a control group can we draw a valid conclusion.
We evolved as a social primate species whose language ability facilitated the exchange of such association anecdotes. The problem is that although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the overall phenomenon has endured the winnowing process of natural selection.
QC editorial comment: What Shermer calls “science” is really just a sensible reluctance to rely too much on assertions that haven’t been tested against observed real-world evidence. It’s much the same as declining to put too much stock in any given person’s individual religious experience. After all, lots of people have religious experiences; the trick is to be able to distinguish a St. Paul from a David Koresh or Jim Jones or Marshall Applewhite.
Christine's editorial comment: This so-called "Saint" Paul, along with his cohorts and minions (wtf is a "saint" anyway?) has done just as much, or more, damage over a much longer period of time than the other three people combined.