The Belief Barrier: Moving an Immovable Object at CSICon

October 19, 2019

After his presentation at CSICon 2019, the great actor John de Lancie referred to Q, the cosmic superbeing he played in the Star Trek franchise, as “a god with clay feet,” an entity of incredible power but lacking the character to use it in any meaningful way. 

It’s a telling observation on de Lancie’s part, as I would guess that most of us who watch and love Q would say they don’t quite remember him like that, as Q’s interventions into the lives of Star Trek’s mortals were often of enormous consequence. (Though, admittedly, often they were not.) The actor who played him apparently saw it differently, and as he revealed to the attendees at CSICon, he intends to use what power he has to promote the importance of critical thinking and doubt.

De Lancie told of his first brushes with irreligion, bewildered and befuddled as a child when the religious beliefs and rituals of adults would be imposed upon him, regardless of how silly or uncomfortable he found it. “I believe” were the words that formed an impenetrable shield for the faithful, “an immunity from everything,” as de Lancie put it, a state of affairs that led him to his “lifelong gagging reflex” over religion. 

Determined to do his part to “live in a world where people are curious” and in which “knowing is more sought after than believing,” he announced two new projects: An animated series on the absurdity of intelligent design, which will point out some obvious flaws in the human machine (such as how we breathe and eat through the same pipe) that deflate the notion that we are the product of a creator. It’ll be titled, appropriately, God’s Goofs.

The second project will be a stage play based on the intelligent design trial of 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania, which, as a gushing fan of Inherit the Wind and of de Lancie himself, I am desperately eager to see come to fruition. 

The “I believe” force field decried by de Lancie was actually explored in a more scientific sense by two other speakers. The brilliant Elizabeth Loftus, the world renowned expert in memory, showed all of us how humans are remarkably susceptible to having our memories altered or fabricated, causing us to believe that we had experienced events that never actually occurred. 

Troublingly, she pointed out how there is no way to discern empirically or emotionally between false memories and real ones. Both are not only equally compelling to us in a purely subjective sense, but any measurements that might be taken by, say, an fMRI, show that there is no physiological differentiation either. If you believe in a memory, there’s no internal way to show that the memory is a false one. 

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, is constantly confronted with the “I believe” defense. In his presentation, he showed how his work places him in between credulousness and fatalism, as he must both communicate why it is we can be pretty sure no aliens have yet visited us, as well as why he believes that they must still be out there…just not very close to us.

He noted that someone who claims to have had some sort of extraterrestrial encounter will consult with him, and when he inevitably explains away the phenomenon as something mundane, the response is often, “I know what I saw!” (To which he thinks, If you know what you saw then why are you calling me?) At that point, the “I believe” shield has been raised, and there’s no getting around it.