Gods, Ghosts, Aliens, Angels and Elvis

By Stan Persky | July 8, 2005

There are many ways to begin thinking about what exists, or about what we call “reality.” It is even possible to doubt that anything exists, except perhaps ourselves, but we can leave that possibility for later. For now, let’s assume that some things exist in addition to ourselves.

One way of thinking about reality is to start with familiar things like tables, chairs, the trees outside the window, and other people. But ordinary things don’t appear to pose much of a problem about reality, at least not at first glance. Another way of approaching questions about reality that might be interesting is to consider extraordinary beliefs people have about what’s real, and the reasons why they hold those beliefs.(1)


Would You Believe It?

Such beliefs are also known as “paranormal” beliefs, although for the moment I’m calling them “extraordinary” beliefs to avoid any bias that might be associated with the term “paranormal.” I’m using the word “extraordinary” in a neutral, non-judgmental sense to mean simply and literally “extra-ordinary,” as contrasted to our ordinary and generally widely shared (or “inter-subjectively held”) beliefs about the reality of tables, chairs, trees, and other people. One reason for starting with extraordinary beliefs is that, because they’re not universally shared and are more debatable than beliefs about ordinary things, examining such beliefs may help us determine what the standards or criteria are that people use or should use for believing in things, both ordinary and extraordinary ones.

By extra-ordinary beliefs, I mean such beliefs as those about the existence of God (or gods), souls, afterlives, reincarnation, psychic powers, astrology, unorthodox healing powers, ghosts, devils, contact with the dead, aliens from outer space, zombies, and the like. I’m assuming that our interest in determining what is and isn’t real has the purpose of helping us decide how to live our lives and to understand what they mean. That is, I take it that figuring out what’s real is a practical matter that has consequences for our lives, as well as being a matter of intellectual curiosity, of simply wanting to know “what’s there.”

Let us also observe that large numbers of people hold extra-ordinary beliefs. While belief in ordinary reality, as I’m calling it, approaches 100 per cent and remains relatively stable, that certainly is not the case for extra-ordinary beliefs, but still the numbers for extra-ordinary beliefs are themselves pretty extraordinary. For example, the Gallup Poll in 2001 found that among people in the United States, 54% believe in “psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body,” while half of all respondents believe in ESP or extrasensory perception. Over 40% of those polled said they believe in haunted houses and the notion “that people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil,” and more than a third said they believe in ghosts, telepathy, or that aliens have visited the earth at some time. More than a quarter of those asked said they believe in such things as reincarnation, the ability to be in contact with the dead, clairvoyance, witches, and astrology. Assuming that such polls are relatively accurate, and I think they are, that means that literally millions of U.S. citizens have extra-ordinary beliefs. We are, therefore, not talking about merely fringe beliefs or the odd notions of small cults.(2)

What’s more, when we come to more “mainstream” extra-ordinary beliefs, we find that they are even more widely held than beliefs in aliens and reincarnation. The Harris Poll reported in 2003 that 90% of all U.S. adults believe in God, and over 80% believe in the survival of the soul after death, and in miracles, heaven, and the resurrection of Christ. With respect to holding such beliefs, there’s a degree of correlation between such factors as age and education, in that younger and better educated people tend to have fewer such beliefs than less well-educated and older people but, nonetheless, large majorities in all demographic categories hold such mainstream religious beliefs.(3)

A subsequent 2005 Associated Press-Ipsos international poll about religious beliefs shows, however, that there is considerable variation of belief in different countries, which suggests that extraordinary beliefs are significantly shaped by culture and history. The AP-Ipsos poll was designed to determine to what degree people believe that their metaphysical beliefs ought to be practically implemented in politics. As might be expected, pollsters found that about 40 per cent of Americans believed that religious leaders should try to influence government decisions, the highest rate of any country surveyed, all of which were political allies of the United States. It might be expected that equally high rates of belief in mixing politics and religion would also be found in Islamic countries.(3a)

The more interesting finding for our purposes concerns the differential rates of belief in God. The poll question offered respondents six options ranging from “I don’t believe in God” to “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” As in the question about mixing politics and religion, U.S. respondents scored high in absolute belief in God, with 70 per cent saying they had no doubts, and an additional 10 per cent admitting to doubts, but nonetheless affirming their belief in God. In the U.S. only 2 per cent said they don’t believe in God, while another 4 per cent chose the option, “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out,” the lowest percentage of non-belief of all countries surveyed, excepting Mexico. By contrast, in Canada, only 57 per cent picked the categories expressing belief in God, while 12 per cent chose the categories expressing atheism (absence of belief in God) or agnosticism (complete uncertainty about belief in God). In other countries, such as France, the United Kingdom, Korea, Germany, Australia and Spain, non-belief ranged from a considerable 35 to 19 per cent, while relatively firm belief was in the lower range of 36 per cent (Australia) to 46 per cent (United Kingdom). In several countries, such as Canada, the U.K., and Australia, there were significant numbers of people (over 20 per cent) who chose the “spiritualist” response, “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind.” What this material appears to show is, first, belief in God, even in countries rather similar to the U.S., is far lower than it is in the United States, and second, that culture, education, and history must play a significant role in shaping beliefs about God.

One other interesting finding in all of the assorted polling data concerns a widely-held belief by scientists that “evolution is a scientific theory that has been well-supported by the evidence.” The Gallup Poll found in 2004 that only 35% of the U.S. general population thought that evolutionary theory is well-supported by evidence, while an equal percentage, 35%, believe that it isn’t supported by the evidence (the remaining 30% said they don’t know enough to say).(4)

An even more intriguing related result in the same poll appeared when people were asked whether “1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process; 2) human beings have developed over millions of years . . . but God had no part in this process; 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” A notable plurality of 45% said they believe that God created human beings more or less in their present form, all at once, sometime within the last 10,000 years. Another 38% thought that humans evolved, with God guiding the process, and only 13% thought that humans evolved, but that God had no part in the process. Which is to say that nearly half of those questioned simply outright reject evolutionary claims, and that the overwhelming majority who think that there’s something to evolutionary claims regard it as a God-guided process. Given that there’s near-unanimity among scientists that evolution is the true or best account we have of human development historically, and given that there’s such a sharp division between the scientific view and that of the general public, this is obviously a topic that will require further examination later on in our discussion.

Before looking more closely at some extra-ordinary beliefs, let me anticipate some possible objections to talking about these matters at all. Some people say such things as, there’s no point in examining such beliefs because 1) you won’t change anybody’s mind about what he or she believes, 2) there’s no way of knowing whether these beliefs are true or not, 3) and since there’s no way of knowing for sure whether such beliefs are true or not, everyone has the right to their opinion and that’s the end of it. Some people also claim that 4) “whatever any person believes is what’s real for them,” and we shouldn’t interfere with their reality. Finally, 5) others claim that discussing such things just makes people feel uncomfortable or, worse, it offends them.

Some possible answers to these objections are as follows: 1) While it isn’t necessarily our primary intention to change anybody’s mind about what he or she believes, it is the case that people often change their minds about their beliefs. People who belonged to a particular church often join a different church with a somewhat different set of beliefs, or cease belonging to any religious group at all. People do change their beliefs, so the claim that they won’t simply isn’t true. 2) It’s true that there may not be a way of knowing for sure whether or not a belief is true, but it may also be the case that some beliefs are better than others in the sense that they may be more likely to be true, and that we’re at least able to determine a greater or lesser likelihood that a belief might be true.

While it’s certainly the case that 3) in democracies everyone has a right to his or her opinion, it’s not so clear that that ought to be the end of the discussion. After all, it’s part of life to engage in discussions about our opinions, and often we learn things that change our opinions. As one quip about the issue goes, “All men and women are created equal, but not all opinions.” 4) The idea that whatever a person believes is “what’s real for them” confuses the reasonable notion that we all have different subjective experiences and the idea that anything one believes is real. People have all sorts of beliefs that turn out to be hallucinations, the result of temporary insanity, or that simply prove to be false. Finally, 5) discussing things that make people uncomfortable or that offends them is often what we call “education.” Rather than avoiding the uncomfortable, we ought to try to make people less uncomfortable by upholding standards of civility and mutual respect in our discussions.


Elvis and Orpheus

Let’s start with a relatively harmless extraordinary belief. In the mid-20th century there was a popular singer named Elvis Presley. His songs were a mixture of “Country and Western,” “Rhythm and Blues,” and a then newly-emerging, sexually edgy style called “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The songs had titles like “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound-Dog,” “All Shook Up,” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Sometimes their messages were rather poetic, even when heavily punctuated by a bass drum or guitar thump at the end of each line of the song:

Well, since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell.
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
at Heartbreak Hotel.

Now, a half-century after Presley first performed his songs, their messages may seem somewhat comic to us, and it may be hard to believe that people found Presley sexually shocking or thrilling, but that’s not the belief I’m concerned about. In 1977, after a lengthy success as “The King” of rock ‘n’ roll, Presley died in the bathroom of his Memphis, Tennessee mansion, “Graceland,” of an overdose of prescription drugs, at the age of 42.

Of course, Presley was neither the first nor the last popular entertainer to come to a bad end at an early age. The first poet-singer in ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus, was torn to pieces for obscure reasons by a trio of angry women known as the Furies. According to the myth, his severed head was thrown into a stream, where it went on singing. Both before and after Presley’s death, numerous other music stars — Jim Morrison of The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and Tupac Shakur, just to mention some of the better-known ones — came to early, unhappy, frequently violent ends. As another songwriter-singer of the era, Paul Simon, put it (in an album titled Graceland), “Every generation / throws a hero up the pop charts,” implying that, just as frequently, those pop heroes fatally fall from the heights of their fame.

After Presley’s death, something unusual happened. Many people reported that they had sighted Elvis, alive, at some unremarkable location, a gas station or donut shop, say, in some small town off the beaten path. There were hundreds of such reports over the years and even today, more than a quarter-century after Presley’s death, there are Internet websites that collect and post such “Elvis sightings.” On the occasion of what would have been Presley’s 70th birthday, Jan. 8, 2005, a prominent newspaper story began by taking note of the legend: “If Elvis Presley were alive — which many believe him to be — he would be 70 years old today.” The explanation widely offered by people making Elvis sightings is that Elvis, weary of fame, had simply faked his own death, and gone into quiet, reclusive retirement.(5)

The question we want to ask about the extraordinary belief that Elvis didn’t die is, Is the belief true? And further, if it isn’t true (or is very unlikely to be true), why do some people believe it to be true?

As far as most of us know, Presley died in 1977. Why do we believe that? For several reasons. There were eyewitnesses who found Presley dead in his bathroom. There were doctors who issued a death certificate. The corpse was seen by thousands of mourners who were permitted to view the body at Graceland mansion. There was a funeral and even a photograph of Presley in his casket that was published in one of the tabloid newspapers. There was an autopsy and a toxicological report that confirmed the presence of various drugs in his body. Finally, major organs of Presley’s body, such as his brain and heart, reportedly remain in storage at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, where the autopsy was performed.(6)

So, why would people believe that Elvis is still alive? Ultimately, I think we’ll say that people hold this belief for a variety of psychological reasons, one of which is a desire for Elvis not to have died. But here, what I’m asking is, What evidence or facts are there that would lead people to believe that Elvis didn’t die?

Well, there are some possible facts. First, many people claim to have actually seen Elvis after his death. However, the reasonable response to that claim is that perhaps they merely saw someone who looked like Elvis. In fact, as it turned out, after Presley’s death there were many people who looked like Elvis because one of the posthumous curiosities of Presley’s fame is that many people made careers of imitating Elvis. These Elvis imitators went to great lengths to impersonate not only Presley’s style of singing, but also his costume, hair styles, and looks. Although previous singers had been impersonated by imitators, Presley unwittingly inspired a legion of “Elvis impersonators” who could be seen all over the U.S. and other parts of the world performing “Tributes to the King” on an almost nightly basis. One could not only see someone who looked like Elvis, but dozens of people who looked like Elvis, at all once. There were, apparently, “booking conventions” in which hordes of Elvis impersonators turned up simultaneously, seeking engagements to perform at various entertainment venues.

My point here is not that the sincere “Elvis sightings” were most likely mistaken, though they were, but that the people who claim to have seen Elvis after his death are at least attempting to offer some factual or evidential basis for holding their belief that Elvis hadn’t died. One general point that emerges from a consideration of Elvis sightings is that an individual claim, or anecdote, about having seen something is not to be regarded as conclusive since people make mistakes about what they see or about their interpretation of what they’ve seen. Even multiple claims, as in the case of Elvis sightings, don’t necessarily substantiate a claim. Such multiple sightings are better explained as a kind of psychological snowballing effect once the story or legend that “Elvis lives” has taken hold. It looks like something more than a mere claim, or “anecdotal evidence,” as it’s called, will be needed to establish the truth of certain beliefs about reality.

There were, as it happened, other incongruities in reporting Presley’s death. Initially, it was claimed by Presley’s physicians that he had died of a massive heart attack. The autopsy report on Presley’s corpse was kept secret for some time. The photo of Elvis in his casket appeared in a less than reputable tabloid newspaper. All of these incongruities have plausible explanations. The doctors had reason to fear that if it became known that Presley had died of drugs, they might be blamed for having over-prescribed the drugs. Presley’s family wanted to keep the singer’s reputation from being tarnished by public knowledge that he had regularly ingested large quantities of various drugs. And, as always in these situations, there were various commercial interests thought to be at stake.

So, it’s possible that, putting together these incongruities, some people might come up with the notion that there had been a conspiracy to make it appear that Presley had died when in fact he hadn’t. Although this “conspiracy theory” is very thin, and has never been substantiated by evidence, at least we can see that people who believe in such a conspiracy theory are basing their belief on some possible factual claims, even if the claims are convoluted and rather far-fetched.

However, to maintain such a belief becomes more and more difficult as we consider the facts. In order for the conspiracy theory to be true, we would have to establish that the eyewitnesses to Presley’s death had somehow been induced to lie about it, that the doctors had signed a fake death certificate (a professionally risky thing for a doctor to do), that the autopsy had been similarly faked, that the body photographed in the casket had been been a wax similacrum, etc. Even Elvis’s stored body parts would have to be shown not to match possible DNA testing. That is, the denial of the apparent facts would have to become more and more elaborate, involving increasing numbers of people in risky acts of deception. While there’s a remote possibility that such a conspiracy occurred, most of us have good reasons for concluding that Elvis Presley died, pretty much according to the descriptions that have been provided to us by eyewitnesses, reporters, police, and doctors.

The reason I’ve gone on at some length about the improbable, rather eccentric, but relatively harmless belief that Elvis Presley didn’t die is that it provides us with some initial ideas about how to judge beliefs. The case of Presley’s death suggests that, at least with some extra-ordinary beliefs, it makes sense to judge the belief in terms of facts, evidence, reasons, probabilities, and likelihood. It may be that some beliefs — I’m particularly thinking of beliefs in God — are not based on notions of facts or evidence, but on something called “faith.” Because the belief in God is the most interesting and intellectually difficult extra-ordinary belief, I’ll put it aside for now (addressing it later in a separate chapter), and stick to beliefs that seem to require good reasons and evidence for the belief.

In general, notions of evidence and reasons, whether we’re talking about ordinary or extra-ordinary beliefs, are going to be important. We’re going to need reasons to justify our belief in the reality of tables, chairs, trees and other people just as much as we’re going to need evidence to justify our belief about the fate of Elvis Presley, and other extra-ordinary beliefs. What will count as evidence may differ from case to case, as will what counts as justification for or against a belief, but already we’re beginning to glimpse what a philosophical approach to a question about reality looks like.

We can see that claims about reality raise questions, and the questions have to be answered by facts, evidence, and good reasons. It may turn out to be the case that we will be inclined to develop some rules about judging beliefs, such as, “The more extraordinary the belief the more the burden of proof ought to rest on the person claiming the belief,” or a maxim like, “If you don’t have good reasons for believing in a belief, it’s a good idea not to believe it.”

Later on, in a separate chapter, we’ll look more closely at the subject of knowledge itself, and what we mean when we make claims to know something, and how certain we can be that we do know something. For the moment, I merely want to note that there are degrees of certainty and not simply absolute certainty. It may not require one hundred per cent certainty to justifiably say, “I know such-and-such.”

Conversely, some people may claim about a belief, “Well, you can’t prove that x doesn’t exist.” Though it may be true that we can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, two things can be noted about such claims. First, we may not have to “prove” that something doesn’t exist in order for us to have good reasons to say that something doesn’t exist. What we mean by proof will itself be an issue. For example, we can’t one hundred per cent prove that aliens haven’t landed on planet Earth and are among us today, and yet it may make good sense to say, “As far as we know, aliens haven’t landed on earth and aren’t living among us today.” Second, the inability to prove that something doesn’t exist doesn’t necessarily add anything to the claim that it does exist.

Summing up where we’ve gotten so far, we can say: We have good reasons to believe that Elvis Presley is dead, and that the belief that Elvis is alive is false, or very likely false. Furthermore, judgments about many beliefs ought to be based on notions of facts and evidence, and the way we come to such judgments ought to be based on reasons and a process or method of reasoning that takes account of such evidence.(7)

As for whether the decapitated head of Orpheus went on singing, we think it’s unlikely, given what we know today about decapitated heads. However, we don’t know whether people more than twenty-five hundred years ago believed that it went on singing. Today, we believe that the image of Orpheus’s head singing is simply a metaphor in support of the idea that art continues long after the artist is dead. But one thing we know about such things as the myth of Orpheus is that, historically, people’s beliefs have changed and so have the criteria for deciding whether a belief is true or false.(8)


Heaven’s Gate

Let’s turn our attention to an example of a harmful extraordinary belief in order to underscore the practical importance of beliefs, and the advantages of knowing whether they’re true or false.

In the latter half of the 1990s, rumours began to circulate about the beliefs of a small group of people in southern California. The group, or cult, was called “Heaven’s Gate,” and was led by a man named Marshall Applewhite, then about 65 years old, who was known to members of the group as “Do” (pronounced “Doe”). Not many people had heard of Heaven’s Gate, but it had a website which expounded the group’s beliefs, and its activities were tracked by various cult-monitoring organizations.

The Heaven’s Gate group, numbering about 40 people, lived in a seven-bedroom luxury estate in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, California, an area that is home to many celebrities, including movie stars and other public figures. The group supported itself by running a computer business, “Higher Source,” that designed commercial home pages for the Internet. Although the members dressed alike in uni-sex black clothes and buzz haircuts, they didn’t attract much attention from neighbours, and were simply regarded as quiet and clannish. As one of their commercial clients, the director of a local polo club for whom the group designed a home page, put it, “They definitely seemed odd. But living in California, odd is nothing strange for us. They seemed to me to be well within the norms of being able to handle society.” The police had no record of any complaints about the group or reports of suspicious behaviour at the house.(9)

The beliefs of the Heaven’s Gate group were, by almost anyone’s standards, a bizarre mixture of ideas, combining elements of Christianity with notions about UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) or spaceships from other parts of the universe. Applewhite claimed that some 2000 years ago, a group of extra-terrestrials came to earth from the Kingdom of Heaven, or the “Next Level,” as he often referred to it, and that one of the “crew” members moved into a human body, that of Jesus Christ. A second group of these space aliens returned to earth sometime in the late 1920s, with “Do” as the captain of this expedition, and the crew somehow became scattered. In holding public meetings to disseminate his beliefs, Do claimed to discover that most of his converts were the long-lost crew members.

From a more conventional perspective, Applewhite was a former music teacher who became increasingly eccentric, and had had some contact with psychiatric institutions. Although there is considerably more biographical information available, it’s sufficient to note that he had a documented history of being involved in various end-of-the-world cult activities for more than a quarter-century, dating back to the 1970s.

Applewhite espoused an elaborate, fantastical philosophy, partially based on his reading of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, which he interpreted as referring to UFO visitations. According to his account, the earth was controlled by evil forces or fallen angels, and he saw his group as good angels providing training for embodied souls that would prepare them for ascent to the “next level.” Applewhite viewed bodies as only “the temporary containers of the soul . . . The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom is the ‘disconnect’ or separation from the human physical container or body.”(10)

One item relevant to the Heaven’s Gate group, and to our interest in them, was a recently discovered comet, the Hale-Bopp Comet, which was passing through the solar system in spring 1997. For anyone who hasn’t re-read their notes from high school science classes recently, it might be helpful to recall that comets are spectacular objects made of ice, dust, and gas (they’re sometimes described as “dirty snowballs”), and are leftover materials from the formation of the planets of our solar system, events that took place more than 4 billion years ago. The nucleus of Hale-Bopp is about 40 kilometres across, and it has a tail about 80 million kilometres long, which gives it the distinctive comet shape, something like a giant windsock streaking across the sky. Some comets are known as “periodic,” meaning that their orbits bring them within the solar system at least every 200 years, but Hale-Bopp isn’t. Prior to 1997, its last passage through the solar system was 2213 BCE and its next appearance won’t be until about 4300 CE. In this 1997 visitation it passed at a distance of about 200 million kilometres from earth and about 130 million kilometres from the sun. I mention these facts, apart from their intrinsic interest, because Hale-Bopp was very important to the Heaven’s Gate group and was regarded by them as a signal.(11)

In March 1997, the Heaven’s Gate website posted a “red alert” page, headed “Hale-Bopp Brings Closure to Heaven’s Gate.” The somewhat mysterious message (which I’ll shortly explain in more detail) said, “Whether Hale-Bopp has a ‘companion’ or not is irrelevant from our perspective. However, its arrival is joyously very significant to us at ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the ‘marker’ we’ve been waiting for — the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’ — in the literal Heavens. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level.” The message more ominously added, “If you study the material on this website . . . you may even find your ‘boarding pass’ to leave with us during this brief ‘window’.”(12)

The obscure references in the message are easily decoded: the “Older Member” refers to group leader Applewhite, and the remark about whether or not the comet had a “companion” refers to a debate among astronomers and non-astronomers about the possibility that the comet had a satellite object orbiting its nucleus. For Applewhite and other believers in UFO phenomena, such an object would have been convenient in terms of their claims of the existence of a giant spaceship “parked” in the vicinity of the comet. We’ll come back to this issue shortly.

The real and shocking meaning of the message didn’t become clear until a few days later. At the end of March 1997, police and the media made a gruesome discovery: the 39 men and women of Heaven’s Gate, including Applewhite, were found dead in the Rancho Sante Fe mansion. It was one of the largest mass suicides in recent U.S. history. (Subsequently, two more Heaven’s Gate associates also committed suicide, bringing the death toll to 41.) Investigators found that the house was furnished with bunk beds, cheap office furniture, bulk food and some 20 computers. The victims had died over three days, apparently in relays, and there was evidence that they had committed suicide by swallowing a mixture of phenobarbital and alcohol, and then had put plastic bags over their heads. At a press conference shortly after the discovery, a video was shown depicting the bodies — 21 women and 18 men, ranging in age from people in their 20s to a 72-year-old. There were also a tape containing a message from the cult leader, Applewhite, saying that the members would be “shedding their containers” and “leaving this planet,” as well as another tape in which members made their apparently enthusiastic farewells, two-by-two.

The strongest message that emerges from the Heaven’s Gate episode, assuming that the group’s beliefs were likely false — and we have good reasons for thinking so — is that some false beliefs are fatally harmful. A significant number of people foreshortened their own lives simply because of a false, extraordinary belief. While the Heaven’s Gate members only caused direct harm to themselves (as well as emotional harm to those who cared about them), other people with equally extreme beliefs have caused ultimate harm to others.

In the 21st century, we have become familiar with terrorist suicide bombers who, for political reasons, often supported by religious ideas, have blown up themselves and innocent bystanders in recurrent violent incidents. The political motivations of suicide bombers, and the political debates that accompany their actions, are, of course, a separate topic from our main focus here, but their actions raise some similar questions about the consequences of beliefs.

The Heaven’s Gate episode points up one distinguishable feature among extraordinary beliefs and the people who hold them. For people who idly glance at daily newspaper horoscopes predicting their future, or who casually entertain the fond hope that maybe Elvis is still alive, the beliefs are relatively inconsequential and are not strongly held, and the people who entertain such beliefs often treat them as self-admittedly irrational superstitions. For others, however, such as the Heaven’s Gate believers, the extraordinary beliefs become the focus of their lives, are held in dead earnest, and as we see, can have fatal consequences.

Heaven’s Gate raises another important distinction. There are apparently differences between kinds of paranormal beliefs, as well as differences in our ability to examine them. Some extraordinary beliefs are susceptible to evidence. Others might be proven true only through a conspiracy theory being proven true. On the other side are extraordinary beliefs that can not be examined by means of evidence. Further, some extraordinary beliefs might prove true only if turns out that the universe and the “laws of nature” are different from what we now believe them to be.

So, for example, such claims as that Elvis lives, or that aliens from outer space crash-landed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, or that the moon landing in 1969 was faked in a television studio, are all claims that would require positive evidence substantiating the conspiracy theories upon which they’re based. By the way, to date, none of those conspiracy theories have been substantiated. Other claims, such as those about psychic powers to predict the future or locate missing bodies propose a mixture of evidence and heretofore unknown powers. While we’re able to measure the “success rates” evidence of such claims, if the claims were true, it would mean that the “laws of nature” are different from what we currently think them to be. In the case of extra-sensory perception, say, we would have to discover that there’s some sort of brain wave, heretofore unknown, that could directly transmit thoughts from one person to another. If we discovered the existence of such a force or capability, we would have to readjust our understanding of how the universe works.

In the case of Heaven’s Gate, members of the group believed that a spaceship had arrived to take them away and was located somewhere in the vicinity of the Hale-Bopp comet. That, at least, is a belief that we can examine for evidence. Thousands of photographs of Hale-Bopp were made by scientists and we can look at them to see if we can identify anything that might be a spaceship. The answer to the question about a spaceship is definite enough: there’s no evidence, visual or otherwise, that there was a spaceship in the vicinity of the Hale-Bopp comet, or anywhere else in the solar system for that matter.

Still, the discussion about Hale-Bopp was not without controversy, as the Heaven’s Gate reference to a “companion” hints. Among scientists, there is a debate about whether or not Hale-Bopp might have a satellite object that orbits about the comet. Although scientists theorising about the existence of such a satellite admit that they have seen nothing in the photos of Hale-Bopp taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to indicate the presence of a satellite object, nonetheless, there has been considerable speculation and discussion about the issue.(13)

To make matters slightly more confusing, outside scientific circles there is a considerable body of UFO believers and people interested in paranormal phenomena who have institutionalized communications, such as websites, to promote their views. The rumours of a satellite object orbiting the comet excited considerable speculation among these groups, and someone outside both scientific and paranormal circles could easily be confused by the crossfire of opinions and theories set off by the astronomical events.

Eventually, astronomer Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet, stepped into the picture in the wake of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide to attempt to dispell some of the confusion. At a press conference, Hale cited noted astronomer Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World, in which Sagan says, “I worry that . . . pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.” Hale noted that several hundred years ago, before much was known about comets, people understandably regarded comets as “harbingers of doom and portents of disaster.” Hale also pointed out that in the 18th century, Edmond Halley, the discoverer of Halley’s comet “showed that comets are members of the solar system, and are subject to the same laws of physics that everything else in the universe is subject to.”(14)

Yet “ignorance and superstition still persist,” Hale lamented. “Almost from day one I have heard claims that Hale-Bopp is an ‘alien mothership’ or is ‘under intelligent control’ or some such. And then, there is this business of the ‘mysterious Saturn-shaped companion’ following Hale-Bopp. . . According to the claims, this was an ‘alien spacecraft, four times larger than Earth,’ coming to do one of various things to us.”

Hale then cleared up the mystery: “It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on: the object that was photographed was nothing more than a bright background star that the comet happened to be located next to on the night in question. Once I had determined this I posted this explanation, along with the photographs to prove it, on the World Wide Web . . . Even now, I still get questions about this, and I still encounter people who are adamant that there is a ‘companion’ following Hale-Bopp. I’ve even pointed out the comet to these people, and asked them to show me where this ‘companion’ is, something they can’t do, of course. And now, this has been carried to an extreme: 39 people have now lost their lives as a result of this ignorance and superstition.”

Insofar as evidence is involved in the claim about a waiting spaceship, I take it that most people would regard Hale’s evidence as settling the question. As far as we can tell, there’s no reason to believe that there was a spaceship. And that lack of evidence, presumably, weakens the larger claims of Heaven’s Gate. If they’re wrong about the spaceship, isn’t it likely that they’re wrong about other things, too?

But what about the beliefs that are not accessible to evidence? What about Applewhite’s theories about good and bad angels, about souls, and about the “next level” to which they might ascend? Here, we only have Applewhite’s say-so as to the plausibility of the belief. Although Applewhite may have little personal credibility, it must be disconcertingly noted that his beliefs aren’t entirely distant from various “mainstream” religious beliefs.

One Internet-posted article that asked in its title, “How strange were they?”, replied, “The San Diego cultists have more in common with other religious enthusiasts than you might think.” The article’s author, David Futrelle, argued that “the line that separates religious enthusiasm from cult zombiehood is narrower than we commonly pretend.” What’s more, “religious history is a story of fringe characters and strange revivals, with religious sects splitting and re-splitting and entire new religious groupings (Mormonism to Christian Science to the Nation of Islam) rising up seemingly out of nowhere.” The implication is that perhaps Heaven’s Gate was not much stranger than much of what’s gone before in the development and holding of extra-ordinary beliefs.(15)

Finally, there’s another disturbing issue that the Heaven’s Gate episode raises. It’s possible to think about Applewhite as a single, very disturbed individual, or simply “crazy” (whatever it is we mean by that term). But what about the others who killed themselves? Without examining the details of their biographies (although much of that information is publicly available), it’s clear that the other Heaven’s Gate members were sufficiently alienated and isolated from mainstream society to find Applewhite believable. Whether we describe them as “brainwashed” by the group leader, or as victims of his delusions, the whole incident suggests something potentially ominous about the nature of human minds. It appears to be the case that otherwise seemingly normal people can be persuaded to believe in extreme extra-ordinary beliefs or, alternatively, that there are relatively significant numbers of people who hold dangerously distorted views about reality. This is something that we’ll have to keep in mind when we come to a later and separate discussion, “The Magical Realism of the Mind,” about the subject of human consciousness. Heaven’s Gate provides some evidence that our grasp of reality, in many cases, may be more tenuous than we’d like to think.

[continued in “Gods, Ghosts… (part 2)”]


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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