Fear and faith: Derren Brown and the Confusion

Glen Scrivener, who blogs at Christ the Truth, recently watched Derren Brown’s Fear and Faith programme. In it, Brown apparently converts (or at least induces a religious experience in) a staunch atheist, a biologist called Natalie. Brown used this as a jumping off point for an argument that we don’t need to invoke a god to explain religious experiences. Glen’s posting argued that the existence of fakes doesn’t disprove the existence of the genuine article.

Blah blah blah Bayes

I commented that Brown would go too far if he claimed that an ability to reproduce religious experiences means there’s no God, but he could use it to negate the value of religious experience as evidence for God’s existence. If it is trivial for people who aren’t God to produce such experiences, then they are about as likely to occur in a world without God as they are in a world with a God, so they aren’t good evidence. Glen tried a variant of the Argument from Wife, saying that his belief in his wife’s existence is not invalidated because of his feelings about her. But this doesn’t work, since he presumably saw and heard her and so believed she existed prior to having feelings for her, so the causality isn’t backwards, as it is when Christians point to feelings from God as evidence for God’s existence.

Then I watched the programme on Channel 4’s website. In it, we see Brown convert Natalie in what looks like a church, with 15 minutes of chat about her father and tapping on the table to “anchor” certain feelings. He leaves her alone (except for the cameras, of course) for a bit, at which point she stands up and bursts into tears, speaking about how sorry she is and wishing she could have had this feeling all her life. Well, that about wraps it up for God, right?

Hang on a sec…

Something’s gone wrong with everyone’s argument here, and I probably should have spotted it before I watched the programme, because I’ve written about Derren Brown before. Can you spot it? Have a think for a moment, then read on.

Christian and atheists alike were assuming that Brown can convert someone in 15 minutes with NLP (and then arguing about what that means for God-belief). We’ve been taken in. It was a trick! Nobody can really produce a conversion experience in 15 minutes in the way we’re supposed to believe he did. Brown’s tricks don’t work by using NLP (because NLP doesn’t work so dramatically, if indeed it works at all, which I rather doubt). Remember, the bit at the end of the trick where he shows you how he did it using NLP (though he never uses the phrase) to implant suggestions in people’s minds is itself misdirection, part of his act.

I should have realised that, because I’ve had a similar conversation about Brown before, with an NLP believer on Less Wrong. See also Ferretbrain’s Derren Brown is a Liar and this discussion on the show: pjc229 has it right.

The bit at the end with the moral of today’s episode

That little “something doesn’t make sense” feeling is something you want to train yourself to listen to: as Saunt Yudkowsky says, your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. At the point where someone claims to be able to produce religious conversion experiences after 15 minutes of chat about fathers and tapping on the table, you should be feeling confused; not trying to defend religion as if the story Brown’s telling really happened and you had to explain how it doesn’t really threaten Christianity, or attacking religion as if Brown had shown it was bunk (these are like Yudkowsky trying to defend the paramedics in his story).

I must congratulate Brown on getting me seriously debating whether he’d provided a contribution to the psychology of religion, though. The man’s a genius. I wish I knew how he did it (pjc229’s suggestions about what Natalie saw not being what we saw must have something to do with it, I guess).

(None of which is to say that there aren’t satisfying psychological explanations for religious experiences which remove the need to invoke gods, of course, just that we shouldn’t go to magicians for that kind of evidence).

7 thoughts on “Fear and faith: Derren Brown and the Confusion

  1. Yes, it’s always been clear that one of Brown’s techniques is to say completely different things to the participant and to the audience, and to use editing to conceal this fact. In Daniel Hemmen’s discussion of the kitten-killing trick, he notes that Brown (a) sometimes turns away from the participant to say something to the hidden camera; and (b) sometimes says something to the participant but with his mouth covered. It seems very likely to me that in case (a) he’s silently mouthing words that are later dubbed in; and in (b) he’s saying one thing to the participant that is then overdubbed, with the hand preventing lip-readers from spotting the switch. In stage magic there’s a technique called “dual reality” where the participant’s experience of some aspect of the trick (e.g. its purpose, or their role in it, or when it took place) is different from the audience’s, but Brown’s technique is more powerful because there can be a much wider distance between the participant’s version of events and the televised audience’s.

  2. Aleister Crowley claimed IIRC to be able to convert people to sincere religious belief through manipulation. He didn’t use stage magic, he did things like offering people money to practise acts of devotion to a particular deity. After a while doing this, subjects would start believing in the suggested deity, even though they consciously knew that Crowley had chosen the god arbitrarily. This is also an aspect where I think Pascal was right about his silly wager: it is possible to make yourself or others believe, if you decide for external reasons that this would be beneficial. Though as with any psychological trick it works better on some people than others, of course.

    I agree that religious experiences and people’s feelings are very poor evidence for the existence or otherwise of God, though!

  3. Brown would go too far if he claimed that an ability to reproduce religious experiences means there’s no God, but he could use it to negate the value of religious experience as evidence for God’s existence. If it is trivial for people who aren’t God to produce such experiences, then they are about as likely to occur in a world without God as they are in a world with a God, so they aren’t good evidence.

    (I realise the later part of the post means we aren’t seriously debating the implications of Brown having done this, but even so, I think this in isolation is a pure hypothetical with which I can quibble.)

    An analogous argument to the above might say: If it is trivial for people who aren’t broadcasting organisations to make a picture appear on a television screen, then pictures on a television screen are about as likely to occur in a world without broadcasting organisations as they are in a world with broadcasting organisations. Yet my local TV repairman Darren Brawn produced a picture on my TV screen merely by fiddling with the aerial, and surely this negates the value of pictures on a TV screen as evidence for the BBC’s existence?

    1. So, is Brawn’s claim that he has no association with the BBC and therefore there’s no reason to suppose that the BBC exists? (But in fact we know that by fiddling with the aerial, he’s picking up BBC broadcasts). Or is the analogy that Brawn can show the test card using his magic box?

      The test card one is easier: the Brown/God argument relies on them being able to do similar things. If Brawn can only show the test card but people who claim to get getting broadcasts from the BBC see live news of events that they couldn’t otherwise have known about, clearly Brawn couldn’t claim that he’d invalidated the BBCists’ claim that the TV programmes they see are evidence that the BBC exists.

      The hard case is where Brawn is an unwitting conduit for the BBC, and Brown an unwitting conduit for God. I think there we have to look at the casual claims: the theists aren’t claiming that magicians can produce divine intervention, are they? The point of Brown’s stuff is that he isn’t a psychic and God’s don’t really turn up for stage magicians, so I suppose it’s always open for believers to claim he’s actually psychic or that God intervened. If theists did claim that, I’d be looking at whether there was any possible way to falsify their claims, as it looks like they’ve got themselves the dodgy situation where their theory doesn’t prohibit anything. Do the BBCists have that too? Well, their claims aren’t threatened by Brawn, but I can think of other ways to spot whether they’re false.

      1. I’m not sure Brawn claimed anything in this scenario other than that I owed him some money 🙂

        I suppose what I meant is: one could imagine a model of religious experience in which God is constantly transmitting, and when a human happens to get into the proper state of mind to receive then they have a religious experience. In that model, the possibility of artificially inducing a religious experience would just mean that it’s possible to get a human into the receptive state on purpose as well as it occasionally happening by chance, but this doesn’t mean that the experience itself is in any way artificial or comes from anyone but God – the only difference between that and a ‘natural’ religious experience is the timing. A person who believed this would argue that the existence of religious experiences at all was evidence for God (perhaps not necessarily conclusive, but at least into Bayesian increase-the-posterior-probability-of-God territory), and that the question of whether they could be artificially induced had no necessary bearing on that fact.

        I’m assuming here that religious experiences do not in fact grant their recipients testable knowledge that they couldn’t have acquired some other way. If they can, we can ignore Brown (and Brawn) completely and focus on that.

        1. In that model, the possibility of artificially inducing a religious experience would just mean that it’s possible to get a human into the receptive state on purpose as well as it occasionally happening by chance

          OK, so the claim is that “God exists and all religious experiences come from God”? So to know whether a particular religious experience is evidence for the claim, we’d need some idea of how likely it was that the religious experience would occur if the claim were false, that is either God doesn’t exist (in which case no religious experiences come from him) or he does exist but not all religious experiences come from God. So what’s their argument that a religious experience is evidence of their claim?

          Is this one of those things where you can make the likelihood ratio look better by decreasing the probability of your prior, perhaps? See previous discussion between gjm11 and the LJ user formerly known as nlj21.

          1. So what’s their argument that a religious experience is evidence of their claim?

            I think such a person might believe, and argue, from perception. Our brains receive a lot of sense-impressions – sight, hearing etc – which give us the impression that some fact or another is true. Usually they’re at least approximately right: if my vision tells me there’s a tree in front of me, or my hearing tells me a dog just barked, or whatever, then generally these things are true. Of course sometimes they’re not, and our senses or brains have got confused in some way, but the usual position is that if you perceive something then it’s generally not too unreasonable to consider that to be evidence for the truth of what you perceived, at least unless you have some specific account of how a particular class of apparent perceptions are in fact optical illusions or hypnogogic hallucinations or whatever. So they might argue: a religious experience seems like a direct perception of God’s existence, and therefore if you want to argue that it isn’t one, the onus is on you to present some account of how that particular perceptual experience is not to be trusted.

            (I haven’t actually seen this used as an argument for God from religious experience, but I have seen people use similar arguments for other metaphysical positions such as mind-body dualism and free will, which is what makes it believable to me that somebody might think this way.)

            The trouble with applying rigorous Bayesianism to claims like this is that to even make expressions like P(religious experience | no God) meaningful you need some sort of theory of what the probability distribution of possible god-free universes is. (And since at least some people think there couldn’t possibly be one in the first place, they will presumably end up with all Bayesian posteriors mysteriously reading “NaN” 🙂

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