Plausibility,
Proof and Belief

Plausibility:

1) Having an appearance of truth or reason; seemingly worthy of approval or acceptance; credible; believable: a plausible excuse; a plausible plot.
2) Well-spoken and apparently, but often deceptively, worthy of confidence or trust: a plausible commentator. (Origin: 1500's, "deserving of applause")

Proof:

Evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.

Belief:

1) Something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2) Confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.

 

It strikes me that when one attempts to introduce evidence for the existence of reincarnation to the Western public, most of those who reject it do so because they find it implausible. It simply seems so unlikely, given what we think we know, and given what is popular and accepted by the mainstream, that it is summarily dismissed or ridiculed. One way of ridiculing something, of devaluing a thing, is to assign a new, watered-down meaning to its name. Suppose a child named Ted is clumsy. At some point, his peers begin to call any clumsy move a "Ted". "That was a real Ted, hah-hah-hah!!"

Just so, when a rock band reforms, or a new band is reminiscent of an earlier band, people say it is the "reincarnation" of that band. A new restaurant is the "reincarnation" of one that went out of business ten years ago. Cheapening the word "reincarnation" in this way is the ultimate put-down. All this, because it is deemed implausible.

But what is plausibility, anyway? What is it based on? What relationship does plausibility have to proof; and what relationship do both of them have to belief?

I suggest that plausibility has absolutely nothing to do with proof; and proof has little to do with belief. Most people jump directly over proof, and go from plausibility to belief--the way the doctor taps your knee and the signal bypasses your conscious motor control.

It's an apt analogy.

We think that we judge a thing plausible or implausible based on proof or lack of proof, and that we then believe or disbelieve accordingly.

All very rational.

Now, let's see what we're really doing.

First of all, plausibility, as we see from its 16th-century origins, is largely a matter of social consensus. Three hundred years ago, would any of these things have been plausible?--microwave ovens; trans-continental air flights; e-mail; plastics; mass-production; toilets...need I go on? I could fill the rest of this article with examples. I haven't even touched on medical advances.

So, plausibility is a very poor guide of what is possible.

But, you may protest, most of these things could not be proven 300 years ago. It was quite rational to consider them implausible.

The problem is that proving these things did not always make them plausible. In fact, proving them could get you shunned--killed, if you persisted--depending on who you offended, and what vested interest you threatened. In short, until "everybody" agreed, the thing very often remained implausible, whether it was the germ theory of disease (which is now coming under fire), the earth revolving around the sun, or flying machines.

In short, until the "applause," the thing remains "implausible"--even when proof is provided.

When you put a table-top under magnification, what you see is increasingly unfamiliar as the magnification increases.

In the same way, the more you delve into the concept of proof*, the stranger it becomes. Why? Well, proving something means verifying it. In order to verify something, you must verify it against something else--against some known or trusted standard. Although this process seems obvious and straightforward, choosing the standard can be quite arbitrary. The standard chosen may vary from culture-to-culture, from person-to-person, and from example-to-example. The decision as to which standard to use may be guided by such diverse things as education, emotion, and fashion; it also may depend on one's peers, and on who is watching.

Did I just say, "verification depends on who is watching"? According to a famous study by social psychologist Solomon Asch, it does. He asked his students to analyze the length of a line. When surrounded by people who deliberately gave a wrong answer, 75% of them were influenced to also give a wrong answer at least once.

Furthermore, all this assumes that when one relies on these various standards of validation, of proof, one is being honest with oneself. But it is not always so. Self-deception creeps in, and the proof is rejected. You know how if you flip a coin and don't get what you really wanted, you may decide to go for "2 out of 3"? The same thing happens when confronted with proof of reincarnation. Your standard of proof is, unexpectedly, met--so you want another proof, and another. The bar is set ever-higher, because the thing is implausible--and we have already seen what implausibility is made of.

Dr. Ian Stevenson, the world's foremost reincarnation researcher, told the story of the old New England farmer who was taken for the first time to the city zoo. There he found himself face-to-face with a camel, which he had never seen nor heard of before. He stared at it for a long time; then, turning away, he was heard muttering, "T'aint no such beast."

Now, belief arises out of proof--or, it is supposed to. But proof, itself, arises out of so many things--a queer mixture of the laudable and the questionable. Belief can be based on logic--but logic, itself, is largely based on assumptions. And assumptions can be based on all sorts of things, some of which have never seen the light of day. We have all seen people whose assumptions are killing them--everything about their logic is internally consistent, but their assumptions are way off base.

What to do? I propose throwing out all three "thieves"--plausibility, proof and belief, as things in their own right. If you want to be rock-solid, concern yourself with whether the thing is true. Truth is what actually is. Then, if plausibility arises from the collective perception of truth, it guides society rightly. If proof means verification against the standard of whether a thing is true or not, it leads to good science. If belief is based on what has been shown to be true, it leads to greater sanity instead of leading to collective insanity.

Reincarnation is true. It is plausible in the light of truth; it can be verified by anyone dedicated to truth; and it has been believed by those who follow truth wherever truth may lead.

*It occurs to me that readers might challenge me as regards how mathematical proof might be viewed in the context of this article. I have very little math ability; so I can't speak with any authority about the philosophy of mathematics. Obviously mathematical proof involves the use of rigid, logical standards of verification. However, mathematics has always struck me as tantamount to slicing up an apple in hundreds of ingenious and torturous ways, and then proving that it can be put back together. Of course, it can always be put back together--but I'm not sure what is actually shown by the exercise. Mathematics strikes me as studying the rules of mental functioning, the rules of the mind itself. The mind, studying the rules of the mind, finds consistency in its own functioning. But there is deeper perception of truth beyond the functioning of mind; so mathematics in and of itself cannot be a final understanding of truth.