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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Invention of Lying vs. Paranormal Activity

The Invention of Lying. (c) Warner Bros.
I saw two movies this past week: The Invention of Lying and Paranormal Activity. Both very different films yet both have something to say about the supernatural in their own ways.

While I don't hold any beliefs in demons, I have to say that Paranormal Activity is about the scariest movie you are likely to see in a while. An independently produced film made with a tiny budget in one location, the job of scaring the crap out of you is done with minimal special effects, no soundtrack, and very good acting. Thankfully, no simple reaction-based "gotcha" moments were used to illicit fear in the audience. Yet, there were scenes where the tensions built to such a level that when events unfold on the screen the audience was literally screaming in terror.

Of course, supernatural entities are assumed to be real in Paranormal Activity, or else you'd have no movie. It makes for wonderfully frightening content, but sometimes I wonder how much more intense a film like this must be for people who really believe such entities exist. I often like to flippantly point out that, even if all the ghost stories ever told were absolutely true, statistically you'd still have much more to fear from the random (living) human murderer than you would a supernatural entity.

Why do so many people believe that supernatural beings exist? That question is explored to some degree in the other film I saw this week: The Invention of Lying. *alert: minor spoilers ahead*

In that film, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) lives in a world where lying simply doesn't exist. People can't even conceive of it, even when you try to explain it to them. One day something sparks in Mark's brain and he tells the world's first lie. Having invented it, he soon realizes the power it brings him in an unsuspecting world where they don't even check your ID at the bank. But we also get to see him use lying to inspire others and make life more cheerful and friendly. Then there is an incredible and sad scene with his terminally sick mother that is absolutely gut wrenching - especially appearing in what was such a lighthearted comedy up to that point. From then on, the film takes on an element of commentary on the nature of faith and religion.

In Mark's world, there simply is no such thing as religion (or, to clarify, faith-based supernatural religion). Even the concept of things happening after you die is foreign to them. The obvious statement of the film on that topic is that religion is a lie, and it wouldn't even exist without lying. Here the film gets it wrong in several ways.

It seems to make sense that, if people's lives are like mine, and like all the people I've ever known, it's pretty likely they've never "known" anything about the supernatural. Strange unexplained experiences are not really a good way to define "knowledge" - especially the detailed sorts of renditions about supernatural mechanics we can find in the Bible and many other writings about the beyond. By 'supernatural mechanics' I mean things like how blood is supposed to pay for sin, or how certain potions are supposed to harness certain powers, that praying is real communion with another entity, or the nature of various realms and how you get to them. These things are certainly a lot more elaborate and detailed than the vague sorts of 'feelings' and weird unexplained events people tend to report.

So, in that respect, it seems like someone, somewhere, had to do a lot of lying to get religions up and going - unless we want to accept that people who claimed to have had detailed conversations with these entities really aren't as unstable as we'd assume they were if we met them on a subway instead of in Sunday School.

The writers seem to be promoting an atheist/skeptical viewpoint, yet they themselves fall into two misconceptions about belief in the supernatural commonly held by believers. The first of these is that anyone claiming belief in the supernatural must be either a liar or a fool - this is an atheist stereotype about believers that doesn't measure up to reality. Even in a world where (a) we assume no supernatural events truly took place and (b) no one ever lied, you'd still have supernatural beliefs.

In reality, believers are largely honest, well intentioned, sane people who can be very intelligent. People believe what they do because they have had a certain set of experiences which have lead them to certain perspectives on the world and certain ways of "weighing up the facts" on various subjects. I'm not saying that belief in unfounded claims isn't an error in logic or rationally unsound. I believe it is. Yet, the point is: believers in the supernatural are not some 'special class' of person or thinker. They are simply human beings just like those who do not have supernatural beliefs.

When told their beliefs aren't rationally sound, many believers will respond negatively and attempt to defend themselves against being crazy or a liar. But all human beings are imperfect and limited in their perceptions, their feelings, and their understanding. These aren't cases of anything unusual or anything that we aren't all prone to. We are all wrong about a certain percentage of things. It is we who decide on which things we're going to draw our lines and make labels for people. It is important to understand the many ways that reasoning can go wrong, and that applies to all subjects, be they topics of transcendence or the mundane everyday things we think about. The only difference is that a lot of emotions run high around the topic of the supernatural on both sides.

By suggesting that all belief in the supernatural comes from lying (the intentional distortion of facts), the film makers overlook the larger bulk of subtle and fascinating reasons behind beliefs. The books How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich and Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer do an excellent job of outlining the shortcomings in reasoning and perception that effect us all.

The second misconception the film's makers fall for, is the notion that there is no reason to be good without some belief in a reward or punishment after death. The film shows people wondering about how they should behave, suddenly caring more than they seemed to care before they thought there was an afterlife. One newspaper reads, "reason found to be good". Instead, in a world such as this, people would have been more likely to find such commandments extraneous at best, extortion at worst.

Nevertheless, I'd still recommend The Invention of Lying. It definitely scores high for creativity and has some excellent scenes and funny moments. And, any film that uses fascinating hypothetical to get people thinking deeply deserves some attention. Paranormal Activity is also recommended as a good scary Halloween viewing experience!

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