Ouija boards and what we want to believe

It’s too late for Hallowe’en, but Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian Magazine article on “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” is worth a read if you’re at all interested in nineteenth-century history, or in the occult, or if you’ve ever played with one. Or if, like me, you’re at all interested in the limitations of science and of scientific thinking and in the ways Americans today think about religion. (My thoughts follow the jump.)

reproduction ouija board

Modern Ouija boards are made of cardboard and plastic, but if you’re serious, you can make your own. Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user dragonoak.

The first half of the article describes the game’s history, starting with its invention amid the spiritualism of the late 19th century, when it was fairly common for people to try to communicate with the dead. What I found most interesting (and should perhaps have seen coming) was that it was not preachers but professional spirit mediums who got most ticked off by the Ouija board, because it put them out of work. At the time, spiritualism was seen as perfectly compatible with Christianity — at least with mainstream American Christianity, which has historically been fairly pragmatic. It was the 1973 movie The Exorcist that scared people into believing in demons again and made the Ouija board an object of suspicion. (I recall that by the time I was in high school the only reason it interested me was that it was [seen as] dangerous.)

The second half of the article, which describes researchers’ attempts to explain how the board actually “works,” is equally interesting, even though (or, to me, because) it’s largely an exercise in circular logic. The board’s workings are attributed to the “ideometer effect,” to unconscious movements that seem to the individual to be beyond his or her control, that are in fact beyond his or her conscious control. As Frank Hyman explains, “honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.” Fair enough, and easily proven, as it was in the nineteenth century, well before the Ouija board was invented. But that fact doesn’t disprove the existence of a spirit world, nor the ability of spirits to communicate with humans via the ideometer effect. I can grab someone’s arm and make it move; if spirits exist, and if the spiritual realm can interact with the physical, then spirits could do the same. But I can also plant unconscious suggestions in a person’s mind — advertising does this all the time — as could spirits, given the same assumptions about their existence and potency. The fact that human beings can manipulate another human being’s unconscious mind and thus produce a motor response does not disprove the existence or potency of spirits. (There have been cases of scientific fraud; does that disprove the value of the scientific method?) More broadly, finding the physical means by which any allegedly spiritually-driven action occurs says nothing about its origin. For those skeptical about the potency of spirits but not necessarily their existence, in fact, the ideometer effect provides a more plausible explanation of how they might work. To someone inclined to physical explanations of physical phenomena, the human unconscious is where the spiritual and physical worlds might reasonably interact. The ideometer effect is, to that way of thinking, merely the mechanism by which spirits operate, the means of motion but not its origin.

This experiment at the University of British Columbia, for example, does not necessarily

Their initial experiments involved a Ouija-playing robot: Participants were told that they were playing with a person in another room via teleconferencing; the robot, they were told, mimicked the movements of the other person. In actuality, the robot’s movements simply amplified the participants’ motions and the person in the other room was just a ruse, a way to get the participant to think they weren’t in control. Participants were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil? Were the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney?”) and expected to use the Ouija board to answer.

What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time. “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.

The only way to prove that implication, though, would be to ask the subjects questions whose answers they could not possibly have known. But even that wouldn’t necessarily convince anyone who didn’t want to be convinced — and perhaps not because they were irrational but simply because the evidence isn’t necessarily sufficient to the conclusion. So the answers are coming from my “unconscious,” I might say. Fine. What is the unconscious, exactly? Ppsychologists debate that. All we can say for sure is that we do stuff without understanding why we do it or even recognizing our agency. We know a good deal about what it (or “it”) does, but so did medieval people; they just attributed their unconscious desires and actions to original sin or demons or the workings of the Holy Spirit. A lot of recent psychological research on the limitations of conscious reason don’t dispel religious belief in the spirit or soul but only the Enlightenment faith in the power of human reason, which makes it ironic that rational atheists use brain research as a basis of demonstrating… well, anything rational, really. Even our definitions of consciousness are vague, descriptive, and necessarily circular, since we’re forced to produce the definition by using the thing we’re defining.

This is the fundamental problem with atheist apologetics: You can’t disprove the nonexistence of something that has been posited to exist outside your system of logic, and attempts to do so nearly always fall back on the premise that nothing exists outside that system. (The idea that you could disprove such a thing, as a pure matter of logic, was disproven by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, but surely also by common sense.) Of course, it’s also the fundamental problem with Christian apologetics; neither sort is likely to convince a thinking person who didn’t already want to agree.

None of this is to say that I believe that Ouija boards “work” in the way that they’re supposed to, or to get into debates about what various kinds of divination might or might not be good for. Per the UBC study, I’m perfectly willing to believe that a Ouija board is an excellent tool for memory recall. But it’s worth pointing out, as I do with resigned amusement, the assumption behind that Smithsonian article that spirits do not exist, an assumption McRobbie uses to demonstrate that the Ouija board’s workings are entirely material in origin. “The board does offer a link between the known and the unknown,” she concludes, “Just not the unknown that everyone wanted to believe it was.” But her readers, I suspect, like most Westerners today, want to believe that the unknown is inside them — just as fervently as Americans of the nineteenth century wanted to believe it was outside, and with equal disdain for competing opinions, and with no more or less evidence for that belief. Like Fox Mulder, we believe what we want to believe, and whether our faith is constructive or destructive has far more to do with how we use it than with whether we can justify it to anybody else. Or even to ourselves.