Rick Sheff, MD, was raised culturally Jewish, but essentially atheist. On Passover, his family would sit around discussing possible scientific explanations for the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus.
“I’m sure Moses knew the tide charts,” his father would joke. For them, it was an occasion to remember a political victory led by the historical figure Moses. It wasn’t about God. He learned at an early age that science held the answers to how the world works.
As a medical doctor, Sheff shared experiences with his patients that seemed to defy current medical knowledge. One-by-one, he was able to dismiss each as a rare occurrence, an anomaly. But these “data points,” as he calls them, started to add up.
Two outstanding data points—experiences of telepathy—created cracks in his armor of atheistic certainty and disrupted what he calls his “web of belief” based on modern science. Rebuilding that web required a weaving together of spirituality and a new scientific paradigm.
What’s Your ‘Web of Belief’?
Sheff is a family physician, an author, and the chief medical officer of healthcare consultancy firm The Greeley Company. He studied philosophy at Oxford University before attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
As a philosophy student, he learned about the famed American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000), who coined the term “web of belief.”
Sheff summarized: “Every one of us functions in a personal web of belief. Think of this as a network of mutually reinforcing knowledge claims about the world.”
“When we encounter a data point—an experience, or a scientific result—that doesn’t fit our web of belief, we have three choices,” he said. The first option is to deny that it is “data.”
We can write it off as “just coincidence,” or in a scientific study we could assumed it’s a measurement error. Scientists may say, for example, “Until that study is reproduced by a number of other people independently, I’m not going to accept that that data is valid. It’s not data.”
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