Derren Brown the So-Called Messiah

Derren Brown is a skeptic who tried to get various religious leaders to embrace and endorse his spiritual powers. The episodes I recommend here have to do with Derren converting other skeptics with the touch of his hand in front of an evangelical pastor, and he pulled it off! What the hell went on here? Who are we as human beings? This stuff puzzles me to no end. Is it just the era we live in, or the human mind that has a transcendental temptation? See for yourself, especially episodes 2-4 below.

Thanks to Andrew Atkinson for this.

Derren Brown now has a blog which can be read here.

First posted 9/17/08


Zod said...

Hi john,

i can't remember if Derren mentions it in this episode or not but he's an ex "happy-clappy" christian.

For a fascinating read, check out his book, tricks of the mind.


David B. Ellis said...

This topic is especially interesting to me in light of the book I just finished reading on the psychology and evolutionary origins of religion WINGS OF ILLUSION by John Schumacher.

He argues that perhaps the strongest single drive in human beings is what he calls the paranormal belief imperative. That when we evolved intelligence (and along with it the awareness of death and the random indifference of the world we inhabit to the harm we suffer) that we developed this imperative to shield us psychologically from the hard facts of the reality we inhabit by inventing "higher" realities as a consolation.

Not a new idea, of course. What I found especially interesting, though, was the way he tied the mechanism by which this process works to our natural hypnotic suggestibility and his suggestion that many psychological disorders are related to disruptions in this drive.

I doubt you'll agree with everything in the book. I certainly question it and intend to research much of what it claims. But I think its an area well worth investigating and I'd highly recommend the book to anyone interested in why people believe in religion and the paranormal.

David B. Ellis said...

I think its important to understand the psychology of suggestibility and to understand that hypnotic suggestibility is not just something that a hypnotist can take advantage of but a part of our daily lives and the way our minds naturally work---notice in the beginning of the video how Derren points out the techniques for increasing suggestibility employed by religions and the hypnotic techniques he was employing on the skeptical visitors.

If we want to avoid becoming self-deceived its important to understand these processes.

We spend much time here discussing the philosophical arguments for and against belief and that's certainly a good thing. But its equally important to understand and the psychology of religious belief and conversion.

More posts like this!! I think this sort of thing can do more to turn people toward skepticism than philosophical debate ever could.

ismellarat said...

I wish he'd explained how he did the tricks in detail. I've seen his videos before, and he does a lot of editing.

The lady from Sedona was easy, as someone else has figured out - "let the image just sail into your mind" he told her, and she draws a sailboat, probably wanting to "believe" and to "help".

Had James Randi been in the other room, he would have told himself to "think random".

Unknown said...

"The lady from Sedona was easy, as someone else has figured out - "let the image just sail into your mind" he told her"

Yeah, and "don't go overboard with the details".

Jason Long said...

I once saw some videos where he made someone's arms feel way too heavy to lift - only to tell them thirty seconds later basically how stupid they were for being duped. Good stuff.

the mad LOLscientist said...

I watched this last night. He did say he's an ex-happyclappy.

@ ismellarat: I agree. He could have - should have - made each case into an episode instead of cramming everything into an hour. I was expecting him to go into some detail about how he managed to do what he did. The show left me really disappointed for that reason.

But....... a magician never tells, right? After all, that's why Penn & Teller bombed so badly, isn't it? /snark

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Derren. And yes the sail boat was a trick, but that is what he was demonstrating. It wouldn't have worked against Randi, but then why would Brown try?

Because I have a DVR I rewound the 'conversion part. If you follow his instructions - eyes closed, feet together you do feel unsteady- possibly just the fact we usually stand with our feet apart and eyes open.

The Dream Machine was just cold reading, showing a problem with the 'I want to believe' crowd.

Its important to remember that Brown did this to expose the lies. What is frightening is the US pastor who set up a giant pendulum arrangement, with a heavy weight on the end. Standing a member of the congregation at one end of the arc, he brings the weight to just in front of their face- a centimetre or so. He then lets go, and when it swings back tells the person not to twitch- Jesus loves them so will not let the weight hit them. Much cheering ensues when the weight proves God's love. No doubt an Athiest would find the weight had been given a little extra push on release.

Jeffrey Amos said...

IMO, when exposing any fallacy, it's important not to exaggerate just how dumb it is.

This video demonstrates that in many ways happyclappy Christianity can be on par with psychics, alien abductees, and new agers.

However, the non-happyclappy pastor was a large step up. I appreciated how Derren made mention of this. Not that the pastor did well, but he demonstrated a level of craziness vastly lower than the rest. I'll give him credit for being the brightest deluded person in the video.

Rob R said...

This was very interesting but I think it could reinforce an epistemic mistake. Any of our senses can be fooled by an illusion, but we still generally trust them as we should. One may fallaciously conclude from this that all such amazing supernatural events are so illusory or worse, that all encounters with the spiritual are illusory.

Rob R said...

2nd post, afterthoughts

I had one other thought and maybe I missed it, but it wasn't clear to me whether he got the preachers endorsement or not. IIRC he only said that the preacher would not endorse him without meeting him a second time. I'd say, that if he met with him and if that meeting ended in an endorsement, it would not have been clearly irresponsible for him to do so.

Theologically speaking, there are reasons why a Christian could have reservations on the persona Brown presented. We know by the words of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles that signs and wonders are not sufficient for an identification as the Lord's own as Jesus said that that there will be instances where miracle workers and prophets who did their works even in Jesus' name would be rejected by Jesus. And Derren Brown didn't even do that but was promoting general theism, which isn't bad in and of itself, but it is in a real sense half measures for the Christian.

If there was a second meeting, there should have been questions not only on theology, particularly on who Jesus is, but also on Brown's life story.

I believe that if the pastor is truly a man of God, through prayerful consideration and reflection on the Scriptural basis, He would have found something that wasn't right and would've rejected him. But if I am wrong and Brown passed further probing with flying colors with nothing to raise eyebrows, the Pastor could have been justified in giving his endorsement, and that he'd be wrong isn't because he wasn't justified but because no amount of justification here can eliminate risk and that should not stop us from making such judgments.

Finally, I would suggest that Brown's criteria for critical thought was in fact not that critical. The idea that an expert in illusion and tricking the mind is traveling around to test peoples critical thinking skills is so unlikely that it isn't necessarily the case that people should expect that this is amongst the options to consider. What is more likely is that the person is a fraud and asking him if it is a trick would all most certainly not get you an honest answer and would not advance one's thinking into the matter. The high level of dishonesty and fraud entailed is not going to going to go away just because someone asks "are you lying".

It reminds me of a quirky college friend I had who would ask you three times after you made a statement if you had lied, and after a third denial, he'd conclude that you couldn't possibly be lying. It was of course tongue in cheek tomfoolery which was funny on a couple of levels such as the one already mentioned above, the idea of posing the question as a sufficient truth serum, and the fact that it would be posed after innocent statements that wouldn't be occasion for lying.

Unknown said...

Rob R
"One may fallaciously conclude from this that all such amazing supernatural events are so illusory or worse, that all encounters with the spiritual are illusory"

On what grounds can one reasonably conclude that ANY putative supernatural events are not illusory?
Your use of fallacy and conclusion imply reasoning or based somehow on evidence.
Someone's inner conviction or feeling is not evidence.

Rob R said...

On what grounds can one reasonably conclude that ANY putative supernatural events are not illusory?

On the grounds of a coherent world view and epistemic framework that utilizes all of our epistemic resources.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Rob R,
Do you agree that greater epistemic doubt is warranted when it comes to supernatural claims, as opposed to those claims grounded in external facts available to all?

Have you personal experience of the supernatural or do you base your belief in the supernatural on the reports of others who claim to have experienced it?

Rob R said...

Do you agree that greater epistemic doubt

Epistemic doubt? what's that. There is a greater risk that many religiously relevant beliefs may be wrong than there are for claims estabhlished by science (this risk, also the degree of unprovability I call epistemic risk). but for that matter, science entails greater epistemic risk than math or logic, and both of those have greater risk than the proposition that thinking is taking place (the only statement that absolutely cannot fail to be true by any means as long as their is conscious beings or being somewhere in existence).

In short, there is no objective standard by which we can judge the degree of epistemic risk to be too great. While there is no objective means, world views including the epistemic claims made within them have means to judge these sorts of things.

Have you personal experience of the supernatural or do you base your belief in the supernatural on the reports of others who claim to have experienced it?

yes and yes and I won't get into it here because there is already an indepth conversation on it in the discussion section of the prayer thread about starving children of which I have written a great deal.

Rob R said...

Just one note about that last statement. It's not like me to tell someone to go see what's already been said especially in long discussions on the issue elsewhere and it's not like I wouldn't repeat myself in the future, but I have written a lot and I can only commit myself to so many discussions.

Unknown said...

Bob R,
I was just trying to get an idea of where you were coming from.
I have had conversations with Christians before who talk about epistemology but mean Christian epistemology. That is they claim that there is no basis for knowledge without God, which just begs the question.
I understand however if you don't want to rehash previous conversations for latecomers.