Am I close-minded?

January 17, 2009

Am I being close-minded when I say that things like:

“There is no god.”

“Homeopathy is bullshit.”

“There is no such thing as reincarnation.”

I could go on, but you get the picture, right?

There was a time when I would’ve believed and sometimes did believe in any number of these and other similar, fantastical things.  What has made me so cynical, so doubtful of everything?

Years ago, I saw an interview on TV of Billy Bob Thornton, and, while I’m not a huge fan of his, he did say something that really stuck with me.  He said, “It is arrogant to say that something isn’t true simply because you don’t believe it.”  That statement has been like a koan for me all these years, and I think of it sometimes when I ponder the growth of my skepticism.

I really want to believe that anything is possible – that, for example, a woman performing Reiki can put her hands on someone dying of cancer and the patient is spontaneously healed.  (I do not, however, as is sometimes the claims of the religiously devout about atheists, yearn to believe in a god – I have no desire to live my life under the rule of a sadistic, absent, yet supposedly all-powerful and benevolent father figure “in heaven”, or what Christopher Hitchens humorously calls “a celestial North Korea”.)  It is a beautiful thought and many of us have heard of such spontaneous healings – but these are all anecdotal accounts and are hardly a good basis for any kind of proof.  Once again, my intellect, and my constant and insatiable desire to know what is actually true, will not afford me the faith that is required to completely believe in those accounts.  Of course, I really cannot rule out any possibility, but I also cannot fully embrace every “low probability event” as an indication of a likely trend, either.

In other words, I need proof, dammit!

But yes, haven’t all of us had experiences that we cannot explain?  I, for example, once had an out-of-body experience for which I have no reasonable explanation.  I was completely lucid, sober, not under the influence of any drugs, stimulants or any other physical stresses, such as lack of sleep, food, or water.   I can recall exactly where I was, the feeling of floating in the room, looking down at my body.  It was a bit alarming, but, once I got over the initial shock of it, the experience was also very peaceful and dream-like.  I was actually watching myself doing things as I was doing them.  Whenever I have spoken about this to others who are, for lack of better terms, “New Age-y”, they say things like, “Oh well, it was your soul yearning to be momentarily free of your physical body” or things of that nature.  They say these things so unabashedly, believing them so completely, that I sometimes – only sometimes, mind you – wish I had the ability to engage in that sort of willful abandon of my critical thought.

However, given that all my searching leads me back to the mind, the intellect, reason, logic, and critical thought, these tools obviously have their limits (at least at this point in the evolution of our species).  For instance, no one really knows, empirically, what atomic particles are made of.  (String theory, anyone?)  No one really knows the answer to my friend Marde‘s favorite question:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  No one really knows why – the larger why – bad things happen to good people.  Perhaps faith in the unseen is necessary for those who would otherwise lose themselves too easily in the idea of oblivion, or of the seemingly random nature of what is surely the miracle – yes, I said miracle – of our existence.

So where does all this mental meandering and search for meaning leave me on a daily basis?  Sometimes it leaves me breathless, when the search is frustrating.  Sometimes depressed, when the search seems fruitless or even pointless.  Sometimes overjoyed, when I reflect on the sheer luck of the draw that I should be existing at this moment on this amazing planet, for all of its and my flaws.

But most often, it leaves me with this belief, which I know I’ve written here before, but it is worth repeating:

I would rather know the cold, hard, unequivocal truth of something than be comforted by something that is false.

8 Responses to “Am I close-minded?”

  1. shamelesslyatheist Says:

    People hate not knowing the answer to the unknown. We have to fight the urge to substitute false knowledge for the proper answer, which is “I don’t know”. It doesn’t feel good to say it. In fact, it’s kind of like eating celery instead of steak for dinner. But I’d rather that than succumb to what Daniel Dennett calls ‘premature curiosity satisfaction’. I think everyone should practice saying “I don’t know” on a daily basis. Maybe that will shake the unsatisfied feeling associated with it.

  2. shamelesslyatheist Says:

    Oh, and I should add that it is not closed minded to say “I don’t know”. But it is very closed minded to substitute a baseless explanation for “I don’t know”. The former keeps the mind open to possible explanations for phenomena. The latter does not.

  3. Minds Erased Says:

    Yes! You are absolutely right. That we don’t know something is a difficult thing to admit. But to admit it also begs the question, “Are there, then, things which are unknowable?” And, of course, the only real answer is “I don’t know”. Or: “I don’t know YET.” I guess I’m just not willing to “satisfy my curiosity prematurely”, as you said.

    Very thoughtful comments. Thank you! Welcome aboard.

  4. tonyisnt Says:

    I say no, it’s not close-minded. I think that counterclaim comes from a lot of different things within people: insecurity with their own beliefs and world-view, a lack of critical thinking skills, true devotion to what they believe—it’s kind of across the map.

    As I see it, everyone should be able to get down to what is really real, and their belief systems and world-views should be constructed within the boundaries of reality. Their beliefs should be demonstrably within these bounds; if they aren’t, they aren’t worth a damn.

    I don’t know is definitely not arrogant, but for many people it becomes a fence-sitting position and an excuse to never make up one’s mind. It’s like when someone asks you a yes or no question and you reply with “Maybe”; you’ve picked the save position, but you just might become neurotic.

  5. Billy Bob Thornton was kinda right. Just because we don’t (yet) have the tools to quantify some unexplained phenomena, doesn’t mean they don’t exist or have a mundane explanation. Absence of proof is not proof of absence, and in the absence of answers the following quote makes “I don’t know” more acceptable:
    Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived – Hugh Prather
    But we may still wonder and explore. And keep an open mind.

  6. Mardé Says:

    I’ve often been intrigued by the out-of-body experience (OBE). There are many who will in fact say that the OBE is evidence for dualism, i.e. the separation of mind and body. Even some brain scientists will claim this, for example Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles. But these scientists are definitely in the minority. Most will say that the mind cannot exist without the brain and vanishes when the brain dies.

    So, how do we know what is true here? Not easy to know. One would really have to dig into the studies, the literature, and try to understand the evidence for and against. This would require a lot of work. Just take a look at the Wiki.

    In the meantime, it’s safest to say, as I do, and you probably too, Minds, “I don’t know.” My strong bias, though, perhaps shared by you, is that there are physical explanations for these experiences.

    One thing I might say is if a person in an OBE state can identify objects in the room not otherwise visible or known to him, we might have a problem on our hands. As I remember from the literature, such experiments have been tried but so far have not been successful.

  7. Mardé Says:

    This is a very thoughtful post, Minds. I agree with it completely. Self-deception is the easy way out. As you say, “I would rather know the cold, hard, unequivocal truth of something than be comforted by something that is false.” For whatever we believe, we’ve got to have evidence for it and not just a vague feeling. Not that feelings of mystery aren’t important. It is miraculous that we’re here on this planet in this unfathomable universe, as you say, purely by the luck of the draw. We could so easily have been someone else: that particular sperm in our mother’s womb by chance beat out it’s neighbors, each one of which would have yielded a different you, a different me, not to mention the chance of one’s mother or father not having met. Whew….

  8. Minds Erased Says:

    It IS mind boggling, isn’t it? That’s why miracle is the only way to describe it. But it’s a RANDOM miracle, I happen to believe, and not something that is pre-destined. It’s hard to imagine that there are people who honestly believe that god is up in heaven overseeing which one of those hundreds of thousands of sperm actually make their way to the egg? I mean come on. I’ve read more imaginative and riveting science fiction than this.

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