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.

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Is truly anything possible?

November 13, 2008

I take part, when my schedule allows, in a metaphysical discussion group that meets regularly in my neck of the woods.  I enjoy these meetings, because it gives me a glimpse into the beliefs of other people – namely, people who believe in things like past lives, UFOs, “cosmic shifts”, little green men, and so on.  As you would expect, I cast my doubt around – which usually runs into resistance, but there are others (including this really funny, slightly rude guy named Dave who looks and sounds a little like Denis Leary) who share my doubts.

At the last meeting that I attended, we were speaking about things being pre-destined vs. free will.  Some people at the meeting expressed their belief that, for instance, meeting up with certain people with whom they make strong connections is no accident – that such occurrences are  predestined; I believe that things that happen in my life occur completely at random, that there is no fixed plan for me.  Others, who believe in past lives, think that we have a “soul contract” to which we agree when we enter this life from a former life.   When I begin to apply reason and logic and start questioning these theories (which, without proof, is all they are), as expected, I get all kinds of grief.  Not hostility, just some healthy bantering.  But, someone even suggested to me that I am the one who is close-minded, not open to the possibilities, that I am shutting down and not hearing people out.

Now, hold on here.  The very reason I show up to these meetings is to keep my mind open to possibilities, to hear people out.  But my mind, my intellect, my reason, thus far, tell me that things like past lives and “I talk to dead people” are all bullshit.

Here’s an example from my own life – when I was young, my father bought my mother this beautiful clock.  Westminster chimes, wind it up, the whole works.   At some point, the clock started acting up – not keeping time, not working properly.  My folks took it to a shop, they fixed it, but within weeks it was acting up again.  My father was a pretty handy guy, so he somehow figured out a trick to keep the clock running, which worked for years.  The trick only needed to be employed a few times a year to keep the clock going.  He even tried to teach me and my mother his little “trick”, but I could never pull it off.  To my knowledge, neither could my mother.

Shortly after father died, the clock stopped working and never would start again, no matter how much my mother worked at it.  For years, my mom and I believed that it was my father’s way of telling us he was still around.  This, of course, was a comforting belief to hold.  It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, after my mother died, that it struck me that the reason that the clock stopped working when he died was because he was the only one who knew how to fix the damned thing!  When he died, the knowledge of the clock died with him.

As I was telling this story to the metaphysical folks, I could see their eyes lighting up.  They were thinking, “See?  People do live on after death!”  But when I got to my realization, the light went out.

I guess I’m just someone who has a hard time taking things on faith.   Seeing is believing for me, not the other way around.  I can emotionally believe something, but I call that wishful thinking.  But, once again – I don’t rule out the improbable.  I’m just saying I haven’t seen it with my own eyes.  Certainly, I’ve had experiences that I can’t explain – yet.   But I’m just not ready to assign a quick, metaphysical answer to them.  I am, in this way, keeping my mind open to what the real answer is – an answer arrived at through thoughtful consideration, inquiry and logic, not jumping to the first emotionally satisfying “conclusion”.

A lot of people think that a world without some cosmic, metaphysical connection is depressing.  Well, all I have to say is, I would rather know, without any doubt, the cold hard truth than be comforted by something that is false.