Friday, August 17, 2007

I Want to Be(lie)ve

(Written 8-14-07)

I expect I was probably too hard on Mrs. T last night; in this wacky ol' world people should find their comfort where they can.

It's just that stories like that have a nasty way of suggesting to one she consider some of her own weird ideas, of which I have more than a few. I'm certainly too open-minded for my own good. But my dad (a hardened skeptic if ever there was one) taught me to believe that ideas are like pretty strangers at a party: go ahead and dance with them, flirt with them, even take them home if you so desire. But make damned sure you spend some quality time together before you decide to marry one.

Apparently, I mock Mrs. T's eggplant because it's just not my type. Sometimes I present as a skeptic, but I'm really just a mystic with a wicked inability to commit. It's probably not a coincidence I'm single.

So, in light of my current need to overcompensate for my own sins by making sport of other people's faith, I decided to return to a book I read back in the late 90s, when we were all strung out with pre-millennial crazies of one sort or another. Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, reviews a series of foundationless and/or disturbing memes which were afflicting the public consciousness at the fin de siecle. Some, such as the "Satanic" ritual abuse and recovered memory panics, are all but forgotten (except of course by those whose lives were turned upside down by them). But others, such as "Intelligent Design" and Holocaust denial, persist and grow and continue to menace decent logical thought today.

All the essays deserve a read, and Shermer's analysis of how ideas go wrong is illuminating. But what grabbed me was that Shermer, in his first 20 pages, furnishes a believable theory answering my "Why, why why?" cry of last night.

In short, Shermer asserts that the human mind developed the ability to see patterns in the world around it as a part of our survival mechanism; i.e. "That critter ate my woman, and then it ate my dog, so there's a good chance it could eat me, too," or "Last time the bread turned this color I had to battle giant spiders, so . . . ," etc. But along with the perception of meaningful, repeatable patterns comes a downside: the tendency to also seek patterns and meaning in occurences or actions which have no repeatable, measurable effect on the physical world. The two processes are inescapably related, and it's up to our advanced logical capabilities to sort them out.

Interestingly, though, Shermer confirms that magical thinking -- wearing your "lucky" pants on a first date, or seeing a comforting message in your eggplant seeds -- has been shown to function positively to reduce anxiety in stressful situations. (As a corollary to this, he points out that times of intense cultural stress can engender widespread magical thinking.)

So there it is. Mrs. T found the eggplant comforting because her brain was looking for a soothing pattern in a time of stress. So, then, if we know both that and why "God" appeared to her, is it science or superstition to believe it?

I often wonder what it must have been like to live in the heady days of John Dee -- when any idea under the sun was still game for experimentation, shiny and just daring you to prove it. Mr. Dee was the first to apply Euclidean geometry to navigation and the inventor of an alphabet with which to talk to angels; the man who both developed the plan for the British Navy and cast the weather hex that won the war on the Spanish Armada. He did the Virgin Queen's horoscope charts! Ah, a world where one could simultaneously be advancing the course of science and thoroughly bugfuck crazy.

Good times.

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