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The theme for late autumn here at HP is “Death and Life.”
I was in my twenties when my Dad died. My first Christmas without him was eight months later. If you’d called me to chat, and thought to ask, I’d have told you I was fine. Yet, that Christmas Eve I found myself walking around the dark house. Being haunted. I didn’t see him that night, though I would later. I didn’t hear him. I wasn’t thinking about him, no memories being replayed, nothing like that. I felt him, a profound sense of his presence.
For the next few years I caught glimpses of him. He would be walking along the street as I drove, or just ducking through a door. Most of those times I would look again and the image would become someone else, a man of similar age, build or body language. Those sighting have become less frequent as the years passed.
I don’t believe in ghosts or life after death. I can’t discount it philosophically but I don’t see the need for it to explain the world. Yet I’ve seen a ghost.
The ghosts in the gaps
Many of the things our brains tell us about the world, about the environment outside our heads, are wrong. A minute making love, or eating chocolate, is exactly as long as a minute in the dentist’s chair. The large screen, high-def field of vision you think you have (until you hit your forties and get bifocals) is the result of your brain fooling you. Your brain takes a picture full of holes and gaps and cleans it up, smooths it out.
Still, a minute in the dentist’s chair is longer and I don’t care what the stopwatch says. When I look out of my very own eyes the big screen high-def world is the one I see. That’s the thing about blind spots. You can’t see them. You don’t know they’re there.
Science can tell me what my actual field of vision is, or hold up the stopwatch. I accept those descriptions as accurate, as far as they go. Science can tell me that violence and anger is primarily a function of testosterone and adrenalin, but it does a shitty job of describing what rage feels like, or love, or helping us deal with them. All science can do is tell me they aren’t real. When I need to deal with how it feels to be human from inside the human head, to deal with the ghost, I must turn to art, literature, drama, sport, religion.
The narrative turn
I told this story in a certain way. I could have told it in a way which discounted my experience. I could have told it as pure psychology, with my relationship between my Dad and myself taking center stage. Each of those stories would have been true, as true as the ghost story. Each one is as true as the other, a paradox. In the Tao te Ching those paradoxes are called the Great Mystery. Sociology calls the ability to hold each of these competing ideas simultaneously “ambiguity tolerance”.
There is no need to rank them hierarchically. I do not need to decide which is more true or discount all but one interpretation as untrue, inauthentic. If I were a scientist with a hypothesis and a way of testing it, I would do those things. I would try and find the theory that most allowed me to model and manipulate this phenomenon. But I’m not, we’re not. I am a person that has had an experience and there is more than one way to understand it.
Interpreting an experience is much more like interpreting art than doing science. There are as many ways to interpret a piece of art as there are people.
The blind leading the deaf
Some interpretations will be widely accepted, will resonate with many people. Some will be wildly idiosyncratic. Each will be just as valid for a given individual as the other, but even the most widely accepted won’t work for everyone. Imagine a person blind from birth listening to the movie Star Wars and interpreting that movie without visuals or the visual library each sighted person has built up over a lifetime. Now consider a deaf person watching the same move with subtitles, with only visual cues and the written word.
Each of us takes in life the same way. Our experiences are not findings of fact and do not need to be treated as such. Certain interpretations will have a better chance of being accepted by large numbers of people. The Star Wars sound track played to a black screen would not have been a blockbuster hit. Still, it’s a valid a way to understand the movie. I can yell at the blind people about everything they are missing, but that hardly seems helpful or friendly. It’s also just as likely that they are hearing shades of meaning that totally escape me. Could we have a useful conversation about what we’re seeing/hearing, about those things the other might have missed? If we are open and polite, I hope so. Let’s try.
For discussion: In the comments below, share a time when you experienced something that was not easily explainable by your belief system.
My name is Ken Apple. I am fifty years old, I live in Puyallup Washington with my wife and youngest son. I attend the Tahoma UU congregation in Tacoma, WA. I have worked in book sales for almost twenty years, because I can’t imagine trying to sell anyone something else.
Next Sunday we continue our theme of “Death and Life” with Brock Haussamen, “Seasons and heartbeats”.
Great article. I especially like the metaphor of understanding Star Wars from deaf, blind, and non-deaf/blind perspectives.
>All science can do is tell me they aren’t real.
I agree science does a godawful job of describing what it’s like to feel rage or love, but why would it tell you those things aren’t real?
Glad you enjoyed it B.T. I’ve enjoyed the website and it’s been a pleasure to contribute.
I reckon that what scientific research allows us to do…is to have a more refined sense of what it means for something to be real, rather than rejecting the reality of, say, love. It was shocking at first when I found out that colours weren’t real…until I realised that I held a crude understanding about what we mean when we say that colours are real. As it turns out, this very idea of subjective colour perception was historically hotly-contested. Colour perception is a subjectively-real experience, which varies a lot between individuals. We use language as a means to arbitrarily fix colour categories. That doesn’t mean that colours aren’t real, in a similar sense to the wavelength of light is real, but that our ability to perceive colour, which is heavily context-dependent, is real. Much can be said in a similar way to that of love, I think.
In defining and describing love it will be reduced to a suite of behavioral states brought about by the hormone oxtocin. Not quite the same as telling me it doesn’t exist, but the reduction certainly diminishes the experience.
>the reduction certainly diminishes the experience.
Many people say that, but to be honest I’ve never understood that. I know exactly what a sperm and egg do and why, but that doesn’t diminish the experience of sex for me! A bit closer to your example, I now know that my body is producing oxytocin when my cat cuddles in my lap, and recalling that knowledge at the moment of cuddling actually enhances the feeling of closeness for me, partly because it is so marvelous. 🙂
It depends on how highly you value the desire for explanation. In my case, I try not to make empirical judgements over personal experiences, as empirical judgements are a public affair and I don’t think that personal experiences can be replicated to anyone’s satisfaction. A scientific understanding of phenomena allows me to make some sense of my experiences, but we must not forget that a description of phenomena is not the same as the phenomena themselves. As a consequence, there will always be a gap between our understanding and our experiences.
I agree completely, yet it seems to me that our society as a whole is very dualistic. People want to go with one explanation or another, one interpretation or another, rather than hold all these different views in mind. On one hand we have folks who believe there is no global warming or that immunizations cause asperger’s syndrome. Medicine does a horrible job of acknowledging diseases before they have a treatment. Until there is a treatment it’s ‘all in peoples minds.’ That phrase is meant to diminish the importance of the experience over the science, even when there is no real science to be had. These are the trends I’m trying to get to by suggesting that we can hold more than one thought in our minds. You’re just already there.
“we can hold more than one thought in our minds”
I really like this idea. A basic part of my training as a research psychologist was to learn to separate my experiences as a human from my understanding of the underlying processes as a scientist. One doesn’t invalidate the other–understanding on multiple levels enriches them all.
I wonder if this is an essential skill for anyone interested in practicing naturalistic paganism.
I consider practicing this skill to be a necessity in my life. I am currently a researcher-in-training and so am aware of the abuse of the tools of reason when they are applied to personal experiences. I like Keats’ idea of Negative Capability for this purpose which involves experiencing the world without searching for any kind of rationalisation for it.
Thisica, what are you hoping to research?
I’ve recently received a summer scholarship to work on metamaterials over the holiday break next year. Then (I hope) I’ll continue with it for my physics honours year.
>>“we can hold more than one thought in our minds”
>I wonder if this is an essential skill for anyone interested in practicing naturalistic paganism.
I would wager you’re right.
I’m not a pro researcher, but from what I’ve read from cognitive psychology, I suspect that a major reason myths and rituals “work” for some naturalists is because they invoke responses from intuitive parts of our brain that “believe” in the gods or magic, at the same time that other more rational parts of our brain maintain disbelief. Thus, for example, in ritual we may feel a significant experience *as if* a deity were really present, but without necessarily committing to the truth of that conclusion. Hence: holding more than one thought in our minds.
What kind of psychology research do you do?
I do evolutionary social psychology. Mostly I study groups, cooperation, and social exclusion. I’ve always had a side interest in psychology of religion, but I’ve never actually collected any data on it.
It is my observation/belief that we live in a society driven by guilt and self-centeredness. Our escape is through denial and avoidance of responsibility, where we find comfort in self-gratification as opposed to actual accomplishment through the discipline of time and effort. When we find a goal or desire to be difficult to attain, we change the requirements; thus making life easier. Maybe. Instead of cracking the books 24/7, we lower the bar; a move closely akin to reducing the ten commandments (already a reduction of the original one-hundred fifty-two, according to the Mishnah) to the seven suggestions; you pick! This method of attainment was interestingly presented in the sci-fi flick “EVOLUTION”, where the science professor gives and “A” to the entire section, except for two brothers who are so imbecilic as to get a “D”, and that’s a gift because they at least turned in a paper. As long as we are willing to accept mediocrity, we shall never rise above it.
I don’t think it’s just a matter of mediocrity that we’ve been unable to deal with the problems we have at the moment…It’s that we’ve created a society which is more prone to failure than our ancestors have imagined hundreds of years ago. Coupled with the technocratic nature of modern capitalism, it’s not hard to see that people are unable to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. This kind of lack is very disturbing, as it prevents us from doing tasks that allow us to become more adaptive and less destructive of ecosystems everywhere, let alone pursue things which are difficult. This is what I believe we’re trying to do here in creating new spiritual/religious practices suited for our current time: it is difficult, but worth our time.
By the way, where do you think our society’s orientation towards “guilt and self-centeredness” came from? It’s from this consideration, plus others, that allow us to deal with the historical legacies that we’ve been beset with and try to discern the good things from the bad things into the present era, I think.