The other night, I met with an old friend and his class of sixth formers who had come from Bristol to London on what I affectionately remember as one of those ‘English trips’. Sat with Roland, another teacher and the delightful group after a play, his colleague asked what I was up to, and I mentioned the documentaries I had been making. I explained that they followed your blogger spending a week with persons making paranormal claims to observe and question and see whether said claims hold up. Perhaps sensing my scepticism, the younger teacher asked, “So do people astral travel?”
“Well, it looks unlikely”, I answered. “It’s quite an easy thing to test: if people feel they’re floating up to the ceiling and looking down on themselves, you can put something up on a high shelf and see if they can identify it. Invariably they can’t. However, there are psychological states which can create that sort of illusory feeling, so it’s more likely to be something auto-suggestive”.
She replied: “Well, I don’t believe that”.
Roland gave me a look of delighted expectancy, and I figured courtesy took precedence over inquiring exactly what she meant by that comment.
Nietzsche made the point well that we equate truth with what we merely want to believe, which, as he continued behind his sensational moustaches, is an insult to the very idea of truth. Here we have a woman, who I presume ‘believes’ in astral travel, asking for information, and then rejecting it when it doesn’t fit with the belief she has in place. There is an interesting conundrum here. Science moves forward by changing its views based on observation. A learning machine, it wants to be shown to be wrong, so that it can dispassionately correct itself and advance. It looks for what’s reliable, what holds up, searches for the bit that makes something work and shakes off unhelpful clutter. That’s why, as Tim Minchin (in his great song Storm) and John Diamond (in Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations) point out, that ‘alternative medicine’, when shown to work, becomes ‘medicine’. Willow root does work as a pain-killer; so scientists have helpfully worked out what the effective part of willow root is that does the job, have re-produced it, and called it aspirin. Science is about insatiable curiosity for how things work; yet open your mouth and offer a scientific explanation and you are without pause chastened, abased, cowed and subdued as if an honest spirit of inquiry were tantamount to hanging ones member in their pale organic ginseng infusions.
This is surely to do with tone. Science has to be done dispassionately, as its aim is to step outside of personal beliefs and see as best as possible what’s actually going on. But we do not instinctively warm to bloodless reason, preferring the emotional appeal of heartfelt opinion, and it is hard for a scientific explanation to entice the imagination with colour and easy mystery. Of course, the reality is that science gives us far richer colours and much deeper mystery than our hopeless brains can fathom, which is most probably why so many make up such shallow fantasies in their place which, in their vacuousness, are easier to grasp.
The scientific community (traditionally unassuming, bearded and softly-spoken) is at long last managing to communicate more effectively, by learning to use the very ‘spin’ that has for so long allowed pseudo-science to be soaked up by the media. Sense About Science is making important moves in bringing science out of the cabinet. That scientific ‘tone’, that can seem to joyless and reductionist to those who don’t see that beneath it lies knowledge far more genuinely enlightening than talk of psychic ability can ever be, is hopefully slowly shifting, as science learns how to communicate in a touchy-feely world where it has fallen out of fashion and food-scares and genetic hysteria have caused many to distrust it.
Interestingly, one very passionate voice to come from the scientific community has led to derision from both sides. Richard Dawkins has for decades, written beautifully on science. Anyone who feels that to not believe in the supernatural is to live an empty, meaningless life should find the time to read Unweaving the Rainbow, which opens with the words:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
When The God Delusion emerged, it was a new, rallying cry and a platform was established. Dawkins’ unapologetic tone, borne from his frustration at how reason has to ‘tip-toe quietly from the room’ whenever religion is mentioned, made sure this frustration was loudly heard. Since then, some atheists less vocal have been embarrassed by what they saw as an evolutionary biologist writing too passionately, outside of his area, and ultimately with a tone they did not share. People who have never read the book believe it to be a mad rant, which it is not. It’s thorough and well-argued, even if you don’t agree with it: the only crime I can see is that he pokes his head above the parapet, and in Britain more than anywhere, you’re likely to get an arrow through your head for such being so bold.
Also, those who enjoy sounding clever like to say that atheism is another form of fundamentalism. Now, anything can be communicated rudely, and lord knows there’s plenty of rudeness around, especially upon and within the discussion fora of Her Majesty’s Internet. But this sanctimonious, trite and flatulent proclamation should be heard as a request for a firm smack. Atheism is simply not happening to believe in God. It is not a belief system in itself. I also do not believe in the tooth-fairy, but that does not make me an anti-tooth-fairy fundamentalist. I may be accused of insensitivity towards your faith in the nocturnal fang-bandit, but the point is I not have a belief. The confusion arises because believers in the extraordinary presume that it is up to the non-believer to disprove the claims of the believers. This is a mistake: I do not have to prove that the tooth-fairy does not exist – the onus for evidence is upon you, the believer. If you want me to take your claim seriously that he/she does exist, then I’m going to ask to see some fairy-poo. Aside from the fact that no-one can ever prove a negative, i.e. that something does not exist – it’s simply up to the person making the claim to offer the evidence. When this gets confused, the fact that an atheist cannot ever offer ‘proof’ of his lack of belief, can sound to the believers as if he’s just living out another sort of faith.
Due primarily to Dawkins’ book, the discussion is now a popular one, and people find themselves not only taking sides, but defending their belief or lack of it. This is not a bad thing, for in that discussion, reason may tip-toe back into the room again. But in such debates, opinions can become heated, tempers lost, and little exchange of understanding happens. Both sides can spout rhetoric in order to score points.
When I was a Christian, we were often told the importance of living exemplary lives: that by being likeable people, we would have a better chance of spreading the Word. Despite hearing this labeled revoltingly as ‘Friendship Evangelism’, the point is an important one. We respond very positively to kindness and likeability (a simple fact lost to many NLPers who obsess over ‘rapport techniques’ and become alienating characters in the process). A rational explanation, or request for evidence, might seem a bitter pill to those that have their identity wrapped up in belief; a little sugar in the mix is so important. If one attacks, one is simply not accepting the person as a human being, who will have sufficient evidence, according to her yardstick, for believing in whatever she chooses to. And in denying that person’s humanity, one rather belittles ones own. There is a place for Dawkins’ bothered incredulity, certainly when dealing with public figures, but for the rest of us, an ability to engage is hugely important. Scepticism, after all, is about honest questioning; a spirit of engagement. Many call themselves sceptics, but are in fact cynics, refusing to engage or accept evidence at any level.
In that tightly secured, permanently guarded area, both these cynics and the astral projectors wander in the same circles, fingers in ears, whistling.