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An Ongoing Conversation About Beliefs
2005.04.13 (Wed) 03:07
We recently received a comment on one of our Allison DuBois posts asking about our beliefs and our skeptical approach to life. The commenter, Cat, had the following to say:
I feel for you guys being so sceptical. I imagine that for you when we die there is no after life. I couldn't imagine how painful that would be to not believe in the life of souls. How do you believe in such a depressing and unhopeful existence. Please feel free to email me about this although I don't think you will. All I feel for you is the deepest sympathy. To believe in something greater than yourself leads to humility rather than arrogance.
Cat's inquiry was polite enough and it posed some interesting questions. We posted a reply (the original is on the Rant linked above), and also e-mailed her, but we felt that this thread deserved its own post as well. Since the conversation was (and is) still in progress, and since it is somewhat larger in scope than the Allison DuBois post where it began, we have moved the discussion here. (As a note, we had a lot of fun finding good links for our reply. Some of those images are absolutely awe inspiring!)
Basically, Cat brought up a topic that we had recently been considering posting about — the meaning of life, the nature of belief, and all that jazz. Cat's questions and comments were, in many ways, typical of how many others seem to envision those like us. As atheists and skeptics, people seem to think that our lives must be devoid of all meaning, but that just isn't the case. For our part, we have discovered profound meaning in many aspects of existence, as outlined in our response below. We're sure that other atheists have different opinions, and we'd love to hear about them as well.
Cat is certainly still welcome to participate, as is everyone else who wants to. We're sure that others have been on various sides of this debate before, so let us know what you think. Our first reply to Cat's comment is below.
According to Cat's next reply, it seemed that our arrogance had been confirmed in her eyes. We're not pointing any fingers at Cat here — as we said, we believe that this is just how a lot of people see atheists. For people who believe in supernatural forces, we imagine that it would be very difficult to understand how anything that is not magical could possibly be as impressive or important as their own mystical beliefs.
Cat's reply was as follows:
OK I'm impressed, I wasn't expecting a response. I am Buddhist and believe in reincarnation until we reach enlightenment, thats where I'm coming from. I believe we choose to live a physical life in order for our eternal souls to learn lessons that we cannot learn in spirit. But hey I'm open to all kinds of possibilities and don't get me wrong I relish this physical life and am not just waiting to die for any kind of serene heavenly afterlife. But really I am just guessing as to what happens when we die, but you don't seem to be guessing, your post indicates that you know what happens when we go...how do you KNOW that your belief is utterly the only one to have? How can you be so assured that your belief is correct? Has one of your posse died and come back with the ultimate truth? You see thats the real arrogance I see in your belief, you leave no other possibilities open for discussion what you believe is right and everyone else is on the wrong track. That smacks to me of right to lifers who refuse to allow individuals freedom to make their own choices as they are so utterly convinced that their convictions are the only ones to be held. Yes, you have indeed come out and slammed my post to you and let me put this to you, you guys DON'T know and as a friend of mine put it so well, we won't know until we die and then it's too late. So where do you guys stand on ghosts? What animates our bodies from the moment of birth? Are all psychics phonies in your eyes? I have had experiences in my life that suggest that we do exist in spirit, and that is what I base my response on. Obviously you have had experiences in your life that lead to your beliefs and thats cool. If it was in any way possible to prove my beliefs to you I would but alas no way is known. So we stand on opposite sides of an argument with no possible way of proving either sides correctness. I know what I'd rather be and thats a believer rather than a sceptic. I'd rather have my faith than your certainty, however happy it makes you.
The following is the reply we had worked up, which is posted below for the very first time.
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Cat, let us start by saying that it wasn't at all our intention to "slam" your comments, and we're kind of disappointed that you saw our reply in that way. In fact, we started our last reply with a statement that we weren't being sarcastic or facetious — we were simply trying to illustrate our view so you could understand it.
That also leads us to the next important note — we never claimed to "know," in the definitive way to which you seem to refer, whether there is or is not an afterlife, a soul, or a god. We're not sure why you think that we did make such a claim. All we can guess is that the phrasing we used near the beginning of our reply misled you. Our statement was:
We feel for you believing that you do have an eternal soul. We imagine that for you, when we die, there is some mystical afterlife; and you wait your entire life to experience it. However, there is no such place, and that goes for you as much as it does for us.
However, this was just us re-using the phrasing that you used in your initial comment. It was not an attempt to say that we "know" that there is no afterlife. That said, while we don't claim to "know," we do claim to have a pretty good case for our position.
Here's why: it's all about evidence. The stronger the evidence we have for a specific viewpoint, the more likely it is to be true. There is absolutely zero established, confirmed evidence for any psychic, paranormal, supernatural or "spiritual" phenomena. No "medium" has ever conclusively proven contact with a dead person, no paranormal investigator has ever conclusively proven that dead people wander around as ghosts — and so on, and so on. And the thing is, all it would take is one instance where proof existed — just one — and we would have to adjust our view of the world. Yet to date, we haven't needed to do so. On the other hand, there is an extremely large amount of evidence that suggests that the scientific view of how the world works is accurate. So, we go with the scientific approach, the only approach that actually follows through on its hypotheses, either supporting or refuting them through empirical observation and evidence.
In a comment over on the Rant which sparked this discussion, Myrddin makes a wonderfully salient observation:
One of the main characteristics of mankind is that it has a huge drive to investigate and innovate. Mankind leaves no stone unturned in its drive to get further, faster, easier ...
Why would there be such a blindspot, if the paranormal really worked?
Why, indeed? The fact that literally thousands of years have gone by without a single piece of evidence for supernatural phenomena, while in a mere few hundred years of intense scientific inquiry we have gathered mountains of evidence for the scientific worldview, should lead to the obvious conclusion: there is no evidence for the paranormal because the paranormal doesn't exist.
Despite what you may think, Cat, there is no arrogance inherent to our position. We certainly do leave "other possibilities open for discussion" — just give us a testable, falsifiable hypothesis on any subject or phenomenon, and we'd be very interested in the outcome of the subsequent experiments. In our experience, this approach tends to lead to a predictable outcome: none of the experiments support the paranormal hypothesis being tested, and the believers end up saying that the paranormal explanation is true anyway. That's fine, if that's all it takes for others; but we require a more rigorous test of accepted knowledge.
And Cat, we take exception to (and some offense at) your suggestion that we are anything like the right to life morons out there. You stated:
That smacks to me of right to lifers who refuse to allow individuals freedom to make their own choices as they are so utterly convinced that their convictions are the only ones to be held.
There is a glaringly obvious difference: the problem with the right to life crowd isn't that they believe that abortions are unacceptable (they are welcome to that belief), but rather that they attempt to impose that belief on others via legislation, propaganda, and violence. You seem to agree that this is a problem, based on your statement above. However, that is not at all our position with regard to religion and/or the paranormal. While we believe it is important to get the facts about these things out in the open, ultimately it is up to each individual to decide what they want to believe. We have no desire at all to force you to stop believing in psychics, ghosts, or reincarnation. We actually wrote a post about this a little while back called "Believe What You Want to Believe." It states, in part, the following:
It is important to understand that we fully support your right to believe whatever you want to believe, regardless of the supporting facts, or lack thereof. We firmly support your right to your own personal beliefs, and we would gladly argue for you to maintain that right. That said, it is equally important to understand that we maintain the right to not believe what you believe, and to think that what you believe is silly. Just because you believe something passionately, don't expect us to respect that belief. We will respect your right to hold that belief, but not necessarily the belief itself.
The main issue here is that we should all have the right to believe whatever we want to believe, as long as that belief doesn't infringe on the rights of others.
In a nutshell: believe what you want to believe, just don't expect universal respect for your beliefs, and don't try to force your beliefs on anyone else. From what we've read from you, we don't think you are asking for either of those things.
We also want to address some of the questions you posed:
So where do you guys stand on ghosts?
We believe that ghosts do not exist. There isn't a single shred of convincing evidence for ghosts. Every supposed piece of evidence that we've seen can be quite easily explained, if you know what to look for. Science can be a wonderful tool! We'll gladly look at any compelling evidence for the existence of ghosts — to date, we've seen nothing even remotely convincing. Of course, as usual, we have no problem if others want to believe in ghosts, as long as that belief doesn't infringe on our lives.
What animates our bodies from the moment of birth?
Our bodies are animated by the electrochemical impulses delivered throughout our nervous system to instruct our muscles to move. There's nothing at all mysterious about this process. Of course, you may have meant to ask the more meaningful question: "From where does our conscious self arise?" The answer to that is both complicated and incomplete, as yet, and would be better explained by a cognitive scientist.
Are all psychics phonies in your eyes?
Well, since we believe that psychic powers are not real, then by extension, we believe that self-proclaimed psychics do not really possess such powers. Are they all "phonies"? To be fair, we would say that some are frauds and con artists, while some actually delude themselves into believing that they really do have these powers. Neither scenario, however, makes them correct. Once again, we'll qualify this by stating that we would welcome evidence to the contrary — we've just never seen any that has stood up to scientific scrutiny. And as usual, anyone who wants to is free to believe in psychic powers, as long as it doesn't interfere with our lives. That means no admitting completely unverifiable (read: any) psychic revelations as evidence in court, or as a reason to issue a search warrant — but feel free to drop $300 on a personal reading about your financial future, if you're so inclined.
If it was in any way possible to prove my beliefs to you I would but alas no way is known. So we stand on opposite sides of an argument with no possible way of proving either sides correctness.
Well, there is no evidence at all for the beliefs that you hold, and that's okay. We just find it interesting when people who hold such beliefs try to assert them as factual with no real evidence to support their claims. From our perspective, we may not have definitive knowledge of the position we hold, but we can point to a lot of evidence in favor of our beliefs. We can also debunk much of the supposed evidence for beliefs like yours (though certainly not all of it since so much is merely anecdotal). Remember, we can't "prove" that the things you believe in do not exist — we can't prove a negative, we can only show that specific claims are false. In the end, you are correct in saying that we will likely not convince one another to change beliefs. In our experience, the anecdotal evidence that you lean on for your beliefs is enough for you, and will never be enough for us. So, it is a gap that usually cannot be closed.
I know what I'd rather be and thats a believer rather than a sceptic. I'd rather have my faith than your certainty, however happy it makes you.
In all sincerity, feel free to be a believer in whatever makes you happy. We would never try to stop you. You asked (and made assumptions) about our lives, our beliefs and our feelings, and we simply explained our actual point of view. Not only are we saying that you are welcome to your beliefs, we would gladly argue for your right to maintain them. This is a free country (at least until the Religious Right takes over — and trust us, you being a Buddhist, we're all on the same side in that battle), and no one can tell you what you can or cannot believe.
You do make a strange assertion here when you say that being a believer or a skeptic is about what you'd "rather" be. That's simply not true for us. All other factors aside, given the choice, we'd love to live in a world in which the supernatural is real, where wishing really does make it so; but throughout our lives we've experienced, observed, and learned, just like everybody else, and we've discovered that wishing does not make it so. In our experience, nobody can talk to ghosts, and nobody is verifiably reincarnated. So we are skeptics because it is an approach to knowledge that does not presume anything other than a logical, sensible (in every meaning of the word), consistent environment around us. From our perspective, we find it strange that more people don't take this approach. Shouldn't everyone prefer to live in such a world, where we have a definitive approach to learning rather than just a "hope" of learning through revelation? We know we would.
Cat, we are in no way trying to slam your comments, or make you give up your beliefs. From what we've read from you, we would guess that you have no desire to force your beliefs on others, which means that we wouldn't really have a bone to pick with you at all. We don't agree with your beliefs, and we think they are silly, but you would probably say the same about us and our beliefs. And that's okay. We can live together quite comfortably on this planet, our diverse beliefs intact, just as long as none of us follow the misguided lead of the Religious Right by trying to cram our personal beliefs down the throats of others. We probably won't be best friends, but we certainly don't need to be enemies.
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So, hey: skeptics, true believers, anybody else (except the damn comment spammers) — what do you think of the topics we've touched on with Cat? What is your "something greater," and your approach to learning about the universe around us...and why? From what we've seen of the blogosphere and our readers, there is no shortage of opinions in this world; let us know what yours are.
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