The Truth of Religion II: Einstein’s Mouse

Einstein didn’t believe in quantum mechanics for a number of reasons; he once asked, “Is it enough that a mouse observes that the moon exists?” In other words, according to quantum mechanics, a mouse can create the universe simply by observing it. This sounds pretty ludicrous, but quantum mechanics is an extremely successful theory — the most successful in history, by some measures. Most physicists today simply ignore these issues (at least until they’ve had a few drinks), because the answers are not things you can work out in the laboratory. That doesn’t mean that they’re unresolvable in principle, though.

ire430My last post (here) touched off quite a discussion, which has been absolutely delightful. In this follow-up, I’d like to address the primary concern of Kullervo, whose excellent, honest, and riveting blog (in which he discusses his spiritual journey away from Mormonism, as well as his struggles and triumphs with Christianity, atheism, paganism, and other belief systems) can be found here. Kullervo’s original comment is here.

Kullervo’s argument, if I understand correctly, is that since metaphor is a known fact about human cognition, why not simply say that all religions express metaphorical truths, rather than physical truths? After all, objectively, you can’t prove anything beyond metaphor anyway, since all experience is subjective.

First off, I unreservedly agree that metaphor is absolutely central to all human thought. There’s a huge amount of evidence from linguistics that this is the case.

Second, there is a case to be made here that what is truly essential in spiritual experience is just that — the spiritual experience — and that the search for physical, real truths is incidental. I don’t know how I feel about that, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that physical truths like “gravity” and spiritual truths like “God” are the same kind of truth, and important for similar reasons, and a coherent belief system that covers them both is a desirable thing.

I agree that all experience is subjective, and nothing can really be proven objectively. Furthermore, I’d add, every belief system — religion, story, or scientific theory — fits some aspects of observed reality better than other aspects. Einsteinian relativity, for example, explains the observed facts a large part of the time, but there are still big chunks of reality that it doesn’t fit — e.g. the odd spin of galaxies, which ‘dark matter’ was invented partly to explain. Every good theory or story or religious system has (a) a core set of phenomena that it explains very well, (b) a second, usually larger set of phenomena that are consistent with it (but also consistent with other stories), and (c) a third, usually small set of phenomena that are inconsistent with it, at least at first blush, and generally require some fancy footwork or hedging.

Given this, it seems to me that there are two versions of this ‘metaphor argument’:

1. What I’ll call the ‘weak’ form: there is an objective physical world out there, which we have imperfect information about. We have various metaphors, stories, and theories to try to explain this reality, and they each fit reality better in some places than in others. We may never settle on a ‘final metaphor’ or ‘unified theory’, because reality may be unknowable for us.

2. The ‘strong’ form: people come up with metaphors or stories to explain their sensory impressions, and believe them to greater or lesser extents; and reality actually changes to conform to these beliefs. The world will fit your model better or worse depending on how firmly you believe (since inconsistent thoughts will lead to inconsistent experiences).

Is there any way to distinguish between (1) and (2), or gather evidence for one over the other?

Sure. If the strong theory is correct, reality is a lot more malleable than in the weak version. In the weak version, reality never changes; if you believe something truly outlandish, you’ll never get evidence for it, regardless of the fervency of your belief. In the weak version, no matter how much you believe in fairies, you’ll never see one flying around in broad daylight. In the strong version, though, if you believe strongly enough, you’ll see all manner of things unexpected in common hours.

My personal experience, and that of people I trust, suggests that the strong version is true. If I told you that over the past year, time and time again, my wife has influenced, created, or destroyed weather systems all over the world, raised or lowered local temperatures, and the like, all using her own brand of weather magic, what would you say? Would you have an open mind about it, or simply consider it more likely that I’m deluded? I assure you I could give you dozens of examples of her magic, so many that any reasonable person would have to admit that something other than chance was going on. (In fact, I plan on doing an interview with her soon. 🙂 )

If I’m right, a wide open mind is essential if you really want to see evidence of the supernatural. This doesn’t mean you have to FORCE yourself to believe something. In fact, if you want to see strange things, take the opposite tack — be agnostic! If I’m right, that very agnosticism will open the door, so that you will be more likely to see things outside the ordinary. No brainwashing is required. 🙂

Comments

  1. Sarah Watts says:

    “My personal experience, and that of people I trust, suggests that the strong version is true. If I told you that over the past year, time and time again, my wife has influenced, created, or destroyed weather systems all over the world, raised or lowered local temperatures, and the like, all using her own brand of weather magic, what would you say? Would you have an open mind about it, or simply consider it more likely that I’m deluded?”

    It would depend on when you spoke to me. 🙂 A few years ago, I might have bawked a bit at the mention of magic; I was going to a church who thought magic came from the devel (or part time, anyway). The rest of the time I was in a church that was a bit more accepting of things, though they still were Cristian in nature.

    Now, though, I am smiling really big. I believe in magic; I believe in Faeries, and all manner of things of that nature, And have for a number of years now, and am really very much happier for it. I’ve even sensed them around me at times, which is … I really can’t describe the feeling except for to say that it is a sort of wonder that I’ll never tire of having- ever.

    I’ll be looking forward to the interview. 🙂

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    We’re in pretty much the same boat, Sarah. A couple of years ago — when I started this blog, in fact — I was pretty sure that gods were nothing more than archetypes, and when my daughter saw fairies, she was “imagining” them — even though she was old enough to know quite well when she was imagining something, and when she wasn’t. But I tried to keep an open mind about things, and poked around some, and eventually got my mind changed. I think it’s just wonderful that you’ve sensed the fairies around you; what a blessing!

  3. Sarah Watts says:

    I agree, and I thank each day for it, too. Considering that I spent perhaps twenty three years of my life as a Christian, I consider myself very blessed indeed. It wasn’t until I started doing research for a paper that I really started to realize that certain things about that belief path didn’t suit me. interesting to think that an intercultural communication course would change the course of my life. 🙂 I’d started believing in a lot of things before then, though, part of the reason I was disenchanted with the rather legalistic church.

    I seem to sense the faeries– and other elementals, too–most when I go to one of the local bookstores around my part of town; they like it there. Sometimes I think I go there just so I can feel them; and for the good food an coffee, and wonderful company. 🙂 It’s become part of my weekly routine. I’m hoping that wherever I end up (I don’t want to be in FL for the rest of my life) I will always have a place like that; somewhere to go that is a place to just relax and get away from things for a little. I’m still poking around some, and I’m enjoying it, too. Learning new things, and growing has always been a joy for me.

  4. Jeff,

    I agree with your strong theory, mostly. However, it seems to me that there is a certain base, a repository of common experiences most people share.

    Despite the infinite things we could dream of, we always come back to relatively few, familiar concepts. Why do you think that is? People collectively influencing each other with their beliefs, or could it be something else?

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Sarah — a bookstore where fairies hang out? Sounds like the Earthly Paradise to me! 🙂

  6. Jeff Lilly says:

    Vitor, can you give an example of these common experiences, this repository? I can think of a couple of things you might mean — are you talking about things like the law of gravity, or are you talking about things like the Sky Father, or something even more basic, like metaphor itself?

  7. Sarah Watts says:

    ::grins:: Now you know why I don’t want to leave, no?

    It’s called the Manna Reading Center, and it’s one of the largest alternative spirituality stors in Southwest Florida. They sell lots of things there (It’s hard for me to get out of there without buying at least *something* other than food) and the people there are really nice. If there isn’t anyone else there, they’ll usually sit down and have a chat with me, often times about music, or life, or anything else that comes to mind. I’ve actually had to increase my stay there, that’s how animated some of the conversations get. If you want, I can put the website in the next comment. 🙂

  8. Jeff Lilly says:

    Sounds wonderful. Sure, go ahead and let us know the website — I don’t know if I have any other readers in Southwest Florida, but if so I’m sure they’d like to know about it.

    By the way, did you get the .doc version I sent you of the first six weeks of the DJ 2008 planner? Did that work out for you?

  9. Sarah Watts says:

    http://www.mannareadingcenter.com/

    And yes, I have the file; it works out beautifuly! 🙂 I was actually going to email you back at the end of the month. I’m thinking about buying the rest of it but being on a fixed income (SSI, bleh!) makes it a little tight right now. I have a wedding I’m planning to go to out of state. Airfare, you know.

    But, oooh, I like! Especially the information on the new and full mons and things. Not being able to read newspapers all that well, and other calendars and things, it was nice to have that in front of me, so to speak, anyway.

  10. Jeff,

    I mean it on basically every level. Human beings tend to have similar needs, similar belief structures, forms of communication, etc.

    Yes, that includes even metaphor itself, the urge to explore the world through symbols and archetypes.

    What most stands out is that humans rarely do all of this alone; we form belief communities (as you call them), groups of reference with whom to share these patterns. It all just sounds too structured to be the result of something completely arbitrary. I think there is a certain seed under all that, a set of rules, if you will. Call it objective reality, or just consider it the perfect, abstract concepts of things (Think Plato’s “World of Ideas”)

    If it wasn’t this way, where would all these archetypes we encounter over and over again come from? Think of archetypes in the broadest possible way.

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Sarah, I’m so glad you like it! 🙂 I’m considering offering it later in the year for a reduced price — you know, 25% off after the Spring Equinox, since a quarter of the year is gone…

  12. Jeff Lilly says:

    Excellent point, Vitor. I think there are two possibilities here.

    1) These similarities we see are an artifact of our own beliefs in some way. That is, perhaps if we started believing that people were fundamentally very different, reality would shift as well, and we’d living in a world where people really were very different from one another, their minds really worked differently, etc. Perhaps profound racists live in such a world, for example.

    2) But I think what we’re really seeing is a uniformity in the nature of Spirit itself, which is independent of our beliefs about it. In other words, I think there is an ‘objective’ Spirit-substance which has certain properties, and the stories we tell about it tend to coalesce into certain broad patterns that illuminate those properties. I think that many properties of Spirit are reflected in the physical world, too — the whole ‘as above, so below’ principle at work. For example, both the spiritual world and the physical world take the form of a multitude — there are many different parts to them, with an uncountable number of interactions and relationships between them; and yet there is an underlying unity as well (in the physical world, the Grand Unified Theory they’re searching for; in the spiritual world, the monotheistic God, or the common origin of the polytheistic gods, etc.).

    So the bottom line is, yes, I think there’s a broad pattern here, and I think it ultimately resides in the properties of Spirit itself.

  13. Jeff, thanks to you and Slade, my mind and heart are open to possibilities that I never would have considered just a few years ago. These conversations are definitely stretching my ideas of reality. That is good. Thanks.

  14. Jeff Lilly says:

    Patricia, it’s always delightful to have you drop by. Thanks for your perspective and participation!

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