Irrational Paganism?

A marvelous firestorm has broken out in the pagan blogosphere to kick off 2009 properly. A prominent pagan podcaster has left the community, throwing his hat in the atheist ring instead. Why? Was it something we said?…

Well, no. It’s worse.

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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.

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The Truth of Religion (or: Yes, Virginia…)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of truth this holiday season. My oldest daughter is nine, and she still believes in Santa, bless her heart. The question is, do I?

I mean, think about it. I’m a pagan. I believe in, and have personal experience with, Apollo, Athena, Belanus, Cernunnos, Bridget, and various lesser spirit guides. Why not Santa?

ire24Well, one reason is that I know quite well who puts those presents under the Solstice tree; our credit cards have the scars to prove it. On the other hand, where does the magic of the season come from — the magic in the children’s hearts and in our own — if not from Spirit? And why not call that Spirit Santa Claus? (Have any mediums out there tried to contact him? I’m asking this seriously!)

Take another example: my second daughter, who is 7, believes quite firmly that Thor causes lightning. (I’m not sure what my 9-year-old thinks — she may be agnostic on the point.) I personally believe in Thor. But as for whether he’s out there with his hammer when lightning strikes — well, I’ve never seen him, and there seems to be quite a bit of meteorological evidence that it has something to do with charged particles in the ground and the atmosphere.

Nastier questions arise when you start mixing up pantheons like I have (e.g., do I believe in Zeus? If so, who’s really in charge of lightning here?). Then there’s the issue of angelic visitations, “aspects” of the God and Goddess of Wicca, Christians with powerful religious experiences, and all that. I mean, it can’t all be true, can it?? How do you decide?[Continue Reading…]

Trust Your Feelings

Science has a long and distinguished history of showing that human intution is completely unreliable.

  • The Earth is the center of the universe. No, it’s just a relatively small, insignificant planet orbiting a medium-sized star buried in a perfectly normal galaxy.
  • The Earth is flat. No, it’s a sphere.
  • The sun goes around the earth. No, the Earth goes around the sun.
  • People are fundamentally different from animals, just like animals are fundamentally different from plants. No, humans are animals; in fact, we share 98% of our genetic material with chimpanzees — we’re more closely related than horses and zebras.
  • Fire is a spirit that needs food and shelter, like any other living thing. No, it’s just a chemical reaction that is powered by fuel and oxygen.
  • If you take 20 people at random and put them in a room, it’s very unlikely that two of them will have the same birthday. No, the probability is almost 50%.
  • You can’t know something without knowing you know it… Actually, your subconscious is aware of all sorts of things it isn’t telling you!

The latest myth to be overthrown is the idea that women talk more than men. Here’s yet another factoid that everyone “knows” is true — that feels true to most people — and yet, a simple, ingenious experiment has shown that it’s simply false. On average, women and men talk approximately the same amount.

What this shows is that human intuition is seriously flawed. Our rational minds are just fine, it appears — nothing wrong with our reasoning faculty. But our hunches, our guesses — they are way off. One wonders how we managed to survive this long as a species.

I Love You with All My Limbic System

Of course, science has an answer for that, too. The seat of emotion and intution, it says, is not in your heart, but in that mass of neurons behind your eyes. Of course, the brain can think rationally, too. But different parts of the brain do different things: there’s a section for language, and a section for vision, and a section for wiggling your toes, and so forth. Some processing is distributed everywhere — memory, for example. There are no “memory banks” in your brain; memory seems to be spread all over the place. Same goes for the subconscious mind: assuming it’s there at all, it isn’t local to any one spot. The rational mind resides in the cerebral cortex; while the emotions commonly associated with the heart — love, fear, compassion, excitement — actually seem to be generated in a part of the brain charmingly called the “amygdala”.

The amygdala acts like a fast-acting decision maker for dangerous or intense situations. It processes sensory input (like if the eyes let you know that you’re standing right in the path of a really big truck), assigns an appropriate emotion (“fear”), and sends out messages to speed up the heart, shorten the breath, jump for safety, and so forth. The higher functions of the cerebral cortex need not be informed of the sensory input at all until afterwards. This is handy when decisions have to be made fast. The cortex is smart, but it can take forever to decide things, especially in certain clothing stores.

From the standpoint of science, then, emotions are a gut-level, pre-programmed response to certain stimuli, and it is just the sort of thing you want if you’re frequently involved in hunting, being hunted, or otherwise pursuing the idyllic life of our forbears.

What about love? What about intuition? Here, science suggests, the situation is more complicated. Your cerebral cortex interacts extensively with the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system, generating a variety of automatic responses, emotions over which you have little control. They, too, are designed for life in the stone age. Fear of strangers? Perfectly rational if you hardly ever meet anyone outside your tribe. Love at first sight? A chemical interaction, in which your nose identifies a good mate. Shivers up your spine in a dark room? You’ve subconsciously noticed an odd noise or something, and your amygdala is freaking out, thinking a saber-toothed tiger might be nearby. Emotions, according to science, are largely useless holdovers from an earlier evolutionary era.

This is the 21st century, and our wetware is badly in need of an upgrade. Today, if you want to find the truth of a matter, you have to set aside your intuition and look up the latest scientific studies.

Doubt

But keep in mind that science reserves the right to change its mind. Darwin actually suggested that women were less intelligent than men, and listed some perfectly good evolutionary reasons to explain this. (After all, if your primary function in the species is to bear and raise children, of what earthly use would a brain be? Gotta love those 19th century guys.) Scientists no longer believe this, because a century of careful and meticulous scientific studies has shown that it’s a load of baloney.

The scientific method thus encourages Doubt on two levels. First, doubt of your own intuitions and feelings, because they’re automatic, knee-jerk reactions held over from the Stone Age. Second, doubt of scientific theories, because a new study or finding could come along tomorrow and overturn everything. Science generates doubt, and is built on doubt.

So what should you believe in? Well, nothing, obviously. Agnosticism — in the broad sense of acknowledging ignorance of EVERYTHING — is the only rational choice.

Doubt and Fear

But agnosticism is paralyzing. It’s paralyzing and paranoid. If you know nothing, there are no good choices; all choices are ill-advised; so you are paralyzed into non-action. And doubt leads to fear; because if you don’t know what’s around the next corner, or under the bed, or at the bottom of the dark staircase… you imagine something horrible there.

If you allow doubt to sit by the throne of your soul, then you are reduced to a shadow of what you should be. You don’t trust yourself. You don’t trust others. You are left cowering and jumping at every sudden noise.

There are those that say that darkworking — using fear as motivation and energy for manifesting — is a viable life choice, but this is misguided. Fear does not provide energy for manifesting. On the contrary, it saps your creative powers away.

In order for anything to be done, in order for any life to be lived, fear must be set aside and doubt must be left behind.

Trust Yourself

One of the worst side effects of the rise of science has been the fall of intuition. People no longer trust themselves, and they have lost the ability to listen to their own bodies and hearts. When the small, quiet voice whispers to them, they ignore it. They are afraid of being fooled. They turn a deaf ear again and again, until they can no longer hear it at all.

And so people turn away from their intuition when it could serve them best. They jump from diet to diet instead of learning how to listen to their bodies. They buy houses based on resale value and local crime rates instead of finding a place they want to live in. They push their children to beat statistical averages instead of tuning in to the child’s natural pace of growth. They take aptitude tests to find out what their life’s work should be.

But intuition is a reliable guide — if you learn to listen to it properly.

  • The Earth is the center of the universe. It’s the center of your universe.
  • The Earth is flat. It’s flat where you are.
  • The sun goes around the earth. Actually, according to relativity, this is just as true as saying that the Earth goes around the sun. All motion is relative. And for your life here on Earth, it makes a lot more sense to think of the planet as motionless.
  • People are fundamentally different from animals, just like animals are fundamentally different from plants. Genetic material doesn’t tell the whole story. Steam may be chemically identical to water, and just a few degrees hotter, but its properties are vastly different.
  • Fire is a spirit that needs food and shelter, like any other living thing. If you treat fire with the respect it deserves, as a capricious and dangerous spirit, you’re likely to live a lot longer.
  • If you take 20 people at random and put them together in a room, it’s very unlikely that two of them will have the same birthday. In this universe, twenty people are never thrown together at random.
  • You can’t know something without knowing you know it… If you tune in to your intuition, you will know everything that you know!

Oh yes… And as far as the loquatiousness of men and women: I suspect that the experiment’s design hides the real truth, which is that most men talk less than most women, but there are a minority of men that talk so much that the average is evened out. At least… that’s what my gut tells me.

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Magical Thinking: Science vs. Spirit

In 1937, E. E. Evans Pritchard published a seminal work of anthropology entitled Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Pritchard had been studying the Azande, a people living along the upper Nile, for eleven years. In it, he recorded the interesting case of someone who cast a death spell on another member of the tribe. The victim died soon afterwards, killed without warning by a collapsing roof.

ire28The curious Pritchard soon discovered that this roof had been riddled with termites. When he brought this to the attention of the tribe, and asked whether they still believed the spell had worked, they replied, well, of course.

“But it wasn’t the spell that collapsed the roof!” said Pritchard. “It was termites!”

“Yes,” said the people of the tribe. “But how did it just happen to fall at that time, when the victim was under it?”

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