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.
My 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. 🙂