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Ramblings and Indulgences

While my ambition may be somewhat grandiose, in this section I will share some of my personal thoughts and beliefs, framed in the wider context of our existence, our human condition. In keeping with the spirit and philosophy of Xenowave, I will focus on questions rather than final answers. I will allow the pendulum of my doubts to swing back and forth. If necessary, I will equivocate. If this lack of certitude or finality in my views causes you some discomfort, some degree of discombobulation, then perhaps I've done something right.

Reason and Faith: Is there a Poltergeist Lurking in the Skeptic's Closet?

Skeptics and faith, reason and rationalization

You can be sure you'll never find a poltergeist hiding in a skeptic's closet. Or can you? As a skeptic, I have always been intrigued by the strong need of many of my fellow homo sapiens to believe in the existence of phenomena for which there is a lack of scientific evidence. Humans, it seems to me, have a strong propensity to believe in any phenomena, no matter how absurd or unlikely, or how flimsy the evidence, whether it be the existence of poltergeists or telekinesis, or the notion that extraterrestrial beings are walking among us at this very moment. Of course, believers will immediately retort that the proof is there, and that I'm simply being too fussy in what I accept as confirming evidence. Ultimately, when believers are backed into a corner with logic, they resort to emotional arguments--they fall back on faith.

Faith is an elusive, doubled edged state of mind. While I'm prepared to admit that it has rescued some of us, it has harmed others. It's light can be blinding and ferocious. Belief without the sobering influence of reason can be downright dangerous, for the simple reason that it gives justification to any action, whether good or evil. Let's not ignore the fact that in history, many atrocities have been committed in the name of God. To my mind, individuals such as James Randi, Carl Sagan, and other founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) have contributed in an important way to raising our consciousness above our reptilian emotional tendencies. Human emotions need to be tempered by logic, if we are to live on a higher plane of human aspiration and strive toward a more peaceful world.

Perhaps you think I'm being too harsh. What I have to say next, and admittedly, not without some qualm, may smooth some of your rumpled feathers. I think abiding beliefs of some kind probably operate at some level in every human being, even a skeptic like myself. Yes, I'm willing to confess this little secret: I have some anticipation, or abiding belief, if you will, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that water will continue to flow downhill. I have a fairly confident belief that the laws of nature will persist, at least in my lifetime, even though I could not prove this.

Faith, I propose to you, lurks even within the most avid worshipers of empiricism and analytical thinking, although many of these thinkers would likely be loath to admit such a distasteful notion. I would even go so far as to suggest that philosophical or theoretical positions which thinkers adopt, no matter how solidly couched in the scientific method, are basically driven by abiding beliefs. Even the hard-boiled reductionist fits this shoe. The reductionistic notion that mind and consciousness can ultimately be explained in mechanistic terms is far from proven; at the present stage of our scientific understanding, the belief that physics and chemistry can explain all phenomena in our natural world is a guess, a hope, a comforting belief. Nothing more.

As a counter position to reductionistic views of mind, take a look at the interesting paper by David Chalmers on "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience". It must not be forgotten that any theory, by its very nature, contains a healthy dose of rationalization. And so it is not surprising to witness intelligent thinkers, all committed to the scientific method, expounding views that come from opposite poles. This discrepancy, this rift, I think, is a manifestation of the influence of abiding beliefs. Take for example, the fascinating debate on puzzles in science among leading thinkers in science and philosophy in the PBS documentary, The Glorious Accident. I found the exchanges between Daniel C. Dennett, a Reductionist, and Rupert Sheldrake, a Holist, particularly thought provoking. It was as if they had come from different planets. Faith, I put to you, drives the reductionistic viewpoint of Dennett as much as it drives the Holistic perspective of Sheldrake.

So where then does this leave us? Is faith inescapable? Does it color all science? Does it influence all aspects of our lives? These sorts of questions have preoccupied many thinkers over the centuries. One of these thinkers, Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish educator, philosopher and writer, in his writings, agonized over this problem. He had this to say:

Reason and faith are two enemies, neither of which can maintain itself without the other.

He came to this conclusion:

And the most tragic problem of philosophy is to reconcile intellectual necessities with the necessities of the heart and the will. For it is on this rock that every philosophy that pretends to resolve the eternal and tragic contradiction, the basis of our existence, breaks to pieces.

I would especially invite you to read his book, The Tragic Sense of Life, from which these quotes are taken. In that book, Unamuno delves into the conundrum of our existence. As Unamuno repeatedly realized in his effort to grapple with the two enemies, reason and faith, life is a contradiction. It was Unamuno's belief that our humanity springs out of this battle of brain and heart--a battle that has no final resolution.

Perhaps, after all, there is a poltergeist lurking in everyone's closet--whether skeptic or mystic. But the true skeptic, unlike the pure believer, will give room and board to poltergeists only so long as they serve a use in his quest to achieve a greater understanding of the world in which we live.

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