Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Facing "Harsh" Realities

When I was a kid I used to be obsessed with the idea of psychic phenomena - ESP, psychokinesis, astral projection, et cetera. I even did a "research project" in elementary school on the subject of paranormal investigations. I was an entirely credulous person; if something had even the slightest shred of 'evidence' to it, I was likely to dive into it head first, assuming it was true until I was proven wrong (which I never was, of course, since I basically only looked into the 'evidence' provided by believers).

Since becoming a skeptic, I think the hardest thing for me has been to force myself to take an objective look at the evidence presented and weigh its merits. It's much easier to simply uncritically accept what you're told, with a "where there's smoke, there's fire" kind of mentality. Developing a skeptical instinct has been an intellectually satisfying pursuit, though part of me is still attracted to the idea that wishful thinking isn't a fruitless exercise. I like the idea of magical, supernatural things. They would certainly make reality much more interesting. But reality isn't a fantasy novel, and we're not part of some sort of grand plotline in a world full of adventure and mystery.

That's not to say that reality is devoid of adventure or mystery. On the contrary, there's a lot of that in the real world; it's just more mundane. There probably isn't some secret quasi-magical power locked within the human brain that would allow us to do things in ways science is incapable of explaining. But there is a lot to learn about the universe, and the more we learn, the more we learn that there is left to learn.

Today at work I was listening to an old time radio drama called X Minus One, which featured half-hour-long science fiction stories. One episode was about a couple of children of incredible intelligence who discovered a way to shift between universes by using ESP to fold the fabric of reality around them in a sort of five-dimensional Möbius strip. I used to believe that things like this might actually be possible. Now that I've learned more about how the universe works, I know that the probability of things like this is astronomically low.

In becoming a skeptic, I've stripped off layers of delusion and irrationality that, strangely, comforted me and gave me hope in the sense that the universe was a magical place. But I realize now that I don't really need to feel any sort of sense of loss about this. After all, the delusions have been replaced with real mysteries and a sense of real wonder about what actually exists. While I once feared that a purely scientific worldview would just "make sense", and that'd be the end of it - no joy, no hope, just cold, hard facts - I'm constantly encountering new information that forces me to adjust my understanding. Often-counter-intuitive disciplines like quantum mechanics and particle physics constantly astound me with their discoveries, and with every new fact I learn I feel like a doorway has been opened into an entirely new world of knowledge.

Reality may not be a magical fantasy land, but there's still plenty of mystery to explore, and I'm eager to get into the thick of it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I grew up without ever knowing my dad (he died in a accident at work before I was born), and one of the things my mom told me about him was that he was able to stop a watch's second hand momentarily.

I remember trying to train myself to do this for many days. It became a hobby of mine.

As with all kids, our imaginations go wild. Fuel that with a trust that what your mother tells you is most likely true, and I was confident there was the ability to interact with the physical world just by your mind alone.

Nowadays, I'm convinced that must have been an illusion of some sort. But the wonder is still there: how did he perform the trick?

I think there's always a place for imagination, and it's healthy and fruitful to dream. While the things of our dreams may not be possible, I think it's the drive to attempt to accomplish the impossible that keeps us moving forward as a civilization.

If anything, being a skeptic helps hone our dreams into realistic goals.