Monday, October 15, 2012

Candle in the Dark

Ubi dubium, ibi libertas.

As I've mentioned before, unlike most American atheists, I have never been religious, and my family is not religious. My parents were atheist Jews who raised my siblings and I to make up our own minds--taught us about our heritage, including the religious aspects, but never made any secret that they themselves did not believe or practice beyond some of the more fun holidays.*

But I still believed in a lot of stuff as a tween. I am not sure whether the sleep paralysis or watching Unsolved Mysteries and Encounters came first, but I was half-convinced I'd been abducted by aliens, certain that they existed, and terrified that I would be abducted. I was also severely depressed for a variety of reasons, and had a negative sense of self-worth. I believed that other people had something indefinable which I did not, which made them worthy, deserving human beings, and me something inferior, something subhuman that did not deserve to exist. I did not have a name for this something, but at best I can describe it as a sort of evil essence, as if the stuff that comprised me were somehow invisibly tainted.

I entered high school in a bad state. In particular, I tried to stay away from home as much as possible, because I did not want to deal with my father's then-recent absence or the resulting total decay of anything resembling a healthy family. Fortunately, the school library was open three hours past when school let out. I lived only a few blocks away so missing the bus was not a problem, and nobody at home cared or particularly noticed that I didn't get home from school until dinnertime, so the library became my evening sanctuary.

First I indiscriminately devoured the science fiction section, from classic masterpieces to boilerplate Star Trek books. After that, I started working my way through the popular science books.

That was where  I found one of the three most important books I ever read:** The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.

I have not read the book in years, since I never actually bought it, but I will endeavor to summarize. The book is a collection of essays primarily on the dangers of pseudoscience and antiscience,*** and laying out Sagan's understanding of how to place science and empiricism at the center of one's worldview. In other words, a guide to the modern form of skepticism.

It was life-altering in so many ways. For example, I learned what sleep paralysis was, and realized that the green lights which floated through my window, assembled themselves into vaguely humanoid forms, and floated me out the window while I was frozen in terror were not really there; they were just my body trying to cope with conflicting chemical signals that forced it to try to be awake and asleep at once.

I learned about the garage dragons thought experiment. In this cunningly simple essay, Sagan described a friend coming to him and claiming there are dragons in hir garage. When Sagan enters the garage, he sees nothing, and the friend explains that the dragons are invisible. Sagan proposes one method after another to find the dragons, and the friend explains why each one will not work because of properties zie forgot to mention the dragons possess, until ultimately the friend is claiming that hir garage contains invisible, floating, heatless, non-metabolizing, inert, massless, incorporeal dragons--which, Sagan concludes, are not actually detectably different from no dragons at all.

Sagan was making an analogy to claims of alien visitors, cryptozoological organisms, psychic phenomena, and all manner of supernatural entities, but he could just as easily have been talking about my "evil essence." It was undetectable, totally invisible to anyone but me--indistinguishable from no essence at all. It wasn't a cure--I still occasionally catch myself feeling like I am fundamentally worthless--but it gave me a potent weapon with which to fight that feeling: demanding evidence repeatable by a neutral third party.

But probably the most important lesson was what Sagan called the combination of "total credulity" and "total skepticism." In essence, what he said was that, given evidence, you must be both willing to believe anything might be true and willing to believe anything might be false. And, most important of all: "The more you want something to be true, the more you need to question it." The more you want something to be true, Sagan argued, the easier it is to be tricked (or to trick yourself) into thinking it is true. To counteract that, you must demand more evidence for those claims than any other.

I tried to embrace that approach for years, but it wasn't until much later that I realized it was very subtly wrong. In fact, it is only in writing this article that I am able to put into words what I modified it to years ago: The more inclined you are to believe something, the more you need to question it.

What am I strongly inclined to believe is true? That I am worthless. That I am not fit for human company. That no one will ever love me. That I deserve no respect. On and on and on...

In college I began to question those beliefs and many others, always with Sagan's model of skepticism foremost in my mind. What more powerful weapon could you hand an analytically minded, depressed young person than that simple rule?

The more inclined I am to believe something, the more I must question it. The more inclined I am to believe something, the more evidence I must demand. The more inclined I am to believe something, the more I must doubt it.

More like a floodlight in the dark.

*My mother's joke is that we are gastronomic Jews. If a holiday calls for special food, we eat it.
**The other two are <i>The Big Orange Splot</i> by Daniel Pinkwater and <i>The Mysteries of Harris Burdick</i> by Chris van Allsburg. If you have read all three and can imagine the person who exists at the central three-way overlap of that Venn diagram, then you know everything you need to know about who I am.
***Sagan defined pseudoscience, essentially, as claims which pretend to be scientific, are not scientific, but which are ultimately not directly harmful, for example believing in the Loch Ness Monster. He defined antiscience as claims which either pretend to be scientific and are not, or which explicitly reject and seek to replace the scientific paradigm, and which demonstrably cause direct harm, such as the "Satanic Panic" of the early 1980s or fraudulent "alternative" cancer clinics that fleece their victims while discouraging seeking real treatment.


  1. Two things affected my belief system as a child: the book "Supernature", which was essentially a credulous quick-reference to all the woo of the 1970s, fortunately followed a year or two later by Martin Gardner's collected demolitions of same.

    But it took me quite a few years after that to apply the same standards to religion; religion was simply there, like school.

  2. I'm not familiar with the Gardner book.

    Although Sagan's book can generally be applied to religion, I'm not sure there's any particularly compelling reason it has to be. Unlike pseudoscience and antiscience, which deal with subject matters relevant to a scientific context and therefore can be legitimately criticized for failing when viewed from a scientific/positivist epistemic frame, most religious claims do not deal with such matters.

    Except, of course, by claiming that there are such matters I'm stepping into the controversial waters of non-overlapping magisteria, post-positivism, and so forth, and then the Evil Ghost of Alan Sokal attacks and we have to refight the Science Wars and nobody wants that.

    (I am aware that Alan Sokal is alive, and probably not evil as far as I know. This does not prevent him from having an Evil Ghost who haunts the Internet and angrily attacks anyone who suggests it might be possible to reconcile positivism with other epistemologies or that there might be some value in postmodern approaches to knowledge. Like all ghosts, it is more a caricature than a reflection of the original.)

  3. Useful, but I think I would put an important line on this.

    I have a friend who suffers from the complete opposite problem. She desperately needs to believe there is meaning and spirituality in the world because she gets very depressed if she can't believe that. She is also a very rational mind and struggles with questioning everything, so she can often talk her self out of that belief that is healthy for her.

    So, in that case, "question most the things you want to believe" would really harm her.

    I'm trying to think of a better way to say it that would cover your experience and hers, though... More like, "the more inclined you are to believe something hurtful or negative, the more it probably comes from your own fears and not the truth?" I don't know...

  4. Hmm, I have three separate responses, each of which makes sense to me, though I'm not sure they're necessarily compatable with each other.

    First, I'm describing my experience. While certainly it would not be a bad thing for somebody with similar issues to find that my experience helps them find what works to help them, there's no requirement that it work that way. Your friend, not being me, necessarily must have a different experience, and therefore there's no reason to expect what works for me to necessarily work for her.

    Second, as I've written about on my own blog there's rationality and then there's rationality. It is irrational to maintain a belief that causes harm, even if one arrived at that belief by rational means.

    Third, for me at least this is where postmodernism comes into play. Meaning isn't something you find, as in pre-modern thought, nor is it unattainable and illusory, as in modern thought; meaning is something you create. It is something you construct by placing experiences in context, and by choosing different contexts you can create as many meanings as you want from a single experience.

    Hmm, that might be workable as a way to cover both experiences: If you find yourself inclined to believe something harmful, recontextualize the experiences that led to that belief in order to construct new meanings.

    Not exactly pithy, but I think it works?


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