Ubi dubium, ibi libertas.
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
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
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
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.
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