Friday, November 26, 2010

Carl Sagan Felt Our Pain

Humanist groups nationwide celebrated the life and work of Carl Sagan this month. Sagan (1934-1996) an astronomer, educator and secular humanist, was probably best known for his PBS series “Cosmos.” It has now been 30 years since “Cosmos” first aired.

This is a wonderful story he wrote that you can use when dealing with people who try your patience. You'll see what I mean.

The Dragon In My Garage by Carl Sagan

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you.  Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself.  There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

"Show me," you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely.  "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."  And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. 

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help. 

At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise.  The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch.  Your infrared detector reads off-scale.  The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you.  No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me.  Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive.  All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence.  None of us is a lunatic.  We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on.  I'd rather it not be true, I tell you.  But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported.  But they're never made when a skeptic is looking.  An alternative explanation presents itself.  On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked.  Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath.  But again, other possibilities exist.  We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. 

Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling.  Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Phantom Life

Since Hereafter, the latest movie by Clint Eastwood, prompted the media to go bonkers over the contemplation of an afterlife, non-believers should take a moment to reflect on this frightening reality. You don't think it's a little scary? That one day, each of us will die and we will cease to be? No? Well, it is one of the peskier concepts where even we non-religious types don't have the answers. And we're pretty sure the others don't either, but they are willing to go out of their way to make money by duping people with the aftterlife nonsense and promises they peddle.

Ponder this for a moment. Ceasing to be. Can you do it?

In this case, there isn't any question about whether to be or not. Because one day, you won't...and that is one of the major moments we all wrestle with from time to time. This is where fear for believers takes hold and never offers relief from the relentless worry of what will happen after they die. So death is a major reason so many people we know, who were never given to spiritual concerns before, all of sudden start going to church and talking about what they expect to find on the other side.

The thought of not being is very daunting and certainly not pleasant, because humans are not easily able to think of  what "not" is. We know that the people in the family photographs lived before we were a twinkle in someone's eye. We know that many beings and creatures came before us and that eons of time passed before now. And yet when you consider we were "not" then, dealing with "not" at some time in the future is a tad more difficult.

I had the chance to consider what that curious moment of unconsciousness must be like because of surgery this past summer. I use the phrase "must be like" because you don't really appreciate consciousness until you are pulling out of the fog from a chemically induced coma-like stupor; there is this single moment when your brain is aware that you were not dreaming and not thinking just then. (Yes, the brain is aware that nothing is going on. Which is kind of cool.)

It is quiet, painless and still and I like to think that moment is what death is probably like, only soon after that very moment, we no longer realize that we were ever even alive. Which is a tremendous thought all on its own. Nor do we have any means to worry about what just happened, so we're spared regrets and faulty reasoning. People who die in fiery crashes and from painful wounds should know some immediate relief and this is what I think it is. Likewise, dying peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age should also be as relaxing and calm. Maybe more so!

For the other perspective, however I believe that what religious folks must handle is far worse. Because they do fret over the next life. Who will be there? Will they be forced to be with peoople they didn't really like? Or maybe even hated? Which cannot be a fun worry to have! And what of the people who are sure they will end up in a hell, as they understand it? How awful to carry that fear with you your entire life only to die and realize something far worse. That's why I call this blog "The Phantom Life" because believers must be burdened with existence that is possibly not pleasant or even tolerable by our standards. Not to mention the longing and the sadness brought on by the memories of the previous life

It's this optional phantom existence that must torment most religious people because it is more than unknown, it is eternal speculation. And it is a waste of time. The most we can hope for is to do and feel as much as we can in the time we'll be here. Because if I'm correct, we won't be lingering. We simply won't be...whcih is very much a strangling thought in its own right. But it might make us more passionate about the life we have now since it is all we'll ever know.

And unfortunately, this gives new meaning to the old cliche "Life is hard and then you die." Because it is, you know. It's up to you to give your life meaning and let death take care of itself.