The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, June 4, 2012

The difference Between Irrational and Supernatural

Over the weekend, I listened to a friend describe a conversation she had had with an acquaintance of her own.  Her acquaintance would not accept that my friend did not believe in anything supernatural.  Apparently, he ran down a long list of supernatural things, insisting that she must believe in at least one of them, and became increasingly frustrated as she refused to concede to believing in any of them.

I have noticed this many times before, and I have always found it either interesting or irritating, depending on my mood at the time.

First off, it should be said that everybody believes in something that is irrational.  You, me, everyone.  We are simply not physically capable of checking each and every one of our beliefs as they develop over time to ensure that all remain internally consistent and consistent with external information.  Some people own up to this belief (for example, my sisters are very clear that they are aware that there is no evidence to support their religious beliefs, but they believe nonetheless), but more often people are either unaware of the irrationality of their particular odd belief, or they maintain some sort of intellectual fig-leaf that allows them to convince themselves that their belief is rational when even the merest pressure applied to their justifaction would reveal just how hollow it is.  But, regardless, we all hold an irrational belief.

However, that does not mean that we all hold a supernatural belief.  I certainly do not believe in anything supernatural - no gods, no spirits, no "mystical energies", no ESP, no ghosts, etc. etc. etc.  I am a materialist - I hold to the provisional belief (that is, I'm open to disconfirming evidence, should any be made available) that the universe is governed by basic knowable (though not all currently known) laws and forces, that we live in a world of matter and energy - and not the Reiki/chi mystical energy, but the basic energy of physics.  So, I can say that I hold no supernatural beliefs.

As to irrational beliefs - I am certain that I have some, but I don't know what they are.  And this, in my experience, is common.  I know that I had previously held irrational beliefs, since abandoned, regarding politics, basic impulses of humans (humans are basically good/selfish/seeking sex/likely to break into the Macarena/etc.), relationships, regional stereotypes, etc. etc. etc.  Some of these beliefs were irrational over-extensions of initially valid observations, others were little more than wishful thinking, and some were based on prejudices.  Regardless, I have held many irrational beliefs over the years that I didn't realize were irrational until confronted with strong evidence demonstrating that this was, in fact, the case. 

Supernatural beliefs, though, are a specific sub-set of irrational beliefs.  They are the beliefs that require that the believer hold the notion that there is some sort of force, being, or power that is not bound by the constraints that bind everything else in the universe.  This may be a belief in gods or spirits that act by their own rules, or in "energies" that are somehow not tied to the physical world in the ay that real energy actually is, or it may simply be a belief in some thing that is so different from all other things in the universe that any attempt to test it is doomed to failure.  It is entirely possible for someone to not believe in any of these things. 

What I suspect sits at the base of the assertion that my friend encountered is something that is common amongst most people.  Most, perhaps all, of us seem to have a hard time grasping that the broad assumptions that we make about the world are not shared by others.  This is the reason why you will meet religious people who insist that there is no such thing as a true atheist (after all, everyone believes in some sort of divine force, right?  Well, no.), or many a hard-nosed rationalist will have difficulty accepting that a strongly religious person is unlikely to be moved by evidence showing their beliefs to be mistaken (this leads to many of them making comments about how religious believers "know that their religions are bullshit" when the believers rather manifestly do not "know" any such thing), or why a fire-and-brimstone sort thinks that they can scare non-believers with threats of Hellfire and Damnation (sorry buddy, but I really not only think that these things don't exist, but also think that your acceptance of them as coming from a  supposedly "good" authority means that you are a terrible person), or even people who believe in ghosts no being willing to accept that someone such as myself definitely believes that death is it, the end, fino, done. 

The person with whom my friend was speaking is religious, though he follows a non-mainstream religion and might therefore buck against the statement that he is religious (though it remains true), and he believes in a number of supernatural claims - though he is not stupid and does weed out many claims based on simple observation and common sense. 

Still, it is a curious thing.  Many, perhaps most, people seem to be astoundingly stubborn in their failure ot recognize that the way that they view the world is not necessarily shared by all, or even necessarilly most, people.


Angelique X Stacy said...

Fascinating post! I have wondered if perhaps the "Non-Believer" ideas or truths challenged the "Believers" ideas or to them "truths" and therefore can't have their boat rocked, so to speak because it challenges their identity which for some folks is constructed like a house of cards, question the foundation and the whole thing falls. I think folks could benefit from having their challenges,like their Jesus in the desert parable. It seems they must not have much real faith if they have to push their agenda on everyone else. I guess I am more into the living by example approach then proselytizing. Of course this is my observation of some folks and not the whole.

I think it's possible to not believe in those things, you and many of my friends and family are proof of that. And ironically to some, the non believers I have met have better morals then some who profess to be of the utmost character.
I am not sure how to explain how I feel but I will try my best, maybe I will sound goofy.

I think a lot of things were created by Mankind to help with fear of the Dark. I think that man created God/Gods as Archetypes to understand things that are beyond us. I think I can rationalize all my mystic experiences with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I believe that my Religion focuses my mind and my intentions and that Karma is cause and effect. Though it is comforting to many regarding an Afterlife, in reality we really don't know till we get there. I believe that we create our own reality through our own lenses and mine are a different pair then yours and that's ok and preferable actually so I can learn something new. What I tried to explain to some friends and on my own Ghost Blog is that consider the source of my stories and that should be considered along with the whole.

That being said I have experienced what some folks would call miracles, and I appreciate my experiences, the exciting and mundane. I think that it is my choice to view my world this way and I believe your choice too. I don't disbelieve my belief systems, I just think their are different way to look at it and they both right. I guess to me Science is like Magic and the fact you can decode it, chart it, test it, quantify it, is one of the best things about it.

My question is , is it possible to believe both?

Anthroslug said...

I think that there is a certain amount of "fear of the dark" to many supernatural beliefs, but I have been doing alot of reading lately on the neurology and psychology behind belief systems, and I think that a large part of it is likely also that our brains seem to be set up to look for agency in things, even when it may not be there. This may lead to people seeing purpose or patterns and intentionality in random patterns.

One thing that has long struck me as unfortunate is that there is something of a tendency for people to go into camps of believers vs. non-believers. For example - I love ghost stories. Now, I don't believe in ghosts, but I don't claim to know that there is no such thing, I simply have yet to be persuaded of it. But I am clear on what would persuade me, and I listen to what people say on the off-chance that they may have something new.

By contrast, most people I know are either immediate nay-sayers, or else will readily believe all but the wackiest of claims. This seems weird and self-defeating to me, and I think it usually leads to frustration and illwill between people who have no reason to take issue with each other, really. Essentially people are fighting to affirm their own identities, rather than to reach any conclusion.