This is Part Two of a serial. In our previous episode, our heroine had gone from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of her childhood, through a credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit phase in her college and just-post-college years, to a general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things and that survived in some form after death. We now return to the story.
And then two things started to happen.
Which was a problem.
It’s not that the science of the brain and the mind actually disproves the existence of the soul. It doesn’t. That wasn’t the problem.
Here was the problem: Reading books about the science of the brain and the mind made it very clear to me — unmistakably, unignorably clear — just how easy it is for the human mind to deceive itself. From optical illusions, to auditory hallucinations, to wildly inaccurate memories that are remembered clear as day, and so on and so on and so onâŠ the human brain and human mind are tricksters. They fool themselves. They see and recognize faces, whether there’s a face to see or not. They’re far more likely to see what they expect to see than what they don’t expect to see, regardless of what’s actually there. They eagerly embrace evidence that fits their theories about how things work, and just as eagerly reject evidence that doesn’t. And they see patterns, and intention, and cause and effect, EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. For very good evolutionary reasons, this is all part of how brains work.
All of them.
Every remotely functioning human brain.
And once I knew — in some length and in tremendous detail — just how easy it is for the mind to be fooled, just how possible it is that the faces and patterns and intentions it’s seeing really aren’t there, it became impossible to believe something simply because I personally experienced it. Or rather, it became impossible to believe something about the external world, with no question or room for doubt, simply because I personally experienced it. I could look inward to decide if I really wanted to quit my job, or get involved with IngridâŠ but I couldn’t look inward to decide if the World-Soul was real, or my mother was really visiting me in my dreams. If I was walking down the street and suddenly felt the presence of a beloved dead person wash over me, I could no longer assume that I was really experiencing a visitation simply because the experience was vivid and powerful.
Which leads me to the second thing that happened. The second thing that happened was that, somewhat by accident, I started reading the Skeptical Inquirer.
Which was a problem for three reasons.
Reason One: I had believed for a long time that spiritual beliefs were beyond questions of evidence or proofâŠ and that therefore, except for the obviously wacky ones (how I defined “obviously wacky” wasn’t clear to me even at the time), pretty much any spiritual belief could reasonably be held by any reasonable person.
The Skeptical Inquirer — and its mission of applying rigorous scientific methods to testing claims of the paranormal — made it brutally clear that this was not the case. At least some claims about spirituality — such as astrology, or faith healing, or speaking with the dead — could be tested. And while they couldn’t definitively disprove (for instance) the existence of life after death, they could show that, every time a claim of speaking to the dead was rigorously tested, it utterly failed the test.
Every single time.
Reason Two: I’ve always considered myself someone who cares about truth, more than almost anything else. I’ve prided myself on being someone who was willing to face reality, even when it was harsh; who believed that understanding the world to the best of my ability was the foundation of deciding how to act in that world; and who was willing to change my mind and admit I was wrong when the evidence demanded it.
Reading the Skeptical Inquirer made me feel like I was being challenged to live up to that principle.
Reason Three: Reading the Skeptical Inquirer made me aware that there was a community of people who felt the same way I did about Reason Number Two — a community I respected, and admired, and wanted to be part of.
There is actually a third thing that happened as well: something that doesn’t quite fit into the same category as the other two, but that was powerfully important anyway. And that’s that I fell in love with IngridâŠ and started hearing her sad and awful stories about her fundamentalist grandparents, and the terrible rift that religion had caused in her family, and her anger and grief about it. This wasn’t something that forced me to question my own beliefs, exactly. But it brought the whole question of religion front and center in my life, in a way that it really hadn’t been before, not with my agnostic parents and my lukewarm-Protestant grandparents. Being with Ingrid took this from a somewhat abstract issue to one that was immediate and personal.
At this point, my ripples of belief hadn’t exactly disappeared. But they’d definitely become more shallow. The level of my certainty was dimming: whereas before all this reading and thinking, I’d probably been about a 3 on the Dawkins 1-7 scale of faith (not certain, but leaning towards belief), I was now at least a 4 (thinking that the existence and non-existence of the soul were about equally likely), and maybe even a 5 (not certain, but leaning towards non-belief). The whole “substance that enables us to have consciousness and free will” idea began morphing into “a substance — or maybe just a quality — that enables us to have consciousness and free will.”
most importantly —
I began to realize that I didn’t really believe in the immortal soul because I actually believed it.
I never had.
I believed it because I wanted to believe it. I believed it because I found the idea of permanent death to be dreadfully painful, and I found the idea of some sort of afterlife — even a nebulous afterlife in which my soul dissolved into the world-soul — to be a comfort.
But this realization pretty much shot the comfort to hell. This realization made me pretty damned uncomfortable. And when it came right down to it, I wasn’t willing to believe in the soul — or anything — simply because I wanted to. I wasn’t willing to be that sort of person. Self-delusion is human, forgivable, none of us escape it. But willful, conscious self-delusionâŠ that, I believe, is a serious character flaw, and one that leads to an enormous amount of suffering in the world. (“The Iraqi people will greet us as liberators!”) I couldn’t do it.
So I was already teetering on the brink, already leaning towards “I really don’t know what happens when we die, and it’s entirely possible and even likely that death is forever”âŠ when the accident happened.
This is a serial story in three parts. To find out what the accident was and why it mattered, visit this blog again tomorrow for the exciting conclusion.