What’s the point of a worldview and a social/ political movement that’s all about not believing in something? Can’t we be open to possibilities? Why do we have to be so negative all the time?
I’ve been, as is my wont of late, debating religion on Facebook. (By the way, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!) In one of these recent debates, I was exhorted by a believer to “be a little more open to the universe” (an exhortation I’ve heard many times now, from many different believers). In another, I was told that “a belief system based on what isn’t seems reductive,” by someone who added that, “When I turn my mind toward the things I don’t believe in, my world gets smaller.”
So today, I want to talk about some of the positive things that, as an atheist and a humanist, a materialist and a rationalist, I do care about and believe in. I want to talk about what being “open to the universe” means to me.
And I want to talk about why the things I don’t believe in — namely, God or any kind of supernatural/ immaterial/ spiritual entities or forces — are a crucial part of what I do believe, and a crucial part of how I practice being open to the universe.
My belief system is not, in fact, based on “what isn’t.” And neither is that of any atheist I know. My conclusions about “what isn’t” are only part of my belief system, and not necessarily all that big a part. I have a positive worldview, a set of priorities and values that shape how I live.
I could gas on about the positive things I believe in for hours, days, years, and still not be done. But here’s the short version of the part that’s relevant to this discussion:
I believe in reality.
I believe that reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.
Pretty much by definition.
And I believe that trying to understand reality, to the best of our abilities, is one of the most important, most interesting, most deeply valuable, most richly satisfying things we can do — individually, and as a species.
The real universe, the universe as we currently understand it, is magnificent, and awe-inspiring, and far weirder than anything we would have made up about it. Solid matter that’s mostly empty space? Black holes at the center of every spiral galaxy? Billions of galaxies all flying away from one another at breakneck speed? Space that bends? Continents that drift? Life forms that are all cousins to one another? Consciousness that somehow arises from brain chemistry? That rocks my world.
And we’ve found all this stuff out, not by giving up on trying to understand it, not by saying, “It’s a mystery and we’ll never fully understand it,” but by saying, “We may never fully understand it — but let’s try. Let’s understand it to the best of our abilities.” We’ve found all this stuff out by being willing to let go of beliefs and preconceptions and opinions we were attached to — and being willing to reject all ideas except the ones supported by the rigorous gathering and testing and cross-checking of evidence. (A very humbling process, I might add.)
But here’s the thing.
The negative part of that process? It’s absolutely crucial. We can’t say, “Yes, the earth orbits the sun,” without saying, “No, the sun does not orbit the earth.” We can’t say, “Yes, the universe is expanding and will continue to expand,” without saying, “No, the universe is not in a steady state.” We can’t say “Yes, all life on earth evolved by descent with modification from a common ancestor,” without saying, “No, life forms were not created fully formed all at once, more or less as they exist today.” We can’t say, “This what almost certainly is true about the universe,” without saying, “That is what almost certainly is not true.”
There is an impossibly huge infinitude of things that we could imagine about the universe. Only the tiniest fraction of those things are actually true. If we’re going to be truly open to the mind-altering magnificence and hilarious freakiness of the universe, if we’re going to truly understand and accept and explore what is true about the universe to the best of our ability, we have to be willing to say “No” to the overwhelming majority of things we can imagine about it. We have to be rigorous in sorting out reality from unreality… and relentless in our rejection of unreality.
Which leads me to this business of being open to the universe.
And which leads me to this:
It was being open to the universe that convinced me there was no God, and no supernatural world.
It was being open to the universe that convinced me to let go of my spiritual beliefs, on the grounds that they just weren’t internally consistent, or consistent with the evidence, or in any way plausible. It was being open to the universe — i.e., paying careful attention to what the universe, through evidence, was saying about itself — that led me to let go of what the inside of my head, based on confirmation bias and wishful thinking, believed about it. It was being open to the universe that led me to the conclusion that the universe is almost certainly an entirely physical entity, and that God and the supernatural have no part in it.
That was an extremely difficult thing to do. I was very emotionally attached to my religious beliefs. In particular, I was deeply attached to my belief in an immaterial soul that survives death. I don’t like death any more than anyone else does, and accepting the finality of death — mine, and that of the people I love — was among the hardest things I’ve had to do.
But reality wins. The universe wins. The carefully gathered, rigorously tested, relentlessly cross-checked evidence about the universe wins out over my biased, demonstrably flawed, wishful- thinking- based intuitions and opinions about it. The most reasonable evidence- based conclusion about what’s probably true wins out over my hypothetically possible but entirely unsupported and thoroughly implausible belief about what might be true.
Being open to the universe doesn’t just mean being open to possibilities about what might be true. It means being open to possibilities about what might not be true. It means being willing to say “No” to most of the stories about the universe that we can imagine — even the stories we’re most attached to — if it turns out that those stories aren’t likely or plausible.
Let me be very clear: I have absolutely no problem with making up stories about imaginary realities. I love stories about imaginary realities. They can help us frame our experience and give it meaning; they can give us fresh perspectives on the world, and even help us see new things about it. Stories and imagination are essential parts of what make us human. And besides, they’re just fun.
But if we care about reality, we need to not deceive ourselves into believing that our stories are true. We need to be very careful about distinguishing between our useful metaphors about the world, and our accurate descriptions of it. We need to be very careful about distinguishing between the stories we make up in our own heads about the universe… and what the universe, through evidence, is saying about itself.
Our world does not get bigger when we place our subjective experience of the world over the world itself. Our world does not get bigger when we treat every possibility that we can imagine as equally likely… and then choose between them based on which ones we find most attractive. Our world does not get bigger when we hang onto beliefs about reality that are almost certainly not true, clinging to the gossamer- thin thread that “it might be true, you can’t absolutely prove that it isn’t.” Our world does not get bigger when we treat the space inside our head as more important than the space outside of it.
Our world gets bigger when we let the world in. Our world gets bigger when we let the world itself take priority over whatever ideas we might have about it. Reality is bigger than we are. Our world gets bigger when we let that reality be what it is… and when we pay careful attention to what it is, the most careful attention we possibly can.
And that’s why I care about what isn’t. That’s why I spend so much time and energy thinking and writing about what I don’t believe.
Yes, I do often focus on “what isn’t” in my writings. I do this, in large part, because the beliefs in entities that almost certainly don’t exist (a) are very widespread, (b) have a real effect on the choices people make, and (c) on the whole do, IMO, more harm than good.
But I also do it because caring about “what isn’t” is a central and crucial part of caring about “what is.”
I do it because, when we fill our brains with stories about what almost certainly isn’t true or even plausible — and convince ourselves that these stories are true or plausible, and hotly defend the stories against the evidence opposing them — we are armoring ourselves against reality. We are practicing the mental gymnastics that help us ignore or deny reality.