Last night I had a dream. In this dream I had reason to believe that a room in my house was inhabited by a poltergeist. I couldn’t actually see the entity but I had good reason to believe it was there because inanimate objects were constantly being moved from where I had left them. Of course I also could have been mistaken as to where I had put them. So I conducted an experiment. I left a pair of shoes in the middle of the floor and out loud, informed the poltergeist that “I have left a pair of shoes in the middle of the room and I am now going to leave the room, close the door, and return in 10 minutes. If you want me to believe in your existence I want you to move the shoes to somewhere else in the room”. Then I left. On returning, sure enough, the shoes were neatly placed on the table. In my dream I repeated the procedure several times and each time the shoes ended up on the table.
I imagine I have dreams like this because as a young teen I discovered science fiction and avidly read the entire contents of my high school library. Stalwarts such as John Wyndham, Lester Del Rey and later, the ‘new wave’ of science fiction authors such as Bradbury, Ballard and Ellison became my sustenance. From there it was an easy step into the decidely dodgy world of ESP, ley lines, the mathematical profundity of the pyramids, Erich von Daniken and Lobsang Rampa. You name it, I’ve probably read it.
Looking back on this period, now armed with a PhD in cognitive psychology, I wonder whether reading these books acted as a type of partial wish fulfillment. We all wish the world were different to how it actually is. In my case this was characterised by such thoughts as wouldn’t it be great if telepathy were real? Imagine being able to privately communicate with someone at a great distance without having to worry about dialing codes or whether the battery has enough charge. Excellent! Talking to dead relatives and close friends? Cool! Visitors from outer space in saucer shaped craft? Fantastic! Being able to move objects at a distance? Wow! Curing any emotional ill simply by talking through your feelings, guided by a simple, universal template of human psychological structure? Awesome!
An omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent entity that created the universe (and us, to look just like him!) and responds to all your needs…….
But let’s be honest here. There is no such thing as ESP, telekinesis, reliably effective Freudian analysis, flying saucers etc. How do we know this? Well we’ve observed and experimented, and crunched the numbers. And observed and experimented and crunched the numbers again. And again. And not only formally, in laboratories, but informally, in the field, in our everday observations and thoughts. And as for that omnsicient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent being, or even an omniscient entity of any sort, well again, the numbers, whether from philosphical or empirical investigation, simply don’t add up.
So, in the best tradition of personality psychology in categorising human beings, I observe a psychological continuum between those who perceive the world in terms of wish-fulfillment (believers) and those who perceive the world in terms of evidence (rationalists). Or, in other words, a continuum based on an individual’s existential honesty.
Using my dream as analogy, whether the shoes had moved or not, the rationalist would simply accept the state of things as found and the scientific world-view would be amended accordingly in that the poltergeist hypothesis would gain some support. If the shoes had not moved, however, the poltergeist believer would have their world-view threatened and likely be trying to convince us that the shoes really had moved. Substitute god for poltergeist, and the shoes would have moved in the spiritual dimension, or actually would have moved, if god was willing, or their remains the possibility that the shoes will move, if only we had more faith….
That is why I am an atheist. I simply aspire to perceive the universe in as true a way as possible; which entails being honest about my psychological makeup, i.e., my own wants and wishes, no matter what the data is telling me. It’s not that I don’t believe in god. I simply have yet to see any convincing data (or philosophical argument, for that matter) that the hypothesis is true. Belief just doesn’t come into it.