Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Experience, Belief, and Science

Consider an ancient man seeing the sun cross the sky. It's so much brighter than anything else; it fascinates and frightens him. He hears this story that a god named Apollo drives a chariot across the sky each day. There's a big fire in the chariot, and that explains that super-bright light we see during the daytime.

The ancient man feels better, because it's comforting to have an explanation, any explanation. He accepts the Apollo myth as if it were Truth. If anyone questions the myth, he'll angrily respond, "I know it's true from experience! Every day I look in the sky and with my own eyes I see the brightness of Apollo's chariot. How dare you question my experience!"

But Apollo's chariot isn't anyone's experience. It's a belief, a story that got wrapped around the experience... so tightly that the experience (the undeniable brightness seen in the sky) got confused with the myth (the story about a chariot).

I see a similar situation in the realm of religion and spirituality. Many people try meditation, yoga, philosophy, worship, or other techniques. In a substantial minority of cases, they get astounding inner experiences: seeing lights, hearing sounds, getting extreme and unusual feelings of bliss or whatever.

Like the ancient men, spiritual practitioners hear stories that attempt to explain the experiences. Maybe they read the Bible, listen to a preacher, hang out with a congregations that shares a belief-system, study old Yoga or Hindu texts, or follow teachings of long-dead Indian monks. They find a story that kinda sorta explains their experience. They start to claim, "I experienced being re-born in the Heart of Jesus" or "I experienced an awakening of Shakti energy" or "I experienced the grace of Guru Schmuckananda" or "I experienced Space Aliens controlling my brain."

Whatever belief-system they choose., it's not an experience. It's a bunch of ideas that they wrap around the memory of the experience. The wrapping is so tight that they mix up the reality with the myth. The experience (seeing lights or feeling bliss etc) is undeniable while it's happening. But the stories made up to explain the experience... they're just stories.

When someone calls their story an "experience," it means that they've lost their "bullshit detector." They're treating a story, a belief-system, as if it were an undeniable Truth. In doing so, they've lost the ability to separate reality from imagination.

What can help in a situation like this? For me, it helped to understand scientific method, the ultimate bullshit detector. I've been inspired by reading about my hometown boy Ben Franklin debunking Franz Mesmer (a centuries-old example of myth-busting).

These days, some techies (including my brother) want to help everyone to learn computer coding. Their intention is for everyone to develop critical thinking skills that would arm them against confusing myths with reality. But is it really possible for the masses of humanity to learn to think rationally? I don't know.

All of us are born without much reasoning ability, then gradually learn it as we grow. Yet DNA in her wisdom seems to produce lots of humans who never achieve much rationality at all. Sermons in mega-churches draw bigger crowds than science lectures at universities. Perhaps this will change in time. But perhaps survival of the species requires only a minority of critical thinkers, and a majority of followers.