McArthur Wheeler attempted to rob two banks in Pittsburgh. He walked into the banks without a mask or other disguise and he was openly carrying a gun. He smiled directly at the security cameras and went to the teller windows to demand money. Several hours later the images were broadcast on TV, the police were informed of his identity by numerous callers, and he was arrested that night.
When questioned by the police, Wheeler expressed shocked amazement that he had been identified and caught. “I used the juice,” he said.
It turned out that he had been told by friends that if he rubbed lemon juice on his face he would be invisible on camera. He didn’t take them at their word, so he applied lemon juice and took a picture of himself with a Polaroid camera and to his surprise he wasn’t in the picture! Apparently he accidentally aimed the camera at the ceiling. But, it was enough to make a believer of him, and he proceeded with his crime spree.
As I write in my latest book, Whale Falls, we believe we are rational beings but have very little proof to offer in its defense, apart from some low resistance to magical thinking that a vanishingly small subset of our number call up from time to time.
During the last decade of the last century, I referred to the fantasies amorphously embraced by the label “New Age,” as “woo-woo.”
In conversation this emerged as “She’s into that woo-woo stuff,” or, “Sounds pretty woo-woo to me!”
The “woo-woo” wasn’t really meant to be harsh or unkind. It was more in the way of gentle sarcasm, triggered not so much by the particular beliefs espoused (since we are all entitled to believe what we will), as by the mercantile slant of many of its practitioners. Sometimes, popular New Age cosmology at the turn of the century seemed like the first fundamentally mail-order religion. Snake oil used to be peddled off the back of wagons, but the business had diversified and gone digital.
The underlying skepticism, however, was more consequential. We are entitled to beliefs, but that doesn’t guarantee their truth or utility.
Those who question the dominant paradigm of corporate greed, mercenary wars, boundless consumerism, upward mobility and other pillars of unbridled capitalism seem to split into two camps. On one side of the river, reside the woo-woos. Over here on my side, we practiced the bunny-hug.
Bunny- (or tree-) hugging is the manifestation of a core belief entirely opposite that embraced by the woos. However-many attempts are made to bridge the divide, peaceful coexistence involves a large measure of good-natured tolerance. Those who pretend to embrace both perspectives are lost in the fog of a comfortable delusion.
This schism invokes the same issues which spurred Martin Luther to nail his ninety-five theses on the door of his local indulgence-monger. Are we saved by our faith, or by our works?
Orthodox Woos clearly come down on the side of faith. I know generalizations ignore subtle wrinkles, but the bedrock remains: Woos place the inner world first and believe that changing the self will change the rest.
Devout Huggers believe in salvation through work. For us changing the world is physical and political, and the changes in self necessary to achieve that work are also physical and political. Sacralizing work may be useful as a motive force, but in any case, the outer work must be done.
No doubt many Woos are vegetarian bicycling recyclers, while many huggers entertain deep spiritual beliefs, but the practical behavioral divide is as real and deep as a river.
This difference emerged in a conversation with a Woo of my acquaintance. We were discussing the concept of embracing abundance—the belief that the universe will provide for all of our needs if we simply open ourselves to that truth. A simple example of this would be the use of visualization to manifest a loaf of bread, which my friend believed could really happen.
Then my friend suggested, “Existence is not a zero-sum game.”
The idea here is that everyone can enjoy abundance without anyone else giving up anything. Reality is a bottomless cornucopia. We’ll make more! I skidded to a halt.
“Wrong,” I thought. “It is.”
Here is the hurdle: If the world is not a zero-sum game, then faith alone might set us free. If it is, faith will not suffice. In a physically limited system on an increasingly crowded and resource-poor planet we need to curb our appetites and impose pollution controls. Protecting whole watersheds and building bicycles instead of cars become imperative. In short, we need to work, not meditate, if reality is circular—that is, if the loops of hydrology, nutrients, and energy are closed.
The best evidence is that the total biomass of our planet has not changed since the last ice age. That is, if you compare the total mass of all living things 20,000 years ago to the total mass of all living things today, they’re about equal. Back then there were more mastodons and giant ground sloths and whales, today there are more cattle and a whole lot more people. But the sum total has not changed. The game is zero-sum.
Life depends on sunlight and the amount of sunlight striking our planet each year is fairly constant. We now divert more than half of the sunlight that falls on the earth’s land mass to human use and that use is expanding fast. The rest of the earth’s species are headed for extinction at our hands.
Hold up your hands, make two fists and take a look. At the current rate of extinction there will be vanishingly few wild creatures on earth larger than your fists 100 years from today, unless we change our course.
To the Hugger, the Woo embraces pretty illusions which might bring personal joy, but permit the world to die. To the Woo, the Hugger focuses on negative images that block personal joy—and, thus, prevent a perfect world from manifesting.
Environmentalism is the philosophic stance taken by those who believe that we are likely doomed but might be saved by our work; therefore the work must be done. We have no choice.
In everyday life, Huggers and Woos can get along, and do. Both might equally appreciate a sunny summer day, the glory of gladiolus and cosmos and roses, a fresh breeze off the ocean and the spark in loving eyes. They may well agree with Alice that, at the end of the game, we can all be Kings and Queens together. But still, the divide remains. Work or faith?
In reading Thom Hartmann’s well-considered and deeply disturbing volume about our oil-dependency, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, I was brought up short by his conclusion that the most important step in addressing our pending energy-starved doom is meditation. He states, “It’s amazing to think that it’s possible to change the world by changing ourselves, by changing the way we think and live and experience every moment, but that’s been the core message of virtually every religion in history, from the most ancient and primal to the most modern and recent. You can change and save the world by changing yourself.”
Well, it may be amazing to think that, but it would be more amazing if anything came of it. Religion has always failed us as a practical approach to problem solving. Magical thinking is magical thinking, no matter how it’s done up.
This harkens back to the thoroughly debunked “proof” that prayer by strangers for patients who don’t know they’re being prayed for affects medical outcomes.
Meditation is a fine practice for those who find it rewarding, as is prayer, but demonstrable success in changing the world is sadly missing. Woos give their mystical practices credit when things work out and then allow that the desired outcome must not be God’s will when the belief-train leaves the tracks.
A deeper difference of opinion embodied in the Woo-Hugger debate involves death and survival. Woos see spirit as separate from flesh and generally believe in some sort of transcendence of this earthly plane—whether that means personal salvation, reincarnation or dissolution into Krishna consciousness and liberation. Such beliefs seem to place a high degree of centrality in homo sapiens sapiens, and consequently feed the idea that we are apart from nature, that we are somehow special. At the same time, the idea that the true self will survive death must devalue life. If you believe in a glorious heaven, boundless enlightenment, permanent liberation, why hang around this vale of tears? Why not strap a bomb to your chest?
Clear-eyed Huggers see our consciousness as a function of our brains and therefore terminal. This life is the only life we will experience, so we’d best make the most of it. Making this world better for everyone, helping those we love and those in need, sharing our joy and ideas and creations, listening to the stories of others, all of it will end far too soon. Time’s a wasting!
Furthermore, Huggers’ acceptance of science and most particularly evolution cuts hubris down to size. Our species is new in the history of our planet, and temporary. The sun is a middle-aged star. As cosmologist Martin Rees, of Cambridge University, once observed, “Most educated people are aware that we are the outcome of nearly 4 billion years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. … It will not be humans who watch the sun’s demise, six billion years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.”
As will their consciousness. From their distant perspective we will be just one among many species that came and went from this planetary stage, if they are aware of us at all.
Tor Norretranders wrote a fascinating book titled, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, back in 1999.
Among his surprising insights is the idea that there is more information in a mess than in order. The expensive part of knowledge is not gaining new information but getting rid of the old. Calculation involves eliminating irrelevance—the total on your grocery bill involves less information than all of the individual item prices taken separately, and is therefore more useful. The value of any piece of information is directly related to how much exformation (discarded data) resulted during its creation.
The brain receives about 11 million bits of information per second from sensory sources but conscious thought can handle—at most about 40 bits per second. (15-25 is more likely) There is an awful lot going on that you are completely unaware of, and which you cannot possibly ever notice.
The Illusion of this work’s title is drawn from the user illusion you are experiencing right now listening to me.
If you use a computer you are probably aware that the documents on your screen, the file folders, the cascading menus, the trash can, the pictures of your children, and all the rest, are illusory in the sense that they do not exist inside your computer. They only exist on the screen. Inside one would find a network of impossibly complicated electrical circuits processing apparently endless strings of binary numbers.
As a computer user you don’t care how the innards work, as long as they do. You interact with a surface illusion which allows you to accomplish work or play. What you see doesn’t need to be accurate or real, it needs to offer a manageable working hypothesis.
In the same way, suggests Norretranders, our consciousness is the result of one half second of processing by the most powerful computer known—the human brain. The world we interact with is entirely a simulation, a very detailed user interface, in which almost all inputs and computation are hidden. It is very deep, resulting as it does from the creation of massive exformation. (Remember that we process about 11 million bits of sensory input per second, plus whatever signals such input creates internally; and only consciously experience about 30 bits per second.) But we experience that depth as surface, just as we experience our computer “desktop” versus the quick flicker of binary code inside the CPU.
Life is largely a non-conscious experience.
Consciousness is far too slow to save us. When a car veers into your lane, you swing a ball bat, or sit on a tack, your “Me” takes over and your “I” finds out the result. The order is: input, action, consciousness.
The most troubling aspect of this unfolding of modern brain research, math, physics and information theory involves free will. It turns out that conscious free will consists of veto power. Conscious thought can halt a hand, but not un-wish to slap the silly grin off a face. This is profoundly at odds with the usual illusion that “I am in charge here.” (For example: it flies in the face of the Christian notion that one can choose not to think sinful thoughts.)
Norretrander’s concluding chapter is entitled, “The Sublime.” Heaven is all around us, he suggests … it exists one half second in your past. Just as a map offers the barest outline of a journey, and the computer screen a pleasant workplace, consciousness provides only a hint of the depth and richness and wonder of human experience.
David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology has observed that
Psychologists over the past 50 years have demonstrated the sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones. You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies people follow to believe what they want to, and research psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that catalogue. All this rationalization can lead people toward false beliefs, or perhaps more commonly, to tenaciously hang on to false beliefs they should really reconsider.
An interesting result of our tenacious adherence to belief over reason, is that we often seem to judge others based on their expressed beliefs rather than on their evident behavior.
It seems to me that belief has very little to do with the good or bad results we leave in our wake. Mother Theresa’s legacy is her charitable work minus whatever one knows about her dark side, not her Catholicism. The Dalai Lama is an atheist, but that doesn’t make a whit of difference in his work to free the Tibetan people or, more broadly, to sow peace around the globe. Ghandi practiced Hinduism, but asserted that all religions were equal – still, it is his invention of nonviolent resistance that changed India and the world. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is equality under the law, and it was nonviolent resistance and community organizing, not prayer that brought the changes King achieved.
In the same way, the burning of Salem witches or the torture of unbelievers during the Spanish Inquisition are repellent to us today not because of the beliefs of the practitioners, but their acts. Islamic suicide bombers are not a threat because of their religious tenets, but due to explosives strapped to their chests, and U.S. predator drones that target wedding parties are not made moral by the prayers of Senators and Congressmen.
As one of my favorite songwriters, Carrie Newcomer, once put it, “We shall surely be known forever by the tracks we leave.”
Yet, all too often, we forget that profession of belief is not of much use in evaluating the world or our fellow beings. The problem has always been due to the things we don’t know. There are questions about our ultimate origin and our ultimate destiny that, so far, at least, are beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. Our questions and fears are sometimes soothed by woo-woo practitioners who claim to know more, to have seen more clearly, to have received stone tablets or golden records or heard angels or been taken for a ride in a flying saucer.
The real problems emerge when we fail to question our beliefs. Francis Bacon said it almost 400 years ago: if you begin in certainty you are likely to end in doubt, but if you begin in doubt you can gradually build to certainty. As UUs we have placed a reminder right up front in our fourth principle, in which we promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. When we find that truth we can act on it, and move our world toward health, happiness, inclusion and justice.
As my fellow non-theist Noam Chomsky has written, “We are after all biological organisms not angels . . . If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within [our] cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats.’ Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.”
I have no brief against Woo-woo’s who choose to believe that faith can feed the world, but if I were a sad and hungry little bunny, I think I’d opt for a carrot and a hug over prayer. We might laugh at McArthur Wheeler for believing that lemon juice would make him invisible, or feel some pity for his evident ignorance, but what we decry is not his belief but his criminal action. Will we leave our grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren an abundant or a barren earth? One hundred years from now, or one thousand, our professions of faith will ring hollow and we will surely be praised or damned for what we did or didn’t do.
May it be so.