On Belief

Recently, in a post on another forum, someone made the statement “You can believe what you want.”  This is not the first time I have encountered that idea but it caused me to stop and think.
A classic example of this is Pascal’s Wager:  If you believe in God and are wrong, you lose nothing, but if you don’t believe and are wrong, you end up in Hell.  Thus, to be safe, it is best to believe.  Implicit in that is that one can simply choose whether or not to believe.
Can people really simply choose to believe, or not believe, something?  Or put another way are there really people who can do that because I cannot.

I cannot simply decide that, today, I am going to believe in invisible purple unicorns (and you “invisible pink unicorn” types are heretics), nor tomorrow that the purple unicorns have pink polka dots.  I cannot simply choose to believe that the Apollo shots, the Russian robotic sample return missions, and everything else were hoaxes and the Moon really is made of green cheese (despite appearances where a “white cheese” such as Parmesan would be a better fit).  And I cannot simply choose to believe that I’ve got an invisible friend in the sky who made everything and is controlling everything.

One of the things that one has to understand about me is that I am a scientist both by profession and by character.  As a result, I take the position that there is an underlying reality to the Universe and that my job is to try as best I can to learn/understand what that reality might be.  Science, religion, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, all are approaches to attempt to comprehend that underlying reality.  These approaches may be better or worse at moving toward that comprehension (I submit that no one ever has, or probably ever will, completely obtain that comprehension).  They may be closer or wider of the mark.  But the goal is moving toward that comprehension.

Different people, at different times, may have seen parts of that underlying reality.  Others might have been mistaken by what they thought was that underlying reality.  To me, Asatru (More on this later) is the idea that the Germanic/Norse people saw a bit of that underlying reality a bit more clearly than others such that the Germanic/Norse deities are at least a partial description of real powers in the Universe (or possibly a “meta-Universe” of which our observable Universe is but a part).  I do not know if this is so or not.  It might be true, or might not.  But am willing to entertain the idea and explore it seeing if I can find evidence to support it.

It’s possible that the underlying reality is, in some manner, shaped by our beliefs (I don’t say it’s likely, but it’s possible).  It’s also possible that that underlying reality is supremely indifferent to what or how we believe.  Either way, it is what it is and we seek to find that “what is”.  I find, for the most part, that I approach from the perspective of science (look for patterns, try to determine a “rule” for the pattern, compute what must happen or must not happen if the rule is true, look to see if it does or does not. Boiled down to “how do we know if we’re wrong” and then go look) because I have found it very effective at sorting wheat from chaff as it were.  OTOH, I’ve encountered things that I cannot explain with my current understanding of science and so recognize that there are things that my current understanding of the world, obtained through science, is far from complete.

As Shakespeare put into the mouth of Hamlet, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio.” That, of course, does not mean that any particular fancy one might come up with is one of those “things” and, in fact,  that’s not the way to bet.  As big as the Universe is, it is only (so far as we can tell) one but the possible “might be’s” are endless.  There are simply more ways to be wrong than there are to be right.  Still, our knowledge, both as a species and as individuals, of the way the Universe is is incomplete and we do well to remember that.

One example of the “incomplete” nature of my, personal, understanding comes from my training in the Martial Arts.  Over the years I have studied several martial arts.  One of them was “Togakure-Ryu Ninjutsu” as popularized in the US by Stephen K. Hayes.

One part of that training was various “sensitivity drills” designed to open us up to “energies” (quotes because these “energies” do not meet the definition of energy that I know as a physicist) beyond those accessible to our normal senses.  One day, we did a particular drill which involved standing in a circle, about 20 feet across facing away from the center.  One member of the group would stand in the center holding a wooden “training pistol.” He would point the pistol at one of the people at random in the circle and focus his attention on that person as if he meant to attack him.  We were supposed to “feel” the intent and, when we felt it, pivot to face the person in the center.

During the course of the exercise I felt “twitchy” and would jerk my shoulders as if I were about to turn but then I’d go back to my original position.  Then, after several minutes, without any conscious intent on my part I found myself facing the center and there the person was, pointing the wooden gun right at me.

I’m well aware of the kinds of things where a person might pick up on something without realizing it:  seeing a reflection, feeling air pressure from the motion or breath of the person involved, hearing movement, that sort of thing.  There were no reflective objects in the training area.  At a distance of 10 feet I don’t think I would have felt any slight breeze from his motion or his breath, certainly not to the extent of being able to discriminate between his pointing at me or at the next person over.  “Targets” weren’t chosen in sequence so I couldn’t just spot the person next to me turning and know that I’m next.

Was there something that simply cued my physical senses at a “subconscious level” telling me that that was the time to turn?  I don’t know.  I’ve eliminated the obvious ones but who knows what might have been there that I don’t know about.  Or could it have been something else, something that goes beyond, sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell?  I don’t know.

Now, many of my beliefs, the ones that make up “me”, were formed when I was very young.  I believe that falling down hurts because I’ve fallen down a lot and, sure enough, it hurt.  But a lot of my beliefs aren’t so prosaic.  I believe many of the things I believe simply because that’s the way I was brought up in my “formative years” and taught whether by precept or by example, that that’s the way things are, taught by people I had reason to trust (teachers at school, parents, and so forth).  These beliefs are not always logical.  They are not always well supported by evidence.  And the experience may simply be that they’re the ways I saw and I didn’t see other ways.

There is a certain reasonableness in believing what one is taught from youth.  Parents, teachers, and to a lesser extent peers, are all people one has reason to trust to some extent.  When all, or even most, of them tell you a thing over the course of years it is natural, it is reasonable, to believe it.  It is not always right, but it is reasonable.  Without new evidence or argument of some sort it appears far less reasonable to pick up a new belief.  If one decides that one cannot accept, cannot believe in, the God with which one was raised, it is not reasonable to simply decide, arbitrarily, that one is going to believe in a flying spaghetti monster, at least it is not for me.  And so I look for experience, evidence, and argument and logic before accepting new beliefs.

An example is religion.  I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormon).  Now, the Church has many beliefs but one of the ones that was endemic to my teaching (whether official Church doctrine or not) was Young Earth Creationism, well, slightly modified Young Earth Creationism since one of the Church’s scriptural books “The Pearl of Great Price” contains a description of a planet “Kolob” described as being nearest to “heaven” and for which a single day was 1000 Earth years.  So the “six days” of Creation could have been 6000 years.  However, as I started learning more about science, particularly geology and biology, I learned of a huge body of evidence that the Earth was far older than what I had been taught.

One small piece of that body of evidence was the existence of what geologists call angular unconformities.  This is a case where rock layers, originally horizontal and flat, had been bent or tilted by geologic forces, partially weathered away, and then new layers of sediment laid on top of it to be gradually compressed into rock(1).  This process, to occur naturally, would take a long time indeed, far too long to happen were the Earth only a few thousand years old.

Example of an Angular Unconformity
(1) Example of an Angular Unconformity

And so, once I started questioning my previously unexamined belief in Young Earth Creationism, I started looking at the totality of my belief in the LDS religion and I soon found that I just didn’t believe it any more.  Too much contradicted the evidence that was available to me.

That did not, however, mean that I was simply going to grab onto any other belief that came my way.  Nor was I going to exclude the possibility of things beyond my understanding, things that could include a “God” or “Gods.” Loss of belief in something does not automatically mean belief in its opposite.  It did, however, put me in a position to consider different beliefs.  I looked at Wicca for a while.  While I do not doubt that many are sincere in their beliefs, I did not find the evidence to support those beliefs compelling.  Nor did I find the idea of reincarnation particularly appealing when I look at the world, do the numbers, and figure the odds of being reborn to a situation better than my current one.  That does not mean it isn’t true–“appealing” and “true” have no necessary relationship–but appealing or not, I did not find the evidence as presented to be compelling.
I looked at Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, and various neo-Pagans.  I also looked at various forms of Christianity.  Oh, and I took a brief look at Islam.  I found none of them particularly convincing.  And so my agnosticism remains.

People have tried to present me with what they saw as evidence.  I have had fundamentalist Christians who have invited me to their Church to see people speaking in tongues and the like which, they believed, would convince me of the reality of their version of the Christian God.  They did not appreciate that I could point them to studies on “religious ecstasy” which showed similar effects in a wide variety of contexts and, since it is not limited to their religion is therefore not strong evidence for any particular religious belief.  Others have pointed me to people who have “died and come back” (technically a “near death experience”), but I can point to the work of Dr. Susan Blackmore and others on the neuroscience involved and how the typical “near death” effects can be shown to stem from the biological structure of the brain.

And so my agnosticism remains.  But out of all that, I did find one form of religion immensely appealing:  Asatru.  As part of my exploration, I read Diane Paxson’s “Essential Asatru” and Greg Shelter’s “Living Asatru” (I have since lost my copy of Shelter’s book and would dearly love to have both of those as ebooks).  One of the things I found most compelling is the idea that “wyrd” is something you build out of accumulated “orlogg.” In short, sin and punishment are not there because of some arbitrary “God says so” but rather are simply the natural result of the accumulation of ones actions.  I also found the “Nine Noble Virtues” which strike me as a far better model for a “good life” than the Ten Commandments (half of which amount to “stroke God’s ego.”)

These and other reasons made Asatru very appealing to me.  While being appealing is not, in itself, enough to be convincing for me, it was enough for me to see about giving the practice a chance.  Perhaps, if I gave the religion a chance, the Gods, if they exist, would see fit to provide me with evidence that would convince.

One chance for that came when one of our dogs, a six-month-old puppy, was very sick and was not expected to live much longer.  You have to understand, I am very much a “dog person.” While I’m fond enough of cats, my worship of the canine stops short of idolatry…barely.  Dogs aren’t just “pets” to me they are “furkids” (picked up that term from our regular pet sitter).  My daughter (eight years old at this writing) also loves our dogs dearly.  Now, add to that that we had only shortly before these events lost an old and beloved family pet (who I truly hope is awaiting me at “Rainbow Bridge”) and you see that this was a very traumatic event for our family.  I decided to make an effort.  I purchased a four lb “Engineers Mallet” (similar, in my conception, to what Mjolnir would be) carved Thor’s name into it in Elder Furthank, anointed it with some of my own blood, and sacrificed it into a large nearby body of water asking Thor, if he existed, to “hold his hammer between Trunks and harm” and to intercede with Eir, who Snorri described as the best of physicians among the Gods to grant Trunks healing.  I also offered a bottle of Guinness (Paxson said that “Stout” was a good offering for Thor) to Thor to that end.

Time passed.  Much to the surprise of everyone, including the vet, Trunks perked up and seemed to be healthy and happy.  A couple of months later, the vet said that the ultrasound techs were curious about what had happened since Trunks seemed to be doing so well.  They offered to do a follow-up ultrasound for free and the vet agreed.

The follow up ultrasound was completely normal.  The large internal abscess was gone.  The kidney irregularities were gone.  The spots on the spleen were gone.  I had a perfectly healthy young dog.
Did Thor intercede?  I do not know.  Human and animal bodies are marvelously complicated things and seeming miracles can happen from entirely natural causes.  On the other hand, I found the bottle (which I had left on the front porch, behind the railing) in the same place but empty.  Maybe somebody came along and drank it the put the bottle back.  My daughter said that maybe Thor accepted the offering and came and drank it.  I offered another bottle as thanks on the possibility that maybe Thor is real and had accepted the first offering.  That one was found later, in the same place, about half empty.

So it could be.  By itself, it’s not enough for me to truly believe.  There are other possibilities (including that I’m underestimating how long it would take for the drink to evaporate).  But it’s a start and enough for me to continue my exploration of Asatru.  Who knows, perhaps in time, bits and pieces will come together enough until I find that I truly believe and am no longer simply exploring.

One of my core beliefs is that there is an underlying truth to the Universe. At some level, what is, is, and what is not, is not. Anything else is chaos. And as a scientist I want to know and understand as much as I can of that underlying truth. If part of that truth is that Odin and Thor (by whatever name) are real beings, than I want to know that. If there is something more to human “being” than electrochemical reactions in the complex neurological structure of the brain, I want to know that.

And if none of that is true. Well, while I might be less happy with that knowledge, I still want to know. My quest is for “truth”, whatever it might be. I’m willing to entertain possibilities outside the “conventional” (see above) but in the end, I want to know what is.

Belief is not the same thing as proof. However, even belief, at least for me, has to have something behind it beyond just blind speculation. I don’t believe in invisible pink unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. I do believe in “dark matter” even though I haven’t observed it and the evidence is rather abstract and mathematical. I don’t need proof to believe, but I do need something to go on.

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