Yes but, it could be, couldn't it?


It could be

I often hear that phrase, "it could be that this or that exists, couldn't it?" Chakras, auras and God in the sky. My answer is invariably, "I don't think so, but of course, it could, so what?".

Such a question "it could be, couldn't it?" seems to come from an agnostic 1) point of view, but it usually isn't. Usually people do believe that these things actually exist. But why?

I can think of a number of reasons why people, myself not excepted, believe certain things:

  • There is sufficient evidence for it. For example: I believe Tokyo exists, even though I've never been there. I believe that tomorrow the sun will rise again. And I believe it will be nice weather tomorrow, given the forecasts. No one has ever seen an electron or a living dinosaur. Yet I believe that electrons exist and that dinosaurs walked around long ago.

  • It seems to explain something we don't (yet) understand, e.g. the idea of the 'Ether', before we knew that light waves propagate without a medium in vacuum - "because there must be something waving", was the thinking at the time.

These two reasons seem sufficiently legitimate to me. The three reasons below, however, rather serve to obfuscate, disguise, and make reality more palatable:

  • It gives hope and comfort. For example, most people cannot accept the idea that there would be 'nothing' when they die. And also the idea that there is 'someone' watching over them provides reassurance.

  • It provides a handhold and meaning. The world is complex and full of incomprehensibilities and life sometimes seems meaningless and cruel. Many people find this intolerable. 'God's plan' then provides the answer. Think also of the belief of "coincidence does not exist" or "this had to be". And also the belief in astrology is of the same ilk.

  • Believing in special and 'secret' things gives people a sense of superior identity. Such people feel 'special' or even 'chosen'. Think of believing in visiting aliens and angels or adhering to bizarre conspiracy theories.

And even scientists can lose themselves in bizarre, unprovable hypotheses, such as the idea that the universe would have brought itself into existence as a simulation: 'New hypothesis argues the universe simulates itself into existence'.

I get that people feel the need to believe all sorts of things. And as long as they don't force me to believe it too, that's fine by me. I also understand that being brought up with a religion or philosophy of life can influence you in such a way that it can be very difficult to see it through and leave it behind. I'm still grateful to my parents that they never put pressure on me to accept a religious (or anti-religious) way of thinking and that they let me go my own ways, even though in retrospect they were (also) astray.

Besides our parents, of course, there is the enormous influence of the society we grow up and participate in. Everyone absorbs all kinds of ideas, norms and points of view through a kind of osmosis process. This is unavoidable and, of course, has its value. It ensures that you can participate in that society in an acceptable way. But it also ensures that your view of yourself and your perception becomes covered and overlaid with layers of concepts and so-called knowledge that are not yours, but second-hand.

And we have become very good at deceiving ourselves and our fellow man in the meantime. Because what does a phrase like "I feel that way now", or "my intuition tells me that" really mean? Real intuition is wordless, you just do something, and you can't reason why. Feelings are also wordless. You feel sadness, fear, joy, and so on, not that you are going to win the lottery tomorrow or that your guardian angel is nearby. These are not feelings, but thoughts, things you believe or hope, don't know, and even less feel.

It is not easy to see through all the things you believe, even if they are in fact just bullshit:

"Bullshit often appeals to our emotions or to our existing worldviews, and once ideas have settled into our emotions or confirmed our worldviews, they can be extremely difficult to dislodge - even by the truth.

"The liar claims something that he himself believes to be false. He intentionally misrepresents what he himself believes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not hindered by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his claim, he is indifferent as to whether what he says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. Rather, it is to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his hearers in a particular way." 2)

Consider also: the amount of energy required to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it (Brandolini's law, also called: the 'Bullshit Asymmetry Principle').

"No doubt turning one’s back on cherished beliefs can feel daunting and scary, but one finds no real relief in a superstitious embrace of spirituality either. The mind of superstition is a haunted house filled with the ghosts of other people’s religion, other people’s pain, and other people’s fears." 3)

1) Agnosticism > From Wikipedia: Agnosticism is the philosophical view that knowledge of (a) higher power(s) cannot be certain, because it cannot be proved (by the scientific method). An agnostic is someone who has no conviction towards the existence or non-existence of (a) supernatural power(s).
2) Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit
3) Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things, Chapter 34