Aggregating Skeptical Thought

Under only 300 miles

“The Last Page” of the Smithsonian magazine often has some witty commentary or story. The current issue (June 2007) has an excerpt from Simon Rich’s book Ant Farm. I can’t find an online link to this content so I will reproduce some of it here so you can get an idea of the article.

Here are some scenes for a TV show I came up with that’s exactly like “The X Files” except all of the characters are dogs.
Dog Mulder: I’m Agent Mulder from the Dog FBI. Tell us what happened.
Skip: Last week, my face was really itchy. I kept trying to scratch my nose, but … I couldn’t reach it.
Dog Mulder: What do you mean?
Skip: There was some kind of cone-shaped force field surrounding my head.
Dog Scully: Incredible!
Skip: The crazy thing is, three days later, I fell asleep …. and when I woke up, the force field was gone.
Dog Scully: I don’t understand. This defies all logic!
Dog Mulder: Not everything can be explained with logic, Dog Scully.

Boomer: This is really hard for me. You’re the first ones I’ve told.
Dog Scully: Tell us what happened.
Boomer: OK, here goes. Yesterday I fell asleep, and when I woke up, my testicles were missing.
Dog Scully: Jesus. This is the fifth case this month.
Dog Mulder: There’s something happening out there. Something beyond our understanding.

Those are some examples of perfectly explainable things happening to a group and yet it is something beyond their understanding. This kind of thing always makes it easier for me to understand the kinds of motivations that our ancestors would have had as they began to explore and further understand the natural world around them.

Where did fairies and dragons come from? We needed to understand what those strange lights in the swamps were or what kind of animal these massive bones would have belonged with. We hadn’t yet figured out the mechanisms of swamp gas or the entire scientific studies of paleontology or geology. Yet we needed an explanation now.

Without the level of scientific advancement of today these types of creatures could easily have existed but now they can’t and people don’t see dragons or fairies (I’m talking society at large, not a small group of the deluded). But of course we have a larger group of people in society today who believe we’ve been visited by aliens (Roswell, alien abduction, cow mutilation). These groups are still experiencing the same kinds of phenomenon (most likely psychological but I’m not an authority to make that kind of determination)  except instead of seeing a dragon they see a UFO because a dragon would be ludicrous but a UFO is not. The technology for interstellar travel is not known but it’s knowable and not implausible. The science research necessary to eliminate dragons as real creatures has developed sufficiently and permeated society enough that it would truly be difficult for the brain of an otherwise normal person to see or accept something like that.

It’s truly amazing how far we have come in our understanding of the natural world. We’ve come so far that all those mysterious, supernatural explanations for the mundane things of our world such as earthquakes, solar eclipses, swamp gases, dinosaur bones, meteors and comets have been explained. Except for one mystery explanation. The big one. Where did we come from? Why are we here? How did we get here? Certainly not through the apparently random nature of evolution (although it’s not random). The scientific process has eliminated so many supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon except this one. And I have a feeling that this is where scientific processes are going to consistently fail where it has suceeded in the past.

Why do I think that? I think it because there are 2 different groups of supernatural phenomenon. One is explanatory and the other is experiential. Explanatory supernatural phenomenon is the use of supernatural somethings to explain a natural occurence. 

  • Those strange lights in the swamp are fairies.

And experiential supernatural phenomenon is a Near Death Experience (in fact it’s so profound that I felt compelled to capitalize it).

  • I know Jesus exists because I actually died in a car accident and Jesus came to me and told me my time on Earth wasn’t done and then I came back to life.

How can science compete with someone’s personal experience. You just simply cannot expect, “What you were experiencing was a lack of oxygen to the brain and as your brain was suffocating it was firing in very specific regions of the brain similar to dreaming” to have any compelling weight with someone who actually experienced it. My mother-in-law had a very compelling hallucinatory experience while in the hospital and Jesus and Moses both told her to hang on and that her fight wasn’t over. They also revealed several things to her about her family that only she would know and that this validated that they were in fact who they said they were. After all only God and herself would know these things. And no I did not try to reason with her, such as, “The reason they knew these things was because your brain (where this information is stored) is the very same thing that generated these images”. It woud have been a lost cause.

There are studies that show that many subjective experiences have a more mundane explanation. Sleep paralysis is often cited to explain away many ghost or alien abduction experiences. My brother-in-law and father-in-law both have vivid memories of evil spirits who sat on their chests and prevented them from getting up or even moving. The descriptions of these events are exactly what is described with sleep paralysis. Another recent set of experiments, God on the Brain, has subjects place a set of magnets around their temporal lobes (above your ears) . When the magnets were turned on many subjects experienced everything from the feeling of a “presence in the room” to intense religious experiences. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that religious experiences are generated in your brain any more than this just shows where religious experiences are processed. It does however give one more piece or takes us one step closer to understanding within the mundane natural world how humans can have such intense religious experiences. And that those religious experiences can be entirely generated within our own brains under (as yet) unknown conditions.

These scientific studies are chipping away slowly at what I’m calling experiential supernatural phenomenon and may help those of us who haven’t experienced something like an out-of-body experience to understand academically what is happening. But these types of studies will have little impact on those who have actually had this experience.

What we are really talking about here is a contradiction in that from an evolutionary standpoint our experience of the world around us was the sole means for understanding the “truth” of the world. Along comes the scientific method that says, “Your subjective understanding of the world is not enough and may in fact be wrong.” We are not so removed from our evolutionary cousins that this still is a bitter pill to swallow. Here’s a quote from Richard Dawkins that I think will help put things in perspective.

“Molecular evidence suggests that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived, in Africa, between five and seven million years ago, say half a million generations ago. This is not long by evolutionary standards. … in your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother. In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother’s hand, and so on. … How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It is a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under 300 miles.”

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Filed under: Religion, Skeptic

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