Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jagged Little Pill

Rather than reposting the whole discussion--which wasn't long, but why bother--I offer up a link to a post I made on Goosing the Antithesis some time ago. It's a subject that, in a way, I've been thinking about a lot more in the last few weeks, ever since the Skeptic's Annotated Bible actually managed to surprise me. Is the SAB the red pill or the blue pill?

What if reality was not what you thought it to be? In many ways, this is a sticky question most of all on the religious front. Most of us feel we're logically justified in not expecting a "Matrix"-style awakening, and definitely, there is very little reason to think that the wool is being pulled over our eyes to such an extent. Yet at the same time, it's the intangibles of the world that are always on some level very open to questioning. How do you know that your government has anyone's best interests in mind, much less your own? How do you know how the people in your life feel about you, really? How do you know that your brain is functioning right, and you're not insane? And how do you know that your beliefs about god(s) or lack thereof are on the mark?

The thing is, the day I was writing the ASAB blog entry (not the GtA one) I was experiencing a great deal of mixed emotion. I've said it before, and I really mean it, that there are days that I wish the whole Christianity thing was just a bad dream I'd wake up from and find that the universe is somehow simpler. I'm not the sort of person who believes that morality cannot exist apart from God, but definitely in the absence of God, there are numerous moral obligations that completely lose their foundations. In various parts of the Bible, religion is referred to as a "burden" that it would be a shame to saddle someone with unnecessarily, and if the Bible says it, it must be right, eh?

Anyway, the prospect of finding a serious flaw in the Bible was exciting. I've said many a time that while I'm aware of minor glitches in the Bible, the real thing that most Christians worry about is the possibility that there might be a doctrinal error. It's one thing to not know how many chariots Solomon had, it's a whole other issue to not know whether performing a particular action, failing to perform a particular action, or performing a particular action wrong will cause you some sort of torment at the hands of an angry supreme being. So while I would stop short of calling the (potential) problem a serious doctrinal error, the idea that contradictory punishments might be doled out, not just for a crime, but for a rather dubious crime was extremely troubling.

I've always liked Plato's Allegory of the Cave: the idea that we in the world are like people in a cave who only see dark, distorted shadows on a wall when the truth is bright sunlight out side that we didn't even dream of. Plato hypothesized that anyone forced to leave the cave and come out into the sunlight would be essentially traumatized by the change, and might at first fight against it. The fact is, we all believe that our own world-view is correct; that's natural and healthy. Although there might be a better, bigger truth out there, a first glimpse of it might be blinding or painful, and it would inevitably be scary to face the prospect of having to change everything that you know to fit a new set of perceptions.

For myself, the journey into Christianity was like that, and if I should discover it not to be true at some time in the future, the journey out would be similar. Nobody wants to discover that everything they thought made the world what it is is only a lie, even if the world they know is unpleasant. When Morpheus sits before you and offers you those pills, he doesn't give you a glass of water to swallow it with, you've got to choke that thing down, and on the way down it scratches a throat that is straining to reject it.

Maybe you should reject it. Many Christians would tell you that anyone who is trying to lead you away from Christianity is only a servant of Satan in some direct or indirect way. While an atheist isn't likely to appeal to the supernatural, many of them consider evangelistic Christians in the same manner: just charlatans looking to pull the wool over your eyes so you can join the flock and be fleeced along with the rest of the sheep. Whichever position you personally take, it bears contemplating. When I saw The Matrix for the first time, I thought the scene in which Neo is offered the two pills was incredibly creepy. Imagine yourself in a strange house you've never been to before with a bunch of freaky people you just met that day, and one of them says, "Hey, if you take this pill, you're going to see some wild stuff!" My personal response would be, "Uh, thanks, but I tried that stuff in college, and I think I'm pretty much done with it, okay?"

Of course, as I mentioned in the notes of the original post, there was a similar scene in the movie Total Recall in which the hero of the story is also offered a pill that will supposedly make the fantasy world around him disappear. He rejects the pill, and although the ending of the movie is left with a touch of vagueness, we are generally led to believe that rejection was the right choice, and the pill was a deception. In a less philosophical (and cinematic) vein, some people believe that when they take LSD, they are having some sort of supernatural experience of expanded consciousness, while others simply believe that the chemicals in their brain are being made to fire randomly, and it's all garbage. Who in the end is to say whether an atheist or a theist is the one who is having a "bad trip"? Each is convinced in their own mind that they are seeing the true reality.

The funny thing is, it's like you're sitting there with Morpheus, he holds out the pills and says his little speech, and as you reach for the pill, someone chimes up, saying, "Wait a minute, I think you've got it backwards. I'm pretty sure it's the blue pill that makes you wake up from the dream." On a side note, something I've always wondered is what would have happened if Neo had taken both pills? (Edit to add: Apparently, I'm not the only one to muse on this.) Of course, the pills being essentially a metaphor even in the original story, I think the whole thing breaks down at that point. The only reasonable alternative to taking one pill or the other is to take neither and just walk away. (I suppose in my metaphorical take, that would be like agnosticism.) In the real-world scenario, I think that's the choice I would take.

But not too many of us find ourself sitting in a room with a mysterious man offering us two pills that represent radically diverging life-paths. Most of us live a very mundane life. Still, those choices are offered to us nonetheless. "I can't think of any reason why I wouldn't take the red pill," says one commenter on the old post, and yet every day, so many people turn their back on the possibility of knowing the truth, certain (metaphorically) that the blue pill is all the reality they need. This is not a criticism of atheism; this is a criticism of closed-mindedness. Whatever it is that you believe, you should know and accept the possibility that you might be wrong, as logical and well-founded as your beliefs may seem.

No comments: