Saturday, December 04, 2010

Skepticism, Fear, and Belief - Part 2 - Belief and Fear

So the last post was actually an aside that came up in discussing this question. I would recommend reading part 1 first. Last week, in London, my wife and I saw Ghost Stories in the theater. It'd received some very enthusiastic reviews, there was little available for Sunday matinees that didn't conflict with our plans for the day (we did a London walk oriented about James Bond and Ian Fleming, I suspect as a favor to me).

The production was well-acted, but had no present-tense effect on me. I saw its frightening moments for what they were – they weren't deep-rooted psychological horror or terror, they were cheap showman's tricks. (As someone who always aspired to be a cheap showman, I'm familiar with the ouevre.) Lights go out, noises are summoned from places in the theatre where there are no actors, and wee golly, there were lots of insufferably loud noises. In other words, it wasn't contemplative horror, it was disorienting horror. And frankly, it didn't work on me. The rest of the audience would gasp or scream and I would sit there wondering how this was effective when they simply had to know what was coming. He's driving in a car, of course someone's going to pop on stage suddenly and get hit.

Rather than reveal the “secret” of Ghost Stories here – a secret that, unlike The Mousetrap, which we'd seen on a prior trip – seems to be more irrelevant dyed-in-the-wool formula than “secret,” I write about it because of its opening. It has a professor of parapsychology questioning the audience as to who believed in ghosts (about 2/3 of the people raised their hands for that) and who'd experienced something they felt could only be explained through the paranormal (maybe 1/10 of people for that one). My hand went up nary a time. But, as I had decried, I knew that although my wife's hand was raised and mine was not, she would be sleeping peacefully that night, and I would likely be terrified out of my wits.

Why? And how? How is it that I can be afraid of something that I genuinely do not believe exists? Is that even possible?

As to the why, that's simple. I live a life that's got a lot of fear. It's probably one of the driving forces in my life. I could divulge a litany of reasons for this, but no need to lay blame right now. It's not of ghouls, goblins and boogeymen, but of making decisions that are perfectly rational now only to discover that in ten years, I'd be a walking piece of slapstick comedy to science:

Scene: 2020 – no flying cars, temperature appears to be about 3 or 4 degrees warmer, about 10 degrees warmer in the US. Thanks, President-for-Life Palin.

Doctor: He's only 40. What happened?
Doctor 2: It's simple really. He drank Pepsi One for two years and ran marathons.
Doctor: Didn't he know that Splenda caused instant spleen cancer and a certain death? I mean, the words “spleen die” are practically in the name.
Doctor 2: They didn't know back then. They thought it was healthier than high fructose corn syrup, which we know now to decrease the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, and increase penis size and girth by up to 40%.
Doctor: Poor dead fool, he probably used half of the life he had trying to “stay in shape”. I bet he regretted those abs when the Great Corn Famine came.

But that fear is rational. I believe that what I'm eating is generally non-lethal, but recognize that there is no certainty in that arena. But how can I be afraid of something in which I genuinely affirmatively and emphatically do not believe? And why don't I believe?

Ok, the last question is explained by the prior entry. I am a skeptic and I think I do far better at it than the so-called skeptics who have adopted full-on atheism, which is adopting a form of skepticism without doubt, which is...nothing. I also am fully convinced (take that, skepticism) that the human brain has a nearly limitless capacity.

And, I think that this offers some explanation. I am afraid of ghosts, even though I don't think ghosts are real, because 1) one of my greatest and most omnipresent fears in life is being wrong, 2) I have lingering doubts about even the non-belief in ghosts (which cannot be categorically disproven, even if wholly illogical), and 3) even many of the quasi-rational (within the realm of possibility, if beyond the realm of plausibility) explanations for things that go bump in the night. When I hear something bump in my closet or rustle under the bed, it may not be the ghost of Blackbeard under there, but it may well be Earl Carter, the Dixie Disemboweler who escaped from prison. It's sure not likely he's been under my bed undetected since I got home, but it's not as if I regularly check under the bed either. (Actually, I would note that given that Wilmington (population 72,664) has had 28 murders in the calendar year of 2010, which is still about 1/13th from over, gunmen trying to kill me ought to be a substantially greater fear than it is.)

So I guess that raises a new question, which is really the old question. Does the fact that I am afraid prove that I actually believe in ghosts even if I don't think I do? Can you be afraid of something that you do not believe in? Or does it just prove that I'm a coward? (That, of course, is a fact about which my belief had reached a semi-religious fervor ages ago.)

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