Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Hard to Believe
Great to see Richard Dawkins on the tv last night (with support from Derren Brown, explaining cold reading – “I’m getting something about the dog sleeping in the hall – oh, you don’t have a dog? Well perhaps a painting of a dog, or some sort of painting in the hall? You have recently put a picture up in the hall? He (the spirit on the other side) doesn’t think it’s a good idea to hang that painting there…) Notice how the dog vanishes…
No, I haven’t quoted him perfectly, but he does it awfully well.
I have a lot of glee watching Dawkins, and love the fact that Derren (another sceptic) doesn’t claim anything more than cunning and ingenuity, while all these other people claim psychic powers, and contact with the dead, etc.
My only quibble arises from Dawkins’ complete lack of interest in ‘intuition’ or ‘creativity’ or ‘emotional value’, etc – when he dismisses astrology, spiritualism, faith healing, etc. I do agree with him that the rise of irrationality feels depressing, but that resembles the despair of the intelligent confronted by the stupid, at times. Rather like saying “you can’t possibly enjoy soap operas, you should go to the real opera“ (say). I think certain ‘harmless untruths’ may give people support or reassurance, just as the placebo effect can (apparently) heal people.
I found him hilarious destroying Sun Sign astrology (first of all by comparing the stereotypical model by using national characteristics to point out how unacceptable they would seem to most modern people “Germans, you work hard and play hard, and sometimes people think you don’t have much of a sense of humour” “Chinese, you appear enigmatic to people around you…” “British, you need to learn to loosen up…” - and then by handing an identical trivial newspaper description to various ‘signs’ to see if they recognise themselves…and not improving on chance.
Still, it’s a cheap shot if you think of astrology as a complex language evolved over centuries, and attempting to describe the human personality, just as have various schools of psychology, or groups studying consciousness, and not a system of omens and influences…but that perhaps just shows my own lingering attachment to that particular language, having actually put some time into studying it (without coming to ‘believe’ in it).
And of course, watching water diviners (in Spanish the verb divinar means ‘to guess’!) try to guess which bin contains water and which contain sand, and not beating chance, and then rationalising madly, seems hilarious until you stop to consider which of your own beliefs you would hold onto, even confronted by clear evidence (my smoking has nothing to do with this cough, of course!)
Still, over all, I enjoyed the programme, but know it will make no difference at all. I have tested expression of my own cynicism and scepticism with my online study group for the last three years, and they have convinced me that I have no right to claim that magick doesn’t work (for instance) as it works (appears to work) for them. Like the water diviners they feel sure that something useful happens, and (like the placebo) I don’t feel inclined to disagree any more – especially around creatives, as whatever trick works to elicit creativity seems OK to me, even superstitious behaviour, or accidental imprinting (feeling unable to write without a cigarette and a glass of whiskey).
And I get tired of defending the view. I liked Dawkins' description of the universe as wonder-full, and the word 'mundane' as describing the world around us, which could and should fill us with wonder, rather than needing the 'invisible' or 'spiritual' to somehow make it more exciting. I don't believe in that 'unseen' myself, but have always leaned towards a Zen-like view of elimination of abstractions, and direct perception of what surrounds us. When cold, you can burn the wooden statue of the Buddha...
I don't imbue my surroundings with imaginary 'hidden power', but I do imagine a lot of wars get fought over holy buildings, people trampling on or burning crosses, and flags, and other symbols in which they have invested value.