Monday, August 4, 2008

When Does It End?

The questioning, I mean. When do you stop asking questions and figure enough is enough?

I was thinking about this today when I was folding an 8-yard-long piece of flowered material that I plan to use for nightgowns for my daughter and myself. I had laundered it earlier this morning, and the easiest way to fold such a long piece of material is to stand at the top of the staircase and hang it over the 15-foot drop to the entryway below. I shook it out and started to fold it end over end, and noticed how surprisingly heavy eight yards of fabric is. After a week of diving into Bill Bryson's marvelous overview of the sciences, A Short History of Nearly Everything, my first thought was not so much the weight of the cloth as the amazing force of the earth's gravity. (If I turn into a science nerd, it's all his fault.)

It occurred to me that I don't question gravity. This is a good thing. If I questioned gravity on any kind of practical basis, I would be attempting to fly, an experiment which would be exciting, short, and squashily definitive in its results. Since I prefer to enjoy the view off my back deck rather than becoming one with it, I trust in gravity.

Why? I can't see it. I can see its effects though, when I get out of bed in the morning, when I throw a ball for the dog, when I drop an ill-fated egg on the kitchen floor. And that is sufficient for me to believe in it.

But again, why? There are plenty of things I've never seen. Some I believe in, some I don't. I hav never seen gravity. I have never seen wind. I have never seen the Crab Nebula, Connecticut, or the bottom of the Black Sea. I have never seen ghosts. I have never seen God. I have never seen aliens, or grace, or the healing power of acupuncture.

My friend Scott believes in gravity. He believes in anything that can be scientifically proven.

My friend Greg believes in wind. His house would still be standing if the wind hadn't carried the wildfire's flames.

My friend Michael believes in the Crab Nebula. It's documented by lots of astronmers.

My friend Lisa believes in Connecticut. She went there on vacation.

My friend Jon believes in the bottom of the Black Sea. My friend Jon believes in a lot of stuff.

My friend Michelle believes in ghosts. She says she saw one once.

My friend Kristina believes in God. She says he gave her hope after three of her babies died.

My other friend Scott doesn't exactly believe in aliens, but he doesn't not believe in them either. He believes in superpowers and chi and government conspiracies too.

My friend Susan believes in grace. She says that is how she forgave her ex-husband after he ruined her life.

My friend Rebecca believes in the healing power of acupuncture. She says it cured her allergies and straightened out her internal electromagnetic flows.

So maybe my friends are not the best indication of what should and should not be believed in. Between them all (and I love them all), they believe in almost everything. And after a while, I have learned how to pick my battles with them, and most of the time that means I don't pick any fights at all. Beck will never be talked out of the efficacy of acupuncture. Lisa will never be convinced that there is no such place as Connecticut. Granted, there are varying levels of proof for these two hypotheses, but where do you draw the line?

In my gradual and wobbly drifting away from faith, I find not that I have less faith, but that I have more than I thought I did, in all kinds of things. I don't have the faith that I once had in religion, or in the nonsense that has built up around it over the centuries. But the more I look around inside my brain, the more I discover odd pockets of faith in all sorts of things, from political viewpoints to questions of health to social theories to gravity. It's not that I don't want to challenge irrational beliefs, but some days my head gets tired of the questions.

One of the fundamental tenets of skepticism has become one of my greatest causes of frustration. Skeptics, at least the version whose current incarnation is as debunkers of popular myth (crop circles and homeopathic medicine and psychics and the like), place great value in the scientific method. They reiterate -- and correctly so -- that so many things which appear to be magical can be explained in concrete terms by scientifically proven fact. And as a result, those things which cannot be proven are dismissed (and I think often correctly so) as nonsense. Homeopathy = placebo effect. Psychic cold readings = good guesses by highly observant people. Crop circles = clever engineering students with access to heavy-duty farm equipment. Much of the time, the scientific method clears up questions of nonsense quickly and often with delightfully educational results.

However, my reading of Bryson's book was enlightening in an unexpected and squirm-inducing way. The scientific community, from the Greek philosophers up to today, has proclaimed many contradictory things over the centuries. New information overturns old theories, and sometimes the new discoveries verify what appeared to be the ravings of a madman. How many great minds, decades ahead of their time, said of some scientific theory, "I cannot prove this, but I know it to be true", were mocked in their lifetime and then found to be embarrassingly prescient decades (or millennia) later?

If even the scientific method is only as good as our brains and the number of years we've been working on a particular problem, is it really worth putting so much faith in? Will my grandchildren laugh at our generation's stubborn insistence that there is no such thing as ESP, if advances in technology enable them to precisely and accurately quantify what appears now to be unsupported claims of magic?

What is enough evidence for belief, in anything? How do we stop asking, "Well, how do they know, and how do their teachers know, and how did their professors know before that?" How do we accept that so many of our questions end, uncomfortably and inevitably, in faith?