Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Skeptic's Reflections On Perception

The word "perception" keeps popping up in my conversations lately. It came up in my very first late-night philosophy session with my new lab partner, when we discussed memory's unreliability. It keeps coming up in my evolution arguments with Gunner, mostly about his skewed ideas about the Scopes Trial. It has come up several times while my local friends and I hash and rehash the Gay/Straight Alliance fiasco at a local high school. (BTW, you can find information about that here and here. It really pisses me off, but that's a whole other post.) It even came up in my discussion of Silent Hill.

When a word pops up that much in so short a time, it usually means that it's on my mind a lot, and upon reflection, I have to say that that's the case right now.

Perception is a powerful thing. In politics today, perception is more important than reality. Maybe it always was. I don't know.

In the justice system, perception is sadly the only important thing to the jury, in general. I wish it was different, and that juries would only look at the facts, but that's just not the case.

Even on a personal front, perception is about to take a front seat in my life.

Perceptions are more important than most people tend to think, even though there is a lot of folk wisdom out there that touches on it. Think about it. All the advice about first impressions that we get and give are about perceptions, since first impressions are all superficial and thus perception-based. None of it's based on deep insight. There's more, but I'll leave it to the reader to come up with other examples.

In the culture wars, perception is everything, although the godless side doesn't seem to understand that as well as it should. Look at Dover, PA. The bulk of the local community was thoroughly behind the school board until the dollar signs started piling up and the trial itself made them out to look so stupid.

But that lesson seems to keep escaping at least a section of the atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, brights and what-have-you. Sadly, it's often the most vocal section. While I thoroughly agree that religion is more blight than boon, I can't help but put myself in the opposition's shoes. I seem to always get incensed when someone tells me a cherished belief is wrong. It may take me a long time to come around to a different perspective. And that's something that the godless community needs to remember. Except for those lucky few raised in a godless home, our entire population came to our convictions through a process. And lets be honest here. If it wasn't a slow process, then there's probably a flaw in your reasoning somewhere. People just don't wake up one morning and declare themselves free of religion. It just doesn't happen. Although it does make for an amusing image, doesn't it? Ponder for a moment why the idea of someone throwing off the covers, stretching luxuriantly and then declaring "I am an atheist!" is amusing.

Like so many funny things, it's because it's completely unexpected. And that's because becoming godless, whether you self-identify as agnostic, atheist, secular humanist, bright, all of the above or none, is a drawn-out, often painful process. It hurts to give up cherished beliefs that have been drilled into you since you were a child. It's scary as hell to accept that there is no hell, and thus no heaven, either.

But true believers don't perceive us as having come to our conclusions through hard-fought, hard-won self-searching. All they hear when we tell them that we evolved from lesser primates is that "We evolved from monkeys". Yes, that's inaccurate. Yes, it's frustrating. Yes, it's uninformed and dangerously ignorant. But that doesn't make it any less true. The god-fearing, of whatever stripe, look at our philosophies and our reasoning and our joy in living, and it clashes with everything they've been taught. And they. Just. Don't. Understand.

One of the first three questions I'm always asked when I let the cat out of the bag about my agnosticism is what I have against God and/or religion. Always. True believers go through periods of questioning, and those questioning periods are usually at times of great stress. The loss of a loved one, a job or a home seem to be the most common triggers in my (admittedly limitied) experience, although I have heard tales of questioning arising from something as simple as college attendance or travelling the world. There's nothing quite like learning about another religion for casting your own into sharp relief, after all.

But most questioning seems to arise due to loss-based stress, and that's the conclusion that believers jump to: that I'm an agnostic because I'm angry, disappointed or otherwise disillusioned about religion/God. That's how they perceive those who don't believe. Not as true non-believers, but as lost sheep who have gone astray. That's also why they tend to get incensed over the in-your-face attitudes of the hard-line atheists out there. The more they argue, fuss and fight, the more they appear to be children who don't want to take their metaphorical medicine.

I know that's going to insult a lot of the godless out there, this image of them as reticent children. But you have to remember that we are dealing with people who believe. They have the capital "T" truth, or at least a piece of it. We look at them and smirk in our superiority, but they look back and smile at our recalcitrance. I think we've forgotten what that feels like. Skeptics live in a world of uncertainty, be definition. If you accept modern definitions and philosophies of science, then you can never give 100%, unchanging acceptance to anything!

You can give enough temporary agreement to things like the theory of evolution or the theory of gravity that in real-world, practical terms you can treat it like 100%, but at the center of a true skeptic's philosophy, there should be some uncertainty. I suppose you could say that a skeptic should be skeptical of his skepticism. But that might make your brain sizzle. I know it does mine, at times.

True believers walk through life with certitude in a plethora of things. They believe they have the truth. Never mind the fact that ten years ago they believed things they don't believe today. Never mind the fact that ten years from now their beliefs will be even more different. That doesn't matter. They suffer from a connectivity of perception. Their beliefs change incrementally over time, just like a skeptic's does. The difference is that a skeptic doesn't care if his attitudes and beliefs change. Uncertainty is at the core of his philosophy.

But religion is a stabilizing force. It's the antithesis of change. And a true believer has a sort of tunnel vision where his beliefs are concerned. He needs that stability, or at least come to expect its presence, so he doesn't handle having his beliefs challenged very well. That's why the Catholic Church takes centuries to admit that Galileo is right, or that the world is round. Change is difficult, scary and painful, especially to those who aren't used to having their perceptions shaken time and time again.

I'm an introspective guy. In other words, I brood. But I love having my views challenged, because that gives me a chance to define them a little more, chip away some of the goofiness in my belief structure and, for want of a better word, purify my perceptions. But the god-fearing don't want to do this, as a general rule, because they feel that they already have the truth. Calling them loons and kooks isn't going to endear them to giving us skeptics a fair shake.

I know its tempting, and I know it gets really old when you have to rehash the same arguments again and again. But if we have to reinvent the wheel a billion times to get our point across, to get people to perceive things the way we skeptics do, then that's what we have to do. And we have a responsibility to do so as well and as often as possible. The faithful may view us as recalcitrant children but I view them as people with blindfolds on. You don't blame someone for being blindfolded unwillingly. You just help them get it off. Their eyes are gonna hurt in the light of day, but it's still worth doing. Doing it with a little compassion is worthwhile, as well.

At least that's my perception. You may perceive things differently.

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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain

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Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu