Friday, October 24, 2008

Reality is just a concept

Recently, I've been reading a book called "Walking Through Walls" by Philip Smith. Like the book I previously mentioned by Adam Nimoy, this book is another memoir from a son about his father. The difference is that this book is well-written, compelling, and detailed. In both books, it is clear either covertly or overtly that the sons are daunted by their father's success. However, Philip Smith's father was not a famous actor. He was an interior designer. He was also a psychic and capable of healing people by touch. This is not something the younger Smith was entirely pleased about when he was growing up and the book is written from his perspective of having had such a freak as a father.

I've read a large smattering of books about people who discuss metaphysical issues including past life remembrance, channeling, and the nature of existence. If you've read any of my past prattling on this topic, you may conclude that I eat this stuff up like sweet, sweet candy. That would be a reasonable, but incorrect, conclusion. The truth is that I approach each and every book (not that there have been more than what can be counted on my fingers) and concept with skepticism. In fact, I cannot even say at this very moment that I have a solid belief that any of what I read is true. That being said, I also do not have a solid belief that it is false.

I've pondered the motives behind writing some of the books which have had a great influence on me. The first of such books was Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss. Weiss is a psychiatrist with a strong medical background who initially approached the larger questions in life from the same hard-edged view as many with lives deeply steeped in science until he encountered a patient, a nurse, who seemed to remember her past lives under hypnosis and was able to tell him things no one should have known about an infant son who had died.

While reading his books and others like it, I always find myself asking the same questions. They are:
  • Are these books lies and fabrications to gain notoriety and money? Do the writers really gain more from the books relative to the professional losses incurred by putting forth such views?
In the case of some of the books, the answer about the loss is that there is far more risk to their careers in printing the books than not doing so. For Dr. Weiss, who was (and may still be) a successful mental health practitioner, writing such books could have ended his career and made him a laughing stock. The same could be said of Philip Smith, though as a former editor of GQ and an artist, the risk would be far less. For others, who seemingly built careers around their books rather than adding writing them to their activities, the answer would seem to be that they mainly have potential personal costs rather than professional ones.
  • Are the writers of these books delusional? Warped? Mentally ill? Are they really experiencing what they think they are seeing or are they hallucinating?
As someone who studied psychology and experienced the absolutely firm belief in distorted perceptions of reality of mentally unstable people firsthand, this is a serious question. The answer is that it is absolutely possible that people who channel or commune with spirits in any fashion are essentially hearing and responding to voices. Some of those voices would undoubtedly be brilliant and offer incredibly intricate and unusual perspectives, but that doesn't mean they aren't a manifestation of a controlled psychosis.

In some cases though, there would have to be collusion in order to validate some of the statements that have been made. For instance, in one of the Seth books, Jane Roberts, her husband Robert Butts, and another witness claim that the entity they call Seth made her fingers grow longer and fatter in front of them to prove his existence and ability to manipulate reality. This "parlor trick" was done to prove to them that he was not a delusion of Jane's, but an external force communicating through her. Obviously, either Mr. Butts and the other witness would have to lie in support of Jane's delusions, or they actually believed to have seen a change in her hands because of a form of contagious belief, hypnotism, or shared psychosis.
  • Are the writers of such books bending facts to conform to their mindset? Is there anything objective proving what they have stated?
This is another definite possibility, though it mainly applies to writers like Dr. Weiss who, for the most part, report the actions and statements of others. We all bend events and statements at times to give our perspective a little more credibility. If you want to believe something badly enough, evidence is everywhere.

That being said, it's important to bear in mind that many of the less pie-in-the-sky writers of these types of books are just as skeptical as non-believers. They need validation as much as those who have never had their experiences. The best example of someone who tried as hard as possible to objectively verify her experiences was Jenny Cockell. She sought out children of a past life and talked to them about her memories. She didn't do this to prove to everyone else that her beliefs were credible. She did it to convince herself.
  • Am I being persuaded by rational-sounding voices because I want to believe what they're saying?
Of course. If anyone answers this question in the negative, they're deluding themselves. No one is capable of being utterly objective. Even science is subjective by seeking to interpret data as is most desired and by choosing to measure only that which supports the proposed theory. If science were a perfect, objective system, scientists wouldn't disagree with one another.

In the end, it's difficult to know for sure what is true when it comes to the metaphysical claims unless you personally experience something profound. Even then though, you can't know for sure that you're not the one having some sort of hallucination, losing touch with reality, or just had one bizarre moment when your mind told you something that didn't really happen. Mother Theresa rather famously had a religious experience early in her life which motivated her to become a nun then never had such an experience again. She mentioned later in life that she was frustrated and sometimes disillusioned that she had never been reassured in such a fashion again about the path she'd taken in life. I'm sure she reached a point where she doubted that the original experience was real at all. She admitted her faith wavered because the experience did not repeat itself.

I'm not quite cynical enough to believe that there are so many people out there who are calculating enough to swindle people with their stories, though I am cynical enough to believe it happens sometimes. In the case of Philip Smith, I do believe he's telling the truth about his father and what he recalls of his life with him. I can't say that the truth he recalls was the reality that occurred, but I don't think he's making it all up. I also have to believe that, given how many people his father helped, it would be very easy for one of them to come forth and call the son a liar if he made so much up.

Everyone lives a different reality and I think you can't experience something if you don't want to or if you rule it out as a possibility. Your perspective defines your world as much as your world shapes your beliefs. You accept what fits your worldview and reject what doesn't. I believe the writers of some of the books I've read about the nature of existence happen to believe things many people do not and that's OK with me. It doesn't make them liars, and it doesn't make the people who doubt them correct.

I've come to learn, thanks to a random article on the front page of Wikipedia about a half year ago, that the way in which I approach such issues is in line with one of the things Jainists believe. While I don't believe their dogma, I do share the belief that truth is dependent upon your point of view. I also embrace the idea that we're all a little wrong, but leave open the idea that we're all a little right.

1 comment:

Girl Japan said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! And I want to give a thoughtful reply but I need some coffee first.. "giggles" I have a slight learning disability so taking in long reading takes some work for me (and writing) but I wanted to let you know this post sits very close to home and I really believe your analysis or perception of it all.