Seeing In the Darkness

I am the shape in the darkness you fear.

I am the lengthening shadow in the dusty, gloomy corners,
etched in grey against the fading, falling light.

I am the dream you wake from in the night,
sweat-drenched,
blessedly free again from a world in which you were
not.

I am the terror you feel when you see a woman with crutches,
dragging herself a few metres down the road, every step agony.

I am here, watching, when you say “But I’m not disabled.
I am here, listening, when you say “But disability isn’t all about wheelchairs.
I can hear you (did you know?) when you shout “Can you believe I wasn’t allowed to skip the queue!
And me with my dodgy ankle!”
(I want you to come on my epic journey to work with me one day.
But you’ll be too busy.)
I politely look away when the next thing you say is
how very inconvenient it is for you
to arrange a downstairs venue.

I smile and say “Nothing serious” when I’m asked “What happened?”
by people who haven’t asked my name.

I smile and say “Of course!” when they ask if I’ll help make things better,
hoping against experience that this time,
just this time,
it might be different.

I still don’t see information about access to your festival,
And you mumble and rumble at me when I ask.

Do you know what I have to offer?
Will you ever open the gate wide enough to know that I can see
patterns in the darkness?

So I bury my terrible grief at every step I take,
dragging myself on iron bars,
wrenching movement from this useless
body.

But I still feel it, moving in the darkness.
I still mourn the loss of life with every iron-clad step I take,
So I still sit alone at home, praying for change.
(There’s not much else to do here anymore.)

I can see a long way in the darkness.

You’ll have to look much, much deeper
to see me shining there.

Pagans, Quantum Physics and Rationality

In my experience, Pagans are amazing at skepticism, logic and rational argument – when it comes to other people’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Most Pagans that I know could tell you a lot about how Jesus is not the only dying-and-rising god that ancient societies ever thought of, or how Christmas was influenced by pre-Christian pagan traditions.

But many of these Pagans are not so good at deconstructing their own beliefs on certain things. People with fantastic minds, who I love talking to, and who I’ve heard demolish other people’s ideas, somehow often fall short of that intelligence and philosophical sharpness when it comes to common Pagan beliefs. Their own beliefs.

And one of the worst ways this happens is when the topic of quantum physics comes up.

Quantum Physics: Proof of Magic?

This week, Fire Lyte linked to this post on his Facebook wall.  The response was… interesting. Lots of people trying to prove that the writer of the article didn’t know anything about quantum physics. Not looking at their own beliefs.

There are repeating comments that I hear on this subject a lot. Comments that are loaded with logical fallacies. I’ve heard statements from Pagans on quantum physics that demonstrate the following fallacies:

- Argument from complexity (similar to an argument from ignorance): “Science is proving so many weird and complex things! So quantum physics could prove that my candle magic caused my pay rise!” Yes, it could, though the probability isn’t high, given what we know about quantum physics so far. Now come back to me when it does prove that and when we have evidence of this. Yes, science is proving some complex and weird things these days. We cannot use that to assume that it will prove what we want it to prove.

- Argument from silence: the idea that, since something cannot (yet) be disproved, it is proven. “The universe is a weird place. There are things in the universe that we will never be able to explain. We just can’t know everything!” We cannot argue that, because science shows that there is much about the universe we don’t understand, it proves that anything is possible. It specifically doesn’t do that.

- Ad hominem attack: an attack on the person who is writing/arguing, rather than on their arguments. “That person doesn’t know anything about quantum physics!” Doesn’t prove that you do. This argument should at least be followed up with “And here’s a link to some evidence that I’m going to use to argue my point. It is reliable because it is published in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is backed up by these six other articles from six different reliable journals, and this conference paper, and this statement from the scientific community.” If not, you haven’t proven anything by attacking one individual, rather than focusing on their argument.

- Shifting the burden of proof: “Can you prove to me that quantum physics doesn’t cause magic to work?” No, I can’t. But the burden of proof is on you, not me. As Carl Sagan said, “Extrodinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Correlation proves causation: thinking that, because two things coincide, then one must be caused by the other. “Every time I get acupuncture I feel better. This must prove that quantum mechanics causes it to work.” That’s great. There may be all manner of reasons why that treatment is helping you. I have enormous faith in the badly-named ‘placebo effect’, which would be better called ‘the human body’s self-healing effect’. When I go for reflexology and acupuncture, I’m working on my body’s self-healing mechanisms. Also, quantum physics exists. There’s absolutely no reason why one should have anything to do with the other.

(Note: This is stretching the bounds of the correlation fallacy, a bit. I think it’s relevant. Tell me if you disagree!)

- Mind projection fallacy: i.e. because this belief matters to me, it’s relevant to everyone – and my opinion is worth more than your facts. “I believe quantum theory proves magic, and my opinion is just as valid as any scientist’s”. No, no, it’s not. Come back when you’ve studied quantum theory to doctorate level. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the experts.

- False equivalence: “Homeopathy causes a quantum leap in a person’s physiology” (a direct quote from someone I know) – using the term in a way that scientists don’t use it, and confusing two different meanings of the word in the process. Here, the informal term ‘quantum leap’ has nothing to do with the physics term ‘quantum’. The statement is basically nonsense. (Sorry.)

I suspect there are many more logical fallicies in these arguments that I haven’t spotted yet. Have you seen any others? Let me know!

Your Mind Turned To Mush

You have an amazing mind. We all do. We’ve all won the lottery when it comes to consciousness, to quote Simon Clare. Evolution, one of the most exciting processes on the planet, has gifted us with thinking minds. Unfortunately, human beings get very attached to our irrational beliefs, again for reasons of evolution and our past survival. In the distant past, being able to see the pattern of a tiger moving between the trees was probably vital for our survival. Now, though, we hang on to that pattern-finding faculty even when it’s not necessary. We see patterns and call them magic. And we have all the right in the world to believe in magic. (I do!) What we can’t do, because we’ll never succeed, is argue that there is objective proof of that magic in science.

Why does it matter? Because we look like total idiots when we do it. Ultimately, if you want to make logical fallacies all over the place and demonstrate that your mind has turned to mush, you go right ahead. It doesn’t bother me. But you’re wrong. And if you want to be right – as your constant arguing suggests you do – then you may want to go away and educate yourself about science. Use that fabulous mind of yours – especially about your own beliefs. If you don’t, someone else will.

You won’t lose anything. You stand to gain a lot, though.

On another level, I guess I want to be a member of a religious/spiritual group that doesn’t talk rubbish. I was a member of evangelical Christian churches for a long time. My bullshit meter eventually exploded. I happen to think that the Pagan community can do better. Our community should be full of thoughtful, intelligent, well-read people who test our claims against reason, reality and science. I’ve met us. We’re clever people!

Faith Can’t Be Proven

Ultimately, some things will always be about faith, and unprovable. I believe in fairies, for fuck’s sake. What I don’t do is try and prove fairies with science. (Though now I want to draw a picture of gleeful fairies preventing me from proving them through science by messing up all my experiments.)

You have the right to your beliefs. Your right to impose those beliefs on others is much more limited. “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”

And if you’re trying to persuade people of something using science, you’d better have a damn good grounding in what that science means. I don’t – I have GCSE science grade B (i.e. I know that plants contain chlorophyll and some basic formulae about mass and force). What I do have is a Master’s in Sociology and I’m a couple of years away from a doctorate in Religions. I stick with what I know, which is learning everything I can about why we believe what we believe. And what effect that has on the rest of society. That matters to me. I believe it should matter to all of us.

Now there’s a belief that’s probably full of logical fallacies…!

If you like podcasts, a great one on rational thinking, logic, philosophy and religion is the Reasonable Doubts podcast. And they have a wonderful Polyatheism section where they go over the highly unlikely pagan myths of the past. They’ve just started a three-week series on Cuchullain. Enjoy!

I’ll leave you with a link to a relevant article. Problem-Solving ‘Magic’ of Quantum Physics

Cross-posted to Accidental Auguries.

Polly the Sensible, and a Map for the Journey

“Stop,” said Polly. “Aren’t we going to mark this pool?”
They stared at each other and turned quite white as they realised the dreadful thing that Digory had just been going to do. For there were any number of pools in the wood, and the pools were all alike and the trees were all alike, so that if they had once left behind the pool that led to our own world without making some sort of landmark, the chances would have been a hundred to one against their ever finding it again.

- The Magician’s Nephew

She was quite as brave as he about some dangers (wasps, for instance), but she was not so interested in finding out things nobody had ever heard of before; for Digory was the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into other books.

- The Magician’s Nephew

Polly is a very sensible adventurer. Reluctant, literally pushed into her Otherworldly adventures, she retains her good sense throughout.1 She knows to mark out the way home, when Digory would rather just jump into the next world and not worry about getting back. She would rather not ring the mystical bell that, though she doesn’t know it, is there to wake the ancient kings and queens in the ancient hall, for she looks on the face of Jadis and knows that this isn’t someone to mess with just for the Adventure of it. But she also knows when it’s time to take a risk to fix the chaos they’ve created. Her good sense relates, for me, to the ADF virtues of wisdom and vision.

I need my myths and metaphors to be very accessible to me personally. There are a lot concepts I’m planning to explore through the Narnia stories over the coming year – concepts that I’ve previously had trouble with. Winter Queens and seasonal cycles. Battles. Sovereignty. Magic that plays with space and time. Journeying in the Otherworld. Appreciating both sides of an apparently black-and-white issue, and appreciating gods and spirits that have been cast in the mould called ‘evil’. These are concepts I have difficulty relating to, in a ‘basic Pagan’ myth set, and that I need new perspectives on. I’m sure there will be many others, too, as I go.

Some people like their guides to the Otherworld to come in the form of modern step-by-step-journeying-for-idiots guidebooks, or ancient irrelevant tomes. Some people insist that their myths are hard-boiled: overcooked, and set to last a long time, but ending up fairly tasteless and cold. I have long taken my wisdom from wherever I find it, and I find it in a lot of disparate places.

But still… Narnia. Often not popular, seen as indoctrination.

But still… ‘pop culture Paganism’, as it’s dismissively called.

What if I could reclaim both these things, for myself? What if, like Polly, I could choose the sensible option? No, it might not make me a famous professor-adventurer when I’m old. By which I mean, it might not earn the respect of my ancient-myth-researching peers. But it might just save my life – or my faith. Or my hope. Or my love.

You might have noticed that I’ve been exploring the Wood Between the Worlds as a starting-point for Otherworldly journeying. I’m also working with the concept of the White Witch as a Snow Queen/Faery Queen type, the keeper of wisdom and magical secrets – with whom you have to be very careful, like the bean feasa/fairy doctors had to be careful with their own Otherworldly guides. And I’m working through the stories to see what the characters have to teach me. Like Polly, and her Good Sense in the face of an irresistible journey.

A Map for the Journey. Worth no more or less than ancient myths. Just as full of unease, and difficulty, and compromise, and the need to keep shifting perspective.

May the Forces that echo through every myth, ancient and modern, teach me new lessons.
And may Polly the Sensible teach me that Sense is more important even than Adventure. For without it, the great Adventure can end very abruptly.

.

1: I dislike the term ‘common sense’, since that was always something I didn’t find easy to develop, thanks to my Asperger’s. But good sense – now that’s something worth working on.