For one week, I allowed myself to believe in God.
That week, I saw children sledding and felt as though some benevolent force were safeguarding them. The world became brighter and I felt humility before an all-powerful creator and sustainer. When I looked back at atheism, it seemed awash with egoism, centered falsely on the importance of self.
And after the week was done, I went back to being an atheist.
The Map Is Not The Territory
It was a week-long experiment inspired by a book by Robert Anton Wilson, an American writer and thinker. The book in question was Prometheus Rising and in it Wilson proposes a concept he calls “reality-tunneling.”
A reality-tunnel is basically a worldview. The name implies that most people live their lives with tunnel-vision, looking at the world from their own particular viewpoint, dismissing the perspectives of others as misguided or simply false.
“Everyone has their own true true religion, whether you’re living in a Christian reality-tunnel, Muslim reality-tunnel, immortalist reality-tunnel, vegetarian reality-tunnel, Rationalist reality-tunnel.”
The human mind, writes Wilson, “makes maps and models—reality-tunnels—which we tend to confuse with reality itself, and worse yet, with “all” of reality.”
Our brains often miss-apprehend reality. And the reason we do this is that the world is a mess.
Michael Persinger and Ghislaine Lafreniere in the book Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events write: “We, as a species, exist in a world in which exist a myriad of data points. Upon these matrices of points we superimpose a structure and the world makes sense to us.”
In other words, to thrive (and not die) in this messy world humans need to form a functional understanding of it. It doesn’t really matter if our worldview isn’t actually how the world works, as long as it’s good enough to keep us alive. So our reality-tunnels are our top-most heuristic. They’re the context into which we place every data point we encounter in the world. (God exists and is benevolent, our souls endure after death, the Zodiac dictates your personality, science has provided us with the true picture of reality, etc.)
We’re All Absurd to Someone Else
A rationalist could critique a religious person as somehow misusing (or not using) their mental capacities, but Wilson retorts that “a Midwestern Methodist is not ‘misusing his brain’ … that is precisely what his brain is for: to adapt him to the Midwestern Methodist tribal system — to impose the structure of Midwestern Methodist ideology upon the myriad of data-points he encounters in his lifetime. The Chinese Maoist, the Iranian Muslim, the New York Feminist, the Marin County Hedonist etc. each has a similar equally arbitrary, equally complex reality-tunnel. Each tunnel is also equally absurd when seen from outside.”
Each tunnel is equally absurd when seen from the outside. That’s key.
Ideological conflicts often become insurmountable because the opposing people or groups presume their reality tunnel is truly true while their opponent’s is absurd, and neither is willing to compromise the context in which the rest of the world makes sense to them.
To the faithful Christian an atheistic rationalist—despite all her logical rigor and evidence—is absurd.
The atheist rationalist reading this might retort that it doesn’t matter what the Christian thinks or feels because he is logically wrong. But that may not necessarily be true.
The Quixotic Battleground
Graham Oppy, an atheist philosopher of religion, said in an interview with Five Books that he’s “inclined to think that you can be a rational believer on either side of this issue. … We’ll both go away [from an argument] still thinking we’re right and the other person is wrong in the sense that I am the one with the true beliefs and you’re the one with the false beliefs. But you shouldn’t mix up that kind of consideration with questions about rationality, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, intelligence, and so on.”
Professor Oppy also observes that, “there’s a sort of battleground between theists and atheists trying to mount arguments that will somehow force the other side to convert. I think there’s very little prospect in succeeding in an enterprise like that.”
I agree with Oppy.
If we aspire to true objectivity, and not simply winning an argument for the emotional high of it, then whatever reality tunnel we exist in is an obstacle—it is a sort of intuitive dogma we hold about the world. A dogma we’ve either taught ourselves or were socialized into. Either way, most people live in dogma: holding ideas about the world they consider incontrovertibly true but that are more often than not opinions we’ve inferred about the world and then rationalized after the fact. (Rationalism is no exception.)
Rationalists, in Wilson’s words, “are people who are perpetually frightened and dismayed by the large portion of human behavior mediated through mammalian politics. They think that because this territorial-emotional (“patriotic”) behavior is not Rational, it should not exist. They accept Darwin as dogma, but are nervous about “Darwinism” (because it accepts mammalian politics as an Evolutionary Strategy that has worked thus far) and are repulsed by the data of ethology, genetics and sociobiology. They don’t like the rest of the human race much, because it is no guided by their favorite circuit, and they are uneasily aware that the rest of the human race does not like them much.”
“Like the Emotional robot, Moralistic robot, the Narcissist robot, etc. the Rationalist robot cannot be “argued” out of his narrow reality tunnel. … Rationalism is just [another] group art-work, a little less tolerant than most, a little more useful to technologists than any other, a little stupid when it can no longer transcend the last paradigm it has created.”
True objectivity—and the core of the scientific method’s power—involves a repeated and honest questioning and examination with an ability to change if change is called for.
Crisis of Values
Wilson argues that the cultural clashes and disorientation of modern society arise in part from the fact that our reality-tunnels are no longer isolated from each other.
“Throughout most of human history and up to 100 years ago … a man or woman could lead their entire life snugly within the cocoon of the local tunnel-reality. Today, we all constantly collide with persons living in wildly different tunnel-realities. This creates a great deal of hostility in the more ignorant, vast amounts of metaphysical and ethical confusion in the more sophisticated, and growing disorientation for all—a situation known as our ‘crisis of values.’”
While conflicting views about how the world really is are nothing new—metaphysical debates have raged for millennia—the level of plurality of our society, particularly in metropolitan centers, has gotten to the point that alternate creeds coexist with one another daily.
In any given New York City bodega, you could easily find the believers of some five different world religions milling about, looking for milk or imitation beef or kosher wine. Probably alongside a nonbeliever or two.
The key to managing the deluge of contradictory and conflicting reality-tunnels—and to living productively in a pluralistic society—is to get used to swapping our reality tunnels.
How does Wilson suggest we do about this? He has several suggestions.
Exercises to Swap Your Reality
“Become a pious Roman Catholic. Explain in three pages why the Church is still infallible and holy despite Popes like Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope) and Pious XII (ally of Hitler)”
“Refute this whole book [Prometheus Rising]. Demonstrate that everybody else has been brainwashed but you has the one, real, objective view of the universe.”
“Accept this book, if not in whole at least in general outlines. Assume you have been brainwashed. Try to learn as much from every human you meet about their separate reality-tunnel and see how much of it you can use to make your reality-tunnel bigger and more inclusive. In other words, learn to listen.”
“James Joyce said he never met a boring human being. Try to explain this. Try to get into the Joycean head space, where everybody is a separate reality-island full of mystery and surprise. In other words, learn to observe.”
“After experimenting with the Nazi reality-tunnel, the Catholic reality-tunnel, etc. return to your ‘normal’ reality tunnel. Does it still seem totally objective, or do you begin to recognize how much of it is your own software and hardware running programs?”
“If you are a liberal subscribe to National Review for a year, try to enter into their reality tunnel for a few hours.”
“If you are conservative, subscribe to the New Yorker Review of Books”
“Rationalist: subscribe to Fate magazine for a year”
“Occultist: join the committee for the scientific investigation of Claims of the paranormal and read their journal the Skeptical Inquirer for a year”
“Buy a copy of Scientific American and read any article: ask: “Why do they sound so sure? does the data support dogmatisim at this point? or is dogma a primate habit (defending head-space)? Will these theories still be believed in 2051? in 2593?”
“Get into a discussion of philosophy with an educated Marxist, intelligent Muslim, and a Japanese businessman at the first opportunity.”
“Try to live a whole month with the program, ‘I have chosen to be aware of this particular reality.’”
My Speed-Date With God
So what did I do?
I took a week and allowed myself to test the waters of Christendom.
I learned a good deal about Christianity. I learned about the way a Christian might think about atheists, why a Protestant might so disdain a Catholic, and about the emotional security that believing in some greater benevolent force provides your psyche.
After the experiment, my opinion about the truth-value of Christianity remains the same, but I’ve had a glimpse of the world from another angle.
Of course a week of Christian-like thought does not break open the gates of the Christian mindset. Not even close. I hope to do the same with Islam, with Buddhism, with American conservatism, and other reality tunnels I do not fully understand.
Am I worried about falling into some erroneous outlook on the world? Somehow adopting delusional beliefs and unsubstantiated faith?
To put it simply: No.
To put it as my Jewish ancestors might have: “there is nothing you must not know in order to be wise.”
It would be arrogant, and also irrational, to think the reality-tunnel I hold now is the full and correct view of the world. If I believed that, it would scuttle my ability to learn, to empathize with those I disagree with, and would sabotage one of the core principles of what makes the scientific method so powerful: its openness.*
*Combined, as always, with its rigor.